Will a North Korean Attack Win the Yellow Sea for China?

Is the Yellow Sea a Chinese lake? Under ordinary circumstances, I’d understand China’s complaints about a U.S. naval exercise in an inland sea near its shores. It’s not as if I’d want Chinese ships in the Gulf of Mexico, either, but these are not ordinary circumstances. This time, North Korea has sunk a South Korean warship, and China has both shielded North Korea from any consequences for that attack and continued to provide necessary financial support to the regime that carried it out. Argue among yourselves whether this makes China an accessory after the fact, but it certainly destroys the myth of China as a mature, responsible power promoting peace and stability. That’s why the U.S. Navy is now forced to deter without any help from China.

It now appears that China’s obnoxious protestations will get at least part of a joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercise moved to North Korea’s East Coast. Given China’s indefensible behavior, that would be a very bad concession for President Obama to make. Despite the U.S. Navy’s insistence, it’s clear that there’s a message for China in these exercises, too, as there should be. But instead of China suffering some vicarious liability for North Korea’s attack, it could stand to benefit from what amounts to thuggery by proxy. If the Navy moves its exercise out of the Yellow Sea, China will have achieved a great leap forward for its regional hegemony. And while a naval exercise in the Yellow Sea is useful for showing America’s commitment to its allies in the region, it still falls far short of the sort of economic and security consequences needed to deter North Korea and China from letting something like the Cheonan Incident happen again.

One deferential commenter asks, “Will the anti-submarine warfare exercises signal an expansion of the coverage area of the U.S.-(South Korea) alliance?” I hope the answer to that is “yes.” Whereas I’ve long believed that U.S. ground forces should be withdrawn from Korea, I believe having a U.S. air component in Korea is good for both countries’ security, and that if any part of the alliance has the potential to grow, it’s the naval component. Having U.S. infantry in South Korea is an anachronism and an inviting target, but creating a multinational naval alliance between the United States and the Pacific democracies will better protect those democracies against Chinese intimidation and proxy attacks.

Rather than showing contrition and doing its share to restore regional stability by dialing back its support for Kim Jong Il, China’s behavior is bombastic (but very helpful to my side of the argument about China’s intentions). I certainly do not suggest that Peter Lee speaks for Beijing, but I do suppose his writing probably reflects the way Beijing hopes to use this incident to advance its hegemonic ambitions and divert its suppressed domestic rage toward foreign demons.

Lee betrays his misunderstanding of South Korea by suggesting that there is “a wave of excitement” there over the possibility of immediate reunification (if only!). He then frets, needlessly, that this could frustrate China’s ability to “win recognition of its national interest in the future of the peninsula, especially since its national interest seems best served by the continued existence of an impoverished, anti-American buffer state.” I hope Koreans are listening carefully. This is the sort of honesty about China’s motives you’ll seldom hear from Washington’s Foreign Policy Industry, or Seoul’s. But in the next breath, Lee nonetheless protests that China’s influence over its North Korean dependent is overstated. China is always trying to play this both ways — claiming hegemony over North Korea while insisting that it has no influence over events there. But with the decline in inter-Korean trade, China is by far North Korea’s largest source of cash, fuel, food, and trade.

Lee acknowledges the wave of anger by the Chinese people against the corruption and lack of accountability of their own government (and also, bad restaurant service). Release the mobs!

Indeed, nationalism and a thirst for vigilante justice targeting anyone from rude waitresses to corrupt officials to countries deemed insufficiently friendly and respectful have emerged as a remarkable source of potential energy, particularly on the Internet. It is easy to imagine China permitting the expression and, through the media, “amplification” of anti-foreign feeling to threaten the economic interests of countries that challenge China’s interests and self-esteem.

The strategy would have the added benefit of using vociferous and intolerant nationalism to crowd out domestic criticism of Communist Party rule and its various shortcomings, which threaten to become a dominant theme on China’s lively, massive, and indignant domestic Internet despite extensive monitoring and censorship operations and the Herculean efforts of paid sock puppets to dilute and redirect unsuitable threads.

Lee then cites the example of a K-pop concert gone bad to support dark threats that Beijing will fall back on the tired tactic of redirecting this anger toward xenophobic nationalism directed against the United States and South Korea, and that Chinese, marching as the state leads them, will riot against the foreign devils (whether digitally or physically isn’t specified). But of course, Beijing has been doing this for years, and while that hasn’t made the people of China any more content, it’s not a tactic whose historical precedents augur favorably for China or anyone else.