China is a key figure in any American interaction with North Korea, since North Korea is its puppet regime. Consequently, any military conflict with Kim Jong-Un likely means conflict with China. Remember that just before the Korean War, some experts promised that China wouldn’t get involved, and then Mao sent 180,000 troops over the border.
Since they are so integral to the situation, it is important to understand the way the Chinese think. China has a different mentality than the West, having different priorities and social expectations, especially when it comes to conflict. They don’t respond to events the same way we do.
Mainland Chinese have a far more collectivist mentality than Westerners. This actually pre-dates the Communist government there, going back to Confucius. In America, we tend to value individualism and personal rights. Conversely, East Asian societies emphasize the benefit to the group over the benefit to the individual. So, an attack on one can be an attack on all. This goes hand in hand with another major Chinese characteristic –
The concept of “face” (Chinese: Mianzi) or public prestige is very important in China. This is true for individuals, organizations, and the nation as a whole. It shapes interactions and defines relationships. There are a series of social norms that allow everyone to “keep face” or “gain face”. Complimenting people publicly is a common way to do this.
And social blunders that “lose face” are treated very seriously. For example, if you correct someone in front of others, you humiliate that person and cause him or her to lose face. Similarly, one loses face if they publicly admit they have personal shortcomings. This can lead to people going to great lengths to avoid admitting their mistakes, including openly lying. All to protect their public image.
This translates to a national scale too. The Chinese government is very concerned with its international image. The leadership does not want to look weak or servile – to the United States or anyone else. Allowing the US to run roughshod over North Korea would be embarrassing and cause Beijing to lose face in front of the world. This is unthinkable to them. Thus, if Trump pushes North Korea and China into a corner, it would force China into defending its ally to save face.
This is the reason that just pre-emptively nuking Pyongyang is an incredibly dangerous idea. If we hit first without provocation, China WILL get involved militarily. North Korea poses little challenge to our military. But, war with China is a bad idea.
At the same time, if North Korea launches missiles at Guam, obviously all bets are off, and we must defend our territory.
China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.
China opposes both nuclear proliferation and war in the Korean Peninsula. It will not encourage any side to stir up military conflict, and will firmly resist any side which wants to change the status quo of the areas where China’s interests are concerned.
In other words, China’s in a bind. North Korea is a remnant of the Cold War from when buffer states were considered necessary between superpowers and their military installations. It isn’t actually necessary anymore. But at the same time, China doesn’t want to hand it over to us and lose face. (Beijing also has zero interest in the US and South Korea placing military bases on its doorstep.)
War would destabilize the Chinese economy and risk shame as well. Not an exciting prospect. In China’s ideal world, they want to keep everything as it is, even though that seems less and less tenable every day.
Despite China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, they have been avoiding outright conflicts, especially with the US. They have preferred economic warfare rather than the military kind. It seems reasonable to believe that China would like Kim Jong Un’s destabilizing actions to go away. But China has publicly supported him to such an extent that they risk losing face if they don’t have a viable excuse to abandon Kim. An attack on Guam is apparently a good enough excuse for them. But I’d rather not get to that stage.
So we seem to be at loggerheads. If we do nothing and continue down the current path, North Korea will continue to build its nuke program and become an ever increasing threat. If we back away from our defense commitments in the region, we lose face in our enemies’ eyes and embolden them to become more aggressive. And if we unleash pre-emptive fire and fury, we’ll trigger a war with China.
I’m all for projecting strength, but we have to be smart about it. We’re dealing with an irrational brat and his superpowered big brother.
The upshot of all this is there is no simple answer. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t paying attention.