PERHAPS THE WISEST WORDS ever uttered--or attributed--to Ronald Reagan were: Don't just do something, sit there.
Would that the Gipper were still around to guide U.S. strategy toward North Korea and the "Six Party Talks" meant to deal with Pyongyang's nuclear program. Every time an American starts wringing his hands over the failure of the talks, someone in Beijing smiles contentedly. While we're whipping ourselves over the fact that the North Koreans won't come back to the table--which, actually, is supposed to be China's responsibility--Beijing is advancing its other interests, particularly in putting pressure on Taiwan. The more frustrated and fixated we get, the better the Chinese like it.
Democrats, in particular, are obsessed by the idea that North Korea's nukes are the most important security issue in East Asia. This was candidate John Kerry's position and former Defense Secretary William Perry has roundly criticized the Bush administration for "outsourcing"--that is, engaging in multilateral diplomacy only--the job of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. These weapons, he insists, constitute an "imminent danger."
They are exactly that, but the only way to get the North Koreans to even consider getting rid of their nukes or stopping their nuclear program is to offer them a "non-aggression" pact that forswears not only the use of armed force but the policy of "regime change" in Pyongyang. Other liberal commentators, like Selig Harrison, don't think the North has the nukes, but thinks we should guarantee the safety of the Kim regime anyway. Quite rightly, the administration thinks that's too much to pay, even for the best arms control deal. The fundamental problem is the North Korean regime, not the weapons. North Korea--with its million-man army, thousands of artillery pieces, and rockets able to reach Seoul--was an imminent threat before it had nuclear weapons and will be an imminent threat if it gets rid of them.
But even as proliferation mania distorts U.S. policy toward the Korean peninsula, it also fuzzes our China strategy beyond recognition. The combination of September 11 and North Korean nukes puts us in the position of begging for Chinese help on two fronts where they can't or won't do much and diverts our attention from those issues where China is of greatest concern; we've taken Chinese priorities as our own. Little wonder that Beijing wants to string out the Six Party Talks to eternity and has been trying to portray its repression of Turkic Uighurs in western China as actions against Islamic terrorists.
In short, the United States continues to look through the wrong end of the telescope. We're thus blinded to a whole host of worrying developments that reveal China's progress as a geopolitical--and increasingly global--competitor. The Chinese "legislature" just passed an "anti-secession law" that not only "legitimizes" an attack on Taiwan but greater internal repression as well; the Beijing government sees secessionists everywhere. China is beginning to string together a necklace of client states in the oil-rich Middle East--Iran and Sudan, to name two--and even into the Americas, cozying up to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. Venezuela supplies about 13 percent of daily U.S. oil imports, and just as Beijing fears the U.S. Navy's ability to sever China's connection to international energy markets, China wouldn't mind being able to return the favor with Chavez's help.
Even during the Cold War, the United States has never had a comprehensive strategy for East Asia; all our security arrangements have been bilateral, one-on-one affairs. Since the collapse of the Soviet empire and the initiation of the age of American hyperpower, things have only gotten worse, through two Bush presidencies and two Clinton terms. While we try to deal with individual issues and wait until a time of crisis--as with North Korea--Beijing patiently works out a strategy of unraveling the Pax Americana.
Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.