Cooperation and conflict in East Asia

Brian M Downing 

The United States and China are concerned with North Korea’s tests of missiles and nuclear weapons. Beijing holds the key to easing tensions. It controls Pyongyang’s energy supplies and its land and sea lines of communication. China could stifle North Korea’s economy at a rate of its choosing. Alternately, Beijing might see advantages to North Korea’s continuing belligerence and wish to use the situation to increase its power in East Asia.

So, why doesn’t China act decisively on the North and what security gains does it see from prolonging tensions?


The United States and China share an interest in preventing a war on the Korean Peninsula. Both powers want the region’s prosperity to proceed apace without fear of war, especially one involving nuclear weapons.

The United States continues to press for stronger sanctions on North Korea and sent air and naval assets to the area. President Trump has threatened massive retaliation to a first strike from Pyongyang. More recently, he has called for a naval blockade.

For its part, China has reduced commerce and placed troops along the winding border – more than necessary to deter an inflow of North Koreans fleeing hardship and seeking better opportunity. American and Chinese efforts intend to press Pyongyang into eliminating its provocative missile and nuclear weapons tests. Getting it to give up its nuclear weapons is almost certainly out of reach. The two powers may be playing an international good-cop/bad-cop game. If so, the American president is playing his role quite well.


Beijing’s pressure isn’t as strong as observers had hoped. The White House has intermittently expressed its disappointment and increased the tough talk. China may be reluctant to push too hard for fear that its mercurial neighbor might turn against it. This is unlikely because of China’s stranglehold over the North’s economy.

Alternately, Beijing might see the US administration as incapable of protracted and consistent action. President Trump has failed to focus on issues such as the border wall, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and rapprochement with Russia. In a year the administration may be paralyzed by political and legal troubles, and the president may step down. Further, there is a tension in Washington between cooperating with China and deepening trade disputes with it. The tension was underscored by Trump’s recent threat to sanction states doing business with North Korea.


China sees advantages to a protracted crisis, assuming of course it does not lead to war. (The same can be said of Russia.) The standoff between Pyongyang and Washington is showing East Asia that the United States, despite all its weaponry and cant, is not capable of ensuring the region’s security.

The same can be said of Southeast Asia, where China is creating islands and building military bases on them, and of South Asia, where Chinese troops are engaged in standoffs with India. It’s all of a piece.

China may, after weighing the risks and rewards, opt to let the crisis drag on. Then, at a time of its choosing, it will lay down the law to its irksome but useful neighbor, and take the lion’s share of credit for getting it to stop missile and nuclear tests.

Much of the world will be grateful that a crisis has been eased, apparently no thanks to a bellicose American president. East Asian countries may be especially grateful. China will hope they are also more accommodating, perhaps one day recognizing it as guarantor of both their prosperity and security.

If successful in this stratagem, China will have taken a significant step forward in ending two centuries of western domination of world affairs and restoring itself as the greatest world power.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.