Rather than relying on flattery and accommodation to alter Chinese policy, we should recognize that the path to peace in East Asia runs through increased American leadership. The United States must demonstrate that any aggression — whether emanating from Pyongyang or from Beijing — will not go unanswered.
For decades, American administrations of both political parties have sought to use China’s considerable leverage over North Korea to compel Pyongyang to moderate its behavior. While Chinese leaders have at times sounded cooperative, their actions have told a different story. Despite constant American efforts to find common ground over reining in North Korea, time and again, Beijing has obfuscated and deflected in the face of unmistakable North Korean aggression. Most famously, when North Korea sank a South Korean navy vessel in 2010, China called on both countries to show restraint. This moral equivalence between aggressor and victim would have been laughable if the circumstances hadn’t been so tragic.
China’s defense of North Korea should come as no surprise. After all, the two regimes share a foundation of domestic oppression and external aggression. Indeed, it is their common interest in overturning the American-backed order in Asia that drives their alliance.
After all, autocratic regimes often seek to channel their people’s frustrations at external adversaries, real or imagined. And in the case of North Korea and China, that adversary is the United States. Both countries have long deployed propaganda designed to bolster nationalist credentials and enflame anti-American sentiment, and despite periodic changes in temperature, their relationship is ultimately one of alliance.
The good news is that a more secure future is within our grasp — if we have the willpower. First, we must immediately reverse the Obama-era cuts to our military. With more resources, we can begin to make good on President Donald Trump’s goal of a 355-ship Navy, including 12 aircraft carriers. Coupled with a stronger military presence in Asia, we will make crystal clear to China that aggression will not be tolerated — whether it comes from Beijing or Pyongyang.
After all, diplomacy does not occur in a vacuum. In any negotiation, the side with the greatest leverage tends to come out on top. Investing in our military means increasing our leverage at the international negotiating table. And moreover, as our diplomatic resolve strengthens in the South and East China Seas, Kim will be less likely to take aggressive action on the Korean Peninsula.