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China should exert its leadership and demonstrate that there are better ways to resolve international disputes.

Amid the escalating crisis in North East Asia, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that rising tensions over North Korea could precipitate a conflict “at any moment.” He also warned that, “If a war occurs, the result is a situation in which everybody loses and there can be no winner.” He urged caution and called for new diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff with Pyongyang.

His warning comes in the wake of renewed missile launches and an imminent underground nuclear test by Pyongyang.

It also comes soon after the recent US air strike on Syria (which many view as a warning to North Korea of US resolve) and as a US naval strike force led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson is en route to the Korean Peninsula. In addition, the US and South Korea are preparing for their biggest ever joint military exercise.

The dangers are real

Clearly, China is very concerned about the evolving situation in North East Asia and is attempting to warn not just the US and North Korea but all Asia as well that confrontation could have devastating consequences for the entire region and must be avoided.

North Korea is not Syria or Iraq. It is well armed with possible nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. When push comes to shove, there’s simply no telling how far North Korea’s mercurial leader will go to ensure the survival of his own regime. He rules by fear and ruthlessness and must appear to be strong and resolute or face the possibility of internal challenges to his position.

Any conflict that weakens or causes the sudden collapse of the regime in Pyongyang could also result in mass starvation and the exodus of millions of refugees into China. It might even result in a new wave of desperate boat people to Japan, South Korea and the rest of Asia. South Korea itself could be overwhelmed by the sudden influx of millions of its northern compatriots and is understandably worried as well.

War would also plunge the Korean Peninsula into the kind of hellish inferno that is even now devastating countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, resulting in the deaths of millions of innocent civilians and the destruction of much of the peninsula.

In the last Korean War (1950-53) nearly 5 million people, mostly civilians, died. The rate of civilian casualties was reportedly higher than World War II.

For China, there is an additional security concern: the possible collapse of a strategic buffer between US forces in South Korea and the Chinese mainland. China intervened in the Korean War to keep that buffer intact and will likely do so again should the need arise. Viewed from this perspective, Minister Wang’s statement is also an oblique warning that China will not accept unilateral US actions against North Korea.

Not the time to go it alone

President Trump would, therefore, do well to heed China’s warning that there would be no winners in such a conflict just as there were none in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya. If there’s anything to be learned from recent events in the Middle East it is that war creates its own realities and brings with it unintended consequences that no one can foresee or plan for.

For too long the United States has put too much emphasis on military solutions and too little on diplomacy, on working together with other nations instead of going it alone, as President Trump even now threatens to do. Building consensus and finding diplomatic solutions is of course slow, tedious and cumbersome but it must be the preferred option if we are to avoid unleashing in Asia the forces of war and destruction that have laid waste to so many parts of the Middle East.

Besides, Washington should know that few in Asia would welcome unilateral US military action against Pyongyang unless every other option has been exhausted. And we are not there yet.

Containing a rogue regime

To be sure, the regime in Pyongyang is a brutal and despicable one, perhaps the worst regime of its kind still in power today.  No one, not even China, would want to see Pyongyang expand its nuclear capability even further. Nuclear weapons in the hands of an unstable and unpredictable regime is a serious threat to international security.

Clearly, the international community must act to contain Pyongyang but it must fully explore all other options before contemplating military ones.

China’s role will be pivotal. It has arguably more influence over North Korea than anyone else given that North Korea is almost entirely dependent on China economically. China has also as much to lose as its neighbours from an erratic and unstable neighbour.

If China wants to forestall US military action, it must urgently assume the mantle of leadership on this issue and that means not only exerting pressure on Pyongyang but leading the charge to put in place a tougher sanctions programme to help bring the regime to heel.

China is, admittedly, in a difficult situation. It is clearly unhappy with Pyongyang but cannot afford to push China-North Korea relations to the breaking point. Wisely, it has now sought to enlist the support of Russia, another traditional ally of North Korea, in the hope of nudging Pyongyang towards negotiations.

It won’t be easy, of course, but if anyone can succeed, it is probably China.

Give China a chance at diplomacy 

Whatever it is, the next few weeks are going to prove critical. For the sake of peace and stability in Asia, President Trump must not give in to those who see America’s greatness only in its firepower and in its ability to lay waste to nations. If this is “normalizing” US foreign policy, as an influential conservative columnist enthused recently, the world is about to get a lot darker.

Instead, Trump should give China the opportunity to exert its leadership and demonstrate that there are better ways to resolve international disputes.

[Ambassador Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | Monday 17th April 2017]