Op-Ed: Nuclear Negotiations

The next president of the United States must stand firm on North Korea and China.

By Probir Kumar Sarkar.

President Obama’s intended legacy of an “Asian pivot” instead ended in shambles. Under his watch, North Korea conducted four nuclear tests—the latest, on September 9, was the biggest the country has ever managed, comparable to 10-12 kilotons of TNT, and created an artificial underground tremor of magnitude 5.3 on the Richter scale. The Obama administration’s stringent sanctions on the regime have proven ineffective in disrupting North Korea’s resolve to acquire a powerful nuclear arsenal and sophisticated rocket artillery that will soon be able to threaten America’s Pacific states. Pyongyang’s fifth atomic test creates an uncomfortable choice for Washington, as there would seem to be no further, tougher sanctions available to stop the DPRK from continuing to advance its nuclear technology and ballistic missile programs.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, which was passed in March this year after Pyongyang’s nuclear test in January, apparently had gaps that allowed the dictatorship to finance and procure supplies for its latest nuclear test instead of giving ‘livelihood to North Koreans’. Restarting talks with Kim Jong-Un will only delay resolute action and waste time as the nuclear clock advances. North Korea’s only friend, China, is as usual unlikely to impose tougher economic sanctions on the country, as Beijing fears that doing so would lead the regime to collapse, possibly destabilizing the entire region. With the common border between the two countries stretching 870 miles along China’s underbelly, Beijing’s concerns are understandable—particularly given that the South Korean Defense Minister has told the parliament in Seoul that, should it be become necessary, in the wake of a nuclear attack by Pyongyang, his nation has a plan to assassinate North Korea’s top leaders, including the dictator, Kim-Jong Un.

There is also apprehension that Tehran may use the $1.7 billion in hard currency it received in settlement from the United States to buy North Korea’s nukes. In the past, North Korea has cooperated with Iran’s nuclear development. Cash-strapped Pyongyang would quickly accept such an offer.

On the other front, China continues unabated its efforts to control nearly 85 percent of the South China Sea, defying the orders of the International Court of Justice. The tribunal in The Hague delivered a sweeping rebuke in September this year to China’s behavior in the South China Sea, including its construction of artificial islands, and found that its expansive claims of sovereignty in the region have no legal basis. The Hague ruled that China possessed no historic claim over several disputed islands. China has never been a maritime power; given its geography, its enemies are unlikely to pose a naval threat. As a result, it has little interest in spending large sums of money on building a blue class Chinese navy. Such a navy would serve little defensive purpose; its only justification would be to increase Chinese hegemony.

Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a statement last year that the country’s newly-expanded man-made islands would not be militarized, but recent reports show that one island has been given to the PLA Army Air Force division.

The South China Sea, the East China Sea along the Taiwan Strait, and the Asia-Pacific rim have been increasingly turning into heavily contested zones and are becoming one of the hottest spots in the world at risk of sparking a large-scale conflict. Just as a small conflict in the Balkans in 1914 spiraled out of control and set the whole world aflame, any war in the region would drag smaller and bigger power players, including the United States and Russia, into the fray. The addition of new North Korean nuclear weapons to this powder-keg, where any miscalculation could escalate from a skirmish to a full-scale war, is unthinkable.

If not diffused in a timely fashion, these recent developments in the Korean Peninsula and South China Sea will fuel a new round of heightened anxiety for the rest of Asia and beyond. President Barack Obama is ending his final term leaving a world in disarray; the next American president has this daunting task of trying to ease tensions that arose during Obama’s presidency, which Obama himself could not.

Lack of interest and indecisiveness in some important areas of American foreign policy have meant that many of its rivals now consider the U.S an insignificant and waning force left over from the last century. Hugely indebted to China financially, as well as heavily reliant on international manufacturing and trading, over the decades the United States has created its own economic ditch, which will take years to climb out of.

With the presidential election looming, it is time to reflect on Obama’s foreign policy in the light of important developments. The world is now experiencing rapidly rising instability and strategic threats in a world eagerly testing the limits of U.S. power.

During Obama’s tenure, the U.S. policy of ‘strategic patience’ towards China has failed spectacularly. The next president needs to understand that America’s fate as a great power is inseparable from its goal of dispensing a liberal world order.

Washington’s lawmakers have to keep in mind that China has been shaped by an export-oriented economy, and that its geopolitics compelled it to do so. No matter how large its foreign reserves, how advanced its technology, or how cheap its labor, Beijing has to rely heavily on the willingness and ability of international buyers. America is the largest buyer of Chinese goods. Any disruption of this flow would have a direct effect on China’s economy. U.S. policymakers have had ample opportunity to punish China for its misbehavior.

Beijing has pushed a policy that does not seek a peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea; rather, it would like to resolve the matter through coercion and threats. The U.S has made substantial overtures to China since the beginning of the 21st century, from World Trade Organization membership to joint naval exercise in the Pacific Rim, but Chinese officials nevertheless consider the U.S as their greatest rival rather than an ally.

The foreign policy of the next president must be prepared to compel Beijing to respect international law in the South China Sea, yet the two greatest powers of the world must also work together to seek an immediate solution to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Do not escalate, but engage, must be the strategy.


Probir Kumar Sarkar is a senior international journalist who studied U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Cambridge. He is the Executive Editor of The Global Intelligence.


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