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A Crisis on Each End of Asia

Walter Russell Mead

One of the world’s oldest and ugliest frozen conflicts, dating back to 1950, appears to be thawing. North and South Korea are vowing to end their state of war. Kim Jong Un is offering one concession after another on his nuclear program, while progress continues toward a summit between Mr. Kim and President Trump.

At the same time, the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies are tightening the screws on Iran. America’s newly confirmed secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made his first trip to the region in his new role this week. As he orchestrated a series of anti-Iranian statements with Arab and Israeli leaders, bunker-busting bombs (presumably Israel’s) hit Iranian bases in Syria.

These developments are closely related. Throughout Mr. Trump’s tenure, his foreign-policy team has juggled two crises: First, North Korea’s progress on missiles that could carry its nuclear weapons to the U.S. mainland threatened to upset the balance of power in Northeast Asia. If Mr. Kim destroyed Tokyo, would the U.S. really retaliate and put the American homeland at risk?

Second, the Obama administration’s bungled attempt to stabilize the Middle East by softening its approach to Iran had the opposite effect. Longtime American allies became jittery about Iran’s imperial ambitions, even as sectarian war and jihadist violence erupted across Syria and Iraq.

The dilemma for the White House was that neither challenge could be ignored, but managing two explosive crises, one at each end of Asia, would stretch America’s political and military capacities to the limit. Complicating matters further, North Korea is a client of China, while Iran is an ally of Russia. An aggressive approach risked pitting the U.S. against Beijing and Moscow at the same time.

The big question was whether one of the two crises could be put on hold. In his unconventional way, Mr. Trump has been probing to see whether China or Russia is willing to cooperate. With China, he linked trade negotiations to Beijing’s help on the Korea issue, even as he raised the temperature by signaling that U.S. military action against Mr. Kim was on the table. With Russia, Mr. Trump has consistently spoken of his desire for better relations and made clear that Moscow’s help with Iran could lead to sanctions relief.

Mr. Trump seems to have believed initially that Russia would be more likely to choose engagement, but Moscow has so far stuck by Iran. China, in contrast, has twisted Mr. Kim’s arm to de-escalate. This makes sense: Although a rising China may be a greater long-term threat to the U.S. than a declining Russia, China has more powerful motives for working with the U.S. than Russia does.

To start, China is deeply invested in its trade relationship with the U.S. A trade war would hurt both countries, but China has more at stake. It’s poorer, with a financial system under great stress, and it depends heavily on exports.

Further, China does not want North Korea to upset the nuclear balance in Northeast Asia. If Japan begins to doubt its protection under America’s nuclear umbrella, it will go nuclear itself. Taiwan and South Korea would soon follow. Yes, China would like to maintain North Korea as a buffer against the West, but it does not want nuclear adversaries along its coastline. Reining in Mr. Kim helps both China and the U.S.

China and the U.S. also have some interests in common in the Middle East. They both want low oil prices and a stable geopolitical environment. If disruption in the region jacks up energy prices, China loses, given that it is the world’s largest energy importer, and Russia wins, since high prices would prop up its shaky economy and make Vladimir Putin’s foreign ambitions more affordable. Whenever Chinese leaders reflect on these truths, it is a good day for Washington and a bad day for Moscow.

Mr. Kim’s concessions thus far do not mean that the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula is over. China may be interested in preventing North Korea’s missile program from destabilizing East Asia, but forcing Pyongyang to give up its existing arsenal would be much harder. Still, even a temporary freeze of the missile program gives the U.S. breathing room to focus its efforts on the Middle East.

The early signs are that the Trump administration intends to make the most of this North Korean opportunity. By responding positively to Mr. Kim’s overtures and continuing preparations for the promised summit, the White House is signaling its appreciation for China’s help and paving the way for intense negotiations with Beijing and Pyongyang over both security and trade. That will let the U.S. ratchet up the pressure even further in the Middle East. Moscow and Tehran would be well-advised to study their copies of “The Art of the Deal.”

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