Why US-Israel mission to thwart Iran could mean a leading role for China on North Korea

Defense Secretary Hagel’s Mideast visit this week will focus on Iran and Syria, but those crises should also be viewed through the lens of Beijing and Pyongyang

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Secretary of Defense Hagel alongside Israel's previous defense minister, Ehud Barak, in early March at the Pentagon (Photo credit: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/ Ministry of Defense/ Flash 90)
Secretary of Defense Hagel alongside Israel's previous defense minister, Ehud Barak, in early March at the Pentagon (Photo credit: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/ Ministry of Defense/ Flash 90)

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel traveled Saturday to Israel, the first stop on a trip that includes Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Hagel is projected to address the two major threats in the region: the unraveling of Syria and the Iranian quest for nuclear arms. Looming large above those, though, is the hermetically sealed dictatorship of North Korea – its nuclear program, its relationship with China, and the US’s so-called pivot toward the Pacific.

Gazing west across the Atlantic, as Israel frequently does, obscures China’s pivotal role in handling the world’s two nuclear crises, and the manner in which US-Sino relations affects them both.

“We have recently seen the results of a wild regime that possesses nuclear weapons,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Foreign Diplomatic Corps on April 16. “We have also seen that heavy sanctions are not always effective against a sufficiently determined regime. Therefore, we have an obligation to ensure that this will not happen again.”

To Netanyahu, North Korea is a flashing red light, a warning sign posted on the path toward Iranian nuclear power. To the US, amid its quietly roiling competition with China, it is surely that, too. But North Korea also perhaps represents an opportunity for the US to engage in some realpolitik with Beijing, which, of course, requires time – a commodity that Netanyahu lacks.

On February 12, Kim Jong Un, the third in a family line of dictators, the absolute leader of the world’s most militarized state, authorized North Korea’s third underground nuclear test. Three weeks later, the UN Security Council imposed further sanctions on the regime and, one week after that, the US launched a joint military exercise with South Korea. Pyongyang accused the US of carrying out a cyber attack and promptly threatened the US and South Korea with a nuclear response. The US flew stealth bombers over South Korea for the first time. North Korea re-stated its declaration of war with its southern neighbor and, in early April, announced that it would test-launch ballistic missiles. The US, on April 3, began rushing a missile defense system to Guam, an American territory in the Pacific.

These developments, while worrying – Hagel called them “a real and clear danger” — are not uncommon and were seen by many as saber-rattling by Kim Jong Un, generated mostly for internal consumption.

China’s response, though, was uncharacteristic. On April 7, China’s newly appointed President Xi Jinping rebuked the young and untested North Korean leader. “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain,” he said.

“That is a significant change,” according to Dr. Yoram Evron, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a faculty member of the University of Haifa’s Asian Studies Department.

Evron described China as balancing two separate sets of interests – military and economic growth in Asia, and its global position vis-à-vis Iran – but said he was not sure whether amelioration on one front could come in exchange for a united stand on the other.

In Asia, China has seen Obama make, at the very least, rhetorical strides in the direction of advancing US influence in the Pacific. “As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority,” Obama told the Australian parliament in November 2011. “Reductions in US defense spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.”

Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta said, before leaving office, that US security in the 21st Century “will be linked to the security and prosperity of Asia more than any other region on earth.”

These comments, along with the early-April stationing of US Marines in Australia and the build-up of troops around the Korean peninsula, Evron suggested in a recent INSS essay, “would impair China’s strategic ability to maneuver in the region and would limit its ability to realize its ambitions to achieve regional dominance.”

This explains the unusually strong language from Beijing. The People’s Republic of China does not want to be seen as financially backing a nuclear-equipped nutcase and it does not want to offer the US an excuse to act in its backyard.

But what about Iran? In terms of China, Evron said, “there is an entire set of interests at play.”

Most tend to focus on China’s energy needs and Iran’s oil, he said, but equally important are China’s global position as “a counterweight” to the US and its self-image as a leader of the world’s developing nations.

For Beijing to allow the US to forcefully strip Tehran of its nuclear program, he said, would be seen as a capitulation.

Nonetheless, there is a chance — depending on where the Americans’ true priorities lie — that Hagel, Kerry, and Obama will offer China additional breathing room in the Pacific, and a chance to deal with North Korea on its own terms. The quid pro quo? Increased support in tackling Syria and, most crucially, Iran.

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