Having been closely following the news on the Korean peninsula over the last few weeks, a thought occurred to me, one I hadn’t exactly seen suggested elsewhere.
In many ways, the situation in N. Korea greatly resembles the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviets put nukes in Cuba and the US signaled that it found this degree of nuclear proliferation unacceptable and was very prepared to use force. Obviously there is a difference as the North Koreans are developing ICBMs themselves rather than serving as a forward base for a foreign power, but China is still their main sponsor as the Soviets were with Cuba.
In the end both sides backed down – they went to the brink and then made a deal. The Soviets would promptly withdraw their missiles, the US guaranteed never to invade Cuba (a promise they’ve stuck with for 55 years now) while the US would (secretly) withdraw their missiles from Italy and Turkey. It was an intense game of geopolitical chess and one of the most crucial moments of the Cold War.
So what would be a similar deal be here? If the US has declared that they will simply not accept a North Korea armed with nuclear ICBMs and they want China’s support (or at least neutrality) in confronting Kim Jong-un, then they would need something to swap, as the Chinese obviously don’t want a US-allied, reunified Korea right on their border. North Korea may be a crazy, despotic, impoverished regime, but they are still supposed to be useful as the Chinese to a buffer state. Even if the Chinese have finally concluded that Kim’s regime is more trouble than its worth, they would need to be a very sweet prize to tempt them to cooperate with the US in his removal.
The most obvious candidate is Taiwan, but I think this is unlikely – it would be an unacceptable loss of prestige for the US. Their withdrawal of missiles in Italy/Turkey in 1962 had to be secret for the same reason. For them to publicly say ‘we’ll take Pyongyang and you can have Taipei’ would signal to all its Allies that the US may abandon them when convenient, so I don’t think its possible. Another pawn on the geopolitical chess board is needed.
But I think there is another candidate, just a few hundred miles away – the South China Sea. At the moment this region disputed between the two powers. The Chinese claim 90% of the sea and have been building their artificial islands and started drilling there, but are still opposed by the US and the neighboring countries who want a more equitable sharing of their maritime zones.
The Sea is incredibly valuable for two reasons – a third of the world’s shipping goes through it, and its considerable hydrocarbon reserves. A recent conservative estimate was that the sea contained at least 28 billion barrels of oil and 7,500km3 of natural gas. This is enough to cover China’s current energy needs for 13+ years combined (7+ of oil and 42 years of natural gas respectively). Some estimates are a lot higher.
Of these key resources the Chinese have very limited internal supplies. Currently they only produce a third of the oil they consume and just over half the natural gas – and consumption is still growing much more rapidly than demand. The layman thinks that it is western powers like the United States who are most likely to wage wars over oil – but western powers laid claim to most of the world’s great oil fields decades ago. It was the Germans and Japanese who were desperate enough to wage war over the oil resources of the Caucusus and Dutch East Indies respectively in the 1940s.
Today, China is in the same position. Furthermore, most of what they import comes by sea, putting them completely at the mercy of the US navy. Again like the Axis powers in the World Wars, they are very susceptible to blockade, and their rivals possess far greater sea power. In the event the US shuts down that trade, war or no war, China’s roaring economy will come to a grinding halt.
It is no wonder the Chinese have been aggressively laying their claim to this region. As the world’s largest oil importer, the US have a huge knife pressed very close the jugular of the Chinese economy. Of course, allowing China to keep building their artificial islands, install air defenses, drill for oil and gas and patrol the area doesn’t quite remove the threat of a western blockade entirely.
The US could probably still send in the navy and the marines and destroy any PRC assets beyond the mainland in the opening stages of any major war – but it would be a bloody business. Think of the battles waged over Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the last great Pacific War. At the very least it takes that knife, blunts it a little and forces it back a few inches – if I were the Chinese, I might take that deal.
So I suspect that if a deal has been made, that might be its rough contents. Trump could have secretly said to them ‘if you help us curb N. Korea’s nuclear ambitions we won’t interfere with you in the South China Sea’. Its a trillion $$$ deal.
Other sweeteners could relate to trade or the situation of the North after any resulting war – perhaps make everything north of the current DMZ a demilitarized zone and guarantee Chinese economic interests? There’s lots of other things, but the most brilliant thing about the South China Sea is its just like withdrawing the missiles in Turkey – it can happen relatively unannounced. The whole world would notice if the PRC marched into Taiwan, but drilling in the ocean? No one really cares except the neighbors, and the US would be busy managing them while the Chinese busily established their energy security.