William Lind: China’s fateful decision about North Korea

Summary: William Lind gives a brilliant analysis of the situation in East Asia — North Korea’s provocations, China’s fateful choices, and the response of our allies if they choose unwisely. Trump’s visit to Asia provides an opportunity for him to display Bismarck-level geopolitics.

North Korea Poster
North Korea poster.


The North Korean Threat to China

By William S. Lind.
From traditionalRIGHT, 3 November 2017.

Posted here with their and Mr. Lind’s generous permission.


America’s fixation on the threat from North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons evinces the usual American dive into the weeds. If we instead stand back a bit and look at the strategic picture, we quickly see that the North Korean threat to China is far greater than its threat to us.

North Korea is unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. However, if North Korea retains its nuclear weapons, it is likely to lead South Korea, Japan, and possibly Taiwan, Australia and Vietnam to go nuclear themselves. From the Chinese perspective, that would be a strategic catastrophe.

China has never sought world domination, nor is it likely to do so. Its distaste for barbarians, who include everyone not Chinese, is such that it wants to maintain its distance from them. However, maintaining that distance requires a buffer zone around China, which historically China has sought and is seeking again now.

A poster depicting North Korea's military power is displayed in the communist state and released by North Korea Central News Agency, 31 January 2003.
A poster of North Korea’s military power. From North Korea Central News Agency, 31 January 2003. Per REUTERS/Korean News Service.

At present, the main obstacle to creating that buffer zone of semi-independent client states is the United States. That is a strategic blunder on our part. Such a buffer zone is no threat to the U.S. or to its vital interests.

However, China knows American power is waning and the American people are tired of meaningless wars on the other side of the world. Despite America, China’s influence on the states in her proximity is rising. She can afford to be patient.

In contrast, if the states on China’s periphery get nuclear weapons, her quest to dominate them is permanently blocked. An American presence is no longer required to balk her ambitions. Even weak states such as Vietnam can stop her cold if they have nukes. Her border states, instead of serving as a buffer, become dangerous threats sitting right on her frontiers. Even if she should defeat one of them, the damage she would suffer in a nuclear exchange would knock her out of the ranks of the great powers and might cause her to come apart internally, which is the Chinese leadership’s greatest fear because it has so often happened throughout her history.

President Trump will soon be visiting China. If he and those around him ask the all-important question, “What would Bismarck do?”, they should be able to motivate China to finally do what is necessary with North Korea, namely give it an offer it cannot refuse.

The script runs roughly like this. President Trump makes the case about the need to restrain North Korea’s nuclear program. Instead of threatening trade or other measures if China refuses, he simply says, “If North Korea retains its nukes and delivery systems, we can no longer advise our allies in Asia not to go nuclear. We will of course regret such nuclear proliferation, but we will also understand why they have to develop their own nuclear weapons. In some cases, we may find it necessary to assist them with delivery systems such as missile-equipped submarines. Of course, nuclear weapons in the hands of our allies are not a threat to the United States.” He need not add that they will be a threat to China.

Nation’s foreign policies are not motivated by other nation’s needs. Beijing does not care about the threat North Korean nukes pose to the U.S. But nations are motivated by their own interests, and if we put North Korea’s nukes in this context, the context of the strategic threat reactions to them pose to China, that is a different kettle of fish.

In turn, we need to remember Bismarck’s dictum that politics is the art of the possible. North Korea is unlikely to give up all its nuclear weapons. However, at the demand of Beijing, Pyongyang can probably be brought to limiting their number and the range of their delivery systems. Beijing could also offer to put an anti-missile system such as the Russians’ S-400 on North Korea’s border to shoot down any South Korean first strike. North Korea could still use its few nukes to deter an American first strike, even if they could not reach beyond South Korea.

Are the Pentagon, State Department, and White House capable of Bismarckian Realpolitik? President Trump’s own instincts lead him that way. Whether his administration can follow is open to doubt.


An afterword from the editor

This is, as so often so for Lind’s work, a brilliant insight. But Lind assumes that China’s leaders do not see this. Which seems unlikely, in my opinion. Which raises the question: why do China’s leaders not respond to North Korea’s provocative actions — and risk pushing their neighbors to acquire nuclear weapons?

Also, I see little basis for Lind’s confidence in Trump’s instincts and judgement. I see only a clown who won the election with fake populism.

William Lind

About the author

William S. Lind’s director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. He has a Master’s Degree in History from Princeton University in 1971. He worked as a legislative aide for armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio from 1973 through 1976 and held a similar position with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado from 1977 through 1986. See his bio at Wikipedia

Mr. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook (1985), co-author with Gary Hart of America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform (1986), and co-author with William H. Marshner of Cultural Conservatism: Toward a New National Agenda (1987).

In April 1995 Lind published “Militant musings: From nightmare 1995 to my utopian 2050” in The Washington Post. He speculated about a future in which multiculturalism had broken apart the USA: a second civil war, followed by a recovery of our traditional Christian culture led by a new country: Victoria (i.e., it adopted Victorian values). He’s expanded this into a book: Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation War, published under the pseudonym “Thomas Hobbes” (the theorist of the nation-state; author of Leviathan.

He’s perhaps best known for his articles about the long war, now published as On War: The Collected Columns of William S. Lind 2003-2009. See his other articles about a broad range of subjects…

  1. Posts at TraditionalRight.
  2. His articles about geopolitics at The American Conservative.
  3. His articles about transportation at The American Conservative.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about William Lind’s work, about China, about about North Korea, and especially these…

  1. ImportantLooking ahead to the final chapter of the North Korea story.
  2. Should we expect another war in Korea?
  3. Is North Korea or China the bigger threat to America?
  4. Martin van Creveld explains our phony war with North Korea.
  5. Cut through the propaganda about North Korea.

Two of William Lind’s books

On War: The Collected Columns of William S. Lind 2003-2009 — Sadly, most of these are as relevant today as the day they were written.

Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation War. Lind’s first work of fiction, applying all that he knows about our world to create a vision of one possible future.

On War: The Collected Columns of William S. Lind 2003-2009
Available at Amazon.
"Victoria" by William Lind
Available at Amazon.

19 thoughts on “William Lind: China’s fateful decision about North Korea”

  1. Your comment on Trump, ‘a clown who won the election with fake populism’ I think that Trump was a clown who won. He won against Clinton, the democratic machine and also took on the Republicans, the R candidates and all that the republicans could throw at him. To add to that he took on the media and still came out on top.
    He spent less money achieving his win… Some clown!

    1. We’ll see how he does against an opponent who has not been the Black Beast of the Republican Party for twenty-five years. If he lasts his term.

      “Taking on the media” seems pretty meaningless. He got over a billion dollars in free coverage and still paints them as his enemy.

  2. “I see little basis for Lind’s confidence in Trump’s instincts and judgement. I see only a clown who won the election with fake populism.”

    That’s what Obama saw, as he testified to the Correspondent’s Dinner in 2011. That’s all Hillary saw when she cried out in frustration, “Why am I not 50% ahead of Trump???” That’s what Trump’s opponents in the GOP primaries saw. Perhaps all of you need to look closer, examine your own analytic framework more energetically, and think hard about what you are overlooking due to an excess of contempt for what you clearly don’t understand very well. Less energy expended broadcasting your contempt of Trump and his “Deplorables” and re-purposed to self-reflection might be a more productive use of that energy. Lind seems farther along in that process than you. Be like Lind..

    1. My analytical framework told me that Trump would win the election (although I couldn’t prove it until the day before the election) but I agree with FM that Trump is a clown.

      I suspected much of what Donna Brazile revealed in her book from what I saw during the election although I had no idea of how deep the rot had gone. The Democratic machine is running on empty and falling apart after 25 years of neo-liberalism. It needs to find a platform that is supported by more than liberal plutocrats or it will cease to exist. Sanders offers one approach, there are many more if the Democrats can only get their heads out of the sand.

    2. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “hat’s what Obama saw …Hillary saww”

      Why is that relevant? Trump has been in office 292 days, providing more than adequate data to evaluate his performance.

  3. At the risk of unbellyfeeling trumpfree, I agree with you, that I don’t think this is something that would occur to Trump. However, I do think Trump might be able to execute the idea if Mattis or Kelly or McMaster had presented it to him; it is not that complicated, and he seems to respect the opinion of generals. It would also seem like a clever deal to him, perhaps.

    It does seem more likely that he will brag at Xi about his win in the election and Xi will smile and quietly advance his interests.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “I do think Trump might be able to execute the idea if Mattis or Kelly or McMaster had presented it to him”

      Yes, I agree. Still, the big question is why anyone believes China has not already thought of this.

  4. The Man Who Laughs

    I find William Lind’s argument impossible to refute, but there is another side to the coin. China can demand concessions from America on issues of importance to China in exchange for a promise of help with the Korean missile issue that never materializes. (At least so long as South Korea and Japan do not actually go nuclear). As I understand it, China may be relenting on their opposition to South Korean deployment of US THAAD interceptors. Better an American antimissile system of unproven worth than a South Korean nuclear deterrent of certain effectiveness.

    There’s a saying in poker. If in ten minutes you haven’t figured out who the fish is, get out, because it’s you. I hope I’m wrong, but I have a nasty feeling I know who the fish is.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      the Mna,

      “China can demand concessions from America on issues of importance to China in exchange for a promise of help with the Korean missile issue that never materializes.”

      Lind’s point — which seems pretty strong — is that China has no such leverage. It is in their interest to rein in NK.

  5. It’s an interesting gambit to push, though extremely dangerous if it fails, seeing how it potentially doubles the membership of the nuclear club. But once again it’s just more US bullying and threatening, instead of actually negotiating…which is exactly how we got into this mess in the first place, when GW Bush torpedoed the Agreed Framework with his “Axis of Evil” bluster.

    At least Lind is realistic enough to acknowledge that the DPRK is never going to give up its nukes entirely, and limiting their range, number, and capabilities is the best-case scenario now.

    China has put a serious idea forward, the “suspension for suspension” plan: that NK will halt further nuclear production in exchange for the US halting military exercises on the DMZ. If you actually pay attention to North Korea’s constant barking, all the hostile forces arrayed on their border is their primary grievance. Even a token show of good will by toning down or cancelling one of the major annual exercises, such as Key Resolve, might go a long way towards de-escalating and getting them to the table.

    But like you, FM, I find Mr. Lind’s faith in Trump doing anything “Bismarckian” to be laughable. Even the silent junta of Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly seem eager for a confrontation with North Korea, judging by their public statements. I also question this conventional wisdom that assumes China is the puppet-master behind the DPRK and can bring them to heel whenever they want, if only the US would pressure them more. If that were true, North Korea would never have developed and tested nuclear arms in the first place.

    1. Oops, forget to mention that the Trump administration of course poo-poo’d the “suspension for suspension” idea and insists on NK giving up all its nukes as a precondition to even talking.

    2. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “But once again it’s just more US bullying and threatening”

      Not necessarily. It depends how it is done. Pointing out that China’s neighbors must defend themselves from NK is pointing to the obvious. Indeed, I can’t imagine that China has not already seen this. Recognition of the obvious is the starting point for diplomacy.

    3. FM,

      I never mentioned him, but Obama’s approach was just a limper, less belicose version of the usual US woofing (“disarm completely or else something nasty might happen”). It didn’t work for him and it Trump’s intensified version of it continues to fail.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        Thanks for the additional info. Not a surprise, but good to know!

  6. The Man Who Laughs

    “Lind’s point — which seems pretty strong — is that China has no such leverage. It is in their interest to rein in NK.”

    I agree with Lind’s analysis of China’s interests. Nations don’t always act in their own best interests, and we can both cite examples. I claim no inside knowledge of what China will do, I think there’s a real possibility that they won’t do what he hopes. And there’s a very real possibility that Trump won’t do what Lind thinks he should. We’ll see what we see.

    Lind also thinks that China might not be able to get North Korea to give up all their nukes, just limit the range and numbers. That solves our problem, sort of, but for the South Koreans and Japanese not so much. North Korea being a little bit nuclear is like trying to be a little bit pregnant, so other powers in the region might eventually go nuclear whatever Trump does or fails to do.

  7. I wonder if US diplomats would really find a nuclear and/or non-pacifist Japan appealing. If Japan were to develop a nuclear deterrent good enough to keep China at bay, they would have less need for US protection. They were, after all, very serious rivals to the US in industry and finance not that long ago. (Reagan-Bush time period).

    With Trump it’s all irrelevant of course, but his term will pass soon…

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “they would have less need for US protection”

      Yes, that’s a big reason the US supports non-proliferation — even among allies.

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