Putting Korean Lipstick on the “Pivot” Pig

For readers outside the Americas who are unfamiliar with what a pinata is, the ATOl editors included a helpful description.  To explain further, a pinata is a diversion frequently rolled out at birthday parties for children of Latin American ancestry.  It’s a hollow papier-mache figure of a burro, a seven-pointed star-ball, or some cartoon character (often reproduced with a deplorable disregard for licensing obligations) that is filled with candy.  The pinata is suspended by a rope from a convenient tree limb and children, starting with the birthday kid, take a whack at it with a bat, broom handle, stick, or whatever in an attempt to break it open as the other children scream encouragement and instructions–or just scream.  The kids take turns whacking the pinata until it bursts, releasing a shower of candy and triggering a mad rush of kids scooping up whatever they can.

In the realm of metaphor to call someone or something a “pinata” is to indicate that it is a relatively helpless or passive target of enthusiastic abuse whose destruction will (hopefully) unleash a flood of benefits.  In the context of this article, it means that China, in the US strategic pivot to Asia, serves the role of a convenient object of US hostility, not a partner.

Go to China Matters to view Grandma Sandoval’s panda pinata Youtube tutorial.

For your daily dose of  I didn’t know that Wikipedia tells us that the pinata possibly originated in China, as a new year’s ritual in which an effigy of a cow containing seeds was broken open in order to ensure agricultural success.  I suspect it developed as a practical alternative to the sacrifice of a real, expensive cow, just as the first Qin emperor broke with Zhou tradition and decided to protect his tomb with terracotta warriors instead of real, dead soldiers.

There is speculation that Marco Polo brought the pinata concept to Europe, where it became a Lent tradition in the 14th century.  When the conquistadors came to Mexico, they discovered that the Aztecs performed a similar ritual to give offerings to one of their gods, Huitzilopochtli, in December.  The Spanish co-opted the local tradition and added that special Roman Catholic secret sauce, creating a complex mid-December allegory of the battle against temptation (which included rotating the blindfolded pinata-whacker 33 times, once for each year of Christ’s life).  However, the pinata survived this grim catechistic interlude to flourish as a celebratory activity and useful metaphor. –PL

Somewhere in Beijing, Chinese foreign policy strategists are laughing…and also cringing at AP National Security Correspondent Lara Jakes’ current piece on North Korea.

Cringing because Jakes or her editors dropped a few clangers like this characterization of the pivot:

Much of the policy has centered on China — both in strengthening diplomatic ties and economic trade. But China is an unreliable American ally and has been suspicious about the U.S. entreaty, which it sees as economic competition on its own turf.

I’m sure China is disappointed to learn that it has been downgraded from global power to “unreliable American ally”.

And does anybody seriously believe that US Asian strategy—which includes the China-excluding Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact initiative, US injection into Chinese territorial disputes with its neighbors, and a full-court press on alleged Chinese cyberespionage transgressions—constitutes “strengthening diplomatic ties and economic trade”?

I think this factually and logically counterintuitive effort to package the US and PRC as “pivot partners” is something of a first in US media.

Does this risible effort at rebranding hint at anxiety in pivot-land as the North Korean crisis lumbers on and the US pivot strategy is unable to offer any hope of meaningful leadership, consensus, or resolution?

I detect the fine Italian hand of ex-East Asia honcho at the State Department, pivot architect, and, I suspect,  would-be exploiter of the managerial vacuum at John Kerry’s State Department (no Asst Sec’y for East Asia yet) Kurt Campbell in Jakes’ coverage.

Campbell’s pivot has turned into little more than an exercise in pissing off China by promoting a US-backed security and norm narrative that encourages East Asian countries to challenge the PRC’s regional pretensions…and encourages China to push back.

Pissing off China is perhaps a noble cause but a rather alarming geopolitical strategy, so Campbell is on call to reassure us that his beloved pivot is not a strategic cock-up.

When North Korean bellicosity elicits pivot-worthy and China-irritating reactions from the United States—such as big joint military exercises with Japan and South Korea meant further integrate the security coordination between the three nations– Campbell goes the extra mile to shoehorn China into the “everybody loves the pivot”–or at least “North Korean brinksmanship is a bigger issue for China than the US pivot” narrative.

They, I think, recognize that the actions that North Korea has taken in recent months and years are in fact antithetical to their own national security interests,” former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told a panel Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy” toward North Korea, said Campbell, who retired in February as the administration’s top diplomat in East Asia and the Pacific region. “I don’t think that provocative path can be lost on Pyongyang. … I think that they have succeeded in undermining trust and confidence in Beijing.”

Actually, to paraphrase David St. Hubbins, there is a thin line between “subtle shift” and “bullshit”…

I don’t think “trust and confidence” has ever characterized the relationship between the CCP and the prickly, independent-minded DPRK leadership, which has been equally obsessed with developing its own nuclear deterrent and looking for alternatives to Chinese domination since it lost its cherished status as a Soviet ally in 1989.  And the PRC’s North Korea policy has always been about exploiting and, when desirable, punishing a vulnerable, troublesome, and resentful neighbor.

So I think what we’re looking at here is not a “subtle shift”; it is wishful thinking and ref-working by Kurt Campbell.

Campbell’s theme was further developed by Josh Rogin in his coverage of Campbell’s remarks over at Foreign Policy magazine’s The Cable blog.

As Rogin reported:

China has long considered North Korea a useful check against a united, pro-American Korean Peninsula. But Chinese frustration with Beijing could eventually lead to a more dramatic shift in Chinese foreign policy that would change the state of play in Northeast Asia, according to Campbell.

“It’s very clear [to China]: If this is a buffer state, what is it good for?” he said. 

For his US audience, Campbell seems to be promoting the idea that the North Korean nuclear tensions are, in a way, a good thing because that allows the US to buttress its military pivot into East Asia, thereby reassuring our allies and discombobulating the Chinese (if not the greedy and ambitious PRC military establishment), thereby making the case that North Korea is China’s strategic liability (while, I think, willfully ignoring the significant value of the DPRK to China as an exclusive economic zone beyond its buffer status), thereby increasing the pressure on China to relieve its DPRK-exacerbated regional security stress by strongarming North Korea to America’s satisfaction.

For the Chinese audience, Campbell may be dangling the possibility that, if China plays ball on North Korea, the PRC will attain the privileged position of pivot partner instead of pivot pinata.

But I don’t think the PRC leadership will bite.

The best outcome that China can expect from knuckling under to the US and compelling North Korea to denuclearize is the undying hatred of the North Korean leadership if the DPRK survives…and a nasty security crisis if the regime implodes.
In the big picture, it would be geopolitical suicide for the PRC to make concessions in response to a US military buildup in Asia, because any concessions by the Chinese will not usher China into a G2 nirvana; it will simply reward and further encourage the US military buildup in Asia and adventurism by China’s resentful neighbors.

In my opinion, the pivot to Asia will be met by asymmetric Chinese counterprogramming, not discreet surrender to the superior diplomatic and military might of the United States and abandonment of North Korea.

I will be pretty surprised if the Chinese took a genuine step toward modifying the behavior of North Korea, like issuing an ultimatum to Pyongyang to cease nuclear and missile tests or else face an across-the-board Chinese embargo.

I will, on the other hand, not be surprised if the whole crisis fizzles out, leaving North Korea with an enhanced portfolio of nuclear material, in a stable if not particularly affectionate relationship with China, and the PRC with an increased suspicion of US intentions in Asia.

And if the pivot can’t exact desirable PRC behavior on North Korea–the biggest headache/most conspicuous piece of low-hanging fruit in the whole East Asian rebalance equation–then what good is the pivot?

But this interpretation is anathema to Campbell, whose pivot strategy relies on the assumption that a heightened military presence and more inflexible diplomatic stance vis a vis China will yield concrete dividends that justify the tensions and unpleasantness.

So it is a matter of some importance for Campbell to demonstrate to the US foreign policy establishment, journalists, and the interested public that the pivot, in the case of the North Korean crisis, is yielding genuine benefits by compelling China to pressure North Korea into discarding its irritating and destabilizing nuclear program in response to US saber-rattling.

Case unproven, in my opinion.

Bernard over at Moon of Alabama has a good, derisive take on the wishful thinking that passes for tea-leaf reading by Western journalists (probably abetted by Obama administration officials anxious to assert that the US strategy on North Korea is not driving US-Chinese relations into a ditch) on Xi Jinping’s Boao speech and the PRC’s putative urge to dump North Korea.

The best geopolitical play by the United States has nothing to do with the atmospherics of the pivot and, indeed, is well known to everybody in the foreign policy establishment: rapprochement a la Burma with North Korea while somehow finessing the DPRK’s determination to retain its nuclear weapon and missile assets.

North Korea gets a big new friend, China keeps its useful regional buffer minus the nuclear provocation and starvation headaches, and Japan and South Korea can move on to other regional economic and security preoccupations.  That’s pretty close to a universal win-win, though the miserable North Korean people might not share the regional powers’ enthusiasm for a newly revitalized DPRK regime.

The PRC leadership is probably slightly bemused that the United States, in order to advance its security-heavy pivot concept, is pushing the DPRK away instead and forcing it back into the arms of China—a place where North Korea really doesn’t want to be.

It would be nice to think that US hostility toward North Korea is a profoundly subtle strategy of ensuring the regime’s continued survival and hostility so that it can serve as a reliable pretext for the US security presence in North Asia.

Unfortunately, I don’t think so.  I think our North Korea policy is a reflection of general strategic drift and an inability to square the circle between our interest in rapprochement, US non-proliferation policy, and the anxieties of our allies.

Absent a viable strategy to denuclearize or engage North Korea, in public media the US punts to China—which lacks the standing to influence North Korea on this issue and has no interest in imploding the regime.  That’s just meaningless PR kabuki.  And China makes disapproving noises at Pyongyang in order to placate the West.  More meaningless PR kabuki.

At the same time, the US—rather shortsightedly, in my opinion—exploits Pyongyang’s antics to move more military assets into the region to bolster the pivot narrative of US indispensability to regional security, thereby further pissing off China.

A clever plan—not—IMHO.

Under the momentum of its own dubious logic, in response to the mission and budget creep imperatives of the US security establishment, driven by the separate political and military imperatives of Japan and other anxious and more-or-less ambitious regional players, and seduced by the easy opportunities presented by North Korean bellicosity,  the “pivot” increasingly walks, talks, and quacks like “China containment”.

I don’t think the Obama administration is fooling the PRC leadership…and I don’t think China is blaming North Korean nukes or China’s dysfunctional relationship with Pyongyang for the eagerness of much of the US security establishment to promote the pivot into Asia.

But maybe American analysts are deluding themselves with the vision of the pivot panacea for the problem of rising China and its attendant discontents.

To me, the North Korean impasse demonstrates that the pivot is counterproductive because it simply demands that the PRC conform to US interests doubling as universal norms.  In other words, it’s zero sum.  There’s no win-win for China in just doing what Barack Obama wants.

A serious underlying problem for the pivot is that the US is increasingly boxed into zero-sum options for China as allies are becoming more independent and refractory (and US leadership, as demonstrated in the cases of Egypt, Libya, and Syria, becomes more hands-off and dilatory), and the list of win-win scenarios that the US can unilaterally deliver to the PRC is shrinking.

We’re not offering carrots; just less of the human rights/intellectual property/cyberwar/freedom of navigation stick until time, circumstance, principle, and the priorities and opportunism of our allies combine to demand return to the China-bashing status quo ante.

By this reading, the pivot is a second-best, default strategy by a superpower with limited resources–primarily the ability to project power across the Pacific–at its disposal.  It is instability without an endgame.

By the most generous reading, the pivot is an optimistic relaunch of the Star Wars/arms race strategy and economic stress test under Reagan that allegedly drove the USSR to spend itself into oblivion. But 2013 isn’t 1976, China after thirty years of economic reform isn’t Russia, and the current CCP leadership lineup is conspicuously devoid of gullible Gorbachevs.

As the Obama administration rather desperately finesses the pivot and tries to keep US-China relations ticking along despite its self-created problems, the PRC will look for the right opportunity to challenge the “pivot” through pressure on local US allies and demonstrate that the US lacks the military will (and disregard for economic damage) to pick up the military gauntlet thrown down by an increasingly assertive and suspicious PRC.

Absent a US willingness to fight World War III over the scraggly reefs and islets of the East and South China Seas, the pivot has no viable endgame except anticipating PRC regime collapse and the attainment of US hegemony in the Western Pacific by default.  If that doesn’t happen,I would not like to be a small US ally with overoptimistic plans of relying on the pivot to counter overbearing Chinese economic, military, and diplomatic pressure (I’m looking at you, Philippines).

So, when one hears hopeful noises about Chinese reasonableness on North Korea, it means little more than the fact that the US has dug itself into a hole with its Asia policy and needs to pretend that the pivot narrative of the indispensable US security role in Asia is doing something more than accelerating the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program and generating Chinese anxiety and anger.

Lipstick on a pig, in other words.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. His ground-breaking story on North Korea’s nuclear program, Big Bang Theory in North Korea, appears in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

A version of this article ran in Asia Times.


Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.