We Have A Chinese Problem, Not A North Korean One - Forbes.com We Have A Chinese Problem, Not A North Korean One Gordon G. Chang, 05.25.09, 04:34 PM EDT If it weren't for Beijing, Pyongyang would be impotent. Hours after the Democratic People's Republic of Korea detonated its second atomic device, Beijing condemned the test. "The DPRK conducted another nuclear test in disregard of the common opposition of the international community," a Foreign Ministry statement, issued May 25, noted. "The Chinese government is firmly opposed to this act." Is that so? Today, China supplies about 90% of North Korea's oil, 80% of its consumer goods and 45% of its food. Beijing is Pyongyang's only formal military ally and its primary backer in the United Nations Security Council and other diplomatic forums. If it weren't for the Chinese, there would be no North Korean missile program, no North Korean nuclear program and no North Korea. Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang's coldly rational leader, knows he could not survive the loss of China's material and diplomatic support. If Chairman Kim doesn't appear to listen to his sponsors in Beijing in every instance, it's largely because they don't expect obedience each and every time. The Chinese pursue their plan of supporting the North because they know they have influence and can use it at any moment. Kim detonated a nuclear weapon in the last few hours because he knew the Chinese did not object to him doing so. He would not dare cross Beijing on a matter of such critical importance. For the last eight years, the United States has had a Korea policy that can be described in one word: China. President Bush looked to Beijing to contain Pyongyang and disarm Kim. Yet during his administration the Chinese gave the North Korean leader the one thing he needed most to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them: time. The Chinese counseled patience while the so-called six-party talks, which began in 2003, dragged on, but they failed to broker a solution even though they could have done so. Many Chinese officials, especially in the Foreign Ministry, know their country's Korea policy is counterproductive in the long run because it will eventually lead to the nuclearization of the region and thereby the marginalization of Beijing's relative power. Yet there is no consensus in the upper echelons of the Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army to change long-held policies. Apparently, President Hu Jintao finds Kim useful in the short-term for keeping Japan and South Korea off-balance and in extracting concessions from the United States. Today, President Obama said North Korea's acts "pose a grave threat to the peace and stability of the world." So what should his administration do? From all accounts, his senior Asia officials feel the United States has no leverage on Beijing. That assessment could not be more wrong. The legitimacy of the Chinese political system rests largely on the continual delivery of prosperity, and that prosperity depends on access to the American market. In 2008, all but $29.2 billion of China's overall trade surplus of $295.5 billion related to sales to the United States. In 2007, all but $5.9 billion of the overall surplus of $262.2 billion was attributable to sales to America. The United States relies on Beijing to buy American debt, but the Chinese export machine cannot function if China does not buy our obligations. If Beijing does not do so, it will further constrain the American economy. If Beijing further constrains the American economy, Americans will be able to buy even fewer Chinese goods than they are at the moment. If Americans buy fewer Chinese goods, the Chinese economy will fall even faster than it is doing so now. And if the Chinese economy declines any faster, the country's political system will face increased tensions and difficulties. So the White House has leverage, especially because the balance of power in Asia has shifted decisively toward the United States. In the past, Beijing could stand behind Pyongyang because Tokyo and the so-called "progressive" governments in Seoul--first under Kim Dae-jung and then Roh Moo-hyun--were doing the same. In short, the Japanese and South Koreans, Washington's two principal allies in the region, were giving the Chinese cover to continue with their long-time program of supporting the North. Yet China's cover did not last. First Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then South Korea under President Lee Myung-bak got out of the business of propping up Chairman Kim Jong Il. That has left Beijing alone in its support of the abhorrent regime in Pyongyang. In the past, the Chinese have defied Washington when they had company but were almost always cooperative when they did not. Unfortunately, the Bush White House did not take advantage of changing circumstances in Asia and was unwilling to make China choose between its future--cooperation with the United States and the international community--and its past--relations with Kim's Korea. Today, the Obama administration is making the same fundamental mistake. President Obama will never have a successful Korea policy until he has a successful Chinese one. North Korea can continue to defy the international community as long as it has Beijing's support. So we don't have a North Korea problem. We have a China one.