Think of the Korean Peninsula turned upside down.
Imagine if there were a South Korean dictatorship that had been in power, as a client of the United States since 1953.
Imagine also that contemporary South Korea was not the rich, democratic home of Kia and Samsung. Instead, envision it as an unfree, pre-industrialized and impoverished failed state, much like North Korea.
Further envision that the U.S. had delivered financial aid and military assistance to this outlaw regime, which led to Seoul possessing several nuclear weapons and a fleet of long-range missiles.
Next, picture this rogue South Korean dictatorship serially threatening to incinerate its neighbor, North Korea – and imagine that North Korea was ruled not by the Kim dynasty, but by a benign government without nuclear weapons.
Also assume that the South Korean dictatorship would periodically promise to wipe out Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.
The implicit message to the Chinese would be that the impoverished South Koreans were so crazy that they didn’t care whether they, too, went up in smoke – as long a dozen of their nuclear-tipped missiles could blow up Chinese cities and paralyze the second-largest economy in the world.
Assume that these South Korean threats had been going on without consequences for over a decade.
Finally, in such a fantasy scenario, what if the United States falsely claimed ignorance of much of its South Korean client’s nuclear capability and threats. America instead would plead that it regretted the growing tension and the reckless reactions of China to the nuclear threats against it. Washington would lecture China that the crisis was due in part to its support for its North Korean ally.
For effect, the United States would occasionally issue declarations of regret and concern over the situation – even as it warned China not to do anything to provoke America’s provocateur ally.
In such a fantasy, American security experts and military planners would gleefully factor a roguish nuclear South Korea into U.S. deterrent strategy. The Pentagon would privately collude with the South Korean dictatorship to keep the Chinese occupied and rattled, while the U.S. upped shipments of military weaponry to Seoul and overlooked its thermonuclear upgrades.
The American military would be delighted that China would be tied down by having an unhinged nuclear dictatorship on its borders, one that periodically threatened to kill millions of Chinese. South Korea would up the ante of its bluster by occasionally test-launching missiles in the direction of its neighbor.
Question: How long would China tolerate having weapons of mass destruction pointed at its major cities by an unbalanced tyrannical regime?
In response, would Beijing threaten a nuclear Seoul with a pre-emptory military strike, even though the Chinese would know that Seoul could first do a lot of nuclear damage?
Would China conclude that the United States was the real guilty party because it tacitly sanctioned South Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons?
Would China then warn the U.S. to pressure Seoul to disarm?
Would Beijing cease all trade with America?
Would China boycott, embargo or blockade South Korea?
Would China be furious that after ensuring that its own client, North Korea, remained non-nuclear and played by the rules, America had deliberately done exactly the opposite: empowering its dictatorial client, South Korea, to become a nuclear power in order to threaten China?
In other words, if China and North Korea found themselves in the same respective positions of current America and South Korea, the world may well have already seen a pre-emptive Chinese attack on Seoul to remove its nuclear capability.
The international community would already have seen China expel the conniving Americans from Chinese embassies, cut trade with the U.S., disrupt American banks and threaten the use of force against the U.S. mainland.
The truth of the North Korea missile crisis is not the boilerplate assumption that China is the key to the solution, but rather that China is by design the root of the problem.
China did not fail to realize that North Korea was developing a nuclear arsenal. Rather, it calculated that North Korea would do exactly what it is now doing, and that such nuclear roguery would serve China’s strategic interests both on the Korean peninsula and in its rivalries with the United States and with America’s allies in Asia.
In other words, if China were in America’s position, we would have likely witnessed a tragically destructive war a long time ago.
China should make the necessary corrections now, before things get even worse.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” to appear in October from Basic Books. You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.