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Tag: "china"

North Korea: A Negotiable Issue?

[ 46 ] November 30, 2010 |

As has been noted in several places, this is one hell of an interesting cable. The upshot is that South Korean officials seem to believe that North Korea will collapse in a fairly short interval after the death of Kim Jong Il, and that a few Chinese policymakers have suggested that China is prepared to acquiesce on a reunified Korea governed by Seoul.

Drezner throws the cold water:

I don’t doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents.  I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea.  It means that Chinese diplomats are… er…. diplomatic.  They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear.  I’m sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.

Indeed, although that’s not quite the right framing for the Chinese comments. Diplo-speak is about more than simply telling the other side what it wants to hear; there’s an element of that, but diplomats also try to refrain from saying stuff that could be dangerous for national interests. Chinese diplomats aren’t just going to tell Seoul that Beijing is groovy with reunification to be polite, because that removes leverage and may create an incentive for South Korea to get reckless. Indeed, suggesting that Beijing would accept reunification on South Korean terms is really kind of dangerous, whether or not it reflects official state policy. At the very least it confirms that there are divisions in China regarding the proper policy towards Korean reunification, which could in itself be a dangerous message to send to Seoul.

That said, Drezner is correct that any Chinese queasiness about North Korea hasn’t yet made it into visible public policy. Nevertheless, that even some Chinese diplomats are willing to even hint that the existence of North Korea might be a negotiable issue is very interesting.

See also E. on the downsides of assuming that North Korea will collapse. More on that later.

this seems to imply that China is thinking seriously about leaving North Korea in the cold.


WTF, North Korea?

[ 20 ] November 23, 2010 |

This is mildly alarming:

North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire on Tuesday after dozens of shells fired from the North struck a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed maritime border, South Korean military officials said. Two South Korean soldiers were killed, 15 were wounded and three civilians were injured, said Kiyheon Kwon, an official at the Defense Ministry. The military went to “crisis status,” and fighter planes were put on alert but did not take off. South Korean artillery units returned fire after the North’s shells struck South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island at 2:34 p.m., said Mr. Kwon, adding that the North also fired numerous rounds into the Yellow Sea. News reports said dozens of houses were on fire, and TV footage showed large plumes of black smoke spiraling from the island.

In and of itself, this would be unfortunate but not particularly indicative of a major increase in tensions or a shift in North Korean policy. Combined with the Cheonan incident, the revelation of the nuke facility, and a number of other small incidents, it’s somewhat disconcerting. My best guess is this: North Korea is taking behavioral cues from the increasingly tense security relationship between China on the one side and the US and Japan on the other side. The North Koreans may believe that these tensions open up a wider space for action because they reduce the chances of collaboration between China and the US. Pyongyang may also believe that Beijing tacitly approves the series of escalations. I have no idea regarding Beijing’s actual attitude; China normally regard North Korea as an embarrassment, but in this case they may appreciate that the DPRK has some utility.

But that’s just guesswork. Thoughts?

…see also Spencer, Sigger, and Stratfor.

Fractured China

[ 0 ] November 17, 2010 |

At WPR, I bloviate on theoretical and empirical issues regarding China’s fractured foreign policy:

What does China want? Unfortunately, this is a terrible way to approach the problem.

China is full of many people who want many different things. Like the U.S. national security apparatus, the Chinese government harbors a plethora of different foreign-policy perspectives, some focused on trade, others on power, and still others guided by domestic political concerns. Moreover, the Chinese government is no longer the only actor of consequence in China. Chinese public opinion increasingly constrains policymakers, and can even force them into action they don’t want to take. Like all states, China is fractured. Recognizing its fractured nature is the key to developing an effective U.S. policy toward China’s rise.

In the column I mention this SIPRI report on the emerging structure of PRC foreign policy decision-making, which is worth giving and extra-super recommendation. Check it out.


[ 17 ] November 4, 2010 |

In light of growing disquiet about Chinese intentions and capabilities in the Pacific among US security types, it’s worth taking note of this fairly alarmist Russian analysis:

This brings [Aleksandr] Khramchikhin back to China.  He has previously written some fairly alarmist pieces about the potential Chinese threat to Russia, so this time he focuses on the possibility that China would attack Kazakhstan. This seems to be a sufficiently fantastic scenario that it could be dismissed out of hand, but instead he argues that China would easily win such a conflict while absorbing Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with minimal effort. This means that Russia would have to come to Kazakhstan’s assistance or face the prospect of a 12,000km border with China stretching from Astrakhan to Vladivostok. (I’m not sure what happens to Mongolia in this scenario, but I assume it’s nothing good.) And at this point, Khramchikhin argues that Russia might as well capitulate on the spot.

A couple of thoughts:
1. This scenario is fascinating in that it very nearly mirror-images US concerns about Chinese expansion into the Pacific. It doesn’t include any nonsense about reputation and resolve (“If we allow the Chinese to seize Taiwan, then the Japanese and Indians will be forced to accommodate themselves to the reality of Chinese hegemony etc. etc.”) but otherwise it’s quite similar in tone. I guess that everybody has to come up with a reason why they should get paid.

2. In mild, brief defense of US analysts on the subject, I do think that a move to the Pacific is more likely than the conquest and annexation of Kazahkstan.  I’m pretty sure that the PRC does actually kind of want Taiwan, and I’m not certain at all that it would want Kazahkstan even if someone were selling at bargain basement prices.  I would also think that as a future grand strategy the Athenian sea-focused empire makes more sense in the modern context than the Spartan land-focused; nationalism and the expanding material and intellectual tools available to insurgency have made land based empire prohibitively expensive, which the Soviet Union discovered to its dismay.

Needs More Cult of Personality…

[ 6 ] October 18, 2010 |

I don’t care for this Chinese tendency to change leadership every few years. Makes it so hard to get a good, personality-driven hate on; just when you can finally remember who Hu Jintao is, they bring in some new guy. And all of these guys are pretty much boring career technocrats; don’t the Chinese understand how difficult it is for the Weekly Standard to fear monger against leaders with no noticeable weird personality characteristics? In my day, authoritarian countries had leaders that stayed in office until they died or were purged. That’s the way it was, and we liked it!

Today, China announced that Xi Jinping has been named the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, an important sign that he’s successfully navigated this gauntlet and is destined to take over in Beijing once Hu Jintao retires in 2012. He’ll have two years to learn the ropes as a civilian overseer of the world’s second most powerful military, essential training for any Chinese leader.

On a slightly more serious note, it is impressive that the CCP has managed to develop a system of orderly, regular transition in an authoritarian context. Such arrangements are not unheard of, but they are relatively rare.

On Mass Murder…

[ 19 ] September 17, 2010 |

The only modification that I’d make to this argument is that the responsibility does not wholly lie with Mao Zedong.  The Great Leap Forward had the early support of a depressing number of CCP elites who  really should have known better (Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi).  To be fair, both Deng and Liu used the failure of the Great Leap Forward to push economic policy towards decollectivization, but when the policy was conceived they were largely on board.  Much later Deng tried to pin responsibility for the Great Leap Forward entirely on Mao, exculpating the rest of the CCP leadership.  However, while the Cultural Revolution can be profitably interpreted as the outgrowth of intra-CCP conflict, the failure of the Great Leap Forward had many fathers.

Which Direction in China?

[ 0 ] September 8, 2010 |

I wonder what Yasheng Huang would think of this argument…

During its decades of rapid growth, China thrived by allowing once-suppressed private entrepreneurs to prosper, often at the expense of the old, inefficient state sector of the economy.

Now, whether in the coal-rich regions of Shanxi Province, the steel mills of the northern industrial heartland, or the airlines flying overhead, it is often China’s state-run companies that are on the march.

As the Chinese government has grown richer — and more worried about sustaining its high-octane growth — it has pumped public money into companies that it expects to upgrade the industrial base and employ more people. The beneficiaries are state-owned interests that many analysts had assumed would gradually wither away in the face of private-sector competition.

New data from the World Bank show that the proportion of industrial production by companies controlled by the Chinese state edged up last year, checking a slow but seemingly inevitable eclipse. Moreover, investment by state-controlled companies skyrocketed, driven by hundreds of billions of dollars of government spending and state bank lending to combat the global financial crisis.

Huang argued that the Chinese economy moved heavily towards the private (mostly rural) sector in the 1980s, only to retrench in favor of the state owned public sector and foreign direct investment in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. This retrenchment produced high levels of inequality and reduced innovation and productivity growth. Under the leadership of Hu Jintao, Huang argues that the pendulum has swung back in the other direction, in favor of private enterprise. I’m curious whether the Great Recession has halted that process, and reaffirmed the move back towards state intervention. It’s certainly a plausible interpretation of events, although there isn’t as of yet a lot of data on precisely what’s happening. If Huang is correct about the productivity imbalance between the Chinese public and private sectors (he argues that the latter is much more productive), and if the Great Recession has shifted the direction of Chinese economic policy, then the long term consequences could be severe in terms of inequality (more) and productivity (less).

Further DF-21 Thoughts

[ 12 ] August 18, 2010 |

Geoff Forden wrote a fantastic post on the technical challenges that the Chinese DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile system faces, and poses. Make sure to read the comments as well.

Chinese ASBMs

[ 21 ] August 8, 2010 |

I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails asking for reaction to this story. For my own previous writings, see here. Information Dissemination has done a lot of work on this topic; see especially here, here, and here. For a good NWCR article on the subject by Andrew Erickson and David Yang, see here.

As for my thoughts:

First, yes, if the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) can be made to work it poses a very serious threat to USN carriers. The USN is very concerned about this, which is one reason it’s working so hard on ship-borne anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology.   The USN is also working on other countermeasures, including strikes on DF-21 launch sites at the onset of war (potentially delivered from SSGNs), and electronic warfare. The latter is particularly important. A carrier-killing ASBM requires terminal guidance; it must revise its flight path after re-entering the atmosphere. From launch to strike, the flight of an ASBM can take fifteen or so minutes, at which time the carrier in question will have moved eight miles. The missile thus needs to be adjusted remotely (presumably from China) or needs to have the capacity to identify the carrier on its own. Both of these processes are subject to electronic disruption. At this point, we really haven’t the faintest idea what would happen if the Chinese launched a salvo of DF-21s (once they become available in sufficient numbers) at a US carrier battle group. Depending on reliability, some percentage would invariably go astray on their own. Some other percentage (and no one is quite sure how big) would be shot down by US escorts. EW would cause some to plunge harmlessly into the ocean. And finally, some might hit a carrier.

Second, it’s important to remember that Chinese carrier-killing capabilities are a system of systems, rather than any one particular weapon. In addition to ASBMs, the Chinese maintain a large submarine fleet, as well as air and surface launched cruise missile capabilities. In sufficient numbers, all of these can threaten to kill a carrier. In a shooting war the Chinese could use all of these systems, or graduate their use depending on political and military developments. Some of these are more easily countered than others, just as some pose greater costs to the Chinese than others. For example, surface-to-surface cruise missiles are great, but any ship launching one at a US carrier battle group will likely suffer destruction in short order. Similarly, both aircraft and submarines would face a high rate of attrition while making attacks on US carrier groups. ASBMs have obvious advantages over these other systems.

Third, just because the Chinese have ASBMs doesn’t mean that they’ll use them, even in a shooting war. The DF-21 will suffer from the same problem as the variety of global strike weapons that the Pentagon has considered over the years. It’s awesome to be able to kill a US carrier at range, but no one has any idea what will happen when the Chinese first let loose with a few salvos of DF-21s. Any MRBM launched could carry a nuclear warhead, targeted either at a carrier or some other target. The Chinese will have to count on very cool heads in Washington for the fifteen minutes between launch and impact. Launching at a US carrier represents an enormous risk, because it could start a decision-process that would bring full nuclear retaliation from the United States. That would be bad for the Chinese. That the Chinese probably lack secure second strike capability against the US makes things less stable, because the Americans might think that the Chinese were engaging in “use it or lose it” thinking, and so forth. It’s a bad scene, and the prospect of MRBM flying across the Pacific make it even twitchier. Best case scenario, you’d hope for some kind of hotline between Beijing and Washington that would specify what kinds of warheads were flying where, but even that poses problems.

Fourth, the point of developing this “system of systems” is not to use it. Rather, it’s to deter the US from going to war, and failing that to deter the USN from advance deploying its carrier battlegroups in times of war. Sinking a carrier could kill 6000 Americans in a few minutes, the prospect of which might be enough to make an American President reconsider intervention in a cross-Straits war. In case of intervention, the ASBMs and the other assorted systems would make the USN very leery about sailing its primary assets into danger. Aircraft carriers don’t simply represent national power, they ARE national power, and when you lose two or three you lose a large percentage of your ability to project power anywhere. Consequently, admirals tend to be very careful about the circumstances under which they risk their prize possessions. Prying the German and British capital ships out of their respective ports in World War I was like pulling teeth on a rabid walrus; the commanders were extremely reluctant to dispatch their fleets in any but the most advantageous circumstances.  The same is likely to be the case with US admirals in case of war with China.

Does this mean that the supercarrier is obsolete? While it depends on what you mean by the term, the answer is probably no. That the Chinese are willing to spend vast amounts of time and money figuring out how to kill US carriers indicates that they take CV capabilities seriously. Moreover, the number of countries with both the interest and technical capability to develop such a “system of systems” is probably limited to two for the foreseeable future, and there’s little indication that the Russians are working in such a direction. That said, if you’re looking for platforms capable of delivering ordnance in a cross-straits war and living to tell about it, the SSGN is probably a better bet. If you’re looking for a platform capable of the various “influence” missions that the USN performs, from disaster relief to low-intensity expeditionary warfare, the big flat deck amphibs can do a pretty good job.

Finally, the ASBM is essentially a sea denial/anti-access weapon, not a sea control weapon. The USN already has multiple ways of killing any PLAN ship it sees fit to sink. ASBMs do not magically grant the Chinese world dominance, or prevent the USN, the JMSDF, or any other navy from carrying out its various peacetime tasks. The only context in which the ASBMs would appear to have use is a war between the US and China over control of Taiwan. It’s difficult to imagine anything else of sufficient value the the Americans and Chinese might both consider worth fighting for. I am not, thus, convinced that the development of a DF-21 ASBM variant represents an event of world-historic import. Important for a particular facet of the US-China military relationship, yes. Harbinger of some fundamental shift in world military, political, and economic power, not so much.

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Sunday Book Review: Capitalism With Chinese Characteristics

[ 0 ] June 27, 2010 |

This is the fourth installment of an eight part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  2. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  3. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich
  4. Huang Yasheng, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

Yasheng Huang’s Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics amounts to a complete rethinking of the story of China’s post-Mao economic growth. Huang argues that the story of China’s post-Mao economic expansion told most often in the West (state guided investment, state support for FDI, carefully managed deregulation) is fundamentally wrong. According to Huang, the major shift to economic liberalization came in the early 1980s, in the immediate wake of Deng’s consolidation of power. The most important space for the development of entrepreneurial capitalism was rural China. Relaxation of regulations on individual businesses, combined with a surprisingly sophisticated and robust system of finance, allowed rural entrepreneurship to flourish. In turn, this helped produce very high rates of rural economic growth, which inevitably affected urban areas. Urban areas were strictly secondary to the boom, however. Huang presents a reasonably compelling degree of evidence to argue that Chinese GDP growth in the 1980s stemmed from rural productivity, and moreover that this productivity came from much more than a simple increase in agricultural yields.

Huang argues that earlier scholars have missed out on a significant portion of this explosion of rural entrepreneurship because they have misunderstood the private nature of most TVEs (town and village enterprises), and because some legal restrictions were misinterpreted. Huang argues that TVEs, for example, were overwhelmingly owned by private parties rather than the public sector in the 1980s. TVE refers to a location for a firm, rather than to its ownership status. Similarly, Huang argues that some legal restrictions on the size of firms were either never enforced or have been improperly understood by Westerners. For example, rural firms in the 1980s regularly exceeded seven employees without any state retribution. Key to the success of rural firms was the lifting of regulation, the availability of finance, and a state policy of “directional liberalism.” Huang uses directional liberalism to describe the idea of an economy that lacks many key features of liberal capitalism, but is nevertheless moving in that direction with sufficient speed to reassure investors that they’ll be able to keep their gains. Although the PRC in the early 1980s didn’t resemble a Friedman-esque capitalist wonderland (and lacked rule of law and democratic institutions to protect private property), entrepreneurs were sufficiently convinced by the shift in rhetoric between Mao and Deng that the future would be more, rather than less, economically open. This all changed after Tiananmen.

The second crucial part of Huang’s story is that the 1990s are as misunderstood as the 1980s. Rather than come from rural, domestic entrepreneurship, economic growth in the 1990s came from state investment in urban industry and heavy introduction of FDI (foreign direct investment). China’s economy was restructured to absorb these massive doses of FDI, which primarily benefited urban areas. Rural areas were heavily taxed by the state to support urban investment, and some regulations were re-instated. Without a central commitment to directional liberalism, the local state itself became predatory on rural enterprise. This change came about through the conjunction of ideological conflict and factional politics. Tiananmen resulted in the ouster of Zhao Ziyang, the most reliably pro-reform member of the inner circle of the CCP. Other members of Zhao’s faction were discredited. The older, more rural oriented elite of the CCP had been dying off in any case, and post-Tiananmen were replaced in large part by officials from Shanghai. Shanghai had remained relatively quiet during the Beijing disturbances, which impressed a CCP inner circle shaken by the demonstrations. Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji would become the primary elite drivers of PRC economic policy, and steered the PRC in an urban-oriented direction. The big, glittering corporations that emerged during this period legally resided, for the most part, in Hong Kong, where they could rely on both finance and legal protection.

This had two primary effects. In rural areas, growth stagnated, private industry withered, and the social safety net (frayed during the 1980s) in many areas collapsed. Urban areas, particularly Shanghai, saw spectacular growth of a sort. Unfortunately, this growth was not evenly shared, and did not benefit small Chinese entrepreneurs. Shanghai became a “world class city,” but with a hollow core. Huang argues that Shanghai is a Potemkin city; it has been built on a combination of FDI and money looted from rural China. Meanwhile, China’s gini coefficient (measure of inequality) skyrocketed, rural health and literacy declined, and local officials declared open season on rural entrepreneurs. Western economists and analysts missed out on this because of the apparent glittering reality of Shanghai (which, Huang notes, severely underperforms other urban centers on many key metrics), and because of the lack of good statistical evidence on the situation in rural China.

Huang argues that the situation changed again after Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin at the top of the CCP. Without the “Shanghai clique” in power, state investment was directed in a more fair and efficient manner. The state again turned “directionally liberal”, supporting some degree of rural and urban entrepreneurship. Some key indicators on Chinese rural productivity have begun to turn around, although the loss of dip in rural health and literacy will have long term effects. Urban areas also remain productive, although Shanghai lags in many indicators of private industry and innovation. Huang is not given to extreme pessimism about the future of the Chinese economy, although he does believe that India is more likely than China to maintain high growth. India has a robust private sector that does not depend on FDI, and has better developed legal institutions, according to Huang.

This story is not radically different than that presented by Minxin Pei (whom Huang cites), although there are a couple of key distinctions. First, Huang rejects the idea that China adopted a “gradualist” approach to economic change.  The reforms of the early 1980s represented a radical and consequential shift in CCP economic policy, a shift that was altered (although not precisely reversed) following Tiananmen.  Second, Huang is less certain that the PRC will inevitably become more predatory on the Chinese economy, and that economic stagnation will thus invariably result.  Huang takes “directional liberalism” seriously, and it’s possible for the CCP to pursue liberal economic reforms, at least for a period.  Moreover, the lower levels of the party and state take cues (if not necessarily orders) from central authority, meaning that predation will be limited given a commitment to economic liberalism in Beijing.

Huang’s argument allows for indefinite continued high growth in China, although this growth is dependent on the quality of central leadership.  I wonder, however, whether the Jiang period exposed severe, long term disjunction between the political and economic system.  If such an interregnum happened once, it could happen again; Chinese entrepreneurs would be well advised to take care, even if directional liberalism currently prevails.  Moreover, increasing political openness doesn’t necessarily require a continued commitment to directional economic liberalism.

Huang hints at, but doesn’t fully develop, an argument that center-left economists have been insufficiently wary of the traditional story of state-led Chinese capitalist development.  There may be some truth to this, although I suspect that right wing economists have been too accepting of the idea that FDI was the primary driver in Chinese economic growth.  Huang does demonstrate sufficiently that the model of the early 1980s produced less inequality, more economic growth, and altogether greater human welfare than the model adopted in the 1990s.

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics is valuable both for China specialists and for those more generally interested in economic development.  The writing isn’t always crisp, but he presents a truckload of compelling data in support of his thesis.  He’s also forthright about the holes in his evidence, which is appropriate given the role that absence of evidence plays in his account.

More on Unruly Clients

[ 3 ] June 8, 2010 |

North Korea probably didn’t need this:

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that a North Korean border guard shot dead three Chinese nationals and wounded one last week in an incident in northeast China, prompting the Chinese government to file a formal complaint.

The shootings took place last Friday at the China-North Korea border by the Chinese city of Dandong, in Liaoning Province, said Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, at a regularly scheduled news conference in Beijing. The four shot Chinese were residents of Dandong and were believed by the guard to be engaged in illegal trade across the border, Mr. Qin added, according to a report by the Chinese-language edition of Global Times, an official newspaper…

It was unclear how the shooting incident would affect relations between North Korea and China, which is North Korea’s closest ally in the region. China has been the host of the six-party talks, a series of negotiations among the United States, North Korea, Russia and several Asian nations aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear program. Last month, Kim Jong-il, the reclusive North Korean leader, made his first visit to China in four years, crossing the border by train and stopping first in the port city of Dalian, then continuing on to Beijing.

The actions of North Korean leaders have been made more opaque and unpredictable in recent months by what analysts believe is Mr. Kim’s effort to engineer a transfer of power to his third son, Kim Jong-un, 27.

Even if they were smugglers, shooting Chinese nationals as they cross the border is probably not a good way to endear oneself to Beijing. North Korea’s survival depends on Beijing’s tolerance…

Client States

[ 23 ] June 4, 2010 |

Back in the day, a fair amount of the policy oriented literature on international security focused on the question of relationships between patron and client states.  The reasons for this were obvious; the Soviet Union and the United States were in competition for the allegiancefriendship of a variety of states in the first, second, and third worlds, and both scholars and policymakers wanted a grasp on the dynamics of the competition. One school of thought, identified most closely with Hans Morgenthau and then later with the “offensive realists,” argued that client states wield inordinate influence over their would be patrons. Through threats to defect, clients can effectively extort economic, military, and political concessions from their superpower allies. If the one superpower doesn’t come through, then the other will, and the shift will have significance for the global balance of power. Consequently, superpower have to be very attentive to the needs and demands of their clients in order to prevent embarrassing and unpleasant power shifts which might then themselves encourage other clients to gravitate towards the other superpower.

An alternative way of looking at the problem came from “defensive realists” who argued that the balance of power was far more robust than the offensive realists allowed. States have a variety of reasons for selecting their patrons, and few are actually in a position to undertake strategic switches. For one, ideology and local interest aren’t incidental to selection of patron. As Stephen Walt argued in Origins of Alliances, most US allies preferred the US because they preferred the US, rather than because the US had offered a better deal than the Russians. Moreover, switching between alliance systems meant incurring substantial economic and military costs. A patron-client relationship created powerful interests in favor of the status quo within the client state; generals and admirals prefer not to have switch between Western and Soviet military equipment every five years, and the economic ties created an mercantile elite associated with a particular constellation of trade.  Consequently, superpowers should be more willing to “call the bluff” of a client state when it threatens to defect.

Whatever the logical merits of the second position, policymakers on both sides of the Cold War seem to have operated on the assumptions of the first. The US and the Soviet Union poured money and weapons into a variety of clients in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America. The Soviet Union undertook politically and economically costly invasions of several clients in danger of defection (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan) in order to dissuade other potential defectors. The United States helped dozens of “friendly” regimes protect themselves from their own people. In spite of the fact that the actual defections (Vietnam, Iran, China, Egypt, Albania) didn’t seem to lead to catastrophic alterations in the global balance of power, Moscow and Washington acted as if future defections would.

This kind of behavior should have subsided with the Cold War.  As the threat of defection waned, the only remaining superpower should have been much less willing to make concessions to its clients.  To some extent, this appears to have been the case.  The US undoubtedly became less willing to protect friendly military regimes in Latin America as the threat of communism declined.  The US also became more assertive in its economic relations with Japan, China, and Europe.  In Africa, several states found themselves almost completely cut off from both US and Soviet support, because no one really cared anymore about the balance of power in region wherever.

Still, in a few key cases client states still seem to wield inordinate influence over their patrons, or at least to resist their patron’s political will. US issues with Israel are familiar to all; in spite of the economic and military dependence of Israel on the US (a dependence which can be overstated, but that nonetheless exists), it’s remarkably difficult for the US to make Israel do what it wants Israel to do. Chinese relations with North Korea should be understood in the same terms. Rather than thinking of North Korea as an asset to China, or as a key cog in China’s grand plan to dominate the Pacific, I think it’s better to understand the China-North Korea axis as a troubled patron-client relationship in which the patron has only limited influence over the behavior of the client. China’s economic relationships with the United States, South Korea, and Japan are all more important than the relationship with North Korea, and North Korea is of limited military utility to the Chinese in any context other than a war on the peninsula. Moreover, North Korea is almost 100% dependent on China for energy and other key sectors. While it’s possible that the North Koreans ran the plan to sink Cheonan by Beijing, I find it extremely unlikely; rather, I suspect that Beijing was deeply displeased by the North Korean move, but has been left without good options for disciplining its client.

Why can’t patrons always discipline clients, even after the Cold War? Let me suggest two reasons. The first is that, just as the patron-client relationship creates interests in the client, it creates interests in the patron. Outside of the state these interests can take the form of ethnic diaspora communities or groups that benefit economically from the relationship. Inside the state these interests take form through the multitude of contacts between a client and its patron. Diplomatic, intelligence, and military linkages between a patron and a client create communities inside the state with vested interests in the perpetuation of the alliance. Decisions on alliance commitment affect funding and organizational focus, which affects careers, which creates stakeholders. These stakeholders, often in combination with the interest groups outside the state, push back when the alliance is at risk. During the Cold War this pushback was particularly effective in both the US and the USSR (although in the USSR the internal state groups were much more important than the external groups) because the breakup of an alliance could be rhetorically construed as defeat, decay, and decline. Thus, even after a relationship has ceased to be of strategic use to a patron, some domestic interests will favor the status quo.

The second reason that patrons can’t discipline clients is that, on many issues, clients simply care much more than patrons. The US kind of sometimes cares about settlements, but the important actors in Israel really care about settlements, and the latter are willing to risk more than the former in order to pursue their policy ends. The clients bet on the likelihood that the patron will risk the entire relationship in order to get its way on the smaller issue, and often the clients win. Clients can take advantage of the fact that they care mostly about issues of local importance, while patrons have much larger strategic interests. Clients leverage their strategic value (and their constituencies within the patron state) in order to win patron concessions on the issues they care about the most. As their strategic value to patrons diminishes (with the end of the Cold War, for example) the ability to do this decreases, but doesn’t necessarily disappear. In the North Korea-China case, Pyongyang isn’t even leveraging positive expected utility (its positive strategic value to China); rather, it’s leveraging the negative expected utility to China of its own collapse.

Thoughts along these lines formed the context of my recent diavlog with Dan Drezner (yes, EVERYONE must diavlog Dan Drezner eventually)…

…which concentrated on the client state issue as it applied to Israel and North Korea. Matt Duss also wrote a bit about the topic, especially on the context of Anthony Cordesman’s comments about the strategic value of the Israel to the United States.

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