NEW YORK – As we approach the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump — two volatile leaders drawn inexorably to the flame of international publicity without a clear idea of how the talks will come out — there is a larger agenda at play that is far less visible to the public.
While North Korea and the U.S. play a simple game of checkers, with characteristic stops and starts, the Chinese have an entirely different board game open in front of them — the ancient game of go.
Go provides many more possible moves than even chess, entails a longer-term strategic outlook, and operates in a manner that makes understanding the strategy of an opponent far more difficult. The U.S. needs to think more coherently about Chinese strategy if it is to retain a sufficient level of influence in the most vital parts of East Asia.
What is China up to? And how should American leaders react to the strategic challenge, even as they try to deal with the tactical threat of North Korea?
The real strategic centerpiece in East Asia is not the Korean Peninsula, although it is quite important. The true crowning jewel is the vast South China Sea, a body of water not much larger than the Caribbean, and which boasts millions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas beneath its placid waters.
Even more important, a third of all global shipping passes through its international waterways. It is arguably the most strategically valuable large body of water in the world — and China claims it almost entirely as territorial waters.
This is a breathtaking claim. It would be as though the U.S. simply claimed the entire Gulf of Mexico as a sovereign sea — meaning ownership of everything from the airspace over the water to the hydrocarbons miles below the surface.
China bases this claim on historical operations in the region, and lays out a detailed case for its control. But these claims have been disputed by every nation around the periphery of the sea, adjudicated by an international tribunal, and rejected.
Refusing to take this legal setback, China is doing all it can to pragmatically buttress its claims. It operates warships and civilian vessels as though it is the sole proprietor of the waters; challenges all foreign-flagged ships operating there; files international protests against U.S. and allied military ships operating throughout the region; builds and militarizes large, ecologically damaging artificial islands. Beijing is, in essence, building a series of unsinkable aircraft carriers throughout the nearly 3.9 million square km of the South China Sea.
China is playing a very long game indeed. While the Pentagon is excited about developing a new five-year plan, the Chinese are thinking about how the region comes out in 200 years. They have three crucial strategic objectives in the region, which they will continue to hammer home.
First, they want undisputed control over the South China Sea, principally for the hydrocarbons. Second, they want to consolidate Chinese influence around its periphery, especially full incorporation of Taiwan (they hope without a fight, but if necessary, they will eventually take the island militarily). They will also seek a dominant partner in the Philippines and/or Vietnam. Third, they want a divided Korean Peninsula so they can maintain dominant influence in the north and check the U.S. influence in the south.
China will use the North Korea-U.S. summit to further these ambitions. For Beijing, the best outcome would be an agreed framework that puts off any actual relinquishment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons into the distant future. This will ensure the long-term survival of the Kim regime and the continuation of a divided peninsula.
It will also ensure the need for China to be back at the table (presumably with South Korea in four-party talks) as quickly as possible. The Chinese will also use their influence with North Korea to help Trump claim some kind of a victory, thus proving that all roads to Pyongyang lead through Beijing. President Xi Jinping has played his hand of cards well.
The U.S. has some difficult choices ahead. In order to move forward diplomatically, the White House will have to give some ground on the idea of immediate and complete denuclearization. Kim will not agree to give up his weapons overnight, and rather than crater the summit, Trump would be well-advised to settle for half a loaf now, with at least lip service to more in the future. But the price of this face-saving scenario will be concessions to China.
Above all, Trump must avoid giving ground (or in this case, giving up water) in the South China Sea to get a low-value deal out of North Korea. Doing so, while tempting in the short term, would give China an immense and far-reaching advantage in the region.
Instead, the U.S. needs to firmly oppose Chinese demands in the South China Sea; continue to send ships and aircraft on so-called freedom of navigation patrols; work with close allies (especially Japan, Australia and increasingly India); and seek a freeze on not just Kim’s nuclear weapons but also ballistic missile programs. This is a big agenda, but achievable.
Allowing China to use North Korea as a wedge to advance its claims in the South China Sea is a smart, long-term move in the game of go. Let’s hope the U.S. doesn’t keep playing checkers.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.