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Our fondness for China’s government is enabling North Korea's bad behavior

Americans wondering why North Korea has gotten away with building A-bombs and ballistic missiles—like the one it successfully tested Tuesday—need only consider Jeff Immelt.  The day before the missile launch, the CEO of General Electric and friend of President Obama endorsed China’s economic model and said “state-run communism may not be your cup of tea, but their government works.”

What do the unpatriotic sentiments of GE’s boss have to do with U.S. policy toward North Korea? Both are based on the faulty but soothing assumption held by the elite establishment in American government and big business: that China is our partner.

Two successive administrations—Bush and Obama—have based U.S. policy on North Korea on supposed Chinese cooperation. The theory is that Beijing doesn’t want North Korea armed with effective nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles any more than Washington or its allies, and will thus be of help.

In 2003, Washington kicked off six-way talks hoping to cut a deal that would end North Korea’s nuclear program.  Then-president Bush optimistically noted that Beijing was joining the talks, saying “Now we’ll have other parties who’ve got a vested interest in peace on the [Korean] Peninsula.”

Later that year, Bush welcomed China’s premier to the White House and declared that the U.S. and China were “partners in diplomacy.”

Unfortunately for us, what Beijing wanted above all else—and still wants—is a stable North Korea. China does not want to deal with either a humanitarian disaster or, worse still, another democracy on its doorstep. Furthermore, the Chinese government is indifferent to North Korean repression and probably admires Pyongyang’s belligerence toward Washington. It makes China look tame by comparison, so people like Jeff Immelt can sing its praises.  As a result, and contrary to its promises, China won’t seriously pressure North Korea.

The success of the Bush approach was at least easy to measure. Over twenty seismic stations around the world and one radionuclide test of material drifting from the Pacific over Canada confirmed that North Korea became a nuclear weapons power on October 9, 2006.

But the happy talk about partnership continued. A leaked classified State Department cable shows that in 2007, Bush’s point man on China gushed in a meeting in Beijing “that U.S.-China cooperation in the Six-Party Talks is the best example of our bilateral cooperation on international issues…” His Chinese counterpart wholeheartedly “agreed that bilateral cooperation on this issue has been very good.”

Upon taking office as Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton continued the self-deception. On her inaugural trip to China, Hillary said sticky issues like human rights “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.”  She forecast Chinese partnership on each.

A senior Obama Pentagon official, Michele Flournoy, went further still last year. Speaking from the part of government that Americans might rightly expect to be most skeptical of China, she said, “The U.S. does not seek to contain China; we do not view China as an adversary.”   

These sanguine views overlook the fact that Beijing has only once put serious pressure on its client state, North Korea—and only for a very brief time. In 2006, after Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, China halted fuel shipments to remind North Korea who was boss. The country gets ninety percent of its oil from China, and pays via a friendly barter agreement whenever it can.

The move certainly got North Korea’s attention, but was short-lived and has not been repeated. China’s apologists and partnership aficionados point to the fact that Beijing allowed the UN to pass tough sanctions resolutions on North Korea. But these are tough only on paper.  In the real world, China allows them to be circumvented.

The soothing, convenient view that China is our partner will no doubt continue to be held by our big business and government elite. GE CEO Immelt and his equals in countless boardrooms have been major boosters of China long before his revealing statement this week. Immelt recently threw $2 billion of his shareholders’ money at projects there, including for “research and development centers” one can only imagine will avail China of more U.S. technology like the kind it steals so proficiently.  

Noticeably absent from the financial reports of GE and companies like it is any solid proof of profitability from doing business in the world’s biggest kleptocracy.  But China remains the ‘it girl’ for our government and business betters. Taxpayers and shareholders get the raw end of this deal, but then who ever cared about that.

Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation.  He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration and a policy advisor on the Giuliani and Gingrich presidential campaigns. He is author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books 2013).