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Why it’s time for US, China to think outside the box on North Korea

Back in June when the Shangri-La Dialogue was in full swing in Singapore, no issue dominated the world’s top security forum like the territorial dispute over the South China Sea, as frenetic sessions drew dozens of defence ministers from the world’s most powerful militaries along with hundreds of officials, academics and corporate executives.

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Completely overshadowed was a special session devoted to “Containing the North Korean Threat”, attended by the world’s best minds on the long-standing, vexing issue – leading academics, foreign affairs officials and military specialists from China, Japan, South Korea, Britain, and the United States.

Quite rightly too, as the takeaway from the 90 minute discussion was neither surprising nor inspiring.

While the panellists all agreed that North Korea’s threats were real, they disagreed on the best ways to move forward, and were far from offering effective and viable solutions to contain the threats.

The real danger that the international community is at its wit’s end about how to deal with the world’s most unpredictable regime showed itself once again little more than a week ago when North Korea conducted its biggest nuclear test – its fifth so far – indicating it was making progress in its efforts to build a functional nuclear warhead.

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As expected, the blast has drawn worldwide condemnation with the US and South Korea pushing for new sanctions and Washington on Tuesday sending nuclear-capable supersonic bombers streaking over a South Korean air base, less than 80km from the North Korean border.

As usual, there was finger pointing aplenty. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter singled out China as bearing the responsibility for North Korea’s nuclear tests, while Beijing hit back saying Carter was being “unnecessarily modest” for thrusting the blame solely on China.

Such acrimonious accusations between the world’s two greatest powers lie at the root of the failure to contain nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula. It is time for Washington and Beijing to ditch their conventional approach and think out of the box.

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This is easier said than done. Just as Beijing and Washington need to be seen to be working more closely to contain North Korea, the simmering open rivalry over the South China Sea and Beijing’s strong displeasure over the US decision to deploy the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea have made such cooperation less likely.

Indeed, there have been suggestions that North Korea took advantage of the rift between Beijing and Washington to conduct the latest test, not least because it also saw the deployment of THAAD as another provocation to speed up its nuclear development.

Conventional wisdom has it that Beijing has no choice but to continue propping up the North Korean regime because the alternative is even worse – the collapsed economy would send millions of refugees into China and bring a unified Korea under American military protection. If that happened, US soldiers might be stationed on the Chinese border.

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Conventional wisdom also has it that the US and its allies have refused to engage North Korea partly on the understanding that the regime is using its nuclear programme as a bargaining chip to extract economic and diplomatic benefits, among other things. But this now seems to be a dangerous misreading of North Korea’s intentions, as the latest test clearly shows it is aiming to become a nuclear state and intends to play its game of brinkmanship to the full.

But the stakes are rising. For China, the test – which was conducted less than 80km from its border and sent tremors through homes in the northeastern region – should serve a sombre reminder of not only the dangerous prospect of having a trigger happy nuclear neighbour, but also the equally unpleasant possibility that North Korean progress on a functional nuclear warhead could trigger a nuclear arms race in countries like Japan and South Korea.

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For Washington, it has been proved time and again that its current approach of refusing to talk to North Korea directly and focusing on sanctions clearly doesn’t work without full support from China.

But for the two countries to work on a more concerted approach would require greater compromises and even greater political wisdom – tackling the North Korean issue in the greater geopolitical context would involve realigning the strategic interests of both countries in the region.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper