China's Free Rider Syndrome

12/01/2010 01:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There may be no method to North Korea's madness, but the world's response to its episodic outrages has settled into a familiar pattern. It's a dangerous pattern, and one likely to recur as long as China keeps enabling Pyongyang's belligerent behavior.

First comes an utterly unprovoked attack on South Korea. Seoul reacts angrily and threatens unspecified consequences. Washington firmly backs its ally, and solicits global censure of North Korean aggression. The Chinese, however, decline to assign blame and instead urge resumption of direct talks with Pyongyang. South Korea eventually backs away from confrontation, on the perfectly rational premise that living with the North's occasional spasms of violence is preferable to an all-out war that would devastate both countries.

The latest crisis began last week when the North shelled a South Korean island. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called the attack, which killed two civilians and wounded 16, a "crime against humanity" and warned that Seoul would not tolerate a direct attack on its soil. The United States dispatched an aircraft carrier, the George Washington, while China called, irrelevantly, for a resumption of the long defunct six-party talks aimed at dismantling the North's nuclear weapons program. And yesterday, Seoul moved to dampen war fever by canceling live-fire artillery drills on the stricken island.

Essentially the same cycle played out last spring, when North Korea sunk a South Korean patrol boat, the Cheonan, killing all 46 sailors aboard. Pyongyang paid no price for this act of war, either.

Pyongyang's behavior may look like a classic case of winning through intimidation, except that it's not clear what it gains from such brutal tactics. The North is as isolated and poverty-stricken as ever, and, with dictator Kim Jong il preparing to hand off power to his son, no relief is in sight for its thoroughly regimented society.

One explanation is that the regime from time to time must manufacture external threats to justify the extreme sacrifices it demands of its people. Another is that its assaults are part of an elaborate shake-down racket meant to get the world's attention -- along with bribes for good behavior. Except that it seems to be having the opposite effect. Last week's shelling, along with the Cheonan incident, have driven the final nail in the coffin of the South's "sunshine policy" of economic and humanitarian aid to the North. Nor is Washington eager to reward Pyongyang's bellicose conduct by rushing back into the six-party talks.

This latest outrage throws a spotlight on China's role as North Korea's enabler. Not only does Beijing shield Pyongyang from the consequences of its disruptive behavior, it also helps to keep the regime afloat by supplying fuel and other economic assistance. Perhaps it's too facile to assume -- as Republicans like John McCain and Lindsay Graham do -- that China can bring the mercurial Kim regime to heal just by threatening to shut down oil shipments or cross-border trade. But is it really too much to ask of China that it at least not cover up the North's crimes and collude in its ludicrous lies?

Beijing wants very badly to be accorded the respect that its growing wealth and power implies. It wants a seat at the table where global decisions are made. Yet on issue after issue, China is proving to be a free rider. Beijing takes maximum advantage of an open world economy while contributing little to strengthening the system that has made it rich. Instead, it pursues a mercantilist policy that creates enormous imbalances in world trade and investment flows, while keeping its currency artificially high to make discourage imports from the U.S. and elsewhere. Instead of trying to tamp down tensions on the Korea peninsula, it feeds them by shielding its delinquent ward in Pyongyang from accountability. Instead of throwing its weight behind international efforts to restrain rogue regimes from Khartoum to Tehran, it seeks commercial advantage while hiding behind the supposedly sacrosanct principle of non-interference in other nation's internal affairs.

China's amoral and selfish behavior increasingly engenders doubt and fear, not respect. Its failure to accept the responsibilities that accompany its growing power undermines global cooperation and stability. It's time for the Obama administration to move China's free-riding to the center of its engagement with Beijing.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.