By Meredith McGroarty
While China and North Korea are both looking to increase their global power and influence, it is the smaller country’s methods that may pose the larger threat, according to Wonjae Hwang, professor of political science at UT.
Hwang specializes in Asian power transfer systems. He examines how countries gain, retain, and lose global power in two distinct ways: by exerting either “hard” (economic, military, and physical) or “soft” (cultural and political) power.
Currently, China’s overall power is increasing, while that of the United States is declining. Although many people have predicted that China will want to continue this upward trend through military strength and aggressive political measures, this is not necessarily the case, Hwang says.
“Actual power change theory is not only about countries’ powers; it also is connected to their satisfaction with the status quo,” Hwang says. “For example, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the power of the United Kingdom declined and that of the United States rose. But there was no war between the countries during this period because the two countries shared similar interests. The United States did not challenge the United Kingdom’s interests, and the United Kingdom was satisfied with the status quo.”
The same dynamic appears to be at work between the United States and China. For now, both countries are relatively happy with the status quo and are pursuing interests that are not necessarily contradictory. China and the United States depend heavily on each other for trade, and the two countries have invested large amounts of money in each other’s private enterprises.
“China’s power in the international sphere is increasing, it has nuclear weapons, and it is gaining support from other countries,” Hwang says. “So there’s no real reason for the country to go to war.”
North Korea, however, is a different matter. In April, in breach of an agreement it had made previously with the United States, North Korea performed a failed rocket launch considered to be a test of long-range missile technology. Less than two weeks later, a North Korean official claimed the country had powerful weapons that could defeat the United States with a “single blow.” Additional nuclear tests are expected.
While such rhetoric should be viewed with some skepticism, it clearly demonstrates that North Korea does not wish to replicate China’s tactic of gaining power through trade and diplomacy. The country’s current political isolation, coupled with massive levels of starvation, indicates that North Korea is not doing well under the current status quo, something the new leader hopes to change.
“North Korea has many domestic issues, such as lack of money and support. China is one of its only sources of support,” Hwang says. “The best way to maintain one’s regional power position is to keep one’s nuclear weapons.”
Although North Korea does not currently have the capability of attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon, that does not mean it is not capable of initiating skirmishes or smaller attacks on US allies such as South Korea or Japan.
In one of his recent papers, Hwang looked at high-level (1,000 or more casualties) and low-level (fewer than 1,000 casualties) conflicts among various states. He discovered that weaker states dissatisfied with the status quo are not likely to initiate a high-level conflict against a much stronger state, but they are likely to engage in low-level conflicts.
North Korea’s relationship with China has cooled a bit recently, hindering its ability to call upon its ally for help in armed conflict. However, North Korea can still sell its weapons to terrorists or rogue states, which can be used to attack the United States and other countries. “That scenario is a very worrisome one,” Hwang says.
While it is unlikely that China or North Korea will initiate a full-scale war, Hwang believes the United States may still be in a difficult position as it continues to lose international allies while simultaneously incurring the hostility of more nations.
In a recent article, Hwang analyzed various voting outcomes in the United Nations over the past seventy-five years. He found that for the UN Security Council in the 1940s to 1960s, more than 60 percent of member countries voted with the United States; now, fewer than 30 percent do. Conversely, on the same council, China had little support in the 1970s, but it now has agreement from at least 50 percent of the member countries.
Hwang hypothesizes the reason for the voting shift lies more in dissatisfaction with US policy than in agreement with China’s positions. He adds that in other UN councils, such as human rights, China enjoys far less support than the United States. “But the trend is a clear signal that there are consequences for the unilateral decisions the United States has taken,” Hwang says.
“Unless we change our foreign policy and respect international law, we will lose support from the world. If we lose soft power and leadership in the world, we are likely to have a multipolar power system, where the United States, China, and several other countries share power,” Hwang says.
He notes that having three or four powerful countries may help keep the global balance in check, but having seven or eight could result in diplomatic uncertainty on too many fronts—leading possibly to disaster.