The Six-Party Talks as a Game Theoretic ‘Stag-Hunt’ (2): China Likes the Rabbit Too Much


Part one of this post is here.

In the formal language of game theory (GT), here is the pay-off matrix for the hunters (SK, PRC, Japan, Russia, US) if they capture the stag (NK’s better behavior in the region):

1. SK: SK is the most obvious winner from taking the stag because NK is an existential threat to the South – both physically and constitutionally.

2. Japan: Japan is the second big winner, because the NK nuclear and missile program increasingly represent a major physical threat to its cities, and perhaps even an existential threat if the North can put enough nukes on missiles.

3. US: The US is a weaker winner, because it is far less threatened by the North directly. The big pay-off from NK change (the stag) would be the reduction in troops and other expense from keeping USFK in Korea. Another benefit would be the reduction in the post-9/11 concern for proliferation of missile and WMD technology to terrorists and rogue states. But this is still far less critical than SK and Japan’s benefit. To the US, NK is more a troublesome, throwback-from-the-Cold-War headache when it would rather concentrate on salafism and the rise China.

4. Russia: Russia has essentially no stake in Northeast Asian security, given that it has basically retrenched from the region to focus on Central Asia and Eastern Europe. However, the Six Party talks are a prestige-generator for a country desperate to still look like a great power even as its lineaments erode. So Russia doesn’t get much from the stag.

5. China: The PRC’s portion of the stag is the smallest, while its rabbit is the biggest. A more docile NK would almost certainly fall heavily under the influence of its southern twin. The more ‘southernized’ NK becomes, the less sinified it will be. (This of course is the whole point from the Korean perspective – reunification.) And the PRC almost certainly reads greater southern influence in the North as greater American influence. So the Chinese rabbit is the long-term survival of a separate NK state to act as a buffer against the democracy, American influence, liberalism, and Korean nationalism that would all flood into NK were an inter-Korean settlement (the stag) finally struck. (A friend at the Renmin University of Beijing all but says this here, and I generally find Chinese scholars will openly tell you why the PRC props up the DRPK even though the PRC’s official policy is reunification.)

What to do then? How do the other hunters get China to stop defecting and start cooperating? The most obvious way is to equalize the pay-offs more, i.e., make it more valuable for China to coordinate by increasing China’s portion of the stag. Here is where strategic restraint on the Cheonan sinking may be useful. If SK holds its fire over the incident, it may be able to ‘sell’ this restraint to China as a hitherto unrecognized benefit. The SK claim to China would be:

See how small your rabbit really is? NK is so unpredictable, so erratic, so uncontrollable, that the stag is more beneficial than you think. Without a long-term settlement, NK’s erratic behavior could eventually generate a crisis the SK population will no longer choose to overlook. Next time this happens, SK government may be forced by popular outrage into coercive retaliation that could pull everyone in northeast Asia into the vortex.

Recall in early 1991 that Israel demonstrated similar strategic restraint as Saddam Hussein shelled it with Scuds before Desert Storm. This helped convince Saddam’s Arab neighbors that Saddam really was a danger to everyone. SK might be able to do the same here.

However, this is unlikely to be enough. China will probably as for a higher concession – a promise for the removal of USFK after unification. It is not clear to me if a unified Korea would need USFK, so this may be an option to explore.

4 thoughts on “The Six-Party Talks as a Game Theoretic ‘Stag-Hunt’ (2): China Likes the Rabbit Too Much

  1. Dr. Bob:

    This is where I find a issue with your argument:

    “If SK holds its fire over the incident,”

    SK has no other choice but to hold fire. What are they going to do? Retaliate and escalate this incident into a war that will drag the US in? Plus, as a general rule retaliation has a shelf life. One needs to retaliate as near to the time frame as possible, (unless you are Israel or Russia), to the act of aggression for it to be considered a bona fide retaliation. I am sure that China knows this. China also knows that the US will not back SK militarily if they retaliate.

    I also think that your Israel analogy is not compatible, because Israel held back because the US deployed advanced anti-missile mobile units to Israel, operated by US soldiers to do the job for the Israelis. In addition, the US did a good job blasting scuds out of the Israeli sky (remember the CNN footages). This demonstrated to Israel that the US could indeed keep them secure. Furthermore, SH was launching scuds at Israel in the hope of that an Israeli response would break Arabs nations away from the international coalition led by the US. Finally, Israel had a vested interest in making sure that the coalition held.

    In this case, the US is not about to topple the NK regime. The US wants quiet.


  2. Dr. Bob:

    Also, lets not forget that China is looking at the grand picture beyond her borders. For example, China’s main ambition presently is Africa (apart from the region as you noted, of course). In order to realize this ambition China must keep the status quo. By this I mean making sure that the rule of the “Big Men” continues. China discovered long ago that directly supplying weapons to the African “Big Men” and their regimes makes nasty PR (remember when they were loading Al-Bashir with weapons) so now they use NK to supply the Mugabes, Dos Santos, Kabilas etc. NK also has also sent military advisors to Zim; and maybe elsewhere in Africa too.

    If China alienates NK, which country will provide these services for China in Africa? Keep in mind that China is spending Billions upon Billions, upon Billions of USD in Africa.

    Maybe the rabbit just got more juicier.


  3. Pingback: My Diplomat on Essay on Xi’s Trip to Korea: SK as a Hole in the Pivot in Exchange for Help w/ NK | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  4. Pingback: Park Geun-Hye’s Trip to that Bombastic Chinese Military Parade Was Actually a Good Idea | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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