North Korea's Kim Jong Il rattled his nuclear saber one time too many with his recent underground testing of a crude device. Now he's really got a superpower mad, one that can seriously do something about it.
No, I'm not talking about the United States. America's continuing military tie-down in Iraq rules out any substantial military action on our part. Given our performance post-Saddam, this news is clearly welcomed in both Pyongyang and Seoul, with the latter being scared witless at the prospect of paying any post-Kim reconstruction bill.
Although officially there are multiple parties in this conversation, only one player matters right now: North Korea's increasingly flummoxed patron - China.
Following Kim's nuclear test a couple of weeks ago, President Bush's rather force-less response was to plead that everyone should give diplomacy enough time to unfold. Just hearing our cowboy-in-chief utter that word must have sent chills down the spines of China's party bosses because surely they decoded this statement as, "China, please bail us out!"
Is North Korea more Beijing's responsibility than ours? Absolutely. If China were not propping up Kim's criminally cruel regime with aid, then it probably would have collapsed years ago.
America did its superpower duty by keeping South Korea both stable and nonnuclear all these decades. Now Beijing must step up and do the right thing if it wants to be considered a legitimate, full-service superpower. Punching below its weight on Asian security issues suggests that China's free riding on globo-cop America is a permanent feature of its foreign policy. That just won't wash when the Middle Kingdom's economic networks have gone global.
Has the U.S. prepared China for this challenge? Hardly.
The Bush administration came into power clearly gunning for rising near-peer competitor China, largely justifying its dreams of military transformation on that increasingly specious scenario of war over Taiwan. The preview of that self-fulfilling prophecy was the EP-3 spy plane incident in early 2001.
But 9/11 and the Long War sidelined the Pentagon's China hawks, twisting military transformation in directions scarcely imagined - to wit, we apparently still do need an Army and a bigger one at that.
But China did not completely fall off the Bush administration's strategic radar. Since 9/11, our government has consistently sought to contain "rising China" through expanded military ties with its neighbors - most prominently India and Japan. Tokyo, for instance, was invited to join our defense guarantee on Taiwan. Remembering that Imperial Japan served as that island's pre-Cold War colonial master, you can only imagine how warmly Beijing received that unmistakable signal.
Ah, but necessity is the mother of diplomacy. Despite opposition from surviving neocons, the State Department has quietly forged the beginnings of strategic dialogue with China.
This began in the second term with then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who first broached the idea that a post-Kim Asian security environment should naturally yield an East Asian version of NATO. After Zoellick left, this quiet conversation continued under Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who - not accidentally - was essentially freed from his ongoing duties as chief negotiator with North Korea by Kim's increasingly intransigent behavior.
But while those diplomatic bridges are being built, our military cooperation with China remains embryonic, despite the best efforts of Pacific Command's current boss, Admiral William Fallon, who just last month oversaw the first Sino-American naval exercise off California's coast.
So if you're Beijing, fearing a refugee crisis on your southern border, how comfortable are you about suddenly being sucked into a military scenario featuring both American forces and nuclear weapons?
Our best hope right now is that Beijing decides "better us than the Americans" and silently gets rids of Kim on its own - like maybe the Dear Leader's train comes back empty next time from China. And if Kim isn't interested in golden parachutes, then maybe China uses its remaining pull within North Korea's political elite to engineer the same sort of rapid popular uprising that toppled Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 - a scenario Chinese senior officials have seriously studied.
However this goes down, the United States better be ready to reward China handsomely for going out on this limb and that means immediately discarding Cold War suspicions and recognizing its potential as a strategic ally.
North Korea won't be the last time we ask for China's help on troublesome regimes. That list is already long.