Analysis/Opinion by the President of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security (DMGS), Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, in the 26 July 2016 edition of the Washington Times:

China’s reaction to the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that there was no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources historically in the South China Sea was disappointing but expected.

China immediately rejected this ruling, asserting that the islands in the South China Sea are “China’s inherent territory.” Unfortunately, what followed was a military exercise in the area southeast of Hainan Island and a Chinese H-6K (nuclear-capable) bomber flying over the contested area of Scarborough Shoal. Threats of China imposing an Air Defense Zone were also disseminated. Routine Chinese harassment of U.S. naval vessels and airplanes, with provocative and unsafe maneuvering, has become the norm. Indeed, the contested area that’s affected by these developments involves the transit of more than 100,000 ships and an estimated $6.6 trillion in trade annually.

Demonstrations throughout China in opposition to The Hague court’s decision are spreading, with the boycotting of U.S. food chains doing business in China. The Chinese government is using the media to discourage these demonstrations, no doubt concerned that these demonstrations can escalate and result in civil unrest. China experienced a similar scenario in 1999 when the U.S. unintentionally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and anti-U.S. demonstrations throughout China became intense and dangerous, requiring the government to intervene. This could happen with current developments in the South China Sea.

Nationalism in China is a powerful political dynamic that could incite the government and its people to pursue policies that eventually will be inimical to China’s long-term interests. International law requires that China not interfere with the rights, freedom and lawful use of the sea and airspace in the South China Sea. Compliance would ensure that U.S.-China relations remain strong, economically and politically. This is in China’s interest.

What is especially disconcerting is the current tension with China in the South China Sea and China’s apparent unwillingness to manage a North Korea that’s building more nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, while threatening South Korea and the U.S. with nuclear annihilation. North Korea’s reported arsenal of plutonium and enriched uranium-based nuclear weapons continues to grow, as are their short, intermediate-range and long-range missiles, reportedly capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. China has to be concerned about these developments. It has to be concerned about the routine purges of North Korean senior officials, some formerly close to China. An unpredictable North Korea with nuclear weapons is an existential threat to China, the region and the international community.

North Korea is one of the many issues that require closer U.S.-China collaboration. If not managed smartly and timely, North Korea could, purposely or by accident, incite armed conflict in the region, with the potential of nuclear weapons being deployed. There’s no doubt that South Korea and Japan will not sit idly by as North Korea becomes more of a nuclear threat. The prospect of Japan, South Korea and possibly other countries in the region going nuclear is great.

Nuclear proliferation has to be a priority concern for all countries. The nuclear developments in Pakistan and India are also destabilizing. Rather than eschewing the need for nuclear weapons, these countries, and North Korea, are building more nuclear weapons. None of these countries are members of the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), thus not subject to international oversight and safeguards. Hopefully, Iran, currently spinning 5,060 centrifuges for low-enriched uranium, will also eschew the need for nuclear weapons when the nuclear Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) expires in 14 years, at which time Iran will not be under any restriction on the number and sophistication of centrifuges it could spin to enrich uranium. Given Iran’s recent violations of U.N. resolutions prohibiting the launching of ballistic missiles, and its continued support of Bashar Assad in Syria and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, it’s of concern to many that Iran eventually may go nuclear. If that should happen, we’d witness considerable nuclear proliferation in the region, with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt likely to seek their own nuclear weapons capabilities.

Given the myriad of nuclear-related regional and global issues that affect the United States and China, one could only hope that China decides to work more closely with the U.S. on efforts to halt global nuclear proliferation. China could start this collaboration by dealing with the North Korea issue. China has the leverage with North Korea to influence even the mercurial Kim Jong-un. North Korea needs China’s energy, economic assistance and cooperation. Without it, North Korea’s economy would collapse. It’s this leverage that China could use with North Korea. Combining this with the leverage the U.S. has, mainly with its comprehensive sanctions, there’s a good chance North Korea can be convinced to halt its nuclear programs and eventually denuclearize, comprehensively and verifiably, in return for security assurances, a peace treaty and other deliverables.

The U.S. and China cooperated successfully in the past, reportedly in addressing issues related to the Soviet Union and international terrorism. This can be done with North Korea and eventually with other global nuclear issues. What’s now important is to ensure that the tension in the South China Sea does not escalate into conflict. Extant issues with the South China Sea should not distract us from the immediate threat emanating from North Korea.

• Joseph R. DeTrani is president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security (DMGS). He formerly was the special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea. The views are the author’s own.