Ken Lieberthal, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

How much leverage does China have with North Korea? What can Japan and China do to ease tensions in the East China Sea?  What is China’s biggest challenge with U.S. relations? These questions and many more were addressed in a Feb. 13 talk by Kenneth Lieberthal, one of the world’s leading China experts and a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

Lieberthal’s lecture was part of the Policy Talks series at U-M’s Ford School of Public Policy  and was co-sponsored by the International Policy Center.

From 1983 to 2009, Lieberthal taught political science and business administration at U-M.  He also served as special assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs and was senior director for Asia on the National Security Council from 1998-2000. He is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy (co-authored with Martin Indyk and Michael O’Hanlon), was published by the Brookings Press in March 2012.

A video of Lieberthal’s entire talk  at the Ford School is available here.

Here are a few edited excerpts from his wide-ranging presentation:

China and the latest North Korean nuclear test

“What constrains China is two things in regard to North Korea. One is that it’s very, very difficult for a big state to tell a little state what it should do and how to do it. Just think of Cuba. Forget Cuba, think Haiti. We have these itsy bitsy places, very near the U.S. southern border that have not lacked U.S. attention over the years, and we’ve never been able to get them to do what we want them to do.”

“In addition, China is constrained because, while we don’t fear instability in Cuba, China does fear instability in North Korea. Big time. And what they fear is that what they will end up with is a unified nuclear Korean peninsula in bed with the United States. That’s a terrible outcome from their perspective.”

“I think in fact there are some things China can do, but they aren’t exactly what we’ve been calling on them to do. We tend to focus on U.N. resolutions and imposing more sanctions on North Korea. Frankly, we’ve run out of sanctions. We’ve sanctioned everything in North Korea. It doesn’t make much difference because they don’t do much with the rest of the world. But I think there are some things China can do.”

“In the U.N., they (China) should support a resolution. It won’t be quite as harsh as it otherwise would have been. Get the Chinese to sign off on it the best they can and praise them for doing it.”

Three things China can do

“Quietly say to them we have two big asks. One is: The North Korean nuclear and missile program – my understanding is – is organically tied to the Iranian nuclear and missile program. The two nuclear programs have been joined at the hip for years. So when North Korea tests a nuclear weapon – I don’t know this for sure – but I think there’s a good chance the data are going to Iran, so they don’t have to do the test. That’s a huge threat. My sense of geography is that you can’t fly from North Korea to Iran without landing in China or at least crossing Chinese air space. So suppose we go to the Chinese and say, ‘Don’t let any North Korean or Iranian planes fly from one country to the other across Chinese air space.’ That would be one way to kill two birds with one stone. You don’t have to make an announcement. But it would wake up leaders in both countries big time.”

“Secondly, China should begin delaying and disrupting Chinese supplies to North Korea. Not by joining any sanctions. Just things don’t show up. Having problems with the rail system. You’ll just have to wait. No problem. It’ll come. North Korea will get the message in 24 hours. If they continue, you ratchet it up a little bit. No one’s face is involved. If you do it publicly, there’s face involved.”

“The third thing I would do is see if the Xi (Jinping) administration is willing to sit down with us and South Korea and talk about what we do if there is a dramatic contingency in North Korea. Not that we need to act together. But we should know what each other is thinking about – what are our plans. For example, if there were a real collapse in North Korea, you could be sure the PLA has contingencies to move into parts of the country, to pacify it and to try to identify where the nuclear materials are and to prevent mass refugee flows into China. Well, guess what. The U.S. and South Korea have similar plans. It would not be surprising to learn that there are parts of North Korea that both militaries would have operational orders to seize and hold. If we’re not talking to each other, we could end up shooting at each other, which is not an outcome anyone wants to have. We have never had a conversation with China about long-tern contingencies in North Korea. Never. ”

Easing tensions between Japan and China 

“I don’t think China and Japan are going to start shooting at each other as an act of conscious policy. Both of them realize if there is a real conflict, their economic relationship will tank, and that will have dramatically negative consequences for both of them. This is not like dealing with the Philippines and the Chinese economy. This is huge and the Chinese are very sensitive to that. But they now have a situation around these islands – called the Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese.”

“The danger here is that there are enough boats and enough planes increasingly challenging each other, just by their presence, that there could well be an accident or an incident. If that occurs, this will turn instantaneously into a whole different problem.”

“I think what they have to do is – it’s too early to try to get governments to negotiate this; there’s too much face and too much passion – to get some of the elders from each side who have known each for many years and trust each other and who have commanded respect from the current leaders in each of their respective countries. Have them get together and not work out a final resolution but work on steps that each can take unilaterally to pull back, to get these boats farther away from each other and not have planes over there at the same time, so that you reduce dramatically the chances of an accident and create the space necessary to begin to engage government to government, to try to get some workable agreement. It will not resolve sovereignty. Sovereignty is very  difficult to negotiate.”