What type of great power does China want to be?

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The Telegraph, 19 October, 2017

Xi Jinping’s keynote speech – impressive for its three-hour running time – at Beijing’s Party Congress firmly established three things. First, Xi has accumulated the type of personal power last seen under Chairman Mao Zedong; second, that the Communist Party of China will be the main conduit of his power; and third, that China is ready for global leadership.

“The Chinese nation … has stood up, grown rich, and become strong – and now it embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation … it will be an era that sees China moving close to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind.”

For some, the speech and the drift of China back toward one-party authoritarian rule, marks the end of a failed experiment by Western liberalism to co-opt China as a “responsible stakeholder”. But will China, in fact, be a responsible stakeholder? The results are not promising.

Between the 1990s and the present day, American, European, and Japanese companies invested hundreds of billions into the Chinese economy, turning a backward agrarian nation into one of the world’s trade and manufacturing powerhouses.

In 1994, despite the long shadow of the Tiananmen Square Massacre only five years before, President Bill Clinton granted China most-favoured nation (MFN) trade status. Six years later teams of US diplomats and lawyers worked around the clock to help sponsor China’s membership to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a key event, after which Chinese growth exploded. In addition, China was given a seat at the table of nearly every international organization and institution.

Plausibly, China is one of the great successes of the Western liberal order: collectively we helped a large country reduce its poverty to the tune of 680 million people.

Despite this, the party’s need to justify its lack of political reform domestically, has seen it adopt some would call a virulent Chinese nationalism at home. Instead of looking to the past 25 years of positive economic engagement, Chinese state education has stoked resentment over the “hundred years of humiliation” from outside forces.

These themes, very present in Xi’s speech, have begun to close the once-open Chinese society and demonize Western intellectual influences.

“China has absolutely no need to import the failing party political systems of other countries”, said state-run media in the run-up to the Congress.

So great is this hostility, that an infamous memo was circulated in 2013 – the infamous Document No. 9 – heavily restricting discussion of Western liberal concepts among Party cadres.

Thus, we are presented with the paradox of a Chinese global power, at once the product of the Western liberal order and yet hostile and resentful of that same system. We have already seen this in how it has conducted its foreign policy vision on its periphery.

Given its internal emphasis on “an unfair rules-based order”, built “when China was weak”, we have a new power that views international law with ambiguity. Its arbitrary rejection of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong this July, and a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in the summer of 2016 are alarming signs of this.

We also see this narrative in China’s willingness to use force in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and on the Indian border.

A Chinese superpower also impacts how global information is exchanged: Chinese elites see history and information as relative – things to be moulded or suppressed according to party needs. This impacts how information is controlled in countries around China, dependent on Chinese trade.

From the arrest of Hong Kong booksellers, to the funding of Chinese programmes in Western universities, or the funding of Western media, China has systematically begun to attempt to direct the flow of information deemed important to it.

Only months ago, Chinese officials pressured Cambridge University Press into removing more than 300 articles, counter to party narratives. Perhaps what the most important question we must address is what type of imperium or order China wishes to build.

Professor William Callahan, an expert on Chinese international relations at the London School of Economics, described in his 2013 book, China Dreams, 20 different visions of order that Chinese theorists currently discuss.

Imperial-era concepts like Tianxia, once-used by Chinese emperors to justify and legitimize the Emperor’s power domestically, are now back in vogue. As a new Emperor takes his place in Beijing this week, as Chinese companies extend their reach across central Asia, and as Chinese forces assert control over the South China Sea – one wonders if we are indeed entering a new era of Chinese dominance and what that will mean for the American and European builders of the Western liberal order.

Will we stand apart – a “free world” to China’s new bloc – or will we be pulled inexorably into the orbit of a new Middle Kingdom?

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Analysis: The specialist role Britain could play in a new Korean War

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The Telegraph, 11 October, 2017 (with James Rogers)

The news that British war planners are working possible scenarios for British involvement in a North Korean contingency is both disturbing and an indication of how serious the Ministry of Defence is taking this iteration of the North Korean crisis.

It also comes as Whitehall’s civil servants consider new defence cuts for the re-appraisal of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

The ghost of Iraq 2003 continues to stalk Whitehall

We say “this iteration” of the North Korean crisis because this crisis did not just begin, but really has been percolating since May 1992. That year, a team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors led by Hans Blix found inconsistencies in North Korea’s initial declaration and their findings.

The past 25 years have been about the United States, South Korea, Japan and other regional states attempting to reassure, cajole, bully, and buy North Korea into giving up its nuclear ambitions.

Fast-forward to 2017, and not only does Pyongyang have nuclear weapons, it is perfecting the means for long-range delivery. Because of its bellicose attitude toward the South – a democratic country it still claims to own – there is a very real possibility that British forces and personnel might be drawn into a second conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

As the UK thinks of what Global Britain means in strategic terms, what would or should Britain do if such a conflict were to occur?

Of course, all of this depends on how the conflict began.

If a conflict occurred because US Forces took unilateral action in what is being termed a “preventative” war, the chances of UK forces taking part alongside them are nil. The ghost of Iraq 2003 continues to stalk Whitehall and British leaders were reminded of this when Parliament – sensing the mood of the country – refused to authorise an intervention in Syria in 2013.

However, if North Korea were to instigate a conflict, there might be a moral and strategic compulsion for Britain to take action. After all, it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a close treaty ally of the United States, and has growing economic and security relationships with South Korea.

South Korea has recently built four Tide class replenishment vessels for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Royal Navy’s logistics arm. London also has an annual security and foreign policy dialogue with Seoul, and last year sent a small contingent of British troops to take part in US-South Korean annual exercises Ulchi Freedom Guardian.

Despite the very slim possibility of a long conflict with North Korea – security experts often stress that such an event would be swift and brutal – it does present military thinkers with questions over what the UK could do in such a conflict, particularly in light of the sheer magnitude of forces arrayed on both sides.

Despite some pointing to the possibility that the HMS Queen Elizabeth might be rushed out to the region with a handful of British F-35s (which may or may not yet be fully operational), this seems unlikely. After all, the US has two carriers within the Pacific already with a total of 90 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters.

Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at Rusi, states that if the US were to push for British involvement, it would likely ask Britain for some of its most-prized capabilities. These include space-based communications capabilities, hydrography and mapping capabilities, mine-sweeping, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, specifically, the UK JSTARS platforms.

Britain’s specialist capabilities

According to Bruce Klingner, a North Korea weapons expert at Heritage Foundation, North Korea still fields an impressive arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles, including a modern version of the Russian Kh-35, which has a range of 70 nautical miles and houses 320-pounds of high explosives.

The Type-45 Destroyer is equipped to deal with exactly this kind of surface-skimming airborne missile threat using its PAAMS air defence capability, and could provide cover for US, South Korean, and other allied naval forces as they concentrate on air operations to take out North Korean missile ballistic missile targets.

While North Korea’s submarines are often derided as antiquated and poorly serviced, the fact is that one sunk one of South Korea’s corvettes, the ROKS Cheonan, with a CHT-02D torpedo from about 3 kilometres away. Therefore they should not be taken lightly by any allied fleet operating in waters near North Korea.

The Royal Navy might deploy Type 23 frigates which were built particularly with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in mind. With thirteen in operation, the UK could conceivably deploy a small number to fence the perimeter of any allied fleet.

Filling the gaps left elsewhere

Another role that the Royal Navy could play is that of backfilling. If US forces were to rush to the Pacific in order to bolster operations there, they would leave a vacuum in the security of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. The UK could fill such a vacuum until such time as US forces could return to their regional bases.

While there is a chance that a “preventative war” that aimed to bring down Pyongyang might bring in Chinese involvement, it is not clear that Beijing would takes sides if North Korea initiated hostilities.

Earlier this year, a Chinese professor, Jia Qingguo, wrote openly about China holding talks on contingency planning with Washington and Seoul in East Asia Forum, a regional blog. It is not clear whether his article was authorised or merely personal.

Let there be no question: a war with North Korea would be brutal and involve many tens of thousands of dead and should not be initiated on a whim. However, if North Korea were to strike first and the international community were compelled to respond, the UK should be able to help with the response.

While Korea and Japan would be under more pressure to help, the UK must consider its own role as a global power, both in terms of protecting its own interests and supporting its allies. As we approach the re-appraisal of some parts of the 2015 SDSR, it is hoped that Whitehall is broadly aware of these issues.


If Britain Is to Leave the EU, London Must Double-Down on NATO

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The National Interest, 5 October, 2017,

In his first interview since being elected chairman of the NATO military committee, the UK’s Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach attempted to promotethe centrality of the military alliance to European defense, stating the European powers should not attempt to duplicate NATO efforts. His comments come at a time of deep geopolitical uncertainty, with threats from within and threats from without rocking the once-solid Western alliance. Domestically, they also come as the UK MOD attempts a review of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Inside the Western alliance, a number of rifts have opened up between those states moved by 2016 populism (i.e., post-referendum London and post-Trump Washington), and those continentalists who wish to double-down on the European Union project (i.e., French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel). Inevitably, this raises a number of critical questions about Britain’s role as a military power, the future of its influence inside NATO, and the overall effect its leadership will have for the Western alliance.

The Western alliance has long been cushioned from external threats by its strong economic leadership, its liberal-democratic philosophical foundations, and its formidable military technological advantages. One by one, these three pillars of Western strength have been weakened or seriously undermined. In the first instance, the Financial Crisis of 2007–08 came about because of poor regulations, hubris and large amounts of Chinese liquidity in the international markets. In the second instance, the very success of globalization—the internationalization of capital and labor—came with a hidden barb. In the wake of two decades of the offshoring of manufacturing and the import of cheap labor, Western working classes have run to elect populist leaders and far-left parties in order to punish the “Davos set.” The final pillar of military technological advantages has fallen prey to complacency and the inability of political leadership—notably in the European part of the West—to argue for a defense spending proportional to the declining security environment.

This declining threat environment is no longer a matter of debate as it was a decade ago. No longer concerned with “failed states,” the West has other, more pressing concerns on its western and southern borders, including Russian revanchism, refugee flows and ISIS-organized attacks within the West. The recent decision by Sweden to conduct joint military exercises with American and French armed forces earlier this month—in the wake of a large Russian exercise—signals the return to a Russia seemingly hungry for prestige and for a sphere of influence. Given its willingness to attack Western democracies at the ballot box, it has become clear that Russia poses a unique and singular threat to Europe. Despite these very real threats, the West continues to suffer from a lack of internal cohesion. Expressing a sense of European disenchantment with both the United States and the United Kingdom, Chancellor Merkel recently proclaimed, “The times in which we [Europeans] can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days.” While Germany’s frustrations are somewhat unfair—given its shoddy record on the 2 percent rule—it does mark a dangerous trend toward fragmentation in one of the world’s most long-lasting and successful alliances.

Assuming that British policymakers understand the worth of our influence inside NATO, it is therefore incumbent that future governments stop the cutting of the armed forces. Media reports indicate that the Royal Marines face the prospect of a one thousand service-personnel reduction in order to save £3 billion per year over the following ten years; the decision is due to be made by the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review in late November this year. According to a series of publications commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, the total strength of the British forces service personnel has decreased by 0.4 percent; full-time trained strength and trade trained strength [Royal Navy/Marines, the Royal Air Force, and the Army, respectively] have experienced a fall of 1.4 percent since August 1, 2016. Although the total number of trained and untrained strength of the Tri-Service Future Reserves 2020 rose by 3.6 percent to 36,580 personnel, total intake (in sum) has collapsed: Whilst outflow from the regulars has fallen by 6.2 percent, subscription intake for the Future Reserves 2020 dropped by an astonishing 16.6 percent, whereas outflow increased to 4.4 percent. Equipment and formations also experienced steady quantitative decreases: totalling 4,098 key land platforms—consisting of 1,763 armoured personnel carriers, 1,907 protected mobility vehicles, and 428 armoured fighting vehicles—thirty-one reductions of platforms took place over the last twelve-month period, due to a deterioration in the number of Mastiff protected mobility vehicles (from 421 to 396); most saliently, there occurred a drastic 37 percent reduction following the withdrawal of the Black Hornet spy plane from service, with a reported 281 unmanned aircraft systems.

It should be noted that decline is not preordained; it’s a political choice, and one that we don’t have to make. Yes, it is true that United States—and Western power—is declining, but this is for the moment relative, not absolute. Given its strong assets, its unique geographical advantages, a network of far-flung bases, and a strong defense industrial base, British power remains formidable. In a recent report conducted by the Henry Jackson Society, James Rogers created a power index, using seven key indices, including: economic clout, diplomatic leverage and military strength. His findings show that Western powers “still stand tall in the world, and the US still towers over everyone, goes against the grain of both popular perception and media narratives. Therefore, talk [of the eclipse of the West] is still premature from the perspective of geopolitical capability.” As Professor Yukon Huang notes in his recent book on China, Americans and Europeans are most likely to believe that China has surpassed the United States as the world’s greatest economic power. Asians—and the Chinese themselves—recognize that China has some way to go before it approaches U.S. levels of total power.

If Britain is to succeed in the post-Brexit world, it will have to do so with a strong sense of its position in the global community. Its national power also stems from three pillars, which girded the West: a strong economy, a belief in liberal democratic values, and a strong military-technological base. With its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, its strategic submarine force, a robust diplomat service, and an influential role inside NATO, London can continue to play a major leadership role inside the West. However, it must develop strategies that strengthen these pillars and not rest on its laurels. If defense spending continues to drop, how long can the UK lead? If its artificial intelligence and telecommunications firms continue to be bought by China, then how will the MOD craft its future war-fighting plans? The UK has stepped back from the European project, but it should be noted that the project has always been just one aspect of a Western alliance that has maintained peace and security for its members—and a large part of the global community—for nearly seventy years.

 


The next election shock could be Japan – a nation in despair whose rebels offer hope

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The Telegraph, 29 September, 2017

The Prime Minister has called a sudden snap election. The timing is deliberately chosen to catch his opponents off-guard. His plans to take advantage of his high approval ratings, telling voters he can protect their country and face down foreign powers on their behalf. And his opposition are in shambles, save for a kooky outfit promising hope and change What could possibly go wrong?

To Britons this all sounds eerily familiar, but it is not the story of Theresa May. It is the story of Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, who is hoping to cash in the good will he has earned confronting North Korea after a summer of personal scandals.

Abe has dominated Japanese politics for five years and the traditional opposition parties are falling apart. But he now faces a new challenge from a new party calling themselves the Party of Hope. So could he suffer the same fate as May, defeated by an upstart opponent exploiting a mood of popular disenchantment? It’s very possible – for just as moderates across Europe are being punished for their failure to respond to the challenges of the age, and deserted by electorates in favour of the far Right and Left, Japan is a country in trouble whose politicians have so far failed to get it out.

To understand Japanese politics, you need to know that Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is the oldest, most dominant party in Japanese post-war history. It has governed continuously since 1955, with only brief spells in the cold in 1993-4 and 2009-12. It has therefore naturally struggled against a headwind of resentment, not least from the various opposition parties which have failed to supplant it. Right now those parties are in crisis, with the largest, the Democratic Party, in a state of utter disintegration.

But this week, the mayor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, announced she was forming a new political party called Kibo no To, the party of hope. At a packed news conference, she vowed to “reset Japan and realize politics not beholden to any special interests.”  Japan is no stranger to pop-up parties; quite a few have proliferated recently, with names like Your Party, Unity Party, Japan Innovation Party, and Japan Restoration Party. What’s different here is the space opened up by the rest of the opposition’s meltdown.

Kibo no To has already announced it will let Democratic members run under its banner – an unprecedented move which could create a new major bloc overnight. The Democratic Party responded by effectively dissolving itself and encouraging all its candidates to run for Kibo no To. “Those who have a weak electoral base want to try anything that could help,” said Professor Michito Tsuruoka of Keio University. “Joining Koike represents just that.”

That Democrats are willing to consider this also reveals the sense of desperation that permeates Japanese politics at the moment. Despite Abe’s own attempts at economic and social reform – his once-lauded Three Arrows of Abenomics – some say that Japan has become like an old cruise liner, unable to turn sharply from its path. Nearly twenty years of stagnation have followed the implosion of the property bubble in the late 80s. Japan has never really recovered, despite the efforts of many – including Abe’s own predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi who ran a campaign of “ceaseless reform” between 2001 and 2005.

 Japan’s economy, while not in decline, still lags at around 1.2 per cent in a region where growth rates usually average 5.5 per cent. Indeed, the IMF asserts that it will slow down to 0.6 per cent as the boost from an expansionary fiscal policy and the postponement of a consumption tax wear off. An IMF report on Japan, released in July, hedged its findings on Abenomics, stating that the policy bundle had “improved economic conditions and engendered structural reform, but key policy targets remain out of reach under current policies.”

In addition to uncertain results of Abe’s economic stimulus packages, Japan is suffering a number of social issues that may lay just out of reach of policymakers. The first issue is that of demography, and relates to Japan’s rapidly aging and shrinking population. The second relates to women in the labour force, and is possibly an offshoot of the first issue. Not only is Japan gaining more old people but it’s not having babies. Fewer and fewer young people are getting married and having a family, with the result that there were a million fewer births between 2016 and 2017. A recent survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that a majority of unmarried people were also not in a relationship (70 per cent for men, 60 per cent for women).

Despite this demographic challenge, Japan – like Korea and China – has never adopted the Western policy of taking in immigrants to balance low birth rates. For the moment, all three countries make it extremely difficult for immigrate. They do take foreign workers to supplement labour shortages, but unlike Turkish workers in Germany, these foreign workers are sent home, and few become citizens or long-term residents of Japan, Korea, or China.

The result for young people is a pervasive mood of listlessness and despair, and this is the perfect soil for Koike’s message. “Hope is a powerful theme for a country as worried about the future as is Japan,” says Professor Jennifer Lind, professor of Government at Dartmouth College and a Research Fellow at SOAS. “The country’s low birth rate makes for bleak demographic prospects. The former economic powerhouse has languished in terms of growth; China has dislodged Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. With China’s growing territorial assertiveness, and with North Korea improving its nuclear program, Japan’s security situation is only growing worse.”

Regardless of her dynamism, it is unclear as of yet whether Koike can address these issues. For one thing, Japan remains a mono-cultural, mono-racial nation, with a strong sense of ethno-national identity. It’s not clear that the electorate would accept the cultural exchange implicit in immigration policies. For the moment, her first policy statement is about ending Japan’s dependency on nuclear power, a platform sure to be popular with Japanese voters who distrust nuclear power. On the other hand, it remains unclear how her foreign and security policy will differ from that of Shinzo Abe’s.

After all, she was once in the LDP herself and was not too dissimilar to Abe in her stance. Strongly supportive of the alliance with the United States, hawkish on North Korea, bullish about Japan’s defence forces and an attendee of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, she will have a difficult time accommodating all the progressive-Left voices from her new Democratic allies. It is notable that one of the most conservative Democratic legislators, Akihisa Nagashima, was seen by her side at the party launch. She has also committed to constitutional reform, and while this last seems to be following in Abe’s footsteps, her involvement in the issue at least promises to create a national debate on the issue.

Whatever the outcome of the national election, Yuriko Koike’s boldness is shaking the usually-stolid Japanese landscape. As Professor Lind points out: “What do the Japanese people always have? Hope. They’re a resilient people and lots going for them as a country – and Koike is reminding them of this. That’s a message that a lot of people will like.” How much they like it we will find out on October 22.


The Trump Administration’s North Korea Strategy

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ISPI, 25 September, 2017

Understanding the current iteration of the two-decade long North Korean crisis is not easy. It is, for what of a better word, complicated. Furthermore, the fact is that it has finally imploded while Donald  Trump is President. “Of all the presidents in all the world, why did you have to start a North Korean crisis with him…?” This is not an administration that lends itself to level analysis. And nor is the topic, for that matter. Initially, there was much noise about Trump’s mishandling of the situation, with many western media outlets implying – if not outright assigning – responsibility to him for the crisis. “Trump’s Latest North Korea could have “apocalyptic” consequences” said the Huffington PostSalon.comwarned of “Right-wing media” beating the war drums on North Korea, and Politico warned us that “Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric plays into North Korea’s hands”, while simultaneously reassuring us that Trump’s North Korea strategy was much like Obama’s (because it relied on sanctions and pressure).

To make matters even more confusing, North Korean rhetoric and negotiation style are extreme versions of those found in the West. Everything is impossible, until suddenly it is not. Nothing is possible, until the Dear Leader says it is. Every promise is as good as it needs to be and no further. North Korea’s negotiating tactics, as best illustrated by Scott Snyder in his notable work, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior tactics, are often designed to keep North Korea’s larger opponent off-balance and second-guessing their objectives. Ambiguity is a friend to North Korean diplomats, clarity the enemy. Rather than searching for an acceptable position, maximalist demands are usually trialled at the start of negotiations, both to test the opponent and to acquire the best-possible returns. Perhaps with some instinctive feel for this, Trump has brought an interesting strategy to bear.

His starting position was one of weakness, inherited from two terms of the Obama Presidency. In the wake of the break-down of the 6th iteration of the 6 Party talks in 2007, American strategy had hit a brick wall over North Korea’s insistence of continuing missile tests in the wake of the Leap Year Agreement (though poorly disguised as a satellite launch). The breakdown caused by the North Korea rejection of stringent verification protocols was, for the US, avoidable. Given North Korea’s revisionist history, its history of secrecy and denials of a nuclear programme in the early 90s, its development of a parallel nuclear programme – while negotiating generous terms from the US to disable its plutonium nuclear programme – have destroyed most goodwill and trust for the US.

Because they have bought the same North Korean horse so many times, US diplomats have hardened their stance to “Don’t trust, definitely verify”. As Nicolas Eberstadt and many other North Korea experts have maintained, the drivers in North Korea’s nuclear programme, its adherence to international conventions and norms, are all at the mercy of its vagaries of its domestic Stalinist system. Broadly similar to Orwell’s obscene state in 1984, Pyongyang really believes that 2+2 can equal five if the Dear Leader says so If Kim Jung Un says it was the Americans who started the Korean War, or who broke promises in negotiations, who is to question him? The state needs a permanent enemy.

No matter what his campaign foreign policy was, Trump was swiftly informed that North Korea was going to be his primary crisis by the out-going president at the Oval Office. When one views those photographs of the two men sitting awkwardly by each other, one wonders if the tension wasn’t just over ideological differences but in fact over North Korea. Trump faced an extremely unfavourable situation from the outset. Unlike previous administrations, which could sit back and hope that time would disable the regime, it was clear that now time was on Pyongyang’s side. Instead of failing over its economic contradictions, it was a hair from being able to strike the American mainland with nuclear weapons. In contrast, time suddenly seemed scarce for American diplomats. Domestic pressure was building from within the Department of Defence and Congress for the administration to do something. For those who counselled the president to “Just live with a North Korea with nukes”, it was not clear that Pyongyang had built them to defend itself or to deter the US from defending its South Korean ally. To top it all off, North Korean diplomats told two former US government officials – Bruce Klingner and Sue Mi Terry – that they refused to negotiate denuclearisation. The only thing that would get them to the table was (a) a peace treaty, followed by (b) the removal of US troops from what Pyongyang typically refers to as the “puppet state” South Korea.

Despite a bad hand, the Trump strategy has a fairly simple logic to it. Get the North Koreans back to the table negotiating denuclearisation. Looking at the problem through the eyes of a business mogul, Trump quickly realised that the primary weakness of the North Korean state is its economic system. By even its own measures, the Government Distribution Network that is supposed to supply North Koreans with food has broken down. Furthermore, its economic model is based on a 1930s Stalinist heavy-industry model, which is neither practical nor relevant to the region’s dynamic economies. Instead, North Korea is dependent on China for 90 per cent of its economic activity, through trade, development aid, and energy subsidies. Take away China and North Korea cannot exist. This is and remains the only source of real pressure on North Korea, no matter what anyone else says. Carrots and sticks are fundamentally just part of the game for Pyongyang. But economic activity? Energy? Those are the fundamentals that allow North Korea to play the game at all.

Trump’s realisation that his North Korea problem was really a China problem was most likely a personally satisfying moment. It is no secret that he is the first president in three decades to actually seek to redress what he viewed as an unbalanced economic relationship, and break an unwritten contract whereby the US off-shores it’s manufacturing in return for Chinese purchases of US debt and the hopes of a “responsible stakeholder” that supports the US order. Indeed, he is the first president to put the Sino-US relationship on the table in order to deal with the North Korea issue. Freed from this self-imposed constraint, the administration has developed a three-pronged strategy simply to get North Korea back to the table. The first prong is to apply deep pressure on China – and to a lesser extent, Russia – to uphold previous generations of sanctions and to disable the economic support. The second prong has been to use the threat of military action as a destabiliser, and pressure point, matching the stakes imposed by Pyongyang’s growing ICBM programme. It should be noted that the 7th Fleet’s presence is not necessarily even for Pyongyang’s benefit, but for Beijing’s. The third prong was to galvanise the international community in the United Nations, and negotiate increasingly stringent sanctions – targeting energy and other sources of economic support.

All of this has been, mind you, simply to get the North Koreans back to the negotiating table. Doubtless, once Pyongyang has accepted that it has a negotiating partner in Washington that is willing to do whatever it takes to get to the negotiating table, including going to war, it may accede to sitting down again. After all, this is a president who has offered the hardest sticks in living memory. Ironically, it is Trump’s dismissal of human rights and values that might actually work in his favour. The problem for any dictator – as Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein discovered – all bets are off when it comes to those issues. Promises will not be kept, guarantees will not last any severe human rights situation. For a country that comes out somewhere near the bottom of the global list, this is likely to be a consideration. The main problem is that if – after all the economic sanctions and pressure on regional foes and allies – Trump does manage to get Pyongyang back to the table, what then? Start anew? Try and return to the Six Party Talks as they were in 2006, prior them breaking down? Or perhaps do a primarily bilateral deal in which Washington becomes Pyongyang’s new provider of aid and subsistence? One could sugar coat this with all sorts of noise about avoiding nuclear war, but one senses any such deal would have as much longevity as the Agreed Framework in 1994 – that’s to say, none.

In all of this, both Trump’s strategy and his tactical approach actually make him look far more like a Chinese leader than an American one. His use of the threat of military coercion to destabilise his opponents, his willingness to use all elements of comprehensive national power to achieve his goals, his use of economic and political pressure, and his need for face, all seem more Chinese than traditionally American. A number of observers – this one included – celebrated Barack Obama as America’s first Asian president. But perhaps in his strict Harvard legalistic approach, and deference toward the authority of conventions, Obama was as Asian as the Dutch legal philosopher Grotius. The question is and will remain whether someone like Trump can get the North Koreans to the table. We’ll just have to wait and see.


North Korea is winning because Kim Jong-Un is playing the United States off against China

The Telegraph, 5 September, 2017

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have built to levels last seenduring the Cuban Missile Crisis – the height of the Cold War. While many have been quick to blame the quixotic policymaking of President Trump, what has brought us here is North Korea’s development of a nuclear-tipped inter-continental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States.

The situation has not been helped by the fiery rhetoric used by Trump or North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung-un.

Despite their apparent domination of media headlines, the fact is that both men inherited this crisis, with the tracks being laid decades ago, in the early 1990s.

From Pyongyang’s perspective, the nineties were a nightmare. All across the world, communist regimes were collapsing under the demands for political participation and economic reform. The cutting of aid by Pyongyang’s two allies, China and the USSR, coincided with a bad harvest. The world has yet to rid itself of the images of starving North Koreans when thinking of the regime.

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Should you be worried about a nuclear war with North Korea?

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The Telegraph, 10 August, 2017

Thursday’s news that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has announced that it is preparing an attack plan on Guam, a US territory with forces has heightened fears across Asia and the West of a catastrophic conflict.

The past few days contain all the elements of a crisis moving inexorably toward a tragic end. For many, that end seems to be hastened by a US president intent on matching DPRK’s emotive threats.

How close are the United States and North Korea to actual warfare though? Should we be looking to “doomsday prepper” property websites or making another cup of tea and changing channel, safe in the knowledge this crisis, like all before it with North Korea, will die down when both sides really consider their options (and the terrifying outcomes).

As always, with these kinds of black-and-white choices, the truth is probably somewhere near the middle. Looking past the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric, something very real did happen this week and that was the unanimous decision by the United Nations Security Council to impose the most severe set of sanctions yet on the North. They will cut the DPRK’s GDP of $3bn by a third.

This is an astonishing diplomatic victory, if one considers that Nikki Halley, the US Ambassador to the UN not only managed to persuade China to vote “yes”, but that she also persuaded Russia to vote “yes”, only a week after Congress strengthened sanctions against it. This is an incredible diplomatic coup and hints at the long-term strategy of the Trump administration all along.

Trump has predicted that despite their rhetoric, North Korea still needs growth
Like many previous presidents, Trump has used carrots and sticks on North Korea, but this time with Beijing. This is because he believes – correctly, as it happens – that the DPRK’s economic survival depends on China’s benevolence.

Since the regime is ideologically extreme, it seems resistant to low-bar pressures – on reputation, for example – that sometimes drive other middle-sized states. So, Trump – ever the businessman – has predicted that despite their rhetoric, North Korea still needs growth. After all, it has been the regimes secondary policy since Kim Jong-in came into office, after the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Trump’s gambit has been to say, “you can have one or the other, but not both.”

Traditionally, getting China to actually put pressure on the regime (and actually enforce previous sanctions regimes on the North) has always been problematic, and nearly no other president has been willing to risk the trade relationship or good relations. So confident did China become, that it began actively undermining sanctions, in 2011 and 2012.

In his heavy-handed way, Trump has brushed all of the diplomatic considerations aside to apply staunch pressure on Beijing. He has threatened a conflict on China’s doorstep by deploying naval forces to the seas around Korea, while also threatening sanctions on Chinese banks doing business with the DPRK. While China has criticised Trump’s approach and protested its innocent, it has quietly begun shifting its behaviour.

We are where we are because of China’s historical support for the North Korean regime. The first – given the importance of sanctions in Trump’s strategy – is whether China adheres to them at the border. Its past behaviour has been to sign on to sanctions when the pressure is high, and then to undermine them later when Washington was no longer focused on Korea.

If this is Beijing’s intention now, then a DPRK crisis will continue for the next two years, every time Pyongyang develops a technological piece of the puzzle to being able to strike the US mainland. If, however, Beijing decides that it will have to really live up to its sanctions commitments, then all eyes will turn to the DPRK.

While Kim Jong-un’s regime sees much of its own population as “wavering” and “hostile”, it deeply values and depends upon the “loyal” class of Pyongyang-based elites who populate the military, the bureaucracy, and other branches of government. If those elites see that even Beijing has turned against them, and that they begin to suffer real economic hardship, it is likely that they would turn on the Kim family.

While this might sound unlikely, it is precisely the strategy (Operation Matrix) that helped bring down the Milosovich government in Serbia behind the scenes of the 1999 air war over Kosovo. It is also the strategy that took down the de Klerk Apartheid-era government of South Africa. A leadership that is separated from the masses can survive if it keeps the loyalty of the ruling elite and the military – see Assad – but one who is separated from the military cannot last long.

 

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