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Nuclear war or the status quo: How Chinese-American confrontation over North Korea might play out

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The Telegraph, 19 April 2017

The situation on the Korean Peninsula has now escalated to a level of crisis last seen during the Korean War. As I have written here, President Trump has decided to approach North Korea as a Chinese problem, demanding the Chinese provide the solution.

In this judgement, he is partly correct in that Beijing has long been the sponsor, ally, and diplomatic friend to the world’s last Stalinist regime. Unlike the United States which stopped a South Korean nuclear programme in 1975, Beijing has shirked its duty regarding its odd ally.

Then, in the Six Party Talks – during the noughties – China behaved like an impartial chairman, assuming that Pyongyang’s growing nuclear strike capability was America’s problem. Finally, under the Obama administration, when Washington was frustrated and exhausted by the North’s bait-and-switch diplomacy and provocations, Beijing fell back on well-worn phrases to “resume talks” and “avoid conflict”.

Subsequently, it has either watered down sanctions in the United Nations, or watered them down at the border, where a large black market economy keeps the isolated regime awash in products, including military hardware.

Trump’s threat of a unilateral strike then is for Beijing as much as it is for Pyongyang. His goal? To make China realise that not stopping North’ Korea’s nuclear programme will have negative consequences for Beijing too.

Interestingly, his gambit also reveals that the only non-military options left on the table are in China’s hands now. As the largest provider of aid and trade with the North, it holds the stongest cards. So, what will the Chinese do? There are really three scenarios:

The best-case scenario

In this scenario, Trump’s policy of linking the North Korea issue to the US-China trade relationship works and China begins taking US (and South Korean and Japanese) preferences seriously. Working together in the UN Security Council, Beijing and Washington write a new range of comprehensive sanctions that cover a wider range of government entities.

Nearly all government or military entities are carefully screened against their contribution to North Korea’s war machine. Russian President Vladimir Putin decides not to play the opportunist and holds back as the two put the squeeze on the regime.

Meanwhile, senior Chinese envoys to Pyongyang deliver a message: get rid of the nuclear programme and we will remain allies and we will put you under our nuclear umbrella; maintain them and gain our enmity. While this option has an attractive allure, it rests on the vagaries of the US-China relationship, which are – after all – in an advanced stage of Thucydidean tension.

The mid-way course

In the mid-way scenario, Beijing decides that its hand is actually quite strong, that Trump lacks the domestic support for a hot war against Pyongyang as well as the elite support for a trade war against China.

It shrugs off his offer to go softer on trade issues, seeing the shift away from economic nationalism inside the White House, as tilting largely in its favour.

Not one to lose an opportunity, Moscow offers economic aid and moral courage to Pyongyang, seeing the entire episode as a way to gain leverage in its Syria position vis a vis the West.

Finally, US allies South Korea and Japan attempt to steer the diplomatic solution back to the Six Party Talks – or at least something similar – where they have a say in the outcome.

Seoul’s new president Moon Jae-in wastes no time in offering a separate peace dialogue to “his brother” Kim Jong-un, who gratefully seizes this chance to divide the Seoul from Washington’s warm embrace.

The end result? A restart of a multilateral dialogue, which essentially brings us back to 2007, when all five states failed to persuade the North to verify its disarmament.

Except this time, North Korea has no intention of disarming and is blackmailing the region for energy supplies. Most dangerously, this scenario of status quo risks a domino effect of other states in the region arming themselves with independent nuclear programmes against the rogue North Koreans.

The worst-case scenario

While one hopes that the Armageddon scenario is only a hypothetical, it must be remembered that in a theatre littered with large concentrations of highly-armed forces, miscalculations can occur at the unit level.

Perhaps heeding the US willingness to strike pre-emptively, North Korea might strike first, launching medium-range ballistic missiles and American bases and targets in Japan and South Korea, while also firing salvos of conventional shells at Seoul from its 13,000 artillery pieces arrayed along the border.

US fifth generation fighters and bombers might respond by striking entrenched artillery positions and chasing down elusive and camouflaged mobile missile systems, while also destroying any North Korean armour attempting to mass near the border.

While such an air war might go in the favour of US and South Korean air forces, two major questions remain: Would China become involved as it did in 1951? Would Chinese jets begin shooting down American pilots over Korean skies? And how quickly would the beleaguered North resort to using its small but potent nuclear arsenal?

Given the easy striking distance of Seoul, Incheon, Tokyo, and Osaka, these two questions could potentially affect millions of lives.

When President Obama met President-elect Trump at the White House, he warned him that North Korea would be a priority for the administration. It’s no wonder that President Obama chose “strategic patience” over action these past eight years. There are few good options on the table.

The only possible win for Trump rests with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Depending on how you view it, that gives one of these two men a strong hand. Let’s hope that whoever that is, he seeks a resolution that is in all of our interests.

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