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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.

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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.


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.

 


 

The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 July, 2017

This is not “just another North Korean missile launch”. The “successful” testing of what North Korea’s state news agency KCNA called an “inter-continental ballistic missile” takes the Korean Peninsula one step closer to a conflict that could drag in the world’s great powers and cost millions of lives.

This time is different, and potentially much worse than those that have gone before, because it threatens to bring a reaction from the United States. The US closely monitors North Korea’s ability to strike cities on the West Coast, and significant progress towards that goal is unlikely to go unanswered.

According to Chad O’Carroll, Managing Director at Korea Risk Group, a North Korean nuclear missile that can reach the West Coast – though similar to Russian and Chinese capabilities – is deeply problematic for any sitting US president, “the extremely acrimonious nature of relations between…

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A Taiwanese Arms Package Could Be Used as Leverage in the Korean Crisis

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The National Interest, 29 May, 2017

Taiwan has long been a dormant problem for the U.S.-China relationship, successfully shelved by the Three Joint Communiqués of 1972, 1979 and 1982, with the last serious incident being the 1995 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s actions in the Asia-Pacific region could signal an end to the modus vivendi that has existed for almost fifty years. While President Trump’s decision to accept a congratulatory call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen did not herald a new understanding of the “One China” policy, as many immediately thought, it is not clear yet what the new administration’s China policy will be. Under Obama, many strategists worried that the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait was moving in China’s favor, as arms deals to the island were delayed and China grew in strength. Trump’s administration appears to be seeking to redress this issue. A new arms package to Taiwan is on the drawing board and among the names being considered for undersecretary of state for policy is Randy Schriver. An Asia expert, Schriver served in the State Department as an aide to Richard Armitage and is currently the president of the Project 2049 Institute, an Asian security think tank based in Washington. Schriver would be a strong pick for any president intent on bolstering its ties with Taipei. However, critics are already pointing out holes in the president’s plan to strengthen relations. There are recent reports that Trump is actually continuing to perpetuate the United States’ lackluster support for Taiwan as the new deal has stalled, seemingly in an effort to appease China.

The U.S.-Taiwan-China Triangle

Beijing’s enduring hostility towards Taiwan has meant that Washington and Taipei have mutual-defense agreements to safeguard its “independence.” In 1979, the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing as the legal representatives of China and acknowledged Taiwan as a part of One China. However, that same year Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which had the aim of enabling “Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” and the United States is mandated to provide that capability. Both Republican and Democrat presidents have been committed to the relationship and provided Taiwan with a variety of advanced military assets. For instance, in 1992, H. W. Bush sold Taiwan 150 F-16 jets at $6 billion, and the Clinton administration supplied missiles and radar systems to greatly improve Taiwan’s air-defense capabilities.

China always objected to the sale but was never in a position to offer any real opposition until recently. As a result of growing Chinese economic and military strength, U.S. deals have become smaller and met with stiffer backlash. In 2005, Beijing passed the Anti-Secession Law which formalized into policy China’s long-standing rule to use “non-peaceful means” to ensure its territorial integrity should the Taiwanese government declare independence. Signaling that Beijing was no longer afraid to voice its intentions openly and become more assertive in reducing U.S. influence with Taiwan. In 2010, Beijing did not only condemn a $6 billion package, but also sanctioned some participating U.S. companies. It would take until 2015 before Obama authorized another package and it would be a markedly smaller at $1.83 billion. Announced with little fanfare, it still attracted Beijing’s ire. Upon hearing of the deal, the Chinese vice foreign minister said the move “severely damaged China’s sovereignty and security interests.” A year later Obama would even block a smaller $1 billion sale, an obstruction that was reported by the Washington Free Beacon to have considerably damaged Taiwan’s defensive capabilities as it contained spare fighter-jet parts and additional missiles. The move coincided with Trump’s phone call with Tsai, giving the impression that the Obama administration prioritized good relations with China over U.S. obligations of the Taiwan Act.

Randy Schriver and Trump’s China Policy

Trump’s China rhetoric has signaled a significant break with Obama’s Asia-Pacific strategy. A new arms deal on the table could be one such indication that Trump has no intention of going soft on China, as some critics allege. According to sources, the administration may be considering providing to Taiwan rocket systems and anti-ship missiles, with companies such a Lockheed Martin being linked to the deal. Lockheed is the manufacturer of the THAAD missiles system currently being deployed to South Korea, this raises the possibility that the system could also be sold to Taiwan. Even discussions of THAAD could prove troublesome as Beijing has already raised considerable objections to the missiles system in South Korea, even going so far as to apply economic pressure on South Korean companies.

If the rumor mill is to be believed, then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is considering Randy Schriver, a prominent Taiwanese supporter, to fill the position of undersecretary of defense for policy. With a strong network among U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific, Schriver would be a reassuring figure for America’s friends in the region. He is also closely linked to Richard Armitage, having worked as his chief of staff and senior policy advisor when Armitage was deputy secretary of state. Schriver is known to be a vocal proponent of strong U.S. engagement with Taiwan and maintains a tough stance against Chinese expansionism. In a piece he co-authored in The National Interest, after the infamous Trump-Taiwan phone call, Schriver wrote that “higher-level engagement with Taiwan serves U.S. national interests and values,” arguing that the phone call was, in fact, “a good first step” towards rebalancing the trilateral China-Taiwan-U.S. relationship.

Schriver himself has called for the United States to provide submarine technology and vertical, short takeoff and landing fighter jets. If rumors about the new arms package are true, then Schriver could be well placed to carry this particular agreement through, as he is already familiar with the weapon systems and their capabilities. He has long been a proponent of balance as a means of deterrence.

Objectives and Issues

The United States must ensure that deals are no longer deferred and it delivers equipment that fits Taiwan’s defense policy of stopping an invasion force before it reaches the island. Schriver’s appeal for the jets to be supplied to Taiwan could be a bad call. In 2010, Cross-Strait military analyst Mark Stokes told a U.S. congressional commission that “every citizen on Taiwan lives within seven minutes of destruction” and in 2015 Beijing bought from Russia several S-400 Triumf, an antiaircraft missile system. Expected to be fully operational by 2020, the missile launchers, which have a range of 400 kilometers, will allow China to strike aircraft over Taiwan, essentially giving China air supremacy in the territory. The Chinese ballistic-missile buildup was examined in a Taiwanese defense report, which stated that by 2020 China would be in a position to invade the island and successfully repel a U.S. counterattack. With the sheer amount of Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan, it would be unwise for them to buy large amounts of expensive aircraft, which could be destroyed before getting the chance to take off. It is, however, encouraging that Schriver has also called for the sale of submarine technology to Taipei, something the country has been seeking for some time. Advanced submarine technology alongside the defensive missile systems, alleged to already be part of the arms package, would make a suitable combination for an over-the-horizon defense package. In a way, imitating China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) might be Taiwan’s strongest approach to defense. What’s good enough for the gander should be good enough for the goose.

The administration is struggling at the domestic level. At the moment, while Trump’s foreign-policy focus is concentrated in the Pacific, he has gone over one hundred days and has failed to appoint key Asia policy positions across the U.S. government, hampering strategy and slowing relationship-building in an increasingly heated region. It might well be that the arms package never gets off the table, with figures inside the White House stalling the deal to appease Beijing. On the other hand, for an administration that negotiates across the board, the arms package delay might well be connected to the administration’s Korea strategy. As the situation in the Korean Peninsula is ongoing Trump could be using the prospect of a large Taiwanese arms package as leverage in the crisis. For instance, he could offer to remove items from the package or continue to defer it in exchange for tougher Chinese sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom. After the Syrian strike, Trump has developed U.S. foreign policy with Chinese characteristics, keeping Beijing guessing. China frequently caught America off guard in the past, Trump could be playing the Chinese at their own game.


Donald Trump has set the ball rolling on North Korea, but China has the next move

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The Telegraph, 27 April, 2017

The ongoing crisis in Northeast Asia continues to creep toward a possible flashpoint this week, as North Korea holds one of the largest military drills of conventional war fighting. China and Russia have both mobilized troops on North Korea’s border, though in support of the North, or in anticipation of refugee outflows, is uncertain. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has continued pushing forward its China strategy of solving this 4th North Korean Crisis.

First, it has continued to hint at the possibility of military action by testing a Minuteman III ICBM – a pressure point, one dearly hopes, for its diplomacy. Second, it has sought support for its strategy domestically, by undertaking an unprecedented briefing for the entire Senate at the White House. Third, and finally, it has opened up space for a possible resolution in the United Nations Security Council, where the United States currently holds the presidency.

As many experts have already said, the fact is that Korea is the land of bad options. We have all read how terrible a conflict on the Peninsula would be, both because of the large size and relative sophistication of the forces arrayed against each other.

North Korea’s apparent indifference to civilian casualties – clearly shown in its recent use of VR toxin in a crowded Malaysian airport – mean that it is likely to use its 13,000 artillery pieces against South Korea’s nearby capital city, Seoul.

The fact that the last conflict on the Peninsula also saw American and Chinese troops fighting for the only time during the Cold War reveals how quickly things could jump to conflict between great powers. On the other hand, it is not clear this is a crisis of Trump’s choosing.

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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…

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