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A Reborn Quadrilateral to Deter China

The Interpreter, 9 November, 2017

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Recent news that Australia’s Foreign Minister has indicated interest in taking part in a resurrected US-Australia-Japan-India quadrilateral dialogue on the sidelines of the upcoming ASEAN Summit is to be welcomed. It is an indication how much the strategic situation in the Asia Pacific has shifted. Positive as this latest development might be, it should nonetheless be regarded with caution.

The ‘Quadrilateral’ was never an alliance. It was a loose geostrategic alignment of states concerned with China’s potential challenge to their interests, but simultaneously, unwilling to provoke China by assuming the obligatory mechanisms of an alliance. Even then it buckled under pressure. Accused of being a NATO-in-the-making, it was far too full of self-doubt to be effective.

Chinese diplomatic opposition to the forum was keenly felt in June 2007 after Beijing issued demarches to all four countries, but Canberra’s asymmetric economic dependence meant that Australia felt it more than most. Within months of winning the election in 2007, Kevin Rudd’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith unilaterally withdrew Australia from the quadrilateral during a February 2008 meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. While Australia was not the only country suffering internal divisions about the issue – there were doubters among the senior-most levels of the US Department of State and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs – it was the first to break ranks.

At the root of Australia’s indecision has been something common to all the great and middle powers in the region: how to apportion China a regional leadership role while attempting to shape its choices away from illiberal or hegemonic designs.

Sadly, in the years since, China has shown ever-increasing signs of assertiveness in its approach to the region. It has used military coercion and an unprecedented militarisation of maritime sea lanes in the South China Sea; its strategy is both at odds with regional practice and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite regional attempts to resolve disputed maritime claims peacefully, Beijing has cynically played for time over the establishment of a Code of Conduct while using economic leverage to prevent ASEAN unanimity.

China’s geostrategic ambitions have become global with the massive, multi-billion dollar, decades-long Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It promises a new age of Chinese leverage over the Asian heartland, as well as a real attempt at internationalising the RMB without giving over political control.

No doubt, this dialogue on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit will feel the full weight of China’s diplomatic pressure. Even in announcing its openness to a meeting, Bishop’s language was ambiguous: ‘…it’s natural that we should continue to have such discussions, but there is nothing formal. There is no decision on that.’ Chinese diplomats are likely to issue demarches and make phone calls to all four capitals.

While no one wishes to have a China backed into a corner, fearful of a NATO in Asia, is that really what is taking place? From one perspective, a rising power with quasi-hegemonic designs is trying to prevent a loose coalition of states from organising themselves in a constraining and deterring bloc. And while it is absolutely in China’s interests to do that, is it in ours to acquiesce?

If the quadrilateral format is embraced, the four may find that despite initial protests, Beijing will ultimately accept that each have their own interests and the power to define those interests. This week we have seen Beijing accept – after a year of diplomatic pressure – Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD missile-defence systems on its soil. South Korea stuck to its ground while simultaneously seeking to ameliorate China’s concerns, eventually winning China over.

The quadrilateral members should adopt that lesson as their own. We must ask ourselves: by avoiding collective security arrangements in 2008, did we persuade China to behave as a model citizen in the region? We must choose actions that meet our own strategic concerns and not China’s. For this reason, the quadrilateral makes sense.

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As Trump visits Asia, is China replacing US power in the region?

The Telegraph, 8 November 2017

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Donald Trump’s trade policy is making America’s allies vulnerable to Chinese pressure, but this doesn’t signal the end of American dominance

As Donald Trump continues his long tour around Asia, the question is whether the President will be able to articulate a strategy toward the region at a critical time in its history. Having rejected Barack Obama’s signature policies – the Pivot to Asia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which were meant to balance China’s rise with continued American leadership – it is not clear what he will put in their place.

It is not even clear if the region will wait for him to make up his mind, with a number of states asking very serious questions about the US’s staying power in the region. Given the fact that some predict that Asia will make up 40 per cent of the global economy by 2050, the question of who leads the region will have global implications.

In terms of regional integration, Trump’s brand of “America First” economics is looking distinctly at odds with Asia’s move towards ever-closer liberalization. While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made sure the president felt welcome in Tokyo on Monday, he did not budge on the possibility of a bilateral trade deal.

He and other leaders have decided to press on with the TPP without the US. Abe and the other 16 national leaders are expected to announce the continuation of TPP at the next APEC summit. The Master of the Deal may leave the region without getting one, it seems.

And US strategy is not only floundering in the economic sphere. Just days before Trump embarked for the region, America’s ally South Korea buckled under Chinese diplomatic and economic pressure with regards to the THAAD missile system.

Some estimates put the total damage to Korean business at $10 billion, and Seoul eventually agreed not to host any additional THAAD systems, to not participate in a US missile defence system, and finally, to avoid participating in a US-Japan-South Korea alliance. Meanwhile Trump’s insistence on renegotiating the Bush-era KORUS free trade agreement adds economic tensions to this blow to military interoperability.

China’s attempts to loosen Washington’s alliances is evident throughout the region. In addition to Seoul’s recent reversal, Beijing has applied economic leverage with great success to Australia and the Philippines. A growing clique in Canberra argue for an “independent” foreign policy that does not upset Beijing.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s noncommittal stance toward a revived US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral last weekend was clearly meant to avoid antagonizing China. Similarly, the Philippines – a crucial state in the geostrategic struggle over the South China Sea – has openly shifted closer to China under the leadership of its president, Rodrigo Duterte.

In all this, China is giving a warm welcome in Beijing to the American President, but it may be the consoling arm of a state that sees itself in the ascendancy. In the wake of October’s 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping stands in marked contrast to his American guest.

At the pinnacle of the Chinese state, Xi has amassed more power around himself since Chairman Mao Zedong and is fostering a surge in Chinese nationalism and pride. He has helped push through a number of organizational reforms that have strengthened China’s increasingly modern military and commands an economy that still grows at a healthy 6.3 per cent.

Yet despite this gloomy prognosis, it is not at all clear that Beijing will succeed in becoming the region’s or the world’s greatest superpower.

For one thing, Xi’s brand of anti-Western authoritarianism and hard-nosed mercantilism may actually increase pressure on China’s structural weaknesses, as Chinese universities experience brain drain to their Western competitors.

Furthermore, China’s policy of pushing its inefficient state owned enterprises (SOEs) to invest into the landmark Belt and Road Initiative risks worsening China’s debt of $22 trillion, by lending billions to states who will be unable to repay them.

Hedge fund manager Kyle Bass estimates that in a debt crisis, Beijing’s loses could total five times those of the US subprime crisis of 2007-10. Then there is the demographic challenge, which threatens to make China old before it becomes rich. Its working population began declining in 2015 and according to Chi Ho, a senior economist, China’s share of population over 65 will increase from 9 per cent to 30 per cent by 2040.

Geostrategically, China can capitalize on the loosening of ties between regional states and the “untrustworthy” Trump administration in the near-term. However, Beijing will be undone by its own long-term grand ambitions.

Encroaching on the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and India’s northern border, Beijing has needlessly made firm geopolitical opponents where before there were none.

Tokyo, Delhi, and Hanoi all view Chinese encroachment on their territory with likeminded resolve and have begun to develop closer defence links with each other and with Washington. Australia notwithstanding, the most interesting news this year is that the US-Japan-India trilateral will be reinvigorated by closer defence cooperation.

By comparison, the US has much to offer – despite the president’s personal lack of popularity – in structural terms if not soft power. As Joseph Nye noted in a recent Financial Times piece, US shale-energy independence and currency advantages contrast favourably with China’s vulnerable shipping lines and its weak currency.

While China has attempted to internationalize its renminbi currency, 64 per cent of international foreign reserves are in the dollar, with only 1.1 per cent in renminbi. Furthermore, US liberalism contrasts very well with China’s authoritarian-style interference in the region, and this will only increase as Xi’s China becomes more authoritarian.

Australia was hit by revelations this year of Chinese interference in its education and political system. Polls taken in 2017 also show that 3.1 per cent of Hongkongers identify as Chinese.

Finally, in its rise, China has attempted to side-line the region’s second largest power, Japan. While this sounds trivial, Japan’s still-sizable population, regional diplomacy, strong defence capabilities, and place as the world’s third largest economic power show the depth of this mistake.

Trump’s warm welcome in Tokyo may well serve as a metaphor for how Japan will keep the US in the region over the next four years; even now, Japanese diplomats have fostered relations with the Philippines to balance against a total shift toward China.

Aides close to Abe admit to keeping a space on the TPP for the Americans to “dock in” in some future date. Whatever the case, the stakes could not be much higher in a region set to be the engine of the global economy. How Trump and the United States get through the trip – and the next four years – remain critical.


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 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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