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The Telegraph, 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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Panama Has Ditched Taiwan. Here’s Why It Matters for America.

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The National Interest, 22 June, 2017

Last week’s sudden announcement by Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela that Panama would henceforth be shifting its diplomatic relations from Taiwan to mainland China was not entirely unexpected in Taipei. Tsai Ing-wen had deliberately avoided visiting the country during her visit to the region after Panamanian leaders had delayed the acceptance of Taiwan’s new ambassador there for more than six months. For Taipei, it was clear that the writing was on the wall. Varela’s decision to favor Beijing came as another hit for Taiwan after it lost two other allies in the past year.
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So what lies behind the recent moves of Taiwan’s allies to recognize Beijing instead? Part of the story relates to Taiwanese president Tsai. Coming from the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party, President Tsai’s decision not to affirm the 1992 Consensus (on One China) and her congratulatory telephone call to president-elect Donald Trump in December of last year were poorly received in Beijing. Shortly after the telephone call, one of Taiwan’s African allies, Sao Tome and Principe, suddenly announced that it was dumping Taipei in favor of Beijing. According to Zhang Baohui, an academic at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, the shift by the small African country indicated that “Beijing has a new Taiwan strategy: they’re going back to their confrontational style, and the truce with Taiwan over the past eight years is over.”

Given the fact that the United States sits astride this precarious status quo, any increase in Cross-Strait tensions directly impacts U.S. national interests. While the official U.S. policy is to support the “One China” policy and maintain close diplomatic and economic ties with China, it is also committed by domestic law to protecting Taiwan from unification-by-force. Regardless of their preferences, U.S. presidents are obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to protect Taiwan and supply it with adequate military arms. Panama’s decision to abandon Taiwan—and the general trend it represents—raises two very difficult questions for policymakers in Washington. First, what does Panama’s decision mean for control of the strategically important Panama Canal? After all, the Navy depends on the canal to shift vessels from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean—particularly if there was a Taiwan-related contingency. Second, what does Taiwan’s gradual diplomatic isolation portend for the tiny country and for the U.S. policy to defend it from mainland China. Is the policy sustainable, given the massive changes in economic and military power across the Taiwan Strait?

In answering the first question, American policymakers should take Panama’s decision seriously and would be unwise to dismiss its strategic repercussions. The canal has long had a deeply strategic aspect for the U.S. Navy, which uses the canal transit from the Atlantic theater to the Pacific theater. In case of a Taiwan contingency involving a Chinese attempt to invade the island, U.S. forces in the Atlantic would certainly attempt to transit using the canal. In a well-known article, How the United States Lost the Naval War of 2015, written by James Kraska in 2010, China uses its commercial control of the ports on either end of the canal to close off use to U.S. vessels. While much of Kraska’s article is set in a fictional universe, he draws many strategic elements from reality. Presently, a Chinese company CK Hutchison Holdings (formerly Huchison Whampoa) does own and operate the two Panamanian ports through its subsidiary Hutchison Ports. In 1996, a U.S. State Department cable alleged that Panama’s 1996 auction for the operating rights over the canal had been facilitated by a Chinese state-owned enterprise, the China Resources Enterprise, which gave $400 million to Hutchison Whampoa Limited to clinch the deal. Despite a bid that was fourth, behind a Kawasaki bid, a Bechtel bid and a M.I.T. bid, the Chinese won the deal and now have a twenty-five-year lease, with an automatic renewal for another twenty-five years.

Policymakers in the Trump administration must also consider the sustainability of the U.S. commitment to protecting Taiwan. As things stand, any attempt to abandon its defense guarantee to Taipei would most likely severely damage American credibility among its Asian and European allies. However, on the other hand, it is clear that Taiwan’s increasing diplomatic isolation and inadequate defense posture strains the relationship. If a robust deterrence is the best way to avoid war, then it is clear that both Washington and Taipei have drifted very closely to disaster. Unfortunately, there is enough blame to go around for both. Spending around 2 percent of its budget on defense, Taiwan’s defense capabilities are in need of updating. For their part, successive American administrations have sought to placate Beijing by providing less and less arms at ever-higher prices. A RAND Corporation study published in 2015 noted that high rates of spending have “allowed the PLA to narrow the gap” and that due to new air, naval and missile systems deployed by the PLA, “the US ability to achieve its objectives in a Taiwan scenario [has] continued to erode.”

The only guarantee for a peaceful transition and unification is if Taiwan’s population decides that is what it wants and if a political solution can be agreed upon by both parties. However, Beijing is still intent on attempting to absorb Taiwan economically, to isolate it diplomatically and to outgun it militarily. Despite China’s impressive rise, the fact is that—as it stands—most Taiwanese do not want to be reunified with the mainland. Having watched the salami-slicing of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and liberties, they recognize that any unification with a Communist Party-led China, would likely lead to the suppression and submersion of both their political rights and their Taiwanese identity. Any attempt by China to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force, would lead to an international crisis. For Americans, Europeans and other liberal democracies, to sit by while an authoritarian regime invaded and suppressed a democratic society would be intolerable—morally as well as politically. Consequently, American—and arguably European, Australian and Japanese—policymakers should seek to bolster Taiwan’s defense capabilities and drive Beijing toward peaceful unification scenarios. The recent news that Taiwan will raise its defense-spending to 3 percent of GDP and develop its indigenous defense industry is to be welcomed. If peace is to be maintained in the Strait, then it will be because conventional deterrence is alive and well.

 


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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 North Korea in for some Trump-style shock and awe

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The Interpreter, 14th April, 2017,

President Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he announced news of a US military strike on Syria to a stunned Xi Jinping on the final evening of the US-China Summit at Mar-e-Lago last weekend. Trump significantly raised the stakes for China on North Korea, and along with the news that the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group (CSG) had been rerouted from a planned trip to Australia to the Korean Peninsula, it told Beijing that the Administration means business.

It is already apparent that Trump’s North Korea approach is different from any of his predecessors. For one thing, he has eschewed the delicate issue of Chinese support for the rogue regime and essentially asserted that a Chinese problem demands a Chinese solution. Echoing Hwang Jang Yop, one of the most senior defectors from North Korea, Jim Schoff, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace states, ‘Trump needs a lot of help from China to make it (a deal) even potentially viable’.

By ordering the Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula in the wake of the Syria strikes, Trump puts his strongest card on the table: the possibility of unilateral military action, a nightmare scenario for China. With wide-ranging capacity to deliver deadly strikes with cruise missiles and air-to-ground munitions, the Carl Vinson and her strike group give Trump leverage that no other American president has applied to the Korean Peninsula. And while a conflict on the Peninsula is a horror scenario, it’s not clear that doing nothing is better. Sitting tight will eventually put the American heartland within range of North Korean nuclear missiles, raising the prospect that Pyongyang will see US nuclear deterrence as checked. This could in turn lead to North Korean adventurism against the South.

Moving the USS Carl Vinson is designed to intensify pressure on China to break out of the current impasse. The fundamental question is how Beijing will react to Trump’s gambit. Will China use its considerable means to stop the North Korea nuclear program – as once the US did with its allies in South Korea and Taiwan – or will it continue to insist that North Korea is somebody else’s problem?

Repeating a well-worn formula, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called for caution, with spokesman Hua Chunying asking all parties to ‘exercise restraint and avoid activities that may escalate tensions’. Such phrases, trotted out after every North Korean provocation or missile test, have been shorn of meaning and indicate China is still playing on the idea that North Korea is someone else’s problem. China has long held that it is unable to put sufficient pressure on Pyongyang because it is fearful that a strong international response towards North Korea’s nuclear program could trigger the regime’s collapse. But while a collapse of North Korea would be a disaster for the Chinese, it is unclear that full sanctions and a unified approach wouldn’t push North Korean leaders to back down long before a collapse occurred.

By holding up the worst-case scenario as the only scenario, China avoids having to deal more stringently with its ally. Yet when the US pressured Seoul to give up its nuclear program in 1975, South Korea did not immediately collapse like a house of cards. So the idea that Kim Jong-un would persist with nuclear weapons in the face of a unified sanctions regime by every major power in Asia is uncertain, to say the least. And Beijing could sweeten the deal by offering Pyongyang an alternative, like the nuclear umbrella that the US offers its allies.

Perhaps Trump’s instinctive approach toward policy will pay dividends. On Monday, a top Chinese envoy on North Korea, Wu Dawei, met with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Hong-kyun, agreeing that both countries would take stronger action if North Korea tested more nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. Given China’s tendency for vacuous statements, this is a step in the right direction. President Xi urged Trump to pursue a ‘peaceful resolution to the tensions’ during a phone call the two leaders made on Wednesday. Such rhetoric can only be due to China taking Trump’s moves on North Korea seriously, at least in part. Trump after all tweeted less than a fortnight ago that he was prepared to act unilaterally against North Korea if it does not come to heel. Whatever China’s doubts, the missile strike against Assad displayed in dramatic fashion that Trump is willing to intervene suddenly in situations that others believe to be frozen and immune to intervention.

Trump may have little time to act. The coming election in South Korea is widely predicted to bring to power a government soft on North Korea. Moon Jae-in, the likely election winner, has said no military action can be conducted without South Korean consent and that ‘South Korea should be the owner of North Korean issues’. This is meant to signal that Moon does not want either the US or China to take control of the North Korean problem, an understandable position given Seoul’s fate if military conflict does take place. Trump’s policy pushes the ball into Beijing’s court, not Seoul’s, and this will rankle with the left-of-centre Moon.

North Korea has reacted with predicable outrage both to America’s Syria strike and the deployment of the carrier group. It has called the attack on Assad ‘absolutely unpardonable’ and claims it is ready for war with the US if provoked. A spokesman from the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the ‘sudden’ dispatch of the carrier task group to the peninsula is evidence that Washington’s ‘reckless moves of invading the DPRK have reached a serious phase of its scenario’. There is no doubt that the presence of the carrier group will make North Korea feel extremely vulnerable in coming days. The danger is, of course, that it acts pre-emptively, as befitting a military and negotiating culture that has been honed under immense pressure.

All eyes are on Beijing, and the coming weeks will be critical to the course of the Korean confrontation. This month, North Korea marks several major anniversaries, the most important of which, the ‘Day of the Sun’ on 15 April, is the birthday of the state’s founder Kim Il-Sung. Significant anniversaries are usually celebrated with demonstrations of military might and weapons tests. As the carrier group moves closer to North Korea, one wonders how this day will be commemorated in the last Stalinist state.

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