Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Deterrence and the China factor in North Korea

The North Korea problem continues to march steadily towards “ultimate negotiations,” as US officials like to say – whatever that means. North Korea’s foreign minister promises an attack on the US mainland is “inevitable,” while the US flew eight warplanes over the country.

Those US Airforce B-1B long-range bomber’s mission was to fly at night, without an F-35B fighter escort and tracked the farthest north of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) than at any time in the 21st century. Pentagon spokespeople said all of this “sends a clear message the [US] President has many military options to defeat any threat.”

Around the same time as the bombers, North Korea announced it wants to conduct atmospheric thermonuclear tests somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. It’s been 40 years since a nuke was tested in the atmosphere, and that was in a controlled environment within the national territory of China. Washington has tolerated previous nuclear tests, none of which had venting or showed concerns for environmental and regional safety. A Pacific test would be very different indeed.

But the whole thing sounds too much like hyperbole. What are the location details of the test? Will Pyongyang release a notice to mariners and airmen? Will it set up a closure zone? Or will it just take its chances? Who knows?

I've previously explained the broader dynamics in East Asia, arguing that starting the historical analysis clock at 1950 isn’t helpful. The whole thing is part of a much larger picture. But that doesn’t show why a country with the second-largest number of deliverable nuclear weapons (about 6,900) feels like it’s in existential danger from a country that might have eleven.

There are two proximate reasons for this: loss of US deterrence and China. The US has eviscerated its deterrence over the last ten years after it skedaddled from Iraq in 2011, set fake red-lines in Syria, speed-bombed Libya, talked tough on Ukraine and allowed five nuclear deadlines pass for Iran. Historians can decide the usefulness of any of those crises, but today its adversaries have judged that making threats without consequences is just plain stupid.

North Korea, on the other hand, enjoys pretending it is insane – a value when playing nuclear poker. It knows that deterrence isn’t easy when you’re willing to eat grass and lose your cities just to get a shot at Portland or Seattle. The lesson is deterrence works, especially when one side forgets how to do it.

Washington has had plenty of opportunities to correct its course and create deterrence. William Perry, the US Secretary of Defence with the Clinton administration, said the US could build an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system, but thinking that North Korea could ever threaten the US mainland was absurd, so he mothballed it along with the “Star Wars” ABM before his boss cancelled it.

Even Barack Obama was caught on a hot microphone in 2012 talking with the outgoing Russian president Dimitri Medvedev about how the US could be “flexible” about missile defence in Eastern Europe if he would just tell Vladimir Putin to behave until he got re-elected. Poland isn’t so happy about Mr Obama’s “flexibility” either and feels more than a little betrayed.

Back in East Asia, the ultimate winner of US fretting has been China. Beijing has clearly told its pet in Pyongyang to continue acting insane. Because the more Kim Jon Un throws his toys around, the less obvious will be China’s bullying of Taiwan, South Korean, Japan and the Philippines.

Beijing would like everyone to think it has little influence over North Korea, but Mr Trump isn’t fooled. He is calling China’s bluff by saying if Beijing isn’t an adversary and truly wants to be a part of the “international community,” then North Korea is a good opportunity to prove China can be a responsible power. Good move, Mr President.

Eating grass, losing cities
However, if none of the pieces on the chessboard moves, what else can the US do? Washington won’t commit to a pre-emptive strike just yet, especially when South Korea is reticent to contribute combat operations, and it’s getting pretty tight in East Asia. But again, the answer is to be found in China and in the US building up its deterrence capital.

One way could be to expel every member of the Chinese Communist Party from the US, along with their children, and encourage its allies to do the same. It could also freeze Chinese business accounts for every detected cyber-intrusion. And it could say if South Korea and Japan want to go nuclear to help with their own self-defence, the US will let them make that decision.

That’ll make Beijing listen. China doesn’t want South Korea, Japan and maybe Taiwan to join Russia, Pakistan, India and Iran as nuclear powers on its borders. That’s not a great scenario for Beijing. All this might sound far-fetched, but thinking creatively and thinking the unthinkable is the only way to avoid nuclear war.

Finally, all the talk about Russian collusion in the US election has discovered exactly zero evidence so far. It’s been one giant fishing expedition. But the major effect was that Washington lost the valuable Russian card in East Asia. The US can re-develop this relationship quickly by pointing out that Russia is just as averse to more democratic, pro-American countries on its border as China is.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of mess that happens when an imperial power refuses to accept that it is, actually, an empire. The American empire is in its teenage years, and everyone knows it’s difficult to get teenagers to take responsibility for anything. But the rest of us can’t wait until it stops hating its father and finds a job. It needs to decide what it wants to do.

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