US-China Off to a Calm Start After Disquiet on US Threat of Military Option Against North Korea
US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson ended his first official trip to Asia on a calmer note than he started last Wednesday with Japan, moving to South Korea Friday and then China Saturday. In what looked like an anti-climax, the trip ended on a calmer and re-assuring note in terms of great power relations between the US and China. Although the US and China have refused to be known and called the Great Two, (G-2), that is what they are indeed. The world must have felt relieved that they seem to be capable of understanding each other ahead of the April Summit between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. With two such fairly balanced power, diplomacy might still offer the best way out over their many issues in disagreement – South China Sea/Senkaku, Terminal High Altitude and Area Defense, (THAAD), modality for approaching North Korea, trade imbalance in favour of China and, above all, Taiwan. Tillerson’s meeting with the Chinese president Sunday ended smoother than expected, as far as the diplomatic rhetoric can reveal.
The China end of the trip was overshadowed by the disquiet which built up over the weekend in Asia following United States threat of broadening its options beyond diplomacy in responding to its felt challenge in North Korean nuclear arming. The declaration by Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State Friday in Seoul in his first visit to the region might have been aimed at seizing China up. Tillerson’s declaration was a day before he began the China part of his trip but after the meeting with Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart Saturday, the language changed to that of commitment to working together to get the North Korean authorities to change course. Observers opine that Tillerson might have met a Chinese counterpart adept in the game enough to put him at ease or been given information to his chagrin that the military option could be such a strategic dead end in dealing with a nuclear armed North Korea which is, to the extent of its nuclear capability, neither an Iraq nor a Libya.
The Washington Post which has comprehensively reported Tillerson’s trip to Japan, South Korea and China quoted the US Secretary Friday as saying in Seoul, South Korea that the Obama administration’s ‘strategic patience’ has elapsed as far as deterring North Korea and that a range of options had to be on the card. There is still the diplomatic option on the list of such plausible new options but the language of ‘appropriate response’ coming after discarding ‘strategic patience’ could only point at a military option. This is more so after sanctions have basically failed to humble the North Korean regime for over two decades.
The question is how feasible a military option might be in tackling North-Korea without it becoming an all-consuming affair. Not only is it speculated that some US cities are already within the reach of North-Korean strikes, North Korea could also target American troops in Japan and South Korea except if the Terminal High Altitude and Area Defense, (THAAD), were to offer foolproof protection. Analysts doubt that there is any guarantee of such proof since no one actually knows the real extent of North Korea’s capabilities, including chemical and biological weaponization. Beyond the US, Japan and South Korea, China is also vulnerable, not in the sense of being targeted but vulnerability to the disruptive consequences of regional anarchy that would be expected to follow exchange of nuclear strikes between Washington and Pyongyang in addition to specific ripple effects from North Korea such as influx of refugees and overstretching of social and infrastructural facilities in Mainland China.
The prospects of war in a region hosting six nuclear armed powers – US, China, Russia, India, North Korea and Pakistan – is bone freezing for many observers, particularly when they consider how complicated Afghanistan and Iraq became, the worldwide escalation in terrorism it resulted into. Moreover, it would return the world to an arms race never seen before as China, Russia and India would most likely develop their own responses to THAAD, if not already into that.
Going by what global media outlets are reporting, the saving grace might be the victory of Moon Jae-In, the liberal progressive candidate in the impending election in South Korea. His friendlier disposition to North Korea might lead to a situation where the two Koreas could ditch outside powers and move closer, with the prospects of constituting China, North and South Korea into a block in context and make the US a relatively lonely traveller, at least in respect of North Korea and even in great power politics in contemporary East Asia.
Chinese response to North Korea nuclear arming is bound to be too complicated and perhaps not as dramatic as the US would have wished. As much as China is seen largely as a status quo power, it is unlikely to do anything drastic that will lead to collapse of the regime in North-Korea. It is not in its national interest for the reason of their contiguity and the strategic value of a communist buffer regime. Diplomats and scholars might love such jokes as how “modern communist bureaucrats are too busy collecting capital to read Marx’s Das Kapital in Beijing” or how there are now more communists in Italy than in Beijing nowadays, the core communist-informed nationalist orientation still provides the window on the world for Chinese leaders, leaving all else to be the pragmatism required to manage the complexity they confront.