By Dr. Subhash Kapila*
The United States and the Trump Administration reflect great naivety when publicly asserting that a China duplicitous for decades on North Korea’s nuclear adventurism will now cooperate with the United States in checkmating North Korea.
In 2017, the picture of North Korea with nuclear weapons and long range missiles presents a grim challenge to the United Sates for its own Homeland Security and more immediately to the sheet-anchors of US security in the Western Pacific, namely, Japan and South Korea. The challenge for the United States becomes more grim when China with considerable leverages on North Korea has pussy-footed all efforts by the United States that China should restrain its wayward North Korea ally.
In 2017, with the North Korea nuclear weapons threat acquiring menacing contours, any continuance of United States’ erstwhile policy of ‘Strategic Restraint’ and ‘Strategic Patience’ towards China and North Korea by President Trump could possibly push Japan and South Korea into respective nuclear weaponisation of their own, shherly for self-defence and survival.
The United States policy establishment is failing to realise that at the first instance it was China that created two nuclear monster rogue nations of North Korea and Pakistan by supplying them with nuclear weapons technology and also interlinking these two nations in terms of exchange of Chinese nuclear and long-range ballistic missiles technologies. China hoped that this recourse would provide it with plausible deniability exits from its sordid WMD proliferation.
The United States policy establishment even now in 2017 seemingly fails to realise that China’s strongest leverage card and strategic pressure point against the United States is a China-permissive strategically wayward nuclear weaponised North Korea attempting to gain missile reach to hit the West Coast of the United States. In the bargain, North Korea on China’s behalf keeps Japan and South Korea rattled.
The United States for years has nauseatingly trusted and had unrealistic expectations that China through its co-option in the Six Party Dialogue would assist the global community in restraining North Korea and prevailing over it to roll-back its nuclear weapons programme. China has expectedly failed to deliver on this account and rightly so as in Chinese perceptions North Korea is a Communist buffer state which not only shields China but also as a Chinese proxy state creates security concerns for the two most credible US Allies in the region, namely Japan and South Korea.
Has the United States policy establishment forgotten that China militarily intervened in the Korean War against the United States when US-led UN Forces were well on the way to unravel North Korea. If China in the 1950s could take on the sole nuclear power of the United States then with its primitive military power resting on mass peasant soldiery, what makes the Trump Administration to presume that the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017 with a colossal modernised Chinese military machine would barter away China’s strongest strategic leverage against the United States?
Does the US policy establishment seriously believe that US President Trump hosting the Chinese President at his resort in Florida could charm President Xi of China to alter China’s geopolitical course on North Korea? Rather presumptuous for a seasoned Superpower as the United States.
China is not only permissive but while retaining a plausible deniability exit encourages behind the scenes North Korea’s nuclear weapons military adventurism. China achieves three major strategic objectives in doing so. The first and immediate objective that China achieves is that Japan and South Korea are militarily under threat by China’s proxy power of North Korea. Secondly, the United States image as a credible regional nett provider of Asia Pacific security is severely dented when the United States can neither prevail over North Korea nor on China to act as a responsible stakeholder of security in the region. Lastly, China with all of the above ensures that by creating a threatening disruptive North Korea acting as its proxy, the reunification of North Korea is prevented. China is well aware that a reunified Korean Peninsula allied to the United States and with its own tremendous military might would be a game-changer at China’s door-steps.
North Korea’s might and sustainability of its disruptive strengths arise directly from the life-lines that China provides to it politically, economically and technologically in the existence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles arsenal. Should China wisely decide to snap its lifelines to North Korea then this Chinese proxy state would collapse and so also its threat potential that it now thrives on. But the larger question is —will China do so?
Stating the obvious, China would never succumb to reduce the leverages that a wayward nuclear weaponised North Korea provides to China. The reasons have already been spelt out above. Where does this strategic ground reality imposed by China leave the United States?
The United States is faced with complex options in the situation generated by China through its proxy state of North Korea. The easiest option of avoiding conflict and presumptuous one is that China would work with the United States in de-nuclearizing North Korea. This is already ruled out in the initial discussion.
The United States thereafter is left with the uncomfortable option of resorting to a military intervention to defang North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles capabilities by either a full scale offensive or a limited military conflict to destroy North Korea’s WMD arsenal. In either case, possibilities exist of China militarily intervening to prevent collapse of North Korea.
China under the provisions of the “1961 Sino-North Korea Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation & Mutual Assistance” is obliged to militarily intervene in case of unprovoked aggression against North Korea. But in 2017, with the entire geopolitics of Asia Pacific having changed so much, it is debatable whether China would risk an all-out war with the United States. But as China’s record shows it will go to the extremist point of brinkmanship in a face-off with the United States.
United States options of diplomatic or military coercion or even UN-imposed economic sanctions will not work in the case of North Korea. Simply, because China will continue to provide North Korea with both surface and sub-surface lifelines to sustain North Korea as China’s ‘regional spoiler state’ in North East Asia. China will also find devious ways to bypass UN economic sanctions imposed on North Korea
Following from this is the major question whether the United States under President Trump who proclaims “America First” as an important tenet of his political mission would have the will to use America’s overwhelming military power to tame North Korea and checkmate China’s disruptive potential in propping rogue nuclear weapons states like North Korea and Pakistan? Or will President Trump like previous American Presidents “temporise” with China under the mistaken precepts of ‘Strategic Restraint’ and ‘Risk Aversion’?
In conclusion, it is too early to predict whether the United States opts for the required ‘hard decisions’ when it comes to North Korea and its strategic patron, China. It all depends on the United States ultimately- whether it wishes to sustain its status as the global Superpower or allow itself to slip a few notches below in deference to China. The call is on the United States and the global community is watching whether US President Trump will ‘walk the talk.’
*Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at [email protected]