Strategic Space

US-North Korea Military Swashbuckling and China's Role

19 Apr, 2017    ·   5273

Dr Manpreet Sethi cautions against the risks of the evolving scenario, not least from inadvertent escalation as a result of incidents or accidents

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

Temperatures are high all across India, but this is a normal seasonal phenomenon. Far more worrisome is the soaring of temperatures between the US, North Korea and China. The military swashbuckling currently under way between the US and North Korea is of a kind that has not been seen in a long time. President Trump has indicated the end of his “strategic patience” with the North Korean actions that he sees as provocations. But not one to be cowed down, Kim Jong-un has had Choe Ryong Hae, his close military associate, boldly state, “We will respond to an all-out war with an all-out war and a nuclear war with our style of a nuclear attack.” To put adequate punch into his bluster, he celebrated the 105th anniversary of his grandfather by putting on parade a panoply of the country’s missile force. Thankfully, he did not conduct a sixth nuclear weapon test, and the missile test that he did choose to conduct, failed.

Every time US-North Korea relations flare up (and it happens regularly at this time of year since the US and South Korea hold their joint annual military drills in the region that are perceived as provocative by Pyongyang and which it responds to with its own actions), it draws attention to the role of China. The US has long expressed its belief that China can and must play a key role in counselling North Korea since Beijing is the only major economic underwriter and diplomatic supporter of Pyongyang. It is surprising though that Washington reposes such faith in China to resolve the issue for the US given that their own rivalry provides little incentive for Beijing to undertake tasks that smoothen the ride for the US in Asia. In fact, till such time as China felt it could effectively use Pyongyang to calibrate tensions with the US, it was all good. But Kim Jong-un has managed to cock a snook at Beijing through some of his recent actions that have shown up the limits of Chinese influence on the state. This has been disconcerting for China. Meanwhile, President Trump has taken a more hard-line position on North Korea that appears far less sensitive to the implications that his actions, including military ones, might have for China.

Consequently, for a change, China appears to be in the hot seat in this muddle, trying to settle frayed tempers on both sides. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged both parties to “refrain from inflammatory or threatening statements or deeds to prevent irreversible damage to the situation on the Korean peninsula.” The fact that President Trump chose to send nearly five dozen Tomahawk missiles to Syria while Premier Xi Jinping was his guest was certainly an action with messages for many quarters. His resolve to take hard, military decisions was well evident, even if the actual damage on the ground was, intentionally or unintentionally, quite limited. China has expressed its support for dialogue and has called upon both sides to stop provoking and threatening each other. It has also shown greater inclination to use some of the leverages it still has with the country especially on coal imports. President Trump’s resolve to do something about the situation, whether with Chinese support or not, appears to have shaken up Beijing to become more proactive so as to avoid a situation that could be severely adverse to it.

Undoubtedly, it would be in the interest of all stakeholders if a political solution could be found to the problem with some sort of negotiation in the Six-party talks format. The experience of multilateral diplomacy with Iran has been a positive one. But then, North Korea is a different kettle of fish and all other parties too do not have particularly cordial relations with one another. From one perspective, the talks could provide a common platform to address some of the misgivings and also build mutual trust and confidence amongst the parties. From another perspective, however, to get the process going, given the political reality of the moment, will be a huge task in itself.

One major problem appears to be the precondition of North Korean denuclearisation that US has set for negotiations. This is unrealistic and unrealisable. It may be an outcome, if at all ever, that might come about after a process of mutual trust and security-building. However, it cannot be the starting point to get Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. Given the bitter history of hostility between Washington and Pyongyang, this may be the moment for China to rise to the occasion and play a constructive role. Having been an active party in the creation of a nuclear North Korea, which seems to have now acquired a mind of its own, it would be equally important for China’s own security to rein it in through a web of measures acceptable to all sides.

For the moment though, two unpredictable leaders appear to be engaged in a game of chicken. This certainly has its risks, not least from inadvertent escalation as a result of incidents or accidents between any of the parties involved. It rests upon all the stakeholders to explore possible solutions to a problem that has persisted for nearly a quarter of a century.