Asia is now closer to a devastating conflict than at any time since the fall of Saigon in 1975.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent declaration that Washington is considering a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea does not represent any significant change in American policy. For more than 20 years now, American leaders have repeatedly threatened to attack Pyongyang, largely as a way of keeping it off balance, and re-assuring restive allies in Japan and South Korea that the U.S. cares about their security.
Still, Tillerson’s statement is important, not least because of its compelling political context. To begin with, Tillerson knows that North Korea has either already developed the ballistic missile means to deliver nuclear weapons to the northwest quadrant of the United States, or will develop them soon — probably within 24-36 months. This is a situation that American policy makers have long said they cannot accept. President Trump himself recently stated that the realization of a North Korean nuclear threat against the United States will “never happen” on his watch.
Then there is Trump himself, who much like the Kim Family Dynasty in North Korea, exudes massive amounts of unpredictability, particularly when it comes to guaranteeing his own survival. Nothing has made this clearer than his craven attempts to divert attention from the ongoing press, congressional and FBI investigations into his possible ties to Russia during the 2016 American presidential campaign — investigations that plainly imperil his presidency. Not only did he accuse his presidential predecessor of bugging his offices in the immediate run-up to the election, he also doubled down on the claim by accusing GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, of carrying out the bugging on his predecessor’s orders.
Among other things this begs the question of what Trump might do were his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia to morph from the speculative to the proven, and weaken his hold on power. After all, accusing a former president of the United States of committing a felony is hardly a minor matter. Nor, for that matter, is trashing the U.S.’s closest ally. In the aggregate they suggest a virtually unlimited capacity to go for the jugular in times of political peril. Just how unlimited might this capacity become? Given the compelling danger that North Korea’s nuclear delivery program now represents to the United States, that is a critical question.
The Chinese option
There is a very good reason why the United States has so far refrained from attacking North Korea. American experts believe that even a modest American strike on the North — targeting individual missile sites or other components of North Korea’s nuclear program — would provoke Pyongyang to hit back with sustained artillery and rocket barrages on the South Korean capital of Seoul, and might even tempt it to deploy one or more of its estimated 20-40 nuclear weapons against South Korea, Japan, or both. Were the American strike to go beyond the nuclear program — were it to target the Kim Family Dynasty itself — then the North Korean response would be that much greater, probably involving a nuclear bombardment the likes of which the world has never seen.
Up until now of course, American efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program, including its missile delivery systems, have focused on leveraging Chinese pressure against Pyongyang. The U.S. assumption has always been that in the absence of its own levers of pressure, China is the next best thing, not least because it keeps the North Korean regime afloat financially and shares with it a common political tradition.
At least to a limited extent, China has done what the United States has asked of it, among other things by occasionally compromising North Korea’s economic lifeline (the most recent iteration of this included severe cuts in China’s imports of North Korean coal), and by publicly criticizing North Korean policies, particularly those relating to nuclear development. But China’s actions have always been constrained by its fear of bringing the entire North Korean regime down, and so provoking not only a flood tide of North Korean refugees into Northeast China, but even worse, establishing an American-aligned administration throughout the Korean Peninsula.
Ominously for China, the United States is now losing patience with Beijing’s piecemeal approach. This was underscored on March 17 when President Trump tweeted: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!” While some of this rhetoric was almost certainly designed to ratchet up pressure on Beijing, it also suggested that the clock is now ticking on an American strike against North Korea — a strike that could easily turn large parts of Northeast Asia into uninhabitable cinder piles. Whether this happens or not will depend not only on China’s willingness to confront Pyongyang head on, but also on Trump’s political situation at home. The more he feels threatened by the ongoing inquiries into his campaign’s ties to Russia, the more he may be tempted to act, notwithstanding the horrendous humanitarian consequences his actions would provoke.
Where we go from here
It must be emphasized that a pre-emptive American strike against North Korea is still not a done deal. To begin with, many people in the United States security establishment would much rather live under the shadow of a North Korean nuclear threat than risk a nuclear conflagration that could easily cost tens of thousands of South Korean and Japanese lives and destroy billions of dollars in South Korean and Japanese property. At the same time, it is also likely that the Chinese leadership will do everything in its power to bring Pyongyang to heel on its nuclear development program, even at the cost of risking the collapse of the Kim Family Dynasty. Among other things, it might well seek a bargain under which the U.S. would agree to withdraw its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system from South Korea in exchange for some quid pro quo involving strictures being placed on North Korean missile development or the North Korean nuclear arsenal. THAAD is designed to intercept North Korea’s medium range missiles. It is strongly opposed by China itself, which sees it not only as a threat to North Korea, but also to its own military assets, largely because of its highly sophisticated monitoring capabilities.
It is tragic of course that a besieged American president might provoke that war at least in part to divert attention from his political troubles at home. It is even more tragic that he might be able to get away with it, if only because North Korea’s missile development program appears to provide him with the kind of cover he needs to convince the American public he is acting responsibly.
At the same time however, there is little doubt that Asia is closer to a devastating war than at any time since the fall of Saigon in 1975. It is tragic of course that a besieged American president might provoke that war at least in part to divert attention from his political troubles at home. It is even more tragic that he might be able to get away with it, if only because North Korea’s missile development program appears to provide him with the kind of cover he needs to convince the American public he is acting responsibly.
Implications for Taiwan
At least on the face of things, Taiwan does not seem to be directly involved in the developing military face-off in northeast Asia, always excepting of course its unfortunate geographical location close to the locus of any potential conflict. But this ignores the far-reaching political dislocation that such a conflict would bring.
To be sure, were the conflict to be confined to just the two Koreas and Japan, Taiwan might emerge from it relatively unscathed, though almost certainly its economy would take a major hit. On the other hand though, were China to join the fighting on the side of North Korea, all bets would be off. This is because Beijing could use the enormous political dislocation caused by a major Asian war as a cover to move against Taiwan militarily. There is little doubt that many people in the Chinese military establishment would crave just such an opportunity, not least because they have been waiting for it for so long. The political establishment might also be tempted to come on board, particularly if it felt threatened by slowing economic growth at home — a situation that at least on the basis of Premier Li Keqiang’s recent dour remarks at the National People’s Congress in Beijing seems very close to fruition.
The question of course is: would China join the fight. It would certainly have a lot to lose, not least in economic terms, and also because it still lags far behind the United States in its ability to project military power. Yet a Chinese regime so heavily vested in a Chinese nationalistic narrative might find it hard to resist displaying its nationalistic credentials on something as crucial as the deployment of military power in own back yard. That would be very bad for the region as a whole, and obviously, for Taiwan in particular. We’re still many months from any of this happening of course, but the clock is ticking down. Watch this space with concern.