A bad time to pick a fight with China
By David A. Andelman
Updated 9:07 AM ET, Fri January 27, 2017
North Korea is talking about launching a test of its first intercontinental missile capable of reaching America's West Coast. China is planting its flag ever more firmly in the South China Sea, expanding its network of artificial islands. A host of nations that surround these virulently contested waters are making nice to China since President Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And South Korea's government is in a major meltdown.
David A. Andelman
Into this stew pot of political, diplomatic and economic turmoil has stepped Donald Trump. The first sally by the new Trump administration came Monday when White House press secretary Scott Spicer told the world that "the US is going to make sure we protect our interests" in the South China Sea. And now Trump is sending his secretary of defense to Japan and South Korea next week, the first foreign trip by a top member of his administration.
In a nod to all these hazards, and more, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Thursday moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight, marking the increased likelihood of global catastrophe, and the closest to midnight we've been since the darkest days of the Cold War in the 1950s.
None of the recent actions and comments from the Trump administration can be seen in Beijing and Pyongyang as anything but an in-your-face provocative move, especially in the wake of a succession of tough tweets and stump speeches that punctuated Trump's entire presidential campaign.
Then, there was the decision by the president-elect during the transition period to break with four decades of precedent, taking a phone call from Taiwan's President and suggesting that a one-China policy may no longer be a bedrock principle for dealing with Beijing, which considers the island off its shores an integral part of its nation.
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The timing of James Mattis' trip and White House pronouncements are especially toxic given what North Korea sees as an existential provocation: joint military exercises between forces of Japan, South Korea and the US Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea.
On Wednesday, a senior North Korean official warned that his country was ready to conduct its first test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile "at any time, at any place." Choe Kang Il, deputy director general for North American affairs at North Korea's foreign ministry, told NBC's Bill Neely, "Our measures to bolster our nuclear arsenal are all defensive in nature ? to defend our sovereignty and to cope with the persistent nuclear blackmail and threats by the United States against our country."
There is little doubt after five nuclear tests that North Korea does possess a nuclear weapon, though it has never succeeded in launching an ICBM. Still, the increasingly bellicose statements from Pyongyang have spread fear from Seoul to Tokyo, both of which lie easily within the deliverable range of existing, short-range North Korean missiles, of which at least 20 were successfully tested last year. All this has been met so far with little more than bluster from Trump. "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!" the then-president-elect tweeted on January 2.
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So, while the Mattis visit can be seen as reassuring to the leaderships of South Korea and Japan, it must be accompanied by some reassurances to China that the Trump administration has not abandoned all ideas of maintaining at least civil ties. So far, no such language has been forthcoming. At the same time, Trump has shown little inkling of recognizing the central role China plays in maintaining peace and restraining the more outrageous adventures from Pyongyang.
China in turn recognizes the strong hand it does hold in the region, which Trump, perhaps inadvertently, is strengthening even further. China may hold ultimate control over the actions of Kim Jong Un, North Korea's youthful autocrat.
Removing any Chinese subsidies from that country is a major pressure point that could restrain Kim Jong Un's hand, but could also send North Korea spiraling into a potentially catastrophic slide toward famine and disarray. Of course, this is a path neither China nor South Korea wants.
The South does not want to see the North come unhinged and have to take over this all-but-dysfunctional nation, especially as it sorts out its own deep political disarray. China does not want to see a unified Korean peninsula on its doorstep or have to step in and assume direct control.
At the same time, China can only view Trump's decision to withdraw from the TPP with delight tinged with caution. On the one hand, this intemperate American decision is only calculated to push many Asian nations that have counted on this agreement that held the promise of neutralizing Chinese influence in the region, to make nice with the nation that is now clearly dominant, cementing a regional leadership that Trump should prefer to avoid.
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Such a renewal of Chinese power would make it even less likely to negotiate any kind of favorable trade or tariff pact with the United States. And it would leave China with an open mandate to pursue its will in the South China Sea. As GOP Sen. John McCain tweeted on Monday: "Withdrawing from #TPP abdicates US leadership in #Asia to #China - US can't win if we forfeit opportunity."
And now, along comes Mattis at a most inopportune moment, indeed the very moment when it would appear that America's once manifold options for dominance in China's backyard may now be reduced to a single option: the US Seventh Fleet.
Mattis as high-level envoy would only seem to give renewed credence to that scenario. The United States is about to base its state-of-the-art Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system in South Korea, upsetting both China and North Korea, against whose threat it is principally directed.
The trip is no doubt intended in large part to reassure America's leading Asian allies that it has not abandoned them, that they don't need to rush out and start building their own nuclear deterrents. Still, one country's gesture of support can easily be construed as another country's existential threat.
As a candidate, Trump called North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un a "bad dude" and a "maniac," but also offered to meet him over a hamburger to discuss how the two nations might get along peacefully. Somehow, events have been pushing the region in a different direction, but perhaps a bit of respect might just turn the tide.
As North Korean diplomat Choe observed: "Whoever is president should recognize that North Korea is a nuclear power and a military giant." Such recognition may before too very long become a necessity the world will need to accept and deal with.
What the Trump administration may not be so prepared to deal with, however, is a tinder spark along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or the fallout from a blockade of Chinese islands in the South China Sea, as Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer blusters "access to those island is not going to be allowed." That's the kind of talk that can all too quickly spiral out of control. In this part of the world, particularly, words matter.