BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
President Donald J. Trump has been on a diplomatic sojourn throughout Asia this last week. As he so often does, the President made a retinue of headlines that sent his political rivals into conniption fits and heartened his supporters. However, the thrust of the trip pertains to foreign policy and the importance of the presidential mission today in Asia is to relate American intentions to an increasingly contested, highly important region of the world. Serving as a delicious backdrop in all of this has been the vicious, nuclear dance that North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has engaged in with President Trump (as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping, the South Korean leadership, Japan, and to a lesser extent, Russia).
Previously, I wrote an assessment stating my belief that conflict is unlikely to occur between the United States and North Korea in the next 18 months. However, once North Korea has reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of threatening the mainland United States, the entire metrics change. The issue is not if some form of conflict over North Korea’s nuclear program erupts but when. This will not happen until tensions have simmered down and the North has had the requisite time to invest in and expand its nuclear program–specifically to develop truly functional ICBMs.
The DIA reports that the North Koreans are roughly 18 months away from accomplishing this task. Recently, CIA Director Mike Pompeo has argued more vaguely that the North is mere “months” away from having a working ICBM arsenal. Irrespective of which agency is more accurate (though, to be fair, the DIA has been correct about North Korea’s nuclear development going back to 2013, when they accurately stated that the North had the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads), the fact remains that time is not on America’s side with North Korea.
President Trump’s speech in Seoul, South Korea has been widely criticized. Yet, his speech in Seoul (much like his speech earlier this year in Warsaw) was a necessary step in the right direction for American foreign policy. In this speech, Trump reiterated his commitment to standing up to the North Korean “mad dog”; he insisted that all of the world stand united in its opposition to the North’s continued reckless aggression. Trump also had an historic meeting in the People’s Republic of China with his counterpart, Xi Jinping. There, the two men got along amicably, looked for common ground in the economic realm, and apparently walked away with mutual feelings of respect and goodwill.
Yet, is this the stuff that great alliances are made of?
Keep in mind, that in the run-up to the meeting with President Xi, China’s intelligence services spent weeks analyzing and interpreting every piece of footage that they could scrounge up on Donald Trump, in order to understand his body language. This is a common practice of intelligence services, but we mustn’t forget that for the Chinese leadership, deception and subterfuge are their preferred methods when dealing with foreigners–particularly Americans, whom they view as gullible and short-sighted. As proof of this, the only real thing that came out of the Trump-Xi summit was more trade deals that maximize President Trump’s political strength at home but actually do little to further any real foreign policy agenda or an agenda that would protect American workers from Chinese economic warfare. It is likely that President Trump, believing that the North Korean threat is far more pressing than longer-term considerations of trade imbalances and Chinese economic warfare, opted to seek common ground with his Chinese interlocutors. In building common ground, the Trump Administration probably thinks that it can create the foundations of a necessary (albeit temporary) alliance in preventing North Korea from truly threatening the stability of the region.
This makes sense. Though, given the history of Sino-American relations, it is unlikely that this tactic will do anything other than buy China (and North Korea) more time to increase their strength relative to the United States. Even as the Trump-Xi summit was underway, the United States Navy tested a hypersonic weapon that is clearly intended to overcome the growing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) technologies that have been proliferated over the last decade from Russia to China; and North Korea to Iran. These technologies could conceivably prevent the United States from fully bringing its forces to bear, in the event it needed to either preemptively strike or retaliate against countries like North Korea or even states like China. In fact, within 24 hours after the United States Navy tested its hypersonic weapon, the Chinese military reciprocated. Many intelligence analysts disbelieve that the exhibition of China’s hypersonic weapon, the DF-ZF, was related at all to the U.S. Navy’s test. However, the message remains the same, whether the two events were causally related or merely coincidental: the Chinese were letting the world know that anything the U.S. military could do, China’s military could do just as good, if not better.
SKIP TO 7:33 ON VIDEO TO SEE IMAGES OF CHINESE HYPERSONIC WEAPONS.
Why did China conduct such a test? Was it to coordinate with an American military move to show solidarity with the Americans in the face of North Korean aggression. Unlikely. The Chinese have never lost sight of their biggest issue: displacing the United States in Asia and becoming the unquestioned regional hegemon.
As President Trump works his way throughout Asia, American naval forces continue streaming into the region. Even now, a record-number of American warships are operating in the Sea of Japan (operating alongside Indian and Japanese naval forces)–this is a clear threat to the Chinese, who have predicated their long-term strategic ambitions on being able to keep America’s military power just over-the-horizon. After 9/11, American leaders excessively focused on the Middle East and fighting jihadist terror. Today, American leaders continue obsessing over Russian revanchism in Eastern Europe, Syria, and beyond. Yet, for years, American policymakers have effectively ignored the Asia-Pacific, believing that the rapid rise of prosperity and the ready embrace of free markets meant that the Asia-Pacific would effectively sort itself out peacefully.
This, of course, was not so.
The more the American Navy in particular stepped back from the region, in order to focus on “more pressing” parts of the world, the Chinese stepped in to fill the void. First, they acted amicably and humbly, employing their “peaceful rise” strategy to woo their neighbors. But, by 2010, this happy strategy was reaching its limits–and the Chinese leadership, I believe, was reaching the end of its patience. Japan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan all remained intransigent to critical aspects of Beijing’s strategic goals for the region in the absence of a sizable, reliable American military presence. Plus, the Obama Administration’s conciliatory actions abroad reinforced a Chinese perception that the United States was in permanent, inexorable decline (made possible by the twin crises of the Global War on Terror and the Great Recession of 2008). By 2012, Xi Jinping replaced the diminutive Hu Jintao as president of China and rapidly aggregated as much power toward himself as possible, reinforcing the Chinese Communist Party’s political control (with himself at the center), and becoming increasingly belligerent abroad.
Things have only worsened since 2012.
In the words of preeminent international relations analyst, David P. Goldman, when it comes to North Korea, China is “behaving as both the arsonist and the fire brigade.” Sure, Chinese control over North Korea is nowhere near as great as many Western observers perceive it to be. However, China’s control over North Korea does exist. They simply choose to implement such control in ways that serve Chinese strategic interests. Sometimes that means reining in the North, but more often than not, that means playing both the United States and North Koreans off each other.
There is unlikely to be any kind of significant Sino-American alliance out of this miasma. Despite whatever the news or administration may be portraying things as, nothing has significantly changed. North Korea is still gunning for South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Meanwhile, China continues to view the United States as its greatest threat, and is making calculations accordingly. Further, there will likely not be any wish for conflict on Kim Jong-un’s part until he has a reliable ICBM nuclear missile arsenal. The increased presence of U.S. naval forces in the region might make things quiet down a bit, although given the fact that such forces further empowers America’s position in the region–at the expense of the Russians or Chinese–long-term American naval presence in the region beyond what we have currently, might just make a conflict with China more than likely as opposed less likely.
Further, with three American aircraft carrier groups conducting operations in the Sea of Japan, this constrains American capabilities elsewhere in our troubled world, making us more vulnerable to attack. While we seem to be mopping up ISIS quite nicely, the real threat over the next 18 months is not going to be North Korea. Instead, it is likely going to be containing and handling the malicious spread of the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout the Mideast. In fact, any potential conflict with Iran–whether it be a renewal of the previous frosty relationship with Iran or an actual (God forbid) conflict with Iran–will only serve to destabilize an already chaotic Mideast whilst empowering the Russians (since taking a hostile footing with Iran would cause global oil prices to spike, thereby economically empowering the Russians, and breathing new–albeit temporary–life into their declining state). Inevitably, the bulk of those American forces will need to be redeployed to their respective usual areas of operation (i.e. the Persian Gulf).
So, America’s rivals (namely China, North Korea, and Russia) fully understand that given ongoing constraints upon the American force, the increased American naval presence is temporary at best. They can all make plans accordingly. Plus, our rivals in the region aren’t stupid: they fully understand that this is nothing more than a stunt; a show of force for President Trump’s whirlwind trip throughout the region. The increased force in the region was meant to buttress Trump’s tough talk on North Korea. Don’t get me wrong, it was a necessary move on the Trump Administration’s part. But, the idea that North Korea just so happened to de-escalate on their missile launches when these forces and the President were traveling throughout the region are not coincidental.
Take for example, the fact that when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled the region in March of this year, Kim Jong-un went rocket crazy again. However, when Secretary of Defense James Mattis traveled throughout the region, Kim Jong-un went quiet and the Chinese got conciliatory with the United States. Once Mattis departed, things in the region resumed to their usual level of instability. In both Chinese and North Korean society–two countries dominated by ethnically Han elites–status, personality, and power dictates how one will be treated. Neither the State Department nor Tillerson are well-respected by Kim Jong-un. However, both Mattis and Trump–two tough guys from the fearsome American military–are most certainly respected. Plus, the North understands that testing weapons when Trump is so nearby would be an insane postulation, since he would rightly take it as a direct challenge and insult, and would be compelled to act accordingly. Also, Trump’s bombastic language, while offensive to Western elites, is conducive for handling the North Koreans.
However, in the days leading up to President Trump’s visit to China, the Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to Kim Jong-un which read:
“I wish that under the new situation the Chinese side would make efforts with the DPRK side to promote the relations between the two parties and the two countries to sustainable soundness and stable development and thus make a positive contribution to providing the peoples of the two countries with more wonderful happiness and defending regional peace and stability and common prosperity.”
It is my assessment that the Chinese are playing everyone involved–including President Trump. They have no ability or intention to rein in their wayward North Korean wards. For his part, Wang Sheng, a professor Korean studies at China’s Jilin University disbelieves that relations between China and North Korea could get any worse and instead believes that relations will experience a positive turn, “because there is no major obstacle between two countries except Pyongyang’s nuclear programme [sic].” In fact, recently, China refused to cut off North Korea’s oil supply, despite the increase in tensions between North Korea and the West, and in spite of claiming to want better relations with the United States under President Trump.
China fears instability on the peninsula and worries that placing too much pressure on North Korea could cause the regime to destabilize and collapse, sending hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees streaming into China, allowing for the unification of the Korean Peninsula under democratic Seoul, and potentially allowing for the presence of tens of thousands of American troops on China’s border.
Besides, China enjoys having North Korea as a strategic lever and foil to use against the United States. Every time the North acts insane, it forces American leaders–regardless of party–to trek to Beijing and kowtow before the Politburo, and give away more of America’s economic advantages in the form of modestly fair trade deals (if you’re lucky), all in return for an opaque promise from the Chinese to get their North Korean neighbor under control–at some unknown point in the future.
This, unfortunately, is precisely happened with the Trump-Xi summit in China. It’s not because Trump was ineffective. In fact, I actually think the securing of Chinese investment in West Virginia’s coal country was a fair trade deal that Trump inked with Xi. However, when Chinese state media starts praising you as a great leader, one must take umbrage. The reason that the Chinese were so happy was because they need any and all natural resources flowing to them.
Plus, the Chinese are looking to offload manufacturing, industrial capabilities, so that they can focus on becoming a consumption-based, knowledge-economy that will lead the 21st century. As David Goldman of the Asia Times Online said recently: the Chinese would love for the United States to take on the trade portfolio of Brazil. Why? Because the United States would no longer be the threat we currently pose to an ascendant China. Instead, we’d become just another dirty producer of stuff for China; we would switch positions with China in the global economy, and they would become the real leader of the 21st century international order.
This is not something anyone should be cheering for.
Recently, I wrote a thought piece based on something that the aforementioned David Goldman said in a speech at the Westminster Institute: I stated that maybe the United States should move closer to China, reassert our trade linkages, but then actually start threatening that trade (whilst increasing our force presence both in the region and with space-based weapons), as a means of deterring future Chinese aggression. I likened it to how the Greek god, Hercules, defeated the Greek god Antaeus: Hercules reached up when Antaeus (who could regenerate himself in battle, so long as he remained in physical contact with the Earth) leapt off the ground, pulled Antaeus close–preventing Antaeus from reaching the ground to recover his strength–and squeezed him as hard as Hercules could until his powerful embrace killed Antaeus. But, in order for such a dangerous plan to work, one must continue being competitive with the Chinese. Thus, there can be no real concessions made in trade without some form of serious reciprocity on the part of China.
In this case, President Trump used flattery as a means of wooing the Chinese to help them constrain the North. Yet, I have deep suspicions that this will yield that which the Trump Administration demands: de-nuclearization (and preferably regime change) in North Korea. If the United States is unable to achieve this, it will inevitably be forced to either cede its position to the North (and China), or it will have to risk a costly war to prevent the North Koreans from achieving their strategic objectives.
For the United States, then, China is the chief problem, not the solution to curbing North Korean geopolitical mania.
Very often, historians talk about the “fog of war” being responsible for grievous mistakes occurring throughout pivotal battles and political decision points in history. There’s something that I call “the haze of peace” also. This is when competition in peacetime among rival actors becomes so fierce; the world become so well interconnected economically, that one is increasingly confused and unable to cope with the rapid changes in the international system. Moreover, actors in such a competitive system become increasingly confused because of the sheer numbers of players in that system–and their increasing capabilities. No one actor, even as potent as the United States, can sustain a competitive edge against every competitor. Strange bedfellows are made in such a haze, meanwhile rivals are intense but can often be confusing and short-lived.
Given this, it is highly unlikely that there will be any kind of serious military moves from or against North Korea in the next 18 months. In all probability, the people observing events are being lost in the haze of peace: China and North Korea are milking this crisis for all that it’s worth, harming America long-term, while pretending to alleviate short-term concerns. The Trump Administration believes that it has managed to mitigate the threat–and, the display of force recently has only reinforced the idea that both China and North Korea must play a longer game–but the threat has not been curtailed. Instead, it is only being empowered. China is the only power that is thus far seeing through the haze of peace and manipulating the situation perfectly to their advantage.
Once the President returns home from his trip, the American naval forces will return to their normal operations, and the North Koreans will lie low for the next handful of months until they are confident in their ability to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons. Once that happens, all bets will be off. If I were making predictions, I’d say to be focused more on Iran in the medium-term and less on North Korea at this point.