Today the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) activated Japan’s first marine unit since World War II. The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) has come into being to help Japan meet the evolving security situation in that part of the world. The troop strength of the brigade will be around 2,1000 troops, NCOs, and officers. It’s equipment will include V-22 Ospreys, and AAV7A1 amphibious landing vehicles. Although a brigade in name, the ARDB more closely resembles a US Marine Expeditionary Unit in size, organization and capabilities.
The main role of the marine unit will be to retake islands from an occupying force. In recent years Japan and China have seen a rise in tensions over Japanese islands at the edge of the East China Sea. As access to the Western Pacific becomes more of a priority for China, Japan is not taking the potential threat likely. Chinese military capabilities continue to increase and Japan is making strides in its own rearming process. The ARDB marks a significant increase in Tokyo’s ability to defend its most exposed territories.
Creation of the marine unit has brought controversy too. Amphibious and expeditionary forces have the capability to project power far beyond a home nation’s borders. Japan’s post-World War II constitution renounces the nation’s right to wage war. Japan’s neighbors could point to the creation of the ARDB as a provocation if they wanted.
In any case, Tokyo’s rearmament is moving at full speed ahead. The Japanese Self Defense Forces are loading for bear….or dragon, as the case may be.
The week is off to an active beginning on a host of fronts around the world. From London to Riyadh and further on to Beijing geopolitical screws are turning, a diplomatic crisis is deepening, and the two year anniversary of a conflict has been marked in an explosive manner.
Russian Diplomats Face Being Expelled Across Europe and North America
Dozens of Russian diplomats will be expelled from European nations and the United States as the fallout from the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil continues to expand. Over twenty nations have sided with Great Britain, including the United States and many of its European allies. More than Russian 100 diplomats are being declared persona non grata and formally deported. The consensus among Great Britain’s allies has been that Russia is responsible for the nerve-agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. Russia denies any involvement in the matter and has called the latest expulsions a ‘provocative gesture.’ Moscow also vowed retaliation.
Speculation Places Kim Jong Un In Beijing
Rumors of a senior North Korean delegation, possibly led by Kim Jong Un, broke today when photos of a special North Korean train arriving in Beijing came to light. The train is one used in the past by North Korean leaders for travel around North Korea and beyond. Photos of the train in Beijing were provided by Japan’s Nippon Television. The train was reportedly met at the train station by an honor guard, and line of VIP automobiles.
If Kim is present in Beijing, the timing is interesting. North Korean and South Korean officials are scheduled to meet next week to prepare for a meeting between the leaders of both nations in the near future. Beyond that is the potential meeting between Kim Jong Un and President Trump that is in the works.
Houthi Ballistic Missiles Strike Saudi Arabia
On the second anniversary of the start of the Yemen war, Houthi rebels launched a volley of Iranian-manufactured ballistic missiles against four Saudi Arabian cities. Missile trails, and spectacular explosions lit the night sky over the Saudi capital. Four missiles were intercepted over Riyadh. No vital targets were struck, according to Saudi officials, though one civilian was killed and a handful injured. Missiles were also launched at the southwestern cities of Khamis Mushait, Najran, and Jazan. No damage or casualties were reported there. If the Houthis were hoping for a propaganda victory from the attack they couldn’t be more wrong. The missile strike has been condemned around the world and serves as a shining example of why the Saudi war effort must be continued.
The notion of a potential trade war breaking out sometime in the near future is creating much speculation. A number of well known economists, including Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are convinced President Trump’s aggressive protectionist tariffs, coupled with China’s retaliatory actions herald the beginning of a US-China trade war that will have drastic effects on the global economy. Other economists, and experts in the field are less convinced a trade war is upon us. They point to the Chinese retaliation measures as proof of this thesis. Beijing’s response has been cautious, and calculated. 128 US products with an import value of $3 billion have been targeted. The sum is a fraction of President Trump’s tariffs on $60 billion in Chinese imports. What the future will bring remains to be seen, but if the market reactions over the last two days are an indication, the anxiety out there may not diminish for some time.
It is open for debate whether or not China’s responses will be strictly economic in nature. Economists seem to believe this will be a tit-for-tat exchange of tariffs between the US and China. Beijing can decide to craft a geopolitical response as well. China’s actions in the North Korea situation have vacillated between helpful and hindering. The Trump administration had long sought Beijing’s assistance in defusing the high tensions in the region. To Washington’s chagrin, China has not exercised its substantial influence with Pyongyang in a beneficial manner. With economic tensions between the US and China rising, Beijing could use it as a justification to do even less with regards to the North Korean situation.
The South China Sea presents another arena where the PRC can project its displeasure with US actions. China has been extending its military reach there, and has expressed increasing annoyance with US attempts to project power in the disputed sea. Today a US Navy destroyer cruised within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, once a fishing atoll, now the site of a Chinese military installation. Now, with the tariffs becoming a heated matter, Beijing can respond more aggressively to US warship patrols, possibly leading to a diplomatic compromise or a concession of sorts down the line.
Saving face is important to China. If the tariff tug-of-war continues, and even escalates, the South China Sea, and North Korean issue provide two areas where Beijing can challenge Washington with a measured approach without plunging the world into a major trade war.
This evening multiple media outlets, many being UK publications, are reporting that the United States Air Force is preparing to resume the 24 hour alert mission for a portion of the B-52 fleet. This mission would be very similar to the one carried out by US strategic bombers for much of the Cold War. Back then, a fraction of a bomb wing’s force of B-52s was loaded with nuclear weapons and prepared to take off within minutes if the klaxons went off and the subsequent message orders from SAC headquarters ordered them into the air. The bomber crews spent week long shifts in a nearby alert facility that included dorm rooms, showers, and recreational rooms. After a week the crews would come off of alert and be replaced by crews from another squadron in the wing. The purpose of the alert was to ensure that a portion of US strategic bombers could be launched quickly and survive a bolt-out-of-the-blue nuclear strike by the Soviets.
I will not delve into the accuracy of these news reports. However, if they are true, it represents a logical next step the preparations being made by the United States to respond to a potential nuclear attack against the US or US military installations in the Pacific. It also sheds light on how gravely the US is taking the probability of North Korea obtaining hydrogen weapons and ICBMs in the near future.
Make no mistake, there is much going on behind the scenes in military, and political circles from Washington to the Western Pacific. North Korea chose not to test a missile or weapon earlier in the month as many observers had expected. Rumors have been circulating that Pyongyang was warned by Beijing that Washington’s trigger finger is growing itchy and any further tests could assure a US military response. Given that a moratorium seems to have been placed on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile testing, there could be some truth to these rumors.
In any event, it is safe to say that the North Korean nuclear crisis has entered a new phase. The potential dangers and consequences are not apparent to the media and public right now. That could change at any given time though. If the USAF does place B-52s back on alert in the near future and publicly announces the move, it will serve as a message putting Kim Jong Un on notice that a US response to any attack will be swift and devastating.
Although the People’s Republic of China has a sizable stake in the US-North Korea standoff, it is maintaining a low public profile this week. Aside from repeated calls for restraint, China has made no official statements on the crisis. There is some speculation that the prolonged border crisis with India is consuming Beijing’s focus at the moment, even as the North Korean situation continues to simmer. With two major crises on its borders right now, China appears to have opted to contend with them individually instead of resorting to diplomatic multitasking. The Doklam standoff is the more urgent situation for the moment with Indian troops still sitting on a piece of ground that Beijing considers to be Chinese territory. China’s distraction from North Korea is understandable, however, it could possibly be missing its window of opportunity to directly influence the crisis and bring it to an end before it escalates out of control.
It is no secret that Beijing has a great deal of influence with the North Korean regime. The PRC is North Korea’s closest ally, and in many regards its only sincere friend on the global stage. It has stood by the North through thick, and thin, propping the regime up when it was necessary and vital to China’s national interests. North Korea’s location is crucial to Chinese security concerns. The country acts as a thick layer of insulation that keeps the influence and military power of South Korea, and the United States at a safe distance. Losing that insulation is not an acceptable outcome for Beijing, as was made apparent in 1950 when China intervened in the Korean War.
A pro-China faction exists in the North Korean regime. Now would be an excellent time for Beijing to ponder how it could best be used to prevent Kim Jong Un from dragging his country…and much of the region…. into the abyss. Regime change may be an unpalatable option, but it is one option that has to be scrutinized right now. Regime change undertaken by the US or South Korea would be a nonstarter, and guarantee a major war. If the pro-China elements inside of North Korea’s government, and military organize and move to overthrow Kim Jong Un, it could end the North Korean nuclear crisis once and for all. There would be no vacuum. A new North Korean government would be ready to take control immediately with the material and political support of the PRC backing it. Denuclearization of North Korea could follow shortly after, potentially opening the door to improved relations and foreign investment. On paper, it would be a win-win for all parties involved. For the US, a major threat is neutralized and stability returns to the region. Japan, and South Korea could likely accept a less belligerent North Korea and find common ground with it on many fronts. For the PRC, it maintains its buffer zone and creates a more stable, governable ally on its southeastern border.
China holds the key to ending the North Korean crisis permanently and favorably. However, Beijing does not appear to be ready to move from the sidelines for now. Unfortunately, given the current speed and instability of the situation, by the time China is ready to move the game could be over.