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.
The People’s Republic of China has launched its second aircraft carrier in the port city of Dalian. This ship will be the first domestically built carrier, however, it will not likely enter service until 2020. At present the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) has one aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning, an ex-Soviet Kuznetsov class ship. When Liaoning became operational it was suspected that the ship was serving as a testbed of sorts for China’s aircraft carrier program. Judging by the first photos of the new carrier, which show its design has borrowed heavily from the Liaoning, the suspicion is reasonable. The flight deck layout and island structure is nearly identical to the Liaoning and its displacement of 50,000 tons is on par with the earlier carrier.
This is a big step for China. It has been over twenty years since the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis when two US carrier battlegroups were rushed to Taiwan in a traditional show-of-force that deterred Beijing from taking aggressive action against the island nation. The crisis forced China to acknowledge the threat posed to them by US aircraft carriers and accelerate its military buildup, and begin to consider building or purchasing aircraft carriers of its own.
The PLAN has taken on a more prominent role in China’s foreign policy as the South China Sea and Senkaku situations moved to the forefront of national priorities and international scrutiny. Large scale naval exercises and Chinese warships appearing at far-flung locations around the world were common in 2016 and act as the vanguard of China’s growing ability to project power and influence events with its own maritime forces. The ongoing buildup of US naval forces in the Sea of Japan serves both as a mirror of what the PLAN is striving to become, as well as an illustration of the sort of US involvement in regional matters that China wishes to deter.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial comments in Beijing last week have cast clouds of anxiety and uncertainty across the globe. Diplomats, government officials and analysts from Washington DC to Manila are attempting to decode the meaning behind Duterte’s proclamation that the Philippines would be severing its military and economic relationship with the United States and pursue friendly ties with Beijing. In the aftermath of the trip, Philippine government officials appeared to be taken aback by the comments as well and began damage control and attempts to clarify. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said that Duterte was reiterating his wish for a foreign policy independent of Washington’s meddling and influence. Another cabinet official stressed that the Mutual Defense Treaty would not be abrogated and that the Philippines still consider the United States an ally.
Washington’s reaction to Duterte’s words has been to seek clarification from Manila about its intentions and the future of the US-Philippine relationship. On the surface Washington is projecting an air of calm as diplomats from the State Department arrive in Manila for talks with their Filipino counterparts. While this goes on, the White House is attempting to assure an increasingly anxious world that its relationship with the Philippines will continue and any attempts by Duterte to realign his country with China and Russia will not come at the expense of the United States. The Obama administration will have a short period of time to determine what Duterte’s real intentions are and begin formulating a response. Once the transition period begins after Election Day in the US, the problem will shift to the incoming administration.
The next administration in Washington is going to have to face the matter head on. The situation in the South China Sea could look radically different by January 20th, 2017 and the Asian Pivot, once the centerpiece of the Obama foreign policy, might be a shattered wreck.
After a long wait the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has delivered its ruling on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The PCA has ruled that there is no legal basis to the claims and no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control over the South China Sea (SCS) waters or resources. From an international law vantage point, the ruling invalidates China’s nine-dash line, the geographic boundary line that Beijing affixed to its SCS claims back in 1949. The PCA announced that it has also found that China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines’ in the SCS by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration.
As expected, Beijing has labeled the ruling as ‘ill-founded’ and claimed that China will not be bound by it. “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way,” Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated.
The reaction from other nations in the region has been more measured. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called the decision ‘legally binding’ and urged all parties to comply. Vietnam is pleased with the PCA’s decision and has publicly said so, while also reasserting its own territorial claims. Manila has been strangely quiet, with the Philippine government welcoming the decision as ‘significant’ while also urging ‘all those concerned’ to ‘exercise restraint and sobriety.’ Many Filipinos believe that President Duterte may have received assurances of Chinese investment in exchange for a muted response from Manila.
The United States has reacted by urging all parties to avoid inflammatory and provocative statements or action to the ruling.
The predominant question at the moment is: How will China respond? Despite Beijing’s lack of interest in the PCA’s decision, the ruling is seen as humiliating and a loss of face. China lost on every point in the ruling and it will be difficult, if not impossible for China to do nothing. In September, the G20 summit meeting will be held in China. Does Beijing have the composure to wait until after the summit before taking action in the SCS?
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to hand down its ruling in the Philippines case against the People’s Republic of China regarding the PRC’s claims in the South China Sea any day now. Regardless of which way the decision goes, it will have far reaching consequences for the entire region. It can potentially resolve some of the key issues at the center of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, or bring about an increase of tensions between the US and China. Ahead of the decision, Beijing, and Washington have been jockeying for position.
China refuses to recognize the court proceedings and has stated it will not be bound by any decision the court makes. China has been amassing support for its position, claiming to have the backing of sixty nations. Beijing is also continuing to assert itself at sea while the court finalizes its ruling. On Friday, Chinese fishing boats violated Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off of the Natuna Islands. Indonesian naval vessels fired warning shots and held the crew of one of the fishing boats. China claims the boats were in its traditional fishing grounds. It is the third such incident between China and Indonesia since March.
The United States has been on its own diplomatic offensive in the region, establishing the foundation for what it hopes will be a unified international response to the court’s decision. Washington’s intent is to render the “nine-dash” line invalid. Beijing has used the obscure marker to claim the bulk of the South China Sea as territorial waters. US actions in the region have not been confined to the diplomatic arena. Over the past weekend, a joint training operation including two carrier strike groups was conducted in the Philippine Sea. The arrival and presence of a large number of US warships in the area served as reassurance for America’s allies in the region and a message of deterrence for any nation intent on destabilizing the area.
Clearly, the exercise served as a warning shot across Beijing’s bow. An unsubtle reminder there will be consequences for any action it takes following the ruling in The Hague.