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.
As expected, North Korea took the opportunity presented by the Day of the Sun celebration to make a statement to the United States and the rest of the world. However, it did not come in the form of an underground nuclear test as many experts and analysts around the world had expected. Kim Jong Un opted to present his message through a more traditional manner at the Day of the Sun military parade in Pyongyang. It was there that North Korea placed mock-ups of its newest and most powerful missiles on display for the world to see. One was an ICBM and another a Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM). Neither system is operational yet, however, their appearance is meant to be a warning to Washington that development is underway and progressing.
Un’s choice to showcase these missiles on the world stage is a calculated move that has the potential to produce benefits in the short term. On the surface, it sends out a snapshot which indicates a firm national commitment to advancing North Korea’s long-range missile programs without revealing clues about where they are in reality. For the time being, the decision to display missiles instead of going forward with another nuclear test gives North Korea some much needed breathing space. The recent US responses to North Korea’s fiery rhetoric, and the prospect of another nuclear test have been markedly different from how the previous US administration dealt with North Korea under similar circumstances.
Kim Jong Un appears to understand that the rules have changed and therefore his strategy needs to be altered in the face of increased US resistance and China’s willingness to press Pyongyang harder on the nuclear issue. He has bought some time for himself now, but how much time that will be remains to be seen. More importantly is the manner he chooses to use that time. Logic argues that Un’s best choice right now is to lay low and not say or do anything provocative. Additional nuclear and missile tests will only play into Washington’s hands and increase the political pressure on Pyongyang to curtail its ambitions.
The US appears to be just waiting for a reason to remove North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear programs through military force. Doing that holds the risk of touching off a larger war in the region, however, President Trump has clearly revamped the tone of US foreign policy over the last ten days and is not going to allow North Korea to pose a direct threat to the United States in any way.
The world is gradually coming around to the realization that this period of increased US-North Korean tension contrasts dangerously from those in the past eight years. President Trump is playing the game in a remarkably different manner than his predecessor did. Obama’s policy of Strategic Patience did not produce results, in large part because there was no incentive or deterrent for North Korea to change its attitude and behavior. North Korea conducted ballistic missile test launches without fear of reprisal from the United States or regional powers.
Trump’s approach has been very different and for better or worse it has produced visible results so far. How this translates to the big picture cannot be determined quite yet. Following last week’s meeting with China’s leader Xi Jinping things began to happen though. The tone of the North Korean discussion changed dramatically from Washington to Beijing. China is rejecting North Korean coal shipments, depriving Pyongyang of a much needed infusion of money. The USS Carl Vinson and her battlegroup were ordered to the Sea of Japan. Jinping has agreed to work with the US to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Reports of Chinese forces massing on the PRC’s border with North Korea are increasing. Ostensibly, the troop movements are to deal with a potential surge of refugees crossing over if North Korea and the US find themselves at war.
What if that’s not the case at all? What if a move against Kim Jong Un is being prepared at the moment and the large number of troops China has in motion is not intended to deal with refugees, but to act as a stabilization force or sorts in the event North Korea’s leadership is decapitated and the nation is left rudderless? In light of the actions and movements since last Friday, the questions are rational.
Kim Jong Un has yet to come to the realization that the man he is contending with in Washington is not Barack Obama. Un’s bellicose rhetoric and borderline reckless actions are bringing North Korea closer to the proverbial point of no return. At this point in the game less is more. Unfortunately, Un’s actions are guided in great part by his ego, and limited understanding of the world beyond North Korea’s borders. He is singlehandedly placing his nation in a precarious position. Even China is reconsidering exactly how valuable its ally to the south truly is.
Today, rumors started to circulate about an upcoming North Korean nuclear test. US intelligence has picked up on an increasing amount of activity in and around North Korean nuclear sites. In Pyongyang, the government has advised foreign journalists to expect a ‘big and important’ event to occur on Thursday. At present, given the amount of activity and flow of events, I’ll venture to guess there is a 60% chance of a North Korean nuclear test taking place at some point in the next 18-36 hours.
Logically, testing a nuclear weapon in the midst of a deteriorating crisis is not the smartest move to make, logically speaking. Unfortunately, logic and North Korea rarely appear in the same sentence. Kim Jong Un is probably starting to feel cornered, thus he is resorting to a practice that has worked for him before. The difference now in 2017 is that the old game he is playing has new players and new rules.
The PLAN’s (People’s Liberation Army Navy) sole aircraft carrier and its accompanying escorts continued their power-projection tour of the Western Pacific today. Liaoning has been at sea for the last three weeks or so primarily conducting drills and taking part in exercises in the South China Sea. This morning it transited the Taiwan Straits and steamed northwest along the center line that divides the straits. Taiwan scrambled warplanes and monitored the transit closely.
The move has come at a time when tensions between Taiwan and the PRC are rising. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen spoke with US President-elect Donald Trump weeks ago, a move that broached diplomatic protocol and enraged Beijing. This past weekend, Tsai met with US Senator Ted Cruz on a stopover in Houston while she was en route to Central America. The meeting was controversial and served to increase the tensions between Taipei and Beijing.
China’s decision to transit the carrier through the straits appears to be geared as a warning to Taipei about its recent diplomatic moves as well as a show of force. It is the second action in recent days. On Sunday a Chinese H-6 bomber flew in close proximity to the Spratly Islands, a not-so-subtle message projecting China’s ability and willingness to use military force to settle territorial disputes.
There has been concern in Beijing that Donald Trump will change or abandon the One-China policy when he takes office. A state-run Chinese tabloid newspaper even went so far as to warn that China will take revenge if the One-China policy is tampered with.