Washington Manoeuvres

Filed in Perspectives by on 17th Aug 2017 3 Comments

Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang appear to have gone down a notch from boil to simmer as diplomatic efforts continue in an effort to prevent full-scale conflict. After days of incendiary comments from the leaders of the United States and North Korea, both seem to be stepping back a step. After receiving plans from his generals to launch missiles into waters off the US territory of Guam, North Korea’s state news agency says Pyongyang will monitor what the United States does next before deciding whether to launch the missiles. Kim Jong Un says he will go through with the launch if the “Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity.” Less than a week earlier, Kim Jong Un threatened to fire missiles at Guam after President Donald Trump warned North Korea that it would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it makes more threats against the United States. Days after his warning President Trump played down tensions with North Korea by announcing an investigation into China’s trade practices. With what seems a deliberate distraction caused by Trump’s ambiguous statements on violence at a Unite-the-Right rally in Virginia, the public seems to have forgotten the situation in North Korea.

During the US presidential campaign, Trump regularly branded China as a thief of American jobs, and accused it of stealing technology from US companies. He promised, if elected, to protect and restore American jobs, and to defend US companies from intellectual piracy by taking strong action against China. However, by giving authority to the United State Trade Representative merely to consider whether to begin an investigation into how China conducts trade, Trump has, at least temporarily, set bombastic rhetoric aside to persuade China to take stronger measures to prevent North Korea from engaging in further nuclear tests. This could gain more time for all members of the original six-party talks (North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia) to find a mutually acceptable solution to their differences.

Conflicting options

Washington wants to stop Pyongyang from developing nuclear missiles that can hit the United States. North Korea wants nuclear weapons to protect itself against the US, and its allies Japan and South Korea. China and Russia jointly suggest a freeze on missile tests by North Korea in return for a moratorium on US military manoeuvres. The United States has dismissed the proposal, North Korea has ignored it. The U.S. says it and South Korea will proceed with joint military exercises, certain to antagonise North Korea. The United States also wants to station more conventional missiles in South Korea to counter missile attacks from the north. Washington, however, says it has no plans to overthrow Kim Jong Un, or to unite the Korean peninsula.

A China specialist with the Stimson Centre in Washington says the US rejection of the Chinese-Russian proposal raises questions in Beijing. Yun Sun says the perception of Chinese leaders is that the United States sees China, and its huge economy, as its true rival, and is using North Korea as a diversion to strengthen its strategy of military containment around China, especially since the US refuses to discuss plans for the Korean peninsula and the future use of the close to 30-thousand US soldiers in South Korea. President Trump’s former Security Director, Steve Bannon, however, accuses China of using North Korea as a sideshow while it proceeds with its economic expansion. In the past three years, China has built islands in the South China Sea and expanded its defensive capability across one of the world’s most strategic international waterways. Beijing has also made huge investments in its One Belt, One Road Project. China’s new silk road is a patchwork of railways, oil pipelines and maritime connections that now extends across Asia into Europe and Africa. The question then becomes whose economy is going to come out on top, and at what price?

Thucydides’ Trap

In explaining the cause of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC to 404 BC), Greek historian Thucydides said “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” As China continues to challenge America’s position in the world, misunderstanding about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into Thucydides’ Trap. This is what the Director of the Belfer Centre for the Harvard Kennedy School for Science and International Affairs calls the shift in the balance of power that leads to war. Graeme Allison sees two main ingredients to a war between great powers; the first is a shift in the balance of power as one power becomes more ambitious and gradually executes plans to replace the other. The second is when fear motivates the incumbent power to react to maintain its dominance. Allison sees Thucydides’ Trap playing out today, and warns that the chance of war between China and the United States is much higher than many realise. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, China now consumes more energy than the United States, and also has greater purchasing power. This growth in China’s economy is causing a shift in the international balance of power that undermines the strategic position of the United States.

On one hand, the interconnectedness of the US and Chinese economies, and the nuclear doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction make conflict unlikely. On the other, fear, honour and self-interest are powerful motivators, and in the tinder-box atmosphere surrounding the nuclear arms build-up in North Korea misjudgement becomes increasingly probable. It is also unlikely that a war with China would remain limited to Asia and the Pacific, especially since Russia is an ally of China. China’s drive to gain more influence in Asia then presents American decision makers with a stark choice. Containing Chinese ambition would involve greater defence spending, stronger links with coalition partners, and slowing down or preventing China’s military build-up. Another option is for Washington to accept reduced power in Asia. Each option has its own share of dangers through misunderstanding.

Common Danger or War

Since it is unlikely that China could escape the consequences of conflict on the Korean peninsula, and the use of nuclear arms is harmful to everyone, Chinese and American interests are best served in working together against a common danger, especially since nuclear weapons in the hands of Kim Jong Un serve no long-term purpose for either Washington or Beijing. The question, however, remains: can China and the United States avoid the trap of war? That Washington is acting slowly in its trade actions regarding China shows a better understanding of timing than one might think in light of the recent game-show atmosphere between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. It is no coincidence that Washington’s decision to look into Chinese trade practices comes as President XI Jinping prepares for the crucial five-year National Congress of China’s Communist Party. The autumn congress is expected to choose a new leadership for the party, including the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, and the Central Military Commission as most current members retire.

Although it is assumed that President Xi will remain General Secretary for another five-year term, it is not known whether the Congress will be open to him staying on beyond that. China’s two most powerful positions, the Secretary General, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, are not limited by five-year terms. Whether the Congress takes a long view focused on stability when it chooses its new members, or a shorter more impatient view will depend on who has the better hand in internal politics. The United States won’t know specifically who to deal with until the new members are announced in Beijing between September and November. America’s action has to be seen as weak enough by Chinese decision makers that President Xi can continue to lead the country in its quest to become the world’s top power. If the U-S overplays its hand, Washington could well face a President Xi whose new committee is much more hawkish than it wants.

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Multilingual retired journalist and international consultant who's passionate about clear, honest, responsible communications as the foundation of democracy. We all have it within us to be better.

Comments (3)

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  1. The US-China relation is a pivotal one and this article helped cleared some of its ambiguities.

  2. Brian Langis says:

    Great article, thank you for your insights.

    The U.S. and China will not go to war. Well not a conventional war. The U.S. military will not invade China and even if China wanted to invade the U.S. it doesn’t have the Navy to do so. Also their economic ties are too strong. It’s not worth the cost. What does the US have to gain by bombing China? It won’t because the Western world is depending on Walmart having cheap goods. Plus China is smarter than that.

    In a sense China and the U.S. are already at war. They are in an economic war. Instead of using infantry and missiles, they are using corporations to fight each other. The US has declared that businesses are vital infrastructure. China has spies everywhere and is stealing intellectual property. There’s also a cyberwar. Hackers can take down the financial system, steal intellectual property, damage infrastructure. This is the playing field they are on.

  3. W.M.Apps says:

    “Great posting! It made the situation much clearer to me.”

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