Earlier this month, U.S. President-elect Trump set a historic precedent by speaking on the phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, making it the first time that a U.S. president/president-elect has directly spoken to a Taiwanese president in 37 years.
Beijing’s response to the phone call was subdued. Perhaps because Trump is viewed as a foreign policy novice or the fact that he has not yet been sworn into office or perhaps for both reasons, it appeared that Beijing was seeking to minimize the event.
However, evidence began to emerge that the phone call was not a fluke, but rather a culmination of months-long planning. Furthermore, early signs of the incoming Trump administration seem to be pointing toward a more hardline stance against China.
As a result, China has begun to adopt a stronger tone against what it sees as a direct challenge to its territorial integrity. An editorial in the Global Times has suggested that Beijing build additional strategic nuclear weapons. More ominously, China has also warned that challenging the “one China” principle would have “a serious impact on peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
China’s response has also been more than mere rhetoric. Recently, satellite imagery has shown that China has installed antiaircraft weapons and other arms on all of its seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, thus breaking President Xi Jinping’s pledge not to militarize the islands. As for the U.S., a bill has been introduced in the Senate, which, if passed, would impose punitive sanctions against China over its activities in maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas.
It is unlikely that an actual war would break out between the U.S. and China. Both sides would have far too much to lose in a military conflict. But it does signal a shift in tone in the way both countries will deal with one another and it appears that the relationship is set to become more antagonistic. Considering the vast array of issues that affect both countries, it is more than likely that this new antagonism will also be felt on the Korean Peninsula.
China has begun to adopt a stronger tone against what it sees as a direct challenge to its territorial integrity
WHO BENEFITS? NORTH KOREA
Aside from their shared concern over Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them, there never has been much overlap between Beijing’s and Washington’s interests in North Korea.
No matter how many times both countries agree to impose sanctions against North Korea, due to the lack of shared interests, China has always had more incentive to ensure that sanctions failed. And there is more than enough evidence to prove that China has done exactly that, which makes China the biggest impediment to resolving the North Korean issue.
As such, threats of losing China’s cooperation in implementing sanctions against North Korea is a hollow one. The Chinese have never been fully onboard from the very beginning.
The more credible threat is that China would drop all pretense of being a responsible power and will openly help to arm and finance Pyongyang. Thus far, China has not needed to be overt about its support for North Korea. However, there is probably nothing that Beijing takes more seriously than its insistence that there is only one China and that Taiwan is its renegade province.
If that is, indeed, true, then there is precious little to suggest that China would consider anything as being out of bounds – which includes openly supporting, arming, and financing one of the worst regimes the world has ever seen. Quid pro quo, Clarice.
As such, it is entirely more than plausible that President Obama’s policy of strategic patience has finally paid off… for North Korea. All Kim Jong Un needs to do now is to wait for both Trump and Xi to blunder their way into one argument and conflict after another. When enough resentment and distrust has been amassed, Kim Jong Un could once again use his nuclear arsenal as a tool to play off Beijing and Washington against one another all the while milking China for all the aid that he can possibly squeeze out.
The more credible threat is that China would drop all pretenses of being a responsible power and will openly help to arm and finance Pyongyang
The overall structural, economic, political, and moral decay that threatens to undo North Korea would not be resolved. But it will buy Kim Jong Un more time to stave off the inevitable collapse of his regime for a longer while.
Unlike the market economy, international politics is a zero-sum game. Where there is a winner, there is always bound to be a loser. And when one considers that no one would ever lose money by betting on South Korea’s ability to inflict self-harm, the loser becomes quite apparent.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Moon Jae-in, one of the likelier candidates who will become South Korea’s next president, has recently said that the disgraced Park administration should have no further say in the deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea.
Seeing how the main opposition party, which he formerly headed, thinks that the deployment of the anti-missile batteries are a way for China and the U.S. to “clash on the Korean Peninsula,” rather than a necessary tool to defend South Korea from North Korean missiles, it is most likely that Moon will either seek to delay the deployment or cancel it outright.
This will certainly please Beijing but seeing how this will derail Washington’s defense plans, it is easy to see how such news will be welcomed in Trump’s White House.
All Kim Jong Un needs to do now is to wait for both Trump and Xi to blunder their way into one argument and conflict after another
Furthermore, South Korea’s opposition parties have repeatedly shown a willingness to ride on the public’s anti-Japanese sentiment. Calling it a rush job that ignored the public’s opinion and disregarded Japan’s “lack of sincerity” for past war crimes while also ignoring its ambition to “re-militarize,” the opposition parties jointly opposed the military intelligence-sharing deal that the Park administration signed with Tokyo.
It would be safe to bet that the next South Korean government will ax this agreement, too. Again, Beijing would find that delightful, but what about Washington? What about South Korea’s need for a proper defense?
At a time when South Korea needs allies more than ever to combat North Korea’s naked aggression, the current government that has sought to better relations with allies has been crippled and the next batch of possible leaders appear intent to scuttle the ship.
And although the anti-Park Geun-hye protests that have engulfed South Koreans for more than a month have so far not turned anti-American, there is a good chance that that may yet happen when progressive candidates start trying to outdo each other to whip up as much support as possible to become the united progressive parties’ nominee.
Combine all of that with Trump’s long-held demand that America’s allies pay more for alliance costs and his frequent invocation of America First rhetoric, then it becomes plain to see that South Korea’s future has more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee.
When whales are out and about, a shrimp has to be careful to ensure that its back doesn’t break. But South Korea’s future leaders appear either oblivious or overconfident about the country’s middle power status. The way forward is fraught with danger and they ought to remember that though they can ignore reality, they cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.
Feature image: Flikr user Gage Skidmore
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