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North Korean nuclear tests

Kim Jong-un’s nuclear trajectory only increases Sino-US friction in northeast Asia

Donald Kirk says the issue adds another dimension to differences between the two world powers over North Korea and the wider region, which are likely to be deeper than over the South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 6:24pm

The Chinese remain the great enigma when it comes to figuring out whether they’re friend or foe, honourable adversaries or dangerous rivals for power and influence from the Korean peninsula to the South China Sea and beyond.

North Korea’s 5th nuclear test prompts US call for more sanctions

Nobody believes they’re doing much to discourage North Korea’s nuclear ambitions but, then again, nobody thinks they’re encouraging the North Koreans either. When they express their displeasure to the North Koreans over the latest nuclear test, the tone appears sincere and credible – just not too effective.

The problem may be that Chinese leaders themselves are uncertain where they are going, how much power they can afford to wield and how willing they are to risk a confrontation that might turn bloody. Unforeseen dangers lurk everywhere, from the waters off Korea to the Japanese-held Senkakus (Diaoyus in Chinese) in the East China Sea, to the flashpoints of the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

US warships come and go across the South China Sea without coming to blows with the Chinese, but the future is highly uncertain

Probably no American is more sensitive to the Chinese puzzle, what to make of it and how to deal with it, than Admiral John Richardson, whose title of “chief of naval operations” means he commands the entire US navy. He says he’s met his Chinese counterpart, had a friendly conversation, and believes the personal relationship is vital to making sure US ships can challenge China’s claim to the entire South China Sea without anyone firing a shot. “We will continue to have access to the South China Sea,” he says, while “minimising uncertainty” and “the risk of miscalculation”.

For now, US warships come and go across the South China Sea without coming to blows with the Chinese, but the future is highly uncertain. What are the Americans to make of China and Russia staging war games together this week in those disputed waters while the Americans remain on the sidelines, observing what’s going on without getting in the way? Might the Americans and Chinese cooperate some day in similar exercises? For now, Richardson warns against “any regional security architecture that excludes China”. Clearly China “is this tremendous growing nation”, he observes. “Part of that global move is to the sea. Future architecture is going to have to include China.”

China, US navy chiefs hold hour-long talks on South China Sea in wake of Spratly sail-by

Just as the Americans and Chinese strive to avoid an open clash in the South China Sea, so they have to exercise the same extreme caution in considering what to do about North Korea. US warships are not encountering the Chinese while staging war games with the South Koreans off the Korean east coast, but they’re not going deep into the Yellow Sea between China and the west coast of South Korea. Although the Chinese do not claim the Yellow Sea, they respond with extreme sensitivity to a strong US naval presence in those waters.

In northeast Asia, as in Southeast Asia, the US and China are at historic odds regardless of their professed agreement on the need for North Korea to give up its nuclear programme. The Chinese respond with alarm to moves by the US to strengthen defences against what’s seen as a rising risk that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, may be willing to open a second Korean war while building up an arsenal of missiles and nuclear warheads. The Chinese seem far more alarmed by the prospect of the US deploying missiles capable of shooting down warheads in flight 160km above the earth than by the nightmare of North Korea firing short- and mid-range models at targets in South Korea and Japan.

US flies bombers over South Korea in show of force against North after nuclear test

The next US president will probably need to focus on northeast Asia, North Korea in particular, with an intensity that transcends the “strategic patience” of the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama. “He or she will have to use all the tools of American policymaking,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former senior US diplomat with expertise in arms control, now director of the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The US and China are sure to be at odds, however, on North Korean calls for a “peace treaty” in place of the armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953.

North Korea’s nuclear test ‘puts China at disadvantage’

While refusing to give up its nuclear programme, North Korea demands that the US pull its 28,500 troops from South Korea and break off the US-Korean alliance. China blames the nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula on the US’ refusal to consider a treaty unless Pyongyang gives up its nukes. China has paid lip service to ever tougher sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN Security Council but is obviously not really enforcing them.

The nuclear issue adds a dimension to differences between the US and China on North Korea, and by extension on northeast Asia, that are likely to be far deeper than in the South China Sea. The US “pivot” to Asia applied originally to concerns about the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands. As the North Korean nuclear and missile tests indicate, however, strategic and security concerns are inextricably linked by geography and by competing national interests.

In the meantime, as North Korea persists in testing missiles, Richardson propounds “the idea of doing everything you can to prevent being hit by one of those weapons”. That’s a goal that may eventually prove more difficult than avoiding a collision between US and Chinese warships while nuclear and conventional missiles rank as Kim’s proudest achievement.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea