Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Looming confrontation in the Asia-Pacific

North Korea is flexing its muscles. In response, it is vital that Washington remains coolheaded and works with regional partners to deter and contain North Korean threats

The official news agency of North Korea announced Sunday, 19 March, that Pyongyang successfully tested a new high-thrust engine for its missiles, and that the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, said that the test, that was carried out at Tongchang-ri rocket launch station, was “a new birth” for the rocket industry of the country. He added that his country is close to test launching an intercontinental ballistic missile. He further stated that, “The whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory today carries.”

International experts, government officials in the West and North Korea watchers believe that the North Koreans are working to develop nuclear warhead missiles that could reach the United States. If this proves to be true, then the next theatre of a major military conflagration in the world would be in the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.

The news and the declarations of Kim Jong-un came moments before a scheduled meeting between Xi Jinping, the president of China, and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, also Sunday, in Beijing. These declarations are meant for both superpowers, the United States and China. They gain added strategic significance against the statement by the US secretary of state, 18 March in Seoul, in which he stressed that the United States would no longer observe what he termed the “failed” approach of patient diplomacy followed by the Obama administration, and favoured by Beijing, vis-à-vis North Korea.

Incidentally, President Donald Trump, two days before the meeting between his secretary of state and President Jinping, had tweeted Friday, 17 March, that Beijing has failed to use its leverage as North Korea’s key “diplomatic and trade partner”. The tweet said that “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been playing the United States for years. China has done little to help.” It is interesting to note in this respect that China has stopped importing coal from Pyongyang to exert pressure on its leadership in the wake of a series of missiles tests by the North Koreans in the last few months, in addition to a nuclear test.

The US secretary of state visited Japan, South Korea and China 16-19 March. It is his first official trip to these Asian-Pacific powers with whom the United States wants to cooperate in order to defuse tensions in this crucial and strategic part of the world. In his talks with high-level officials in these three countries, how to deal with North Korea, and its unpredictable leader, figured as one of the most important topics on his agenda. His visits were preceded a month earlier by visits of US Secretary of Defense General James Mattis to Japan and Korea. These visits by top officials of the Trump administration in the span of one month, and during the first 100 days of President Trump at the White House, show the degree of importance of American relations with the Asia-Pacific in general, and with China, Japan and South Korea in particular. In this part of the world, the balance of power is no longer 100 per cent on the side of the United States, with a resurgent China and a regime in Pyongyang that is bent on developing nuclear and missile capability that would give it the needed military capacity to project its power, not only in its vital space on the Korean Peninsula, but also in the Pacific region and beyond. It is a major strategic challenge to American foreign policy and a long-term threat to American security in East Asia and in the Korean Peninsula and also for the allies of the United States, mainly Japan and South Korea.

In Seoul, Secretary Tillerson emphasised that the “policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table.” This position is in marked contrast to previous American positions in dealing with the North Korean threat. The Obama administration and the Bush White House from 2001 till the end of 2016 had relied, mainly, on incentives and diplomatic pressure to convince the North Koreans to denuclearise and stop developing its missiles programme while sticking to the sanctions regime imposed by the Security Council of the United Nations. There were attempts to restart the six-party talks, but never during the last 16 years has Washington waved the possibility of resorting, albeit indirectly, to the military option to deal with North Korea. At this stage, it is hoped that the statement of the US secretary of state that all options are on the table is meant only as a diplomatic warning to Pyongyang that Washington, under the leadership of President Trump, would not hesitate to resort to the military option if need be, to thwart North Korean attempts at developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The Chinese connection would prove invaluable to American, regional and international efforts to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. In a joint news conference 18 March in Beijing with the Chinese foreign minister, Tillerson said that the United States will work with the Chinese government “to see if we cannot bring the government in Pyongyang to a place where they want a different course, make a course correction, and move away from the development of nuclear weapons”. Three days earlier, the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang had said that “China maintains a clear position that supports the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, but all countries must return to dialogue to solve the problem.”

The Chinese foreign minister had some friendly advice for the Americans during the joint news conference with his American counterpart in Beijing. He hoped that “all parties, including our friends from the United States, could size up the situation in a coolheaded and comprehensive fashion and arrive at a wise decision”.

It was encouraging to listen to Tillerson on 17 March in Tokyo saying that “North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbours in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea.”

The major powers should work together to prevent East Asia becoming a powder keg in the years to come. In this context, US diplomacy should work with China to contain North Korean threats. The upcoming visit of President Xi Jinping to Washington in the next few weeks to meet with President Trump could set in motion, hopefully, a politico-diplomatic process of resuming the six-party talks.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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