As this is being written, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are engaged in the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises involving over 300,000 South Korean and 17,000 American troops to demonstrate alliance solidarity in the face of North Korean provocations. The Pyongyang regime of Kim Jong-Un has denounced the exercises and threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes. While this specific danger can be discounted, the communist dictatorship's wild rhetoric is often accompanied by acts of violence, such as artillery barrages and even the sinking of a South Korean corvette in 2010. This year's joint exercise is the largest since 2010 and will run until the end of April.
For the first time, Key Resolve will test the new Operations Plan 5015, which aims to deter North Korea's possible use of WMD by a preemptive attack. However, press reports claim that the plan is actually a counter-attack to be launched after North Korea initiates hostilities. The pre-emptive part is the escalation of the conflict to include attacks on the communist leadership. Such strikes could endanger the survival of the regime, a threat that could extend deterrence to Beijing where the continued division of the Korean peninsula is considered an imperative. The Chinese dictatorship wants to keep a buffer state between itself and a vibrant, democratic South Korea.
The Obama administration is still placing its faith in Beijing acting to constrain Pyongyang and broker a negotiated end to the nuclear ambitions of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). This was the objective laid out by Secretary of State John Kerry when he met with Wang Yi, the Foreign Minister of the People's Republic of China (PRC), on February 23. Since then, the UN Security Council has passed a new set of sanctions on Pyongyang which, on the surface, Beijing supported. This has been widely seen as proof that China has lost patience with North Korea and is now aligned with the U.S. in a serious effort to "denuclearize" the DPRK. But it's not that simple.
When asked about the UN sanctions at the daily press briefing on March 3, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated that "The UN Security Council sanction is not an end in itself. It is dialogue and negotiation that represents the right way to fundamentally resolve the Korean nuclear issue." He reminded the audience that China chairs the Six-Party Talks that opened in 2003 to deal with the DPRK nuclear program and that this should continued to be the venue for negotiations. It should be remembered, however, that these talks were started by China as a way to shield North Korea from possible attack after the U.S. invaded Iraq to end its nuclear ambitions.
In regard to the UN sanctions, Hong argued, "efforts shall be made to avoid impacts on people's well-being and humanitarian needs of the DPRK, which is also an important part of the resolution." This is a loophole large enough to drive a truck through; or a convoy of trucks. Indeed, later in the same press conference, a reporter noted that photos on social media show Chinese trucks still running supplies into North Korea. Hong restated his earlier comment, "the implementation of the resolution shall not affect people's well-being and humanitarian needs of the DPRK." Beijing is not going to implement sanctions that would truly cripple North Korea or destabilize the regime. Indeed, at his March 9 press briefing, Hong stated, "Relevant sanctions must not impair the legitimate interests of China."
The UN resolution also calls upon all states, not just the DPRK, "to refrain from any actions that might aggravate tensions;" China has used this to object to the joint U.S.-ROK military exercises currently underway. When asked about the allied maneuvers at his March 7 press briefing, Hong said, "The Chinese side is deeply concerned about the situation....The Chinese side firmly opposes any trouble-making or trouble-provoking actions on the Peninsula, definitely allows no war or chaos at its doorstep, and strongly hopes that all relevant parties would exercise restraint instead of provoking each other and increasing tensions."
Beijing is opposed to other defensive moves by the U.S. and South Korea. The two allies have agreed to deploy the THAAD (Theater High Altitude Air Defense) system in South Korea which has an anti-missile capability meant to counter Pyongyang's offensive ballistic missile program. Foreign Minister Wang objected to this deployment in his meeting with Secretary Kerry last month. At the March 7 press briefing, Hong was even more adamant, reporting "On March 4, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Kong Xuanyou and Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor V. Morgulov held the second China-Russia security consultation on Northeast Asia....Both China and Russia expressed concerns about the US and the ROK's plan to deploy the THAAD system in the ROK, concurring that the action will heighten tensions in the region, break the strategic balance of the region and cause direct damage to the strategic security of China and Russia. The Chinese and Russian sides are firmly opposed to that." Minister Wang conveyed his concerns about the joint exercises and THAAD deployment directly to Secretary Kerry by telephone on March 8.
When a reporter asked Hong on Feb. 29 what the difference was between China deploying air defense missiles on its man-made islands in the South China Sea and the ROK deploying THAAD, he responded, "China's deployment of necessary and reasonable national defense facilities on its territory, which is to safeguard its sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests, does not affect the interests of other countries. Whereas the US' deployment of THAAD in the ROK far exceeds the normal defense needs and will severely jeopardize China's national security interests." Vietnam, Philippines and Japan think that China's actions do threaten their interests, as should the United States.
China and Russia fear any development/deployment of anti-missile defenses by the U.S. or its allies as creating a possible counter to their own nuclear missile capabilities. Both governments have resorted to subtle (and not so subtle) threats of nuclear strikes to influence foreign behavior. For example, on March 1, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and its strike group, which included the flagship of the 7th Fleet, entered the South China Sea. Though called "routine" the deployment of such a high-profile task force was clearly a step up from the prior deployment of individual ships into the area. The purpose was to contest China's illegal claim of "sovereignty" over international waters and its building of new islands that could serve as military bases to menace maritime trade routes. It was not by coincidence that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gave a speech that same day warning Beijing not to militarize the disputed islands.
Beijing's response was immediate. On March 2, FM spokesman Hong stated "We have pointed out many times that China's deployment of national defense facilities on its own territory is nothing new. It is the exercise of self-preservation and self-protection right granted by international law. It is not the so-called aggressive action, still less militarization." An editorial in the Communist Party newspaper Global Times concluded on this ominous note, "The US military boasts the strongest military prowess, but the South China Sea is close to China. If two nuclear powerhouses engage in a competition to test each other's willpower, the whole world will face the repercussions."
At a press conference on March 8, Foreign Minister Wang proclaimed, "China was the earliest to explore, name, develop and administer various South China Sea islands. Our ancestors worked diligently here for generations. History will prove who is the visitor and who is the genuine host." He then argued, "I think when the U.S. truly cools down, it is entirely possible for us to do more to consider conducting maritime cooperation." By Wang's logic, today's Italian government should still rule over France and Spain, North Africa, most of the Middle East and the Balkans because in ancient times there was a Roman Empire.
Indeed, there is not a square mile of habitable land that has not had multiple claimants and rulers over the centuries. China's leaders know this, but they also know another valid point of history: territory belongs to those who can take and hold it. At his press conference, Minister Wang reminded his audience that China had exercised its right under the UN Law of the Sea convention to reject arbitration to settle disputes. Beijing is making its real case based on island construction and military expansion. North Korea is not the only communist regime provoking counter alliances and alignments. Beijing's campaign of aggression aims at much great consequences. Wang's call for the U.S. to "cool down" is an invitation to appeasement which must be rejected by President Obama and whomever follows him into the White House next year.
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.
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