Sending a Credible Message to Foreign Rivals

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS April 10, 2017

            The attack on Syria's Shayrat airbase has been widely reported as "sending a message" not only to the Bashar al-Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian backers, but to North Korea and China. The intensity of the coverage of this message, however, varies among news media and tends to fade as it ripples out from where the missiles actually hit. The strong action by President Donald Trump also sent a signal domestically, which the mainstream media has been very slow to hear.

            That the strike was launched while Chinese President Xi Jinping was meeting with President Trump in Florida carried the most important message. In the run up to the summit, Trump declared that if China did not end North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, the U.S. would. Beijing's position, as expressed by the Communist Party newspaper Global Times the day before the attack, was as follows:

            The US must bear the major responsibilities for the mess in Northeast Asia, as it has buried too much strategic distrust in the region. For North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambition voluntarily, it must be convinced the major powers can collectively guarantee its security. But Pyongyang now trusts nothing but nuclear weapons. Despite rounds of sanctions, as long as the regime can hang on, it is unlikely to surrender....

            China has a bottom line. It will safeguard the security and stability of its Northeast area at all costs. If Washington is serious in strengthening cooperation with Beijing, its policy shouldn't be against Beijing's concerns.

            Trump has now put muscle behind his stance, and will not embrace the regime of a psychopath who is working feverishly to find a way to kill millions of Americans. And as the Chinese editorial acknowledged, Pyongyang will not "voluntarily" give up its nukes. So it must be forced to do so involuntarily.

            Beijing must face a reality it has been dreading, but of which it is quite aware. North Korea's behavior is posing a threat to China, and to protect itself, Xi must act against Kim. Beijing was already facing this outcome with the deployment of the THAAD air defense system in South Korea. Though meant to defend the area from a North Korean attack, Beijing sees the creation of an integrated anti-missile network in the region as a way to degrade China's nuclear missile capabilities as well. Its protests have fallen on deaf ears (as they should), so it must face the fact that Pyongyang's actions are not enhancing either its own security or that of China. Beijing will only act if the costs of not acting get too high; and they are rising in the wake of Trump's show of strength.

            It should be recalled that after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Beijing organized the Six Power Talks to negotiate the "denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula so as to head off a feared attack on North Korea which had been lumped with Iraq and Iran in what was called an "axis of evil" by President George W. Bush. Germany, France and England also launched talks on the Iranian nuclear program in an attempt to demonstrate there was another way to pull Tehran's fangs than military action. Both diplomatic efforts collapsed when it became apparent that the U.S. was not going to escalate its military campaign against nuclear proliferators. No threat, no need to make concessions. Fourteen years later, another moment to push real solutions is upon us if American credibility can be sustained this time.

            The April 6 strike did not come out of thin air purely as an emotional response to the gassing of babies and the bombing of the hospital to which the saran victims had been taken. On February 28, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Syrian officials for using chemical weapons in previous attacks. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the message the Moscow-Beijing axis was sending to the world was that "they will cover the backs of their friends who use chemical weapons to kill their own people." Russian envoy Vladi­mir Safronkov denounced Western efforts to "discredit the legitimate Syrian government." While China has no direct interests in Syria, it is aligned with Russia and Iran in a broader anti-Western front and has joined Moscow six times in vetoing Syrian resolutions even though the Russian veto alone is enough to block them.

            Yet, after the U.S. missile strike, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported that during his talks with President Trump at the Florida summit, "President Xi Jinping set forth China's long-standing position of opposing the use of chemical weapons, and pointed out that the pressing task now is to prevent the situation from deteriorating, and uphold the process of political settlement of the Syrian issue." This was a much more moderate stance than was expressed before the attack.  

            An April 9 editorial in Global Times noted "US President Donald Trump is bolder to resort to force than his predecessor Barack Obama. Whether Washington will take similar actions toward Pyongyang has become suspenseful." The Communist paper went on,

            In this case, should North Korea conduct the sixth nuclear test, the possibility that it will become a decisive factor in pushing Washington to take a military adventure cannot be excluded. This year's situation is different from that of last year. Obama exercised restraint during his last year of tenure, following a policy of strategic patience toward North Korea for seven years. Trump, shortly after assuming power, accorded priority to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue in a high-profile gesture. He will feel discredited if Washington is outmaneuvered by Pyongyang. 

The editorial concluded with a warning to Pyongyang, "It's of vital importance that North Korea does not misjudge the situation in future. New nuclear tests will meet with unprecedented reactions from the international community, even to a turning point." The message has been received in Beijing.

            Yet, there is action Washington needs to take at home too. The missile strike on Syria was launched by two destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean. They did not have the firepower to take down all of Syria's major airbases, something those critics who wanted a truly crippling attack should consider. There was no American carrier strike group in the Mediterranean. The Navy has been downsized too much since the end of the Cold war to provide the capabilities needed as the world enters a new, more violent cycle.

            There is a carrier group deployed on the Pacific Rim, and it was ordered towards the Korean peninsula in the wake of the Syrian strike to further drive home the point to Beijing. The task force is led by the Carl Vinson (CVN-70) which is named after the Democratic Congressman who pushed for the buildup of the Navy in the 1930s when tensions were rising. Such a buildup is needed again, and President Trump has promised to make it a priority. Unfortunately, there are libertarians and isolationists in the GOP who, though small in number, threaten to join with left-wing "antiwar" Democrats to further weaken the American military until we are too weak to fight. Disarmament is their fantasy about how to stay out of trouble.

             On April 6, the chairmen of all four military services testified before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on how budget cuts, particularly under the sequester, had reduced readiness and deployments. Military capabilities would decline even more if Congress cannot pass a budget with substantial increases in defense spending. If it settles for a continuing resolution (CR) locking in past cuts, national security will suffer. Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, stated that under a CR,

            Four of the nine carrier air wings that aren't already deployed would be shut down entirely, and about a third of the Navy's newest pilots wouldn't be able to finish their initial training. That would leave squadrons undermanned by 20-to-30 percent by the end of the year, causing shortages that the Navy said would have ripple effects for the next several years.

He warned that, "three ships scheduled to deploy to Europe and the Middle East will stay home, our pilots will not fly and their jets will sit on the ramp needing maintenance." He also noted that munitions stocks were low. As American politicians squabble, rival powers are gaining on us. "Risks are getting worse as other nations grow their fleets and operate them in the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and Arctic oceans," Adm. Richardson told the committee.

            The notion that China would curb North Korea and Russia would do that same in Syria merely out of the goodness of their hearts in the cause of a liberal world order was always nonsense; proved wrong time and again. This time, the U.S. seems to understand that Moscow and Beijing will have to be compelled to do what is in America's national interests, and to bring peace to troubled regions.

            To prevail, however, requires that leaders in Washington have the will both to make bold decisions and to provide the armed forces with the means to carry out those decisions. U.S. diplomacy has failed in recent years because the nation has not presented either the will or the capabilities necessary to impress rivals that they need to deal with America to protect their own interests. This can change fairly rapidly given the massive reserves of power the United States can draw on as the world's largest, most advanced industrial economy backing the most battle-tested combat units. The problem is not material, but moral. National unity against foreign threats must be rebuilt. The initial broad support for the strike on Syria is hopeful, but the momentum must be maintained both at home and abroad if solid results are to be achieved.

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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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