Strengthened Xi and Abe could help moves toward peace in our troubled region



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Reuters

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

They may not be co-ordinated, nor linked in any way. But two events in Asia over the next week will help define Australia’s political and security environment for the next period.

First is the convening of the five-yearly Communist Party of China congress. This gets underway on Wednesday with a much-anticipated “work report” from party boss Xi Jinping.

Second is the Japanese elections scheduled for October 22. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bidding to become the longest-serving leader of his country. He seems determined to enlarge Japan’s security footprint by continuing to beef up its defence forces and seek changes to its pacifist post-war constitution.

From an Australian perspective, the North Korean nuclear crisis invests both the reaffirmation – and strengthening – of Xi’s leadership for another five years, and the re-election of Abe, with particular importance.

A glance at the factsheets compiled by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade underscores the overwhelming economic importance of China and Japan to Australia’s wellbeing.

In 2016, China ranked first and Japan second as a destination for Australian merchandise trade exports. Trade in services to China ranked first, and Japan ranked eighth.

Japan’s economic and security importance to Australia tends to be underplayed. But it’s worth noting that Japanese investments in Australia are more than double China’s.

Xi’s signature statement to the party congress assumes critical importance given China’s expanding global leadership amid concerns about the Trump administration’s commitment to such a role. Each word and sentence will be parsed for its implications for regional and global security, and for the direction in which he plans to take the world’s second-biggest economy over the next five years.

This will be a speech – given the circumstances of China’s continued rise – that will rank with a US presidential State of the Union address.

The party congress will stretch over the best part of a week, and will be closely observed for indications of Xi’s continuing efforts to strengthen his grip on China’s leadership. As things stand, he has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.

Given his relative youth in Chinese leadership terms, the 64-year-old Xi may well be ruling for the next decade – in other words an additional five-year term past 2017 to 2022. This is well past a nominal retirement age of 68.

In a paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Michael Swaine painted a generally optimistic picture of China’s continued evolution under a dominant Xi. However, he also acknowledged that China’s continued rise would inevitably result in tensions over:

… trade, investment, sovereignty rights, and a variety of anxieties involving Chinese and US or Japanese military forces in the Western Pacific.

There’s no doubt Xi and the Chinese leadership are seeking to more effectively use China’s growing international presence to promote the nation’s interests in such sensitive. As a result, tensions with China will in fact likely increase.

The good news is that, rather than marking a turn toward confrontation between China and the West and Japan, the 19th Party Congress will likely signal a high level of stability and continuity in Chinese foreign policy. The bad news is that this continuity is unlikely to reduce the most serious challenges facing China’s relations with the United States and its allies.

In all of this, Japan’s importance in regional security calculations is likely to come more sharply into focus in the next period. This is investing Abe’s likely re-election with a super majority in the Diet in partnership with his Komeito allies with more-than-usual significance.

Latest opinion polls are predicting a surprisingly big win for the Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after indications he may have been struggling against the New Hope Party, which was formed on the eve of the election campaign by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

According to a poll in the Yomiuri newspaper and Kyodo news agency, the LDP-led coalition is on track to win 300 or more seats in the 465-member lower house. This would be an improvement on its standing in the previous parliament.

If the Abe-led coalition is returned with a substantial majority, he is likely to push forward with attempts to revise Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution to enable a clearer definition of Japan’s military to enable it to assert itself militarily – if necessary.

Such a development would have implications for Australia’s growing security relationship with Japan. This partnership has not attracted much attention, but it has been substantial and evolving since a Joint Defence and Security Agreement was struck in 2007.

The two countries have progressively upgraded a bilateral Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement that enhances interoperability between the Australian Defence Force and the Japanese Self-Defence Force. Australia and Japan have also declared a Special Strategic Partnership aimed at strengthening security ties in the Indo-Pacific.

What’s driving closer defence co-ordination between the second world war protagonists is concerns about China’s rise, and the implications for a regional power balance. This would seem to be a prudent course.

In the aftermath of the Communist Party congress and the Japanese election, with Xi and Abe’s positions enhanced, it might be reasonable to assume that the sometimes-tense relations between China and Japan will take a turn for the better. Concerns about instability on the Korean Peninsula should provide a catalyst for greater co-operation, and a lessening of tensions over territorial disputes.

An early opportunity for a show of amity will come at next month’s APEC forum in Vietnam. This will also be attended by US President Donald Trump.

Abe is thought likely to press China for a long-delayed summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. North Korea would be a focus of those discussions. For its part, China is anxious that Japan lend its weight to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

One indication that Abe is anxious to improve ties with China is that no cabinet ministers in Abe’s party visited the Yasukuni Shrine on the August 15 anniversary of the war’s end. China has previously angrily protested these visits.

From an economic perspective, close attention will be paid to statements by Xi and others at the party congress on China’s GDP growth targets and economic priorities for the next five years. Indications from the first half of this year are that China’s growth will exceed a 6.5% target for 2017. The economy has been strengthening in the second half of this year thanks, in part, to a construction boom.

But China’s debt-to-GDP ratio remains a significant concern. In the first quarter of 2017 total debt to GDP reached 257.8%. This is up from 187.5% five years ago.

In the end, China-watchers will be animated by personnel shifts in the Chinese leadership evidenced by announcements of a newly constituted Central Committee, Politburo, and, most importantly, Standing Committee of the Politburo.

The ConversationWhen these personnel shifts are unveiled they will reveal the extent to which Xi has strengthened his power over the party apparatus, and thus over China. The betting is this will be a win-win for Xi.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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China: Persecution News Update


The links below are to articles reporting on persecution news from China (the most recent are at the top).

For more visit:
http://www.gospelherald.com/articles/71450/20171004/china-detains-two-christian-women-3-y-o-missionary-work.htm
http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-crime/article/2113277/former-hong-kong-eoc-official-loses-gratuity-fee-retrial
http://www.persecution.org/2017/09/27/china-losing-freedom-in-every-aspect/
http://www.christiantimes.com/article/china-intensifies-crackdown-on-churches-with-new-plans-to-force-registration-with-government/72905.htm
https://international.la-croix.com/news/cross-accidentally-set-alight-as-chinese-officials-take-it-from-church/5963
https://www.ucanews.com/news/chinese-priest-gets-jail-time-for-theft-supporters-say-he-was-framed/80303
http://www.chinaaid.org/2017/09/christian-academy-banned-for.html

As China prepares for its Communist Party Congress, what will it mean for the rest of the world?



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This display of Chinese characters represents the Chinese leadership’s ‘Five Major Development Concepts’ ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
Reuters/Thomas Peter

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

Of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s many achievements in his time in office – about which much will be made in the official propaganda – one of the most surprising was the more confident and assertive approach to foreign policy that he brought about.

As the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China approaches, the five-yearly meeting of the party that signals leadership transition, what will the next five years mean for the outside world?

Intended to oversee leadership change at many levels of the party, the greatest interest is on the upper echelons of the hierarchy. Of particular interest is the make-up of seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, and the 25-member Politburo.

There is a great deal to watch out for: will Xi indicate a preferred successor? Will Li Keqiang, the current premier, be pushed out, demoted, or in some other way weakened? Will he allow Wang Qishan, his closest ally and head of the massive anti-corruption program, to stay on? Wang Qishan is now over 68, the age at which one is normally put out to pasture.

Beyond these obviously important details, the bigger question is whether Xi will adhere to the norms of the party or instead break them, potentially shattering the political system.

No one knows quite how things will play out, but seasoned analysts think it most likely Xi will bend the norms of the party to allow him to place enough supporters in key posts without completely upending the system. However events unfold, it is reasonable to expect that Xi will emerge from the NPC with his domestic hand strengthened.

Internationally, this will be the most closely watched Communist Party Congress yet. In part this is because China is now of huge importance to the rest of the world. China is the most important trading partner of more than 130 countries, it is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and has massive and growing military capabilities.

But interest is also strong abroad because the newly confident and at time abrasive China is having a transformative effect on Asia and indeed the world.

In his first five years, Xi confounded expectation by breaking with the cautious approach to Chinese foreign policy that had been the norm since Deng’s time. Xi moved clearly away from the “bide your time and hide your strength” dictum of the past.

But China was not entirely revisionist in its behaviour. As the Brookings Institution’s Jeff Bader rightly observes Xi’s policy involved a mix of status quo adherence to international norms, grievance and a growing confidence and leadership.

Economic growth remains a priority, and interdependence has driven a pragmatic acceptance of existing rules and institutions. Whether at the WTO, the World Bank or the UN, much of China’s international policy operates within existing norms. Interestingly, it contributes more troops to UN peacekeeping operations than any other permanent member of the Security Council.

Other elements are strongly shaped by a strong sense of grievance about an international order that is perceived to constrain China’s potential. China’s behaviour in the East and South China Sea, and claim that this has been purely a reaction to the predatory forces provoking it, is redolent of the early years of the People’s Republic.

Xi has also set out to build new norms and institutions. The most notable of these are the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, in which China sees itself as providing mutually beneficial international economic leadership.

After October 25, what mix of adherence to rules, grievance and leadership can we expect? Do not expect simple continuity with the past five years. The balance of probabilities is that China will take a more nationalistic path, with a strong party aiming to remake the international environment, where necessary, in ways that will help it achieve Xi’s stated desire to rejuvenate the Chinese nation.

This will not mean we can expect a concerted push for Chinese hegemony in the Western Pacific. Nor will Xi try to recreate the old Chinese tributary system. Rather, we can expect the odd combination of grievance and more confident leadership that produced the South China Sea policy and the Belt and Road Initiative to become more pronounced features of Chinese foreign policy.

While norm adherence will continue, there is likely to be a greater willingness to break with these norms if they conflict with the larger aims.

The ConversationThis Chinese posture, when combined with the trade, finance and strategic trends drawing Asia closer together, is likely to create a China-centred Asian regional order, but one that will not be Sino-centric. Xi’s next five years will make contestation the main feature of Asia’s international politics.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

China: Persecution News Update


The links below are to articles reporting on persecution news from China (the most recent are at the top).

For more visit:
http://www.chinaaid.org/2017/09/jiangsu-authorities-invoke-fear-with.html
http://www.chinaaid.org/2017/09/pastor-detained-for-traveling-to.html
http://www.christiantimes.com/article/chinese-christians-meet-in-smaller-groups-to-avoid-government-crackdown-on-churches/72838.htm
http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Wang-Zuoan:-foreign-religions-are-%E2%80%9Cinfiltrating%E2%80%9D-and-threatening-China-41757.html
http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/china-tightens-regulation-of-religion-to–block-extremism–9195258

While the world frets over North Korea, what to do about Iran also causes headaches



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Donald Trump has described Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as the ‘worst deal ever’.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

While North Korea’s reckless behaviour in pursuit of a nuclear weapons program has diverted international attention in recent weeks, another crisis-in-the-making should be regarded with equal concern.

What the world does not need right now is another nuclear crisis on top of efforts to build a global consensus to deal with North Korean brinkmanship.

And yet that is what is at risk from a policy tug-of-war in the Trump administration between those who believe Iran is living up to its obligations – however imperfectly – under a 2015 agreement to freeze its nuclear program and those who want to toughen its provisions.

US President Donald Trump has described the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a centrepiece of his predecessor’s foreign policy – as the “worst deal ever”.

Under a Congressional mandate, the administration is obliged to certify the agreement every 90 days. On the advice of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has done this twice, but a festering issue has bubbled to the surface ahead of the next certification deadline on October 15.

Administration hawks are pushing for a renegotiation of the original agreement – something that Iran would almost certainly resist, along with other parties to the deal.

These include, apart from the US, the remaining four permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. China and Russia could be expected to be especially resistant.

Any US action to withhold certification or seek to alter the terms of the JCPOA risks prompting an international crisis in which the US would find itself isolated from its natural allies. And all this at a moment when global consensus is required to deal with North Korea.

Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, might be pressuring the US to toughen its stance against Iran more generally, but if the JCPOA became a casualty of these pressures, an even more chaotic Middle East would be a likely result.

Israel’s campaign againstthe JCPOA has been relentless, and in this it finds itself aligned with Saudi Arabia in ways that have the potential to shift regional alignments.

In the Arab vernacular: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

In the US, concern about the administration’s commitment to the JCPOA has stirred arms control experts to counsel against steps that would jeopardise an agreement, however flawed, that appears to be working.

Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017 (during which the JCPOA was negotiated), warned this week of risks to the agreement.

In a commentary for CNN, Countryman wrote:

The president campaigned on rash promises, including plans to tear up the deal, and he made it clear this summer that he still expects to pull out of the “worst deal ever”.

Sadly, he may do so even without any evidence to justify such an extreme course of action.

Countryman noted that just last week the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported that all parties to the JCPOA – including Iran – are in “full compliance” with the agreement.

This is the eighth time the agency, in its regular reports mandated by the JCPOA, has confirmed that the nuclear deal is working.

This expert assessment is not being challenged directly by members of the administration antipathetic to the agreement, but an attempt appears to be underway to reinterpret the JCPOA to take into account Iran’s behaviour more broadly.

This was never the intention.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave voice to this strand of administration thinking in a speech earlier this month to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in which she questioned Iran’s adherence to the spirit of the agreement. Haley said:

Judging any international agreement begins and ends with the nature of the government that signed it.

Does it respect international law? Can it be trusted to abide by its commitments? Is the agreement in the national interests of the United States.

Haley answered her own question by launching an ad-hominem attack on Iran more generally, including criticism of its continuing development of a ballistic missile capability.

The ballistic missile issue is not dealt with in the JCPOA, rather in a separate UN resolution.

Haley’s suggestion that certification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA should be shifted to Congress is problematical since that body overwhelmingly opposed the deal when it was negotiated. She told the AEI:

Under the law, if there was such a referral Congress has 60 days to consider whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

During that time, Congress could take the opportunity to debate Iran’s support for terrorism, its past nuclear activity and its massive human-right violations.

This process would almost certainly destabilise the JCPOA.

In an editorial, the New York Times forcefully expressed its misgivings:

If Mr Trump blows up the nuclear deal, then what? None of the original opponents of the deal, in or out of Congress, including Mr Trump, have offered any plausible alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Without such an alternative, a reckless decision to honour a reckless campaign promise invites Iran to pursue an unfettered path to a bomb. And if deals with the United States cannot be trusted, North Korea will have one more reason to keep pursuing its nuclear program.

In all of this one might have sympathy for Tillerson, who has been tasked with seeking to toughen provision of the JCPOA in consultation with America’s allies.

Tillerson is reportedly arguing for an extension of the freeze on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program beyond the 2025 and 2030 limits specified in the agreement. Those discussions will continue on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week when foreign ministers of the JCPOA signatories have been asked to convene to discuss the issue.

Indications are that the US will have some difficulty persuading the representatives of China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany to revisit the JCPOA.

One option being canvassed by the US is for a separate set of agreements that would seek both to limit Iran’s missile development, and extend the “sunset” provisions on its nuclear enrichment program.

New French president Emmanuel Macron has expressed lukewarm support, but it seems unlikely Germany’s Angela Merkel would fall into line if such a step risked the overall agreement struck after two years of painstaking negotiations.

Indeed, this week Merkel proposed talks on the North Korea crisis along lines of the negotiations with Iran:

I could imagine such a format being used to end the North Korea conflict. Europe and especially Germany should be prepared to play a very active part in that.

From an Australian perspective, no purpose would be served at a moment when it wants the focus to remain on North Korea by a separate crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The ConversationAustralia might be “joined at the hip” to the US, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words, but when it comes to an issue like America’s threats to blow up the JCPOA, Australia would be advised to endure a bit of separation anxiety.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What the West gets wrong about North Korea’s motives, and why some South Koreans admire the North


B.R. Myers, Dongseo University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on September 3 – of what was possibly a hydrogen bomb – prompted a flurry of Western media think pieces attempting to explain the past and predict the future.

Most left out important aspects of the current crisis, says analyst B.R. Myers, a South Korea-based academic expert on North Korean propaganda and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters.

In this Q&A, The Conversation asked Professor Myers to explain what most in the West are missing about the North-South conflict.

You’re always complaining about press coverage of the Korean crisis. What is it you think people need to know more about?

A major problem is the mischaracterisation of the government in Seoul as liberal, as if it were no less committed to constitutional values and opposed to totalitarianism than the West German social democrats were in the Cold War. This makes Westerners think, “North Korea can’t take over the South without a war, but it knows it can’t win one, therefore it must now be arming only to protect itself”.

In fact, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has pledged commitment to a North-South confederation, and stressed his opposition to any use of military force against the North, no matter what happens. That makes Moon’s current displays of military hardware seem pretty meaningless.

If Seoul and Washington are playing a good-cop, bad-cop game, it’s a terrible idea. The more placid South Korea appears, the more US troops look like the only real obstacle to unification.

Western media applaud Moon’s soft-line declarations, and they like it when the South Korean man in the street says he finds Trump scarier than Kim Jong Un. But there is a danger of Kim taking all these things the wrong way.

You’ve written that some South Koreans admire the North, or at least, feel a sense of shared identity. Why is that? And can this persist in the current climate?

Many intellectuals here admire the North for standing up to the world. It’s a right-wing sort of admiration, really, for a resolute state that does what it says. More common than admiration are feelings of shared ethnic identity with the North. We are perhaps too blinkered by our own globalism to understand how natural they are.

But the average South Korean’s pan-Korean nationalism is rather shallow. Most people here want to see symbolic shows of reconciliation with the North – like a joint Olympic team in 2018 – but they don’t want unification, least of all under Kim Jong Un’s rule.

And they want the US Army to stay here in case he gets the wrong idea. It’s understandable enough, but this crisis will soon force them to pick one side, and one side only. “No ally is better than one’s own race,” President Kim Young Sam (president of South Korea from 1993 to 1998) said, which no West German chancellor would have dreamed of saying.

Washington has let this stuff slide for a long time, but people there are now asking themselves, “Must we really expose America to a nuclear threat in order to protect moderate Korean nationalists from radical nationalists?”

While the failures of the Vietnam War loom large, the US bungling of Korea is rarely discussed in “western media”. What’s the national memory of that war in both Koreas, and how is that impacting the current state of affairs?

That memory impacts the current situation less than one might think. Foreigners assume that because of the war, the two sides must dislike each other more than West and East Germans did. The opposite is the case. Some of my students say, “The North would never attack us, we’re the same people,” as if the war never happened. And North Korea would now be just as committed to unification if it hadn’t.

You mention the Vietnam War. In some ways that’s the more relevant and topical event right now. Kim Il Sung (leader of North Korea from its inception in 1948 until he died 1994, and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un) was struck both by Washington’s decision not to use nukes on North Vietnam and by its general reluctance to go all out to win.

I’m sure the ease with which bare-footed Vietcong marched into Saigon in 1975 now strengthens Pyongyang’s conviction that the “Yankee colony” will not last long after the colonisers pull out.

In South Korea, meanwhile, conservatives are now loudly invoking the story of South Vietnam’s demise. They say, “There too you had a richer, freer state, and it fell only a few years after US troops pulled out. Let’s not make the same mistake”. They point worriedly to President Moon Jae-in’s own remark that he felt “delight” when predictions of US defeat in Vietnam came true.

How likely is a war?

I agree with those who say North Korea knows a nuclear war is unwinnable. I also think it fancies its chances of a peaceful takeover too highly to want to risk a premature invasion while US troops are here.

On the other hand, the North’s legitimacy derives almost wholly from its subjects’ perception of perfect strength and resolve. This makes it harder for Pyongyang to back down than it was for Moscow during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The ConversationAlso, the North’s ideology glorifies the heart over the mind, instincts over consciousness, which makes rash decisions more likely to be made, even quite low down the military command structure. There is therefore a significant danger of some sort of limited clash at any time. But that has always been the case.

B.R. Myers, Professor of International Studies, Dongseo University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

When it comes to North Korea, China is happy to make Trump squirm



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Chinese leader Xi Jinping speaks at the BRICS summit in Xiamen.
Reuters

Pradeep Taneja, University of Melbourne

The sixth and latest nuclear test by North Korea on September 3 has once again put the spotlight on China. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly asked China to do more to rein in the nuclear weapons and missile development by its neighbour and treaty ally, but to no avail.

In fact, China may have already lost most of its direct influence on North Korea through past unsuccessful attempts to control the rogue state’s behaviour. It does still have more leverage on its neighbour than any other country because it supplies most of the oil to North Korea, which in turn fuels Kim Jong-un’s military and industrial machinery.

But China is unlikely to completely cut off crude and refined oil supplies to its troublesome ally. This is because it believes it is unlikely that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons and delivery systems any time soon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) leaders in China this week that the North Koreans would “rather eat grass than give up their nuclear program”. This echoes former Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose country defied international sanctions to develop its own nuclear weapons.

The Chinese and Russians now believe it would be almost impossible to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons without a comprehensive settlement with the US.

There was a time when China did enjoy considerable influence over North Korea. Special trains bearing the country’s leader frequently chugged into Beijing to a warm welcome from Chinese leaders.

Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was taken to China’s capitalist enclave of Shenzhen and its other bustling cities, such as Shanghai, on his seven visits to China as leader. These were intended to inspire him to take a leaf out of China’s book and launch his own market-friendly economic reforms. But he politely refused to toe the line while still accepting China’s economic and diplomatic support.

Kim Jong-un has gone a step further in rebuffing the Chinese leadership. Since becoming North Korea’s leader in 2011 he has never visited China, not even when it celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war by hosting a grand military parade in Beijing in 2015. Not surprisingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping has also not visited Pyongyang.

Some Chinese scholars privately blame their own government for North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons program.

It is believed that, in an effort to persuade its estranged ally to desist from developing nuclear weapons, Xi had sent a senior envoy to Pyongyang with a message that China would no longer abide by the security provisions of its 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea. Instead of buckling under pressure, Kim Jong-un decided to accelerate his nuclear weapons program because he could no longer rely on China’s support.

Whether or not China is indirectly responsible for Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, it is still the only permanent council member to have the ability to make life really difficult for the Kim regime. China could do so by fully enforcing UN sanctions and cutting off oil supplies.

Nevertheless, the most we can expect from China, in addition to the measures it has already taken – for example, stopping coal imports – is a reduction in oil supplies. The Chinese leadership does not want to do anything that could bring about the collapse of the North Korean regime and, in the process, provoke its leader to lash out at China.

In any case, a partial reduction in oil supplies is unlikely to have a significant impact on North Korea’s behaviour. It would probably make up the shortfall by smuggling in oil on the high seas.

No doubt China’s relations with Pyongyang have deteriorated to such an extent that China finds its behaviour unacceptable and insulting. Chinese people are also tiring of the shenanigans of Kim and his cronies. This is evident in commentary on Chinese social media, which the Chinese government is trying to suppress lest it projects its leaders as ineffective.

China has always been loath to adopt or support measures that could trigger a collapse of the North Korean regime and send millions of impoverished Koreans flooding into China’s northeast.

China also does not want to see an end to North Korea’s status as the buffer between China and the American presence in the southern Korean peninsula. It fears a premature reunification of the two Koreas under US influence. A unified Korea could bring American troops to China’s doorstep.

So, while China’s leaders probably dislike Kim Jong-un as much as the Americans do and want an end to his reckless behaviour, they are unlikely to heed Trump’s calls to help him bring the tyrant to his knees, even if they could.

The ConversationChina is happy to make Trump squirm and appear to his own people and the world as feckless. But it will be watching the American moves very carefully and do anything to avoid war on the Korean peninsula. That could have serious ramifications for the region and the world, and impede China’s own seemingly inexorable rise as a great power.

Pradeep Taneja, Lecturer in Asian Politics, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition: what is North Korea’s endgame?



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Reuters/Toru Hanai

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, following soon after a series of missile provocations, tells us a great deal.

Most obviously, North Korea does not feel at all constrained by US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and nor has it been coerced by UN sanctions. It also illustrates the acute regional tension caused by the acceleration of the isolated country’s weapons acquisition program.

While we wait for technical detail that will reveal the exact magnitude of the blast, and thus how close the regime has come to acquiring a viable nuclear weapon, it is important to try to determine just what it is that North Korea seeks in taking the risky, expensive and diplomatically fraught steps down the nuclear path.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


Determining intent in the mind of political leaders is always a fraught endeavour. Working out what the leader of a highly closed society like North Korea wants is harder still.

On this question there is little reliable information, and the best we have is educated guesswork. But discerning what Kim Jong-un wants from his nuclear gambit is necessary to determining how to respond to North Korea’s latest test.

North Korea’s nuclear program began in the early 1990s, and in its first decade or so was often thought to be a means of extorting financial and material support. The Agreed Framework, established in 1994 to manage the crisis, looks in hindsight like a reward for stopping the country from behaving badly.

Given how economically fraught North Korea’s existence had become after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nuclear blackmail as a means to remain viable had a certain logic.

The tempo and success of the various tests show that North Korea’s nuclear program is not a creative revenue-raising exercise. For one thing, the country is no longer as economically fragile as it was in the 1990s. More importantly, the program is so far down the path of weapon acquisition that this motive can be ruled out definitively.

If there were any doubts, the latest tests show North Korea is committed to acquiring a nuclear weapon that can hit the US and other targets both near and far. The reasons are as follows.

Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, North Korea is motivated by the same concerns as all country. Above all, Kim wants nuclear weapons to increase the country’s sense of security.

Due to their destructive force, nuclear weapons are thought of as the ultimate guarantee. The regime perceived that Iraq and Libya were vulnerable to regime change because they could not deter the US or other powerful countries.

As a country that believes the US and its allies pose a significant threat, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only way it can protect itself. While North Korea has a very large military – its defence force is comprised of nearly 1.2 million people – its equipment is badly outdated, and would perform poorly in a fight with US or South Korean forces.

Nuclear weapons are thus a way to maximise the chances of regime survival in what North Korea thinks is a hostile international environment.

The ability to confer disproportionate power on their owners bestows nuclear weapons with considerable prestige. North Korea wants to be taken seriously as a military power of the first rank. The only way in which it can achieve that ambition is through acquiring nuclear weapons.

And while North Korea has been protected by China – it is the reclusive country’s only partner – it is also aware of the vulnerability that that dependence brings. An indigenously developed nuclear weapon promises security, status and autonomy.

Finally, Kim has made nuclear weapons a core part of North Korea’s identity under his leadership. The country’s constitution was amended in 2012 to describe North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.

This was a clear statement of intent not only about getting the weapons, but about their importance to North Korea’s political identity. They are intimately bound up with Kim’s leadership and his sense of North Korea’s place in the world.

How to calibrate the response to North Korea has to start from recognising the fundamental importance of the weapons to North Korea, and more particularly to Kim’s leadership. He cannot be bought off, and the desire to have a properly nuclear-free Korean peninsula is impossible for as long as he rules.


Further reading: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


All policy options are unpalatable but some are much worse than others.

Regime change or some other coercive effort to stop North Korea comes with the risk of horrendous loss of life as well as no clear guarantee that it would work.

Equally, cutting off the already very isolated country could cause it to collapse with millions of refugees. And more likely North Korea would figure out a way around any more strict sanction regimes, as it has done for many years already.

The best-case scenario is a negotiation in which North Korea agrees to freeze its program. It would not hand over what it has but it would stop going any further. Yet even this is difficult to envisage, and politically would be very difficult for Trump to accept.

The most important thing policymakers in the US, China, Japan and elsewhere can do now is begin to prepare for a North Korea with nuclear weapon capabilities. It is the most likely outcome given Kim’s ambitions and the very limited choices the outside world has.

But while it would be dispiriting development, it would be likely to create a more stable environment than the volatile context created by North Korea’s sprint to the finish.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US



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North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner where the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened.
Reuters/KCNA

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test confirms it is very close to perfecting a miniaturised warhead for deployment on its missile delivery systems. The 6.3 magnitude seismographic reading registered by the test blast is approximately ten times more powerful than that recorded from its nuclear test in September 2016.

There seems to be no outcome from this crisis in which US power is enhanced. This adds to the gravity of the Trump administration’s impending response to the nuclear test. Let’s walk through the possible scenarios.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


War

If the US goes to war with North Korea, it risks the lives of millions of people across the region.

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis responded to the latest test with a threat of an “effective and overwhelming military response”. This is the kind of rhetorical overreach that is undermining US regional standing under the Trump administration.

There are high risks in any military action against North Korea. There are essentially no good options for compelling it with force. As recently departed White House adviser Steve Bannon said:

There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.

The US loses in any war scenario, even though its combined military forces with South Korea would inevitably win such a conflict.


Further reading: Attacking North Korea: surely Donald Trump couldn’t be that foolish


Squibbing it

If the Trump administration talks tough and doesn’t follow through, it leaves America’s regional allies exposed – and gifts China pole position in shaping relations in northeast Asia.

America’s northeast Asian alliances, particularly with South Korea, will be challenged regardless of what Donald Trump does next.

North Korea’s nuclear-capable intercontinental missiles increase the risk to the US of defending South Korea and Japan in the event of war. This undermines their governments’ faith in America’s security guarantee. It does not help that the Trump administration has been slow to fill the ambassadorial roles to South Korea and Japan.

Any military action that leads to an escalation to war risks a North Korean artillery attack on Seoul, and missile strikes on other targets in South Korea, Japan and further afield.

North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner and the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened. US alliances with South Korea and Japan would come under great stress if they were attacked, given that those alliances are in place to prevent such an occurrence.

Sanctions

If sanctions continue to be ineffectual, North Korea completes its end-run to having a deployable nuclear weapons capability.

This outcome undermines the nuclear nonproliferation regime. North Korea’s successful nuclear weapons development weakens this system by serving as an example to other would-be proliferators that they can develop nuclear weapons without any meaningful consequences – the ineffectual economic sanctions regime notwithstanding.

This outcome will also demonstrate that the US cannot prevent a determined nuclear proliferator from undermining its nuclear hegemony.

Nuclear monopoly, underpinned by the limit on the number of countries with nuclear weapons built into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is one of the pillars underpinning US global power. The “nuclear shadow” cast by countries with nuclear weapons provides them with greater leverage in dealing with the US and narrows America’s menu of choice for exercising power.

Trade war with China

If the US threatens to squeeze China as a path to influencing North Korea, it risks a trade war it inevitably loses.

Trump has tweeted that the US “is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. This is a not-so-veiled message to China, North Korea’s largest trade partner.

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doubled down on this proposition. He claimed his department was working on a sanctions package that would strangle “all trade and other business” with North Korea.

There have also been calls to urge China to embargo crude oil deliveries to North Korea to further squeeze the Kim regime.

However, the US consumes Chinese imports to the tune of US$463 billion worth of goods. As Hillary Clinton pointed out while secretary of state, China has enormous leverage over the US as its largest creditor.

Risking global recession through a foolish protectionist spiral or forcing China to drop the “dollar bomb” is not a credible strategy for soliciting Chinese assistance with handling North Korea.

Nuclear freeze

In the unlikely event that the US negotiates a nuclear freeze with North Korea, it simply kicks the can down the road.

When we strip back the ritualised tough talk that regional leaders routinely articulate after North Korean provocations, and the inane repetition of the meme that diplomacy equates to “appeasement”, talking to North Korea may be the least-worst option forward.

The Kim regime may agree to a nuclear weapons development and production freeze, or a missile testing moratorium to buy time.

But given the importance of nuclear weapons to Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development) to his domestic legitimacy, and North Korea’s long history of coercive bargaining tactics in which it engineers crises to obtain concessions in exchange for de-escalation, this could only be a postponement of North Korea’s inevitable proliferation success.

The problem with the negotiation gambit is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway. and domestic political legitimacy.

A peace agreement

If the US sits down to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea, its regional prestige will be forever damaged – and the raison d’être of its military presence in South Korea will evaporate.

Another avenue for negotiations to progress may arise once North Korea has perfected and deployed its nuclear weapons capability.

At this time, North Korea may call on the US to negotiate a security guarantee and a formal conclusion to the Korean War, which remains technically alive since the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

But why would North Korea want to engage in such negotiations? It will have greater leverage in these negotiations when backed by a nuclear deterrent.

Yet such an agreement might be the least worrying option available to the Trump administration, given the unpalatability of other options. It seems likely that regional countries will ultimately have to find a way to manage a nuclear North Korea.

A marker of US decline

There are no avenues for the Trump administration to demonstrate strength and resolve that do not ultimately expose the limitations of that strength.

Could current events on the Korean Peninsula represent America’s “Suez Crisis” moment? In 1956, Britain over-reached in its attempt to maintain a post-war imperial toehold in Egypt, exposing the chasm between its imperial pretensions of a bygone era and its actual power in the aftermath of the second world war.

The North Korea crisis is the most obvious face of hegemonic transition. Trump’s US is facing a set of outcomes to the current crisis that are lose-lose. They are exposing the reality of US decline and the growing limitations of its ability to shape the strategic environment in northeast Asia.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.