The President thinks he can bluff the Chinese and an attack on North
Korea will have only limited consequences. He is wrong on both counts.
As the US navy steams towards the Korean peninsula, North Korea threatens counter-attacks on US bases and on South Korea, and as China warns of war, the unanswered question is whether there is any real strategy behind these moves.
US carrier deployments near the Korean peninsula are hardly
new whilst US threats to take unilateral action against North Korea have
been made many times before. It is known that the Clinton, George W.
Bush and Obama administrations all seriously considered pre-emptive
strikes on North Korea, with the Clinton administration in 1994 coming
closest. All three previous administrations however in the end pulled
back when they assessed that the possible consequences might be a war
which would ravage the Korean Peninsula.
In the case of the Clinton administration, the assessment
was that possible North Korean retaliation could involve massive
artillery strikes against South Korea’s capital Seoul, which might cause
up to a million casualties. That looks wildly exaggerated. However
since then Seoul has grown in size, more suburbs have been built closer
to the North Korean border (bringing them within closer range of North
Korea’s artillery) and North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons and
(possibly) the means to use them. What may have been an exaggeration in
1994 might no longer be so now.
Beyond that there is huge uncertainty as to what exactly the
US would strike if it did attack. The North Korean nuclear programme
is known to be heavily defended and widely dispersed, with many of the
facilities buried deep underground. A limited cruise missile strike
such as the one the US has just launched in Syria would achieve nothing
that would justify provoking the probably strong North Korean reaction.
By contrast a full-scale attack on North Korea – which is now a nuclear
power – would risk an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula, which would
be potentially devastating, and which given North Korean missile
capabilities might conceivably even spread as far as Japan.
On any rational calculation a US military strike against
North Korea makes no sense, and under any other administration one would
be inclined to rule the possibility out, and to dismiss the latest US
moves as empty bluff.
The reason why it is now impossible to do this is not because
anything in the Korean Peninsula has changed since previous
administrations considered and then rejected the option of military
action, but because following the US missile attack on Syria no-one any
longer can be sure that the foreign policy decisions of this President
and of this administration are being made in an orderly and rational
way. Instead it seems policy is being driven far too much by impulse
and by concerns about ‘face’, with the President making decisions on the
fly, with his advisers unwilling or unable to restrain him. (emphasis added)
To the extent that it is possible to see a strategy behind
the latest US moves, it seems to be to frighten the Chinese into
abandoning North Korea by threatening them with a war in the Korean
Peninsula if they don’t, with a big trade deal thrown in as a sweetener.
This is the sort of approach that might make sense in the
cut-and-thrust US property industry which Donald Trump knows. However
the trouble with this frankly amateur approach is that it gravely
underestimates the strength of feeling in China.
Whilst it is doubtful that most Chinese think or care much
about North Korea, the Chinese leadership would face a severe internal
crisis if it appeared to back down in the face of US threats. An actual
or pending US attack on North Korea would therefore be far more likely
to strengthen Chinese support for North Korea than to weaken it.
The President and his advisers made the same mistake
following the US missile strike on Syria. In the days following the
missile strike the President and his advisers appear to have believed –
and were encouraged by the British to believe – that the missile strikes
would cause the Russians to reduce their support for Syria’s President
Assad. As with the bribe of the big trade deal they are now offering
China, they also offered the Russians the prospect of better relations
with the US to sweeten the deal.
In the event, the Russians were neither intimidated by the
missile strike nor impressed by the bribe. Instead, rather than pulling
out of Syria or reducing their support for President Assad, their
response was to increase it.
There is no reason to think the Chinese response to any US
attack on North Korea would be any different. On the contrary, given
traditional Chinese sensitivity about questions of prestige, a hardening
of China’s position in the face of US ‘aggression’ on the Asian
mainland is a virtual certainty.
The trouble is that having allowed tensions to ratchet up to
this level the President may feel he cannot pull back without being
humiliated, and given his own over-sensitivity about ‘face’ and the
inability of his key foreign policy aides – Mattis, McMaster and Kushner
– to restrain him (Tillerson seems to be barely in the loop) the
potential consequences of that are alarming, to say the least.
It is however desperately important in this situation that
the President either comes to his senses and accepts whatever
face-saving proposal the Chinese put to him – however empty of content
it may be – or that his advisers finally stand up to him and restrain
him. A failure to do so could set the scene for catastrophe, either now
or in the future (emphasis added)
The alternative, however humiliating, would at least teach
this inexperienced President and his advisers that the first law of
international relations is never to bluff China, because it is a bluff
which is always called.
Source: The Duran