Just a few weeks before his one hundredth day in office, US President Donald Trump and his administration still look lost on foreign policy. Air strikes and offshore bombardment on Syria on April 6 and 8 respectively were probably by far the closest thing that displayed their foreign policy stance: no tolerance for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). It was certainly indicative of their political will and commitment, and has allowed pundits to see strategic implications for North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Greater cooperation from Beijing in sanctioning North Korea was something Trump had been demanding via media but was uncertain about at his encounter with Chinese president Xi Jinping at their recent summit in Florida.
The bombardment on Syria during the state dinner between Trump and his Chinese guest is widely taken as signaling a warning to China, that is, deliver more pressure on North Korea so that it will surrender its nuclear aspiration or face a similar fate and consequence like that of Syria’s. Pundits are now jumping on the bandwagon that there could be a surgical or preemptive strike from the US on North Korea, if it fails to comply to US demands of halting its nuclear program. Trump has been advocating striking North Korea’s nuclear facilities since taking office in January and has vehemently justified it with the utter failure of his predecessor’s North Korea policy a.k.a. “strategic patience.”
However, under all and any circumstances, Trump will be restrained from delivering such an order for both empirical and strategic reasons. His statements will largely remain mere diplomatic rhetoric or diplomatic blackmail at best. His words won’t likely be materialized into action, as the consequences will be devastating, both in terms of physical damage and human casualties, and will mean remaking the regional order anew. The cost will be intolerable for Americans and unbearable for the new administration. No one will escape from the consequences, and no one will be a victor, but all will be losers. These sheer consequences will restrain Trump and his administration from realizing their rhetoric. And fortunately or unfortunately, China knows too well that it won’t happen. No wonder not much can be disclosed from their first encounter in Florida on the Korean situation.
In the past, there have been a couple of occasions in which powerful states wanted to annihilate the nuclear facilities of weaker states. The salient case in Northeast Asia involved the People’s Republic of China, when the US wanted to carry out a surgical strike on China’s nuclear facility just before its first successful test in 1964. In 1969, when Soviet animosity with the Chinese reached its peak, the Soviet Union wanted to carry out its own preemptive strike against Beijing’s nuclear facility.
Both strikes were withheld for neither was willing to endorse the other’s plan. The success of each required the acquiescence of the other at minimum or the support and cooperation rendered by the other. Cooperation meant that neither would support China’s retaliatory action. Instead, it required acquiescent support from the other in attacking China’s nuclear facility. Cooperation had to come from the Soviet Union for the US because in principle Moscow was still technically committed to its alliance with Beijing that had been in place since 1950. The Soviets had to seek US acquiescence for their desire to destroy China’s nuclear sites in 1969.
Neither the US nor the Soviet Union could afford to strike against China before or after its nuclear test in 1964. Even just before its first successful nuclear test, it was self-evident that the consequence of a US attack on China would be an all-out war. It would have put the Soviets in a dilemma. While the Soviet Union had to struggle over the question of its will to respect its alliance treaty with Beijing, Moscow also did not want to sacrifice its détente with Washington. In the end, Moscow would not have likely supported its alliance, given the fear of another world war.
A smarter way to end Pyongyang’s nuclear path must be found. The only way to achieve this is by talking and communicating with one another.
Washington could not acquiesce to or support Moscow’s attack on Beijing’s nuclear sites either, given the latter’s nuclear capability. It was particularly concerned about Beijing’s possible nuclear retaliation and Moscow’s reciprocal launch of nuclear missiles already deployed in Mongolia which were in the vicinity of the border areas of China. This would also have transpired into World War III. Thus, Washington rejected Brezhnev’s proposal of a preemptive strike without any hesitation.
If history is a mirror of the future and its lessons offer a guideline to judgement, the US’ desire for either a surgical or preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facility at this time will require China’s cooperation. Beijing will either have to look the other way or be supportive of Washington’s action. Then some critical questions follow: Will Beijing uphold its commitment to its alliance treaty of 1961 with Pyongyang? Will it intervene against an external invasion of North Korea? Will it perceive Washington’s action as an “invasion”? If so, will it live up to alliance expectation? As emphasized by top Chinese leaders like Qian Qichen, Li Peng, and Jiang Zemin in the past, only if and when North Korea is invaded and not vice versa would Beijing intervene to rescue Pyongyang.
China will not remain idle for the same reasons that will withhold US military action against the North. While it will not tolerate US military strikes spiraling into an all-out war, including nuclear war, it is also not ready to see the Korean peninsula unified as a result.
US strikes against North Korea will inevitably invite retaliatory countermeasures which will result in an all-out war. A scale of such a war will push the Pyongyang regime to unleash all sorts of WMDs ranging from biochemical to nuclear weapons. In the end, however, given the absence of China’s intervention, it is most likely that North Korea will lose the war if it evolved into attrition warfare. The outcome will be self-evident: a unified Korea under the South’s leadership. Will this be acceptable to Beijing without preparation?
Beijing cannot withstand Korean unification without an arrangement that is conducive to its strategic and security interests in the region. Will Beijing allow Korean unification to happen without a scheme to serve its strategic interest? The obvious answer is no. Thus, without prior consultation and consensus, if not agreement, with the US, China will not remain idle if there is a US attack on North Korea. Beijing’s strategic calculation will only complicate Washington’s decision. Without China’s understanding and compromise, the US cannot act alone.
If the US were to act alone, Koreans will become an opposing force largely because the largest victim of such a military intervention will be the Koreans themselves. Just like in 1993 when former US president Bill Clinton was on the verge of engaging militarily against North Korea, it was the South Koreans who came out as the strongest opposition, as they cannot accept the devastating consequences from a unilateral act that is designed to serve only the initiator’s interests. Although South Koreans are fed up with instability created by their northern compatriots, they want the situation to be solved peacefully, but not by a coercive means that will destroy the whole nation and the entire peninsula, given North’s nuclear capability.
North Korea’s nuclear advancement has now taken over the driver’s seat, and dictates strategic thinking and minds. A smarter way to end Pyongyang’s nuclear path must be found. The only way the concerned parties can achieve this end is by talking and communicating with one another. Confrontation will only brew stalemate, and stalemate will only nurture more misunderstanding and misperception. In the end, it will only prompt the security dilemma to spiral and encourage everyone to strive for arms buildup in the name of defense. Such a spiral, if continued, may escalate into war. War on the Korean peninsula will bring unification at a devastating cost to both Koreans and Chinese.
The US is at a loss, at least for now. It is bluffing like an amateur poker player, and its poker face is not there. It is obvious that its hand is empty. The US wants to draw a joker without luck. The sudden shift in the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson to the Korean peninsula may send a message to Pyongyang but not to the other players. The aircraft carrier was accompanied by few vessels to even bear any symbolic meanings in military terms. One aircraft carrier may bear symbolic meanings, two a warning, and three a declaration of war.
Attempted pressure on China with secondary boycott bluff cards have already proved useless in the past when the US employed the same against Cuba in the mid-1990s, only to expose itself to the opposition from its allies, the EU, Canada, and Mexico. China is well aware of this precedent given its long comradeship with Cuba. After all, Trump was originally a professional businessman whose expertise is bluffing and even blackmail. The truth is that he is a novice when it comes to foreign policy and international relations. Many of his staff are also without decision-making experience. He will have to learn how to read the table before he can make deals with other foreign players. In this age of information, everything is read very quickly, even one’s poker face. One piece of advice to a newcomer to the poker game of international politics: Learn the game, study the rules, and bring more chips and better hands to the table.