China, US and North Korea: Is the Threat of War in Asia Real?

Tension between the US and North Korea on the Korean Peninsula has intensified considerably in recent months with the US carrying out large-scale military exercises in South Korea. The US has also sent a large group of warships to the region, including an aircraft carrier, whilst North Korea has warned of nuclear war. The BBC reported on April 15, 2017 that North Korea cautioned the United States against any provocative actions in the region, saying it was “ready to respond with nuclear attacks.” This article will consider the reasons for the tension as well as China’s position towards it. It will attempt to forecast the extent to which nuclear exchange is a potential reality.

Tension between the US and North Korea escalated dramatically after President Trump took office, although the US has threatened Pyongyang consistently over its continued missile testing exercises over the Korean peninsula. The increased intensity of escalation and tension after the arrival of the Trump administration has been noticeable. The perception seems to be that the administration’s top priority is to eliminate what it terms the North Korean “threat” to its interests and its allies in Asia. However, the rhetoric masks the reality of the threat to the US from North Korea and the larger US political and strategic objective in the region, which is targeting the growing power of China. The issue of North Korea in US strategy is not a question of symmetrical military power, and therefore as an adversary North Korea is not a challenger to its dominant position in world order. The small size and strength of North Korea does not place it at the top of the US priority list. Rather it is part of a strategy towards China that gives it importance in US policy. There are some key indicators for this observation some of which include:

  1. The US is looking with great concern towards the increasing growth of China and is exploring all options to curb its power. One of these options is to facilitate tension on China’s borders, which includes North Korea. What confirm this assessment are US actions under the Obama era, wherein she was active in building alliances around China’s borders. Consequently, relations have been significantly advanced with India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and South Korea. The US has formed these relationships to constitute a cordon around China and check the momentum of her investment policy in the South China Sea as well as weakening her trade routes with the rest of the world. In line with this policy, tension with North Korea is one amongst others fomented by the US towards China. These include the border dispute between China and India, and the territorial dispute over islands with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. As a result, many restrictions imposed on Japan’s military post WWII have been lifted to pose a threat to China.

Putting pressure on North Korea is not a new phenomenon. This strategy at first took the style of pressured negotiations between the US and North Korea in 1994, occasioning the suspension of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. In 2008, the negotiations resulted in the formation of the six-party talks resulting in the closure of the Yongbyon reactor. In 2012, US pressure led to a suspension of North Korea’s nuclear program and the allowance of inspectors within the country. However, North Korea resumed its nuclear program due to factors such as US non-compliance with its commitments to provide light water reactors as alternatives, to provide fuel, or because of humiliation because of aid provided by the US. Consequently, it has been the US that has consistently been the cause for Pyongyang returning to the arena of tension. Then in 2012, the US adopted a new tactic with the transfer of 60% of its naval power to the Far East. It would be extremely naïve to argue that this shift of power was aimed at a small North Korea. Rather, its real aim was to limit China’s power and the tension we witness today is only in continuation of this limitation.

  • Reassurance on Syria allowed the US redirect concentration onto China. US Secretary of State Tillerson announced that the US policy of ‘strategic patience’ towards North Korea had ended. Tillerson said during a press conference with his South Korean counterpart Yun byung-se in Seoul: “Let me be very clear, the strategic patience policy has ended, we are studying new security and diplomatic measures, all options are on the table,” (Reuters, March 17th, 2017). This is also reinforced by the fact that America has been somewhat reassured about Syria after proving Turkey’s ability to force the revolutionaries to hand over Aleppo. From a US perspective, the receding danger of the Syrian revolution allows her to focus on North Korea. Thus, North Korea became the No. 1 issue at President Trump’s table after the Syrian issue had been one of the priorities in the Obama administration, and America had not yet prepared its plans for China’s borders since she was considering her options and preparing her alliances. Therefore, the tension with North Korea became the highest priority in Washington, and America’s declaration of an end to the policy of strategic patience was an indication that Washington was possibly resorting to a military solution with North Korea. As a result, America announced its response to North Korea’s military tests with provocative steps and statements including: a- US Secretary of State Tillerson threatened North Korea with nuclear attack.: Tillerson threatened North Korea that she would use the “nuclear deterrence” to defend South Korea and Japan in response to Pyongyang’s latest missile test, and issued a joint statement with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, in which he stressed that the United States is “determined” to defend Tokyo and Seoul even by using the “nuclear deterrence…” (Russian Sputnik agency, 17/2/2017).

b- America threatened to provide South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons: US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, announced earlier today that he does not rule out a solution that could lead to the emergence of nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan. He did not specify if he means the deployment of US nuclear weapons in those areas, or that these weapons belong to South Korea and Japan (Russian Sputnik agency, 18/3/2017)

c- Through provocative language, Trump reminded North Korea of American military hardware at her disposal. The US president also said that he had telephoned the Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday and asked him in an hour-long call to let the ears of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hear that: “The United States has not only aircraft carriers but nuclear submarines too,” he said firmly: “North Korea cannot be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, they do not yet have the means to launch nuclear weapons, but they will have it …” (Russia Today, 13/4/2017 quoting the American newspaper Wall Street Journal)

d- Due to the recent escalation of tension between the United States and North Korea after Pyongyang announced a new missile test and fears of preparing it for a sixth nuclear test, the United States sent a large US force of destroyers and aircraft carriers towards North Korea. Spokesman for the US Pacific Command confirmed that the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its aircrafts, as well as two destroyers of missile launchers and rocket launcher, headed towards the Korean Peninsula after it was supposed to stop in Australia, and that it was put in place “as a precautionary measure”. The spokesman added that the source of the number one threat in the region is from North Korea because of its missile program …” (France 24, 9/4/2017)

US Vice President Mike Pence confirmed this on 22nd April 2017. He told reporters in Sydney; “The aircraft carrier will be in the Sea of Japan within days before the end of this month, with two destroyers and a rocket launcher…The North Korean regime must make no mistake, for the United States has the resources, personnel, and presence in this region of the world that allows it to safeguard our interests and the security of these interests, and the security of our allies.” Pence vowed that there would be “an overwhelming and effective response” to any attack by North Korea, stressing that the country poses “the most serious threat to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.” (AFP 22 /4/2017)

e- The presence of large scale US military exercises by the American army in South Korea. According to the news agency Reuters, “South Korean and US troops began large-scale military exercises on Wednesday, which takes place yearly, to test their defense readiness in the face of North Korea’s threats … The drills come amid heightened tension after the latest attempt to launch a ballistic missile by North Korea on 12th February …” (1/3/2017). It is worth mentioning that the US military has a large military base in South Korea with 28,500 US troops, part of a military system in the countries of the China Basin and the Pacific Islands, with more than a quarter of a million troops, not to mention the naval force in the region.

  • From the above it would be logical to assume that Trump meant business and the threat of imminent war was real. However, there are clear indications that such action is not intended and the US is not looking to go to war. These include:
  1. The US was taken aback by North Korea’s strong response to its threats to any new North Korean test, when North Korea responded with a major military parade on 15th April, 2017. The parade was broadcast by Pyongyang Television showcasing North Korea’s submarine-based missile launch capabilities and the possibility that some of its intercontinental missiles were capable of reaching US territory. Hence the reality of North Korea’s power became a dilemma for the US. The US wants to plan a war without facing significant harm, and one that does not threaten its territory. North Korea’s revelation of its military strength put into question the credibility of the US threat. Moreover, Pyongyang followed up with a missile test on 16th April 2017, as if it was an intercontinental ballistic missile. Despite its failure, the defiance of the US was clear and exposed the fact that the US intimidations were hollow and unenforceable and that she was not yet prepared to go to war.
  • The missile defense system (THAAD) was deployed in South Korea in April 2017 amidst local protest. has not yet been deployed in South Korea, but it is being prepared although it has been agreed on for about a year. “US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton has confirmed that “… The agreement between Washington and Seoul for the deployment of (THAAD) missile systems in South Korea was reached in July 2016. The plans for the deployment of (THAAD) missiles on the Korean Peninsula are of concern to Russia and China, while Japan considered that this will strengthen the security of the region …” (Russian Sputnik agency, 17/4/2017).
  • It is unlikely that America will engage in a war against North Korea before the 100-day deadline agreed upon with the Chinese president to conclude a major trade agreement that would review the overall trade relations between the two countries. America wants to show some softness in trade with China, contrary to what President Trump promised during his election campaign of imposing a 45 percent tax on Chinese goods. Instead, it is trying to lure China into putting pressure on Pyongyang, to the point at which China would justify abandoning it and leaving it alone facing America and its allies. This would help America to achieve two objectives:

 First: if this succeeds, it will diminish China’s status by showing her abandonment of an ally. To undermine China, President Trump’s authorization of Syria’s missile strike on April 7th, 2017 was during a dinner between Trump and the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, which some considered as an insult to China. According to Jack Keane, a retired general and former Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army, “He’s (Trump) doing what he says. He’s sending a message to the Chinese…” (Al-Arabiya Net 8/4/2017), regarding his intention to wage war against North Korea, and that China should press on and abandon North Korea. If it did, it would be treated with leniency in future trade agreements.

 Second: The US wants to push the Chinese card against North Korea by increasing statements in relation to the consensus of the two countries concerning the dangerous situation in North Korea as this will speed up a US-Russian consensus. The US will use the Korean card as a competing playground between Russia and China. The increase in such statements was quite

noticeable. US Vice President, Mike Pence, stated in a press conference with his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull, “We were excited by the steps China has taken so far…Trump praised China’s efforts to rein in the Korean threat after the North Korean media warned the United States of a massive pre-emptive strike”. (Al-Hayat Newspaper, Sydney 22/4/ 2017)

  •  The US wants to face North Korea from a position of power. This is by positioning the Russian militarily alongside her against Pyongyang, and perhaps as a spearhead as is the case in Syria. The aim being to confuse many of North Korea’s perceptions including the fact that she sees Russia as an enemy of the US. This new old Kissinger plan is what the US sanctions on Russia from the Obama administration have been centred around. The impulse to act against Russia from the Trump administration was delayed as the most important issue was an alliance against North Korea. This was what was on the agenda of US Secretary of State Tillerson when visiting Moscow on the 11th April 2017. This was confirmed by Russian sources on Wednesday, 16th April 2017. According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant,” As for the United States, the discussion of the Korean problem would be considered a successful outcome of the Moscow talks a success. This was the priority of Tillerson’s visit to Moscow.” Hence, if the Korean war was to breakout before the US-Russian agreement, the US could suffer heavy losses. The US would also want China to be affected by any escalation of a threat to intervene in the face of North Korea on the premise of fears of a nuclear war.

4- Due to all the above, the US is not prepared for a war against North Korea at this present moment, but has no other suitable solutions. It is waiting for China to pressure North Korea, through statements that America is ready to solve the problem on its own (i.e., without China), implicitly cajoling China to obey her and pressurize Pyongyang to disarm its nuclear weapons. The US is also waiting for an agreement with Russia for her involvement in solving the Korean dilemma. In the face of these imperfect conditions for the war, the US has retreated from its threats even though North Korea has not retreated from its missile and nuclear tests and continues to threaten a full-scale war on American soil, showing its boldness to move towards nuclear war. The evidence that the US is toning for America’s toning down her belligerent statements are as follows:

  1. The Associated Press quoted a US military source, who asked not to be identified, that Washington currently has no real intention to strike North Korea even if the latter continued in its nuclear and missile tests. The source added that Washington’s plans will change only when Pyongyang attacks South Korea, Japan, or the United States, and that the US leadership has agreed now to wait and not to escalate (Russia Today, 15/4/2017). Consequently, the US is de-escalating matters that it escalated through rash decision making. The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Susan Thornton, said her country was not seeking conflict with North Korea or changing its regime; “The United States has clearly stated that it wants to solve this problem with North Korea through disarmament of nuclear weapons peacefully on the Korean Peninsula, we certainly do not focus on conflict or regime change” (Russia Today, 17/4/2017). US Vice President Mike Pence said: “Nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula could still be peaceful, thanks to Washington’s new engagement with Beijing, despite growing fears that North Korea would conduct a new nuclear test soon”. Pence said: “We really believe that if China and the allied countries in the region put pressure, there is an opportunity to achieve the historic goal of making the Korean peninsula nuclear-free by peaceful means …” (Al-Hayat Newspaper, Sydney, 22/4/2017).
  • This is the reality of the situation and the tension on the Korean peninsula caused by US recklessness and planning. Despite this, the situation is combustible at any moment, and the threat of war breaking out is dependent on the expected agreement between the US and Russia. If agreed, the likelihood of escalation will increase and if their agreement is delayed or absent, the situation on the Korean peninsula will remain on a moderate state of tension in order to keep pressure on Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament. If the US administration rushes in heightening tensions with North Korea, then the consequences will be devastating. This administration however does not seem to have the necessary wisdom to implement accurate strategies. Former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned against Washington’s pre-emptive strike on North Korea, saying any move in this direction would ignite a nuclear war that would cost millions of lives; “This is why the former US presidents stopped pushing the trigger and hit North Korea…The US administration must be careful in choosing its words, avoiding escalation, and be cautious and not take any hasty decisions, “he pointed out to the necessity waiting to determine what China will be able to achieve in the direction of calm, especially as Washington has recently given it a chance to intervene, and it may be able to apply influence” (Russia Today, 15/4/2017).

 6- As for the reality of China’s position, she is fully aware that she is indirectly targeted by the US in terms of ignition of tension not to mention the war. Hence, she is doing what is in her capacity to defuse the situation. China has called for a peaceful settlement of the conflict, rejects military solutions, and openly discards the militarization of the Korean Peninsula, including its categorical denunciation in the setting up THAAD, the American anti-missile system in South Korea as stated by China’s Foreign Ministry which, “expresses Beijing’s opposition to deploy the THAAD system, demanding at the same time North Korea and its neighbouring countries refrain from committing any acts of incitement …” (Al-Jazeera Net 17/4/2017). That said, she is bracing for the worst, and is preparing for the probability of war, and is seriously worried about it. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated: “If war broke out, there will be no victorious side” (BBC 15/4/2017). As for the Chinese military readiness, Russia Today reported on the 14th of April 2017 that United Press International (UPI) the US agency revealed that the Chinese armed forces had received orders directly from the General Command of the Army to maintain high level of alert in five military zones. According to the agency, based on the non-governmental Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Hong Kong, artillery battalions in the military areas of Chongqing, Sichuan and Yunnan in China were ordered to move and station themselves on the border with North Korea. According to the centre, some 25,000 military personnel from the 47-army stationed in the west have been ordered to move with their war machinery over long distances towards a military base near the North Korean border. A Japanese news agency reported that the reason behind the movement of Chinese troops to the North Korean border is Beijing’s concern that Washington may pre-emptively attack Pyongyang.

Copyright © LCIR 2017