By Arif Ansar
The North Korean crisis has emerged as another serious foreign policy challenge for the Trump administration. And this is happening at a time when his presidency is confronted with a number of difficult issues at the domestic and international front. Normally the American president has considerable discretion when it comes to the foreign affairs front, and they often leverage it when they find themselves on the back foot domestically – to reassert authority.
In this context, President Trump has had to face repeated setbacks in his efforts to repeal the Obamacare health care system, and this happened despite Republicans controlling the House and the Senate. His presidency also continues to be bedeviled by the investigation related the Russian interference in the American election, and the contacts between a number of his close associates with people close to Putin. The appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel to oversee the probe looks further ominous.
Reset with Russia was one of the pivots around which Trump’s policy was anchored. However, Trump has been unable to make progress towards this goal. Soon after the July meetings with Putin during the G20 Summit held in Hamburg, Germany, Congress imposed more sanctions against Russia. Putin reciprocated by evicting close to 750 American diplomats from Russia.
On the other hand, review of the Afghan policy is also ongoing but much delayed and there is considerable anxiety in the policy-making circles about this. This has led Senator McCain to announce his own Afghan strategy. The Trump administration also appears to be moving towards nullifying the Iran nuclear deal.
And as if this was not enough, the North Korean crisis has taken a turn for the worst and is impacting US-China affairs. Increasingly, China is being asked to use its influence, if it has any, to control the belligerence of North Korea. Meanwhile, the country has continued its ballistic missile tests. After imposition of additional sanctions against it, North Korea raised the stakes by threatening to launch missiles towards the American territory of Guam.
China, North Korea, and Russia
As these matters unfold, a thinking is developing in the US that if China cannot stop North Korea, then it should suffer the consequences of any military escalation. Meanwhile, as Trump delivered his dramatic ‘fire and fury’ comments, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford travelled to China to convey that military solution will only be implemented if political and economic routes to prevent the North Korean regime from developing nuclear tipped ballistic missiles have been exhausted. The crisis seems to have deescalated for now and Kim Jong Un also appears to have put his plans to fire missiles towards Guam on hold.
The collapse of North Korean regime poses a serious challenge for China. It would cause floods of refugees to cross over to China. Moreover, the fall of an ally in the Pacific would be the last thing China would want to see. At the same time, there is the question of what purpose does North Korea serve for China. Could it be that through Kim Jong Un’s rash behavior China is testing the response and will of the US, realizing that the Americans have been military involved for more than a decade in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
The element of ‘testing the US response’ could also have played a role when Russia acted more assertively in Syria and in Europe, especially relating to the affairs of Ukraine and taking over of Crimea. On the other hand, China has up to this point escaped any direct external military involvement, but this may change in the future.
China remains anxious regarding the emerging US policies in the Pacific region, particularly towards Taiwan and the disputed islands of South China Sea. Additionally, China probably draws a parallel to the situation in the Middle East – and whether a regime changes-type formula might be applied to the rash regime of North Korea. Not surprisingly, China has protested the deployment of the THAAD (anti-missile system) in South Korea. The country has also recently increased its involvement in Afghanistan, which represents the other flank for China.
In addition to skirmishes along the Pakistan, India Line of Control, tensions are also building between China and India over their shared border. The armed forces of both nations are face to face since June in the plateau area known as Donglang and Dokhlam. Quoting Indian sources, Reuters recently reported that Chinese forces tried to enter the Indian territory of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir State.
China has also built its first military base in Djibouti, located in the strategic Horn of Africa. While the projected focus of this base is primarily geared towards anti-piracy and humanitarian crises related missions, its strategic location will help China monitor its interests in Africa and the Middle East.
When it comes to South Asia, the success of China’s “One Belt One Road” economic initiative, and one of its tributaries is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, is heavily dependent on the security situation of Pakistan and Afghanistan. And the associated Gwadar Port provides China an alternative sea access in case the Strait of Malacca was blocked, and there are rumors regarding militarization of this port at some point in the future.
In this perspective, North Korea helps China, and Russia, balance the affairs of the Pacific, and to counter assertive actions being taken by an alliance represented by India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the US. In the South Asia region, this balancing role is more and more being played by Pakistan, in particular reference to the affairs of Afghanistan and India. The future of Afghanistan will determine the balance of power in South and Central Asia, and in this regard there are three possibilities:
The first one being, the major powers agree to the right mix of representation in the future Afghan government. The second possibility being that one or the other side wins comprehensively – and then decides the shape of future government in its favor. The third likelihood is reflected by the present stalemate in which no one clearly wins, but the situation continues to drain the powers directly involved.