Geopolitics: enmity, rapprochement, concrete political or military decisions besides straightforward interests are often based on perceptions and influenced by the (lack of) understanding of the counterpart. That is what call the geopolitics of perceptions which is probably more important than we think. It is true in the Sino-European relations that have a long history.
What would we see if we took a quick look at China’s few thousand years of history? A vast country with a sophisticated culture, which for thousands of years was miles ahead of the rest of the world both in terms of wealth and intellectual achievements. A people that gave the world porcelain, gunpowder, paper, the compass, steel-making and the printing press. A country that managed to protect its territory from invading barbarians for long centuries. A country that at one time considered itself so developed and perfect that it sealed its doors off to the outside world, much to its own misfortune. But, one day, China’s splendid isolation was disturbed as men from the faraway continent of Europe appeared. More and more arrived on bigger and bigger ships guns. Even the most knowledgeable of the European had a limited understanding of China and its people at that time. David Hume considered non-whites (including the Chinese) to be inferior peoples. Immanuel Kant believed that the Chinese race was a mix of Hindi Indians and Mongols.
Zhongguo or ”Central Kingdom”, i.e. the middle of the universe — this is what China is to the Chinese. Surrounded by devils: black devils in Africa and dog-headed big-nosed ones in Europe. Social autism and a tendency to isolationism, which caused China’s 19th-century decline, have always been characteristic of this great nation, the most ancient of all living cultures. Chinese culture has had an impact on all of Asia for thousands of years and since the Middle Ages (the European “Middle Ages” that is) on Europe too. China, as is so often the case, only looks homogeneous from a distance. There may be no borders, but this continent of a country is just as diverse genetically, linguistically and culturally as Europe. In the light of its heterogeneity and size, it is even more amazing that China is the oldest political unit in the world.
One of the secrets is that the elite exercising political control has always been the sole holder of all wealth, law and justice. The political function has always dominated the way Chinese society is organized. There have never been separate religious, economic or military elites as was customary in Europe. Political power is the absolute power in China, and the one and only focus of this political power is the state. This is something we must keep in mind when assessing today’s China with its malformed democracy and uncompromising immense state projects. In China there is hardly any public opinion, there are only decisions and implementation. The Himalayas keep China conveniently closed off from the West and India. Westerners must accept that China is different from our Indo-European cultures: the way it sees the world, politics, arts, law and religion is completely different. God and property are sacred values in the West — not in China. We seek the truth, the moral, the punchline, all of which are worthless to a Chinese. Westerners and Indians divide the world into categories; the Chinese see the world as dynamic, accidental and symbolic. How postmodern, one might say, using a Western term.
The relationship between China and Europe has always been shaped by two factors. The first one, distance, proved to be insuperable for a long time but was surmounted with the help of modern technology and improved transport. The second one, trade, remains a central element of Sino-European relations. Trade links between the two continents can be traced all the way back to early Christianity. The volume of goods transported on the famous Silk Road showed a considerable imbalance from the beginning and all Rome could offer in return were precious metals and valuables. This trade imbalance has always been present, but today is caused by China’s role in the global supply chain rather than by its self-sufficiency.
Even a “What you need to know”-type abridged version of Chinese history would run longer than the New Testament, so I will only pick out a few interesting episodes. During the rule of the Yuan Dynasty (which was of Mongol origin) from 1271 to 1368, travel to China became easier as the areas between China and Western Asia were mostly controlled by Mongol khans. The gates of China opened to foreigners. Kublai Khan even sent his envoys to Pope Clement IV with a request for a hundred Christian missionaries to promote Christianity and Western sciences among the Mongols. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo was probably the best-known foreign visitor ever to set foot in China and Mongolia. He arrived in 1275. On his account, when the 21-year-old was led to the Khan, he offered his services to the great Khan, who accepted, eventually rewarding the young Venetian with senior administrative posts. He spent the next twenty or so years under Kublai Khan. Marco Polo was appointed a member of the Khan’s Privy Council in 1277 and for three years he was a tax inspector in Yanzhou. In his book on his epic journey, Marco Polo describes a flourishing, developed and wealthy China handed down from the late Song dynasty and yet unspoiled by Mongol rule.
The Travels of Marco Polo became a medieval bestseller, but readers did not take the book altogether seriously, nicknaming the traveler Marco Milione and his book Il Milione (The Million, probably hinting at the number of lies told). Just like modern readers, his contemporaries were skeptical about Marco Polo’s writings, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the works of Arab and Persian travelers of the time. An armchair scholar or a great traveler, undoubtedly he left his mark on European geography, literature and history. But Marco Polo was only the first of many Europeans who made the long trip to China. Still under the Yuan Dynasty, Pope Nicholas IV sent Giovanni da Montecorvino as a Roman legate to the Great Khan, and he was consecrated as the first archbishop of Peking in 1307. Mongol emperors, who never had an unclouded relationship with the Chinese they governed, had the habit of appointing foreigners to public office, opened China to foreign traders and allowed — sometimes even promoted — all kinds of strange new religions. The Yuan era was the last period of the Empire when China was not characterized by introversion. From the 15th century on, China practically sealed off its gates to the outside world.
Portuguese vessels first landed in China in 1514, followed by the Spanish in 1543 and the Dutch another five decades later. European missionaries tried for centuries to gain a foothold on Chinese soil. One of the most successful missionaries was the Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, who traveled around China disguised as a Buddhist monk before settling in Beijing in 1601. The Chinese were usually more interested in European technological innovations than spiritual dogmas (yet another Chinese trait we consider contemporary but in fact one with a very long history), and the Jesuits were happy to satisfy their curiosity. Ricci, who took the time and energy to learn about Chinese culture, introduced several technological novelties, among them the watch. He ended up being named the patron saint of Chinese watchmakers. Until the 19th century, Jesuits fulfilled an important cultural mission in the Chinese court, playing a vital role in the promotion of Europe’s cultural, scientific and technological achievements.
Between 1500 and 1800, China had a significant impact on the modernization of Europe. From the beginning of the 16th century, there were continuous and direct relations between Europe and China. Geoffrey Hudons labeled this period “China Besieged”, by which he meant that European nations drew a cordon around China both by sea and land but were never able to conquer it. In fact, European traders were restricted to a handful of ports, and although the Jesuits brought with them a superior knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, resulting in a more accurate calendar, European presence never left a lasting mark on the Chinese mentality.
The impact was much more significant the other way around: Europe was more influenced by China than vice versa. The reports of the Portuguese and Jesuits on China’s achievements in standards of living, urbanization, technology and governance had a major impact on Europe at the time of the Enlightenment. Leibniz and Voltaire, two key thinkers of the Enlightenment, were greatly influenced by Confucianism and Chinese philosophy. The philosopher Leibniz praised the Chinese for their efficiency in adapting ethics and politics to practical life. Voltaire was impressed in particular by the secular nature of Confucianism and by the absence of clerical influence within government. However, many idealized the example of China in their fight against the ancien regime. Similarly, in the 1960s, Western student movements adopted the rhetoric of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in their protests against the establishment.
China was not only used as a model in fighting the existing order; some Chinese ideals were used as a basis for new theories. One example is Francois Quesnay, who in the 18th century started out from his theory on ”natural order” and — influenced by Chinese philosophy — arrived at his economic doctrine of laissez faire. Others, such as Rousseau, were more critical of China. Nevertheless, China’s influence on the European continent at the time is unquestionable. The import of porcelain and tea established new social customs; the cult of Chinese products bred the fashion of chinoiserie, which spread from the affluent to the rising middle classes. Europe’s admiration for China stemmed from its perceived superiority but, by the end of the 18th century, people’s enthusiasm for all things Chinese faded due to the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and China’s resistance to change.
It took several decades from the arrival of Portuguese vessels on the Chinese coast to establish serious trading links between Europe and China. In 1699, England set up a trade representation in Canton in South China, which became and remained the center of Chinese-Western trade for centuries. Despite earning a hefty profit from customs duties levied on goods going through the port of Canton, China tried to restrict and control foreign trade as much as it could. England, on the other hand, wanted to boost trade and gain more access to Chinese markets and ports. A British embassy sent in 1793 to the court of the Emperor was given a welcome befitting a barbarian king’s envoy offering submission, their gifts were considered as “tribute,” but the Emperor refused to listen to British demands. Apart from trade restrictions, Britain had another problem with China. While the West wanted tea, silk and porcelain from China, it had little to offer in return. European merchants had to pay in silver, the only commodity the Chinese would accept. As a result, a lot of European silver was ending up in Chinese pockets. China was one of the world’s biggest economies. (Curiously, history repeats itself: two hundred years on, the trade balance between China and the West looks uncannily similar. The West buys what China exports. It is not accidental that China had accumulated trillions of dollars in reserves by the beginning of the 21st century.) By the 1820s, however, the flow of silver to China was reversed as Britain found a product that tickled China’s fancy: opium. With contraband opium Britain could finally reverse the trade deficit and get its silver back.
By the end of the 19th century, China was no longer a remote, mysterious land sealed off from the outside world. With the help of its merchants and missionaries the West had penetrated the Great Wall. In the 19th century; China underwent a shock therapy of social, economic and intellectual changes and was repeatedly humiliated ignominiously by Europeans. A series of military defeats and embarrassing treaties delivered a serious blow to China’s national pride and traditional worldview. The disdain for foreigners shifted into anti-European sentiment and mass xenophobia. The most extreme example was the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. This popular uprising by the “Righteous Fists of Harmony” — called Boxers in the West — was a violent anti-imperialist, anti-Christian movement triggered by Western expansion into North China. The rebel leaders called for the death of all foreigners and Christians in the country. They went as far as murdering the German envoy, who was on his way to the Empress dowager. The rebels laid siege to the Legation Quarter in Beijing, where foreigners sought refuge. The poorly armed Boxer rebels were unable to break into the compound, which was relieved by European, Japanese and US troops, which quashed the rebellion. Under the terms of the Boxer Protocol, the West exacted enormous war reparations from China. Chinese customs duties and salt taxes were enlisted as guarantees of the indemnity, and the Legation Quarters occupied by foreigners were removed from Chinese jurisdiction.
In the second half of the 19th century, China went on the defensive against European aggression. One of the most shameful and sordid episodes in European history was Britain’s illicit opium trade, which happened with the tacit agreement of the Crown and generated fabulous profits. Some historians suggest that the British East India Company conducted extensive market research to find a moneymaker that it could offer in exchange for Chinese silver. They chose opium, which had been widely used in China as an analgesic drug for centuries, and using the same methods as drug cartels in the 20th century, started “pushing” opium and gradually built up the illicit drug trade. Opium consumption spread quickly throughout China, opium parlors proliferated, and by the 1830s drug trafficking was a major business. The East India Company, with its monopoly on opium production in India, had a nearly limitless supply, exporting 200 chests in 1729, 20,000 chests in 1860 and 100,000 chests in 1873. The Chinese government tried to curb the opium trade and the outflow of silver. A newly appointed Imperial commissioner confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of contraband opium in a large-scale crackdown in 1839. In response, the British blockaded the city of Canton and the First Opium War broke out. Faced with the superior British fleet and army, China was defeated and forced to sign an ignominious peace treaty in 1842. The Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain and opened five key ports to British trade. With a series of unfair and unequal treaties the colonizing powers managed to open almost a hundred Chinese ports and over thirty concession zones. Still, the West could never take full control of this vast country, let alone make it an exclusive colony of a single power. Instead, the rival colonial empires each established their own areas of interest on Chinese territory.
Western powers, in particular Britain and France, exploiting the weakness of the Chinese Emperor and enjoying the support of Russia and the USA, launched a military campaign against the Chinese government, which became known as the Second Opium War (1856-60). Unable to resist the advancing British and French, the Chinese negotiated yet another Treaty. The Treaty of Tianjin, among others, opened additional ports to foreign trade and required China to pay considerable war reparations. Until the reparations were paid in full, Western powers would occupy the city of Tianjin and another two ports. As a result of the opium wars, China lost much of its sovereignty to foreign powers. The once great and proud Chinese Empire was forced into semi-colonial status.
To the Chinese the Opium Wars marked the beginning of long years of humiliation and exploitation by foreigners. This is the period where we find the roots of China’s mixed feelings towards the West: on the one hand, they admire the developed Western economy and technology as well as the achievements of Western civilization; on the other hand the idea of the “colonizing white man” especially British sends shivers down their spines and stirs animosity towards the West as a whole. When I visited the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 2014 my Chinese counterpart made a half-funny remark on his English interpreter, saying that “she speaks a very good English but she still needs to learn the American accent, as we prefer it to the British one around here.”
In the 19th century, Europe brought extensive and rapid changes to a country that had been stable for thousands of years and whose society, economy and culture had been used to slow, gradual change. Europe first knocked on the door, but China being reluctant to let the newcomer in, Europe kicked the door open. At the turn of the 19th century, China’s agriculture, which employed 80% of the 400-million strong population, still used ancient technology and obsolete methods. As the country’s population grew, the area of farmed land remained unchanged. Farming technology too was unchanged, well behind the times. Rural communities were largely self-sufficient, capable of producing little marketable surplus. These economic circumstances considerably limited urbanization and industrialization. What China was unable to do on its own, Europe did for her: the Chinese economy was in these years largely built with and therefore dominated by foreign capital. The banking system, shipping companies, railroad construction, mining, and certain industrial sectors, such as iron and steelmaking and textiles, all owed their birth to Western investment. The Chinese elite had to decide how much of the old China it could try to keep and how much of the West to accept for the sake of modernization. It remains a disputed question whether China would have been able to modernize itself without the West and whether the West fulfilled a mission by modernizing China or simply destroyed the old China.
Western ideas breached the Great Wall of China way before the Opium Wars: this process began with the translation of the Bible and other religious texts into Chinese. However, the translation of Western literature into the local language only began on a large scale in the early 19th century. At this time the Chinese elite became interested in the West, its military, industrial and technological advances, as well as its philosophy, political institutions, social structures and literature. Various schools of thought sought to copy Western models and modernize the traditional system of Confucianism. China sought to modernize itself to be able to keep up with the European invaders. But it was too late; China was unable to lift itself out of trouble. It proved too feeble and had fallen too far behind the West for such a bootstrapping act.
Europe’s position in China was considerably weakened by the two world wars and reached its lowest ebb during the Cold War. With the Cold War over a reunified Europe and an ever-changing China were given a new opportunity to reshape their bilateral relations. However, a new breaking point appeared alongside the traditional geopolitical opposition: Europe and China had drifted apart ideologically in the wake of Communism’s victory in China.
We have seen that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Europe had a crucial impact on China. The key legacy of this period, which China refers to as “the century of shame and humiliation”, lay not so much in the military defeats and conquests as in the psychological and intellectual spillover effects. Before, the Chinese intelligentsia had always seen conquerors as barbarians who might have been superior in military terms but whose material and intellectual inferiority to Chinese civilization was unquestionable. In the wake of its defeats in the two Opium Wars, China realized that it faced an unprecedented historic challenge. Yet, the reasons behind China’s defeat were considered mainly technological; thus the solution was thought to be a better navy and improved weapons. The slogan, which held true for Mao’s China and continues to hold true today, is: modernization to the greatest extent possible in order to preserve the Chinese state and culture. In other words, changes necessitated by practical challenges are only accepted as long as they do not affect the core of the system.
Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. The Middle Kingdom was transformed into a Communist dictatorship. Chinese policy, however, has come a long way in the last fifty years. While Stalin was a real father figure for Mao, Khrushchev was simply a distant cousin. After Mao’s death, China began dismantling the ideological and economic walls built around it. During the Cold War years, between 1949 and 1989, Sino-European relations were shaped by ideological opposition as much as by the two sides’ links with the superpowers. The relationship between NATO member countries and China was primarily defined by US foreign policy. Accordingly, relations are best described as icy until 1971, when US-Chinese relations were normalized (and even started improving). From that point on, Europe made advances towards China, remaining careful not to upset its sensitive links with the Soviet Union. China wished to amend ties with Europe to bypass the US embargo, and later, in the ’70s and ’80s, to gain access to European civilian and military technology as well as to reinforce its position vis-à-vis the Soviets.
From the 1970s, political and economic ties developed steadily. European countries re-established diplomatic representations in China, which pursued the policy of the “Three Worlds”. In the Three Worlds theory Europe belonged to the Second World, the middle element between the two superpowers of the First World and the developing countries of the Third World. The aim was to align Europe against the Soviet Union. But the huge political and ideological gap between China and Europe was a natural obstacle to such strategic cooperation. Later, economic reforms turned China’s attention to Eastern European countries, whose new economies were more similar to its own than Western Europe’s. Nonetheless, China did recognize the danger that Eastern European economic reforms and Gorbachev’s perestroika posed to its political system. The increasingly close relations between China and Europe were cut off abruptly with the Tiananmen Square shootings in 1989. Europe was hoping that China would soon follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union and Eastern European regimes and the Communist system would dismantle. These sweeping political changes came as a shock . Once again, Europe and China became estranged. But the wounds healed rapidly and relations warmed up soon. The handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and of Macau in 1999 were symbolic. While China negotiated these handovers with the UK and Portugal, trade talks were conducted with the European Union. The years that followed marked a meteoric rise in trade relations. The EU became China’s number one trading partner and vice versa. But the biggest leap forward was that China relaxed its ideological rigidity as it entered the mainstream of global capitalism squaring the circle and reconcile capitalism and free markets with autocracy. In modern China, especially among the most dynamic social class of entrepreneurs, economic capitalism is no longer an obscene word; it is rather a model to imitate, the key to prosperity and progress.
No Prospects for Denuclearization of North Korea
Analytical pieces—typically prepared by self-professed experts—abound as to whether denuclearization of North Korea could be possible or what its parameters would be. Such ruminations became particularly popular by the end of Donald Trump’s presidency when the negotiations eventually found themselves in deadlock. However, I would rather call it a “freeze,” and while this may not be the best solution to the problem, it is certainly not the worst either.
The crisis over North Korea’s nuclear missile program has been going on for some 15 years, and I would argue that the reason why no practical solution has been found lies in poor positioning. As I have repeatedly noted  North Korea’s nuclear missile program is not the root of the problem that disrupts the traditional world order; rather, it is a consequence of problems that are more global in their dimensions, reflecting the transition from the wonted world order to a new one.
There are a few signs to this new world order. First, some nations abuse the right to decide which state is a democracy and which is not, with the contrived singling out of “rogue states” to be countered through any methods, including those that seem ethically unacceptable. Broken promises are no longer perfidy but military stratagems. When it comes to North Korea, one might recall the Agreed Framework story or how President Kim Young-sam and his administration spared no effort to destabilize the situation in North Korea at a time when it suffered from what has been called the Arduous March. Seoul advocated providing no aid to the starving country, one South Korean official admits while privately talking to the author, in the hope that the famine would spur mass riots and subsequent “reunification.”
The second sign indicative of the new world suggests that international law and major arbitration institutions have lost their authority. UN Security Council resolutions that forbid North Korea to launch any kind of ballistic missiles is a good case in point. Incidentally, this violates the decisions enshrined in a number of other UN documents that guarantee the universal right to explore outer space for peaceful purposes.
The third sign has to do with the crisis of competence, which affects the quality of decision-making on the part of both politicians and subject-matter experts, blurring the line between the real country and its cartoonish propaganda image. This is well illustrated by the case of North Korea: any foolish news report about the country ultimately finds an audience. While the story of Jang Song-thaek being fed to a pack of dogs was debunked fairly quickly, no less fantastic death penalty stories for listening to K-pop are still popular.
Besides, the might of the law has been replaced with the law of the might. The new generation of politicians no longer fears a major war, rendering military conflict—“humanitarian” bombings of “rogue states” in particular—one of the acceptable means for achieving domestic and foreign policy goals.
Finally, under these circumstances, North Korea cannot use the conventional conflict resolution methods, thus being compelled to look for ways to defend itself on its own, especially since the threat of losing sovereignty is by no means hypothetical. Officially, the Korean war is not over, and South Korea’s Constitution still extends the state’s sovereignty to the entire peninsula, demanding that the president promote the country’s unification. What is more, the National Security Act refers to North Korea as an anti-state organization rather than a country. Even relatively liberal populists, such as Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, failed to review this concept.
Relying on its nuclear missile program, North Korea sets itself two goals. The first is to achieve minimal and, eventually, guaranteed nuclear deterrence, which would certainly take a belligerent solution to the North Korean problem off the table. The North Korean leadership has certain reasons to believe that only North Korea’s nuclear weapons saved it from the fate of Iraq or Libya. It is well-known that once in a while the U.S. and its allies plan an offensive war against the North, whose elements are drilled at joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises irrespective of their scale.
The second goal is to achieve international recognition and ditch the “rogue state” yoke. Should North Korea theoretically join the “nuclear club,” this will put it on a par with the leading superpowers. This is the principal reason why—despite the UN Security Council’s internal disagreements—the Permanent Five have so far voted unanimously for yet another sanctions package each time North Korea has taken another significant step in developing its nuclear missile program. The current world order is based on the premise that only the five great powers are allowed to possess nuclear weapons. It also relies on the UN’s authority, which would collapse if it became known that at the end of the day North Korea got the UN to “cave in”—following nearly 30 years of condemnation, resolutions and sanctions.
It is no accident that the very term “denuclearization” is under discussion. American conservatives, such as John Bolton and others who adopt a strictly realistic approach, interpret “denuclearization” as meaning nuclear disarmament of North Korea, which should be stripped of all types of WMD and—to boot—of its nuclear program. This entails eliminating the North Korean threat both globally and regionally. In contrast, North Korea, as well as Russia and China, stress that denuclearization should extend not to North Korea alone but to the whole Korean Peninsula, which requires certain commitments on the part of the U.S. and South Korea, up to and including prohibiting U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons from docking at South Korean ports.
It has to be noted that those who identify with the allegedly liberal approach to international relations view the North Korean issue as highly ideologically charged. Liberal democracy advocates and WASP conservatives alike perceive North Korea as an authoritarian regime imbued with atheistic collectivism, as an “Evil State.” They see it as the pure opposite of the ideal state—an abstract concept that exists in their minds. That, in turn, stimulates an intractable drive towards confrontation, since not only is the “Evil State” incapable of negotiations, such negotiations are impossible in principle. Any deal with such a regime is an unacceptable concession in terms of values, and value-based confrontations are always more inflexible than those political or economic in nature.
During the 2017 crisis, when I believed the probability of conflict really rose beyond 50%, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un emerged as pragmatic leaders, essentially putting the process “on hold.” The jury is still out on how this related to the Russia-China “double-freeze” plan, while each party would certainly have wanted more. Kim Jong Un would have loved to have the sanctions eased, with Donald Trump expecting further concessions. The pause that was achieved, though, allowed both parties a “small profit.” The U.S. president could say that, first, he prevented war and, second, that the sanctions were effective, with no missiles in the air and the U.S. having granted no unacceptable concessions. Kim Jong Un, on the one hand, got a peaceful breather, which allowed him to focus on the country’s economic development, and, second, his commitments were essentially unofficial and did not restrict the development of the nuclear missile program. This could be exemplified by multiple successful launches of short-range missiles as well as by presentations of new types of ICBMs and SLBMs, even though these were not tested.
Yet, since late 2019, both parties have been aware that “things are not going to get better.” In late 2019, Kim Jong Un said it was no use hoping for an easing of the sanctions, while allowing Donald Trump to “sit out” the final year of his presidency with no unnecessary tensions. As of the writing of this article, his moratorium is still in place, although American and South Korean experts believed that several dates came and went when Kim could have raised the stakes, opting for an escalation. I believe that Pyongyang is waiting for the White House to formulate and announce a new North Korean policy. So far, as Roman Lobov puts it, “the door is shut but not locked”; and Choe Song-hui, who seems to be still in charge of North Korea–U.S. relations, has not been dismissed from office and declares from time to time that the North will use force in response to force and amicability in response to amicability. The 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea emphasized that no change in the White House would change the U.S.’s overall hostility towards North Korea, which is why North Korea will hardly make the first step, choosing to wait for truly serious proposals from the U.S.
This is the situation three months into 2021, exacerbated by several additional aspects. The new U.S. president is the first such aspect. Of course, there is some hope that he will follow the same path as Donald Trump once did: a hardliner early in his tenure shifted to a more constructive approach once collided with reality. So far, however, it appears that the logic of factional strife is compelling Biden to go along “the main thing is not to be like Trump” pattern, and that means steering a course towards escalation. Such an approach will provoke North Korea to retaliate. More importantly, such blinders will keep the Biden Administration from rapidly developing a constructive approach to its interaction with the North. In particular, we can see that human rights issues in North Korea, all too valid for the Democrats, were not broached regularly under Trump while they have come under attention once Biden assumed office.
The U.S.-China confrontation is another aspect, which was pronounced to be value- rather than merely politics-based even under Trump. There has been no change to this approach under the new president. The U.S. attempts to restrict and contain China, with this confrontation being part of Russia and China’s more broad confrontation with what is perceived as the West.
I believe such a rift and its would-be consequences deal no smaller blow to the existing world order than Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. First, this reinforces North Korea’s conviction that the current situation makes the country rely on missile sovereignty. Second, rifts in the Security Council give North Korea a certain boost. It does not, however, mean that the Security Council will no longer remain unanimous should the North decide to raise the stakes sharply. Yet, if we consider the U.S.-China confrontation from the point of view of allies of both states, we will see that China could only rely on the North since it has for a long time stressed the two countries’ socialist nature and their friendship based on ideological values. Besides, North Korean media outlets have been condemning the U.S. for criticizing China’s policies. What this means is that China will keep Pyongyang afloat and contain American pressure to denuclearize Kim’s regime unless it decides that North Korea’s actions are too provocative. The same can be said of Russia, although the North Korean issue is less of a priority for Moscow, especially when compared to the post-Soviet states or the Middle East.
The coronavirus pandemic has also affected the global situation. First, self-isolation instituted throughout the country has generated a new spiral of suppositions revolving around the notion that its economic system is about to collapse and that a new Arduous March will ensue. Second, with diplomats and NGOs having left North Korea, gathering data has become more difficult, which has indirectly contributed to growing alarmist sentiments. Finally, we cannot rule out a situation when the North Korean issue may—for a number of countries—become a way to shift attention away from domestic problems, including those related to failures in fighting the coronavirus. In such a situation, any prospects for denuclearization are extremely vague.
The fourth aspect is the level to which North Korea’s nuclear program has advanced, which makes the monitoring methods used for the states that are at the early stages of their nuclear programs ineffective. Since North Korea is a de facto nuclear power, the set of measures intended to ensure complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization, as Vladimir Khrustalyov notes  will essentially demand that North Korea be essentially stripped of its sovereignty as far as the monitoring and checking powers are concerned, with which international inspectors should be vested.
Consequently, today it might be said that one can only go on talking about denuclearization for the sake of talking. It will take a miracle to move things forward. Option one is some fantastic change in the international environment, which would make North Korea no longer feel threatened and thus less reluctant to abolish its nuclear program. That would mean geotectonic rather than merely geopolitical shifts in the existing international security architecture. Option two, just as fantastic, provides for a North Korean Gorbachev who, for some reason, will make the decision to abolish an important component of North Korea’s political myth and its sovereignty guarantees. Harsher options envision denuclearization as a result of regime change, which is of very little probability as well.
Does this mean there is no way out of this predicament and that missile fireworks will follow sooner or later? No, it does not. The possibility of the “double freeze” is still there, and such a “freeze” could continue almost indefinitely. Another possibility requires more efforts as it entails resetting the agenda—while keeping the term “denuclearization”, new strategies would actually focus on arms control. Instead of destroying North Korean nuclear capabilities, efforts would be channeled into restricting it, operating on the premise that the existing capabilities already serve as minimal deterrence. Many scholars adhere to this stance, both in Russia  and abroad, while fully cognizant of the fact that a change in tack will prompt huge resistance, since this would go against the trend of preserving the global status quo. Any attempt to abolish the demand for full denuclearization of states aspiring to the nuclear club “membership” would amount to a crack in the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
On balance, true denuclearization of North Korea would require a radical change in the geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia: once the threat is gone, countermeasures will no longer be necessary. While there is no possibility of such changes, the Russia-China proposal of a “double freeze” settlement remains the most feasible solution, although far from ideal.
The study has been carried out with financial assistance from the RFBR (project No 20-014-00020).
- Asmolov, K.V. The Nuclear Problem of the Korean Peninsula as a Consequence of the Changes in the Global World Order (in Russian) // Paper presented at the All-Russia Academic Conference with International Participation “International Relations in the 20th-21st Centuries: 4th Chempalov Conference dedicated to the 75th Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War and the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II. 17–18 December 2020. Yekaterinburg.
- Zhebin, A.Z. The Korean Peninsula: From Denuclearization to Arms Control (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 25th Conference of Korean Studies Specialists from Russia and the CIS. 25–26 March 2021. Moscow
- Khrustalyov, V.V. (Vladivostok, North-East Asian Military Studies Project) On Fundamental Obstacles in the Way of Rapid, Guaranteed, and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 8th International Conference “Russia and Korea in the Changing World Order – 2019.” 17–18 May 2019. Vladivostok.
From our partner RIAC
Kissinger Again Warns US, China Heading for Armageddon-like Clash
Last week, Henry Kissinger again warned US-China tensions are a threat to the entire world and could lead to Armageddon-like clash between the world’s two military and technology giants. Surprisingly, some Chinese are interpreting it as a threat to intimidate China in order to “accept and obey” the US-led world hegemonic order.
In January 2015, the peace group CODEPINK dangled a pair of handcuffs in front of the then 91-year old former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a Senate hearing. Twelve months later, at the February Democratic Debate Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton were seen engaged in a heated duel attacking and defending the acclaimed diplomat respectively. The late writer Christopher Hitchens in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger warned editors, TV news channel producers and presidential candidates to stop soliciting Kissinger’s “worthless and dangerous” opinions. The never ending outburst of enmity on the part of CODEPINK, Sanders and Hitchens was due to Kissinger’s role in the brutal killings of thousands of civilians, gang rape of hundreds of female detainees, and alleged slaughtering of over one million people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos among countless similar crimes against humanity since the early 1970s.
As documented in “Kissinger and Chile: The Declassified Record,” as some 5,000 people were being detained and tortured in Chile’s National Stadium, Kissinger told the ruthless Augusto Pinochet: “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” But Sanders-Clinton “spirited exchange” five years ago, as mentioned above, was not confined in Sanders’ words to Kissinger being “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history” of the United States. Sanders’ rare outburst also included Clinton defending her foreign policy mentor – Kissinger – on China. “[Kissinger’s] opening up China and his ongoing relationship with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America,” Hilary Clinton emphatically pointed out.
Sanders responded disdainfully and berated Clinton for admiring Kissinger. “Kissinger first scared Americans about communist China and then opened up trade so US corporations could dump American workers and hire exploited and repressed Chinese,” Sanders had retorted. On the contrary, no one in Beijing either knows or seems interested in the so-called negative traits attributed to the veteran diplomat who is generally known as the most “influential figure in the making of American foreign policy since the end of World War II.” As according to Peter Lee, editor of the online China Matters and a veteran Asia Times columnist, the CPC leadership value Kissinger as the “symbol, custodian and advocate” of a US-China relationship that is special.
Professor Aaron Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, described the re-opening of relations with China as Kissinger’s greatest achievement. In a review of Kissinger’s massive book On China, Friedberg wrote: “Kissinger’s six hundred pages on China are an attempt to apply the principles of foreign policy realism to the most pressing strategic challenge of our day.” (Emphasis given) However, the approach, taken alone, was far from adequate in anticipating the behavior of an increasingly powerful China on the one hand, and for prescribing an appropriate American strategy to deal with a rising China on the other, Friedberg went on to add.
Since Mao, all successive top Chinese leaders have met with Kissinger one-on-one in Beijing, some even more than once. China’s current President Xi Jinping is no exception. In fact, given the deep esteem with which reform era CPC leadership has been embracing Henry Kissinger, the general wisdom in Beijing is President Xi has horned his diplomatic skills by learning well his (Kissinger’s) oft-quoted aphorism “you don’t go into negotiations unless your chances of success are 85 percent.” Kissinger had first met with Xi in 2007, when Xi, as the party secretary in Shanghai, had received the most frequent foreign visitor to China on a visit to the city. When asked for his assessment of the party’s new general secretary within days of the 18th party congress in November 2012 by the Wall Street Journal, Kissinger had said “Xi Jinping is a strong leader capable of rising up to any challenge.”
In the past four decades of Kissinger-CPC bonhomie, the first decade thanks to Cold War passed off rather smoothly and uneventfully. The second decade ushered in with perhaps the first most serious test for both Kissinger as well as for the US-China relations since the unfreezing of the bilateral ties by Nixon-Kissinger pair in the early 1970s. In June 1989, the CPC rulers used brutal force to crush peaceful student demonstrators at the Tiananmen Square and launched nationwide crackdown on suspected dissidents. Though criticized by the US political elite for “Kowtowing to Beijing” for defending the CPC authorities by saying “a crackdown was inevitable,” Kissinger did influence the Bush administration in imposing comparatively mild sanctions while deflecting congressional pressure for tougher action.
In third and fourth decades respectively, unlike during the first two stages, ideology gradually regained initiative over geopolitics in influencing the bilateral relationship. There are mainly two factors for this. First, from 1979 to the end of the last century, China was relatively weaker than the United States both economically and in military technology. Following China’s rapid economic growth beginning late 1990s and at the turn of the twenty-first century, a section in the US political elite became apprehensive of China’s assertive and highly competitive stance. These concerns soon gave birth to the “China threat theory” which Beijing unsuccessfully tried to pass off as “China’s peaceful rise.”
The second factor has much to do with the world financial crisis in 2008 which resulted in the beginning of decline of the US economy on the one hand, and the unfolding of the seemingly evident intent of the CPC leadership to “eventually displace the US” and “re-establishing their own country as the pre-eminent power in East Asia.” In other words, with Cold War and the Soviet Union both long gone, and China perceived as threatening to soon replace America as the world’s number one economy, the communist rulers in Beijing were under no illusion that the ideologically hostile US was plotting “color revolution” to replace the CPC with democratically elected leaders in the People’s Republic.
The chilling of US-China bilateral relations during the first year of Obama presidency itself, with China replacing Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and further hardening of the US stance towards China, and finally the US “pivot to Asia” strategy introduced by the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton – all these were perceived by Beijing as the US “creating political framework for a confrontation with China in order to maintain the global hegemony of American dominance.” Even Kissinger was very much aware of the changing stance in Beijing, as is reflected from what he wrote in On China: “China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America’s weight in international diplomacy.”
Interestingly, although the most frequent US visitor to China has continued to visit China ever more frequently during the past decade, given the changing nature of polity in both the US and in China – especially the increasing “rivalry” under the Trump administration, it is not incorrect to conclude the Kissinger magic has gradually faded away from the bilateral relationship. It is least surprising therefore last Friday, when the “old friend of China” warned both Beijing and Washington in a speech at McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum in France, that their escalating tensions were leading the world towards Armageddon-like clash, the opinionated, vocal Chinese social media reacted with caution. “Kissinger used the so-called end of the world argument to threaten and intimidate China in order to accept and obey the hegemonic order by the United States,” a blogger responded.
A commentary in Chinese last week pointed out, ever since Trump launched “all out political war” against China, Kissinger has been in subtle and cunning way warning China to “cooperate” with Washington. The signed article entitled “Kissinger Continues to Scare the Chinese People” stated: “For the past two years or more, Kissinger has been repeatedly saying China must continue to compromise and obey the US hegemony and US-led global order. Otherwise, China will face the danger of World War I-like situation.”
To sum up, while calling Kissinger’s veiled threat a bluff, a reader posted in the chat room of guancha.cn – one of China’s most widely read online Chinese language news platform: the old man is a veteran who, more than anyone in China, has interacted with most number of China’s founding leaders. It is therefore his responsibility to explain to the world why most American politicians have failed to co-evolve with China’s leaders, Chinese government and with Chinese people? Why has America relentlessly carried on slandering China? Why America has been consistently accusing, vilifying and provoking China? Mr. Kissinger, please answer. Thank you.”
Post COVID-19, Can China Emerge as the New Global Power?
Authors:Makam Khan Daim and Mohammed Seid Ahmed*
There are many unknowns about the virus and that makes it incredibly challenging for every government to wage war against the common enemy. The politically divided United States was not ready for a crisis like such and is already going through a deep political division that is deviating the superpower’s attention from leading the world. The United has already left multiple multilateral agreements and organizations that it helped create in the first place Trump administration was running the nation without any clear policy goals. Trump’s administration was retreating from world leadership but at the same time reluctant to give up its position as a global superpower. Though the policies of the administration are pulling the US back from years of progress as a global leader. As the world waits for the US leadership in the outbreak of the virus, the administration and supporters downplayed the harsh nature of the virus. The repercussions of failing to contain the virus at an early stage have put the US as the leader in infections and death toll above all the affected countries around the world.
The previous US administration chose to engage in a war of words with China rather than undertaking measures to contain the virus at home and be an example to the world. On the other hand, the Asian nations have taken “draconian” measures in the American eyes but were successful in containing the virus more than any country in the world. China’s has 102,517 cases with 4846 death, the numbers might be disputable for some, however, figures from democratic countries like South Korea and Japan revealed that the Asian nation has successfully contained the spread of the virus. As of May 2nd, 2021, Japan has 82, 425 with just 1493 deaths, Korea has 123,240 cases with just 1833 deaths according to the latest data compiled by the John Hopkins University of Medicine, coronavirus task force. The US on the other hand, in the same timeframe, has registered a staggering 32,392,667infection cases and 576,722 deaths. Although Chinese figures are disputable the recent reopening of all cities and provinces, indicates that the virus is contained, and things are going back to normalcy.
Power is shifting to the East as many political scientists predicted and China as an Asian superpower is in the final stage of preparations to take the role of global leadership. India is the other Asian nation that can contest China, but India’s domestic issues, its relatively weaker economy, and the ever-growing population have been a challenge for the subcontinent to be a serious contestant for China’s activities in a global scale. In fighting this pandemic, the US has missed another opportunity to lead the world and take responsibility as a superpower. The administration’s adherence to the outdated protectionist policies, that is harming American workers, let alone leading the world in the fight against COVID-19, Trump’s denial of the reality and his enablers within the government put the nation in harm’s way and has culminated in the death of thousands of Americans.
New Zealand has come out of the battle against COVID-19 as a winner with its early lockdown and strict measures with the extraordinary leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and her administration. The European nations Italy, Spain, France, and Germany that have been hit hard with the virus are getting a sigh of relief after their worst at the beginning of the outbreak. Their large size aging population have become the victim of the virus, with a series of lockdown and extreme measures they have finally managed to mitigate the likelihood of more deaths related to the virus. Africa to the surprise of lots of people is the last continent that has started to see new cases. Africa’s young population under the age of 35 that makes up over 60 percent of the continent’s population could have worked in favor of Africans because of the viruses’ nature to attack mostly immune compromised and aged population. Nonetheless, the recent increase in testing for instance in Ethiopia is revealing hundreds of cases every day. Now, Ethiopia is reporting 258,062, with just 3709 deaths related to the virus. South Africa and Egypt are among the worst hit countries from Africa, in which the former has reported 1,582,842 cases and 54406 deaths, and the latter reported 228,548 cases with over 43,402 deaths respectively. Although, the death of a single person is painful, with all the indications and data available Africa is surviving this outbreak with fewer casualties. If whether this could be attributed to the nature of the virus or African government’s measures is remained to be seen in further researches and reports in the foreseeable future.
The problems that Africa could face if the infection rate increases drastically are dire, given the continent’s record in poor healthcare infrastructure, scarce of ventilators, hospital beds, small size healthcare professionals in relative to the population size. Developed countries with advanced technology and healthcare system in place have not been able to cope up with the patients’ demand and has been extremely challenging for the government and professionals to fight the virus. It is no brainer the challenges that Africans could face without the infrastructure. Nonetheless, while all the traditional global powers closed their doors and were fighting the pandemic, there is one rising superpower who has emerged to play the global leadership role in the fight with the virus. China has emerged not only as the hotbed for the virus but as a global power who is using the pandemic to project its soft power around the globe and play the role of the so-called “responsible power”.
In conclusion, China would be the winner in this epidemic, because of the measures it took and its quasi-leadership in fighting this pandemic using its soft power. It has already lifted the ban in Wuhan and now things are slowly going back to normal ahead of many other countries, which is beneficial for China to survive the economic fallout. Economists are predicting a global recession following COVID-19, but even if that is the case China will not be the biggest loser, United States, Europe, and the rest of the world are. One thing we all learn from this pandemic is that because of our intertwined interests and living by each other there is nothing that the world could achieve today without the cooperation and collective actions. Time will answer the question that will the United States take the lesson, embrace multilateralism again, and get back to lead?
*Mohammed Seid Ahmed, Freelancer(M.Phil International Relations at Zhejiang University, currently based in California, the US)Mohemmed can be reached at mahmedseid89[at]outlook.com
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