North Korea’s military strength is the strength of its nuclear potential. As the North Korean Foreign Minister stated at the ASEAN Forum in early August 2017, the United States must be “blamed” for wanting to bring “the nuclear war into the Korean peninsula”. He also reaffirmed that North Korea would never discuss the issue of its missile and nuclear arsenal at the negotiating table with the United States and its allies.
At the time China said that a critical point had been reached, but it could also be the beginning of new and more effective negotiations between North Korea, the United States, China and the Russian Federation.
It is therefore obvious that the two missiles launched by North Korea on July 4 and 28 last are certainly capable of reaching the US territory, but they were fired at such an angle as to avoid the impact on the ground.
It is further evident that North Korea launches missiles towards the United States because it wants to prevent it from permanently mobilizing for a regime change in North Korea.
On the other hand, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson maintains that -before sitting at the negotiating table – North Korea must not only put an end to the nuclear military tests, but even begin a genuine, stable and definitive denuclearization process.
Incidentally, although officially keeping NATO as a “nuclear alliance”, the US obsession with Europe’s denuclearization did not bring luck to the countries like Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey which had been heavily denuclearized by the United States between the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the Atlantic Alliance.
The Atlantic Alliance which, according to Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, had “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”.
It is not possible to figure out what would have happened if Italy had had a small, albeit credible nuclear military system, but certainly the Mediterranean situation would be better today.
Turkey’s nuclear threat to the USSR would have changed and limited its Middle East policy. The nuclearized West Germany would have not experienced the penetration of the DDR intelligence services that later tormented it. The Netherlands would have had a role to play in the North Sea and Belgium would have had more stable and less factional governments.
Italy experienced all this, but that is another story.
Just to quote Henri Bergson, the philosopher who developed the concept of vital impulse (élan vital), the nuclear power is “the force that is not used.”
A force which, however, we must show to have and be able to use – not on the ground, because it is of no use, but in the decisive phases of foreign policy.
A country without nuclear power, however, is a country without a foreign policy and strategy.
Nevertheless, reverting to the ASEAN Forum held last July, all the Foreign Ministers present condemned the “missile tests and urged a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea”.
At this juncture, without imposing an either-or deal, we could say that North Korea cannot accept to resume the Six Party Talks, which began in 2003 and ended in December 2008, without clarifying a single and central point: maintaining a nuclear armament share for North Korea, but fully verifiable by IAEA.
And also without further ascertaining that the new IAEA agreement applies to both Koreas at the same time, so as to later foster North Korea’s economic integration into the regional system – hence including Japan, Vietnam (an old friend of North Korea) and obviously South Korea and India.
The economic and humanitarian instruments of the Six Party Talks were significant, also on the part of the United States: one million tons of heavy oil or oil equivalent – the expenses of which had to be shared among the six parties; support for North Korea’s energy spending and supplies; the US funding for the denuclearization costs; assistance to IAEA; 12.5 million tons of food – from 1995 to 2003 – with a view to alleviating the very harsh conditions of the North Korean population.
Hence support to North Korea is expensive, but it is better to help it now rather than triggering a military spiral that can only be solved by a limited and, ultimately, nuclear war, which is in no one’s interest.
Not to mention the damage that – hopefully in a very distant and even impossible future – the strategic wound between the United States, Russia and China could cause in Southeast Asia, as well as the block – also for the EU, the Asian region, India and the Gulf countries – of all the routes from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.
It would be one of the deepest global destabilizations occurred in the modern era, even worse than the two World Wars which Asia has always seen as regional conflicts.
Hence limiting the North Korean strategic pressure area and concurrently reducing the perception of strategic encirclement and impoverishment currently felt not only by the North Korean leaders, but also by the local population.
North Korea’s nuclear system, however, is needed: 1) to ensure the survival of the regime; 2) to support its military prestige and its weight, also at economic level; 3) to achieve an asymmetrical strategic superiority over South Korea.
South Korea has more and better trained armed forces, but it has a nuclear power system of which only the United States has the access keys.
Therefore it would be rational to shift from the rhetoric of North Korea’s total denuclearization – which is impossible to achieve and is strategically dangerous even for the United States – to a more rational “classic” negotiation for the strategic control of nuclear weapons, which we deem would be acceptable also for North Korea.
Since 2013 Kim Jong Un’s policy line has been to link economic development to nuclear projects, thus focusing all the North Korean Armed Forces’ efforts on the nuclear arsenal.
As all well-informed ruling classes do, the North Korean regime interprets its own choices on the basis of the recent history of the world’s leading strategic actors. Kim Jong Un knows all too well what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar El Gaddafi, although the Iraqi dictator had accepted the US “advice” and weapons to begin his ten-year war against the Iranian ayatollahs.
Furthermore, the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine is regarded by North Korea as the final break with the 1994 OSCE Agreement of Budapest, which mainly regarded Belarus’, Ukraine’s and Kazakhstan’s accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The agreement reached in the Hungarian capital city was guaranteed by the United States, Russia and Great Britain, while China and France had provided less precise assurances in separate documents.
Hence, against this general background, what does it mean and what is the point of sending an Italian general and MP to negotiate with North Korea?
What could Italy say to the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, considering that Italy is a country blindly repeating the US and EU strategic mistakes?
Surely it could say something if it had some autonomous residual voice in the matter.
For example could it inform of the fact that – in a new context of resumption of the Six Party Talks for a policy designed to control North Korea’s nuclear potential – Italy would take the initiative (in the legal sense of the term) and the lead for North Korean economic development, jointly with China, where Italy is operating well?
Do you believe that two – albeit titled – quisque de populo can convince both the United States and Kim Jong Un? Or that the funny TV comedian Razzi can be enough?
Italy could also ensure that an agreement with Russia, China and the United States is reached for the progressive reduction of North Korean nuclear potential – not to be destroyed, but to be used together with investments for a new Korean industrialization.
Do we really want to entrust Federica Mogherini or General Rossi, the Defence Junior Minister of former Renzi’s government, with the task of saying so?
Everything can be done, only to later maintain that North Korea’s missiles can reach the EU “ahead of time” – as French Defence Minister Florence Parly said. Furthermore the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has announced a new, unspecified “EU programme of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” – a programme which, indeed, has been existing since 2006, in line with and implementing the sanctions decided by the United Nations.
Let us simply look at data and statistics. In 2016 trade between the EU and Korea was worth 27 million euros.
The current share of European investment is very low.
The restrictive measures – namely those already taken between 2006 and 2016, without Mogherini obviously knowing anything about them – regard the sale of technologies somehow related to the nuclear system, as well as any kind of computer software, dual use techniques, luxury goods and financial assistance.
As always happens, sanctions favour two equally dangerous actions for those who impose them: the development of internal substitution economies – often with lower production costs than those already recorded on imported goods – and intensified trade with friendly countries, which are really glad to gain the new market shares abandoned by those who moralize at people’s expense.
In fact trade between North Korea and China increased by ten times between 2001 and 2015.
In April 2016, however, China temporarily stopped coal imports from North Korea, with the only exception of the amounts connected with the “people’s wellbeing”.
Formal prostration – namely a kowtow – to the sanctions decided by the UN and also approved by China.
China, however, supplies North Korea with much of its food and with 90% of its total trade.
Moreover, in the first half of 2017, bilateral trade between China and North Korea has been 37.4% higher than during the same period of 2016.
Since September 2015 both countries have opened a fast cargo and container line for Korean coal exports, while a high-speed rail line is already operational between the border towns of Dandong and Shenyan.
Dandong is the town through which 70% of China-North Korea’s trade transits.
Obviously, for China, the primary goal in the Korean peninsula is political and strategic stability.
China deems that if there were any clash between South Korea, the United States and North Korea, no one could be declared the winner and, above all, China would see a huge number of migrants coming from the North Korean border, which would destabilize its Southern region.
Who would take advantage of it?
Moreover, with its missile programme, North Korea wants to play for time in order to solve the issue of its geoeconomic equilibria. It must still dispel some reservations on the resumption of the Six Party Talks, with specific reference to South Korea’s denuclearization – as this is not the strategic equation between the two Koreas – but a genuine Peace Treaty between North Korea and the United States would be really welcome.
This is what Kim Jong Un really wants.
This would put an end to the armistice and would create the conditions for a new negotiation between the United States, North Korea, Russia and China.
South Korea would have a Protection and Military and Civilian Aid Pact on the part of the United States, also signed by the other four participants in the Six Party Talks.
After signing the future Treaty between the United States and North Korea, a further South Korean protection treaty, including nuclear protection, should remain in place. In a new geopolitical context it could become an autonomous Region of a peninsular State that would include some Northern Russian and Chinese areas.
Hence weaken, control and again weaken. A careful regional geopolitics knows how to operate on Korean tensions.
The mistakes made in the previous negotiations with North Korea are now evident: the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea was based on the fact that the Americans were asking North Korea to stop its nuclear programme – a request which, however, was met.
In 2002 it was discovered that North Korea has an uranium-enrichment programme.
At that juncture, Bob Gallucci – a still unparalleled expert of relations between North Korea and the United States – admitted that the US real aim was to stop the plutonium operations rather than the enriched uranium ones.
Two different things, two different strategic lines.
That was the solution.
Instead of hoping for an impossible collapse of the North Korean regime, it was better to let it have a share of operations – at the time even accepted by IAEA.
Obviously, after 1989, the collapse of Communist regimes in the world and of their reference parties in the “capitalist” West created an understandable tension in North Korea.
The regime had supported Yasser Arafat and North Vietnam. It had a very special relationship – also at nuclear technological level – with East Germany and actively supported Somalia and other “Socialist” African States. It loved the Soviet Union that helped it with nuclear power, which in fact began there in the 1950s. It also had good and unavoidable relations with China which, however, could not materially help North Korea at least until the 1970s.
Ceausescu was one of the family in Pyongyang, as many leaders of the “Mediterranean Eurocommunism” of the time.
Nothing is as it may seem.
North Korea’s Communism and Kim Il Sung’s, in particular, was a comprehensive and global platform for effective negotiations between the East and the West.
It is worth recalling that the Six Party Talks started in 2003 and ended on September 19, 2005.
The final text made reference to the procedures for North Korea’s denuclearization. North Korea clearly stated its desire to formally stabilize its relations with the United States and the other Western countries. Mention was also made of the creation of a peace organization for the whole Korean peninsula, which should be the first issue for a smart and brilliant Italian mission to North Korea. In 2005 North Korea accepted and implemented the Six Parties’ agreement.
Hence forget about the rhetoric of “human rights” – more or less accurately identified, which happens seldom – and the further vilain” rhetoric – as Shakespeare’ vilain who embodies all evils and hence must be destroyed.
The issue lies in thinking about the strategy and carry out the rational operations it entails.
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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