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Nuclear Proliferation & Security Dilemma in Asia Pacific: DPRK Factor

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Authors: Isaac Nunoo and Wang Li

Debates about nuclear weapons (NWs) and their imminent destruction have continued to occupy the center stage in international security affairs since first introduced in 1945 by the United States at the ebb of WWII. The desolation caused by the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively is still very fresh in the annals of world history.

Following the Soviet Union’s A-bomb test and America’s subsequent nuclear tests, other nations such as Britain, France, and China also followed suit, bringing the number of states with nuclear weapon possession to five by the mid-1960s.  In spite of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which was meant to curtail the further spread of nuclear weapons, the craving for it by states and their leaders has soared momentously. The end of the Cold War, which has led to a multi-polar system, has also signaled a period of unparalleled desire for nuclear arsenals by many states.

On November 29, 2017, DPRK once again tested its latest interconnected ballistic missile, Hwasong-15, which it claims to be an indication of the completion of Pyongyang’s nuclear statehood, thus becoming a full blown nuclear state. This new development is described as a great success due to its capability of reaching the entire U.S. mainland. This new ballistic missile test coupled with those tests conducted since the beginning of the 21st century has raised concerns about security in the region and around the globe. It has also wittingly or unwittingly led to a growing desire by many Asian states, particularly those in the Asia Pacific (South and East Asia) to acquire NWs. Historically, these regions were important zones for political, ideological, economic and social battles between the two superpowers during -the Cold War. The remnants of the Cold War seem to endure today among many states in these regions with some being communist sympathizers while others are more pro-Western. Again, these regions are beleaguered by many territorial disputes and states often clash with each other, thus necessitating the need for hard power capabilities and new defense systems. This has fueled nuclear weapon proliferation in the region, especially since the end of the Cold War. There is a natural obligation for increased armaments in order to defend against a neighbor who could be a potential foe.

A security dilemma arises when a state’s mechanism for boosting its security apparatus adversely impacts the security and perceptions of other states, thus, incentivizing those feeling endangered to take similar actions. The South Asian nuclear security complex, for instance, consists of several security dilemmas, involving states such as Pakistan vs. India, India vs. China, and Russia vs. United States. Another security dilemma is the result of the tension between the United States and China, which is in addition to China’s military presence in the South China Sea. In East Asia, elements of security dilemmas are evident in the relationship between North Korea and Japan, ROK and DPRK, Japan/ROK and China, Taiwan and mainland China; the U.S. and China and the U.S. and DPRK. Does this complicate the already fragile situation or ensure peace and stability?

DPRK has been labeled as a rogue state because it does not conform to international norms, nor observe the dictates of international sanctions leveled against it. Despite the warnings and incentives from world leaders and international groups to discourage Pyongyang from developing its nuclear program, no significant progress has been made. In fact, the first quarter of the 21st century has witnessed an increase in its test firing of ballistic missiles under Kim Jong-un. With the introduction of its “byungjin policy”, Pyongyang now claims to be a nuclear weapon state determined to advance both economic development and nuclear capability. As conceived by Kang Choi, several diplomatic efforts aimed at denuclearizing North Korea have proved futile. Such initiatives include the Geneva Agreed Framework (October 1994), the September 19th agreement (September 2005), the “leap day” agreement (February 2012) and the six-party talks aimed at peaceful denuclearization of DPRK—involving Russia, China, the DPRK, ROK, Japan, and the United States. The dispatch of the US THAAD and other naval ships to the Korean peninsula is an indication of the volatility of the situation. As a consequence, most states around the Korean peninsula want to strengthen their own military and defense systems. Both Russia and the United States are now involved in the politics of the region. This obviously raises concerns of hegemony, sovereignty, balance of power, particularly between China and the United States. The “US-Asia Pivot” concerns Chinese authorities.

DPRK is a test case for both the proliferation ‘pessimists’ and proliferation ‘optimists’. Seongwhun Cheon, a senior research fellow with the Korea Institute for National Unification has called for a U.S. nuclear presence in the region. He has suggested that a small U.S. nuclear arsenal in South Korea would go a long way to ‘Provide a trump card that would enable a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear problem.’ Cheon argues that such a move would become a game changer in the geopolitical and strategic dynamics surrounding the nuclear crisis and could be likened to the “dual-track strategy” used by the Reagan administration in Western Europe in the 1980s. Other scholars and experts like Bolton and Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce believe that DPRK’s nuclear program is mainly for state pride and glory of a nuclear statehood. To them, “the only credible use of the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal is to detonate a bomb within DPRK.” However, given the progress made so far in DPRK’s missile development program, the latter’s argument is whitewashed. 

Pyongyang’s actions have culminated in a complex security dilemma that involves neo-liberal domestic politics in the nuclear ambition of a state and realist regional and extra-regional powers with varying interests. Wheeler and Booth have warned that the interpretation of the intention and the capabilities of the other nation is a major factor that determines the birthing of a security dilemma. Whenever, an action of a state is erroneously interpreted, there is bound to be a miscalculated reaction which will ultimately have serious security corollaries. Thus, misinterpreting China’s nuclear assertiveness as offensive instead of defensive by India may lead to a miscalculation; misjudging India’s reaction to China’s nuclear actions by Pakistan as a sign of aggression in South Asia could culminate in unfortunate repercussions.  In effect, both the actions and the reactions put states in security dilemmas, thus, repeating the cycle. Suffice to say that misinterpreting North Korea’s missile program by neighboring states and the United States and misinterpreting the US-South Korea drills by the North may all aggravate the situation.

DPRK’s nuclear ambition is a result of mistrust and fear of an attack on the regime in power. However, its own very actions have led to a security quagmire and increased tensions within the region and the tendency of abuse of nuclear weapon is very high. Malaysia and DPRK are still arguing over the VX nerve agent saga. China and ROK have not overcome the row over the deployment of the US THAAD. Pyongyang is even suspicious of China’s reaction to its nuclear programs and vice versa. These uncertainties often lead to mutual suspicion and fear and could lead to reciprocal actions and reactions. Even China is likely to factor the ever increasing ICBM success of Pyongyang in upgrading its own nuclear systems and as this happens, India and Pakistan will also join the bandwagon; Japan, ROK, Taiwan and the other Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar would react should their regions become nuclearized. 

Undeniably, so long as DPRK continues with its nuclear program, the USA and ROK are unlikely to halt their military drills; great power intrusions in the regions might also increase and issues of geopolitics and geo-economics and balance of power will continue to plague these regions. Thus, the complex security dilemma precipitated by the nuclear power proliferation in these regions is even likely to get murkier so long as DPRK factor lingers

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East Asia

The Korean Peninsula needs more peace talks rather than game drills

Wang Li

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Authors: Wang Li & Yang Yi-zhong & Chen Yiling

Although military drill is legitimate and often conducts internationally, it is still required to be transparent and cautious. That means the participants involved should publicly announce the game not be directed against any third party, if not having the pre-talks before the drills. For example, the Chinese military participated in Russia’s the Center-2019 drills and a large-scale Vostok-2018 strategic exercise. But both sides announced their aims to fully test and improve the capabilities of the Chinese troops in joint operation and logistics with a view to improving the strategic coordination between the two militaries.

However, this is not the case of the United States and its ally South Korea on the Korean Peninsula although the latter often display its reluctance to follow the dictate of the U.S. military command. It is sure that hostile behavior or policy like regular military drills against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would lead to serious consequences. At the Xiangshan Security Forum in Beijing of this October, a top officer of DPRK armed forces put it, although Pyongyang has worked to build lasting peace but that the situation has relapsed into a “dangerous, vicious cycle” of exacerbating tensions because of the regular military drills of the U.S. and ROK forces.

Since 2018 when the DPRK-U.S. joint statement was issued, there is no progress in improving bilateral relations between the two sides. Pyongyang has insisted that it is completely because of the U.S. anachronistic and hostile policies against the DPRK and also the ROK (South Korea) has adopted a “double-dealing attitude” in continuing to carry out military drills with the U.S. and buying advanced military equipment. Under such circumstances, Pyongyang has no other choices but conducted missile tests in recent months, including that of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and broke off the latest working-level nuclear talks with the U.S. Understandably, DPRK’s top negotiator for the talks blamed the U.S. for the breakdown with accusing Washington of “bringing nothing” to the negotiating table. In addition, the DPRK officially accused the U.S. of using sanctions in order to enforce disobedient countries to their knees. Yet, sanctions draw only resistance and counteraction from those affected countries, without providing any help in solving the issues. Therefore, the DPRK must stand up to such attempts without giving in to any external pressure.

Consider this, people wondered why the United States and its allies have been so hostile and even often ridiculous in dealing with the DPRK which is one of the isolated and economically most poor states in the world. Actually China and Russia have supported the U.N.-endorsed sanctions against the DPRK, but they have opposed to any attempt on the part of the United States and its allies to change the ruling party and regime of Pyongyang regardless of the dire consequences. As the close neighbors of DPRK, China and Russia have vowed that they would never allow the chaos occurred in the Korean peninsula. Given this, Pyongyang has demonstrated its willingness to conduct negotiations with the United States and its brotherly counterpart the South Koreans. True, China and Russia have provided the necessary humanitarian aid to the DPRK but they also proposed two-suspension formula of the Korean issue, that is, the two sides simultaneously suspend their nuclear tests and military drills. Unfortunately, due to the United States’ arrogance and stubbornness, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has never been improved substantially.

Now the tension on the Korean Peninsula reappears again and even more dangerous move is that the DPRK’s supreme decision-making body lashed out at planned U.S.-ROK military drills with a stern warning the United States will face a greater threat and harsh suffering if it ignores Kim Jong-Un’s end-of-year deadline to salvage nuclear talks. Obviously the DPRK is deeply concerned with the annual U.S.-led military drills which are supposed to cause a “vicious cycle” in relations between the two sides. It is arguable that the United States with the most powerful arsenal in the world should have better behave itself with prudence at the sensitive time when the situation on the Korean Peninsula could return to the dangerous starting point due to the joint military drills. Here is no reasons to defend the DPRK’s menacing rhetoric but it does have the sound line to recognize the legitimate concerns with its own security.

This paper holds that despite the disappointment of those closely watching the tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the failed summits, yet diplomatically, the door between Pyongyang and Washington is still open. Although the United States and DPRK presented their own narratives on the disagreement, they didn’t finger point at each other as what they would have usually done. Actually, Trump has spoken of Kim favorably and Pyongyang’s tone on the impasse of the talks was soft. Everything indicates that both countries look forward to the next meeting though undecided. Past experiences tell that challenges are inevitable when the two sides discuss the issues that involve their core interests and grave concerns. Yet, it is obvious that both sides will benefit from sincere dialogue. As the success of diplomacy can’t be based on false promises and on breach of faith, it supposes that there is no reason to regard the chance of peace for the Korean issues failed. At the least, the two sides have no intention to reject the dual-tracks and two suspensions proposals by China. It has also reflected Beijing’s role on the Korean Peninsula issue is irreplaceable since Kim made four trips to China in just ten months and Trump praised Xi as a highly respected leader due to his help to mediate with Pyongyang.

If we look into the past summit talks between Trump and Kim, they faltered due to the American rejection of Pyongyang’s demands for broad sanctions relief in exchange for the partial dismissing of its nuclear capabilities. Following that, Kim responded with intensified testing activities but also indicated he would “wait with patience until the end of the year for the United States to come up with a courageous decision.” Curious enough, the United States indicates that it will consider changing plans to conduct joint military drills with South Korea if that helps support diplomatic efforts to restart a dialogue with Pyongyang.  As U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “We always have to remain flexible in terms of how we support our diplomats to ensure that we do not close any doors that may allow forward progress on the diplomatic front.” His remarks were greeted cautiously by Pyongyang although it still demands for a cancellation of the upcoming exercise. Yet, this was finally realized when the United States and South Korea decided on November 17 to postpone the planned military drills.

For sure, it is still too early to tell what would happen on the Korean Peninsula in terms of the deeply-rooted suspicions and the hostile groups on the both sides? But we should have confidence in the prospective meetings between the United States and the DPRK in the near future. In effect, Pyongyang and Washington have agreed that lifting sanctions is a key part of denuclearization that needs to be negotiated sincerely and constructively as well. At this crucial moment, it might be time for China to resume its role as expected. It seems that China is ready to extend its help as it has reiterated to both Washington and Seoul that Beijing is willing to continue to play a constructive role on the Korean Peninsula issue.

Briefly, it argues that the Korean Peninsula needs more peace talks rather than game drills. Equally a stable Korean Peninsula surely benefits the peaceful rise of China and the harmony of the Asian-Pacific region. This is the essence of diplomacy in light of its continuous negotiation, sincere persuasion and necessary compromise.

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East Asia

It’s when not if China’s Middle Eastern tightrope snaps

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China is manoeuvring to avoid being sucked into the Middle East’s numerous disputes amid mounting debate in Beijing on whether the People’s Republic will be able to remain aloof yet ensure the safety and security of its mushrooming interests and sizeable Diaspora community.

China’s challenge is starkest in the Gulf. It was compounded when US President Donald J. Trump effectively put China on the spot by implicitly opening the door to China sharing the burden of guaranteeing the security of the free flow of energy from the region.

It’s a challenge that has sparked debate in Beijing amid fears that US efforts to isolate Iran internationally and cripple it economically could lead to the collapse of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, accelerate Iran’s gradual breaching of the agreement in way that would significantly increase its ability to build a nuclear weapon, and potentially spark an unwanted military confrontation.

All of which are nightmare scenarios for China. However, Chinese efforts so far to reduce its exposure to risk are at best temporary band aid solutions. They do little to address the underlying dilemma: it is only a matter of time before China will have no choice but to engage politically and militarily at the risk of surrendering its ability to remain neutral in regional conflicts.

Israeli intelligence reportedly predicted last year that Iran’s gradual withdrawal from an agreement that Mr. Trump abandoned in May 2018 would ultimately take Iran to a point where it could create a nuclear military facility within a matter of months. That in turn could provoke a regional nuclear arms race and/or a pre-emptive military strike.

That is precisely the assessment that Iran hopes will persuade China alongside Russia and the European Union to put their money where their mouth is in countering US sanctions and make it worth Iran’s while to remain committed to the nuclear accord. 

The problem is that controversy over the agreement is only one of multiple regional problems. Those problems require a far more comprehensive approach for which China is currently ill-equipped even if it is gradually abandoning its belief that economics alone offers solutions as well as its principle of no foreign military bases.

China’s effort to reduce its exposure to the Gulf’s energy supply risks by increasing imports from Russia and Central Asia doesn’t eliminate the risk. The Gulf will for the foreseeable future remain a major energy supplier to China, the region’s foremost trading partner and foreign investor.

Even so, China is expected to next month take its first delivery of Russian gas delivered through a new pipeline, part of a US$50 billion gas field development and pipeline construction project dubbed Power of Siberia.

Initially delivering approximately 500 million cubic feet of gas per day or about 1.6 percent of China’s total estimated gas requirement in 2019, the project is expected to account with an increased daily flow of 3.6 billion cubic feet for 9.5 percent of China’s supply needs by 2022.

The Russian pipeline kicks in as China drastically cuts back on its import of Iranian liquified petroleum gas (LPG) because of the US sanctions and is seeking to diversify its supply as a result of Chinese tariffs on US LPG imports imposed as part of the two countries’ trade war.

China is likely hoping that United Arab Emirates efforts to stimulate regional talks with Iran and signs that Saudi Arabia is softening its hard-line rejection of an unconditional negotiation with the Islamic republic will either help it significantly delay engagement or create an environment in which the risk of being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is substantially reduced.

Following months of quietly reaching out to Iran, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash told a recent security dialogue in Abu Dhabi that there was “room for collective diplomacy to succeed.”

Mr. Gargash went on to say that “for such a process to work, it is essential that the international community is on the same page, especially the US and the EU, as well as the Arab Gulf states.” Pointedly, Mr. Gargash did not put Russia and China on par with Western powers in that process.

The UAE official said the UAE envisions a regional order undergirded by “strong regional multilateralism” that would provide security for all.

Mr. Gargash made his remarks against the backdrop of a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a multilateral security arrangement in the Gulf that would incorporate the US defense umbrella as well as an Iranian proposal for a regional security pact that would exclude external players.

Presumably aware that Gulf states were unlikely to engage with Iran without involvement of external powers, Iran appeared to keep its options open by also endorsing the Russian proposal.

The various manoeuvres to reduce tension and break the stalemate in the Gulf put Mr. Trump’s little noticed assertion in June that energy buyers should protect their own ships rather than rely on US protection in a perspective that goes beyond the president’s repeated rant that US allies were taking advantage of the United States and failing to shoulder their share of the burden.

Potentially, Mr. Trump opened the door to an arrangement in which the United States would share with others the responsibility for ensuring the region’s free flow of energy even if he has given no indication of what that would mean in practice beyond demanding that the United States be paid for its services.

 “China gets 91 percent of its oil from the Straight, Japan 62 percent, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships…,” Mr. Trump tweeted.

China has not rejected Mr. Trump’s position out of hand. Beyond hinting that China could escort Chinese-flagged commercial vessels in the Gulf, Chinese officials have said that they would consider joining a US-backed maritime security framework in the region that would create a security umbrella for national navy vessels to accompany ships flying their flag.

Chinese participation would lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive regional security arrangement in the longer term.

China’s maritime strategy, involving the development of a blue water navy, suggests that China already de facto envisions a greater role at some point in the future.

Scholars Julia Gurol and Parisa Shahmohammadi noted in a recent study that China has already “decided to take security concerns in the (Indian Ocean) into its own hands, instead of relying on the USA and its allies, who have long served as the main security providers in this maritime region… If tensions continue to escalate in the Persian Gulf, Beijing may find it has no other choice but to provide a security presence in the Middle East.”

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East Asia

Implications of French President’s Visit to China on the International Arena

Mohamad Zreik

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French President Emmanuel Macron pursues a policy of opening up to China and solving problems that may arise peacefully and diplomatically. France and Germany are the main pillars of the European Union, and the French opening to China is a European recognition of the importance of China’s role internationally.

Last Monday, the French president paid a three-day official visit to China amidst the US-China trade war. The French president has previously promised to visit China once a year throughout his term. These official exchanges between China and France strengthen China’s international standing, and prove the theory that China is a peaceful country seeking cooperation and opening up to the world.

Fifty-five years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France, a bilateral relationship based on respect and friendship despite some differences in regimes or strategic alliances. The Chinese model is mainly based on people-to-people communication and peaceful cooperation, and these are the main pillars of the Belt and Road Initiative launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Despite Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in 2015, Beijing and Paris have kept their promises to contain global warming, a positive point in the bilateral relationship. The French president considered that China and France should lead the climate agreement. Cooperation between the two countries has emerged considerably in the industrial sector, such as the development of nuclear energy, aerospace, and the automotive industry. Academic cooperation between the two countries has also been boosted through student exchange programs and the high demand for Chinese language learning in France, which was previously rare.

Commenting on the importance of trade exchanges between China and the EU, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce showed that trade between China and the EU exceeded 322.5 billion US dollars in the first half of 2018, up 13 percent year on year. Chinese Ambassador to France Zhai Jun recently expressed that China and France are to expand cooperation in agriculture, energy, advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence.

From the ancient city of Xi’an, the French president announced that an alliance between Beijing, Europe and Paris should be established for a better future for the world, and Macron stressed the need for a balanced relationship between China and Europe. The French president praised the Belt and Road Initiative and called for its activation in order to enhance the trade role of Asia and Europe.

France was the first Western country to recognize the People’s Republic of China. In a meeting with French ambassadors, the French president stressed that the West is in a moment of decline and China is progressing at a tremendous speed. During his visit to China, the French president took advantage of the trade war between the United States and China and worked to develop France-China trade relations, increase French trade partners to China, and promoting the French tourism, agriculture and services sectors.

France is seeking to strengthen Sino-European relations because of its great benefit to the European economy, but it is contrary to the Western orientation. China is also a beneficiary of good relations with France, because France has influence in Africa and many regions in the world and is a permanent member of the Security Council and it is a developed country at the military, technological and technical levels. China’s cooperation with a powerful country like France will bring many benefits and opportunities.

China’s great economic, technological and military progress indicates that China has become an important country in international relations, and it is in the interest of any country in the world to establish good relations with China. The best evidence is that France is seeking to establish good relations with China, as well as the European Union countries to make their relationship with China distinctive.

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