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Korea after the Olympics: Temporary Truce or Permanent Peace?

Georgy Toloraya

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Thanks to the “New Year’s” initiatives of Kim Jong-un – to which South Korean Moon Jae-in responded for his own reasons – significant progress was made in the inter-Korean dialogue at the highest level during the recent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang (the possibility of an inter-Korean summit is even on the table), although the main achievements thus far have been in terms of good PR rather than concrete agreements. That being said, the possibility of reducing the threat of an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula, and of an eventual reconciliation of the two countries, is now closer than ever before.

However, this process makes the denuclearization of North Korea an impossibility. In fact, it does quite the opposite, effectively acknowledging Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear power. The North will not discuss the nuclear process with the South, as Seoul cannot provide any security guarantees. The only country that can is the United States, but Washington is not looking for compromises. The United States sees negotiations with North Korea purely as a discussion of the terms of Pyongyang’s capitulation and the surrender of its nuclear trump card. Put simply, North Korea, as a country that has spent generations building its international identity and influence on the basis of its nuclear weapons and which uses nuclear weapons as a guarantee of its security, has no plans to do this.

The last thing Washington wants is a rapprochement between North and South Korea, as this would hamper its immediate goal of eliminating the nuclear potential of North Korea (as well as the longer term objective of toppling the entire regime). What is more, the reconciliation of North and South Korea could be interpreted as a reduction of the military threat in its own right. In this case, the United States would have fewer opportunities to build up its military potential in Asia, which is directly primarily against China. For this reason, the United States does not want to allow “liberties” on the part of its junior partner in the union. Donald Trump is actively and unambiguously against a détente and is keen to step up the pressure as much as possible, including “twisting the arms” of his allies and partners if doing so serves his purposes. Washington is not limiting itself to demanding compliance with the sanctions agreed within the framework of the United Nations. With a view to weakening the North Korean regime, Washington is trying to ensure that the draconian sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States are supported by other countries, the tacit threat being that repressive measures will be employed against dissenters. This is a shameless use of pressure, the likes of which we have not seen in modern history.

Russia and China are in a particularly vulnerable position and are accused, often without grounds, of violating the sanctions. From their perspective, these are demands to comply with the plans of the United States to implement a blockade on North Korea and suffocate the country’s regime though financial and economic means. The hopes harboured by the United States that events will develop in this way are based on a lack of understanding of the North Korean reality, a projection of its own ideas about how the economy and society should function. There is no way that a blockade will force North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme wholesale, although such a measure could make the country more acquiescent in terms of restrictions and monitoring activities. But such a scenario is unacceptable for the United States, as it is the recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status.

Donald Trump hopes to intimidate North Korea with demonstrative military preparations and a public discussion of a possible armed conflict. Such provocations are likely to intensify after the “Olympic truce,” particularly against the background of joint US–South Korea military manoeuvres, which will quite rightly cause concern in the North. Although these manoeuvres should probably not be seen as a dress rehearsal for a future invasion; everyone understands the scale of the disaster that would befall the region if this were to happen, especially considering the nuclear potential of both North Korea and the United States.

The danger is that, even if Trump is bluffing and has no intention of actually starting a war, his allies and enemies (and even his subordinates, in order for Trump to get what he wants) have to take these plans seriously. But such a policy could lead to the American military machine inadvertently falling into the abyss of a “limited” and then all-out global war by accident, oversight or fatal confluence of circumstances.

It is entirely possible that the United States will increase pressure on North Korea after the Olympics in order to anger the country’s leadership and provoke it into a sharp reaction, for example carrying out further nuclear tests. Pyongyang is likely more than ready to perform more tests, and has the technical need to do so (for submarine-based missiles, for example). Even if Pyongyang cannot be coaxed into starting a war, the United States may artificially create the necessary circumstances by engineering a casus belli situation (which was the case with the Gulf of Tonkin incident).

It must be recalled that China and Russia are being blackmailed with the possibility of a military catastrophe, which would help the United States pursue several goals at once. First, to try and force Moscow and Beijing to take more decisive measures against Pyongyang (perhaps even with a view to changing the North Korean leadership). Second, to put China (and Russia, although its stakes in this particular game are not as high) in an uncomfortable position, no matter how events unfold. Continued support of Pyongyang would undermine China’s image around the world, and not only in the eyes of pro-American countries. On the other hand, if China “abandons” North Korea at the insistence of the United States, then its reputation among friendly and undecided states will be seriously damaged. The latter will see China as a country that cannot be trusted or counted upon, and the United States will continue to be regarded as “global hegemon”. The United States will use Russia’s supposed violations and unwillingness to cooperate to discredit the country’s leadership.

It would appear that Russian diplomacy must be deployed as a countermeasure in several areas, including jointly with China.

First, strengthening coordinated actions between Russia and China on the Korean issue, including in their relations with third countries and international organizations, particularly the UN.

Second, intensifying contacts with Pyongyang in order to develop a unified course of action with other players and persuade North Korea to act with greater patience and flexibility (Track II, or informal, diplomacy is also important here).

Third, applying consistent and well-thought-out pressure on Washington to abandon its aggressive plans, and explaining that going through with these plans would violate Russia’s national interests and provoke an appropriate response.

Fourth, carrying out persistent work and developing cooperation with the North Korean leadership in order to encourage a warming of relations between the North and the South and avoid excessive concessions to the United States that would go against the logic of a rapprochement.

Fifth, concretizing and refining (step-by-step) joint proposals put forward by Russia and China on the development of a “road map” and actively promoting it in contacts with all partners and international organizations, including promoting the concept of six-party talks.

First published in our partner RIAC

Doctor of Economics, Professor of Oriental Studies, Director of the Asian strategy center at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences

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East Asia

Freedom, Sovereign Debt, Generational Accounting and other Myths

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“How to draw the line between the recent and still unsettled EU/EURO crisis and Asia’s success story? Well, it might be easier than it seems: Neither Europe nor Asia has any alternative. The difference is that Europe well knows there is no alternative – and therefore is multilateral. Asia thinks it has an alternative – and therefore is strikingly bilateral, while stubbornly residing enveloped in economic egoisms. No wonder that Europe is/will be able to manage its decline, while Asia is (still) unable to capitalize its successes. Asia clearly does not accept any more the lead of the post-industrial and post-Christian Europe, but is not ready for the post-West world.” – professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic diagnosed in his well-read ‘No Asian century’ policy paper. Sino-Indian rift is not new. It only takes new forms in Asia, which – in absence of a true multilateralism – is entrenched in confrontational competition and amplifying antagonisms.  The following lines are referencing one such a rift.

At the end of 2017, Brahma Chellaney, a professor with the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, wrote an article titled “China’s Creditor Imperialism” in which he accused China of creating a “debt trap” from Argentina, to Namibia and Laos, mentioning its acquisition of, or investment in the construction of several port hubs, including Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Piraeus in Greece, Djibouti, and Mombasa in Kenya in recent years.

These countries are forced to avoid default by painfully choosing to let China control their resources and thus have forfeited their sovereignty, he wrote. The article described China as a “new imperial giant” with a velvet glove hiding iron fists with which it was pressing small countries. The Belt and Road Initiative, he concluded, is essentially an ambitious plan to realize “Chinese imperialism”. The article was later widely quoted by newspapers, websites and think tanks around the world.

When then United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Africa in March, he also said that although Chinese investment may help improve Africa’s infrastructure, it would lead to increased debt on the continent, without creating many jobs.

It is no accident that this idea of China’s creditor imperialism theory originates from India. New Delhi has openly opposed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as it runs through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which India regards as an integral part of its territory. India is also worried that the construction of China’s Maritime Silk Road will challenge its dominance in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Based on such a judgment, the Indian government has worked out its own regional cooperation initiatives, and taken moves, such as the declaration of cooperation with Vietnam in oil exploration in the South China Sea and its investment in the renovation of Chabahar port in Iran, as countermeasures against the Chinese initiative.

Since January, India, the United States, Japan and Australia have actively built a “quasi-alliance system” for a “free and open Indo-Pacific order” as an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative. In April, a senior Indian official attending the fifth China-India Strategic Economic Dialogue reiterated the Indian government’s refusal to participate in the initiative.

The “creditor imperialism” fallacy is in essence a deliberate attempt by India and Western countries to denigrate the Belt and Road Initiative, which exhibits their envy of the initial fruits the initiative has produced. Such an argument stems from their own experiences of colonialism and imperialism. It is exactly the US-led Western countries that attached their political and strategic interests to the debt relationship with debtor countries and forced them to sign unequal treaties. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is proposed and implemented in the context of national equality, globalization and deepening international interdependence, and based on voluntary participation from relevant countries, which is totally different from the mandatory debt relationship of the West’s colonialism.

It is an important “Chinese experience” to use foreign debts to solve its transportation and energy bottlenecks that restrict its economic and social development at the time of its accelerated industrialization and urbanization. By making use of borrowed foreign debts, China once built thousands of large and medium-sized projects, greatly easing the transportation and energy “bottlenecks” that long restrained its social and economic development. Such an experience is of reference significance for other developing countries in their initial stage of industrialization and urbanization along the Belt and Road routes.

In the early stage of China’s reform and opening-up, US dollar-denominated foreign debt accounted for nearly 50 percent of China’s total foreign debts, and Japanese yen close to 30 percent. Why didn’t Western countries think the US and Japan were pushing their “creditor imperialism” on China?

Some foreign media have repeatedly mentioned that Sri Lanka is trapped in a “debt trap” due to its excessive money borrowing from China. But the fact is that there are multiple reasons for Sri Lanka’s heavy foreign debt and its debt predicament should not be attributed to China. For most of the years since 1985, foreign debt has remained above 70 percent of its GDP due to its continuous fiscal deficits caused by low tax revenues and massive welfare spending. As of 2017, Sri Lanka owed China $2.87 billion, accounting for only 10 percent of its total foreign debt, compared with $3.44 billion it owed to Japan, 12 percent of its total foreign debt. Japan has been Sri Lanka’s largest creditor since 2006, but why does no foreign media disseminate the idea of “Japan’s creditor imperialism”?

In response to the accusation that China is pursuing creditor imperialism made by India and some Western countries, even former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa wrote an article in July using data to refute it.

Most of the time, the overseas large-scale infrastructure construction projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative are the ones operated by the Chinese government and Chinese enterprises under the request of the governments of involved countries along the Belt and Road routes or the ones undertaken by Chinese enterprises through bidding.

It is expected that with the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects and industrial parks under the Chinese initiative, which will cause the host country’s self-development and debt repayment ability to constantly increase, the China’s creditor imperialism nonsense will collapse.

An early version of this text appeared in China Daily

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Arrogance of force and hostages in US-China trade war

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Even before the ink on the comments made by those who (just like the author of these lines) saw the recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires as a sign of a temporary truce in the trade war between the two countries had time to dry, something like a hostage-taking and the opening of a second front happened. The recent arrest in Canada under US pressure of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of China’s telecommunications giant Huawei, is unfolding into a full-blown international scandal with far-reaching consequences.

Meng Wanzhou faces extradition to the United States where she is suspected of violating US sanctions against Iran, namely by making payments to Tehran via the UK branch of the US bank HSBC. The question is, however, how come someone is trying to indict a Chinese citizen according to the norms of American law, and not even on US territory to boot?

China’s reaction was extremely tough with Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoning the Canadian and US ambassadors in Beijing and demanding the immediate release of the detainee, calling her detention “an extremely bad act.” First of all, because this is yet another arrogant attempt at extraterritorial use of American laws.

Other countries, above all Russia, have already experienced this arrogance more than once; suffice it to mention the cases of Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, or of the alleged “Russian hackers,” who, by hook or crook, were taken out to the United States to face US “justice”.

Enough is enough, as they say. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is usually careful in his choice of words, said that while Russia is not involved in the US-China trade war, it still regards Meng’s arrest as “another manifestation of the line that inspires a rejection among the overwhelming majority of normal countries, normal people, the line of extraterritorial application of their [US] national laws.”

“This is a very arrogant great-power policy that no one accepts, it already causes rejection even among the closest allies of the US,” Lavrov said. “It is necessary to put an end to it,” he added.

One couldn’t agree with this more. But first, I would like to know who really is behind this provocation, even though China’s reaction would have been much anticipated. The arrest of Meng Wanzhou sent US markets into a tailspin and scared investors, who now expect an escalation of the trade war between the United States and China.

The point here, of course, is Washington’s displeasure about Huawei’s activities, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that the US Justice Department has long been conducting a probe into the Chinese company’s alleged violation of US sanctions against Iran.

There is more to this whole story than just sanctions though. The US accuses Huawei (as it earlier did the Chinese ZTE) of the potential threats the company’s attempts to use tracking devices could pose to the security of America’s telecommunications networks. The United States has demanded that its closest allies (primarily Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, with whom it has set up a system for jointly collecting and using Five Eyes intelligence) exclude 5G Huawei products from their state procurement tenders.

I still believe, however, that the true reason for this is not so much security concerns as it is a desire to beat a competitor. Huawei has become a world-renowned leader in the development and application of 5G communications technology, which looks to the future (“Internet of Things”, “Smart Cities”, unmanned vehicles and much more.)

Since technology and equipment are supplied along with standards for their use, there is a behind-the-scenes struggle going on to phase out the 5G standard developed by Huawei from global markets.

As for the need “to put an end to this,” the big question is how. Formally, detainees are extradited to the United States in line with national legislation, but at Washington’s request (which often comes with boorish and humiliating pressure from the US authorities and is usually never mentioned in public).

Add to this the US Congress’ longstanding practice of changing, unilaterally and at its own discretion, already signed international treaties and agreements as they are being ratified – another example of “arrogance of power” as mentioned before.

The question could well be raised at the UN Security Council, but its discussion is most likely to be blocked by the US representative. However, there is also a moral side to the assessment of any political practice the work on international legal norms usually starts with.

If China and Russia, as well as other countries equally fed up with the “arrogance of power” submit a draft resolution “On the inadmissibility of attempts at extraterritorial use of national legislation by UN member states” to the UN General Assembly, it would most likely enjoy the overwhelming support by most of the countries of the UNGA, maybe save for just a dozen or so of the most diehard advocates of Washington’s policy…

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Will China Save the Planet? Book Review

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Barbara Finamore has been involved in environmental policy in China for decades.  Her new book, Will China Save the Planet?,is a succinct report (120 pg.) on the short, yet promising history of China’s actions to address climate change and pollution.

Chapter 1 is about the recent global leadership role that China has taken in the fight against climate change.  At first, the PRC was hesitant to commit to specific pollution-reduction benchmarks.  After experiencing increasingly devastating bouts of industrial smog in the 1990s however, China began to take its environmental commitments more seriously.  It has set out to become the de facto leader in combatting climate change through ambitious domestic action and sponsoring international conferences.  The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement has only furthered China’s dominance.

Chapters 2-4 give in-depth analysis on China’s efforts to wean itself off of coal, develop its renewable energy capacity and become a global leader in electric vehicle production.  China has long used coal to fuel its unprecedented rate of industrialization.  In recent years, it has pledged to wean itself off of coal dependency by enforcing coal plant efficiency standards, enacting a cap-and-trade program, managing grid output, promoting local politicians based on their success in implementing green policies and supporting green energy developments.  China is now home to many of the world’s top manufacturers of solar panels, wind turbines and commercial & private electric vehicles.

There is much to applaud China for in its efforts.  Finamore writes that, “After growing by an average of 10% annually from 2002-2012, China’s coal consumption leveled off in 2013 & decreased in each of the following three years… Largely because of the dip in China’s coal consumption, global CO2 emissions growth was basically flat between 2014-2016.”  By moving away from coal, China has been able to, “Every hour… erects a new wind turbine & installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field.” As of last year, “Chinese solar manufacturers accounted for about 68% of global solar cell production & more than 70% of the world’s production of solar panels.”

Chapter 5 focuses on China’s mission to export its green initiatives around the world, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  The BRI is shaping up to be the largest international infrastructure plan in history, investing trillions of dollars in 65 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  China thus has a golden chance to help much of the developing world to adopt clean energy goals and foster economic growth.  The Chinese government is encouraging its citizens to invest in renewable energy initiatives in the BRI countries by implementing a “green finance” system.  Through its pivotal role in the G20, China can also help to lead the developed world by spearheading reports and policies among the 20 member nations.

Barbara Finamore has written a highly readable and informative overview of China’s role in the global climate change battle.  She lists the Chinese government policies that have led the world’s largest nation to meet and exceed many of the green benchmarks that it set for itself.  It would have been helpful if Finamore had written more about China’s water instability and how that ties to the Tibetan occupation, as access to drinking water is one of the top environmental issues in the world today.  As a whole, Will China Save the Planet?is a good primer for environmental policy analysts and anyone else interested in studying feasible solutions to climate change, humanity’s greatest threat.

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