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Korea after the Olympics: Temporary Truce or Permanent Peace?

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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

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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