Trump’s Asia Trip–Of No Significance to ASEAN


October 31, 2017

Trump’s Asia Trip–Of No Significance to ASEAN

Despite a foray into Southeast Asia, his concerns are North Korea, Japan and China

by Asia Sentinel Correspondent

http://www.asiasentinel.com

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The Mueller Indictment  Captures Global Attention

Is there any Asian government looking forward to President Trump’s visit to Asia? With friends (if any) and foes alike baffled and worried about his next tweet or outburst, his friends seem to be a trifecta of deplorables: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who badly needs to take minds off his extrajudicial killing spree and squeeze the US with insinuations of ever closer ties with China, its invasion of Scarborough (Panatag) shoal notwithstanding. They includes junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who in 2015 ended Thailand’s most recent elected government, and Najib Razak, the subject of the biggest kleptocracy investigation ever undertaken by the US department of Justice. Both visited the President in the White House. Duterte has yet to make the trip. Quite a crowd!

Such is Trump’s attention deficit disorder that it is understood that he won’t bother to stay around in Manila for the East Asia Summit, an event which grew out of the Association of South East Asian nations (ASEAN). This body, this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, was as much the creation of the US during the Cold War and the Vietnam war, as driven by the then-fragile common identity of its original five members: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. Only with the end of those wars could Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar join.

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 ASEAN of Lesser Importance to Donald Trump

ASEAN today may be in disarray politically, divided by China between those with and without conflicting maritime claims. Yet Trump’s absence during a symbolic anniversary is almost as much a demonstration of his isolationist mood as his earlier cancellation of America’s last major Asian initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Nor have Secretary of State Tillerson’s Asian visits done much to fill the gap in Trump’s knowledge and interest. His concerns in Asia, such as they are, have been dominated by North Korea and China, with some nod to India but scant interest in Southeast Asia despite it being such a focus of Chinese military expansion. Tillerson anyway evidently has limited influence over the President and has been as much preoccupied with trying to cut costs at the State Department as with diplomacy. He spouts management consultant jargon urging on his department “an evidence-based and data-driven process to enhance policy formulation and execution as well as optimize and realign our global footprint.”

 

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The New Game in Asia–Xi, Trump  and Abe– Overshadowed by Trump’s Domestic Problems

 

The Trump visit is all about China and Japan, but mainly China. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, recently strengthened by his election victory, will make all the right noises about the North Korea threat but his main aim must be to head off US protectionism and also to warn about China’s maritime ambitions. But the Tokyo visit is overshadowed by that with the newly-crowned Xi Jinping. Whether Trump’s extravagantly phrased congratulations to Xi will help on trade or nuclear issues seems unlikely. China’s agenda is not easily swayed by such trifles. Indeed they may make Beijing, still trying to figure out what to make of Trump, more wary.

They do know however that Trump is more concerned with appearance than substance. The Chinese also know that Trump admires strong leaders, however they got there and whatever they do. He thus wants to be pals with Xi and Duterte regardless of bigger issues. As for results, China hopes to buy time using Trump’s need for a trophy to bring home. Thus lashings of Chinese money will be directed to worthy infrastructure projects in politically important areas of the US. China can easily wear a few more anti-dumping imposts by the US such as just applied to aluminium products, and noises about protecting US technology firms from takeover by Chinese, provided radical anti-trade measures are avoided. Beijing will also point to Xi’s Party Congress speech as evidence of continuing economic reform and in particular the promise of national treatment for foreign enterprises. They are supposed to get that already and the remark means little in practice. But the show must go on.

The Chinese, like much of the rest of Asia, have good reason to be worried if the US effort continues to tear up the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), from which sprang other regional deals. So far Canada and Mexico have stood together and brushed off Trump’s provocations. But whether China and Japan can present a common front on trade is another matter when strategic rivalries are so clear.

 

Abe will make a big deal of standing together against North Korea and the need for intensifying military preparedness. But avoiding trade conflict must be his primary aim. As it is, the North Korean “threat” can be seen both to justify his proposed amendment of Japan’s constitution and to draw more US forces into the region. This is a major discomfort for China but Beijjing has itself largely to blame. It will also go well in most of Southeast Asia, which has been feeling exposed by Trump’s isolationist rhetoric. Even Duterte’s anti-US emotions are being blunted by the realities both of domestic sentiment and military and elite interests.

The US military and Defense Secretary Mattis are natural opponents of isolation and Pyongyang has given them cause to argue that “making America great again” doesn’t mean abandoning fifty years of using open trade as a carrot for other nations, with the military stick reserved for recalcitrants.

In short, the Asian trip could be a defining moment in determining whether or not Trump the would-be isolationist is brought back into line with mainstream foreign and defense policy makers. More likely, however, it will be an anti-climax, with a jet-lagged Trump on his best behaviour and not upsetting a well- choreographed series of photo opportunities and platitudes before hastening home to the comfort of his own golf course.

There is a way out on North Korea


October 1, 2017

By Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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The confrontation between the United States and North Korea is in a more dangerous zone than at any point in decades. Each side has announced tough positions, issued threats and underscored that its positions are nonnegotiable. Each side is now boxed in, with little room to maneuver. How to get off this perilous path?

The Trump administration has made a huge mistake in ramping up its rhetoric without any solid strategy to back it up. It remains unclear as to why it has done this. Partly, it seems this White House wants to reverse every Obama-era policy. Partly, it is the undisciplined approach that characterizes so many of this administration’s policies, with top people freelancing and showboating. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, for example, appears to take a hard line in order to outflank Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, effectively auditioning for his job.

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But perhaps most fundamental is that President Trump likes to be the tough guy. Previous presidents reacted with sobriety to the bellicose statements of leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong. The United States was always disciplined and cautious; it was the other guys who did the crazy talk. But Trump seems determined to have the last insult.

We need to tone down the rhetoric and formulate a strategy. North Korea has one — indeed, it has had one for decades. It has determined that given how isolated and threatened it is, it needs a nuclear deterrent. And Pyongyang has made astonishing strides in getting there. Nuclear weapons are all that is keeping Kim Jong Un from suffering the fate of Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gaddafi. The regime will not give up this insurance policy. If you were in Kim’s position, would you?

The denuclearization of North Korea right now is a fantasy. It will not happen unless the United States is willing to wage a war on the Korean Peninsula. Everyone knows this, but no official in Washington is willing to publicly admit it. So the United States has adopted a zombie policy, one that has no chance of success but staggers along nonetheless. It means that we cannot make any progress on what is in fact an achievable and desirable goal — to freeze the North Korean arsenal, end further tests, and place the weapons under inspection.

A way out of this paralysis would be to reframe the issue and broaden its scope. Joshua Cooper Ramo, co-chief executive of Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm, has devised and shared with me a plan — one that has been circulating among officials in Washington — to convene an international conference on nuclear proliferation. All existing nuclear weapons states would agree not to test or expand their arsenals for some period of time — say, 36 months. Inspectors would verify that these limits are adhered to. All other nations would affirm that they do not intend to acquire nuclear weapons. Crucially, North Korea would be invited to sign onto this agreement as a nuclear weapons state, with the idea of freezing progress for now and aiming to later denuclearize the country.

Ramo says that the advantages of this approach are that it lodges the North Korean problem in the broader context of global proliferation, giving everyone an exit ramp so previous nonnegotiable statements don’t apply. It creates a global coalition that could be marshaled to sanction North Korea if it were to renege or cheat on its commitments, giving cover to China to truly clamp down on its ally. The plan also deals with Beijing’s core security concerns: preventing the collapse of North Korea and keeping South Korea and Japan from acquiring nuclear weapons. (Ramo, who has a deep knowledge of China, believes that this broader approach would allow the Chinese government to change its position.)

The specifics of such a plan could be adjusted. Perhaps the conference could be an effort to update and expand the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty itself, which is somewhat dated. (The treaty, crafted in 1968, assumed a clear line between peaceful nuclear energy and weapons, but that distinction is much harder to detect these days.) Perhaps it could be done as a regional forum, emphasizing the participation of Japan and South Korea, so that their commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons is seen as key — as is the implicit threat that if there were to be no agreement, they would in fact be free to move in that direction.

There is no good — let alone perfect — policy for the North Korean problem. But the Trump administration needs to stop the insults, get serious and try to find some way to stabilize the situation. Otherwise, we are on a road that will force Washington to either go to war or tacitly admit defeat to the Little Rocket Man.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

North Korea’s Nuclear Brinkmanship: When will it end?


September 26, 2017

North Korea’s Nuclear Brinkmanship: When will it end?

Vinod Saighal, New Delhi
http://www.eastasiaforum.org
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Analysts across the world have begun to justify North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s brinkmanship on the grounds that he is securing the longevity of his regime against any action that the United States (and its allies) might take. As long as Kim knows that China will not join hands with the United States in taking him out, he will keep upping the ante — thumbing his nose, so to say, at the United States.

 

US President Donald Trump may threaten fire and fury and an unimaginable scale of destruction, but he knows that the United States is on the horns of a dilemma. And now Russia too has come out in opposition to unilateral US action, insisting that dialogue is the only way out.

By the looks of it, Kim is not likely to stop his brinkmanship. But provoking the United States beyond a certain point is likely to invite pre-emptive action. Whatever the nature of a pre-emptive strike by the United States and its two major allies in the region — South Korea and Japan — the destruction that would ensue would, to use President Trump’s words, be unimaginable.

The scale referred to by the US president needs to be spelled out. Ira Helfand, co-President of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, published a paper in 2013 on the consequences of a limited nuclear exchange in South Asia. His findings: Chinese winter wheat production would fall 50 per cent in the first year and, averaged over the entire decade after the war, would be 31 per cent below baseline. More than a billion people in China would face severe food insecurity and the total number of people threatened by nuclear-war induced famine would be well over two billion.

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The prospect of a decade of widespread hunger and intense social and economic instability in the world’s largest country has immense implications for the entire global community. These figures — which remain unchallenged — do not take into account the tens of millions of casualties in the countries where the exchange would take place.

If this is the scale of destruction resulting from a limited nuclear exchange, it is not difficult to imagine the scale in a situation where the United States hits North Korea as hard as it can.

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An estimate can also be made of the effects of retaliatory action by North Korea against South Korea and Japan. Suffice to say that the casualties could be in the tens of millions in the first 24 hours and an order of magnitude of that figure, if not several orders of magnitude, over a longer period.

At the time of writing, the principal players remain the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and now Russia. What about the remaining nations of the world? There does not seem to be any emergency planning for the survival of countries in the region that would surely be affected by the fallout and those beyond who would be affected over a longer period.

In short, practically nobody gets away unscathed. The situation described has to be taken as possible Armageddon, in worst case scenarios. Hence the ineluctable need for the major players to meet at the UN and find an immediate solution to this grave threat to humanity.

A possible way out would be for the United States, China and Russia to issue a joint ultimatum to the North Korean leader to come to the negotiating table and force him to put a cap on his country’s missile and nuclear production. This would be followed by complete dismantlement over a given period, with verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency and designated neutral country experts.

This would need to be preceded by the three big powers working out the compromises that need to take place between the US and North Korea. The broad outlines of concessions demanded from the United States before the ultimatum to the North Korean leader would include the complete withdrawal of all US forces from South Korea in stages and abrogation of the mutual defence pact with South Korea. Neutrality of the Korean peninsula would need to be guaranteed by China, Russia and the United States and endorsed at a special session of the UN Security Council. The United States would need to pledge to abjure military action against North Korea. Finally, the United States, China, South Korea and Japan would need to pledge a substantial sum, say US$50 billion, for the economic revival of North Korea. No attempt at regime change would be made by the United States or its allies.

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Kim is unlikely to agree to this even if two of his supporters were to join with the United States. Here is where compellance comes in. After authorisation by the UN Security Council, China, Russia and the United States carry out a full-scale blockade of North Korea by land, sea and air. Simultaneously, leaflets would be regularly dropped over North Korea by China and Russia (not the United States) urging the population to force their leader to come to the negotiating table, failing which the army and the people would be urged to topple the leader before complete starvation sets in.

The blockade would be lifted only when neutral observers are allowed to come into Pyongyang to monitor the agreement, and the three powers feel assured that there is no possibility of the North Korean leader reneging on the deal.

As a final step towards peace in the region, the proposal — which is amenable to sensible tweaking — for the demilitarisation of both Koreas would commence, with guarantees of military protection from the major powers.

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President Trump lashed back Friday at North Korea’s leader, calling Kim Jong Un a “madman” whose regime will be “tested like never before” amid new U. S-imposed financial sanctions.

A satisfactory outcome in North Korea would send a salutary message to any country aspiring to take the North Korean route. But the biggest take-away would be the coming-together of the leading powers to ward off the direct threats to humanity.

General Vinod Saighal is the Executive Director of Eco Monitors Society, a non-governmental organisation concerned with demography and ecology.

A version of this article was first published here on The Statesman.

Trump’s tough talk and sophomoric antics wins friends for erudite Hassan Rouhani and Iran


September 22, 2017

Trump’s tough talk and sophomoric antics win friends for Erudite Hassan Rouhani and Islamic Republic of Iran

by Robin Wright@www.newyorker.com

Image result for hassan rouhani quote at ungaIran’s Hassan Rouhani won friends with his Speech at the United Nations General Assembly

“Let me underline one thing that must be self-evident to all in the world,” she (European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini) said. “In this moment, having a nuclear-non-proliferation agreement that is delivering is quite a strategic instrument in the hands of the international community. It’s not an irrelevant part of global security.” She added, “We already have one potential nuclear crisis. We definitely do not need to go into a second one. This is an agreement that prevented a nuclear program. And potentially prevented a military intervention. Let’s not forget that.”–Robin Wright

On Monday, I sat in One U.N. Plaza, the high-rise hotel across the street from the United Nations, and watched a parade of European diplomats head into meetings with Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani. Boris Johnson, the blond-mopped British Foreign Minister, sauntered through the lobby in deep conversation with his delegation. The new French President, Emmanuel Macron, led by a military officer wearing the distinctive stovepipe kepi, and accompanied by a dozen aides and several photographers, scurried by next. One by one, the Europeans came to confer with the leader of a country that has been ostracized by the outside world, for decades, as a pariah. No longer. The outside world now comes calling on Iran.

During his campaign and since taking office, President Trump has targeted the Islamic Republic with some of his most wrathful language. At his U.N. début, on Tuesday, he called Iran “reckless” and a “corrupt dictatorship” on a “path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror.” He has repeatedly implied that he wants to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated by the world’s six major powers in 2015. As required by Congress, the President must certify every ninety days that Iran is complying with the deal. Trump has certified twice but has indicated that he might change course in mid-October, which would undermine the most significant (whether you like the terms or not) non-proliferation agreement in more than a quarter century.

This week, Trump has taunted the press and tantalized other heads of state with hints about his intentions. On Wednesday, he told reporters (three times), “I have decided.” Asked for details, he said (twice), “I’ll let you know.” Not even the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, could get him to share his decision, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, told reporters.

Trump’s tough talk and sophomoric antics may have had the opposite effect of what he intended, however. Across the board, the world’s other major powers, most of America’s closest allies, and the vast majority of governments at the United Nations this week made clear that they favor the deal. They are siding with Iran this time.

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Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu working hand and glove to scuttle to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A deal with Iran. As far as Trump is concerned, all Obama deals are useless. He feels he can do better. Really?–Din Merican

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of Iran and the six signatories to the deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A.—late Wednesday. It was the first time that Tillerson had met his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Afterward, Mogherini was blunt. “The nuclear agreement is working. It’s delivering. It’s functioning,” she told a press conference at the United Nations. Eight reports by the U.N. nuclear watchdog—the most recent of which was released earlier this month—have verified Iran’s full compliance, she said. The consequences of abandoning or scrapping the deal would be costly.

“Let me underline one thing that must be self-evident to all in the world,” she said. “In this moment, having a nuclear-non-proliferation agreement that is delivering is quite a strategic instrument in the hands of the international community. It’s not an irrelevant part of global security.” She added, “We already have one potential nuclear crisis. We definitely do not need to go into a second one. This is an agreement that prevented a nuclear program. And potentially prevented a military intervention. Let’s not forget that.”

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High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini

In an indirect jibe at Trump, Mogherini noted that the agreement, forged after two years of often tortuous diplomacy, “doesn’t belong to one country.” It was endorsed by a Security Council resolution. “As such, all member states of the United Nations are considered to be bound to the implementation,” she said. “It belongs to the international community.”

In his U.N. address, President Macron also rejected Trump’s view of the Iran deal. “Renouncing it would be a grave error, not respecting it would be irresponsible, because it is a good accord that is essential to peace at a time where the risk of a conflagration cannot be excluded,” he said.

Macron also told a group of journalists in New York that he had been “extremely direct” with Trump when they talked, on Tuesday. “You want to kill it because it is an Obama agreement,” Macron said he argued. “But what else do we have? Nothing. We would be put in the North Korea situation.” During her meeting with Trump, Prime Minister May also reaffirmed Britain’s “strong commitment to the deal” as “vitally important for regional security,” according to a British press release.

Russia and China, which both have strategic, diplomatic, or commercial alliances with Tehran, are two of the signatories, and have long favored making a deal with Iran. The Europeans, who account for all the other major players, are important because they have been in sync with the United States since the Iranian Revolution, in 1979. European nations and the U.S. have been repeatedly burned by Iran in the past, and have similar serious, ongoing issues: Iran’s missile tests, its support for extremists, its human-rights abuses, its detentions of their citizens, and a growing pattern of Iranian intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts, notably in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Yet, for the first time in almost four decades, the Europeans appear willing to break from Washington.

Tillerson said that his first encounter with Iran was “a good opportunity to meet, shake hands.” He added, “There was no yelling. We didn’t throw shoes at one another. It was not an angry tone at all. It was a very, very matter-of-fact exchange of how we see this agreement very, very differently.” Tillerson even offered up a compliment. Iranians, he said, “are a very well-educated, very sophisticated population, so their leaders similarly are well educated, very sophisticated. And Foreign Minister Zarif certainly is in that category.”

Trump’s conflict with Iran boils down to differing interpretations of the second sentence in the preface to the deal—which is to say, it is over eighteen words in a document totaling a hundred and fifty-nine pages. That sentence says that the six major powers and Iran “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” The Trump Administration charges that Iran has repeatedly violated this sentence in the accord—and, thus, the whole deal.

“Regrettably, since the agreement was confirmed, we have seen anything but a more peaceful, stable region,” Tillerson said, on Wednesday. “The technical aspects” may have been honored by Tehran, he said, “but, in the broader context, the aspiration has not.” That’s the legal framework behind Trump’s “decision of whether we find the JCPOA to continue to serve the security interests of the American people or not.”

The President is also concerned with sunset clauses that allow Iran to eventually resume some activities, ranging from a decade to a quarter century. Mogherini countered that argument, too. She pulled out her copy of the blue-bound text and read the third sentence of the preface, which follows the phrase the U.S. disputes: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”

I saw Rouhani twice during his three-day stay. The first time was after the parade of visiting foreign leaders finished and he settled in for a session with former U.S. officials, including a former congressman, U.S. think tanks, and journalists. The second was at a press conference after his own speech to the General Assembly, on Wednesday. At both, he was provided U.S. Secret Service protection as a visiting head of state. It was a striking scene—with the agents in their colorful ties and the Iranian delegation tie-less, a symbol of their rejection of Western influence.

Rouhani, a cleric and political centrist who did his doctorate in Scotland, was recently reëlected, in May, with seventy-three per cent of the vote—more than a million votes more than he won in his first election, in 2013. The current Iranian leadership clearly feels more confident in its dealings with the world, after years of officially shunning both East and West—and being shunned in return.

On the U.N.’s global stage, clothed in the white turban and robes of a cleric, Rouhani threw his own zingers back at Trump. “It will be a great pity if this agreement were to be destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics,” he said. “The ignorant, absurd, and hateful rhetoric, filled with ridiculously baseless allegations, that was uttered before this august body yesterday didn’t befit an organization established to promote peace and respect among nations.” He vowed that Iran would not be the first to breach the nuclear agreement.

In mini-summits among leaders in New York this week, there has been a lot of talk about possible compromises, such as keeping the deal but launching new negotiations to extend the timelines of the sunset clauses. On Wednesday, I asked Rouhani if Iran would be willing to change any of the deal’s terms. “The J.C.P.O.A. has been finalized and there’s going to be no return, renegotiation, or changes vis-a-vis this agreement,” he told me. “Most of the time was taken—days and weeks and months of negotiations and dialogue—was spent on dates. Of course the dates we insisted be the shortest possible, and the other side insisted be as long as possible, but in fact we came up with a rational time frame that was agreed upon by both sides. So this agreement is not something that someone can touch. This is a building from the frame of which, if you take out a single brick, the entire building will collapse.”

Rouhani, a former national-security adviser and nuclear negotiator, warned that a U.S. exit from the deal would mean “that our hand is completely open to take any action that we see as beneficial to our country,” including enriching uranium. Given Trump’s language of late, he said, the options are already being intensely debated in Tehran. Iran has long wanted to produce its own fuel for nuclear reactors, as it diversifies its energy sources. The world’s major powers have never trusted Iran’s pledge not to develop a nuclear bomb, whatever its promises. One of the deal’s primary goals is to prevent Iran from transferring its enriched uranium to fuel a bomb.

Rouhani also warned that Trump would pay the bigger price if he officially challenges the deal, noting Washington has the support of only one other leader—Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. More than a hundred and ninety countries stand by the nuclear accord. “If the new officials in the United States believe that the violation of the J.C.P.O.A. will bring pressure on Iran, they are completely and absolutely mistaken,” Rouhani said in the press conference. Globally, he predicted, U.S. diplomacy would become suspect if the Americans walked away from an accord that they had the largest hand in crafting.

Instead, the Iranian leader told a packed press conference, “The position of Iran throughout the world will be stronger and better than before.” That may be a gross overstatement, given the country’s many other policies that are widely considered dangerous for both Iran’s people and the outside world. The regime still holds several American citizens and green-card holders; some, including a former U.N. staffer, have been sentenced to long prison terms for espionage. But Iran was certainly getting a sympathetic ear at the United Nations, where America’s allies were making Iran’s case to the Trump Administration.

North Korea: Dealing with the “Rocket Man” via Negotiation, not Threats


September 20, 2017

North Korea: Dealing with the “Rocket Man”via Negotiation, not Threats

by Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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War? “Look at the Map”, says French President Emmanuel Macron in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour at United Nations, New York

The North Korean nuclear threat has ratcheted up in recent months, following new rounds of missile and nuclear weapons tests by Pyongyang. In July, North Korea undertook two tests of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM). Then on 3 September, it undertook its sixth nuclear test of a new thermonuclear bomb designed to be used with its ICBMs. US President Donald Trump responded to the ICBM tests by promising to deliver ‘fire and fury’ if North Korea again threatened the United States, to which North Korea responded in turn by threatening to deploy missiles into the seas near US military bases in Guam. And in the midst of all this, Pyongyang continued to unnerve the Japanese government and population by launching two ballistic missiles into the seas beyond the island of Hokkaido.

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The “Rocket Man” says to President Donald Trump: “Show me some respect. I am the leader of North Korea,an independent and sovereign nation. My duty is to protect my people from warmongers like you and to act in the best interest of my country. Aren’t you doing the same for your people when you say to the world, “America First”?

North Korea’s most recent tests and launches are significant. Like it or not, they demonstrate that the regime has crossed the technical threshold of being able to target the continental United States — as well as US allies in Asia — potentially with a nuclear warhead.

Throughout the growing crisis, the Trump administration — along with most of the international community — has viewed China as the key player in bringing North Korea to heel. This perception of China’s special leverage stems from China’s decades-old treaty of friendship and mutual assistance with the North Korean regime and, even more importantly, the fact that around 90 per cent of North Korean trade now takes place with or through China. Given North Korea’s near total dependence on China for its international economic ties, the United States and others have consistently called for China to tighten economic sanctions.

China had resisted tightening sanctions on North Korea for fear that economic pressure could prompt massive inflows of refugees into China’s Northeast, or even the collapse of the North Korean regime. Although North Korea remains China’s most troublesome and unpredictable neighbour, it also serves as a strategic ‘buffer’ between China and US forces stationed in Japan and South Korea.

Yet a combination of growing international pressure, and Beijing’s own frustration with Pyongyang over its unwelcome nuclear program, has made China more willing to apply sanctions and other economic measures. In February, in the wake of North Korea’s test of a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan, and the assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, China announced it was suspending coal imports from North Korea for the remainder of 2017. More significantly, on 11 September China (and Russia) agreed to a new round of UN Security Council sanctions which will ban North Korean textile exports, freeze its imports of crude oil at current levels and introduce a cap on its imports of refined petroleum. These are the most far-reaching sanctions that have so far been applied to North Korea. In addition, Chinese state-run banks have begun to ban North Koreans from opening new accounts and to suspend transactions on accounts already held by North Koreans.

Yet the key problem in all of this is that there is little evidence that sanctions applied in the past have worked in checking North Korea’s nuclear program. Most regional analysts are fairly pessimistic that even this latest round of sanctions will have much effect on the regime’s nuclear development plans.

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In our two lead pieces this week, Chen Dongxiao of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, and Jia Qingguo of Peking University, underscore the urgent need for new thinking in managing the North Korean nuclear issue. Both highlight diplomatic engagement, with Pyongyang and among other key states in the region, as the only way forward.

Chen suggests that it is futile to hope that increased Chinese pressure will somehow encourage North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons. He underlines Pyongyang’s lack of regard for China’s interests to date, suggesting that, ‘Pyongyang will never shy away from pressing for more concessions by leveraging its nuclear weapons program, even at the expense of China’s national security interests and overall regional stability’.

Instead, the region must find new diplomatic and economic incentives to encourage Pyongyang to come back to the negotiating table. As a first step, both authors nominate China’s ‘two suspensions’ proposal as a way to reduce the dangerous tensions between Pyongyang and Washington. This proposal would see ‘North Korea…suspend nuclear and missile tests in exchange for suspension of joint US-South Korea military exercises’, explains Jia.

As a second step, Jia calls on Beijing to begin active ‘contingency planning’ talks with Washington and Seoul. In the past, Beijing has been hesitant to take part in such talks, out of concern for the signals that this would send to Pyongyang. Jia and Chen carry clear messages for Pyongyang and Washington. Given the gravity of the situation and the risk that North Korea may continue to ignore Beijing’s diplomatic efforts, it is now time for China to put aside its hesitation and engage in serious talks with Washington and Seoul, Jia argues.

Contingency planning talks should cover a range of critical issues including: who would control North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the event of a collapse of the regime; how to deal with the North Korean refugee problem; who would be responsible for restoring domestic order in North Korea in the event of a crisis; post-crisis political arrangements on the Korean Peninsula; and removal of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system when and if North Korea’s nuclear program has ended.

Each of these issues is a source of considerable anxiety in Beijing, and so far they’ve stymied closer regional cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue. Indeed, these issues have, in Chen Dongxiao’s words, showcased the ‘deeply entrenched strategic suspicion’ between the US and China. Dialogue and negotiation on these questions may therefore help to alter the current impasse between China and the United States, and lessen Pyongyang’s ability to exploit the lack of unity among its neighbours.

As is now widely understood, both in Pyongyang and around the region, there are no good military options for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. That will crucially require countries to get much better at talking to their adversaries and negotiating on fundamental, long-term political and security questions.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

APEC as a Tool to Engage North Korea for Regional and Global Peace


August 24, 2017

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Number 393 | August 23, 2017
ANALYSIS

APEC as a Tool to Engage North Korea for Regional and Global Peace

by Robert L. Curry

Is it possible for Asia-Pacific leaders to engage North Korea’s regime productively? If so, by what institutional mechanism might engagement take place? Since the most likely response to the initial question is no, why think about a mechanism by which the engagement process might begin?

Despite this common assessment, the perilous and declining environment that the North Korean government is creating strongly suggests that regional leaders should be alert for any sign from the regime that it is open to engagement. In the event that a promising sign shows up, it makes sense for diplomats, security professionals and other specialists to think about how to respond. In fact, the more dangerous and threatening the North Korean government becomes, the more urgent it is for leaders to look for and find a de-escalatory way to deal with the regime. Finding one will not be easy, but trying is essential, because despite decades of sanctions and isolating initiatives, North Korea is becoming more aggressive. Recently there have been signals that the regime is close to taking irrational and destructive action.

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The current environment exists largely because the regime has remained immune to moderation. Nothing has worked. China’s attempt at intervention has limits; military action against the regime would be complex and risky; and there is little hope for near-term regime change. At present, no other option is being discussed because nothing appears plausible or workable. However, under certain conditions, the regime might be ready for multilateral engagement. This is a “long shot,” but conditions could become bleak enough to force the regime to consider engagement. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) holds the potential to be a mechanism of such engagement. It’s the type of institutional affiliation North Korea needs. APEC would be a reasonable, modest, and low-risk initial step to take on the road out of isolation.

The conditions that may compel North Korea’s leadership to move towards diplomatic engagement include the following: (a) the policy of nuclear and ballistic testing and development aimed at the “outside” is costly, not yielding sufficient benefits and is dangerous; (b) in response to the tests, the “outside” is imposing economic and financial sanctions that are impairing the economy’s capacity to function and the public sector to operate; (c) the “outside’s” military response to North Korea’s actual use of its nuclear and ballistic capacities would be so devastating that it would leave the regime and the country in ruins; (d) the magnitude of the economy’s failings are so acute that even with China’s assistance, dealing with them requires resources from the “outside”; and (e) while China wants neither a failed state at its southern border nor a flood of refugees crossing it, its government has other objectives and cannot continue to provide the level of financial and economic assistance needed by the regime.

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 Regional and Global Peace is Possible,
“The scope of APEC’s programs fits nicely with North Korea’s needs as it struggles with resource shortages, infrastructure frailties, supply chain interruptions… APEC stays clear of territorial and other disputes.”–Robert L. Curry

Such calculations on the part of Pyongyang might compel the regime to think about engagement. APEC would be a useful and plausible option because its focus is on assisting member economies to strengthen their capacities to develop economically, to mature their private sectors, to benefit from industrial technology transfers, to be a party to regional cooperation, and to receive the benefits of trade expansion. Importantly, the scope of APEC’s programs fits nicely with North Korea’s needs as it struggles with resource shortages, infrastructure frailties, supply chain interruptions, impaired labor and managerial attributes, distributional inequities, a low level of national and personal income, and one of the world’s lowest levels of  human development.

APEC’s structure and conditions of membership also fit North Korea’s needs. APEC limits its actions to economic cooperation and development, and avoids entangling in the affairs of member economies (or sovereign states). APEC stays clear of territorial and other disputes among states and imposes no strict conditions of membership. The way it works would give some time for North Korea to adjust to engagement on a partnership basis.  North Korea would necessarily begin as an official observer. Gaining full membership would come later and getting there would not be an easy journey. Numerous political and legal obstacles and long-held opinions would stand in the way.  However, if these obstacles could be overcome, both North Korea and the “outside” might benefit.

The journey can only take place if North Korea choses to move out of isolation and at the same time the “outside” agrees with the move. This would require openness to contacts, associations and discussions for which APEC would be helpful. North Korean officials could observe and become familiar with the professionals who work in topic-based APEC committees. For example, they would learn about APEC’s Individual Plan of Action program. Each member economy’s Plan takes place in two steps: in year one, the Plan is designed with the assistance of APEC-based specialists and technical professionals. The goal is to identify critical shortcomings and design ways to overcome them. In year two, each member economy reports on the progress that it has made since year one.  By repeating the process, over time each member economy is able to move along a path leading to economic growth and development. A similar effort by the North Korean government would be extremely valuable. It would require the regime to think clearly about how to achieve genuine economic progress with the help of the “outside.”
 
At some point the regime will need to make this fundamental a decision: either cling to its nuclear/ballistic programs even though its outputs likely will never be used, or move away from the programs to some degree while moving in the direction of multilateral engagement with its Asia Pacific neighbors. APEC could be a place to start.
About the Author

Robert L. Curry, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Economics at CSU Sacramento and former Lecturer in Economics at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He can be contacted at Bcrry641@Gmail.com.

 

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.