There’s a saying in politics: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
North Korea’s missile test is indeed a crisis — and a test of Donald Trump’s still-young presidency.
But he is being outmanoeuvred by Russia and China, who have teamed up against the United States to achieve a mutual goal: weakening the US military presence on their doorstep.
Both Russia and China have a land border with North Korea. For China especially, North Korea is a buffer between it and US-friendly South Korea, and more than 20,000 American soldiers who are based there.
The US has been allied with Seoul since the end of the Korean War. American forces regularly hold military exercises with South Korea.
More recently, the US has been deploying a missile defence system in South Korea known as THAAD, designed to shoot down incoming missiles before they land.
On Monday, when North Korea launched this new intercontinental ballistic missile, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin were holding a summit, and presented their own solution to the crisis.
On the plus side for Washington, their plan called on North Korea to halt and cancel its nuclear and missile programs.
But the kicker was the quid pro quo for the US: stop conducting military exercises with South Korea, and stop the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system there.
Neither of those conditions will appeal to the US.
US ‘ready to use force’, again
At today’s UN Security Council meeting, Russia and China teamed up again to curb the power and presence of the US in their region.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley made a belligerent statement, repeating a threat to go to war if North Korea does not curb its nuclear and missile programs.
“[North Korea’s] actions are quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution,” she told the meeting.
“The United States is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies. One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must.”
‘No good options’
It’s a threat that has been made and heard before.
Back in April, Ms Haley was asked if the US would use military force against North Korea.
“If you see some sort of intercontinental ballistic missile, then obviously we’re going to do that,” she replied.
This week, North Korea did exactly that.
Both Russia and China condemned North Korea’s missile test.
But both countries firmly ruled out the use of force as a solution to the problem; Russia even appeared to rule out new sanctions, saying attempts to strangle north Korea economically were equally unacceptable.
Without the support of China and Russia, any military action by the US against North Korea would be done without the authority of the Security Council.
If the US doesn’t use force, its threats are at risk of being compared to Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” over Syria’s use of chemical weapons — from which he was forced to back down, and was then pilloried by Republicans.
It’s often said there are no good options when it comes to dealing with North Korea.
That remains true for the US. But Russia and China appear to be trying to extract a win — by reducing US influence in the region.
By Ben Knight