Kim Jong-un’s successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile this week set off a new round of brinkmanship in the Korean peninsula that will bring the strongest test in years of the relationship between China and the United States.
Already jostling over the disputed Spratly and Paracel island chains, the US last night announced it had flown two B-1B bombers over an area of the South China Sea claimed by China as its own, but which the US maintains should remain international territory.
Before their flight last night, the bombers trained with Japanese jet fighters in the neighbouring East China Sea, the first time the two forces have ever conducted night-time drills.
The timing of the move clearly links the United States’ broader gripes with China to the burgeoning North Korean missile crisis.
America’s military involvement in the Pacific and South China Sea area goes back 119 years to when Spain ceded it the Philippines as part of the 1898 Paris Treaty. The Korean War of 1950-53 and ongoing disputes over China’s dealings with Taiwan have made the relationship unusual in international terms, as being hostile without either side treating the other specifically as an enemy.
But in an increasingly volatile atmosphere of sabre rattling by the respective superpowers North Korea may prove to be the catalyst to unleash long-held animosities over influence in the area.
While the Chinese have increasingly been pushing the US to cease its military presence in the area, the US has loudly and frequently voiced its commitment to remaining.
The dispute has unfolded with the backdrop of China militarising some of the islands in the South China Sea and standing by North Korea as it develops its missile, and potentially nuclear, capabilities.
The July 4 missile launch — timed by Kim for maximum aggravation to the US as the nation celebrated its proudest holiday, Independence Day — was the first time Pyongyang has shown it is capable of firing on mainland USA, and therefore, Australia.
Donald Trump yesterday warned he was considering “pretty severe things” to counter Kim’s growing threat, while his Russian counterpart urged calm.
“We’ll see what happens — I don’t like to talk about what we have planned — but I have some pretty severe things that we’re thinking about,” Trump said at an early morning news conference in Poland ahead of the G20 gathering.
“They are behaving in a very, very serious manner, and something will have to be done about it.”
Despite the tough talk, Trump has few options when it comes to North Korea, and none of them are good.
The best of a poor lot is all about money and highly risky, according to veteran Korea watcher and political scientist Professor TJ Pempel from Berkeley University, who says China will be pressured to reinforce financial sanctions against Pyongyang.
“North Korea is theoretically banned from engaging in any international banking in order for them to engage in trade and for North Korea to continue to function they need access to the international banking system,” he said.
“They have effectively worked out deals in which various Chinese banks will deal with the North Koreans through surrogates, through dummy accounts. The US has a handle on that and right now they are proposing to cut off access to international banking by those Chinese banks that are fronting for North Korea.
“So the message is ‘you deal with North Korea, you are out of the system’ which has not been the case up until now. The United States has avoided doing anything which is seen as provocative to China and this will be taken as a challenge to Chinese sovereignty.”
Even before Tuesday’s ICBM test, the Treasury Department started imposing these “secondary sanctions”, cutting off access to the US banking system to a Chinese bank, shipping company and two Chinese citizens in return for supporting North Korea.
Such options have the power to “bring North Korea to its knees”, according to Professor Bruce Bechtol from Angelo State University in Texas.
He said choking off North Korea in this manner would also decimate Pyongyang’s sales of missiles and weapons, which he claims makes up 40 per cent of its economy.
Professor Pempel said North Korean negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping would be a huge test for the novice politician and diplomat President Trump, but that North Korea’s provocations meant China would possibly be ready to step up.
“China has been at the margins doing the minimum necessary until now, because the Chinese government is basically anxious to keep the North Korean regime in place. It doesn’t want the regime to collapse, it doesn’t want North Korean refugees flooding into China, it doesn’t want American and South Korean troops on China’s border with a reunified Korean peninsula,” he said.
“So China is in this awkward position of having an ally that it needs for security purposes and that it doesn’t want to see collapse, but that is in its view behaving in a way that is causing problems for China with regards to regional security and order.
“The Chinese basically have a teenager in the house that they wish would behave better but they are not quite prepared to throw it out the door and tell it to go and survive on its own.”
At the other end of the response spectrum is direct military action, which would imperil hundreds of thousands of South Koreans in the crosshairs of bulk artillery set along the world’s most heavily fortified border.
“Right now North Korea has the capacity to take out Seoul and wreak havoc in much of South Korea,” said Pempel, adding a stand off could last for years.
“There’s no way that the United States would be prepared to carry out direct military activity against North Korea, and meanwhile the North Koreans have to know that if they do anything that involves real shooting the regime is likely to come to a quick end.
“Because the US and Japan and South Korea will not accept any kind of direct shooting started by the North.”
Almost half of South Korea’s population lives within 160km of Korea’s Demilitarised Zone, including Seoul’s 10 million inhabitants. A 2012 study by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability said more than 30,000 people would be killed in the initial stage of an artillery attack from the North targeting civilians, while a strike at the South’s military bases, which house allied forces, could take out 3000 soldiers.
Despite this, the top US military commander in South Korea last week said America was ready to join South Korea in war if necessary.
“Self restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” said General Vincent Brooks in Seoul. “We are able to change our choice when so ordered.
“It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.”
But for all the talk of a new war, Australia’s defence chief played down the threat in a briefing in Canberra on Thursday and said a diplomatic response was still the most appropriate course.
“I don’t think North Korea is likely to fire a missile at Australia,” said Defence’s chief of joint operations Vice Admiral David Johnston.
“There is very little risk at the moment to the northern part of our country, but we will continue to look at what is necessary in line with
that threat as we better understand it.”
And in Washington yesterday, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who had previously described a new Korean War as “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes”, said the Trump administration’s efforts in the region would continue to be “purely diplomatically led”.
“I do not believe this capability in itself brings us closer to war because the President’s been very clear, and the Secretary of State’s been very clear, that we are leading with diplomatic and economic efforts,” Mattis said at the Pentagon.
With a military strike such an unpalatable notion, there is a growing chorus for Trump to increase pressure on China to choke the hermit state of its financial support, which is North Korea’s only lifeline.
In his first words to address the issue since Tuesday’s test, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also called on China to step up.
“The nation with the greatest leverage over North Korea is China,” Mr Turnbull said Friday.
“We recognise that North Korea is not a compliant client state of China like East Germany was to the old Soviet Union, so … the relationship between China and North Korea is not without its difficulties, but the fact is China has the greatest leverage and of course we urge China to bring more pressure, more economic pressure in particular, to bear on North Korea.”
By Sarah Blake, US Correspondent
The Daily Telegraph