Does China ’s Proxy-Aggressive Scenario Cast US as the Aggressor?
President Trump’s tweet last week undercutting the credibility of his Secretary of State, has been roundly criticized. Neoconservative Bill Kristol’s response epitomized their views: “Even or especially if we may really have to use force, mocking diplomatic efforts of your SecState is remarkably foolish and irresponsible.” But if Secretary Tillerson (or President Trump, for that matter) is naively accepting the transparent fiction that North Korea is not a pawn in China’s strategic game, isn’t that even more foolish and irresponsible? After all, “Those who fail to learn from history…etc.” (I explored this point in an article published several weeks ago.)
What if the Chinese government had not intervened to prevent its defeat, when North Korea invaded the South in a surprise attack on June 25, 1950. The whole of the Korean peninsula would probably have developed under the protection of the American UN effort that, at first, repelled the invasion. All Koreans would today enjoy the fruits of that development, during which South Korea has become the 4th largest economy in Asia, and the 11th largest in the world. Had the North been an integral part of the country’s development throughout that period, Korea would probably have given the Chinese a run for their money, despite (or perhaps on account of) the large disparity in the size of their respective populations.
China’s intervention in the Korean war in October 1950 prevented such competition. China’s Maoist rulers cast their intervention in terms of international communist comradeship and anti-imperialist security concerns. But it also prevented the decades long spectacle of a rapidly progressing and eventually thriving Korea, in partnership with the United States, casting the failures of Mao Zedong’s Marxist revolution in high relief.
The Kim family’s dictatorship over North Korea harkens back to the pattern of dynastic despotic rule that prevailed in Korea for about 1600 years. Like many of the communist dictatorships, the “Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea” is neither democratic nor even a republic. The strength of the people (the literal meaning of “democracy” at its root) is wielded by a despot, who may or may not use it to serve any interest but his own, and that of the ruling clique that enforces his control.
The aggressor Kim regime survived its early existential crisis thanks to Chinese military forces. It still largely depends on China’s economic support. What justifies the notion that Kim Jong Un is anything but a Chinese puppet? And if he is a Chinese puppet, what justifies the belief that his pursuit of powerful nuclear weapons is anything but an instrument of China’s strategic aims?
China has forcefully asserted its ambition to enforce the pretense that the China Sea is essentially a Chinese Protectorate, in which “freedom of the seas” does not apply. They have aggressively protested maneuvers by the United States and its allies in the area. Now Kim Jong Un brandishes threats of nuclear attack against South Korea, Japan and US territories in the Pacific. Why are reasonable people supposed to accept the fiction that he is not acting as a proxy for the country that controls the fate of his regime? In particular, why does the US government dutifully speak and behave as if the people of the United States are fools enough to believe it? The more credible assumption is that his gigantic neighbor is actually throwing the voice he uses to make his grotesquely belligerent threats.
There’s a war of maneuver going on in light of China’s declaration of control in the South China Sea. Given that context, if China and the United States were openly engaging in nuclear brinksmanship, it would be clear to all the world that the human race is again teetering on the brink of a general nuclear holocaust, with all that implies for humanity as a whole. The fact that this scenario is now unfolding behind the scanty fig leaf the North Korean “rogue” does not alter that ominous reality? It is not reasonable simply to assume that China will sit idly by while the United States “totally destroys” North Korea, despite the mutual defense treaty still in force between these Asian neighbors.
Such idleness would seriously subvert the credibility of China’s expansive posturing in the region. But if Kim Jong Un detonates a thermonuclear device over the Pacific, and the United States does not respond, the same must be said of US credibility, which remains critical to the security of all the truly independent nations living in the shadow of China’s conventional and nuclear military forces. They may draw the conclusion that, for all Trump’s talk, the United States either a) no longer trusts the effectiveness of its nuclear forces; or b) no longer has the will to respond, even after a regime that has repeatedly declared its hostile intent makes demonstrative use of its nuclear capability, to terrorize us, and our partners, allies and friends in the region.
The resolution of the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis affirmed the reality of America’s supremacy, with salutary effects for our freedom of action throughout the decades that followed. A similar crisis is now under way, fomented by Chinese guile. Is it intended to end in a fashion that discredits the reliability of US military power, and usher in a similar period of freedom for China to pursue what are, in all probability, its vastly more aggressive aims. Under Kennedy the US government thwarted Soviet actions without using nuclear weapons. In present circumstances, has China implemented a strategy that allows it to direct and focus the terrifying effect of nuclear weapons, outside the MAD framework, on the assumption that the representatives of the American people are more susceptible to the demonstration effect of a nuclear detonation than the rulers of Japan’s WWII kamikaze regime?
The posture of America’s power during the post WWII period, though not passive, was largely defensive in its aims. The Korean and Vietnam wars were both of them about responding actively to aggressive military threats to the US inspired post-WWII arrangements for avoiding global conflict. By contrast, China’s present activities may still follow the pattern of communist expansionism in the 20th century—an actively threatening approach, pursued by proxy, to preserve the appearance of Chinese passivity.
China’s proxy-aggressive scenario casts the US as the aggressor. If Kim Jong Un detonates a nuclear device over the Pacific—without directly attacking US territory, or that of any US ally or friend—and the US responds with offensive military force against North Korea, won’t we be accepting that role? Moreover, if our response includes use of nuclear weapons, we would also be discarding the norm that has so far allowed the human race to avoid nuclear self-devastation.
If, despite its treaty obligation, China does not respond militarily to our action, the “total destruction” of North Korea might dispel doubts about the credibility of our power and will. But our appearance in the role of aggressor is likely to erase the renown we long enjoyed from our long run as champion of the peace. That renown worked to our advantage, especially in terms of sustaining our morale as a people. In consequence, we are likely to be damned in opinion (including our own) for what we do, and damned, in effect, if we fail to do it. We can hope Kim Jong Un never fulfills his latest threat. But if the Chinese are its real progenitors, what do they have to lose by putting us to the test? Our strategic challenge is to find a way to make sure they answer that question circumspectly.
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