North Korean actions fit China’s regional goal
GLOBAL tensions are rising in line with the rhetoric and threats emerging from North Korea.
North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, is defying the United Nations and openly threatening his South Korean neighbours and the United States with military strikes.
China has pursued a dual approach to act as a responsible power where this serves its national interest, and to engage in multinational frameworks it could expect to reshape over time.
But it also pursues its interests assertively, even showing its military strength, as it did when orchestrating anti-Japanese sentiment in a massive campaign against Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
This territorial dispute, which erupted again in 2012, is still ongoing. China has used military aircraft, ships and large-scale military exercises to intimidate Japan.
This fits the larger picture that shows China as an assertive global power. It remains ambivalent in its relations with the United States as it follows its goal of controlling its neighbourhood in the East and South China Seas and flexing its military power in coercive diplomacy over disputed islands.
China is following a long-term strategy aimed at neutralising US power and influence in its neighbourhood.
This is happening when the US administration is looking to reassert a strategic role in the area and to reassure its allies - and China’s neighbours - which depend on the US for security.
Changes at the top of the Chinese leadership are also happening at the same time. Its new leader, Xi Jinping, ordered military leaders ‘to expand and deepen military readiness’ and to intensify ‘real combat skills’, and risk-taking behaviour around the Senkaku Islands.
The Chinese handling of North Korea during the current political escalation of the nuclear issue appears to be consistent, though sophisticated in this vein.
China, in its attempts to reduce US influence in the region, belittles the reaction Japan has made to Chinese aggression.
China has also tried to reduce the political impact the new South Korean leadership might have on North Korea with its attempted peace campaign.
And, China’s stand on the North Korea nuclear issues presents it with a dual opportunity - to appear constructive on the United Nations Security Council level which has no detrimental impact on North Korea because it ignores it, and to challenge the US presence in the region through North Korea - a proxy it can control - if matters should get worse.
China’s leadership is avoiding multilateralism throughout its neighbourhood, which the US would favour. The US, in turn, has to develop a coherent approach which goes beyond reconfirming itself as a Pacific power.
At stake will be control of the region, access to oil and gas riches, maritime security in the world’s most important sea lanes and a code of military conflicts to contested areas involving both the US and China.
This is a long-term issue and China does pursue a long-term political strategy. It is supported by a Chinese military build-up.
Missile deployments have become a central element of China’s strategy to reduce the military role of the US in the region. A second strike capability, through deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles in a wide tunnel system, is the ultimate back-up. New land-based DF-21 missiles make US ships in the South China Sea vulnerable.
China is not following familiar Cold War policies of balancing forces. This is a military build-up tailored to deny specific options and possibly to coerce opponents.
The ongoing shift of strategic leverage in favour of China will affect European economic, strategic and political interests in ways that will negate Europe’s hopes of remaining as a stable island in the middle of rising global tensions in Asia.
A major east Asian crisis could spring from any one of the various hot spots in the area.
A coherent and joint assessment by European countries is required to broaden the scope of strategic policies so Europe’s requirements are matched with its long-term economic viability.
North Korea’s abrogation of the 1953 ceasefire agreement should remind Europe that it was the Korean War which led to four US divisions returning to Europe and the formation of Nato.
It will require more European commitment to preserve more than 60 years of an ‘indispensable’ US-European partnership prepared for more turbulent times ahead.