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US-China-North Korea imbroglio

By MR Josse

MR josseKATHMANDU: In last week’s column, some attention was directed to the current state of play on the US-China-North Korea relations front, principally against the backdrop of Pyongyang’s reckless, inexorable determination to pursue her nuclear weapons/missiles programme – despite the condemnation and opprobrium of the international community, manifested by an increasingly harsh succession of sanctions.
Consequently, the North Korean nuclear issue has so overshadowed the China-America arena that – as announced following US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent confabulations in Beijing, including a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping – China and the United States have decided to urgently cooperate on the North Korean challenge, placing on hold a passel of sensitive bilateral issues and concerns, not to mention Washington’s formal invitation for an early milestone official visit by Xi to the US.
Last week, the question of what Beijing can, or will not, do to reign in Pyongyang was briefly touched upon by pointing out, inter alia, that an important geopolitical reason behind Beijing’s opposition to the US proposal – if need be – to undertake a preemptive strike against North Korea is that such an eventuality would result in this nightmarish scenario for China: the appearance of American and South Korean troops on what would then be a China-Korea frontier.
The historical backdrop to China’s geo-strategic concerns relevant to that question has been brilliantly outlined by former South Korean foreign minister Yoon Young-kwan in a recent write-up, excerpts of which I now quote. “For centuries, China has feared that the peninsula could become of a chain of encirclement, or serve as an invasion route. In 1592, Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded the Korean Kingdom to establish a beachhead for invading China. In response, China, under the Ming Dynasty, fought alongside Korea against the Japanese army.
“Three centuries later, China’s Qing Dynasty fought the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to prevent Japan from dominating Korea. And again, in the winter of 1950-1951, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong intervened in the Korean War when the US army crossed the 38th parallel and advanced towards China’s borders…China simply does not want to run the risk of its North Korean buffer state imploding as a result of sanctions. And, because they understand China’s strategic imperartive, North Korea’s leaders have felt free to develop their country’s nuclear program.”
There are, of course, other valuable geopolitical lessons that one may usefully imbibe from recent history of the region under study. Although Mao’s China undertook the extremely costly intervention in the Korean War – largely minus Soviet dictator Stalin’s promised support – the cardinal lesson that Mao learnt was that the defence of China must, basically, be the task of the Chinese. Its natural corollary, as Henry Kissinger explains in “On China”, is this: “if your country’s existence is at stake you do not haggle over the price.”
While it is possible to discern a reflection of the application of the above dictum in China’s recently demonstrated willingness of bear considerable loss in economic terms in trade with South Korea, which has gone ahead with the installation of a US antimissile system on its soil, despite China’s concerns, Kissinger has provided another thinking point, this time from Vietnam.
As Kissinger has explained, “China supported the North Vietnamese guerrilla war partly for reasons ideological, partly to push American bases as far from the Chinese border as possible.”
Yet another incandescent historical-geopolitical insight that Kissinger offers is contained in this exegesis: “The United States opposed North Vietnam as the spearhead of a Soviet-Chinese design. China supported Hanoi to blunt a perceived threat for its own national account. Both were mistaken. Hanoi fought for its own national account. And a unified Communist-led Vietnam, victorious in its second war in 1975, would turn out to be a far greater strategic threat to China than to the United States.”
While the above is a timely reminder that even a seemingly permanent geopolitical reality can sometimes abruptly be turned on its head, Kissinger’s incisive observation that “Vietnamese national identity came to reflect the legacy of two somewhat contradictory forces: on the one hand, absorption of Chinese culture; on the other, opposition to Chinese political and military domination” is worth mulling over by students of Nepal-India relations.
Phrased differently, on the basis of the above observation vis-à-vis Sino-Vietnamese relations, can one not legitimately argue that Nepal’s national identity, too, has two contradictory streams as far as her relations with India are concerned? Thus, if there is much that Nepal has absorbed from Indian culture; there is also the Nepali reality of an inherent opposition to Indian political and military domination.
Returning to the fraught North Korean situation and its politico-diplomatic impact not merely on the US, South Korea and China but on Japan and Russia as well, it may be pointed out that the emplacement of American antimissile system in South Korea, and its possible/probable extension to Japan at a future date, has not merely roiled China’s hitherto mutually beneficial relations with South Korea but has contributed to further deepening relations between Beijing and Moscow, perhaps to the disappointment of Vietnam and India, among others.
What bears recalling here is that, as this columnist pointed out at the fag end of 2016, Russia and Japan were unable to conclude a peace treaty, as some pundits had expected, during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit at that time period. Putin’s obvious distaste in returning the four Japanese islands the USSR has seized during the dying days of the Second World War, possibly because of their strategic value given their location at the Sea of Okhost, seems to have been instrumental in that regard.
In any case, it is entirely likely that Russia – which shares a border with North Korea – will ultimately play an important role in the resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis, despite the clouds presently hovering over Russia-America relations. Geopolitics after all often trumps ideology.

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