BY M.R. JOSSE
GAITHERSBURG, MD: The past week saw portentous developments on the international, regional and national fronts. The G-20 summit in Hamburg was its dominant foci because it was the venue of the first tête-à-tête between the American and Russian presidents.
It was, however, nearly overshadowed by North Korea’s unwelcome surprise: her successful testing of an ICBM capable of hitting not just Hawaii but Alaska.
While there were oodles and oodles of interesting angles to the G-20 event what was most instructive was that the Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin palavers lasted for 2 hours 15 minutes, or five times over what had been envisaged!
That curiosity aside, it was notable that Trump had, a day earlier in Warsaw, unambiguously endorsed Article 5 of the NATO treaty – encapsulating the doctrine of collective security – and opened his talks with Putin by confronting him on the issue of Russian election interference, according to US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.
Although Trump’s legion of critics continue to carp that he did not succeed in getting Putin to publicly admit to interference – which, realistically, was a non starter – the more important point is that both countries have not merely decided to move beyond that intractable question but succeeded in working out some notable diplomatic agreements, paving the way for future cooperation on other hot-button issues.
Two other things: first, Trump’s apparent ability to hold his own against the cagey, tough and far more diplomatically experienced Russian leader; and, second, that Hamburg clearly exposed and delineated Trump’s international priorities.
While the former attribute underlines that there is a huge chasm between the ‘real’ Trump and the one that comes across in his ‘tweets’, the latter suggests that for Trump’s America, the countries of singular strategic value – apart from Russia – are China, Japan, the UK, Germany, France and South Korea.
DEALING WITH PYONGYANG
In the context of the nail-biting uncertainty posed by Pyongyang’s galloping missile/nuclear ambitions, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’s recollections, just before Hamburg, on the Munich (1938), Yalta (1945), and Vienna (1961) summits provided the useful reminder that summitry under military pressure is especially fraught. Thus:
“When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went to Munich in September 1938, war fears were so intense that the British mobilized its fleet and began distributing gas masks. A frightened public accepted Chamberlain’s capitulation to Adolf Hitler.
“At the Yalta summit in February 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, sensing victory ahead, unwisely agreed to Soviet demands that paved the way for the divisions of Europe…President John F. Kennedy said privately after a nasty June 1961 summit in Vienna with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, ‘He just beat the hell out of me.'”
In Warsaw, Trump called North Korea’s successful ICBM test “very, very bad behavior”, adding that “something will have to be done about it” – without offering other details.
Charles Krauthammer, another Post columnist, argues that by its latest ICBM test, North Korea has crossed the Rubicon, going on to remind that the national interests of Russia and China vis-à-vis North Korea are poles apart from that of the US. “Their interest is cutting America down to size by breaking our South Korean alliance and weakening our influence in the Pacific Rim.”
He pours cold water on any suggestion that China and Russia can team up with the United States asking, bluntly, “How many times must we be taught that Beijing does not share our view of denuclearizing North Korea? It prefers a divided peninsula, i.e. sustaining its client status as a guarantee against a unified Korea (possibly nuclear) allied with the West and sitting on its border.”
Concluding his exegesis, Krauthammer offers this heretical prescription: “If we want to decisively alter the strategic balance, we could return US tactical nukes (withdrawn in 1991) to South Korea. Or we could encourage Japan to build a nuclear deterrent of its own. Nothing would get more quick attention from the Chinese. They would face a radically new strategic dilemma: is preserving North Korea worth a nuclear Japan?”
Also attention-grabbing is columnist Charles Lamb’s piece wherein he offers this coruscating gem: “The regime of Vladimir Putin has no definitive solution. As long as the conflict does not erupt in actual war, Moscow is happy to have it drain and distract the United States. This is why Moscow does business with South Korea but also has more recently been strengthening its economic ties to North Korea.”
Claiming that Japan has misgivings whether even a united democratic Korea would be in their long term interest, given her colonial history, Lamb says that “similar misgivings plague China, the deus ex-machina of US strategy such as it is, under President Trump.”
Unsurprisingly, China’s footprints at the G-20 summit visibly dwarfed India’s; PM Modi thought it fit and proper to target Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism – without any trace of its endorsement. In India, not a little attention was riveted to Rahul Gandhi’s assertion that “India has a weak PM” pointing out the failure of Modi’s America visit where official US documents used the term “India-administered Kashmir” much to South Block’s chagrin.
And, while Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling’s cri de coeur about the ignominy of Sikkim having to bear the brunt of an economic blockade, even after being amalgamated to India, hit the headlines, what made the situation even more piquant is that food from Nepal to Sikkim is now helping to neutralize an action designed to stymie the continuing agitation for Gorkhaland in the Darjeeling hills!
Even more telling is China’s tough verbal offensive suggesting that she take a fresh look at recognizing India’s merger with Sikkim. In Nepal, nostalgia for the monarchy continues to expand visibly, with Nepali nationalism torn to tatters and Indian interference continuing.
Plainly, South Asia sits atop a seething volcano. We could do worse than to carefully monitor it in the near future.