To understand US strategy in the Pacific, and against North Korea in particular, one has to understand the fundamental changes under way in that region. China’s clout as an Asian superpower and a global economic giant has been growing fast. America’s belated “pivot to Asia” to counter this rise has been ineffectual.
Donald Trump’s angry diplomacy is Washington’s way to scare off North Korea’s traditional ally, China, and disrupt what has been a smooth Chinese economic, political and military ascendancy in Asia that has pushed against US regional influence, especially in the East and South China Seas.
Although China has reevaluated its once strong ties with North Korea, it views with great alarm any military build-up by the US and its allies as a direct challenge to China’s trade and political dominance.
The US understands that its share of the world’s economic pie is constantly being reduced, and that China is gaining ground, fast. It will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2030, and when adjusted by purchasing power, it already has. No wonder Trump obsessively referred to China during his presidential election campaign, and continues to blame China for North Korea’s nuclear weapons threat.
In fact, while the US threatens to “totally destroy North Korea,” it is the Chinese government that uses sensible language, calls for de-escalation and urges the application of international law. For many years depicted as a rogue state, China now seems like the cornerstone of stability in Asia.
Prudent US leaders such as former President Jimmy Carter understand the need to involve China in resolving the US-North Korean standoff. The US should “offer to send a high-level delegation to Pyongyang for peace talks or to support an international conference including North and South Korea, the United States and China, at a mutually acceptable site,” Carter wrote this month.
A few days later, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying quoted Carter, and reasserted her country’s position that only a diplomatic solution could end the crisis.
Trump has claimed that “presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid … hasn’t worked.”
He alleged that North Korea had violated these agreements “before the ink was dry,” and added the ominous warning that “only one thing will work!”
Trump is a bad student of history. He was talking about the Agreed Framework of 1994, signed by President Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il, father of the current leader Kim Jong Un. In fact, Pyongyang kept to that agreement but the US did not.
In 2001, the US invaded and destroyed Afghanistan. In 2003, it invaded Iraq, and began threatening regime change in Iran. Iraq, Iran and North Korea were already blacklisted as the “axis of evil” in George W. Bush’s infamous speech in 2002. More military interventions followed, especially as the Middle East fell into unprecedented chaos after the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. Regime change, as became the case in Libya, remained the defining doctrine of US foreign policy.
This is the reality that terrifies North Korea. For 15 years they have been waiting their turn on the US regime-change path, and their nuclear weapons program is their only deterrent. The more the North Korean leadership felt isolated regionally and internationally, the more determined it became to obtain nuclear weapons.
This is the context that Trump does not want to understand. US mainstream media, which seems to loathe Trump in every way except when he threatens war or defends Israel, is following blindly.
Reports of North Korea’s supposed ability to kill “90 percent of all Americans” within a year are the kind of ignorance and fear-mongering that has dragged the US into many wars, cost the economy trillions of dollars and made bad situations worse. Perhaps a better way of defending US interests against the rise of China would be to invest in the US economy instead of wasting money on protracted wars.
But if a Trump war in North Korea took place, what would it look like?
“American commanders in the Pacific would very quickly exhaust their stockpiles of smart bombs and missiles, possibly within a week,” military sources told Newsweek magazine. It would take a year to replenish the stockpile, leaving the option of “dropping crude gravity bombs on their targets, guaranteeing a longer and bloodier conflict for both sides.”
North Korea would strike US allies in the region at will, starting with South Korea. Even if the conflict did not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons, the death toll “could reach one million,” the magazine concluded.
Both Trump and Kim are driven by fragile egos and unsound judgment. If not reined in soon, their mutual antipathy could threaten global security and the lives of millions. Calls from Jimmy Carter and China for diplomatic solutions must be heeded, before it is too late.
[Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story” (Pluto Press). Baroud is a non-resident scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California. www.ramzybaroud.net.]