Despite the press frenzy over the resignation of an elderly German CEO of a multinational company I’m sure you’ve noticed that other, perhaps more worrying things have been happening in the World.
Ignoring both outright warnings and advice from various quarters not to do so the Kim Jong-Un regime in Pyonyang very recently carried out the country’s third nuclear test. The regime is claiming that the device was a miniaturized version of previous devices and the test was highly successful. This is worrying on several counts. Firstly if the North Koreans have succeeded in producing a smaller bomb, for want of a better description, then this means they are one-step closer to being able to mate it with a missile delivery system.
Secondly recent tests of missile systems have shown that their missile technology is improving although they have some way to go before they could claim to have a successful ICBM. Thirdly they have disregarded warnings from most of the World, including their main if not only benefactor, China not to carry out these tests. The Pyonyang regime is making belligerent noises about further, thus far unspecified, military developments if America, the great enemy as always, interferes in any way with them. They have obviously calculated that a great deal of hand-wringing will take place but nobody will actually do anything. This may well prove to be a major, if not fatal, miscalculation.
Press reaction to the test
So far press reaction will have convinced the Pyonyang regime that they have calculated correctly. There is much speculation and hand-wringing. The general consensus seems to be that there is nothing short of military action that would be effective. There is also the general consensus that military action will not be undertaken. I’m not so sure and I’m also not so sure that it would be only America that is turning such action over in their minds. The Press has not joined up the dots but let me try.
The Chinese perspective
China has a problem with North Korean refugees and has had for a number of years. The Pyonyang regime wants them back if they do make it across the border and China is well aware of what happens to them if they are returned. That of itself doesn’t overly concern them but the mere fact that there is an influx of North Koreans who try to lose themselves in China is a problem for them. Diplomatically China has found North Korea a little embarrassing but again they can live with that. What they can’t live with is Pyonyang ‘stirring the pot’. Thus far China has supported Pyonyang because should the Pyonyang regime collapse they fear a massive influx of refugees which would destabilise China internally but there comes a point where that support goes against Chinese interests. We are now at that point.
Why fear the stirred pot?
China has internal problems which are if not rapidly coming to a head then at least the writing is clearly on the wall for the regime. There is a burgeoning middle-class who are becoming aware of the limitations imposed on them by the Communist Government. For the moment they are more or less content with being better off and being able to afford the consumer goods which are now available but for how much longer remains to be seen. China provides their own version of the Internet and Social Media but the Great Firewall of China is not impervious and questions are being asked, voices are being raised and demands made if not for democracy then at least something like it.
The less well off, in other words the peasants in China, are also not happy. They see themselves as being economically left behind and a growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. This in a supposedly classless society. If they leave the rural areas and find work in the cities they are discriminated against in terms of health care and generally feel themselves to be exploited. They too are becoming discontented and vocal in that discontent. There are frequent complaints about heavy-handed and corrupt government officials. If you look there are reports of virtually a riot a week somewhere in China because the underclass, that’s how you have to describe them, are feeling oppressed.
There is an additional looming economic problem for the Chinese regime. As you will have gathered from previous articles I am not convinced that the ‘Chinese economic miracle’ is either actually real or if it is can continue for much longer. China has relied on a supply of cheap labour to boost their economy. Due to a certain success with their only one child policy that supply of labour is starting to dry up. It won’t happen on Monday morning but already the signs are there. For a foretaste of what may happen next look to Medieval Europe, particularly England.
Or rather not so merry. Medieval England was a feudal society with some similarities to the communist system. No, it certainly didn’t pretend to be a classless equal society but there was a rigid hierarchy and woe-betide anybody who stepped outside the boundaries. That system worked until the Black Death decimated the labour force. Suddenly not only did peasants begin refusing to work for their feudal lords for no pay but they refused to work for them at all and worked instead for the highest bidder. Mobility of the workforce had arrived and the system changed. Once again this did not happen overnight but it was a relatively rapid development, probably less than ten years. The economic situation in England changed forever and it heralded the beginning of the end of the feudal system. Certainly the Barons, the aristocracy, had a vested interest in maintaining the status- quo as far as the peasants were concerned but they themselves wanted more say in the governing of the country. However the genie was out of the bottle and a developing middle-class also demanded a say in governance. Things changed forever and this is the situation that the Chines government is facing today.
How to keep control?
History teaches that there is no keeping control but that hasn’t stopped both repressive and democratic governments trying. The time honoured way is to invent an external threat or have an external, as opposed to civil, war. The new Chinese leadership has started throwing its military weight around but they are aware of a certain limitation on that power. That limitation is called American re-alignment. America has identified the next military threat as being China and has taken steps to counter that threat. By 2020 most if not all of America’s naval assets will be in the Pacific. Already they have established what can only be viewed as a quick-reaction force in Darwin, Northern Australia. This is far enough away from China not to provoke an immediate military response but it has caused Chinese unease. Considering the fact that one American Carrier Group has arguably as much if not more firepower than the entire Chinese navy, China is not looking for a direct military confrontation, yet. What they are doing is trying to establish ‘facts on the seabed’ before the projected American military build-up makes this impossible.
China has successfully cowed the Philippines. What has become known as the ‘Scarborough Shoal standoff’ is nothing of the sort. I’ll leave you to research the background but suffice it to say there is a territorial dispute between China and the Philippines. Both sides agreed to international arbitration but China today controls the Scarborough Shoals, the Philippines can do nothing about it and for the moment America does not want to escalate the situation.
China’s big mistake
Having successfully flexed their military muscles and cowed the Philippines China has now decided to take on Japan over the sovereignty of the Senkaku (if you’re Japanese) or Diaoyo (if you’re Chinese) group of uninhabited islands. China has miscalculated this on three fronts. Firstly Japan is by no means a military push-over and are not easily cowed. Secondly the Japanese Government is experiencing its own, admittedly milder, form of internal difficulties. Japan is a democracy however traditionally the electorate has not questioned the Government of the day once they were elected. Japan was, and to a certain extent still is, a traditional society with rigid standards of behaviour and a respect for authority. This is changing, slowly certainly but it is changing. What do governments do if they have internal problems, even democratic governments? Correct. The Japanese government has decided to act tough. Thirdly Japan is more important to America than the Philippines. They simply will not allow Japan to be humiliated. Up until the North Korean nuclear test it is unlikely that they would have been prepared to intervene militarily. This has probably now changed.
Where we are now
Despite China saying and for once meaning that North Korea would face Chinese active displeasure if the nuclear test took place Pyonyang ignored them. In the face of a North Korea that possibly has workable nuclear weapons countries in the region are turning to a long-term ally for reassurance. That reassurance has just been given to South Korea. According to a White House spokesperson President Obama unequivocally reaffirmed the US defence commitment to South Korea, including the extended deterrence offered by the US nuclear umbrella. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. I’m willing to bet that similar assurances have been given to Japan. Given that America is unlikely to want to use that extended deterrence in its nuclear guise I think we are looking at a build-up of American forces in the region.
North Korea has been roundly condemned by all parties. That doesn’t of course translate into actually doing anything but consider this. If America wishes to maintain any credibility as an ally it will have to be seen to be taking tough and possibly unilateral action. That doesn’t mean a non-nuclear military strike against North Korea but it does mean a visible build-up of forces in the area. This build-up of American forces is precisely what China both wanted and needed to avoid.
The collapse of China’s regional strategy
The only logical course open to them is strong diplomatic and economic action against North Korea. Due to the North Korean nuclear test we are seeing the collapse of Chinese regional strategy. That strategy was based on building up their military forces and settling one way or another regional territorial disputes before a growing American military presence made this impossible. America might have remained content for this to happen but the situation has radically changed. For the first time America’s regional allies feel themselves to be facing a real threat from North Korea.
To China’s growing dismay and fury, for both ideological and internal political reasons, America will step up to the plate and will not be found wanting.
The only way that China can salvage something of their regional ambitions is by coming down hard and being seen to be doing so, on North Korea. That and that alone will prevent a build-up of American military might in the region. That and that alone may prevent the collapse of China’s regional ambitions.