The People’s Republic of China has always cast a big shadow over the world’s dealings with North Korea. Not known for its willingness to disclose its military intentions, China recently indicated – albeit indirectly – its intention not to interfere with any retaliatory action by the United States against North Korea. Such a move changes the game as President Donald Trump, and other top U.S. officials square off against North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
The world, and, particularly, North Korea itself has always generally assumed that China would protect its communist neighbor against any foreign military action. Such an assumption has allowed dictatorship, not only to oppress its own people with one of the most austere and dysfunctional regimes in the world but also to threaten and abuse its neighbors to the south and east with impunity. The greatest target of Kim’s ire has been the United States of America; the political leanings of America’s leadership, over the years, has made little difference to that belligerence.
Former President Obama’s policy of appeasement, or ‘strategic patience,’ as it had been labeled, did little but embolden the North Korean leadership, as well as facilitating their development of nuclear capability. That the North Korean regime will, at some point, take military action against either South Korea, Japan or the U.S. itself is far more probable than possible. The trillion-dollar question, then, becomes: Should any of those nations strike preemptively? Neither Tokyo nor Seoul would seriously contemplate such a move, and the U.S. would not unless it acquired ironclad intelligence that the Kim regime had ordered military action.
Tensions between North Korea and the U.S. escalated sharply after the former recently announced its intention to launch missiles in the direction of the island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean. President Trump responded that “[The North Koreans] will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Despite the consternation of some, in the U.S., over Trump’s choice of words, his administration is speaking with one voice. Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned North Korea to “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and destruction of its people.” Both comments raised some eyebrows in China, but the message coming from Beijing leaves its antagonistic neighbor more exposed than it has, perhaps, ever been since its creation in 1948.
No Chinese media organizations discuss their government’s intentions without approval from the ruling State Council. An op-ed published in China’s Global Times newspaper suggested that Beijing will not come to the aid of the North Korean regime, should it initiate a military confrontation.
China should [also] make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral.
The op-ed also stated that China would “respond with a firm hand” to protect its interests and would act, should the U.S. and South Korea strike first.
It has been reported that North Korea intends to be ready to launch its missile strike by “mid-August.” All signs are that the country’s leaders are not ready for suicide; the island of Guam, itself – which is home to U.S. military assets – is not the intended target. According to the Global Times, “North Korea issued plans to fire four intermediate-range missiles to land 30-40 kilometers from Guam.” Such a strike, from the North Korean point of view, may be a masterful chess move; the most aggressive military display in recent memory but one that stops short of directly hitting a foreign territory. Allowing the action to pass unpunished would be disastrous, yet to respond with a retaliatory attack on North Korea may prove equally calamitous.
The best response might be a terrifying ‘shock and awe’ demonstration of American air power, just a handful of kilometers from the North Korean coast. It seems unlikely that Pyongyang will back down from its stated intention to “attack the waters” near Guam. How will the Trump administration respond? We have just a week or two – maybe less – until we find out.
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