ByÂ Rupam Sindhu Kalita:
I write this as Washington increases its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region amid growing apprehension over the US confronting North Korea over its nuclear program. China, of course, is tensed as Washington’s maneuvers in the Korean Peninsula signals a steady US incursion in an area hitherto dominated by the Chinese. No wonder China is tensed as the US has deployed the missile destroyer The USS John McCain in Korean waters.
The nuclear test recently carried out by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) had elicited a wide range of responses from across the world. While the United States called the nuclear test a “highly provocative act”, North Korea’s principal regional ally China had been more restrained saying that it was “firmly opposed” to the move. Japan, on the other hand, had been equally unambiguous in its criticism of the test.
This is one of the rare moments when the US and China have aimed their disapproval at the same target. China has been cautious in its response to the test though. But how long will it continue to support Pyongyang? The Chinese know that its support for its strategic ally has come with a cost. China finds itself increasingly isolated over its support for Pyongyang. The Japanese and the South Koreans will seek enhanced protection from the US nuclear umbrella now. The US might respond by increasing its military presence in East Asia and there is nothing the Chinese could do about it.
American footprint in East Asia
China has showed no signs of rethinking its ties with Pyongyang following its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. China might push for the Six Party Talks, a series of multi-national interactions which also involves South Korea, Japan, China, the US and Russia to reconcile North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The first round of the Six Party Talks took place in 2003 after North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The negotiations produced little results but in my view took a significant turn in East Asian diplomacy because of the involvement of the Americans in a regional crisis. That a regional problem requires US mediation points to the increasing influence of the US in the East Asian region. That was not the first American involvement in the Korean Peninsula though. The US attended the East Asia Summit for the first time in 2011. Though the East Asian Summit had been formed primarily to promote East Asian unity, the member states were happy to include the US as a member. The reason behind this move is not hard to grasp. The economic and military rise of China in the region is hard to ignore. One of the unifying points for the member states was the counter-balancing act done while admitting the US to have a stake in the region.
In 2009, after Pyongyang’s second nuclear test, China voted in favor of a UN Security Council Resolution to impose sanctions on North Korea. Four years hence, the North Koreans have conducted another nuclear test by defying UN sanctions. Though China has condemned the tests, it is unlikely that the Chinese will support stronger sanctions being called for by the United States and its allies. North Korea has historically been a buffer-state for China against the US’s allies in the region. Both South Korea and Japan have large US military bases housing thousands of US soldiers. The US has had good relationships with the Philippines and Indonesia, two key players in South Asia. Any move to antagonize North Korea by siding with the US would undermine the last bastion of Chinese support in the region. China is aware that joining the international calls for tougher restrictions on Pyongyang would be contrary to China’s own interests.
North Korea’s nuclear test comes at a time when the international community and the IAEA are set for a new round of talks with Iran. North Korea’s underground test is shrouded in secrecy and has taken place away from the glare of the international media. On the other hand, Iran has been in the limelight for weapons that don’t even exist. Fears over Iran’s nuclear ambitions are predicated on ‘imagined’ weapons that the Iranians might build in the future. Why does nuclear power assume so much importance for Iran? This is despite the fact that Iran has always asserted its commitment to using nuclear power for peaceful purpose while the North Koreans have overtly singled out the US as its main target.
Japanese and South Korean apprehensions over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal might be alleviated by the US nuclear umbrella. But there is no way that the Egyptians and the Saudis would consent to American nuclear safeguards in order to balance Iran’s nuclear weapons in the future. Fears about a nuclear Iran are mixed with fears over nuclearisation of a Shia state. A nuclear Shia state could offset regional power relationships in the Middle East. A nuclear Iran could trigger mass nuclear programmes in the region.
The US should understand that a nuclear bomb could cause equal fatalities irrespective of its Iranian or North Korean origin. The disproportionate attention to Iran’s nuclear ambition by the US and its allies should be balanced by more concrete sanctions against North Korea. This will do the US and the entire world a big favor.