While America faces its own falling “houses of cards”, Asian empires face their own truth. With three aircraft carriers, and a fourth soon on the way, the US military presence in Asia is the highest it has been in a long while. Trump is currently making the longest presidential visit to Asia since 1992. It’s a bold move, something the hermit kingdom wouldn’t dare.
The bold visit to the region is part of a greater strategy, make no mistake. On the one hand, Trump gains respect if he only launches an attack in a region he has already visited. On the other hand, the enormous military presence makes it clear who can’t win, no matter the losses. Arguably, the military buildup wasn’t so much preparation for an invasion as it was to make the way for a visit from the president. A presidential visit to the region shows solidarity on Trump’s part: North Korea’s days are numbered. That level of confidence outshines both Kim John Un and Xi Jinping.
Make no mistake, Trump’s visit serves not only to understand leaders, not only to court favor with his voter base, but also to gain respect from the people living in Asia—both in the countries he visits and the countries he does not.
In the daily governance of Hong Kong, China has proven itself as a competent overseer. Hong Kong’s “Basic Law”, a kind of mini-constitution imposed not by referendum, keeps the SAR autonomous. Hong Kongers have only two reasons for complaint, having not chosen the Basic Law for themselves and the gentrification of Chinese money re-defining native Hong Kongers as a new lower class living among some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
Crud hit the fan, however, when Beijing decided to “vet” Hong Kong politicians in advance. The Basic Law makes no direct provision for advanced-vetting, a statutory or policy decision heavily subject to interpretation. Youth are often quick to complain. In the minds of Hong Kong youth, Beijing’s advanced-vetting policy is a violation of the Basic Law. Accordingly, Hong Kong youth have no interest in learning about the Basic Law from Beijing.
Now, Beijing has planned a Hong Kong -wide broadcast from a Mainlander—a Chinese speaking from Beijing’s view—to educate Hong Kong students about the Basic Law. Schools are under no obligation to participate in Beijing’s offer, so the public is led to understand. But, when your higher authority vets your politicians without a word-for-word clause to justify it, then invites your school to optionally learn how to follow the law, it is difficult not to feel some kind of pressure to “volunteer”.
The best thing for China to earn good will is to rescind the advanced-vetting policy in favor of Hong Kong’s local interpretation of the Basic Law and to allow only three schools to listen to the Basic Law address, applying with good reason. That’s “basic law” of supply-and-demand economics. But, those ideas may be difficult for the Communist regime to quickly grasp.
So, it looks like China’s path ahead will see plenty of conflict and strife. The student objections to the Basic Law seminar will by no means be the last, nor will it be Beijing’s last attempt to educate Hong Kong’s population.
The US has its own approach to PR. Notice how Korea made fewer Western headlines this week, though the situation is far from finished. Trump’s planned visit, purportedly to include the Korean DMZ, is certainly a bold move to demonstrate courage from a leader and to eclipse North soldiers’ respect for Kim Jong Un who wouldn’t dare to get close. Don’t be surprised if Trump walks right up to the border and speaks through a megaphone and says, “Where is Kim Jong Un? He can talk to me. Your leader is a coward. Don’t trust him.” Don’t be surprised. Such a move befits Trump and would begin a cascade of implosion from within the Kim Dynastic ranks.
Now, North Korea may have biological weapons. Every week, the news is worse and worse. Eventually, a conflict with North Korea will feel more like a relief to the public than an outrage, just from fatigue of bad news overdose. That level of fatigue is—or at least should be—part of military logistics calculation. However, that doesn’t indicate whether the US plans a strike, only that increasing public support for action is yet another metaphoric “cannon” aimed at the Korean Peninsula. While the Kim Dynasty may not wise up to the mounting forces at its doorstep, Russia and China know that public support from the US shouldn’t be ignored.
China, however is strengthening its long-term ambitions. The incumbent president, Xi Jinping, has been named and received honorary titles that place him above past presidents. There is talk of him becoming a “Chairman”, thus equating him to Mao. Don’t underestimate the power of a “mere title” in Chinese culture. Even with no written authority behind a title, Chinese culture is and always will be stronger than any law it writes to keep the “legalists” satisfied. Such a long-time leader retaining power compares him to the seemingly lifetime leader in Russia, Putin.
North Korea is a strategic linchpin for the China-Russia powers. Militarily, they cannot allow a united Korea. But, logistically, they may not be able to stop it either. Just as war games often do, propping up a Communist Dynasty may have backfired. That’s a lesson to everyone, the US included. The US might not heed warnings when the balance temporarily tips in its favor. Meddling is always a bad idea, whether you win or lose, this time.
It’s not quite there yet. Korea’s conflict escalates, but there’s still more mount to climb. Trump is increasing weapons sales to South Korea and Japan, based on a September 5 Tweet; North Korea called him a “strangler of peace” and a “war merchant”. Mattis told the Army to “Stand ready”. Hawaii is rehearsing for attacks.
Most of the talk is to get everyone psyched-up plenty of time in advance—soldiers, nations, and peoples. The timing, however, will come at a convergence of defenses being in place and opportunity being open. Then, the US will either strike with “just cause” or “strik-taliate” as it did with Pearl Harbor and the Lusitania.
In the meanwhile, expect the escalation to continue. Expect more Navy strike groups to be directed. Expect the USS Ford to replace the decommissioned USS Enterprise and the USS Reagan to replace the USS Vinson, somewhere in East Asia. Three aircraft carriers, two on their way in and one their way out is certainly a military peak. But, also keep an eye out for a shift in types of Korea-related headlines followed by a quiet from central command. Once the press release statements resemble a ship casting off, that’s what you call a clue. And, we haven’t been clued in quite yet.
Taiwan publicized reports that China was pushing for its dream of reunification through many venues and in many nations. The fact that China works so diligently through aggressive diplomacy further indicates that the “military option” being less than preferable with North Korea carries some continuity with China’s policy concerning Taiwan. That’s not to say it is beyond Beijing to decide to strike Taiwan, only that it would demonstrate that China had exhausted other methods it preferred in its determination.
Military deescalation is not out of character with China. Chinese troops were friendly with the defense minister from India in her recent visit to the disputed area. Late August, China halted building the road that India objected to in a way that saved face for China, but also appeased India for the time. This doesn’t indicate any change of heart nor indicate that China is not relentless, but the Asian culture of “preferring smoothness” in disputes seems to be holding true with non-volatile land on which China hopes to fly its flag.
Trump’s resolve and openness, however, are a contrast to China’s. In his “only one thing will work” comment this week, the US president is not afraid to use a military option to bring peace to a region if that region is arming up and dangerous. If the US wins in a conflict with North Korea, the US flag would not fly as the authority on that soil.
China is preparing for a routine leadership review. Much of the top brass under Xi Jinping will rotate out, but he himself is not set to retire anytime soon. While there may be some changes in temperature, there will be no change in the speed or direction China has been taking.