Trump visited China in friendship and peace. His granddaughter sang in Mandarin. Her video was played at a high profile state banquet. Everyone seemed happy.
In South Korea, President Moon, likely to go down in history as a failed diplomat-wannabe, rehashed South Korean hard feelings against the Japanese. His country— threatened by his enemy to the north, backed by its ally, China—is cozying-up with China.
Trump was en route to visit the DMZ in Korea, but heavy fog forced Marine One to turn around. The US president returned home and China sought to strengthen relations with North Korea.
Regardless of whatever happens in and between the US, Japan, China, and North Korea, South Korean President Moon will go down in history as a capitulator who let a century-old vendetta guide him into the friend of his enemy. While the Western press narrative is to paint China as the bad guy, Moon is the real bad guy because he is the only leader in Asia who shows weakness.
China would do well to learn from Moon’s errors. Every bit of progress China makes with Korea comes from pressing forward and abandoning revenge campaigns of the past. Everything South Korea stands to lose comes from reviving revenge campaigns of the past.
Korea, both North and South, has become an arena. With North Korea’s dependency on China and Moon’s capitulation, Koreans are no longer players in the game. Either the US or China will be the one to bring peace on the peninsula and the region. The winner will be whoever looks to the future and forgives the past.
South Korea proposed to talk to North Korea this week. Much of the timing relates to anniversaries and upcoming holidays. Pyongyang is still angry about twelve waitresses who moved South and wants them back first. Seoul says the waitresses moved to the South of their own will. The US’ answer is a siege, including efforts to persuade Myanmar to curb their support for the North through arms purchases, as well as planned sanctions against Chinese banks that deal with the North.
Sanctions are a known form of pressure, but an invitation to talk is also a form of pressure because a rejection is bad press and raises public support for action from opposing countries. Pressure is mounting and North Korea will either deescalate quickly or else one wrong move will be the only excuse the US needs to yank the lynch pin.
China faces it’s own pressure, military, optics, and time, which is running out. Taiwan’s Navy is increasing cooperation with the US in a move included in the US military budget for 2018. Southern Taiwan is also beefing-up its naval base to handle both more traffic and more capacity. The upgrade should finish around 2025.
As for optics, Human Rights activists are managing to rally loads of bad international press against China. One activist died of a liver disease he acquired while serving an eleven-year term in China. Another was released after finishing a four-year prison sentence in China. A bookstore from Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay that was shut down will reopen in Taipei. The bookstore closed after its owners were arrested relating to activism about Human Rights and China.
While most international press paints China as the culprit, the more important matter is the surprise this is for the Chinese. In the West, bad press is countered with photo ops. In China, bad press is countered with imprisonment. A bookstore in Hong Kong was a way to spread ideas to Chinese nationals visiting Hong Kong from the mainland. China views itself as trying to help the people; criticism can’t be “constructive” by definition and must therefore be silenced. But, that method only works in one’s own territory.
Protests in Hong Kong gain attention from international press China does not control. By shutting down a bookstore in Hong Kong, that bookstore moved to a location farther from Beijing’s reach and where it can gain more international press, sacrificing its ability to spread propaganda into China. This is backfiring against China internationally, but not at home. Most international news analysis won’t include that China doesn’t expect it to happen that way. The Chinese genuinely believe that Xi Jinping’s “protestless” visit to Hong Kong is good press and the only press that matters.
The world has been put on notice. That was the message from the US this week to the UN Security Council. North Korea’s situation is unacceptable to many countries. The Kim Dynasty has named the US as a nuclear missile target, more so than their brethren in the South. South Korea, both the people and their new president, want a “diplomatic solution”. But, it’s easy to say that diplomacy is the solution to someone else’s problem. Unfortunately, unjustly, and unfairly, North Korea’s dispute is not with the South, it’s with the US, but the South gets to bear the brunt.
Claiming “diplomacy” and “rhetoric” as the way out of a dead end is the thinking of the ungifted CEO who inherited someone else’s company. It’s the thinking of a “Great Successor”. He doesn’t know how to blaze trails, to make the “necessary disruptions” that propel a business forward, so he starts to think that “getting along” is the only way. North Korea uses “rhetoric” as the solution because their side is the more difficult, and it’s about to backfire. South Korea, being more comfortable than the North, wants the “diplomatic” solution because, sadly, their own fight doesn’t involve them as much as it involves others. With their “get along” answer to the situation, the South is actually agreeing that it’s not their own conflict, thus inviting intervention from the US.
Pyongyang’s threat is increasing against the US, but South Korea’s president doesn’t want to deploy more THADD defense missiles, making the Northern threat even greater. By wanting less military cooperation, the South is asking the US to act unilaterally. Maybe that’s best, so the US and Pyongyang can finish their conflict and Korea can get back to being Korea.
There’s also a “good cop bad cop” factor; if the US takes action while the South wants “diplomacy”, peace between the Koreas seems both desirable and tenable.
But then, there’s Washington’s view of Korea within the greater region. This is an opportunity for the Pentagon to make North Korea a spectacle in front of China. While the Chinese and North Koreans show off their militaries with parades, the US will show its strength by ending the Korean War in a flash—though they’ll make sure it’s a long and delayed flash, just so Beijing doesn’t blink and miss the message. It’s an opportunity the US wouldn’t miss—to end the Kim Dynasty with such power and efficiency that Beijing either has second doubts about pursuing its map-meddling activities or else to turn off the voices of reason and dive into the waters blind and tied.
Korea is reaching D-Day; it’s a simple logistic calculation. The American people are most likely to support action. The US has less and less time to wait, and South Korea is a cooperative dead-end—and rightly so. The forewarning to the powers of East Asia is clear: stay strong at home, stop expanding, diplomacy won’t solve other people’s old problems. Whatever transpires in Korea over the coming weeks will be a foreshadowing of outcomes from any other confrontations that may ensue should that wisdom be ignored.
China views Hong Kong as a doorstep between the world and largely otherwise closed China. This week, investment highways opened, allowing easier offshore investments in China’s bond market. At the same time, the world gets a glimpse into Chinese dealing through Hong Kong. Like the proverbial cat chasing the laser pointer dot—who never figures out what’s going on—Western culture’s action and interpretation will always confound the Chinese.
As the West believes, if you want to change the world map, you must ask the world’s permission first. It’s even the law China is bound to as a member of the UN. But, in Chinese culture, whoever makes an assertive move first will automatically scare everyone else in the room to ignore any other decorum, rules, or even laws, and accept the assertive party as the emperor of the room for the time being. Building artificial islands, installing military airport equipment, and telling everyone else to “GTFO” means the US should either be scared, or at least quickly attack. But, the calm, casual response of the US Navy, such as to have the lone destroyer USS Stethem conduct a “man overboard drill”, confuses and confounds the expected “cultural tidal gravity” of the Chinese.
The move wasn’t just provocative, as Beijing claims; it was an outright declaration of everything inches short of war.
Taiwan had its own waters incident. While the Chinese refurbished aircraft carrier—the Soviet era diesel-powered Ukraine-made carrier purchased by the Chinese to be no more than a “floating museum”—sailed through the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan-owned F-16s scrambled to shadow the voyage. But, parading a diesel aircraft carrier is not any show of strength in the mind of the US, but a show of unaware weakness yet also a show of progress and a “coming of age” psychology not to be ignored.
At least, that’s the perception.
South Korea’s new and moderate president met with Trump. What they met to talk about doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they met to talk. Moon thinks negotiation with Pyongyang is the answer. Reportedly, 77% of his people agree with him. He won’t back down on military, but he won’t expand it either. No one will accept status quo anymore.
So, money opened up this week in Asia and waking waters met more objection. The only reunification on the horizon is on a large peninsula just left of Japan.
The big question surrounding the time of North Korea’s end will be logistics. It won’t be about tactics or the “most diplomatic-surgical way” to end the volatile regime. While the scene is that of the super villain who has strapped himself into a chair, booby-trapped with trip wires and armed with explosives, even more important things are going on. Large-scale powers don’t think about micro-tactics, they think about logistics. And, logistics are shaping-up.
Social energy is one important logistic. The people of nations involved must see a viable path to support certain action. Navies in the region are burning up tax dollars, something that can’t continue forever. Taiwan is itching for recognition in the world and the world itches for Taiwan to be recognized—and Taiwan is making much more progress than in years past. Then, there is trust.
From a PR perspective, China is failing. But, from a spying perspective, China has turf to defend. China’s isolationist policies may seem anti-free speech to the West, but China sees spies to catch and leaks to plug. Trump doesn’t like leaks either. Spies are dangerous. China is willing to kill them while Americans publicly oppose executions while secretly wishing the deaths of their daily enemies. China’s execution and imprisonment of CIA spies caught during the Obama years is very understandable. But, the American public won’t see it that way.
This week, a huge ramp went up to alert the public to “news” that is anything but. China caught and executed CIA spies long ago. It didn’t matter until now, when social support is an important calculation with logistics of war. That explains the Pentagon statements and the newspaper trends in America as well as Europe and Australia. The Western public is being rallied against China. That is significant.
Then, there is China’s image with the Koreas. China won’t be too hard on North Korea. China is banning South Korean travel because it doesn’t like the US presence in South Korea. That’s understandable, but not to the pop star fans in South Korea or the United States. When South Korean pop stars tour the US, more young people in the US will become aware of the issues. China could have stopped it, but Beijing still struggles to understand the Western mind. The Korean pop star fans in China might start struggling to understand Beijing’s mind, at least more than in the past. When you turn people away, they don’t just go home, the go elsewhere. That’s not easy to comprehend when you’ve always gotten what you want and always been told what to want to hear. Whatever China’s problems are or are not, the travel bans make China look worse than it deserves.
The real crime was the Shakespearian “fatal flaw”: China didn’t understand the West well enough. In a world of growing alliances between sovereign nations, that is an unforgivable sin as far as gravity is concerned. And, with gravity, mercy is too lacking and pain always greater than it should be.