Cadence of Conflict: Asia, August 7, 2017

If North Korea heeds China’s urges to back down on its nuclear program, it would be a welcome first. China requested the US back down its military activity in South Korea. Russia does not want North Korea’s economy to become worse. Much has been claimed about the purported, will-be effectiveness of new UN sanctions against North Korea, but history provides little to no basis that North Korea heeds any warnings or follows any step toward deescalation.

Though historically bleak, this effort from the international community is the best well-mounted push for peace ever seen for the Korean situation. Even Taiwan is urging North Korea to back off. While this may set the stage for some kind of “breakthrough” in negotiations, the bigger and less-acknowledged stage being set is war. With the best-made good-will effort having been made to stop North Korea’s nuke program, one missile launch would prove all the yea-sayers wrong. That threat could wake up North Korea to climb down out of the tree—the hidden threat of war that every peaceful stance veils.

Any peace offering indeed doubles as a hidden war threat by definition. But, fools don’t believe in what they can’t see. So, we’ll see.

Remember, though, how fools surrender: in childlike tears.

If North Korea fires even one more missile, buckle up and grab the popcorn for an immanent Trump “it didn’t work, so now we will” speech. If that happens, not only will North Korea’s position be untenable, but so will it be for everyone who claimed that negotiations would stop the missile launches.

In these tense times, China is making no new friends. Old border disputes with India are rehashing and ramping up. The VPN crackdown makes sense since no government should be circumvented, the most-ignored question is whether there should be a need in the first place. There are numerous reports of Chinese students being denied travel documents to study at universities in Taiwan. Of particular interest is National Cheng Kung University in Tainan. Tainan’s Mayor, William Lai is the most popular of any and in the same semi-pro-independence party, DPP, as Taiwan’s president. And, Tainan’s small airport was used by the US in the Vietnam war. Other than that, there’s little to explain why the third-top school seems to be a top target for denied travel from China.

With stronger rhetoric about military and not letting any China-claimed land go, with action concerning Taiwan, and militarized border crossings with India, it is clear that China intends to take a lead role in conflict on multiple fronts. All depending on how things develop in the Korea situation, China could face a clear third front.

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Cadence of Conflict: Asia, July 17, 2017

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.

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Cadence of Conflict: Asia, July 3, 2017

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.

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Cadence of Conflict: Asia, June 26, 2017

The big favor the US is about to ask from China about Korea is simple: Time’s up, stay out of our way. The Kim Dynasty keeps a sharp eye on information and a sharp sword at the throat of those well informed, be they informants or informees. China has not yet made a final decision on returning five Korean refugees to the North. The US still holds vigil, reckoning the length of its own patience, not only with the Koreas, but with any nations and leaders who haven’t done more to help. Resolve and wrath are swelling. This is the ultra-low tide before the tsunami.

The USS Fitzgerald’s collision with a freighter looks more and more suspicious, best explained as a semi truck trying to run over a motorcycle cop. The Fitzgerald managed to get whacked at just the right place and time so that few sailors witnessed and satellite phones made the only call for help. The ACX Crystal lingered all through the oceans until sunrise. At least, that’s what reports look like this week.

The whole thing smells “fishy”. We know that Filipinos generally dislike Americans and Chinese. They thirst for respect and independence and they are out of whatever patience they had. Xenophobia is a plausible motive on the culprit cargo ship flagged “Philippines”. Since the developing and contradicting reports don’t provide anything clearer, that’s the best explanation for the time being and the most benign explanation imaginable—unless the autopilot AI “dunnit”. Keep watch. When the verdict breaks the news the headlines will break the silence.

Taiwan is commissioning its own helicopter forces and it doesn’t look like Beijing will be extending any invitations to house the helicopters on the man-made islands in the South Sea. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is headed to Hong Kong. Great efforts are being made to remove so much anti-China sentiment. 9,000 police will be dispatched. British newspapers are burning through ink and paper to tell the news. Xi Jinping is not to see anything less than the greatest praise for all China has done for Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s own release from Britain. Authorities are working overtime to take all the many steps necessary to achieve the mountainous and historic task of ensuring so. Rest assured, it will happen. China will reach its great goal of a tour in Hong Kong without dissent.

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Cadence of Conflict: Asia, June 19, 2017

The big danger brewing in the Pacific this week was not about who was right and wrong, but about optics and perspective.

American college student Otto Warmbier came back from North Korea in a kind of coma. Almost every news story about Otto provides some background of his arrest and sentencing for taking a North Korean government poster one year ago.

North Korea mentioned “botulism” having preceded Otto’s situation. American doctors found “no sign” thereof. While doctors verify details, Otto’s situation of “nonresponsive wakefulness” has to do with levels of brain damage caused by lack of oxygen from the lungs, usually caused by traumatic injury or intoxication. In other words, it could look like Otto was beaten or poisoned, but news outlets can’t confirm this, so they won’t say it. But, that’s how bad it looks.

And, this is the big problem. There is nothing North Korea can say—even if it is true—to stop the West from being more enraged every time Otto is mentioned.

Taiwan is pursuing it’s desire for official recognition in the world and normal relations with China. This is different from the pursuits of China and the Philippines for respect; both have recognition. Taiwan has international respect, but lacks recognition as a legitimate country. Right or wrong lies in the opinion of the beholder. But, right or wrong, Taiwan isn’t going to stop pushing. The threat to China is that China consciously seeks the respect that it knows Taiwan already has.

Now, the  USS Fitzgerald was broadsided from starboard at night. Ships as sea are supposed to yield to approaching vessels on the right, as with road vehicles at a four-way stop.

Why wasn’t someone watching? Why didn’t proximity alarms wake the crew and prevent collision? Is the superior-tech US Navy ready for a confrontation with China? Most of the crew was asleep at the time. Seven are dead. The collision happened right where they were sleeping. Sailors woke up to find the ship taking on water.

Let’s just say that sailors woke up. In fact, the whole Navy woke up. The world is already waking up to everything going on.

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