Cadence of Conflict: Asia, May 21, 2018

Talk only went so far this week. I looks as if North Korea might not be dismantling its nukes, but hiding them, then threatening to close talks when exposed for this, then threatening to cancel the summit for some other list of excuses.

The big question on Kim Jong-Un backing out on the talks relates to his recent visits to China. Not that China has made any wild promises, but he feels somewhat confident in getting lippy with the US.

The big lesson was about Moon’s emphasis on diplomacy vs Trump’s emphasis on teeth. Diplomacy made progress in terms of leading to more diplomacy. But, actual action is a measurement of its own. So far, Trump’s action has led to China losing interest in any kind of trade war and Moon’s favored diplomacy seems to be leading to an undiplomatic end to diplomacy.

Things aren’t over nor have we seen the last surprise. The big news of the week is that China’s on the bench. Moon and Trump will meet to discuss Kim having a discussion with them in Singapore. Where’s China?—announcing its surrender on trade, reflecting on past meetings with Kim, another player that doesn’t really matter.

If Kim doesn’t show up, Moon’s populist diplomacy will prove to have failed and Trump will have the “political currency” for action against North Korea. Maybe that’s what China hopes for in allowing Kim to gain false hopes in something or other—to rationalize a little retaliatory action of its own. But, if military action was China’s first preference, Beijing would have already taken it.

Read More

Cadence of Conflict: Asia, May 7, 2018

This was week of talk. A delegation from Washington went to talk with China. Trump talked about talking nice while talking. Economic talking heads are talking about the talks and everybody’s talking about it. Once the delegation that went to Beijing to talk gets back, they will talk with Trump. Warren Buffet even had some things to talk about.

Trump’s delegation to Beijing was indeed an olive branch. It spelled out “the line” in the sand, toured it, explained, it, discussed it, explored it, and made that line very, very clear. To quote Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, “Mr. Wayne didn’t want you to think that he was deliberately wasting your time.” But, the line is not the least bit likely to be respected.

China will ignore everything the US delegation explained and forewarned, but they will never be surprised when Trump does exactly what the delegation said he would, though they may act like it. More importantly, the list of expectations shows how well Trump knows China and Chinese methods of doing “business”.

Words like “retaliate” and “oppose” often surface with disfavor, as well as the US clearly being wise to the tactic of unofficially using backdoor channels to unofficially impose other restrictions to get what one wants. And, the US maintains its position on the “301” trade notice that China is non-market economy, specifically that China is to drop the matter completely and withdraw its appeals on the matter with the WTO.

There is no wiggle room in the US demands and those demands strongly demonstrate that Trump knows exactly the kinds of things Chins is likely to do. In essence the list of demands forbids exactly what China is most likely to do in the near future.

By contrast, China’s demands are mainly that the US back off on its recent action; that’s all. Consider the argument going around from pro-China stories about the trade “imbalance”—especially that US’ service and consulting help to narrow the “trade deficit”. The list of Chinese demands don’t account for this or ask that they be calculated in the “trade deficit”.

The mere demands, in themselves, tell us that China does not know what is about to happen in Washington and that Trump knows all to well—probably better than any of his advisers in the White House—what will happen in Beijing. China is in great danger.

Surprises are coming, somewhere. That’s how history always plays out. No war ends without the unexpected and there’s always a joker or two hiding in the deck. The surprises will likely include special and disputed territories, such as Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as international public opinion and some sector of trade or international protocol not yet considered or discussed by anyone—they will surprise everyone. That “surprise sector” could include ocean boundaries or specific products often traded. It could also be an act of God, such as an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami. But, we have no idea except that any intermediate history student should anticipate at least two surprises before the current cloud passes in the greater storm.

China looks at the US the way the poor working class looked at the aristocracy in Russia. Beijing thinks they are demanding “what is their right”. Remember, this is akin to “Opium War III”, started by a trade imbalance. China demands that the money and “tax payable by way of free technology” continue to flow net into China; the US demands things like “equal” and “fair” in the flow. That is rhetoric from the Opium War prelude. If that war resurfaces, the “English” speaking country won’t be Britain, though Britain still has a dog in the fight: Hong Kong is not to be changed for fifty years, yet this week Hong Kong military youth groups—comparable to Boy Scouts—rejected Chinese requests that they march according to PLA marching steps—meaning that China tried to make a change and Hong Kong could become a target for punitive action from China. Hence, Hong Kong is “fair play” in everyone’s opinion, including public opinion about everyone in the game.

If China had any kind of conflict with the West—whether militarily or over trade—the conclusion could require complete surrender of Hong Kong back to British rule—and Hong Kongers wouldn’t mind.

In the territorial disputes, Taiwan declaring independence would certainly rock the boat. Research says Taiwanese overwhelmingly view China as unfriendly. So, Taiwanese certainly wouldn’t mind making their contribution to making a few waves.

China is already on the bench with the Korean issue. Pyongyang just updated the North clocks to no longer be thirty minutes off, but back in time with the South. Where’s China?—exchanging trade demands with the country whose trade blockade preceded the Korean talks.

In all this, Warren Buffet’s advice is that China is a good place for the West to invest. We’ll see.

Read More

Cadence of Conflict: Asia, January 8, 2018

The talks between South and North Korea are not at all what they are cracked up to be. While the world would love to believe that this is some grand exercise in “can’t we all just get along” diplomacy that always-only ever failed under Obama in any and every hemisphere, North-South talks are not what they seem. They are a distraction, a false pretense, an ostensible cover story, a smoke screen for something much, much deeper.

In all likelihood, the talks will include a very subtle Asian-style, excessively subtle (since it’s among Koreans) offer. Even bachelor’s degree students of business management study the science of talking to an employee in such a way that he doesn’t figure out he’s being fired until he gets home and takes his first bide of dinner. Leonardo explained the idea well in his movie Inception.

The meeting, capitalizing on participation in the Olympic games so strategically timed and placed, is more akin to the close of the series The Sopranos. A lieutenant of a rival family meets with the head of another family to plot the “offing” of his own boss in order to stop an ugly war that no one wanted, which started when that new boss came to power. The rival family “does in” their own boss at the gas station, the main character makes his hospitality rounds, and the story ends.

That’s what this seems like. The Trump administration is allowing it, taking partial credit in a preemptive expectation of due accolades, also reminding the Asian world that communication is a good thing. Symphony said the same two days before Trump sent his January 4 Tweet to the same effect: without pressure from the US there would be no talks.

If Kim Jong Un eventually disappears in the months ahead, remember that it all came from this meeting, purportedly about the Olympics. There wouldn’t be any moves in northern Korea without already having “certain assurances”.

But, don’t let that distract you. Taiwan is definitely playing its role in provocative and irksome “spitting matches” with China. As with the min-boss in The Godfather Part III, Taiwan wouldn’t do that without “backing”.

Read More