By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: The latest twist to the convoluted North Korean nuclear weapons/missile saga could hardly have been more starkly underscored than by the exquisite timing of North Korea’s latest provocation: a successful rocket engine test supervised by the jubilant dictator Kim Jong-un, while visiting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Yet, Pyongyang’s resounding putative joint slap to China and America has possibly facilitated Sino-American rapprochement rather than in widening the differences between Washington and Beijing vis-à-vis dealing with her nuclear shenanigans!
During Tillerson’s maiden foreign visit as America’s chief diplomat, he made it plain in Tokyo that “a different approach” other than that of the past 20 years is required to impel North Korea to forsake its missile/nuclear weapons programme.
Next, in Seoul, he asserted not merely that the US’s “strategic patience” has ended but affirmed that “we are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures” against Pyongyang, while adding that, “certainly, we do not want things to get to military conflict…if they elevate the threat of their weapons programme to the level we believe requires action, then that option is on the table.”
Those comments plainly signaled a sea-change in American policy towards North Korea and came in the wake of multiple missile tests last week by North Korea, described as a drill for an attack on US bases in Japan. To be recalled is that North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear test in 2006, in the teeth of fierce international resistance. Since then, there have been more four nuclear tests, two of them last year.
What is now known about the Xi-Tillerson palavers is that Tillerson’s China trip ended with warm words from Xi – not to mention Tillerson’s disclosure that US President Donald Trump looks forward to Xi’s “visit (to the US) in the future.” Those significant pointers apart, what is of enormous import is that the US and China have agreed to work together on North Korea, putting aside a bevy of other key concerns to the two behemoths.
Before getting down to that, it is important, first, to mull over Xi’s important pronouncement following his meeting with Tillerson: “The joint interests of China and the United States far outweigh the differences, and cooperation is the only correct choice for us both…China and the United States must strengthen coordination on hot regional issues, respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, and protect the broad setting of ties.”
Though no specific dates have been mentioned for Xi’s proposed visit to the US, it has been widely reported in US media that the Sino-American summit will take place in early April at Mar-a-Lago, Florida. While any such apex meeting will be a major international event, if – as seems likely – it takes place quite soon, it will, in addition, represent one of the most rapidly arranged events of its kind.
It should set the tone for Sino-America ties over at least the next four years, not to mention having a profound influence on the ebb and flow of inter-state relations throughout the Asia-Pacific region. One does not have to be a psychic to predict substantial impact on America’s relations with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and possibly Taiwan, to mention a few geopolitical locales. Its ripple effects should, besides, lap South Asian shores, primarily, I would wager, those of India and Pakistan.
From the above, it is reasonably certain that, between now and the expected early US-China summit, there will be much less heard about Sino-American differences than there has been in the past. Following that event, however, one can expect a more detailed or complex blueprint on how Sino-American relations will shape up across a wider canvas than merely over the super-charged North Korea amphi-theatre.
At this juncture, it may be recalled that, in the recent past, there have been quiet preparatory efforts to get Sino-American relations back on an even keel, including by a low profile visit to the US last month by Chinese state councilor Yang Jiechi who met with the top policy-making echelon of the new Trump administration in that regard. In Beijing, Tillerson notably continued his consultations in that context with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Yang. After Tillerson’s return to Washington, preparations for the Xi visit and formulation of set policy positions should be complete.
Let’s now take a peek into some specific questions that have flitted across the America-China relations skies, often with vexing or bruising impact on bilateral relations. For starters, there is the hitherto repeated American claim that China is not doing enough to reign in Pyongyang, implying that China has massive clout over North Korea.
Pyongyang’s recent public charge that China is now “dancing to the US tune” – issued against the backdrop of China temporarily halting North Korean coal imports – not to mention the most recent snub to Beijing (and Washington) referred to at the outset of this column, clearly suggests that her influence over Pyongyang is overrated.
Besides, there is the reality that China does not favor a military strike against North Korea for two sound geopolitical reasons: she does not want to be at the receiving end of an exodus of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans and, equally, that she hardly relishes the prospect of American and South Korean troops on her borders, which would inevitably result with the collapse of the North Korean regime/state.
Complications have been thrown up by the deployment by the South Korean government, supported by the US, of an antimissile system – which Japan, too, is eager to install – in order to deal with the North Korean threat to its security. How strongly China feels about it has been made plain by the devastating impact it has had on China-South Korea relations, while Russia also has made her objections known to all, on security grounds, no less.