HONOLULU, April 11, 2013 – Living in Hawaii, there isn’t a day that passes without me worrying about the ongoing nuclear drama between the divided Koreas. When Admiral Robert Willard retired from U.S. Pacific Command in March last year, his farewell address included a grim warning that North Korea’s nuclear weapons were “now in the hands of an untested 29 year old.”
The political scientist in me looks at this developing crisis and thinks to Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, seeing fearful parallels in the spiral of uncontrollable escalations and counter-escalations leading to war. This is the kind of moment in human events where you earnestly pray all of the leaders in the region aren’t serious about going to war and will step back before it is too late. But as the late John F. Kennedy wisely observed, the word “crisis” in Chinese consists of two characters representing “danger” and “opportunity.”
There is clearly a danger that this could be the beginning of a new era of instability and insecurity, but there is also the opportunity that the United States can recognize its weaknesses before it is too late.
U.S. policy of “pivot” toward Asia is deceptive: The key is China, not North Korea
Washington loves taglines and catchwords. The latest is the use of the word “pivot” to describe an adjustment of America’s diplomatic and security posture to match the rising influence of China in the Asia-Pacific region. The term is deceptive as it invokes images in the mind of a soldier responding to the drill command “left, face” and casually pivoting to turn to the side.
In reality the appropriate name for this new policy should be a “jerk” toward Asia in which our civilian policymakers are only now waking up to the fact that since the late 1980s China has been modernizing its military and building up its conventional and nuclear forces to fight a superpower-sized adversary like the United States.
Throughout the Clinton Administration the U.S. Navy was extremely concerned about China’s acquisition of area denial weapons such as the wire/acoustic/wake-homing 533mm Yu-6 torpedo (believed to be a clone of the U.S. produced Mk. 48 ADCAP) and the 3M-80E Moskit cruise missile system.
By 1999, the developing arms race reached a new level of danger when the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with China (also known as the “Cox Committee”) issued a report that the People’s Republic of China had likely stolen classified information about the designs of some six U.S. thermonuclear warheads including the advanced W88 physics package.
When George W. Bush assumed the presidency, his first major international crisis occurred on April 1, 2001 when a U.S. Navy ARIES surveillance aircraft bumped with a PLAAF J-8 Finback interceptor some one hundred miles from the Chinese military base in the Xisha Islands. The highly classified ARIES aircraft was damaged and forced to land on Hainan Island, allowing the Chinese the opportunity to closely inspect our equipment and temporarily detain the EP-3 crew.
The incident should have served as a warning to the evolving Sino-American tensions in the region but five months later on September 11, 2001 the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon sucked out all the policy air on China and focused America’s attention almost exclusively on fighting terrorism and “draining the swamp” of Middle Eastern states perceived as supporters of terrorism.
As the United States expended both her global political clout and economic advantage in a war of attrition against Iraq, Afghanistan and countless terrorist organizations hiding in caves and cloaked among civilian populations all around the world, China continued in her arms buildup. Just over a decade later, China has grown so powerful that our civilian political leadership can no longer dismiss the rise of the Dragon.
The “pivot” towards Asia is a jerk in which the United States – with her dying economy and “transformational” military tuned for fighting small states and international bandits – is facing a China that has been cranking out ICBMs, cruise missiles, stealth fighters and a manned space program during the ten years we were at war.
North Korean threats: Asymmetric Deterrence
The problem with most U.S. policymakers and media pundits is that we tend to base notions of rationality and reason not in cultural context but in comparison to how Westerners think. The average American looks at a Cold War relic state like North Korea and automatically assumes their sabre rattling – unmatched by technological or military power – is evidence of stupidity and an irrational desire to be pounded by Uncle Sam. And like the average American, our politicians think they have the crisis under control.
Amid the rise of China and the decline of the United States, North Korea has every reason to feel empowered to threaten its neighbors. For starters, the North Koreans are obviously well aware of the fact that President Barack Obama is under immense domestic and geopolitical pressure to maintain perceptions of U.S. solidarity with South Korea and Japan. The North Koreans know all too well that the United States is concerned about China and how America protects (or fails to protect) her allies can have broad reaching implications for regional influence.
Perception is everything in international statecraft. The fact that some in South Korea are suggesting the country pursue nuclear weapons of their own is a testimony to the fact that the U.S. security umbrella is increasingly seen as unreliable (after all, we’re in an age of “calculated ambiguity” over “massive retaliation”). North Korea’s threats are less an act of instability and more an effort to provoke division among U.S. allies.
North Korea’s leaders also recognize the fact that Washington D.C. can’t balance her checkbook and is in growing fiscal turmoil. Unlike North Korea, whenever the United States conducts major military operations, millions even billions of dollars are spent on fuel, maintenance and maneuvers. Even as sequestration forces the United States Air Force to shut down multiple combat squadrons around the world, North Korea knows that its threats must be matched by a Western response that is costly and depleting even if no bullets are fired.
As the Chinese tactician Sun Tzu wrote, “All warfare is based on deception … If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.” The United States cannot afford to pay its own Congress the exorbitant salaries it receives, let alone maintain a constant state of alert over North Korea. The United States can back down, but if so, it risks inviting the possibility of an attack and appearing weak before allies that may in the future pursue security arrangements of their own. The United States can raise its level of escalation, but in doing so, it blows its already strained budget.
In all this, North Korea has proven that a small state with minimal armament is capable of gridlocking the United States. This is a dangerous precedent, because even as the United States is watching China, China is likewise watching the United States. In the future as America’s fiscal condition devolves, her global credibility will diminish along with her military preparedness and powers such as China or Russia can make military threats to compel diplomatic concessions from the United States.
It is for this reason that the United States needs to seriously restructure its attitudes towards global intervention and domestic bureaucratization. America needs to shut down its endless train of wars – the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy – and commit to rebuilding its economy and recapitalizing its aging military. If we do not take immediate and sweeping steps to gain control of our fiscal health and rebalance our military, America will be in grave danger of joining the ash heap of failed nations.
In the Bible, John of Patmos wrote of how he witnessed in heaven “the sixth angel poured out his vial on the great river Euphrates and the water was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared” (Revelation 16:12). As I watch current events unfold, I can’t help but see in this North Korean crisis the Asian nations growing in prominence, even as the West diminishes. We are living in very dangerous times and our elected officials would do well to consider carefully the future of our United States of America.
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