Is China’s ‘Frontline State Strategy’ going out of Control or North Korea Crazy?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 19 Sep , 2017

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The Frontline State Strategy of China

When President Trump on taking over tried to outsource the problem of resolving North Korean Crisis to China presumably in exchange of some trade concessions, his administration overlooked the fact that China was part of the problem. The disappointment which his Administration suffered and expressed later was an expected outcome. The Chinese Strategy of  North Korea being used as a ‘Frontline State’ against US and its ally South Korea, dates back to Korean War of 1953, when China entered the War with an aim to avoid US/South Korea to be its neighbour, as a permanent continental military threat. This deep rooted strategy continued helping North Korea a militarily strong nuclear state with autocratic regime, making it a major global threat. The strategy is still applicable to the same extent, with China’s overt and covert support  to North Korea involved in nuclear and missile test misadventures, posing a threat to its greatest competitors. This strategy now seems to become a liability with North Korea irresponsible actions post UN sanctions, and Beijing’s announcement that ‘If North Korea invades another country, China will not defend them’.

In fact China has adopted this successful ‘Frontline State Strategy’ to Pakistan in a different, modified form by getting warm water connectivity to gulf with port facility. They have been able to buy over the strategic choices of Pakistan, by potentially getting them into long term debt trap. In this case also China reaps the fruits of Pakistan’s Kashmir fascination and keeping its regional competitor (India) engaged by ongoing export of terror by Pakistan, by continuously ignoring it. The worldwide criticism of Pakistan’s role in harboring terrorists, and China’s criticism of supporting an irresponsible regime sponsoring it  has led to actions like condemning some Pakistan based terror groups in BRICS Summit, as a midcourse correction. The risk of propping up a semi autocratic power (Pakistan being a sham democracy, with autocratic power of Pakistan Army) having nuclear power is marred with uncontrollable risks, slightly similar to its Frontline State North Korea.

Current State of North Korean Crisis

•  On 11 September, 2017, the United Nations Security Council passed new resolution with fresh sanctions, considered toughest against North Korea so far to rein its nuclear weapons program. Under these sanctions, the annual export of oil and fuel products to the country would be cut from about 8.5 million barrels to two million. Donald Trump sees UN sanctions as “Just a small step towards what is ultimately needed to rein in Pyongyang over its weapons programmes”.

•  The resolution came a week after Pyongyang conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test, having launched 13 ballistic missiles this year. North Korea claims to have tested an extremely powerful H-bomb.

•  Ahead of the UN Security Council meeting Pyongyang says that it would cause the US “the greatest pain and suffering it had ever gone through in its entire history”. Sanctions against North Korea have so far been ineffective to deter them.

•  China agreed to fully enforce the resolution after it was presumably watered-down. The US-drafted resolution initially called for an oil embargo on North Korea, an asset freeze and travel ban on its leader Kim Jong-un. But media reports said it had been toned down to win the support of China supported by Russia, both holding UN veto power.

•  Post sanctions, North Korean state agency threatens to use nuclear weapons to “sink” Japan and reduce the USA to “ashes and darkness” in retaliation against harsher UN sanctions.

•  On 15th September 17, North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew over Hoakkaido, Japan before landing in the northern Pacific Ocean, which rattled Japan. North Korea firing of ballistic missiles into the sea over Japan certainly keeps South Korea and Japan on their toes, besides demonstrating its capability to strike Guam, signaling US.

•  US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged China and Russia to do more to rein in North Korea. He said “China and Russia must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own.

•  China said it “opposes” the test, but reiterated its call that “all parties” should exercise restraint.

•  The Security Council called an emergency meeting the same day and once again condemned the highly provocative action of North Korea. Pyongyang continues to defy sanctions. US continues to examine all options including military options to deal with it.

•  The situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to be complicated and sensitive enough to ignite a conflict.


Is the Logic of   North Korea to continue Nuclear Misadventure justified?

While North Korea justifies it, as a defensive, survival measures against US threat of their regime changes efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other countries not having nuclear capabilities, and not following its dictate. The threat from US regional allies has also been given as an excuse. The Korean war is also an unforgettable historical event when US might was used against them. The North Korean ambassador while speaking to an Indian News Channel WION on 21 June, 2017, had expressed their willingness to talk to US, but without preconditions. He also indicated their willingness for being open to the idea of moratorium and talking about it.

Washington Post in its article “These 5 things help make sense of North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launch” had brought out  five basic reasons, as possible logic for nuclear misadventure by repeated nuclear tests in Southeast Asia. Basically it all amounts to Kim Jong-un trying to retain unhindered autocratic use power, and demonstrating his strength to his countrymen, keeping his ‘Nuclear program’, and ‘Hate America tag’  as a rallying point for his leadership, generating faith in him, and generating spirit of nationalism and anti-American sentiments. The alleged assassination of his brother in Malaysia is also being linked to a possibility of eliminating any future contender for power.

The recent threat of missile attack on Guam by North Korea (later called off), and renewal of missile attack by them on 15 September, 2017 over Japan, demonstrating its capability to attack Guam, indicate that North Korea is going well beyond the justification of its survival need. It is perhaps an effort by Kim Jong-un to just to save himself, his regime and his power, sacrificing regional peace and perhaps national interest of North Korea, with innocent people of the country getting deprived of their basic needs. Kim’s fantasy of seeking ‘Military Equilibrium with US’ seems to be driving him crazy.

Chinese Sanctions not Effective (Is North Korea a liability or it’s a Chinese Double game?)

The renewed missile test besides isolating Pyongyang has put China in Tight spot, for not putting enough pressure on them. Despite China’s announcement earlier to suspend all imports of coal from North Korea for the rest of the year, to deprive North Korea financially (Coal exports makes up about 35 percent of North Korea’s economy. 90 percent of its trade is with China which is based on coal export) is being viewed as ‘Too little and too late’ because it is also estimated that China’s trade with North Korea has increased tenfold over last 15 years. This indicates that North Korea prospered with China’s help to reach the current stage of being capable of creating a global crisis in line with its Frontline Strategy. North Korea is continuing with its nuclear misadventure, and despite China being party to UN Resolution is being looked upon to put more pressure on them, being their economic lifeline.

The continuation of nuclear adventure by North Korea means either China does not have enough leverage on North Korea, or China is deliberately not putting pressure on them, with a view to use them as front line state against influential US including South Korea. Now China as well as Russia are concerned about deployment of THAAD in South Korea, post visit by General Mattis, arguing that the system could be used to spy on Chinese missile flight tests. In my opinion China or Russia may not be keen to invite and support a nuclear war by North Korea, will be looking for a peaceful solution, but may not be in a position to address the insecurities of North Korea (especially their leader). China’s current domestic occupation may also not favor inviting such a trouble. How sincerely will China implement the UNSC resolution is anyone’s guess, but it will redefine its credibility, global image and its future dream of being a responsible world power.

Possible China’s Response In case North Korea attacks US or Vice Versa

If North Korea initiates a conflict, I do not visualize Chinese significant involvement except asking all parties to calm down, which it is doing even now. They have already made it clear that if North Korea invades another country, China will not defend them. The dilemma will be if US attacks North Korea, where I feel that China may give moral and material support to North Korea and not enter the war directly like 1950-53, because getting into a war in which there are almost no chances to win may risk Xi Jinping regime itself. The possible advantages are not worth the risk. Chinese psychological warfare machinery and propaganda will definitely become more active to deter US and its allies. This idea has also been adopted by North Korea, which continues to issue provocative statements on daily basis.

Is there a Role for India?

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command, feels that India could play some role in this crisis as he said “I think India’s voice is a loud voice, which people pay attention to. So, I think that India could help North Korea, perhaps, understand the seriousness by which the United States views that threat,”

While India had some historical, diplomatic and trade links with North Korea, and it entertained some space science students in the past, India has repeatedly raised its concerns against North Korea’s nuclear tests, and continues to do so. India’s has been raising issues about Pakistan having reportedly sold nuclear technology related documents to North Korea. If North Korean Technology develops further, a reverse flow to Pakistan may be a serious concern for India. North Korea has been more supportive towards Pakistan on Kashmir issue.

In this crisis India continues to condemn the North Korean missile tests, has been implementing the sanctions imposed against it by the US and has strapped its trade links ( which is even less than a billion USD) with North Korea early this year. While the expectations are welcomed but Indian leverage in this crisis is very limited.

What is the Way out of the Current Crisis?

As per New York Times (13 September,2017), North Korea has resumed work at its underground nuclear testing site, as the country vowed to keep expanding its nuclear arsenal despite the latest United Nations sanctions. Despite heavy sanctions, North Korea remains in defiant mode saying that it would “redouble the efforts to increase its strength to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and right to existence” and establish “practical equilibrium with the U.S.”  As per Sputnik News (11 September,2017) ‘Pyongyang appears to utilize the “Bluff and Bluster” strategy. Create a geo-political crisis and request compromise from opposing forces, assuming they can be rewarded since other nations want to prevent war’.

Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to recognize North Korea’s ‘nuclear status’ on the grounds Pyongyang “poses a security threat in Northeast Asia.” He having gone along with UN sanctions, on a pragmatic note has said that North Korea would choose to “eat grass” before giving up its nuclear program, indicating that sanctions alone will not help. Some authors have gone to other extreme, talking of third world war with North Korea as a trigger. I do not subscribe to this fantasy that so many responsible matured nations can start fighting a war due to irresponsible actions of one country/leader.

Tough implementation of sanctions along with smart diplomacy involving all concerned parties, who have direct concerns in this crisis, is a more positive and hopeful way forward to diffuse the crisis. The Russian role is often underplayed but is significant in this crisis, as they are equally affected by THAAD, and were also a player in watering down the sanctions, besides the key players to include US, North Korea, China, South Korea and Japan. In my opinion a track 2 talks between six parties must commence immediately. While it is understandable that US will not like to talk directly with North Korea under pressure of their irresponsible actions, but someone on their behalf will have to convince the present regime of North Korea that the threat to their survival is not the US strategic aim, so long they give up their nuclear misadventure. Conversely someone has to convince Kim that he can neither save himself or his regime if he continues with such provocative activities, despite China repeatedly advising US to tone down the threat. US expectations of North Korea totally giving up their nuclear arsenal is also “Too ambitious, too late”. China cannot be relied much for resolution due to their own interests as explained earlier.

The hopeful part is that through the conversation of its Ambassador to India, North Korea has conveyed their willingness to talk to US, but without preconditions, and being open to the idea of moratorium. This can be taken forward diplomatically, without giving an impression of US and other global players falling prey to North Korea’s “Bluff and Bluster” strategy. Posturing of US for military action also needs to be on the card, but military action must be the last resort. I do not subscribe to the idea of $ 8 million humanitarian aid by South Korea to deserving people of North Korea, at a time when their own leader, who is responsible for their welfare is going around threatening other regional countries, showing no mercy towards their own people. Any softening up of any affected country will embolden North Korea for more irresponsible misadventures, and will not go well with US and affected allies.  The tendency of nuclear blackmailing either by North Korea or Pakistan must be arrested. The Trump administration continues to struggle for a viable solution, and statements like ‘Effective and Overhelming response’ alone will not help. As of now it will have to be seen how US will respond.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen SB Asthana

is a Strategic and Security Analyst, a Veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in National & International Fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst authored over 350 publications. Interviewed by various National and International news channels/newspapers/organisations. Currently Chief Instructor, USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India. On Governing/Security Council CEE, IOED, IPC, ITVMNN and other UN Organisations. On Advisory Board of SWEDINT, member EPON. Expert Group Challenges Forum, Former Additional Director General Infantry. Awarded twice by President of India, United Nations, former Prime Minister Maldova and Governor of Haryana.

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