As Sri Lankan’s enjoyed the festive season last week, from policy makers to media personalities voicing thoughts of optimism, about reconciling, peace, communal harmony the week saw a major shakeup in the global security situation. The aftermath of Trump’s tomahawk strikes on Syria shook the already fragile global security kaleidoscope, leaving pieces in a flux.
How they settle down seems to be a puzzle no one is capable of responding. The North Korean Leader in his New Year address of 2017 promised to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) to hit American targets by the end of the year. The recent escalation of tensions between the United States and North Korea is unfolding as a fast developing threat concern for all Asians and Pacific states.
The American military has suddenly started flexing its muscles in ways that many did not anticipate in a Trump era. President Trump seems to be shedding his pre election promises and positions at light speed. Many were of the view; his transformation is unprecedented for any president. Analysts called it the death of America first policy and a rebirth of neo conservative interventionism which operates at a global level but with no real consultation with any global partner or forum.
With a US carrier group heading closer to North Korea, and its leader threatening a nuclear attack on any adversary, Asia’s security concerns seem to be intensifying. America helmed by a leadership that is leaving a scorched earth policy in dealing with enemies and North Korea with a leader displaying clear signs of power consolidation from using assassins to take out political rivals to executions of family members who threaten his authority.
Trump did a U turn on his fiscal allegations on China, which were also a key campaign promise and a key feature in his very concisely articulated foreign policy. He earlier called China a currency manipulator and last week decided to ditch that line of thinking. He also did a complete u turn on his statements on NATO during the presidential campaign calling the post world war II alliance as obsolete; again last week he debunked this view of the alliance. Sri Lankans are used to politicians’ flip-flopping, it has been a mainstay of policy statements and promises that has become common sense knowledge of being not followed up but we had not witnessed advanced democracies with leaders in such manifestations
North Korean under Kim Jung Un, the grandson bearing Kim il Sung’s legacy seems to be unleashing all sorts of aggressions from ordering a sequence of nuclear missile tests, unveiling new rocket engines and even unveiling planned cities and keeping up with the rhetoric of challenging his adversaries saying that he will use nuclear warfare as a deterrent.
"During Chinese President Xi Jingpin’s visit to the United States, the Americans have managed to get his consent on possible use of force against North Korea, as the Chinese leader himself had felt all other efforts seem to have not worked"
There was a key underreported fact during the transition period in the United States following Trump’s electoral win. By late November 2016 President Obama highlighted his administration’s concern about the fledging nuclear program of North Korea and its increasing capabilities to hit United States and many other states across the Asia pacific. Obama was clear when he told Trump that by late 2016 the North Korean nuclear threat constituted the top national security priority of the United States. This revelation also marks the failure of the Obama administration’s non-military efforts such as sanctions against North Korea and its own coming to terms about the need for a military response.
President Trump has also been upping the rhetoric on North Korean since becoming President along with his key cabinet members. Trump’s recent tweet ‘North Korea is looking for trouble’ could have been ignored till two weeks ago. But since his cruise missile strike on Syria and then last week when Trump authorized what international media reported as the mother of all bombs to be dropped in Achin district of the eastern province of Nangarhar in Afghanistan targeting a tunnel network used by Islamic State militants stunned security analysts.The bomb is the second largest non-nuclear bomb in the US military inventory called GB 43B which packs 11 tons of explosives and is what the military calls a thermobaric incendiary weapon.
"Trump did a U turn on his fiscal allegations on China, which were also a key campaign promise and a key feature in his very concisely articulated foreign policy"
Meanwhile, Kim unveiled an ultra modern housing development project in Pyongyang along the Ryo Myong street, a lane apart from where the mausoleum for Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-Sung and father Kim Jong-Il lie. This was a build up to April 15th the 105th death anniversary of Kim’s grandfather the founder of modern North Korea. Kim staged a massive military display, where he promised to respond to any military aggression in kind. The news reaching from the American side is that during Chinese President Xi Jingpin’s visit to the United States, the Americans have managed to get his consent on possible use of force against North Korea, as the Chinese leader himself had felt all other efforts seem to have not worked. It is still hard to accept that China would be a part of any military strike on North Korea given the fall out it would have on China and the region.
The immediate effect will be on South Korea, any military engagement that North Korea is involved in will have a significant impact on South Korea which is going through a lengthy internal political crisis of its own. Ever since the impeached president Park Geun Hye’s suspension last year, and following political and economic turmoil in South Korea with the arrests of Jay Y. Lee the vice president of Korean electronics giant Samsung and its apparent heir, analysts claim that the North Koreans managed to use this instability to their own advantage.
"The bomb is the second largest non-nuclear bomb in the US military inventory called GB 43B which packs 11 tons of explosives and is what the military calls a thermobaric incendiary weapon"
Sri Lanka’s strategic security posture did consider the nuclear armed rivalry between India and Pakistan, yet the nuclear weapons themselves played a similar role like in the cold war to keep the peace between the two rivals. Thus our concerns of fallout from a nuclear conflict have been minimal. The current tensions between Korea and the United States fall outside of the strategic calculus of military nuclear deterrence. Both countries are endowed with political leadership that seems to give less regard to global norms, governance procedures of international security strategies. Sri Lanka strategic policies, forums and security interests have been around the Indian Ocean region security concerns.
Whilst the Indian Pacific ocean systems are now considered by India, United States and China as a strategic zone the fallout from military especially nuclear tensions needs to be addressed by our own policy makers, think tanks and the highest political leadership. Our basic nontraditional security consensus is still in a flux with dengue outbreaks, viral flu, drought management which are in essence national security concerns managed with a lack of strategic insight.
One can ask what if there is a nuclear war, or even a non nuclear military conflict in Asia Pacific how will Sri Lanka react? How we will deal with the aftershocks with the security or strategic calculus that we have? To end a column with a question mark may not be prudent but these are real issues to ponder after a heavy and lengthy festive break.
The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)