The danger of a nuclear holocaust in the Korean peninsula is precariously hanging by a thread that is getting thinner and weaker by the hour. This is the impression one gets going by the war of words between North Korea and its enemy alliance comprising South Korea and the United States.
But beyond the rhetoric, one can see the great game in the Asia Pacific unfolding, taking emerging superpower China by surprise. The tension in the Korean Peninsula is just a façade. The objective of the United States is apparently aimed at fortifying its defences in the Asia-Pacific region to check China whose phenomenal rise as a global military power has deprived Pentagon pundits of their sleep.
On Wednesday, the United States announced it was moving an advanced missile defence system -- the ballistic Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (Thaad) -- to the Pacific island of Guam, a US-administered territory, where Washington maintains a huge naval base that is the home base of dozens of US Pacific Fleet, including the Seventh Fleet. The Thaad system includes a truck-mounted launcher, interceptor missiles and advanced tracking radar, together with an integrated fire control system.
The US could never have deployed such a highly advanced missile system to Guam under normal circumstances without provoking China. The current Korean crisis offers the right excuse for the US to deploy such a system which could also pose a threat to China.
The US Defence Department said the deployment of the missile system was a precautionary move to strengthen the US defence posture against the North Korean ballistic missile threat.
“The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and stands ready to defend US territory, our allies, and our national interests,” the Defence Department said.
So the current tension in the Korean Peninsula is all about the United States beefing up its defences in China’s neighbourhood. The real threat is not North Korea but China.
Thus it is unlikely that the sudden escalation of hostilities in the Korean Peninsula will lead to a major war or a nuclear holocaust, however precarious the situation seems. The people on either side of the 38th parallel which divides Korea, a united country before World War II ended, are accustomed to the war of words between the two nations. Since the Korean War ended 60 years ago, the two Koreas have been careful not to let their hostilities develop into a full-blown war. The last time the two countries came close to a war and then withdrew was in 2010, when a South Korean warship, Cheonan, was torpedoed allegedly by North Korea. It was a more serious situation than the present one. The incident in which 46 South Korean sailors died prompted the two countries to put their armies on high alert.
But in the end it was the United States which benefited from it. The 2010 crisis erupted against the backdrop of Japan’s then socialist Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama coming under pressure from the people of the Okinanwa prefecture to close down the US airbase there in keeping with his election campaign pledge. The tense situation following the Cheonan incident offered Hatoyama an ideal excuse to renege on his promise and keep the base. Both Japan and the United States feel the base is strategically vital to check China’s military power especially in view of the dispute over the ownership of the oil-and-gas-rich islands in the South China Sea.
The Korean peninsula is of strategic importance to both China and the United States. China considers the region as its backyard while the United States has been maintaining a strong military presence in Japan and South Korea since the end of World War II.
It is widely believed that the Middle East is the likeliest place from where the Third World War will break out. But the Asia Pacific region is also a contender for it, given the geopolitics of the region.
For the past five years or so, China has been asserting its power in the region and even dared to challenge Japan -- a country protected by the United States under a defence treaty -- in the dispute over a chain of islets, which Beijing calls Diaoyu and Tokyo Senkaku.
The United States, meanwhile, has begun to worry about predictions that it will not be a global power by 2030. The biggest challenge to US power comes from China, the world’s second largest economy and a rising military power. The United States is in no mood to surrender its top place. The Barack Obama administration last year announced its ‘Pivot to Asia’ foreign and defence policy in what was seen as a clear move to counter China’s rising power.
Under the Asia Pivot policy, the United States seeks to strengthen bilateral security alliances with countries in the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions. Last year, the United States opened up a marine base in Darwin, Australia and decided to set up a second missile defence system in Japan – moves that raised alarms in China. This week, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met President Obama in the White House. At the joint media conference, the two leaders emphasised the need to promote closer military cooperation between the two countries and announced that more US warships would be deployed at Singapore’s Changi naval base overlooking China’s maritime trade route in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
At a dinner hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-ASEAN Business Council, the Singapore Premier said the US was not doing enough to challenge China’s rising power in the region. “We want the United States and its leadership to be the stabilising power in the region, but you are falling behind China, especially in terms of economic relations and trade.”
Some six years ago, the United States tried to set up a missile defence system in Russia’s backyard, saying it was to protect Europe from missiles that could come from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. Washington had to shelve the plan when Moscow protested and warned that relations could plummet to the cold war days.
But China is not in a position to ask the United States to dismantle the advanced missile defence systems in China’s neighbourhood. This is because the US has North Korea to point its finger at.
But quite contrary to reports in the Western media, North Korea is not always the cause of the problem. Take for instance the 2010 sinking of the South Korean warship. Many believe a third party was behind the incident. North Korea said it was willing to cooperate with an international panel appointed by South Korea to probe the incident. But South Korea rejected North Korea’s offer while the panel found it guilty.
Even the present crisis was not of North Korea’s making. The root of the conflict lies in the annual joint military exercise involving South Korea and the United States. The two-month-long exercise codenamed “Eagle Foal”, featuring nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers and B-52 bombers, was the first since the US formally announced its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. The inclusion of such highly advanced aircraft was a major provocation -- and North Korea was justified in declaring a state of war.
The exercise was to take place against the backdrop of the United Nations imposing sanctions on North Korea for conducting a nuclear weapon test in February.
Pyongyang responded by threatening to attack the South and the US and announced that it had reactivated a nuclear plant that was closed in 2007 in terms of an agreement reached with stakeholder nations. Experts say it will take at least one year for the plant to produce weapons grade nuclear material. Therefore, they say North Korea’s response cannot be regarded as an escalation. Yesterday, North Korea reportedly moved a medium-range missile to its east coast to counter US ballistic missile threat from Guam.
Yet the US interpreted North Korea’s reactions as a serious escalation and deployed more troops to the region and a second guided missile destroyer, the USS John McCain, while the new US Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Seoul to meet South Korean leaders. Kerry warned North Korea to halt its rhetoric and actions, calling them provocative, dangerous and reckless. He also vowed that the United States would defend itself and its allies South Korea and Japan from North Korean threats. He called on Russia and China, two of North Korea’s allies, to use their influence to persuade Pyongyang to change its course.
But Kerry chose not to see the provocations in the actions of the United States and South Korea. The South Korean regime of President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee, on Monday announced that it had agreed to put the South Korean military under the United States operational control and even warned of pre-emptive strikes on North Korea. She told the troops: “If the North attempts any provocation against our people and country, you must respond strongly at the first contact with them, without political consideration.”
The unfolding events in the Korean peninsula are part of a script written by the Pentagon to lay siege to China if the need arises. Both China and the United States are nuclear powers and therefore they will not go to war. Besides, the United States is China’s number one trading partner. But at the same time, China is embroiled in territorial disputes with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam – disputes that could trigger wars with these nations. But almost all the nations with which China has territorial disputes have signed defence pacts with Washington, warranting US intervention in the event of a conflict.
China has only one ally in the region – North Korea, a state with nuclear weapons. North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un is a novice at the game though he has the backing of military leaders who are veterans of the game. But it looks like they have all fallen into Washington’s trap – a move which enables the US to make its military presence bigger in the region by pointing at the North Korean bogey.
AMEEN Your COMMEMTS ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS are not good,ANYWAY WHY DO U SRI lankans go to west to work?
Goni Billa Friday, 05 April 2013 01:57 PM
So according to this writer. The US controls the actions of the mad men in North Korea for their benefit, to get a grip on China. Highly far fetched knowing the North Koreans.
Antony Friday, 05 April 2013 04:13 PM
Just an hour ago this was the view I expressed when my wife expressed her concerns about the escalating situation in Korean peninsula.
I believe Mr. Ameen is a writer based in SL and I was proud of his wealth of knowledge. As Mr. Ameen has correctly said US is not ready to relinquish top position without a fight. But surely it will according to Buddhist doctrine "Kalakam Palade"
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