It was reported earlier today that two more Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) will be deployed to the Korean peninsula / Sea of Japan in addition to the USS Carl Vinson CSG already underway. However, OfTwoMinds brought up a very curious point when it comes to the relationship between North Korea and China:
Imagine if the roles were reversed and China had to send its fleet to the Caribbean to deal with a rogue client state of America’s, that America could not control or contain. The loss of face is immense.
So, seeing the Chinese proximity to North Korea, and the nation’s belligerence, why hasn’t the Chinese government “handled” the problem of constant North Korean nuclear belligerence?
As OfTwoMinds again explained, you have to understand why North Korea exists in the first place – as a “buffer” between South Korea (and a potential US-led land invasion into China) and China itself:
To understand the China-North Korea client state relationship, we have to start with the 1950s-era Cold War and the Hot War in Korea 1950-1953. Threatened by the Cold War American presence in South Korea, China viewed North Korea as an essential buffer against invasion from the south.
When allied Western forces occupied virtually all of North Korea in the Korean War, China’s army crossed the Yalu River to force a return to the pre-war border between North and South Korea.
China’s supreme leader Chairman Mao Zedong took the threat of land invasion so seriously that he ordered (at enormous expense) the relocation of critical industrial plants from coastal areas into the hinterlands, the better to distance them from invasion.
China has effectively subsidized and supported the North Korean state for the past 70 years as a buffer against a land invasion from South Korea. China supplies North Korea with fossil fuels and other essentials and protects it diplomatically.
So the US is “responsible” for South Korea, and China is responsible for North Korea. Both are important strategic responsibilities, but it is far more important to China, for obvious reasons. But consider the other benefits/drawbacks of both nations, and ask yourself; beyond the “buffer” rationale, is there any good reason to support North Korea?
The difference between North Korea and South Korea is mostly political. Stalinist North Korea has starved its people for decades to support a vast war machine, and kept them ignorant of the broader world.
South Korea’s economy is larger (by some measures) than the economies of nations such as Spain, Australia, Mexico and Russia. South Korea is not just a formidable economic power; it fields a powerful military and has global “soft power” via its media and investment reach. It also has substantial trade with China.South Korea is a powerhouse, North Korea is a rogue state that has starved millions of its citizens to death and threatens to spark a nuclear war that could impact China very negatively, even if China avoids military conflict.
Which state would you rather be responsible for protecting? Which one is an asset and which is a costly, risky liability? The answer is obvious to all.
So, what has changed recently? The nuclear saber-rattling has been going on since North Korea has been in existence, but more recently, the only thing that has changed is leadership – Kim Jong-Il died and replaced by his son, Kim Jong-Un, and President Obama left office and was replaced by President Trump.
Kim Jong-Il was content to make threats, receive relief from sanctions and/or food relief, and be on his way. Obama was fine to conduct a few mock bombing runs and military exercises, but generally shied away from conflict.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Un has behaved in a far more unstable manner than his father and predecessor, executing senior officials (with the unnecessary firepower of an anti-aircraft gun) simply for rubbing him the wrong way:
North Korea executed five senior security officials for making false reports that “enraged” leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Monday.
The five were killed with anti-aircraft guns, the National Intelligence Service said in a private briefing to lawmakers, according to the news agency. It wasn’t immediately clear what the “false reports” were, but they appeared to be unrelated to the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un, two weeks ago.
And when it comes to the difference between Presidents Obama and Trump, one could clearly go on at length, but sending three carrier strike groups (the same number used in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 to strike Iraq) is a much bigger statement than anything the Obama administration ever made.
However, it seems that Trump’s actions are merely designed to goad China into (finally) doing something to control its rogue state. A “buffer” is only useful if it doesn’t attract all the military attention from adversaries that North Korea is attracting:
From this point of view, the entire drama of American threats of military action may be designed to force China to finally step up and take whatever action is necessary to control its rogue client state.
And, if China’s words are any indication, it appears Trump’s plan is working:
China sent the Trump administration “positive signals” that it will increase economic sanctions to pressure ally North Korea to abandon its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, a threat that has raised the prospect of a military confrontation with the United States, the State Department revealed Monday.
“We’ve got a lot of positive signals from the Chinese but it takes time,” Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said on a conference call with reporters.
Though the US should not need to send three aircraft carriers to the Korean peninsula to address the problem, if it gets China to (finally) step up and deal with the problem, so be it. This is not a conflict the US should initiate, nor should it need to initiate – North Korea is a half a world away, and the last thing the US needs is another unwinnable war, especially against a belligerent leader who could be prepared to use nuclear weapons.
If the roles were reversed, the US would have brought this situation to a head long ago. China is better cutting its losses and finding a more suitable (and stable) way to manage its client state and ensure its role as a “buffer”… if China even wants to be bothered with a “buffer” at all anymore. The last thing they want is to have to lose “face” and have the US deal with the “problem” for them.
Then again, the Chinese could be hoping that North Korea handles its Kim “problem” internally. Though the other leaders of North Koreay may all be too afraid of the threat of an anti-aircraft gun execution to do anything but skip town.