December 2023


Choppy waters

The US should beware of a two-front war in the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, warns Amit Agnihotri,a sits involvement in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts are depleting resources

America has tried to reset its bilateral relationship with China but Washington needs to be cautious over the threat of a two-front war in the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait even as it remains involved in the Ukraine and Gaza wars.

The Asian Dragon, which has geopolitical interests in the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, and sees itself as the global challenger to US authority, is keenly watching Washington deplete its resources in the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts, which have global ramifications.

For its part, the US feels compelled to back Ukraine in order to checkmate its arch-rival Russia, while Washington has stood by Israel to retain its influence in West Asia, where China is making inroads.

Three factors appear to have caused alarm in Washington: the Asian Dragon’s new-found bonhomie with Russia, the aggressor in Ukraine; China’s support for North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions pose a threat to the US and its allies in the Korean Peninsula; and the risk of Beijing invading Taiwan.

The US security establishment sees North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un – who legitimised his country’s nuclear weapon power ambition after gaining position in 2012 – as a rogue.

Over the past decade, North Korea’s nuclear program developed quickly with help from China. This resulted in a series of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, which can easily reach Japan, a US ally and fellow Quad member.

Kim’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ostensibly to seek an arms deal and economic help from Moscow, has left the US security establishment more worried.

ROGUE: North Korea’s leader Kim Jong­un

As the Ukraine and Gaza wars have left the world more fragmented, Kim hopes to benefit from the global divisions and a seemingly ineffective UN system.

For instance, since 2006, nine major UNSC resolutions against North Korea’s nuclear program have been allegedly undermined as China and Russia supplied the required help to the rogue nation as part of bilateral transfers.

Against this backdrop, the US security establishment feels that regional partnerships and broad-based multilateral sanctions will prove to be more effective in countering North Korea.

To meet this objective, the US has forged a bilateral alliance with South Korea and a trilateral partnership with South Korea and Japan. Although the US hopes that the trilateral diplomatic pressure may have some sobering influence on North Korea, the flipside of the strategy is that it might end the rogue nation’s isolation and push Kim towards the China-Russia combine.

In effect, global strategic manoeuvring has given way to rival coalitions – the US, Japan and South Korea on one side and China, Russia and North Korea on the other – which are trying to outwit each other in the Indo-Pacific.

The US has forged a trilateral partnership with South Korea and Japan

The US-South Korea Nuclear Consultative Group, set up in April to counter North Korea’s nuclear program, led to several rounds of consultations and resulted in a US nuclear submarine visiting the South Korean ports for the first time in almost 40 years.

Security cooperation between the US, South Korea and Japan has been moving forward since the historic Camp David summit in August and led to the November 12 meeting between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin, South Korea’s Minister of National Defence Shin Wonsik and Japanese Minister of Defence Kihara Minoru.

The three defence ministers reviewed regional security issues, including the growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.In particular, they strongly condemned North Korea’s space launch vehicle tests, which violated the United Nations Security Council resolutions that prohibit any launch using ballistic missile technology.

The defence ministers also reaffirmed their support to Ukraine against Russia’s aggression and stressed the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as indispensable to global security and prosperity.

In addition, they encouraged accelerated development of a multi-year trilateral exercise plan, scheduled to be finalised by the end of 2023, more systematically and efficiently to demonstrate the three countries’ strong will and capacity to respond to threats in the Indo-Pacific and noted the success of a trilateral aerial exercise held in October.

North Korea’s space launch vehicle tests violated the UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit any launch using ballistic missile technology

As Washington is fully backing Japan’s biggest defence upgrade in decades in the wake of China’s and North Korea’s aggression in the neighbourhood seas, the defence ministers shared concerns on activities that are inconsistent with international law, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). They condemned recent dangerous activities against the vessels, ships, and aircraft operating in and over the East and South China Seas, and decided to fully operationalise a mechanism to exchange real-time missile warning data to monitor missiles launched by North Korea by the end of December.

Meanwhile, not far away from the Korean Peninsula, tensions have been mounting in the Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan. China is miffed with the tiny island nation’s breakaway ambitions, while Beijing is prepared to forcibly annex Taiwan to pursue its One China policy.

The US is determined not to let that happen and has been raising the need for peaceful resolution of conflicts across the Taiwan Strait. 

Sino-US rivalry peaked last year over Taiwan when Beijing conducted its largest ever military exercises in response to the visit of former US House Representative Nancy Pelosi.

For its part, the US has been deepening its security cooperation with Taiwan and has vowed to protect the tiny nation from any aggression. Taiwan had been shoring up its defence and collaborating with like-minded countries to safeguard democracy, freedom and peace.

The meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conclave in San Francisco, an attempt to reset bilateral ties, saw the two leaders touch upon a wide range of global issues, including Taiwan, but there was no indication of a dramatic change in the postures of the two leaders.

Xi is unlikely to give up his claims on Taiwan, despite Biden’s vows to defend the tiny nation in the eventuality of an attack. Nor is Xi going to slow down his BRI, which has helped China expand its economic clout worldwide, while Biden is not going to give up on anti-China regional forums like the Quad and AUKUS.

November 12 meeting between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, South Korea’s Minister of National Defence Shin Wonsik and Japanese Minister of Defence Kihara Minoru
November 12 meeting between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, South Korea’s Minister of National Defence Shin Wonsik and Japanese Minister of Defence Kihara Minoru

Further, Xi is unlikely to give up China’s naval expansion and strengthening of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal, just as Biden is not going to lift the US ban blocking supply of critical semi-conductors to the Asian Dragon.

In sum total, the new cold war between the US and China looks set to continue and intensify, pushing both nations to look for a chink in its rival’s armour, be it in Asia, the South China Sea, East China Sea or the Indo-Pacific.  

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues

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