Even as the focus of American media and the world largely seems to be on the alleged Russian links with the Donald Trump administration, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson recently undertook a critical trip to East Asia amid rising tensions with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, and a sustained Chinese military build-up. The trip came just after Washington began deploying a new missile defence system to South Korea and declared its intent to send Gray Eagle surveillance drones to South Korea amid a growing sense that North Korea might be developing an offensive doctrine for the large-scale use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conflict.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is warning that North Korea has doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon; this has been discovered via satellite imagery as North Korea booted out the agency’s inspectors from the country in 2009. The expansion would allow the North to produce more weapons-grade fuel in addition to its plutonium production facilities in Yongbyon.
Tillerson tried to rally the region, including Beijing, to take on the North Korean challenge. But just a day after he wrapped up his trip to the region, North Korea tested a new rocket engine that the South Korean defence ministry said showed “meaningful progress” over previous boost technologies. The North’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, called the test “a great event of historic significance” that represented “a new birth” of the country’s rocket capabilities.
Making it clear that the Barack Obama administration’s policy of practising “strategic patience” with North Korea has been a failure, the Trump administration is now reportedly weighing a new round of sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system as part of a broad review of measures to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threat. The aim would be to put even greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the North Korean regime, especially by targeting Chinese banks and firms engaged in North Korea. Another strand of this approach is to focus on greater defence collaboration with the regional allies. Missile defence systems are already being shared and joint defence drills are becoming routine.
What is perhaps more significant is the Trump administration’s relatively more relaxed attitude towards nuclearization of the region. In his first interview as secretary of state, Tillerson raised the possibility of both Japan and South Korea eventually obtaining nuclear weapons, something President Trump too has alluded to in the past. Tillerson suggested that while Washington’s overall objective remains “a denuclearized Korean peninsula”, if North Korea continues to move forward on its nuclear and missile programmes, “circumstances could evolve to the point that for mutual deterrence reasons, we might have to consider that (Japanese and South Korean nuclearization)”. He has also hinted that Washington might be open to pre-emptive attacks on North Korean weapons facilities, underscoring that if North Korea elevates “the threat of their weapons programme to a level that we believe requires action, (military action) is on the table”.
During his trip, Tillerson tried to press the Chinese leadership on North Korea even as he called China’s reaction to the US deployment of the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea “inappropriate and troubling”. The Chinese, however, remain concerned about Tillerson’s comments that all options—including the use of pre-emptive military force—are “on the table” in North Korea. For its part, China is continuing its programme of building air strips, aeroplane shelters, and military installations on an archipelago of man-made islands in the South China Sea even as there is new evidence of construction activity in the disputed Paracel Islands. In the past, China has installed military equipment on other islands in the Paracels, including air defence missiles and fighter jets.
China has distributed military equipment across a number of islands in the South China Sea but its most important base in the region is the Yulin Naval Base on Hainan island which has an underground berthing facility for China’s Jin-class Type 094 submarines—Beijing’s only submarine capable of firing nuclear missiles. China is also gearing up to build environmental monitoring stations in the Scarborough shoal, an area which is also claimed by the Philippines, despite a seeming understanding with the Philippine government not to undertake construction in the disputed shoal.
During his confirmation hearings in January, Tillerson had warned that Washington needs to tell Beijing that “the island-building stops” and “your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed”. But so far the Trump administration has not responded to the latest moves by Beijing in the South China Sea.
Regional states are yet to figure out if the Trump administration has a policy towards the region. A new strategy document by the Taiwanese government also underscores the uncertainty in the region, stating that “the recent activity of Chinese jets and ships around Taiwan shows the continued rise in (China’s) military threat capabilities”, while highlighting the importance of Taiwan’s need to defend itself. “In addition to posing a military threat to our country, it also has a negative impact on regional stability.”
As regional flux unfolds in Asia, the old order in the region is under stress. Pre-emption and nuclear proliferation may soon become the new normal. And countries like India that have relied on the extant order for furthering their economic and security agenda will have to rethink their own roles and priorities. India’s desire to play a leading role in the regional order will come under question if there is no order to begin with. Interesting times indeed!
Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and professor of international relations at King’s College, London.
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