Can punishing Russia become an end in itself?

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Biden, going beyond the traditional tools of deterrence and diplomacy, is relying entirely on his unprecedented sanctions to shape the behavior of a rival nuclear power, which has a long record of enduring economic hardship.

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, THE HILL

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President Biden’s gaffes during his recent European tour – from suggesting to American troops in Poland that they would be in war-torn Ukraine and saying NATO would respond “in kind” if Russia used chemical weapons to seemingly calling for regime change in Moscow – led to considerable clean-up efforts by his team. Biden, by his own admission, has a record of being a “gaffe machine.”

But the president’s misstatements on issues of war and peace in this perilous time carry significant risks, which explains why his top officials were quick to walk back his apparent regime-change call, lest it further erode U.S.-Russia relations. U.S.-Russia ties are already at an all-time low.

More fundamentally, Biden’s propensity for making misstatements that land his administration in difficult situations is detracting attention from the larger question of whether the president has a strategy to end the war in Ukraine.

Biden’s statements, in fact, are making it increasingly difficult to negotiate an end to the war. Washington’s overriding focus on punishing Russia for its brazen invasion suggests that top U.S. officials are not thinking of how to terminate the war, even as Moscow and Kyiv hold talks.

Punishing Russia for invading Ukraine, while essential, has ceased to be a means to an end and has apparently become an end in itself.

This may explain why Biden has discarded some key tenets of diplomacy, including avoiding insulting another country’s head of state or conveying an unintended policy message to preserve space for direct negotiations.

Biden has increasingly personalized the conflict by hurling a steady stream of insults at Russian President Vladimir Putin, while vowing to make him “a pariah on the international stage.” In the days before declaring, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden called Putin “a butcher,” “a murderous dictator,” “a pure thug” and “a war criminal” — a term whose past use against a foreign leader (for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) was usually accompanied by a U.S.-led campaign to topple him from power.   

The use of aggressive language began long before the Ukraine war. Just weeks after entering the White House, Biden said Putin is “a killer,” vowing that the Russian leader will “pay a price” for allegedly meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

By contrast, Biden has treated Chinese President Xi Jinping with respect. Despite Xi’s coverup of the origins of the COVID-19 virus, his Asian expansionism and his Muslim gulag (which represents the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since Adolf Hitler), the president has not hurled any personal insult at him. Nor has he imposed any sanctions on the Chinese leader or those in his inner circle.

The unintended consequence of Biden’s vilification of Putin is to seriously crimp space for the U.S. and Russia to reach a modus vivendi to rein in their conflict. Putin now has a greater reason to double down and continue his invasion until the Russian forces carve out a strategic buffer against NATO that effectively partitions Ukraine into two, with the Dnieper River possibly serving as the approximate dividing line.

Biden, going beyond the traditional tools of deterrence and diplomacy, is relying entirely on his unprecedented sanctions to shape the behavior of a rival nuclear power, which has a long record of enduring economic hardship. In the post-World War II period, the U.S. has generally relied on sanctions to help bring weak states to heel. Regime change likewise has been imposed only on weak, vulnerable nations.

Squeezing a major power with a raft of harsh sanctions is fraught with danger. The unforeseen consequences could trigger an escalating spiral leading to devastating armed conflict. It was U.S. sanctions against Imperial Japan that ultimately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the Pacific war and eventually the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today’s Biden-initiated Western sanctions on Russia are the largest, coordinated punitive measures ever rolled out against any country in history. But just as Biden’s threat to impose such sanctions failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine, their actual imposition, far from chastening Moscow, is likely to resurrect the Iron Curtain and spur the emergence of a remilitarized, neo-imperial Russia.

The U.S.-led sanctions that followed Russia’s 2014 Crimea annexation, while fueling Russian nationalism, compelled Moscow to pivot to China, turning two natural competitors into close strategic partners. Those sanctions also led Russia to build a parallel payments system that has now helped take the sting out of the recent exit of Visa and Mastercard, thereby setting an example for other nations to invest in building their own payments infrastructure.

Today, the rise in international oil and gas prices, by directly contributing to inflation and political trouble at home, is underscoring that sanctions also impose costs on their imposers. Those costs would escalate and possibly even engender recession if the cycle of sanctions, counter-sanctions and fresh sanctions substantially diminished Russian energy exports.

In a further reminder that sanctions are blunt instruments and often produce unintended and undesirable consequences, the West’s comprehensive hybrid war against Russia is helping boost Putin’s popularity at home. According to a poll by the Levada Center, an independent, Moscow-based pollster that has been designated a “foreign agent” in Russia, Putin’s approval ratings shot up from 69 percent in January to 83 percent in late March.

Biden’s primary strategic focus ought to be on preserving America’s global preeminence. For years, the U.S. waged self-debilitating wars in the Islamic world, allowing China to emerge as its primary challenger globally. Now, as it pours military resources into Europe, America’s renewed focus on European security threatens to distract it from its long-term strategic objectives.

After losing Afghanistan to sandal-wearing terroristsBiden should not allow the impulse for revenge against Moscow to drive his foreign policy. Ukraine is Europe’s problem, and he should exert pressure on Europeans to take greater ownership of their security so that the U.S. can single-mindedly focus on arresting its relative decline.

If a war-torn Ukraine were to become another Syria or Libya, the grave implications for Europe’s security would extend far beyond the refugee flow turning into a torrent. In such a scenario, some of the lethal arms the West is pouring into Ukraine could eventually flow back westward to haunt European nations’ internal security.Behind the negotiations, Russia’s elites are pulling strings of their ownAs social media turns 25, we’re still perplexed about regulating bad actors

The current crisis represents the most dangerous period since the end of the Cold War. Stable Washington-Moscow relations can help to avert a wider conflict and reach a NATO-Russia agreement on Ukraine modeled on the 1955 treaty under which Austria established itself as a buffer state between the East and West and declared its neutrality.

More broadly, the U.S. should seek to drive a wedge in the China-Russia axis, instead of becoming a bridge that unites them. The deepening China-Russia entente is perhaps the biggest U.S. foreign-policy failure of the post-Cold War era.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

Putin’s War and the Mirage of the Rules-Based Order

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For all the talk of a rules-based order, the world’s rule-makers have reverted unhesitatingly to unilateralism during the Ukraine war. While this will leave Russia and the US worse off, it will enable China to advance its interests and bolster its global influence.

By Brahma Chellaney, Project Syndicate

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the West’s unprecedented response, represent a watershed in international relations, marking the formal end of the post-Cold War era and setting the stage for seismic geopolitical and geo-economic shifts. But one defining feature of international relations will remain: to paraphrase Thucydides, the strong will continue to do what they can, and the weak will continue to suffer what they must.

It is true that leaders and observers around the world often speak of strengthening or defending the “rules-based international order.” But that order was always more aspirational than real. Countries that possess military or economic might reserve the right not only to make and enforce the rules, but also to break them.

It is when the rule-makers disagree that the greatest risks arise. The Ukraine war – the first conflict of the post-Cold War period that pits great powers against each other – is a case in point. On one side, Russia has been carrying out a brutal conventional military assault on Ukraine, in an apparent effort to bring the country – which Russian President Vladimir Putin believes is rightly part of his country – back into the Kremlin fold. On the other side, NATO, led by the United States, has been waging a comprehensive hybrid war against Russia.

The West’s war has included the supply of huge quantities of weapons to Ukrainian forces: US President Joe Biden alone has authorized the transfer of $1.35 billion worth of lethal weapons since the war began, with much more to come. The West has also implemented ever-escalating economic and financial sanctions, virtually expelling Russia from the Western-led financial order and sequestering the assets of many wealthy Russians. And it has sought to shape international opinion, with many countries now blocking access to Russian state media.

For all the talk of a rules-based order, the world’s rule-makers have reverted unhesitatingly to unilateralism. The risks are legion. The flood of weapons the West is sending to Ukraine – a country with a long history of weak governance and widespread corruption – could eventually flow westward, fueling organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and terrorist violence across Europe. And the Iron Curtain’s revival may hasten the emergence of a militarily robust, neo-imperial Russia. Putin, who has called the Soviet Union’s collapse a “tragedy” and the end of “historical Russia,” has indicated that Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, is not a country.

And it is not just Russia that will become isolated. The Ukraine war could trigger the unraveling of decades of broader global economic engagement, long viewed as a key deterrent to great-power conflict.

Of course, the notion that countries would rather trade than invade has never been unassailable. Economic interdependence has not stopped China, for example, from engaging in relentless expansionism, from the South and East China Seas to the Himalayas.

Even today, however, economic interdependence has forced rule-makers to exercise some restraint. Despite the raft of financial and economic sanctions it has imposed on Russia, Europe continues to support the Russian economy’s mainstay: oil and gas exports. This undermines the West’s own mission, especially as the confrontation drives up energy prices. But Europe’s longstanding dependence on Russian energy supplies has left it with no good alternatives – at least for now.

Such a tradeoff may not arise in the future. The European Union has already vowed to eliminate its dependence on Russian energy by 2030. At the same time, countries that want to uphold trade ties with Russia are seeking solutions outside Western-controlled channels. For example, India is buying Russian oil with rupees. Similar moves elsewhere – for example, Saudi Arabia is considering renminbi-based oil sales to China – threaten to erode the US dollar’s global supremacy.

This is probably the beginning of a broader bifurcation of the global economy. At a time when economic power has shifted eastward but the West still controls the world’s financial architecture – including the main international payments system, the primary currencies for trade and financial flows, and the leading credit-ratings agencies – the establishment of parallel arrangements seems imminent.

China, which dwarfs Russia in terms of both economic power and military spending, will likely lead this process. In fact, China is set to emerge as the real winner of the NATO-Russia conflict. An overstretched America’s renewed preoccupation with European security will create strategic space for China to press its strategic objectives – its leaders have been as clear about absorbing Taiwan as Putin was about claiming Ukraine – and bolster its global influence, at the expense of the US.

Chinese global dominance would amount to the final nail in the coffin of the rules-based order. Since its establishment in 1949, the People’s Republic has displayed blatant contempt for international law, more than doubling its land mass by annexing Xinjiang and Tibet and currently detaining over a million Muslims. Yet China has paid no tangible price. The Kremlin, for its part, probably did not think twice about rejecting the International Court of Justice order to suspend its military operations in Ukraine.

International law may be powerful against the powerless, but it is powerless against the powerful. The League of Nations, created after World War I, failed because it could not deter important powers from flouting international law. Its beleaguered successor, the United Nations, may be facing a similar reckoning. How can the UN Security Council fulfill its mandate of upholding international peace and stability if its five veto-wielding permanent members are arrayed into two opposing camps?

The world is headed for an era of greater upheaval. However it plays out, the pretense of a shared commitment to international law will be the first casualty.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

Xi’s nuclear frenzy aimed at shielding China’s expansionism

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Weapons buildup casts doubt on whether U.S. can defend Taiwan

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Military vehicles carrying DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles drive past Tiananmen Square in October 2019: Beijing is relishing the international attention its nuclear-weapons buildup is getting.   © Reuters

Far from seeking to hide its frenzied nuclear-weapons buildup, China is flaunting it, as if to underline that its rapidly growing arsenal is driven more by political than military considerations. The unprecedented speed and scale of the buildup appears to be linked to President Xi Jinping’s international expansionism as China seeks global primacy by 2049, the centenary of communist rule.

China’s neighbors need to pay close attention to this buildup, even though it seems primarily aimed at dissuading Washington from challenging China’s actions at home and abroad.

Just as Xi’s muscular revisionism has largely centered on Asia, from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayas, the security-related impacts, as opposed to the geopolitical implications, of the fast-growing Chinese nuclear armory are likely to be felt principally by Asian states.

Neighboring countries, from Japan and the Philippines to India and Bhutan, are already bearing the brunt of Xi’s recidivist policies. But with a larger nuclear arsenal, Xi will be further emboldened to step up his conventional-military tactics and hybrid warfare from behind China’s highly protective nuclear shield.

In such a scenario, China’s annexation of Taiwan could become difficult to stop, even though such a development would fundamentally alter Asian and international geopolitics.

Questions are already being raised in America about the strategic wisdom of defending Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion, with some analysts contending that any U.S. plan to come to Taiwan’s rescue is far too risky and that Taipei ought to do more for its self-defense. In simulated combat exercises for the Pentagon, a RAND Corporation study found that China’s firepower in the form of long-range missiles could already hold U.S. warships and aircraft at bay in a Taiwan war scenario.

A China armed to its teeth with nuclear weapons would cast further doubt on whether the U.S. could defend Taiwan, given the greater risks involved.

Xi’s regime has accelerated the production of nuclear warheads so rapidly that the Pentagon, in just one year, has revised up its estimate of the number of such weapons that China will deploy by 2030 from 400 to more than 1,000.

China has already fielded its first operational hypersonic-weapon system and “intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning posture with an expanded silo-based force,” according to the Pentagon’s recent report to Congress.

Far from seeking to conceal its hyperactive nuclearization, China has constructed two new nuclear missile fields in its remote northwest in ways easily visible to overhead satellites. It is expanding its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos from about 20 to as many as 250. One of these new missile fields is not far from the notorious Hami internment camp in Xinjiang that holds Uighur and other Muslims for “re-education.”Satellite imagery of suspected missile silos being constructed near Jilantai, pictured in November 2019.   © Maxar Technologies/Getty Images

Chinese state media may have dismissed the new ICBM silos as windmills, but Beijing is relishing the international attention its nuclear-weapons buildup is getting because such publicity implicitly underscores its message that it is emerging as a superpower whose plans cannot be stymied.

Xi himself took the lead in public messaging when the state media reported his directive to the military in March to “accelerate the construction of advanced strategic deterrent” systems, as if China’s moderately sized nuclear armory in comparison to America’s was constraining its ambitious international agenda.

It is well understood that nuclear weapons are for deterrence, not for warfighting. More nuclear warheads do not necessarily imply stronger deterrence, which is why India appears content with its small but diversified arsenal. Xi’s objectives, however, are essentially geopolitical, which explains his resolve to narrow the gap with the massive, “overkill” arsenals of the U.S. and Russia.

The objectives extend from having an arsenal befitting an emerging superpower to building leverage in future arms-control negotiations with Washington and Moscow. The principal objective, however, is to stop the U.S., as the leader of the largest alliance of countries the world has ever known, from challenging China’s “core interests.”

As a Beijing-based Chinese analyst has put it, “Beijing’s nuclear buildup is ultimately an attempt to force Washington to drop the perceived strategic assault and accept a mutual vulnerability relationship.” According to him, Beijing sees “growing U.S. pressure on China over human rights, the rule of law, Hong Kong and Taiwan as evidence that Washington is willing to take greater risks to stop China’s rise by delegitimizing the government, destabilizing the country and blocking national unification.”

Whether Xi’s nuclear frenzy can tame U.S. reaction or win greater respect for China is questionable. If anything, it is likely to accelerate the fundamental shift in America’s China policy set in motion by Xi’s scofflaw actions.

Regionally, however, the nuclear-weapons buildup is set to lengthen China’s shadow over Asia while heightening military tensions with its main Asian rivals — Japan and India.

The buildup’s security implications are starker for non-nuclear Japan than for nuclear-armed India, which has stood up to China’s aggression in the Himalayas by locking horns in tense military standoffs over the past nearly 20 months, despite the risk of a full-scale war.

Japan, already shaken out of its complacency by an expansionist China vying for regional hegemony, is likely in the coming years to rearm and become militarily more independent of the U.S., without jettisoning its security treaty with Washington.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Why the U.S. let Pakistan nuclear scientist AQ Khan off the hook

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Decision could still come back to haunt Washington

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

The incredible story of A.Q. Khan, the Netherlands-trained Pakistani metallurgist who — with impunity — ran an illicit global nuclear-smuggling network for a quarter-century would make for a captivating thriller.

A key plotline would surely be the mystery of why Khan, who died on October 10 from complications caused by COVID-19, was never indicted by the U.S. for stealing nuclear secrets from the West. Khan played a pivotal role in helping Pakistan develop nuclear weapons and then selling crucial know-how to three U.S.-labeled “rogue states” — Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Former Netherlands Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers revealed in 2005 that Dutch authorities wanted to arrest Khan in 1975 and again in 1986 but that on each occasion the Central Intelligence Agency advised against taking such action. According to Lubbers, the CIA conveyed the message: “Give us all the information, but don’t arrest him.”

After Khan was tried in absentia and sentenced to four years in prison in 1983 for stealing uranium enrichment secrets from the Netherlands, files held by an Amsterdam court were mysteriously lost, with the main judge suspecting the CIA’s hand in their disappearance.

When an appeals court overturned Khan’s conviction on a technicality, the Netherlands — a key U.S. ally during the Cold War — declined to seek a retrial, effectively letting Khan off the hook. As the Financial Times put it, the Dutch “abandoned prosecution of the most consequential crime committed on their territory since the second world war.”

Geopolitics partly explains why the CIA wanted to protect Khan.

While the U.S. and India are close partners today, at the time Dutch authorities were seeking to arrest Khan, the U.S. was not averse to the idea of Pakistan developing a nuclear-weapons capability to balance India, which had conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. For years, the U.S. simply turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s covert nuclear-weapons development.

American concerns, however, were stirred when Khan began selling nuclear items to other renegade states. U.S. pressure compelled Pakistan to open investigations into Khan’s activities in 2003 after Iran and Libya admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Pakistan-linked black marketeers supplied them with the components they needed to advance their nuclear research.

In 2004, Khan appeared on national television asking for forgiveness, saying he had acted entirely on his own in passing on nuclear secrets to other countries. “I take full responsibility for my actions,” Khan said, “and seek your pardon.”

After this orchestrated confession, Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf, citing Khan’s status as a national hero, pardoned him. Musharraf also barred U.S. or IAEA investigators from questioning Khan. Oddly, Washington went along with this charade, which extended to Khan’s ostensible house detention.

Investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, in their acclaimed 2007 book “Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons,” concluded that Khan was the fall guy. “The covert trade in doomsday technology was not the work of one man, but the foreign policy of a nation and supervised by Pakistan’s ruling military clique,” Levy and Scott-Clark wrote, adding that Pakistan’s generals have long maintained a nexus with terrorist groups.

The military’s collusion with Khan was underscored by the use of an army plane in 2000 to transport centrifuges to Pyongyang. In return, Pakistan received North Korean ballistic missile technology, helping it to build its first intermediate-range, nuclear-capable missile, Ghauri.

While most technology transfers appeared to be state-sanctioned, Khan likely sold some nuclear items for personal profit.

Still, despite exaggerated Western media reports then, no evidence has surfaced to indicate that the Pakistani transfers significantly contributed to advancing the Iranian, North Korean and Libyan nuclear programs. North Korea, the only recipient to cross the nuclear threshold, has long relied on plutonium, which the Khan network did not traffic.

Pakistan’s own nuclear weaponization benefited decisively from clandestine transfers from China, another archrival of India. Such transfers began in 1982, when, as Khan admitted, China supplied the blueprint for one of the nuclear bombs it had tested, as well as enough weapons-grade uranium for two atomic weapons.

Yet the U.S., just as it has not penalized China for its continuing nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan, chose not to indict the rogue Pakistani scientist that spearheaded an international smuggling enterprise. Washington, however, has indicted a number of other individuals — including as recently as last year — for conspiring to smuggle nuclear goods to Pakistan.

America’s shielding of Khan, a nuclear jihadist committed to payback for real and imagined injustices against Muslims, was doubly ironic, because it set the stage for Pakistan’s emergence as an epicenter for terrorism, with its own nuclear weapons acting as enough of a deterrent to retaliation by another state.

Indeed, through its humiliating Afghanistan defeat at the hands of the Taliban, America has tasted the bitter fruits of the Pakistani generals’ cross-border use of jihadist proxies from behind their protective nuclear shield.

The U.S. maintains contingency plans to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if they risk falling into terrorist hands. But if a 9/11 style terrorist attack with a crude nuclear device were to occur anywhere in the world, the trail of devastation would likely lead back to Pakistan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

The Great COVID Stonewall of China

The military-linked Wuhan Institute of Virology, which serves as the hub of dangerous research on coronaviruses.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

COVID-19 has now been with us for more than a year and a half. It has stopped societies in their tracks, triggered sharp economic downturns, and killed more than 4.2 million people. But we still do not know where the deadly virus came from, for a simple reason: China does not want us to know.

China first reported that a novel coronavirus had emerged in Wuhan weeks after its initial detection. This should not be a surprise. The ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) prefers to suppress information that might cast it in an unflattering light, and the emergence of COVID-19 within the country’s borders undoubtedly fit this description. In fact, the Chinese authorities went so far as to detain whistleblowers for “spreading rumors.”

By the time China told the world about COVID-19, it was far too late to contain the virus. Yet, the CPC has not learned its lesson. Understanding whether the coronavirus emerged naturally in wildlife or was leaked from a lab is essential to forestall another pandemic. But the CPC has been doing everything in its power to prevent an independent forensic investigation into the matter.

The CPC did allow one “investigation”: a “joint study” with the World Health Organization that China steered. But when WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently proposed a second phase of studies – centered on audits of Chinese markets and laboratories, especially the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) – China balked. And when US President Joe Biden announced a new US intelligence inquiry into the origins of COVID-⁠19, China’s leaders condemned America’s “politicization of origins tracing.”

Without China’s cooperation, determining COVID-19’s origins will be virtually impossible. We know that the WIV has a published record of genetically engineering coronaviruses, some of which were similar to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), and that it has collaborated with the Chinese military on secret projects since at least 2017. This information was included in a US State Department report released in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration.

But proving that COVID-19 was leaked from the WIV – or that it wasn’t – would require US intelligence agencies to gain access to more data from the early days of the Wuhan outbreak, and the CPC is not giving that up. Nor does US intelligence currently have the kind of spy network in China it would need to circumvent the official blockade. (China took care of that a decade ago by identifying and eliminating CIA informants.)

In any case, China has by now had plenty of time to get rid of any evidence of its negligence or complicity. For this, they can thank the major US news organizations, social-media giants, and influential scientists (some of whom hid their conflicts of interest) who have spent most of the pandemic likening the lab-leak hypothesis to a baseless conspiracy theory.

This stance was often politically motivated. Trump directed far more of his attention toward pointing fingers at China than devising an effective pandemic response in the US. So, when he promoted the lab-leak theory, his opponents largely dismissed it as yet another Trumpian manipulation.

Even today, with Biden now regarding a lab leak as one of “two likely scenarios,” many Democrats resist the idea. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans accuse Democrats of helping China to cover up the virus’s origins. The GOP recently released its own report, which concludes that the WIV was working to modify coronaviruses to infect humans, and that COVID-19 was accidentally leaked months before China sounded the alarm.

If the Biden-ordered US intelligence report reaches a similar conclusion, it could push already fraught Sino-American relations to breaking point. This is not what the Biden administration wants, as evidenced by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s efforts, on her recent visit to China, to “set terms for responsible management of the US-China relationship.” With Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping also considering meeting on the sidelines of the October G20 summit in Rome, it seems likely that, at the very least, the US intelligence inquiry will be extended beyond its 90-day deadline.

But reluctance to provoke China is not the only reason why the Biden administration might hesitate to follow through on its demands for transparency. US government agencies, from the National Institutes of Health to USAID, funded research on coronaviruses at the WIV from 2014 to 2020, via the US-based EcoHealth Alliance.

The details remain murky, and US officials have admitted to no wrongdoing. But accusations that the US funded so-called “gain-of-function research” – or altering the genetic make-up of pathogens to enhance their virulence or infectiousness – have yet to be definitively quelled. On the contrary, according to a Vanity Fair investigation, “In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government…were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to US government funding of it.”

Even as circumstances conspire to keep the truth hidden, one question will not go away: Could it have been a coincidence that the globally disruptive pandemic originated in the same city where China is researching ways to increase the transmissivity of bat coronaviruses to human cells? As CIA Director William Burns has acknowledged, we may never know for sure. But we should have no illusions about what that means. In failing to conduct a proper investigation when the pandemic began, we may well have let the CPC get away with millions of deaths.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

Will China be let off the hook over its cover-up of COVID’s origins?

A security person moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after a WHO team arrived for a field visit on Feb. 3: the lab-leak theory was dismissed until Biden became president and weighed the evidence.    © AP

Wuhan lab leak theory needs to be fully explored

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

For more than a year, the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis was treated as a pure conspiracy theory by major U.S. news organizations and social media companies.

Facebook and Instagram, for example, aggressively censored references to this hypothesis — and even suspended accounts for repeatedly sharing the claim. Newspapers, instead of investigating the story, dismissed it as a crazy idea or fringe fringe theory.

Suddenly, without any new evidence, mainstream media have embraced the theory as credible: that the greatest global health calamity in more than a century was possibly caused by a virus that escaped after being engineered in a Chinese lab. And those aforementioned social-media giants, no less abruptly, have stopped removing posts claiming that COVID-19 is human-made.

Liberal critics have termed the reversals a “fiasco” resulting from American “groupthink.” Actually, the about-turn reveals something more deep-rooted — the political bias of putatively independent institutions and their readiness to be guided by what then-President Donald Trump called America’s “deep state.”

Mike Pompeo said earlier this month that, as U.S. Secretary of State, he faced an uphill task to get to the truth on the virus’s origins. Even the U.S. intelligence community, according to him, “did not want the world to know the Chinese Communist Party was in the process of covering up several million losses of life.”

Indeed, the concerted effort to obscure the truth also extended to U.S. scientific and bureaucratic institutions, largely because U.S. government agencies funded dangerous experiments on coronaviruses at the military-linked Wuhan Institute of Virology, and also because several American labs are still engaged in similar research to engineer super-viruses. Some of the scientists that took the lead to kill off the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis hid their conflicts of interest, including their ties with Chinese scientists.

Today, the new international spotlight on the lab-leak theory may signal greater pressure on the world’s largest autocracy to come clean on COVID-19’s origins. But the long suppression of a free and open discussion on the lab-leak story has cast an unflattering light on institutions in the world’s most powerful democracy that control the dissemination of information that shapes public debate.

It has also underscored the pervasive impact of the polarization of U.S. politics: just because the Trump administration promoted the lab-leak theory, left-leaning news and social media organizations almost intuitively sought to debunk it.

It speaks for itself that the reversals by these organizations began days before President Joe Biden’s May 26 statement that a lab leak was one of “two likely scenarios” on how the virus originated. Biden’s admission came after China closed the door on allowing further investigation by the World Health Organization.

Viruses leaking from laboratories are not uncommon. In 1979, anthrax escaped from a Soviet laboratory in Yekaterinburg, formerly known as Sverdlovsk, killing 64 people. The 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing also resulted from a lab leak.

Yet, despite the globally disruptive COVID-19 pandemic originating in the city that is the center of Chinese research on super-viruses, as well as the fact that international scientists noticed early on that the virus’s genetic makeup was somewhat different from natural coronaviruses, the lab-leak theory was consistently dismissed until Biden became president and weighed the evidence. Sen. Lindsey Graham contends that such dismissal “played a prominent role in the defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential race.”

If there is any silver lining to all this, the widespread death and suffering — coupled with increased public pressure — could force the U.S. and other countries to halt lab research aimed at genetically enhancing the pathogenic power of viruses. But do not count on it: the horrors of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended up setting off a nuclear arms race.

Biden would do well to fully disclose the extent of U.S. government funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The U.S. National Institutes of Health funneled $3.4 million to this institute through the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, whose largest source of funds is the Pentagon. But the Pentagon has yet to unequivocally deny that any of the almost $39 million it gave to EcoHealth Alliance ended up in Wuhan.

A fact-sheet released by the Trump administration in its final days expressed concern over “whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV” (Wuhan Institute of Virology).

More fundamentally, the prolonged silencing of an open international discussion on whether the pandemic was triggered by the escape of a functionally enhanced virus from an American-funded Chinese lab in Wuhan could keep the truth hidden forever. The loss of valuable time has greatly aided China’s cover-up of the virus’s origins.

If in the one-and-a-half years since the pandemic began, the U.S. has failed to find definitive intelligence in support of either hypothesis — zoonotic spillover or lab leak, new solid evidence is unlikely to emerge within the 90-day deadline set by President Biden. U.S. intelligence has yet to recover from China’s crippling elimination of its network of spies across the country a decade ago.

By now, China has likely destroyed any incriminating evidence of its negligence or complicity in the worst disaster of our time. If no conclusive evidence emerges about the genesis of the pandemic, that would amount to letting China off the hook.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

© Nikkei Asia.

On nuclear protection, Japan gets a wake-up call from Trump

Brahma Chellaney, The Globe and Mail

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North Korea test-fires a new short-range ballistic missile in this photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

North Korea has test-fired a slew of short-range ballistic missiles in recent weeks, including three new systems, indicating that it has been busy boosting its sub-regional capabilities since its leader Kim Jong-un met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Korean demilitarized zone in June. Yet Mr. Trump has openly condoned the North Korean tests, largely because the new missiles threaten not the United States but Japan and South Korea.

Indeed, Mr. Trump has clearly indicated that his administration will put up with North Korea’s sub-regionally confined nuclear arsenal (as Washington has done with Pakistan’s) as long as Mr. Kim does not pursue long-range capability that threatens the United States. Not surprisingly, this American stand unnerves Japan, which is central to U.S. military deployments in Asia but feels increasingly vulnerable to growing Chinese and North Korean missile capabilities.

Mr. Trump’s position not only emboldens Mr. Kim but also gives him virtually a free hand in developing and testing short-range missiles that can potentially deliver nuclear warheads.

Mr. Trump has gone to the extent of making allowances for North Korea’s firing of such missiles by accepting Pyongyang’s explanation that the tests are in reaction to the continuing joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. Mr. Trump has called the two-week exercises “ridiculous and expensive.”

Others in Mr. Trump’s administration have also shrugged off North Korea’s short-range missile tests. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statements, for example, have highlighted a U.S. willingness to put up with the test of any North Korean missile whose range is far short of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

After North Korea in early May conducted what was its first missile test in a year and a half, Mr. Pompeo said on ABC’s This Week that “at no point was there ever any international boundary crossed.” Referring to the agreement reached at the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June, 2018, Mr. Pompeo candidly told Fox News Sunday, “The moratorium was focused, very focused, on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States, for sure.”

Japan has said that North Korea’s missile firings have violated United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from developing and testing ballistic missile technologies. According to Mr. Trump, there “may be a United Nations violation,” but the missile “tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there [any] discussion of short-range missiles when we shook hands.”

This position, in effect, means that the Trump administration is ready to sacrifice the security interests of the United States’ regional allies as long as Mr. Kim does not test any capability that threatens American security.

All three of the new missile systems test-fired by Pyongyang symbolize significant technological advances. They are all solid-fuelled and road-mobile systems, making it easier to hide and launch them by surprise. By contrast, North Korea’s older, liquid-fuelled missiles are detectable during the pre-launch fuelling stage. At least one of the new missile systems can possibly be manoeuvred during flight, making its interception more difficult for a missile-defence system.

Japan’s security nightmare has been that, as China continues to expand its already-formidable nuclear and conventional military capabilities, the United States will let North Korea retain the short- and medium-range portion of its nuclear arsenal. With self-interest driving U.S. policy, that nightmare appears to be coming true.

A North Korean sub-regionally confined nuclear capability will only deepen Japanese reliance on security arrangements with the United States. Japan, like Canada, has long remained ensconced under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But given the Trump administration’s “America First” approach and its constant refrain that U.S. allies must do more for the alliance, will the United States use nuclear weapons to defend Japan against an attack by China or North Korea?

For the U.S., its nuclear-umbrella protection serves more as a potent symbol of American security commitment and as a nonproliferation tool to prevent Japan and other allies from considering their own nuclear weapons. In a military contingency, the United States is more likely to employ conventional weapons to defend Japan, which pays Washington billions of dollars yearly for the basing of American troops on Japanese territory in the most generous host-nation support by any of America’s 27 allies.

However, the threat to Japan from North Korea’s nuclear-weapons capability comes not only from a potential nuclear strike but also from nuclear blackmail and coercion. Pyongyang could employ the tacit threat of use of nuclear weapons to coerce Tokyo to make economic or political concessions.

The main lesson for Japan from Mr. Trump’s focus on addressing only U.S. security interests is to directly engage Pyongyang by leveraging its own economic power to build better relations with North Korea. And to shore up its security, Tokyo could also consider mutual-defence arrangements with other powers.

Pacifism remains deeply embedded in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. But the key issue at stake today is not whether Japan should remain pacifist, (Japan is the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation) but whether it can afford to stay passive in a rapidly changing security environment. And with the United States stepping back, peace in East Asia demands a proactive Japan.

© The Globe and Mail, 2019.

The art of unraveling a potential deal

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

Donald Trump’s planned summit meeting with Kim Jong Un is still days away but the American president has already stirred things up by warning the North Korean leader of “total decimation,” in the way Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi met a gruesome end, “if we don’t make a deal.” Even if that threat were to frighten Kim into agreeing to a deal, he has no assurance that Trump will keep his end of the bargain. Trump’s record, after all, attests to his proclivity to renege on commitments.

In fact, following Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, Kim appears to have got cold feet. This is apparent from Pyongyang’s change of tone, including new warnings to the U.S. and South Korea, thereby undercutting the White House hype over the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.

In the run-up to the most-consequential summit of Trump’s presidency, the president’s Cabinet members are also doing their bit to foolishly stoke up regional concerns. It was the neoconservative John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, who triggered an angry reaction from Pyongyang by saying that the U.S. wants to apply the “Libya model” to North Korea.

Bolton’s statement was clearly a provocation for Pyongyang. Kim had earlier cited the fate that Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein met when they renounced the nuclear-weapons option.

Indeed, just days after American forces captured Hussein from his dingy hideout, Qaddafi reached an agreement with U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration to dismantle his country’s nascent nuclear-weapons program in exchange for a promised easing of Western sanctions. That agreement proved his undoing, because it eliminated the potential capability that could have deterred the NATO-led intervention that ultimately deposed him.

When Qaddafi was captured, tortured and murdered by NATO-aided rebels, with a video showing him being sodomized with a knife before his execution, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exulted in a live TV interview. Her reaction to receiving that news on her cell phone was to rephrase Julius Caesar’s famous line after a decisive Roman victory in 46 B.C. (“veni, vidi, vici,” or “I came, I saw, I conquered”) as, “We came; we saw; he died.” Clinton then laughed and clapped her hands in apparent celebration.

Against this backdrop, Kim has viewed a nuclear deterrent as the way to escape Qaddafi’s fate. When he assumed power barely two months after the Libyan leader’s killing, Kim made accelerating his country’s nuclear and missiles advances his top priority.

Indeed, when NATO launched its air war against Libya in 2011, a North Korean official said the intervention showed that Qaddafi had been duped in the 2003 nuclear bargain with the West. More recently, a commentary published by North Korea’s state news agency in 2016 said that “history proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasure sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression.”

downloadYet, in the lead-up to the Singapore summit, Trump and Bolton have gratuitously referred to the “Libya model” in the specific context of North Korea. Mentioning the U.S. elimination of Qaddafi, Trump told reporters at the Oval Office, “That model will take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy … I think when John Bolton made that statement, he was talking about if we are going to have problem, because we just cannot let that country have nukes.”

The imprudent references to the “Libya model” can only ensure that Kim will not make the same mistake as Qaddafi. North Korea’s nuclear negotiator and vice foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan, calling such references “highly sinister,” said the “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable” fates.

Meanwhile, another well-known neocon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has caused misgivings in Japan and South Korea by suggesting that America’s focus is on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear threat to its homeland, not to its allies. “Make no mistake about it: America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into L.A. or Denver or into the very place we’re sitting here this morning,” Pompeo said in a TV interview from Washington.

This implies that the main U.S. objective is to eliminate North Korea’s long-range missile capability. A deal that allows Pyongyang to retain its short- and medium-range nuclear delivery capability will leave regional allies in the lurch.

Such a scenario cannot be ruled out. After all, the U.S. has always focused on forestalling threats to its own security even if its regional friends are left at the receiving end. For example, the U.S. has tolerated the fast-growing nuclear arsenal of Pakistan — one of the largest recipients of American aid in this century — because its nuke capability is subregionally confined.

The U.S. has given no hint as to what concessions it might be willing to make to secure a deal with Kim. Yet the U.S. has publicized unreasonable demands that North Korea is unlikely to accept. For example, Bolton said Pyongyang will have to surrender its entire nuclear program before the U.S. relaxes economic sanctions.

Pyongyang has made it clear that, to preclude a bait-and-switch approach that ensnared Qaddafi, a deal must involve a phased process, with each side making reciprocal concessions in stages. To try and overcome Pyongyang’s stubbornness, U.S. negotiations have suggested a partial surrender up-front of nuclear delivery vehicles (and their components and blueprints), especially the Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-14 ballistic missiles. These two supposedly intercontinental-range systems were tested last year.

It is doubtful Pyongyang will countenance a partial surrender demand because it reeks of the U.S. nuclear bargain with Libya. Qaddafi did not have nuclear weapons like North Korea, but he sealed his fate when he handed Libya’s uranium-enrichment centrifuge components and nuclear-weapons blueprints to the U.S.

More fundamentally, it appears odd that the Trump administration does not recognize the contradiction between wanting to blow up the Iran nuclear deal and, at the same time, pressing North Korea to sign a nuclear deal. It is also strange that Trump and Bolton do not seem to understand that, by raking up the “Libya model,” they are undermining the prospect of a North Korea deal.

At a time when even U.S. allies are finding it difficult to rely on an unpredictable and capricious Trump administration, Kim’s strategy will likely seek to safeguard his nuclear “crown jewels” until a comprehensive peace and denuclearization accord is reached — an agreement he wants with reciprocal obligations, including South Korea coming out of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and the U.S., China and Russia committing not to introduce or threaten to use nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Such a complex accord can be implemented only in a lengthy process.

If no deal emerges next month, Trump ought to write a sequel to his 1987 book The Art of the Deal with the title, The Art of Unmaking a Potential Deal.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books. 

© The Japan Times, 2018.

How to Negotiate with North Korea

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

The risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear program undoubtedly must be addressed. But rather than emphasize “denuclearization” – which implies a one-sided compromise – negotiators from South Korea and the US should seek to secure a nuclear-weapons-free zone on the Korean Peninsula.

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to be setting the stage for an historic deal with US President Donald Trump that would allow his country, like Myanmar and Vietnam, to reduce its dependence on China and move closer to the West. But, despite declaring a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and dropping the demand that American troops withdraw from South Korea, Kim is unlikely to abandon North Korea’s hard-won nuclear-weapons program until a credible and comprehensive agreement is reached.

North Korea has conducted a total of six nuclear tests – the same number as India, whose formidable nuclear-weapons capability is beyond dispute. Kim’s emulation of India’s 1998 declaration of a test moratorium – which enabled talks with the United States and led eventually to a US law recognizing India’s nuclear arsenal – implies that he seeks international acceptance of his country’s nuclear status.

Of course, the US-Indian nuclear deal was made possible by post-Cold War strategic pressures, which are lacking in the context of the Korean Peninsula. Nonetheless, if Trump’s summit with Kim is to have a lasting impact, it is essential to move beyond simply trying to force North Korea to denuclearize and pursue a broader strategic deal aimed at opening the North to the world.

Historically, ending longstanding conflicts – for example, taming the Khmer Rouge, which had been responsible for the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s – has depended on comprehensive strategies that have not put disarmament first. There is no reason to believe that the situation will be any different with North Korea. After all, that country’s only leverage is its nuclear arsenal – and Kim knows it. The mere fact that he finally agreed to hold summits with South Korea and the US stems from his confidence in his country’s nuclear deterrent, however limited it may be.

Kim has already enshrined North Korea’s nuclear-weapons status in the country’s constitution and erected monuments to the long-range missiles launched last year. His moratorium on testing fits this narrative, as Kim presents himself as the leader of a nuclear-armed state embarking on potentially epoch-making diplomatic initiatives.

In this context, it is important to note that, while Kim’s peace overtures are motivated by a desire to rebuild North Korea’s sanctions-battered economy, sanctions alone did not change the behavior of a country long used to enduring extreme hardship. On the contrary, escalating sanctions helped to fuel North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances. Securing any kind of denuclearization, therefore, will demand a more effective economic opening.

America’s handling of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement makes it even less likely that North Korea will agree to a narrow denuclearization accord. Even after signing the deal, President Barack Obama kept in place some strict economic sanctions, affecting, in particular, Iran’s financial sector. Making matters worse, Trump seems keen to follow through on his threat to withdraw from the Iran deal – or at least to add new sanctions – despite a lack of evidence that Iran has not fulfilled its obligations.

And yet, when it comes to North Korea, the Trump administration remains focused solely on denuclearization. To be sure, where nuclear proliferation issues are concerned, the US has a history of staking out a maximalist position publicly, but being more pragmatic in closed-door negotiations. For example, it tolerates the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in Pakistan, even though that country, in Trump’s words, has “given us nothing but lies and deceit,” including providing a “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

But Kim’s latest declaration that he has accomplished the nuclear-deterrent objective of his “byungjin policy” – the other objective being economic modernization – is not an empty boast. The North Korea challenge is no longer one of nuclear nonproliferation. Past agreements with the country, like that reached in 2005, are no longer relevant.

Of course, the risks posed by North Korea’s arsenal must be addressed. But rather than emphasize “denuclearization” – which implies a one-sided compromise – negotiators should seek to secure a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) on the Korean Peninsula. This is also essential for realizing South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s vision of closer economic cooperation that harnesses the North’s natural resources and the South’s advanced technologies.

The NWFZ approach would entail concessions by all parties. Yes, North Korea would have to denuclearize. But all nuclear powers would have to forswear so much as threatening to use nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, foreign warships carrying nuclear arms could no longer make port calls there.

For an NWFZ to be possible, however, South Korea would have to agree to be outside the US nuclear umbrella – not a particularly popular notion in the country. According to one opinion poll, most South Koreans want to go in the opposite direction, with the US redeploying the tactical nuclear weapons it withdrew more than a quarter-century ago.

The problem with this approach is clear: If the South will not give up its effective nuclear deterrent, Kim will ask why the North should abandon its own. As Kim has pointed out, both Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi met with gruesome ends after renouncing nuclear weapons.

Only a US-supported NWFZ can meet the denuclearization conditions to which Kim’s regime has alluded, including the removal of nuclear threats and a “commitment not to introduce the means to carry out a nuclear strike.” Elements of a NWFZ can realistically be negotiated alongside the provisions of a credible and comprehensive peace deal, though the negotiations will undoubtedly be difficult.

If the US needs added motivation to pursue this approach, it should consider this: it is China that faces the biggest challenge from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, as it works to supplant the US as Asia’s dominant power. The only way to mitigate the North Korean nuclear threat, without giving China the upper hand, is to show true diplomatic leadership in securing a comprehensive peace accord on the Korean Peninsula.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Engagement over Antagonism

Sanctions alone will not curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. A healthy dose of diplomacy is needed too.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, February 27-March 5, 2017

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For North Korea, reeling under severe United Nations sanctions, conducting missile tests has become a regular expression of political defiance and technological progress. Just last year, showing its continuing contempt for UN resolutions, it tested almost two dozen missiles, including a submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Yet its first missile test since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November has been speciously portrayed as a major challenge to the new administration in Washington, with some analysts like ex-CIA chief James Woolsey even calling North Korea the top national security problem at present.

The fact is that the Feb. 12 test did not involve a long-range ballistic missile, which North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had said in his New Year’s Day speech was almost ready for launch. The fired missile, which traveled 500km, was just a medium-range type that Pyongyang has tested multiple times in different variants. And although North Korea said the test involved a new missile model with a solid fuel-powered engine — a technological advance that facilitates mobility and rapid launch — this is not the country’s first solid-fueled missile. As Pyongyang admits, the new surface-to-surface missile is based on its solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Lost in the alarmism over the new missile is the fact that the test occurred just after Trump called North Korea a threat. Kim had been on good behavior ever since Trump’s unexpected election triumph, hoping that the new American president would adopt a fresh tack, in keeping with what Trump had said during the campaign — that he would be willing to meet with the North Korean leader over a hamburger.

Kim — the world’s youngest head of state — tested a nuclear device, purportedly a hydrogen bomb, two days before his Jan. 8 birthday in 2016. International media speculated that this year Kim would celebrate his birthday by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, although he had referred to a long-range missile, not an ICBM, in his New Year’s Day speech. Kim, however, delayed his first missile test since Trump’s victory until much later — conducting it less than 36 hours after Trump, in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House, said that “defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat” was “a very, very high priority” for him.

Trump’s tempered response to the missile test drew cynical comments from critics citing his bombastic Jan. 3 tweet. Relying on misleading media reports that Kim had threatened to test an ICBM, Trump posted on Twitter: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Truth be told, North Korea is far from developing an ICBM, as the latest missile test underscores.

Still, Trump is being publicly advised to ratchet up military pressure on Pyongyang, prompting him to declare: “Obviously, North Korea is a big, big problem, and we will deal with that very strongly.”

BIG-PICTURE ISSUES  

The debate on how to tame North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions should not obscure the larger issues involved. Three key matters stand out.

Firstly, the sanctions-only approach toward North Korea spearheaded by the United States has been a conspicuous failure, encouraging Pyongyang to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile programs. With little to lose, North Korea has responded to heavy sanctions by testing nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016. It has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to conduct nuclear tests in the 21st century. North Korea has also considerably enhanced its missile capabilities, though they remain subregionally confined in range.

Sanctions without engagement have never worked. In the North Korean case, the sanctions-only approach has done exactly the opposite of its intended goal — instead of halting or retarding nuclearization, slapping on additional sanctions after every major test has only egged Pyongyang on.

Secondly, Kim has repeatedly signaled that he wants his internationally isolated nation to escape from the clutches of its millennial rival, China. Significantly, he has not visited China since assuming power in 2011, although paying obeisance in Beijing was customary for his father and grandfather, who ruled before him.

Mao Zedong famously said China and North Korea were as close as lips are to teeth. But when China last March joined hands with the U.S. to approve the toughest new U.N. sanctions in two decades against North Korea, it highlighted its virtually ruptured relationship with Pyongyang.

At a time when China’s state media has accused Kim of pursuing “de-Sinification” and seeking improved ties with the U.S. and Japan, the fatal poisoning of Kim’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport has increased the sense of alarm and frustration in Beijing. Kim Jong Nam, a reputed playboy with residences in Beijing and Macau, was a virtual Chinese pawn against Kim.

Yet, oddly, Washington has attempted to push Kim further into the Chinese dragnet, instead of seizing on the opportunity created by his desire to unlock frozen ties with America. Some U.S. scholars have even suggested a grand bargain with Beijing on North Korea. Given that North Korea has sought direct engagement with Washington to offset Chinese leverage over it, nothing is more galling to Pyongyang than U.S. efforts to use Beijing as a diplomatic instrument against it. In effect, American policy has handed Beijing the North Korea card to play against South Korea, Japan and the U.S. itself.

In truth, China is already putting the squeeze on North Korea, especially since that country carried out its most powerful nuclear test last September. But its enforcement of U.N. sanctions in a controlled way has failed to change Kim’s calculus. Beijing, of course, values North Korea as a buffer state and does not want a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with Washington, because that will open a new threat, including bringing American troops to China’s border. Make no mistake: Chinese and American interests diverge fundamentally.

And thirdly, the U.S. has no credible military option against North Korea. Any military strikes to degrade the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities will provoke Pyongyang to unleash its artillery-barrage power against the South, triggering widespread destruction and a full-fledged war involving America. The planned U.S. deployment in South Korea of the anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD — which has never been battle-tested — is no real answer to North Korea’s nuclearization or to the North’s artillery choke-hold on Seoul. China, with some justification, sees the THAAD plan as essentially directed against it.

If there is any credible U.S. option to deal with Pyongyang, it is to give diplomacy a chance, with the goal of forging a peace treaty with the North to formally end the Korean War — which has officially been in a state of cease-fire since 1953. Denuclearization should be integral to the terms of such a peace treaty. But if denuclearization is made the sole purpose of engagement with the North, diplomacy will not succeed. President Barack Obama’s administration simply refused to talk unless Pyongyang first pledged to denuclearize. The North’s only leverage is the nuclear card, which it will not surrender without securing a comprehensive peace deal.

When repeated rounds of tight sanctions not only fail to achieve their objectives but counterproductively trigger opposite effects, the need for a new approach becomes inescapable.

Through a carrot-and-stick approach of easing some sanctions and keeping more biting ones in place, diplomacy can, by persisting with what will be difficult and tough negotiations, clinch a deal to end one of the world’s longest-lingering conflicts and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.