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I am: progressive, not a wild-eyed Progressive; liberal, but shun liberals and Liberals; conservative, but some Conservatives worry me; absolutely NOT a libertarian. I am: an idealist, but no utopian; a pragmatist, but no Machiavellian. I am a realist who dreams.


I welcome all opinions.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

War with China:
   Taepodong Crisis: Faulty Assumptions

After Kim Jong-il's madly belligerent missile thrust into the Sea of Japan, much of the resultant commentary and analysis are making three tragically wrong assumptions:

  1. the Taepodong-2 launch failed
  2. targeting the Taepodong-2 toward America was the intent of the exercise
  3. the Chinese are concerned that their "mad dog" is out of control

In yesterday's Stratfor.com's Geopolitical Intelligence Report, Rodger Baker takes their patented "the-results-speak-for-themselves" look at what actually happened:

North Korea has done it again. A week after it tested seven missiles, including the long-range Taepodong-2, a resolution condemning its actions has stalled in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), South Korea is criticizing Japan for hyping the launch, Japan is openly discussing changes to its constitutional military restrictions, and the United States is asking China to use its negotiating capabilities to bring some stability to the situation. If North Korea was largely marginalized leading into July, it is now once again the center of attention -- and controversy.

When the Taepodong-2 finally lifted off ... it flew within parameters for just 40 seconds, before either breaking up or suffering engine troubles. But not all the details of the missile's flight path are clear. According to some reports, the missile performed normally for some 40-42 seconds, burned out and fell into the ocean.

There is some possibility that North Korea intentionally scrubbed the launch. On the one hand, simply putting the missile away after leaving it on the pad for more than a month would have been viewed as capitulation -- and that could have weakened the internal cohesion of the regime.

But on the other hand, while North Korea has always walked close to the line, it has been very careful not to cross it. A successful Taepodong-2 test could have shifted the strategic calculation of Japan or the United States toward North Korea. Tokyo already had warned that if any part of the Taepodong-2 fell on Japanese territory, it would be considered an act of war. And while Washington has been relatively lax toward North Korea, aside from rhetoric and the occasional economic lever, all bets would be off should North Korea demonstrate the ability to pose a concrete threat to the U.S. mainland.

Whether Pyongyang failed to succeed or succeeded to fail, the Taepodong-2 was not the only missile launched that morning. North Korea is intending again to trade its missile launches for concessions from its neighbors and the United States. If a moratorium on missile tests is coming anyway, this launch represented a final chance to assess improvements to North Korea's missile systems, particularly as the country so rarely tests its ballistic missiles. Testing six short- and intermediate-range Hwasong and Nodong missiles -- the real bulk of North Korea's missile force -- would allow the country's military to learn more in a single day about their own capabilities and upgrades than they had in the entirety of the preceding decade.

It is these overlooked missiles that are the true face of North Korean missile technology. Pyongyang's Nodong missiles have the capability of reaching most of Japan, including U.S. bases in Okinawa. North Korea has more than 100 of these mobile missiles, making them an extremely valuable commodity. And its short-range Hwasong series can strike anywhere in South Korea and potentially parts of Japan.

Amid all of this, China appears to be the least fazed by the North Korean tests.

The Chinese once again have found the world turning to them for a solution. Given the Security Council deadlock, China is the only viable path to negotiations with North Korea. For China, the missile launches have reinforced Beijing's importance to the United States and even Japan.

In the weeks leading up to the missile tests, Beijing had proposed various ways to restart the stalled six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program -- talks from which both Washington and Pyongyang had basically walked away. As the primary coordinator and host of the talks, Beijing has leverage with all the participants -- but China found few takers (aside from South Korea) for its recent proposals. All of that changed, however, when North Korea actually tested the missiles. Washington sent envoys to Beijing and held out the possibility of bilateral talks with Pyongyang (which North Korea has demanded in order to discuss economic sanctions and frozen assets) on the sidelines of the six-party discussions.

While it is not certain that China facilitated the North Korean missile tests, it does seem that Pyongyang was certain the tests wouldn't trigger China to turn on it. If Beijing were truly upset, it could make that rather clear to North Korea in very painful ways. It hasn't. Rather, the Chinese have called on all parties to return to dialogue -- dialogue facilitated by and benefiting China.

For China, the issue is not North Korea; Kim Jong-il is merely a useful fool. China wants Taiwan back; that is, and always has been, on the short list of China's high priority foreign policy goals, and the US Navy's Pacific Command, particularly the 7th Fleet, is the biggest obstacle to that end. Given the disparate capabilities between Chinese and American conventional forces, the Chinese have pursued asymmetrical means. To support an assault on Taiwan, that has translated militarily into an emphasis on anti-satellite, submarine, nuclear and cruise missile technology to defeat the 7th Fleet, whether it is acquired indigenously, bought or stolen. Politically, in the past decade there has been considerable Chinese covert and (facially innocuous) diplomatic activity in the South Pacific. In time of war, this would provide the Chinese deep access into the US Pacific Command's rear area.

But even if the Chinese were to be wildly successful in acquiring the military technology and establishing bases of operations deep in the US Navy's rear, the risks are still way too high. China could not in the foreseeable future ever take on American global military might, mano-a-mano.

Recent hostilities in the Middle East are illuminating. In the wake of 9/11 and the encircling invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran did not become deliberately and openly belligerent towards the United States until it was clear the occupying forces to their east and west were in no position to take advantage of that posture. Encouraging unrest through tacit support of the Sunni insurgency and political support for Shiite ascendency was Iranian's opening moves. A smart tactician does not atack a stronger adversary without encouraging some form of diversionary demonstrations, splitting their opponents attention, if not their forces.

And yesterday, Hezbollah has captured two Israeli soldiers, a la Hamas. Both terrorist organizations, one to Israel's north and the other to it's southwestern flank, are beginning to coordinate diplomatic blackmail with each other.

During World War II, Hitler could have easily consolidated his holdings if he had just stopped when the going was good. But he got greedy and ended up fighting a two-front war.

The United States can take on China vis-a-vis Taiwan without breaking too much of a sweat. Unless it is forced into splitting its forces defending South Korea and Japan against a mad dog gone amok on the Korean Peninsula and in the Sea of Japan.

Keeping that dog on a leash is China's strategy. The fear that China may lose control in North Korea scares the entire region. A fear that China is quite willing to exploit.

Every now and then you have to take the dog out for a walk. The time to be afraid, really afraid, is when China "drops" the leash in North Korea. The price of stopping the mad dog might very well be Taiwan.


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