China vs Japan, And Australia: Independence And Isolation Not The Same Thing

PRIME MINISTER Tony Abbott has enjoyed favourable press this week, with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe visiting to sign off on the free trade agreement between Australia and Japan; the visit has been interpreted by some through the prism of potential confrontation with China, and what consequent course of action would best serve this country. Independence and isolation are not the same thing; if Japan and China come to blows, a choice will have to be made.

I’ve been reading an article from yesterday’s Fairfax press by its resident international affairs columnist (and prominent academic) Hugh White; his basic premise is that in striking free trade agreements with Japan and signalling increased co-operation with the Japanese in a range of areas including trade, defence and investment Australia risks damaging its relations with China, and needless to say this is presented with a distinct undertone of suggestion that these developments are a very bad thing indeed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly (we are talking about Fairfax, after all) it is also presented with a distinct “Tony Abbott is stupid” flavour to it, too. I’m not criticising White for his views, mind; we’ve certainly discussed his material here in the past and whilst I disagree with him from time to time I also do concur just as frequently. On this occasion, however, I beg to differ.

My remarks will be somewhat more cursory than I would usually devote to such a complex issue; I’m writing this piece after 3am (Melbourne time) and for a raft of reasons haven’t had as much time for posting content in the past week, as readers will already know. So do forgive me if some of my points are a little simplified — the thrust of my case will remain clear enough.

I have long believed that at some stage, China and Japan will come to blows and that when they do, that conflict will pose a very real risk of escalating into a global war — possibly involving the use of nuclear weapons — rather than, say, a regionally contained naval spat over the disputed Senkaku/Diayou Islands. Such a conflict is the last thing I would wish for, and any escalation is the last thing I (or anyone else with their sanity intact) would ever want to see.

Much has been made recently of the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and purported similarities between the political climate that existed across Eurasia at that time and the climate that exists there now, with the ongoing spat between Russia and Ukraine portrayed in some quarters as a potential ignition point for a conflict that could spiral out of control and drag the world to war again; I think that whilst anything is possible (and I’m not being flippant about it), those who concern themselves with such worries would be better advised to refocus their attention onto the situation that is unfolding in north-east Asia.

The parallels between the anniversary of the first World War and the current situation in the Pacific are striking, and not least because they involve a peace that has existed since the end of the second World War that, to be candid, has grown to appear a little wobbly, to put it diplomatically. Hugh White is absolutely correct in his assessment of the situation: China in recent years has started to throw its weight around in the region, and Japan — understandably, and perhaps predictably — has begun to move away from its post-war pacifism toward a military and security posture that allows for the active use of force in its own defence.

The Japanese occupation of parts of China between 1895 and 1945 — and the atrocities the occupying forces committed — continue to burn in the Chinese national psyche; on the Japanese side of the equation (as elsewhere in the world) the generation with direct memory of the second World War is ageing and literally dying. Even so, these two countries continue to regard each other with mutual suspicion and distrust, and whilst they will remain powerhouses economically for the foreseeable future, the military rise of China is unquestionable and that, too, will continue indefinitely.

Where I disagree with White — and remember, I’m an opinion writer on these matters, not an academic — is the unspoken but nonetheless undeniable suggestion he makes that somehow, Australia’s best interests would be served by not building closer ties to Japan, and remaining independent in the event of any conflict between Japan and China, as well as some of the other overt contentions he makes that conspire to show his position as a dangerous one indeed where considerations of the national interest are concerned.

And I’m not going to dignify his inference that Abbott is either too stupid or too incompetent to have “thought through” the implications of deeper ties with Tokyo with a rebuttal; such a cheap and baseless jab from a reputable figure doesn’t merit a response.

It is true that our country has almost limitless opportunities for trade with China. Almost every country does; China accounts for one-sixth of the world’s 7 billion people, and the sheer weight of numbers dictates that it has a large appetite for everything it can’t produce itself (which is most of what its people actually need to survive). This extends far beyond mineral ores to food, oil, motor vehicles, services like education, and beyond.

Even so, in peacetime I think it’s dangerous to “safeguard” opportunities with one country — irrespective of how lucrative the opportunities it appears to present might be — by limiting those with others. In the trade and bilateral relations sense, Japan is no different to other countries in the region with which Australia has burgeoning opportunities, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.

Coincidentally or otherwise, these are also countries with which China is engaged in a series of dangerous territorial spats as it lays claim to most of the South China and East China Seas, and specifically to disputed lands, speculated oil fields and other resources these areas are believed to contain.

I don’t think Japan — in building stronger ties with Australia — is looking, as White contends, to gather allies to Japan’s side to join it in any future conflict with China; it doesn’t have to, for the United States is obliged to defend Japan should it ever come under military attack, just as it is to defend Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and (let’s be blunt about it) Australia.

This leads to his other contention — that America appears reluctant to confront China on Japan’s behalf — which is true in the sense that America has no incentive, as at today’s date, to do anything of the kind.

America is faced with the same endless opportunities for trade and bilateral ties with China that most countries are: there is no point in Uncle Sam cutting his nose off to spite his face in the name of a pre-emptive warning over military mischief and sabre rattling that has amounted, in precise terms, to absolutely nothing to date.

China can indulge itself with belligerent gestures and bellicose rhetoric, vague threats of this or that, or even ridiculous gestures of passive aggression (such as its attempt to enforce an air exclusion zone over parts of the territory it disputes with Japan) to its heart’s content. America, and other interested countries, will rightly monitor these activities and develop contingencies against a range of potential escalations or outcomes. But until a nuclear-armed country with more than a billion people actually commits an act of aggression against a US protectorate like Japan, the Americans aren’t going to lift a finger. And, to be clear, nor should they.

White bemoans the “division of Asia into hostile blocs” and rhetorically asks whether it is in Australia’s interests to contribute to that. The fact is, however, that Asia is already divided into hostile blocs — basically, China in one bloc and the rest of the region, with a few exceptions, in the other — and nothing Australia does will alter or influence that. We need to remember that whilst Australia is respected on the world stage as a “middle power,” others will make their own strategic decisions in their own interests . China is the clearest example of this the world has seen for a very long time.

Whilst I have commented on these matters before I am generally reluctant to do so, because the last thing I want to be is either alarmist or to sound like a conspiracy theorist: I am neither. But when discussions such as this arise, they do warrant a hypothetical consideration of what the course of events might look like if the worst case scenario were to materialise.

None of this matters, in a literal sense, for as long as the security balance that currently exists remains unchanged. But for the sake of the conversation, what would happen if China were to occupy the Senkaku Islands?

This would, in fact, constitute an act of war and an attempt to seize the territory of Japan; it may or may not in itself lead to an outbreak of hostilities, but to make the point I wish to make, let’s assume it does.

In this eventuality, the US’ “reluctance” to confront China will immediately move from “perceived” to non-existent. As the US becomes entwined in the conflagration it will be dependent on facilities it shares with Australia that are based on our own soil for its military machine to operate effectively, accurately, and to minimise US and Japanese battle casualties.

And — as I have pointed out in the past — Russia is likely to come to China’s aid militarily, especially if the latter is faced with the prospect of nuclear conflict: China may possess nuclear weapons but their use is largely limited to its own neighbourhood, meaning in this case, Japan. Its capacity to hit US targets is limited to its submarine forces. But the involvement of the Russian strategic forces changes the equation completely.

And in that event, the importance of facilities such as Pine Gap to the US military would be absolutely critical — not that they wouldn’t be so at a far lower level of military engagement.

Yes, this is a doomsday scenario and a nightmare prospect, but the point is that a conflict over a few lumps of rock could easily escalate into exactly this situation. World War I was ignited by a peasant assassinating an aristocrat in Serbia. To dismiss the Senkaku/Diayous as worthless specks of granite that are too insignificant to start a war over is to ignore that a single political assassination 100 years ago provided the spark that set Germany at war with the rest of the world. And the generation of Japanese who directly remember what such a conflict (and its consequences) was like to endure is decrepit and dwindling in number.

If this scenario were to materialise, who would care about trade relationships with China? There would be no point worrying about offending China because we would be at war with it anyway — unless misguided pacifism and misplaced ideas about “independence” manage to stop Australia honouring its treaty commitments to the US.

Independence and isolation are not the same thing; it is one thing to desire that wars do not happen — I think we all hope for that — but another matter altogether to think that when they do, it is appropriate to run out on our mates and hide in the toilet while all hell breaks loose outside the bathroom.

If such a conflict were to erupt, we would need the Americans to defend us; this is a fact dictated by our small, conventional military forces weighed against the might of the Chinese and Russian goliaths. The presence of US military forces on Australian soil makes any pretence of neutrality or “independence” moot. We would be a target.

And provided there was actually a world left once the shooting had stopped, we’d need the US to guarantee our safety — for the same reasons. Proclaiming our “independence” and doing nothing is a recipe for post-war isolation, and if it ever came to pass would leave Australia vulnerable to invasion and conquest.

As unpalatable as it might sound, if China and Japan come to blows, this country will have to choose: China or America. This is what it boils down to. And if the choice (God forbid) ever has to be made, then the only logical side to take is the side of the USA, Japan, and like-minded partners and allies across the free world — irrespective of the riches that otherwise beckon as fruits of trade relations with a China that we remain mute to avoid offending.

And in turn, this is why what Abbott and his government have been working towards on trade with Japan — irrespective, but cognisant, of the peripheral issues and their attendant risks — is not only the right thing to do, but it should be encouraged, not chastised.




Hard Reality: Only A Fool Advocates “Banning” Nuclear Weapons

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that nuclear arms rank among the most destructive instruments of human ingenuity ever devised; there is no doubt that any global war involving their widespread use will either enslave the handful of survivors or be so lethal as to ensure there are none. The best possible intentions envisage a world without nuclear weapons, but the real world and its realities dictate that only a fool would ever attempt to realise such an objective.

I have been reading a story from the Fairfax press today, which reports on a meeting of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative in Hiroshima; this event was attended by the foreign ministers of 12 non-nuclear countries, and unsurprisingly featured survivors of the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 as advocates for the outright banning of the possession of nuclear weapons worldwide.

Their call failed to elicit a commitment from the delegation to such an end; thank goodness it did.

I think nuclear weapons are horrific instruments of warfare; it is virtually impossible to use them without killing thousands — perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands — of innocent civilians every time such a bomb is deployed, even if the intended military or strategic target is destroyed.

I also generally believe that nuclear-armed nations should refrain from any first use of nuclear weapons.

There are exceptions: during the first Gulf War, US President George H.W. Bush issued a barely veiled warning to Saddam Hussein that any use of chemical and/or biological weapons on Allied troops would elicit a nuclear response on Baghdad; in the wake of the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, many commentators (including me) openly advocated nuclear retaliation if the attacks could be conclusively linked to either a foreign government or state-sponsored terrorist attack (they couldn’t).

But these are rare (and thankfully isolated) instances of unprovoked aggression warranting a nuclear response that, fortunately, failed to materialise, and I contend that provided there is enough restraint on the part of nuclear-armed powers to refuse to be the first to launch, this at least is one safeguard against the prospect of general nuclear warfare that would decimate civilisation as we know it.

Where the equation starts to blur is around notions of deterrence and nuclear blackmail; the weapons don’t need to be actually used to either safeguard their owners from attack or to achieve sinister objectives under duress. I don’t even think lunatics like the regime in North Korea envisage nuclear retaliation for an unprovoked atomic attack raining down upon it with any relish; it is fair to say that even the most hardened despots find the prospect of their own nuclear annihilation abhorrent, even if their regard for that of others is cavalier at best. Thus, the irony is that it is on the very questions of deterrence and blackmail that the root of the debate over nuclear arms resides.

The conference in Japan to which the Fairfax report pertains — staged, as it was, against the backdrop of the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine — even noted that the Russian action may not have occurred had Ukraine not ceded the nuclear arsenal it inherited upon the collapse of the USSR back to Russia in 1992: I’d say it’s a very fair assumption to make, given nobody would have intervened in the interests of either side had a localised Russia-Ukraine nuclear exchange erupted over Crimea. (Yes, I am aware of the issue of fallout such a regional conflict would impose on surrounding countries. My point is that those countries and their allies would hardly worsen the problem by inviting the spread of the conflict itself onto their soil).

Whilst that scenario is obviously a hypothetical one, a live version of it was played out early last decade between belligerently nuclear-armed India and Pakistan; these are countries whose religiously based hatreds run deep, and whose military planners for a long time viewed nuclear weaponry as simply the latest — and most potent — thing to lob at each other should they return to a state of war, most notably over the disputed border region of Kashmir.

At the time, wiser heads prevailed upon both sides to cool the tensions that led perilously close to war. But the undercurrents that remain could as easily be stirred anew: shortly after the last explosive crisis was defused more than a decade ago, India’s nationalist, right-wing BJP government was defeated by the Centrist Congress Party; that wheel has now turned full circle, with the BJP expected to return to office in a landslide in elections underway as we speak after two terms in the wilderness. And Pakistan is hardly a country noted for its stability or security, and in which a hardline military junta could seize power at any time — just as it did in 1999. Unlike the hypothetical Eurasian scenario, the variables in this regional powderkeg remain just as volatile, and heavily armed with nuclear weapons to boot.

One of the reasons there is no serious talk of military assistance to Ukraine and against Russian aggression is because Western powers know it is action they cannot take: nuclear-armed Russia might respond by engaging in conventional warfare. But there is no guarantee that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t select the nuclear response available to him, either.

I can hear my critics. Doesn’t all of this speak for — rather than against — the abolition of nuclear weapons?

Margaret Thatcher once said (of a proposal by President Gorbachev for the USA and the USSR to unilaterally disarm, which Ronald Reagan contemplated agreeing to) that you could no more “disinvent” nuclear weapons than you could “disinvent” dynamite: from her perspective, which was that of the Anglo-American alliance, if others had them, then Britain and the US must have them as well.

She was absolutely right, much to the horror of the CND activists who momentarily believed their wildest dreams would come true.

For one thing, for the abolition (or banning, elimination, whatever you want to call it) of nuclear weapons to be feasible, there must be trust among the stakeholders involved; I point directly to the Kremlin, noting that the actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine — whilst not involving nuclear weapons, or at least, not yet — are evidence enough of the repercussions in such situations where one side simply disregards the imperatives of the other.

Does anyone seriously think that if Russia agreed to unilaterally destroy its nuclear arsenal that it would honour the deal? It might permit international inspectorates to monitor the dismantling of x number of warheads. But Russia — not to put too fine a point on things — has shown itself to be untrustworthy. Who would risk the security of the entire free world on a potentially empty promise from its government?

For another, there are those states that either refuse to officially confirm the existence of their nuclear arms (Israel) or refuse to sign instruments aimed at the control of nuclear weapons and curbing their proliferation (India, Pakistan, North Korea). North Korea in particular is unlikely to ever voluntarily surrender what limited number of warheads it possesses; it also has a recent history of being led by lunatics hellbent on inciting anti-US hatred among its population. A denuclearised America would face the very real prospect of a North Korean container ship being sailed into San Francisco Harbour, and…kaboom.

It is well known that China’s military mischief in recent years — principally over matters of disputed territory that it pushes claims over with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam — have been constantly ratcheted up and underpinned by the nuclear muscle to settle any or all of them at a stroke if required; one of the realities that constrains China from doing so is the fact Uncle Sam would retaliate in kind and in such a fashion that there simply wouldn’t be a China (a scenario which also raises — depending on whose version of geopolitical allegiances you listen to — the prospect of Russia coming to China’s aid against the US).

In all of these cases, the very existence of nuclear weapons on one side of a given equation is a balance and a restraint on the other from using its own. It isn’t an ideal situation by any stretch. But it has prevented nuclear conflict since World War II, and certainly since the USSR achieved an offensive atomic capability of its own to match the United States in 1949.

And there is no guarantee whatsoever that the scenario regularly presented by the younger President Bush — that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists, whether sold by a rogue government or stolen, that can then be used against countries like the USA and its allies — will never happen. In fact, an international disposal operation of tens of thousands of warheads would increase the likelihood of precisely that occurring, given the heightened difficulties in accounting for every warhead during such a massive undertaking, and verifying and documenting the dismantling and destruction of their components.

We’ve only touched on a handful of the world’s hotspots and the hypothetical scenarios and permutations they conjure up. There is no shortage of others. But to fundamentally alter the uneasy nuclear balance that has evolved over almost 70 years is, to my mind, to fundamentally undermine international security and heighten — not eliminate — the risk of an unprovoked nuclear attack occurring somewhere in the world.

Do I deny the risk of nuclear accidents? Of course I don’t.

Do I deny the possibility of a sneak nuclear attack occurring as things stand? Of course not.

Do I deny the horrific suffering inflicted on the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945? Of course I don’t.

And — except for the attacks in New York in 2001 — I don’t think any of the world’s conflicts since 1945 should have been settled using nuclear weapons; 2001 is a moot point, as there was no identifiable enemy against whom to retaliate in such a tangible fashion.

(And anti-Iraq War people: don’t read more into that than it says at face value; Hussein had to be overthrown and the US was right to do it, even if the “intelligence” provided by the Blair government that justified the operation subsequently proved to be largely incorrect).

Even if the eight known nuclear-armed countries pledged to irreversibly dispose of their nuclear arsenals (and even if, by some miracle, North Korea actually did it) there are three considerations that cannot be discounted, and the existence of any of them should be a bar at least to our friends in the US and the UK, in our interests and theirs, from dismantling their arsenals.

1. Someone might hold out: someone might retain a “secret stash.” It’s not impossible by any stretch.

2. Someone else might have nukes and/or sell them to stateless third parties who then act independently to launch against a disarmed Western country stripped of the deterrent of the US-UK nuclear umbrella.

And (most importantly) 3. Destroy the warheads by all means, but the technology would still exist. There are already those, such as rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who have proliferated this technology to North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and God alone knows who else. The knowledge is too widespread to be wiped from existence, and too valuable not to be preserved. It will always exist. Any belief to the contrary is, frankly, so intellectually negligent as to defy belief. And for as long as it exists, the threat posed by nuclear weaponry will exist as well.

The “goal of a world free of nuclear weapons” is a noble one, but it can never happen: in this vein, the foreign ministers at the Hiroshima conference were right to resist the call to ban nuclear weaponry outright, and it is a matter of some small mercy that its recommendation to ban the production of “fissile material for nuclear weapons” will carry so little weight as to never be enacted.

In Fairyland, there will never be nuclear war. In the real world, the prospect of it can never be entirely discounted. The hard, cold reality is that deterrence is a better option than a state of disarmed helplessness. Only a fool would suggest the latter is in any way preferable.



Chinese Military Mischief: One Slip Can Trigger Conflict

A DISTURBING ISSUE that we have intermittently watched in this column concerns the belligerent military aspirations of China, and its potential to spark a conflict that could spiral out of control; recent developments make that threat greater than ever, and it is imperative China not be appeased.

The last time we checked in on what was going on in China was almost a year ago; far from being deserving of ridicule to at least keep an eyebrow raised toward the region, it seems the latest developments from China validate the concern this issue has elicited.

At the very least, it makes the assessments and analysis featured both in my article at the time and through the material I linked to pertinent now.

As China watchers and others with an interest in foreign affairs know, China’s recent unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) — whereby all planes passing through must notify China in advance, file a flight plan, state the purpose of the flight and use a transponder for the duration of the period flown in the zone — has been ignored by the US military and by other countries which have followed suit.

And China has not been backward in issuing official rebukes and reprimands wherever and whenever it believes compliance and/or support should be forthcoming.

This article, from Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, outlines how China has scrambled fighter jets to “investigate” movements through the airspace in question by aircraft refusing to comply with its demands; chief among them have been those from the US and Japan.

Australia, officially, has backed the right of the USA and Japan to ignore China’s new ADIZ; I believe this is exactly the proper stance to take, given our support of traditional key allies and considering that the airspace in question is otherwise universally regarded (except, perhaps, by the Russians, whose position is not known) as open international airspace.

The airspace also covers an area which is the subject of territorial claims by a number of countries in the region: China and Japan aside, the Taiwanese and South Koreans also have claims over parts of the area, as do — further afield — Vietnam and the Philippines.

It seems clear that given the intransigence of many of these territorial claims, the most sensible course of action is to maintain the status quo in the interests of regional balance, peace, and security.

But Australia has been on the receiving end of one of China’s rebukes for the position it has adopted: this country has made “an error” which must be “corrected,” according to Beijing; the spectre of downgraded trade relations between the two countries has also been dangled by China as a menacing additional layer of threat, lest it gets what it wants.

A rather wan justification for China’s actions in declaring an ADIZ at all is that other countries — it cites Europe as an example — have them, so why should China be treated any differently?

The big difference, of course, is that European countries are not at present eyeing off each other’s territory, nor taking even elementary steps to claim or annex it.

China, on the other hand, claims Taiwan; it has already reclaimed Macau and Hong Kong; and it lays claim to vast tracts of land and sea (and now air) across south-east Asia, around the East China Sea, the South China Sea and beyond.

It is known — as readers will see from the article I linked to and the links contained therein — that many of the countries affected by China’s claims are deeply concerned at both Beijing’s motives and the prospect of China attempting to seize any or all of the territory it claims by force.

All of the components of a powderkeg have been assembled; one spark will detonate it.

Already, the US government has passed a number of resolutions condemning China’s territorial ambitions, and pledging to support the Philippines and Vietnam in particular in the face of hostile action by China in relation to disputed lands.

This is additional to the much closer alliances that already exist between the USA and Japan and South Korea and, indeed, Australia.

The rhetoric from Beijing over its territorial ambitions has grown increasingly strident and bellicose in recent years; developments such as the ADIZ around islands disputed by China and Japan — and the belligerent noise to go with it — increases that stridency further.

A rising tide of Chinese nationalism — perhaps the greatest threat to the ruling Communist Party — is pushing Beijing to take a far harder line than it has to date; at some point, tough words may well be backed by tough action simply to protect the regime on its home flank.

And — as readers will see from the Telegraph article provided — China has already stated it will be “escorting” aircraft through the ADIZ it has decreed, without co-operation or consent from its neighbours; even if its promise not to shoot at these aircraft is genuine, the fact such a prospect has been mentioned at all is worrying — to say the least.

It really boils down to two key points — and neither of them is particularly satisfactory.

One, that to comply with China’s demands and edicts over a sector of international airspace is, to be brutal about it, appeasement; to cave in to such demands now, in an area subject to territorial claims, is to invite further such adventures from China until it demands something the West can’t or won’t concede.

The management of Hitler and his demands by the Allies in the 1930s is an excellent template of where such an exercise in appeasement might end.

And two — appeasement or not — China’s actions, and its malevolent lecturing of those countries ignoring its baseless demands, has ratcheted up an already high temperature in the region; it generates a risk of military confrontation between the USA and China that is potentially one stray shot at a US or allied aircraft from reality.

So much for the scary hypothetical I was accused of canvassing previously. It could happen deliberately, or in a misunderstanding, but it could happen — and escalate — very quickly.

The consequences, in the true sense of the word, would be dire.

And for those who laughed when I posed the question about which side of the fence Australia would land on if conflict between the USA and China ever occurred, perhaps a little more sober thought about such questions is due now China is, undeniably, throwing its weight around — with an obvious intention to do some damage in the process.

Should it ever eventuate, then trying to walk with one foot on either side of the proverbial barbed wire fence — as Joh Bjelke-Petersen once famously said — would be extremely uncomfortable indeed.


BREAKING NEWS: North Korea Readies More Missiles For Launch

BRITISH NEWSPAPER the Daily Express is reporting that North Korean forces have been detected moving more medium-range ballistic missiles into locations along its east coast; its speculation, citing South Korean military sources, is that the DPRK is readying for a sudden missile launch.

It is understood that the missiles have been loaded onto mobile launchers and hidden in an “unidentified facility” near the North Korean east coast, which has raised suspicion that the North’s intentions are to launch against unspecified targets within the next few days.

The development concerns two MRBMs in addition the the one seen by Western observers on Wednesday.

An earlier theory — based on the single missile observed two days ago — was that a “test” launch to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of deceased dictator Kim Il-Sung on 15 April had been scheduled; this latest development would seem to fly in the face of that.

It is understood the latest missiles observed by the South do not have the range to strike the US mainland or Guam, but South Korea and Japan are both well within range — and so are the US forces stationed in each.

Obviously, the veracity of this information may be updated as more information becomes available.

Readers can access a link to the Express story here, which will update during the night (AEST) as more details become known, and of course we will return to the issue over the weekend in this column if anything untoward occurs during that time.


“Final Approval” For Nuclear Attack: DPRK Raises Tensions To Boiling Point

NORTH KOREA has continued to raise the temperature of its nuclear standoff with the USA, warning the “moment of explosion” is approaching; it comes as the US acknowledges for the first time the DPRK represents a “real and clear danger,” and as the rest of the world simply waits.

I wrote in this column a few days ago that the time was approaching for North Korea to either put up or to shut up, based on the progression of its antics and its rhetoric, and this latest development reinforces that view.

Indeed, its statement — including a declaration that its threats to launch a nuclear strike on US interests “(have) been finally examined and ratified” — continue to box the North into a position which leaves little room for a climbdown, and responses from the US indicate that there is now real concern over just how far the DPRK might be prepared to go toward acting on those threats.

North Korea has said that the US would be smashed by “cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means.”

War, the North Koreans said, could break out “today or tomorrow.”

This latest escalation in the DPRK’s hostile and belligerent rhetoric comes as it yesterday denied access to the Kaesong joint industrial zone, just inside North Korea, to workers from the South.

This is potentially significant as Kaesong represents one of the few reliable sources of hard currency the North has access to; its workers constitute a pool of cheap labour for the South Korean companies who operate there, and who in turn pay the North Korean government rather than directly to the workers themselves.

The Kaesong precinct has long been regarded by analysts as a real bellweather of the state of inter-Korean relations, as distinct from the rhetoric from the regime in the North; whilst the DPRK has temporarily shut the area down in the past, its restriction on access to the area in light of the present threats it is propagating represents an ominous new development.

The USA, for its part, has continued to build up its countermeasures, beefing up its anti-missile defences on Guam, as well as bringing additional warships into the North Pacific to complement the aircraft and other military infrastructure it has moved into the region in recent weeks.

And in another sign of how seriously the development is being taken in Washington, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Pyongyang represented a “real and clear danger” to the United States and to its allies South Korea and Japan.

Quoted in The Australian today, Hagel appeared to also acknowledge that the threat posed by North Korea is actually greater, in terms of its capabilities, than has previously been admitted publicly.

“They have nuclear capacity now, they have missile delivery capacity now…we take those threats seriously, we have to take those threats seriously.”

It remains to be seen where all of this might lead, but it is to be hoped that China still retains adequate influence over its errant neighbour to haul it into line, and to diffuse as far as possible the heightened state of crisis the DPRK has created.

Either way, it seems increasingly obvious that unlike previous episodes of aggressive bluster from the North, the current situation poses the real and potentially deadly prospect of igniting a conflagration that can be in the best interests of nobody — including, despite its bellicose assertions to the contrary, those of North Korea.

As ever, we will continue to watch developments on this issue. But at some point — given the high stakes the DPRK has created — something, soon, will need to give.


Unpredictable Miscreant: More Opinion On North Korea

WE HAVE spent a lot of time on North Korea lately, and rightly so, given the way it insists on behaving; the time is approaching for it to put up or to shut up, and whilst frenzied diplomacy would seem the North’s best next move, nobody really knows — it could just as likely be an invasion of the South.

Once again, I am going to share some links tonight in the continuing interests of holding back on the heavy stuff a bit until Easter is over, but even so, what is going on in the North Pacific — with the DPRK apparently holding court, and attempting to put the USA over a barrel — is well and truly deserving of the attention.

As the USA flies more of its most sophisticated combat aircraft onto the Korean Peninsula, continuing to parade its military might before the North — this time, two F-22 Raptor fighters — a few things are becoming clear, in the crystalline sense, about the developing confrontation between the United States and the bellicose North Korea.

One, that the DPRK appears determined to continue to ratchet up the rhetoric, the tension and the danger of military conflict — whether accidental or deliberate — with no apparent end in sight; it seems that North Korea is playing a game of brinkmanship with the US and refuses to blink first, and back down.

Two, the USA, at least, seems to be in no mood to be bullied, and nor should it be; showing off its most potent nuclear-capable bomber aircraft — ostensibly as part of prearranged and recurring war games with South Korea — is an ominous and unmistakable warning that the nuclear sabre-rattling of the DPRK, if acted upon, will elicit lethal consequences.

The dumping of harmless ordnance a few miles from the North Korean border by B-2 stealth bombers that flew to the Peninsula last week further underlined the US capability to respond — if the DPRK took any notice.

And three, it is obvious that China (and, increasingly, Russia) are moving into position behind the North; as odious and distasteful as China’s errant brat of an ally has become, the bottom line has become clear: if push comes to shove, China will back the DPRK, and confront the United States.

I have consistently maintained that the outcome of what is going on is likely to be — in round terms — nothing; the North has engaged in this type of belligerence many times before, and whilst this is its most truculent tantrum episode to date, it remains more probable than not that one way or another, it will climb down in the end.

I think the DPRK wants something; a big diplomatic win over the USA to take back to its people (and the hardened military men surrounding the young leader) to bolster Kim Jong-Un’s credentials as a leader who “kicks ass” (to use the American pejorative) on behalf of his country.

He probably wants food and money too.

But North Korea has also pursued a wish list including bilateral ties with the USA, security guarantees, a peace treaty and a non-aggression pact for many years; the Americans haven’t acceded to these demands thus far, and would seem less likely than ever to dole such baubles out to Jong-Un as a reward for threats of nuclear strikes against a litany of US-aligned targets and in response to his country’s vicious, warlike posturing.

There are two excellent opinion pieces I’ve seen today that I think will interest readers: the first is by Greg Sheridan, the respected foreign editor at The Australian; the second is by Dr Tim Stanley, and was published today in The Age, having first appeared in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph.

Readers will note that the sentiments in both of these articles reflect many of the points I have made myself; they will also note that both articles canvass in greater detail the less palatable outcome — military conflict — and where that might lead.

Whilst I have been careful to ensure that outcomes involving both peace and war have been canvassed in this column in discussing the latest incident with North Korea, I note  that when I first raised the option it could end in war, nobody was interested; now everyone is discussing it.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. But the first article I published on North Korea and its antics, earlier this year, was read by just two people at the time; today, search terms based on North Korea/war/nuclear weapons were the top three drivers of people to this site, and readership here is running at several hundred people per day at present, and growing.

This is not a situation that would appear to be about to vanish, and it can’t be ignored; God willing, cooler heads will prevail, and some form of normality on the Korean Peninsula will be restored in good time, and without any shooting.

In the meantime, we will of course continue to talk about it here; but it bears remembering that four of the world’s most dangerous hotspots for potential military conflict — North Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Spratly Islands off the Philippines — all involve China.

Some time ago, I hypothesised in an article “America vs China: Why The US Is The Right Choice;” at the time — again — I was pilloried. How naive. How fantastic. And what a brilliantly conspiratorial mind I must have, where theories like that are concerned!

It may be that when the current climate concerning North Korea has cooled down somewhat, that particular question is one that Western governments and their people should spend rather more time considering a little more closely.

BREAKING: “State Of War:” North Korea Ratchets Up Rhetoric To Boiling Point

NORTH Korea this morning announced that a “state of war” now exists between itself and South Korea, and that it will deal with each inter-Korea issue “accordingly;” whilst the latest rhetorical flourish is consistent with talk and no action, it raises the atmospherics of the standoff to boiling point.

Clearly, we have followed this issue quite closely; and whilst I restate — again — my belief that the bluff and bluster from North Korea will come to nothing in terms of military conflict, it would equally be unsurprising if it did.

Declaring that the “longstanding situation of the Korean peninsula being neither at peace nor at war is finally over,” through a statement posted on the KCNA website I provided a link to last night, the DPRK declared that all matters between North and South Korea will now be dealt with “according to wartime protocol.”

The statement went on to warn that any military “provocations” from South Korea and/or the United States would result “in a full-scale conflict and a nuclear war.”

And since we last discussed the situation on the Korean peninsula at length, Russia has now weighed in, predictably echoing the posturing from China, which advocates a general cooling of tensions on all sides but failing to either admonish nor reprimand the DPRK for wilfully escalating tensions in the first place.

It bears remembering that North Korea has, on numerous occasions withdrawn from the armistice that brought the Korean War to a ceasefire, cut its links with the South, and/or decreed that a state of war exists between North and South.

The problem however is that the rhetoric on this occasion has gone far further than it ever has and, ominously, there are specific and explicit threats of nuclear strikes against defined targets being thrown around by the DPRK like confetti.

Despite the bluster and the sinister rhetoric, the real risk is that North Korea is painting itself into a corner, with nowhere else to go except into battle; and even if its threats of nuclear apocalypse prove meaningless (as is overwhelmingly probable), even a minor confrontation with the South risks developing into a wider and messier conflagration.

For the interest of readers, I include a link to another excellent article providing more analysis of the situation here; this is from the New York Times.

We will — as ever — keep a close eye on this as it continues to develop.