So much is going on in the different channels between the US and China, China and the DPRK and by now maybe US and DPRK that reading the tea leaves is an almost impossible – if not frantic – task. The situation remains extremely high risk and crystal ball gazing is near to fantasy.
As of today what can be established as likely facts are :
- Following the Xi:Trump summit and subsequent phone conversations between the two, China has argued more strongly than ever before with the DPRK on the utmost priority for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula
- China has made specific threats ( including oil supplies, support for possible US-led harsh financial sanctions) to the DPRK if it continues its nuclear tests
- Proposing in return that China would provide solid defence guarantees for the DPRK ( possibly under the terms of a treaty among the 6 powers establishing a nuclear free zone in North Asia)
- No clear picture of what concessions Trump has made to Xi to force the Chinese hand. There have been some very vague suggestions that Trump has agreed to wind back the anti-Chinese rhetoric on trade issues but how much in substance – apart from the RMB devaluation ? That does not look like it would have been anywhere enough for the Chinese to such an historic change. So what else – maybe in the South China Sea ?
- A US military source has recently commented that the THAAD has been deployed in the ROK but not yet installed. And there are early signs that both the leading candidates for next ROK presidency remain unhappy with the THAAD deployment. All of which suggests this could be a bargaining chip with the Chinese, who so desperately oppose the THAAD deployment because of the threat it poses to Chinese defences
- A lack of clarity whether or not a freeze on missile development has been included in the deal being offered to the DPRK. Some American spokespersons have them included but others do not. There is no specific comment from China on this point
- Recognition of the immediate large scale threat to Seoul and environs from the DPRK missiles and artillery above the DMZ. For 20 years that threat has been very real with expectations that it would take weeks to neutralise (without using tactical nuclear weapons!) and lead to anywhere around 100,000 South Koreans and expats killed
- Recognition also that the above would be activated in the event of any preemptive strike on DPRK nuclear or missile development targets
- The beginnings of an argument in the US that as Los Angeles and San Francisco may well be reachable by the next generation of DPRK missiles with miniaturised nuclear warheads in as early as 5 years time this may have to balanced out against the risks to the ROK from a preemptive strike !
- The bluff of the USS Carl Vinson task group was amateurish and not likely to have been a serious worry for the DPRK – though an irritation for China and the ROK. It had already been in Korea as late as the end of February and the transit to Singapore through the South China Sea would have been no secret to the Chinese – indeed that was its purpose! Nor should it have been to Canberra who would have been tipped off when the planned exercises with the RAN were cancelled. Alone it would have not had the firepower (as the submarines announced later by Trump do) to deliver the punch against DPRK facilities – and the DPRK would have known that. In fact it provided Pyongyang with some attractive material for their ever colourful propaganda machine.
So right now much (if not all) rests with the ability of China to convince the DPRK not to proceed with its nuclear test. Even a delay would be some sort of a success as it would help lower tension. If that comes off both Xi and Trump will deserve the credit for having pulled things back from the brink in ways neither’s predecessors were able to do. As galling as it would be, it just could have been Trump’s showmanship and unpredictability which persuaded Xi to make the big change !! And let’s not forget the current crisis was not of his making – though he did help to bring it on.
But that would likely still leave the final decision on nuclear testing an extremely critical issue requiring lengthy and tortuous negotiations between the three main players. What can be done about DPRK missile testing will also still remain on the table. And things could still change in a twitter! For Australia it would seem prudent to tread very carefully in any public statements and avoid the sort of hectoring remarks about China which the Prime Minister delivered this week. Even Trump now boasts Xi is a good friend and being very helpful !!
Mack Williams is former Australian High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Ambassador to the Philippines and ROK.