Friday, April 26, 2013

Japan stirs Campbell's US 'pivot' soup

[This piece originally appeared on Asia Times Online on April 26, 2013.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]

Oscar Wilde wrote, "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers." Perhaps this is how Kurt Campbell feels today.

Campbell, after all, as assistant secretary for East Asia in Hillary Clinton's State Department, was a key architect and proponent of the "pivot to Asia", which was meant to elicit satisfactory behavior from China - and, in the process, demonstrate US leadership and relevance - by confronting the PRC with a phalanx of Pacific democracies (plus Vietnam of course) determined to impose liberal security, economic, and human rights norms on the rogue superpower.

The inevitable result of US backing has been an increased willingness of the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan to stand up to China, which has contributed a virtuous cycle of Chinese hostility and a further defensive cleaving of the smaller nations to the United States.

The less-than-desirable by-product has been the tendency of the pivot's designated junior partners to tug at the dragon's whiskers for national and domestic political reasons, secure in the knowledge that the United States must back them up, even if the confrontation runs contrary to long-term US interests and objectives for the region.

In the case of Japan, adventurism has gotten out of hand, and the US is responding with anxiety, a shift in policy, and a sea-change in nomenclature.

History will judge if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the architect of Japan's renaissance, or merely an opportunistic and short-sighted nationalist. In any case, he has already demonstrated a willingness to stir the Pacific pot in ways that excite the anxiety of the United States.

The United States' discomfort at Japan's eagerness to hype the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Island dispute as a useful point of friction with China has become palpable.

Kurt Campbell, now ensconced in the private sector on the board of the Center for a New American Security think tank, chose to reveal to the Kyodo News Agency that the US government had advised Japan against the nationalization of three of the Senkaku Islands, the provocation that sparked this year's Sino-Japanese brouhaha:
The Japanese government consulted with the State Department prior to the purchase, Campbell revealed, and was given "very strong advice not to go in this direction."

The US government, in urging Japan not to follow through with the purchase, stressed the action could "trigger a crisis" with China, which claims the islands for itself.

"Even though we warned Japan, Japan decided to go in a different direction, and they thought they had gained the support of China, or some did, which we were certain that they had not," Campbell said. [1]
Stroking the Senkaku fetish might be excused as an unavoidable political imperative for Abe, given the rise in anti-Chinese feeling in Japan. However, under Abe the Japanese government has unilaterally undertaken a series of other moves to strengthen the hands of Pacific nations seeking to counter China.

In recent months, the Japanese government has agreed to provide 10 patrol boats to the Philippines; enticed Taiwan to abandon its anti-Japanese stance on the Senkakus (which, as a matter of proximity, really belong to Taiwan) by granting Taiwanese fishing vessels the right to fish near the islands (though not within the 12 mile limit); offered its economic good offices as an alternative to China as a destination for Mongolian coal; and scheduled talks with Vietnam on cooperation in "maritime security", also known as the provision of patrol boats along the Philippine model.

The spectacle of the Japanese government cutting all sorts of anti-China deals in Asia on its own kick raises the specter of an independent Japanese security policy and, with it, the kind of destabilization that the US pivot to Asia was meant to pre-empt.

As Peter Ennis reported in Dispatch Japan, the Obama administration was determined to reign in Prime Minister Abe's anti-China shenanigans during his March visit to Washington:
In a brief Oval Office appearance with Abe, Obama spoke not one word about the Senkakus, China, Okinawa, or even a "joint vision" of the sort announced with Noda. Abe tried his best to criticize China, very indirectly, but adhered to US desires to not rile-up Beijing. ...

Neither Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry took the seemingly easy step of reiterating the January 18 statement by then-Secretary of State Clinton outlining American opposition to any effort at unilateral change of Japan's administrative control of the Senkakus. This was a far-cry from Abe's initial desire for a strong statement from Obama specifically mentioning China. ...

Obama embraced the US-Japan alliance, but did not embrace Abe. [2]
Unfortunately for the United States - and the pivot - it looks like the Japanese military cat is permanently out of the bag, as a result of Japan's growing unwillingness to accept the second-class military status imposed upon it by its defeat in World War II.

The Abe government is determined to revise Japan's "pacifist" constitution and dilute its restrictions on military operations outside Japan's borders once the LDP gains expected dominance of the Diet's upper as well as lower house - and the ability to unilaterally amend the constitution - following elections in July.

Actually, a lot of nibbling has already taken place. Recently, the Japanese cabinet decided that Japanese ground forces could be dispatched overseas "to assist in the evacuation of Japanese nationals" from danger zones. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera asserted Japan's legal right to engage in preemptive strike to forestall an imminent attack, while stating that Japan had not developed that capability "as yet".

During Prime Minister Abe's visit to the United States, the Japanese team also touted the concept of "collective self-defense", which states that the Japanese self-defense forces could come to the defense of an ally, ie fight a war outside Japan's borders as long as it was "defending an ally". To demonstrate the benefits of the collective self-defense posture, the Japanese team also suggested that Japan's missile defense network would be pleased to knock down a North Korean missile headed for the United States.

The Obama administration, while undoubtedly appreciative of the offer to shelter beneath Japan's missile defense umbrella, was perhaps more worried about Japan knocking down something else and starting World War III, and demurred.

In a relatively unnoticed but equally significant development, the Obama administration also objected strongly to Japan's plans to process its spent fuel rods domestically and enlarge its sizable stockpile of bomb-worthy plutonium metal. [3] Another indication that Japan has slipped the leash is in the area of "Abenomics".

It is safe to say that no governments outside of Japan are enthusiastic about the keystone of Prime Minister Abe's national economic rebirth strategy: a wild bet on quantitative easing twice the size of the US effort, one that will inject US$1.4 trillion into the economy over two years and double Japan's money supply.

Officially, the objective of the policy is to boost inflation to 2%, thereby baking inflationary expectations into the economy, and stampeding "Mrs Watanabe", the prototypical Japanese saver, into buying a new car or bedpan-emptying robot right away, instead of waiting for another 20 years of continued deflation to bring the price within reach. Nobody knows if that will work.

Unofficially, the objective of the policy seems to be to drive down the yen and boost Japanese exports, which is already working.

To cite Oscar Wilde once again, export promotion is the quantitative easing consequence that dares not speak its name. Nobody who engages in quantitative easing - the United States, the European Union, or, now Japan - admits that the objective is to weaken the currency and keep factories humming with exports. Because once one country weakens its currency, everybody else will, and we're down the slippery slope.

Given the fait accompli Abe delivered to the financial markets, the Group of 20 decided to give Japan the benefit of the doubt with this less than ringing endorsement of its motives at the April 19 meeting of finance ministers in Washington:
Japan's recent policy actions are intended to stop deflation and support domestic demand.
Full stop.

The G-20 had a lot more to say about quantitative easing, as long as it didn't have to talk directly about Japan:
We will refrain from competitive devaluation and will not target our exchange rates for competitive purposes, and we will resist all forms of protectionism and keep our markets open. We reiterate that excess volatility of financial flows and disorderly movements in exchange rates have adverse implications for economic and financial stability. Monetary policy should be directed toward domestic price stability and continuing to support economic recovery according to the respective mandates of central banks. We will be mindful of unintended negative side effects stemming from extended periods of monetary easing.
Concerned readers will be shocked, shocked! to learn that Japanese officials and sympathetic media outlets spun the G-20's leeriness about quantitative easing and its one-sentence shirking of criticism of Japanese policy into an endorsement of Abenomics. As in:
G-20 understood Japan's policies to revive economy - BOJ's Kuroda. [4]
The Japan Times headlined with "G-20 finance chiefs back aggressive easing regime" and continued with a strategic use of the passive voice:
Those comments were viewed as giving a green light to Japan's program, which has driven the value of the yen down by more than 20 percent against the dollar since October. [5]
As reported by the Guardian, concern over Japan's Abenomics plans was already widely acknowledged back in February:
Japan will escape censure from the G20 group of nations meeting in Moscow this weekend despite widespread unease at Tokyo's aggressive intervention into currency markets to drive down the value of the yen.

It is understood that pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and several prominent G20 members has kept any reference to Japan's attempts to depress the yen out of a communique due to be released on Saturday.

A draft communique seen by Reuters suggests that Tokyo would not be singled out for criticism, as had been suggested.

An unnamed delegate was quoted as saying: "There wasn't anybody putting Japan on the spot. That's quite frankly a bit of a surprise." [6]
For its part, in order to avoid explicit criticism in the Washington meeting, the Bank of Japan declared it would print money by purchasing Japanese government bonds, not directly purchasing foreign securities and thereby explicitly strengthening foreign currencies. [7]

Nevertheless, in the real world, a lot of that money is going to end up in foreign markets (and strengthening foreign currencies) anyway, simply getting laundered through private securities firms instead of flooding out direct from the BOJ. Bill Gross, the bond guru of Pimco - and Japanese QE skeptic-told the Wall Street Journal:
"This BOJ printing seeps out daily into global markets as Japanese institutions which have sold their Japanese government bonds to the BOJ look for higher yielding replacements," said Mr Gross in an email interview Tuesday afternoon with The Wall Street Journal. "Ten-year Treasurys to us look very low-yielding, but to them they yield 125 basis points more." [8]
It is not out of line to speculate that Japan's announcement of its decision to join negotiations on the Obama administration's cherished Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact was also timed to ensure US forbearance on Japan's massive program of quantitative easing.

Japan may be enjoying some success in its public relations campaign to paper over widespread unease about its quantitative easing program, but massaging the national and financial press is not going to alleviate private US concerns about the immediate and less than beneficial impact of Prime Minister Abe's diplomatic and economic initiatives on another important pivot partner, South Korea.

In the framework of the pivot, Japan's disregard for the sensibilities and interests of the Republic of Korea, a frontline state in any effort to restrain North Korea and counter China, is well-nigh inexplicable.

Why split the anti-China alliance by fussing over the Dokdo Islands, provoking South Korea with unnecessary, symbolic affronts like Abe's offering to the Yasakuni shrine, the visit of almost 200 lawmakers to the shrine, or making statements like this?:
On Tuesday during an Upper House session, Abe was asked to comment on the 1995 statement by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who straightforwardly apologized for Japan's "colonial rule and aggression," which "caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries."

Abe didn't elaborate, but he did claim that the definition of "aggression" in general has yet to be "firmly determined" by academic experts or the international community.

What is described as aggression "can be viewed differently" depending on which side you're on, Abe said. Major South Korean newspapers slammed Abe on their front pages Wednesday. [9]
If Prime Minister Abe is unable to characterize the invasion of Korea and China as "aggression", Japan's neighbors are free to worry about how elastic his definition of "self-defense", collective or otherwise might be, once the constitution is revised.

In some circles, Japan's quantitative easing is seen as little more than a zero-sum game to juice the economy by benefiting Japanese exporters at the expense of their direct rivals in South Korea, pivot be damned:
[T]he Hyundai Research Institute predicted that if the yen reaches 100 or 110 to the dollar, South Korean exports will fall by 3.4% in the first case and 11.4% in the second.

The problem is the large degree of overlap with Japan in terms of major exports, which account for 60% of South Korea's GDP. An analysis by the Korea International Trade Association showed an overlap of about 50% between South Korea's top 100 export items and Japan's.

Indeed, Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MTIE) figures on the first quarter growth rate for export items where South Korea competes with Japan showed an 11.3% drop from the previous quarter for steel and a 3.5% drop for automobiles. With respective ratings of 0.63 and 0.58, they were the second and third most competitive industries behind shipbuilding (0.75). [10]
South Korea experiences a double whammy at the hands of Japanese quantitative easing thanks to the ROK's status as a growing, emerging economy and, therefore, a hot money magnet, as William Pesek wrote for Bloomberg, while chronicling the ROK's $16 billion stimulus counter to the 20% drop in the value of the yen:
Instead of spurring demand, ultra-low rates are creating a flood of hot money. All that cash has to go somewhere, and it's ending up in Chinese junk bonds, Philippine stocks, Australian real estate and the Korean won.

More bold steps may be coming. Korea is considering ways to insulate itself from capital-flow volatility, possibly by imposing taxes on financial transactions. Fifteen years ago, Malaysia became a pariah state when it limited the flow of money. Today, it is common-sense economics to protect your country from being overwhelmed by central-bank largesse.

Developing Asia once spread financial contagion from New York to London and Tokyo. Now, as the world's richest economies return the favor, Asian policymakers are grappling for ways to cope ? [11]
Ironically, one of the best ways for the US to restrain an increasingly independently minded Japan is by cozying up to China and redefining the pivot away from its China-containment (and provocation and destabilization-enabling) roots.

So Kurt Campbell emphasized the distance between Washington and Tokyo on the Senkakus, and - notably for someone who built a diplomatic strategy on confronting China - made the case in an op-ed for the Financial Times for increased cooperation between the US and China:
[T]he world's most important bilateral relationship is the one between the US and China. For that relationship to succeed, it must be embedded in a larger framework of US diplomacy in Asia, stretching from Japan to India, but certainly the US-China piece will be central for the 21st century. With new leadership in Beijing under President Xi Jinping settling in and President Barack Obama starting his second term, this is a defining period for the future of US-China relations. Both countries have challenging domestic agendas, but Washington and Beijing fully recognise the importance of their international interactions. [12]
The US media also made some ridiculous but significant efforts within the context of the North Korean crisis to shoehorn China into the unlikely role of America's pivot "ally". [13]

As part of the China reset, the Obama administration dispatched the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Michael Dempsey, to Beijing, where he labored to redefine the pivot as "not all about China" and, indeed, not even a pivot at all:
Economic, security, and demographic trends all lead to the Asia-Pacific region, he said.

"Furthermore, I tell them this wasn't about them, meaning China. Of course they're a factor, but this wasn't a strategy that was aimed at them in any way," Dempsey said.

The chairman added that military considerations are only part of the broader US regional strategy. "I pointed out to them that among the first visitors who came here after our ? rebalancing initiative was announced was Jack Lew, the secretary of the treasury," he said. [14]
For connoisseurs of government newspeak, it should be pointed out that apparently the "pivot", with its thrusty, aggressive connotations is "out" and the more gentle, conciliatory "rebalancing" is "in" as the description of what the US is trying to do to or with China in Asia.

Speaking of the finance side of "rebalancing", the Department of Treasury also quietly emphasized the implicit gap between Washington and Tokyo on quantitative easing while giving China some modest praise, as the German news outlet MNI reported:
If there was anything mildly unexpected in Lew's post-G20 comments, it was the highlighted praise aimed at China, increasing the emphasis on the positive beyond that of Lew's two most recent predecessors. ?

Lew's silence about Japan in his statement to his counterparts from around the world seemed to soften somewhat the emphasis placed only hours earlier by a senior Treasury official. The official had reiterated in response to a question from MNI that the US. will be watching closely to see if the expansion of quantitative easing in Japan actually does more to boost demand and inflation than it does to depreciate the yen. [15]
In another indication of US establishment umbrage, New York Times also weighed in with an editorial critical of Japan's Yasakuni Shrine antics titled "Japan's Unnecessary Nationalism".
In a significant bit of reframing that probably irked the Japanese government, the New York Times pointed out that the recent heightening of tensions around the Senkakus was a bilateral effort (China was responding to a flotilla of Japanese nationalists), not merely an exercise in Chinese "assertiveness", as the Western media usually presents the issue:
On Monday, South Korea canceled a visit to Japan by its foreign minister and China publicly chastised Japan. On Tuesday, tensions were further fueled when Chinese and Japanese boats converged on disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Japan and China both need to work on a peaceful solution to their territorial issues. But it seems especially foolhardy for Japan to inflame hostilities with China and South Korea when all countries need to be working cooperatively to resolve the problems with North Korea and its nuclear program. [16]
So, from the US perspective, maybe China is not the only big, bad guy in Asia anymore.

Add Japan, with its unilateral, damn the consequences (to others) security and fiscal aggressiveness to the list.

When one considers that the Japanese quantitative easing program could blow up the Asian and world economy in a replay of 1997 - or worse - there's even a case to be made that the genuine near-term threat to the world's well-being from Japan is perhaps greater than that from China.

As one finance guru told CNBC:
There are additional risks, the most glaring being that a big round of quantitative easing in Japan may be no better at stoking growth and the good kind of inflation there than it has been in the US. Despite the Fed's all-out efforts, unemployment remains elevated and inflation subdued, though stocks have soared. ...

"Monetary policy is being used as the policy tool to create demand. The question is, is this going to end in tears?" Prudential's Krosby said. "Is this going to end in worse calamity for the markets than what we had in 2008 and 2009?" [17]
Creating and then managing intractable problems through reshuffled nomenclature may be the ticket to full employment for practitioners of international relations, but for promoters of the US national interest, the realization that we are now wrestling with a second assertive, unpopular, and profoundly destabilizing power in the West Pacific is cause for concern, not celebration.

1. U.S. warned government against buying Senkaku Islands: Campbell , Japan Times, April 10, 2013.
2. For Abe, talks with Obama came down to 'take what you can get', Dispatch Japan, February 26, 2013.
3. U.S. officials concerned about Japan's plan to reprocess nuclear fuel, R&D, April 22, 2013.
4. G20 understood Japan's policies to revive economy - BOJ's Kuroda, Reuters, April 22, 2013.
5. G-20 finance chiefs back aggressive easing regime, Japan Times, April 20, 2013.
6. G20 meeting: Japan won't be singled out for currency depreciation, The Guardian, February 15, 2013.
7. Finance ministers endorse Japan's easy money, USA Today, April 19, 2013.
8. Pimco's Bill Gross Turns Bullish on 10-Year Treasury Notes, Fox News, April 9, 2013.
9. Abe war comment roils S. Korean media, Japan Times, April 24, 2013.
10. Weak yen could mean trouble ahead for South Korean exporters, The hankyoreh, April 24, 2013.
11. Click here.
12. Steps to improve US-China relations, The Financial Times, April 23, 2013. (Subscription only).
13. AP Thinks China is 'An Unreliable American Ally', China Matters, April 6, 2013.
14. China Visit Sparks Dynamic Engagements, Dempsey Says, US Department of Defense, April 24, 2013.
15. Click here.
16. Japan's Unnecessary Nationalism, The New York Times, April 23, 2013.
17. US, Japan Now Global Allies in Money Printing, CNBC, April 8, 2013.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

China Gets Its Iron Man

As a result of Disney's desire to ingratiate itself with the Chinese authorities and smooth the path for the opening of the Disney theme park in Shanghai, on May 1, China will receive its own version of Iron Man 3 showcasing local fan fave and indefatigable fashionista Fan Bingbing.

                                When The Chinese Said They Wanted Iron Man…

                                                           …Well, I Had No Idea they wanted...
                                                                    "Man with Iron"

You want starch on that, Mandarin?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Enter Realpolitik

Is the US Thinking About Backpedaling on North Korean Nukes?  Will the Pivot Go Wobbly?

Will President Obama become a late and unlikely convert to realpolitik and allow John Kerry to sacrifice America’s nuclear non-proliferation principles on the battered altar of North Korean diplomacy?

And will the fearsome pivot to Asia turn into a dainty pirouette, an American pas de deux with China as the two great powers search for a way to dance around the North Korean nuclear problem?

Potentially, the North Korean nuclear crisis is a good thing for the US and South Korea--and perhaps even for China!—if President Obama is ready to bend on some cherished non-proliferation beliefs.

That’s what the North Korean leadership is begging him to do, amid the nuclear uproar.

His Secretary of State, John Kerry, seems to be interested in getting, if not on the same page, in the same chapter with North Korea, and maybe pick up a geopolitical win (with Chinese acquiescence) similar to the successful effort to push Myanmar (Burma) out of its exclusive near-China orbit.

John Kerry is very much the pragmatist—normalization of US-Vietnam relations was his signature geostrategic success as US Senator—and apparently would enjoy negotiating with the North Koreans and weaning them away from the Chinese at the cost of finessing the nuclear weapons issue.

On the occasion of his press conference in Seoul on April 12, Secretary Kerry had some interesting things to say.

First, in a backhanded way, he repudiated the previous policy of non-engagement, saying [President Park] “wants to try to do to change a mold that obviously has not worked very effectively over the last years”.

Secondly, on the nuke issue he stated:

North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power.

Kerry made the remark in the context of opening the door a crack to discussions, not trying to rally an international coalition to remove an entrenched DPRK nuclear weapons program that otherwise is clearly not going anywhere.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into this statement to interpret it to mean “It will be unacceptably embarrassing to the United States if North Korea tries to compel formal US acceptance of North Korean nukes along the lines of the bullshit deal we did with India, so Pyongyang better be prepared to throw me a goddam bone like, hey, we are also committed to the eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Or, in Kerry-speak:

They simply have to be prepared to live up to the international obligations and standards which they have accepted, and make it clear they will move to denuclearization as part of the talks, and those talks could begin.

It also remains to be seen if President Obama will agree with Secretary Kerry (who, I believe, is not a member of the President’s true inner circle temperamentally or ideologically)  that some incremental and perhaps temporary improvement in the North Korean situation is adequate compensation for the muddying of the US pivot and non-proliferation messages.  

President Obama’s decision will probably hinge on whether he decides that recent leadership changes—and the potential for tectonic realignments in the region’s geopolitics—present an opportunity worth seizing.

To understand why, one has to look at the complicated geopolitical relations of the major players, the rivals, and the haters, especially South Korea.

All five of the nations directly involved in the current imbroglio on the Korean peninsula experienced leadership transitions over the last six months, either through election (US, Japan, and South Korea), selection (the People’s Republic of China), or demise (the DPRK-- Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—a.k.a. North Korea).

The most important change was the one least noticed in the West: the election of Mdme. Park Geun-hye as president of South Korea.

Mdme. Park succeeded Lee Myung-bak, whose intransigent “MB” policy toward North Korea had frozen Korean diplomacy for the last six years.  

Mdme. Park’s stated intention is to mix some carrot with the stick in what she calls “trust-politik” in a quest for reunification.  She has put engagement and discussions back on the proposed North-South agenda.

Since the ROK, as the frontline state with the most skin in the Korean game, holds a de facto veto over US North Korean policy, Mdme. Park’s shift means that the Obama administration has the option of transitioning from the policy of “strategic patience” a.k.a. malign neglect that prevailed during the Lee Myung-bak years, to consideration of some kind of engagement with Pyongyang in coordination with Seoul.

Unfortunately, what Pyongyang really needs is something that the United States is loath to grant: some kind of diplomatic and economic rapprochement that includes acceptance of the DPRK’s nuclear weapon and missile programs, which provide the best assurance of continued US forbearance, engagement, and, potentially, active and positive interest in the regime’s survival.

The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama can shoulder much of the blame for North Korea’s unwillingness to abandon its nukes.  For North Korea, the Iraq invasion highlighted the dangers of being nuke-free in the face of US antipathy; the Libyan adventure (which occurred after Libya’s full denuclearization, return to the good graces of the IAEA, a multi-billion dollar financial settlement, the opening of Libya’s oil industry to Western exploitation, and a restoration of diplomatic relations and security exchanges with the United States) demonstrated that surrendering one’s nukes in return for rapprochement could quickly turn into a death sentence.

It is now generally accepted in the foreign policy establishment that the DPRK in its current configuration will never give up its nuclear weapons.  Indeed, as the current crisis demonstrates, North Korea is committed to testing and improving its arsenal as quickly as possible under the cover of the general uproar.

The nuclear embarrassment is compounded by the fact that North Korea is not content to wait passively for whatever policies that the US and ROK jointly decide, in the spirit of mercy or malice, to impose on the DPRK.

Although the ROK’s new interest in reducing tensions on the peninsula is a prerequisite for America taking another bite out of the rather gamey North Korean negotiating apple, the DPRK does not like to see the United States deferring to Seoul on North Korea issues and thereby letting the initiative pass to South Korea.  

It doesn’t want discussion to focus on the ROK’s priority—reunification-- which would give the whip hand to President Park and deprive Pyongyang of the opportunity to play divide and rule and lure the United States into a deal that might suit Washington’s geopolitical obsessions (like sticking a finger in China’s eye) while giving shorter shrift to awkward South Korean priorities (like reunification-related reforms, further economic and investment goodies for the ROK in the North or at the very least the promise of some better behavior from Pyongyang). 

In order to suit its US-centric negotiating strategy, the DPRK wishes the North Korean issue framed in the context of the US priority--nuclear security.

So the DPRK turns to its cherished geopolitical card, actually its only geopolitical card,  nuclear brinksmanship, in order to demand that the world negotiate with it on its terms—and the United States, as the self-professed guarantor of Asian security and godfather of the global nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime, negotiate directly with Pyongyang instead of huddling with Seoul.

This must be an extremely aggravating dilemma for the White House.

North Korea is, after all, a Burma en ovo—in other words, a socialist Asian regime eager to normalize relations with the United States and free itself of its utter dependence on the overbearing and exploitative mandarins of the PRC for access to Western trade, investment, technology, and diplomatic good offices.

And the DPRK is, through its nuclear posturing, is yelling It’s time for the DPRK and USA to get into a room alone, without the ROK and the PRC, and make a deal that suits us both!

Hwever, explicitly accepting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a tough sell for President Obama, for reasons that go beyond the danger of a nuclear DPRK, a stated adversary of the US and ROK (relations are still governed by the armistice that ended the Korean War, and no peace treaty has been signed), or the awkwardness of disappointing the Nobel Peace Prize committee (which awarded the coveted tin to President Obama in anticipation of his future contributions to nuclear non-proliferation, not what he had already done a.k.a. zip).

The key obstacle to adopting a live and let live attitude toward North Korea’s nukes is that neither South Korea nor Japan are interested in living as non-nuclear neighbors to a North Korea that is happily and aggressively developing its nuclear weapons and missile assets.

Thanks to some dubious decision-making by the United States, Japan is a de facto nuclear weapons power, already possessing the technology, space program, and plutonium metal needed to weaponize its nuclear industry.

The Republic of Korea would like to tread the same path as Japan, and is attempting to renegotiate its main nuclear disadvantage vis a vis Japan—the US refusal to let South Korea “close the fuel cycle”  i.e. perform the extraction and refining of plutonium from fuel rods on a variety of plausible pretexts, such as the ROK’s need to offer a full slate of nuclear fuel services as it competes with Japan to sell reactors to the Middle East, or in order to reduce the load of spent fuel rods in its overcrowded cooling ponds.

For its part, the United States is trying to keep the ROK/Japan nuclear weapons genies in the bottle (or, in the case of Japan, try to pretend that the stopper has not already been removed) since, in a region suddenly bristling with prosperous, nuke-wielding powers, the US would be well on the way to losing its self-claimed role as essential security guarantor, arms-race preventer, and beloved pivoteer in the West Pacific.

When Secretary Kerry touts “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” he is also messaging to South Korea that the United States, for selfish as well as good reasons, would like to see the ROK to eschew its own nuclear weapons ambitions and find some other way to manage the unpleasantness of the DPRK’s program.

Ironically, this puts the US on the same page with China, albeit for different reasons (China has reason to worry about actually getting blown up by local nukes, not just suffering an embarrassing loss of regional stature).

However, it appears that the easy solution to the whole regional nuclear arms mess—denuclearizing the DPRK—is not feasible.

The difficult solution—finessing the DPRK nuclear program while managing the anxieties and opportunism of Japan and the ROK—is beyond the unaided efforts of the United States.

The combined, genuine, and active good offices of China, the ROK, and the US are probably required to reassure and reward the DPRK’s understandably paranoid leadership and perform the well-nigh impossible feat of transitioning North Korea from the scary and unacceptable “impoverished dangerous dingbat nuclear weapons dictatorship” category to the acceptable class of “rapidly developing junior partner in Asian prosperity that just happens to be a single-party authoritarian state with nuclear weapon and missile capabilities”, in other words a mini-China.

The United States continues to gag on the nuclear weapons issue, both for some very good reasons relating to the potential for a regional nuclear arms race and a subsequent decline in US clout, and the expectation born of rich experience that whatever deal is made with the DPRK will quickly turn to shit.

But, judging by Secretary Kerry’s remarks, Washington may be enticed by the idea that an incremental US geopolitical win on North Korea and a general easing of Asian tensions might be adequate compensation for the sacrifice of nuclear non-proliferation principles.

The Obama administration, whose first term China policy was characterized by the relentless (and to my mind, counterproductive) zero-sum tensions of the Asian pivot executed by Secretary of State Clinton, may be thinking about using the North Korean crisis as the opportunity for a reset of US-China relations through the incremental pursuit of win-win scenarios under Secretary Kerry.

In a hopeful sign, the discourse over North Korea has recently moved beyond simple-minded  and futile US chest-thumping military displays to some convoluted US messaging apparently inviting China to participate in the North Korean slicing and dicing with the prospect that, in return, the China-containment element of the Asian pivot might be soft-pedaled.

China, intent on sustaining the viability of its North Korean buffer/de facto economic subsidiary, has not yet responded in any meaningful way to Secretary Kerry’s blandishments.

Beijing will probably wait and see if the US can find its own way out of the denuclearization cul-de-sac and offer the plausible prospect of a viable North Korean state that has not become a US/South Korean proxy antagonistic to China (in other words, a socialist state that has partially reconciled with the West but somehow retained its nuclear and missile capabilities).

However, Beijing has already resigned itself, albeit grudgingly, to dilution of its once total domination of Myanmar/Burma, and, as tussles within the editorial suites of the official Chinese media reveal, is obviously debating the possibility that distancing itself from North Korea might be acceptable and even a good thing for China.

The flip side to Chinese equivocation over North Korea is the PRC’s determination to ingratiate itself with the Park administration, and wean the ROK (whose economic importance to China vastly outweighs that of the DPRK) away from the US/Japan security axis into a closer diplomatic and economic relationship with China.  It would be logical, therefore, to expect that the PRC will cautiously partner with the ROK—and through it, the US-- on its North Korean initiatives, if only to smooth the PRC-ROK relationship.

So the stars may be aligning for something sensible to happen on North Korea.


Photo credits:   

Nutcracker image from

Jonathan Jordan and Maki Onuki of The Washington Ballet in George Balanchine’s ‘Stars and Stripes.’ Photo by Brianne Bland, courtesy of The Washington Ballet.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Will North Korea Respond to the Boston Marathon Bombing?

PRC President Xi Jinping made a telephone call of condolence to President Obama, and FM Yang Jiechi reached out to John Kerry, according to the Chinese MOFA website (only on the Chinese-language page so far).

Iran's Foreign Ministry condemned the bombing as a "source of sorrow" (while taking a swipe at the West for removing the terrorist listing for the MEK).

Don't see anything on the Korean Central News Agency site yet.  One might think that the DPRK might interrupt its fulminations about US nuclear aggression to score some humanitarian/diplomatic points, especially considering John Kerry's Boston origins.

We'll see...

Slow-Motion Atrocity at Guantanamo

Over at FireDogLake, Jeff Kaye has a good summary of the unrest at Guantanamo, where the US government is trying to keep a lid on the protests and hunger strikes roiling the Cuban headquarters of our global experiment in illegal offshore detention.

“Keeping a lid on” as in forced feeding, night raids, and keeping reporters out of the facility.

As CounterPunch pointed out, Navi Pillay, head of the UN Commission for Human Rights—whose statements on the dire human rights situation in Syria always receive front-page notice in the Western press—had this to say about Guantanamo:

“We must be clear about this: the United States is in clear breach not just of its own
commitments but also of international laws and standards that it is obliged to

She also said it should be closed.

Non-American outlets Reuters and the BBC picked up on her statement, as did Iran’s PressTV
and the Russian media. (And, in its retaliation for the Magnitsky bill, Russia included the names of Geoffrey Miller—who, in addition to serving as commander at Guantanamo, advised the Abu Grahib
subsidiary on interrogation best practices, and perhaps deserves a harsher sanction than the withdrawal of his Russian travel privileges—and Admiral Jeffrey Harbeson, who ran the facility during the first Obama administration--in their list of banned Americans.)

But nada in the NYT/WaPo/LA Times universe, as far as I can tell.
Guantanamo is a legal, moral, and political travesty.  Unsurprisingly, Candidate Barack Obama called for its closing.  Regrettably, President Obama was unable to do so.  Remarkably, Chinese detainees were at the heart of the shameful political conundrum.

The key problem is well-orchestrated political resistance on both sides of the aisle to the necessary precondition for closing Guantanamo--moving detainees off the island and into more conventional custody conditions on the US mainland.

Release of the putatively harmless Uighur detainees into probation in Virginia was meant to be the opening salvo in the campaign to close Guantanamo.  But it didn't happen, for the reasons described below, and most of the Uighur detainees were quietly and uncermoniously dumped into whatever bribable foreign jurisdictions that were willing to receive them.

The issue of what to do with troublesome detainees who can't be repatriated or sent into de facto exile, and instead require the continued attention of the US legal system, remains unresolved.

As does the issue of Guantanamo itself.

As of 2013, three Chinese Uighurs are left at Guantanamo.  In an update on the five Uighurs stranded on Palau and living in poverty, AP reported:

But officials on Palau say they are not even sure who to contact in Washington. Special envoy Daniel Fried, who negotiated the Palau deal and was in charge of finding placements for cleared detainees at Guantánamo, was transferred to a new job in January. No replacement has been named, which has been widely seen as more evidence that President Obama’s zeal to close Guantánamo – a major campaign promise before his election in 2008 – has waned under congressional opposition.

Read more here:

Here’s an article I wrote in 2009 and updated in 2012 on the Republican campaign to keep Guantanamo open—and deny President Obama the political momentum that would accrue from closing it.  Uighur Chinese detainees and Newt Gingrich occupy central roles.

Wonder how many more times I'll be re-running this.

Monday, January 16, 2012


How Newt Gingrich Sabotaged the Closing of Guantanamo

January 2012 marks the 10th melancholy anniversary of the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay; if polling is correct, it will also mark the end of Newt Gingrich’s presidential ambitions, as the immense, gas-filled Hindenburg of his ego approaches its Lakehurst in South Carolina.

The two intersect in remarkable fashion.

Gingrich was key to igniting the firestorm of criticism that prevented the public release of 17 Uighur captives from Guantanamo to Germany and the United States in early 2009.

Uighurs were considered to be the cutest and cuddliest of detainees, largely because of a rather bizarre finding that, though they might be terrorists, if they were terrorists they would be anti-China terrorists, not anti-US terrorists.  

The term of art was “non-enemy combatants”.

The Uighur detainees were championed by politicians across the board, from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans…until clearing out Guantanamo became a signature Obama issue, and releasing the Uighurs was advertised as the first victory of President Obama’s humane post-Bush post-terror policy.

Obstruction became the name of the game, Newt Gingrich jumped in, the Democrats stampeded, and the Republicans--including Republican Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, who advertised himself as the champion of the Uighur cause--faded into the woodwork.

The high profile Uighur release fell apart.

Subsequently, the Obama administration followed the precedent of the Bush administration, and quietly dribbled the detainees out to remote, low profile jurisdictions sufficiently insulated from the wrath of the PRC: four to Bermuda in June 2009 and six to Palau (an atoll off the east coast of the Philippines which relies on US aid for a third of its budget; it was reported they agreed to accept the six Uighurs in return for a $200 million payday).  Two are apparently destined for Switzerland.  The last five have refused resettlement to whatever exotic locale the US has arranged for them, and are fighting in the courts to try to resettle in the US.

Meanwhile, Guantanamo remains open and an embarrassing symbol, both of US reliance on extrajudicial detention and harsh interrogation (which will continue on US military bases and in black offshore prison no matter what happens to the flagship enterprise in Guantanamo) and American political gridlock.

Here’s a piece I wrote on the issue in May 2009:

Uyghurs sold out in the US

Republican leaders in the United States appear eager to hand President Barack Obama a political defeat and diminish his prestige and domestic and international clout - at the cost of the continued detention of 17 Uyghur prisoners at Guantanamo in Cuba.

By accident or design, the US Republicans were able to forestall the imminent release of the Uyghurs from Guantanamo to the US and Europe - detainees that the US had long ago determined posed no threat to the US and has been attempting to release for years.

The Uyghur cause had been a favorite of anti-communist Republicans. Uyghurs are an ethnic group from Central Asia and Xinjiang province in western China. The ones in Guantanamo were captured in Afghanistan in late 2001.

The Uyghur's high-profile champion in Congress, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, wrote Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in June of 2008 requesting that the 17 Uyghur detainees be released from Guantanamo into parole into the US.

Rohrabacher also called on the US government to provide an apology and perhaps compensation for any abuse the detainees had endured.

The Uyghurs - and the Republicans' principled position on the issue - fell victim to the conviction of top Republicans that it was of vital importance that the Obama administration suffer a conspicuous setback on an issue that the GOP still sees as political gold: terrorism.

In a recent newspaper column, Newt Gingrich, a key Republican strategist, burned the Republicans' bridges to the Uyghur cause with an inflammatory and misleading attack on the 17 Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo.

Gingrich insisted that the Uyghurs were too dangerous to be released into the Uyghur community in Virginia and accused them of being "trained mass killers instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001", who "were trained, most likely in the weapons, explosives and ideology of mass killing, by Abdul Haq, a member of al-Qaeda's shura, or top advisory council."

Gingrich claimed the Uyghurs also committed perhaps the ultimate sacrilege against American values:

At Guantanamo Bay, the Uyghurs are known for picking up television sets on which women with bared arms appear and hurling them across the room.
Contrary to Gingrich's accusations, the Uyghurs indignantly riposted that they are not promiscuously flinging television sets around the camp.

In fact, only one TV was kicked, not tossed, several years ago and the culprit was considered to be so harmless to the US that he has already been released to Albania.

The New York Times, in an excellent report on the plight of the detainees by Tom Golden, had the TV story in June 2008:

They described their imprisonment as bewildering and traumatic, punctuated by moments of the absurd. After they were cleared for release, they were able to watch cartoons and Harry Potter movies, until Mr Mamet smashed the television because of what he said was the guards' refusal to take him to a doctor. The set was replaced with one made in China, the men said dismissively; it broke after a week.

Even if the canard of Islamicist rage against infidel appliances is debunked, the Uyghurs will find it difficult to deal with the political realities driving the abrupt sea change in Republican attitudes.

Republican Lindsey Graham explained how noble causes can be discarded in a heartbeat when the greater good of political advantage dictates:

Asked whether any lawmakers were arguing on behalf of releasing the Uyghurs in the US, he said: "The Uyghur caucus is pretty small."

The caucus of Republican lawmakers anxious to achieve political traction against Obama at any cost is, on the other hand, rather large.