The cat’s paw

Strategic proxies have disproportionate negotiating power

This month’s Asian Balance argues that China is indeed being ‘bullied’ by the Philippines. Such a statement is likely to cause many people to jump because of the value judgement placed on the term ‘bully’ as well as the David and Goliath-like setting. Shorn of those value judgements and biases, though, this statement holds up. As the column notes, the Philippines has more to gain and less to lose by behaving in a provocative manner than China.

One reason for this is Manila’s treaty alliance with Washington. This affords it with the security that the United States will have to intervene in some form if the Philippines is attacked by China. Washington has let it be known that it is unlikely to intervene in a territorial dispute. This allows China to act against the Philippines in the disputed territory—if Beijing takes military action beyond the disputed islands, and onto sovereign Philippines territory, then it raises the risk of US intervention. The exact red line might be fuzzy, but both Beijing and Manila know that it exists. The game then is to exploit the space before the red line is crossed.

The United States might well be using the Philippines as a proxy to indirectly contain China, its strategic adversary. However, this is not without its own strategic costs—failure to manage the proxy can drag the United States into a conflict it does not want to get into. Manila knows this and can exploit it, for instance, by demanding that the United States sell it arms so that it can defend itself better.

China is at the receiving end in this case, but is quite an accomplished player in the strategic proxy game. North Korea ties down the United States, Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia. Pakistan checks India and the United States in the subcontinent. All in the game.

David Petraeus is in da house

And is making the Pakistani military establishment squirm

Abdul Qadeer Khan wrote a 11-page confession in 2004. He also wrote and spirited out of Pakistan copies of another letter in 2003 to buy him protection from the Pakistani military-jihadi complex.

Simon Henderson, a former British journalist, acquired a copy of the letter in 2007, by his own admission. He wrote about its contents in the London Times in September 2009. Then almost half-a-year later, in March 2010, the Washington Post published an article, covering similar ground, pitched as if it were revealing Iran’s attempts to purchase “atomic bombs” from Pakistan in the late-1980s.

Today, the Washington Post has another report, based on the same source material (which it obtained in March 2010, if not earlier), alleging two top Pakistani generals, General Jehangir Karamat and Lt Gen Zulfiqar Khan, received $3 million and three diamond and ruby sets from the North Korean regime in return for nuclear technology. It also suggests that the money which might have gone into ‘secret funds’, which might have been used to fund militants fighting in Kashmir.

Other than fingering Generals Karamat and Khan, today’s report doesn’t tell us anything substantially new—Mr Henderson’s 2009 report mentions $3 million being paid to Pakistani generals.

So why is the Washington Post publishing reports based on information it is likely to have received more than a year ago, if not even earlier? If news is something to be broken as soon as it is reliably verified, why take six months to do it? And why do it again 15 months later?

One reason to explain the Post’s curious behaviour is that its editors had been persuaded not to publish certain details by the US government. Going by this explanation, the US government must have withdrawn parts of that request in March 2010 and now.

Earlier this week, the New York Times, citing newly classified information, alleged that the ISI ordered the killing of Syed Saleem Shehzad. No, not ‘rogue elements’ or other fig leaves, but senior officials of the ISI were held responsible.

And today, the Washington Post released a letter naming Pakistan’s army chief and another senior general, both of who were in service when the North Korean deal took place.

The United States is threatening to push the Pakistani military establishment into the doghouse. It looks like General Petraeus (“Mr” Petraeus in Rawalpindi), now in charge of the CIA, is signaling how he intends to play the game.

The case for South Korean nukes

Self-help is best

Kim Dae-joong, columnist at South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper calls for Seoul to develop its own nuclear arsenal, arguing that the South’s nuclearisation is the key to the denuclearisation of the penisula.

(Few) experts or politicians believe the North will actually abandon its nuclear program. They know that the North Korean regime believes the country would have no future if it gives up its nuclear weapons. In other words, the parties to the nuclear talks are operating on false premises, trotting out their goals out of habit without any belief that they can achieve them. Fully aware that the North won’t denuclearize, they clamor for its denuclearization at every available occasion. It is the ultimate in hypocrisy and bad faith.

The way out of the hypocrisy trap is for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons too. Only when Seoul develops a nuclear bomb will the way for substantive negotiations between the two Koreas open. Paradoxically, denuclearization is possible on the Korean Peninsula only when both Koreas have nuclear arms, exercise mutual restraint and conduct nuclear disarmament talks. We can no longer entrust our lives and territorial security to the incompetence of world powers that have failed to settle the North Korean nuclear issue for over two decades. We have to take charge, and to do that we need to develop nuclear weapons.

The regions most exposed to the threat of war are the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East and Africa. Nuclear balance is maintained in the Mideast and Africa. But on the Korean Peninsula the North can make nuclear threats and the South trembles. Some say the U.S. nuclear umbrella plays its role, but having nuclear arms and relying on someone else’s nuclear protection are two very different things.

The chances are nil that Washington, which trembled at the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, would risk a war with China by deploying its nuclear umbrella when the North launches a nuclear attack. That is the limitation of the nuclear umbrella, and there lies the reason why Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons can be subject to negotiations, but a nuclear umbrella cannot. [Chosun Ilbo]

What’s the Korean for Parakram?

What North Korea is doing to South Korea is quite similar to Pakistan’s strategy with respect to India—carry out provocative acts of aggression under the umbrella of nuclear weapons in a bid to coerce the victim into making political concessions. It’s called a stability/instability paradox, in that while nuclear weapons create stability at one level, they allow the weaker, less risk-averse player to rock the boat with impunity. [See a related post by Joshua Pollack over at Arms Control Wonk]

The Pakistani military-jihadi complex uses terrorism. The North Korean regime sinks South Korean ships and fires artillery shells at civilian targets.

Interestingly, the manner in which South Korea and its ally, the United States, have responded so far is reminiscent of India’s response after Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in October 2001. India sent troops to the border. They are conducting naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. Galrahn reports that the United States is deploying another carrier strike group, led by USS Carl Vinson to the Western Pacific, adding to the military ‘mobilisation’. Because this involves ships moving over water it’s considerably faster than the Indian Army mobilising its formations over land to the India-Pakistan border, but it boils down to the same thing. A show of force, parakram or if Google is to be trusted, .

Will it work?

The business of mobilising military forces is as much due to action bias and audience benefit as it is to penalising the aggressor by increasing costs. Unless it is Manmohan Singh, governments must be seen doing something in the face of flagrant provocation. The domestic and international audiences must be persuaded that the government views the provocation as serious enough to warrant more than a verbal response. Mobilising troops to war-like positions is a good way to achieve these ends. The problem, however, is that this does not automatically ensure that the aggressor is made to suffer.

If there are no external sponsors, Pakistan or North Korea can’t sustain a troop mobilisation for too long. They enjoy asymmetry in costs–in absolute terms its cheaper for them to maintain troops on alert than for their adversaries, India and South Korea & the United States respectively. However, their relative ability to sustain such expenditure is much shorter. Even if Kim Jong Il drives unpaid conscripts to stay at the border, they’ll die if they run out of food and their equipment will stop working if they run out of fuel.

But there are external sponsors. The United States bailed a bankrupt Pakistani state out in 2002 and China continues to maintain the bluff that Pyongyang’s irrationality is the reason why it needs to continue to sustain the North Korean regime. Whatever punitive costs Pakistan incurred was more than made up by US largesse. Similarly, whatever costs the US-South Korean deployment in the Yellow Sea imposes on North Korea will be covered by the funds China pumps into Pyongyang.

The value of Parakram-like mobilisations lies in their ability to enable coercive diplomacy. To the extent that the external scaffolds release pressure on North Korea and Pakistan, coercion is undermined. So too the fortunes of diplomacy.

One of the weaknesses in the theoretical studies of the “stability/instability paradox” is that it restricts the analysis to the two direct players. A smaller, weaker state cannot afford to be aggressive and adventurous unless it has the support of a big power. Once we recognise this, it becomes clearer how it is possible to check Pakistan and North Korea—as I wrote in my Pax Indica column, go after the scaffolders.

In the current Korean crisis, Washington, Seoul and the rest of the international community should just call Beijing’s bluff.

Related Link:There’s a disputed boundary in the Korean case too.

Kim crosses China’s line

Brinkmanship does not work beyond the brink.

“Either a nuclear-equipped DPRK or a collapsed DPRK,” Wu Chaofan concludes, “would cause disastrous interruption of the process of China’s peaceful development.” As long as the North Korean regime was playing inside these boundaries it was possible for China to use the situation to apply strategic pressure on the United States, Japan and South Korea. The threat from North Korea prevents the United States from concentrating its resources on Taiwan, and to that extent, reduces China’s cost of maintaining a balance of power across the Taiwan straits.

So it would be terrible for China if North Korea crossed those boundaries.

…many Chinese experts and advisors are more concerned with the threat Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons poses to China’s security. After adoption of Resolution 1874, the DPRK responded with a big rally in its capital. Its leaders announced that the country would stick to its own path, regardless of whether friendly countries sided with it and the effect on international aid. Such an attitude on the part of Pyongyang is a warning that China should reconsider its national interests.

Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, which took place only tens of kilometers from the Chinese border, might cause an environmental catastrophe in a densely populated area, not to speak of the threat it is to peace and stability in East Asia and the world as a whole. Any deadly accident following Pyongyang’s nuclear tests would not only inflict enormous losses on the Korean people but also seriously damage the environment in Northeast China and the surrounding region. [China Daily]

Mr Wu quotes two Chinese scholars who essentially warn North Korea’s neighbours to be prepared for the worst. China has been unable to persuade North Korea to stand down. Meanwhile Japan and South Korea have not only taken a hard line against Pyongyang, but have—in the delicate style of East Asian diplomacy—asked China to deliver. More than the US airstrikes that the Chinese scholars warn about, the real threat to China comes from the prospect of both Japan and South Korea developing their own nuclear deterrents.

If the North Koreans don’t oblige, then China will be, well, in a soup.

Nuclear umbrellas in East Asia and the Middle East

China must act forcefully to stop North Korea and Pakistan from expanding their nuclear arsenals

The Obama administration tasted its first—and crunching—diplomatic defeat at the hands of the North Korean regime last week. After threatening to interdict North Korean ships, just about the only action the US government will take in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests is that the US navy will effectively merely tail those ships around, not stop, board or seize them.

Washington might be helpless in stopping North Korea from expanding its nuclear arsenal or periodically threaten its neighbours, but it can protect South Korea (and quite likely Japan) under the US nuclear umbrella. Yesterday, Mr Obama signaled just that. According to Yonsei University’s Chung Min Lee “This sent a strong signal to North Korea. The move should also allay concerns in some quarters that South Korea and Japan may need to pursue their own nuclear options.” Unfortunately, even this is insufficient to create a stable nuclear balance based on mutual deterrence.

The missing factor is China. Continue reading Nuclear umbrellas in East Asia and the Middle East

Putting an uppity Centrifugist in his place

He was involved in nuclear proliferation, apparently

You will be forgiven for yawning. David Albright is going to release a report—he’s already leaked it to the media, ensuring that the report makes a splash—that points out that A Q Khan might have sold advanced nuclear warhead designs, in addition to those old Chinese designs that go wrapped in Islamabad tailor’s shopping bags. Now it would have been exciting if Dr Albright actually had evidence of someone actually having bought the new design, because it is not news to most people that North Korean Nodongs and Iranian Shahab-IIIs can be modified to carry the advanced warhead. But Dr Albright does not have such evidence.

Dr Albright’s report is based on digital blueprints found on the Tinners’ computers in Switzerland in 2006. It is being suggested that it was the hard copies of these blueprints that the Swiss government destroyed recently, allegedly at the behest of the United States (specifically, the CIA). The Swiss government destroyed 30,000 pages of evidence—lest it fall into the wrong hands—but, as it turns out, after the horse had bolted: there are other copies of the blueprint. But of course.

Other than explaining the Swiss government’s action, why release such a report now, two years after the blueprints came to light? Well, it should put the squeeze back on Pakistan, which has not only rehabilitated Dr Khan, but whose ruling politicians are even toying with the idea of making him president. Dr Khan recanted his 2004 televised confession recently. He also availed the opportunity to insure himself by stating that he did everything with authorisation, thereby blowing the canard that his was a rogue operation. Dr Albright’s report should dampen the Pakistani government’s enthusiasm to lionise Dr Khan all over again.

There is also the Iranian angle. But it is difficult to see how these revelations will help in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme.

All said, Dr Albright’s report adds to the edifice of cynicism that surrounds how the United States has handled the business of Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation, right from the very start. If it looked the other way when Pakistan was buying and selling materials in the black market, it is now using that knowledge for coercive diplomacy.

Update: The Arms Control Wonk has a technical analysis; Albright’s paper is now out

India delivers food aid to North Korea

Winning friends and influencing people in Pyongyang

North Korea’s official news agency reports that India has delivered the first shipment of an unspecified amount of food aid to that country.

Indian Ambassador to Pyongyang Zile Singh and North Korean officials were present in a presentation ceremony at Nampho Port, it said. [Yahoo/Xinhua]

Who says foreign policy can’t be hopeful?