China, US, War Clouds over North Korea and India’s Predicament

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Image Courtesy: The Times of India

According to Chinese diplomats, Donald Trump is far easier to do business with comparing Obama. This has been confirmed by Trump himself in an exclusive interview to Maria Bartiromo of the Fox Business before calling Chinese president Xi Jinping on April 11, 2017. In the interview, Trump talked about his meetings with president Xi, and revealed that he had a very, very good meeting with the latter and liked him. He talked about certain chemistry and understanding between them, and said that Xi was the one with whom he can get along very well. More importantly, when asked about trade and currency, Trump’s reply was that ‘the first thing I brought up was North Korea.  I said you’ve got to help us with North Korea, because we can’t allow it…I told him that if China helps the US on the issue, China will do better in the trade with the US.’ While enjoying his chocolate cake desert, Xi was briefed by Trump about the US firing 59 missiles in Syria. Trump revealed that Xi Jinping’s response was ‘it’s ok.’ ‘I believe he is O.K with it, he was O.K…I think he understood the message and I understood what he was saying to me.’ No wonder Chinese diplomats told me they were at ease with doing business with Trump.

Now as North Korea condemns the missile attack on Syria as ‘unforgiveable act of aggression’ and gets ready for its sixth nuclear test, the US in a ‘show of force’ has dispatched USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Korean Peninsula which has created a lot of hue and cry in China. North Korea on its part has justified its ‘self-defensive and pre-emptive strike capabilities with the nuclear force at the core.’ What are the reactions and responses coming from China?

In the wake of Trump-Xi meeting and Wednesday’s phone call between the two leaders, Chinese analysts argue that as long as China’s and Russia’s interests are taken care of, this may be an opportunity to ‘reboot’ China’s ties with North Korea. First and foremost, present leadership in North Korea must step down, the new leadership must accept the denuclearisation, however, the US must not unify the country. Furthermore, the US and South Korean armies must not cross the 38th parallel. Even if there are surgical strikes inside North Korea by a small force, they also must retreat to south of the parallel immediately. In order to secure its interests, China must simultaneously send its ground forces and navy to the North, thus reinforce the above interests. If the US brushes aside these interest, conflict with the US cannot be ruled out.

Some in China also fear the convergence of Russian and American interests in the Korean peninsula for pinning down China, however, given the present equations, they believe this kind of convergence is ruled out. On the other hand, the possibility of anti US Sino-Russian alliance of the 1950s is also ruled out. What conspired between Trump and Xi on 12th morning is not known except Xi telling him that China wishes to resolve the crisis through peaceful means, however, Chinese are of the view that China will not go to war with the US over North Korea. In the face of this consensus, some argues that Kim Jong Un in order to save his skin, must compromise, for war rhetoric will not work. Nevertheless, in official circles, China has been warning the US with consequences of the strikes in its backyard, and that North Korea is not Syria, the former has the capabilities to counter attack.

As far as India is concerned, though it has no stakes in the Korean Peninsula, however, the consensus which Trump has reached with China, is not just on the Korean crisis but a whole gamut of US-China relationship. It is an open secret that whenever the US and China have reached such consensus, China has exerted more pressure on India; one may recall the Chinese pronouncements in the wake of India’s nuclear explosions in 1998.

Coming closer to the US as regards its security dilemmas, has always been a strategic temptation for the Indian leadership. This temptation was incrementally and discreetly elevated by the UPA II regime in India, however, the Modi government seems to have gone overboard; siding with the US on South China Sea issue and the signing of the ‘vision statement’ is the manifestation of this. India’s political relationship with China presently is at the lowest ebb, how far the US will protect Indian interests at the regional as well as international level is anyone’s guess. In the wake of the Dalai Lama’s Tawang visit, China has threatened India to take necessary steps to protects its ‘territorial integrity.’

As far as our relations with China are concerned, we have been high on rhetoric, whereas the border infrastructure is in shambles. Someone has pointed that Kautilya’s ‘duel policy’ and ‘war by counsel’ provided in his classic, Arthshastra will provide some clues to deal with China, however, I have been arguing that both will not work unless, India’s domestic drivers are not strong. India must seriously rebalance its relationship with both the US and China at the earliest and make a choice between the strategic temptation and strategic opportunity.

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Profile photo of Prof. B.R. Deepak
Prof. Deepak is a Professor with the Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is the Managing Editor of the Think India Journal and the Asia and Nehru Fellow, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China.