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Zhao Minghao: Washington is underestimating East Asian geopolitics


By Zhao Minghao     Source: CGTN    Published: 2018-10-9

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Asia trip was aimed at promoting the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He conducted a short "shuttle diplomacy" in Japan, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Republic of Korea (ROK) and China. Moreover, the trip took place against the background of rising tensions between China and the US. At a time when Washington seems to want to add pressure on Beijing, whether it can continue to cooperate with the Chinese authorities on the DPRK nuclear issue has attracted massive attention.

Pompeo has already been in the DPRK four times this year. The last visit was in July when Pyongyang accused Pompeo of making "gangster-like" demands. After US President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore in June, the US developed unrealistic ideas about denuclearizing the DPRK. US National Security Adviser John Bolton even claimed the problem would be solved within a year.

The impatience of the Trump administration endangers the US-DPRK dialogue. However, as the mid-term elections are approaching, the US must allow this dialogue to continue to score points for Trump's foreign policy.

In particular, the DPRK has already taken measures such as closing down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and Kim Jong Un announced during the inter-Korean summit in September that if the United States takes corresponding measures, the DPRK will agree to abolish the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site, dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility and take further actions towards denuclearization.

As a result, the Trump administration adjusted its stance toward the DPRK. In his recent speech at the UN General Assembly, Trump painted a positive picture of US-DPRK relations while maintaining a very tough stance toward Iran. The US no longer insists on setting a timetable for the DPRK's denuclearization and is willing to work with the country to realize a second Trump-Kim meeting. The two sides also discussed specific issues such as the location and time of the meeting.

The US attitude toward the "declaration of armistice" and the specific steps taken by the DPRK toward disarmament are of key importance to this new round of talks. Pyongyang seeks to officially issue the declaration of the armistice on the Korean Peninsula and regards it as a commitment by the US to guarantee the DPRK's national security. However, the US insisted on the DPRK abandoning its nuclear program and refused to ease sanctions against it.

In fact, the United States has been reinforcing instead of easing international sanctions against the DPRK since the first Trump-Kim meeting. On September 13, the US Treasury Department announced the inclusion of two information companies based in China and Russia and a head of a DPRK company on the sanctions list. In addition, the Trump administration accused Russia of letting in a large number of new DPRK workers.

However, with the Pyongyang Joint Declaration signed by Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in on September 19, the continued and intimate interaction between the two Koreas has put the US on edge. More importantly, the two Koreas also agreed to eliminate the risk of war on the Peninsula through the establishment of a joint military commission. These measures may eventually render the US military presence on the Korean Peninsula illegitimate.

Pompeo's visit shows the sense of urgency of the Trump administration to maintain the US-DPRK dialogue. But another major risk is whether the US-China cooperative relationship can be sustained. The speech delivered by US Vice President Mike Pence at the Hudson Institute is considered an important signal that the US is going to wage a "new Cold War" against China.

Under the circumstances that the US has recently made a series of very unfriendly moves against China, Beijing cannot be expected to give unconditional support to Washington on the Korean Peninsula conundrum.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed during his meeting with Pompeo that such cooperation should be supported by a healthy and stable bilateral relationship. To China's annoyance, while escalating trade frictions with China, the US has also taken actions that harm China's rights and interests on issues such as Taiwan.

At the end of this month, the US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference will be held in Annapolis and Taiwan's so-called "defense minister" Yen Teh-fa may be invited to the event. Washington seems to ignore Beijing's feelings when selling arms to Taiwan. The National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2019 also includes a series of measures that stoked tensions between the US and China.

Obviously, the Trump administration underestimated the complexity of geopolitics in East Asia. The wanton and improper handling of its ties with China will bring about a series of far-reaching implications. To a large extent, without stable US-China relations, there would be no stability on the Korean Peninsula.

As former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Christopher R. Hill said, the US needs to formulate a multilateral strategy on the DPRK with regional players on board. In particular, the US and China should form a united front.

Zhao Minghao is a visiting fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies under the Renmin University of China.

Key Words: China   US   trade   RDCY   

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