President Trump Goes to China: The North Korean Crisis Sets the Context
2017-11-02 By Danny Lam
President Trump’s begins a 2 day Visit to PRC on November 8 will be his first occasion to meet President Xi since his anointment as a “core leader” by the CCP.
Notwithstanding that this status has been conferred to Mao, Deng, and Jiang before, western “China experts” overwhelming endorsed this, and the delay in designating a successor, as a sign that Xi is the “most powerful leaser since Mao” that may be seeing a third term as President in a break from recent CCP practice post Mao.
With respect to the pressing issues facing the US and allies, namely DPRK’s nuclear arsenal and intentions, the future direction of PRC’s economy, and aggressive moves in the South China Sea and abroad, the “most powerful man in China” either have no interest or intent to address allied concerns, or have so little power to effect change. President Trump is ready to make up his mind about President Xi.
Is Xi Jinping PRC-CCP’s Joseph Stalin?
That is the question that President Trump need to answer when he is in Beijing.
How this question is answered will in many ways, determine the feasibility of US options for North Korea and China.
First, a bit of history.
Mao Tse Tung was at the height of his power in when he ordered PVA “volunteers” to enter the Korean war in October, 1950 in concert with Soviet forces. After an initial success, the combined might of DPRK, PRC, and USSR was beaten back until General Ridgeway re-established the status quo ante bellum that became the basis for the armistice.
Few western observers recognized that Mao’s “unlimited manpower” deployed as PVA in Korea was an artifact of the CCP’s need to get rid of many former KMT or warlord soldiers who swelled the PLA ranks. Human wave attacks on UN forces by these potential traitors to the CCP was an effective means to disposing of them.
American and UN troops saw these “human waves” and presumed that PRC is 10 Japans worth of fanatical soldiers. In fact, it was neither a reflection of the loyalty of the troops to the CCP or the PRC’s ability to raise and fight with a large army.
US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together after their meetings at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Photo: AP
The CCP was, in fact, husbanding their very scarce supply of trusted CCP loyalists who largely remained behind in rear positions, with only low level (and poorly connected) party cadres serving as political officers with the troops of questionable loyalty. When Mao’s own son was killed in November 1950 in a supposedly safe rear base, his enthusiasm for the war waned once he heard the news. Correspondingly, as General Ridgeway’s use of massed firepower inflicted unacceptable casualties, the CCP pulled back.
Post Korean war, Mao’s power and prestige declined with the failure to “win” the Korean war; and, as Mao made successive blunders culminating in the “Great Leap Forward” that virtually collapsed the economy, resulting in his removal from power in all but name.
Mao ultimately had to launch a counter-revolution “The Cultural Revolution” that decimated the PRC in order to regain control of a much weakened and wrecked PRC — which paved the way for the de Maoization under Deng after his passing.
Few western analyst that gushed about Xi Jinping’s “core leader” status recognized that maintaining power internally within the PRC was, historically going back dynasties, the “core problem” for any Chinese leader.
No Chinese leader, even Mao at the height of their power, was in fact safe and secure from the threat of internal rebellion and palace coups.
Do the names Lin Biao, Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wen yuan, Wang Hongwen, Hua Gofeng, or more recently, Bo Xilai, or Zhou Yangkong, etc. speak to stability or orderly transfers of power?
On any reasonable set of metrics that measure power internally within and without PRC (i.e. military, economic, prestige, etc.), Xi Jinping is at best, comparable to Chiang Kai Sek prior to the Japanese invasion, but Stalin he is not, and is unlikely to be during his term.
Yet this has not prevented normally sane and reputable publications like the Economist from proclaiming Xi more powerful than President Trump — despite the clear evidence to the contrary.
If President Xi is at least as powerful as his propaganda organs allege, he could have, without resorting to military force, compelled DPRK to denuclearize as the US did for Japan, S. Korea and Taiwan without resorting to force.
Xi and his predecessors could not, and did not do this. Nor does he have a viable military option to denuclearize North Korea by force without risking an attack on PRC.
DPRK is capable of a nuclear attack on PRC/Beijing for much of the past decade, and is closing in on an assured second strike capability against PRC. PLA forces stationed on the DPRK border do not suggest a massive mobilization on the scale of the Korean war. Though there is steady work on roads and infrastructure to support moving in a modern army quickly.
President Xi, for all his alleged power, do not have a conventional or nuclear (except deterrent) option against DPRK.
Nor do the PRC have the option of compelling DPRK by economic sanctions or non-kinetic means.
That can potentially trigger a nuclear missile attack by DPRK against Beijing for which PRC is defenseless. Beijing China is loath to admit their weakness in the face of DPRK — and until President Trump, their opposition to tight sanctions (i.e. because of fear of DPRK refugees) was taken at face value.
Beijing China being impotent in the face of DPRK is far from the mind of most Western analysts that seem incapable of comparing PRC with the power of USA – who forced denuclearization on many allies under similar circumstances.
President Trump will be visiting Beijing against this backdrop where President Xi’s paper tiger status can no longer be hidden. Nearly seven months have passed since they met at Mar-A-Lago, and despite intense US pressure, Xi have proven himself to be incapable and/or unwilling to resolve the DPRK problem.
The question for President Trump will be whether Beijing China, under President Xi have the willingness and capability to at least, prevent Chinese elements from interfering in a US and allied solution to the problem.
This brings us to the problem of laws of war.
The last time the PRC fought a major war beyond their borders is against Vietnam in 1979. It has been decades since the Chinese forces encountered western militaries in force.
PRC forces agreed to a protocol for “Unplanned Encounters at Sea” only in 2014 well after the Hainan Island incident of 2001. This, did not prevent potentially dangerous behavior like radar “lock-on” by PRC military units on others or probes of the Senkaku Islands.
Routinely, PRC forces are enforcing maritime claims in the South China Sea in violation of UNCLOS. These activities suggest that PRC have a view that hybrid warfare by paramilitary and other forces is an acceptable norm in “peacetime”. This begs the question of what the Beijing China will deem to be acceptable conduct short of war with the US in the event of a Korean conflict.
The ideas of neutrality, or non-belligerent status is rooted in the Western tradition of armed conflict. There is no historical precedent to a Chinese regime practicing a “permanent neutrality” policy like Belgium or Switzerland. When CCP organs speaks of “staying neutral” if North Korea “attacked first”, it is temporary neutrality that can change at any time.
But even that declaration leaves much room for doubt when examined from the PRC perspective.
We should bear in mind that the Sino-Vietnam war was termed “self-defensive counteroffensive” against Vietnam irrespective of its offensive and geopolitical nature. PRC have also carefully concealed their offensive posture against US and allied installations in east Asia while formally pleading “no first use” of nuclear weapons.
Thus, Beijing-China’s pronouncements offer few clues as to how they will actually behave regardless of how the Korean war started. Neutrality may simply mean that Beijing will encourage (or do nothing to prevent) “People’s Volunteers” or other means of aiding DPRK. In other words, Beijing China’s official stance may not apply to the “local” governments near North Korea or other Chinese elements.
A critical task for President Trump is to impress upon President Xi the US and Allies understanding of precisely what “being neutral” mean to the US and allies. That is to say, that any material aid, assistance, covert or overt, that originate from outside DPRK that can be traced as Chinese origin — including from PRC operatives in Japan or South Korea — will be regarded as breaches of neutrality.
Violations of neutrality by PRC CCP operatives will make them legitimate military targets, regardless of their location on PRC or neutral territory or on the high seas. (i.e. PLN “fishing boats” relaying warnings of aircraft taking off from Guam heading toward DPRK).
Covert aid to DPRK like the provision of sensor data by PRC installations anywhere, including space, or assistance in command and control or targeting, or shelter for DPRK officials in hardened PRC facilities will all fall under violations of PRC neutrality.
That will extend to provision of “relief supplies” that act as cover for delivery of military aid.
Neutrality will extend to the idea of “unrestricted warfare” suggested by PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiansui, that expressly suggest the use of both armed force and “all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests”.
That is to say, trade, financial, terror, and ecological war against US and allies are all on the table.
Any effort to weaponized trade, disrupt financial markets, cyber attacks, terror, etc. by Chinese elements, whether formally operating under Beijing China control or not, will be treated as violations of neutrality.
Beyond this, the use of “informationalized warfare” and “hybrid war” will all be regarded as belligerence and subject to allied retaliation and sanctions immediately.
If Beijing China intends to remain neutral, they must demonstrate and prove the ability to control their forces and prevent such violations of neutrality broadly defined.
President Xi must be made to understand that the western concept of neutrality in international law makes no distinction between intentional or unintentional violations of neutrality.
Xi Jinping, ostensibly the most powerful man in PRC, may not be capable of control his military to abide by these strict rules of war. The PLA/N, like most traditional Asian militaries, are notable for the short shift they give to training and indoctrination of troops on western notions of the rules of war and the western idea of separation of civilian from military control with the former having primacy.
Chinese military arts was historically based on the personal views of the local commanders, who in the Chinese martial tradition, was, and is historically relieved of any concept of civilian oversight once the military is given command.
This is directly contradictory to western ideas of the primacy of civilian over military rule. Placing the Chinese military as a branch of the CCP (rather than the state) have only made a nominal dint in this tradition.
Hence, the regular, and frequent, exhortation by top leaders including President Xi to the military to obey the CCP.
The extent to which a Chinese military is still a law onto itself is illustrated by President Xi’s July 2017 90th anniversary PLA celebration speech to the PLA that exhorted them:
“[PLA]… must be unwavering in upholding the bedrock principle of absolute party leadership of the military,” and “Always obey and follow the party. Go and fight wherever the party points.”
It is unthinkable for any US President or close ally like UK, Australia to even imagine such a speech having to be made that would cast doubt on the loyalty and reliability of their armed forces and the supremacy of civilian control. Yet, in the PRC controlled by the new strongman Xi, it is essential.
President Xi’s plea for the PLA to be loyal was followed by a major reshuffling of personnel that resulted in the appointment of two trusted associates General Zhang Youxia and General Xu Qiliang to the new, smaller, Central Military Commission at the end of the 19th CCP congress to tighten his grip on the military.
This follows a longstanding tradition where a newly installed top CCP leadership require much of the first 5 year term gradually replacing personnel and only comes onto their own in terms of power in the second term when the process migrates to the lower levels so as to build up sufficient momentum and critical mass to replace the most powerful top leaders.
Xi broke from this tradition by targeting Zhou Yongkang’s faction early on that resulted in their fall in 2012 that in turn resulted in wholesale removal of this faction.
But Xi was unable to follow through his purge immediately — he had to wait for the 19th Party Congress. That is to say, Joseph Stalin he is not. Stalin would simply order his opponents summarily executed.
Dealing with a weak leader of Beijing China creates problems in the face of war on the Korean peninsula creates other problems. Xi may have sufficient power to prevent the use of the PRC nuclear arsenal — but even that is not absolutely certain.
Command and control of nuclear forces in PRC is shrouded in mystery. Though it is well known that Xi did not have the C2 capabilities of Air Force One when he travels abroad. That begs the question of who have authority to launch nuclear weapons in PRC.
Allied contingency plans need to be created in the event that it is likely that Xi (or his successor post coup) may seize control of the nuclear arsenal and use them. Or in the event that deterrence against PRC failed. Chinese political history suggest that if the Chinese nuclear arsenal fall into the hands of a group, they may elect to use it on domestic enemies so as to install a new dynasty.
China is not the Soviet Union that fortunately, collapsed in an orderly fashion without a nuclear mishap.
Returning to deterrence, President Xi and his successors in the PRC need to be cognizant that SSBNs off the coast of PRC can deliver a nuclear strike anywhere in China within 15 minutes. A submarine launched counterforce strike can potentially disable the majority of the PRC’s nuclear forces before they can be launched or lay waste to PRC.
Although no US President will want to test the theory,
Mutually Assured Destruction may not be operative against the US. This may be one of the best assurance that PRC will not intervene in the Korean conflict.
The best case scenario may be that Xi, however weak, remains in nominal control much like Generalissimo Chiang Kai Sek, even though he may not be able to control the pro DPRK elements and preventing them from becoming belligerents against allied forces.
Xi can, under that circumstance, accede to the US and Allied use of force against pro DPRK chinese forces, and at the same time, prevent the outbreak of general or nuclear war by the PRC. This will ensure that PRC under Xi survive.
During this two day visit, both Presidents will be using this as the opportunity to take the measure of each other and make up their minds about each other.
President Xi’s propaganda have not fooled President Trump nor altered his determination to eliminate the nuclear threat from DPRK before the US faces a threat from a nuclear armed extortionist.
President Xi face the momentous decision of either believing his own propaganda and attempt to take on the US and allies — with the high probability that it would result in failure that will result in defeat for the PRC in general, and his regime in particular.
Alternatively, President Xi can cooperate with the US and secure peace for at least a generation by preventing the PRC from becoming a belligerent in the Korean war — to the extent he is capable of.
That will give breathing room to the PRC to reform into an acceptable regime to the international community. PRC’s present course to be an ideological, great power and economic rival to the US and allies is unlikely to be sustainable much longer.
No more will the US and allies tolerate the PRC’s challenge and undermining of the liberal international order without repercussions. The question is, which course will President Xi choose?
The US and allies is more than capable of surviving and winning a cold, or hot war with the PRC.
The PRC, on the other hand, will be severely challenged should the US and allies initiate a cold war by (i.e.) impose a trade embargo and seized PRC assets abroad, as America did to Japan on July 26, 1941. This will almost certainly happen should PRC elements become belligerents.
Momentous decisions will have to be made by two Presidents that will shape the balance of the 21st Century.
Let’s hope they both choose well.
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