DPRK, Rapprochement in Asia and the Trump Administration

For Peace in Afghanistan, Talk to Pakistan
July 9, 2017
Kashmir: Pellets, Pictures and the Case of Dead Eyes
October 10, 2017

Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry issued a clear statement recently, that China urges all parties to the tensions in the Korean Peninsula to exercise restraint[1]. This statement comes in the wake of North Korea firing a ballistic missile over Japan resulting in the ire of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. While China was quick to condemn this act by Kim Jong Un, the carefully worded statement also shed light on the activities of the United States and South Korea, where both allies were conducting joint military exercises, serving as provocations for North Korea to conduct tests unabashedly.

This stance by China hints at altruism and realism where the simmering crisis in the peninsula could be resolved through dialogue and concessions instead of overt military confrontation. By considering the DPRK government a legitimate stakeholder in the peace process, Beijing’s strategic foresight not only hints at possible ways of rapprochement but also marks a stark departure from the US strategy of conducting joint military exercises as well as the promotion of rhetoric boring on imposing sanctions or taking military action to coerce the DPRK to change its course of action. As with other flashpoints across the world where the US is a stakeholder in the peace process, this policy on part of the Trump administration is proving to be counterproductive.

A similar reaction also came from Islamabad the moment Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy was unveiled and consumed by policy makers, the civil and military bureaucracy as well as the public in Pakistan[2]. The efforts of the Pakistan military in countering terrorism were sidelined, India was propped up as a champion of stability in a restive Afghanistan where ISIS has already established a chapter and Pakistan was berated as being a sanctuary of rogue elements and groups as per the new Afghan strategy. This binary mindset not only puts Trump at odds with governments such as Pakistan which the US has had a difficult but important relationship with, but also risks issues and disputes spiraling out of control. The lack of strategic vision and the inability to comprehend the other state’s reservations, narratives or views on subjects such as nuclear testing, counter terrorism or apprehensions over US foreign policy maneuvers, will become a feature of the US footprint in Asia.

Asia is a region where conflicts have historically assumed an ideological, sectarian, ethnic and religious nature and binary thinking is bound to result in more agitation against US foreign policy. From Al Assad in Syria, the Iranian regime to the Pakistani military, the Trump administration risks alienating states and emboldening respective leaderships, bureaucracies and militaries in retaining their stance on sensitive issues. If the DPRK case serves as an example, Kim Jong Un will weigh in on his strategic options based upon Sun Tzu’s theory of ‘Knowing thy enemy’, and hence viewing military exercises as just another incentive to conduct ballistic missile tests. Similarly, a country such as Pakistan with which the United States has had an extremely important relationship with would be inclined to look for other regional allies to build its case of neglect and unfair treatment. The recent planned visits by Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif to countries such as Turkey and Russia buttresses this point[3].

While the stakes for outright military conflict in Asia are a far-fetched thought, it is reasonable to assume that this approach of outright dismissal, lack of understanding of regional dynamics as well as contrarian statements will only serve to embolden the very states which the United States seeks to contain or restrain. While diplomacy is an art of deft touches, it seems like the Trump administration is failing to grasp the essence of coaxing adversaries into a workable relationship. He did hint at non-interventionism in his campaign trails but much like many of his early claims, there is little to take away from translating campaign rhetoric into policy. For the US which seeks a greater role in Asia for its vested interests and to contain China, this is a damning indictment.

[1] Al Jazeera News Report, ‘China Korean tensions at ‘tipping point’, 30/08/2017, Accessed 20/08/2017. < http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/08/china-korean-tensions-tipping-point-170829134342171.html>.

[2] First post world, FP staff, ‘Pakistan suspends bilateral talks, visits with the US after Donald Trump blames Islamabad for harboring terrorists’, 29/08/2017, Accessed 30/08/2017. < http://www.firstpost.com/world/pakistan-suspends-bilateral-talks-visits-with-us-after-donald-trump-blames-islamabad-for-harbouring-terrorists-3985503.html>.

[3] Dawn News Report, Baqir Sajjad Syed ‘Khawaja Asif to embark on three-nation tour to discuss US policy’, 26/08/2017, Accessed 30/08/2017. < https://www.dawn.com/news/1354043>.


Hamzah Rifaat Hussain
Hamzah Rifaat Hussain is a policy analyst based in Islamabad, Pakistan.