With focus on North Korea, China avoids neighbors’ criticism

Special to WorldTribune.com

metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Two significant geopolitical issues dominate East Asia; the North Korean nuclear showdown and China’s maritime claims and expansion in the disputed South China Sea.

Given the dangerous brinksmanship on the Korean peninsula, the UN Security Council held a landmark meeting to refocus global attention on Pyongyang’s provocative moves. Yet, half a world away in Manila, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to forge a common policy towards Beijing’s bellicosity in islands claimed by six different states.

China's guided missile destroyer Chang Chun (DDG 150) arrives in the Philippines. / Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News
China’s guided missile destroyer Chang Chun (DDG 150) arrives in the Philippines. / Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

As to tie the theme of Pacific security, back in New York President Donald Trump met with his Australian counterpart Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at an historic venue which evoked the strong ties and unequivocal solidarity between the USA and Australia.

The meeting on the WWII U.S. Navy carrier Intrepid, recalling the epic Battle of the Coral Sea whose 75th anniversary is being commemorated, served as a searingly poignant reminder of the price and cost of freedom and the continued importance of strong military ties among partners.

The 1942 battle, the first major action in which aircraft carriers were deployed, successfully thwarted an Imperial Japanese Navy thrust towards Australia.

Just last week, the UN Security Council held yet another urgent meeting on North Korea.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated clearly that, in response to North Korea’s accelerated “nuclear and ballistic missile activities, the Security Council has adopted two sanctions resolutions and met eleven times in emergency consultations since January 2016.”

He added that during this period the Pyongyang regime had “conducted two nuclear tests, more than 30 launches using ballistic missile technology, and various other activities relating to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

“With each successive detonation and missile test, North Korea pushes Northeast Asia and the world closer to instability and broader conflict,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated. He added ominously, “The threat of a North Korean nuclear attack on Seoul, or Tokyo, is real.”

“It is likely only a matter of time before North Korea develops the capability to strike the U.S, mainland,” Tillerson said. He warned, “We must be willing to face the hard truths and make hard choices right now to prevent disastrous outcomes in the future. Business as usual is not an option.”

The recent, albeit cyclical, Korean crisis seems to be cooling.

Storm clouds over the divided Korean peninsula have shifted the focus over the simmering maritime dispute in the South China Sea.

Though the People’s Republic of China is flexing its geopolitical reach in both occupying and creating islets in the midst of international sea lanes of communication, there was lukewarm political pushback to Beijing’s actions at the recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Though six neighboring states have sea and island claims in the volatile region, the ten-member ASEAN group under Philippine chairmanship, chose not to poke the Chinese dragon, nor to even gently remind China of last year’s World Court ruling favoring Philippine sovereignty over some of the islands.

In July 2016, the tribunal rejected Beijing’s argument that it enjoys, “historic rights” over most of the disputed South China Sea.

The matter was clear, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has chosen to bend his country’s sovereignty claims to the East wind from the China Mainland. A 25-page ASEAN Chairman’s statement failed to even fleetingly mention Beijing’s policies in the contentious regional dispute.

Surprisingly at the end of the Manila summit, seven Chinese Navy ships made a goodwill visit to the Philippines. The message was clear.

A momentous week for Asia ended on the Hudson River in New York where U.S. President Donald Trump met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to reinforce the close ties between the USA and Australia.

Commemorating the anniversary of the decisive Battle of the Coral Sea in which the Imperial Japanese Navy came perilously close to Australian shores, Trump said he and Turnbull had “reaffirmed ties” after an brief spat earlier in the year. Australia and the U.S. have remained steadfast allies through two Word Wars, Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet despite the close political links with Washington, Australia maintains a very cozy commercial relationship with China. Due to a recent Free Trade Agreement, China has become Australia’s largest trading market with two-way trade in 2016 standing at $105 billion. Raw materials and agricultural exports dominate the business.

Given the complex geopolitical situation in East Asia there’s an overdue demand for focused and clear U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific. And not a moment too soon.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]