As of last Friday, North Korea has officially joined the club of intercontinental ballistic missile countries. For the first time, it was confirmed that the missile carrier that ended up in the Sea of Japan, 100 km (about 62 miles) from the island of Hokkaido (therefore, after a 1,000 km or approximately 621-mile flight with an apogee of 3,700) was a missile with an estimated range of 10,000 km (or approximately 6,213 miles), therefore capable of striking the U.S. mainland from the West Coast all the way to Chicago. The test, which was really an actual battle drill, surprised analysts, who even a few months ago had believed that Pyongyang would not have such a missile carrier before 2020. But it seems that the KN-20 (or Hawsong-14) is capable of carrying a load of 600/650 kg (or about 1,322 to 1,433 pounds), therefore plenty capable of bringing its nuclear threat directly to American territory.
In fact, until today such a capacity was designated only to KN-14 (or KN-08 Block II) intermediate-range ballistic missiles, indeed able to hit Hawaii or Alaska, and the KN-17 MRBM, which can hit the area bordering the Korean Peninsula, and therefore Japan, Taiwan and the northern Philippines. The missile’s launch, according to the best of North Korean traditions, was not coincidental. It came immediately after the threat to intensify international sanctions, as was already the case during the launch in mid-May when the North Korean delegation at United Nations headquarters issued a formal request to reconsider the system of sanctions against Pyongyang. The launch of missiles is a tool of coercion that has statistically surged in the past eight-10 months. It has made a comeback in North Korea’s policy, as it has always used military tactics as currency at the negotiating table, negotiating that engages the real actors in the affair: the United States and China.
On the game board, there is far more than North Korea, and both superpowers know it well. This all started a few years ago, thanks to Obama's policy of disengagement from the "crisis" theaters of the world, delegating the resolution of issues that had been handled by direct American intervention, and instead subsidizing and supporting local forces in order to resolve the situation in Washington’s favor. What is an example of this policy closer to us? The so-called “Arab Spring” and the issue of Syria.
Likewise, in the Far East, the U.S. military presence was reduced to the necessary minimum, aided by defense cuts aimed at rationalizing and modernizing military presence with the progressive downsizing of orders, withdrawal of units and parallel increase of expenditures for support to countries in the area (South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and even Vietnam and Taiwan). Obviously, as always happens, "power vacuums" were quickly filled. Beijing has not missed this opportunity. Strengthened by a perennial economy that places it among the top importers of steel and hydrocarbons, China has implemented a foreign policy called “salami-slicing,” attempting to gradually increase military and diplomatic action to slowly, but consistently, change the status quo in its favor. None of this in itself can be considered casus belli.* This employed political tactic has yielded its fruits in what Beijing regards as its exclusive economic zone, namely those seas surrounding it, where the archipelagos of the Spratly, Senkaku and Paracel Islands are located, which China claims unilaterally as belonging to its territorial sovereignty. There are essentially four reasons for this Chinese neo-expansionism, as also identified in an official document from Congress on Sept. 18, 2015: Control of trade routes that pass through those seas that guarantee an estimated traffic of about $5 trillion a year; control of the huge hydrocarbon resources and of fish harvests in the area; acquisition of advanced positions of military control in the area in a possible future scenario of power projection (the famous “naval bastions”); and a renewed sentiment of nationalist pride.
In addition to these factors, some observers also note that China wants to gain more control over the area to create a buffer zone in order to keep the American military away from its metropolitan areas in the event of a conflict, to create a secure naval bastion to use ballistic missile submarines and, above all, to become the area’s hegemonic power. All these objectives are being met through diplomatic and military actions. This is thanks, above all, to the relaunching of the Armed Forces (especially the Navy), which have seen a sharp increase in funds that will double by 2020. Beijing’s budget in less than 10 years will go from $123 billion in 2010 to $233 billion in 2020 when it will be four times bigger than England and bigger than all Western European countries put together, though it will, of course, remain far from the $622 billion in defense dollars spent by Washington in 2016, still almost three times that of Russia, which is about $48 billion (according to IHS Markit).**
The flood of this new funding has caused a parallel increase in defense spending by countries in the area. In the Asia-Pacific region, spending has truly boomed in recent years. Though it has been caused by the region’s economic expansion, the tension in the South China Sea will accelerate its growth. Between 2011 and 2016, years in which Beijing flexed its muscle in the area, the countries encircling that sea spent altogether $166 billion. It is predicted that over the next four years, they will reach about $250 billion, giving priority to naval and aerial weapons. China has, in fact, proven to be resolutely determined to take possession of those contested archipelagos. Above all, Chinese military presence on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is already well-established. Beyond the construction of artificial islands with docks and landing strips, the islands have been militarized, despite the explicit ban imposed by the United States. Anti-aircraft systems, fighter-bombers and naval fleets are now stationed on that archipelago, located just a short distance from the Philippines.
The American response to this new Chinese expansionism has varied administration to administration. No matter who occupies the White House, the United States cannot afford to see the emergence of a hegemonic, regional power on the verge of becoming a global power and, hence, a direct threat to core American interests. Consequently, with Obama (and a Congress divided between those who watch Asia fearfully and greedily and those who are anchored to Europe and Russia), the U.S. made a soft line of claims for freedom of navigation of the seas and skies, performed by B-52 bombers or with ad hoc cruises of naval units. At the same time, Washington has never taken a clear position on the issue of the South China Sea, but has merely maintained that such territorial disputes should be resolved "peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force ... “ and therefore, “parties should avoid taking provocative or unilateral actions that disrupt the status quo,” adding that this principle should specify that territorial claims must conform to the continental shelf boundaries in order to establish the EEZ.
With the new administration in the White House, the winds have changed. In mid-December, with Trump newly elected and not yet inaugurated, China seized a drone from an American oceanographic vessel along Subic Bay (in the Philippines) in response to words of the American president-elect that challenged the “One China” policy that has always been the keystone for the two countries. The action coincided with the China-led battle drills conducted in the Taiwan Strait immediately after Trump’s remarks. Sure enough, the new American administration does not seem to want to handle the issue with the kid gloves that the previous administration used. Regarding the aftermath of North Korea's launch of the ICBM, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had reassuring words about the Pyongyang regime today: "We do not seek regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime.”
Last February, Tillerson was authoritative regarding the issue of the contested islands, affirming that "We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” These words sounded enough like an ultimatum to make Beijing say, through state television, that a possible blockade of the islands would lead to a "devastating confrontation" between the nations involved.
These words were followed by actions: the sending of new troops and defense systems such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, as well as joint strength demonstrations by the Seventh Fleet and one in Japan, not to mention the recent dispatch of strategic B-1B Lancer bombers, which were once equipped with nuclear capacity. This happened far away from the Florida summit between the two heads of state, which seemed to mark the start of a period of dialogue and prosperity between the two nations, but which, all things considered, was soon forgotten in light of what it is occurring in the waters of the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea.
In fact, Beijing knows well that its influence on its irritating North Korean ally is a weapon in its conversations with Washington, and therefore uses Pyongyang to its own liking, depending on its interests. The missile exercises of these past months are to be seen not only as a way for Pyongyang to speak to the international community but above all as China’s way of communicating with the United States. Washington’s installation of the THAAD system in South Korea is seen as a smokescreen by Beijing, which believes that such a system, with its operational capacity, is meant to control and threaten Chinese military activity in the area (it may not be entirely wrong) and is, therefore, using its influence on Pyongyang as a tool of coercion against the United States. Moreover, looking at the arsenal of the Korean People’s Army, one can understand how much it owes to China’s help (along with that of Iran and Russia). For example, the eight-axis vehicles used to transport and launch North Korean missiles are Chinese-manufactured, as are many other types of weaponry that were seen in last April’s military parade.
China, therefore, uses North Korea as a pawn for its own interests, bearing in mind that the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the U.S. flag would be a possibility to absolutely avoid. It would mean having American bases a few kilometers away from its own border. In addition, Beijing uses Pyongyang as a tool of coercion against America’s allies regarding its key territorial claims, as we have seen. Thanks to China’s heavy dependence on imports from Kim Jong Un’s regime, this turns out to be an easy game. The United States, on the other hand, although it has to protect Japan and South Korea from a possible (not just nuclear, but also chemical) attack by North Korea, knows well that the regime's presence allows it to justify maintaining a substantial anti-Chinese military presence in the area that otherwise would not have reason to be there.
In all of this, Russia is the factor that could become the third player, reshuffling the cards on the table. Recently, even without China’s cooperation, Moscow has opened official (diplomatic and commercial) channels with Pyongyang, which will partially remove it from the isolation imposed by the international community. Though more realistically, it will allow the Kremlin to affirm its strength on the international stage in a theater that had been forgotten during the last decade.
*Editor’s note: Casus belli is a Latin expression meaning an act or event that provokes or is used to justify war.
**Editor's Note: IHS Martik is a London-based company providing information and analysis to business and governments regarding aerospace, defense, automotive, chemical, maritime, and technology industries.