Tag Archives: China

Watch Out! There’s a War About

For once I find myself in total agreement with Vladimir Putin, who observed recently in a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious that ‘the world is becoming a more chaotic place.’ Whilst Pres-for-life Vlad’s BGO doesn’t exactly qualify him as a great thinker, this time he is absolutely right. There’s a definite feeling abroad of an unravelling in world affairs; an uneasy sense that something nasty is lurking round the corner of history ….

As Nigel Molesworth put it so succinctly in Down with Skool: ‘History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse.’ Looking at our increasingly troubled world, maybe ‘the gorilla of 3B’ got it right.

But first, the good news. A few months ago we were all nervously observing a ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ US President threatening fire and fury at North Korea’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ over nuclear missiles. It was definitely steel helmet (and don’t forget your respirator) time. Now, thanks to Trump’s interesting blend of diplomacy, brutal economic sanctions and the threat of violence, Kim Wrong ’Un seems to have a sudden change of heart and is smiling for the cameras and shaking hands across the border. Sigh of relief all round?

However, let’s not get too excited. North Koreans have a consistent track record in talks with the South and the US: consistently lying and trousering the ‘Danegeld’ paid to them to behave themselves, whilst they ignore any agreements. We need to watch this ‘deal’ very carefully.

And let us not forget that Dictator Kim was threatening nuclear war whilst still presiding over appalling human-rights abuses as he ruthlessly executed friends and family alike to eliminate his rivals. Nonetheless, if President Trump really succeeds in negotiating an end to Kim’s nuclear provocations and the Korean War (‘Neutral ground or dramatic backdrop?‘, Telegraph, 23 April 2018), he will have defused a potentially apocalyptic global crisis.

Good luck with that.

Now for the bad news; and there is far too much, as Putin warns.  Intelligence analysts are warning that trouble is looming from at least three other directions: Syria and Iran; Israel; and a global economy deep in debt.

First, Syria, where the endless civil war to keep Assad and his Shi’a allies in power has morphed into something new – and much more worrying. UN Secretary General Guterres warns: ‘The Cold War is back with a vengeance – and a difference.’ The difference is that it is no longer cold. Something very dangerous is unfolding in the war-torn Middle East. A little-known Iranian-backed Shi’a group calling itself the ‘Baqir Brigade’ has declared jihad on US forces in Syria,  where Russian and American troops are only a rifle range apart.  The US, UK and France have already attacked Syrian military targets as a reprisal for the latest gas attack. The dangers are obvious. Any Russia and US fighting in Syria could detonate a hot war and set the entire Middle East on fire.

Further north, Turkey has invaded Syria to crush the Kurds – the warriors who really defeated ISIS on the ground. Meanwhile the Iranians and their Lebanese Shi’a proxy, Hezbollah, have set up a new battle front on Israel’s border. Iran effectively runs Syria now and is turning its malevolent eye against Israel.

This time the Mullahs are really playing with fire. Israel is not a normal country. Tel Aviv will fight like a cornered cat against an enemy that has sworn to ‘sweep the Jews into the sea.’ And Israel possesses nuclear weapons precisely to deter anyone stupid enough to threaten Israel’s very existence. Israel has warned that ‘it will retaliate with every means possible,’ if attacked by Iran and its friends.

Ironically, Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be unravelling at the very moment it tries to intimidate Israel. Tehran thought that it had pulled a stroke with nice Mr Obama with his 2016 no-nukes deal to get sanctions lifted, whilst continuing to build its Shi’a empire in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and now Yemen. Trump is having none of that. Despite Macron’s pleading for a cosy continuation of flogging French and EU goodies to oil-rich Iran, Trump pulled the plug on 12 May 2018 and re-imposed economic sanctions, blocking Iranian oil sales and wrecking Tehran’s not-so-secret nuclear plans.

This is bad news for the world economy, which is now just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2008. Oil is the motor of commerce. Oil prices, which dropped to $30 a barrel in 2009 and 2016, are now rising as production cuts by OPEC and Russia have finally sold the world glut of oil; so supply dries up. Iranian sanctions alone will remove 500,000 barrels a day from the market.

Even America’s new oil-shale output cannot fill this gap between supply and demand. Now Brent crude has risen to $72 a barrel and will probably go higher now that Trump has re-imposed sanctions. This could be a global economic bombshell as various geostrategic crises explode. Saudi Arabia is already talking about $100 crude, setting off a speculators’ scramble;  ‘We are pretty confident that oil will be in triple digits by next year,’ opines Jean-Louis Le Mee from Westbeck Capital.

IMF reports warn of a chain-reaction for world finance. One is well-understood: debt. Global debt has been alarmingly high since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, nations have continued to borrow hand over fist, pushing worldwide debt to $200 trillion (a trillion is a million, million million.)  That is nearly three times the size of the entire global economy.

The second economic problem is that the Chinese and German economies are going into reverse. Germany’s economy in particular is stalling surprisingly quickly. The economic miracle by the EU’s motor of industry is over and now even Berlin faces economic problems, warns Düsseldorf’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute: ‘The danger of recession has increased markedly. It is a more critical picture than just a month ago.’

All this is happening as Korea teeters on a knife edge, Washington and Moscow go head to head, Syria faces multiple wars, Israel and Iran are shaping up for a catastrophic showdown, and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Yemen gets out of control with missile attacks on Saudi targets by Iranian-backed Houthis. A full blown religious war between Sunni and Shi’a has started. One intelligence analyst warns: ‘All it will take is one Houthi missile sinking a 200,000-ton oil tanker in the Gulf and the consequences would be global.’

Even here, on our island in the sun, alarming events are going on all around us. Suddenly bankrupt Greece is preparing to lease two French multi-purpose frigates to bolster its defences in the Aegean Sea, amid rising tensions with Turkey. Fighters are again on the alert over contested islands. Turkey sails warships to Cyprus to protect hydrocarbon finds. Hostages are being held on both sides. President Erdogan suddenly announces a snap election to choose the country’s next president and parliament on 24  June 2018, to give himself greater executive powers.

All this at a time when the Turkish economy is overheating, raising the possibility of another financial crisis like 2001, when the AKP first came to power promising a strong economy. With Turkish national borrowing skyrocketing and Ankara having to lure foreign money with promises of 13% interest on government bonds, this doesn’t look much like economic competence. The truth is that we are ‘living through interesting times,’ as the old Chinese curse puts it.

Whilst most normal people are just trying to get on with their lives, get to work, earn enough to raise a family and enjoy themselves, all around us alarming events look like coming to the boil. Politically we are living through world-changing history.

It’s an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.  We need to watch out for what is really going on out there.

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North Korea: A Third World War?

Just like Cyprus, Korea is still officially at war.

An armistice (a ‘temporary cessation of hostilities’) remains the international legal position in Korea. Just as there is still no peace treaty between Greece and Turkey for the events of 1974, there is still no peace treaty between North and South Korea following the 1953 end of fighting in the Korean War.

And therein lies an almost insoluble problem. Because North Korea is now hell bent on going nuclear. And if it does, we will be confronting a serious threat to world stability and peace. Does this matter or concern us, thousands of miles away?

Yes, it does; for in the delicate balance between North and South Korea, backed respectively by China and the USA, with Japan and the South China Sea in the wings, there are now some very dangerous regional catalysts for conflict – even a major war between superpowers.

‘Fanaticism armed with power’ has always been the greatest threat to peace since the end of the Second World War. That is why the Big Five and the Security Council have strenuously tried to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.  In North Korea under its homicidal and unstable leader Kim Jong-Un, it now looks very much as if fanaticism is acquiring power – nuclear weapons. We are headed for confrontation, if not a war, because not only is the Korean dictator determined to get nuclear weapons, he is now quite openly threatening to use them.

Kim claims that his country has attained the status of a nuclear power and says he is prepared to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) against American targets. The little sealed-off communist country has carried out five nuclear tests and several missile launches recently, despite stern warnings from the UN. Only last week Kim warned that his North Korean army could ‘deal deadly blows’ without any warning against the US and South Korea. US intelligence believes that Pyongyang is in the final stages of readying itself for another yet nuclear experiment – possibly within a matter of days.

The question is; does Kim really mean it, or just blustering? The answer is, no-one knows. The fat, blood thirsty little despot has a track record of mouthing off with blood-curdling threats and then backing off.

North Korea is a strange place; a closed country with insufficient arable land and few natural resources, squeezed between China and South Korea, which is still protected by tens of thousands of U.S. forces. In the north, since the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang has accepted Chinese protection while maintaining domestic control and military power – the so called “poison-shrimp” strategy: best to ignore, because invading it would be more dangerous.

But things are changing rapidly.  With Kim’s promise to go nuclear soon, North Korea now poses a grave risk to stability, not just in the region but to the rest of us. The situation is not unlike the alliance system just before the outbreak of war in 1914, when the small fry went to war in the Balkans and dragged the major nations backing them into hostilities. The problem today is that superpower China underwrites and backs Pyongyang; over the border in the South, superpower America guarantees Seoul’s security.  A very nervous Japan looks on, horrified.

Whatever we think of Kim, his policy is very clear and rational: to stay in power by building a nuclear deterrent. With this he hopes to neutralise the long-standing threat of America, determined to destabilise his government and forcing the collapse of the North Korean regime. But now America is facing a genuine challenge to its leadership in the Far East.  Washington has to make a big decision soon. There are some serious questions to be answered.

First, how dangerous is North Korea’s nuclear capability, really? The answer is no-one for sure.

North Korea is now thought to have some 50 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make 10 nuclear bombs, according to South Korea intelligence.  Pyongyang has also made significant advancements in its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, as well as its ability to enrich uranium. The big problem is where exactly are these nuclear assets? North Korea has at least ten nuclear sites, scattered around the country, many deep underground.

Although the United States is unmatched when it comes to military power projection, any attempt to cripple North Korea’s nuclear programme by force faces some serious problems. Major intelligence gaps complicate Washington’s decision-making.  There is no doubt that if the US decides to carry out an air strike against North Korea, using B2 bombers with Ordnance Penetrators and 900-kilogram GBU-31 JDAMs, it could destroy North Korea’s known nuclear production infrastructure and associated nuclear sites.

The problem is that although the immediate impact would be devastating for Pyongyang, it might not be fatal. Even with the United States’ advantage in intelligence and equipment, uncertainty about the exact locations and dispositions of North Korean nuclear assets means that the complete success of any conventional strike on North Korea cannot be assured. Realistically, without the use of nuclear weapons or the invasion and total occupation of North Korea, the United States and its allies cannot guarantee absolutely the complete removal of the threat of a North Korean counter-attack in some form or other.

The most immediate and expected method of retaliation would be with conventional artillery. North Korea has an incredible 13,000 guns positioned along the border, many of them within range of Seoul, one of the world’s most densely-populated cities, just 35 miles away.

Just a single volley could deliver more than 350 tons of explosives across the South Korean capital, with massive civilian casualties.  North Korea also has an advanced chemical warfare capability, as well as large commando and sabotage forces. The latter are capable of being inserted into South Korea through tunnels or off-shore, to wreak havoc by attacking key infrastructure, logistics nodes, and US command-and-control facilities, causing mayhem behind the lines.

The conclusion is that any American pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear programme will come at a heavy price. North Korea’s revenge response to any attack is something that  U.S. policymakers cannot ignore. And China cannot be expected to stay neutral if America moves in. Beijing is already flexing its muscles with the US Navy over control of the South China Sea, and has warned Washington that deploying Terminal High Altitude Air Defence Missiles (THAAD) to protect South Korea is ‘a hostile act.’ Things are hotting up.

Kim Wrong-Un understands that he now has very little time to field his credible nuclear deterrent. But once he has one, then the chance of American intervention becomes increasingly unlikely. A diplomatic resolution is obviously preferable to direct intervention, because attacking North Korea guarantees massive destruction in return. But that needs China’s agreement and support to rein in its erratic and increasingly dangerous neighbour. And North Korea isn’t looking for diplomacy.

Logic dictates that now would be the best time to strike, before North Korea can finalise its nuclear capability. The result is that America’s new president is now between a rock and a hard place, thanks to his predecessor’s failure to act. If Trump orders a strike, then the consequences for South Korea could be devastating, as Pyongyang would almost certainly respond. But if nothing is done, then North Korea will become a nuclear power, placing American bases in Japan, Okinawa and American carrier groups in the region at risk for the first time. Would the unthinkable then become the inevitable: would Japan go nuclear for self-protection?

There will never be a perfect time to launch an operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability. But one thing is evident: every week that goes by brings Pyongyang closer to a credible nuclear deterrent. Confrontation, even war, looms.

The omens are not good.