From pivot to pirouette
WASHINGTON ― The Chinese and Russian vetoes of a U.N. Security Council resolution denouncing the slaughter of protesters by the Syrian government carries grave implications for peace and security in northeast Asia. For the benefit of those who have relegated the Korean War to the dustbin of history, it may be helpful to remember that China and the former Soviet Union bailed out North Korea in the Korean War.
Nobody’s suggesting that these two countries have the slightest desire to ignite Korean War II, but the interaction of both of them with North Korea and Iran, and Syria, deepens the confrontation on that side of the Asian landmass as well.
The problem is that both Russia and China, while they may not exactly like what’s going in Syria, and may not really want Iran to emerge as the world’s tenth nuclear weapons power, count on Iran as a source of oil. Iran in turn spreads power in the Middle East on the back of its long-time ally Syria.
Like a chain reaction with explosive consequences, the more Iran swings its weight in the Middle East, the closer it comes to actually developing and daring to test nuclear warheads, the sharper the confrontation with America’s closest and longest term Middle Eastern ally, Israel.
It’s difficult to imagine that Israel would at some stage succumb to the demands of the nation’s hawks and launch a preemptive strike on Iran, but you never know what they will do.
No one forgets that Israeli warplanes in September 2007 destroyed a nuclear plant that North Korean engineers and technicians were building in Syria or that Israeli planes bombed a French-built nuclear plant outside Baghdad in June 1981. Considering the invective that Iran routinely hurls at Israel, the Israelis have all the more reason to view a nuclear Iran as a threat to their existence.
In a showdown, it’s a dead certainty that China and Russia would side with Iran and might well enter the fray with shipments of war materiel and possibly with advisers. They would have plenty of support throughout the Middle East.
Israel’s only sure ally would be the United States. In an election year, American presidential and congressional candidates would be competing to see who could speak out the loudest on behalf of the Israelis.
OK, but why would this conflict have all that much to do with the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia? Could life go on in Northeast Asia, lurching from one political or diplomatic or military crisis as usual, without overwhelming implications for the Middle East? After all, did wars in Iraq and Afghanistan really have that much to do with the news from North and South Korea or Japan or Taiwan?
The problem with that comfortable notion is that North Korea and Iran are de facto allies. They’ve exchanged nuclear technology and components and North Korea exports medium-range missiles to Iran as well as Syria and other Middle East markets ― though obviously sales have gone down since the Arab Spring and the spread of revolutionary fervor throughout the region.
It’s doubtful, however, that North Korean exports, and technological exchanges, to Iran have been declining while the North counts on its friend, ally, benefactor and protector China to keep it on life support. The Chinese may deny it all they want, but for sure North Korea is shipping stuff to Iran and other markets via China while avoiding the off-again, on-again efforts of nations banded together by the porous Proliferation Security Initiative to deter shipments by sea.
Under these circumstances, a war with Iran would play into another problem with global dangers. That is, relations between the United States and China, and between the United States and Russia, are worsening. The United States is increasingly fed up with the amazing trade imbalance with China, and the Chinese are annoyed by rising U.S. complaints, rules and regulations and court cases, most all of them over what the Americans see as Chinese chicanery.
U.S. relations with Russia aren’t faring too well either. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been talking increasingly tough while running for another stint as president. He’s in the habit of playing a blame game against the United States – the easiest way to distract attention from pro-democracy protesters who have the sympathy of Americans.
Finally, war in the Middle East would have to draw U.S. attention, and troops, away from Asia. President Obama, having made a much publicized ``pivot” toward Asia during the drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan, might have to do a fast pivot the other way.
That pivot could turn into a risky pirouette in which the United States does not have the forces, or will, to maintain strong defenses all the way from South Korea to Japan and Taiwan. North Korea would have all the more reason to deal with Iran in the deadliest military material.
Most worrisome, just as China and Russia would support Iran, so they would surely side with their old ally North Korea in any new crisis on the Korean Peninsula. History does have a disturbing way of repeating itself.
Korea Times columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and crisis from the Middle East to Southeast Asia to Korea and Japan since the 1960s. His website is www.donaldkirk.com, and he’s reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.