Learning from South Korea's predicament

If you think you have problems, think about South Korea. Your next door neighbour, North Korea, is developing nuclear warheads that it can put on a missile, which can reach any part of your country. It already has enough artillery and conventional missiles that can kill hundreds of thousands of people in your capital city within hours. It regularly threatens to use them.

Now you could install a missile defence to protect your cities, but your other, giant next-door neighbour, China, doesn’t want you to do that and has long discouraged you from installing one. This missile defence shield — called Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) — intercepts incoming missiles on their way down towards the target, so it shouldn’t worry China (unless Beijing intends to lob some). Yet China doesn’t want you to have one. After North Korea’s capabilities and threats get a little too much, you finally decide to go ahead and get your THAAD. And then, coincidentally of course, you find Chinese tourist groups cancelling their bookings and Chinese authorities shutting down South Korean supermarket chain after — coincidentally, of course — discovering safety violations. This is painful, for as Barron’s analyst Shuli Ren notes “if China just cancels travel groups alone this year, 0.5 per cent of (South) Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) is gone, or 20 per cent of overall GDP growth”.

With neighbours like these, you do need solid allies. For instance, the United States, that has for decades stationed its troops on your soil, and there are over 28,000 of them right now. It is also giving you that THAAD. As solid an ally as you can get. One problem: Donald Trump, the new US president is determined to ensure its allies pay their “fair share” of defending them and has demanded $1 billion for the THAAD. In the middle of a crisis. He also found it opportune to restate his intention to renegotiate the South Korea-US free-trade agreement. All this a few days after Mr Trump declared that he found out, after meeting Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, that “Korea used to be a part of China.”

Amid all this you have an unexpected presidential election; after your previous president was impeached for allowing a cult leader to make government decisions. So if you think you have problems, think about South Korea.

You can’t blame North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for figuring out that possessing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to the US is the best way to survive. After all, he’s noticed the relative fates of Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The West invaded the first because Saddam Hussein didn’t have nukes. It encouraged a rebellion in the second, because Muammar Gaddafi had given up the trying to build nukes. On the other hand, the US and the international community continue to pamper Pakistan because it has nuclear weapons.

Although Lieutenant General H R McMaster, Mr Trump’s national security advisor, clarified that the US won’t be sending a billion dollar invoice to South Korea after all, the credibility of US’ security commitments to its allies has been severely dented. It is inevitable that South Korea and Japan will boost investments in hedging the risk of a US security default. That’s a polite way of saying that both countries will consider going in for nuclear weapons of their own. They can build them pretty quickly — just that they have to cross self-imposed national political and psychological barriers to do it. The more they are threatened by North Korea, the more they are bullied by China and the less they believe that the US will protect them, the easier they will find those barriers to cross.

This column has argued that attempts to construct “security architectures” in East Asia rely on the hope that multilateral forums are a substitute for nuclear deterrence. That hope is now almost proven to be false. Last week, the ASEAN leaders went home from their summit without issuing the customary joint statement. When the statement was eventually issued, it made no mention of China’s capture, construction and militarisation of islands in the South China Sea. That might have been due to the entirely coincidental presence of extra Chinese diplomats in Manila at the time of the ASEAN summit. The message is clear: If you are an ASEAN member state with a dispute with China, you are on your own. In the memorable words of Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte: “Who can pressure China? Us?”

Illustration by Binay Sinha
After Mr Trump’s treatment of South Korea, it is unlikely that any country will rely on US security guarantees. Worse, it has now become increasingly risky for any country to procure critical military equipment from the US. For years, I argued that India should scale up the defence partnership with the US and procure frontline military equipment from American suppliers. This was based on the reasoning that purchasing defence equipment from our major trading partners is a good way to reduce purchase risks. Russia enjoys pricing and negotiating power with us because there’s very little non-defence trade at stake.

If US trade policy turns to protectionism and defence equipment sales risk becoming subject to capricious conditions, India’s calculations must change. Do we want to be presented with a billion dollar invoice when faced with a war-like situation with Pakistan or China?

Similarly, unless there are clear assurances to the contrary, we can no longer assume that the trajectory of US foreign policy concerning the India-China-Pakistan triangle will continue in the direction that the Bush and Obama administrations more-or-less maintained. For whatever they are worth, it is incumbent upon Washington to give New Delhi such assurances urgently and publicly.

The writer is the co-founder and director of Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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