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China’s Empty Promises to Rein in North Korea

Last Wednesday, Chinese fighters intercepted a US Air Force WC-135 Constant Phoenix in international airspace near North Korea.

 The mission of the WC-135, known as a “sniffer,” is to detect radioactivity in the atmosphere following a nuclear detonation. It appears this plane was in the region on a routine mission in anticipation of the North’s sixth detonation.

 Two Chinese Su-30 interceptors came within 150 feet of the WC-135, and one of the fighters flew inverted above the American craft. “While we are still investigating the incident, initial reports from the US aircrew characterized the intercept as unprofessional,” said a statement issued by Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Lori Hodge on Friday. “The issue is being addressed with China through appropriate diplomatic and military channels.”

Among the obvious issues to be addressed are the hostile nature of the intercept and the reckless endangerment of the American crew.  

Is Beijing Serious About Restraining Kim Regime?

On Monday, Human Rights Watch asked China to immediately reveal the location of where it is holding eight North Korean defectors.

The group of defectors was stopped after a random traffic check in the northeastern city of Shenyang in mid-March.

“There is no way to sugar coat this: if this group is forced back to North Korea, their lives and safety will be at risk,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. North Korea, now and in the past, has subjected returned defectors to “torture, sexual violence, forced labor—and even worse,” he said in a statement. That is especially true for those returned more than once.

At least four of those detained are females. “President Trump and Chinese President, please save us,” one of the women said in a video. “If we go back to North Korea, we will be dead.”

US Dispatches Carrier Strike Group to Korean Peninsula

On Saturday, the USS Carl Vinson strike group, the aircraft carrier escorted by two guided-missile destroyers, and a guided-missile cruiser, left Singapore and headed to the Sea of Japan. The strike group was originally scheduled to sail to Australia.

The deployment of the Carl Vinson off the Korean peninsula is intended to deter North Korea as well as reassure allies of American commitment. It will also be ready to go to war if need be.

The Department of Defense has been downplaying the group’s deployment as an act of prudence. “There’s not a specific demand signal or specific reason we’re sending her up there,” said Secretary of Defense James Mattis at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday. “She’s stationed in the Western Pacific for a reason. She operates freely up and down the Pacific and she’s on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time.”

North Korea Ready for Its Sixth Nuclear Test?

North Korea appears on the verge of conducting its sixth test of a nuclear device.

There were two nuclear tests last year and three in total during the rule of Kim Jong Un, who came to power in December 2011.

Recent satellite images show virtually no activity at the North Portal of Punggye-ri test site, in the northeastern corner of the country. Earlier, the activity there was “extensive.” And, as CNN has reported, that sequence is similar to the “pattern of activity just before previous tests, indicating all final preparations are now complete.”

Tillerson's Deference to Beijing or Unfortunate Rookie Mistake?

“You said that China-US relations can only be friendly,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday. “I express my appreciation for this.”

Beijing could not be more pleased with Tillerson’s choice of words. Chinese state media is now crowing because the American diplomat, who seemed resolute in Tokyo and Seoul, appears to have turned deferential in Beijing—perhaps unwittingly. In the Chinese capital, he repeated in public the preferred Chinese formulation of relations between the two powers. On the preceding day at a press conference with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Tillerson said ties between the two countries were guided by “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”

Global Times, the nationalist tabloid controlled by People’s Daily, cited unnamed “analysts” who declared that Tillerson, by uttering this phrase, “implicitly endorsed the new model of major power relations,” Beijing’s buzz phrase adopted in 2010.

Nonstarter: North Korea's Enablers in Beijing Pose as Neutral Observers

On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attempted to defuse tensions in North Asia, proposing that North Korea suspend the testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and the US and South Korea suspend military exercises.

Wang’s comments suggest Beijing has become deeply concerned—alarmed even—and is trying to prevent what it sees as a potentially disastrous situation on the Korean peninsula.

The distress inside the Chinese capital is evident. “The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, with neither side willing to give way,” Wang said in Beijing. “The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?” 

Beijing’s solution is “to flash the red light and apply brakes on both trains.” “We will switch the issue back onto the track of seeking a negotiated settlement,” he said as he compared his country to “a switchman.”

China Seeking Global Leadership

In January at Davos, Chinese leader Xi Jinping cast himself as the defender of globalization, and in a February 17 seminar in Beijing he said his country would promote a sounder international system.

These recent speeches by Xi, China’s ruler since November 2012, suggest Beijing is seeking to displace America’s leading role in the international system. Statements by President Donald Trump, both before and after inauguration, have opened the door for Beijing to make rhetorical advances. Fortunately for Washington, it is not possible for Xi to align his country’s internal and external policies with his benign-sounding words.

China Threatens to Deny Passage Rights through Peripheral Seas

On Tuesday, Chinese state media reported that the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council is considering amendments to the 1984 Maritime Traffic Safety Law. “The revisions are based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and Chinese laws on the seas, adjacent areas, and exclusive economic zones,” noted the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily.

If enacted, the amendments, slated to take effect in 2020, would violate Beijing’s obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Specifically, the changes would require foreign ships to obtain permission to pass through “Chinese waters.”

China’s rules are inconsistent with the internationally accepted concept of “innocent passage,” which is incorporated in Section 3 of UNCLOS, as the UN convention is known, and recognized by customary international law.

China’s Timed Provocation Challenges the US

On Monday, three Chinese coast guard cutters entered Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea, just two days after Secretary of Defense James Mattis publicly reassured Tokyo that the United States would defend the islands. The Chinese craft, which did not have permission for the incursion, loitered for two hours.

If Mattis’s words are to mean something, the US and Japan need to respond to China’s aggressive behavior.

In December 1971, China made an official claim to the Japanese-administered islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus. Taiwan also believes it has sovereignty over the barren and uninhabited outcroppings.

Taipei, a model international citizen when it comes to sovereignty disputes, has engaged in negotiations with Tokyo to settle differences. Indeed, Japan and Taiwan reached a landmark fishing agreement in 2015 regarding waters around the Senkakus.

Missile Defense, North Asia Security on Mattis's Agenda

James Mattis, the new secretary of defense, spoke to his South Korean counterpart Tuesday, confirming to Defense Minister Han Min-koo the US commitment to defend his country “against the evolving North Korean threat.”   

The pledge, given over the phone days before his visit to Seoul, followed President Trump’s telephone conversation with the South’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, Sunday. During that call, the American leader reiterated the US’s “ironclad commitment” to defend the Republic of Korea, as South Korea is formally known.

Trump, according to the White House, also mentioned “the provision of extended deterrence, using the full range of military capabilities,”code for America’s willingness to use its nuclear arsenal.

Church Condemns Duterte's Bloody War on Drugs

“It looks like he’s having a breakdown,” said John Batchelor on his nationally syndicated radio show on January 18. That day, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had told Catholic priests to take shabu, methamphetamine, if they wanted to understand his war on drugs. 

Or more precisely, his war on drug dealers, which according to a recent count has claimed the lives of 7,042 people since he took office last June 30. During this time, police had been “pro-actively gunning down suspects,” the conclusion Reuters draws from a 97 percent kill rate in police raids.

Can Japan's Abe Bridge the Duterte-Washington Divide?

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Philippines Thursday and Friday last week. He is the first head of government to pay a call on President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office at the end of June.

The meeting between the two leaders reminds one of Abe’s common touch and how valuable he could be to help bridge the divide that has grown between the US and a most troublesome ally.

Will North Korea Conduct Intercontinental Missile Test?

Within hours of Kim Jong Un’s televised New Year’s address, the Pentagon issued a statement urging countries to impose “consequences” on North Korea should it test a ballistic missile. The North’s leader suggested his regime will soon conduct an “intercontinental ballistic rocket launch,” which appears to be code for a missile test prohibited by the UN Security Council. 

Donald Trump also reacted. On Monday, he suggested the young Kim will not make good on his first boast of 2017. “It won’t happen!” declared the president-elect in a tweet.

Kim has three missiles—the Taepodong-2, the KN-08, and the KN-14—capable of reaching the lower 48 states. None of them is thought to be reliable or accurate. But a test firing, especially an unsuccessful one, will provide Kim’s technicians with data to help them correct deficiencies.

Did Trump Renew the Nuclear Arms Race?

“Can a tweet start an arms race?” asked Joseph Cirincione of the Plowshares Fund. “This one may just have done that.”

Arms-control advocate Cirincione was referring to President-elect Donald Trump, who declared last Thursday on Twitter that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Trump’s statement was right on the mark, even if it lacked months of interagency review. And, no, it did not start another competition to build the world’s most destructive weapons. That contest, unfortunately, is already under way.

Many wonder why the president-elect, seemingly out of the blue, would tweet about this subject.

China’s Smog Refugees Flee Poisonous Air

Much of northeastern China was under an air emergency the early part of this week, with 460 million people affected according to one estimate. On Tuesday, 24 cities had posted the red alert signal.

Under the alert, Tianjin closed all roadways leading to the city but one. In next-door Beijing, more than 700 enterprises stopped production. Airports cancelled flights as planes could not land in the goop. Governments warned people not to go outside. Even short travel to North China, a friend wrote to me this week, is a “Death Warrant.”

No surprise North China’s residents are temporarily leaving the region, making them “smog refugees.” As the South China Morning Post reports, “Legions of Beijing residents are fleeing the capital and heading south in search of cleaner air as the year’s worst smog lays siege to the city.”

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