Korean Nuclear Crisis vs Taiwan Missile Crisis: the greater threat to East Asian security?

North Korea’s decision to restart its Yongbyon nuclear reactor is the latest development in a seemingly escalating crisis in Northeast Asia which has led to grave words of warning from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Mr Ban has tried to avoid direct interference in the North Korean nuclear crisis, given that his South Korean nationality would likely lead to calls of impartiality from the North and its allies. Therefore, for Mr Ban to speak out is testament to the growing concern felt by the international community regarding events on the Korean Peninsula.

Similar concerns were felt during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-6, also known as the Taiwan Missile Crisis.

After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overthrew the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Chiang’s Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan where they re-established their government. The CCP has viewed Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province ever since, despite the island’s separate development and well-entrenched democratic political system. After normalising relations with China in 1972, the Americans had implicitly accepted the CCP as the rightful representatives of China, not the Kuomintang of Taiwan.

Nevertheless, the American government of Bill Clinton infuriated the Chinese by accepting a visit from Taiwan’s head of state, Lee Teng-hui, in 1995. Allowing the visit of Lee, an outspoken leader who called for greater moves towards outright independence, was adjudged by the CCP as an American statement of support for an independent, democratic Taiwan.

Lee Teng-Hui's visit to Cornell University in 1995 severely strained Sino-American relations
Lee Teng-Hui’s visit to Cornell University in 1995 severely strained Sino-American relations

The Chinese responded by conducting a series of missile tests and live firing exercises in the Taiwan Strait, less than a hundred miles from the Taiwanese mainland. Not only was this a signal that China would resist any efforts by a Taiwanese leader to break the “one-China policy” the CCP holds so dear, but it was an attempt to call America’s bluff. The latter failed and in the Spring of 1996, Bill Clinton authorised the sending of two US Carrier Groups to international waters off Taiwan.

The deployment of the USS Nimitz during the Taiwan Strait Crisis was a clear warning against Chinese aggression
The deployment of the USS Nimitz during the Taiwan Strait Crisis was a clear warning against Chinese aggression

America had shown itself willing to counter any potential Chinese aggression, although the Clinton administration refrained from throwing its full support behind an independent Taiwan. Whilst Chinese military capabilities were far inferior in 1996 than they are today, there was nonetheless global concern that a Sino-American war might erupt, dragging in to any conflict the other states of East Asia.

North Korea’s current belligerence is concerning but the fact that the country’s aggressive rhetoric regarding nuclearisation is not linked to any specific policy makes it little more than scaremongering. Possibly an attempt by Kim Jong-un to prove himself as a strong military leader, possibly part of an internal power struggle within the upper echelons of the People’s Army, possibly an attempt by the North Koreans to draw significant aid concessions in return for de-nuclearisation, the current bluster is unlikely to lead to war. Only a gross miscalculation by one of North Korea’s enemies or a sudden collapse of the Kim dynasty could force this eventuality. Quite simply, for North Korea to engage in a “first strike” scenario (which it may not even be capable of) would be tantamount to state suicide. Realistically, Kim and his generals will know this and are likely to avoid all-out-war at any cost.

American military drills off the Korean Peninsula are helping prompt North Korea rhetoric
American military drills off the Korean Peninsula are helping prompt North Korea rhetoric

The Taiwan Strait Crisis was slightly different. China has been consistent in pursuing the “one-China policy” which determines Taiwan as part of the mainland. This will not change and had Lee Teng-hui not calmed his own rhetoric regarding Taiwanese independence – largely forced upon him by US influence and a dramatic fall in Taiwanese stocks – it is conceivable that China would have conducted military strikes against Taiwan. This in turn could have prompted a response by a resolute US and such a scenario could be repeated in the future.

The US retains strong arms ties with Taiwan as a means to hedge against the rising military might of China in the region. The current Taiwanese administration of Ma Ying-jeou is pro-Chinese and will not upset Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland. Should a future administration adopt Lee’s pro-independence stance, however, or nationalist elements within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) agitate for a takeover of Taiwan, the potential for a Chinese attack on the island is not inconceivable. The subsequent possibility of a Sino-American war, either fought directly or through opposing allies, would therefore greatly increase.

With the Chinese always able to act as a final check on North Korean aggression, and the North’s leaders not stupid enough to risk the destruction of their own country, the potential for the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula to escalate into conflict is low. It is the potential consequences of increasing Chinese confidence and aggression, coupled with American desire for regional superiority, that offer a greater long-term security threat for the East Asian region.

Medicine for South Africa: the need to preserve Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has entered his sixth day in a Johannesburg hospital where his pneumonia is said to be improving. The global media has tracked Mandela’s health carefully in the past few months, ever since an extended stay in hospital in December led some to fear the worst that his long life may finally soon come to an end.

In South Africa, of course, there is widespread concern for ‘Madiba’, as he is affectionately known. The man who led the country’s anti-Apartheid struggle and became its first democratically-elected leader is highly revered. His popularity is almost as strong with whites as it is with the blacks and coloreds he initially supported. This results from Mandela’s decision to forgive his former white oppressors and, instead of seeking vengeance, encouraging reconciliation for the benefit of South Africa.

Without such a laudable promise it is possible that South Africa’s white population, decreasing as it is, may have altogether vanished. Concerns remain that, should Mandela die, the black majority – particularly those millions yet to escape a life of grinding poverty – may at last seek revenge against their former white rulers. A repeat of the land grabs in Zimbabwe under the Mugabe regime are envisaged by some in South Africa where large, profitable white farmsteads still exist, especially in the Western Cape.

Some of those living in South Africa's many slums believe white farmland should be handed over to needy blacks
Some of those living in South Africa’s many slums believe white farmland should be handed over to needy blacks

Mandela has struggled with lung trouble for some years. He is thought to have contracted tuberculosis whilst imprisoned on Robben Island, when he worked in a quarry. Ironically, his status as a national safeguard against exacerbated racial tension has made him a prisoner today, at the age of ninety-four. Mandela has often spoken of his determination to live out his days quietly in the rural village of Qunu, his homeland in the Eastern Cape. On strict doctor’s orders, however, he has been forced to stay at his Houghton home in the Johannesburg suburbs so that he is close to expert medical attention should the need arise.

Mandela's rural retreat in Qunu is a far cry from the suburbia of Johannesburg
Mandela’s rural retreat in Qunu is a far cry from the suburbia of Johannesburg

Unfortunately, that need is increasing at an alarming rate. Aside from his extended stay in December, Mandela visited hospital in February for a stomach condition. His detention in Johannesburg has likely arisen out of political necessity as much as from a genuine concern for his well-being. The African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since Apartheid ended, is decreasing in popularity. Its leadership under President Jacob Zuma is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective, unable or unwilling to alleviate the vast income gap between the country’s rich and poor or confront the social and healthcare issues that continue to blight South Africa.

Zuma uses Mandela as a political tool. He portrays the two as being close and is always eager to convey his sincere concern each time the elder statesman falls ill. By associating himself with the country’s hero, Zuma hopes to retain a vestige of popularity that will need to carry him through another full term as the country’s leader. Whilst the ANC is losing supporters, no viable alternative has emerged to assume the mantle of leadership in South Africa. Zuma therefore, whilst confident of remaining in power, needs public support to increase or at the very least not to deteriorate further if his second term is not to become mired in discord and conflict.

Last year’s mining strikes and the subsequent shooting at the Marikana mine diminished his standing further and the challenge by youth league leader Julius Malema (who was subsequently expelled from the ANC) and his supporters suggests Zuma is no longer in touch with the country’s younger generation.

Young populists like Malema threaten to wrest control of the ANC from the older generation
Young populists like Malema threaten to wrest control of the ANC from the older generation

Therefore, it is in his interest for Mandela to live on as an ANC icon. How could a true South African, particularly a black South African, vote against Madiba? By using Mandela’s legacy of struggle and reconciliation, Zuma hopes to hold the country, and his administration, together. Whether this is just delaying an inevitable trauma which will erupt on Mandela’s death remains to be seen. What appears clear, however, is that the man revered throughout South Africa is being given little choice about how he wants to live the final few years of his life. And that is a tragedy that ranks among so many others in his lifetime.