North Korea at the Table: Trump follows Nixon’s lead with foray into the unknown

In February 1972 Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), meeting Chairman Mao Zedong in addition to a slew of other political figures within the notoriously secretive communist regime.

Nixon meets Mao

Nixon called it the ‘week that changed the world’ and whilst one might attribute some hubris to this statement it is probably an accurate portrayal of a monumental turning point in history.

Ravaged by a fervent personality cult surrounding Chairman Mao – which blinded followers to his destructive policies such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – China found itself in isolation. Nixon’s visit opened up the possibility of a rapprochement with the Western world and the economic benefits this would ultimately bring to a country with a massive population and a burgeoning industrial base.

Brainwashed students attacked ‘capitalist roaders’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ during Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Since the Communists had won the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang to flee the mainland for Taiwan, the USA and its allies had refused to recognise the PRC. Instead, it was the Republic of China (ROC) that was acknowledged by Washington as the rightful ruler over the mainland, a stance formalised by President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to Taipei in 1960.

Eisenhower and Chiang Kai-shek in 1960

The shock prompted by Nixon’s visit a dozen years later – announced live on television the previous year – was therefore understandable. However, the machinations of Henry Kissinger and the PRC’s Premier Zhou Enlai had laid the foundations for the trip, which would serve to drive a further wedge between the PRC and its disappointed former patron, the Soviet Union.

How much of an impact the meeting had on the West’s ultimate victory in the Cold War is debatable but no doubt Nixon’s ‘opening up’ of China – in a diplomatic sense – reduced tensions with a potential enemy. By subsequently officially recognising the PRC as the legitimate and sole rulers of China, the USA sowed the seeds for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the years after Mao’s death.

The impact of Deng’s policies are less debatable, for they enabled China to become the world’s second largest economy, strengthened the mandate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – now under the firm control of Xi Jinping – and made the PRC a major geopolitical player across the globe. A world without a US-Chinese bilateral relationship is now unthinkable, not to mention undesirable.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping

Don’t expect President Donald Trump’s slated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to have such a positive impact. Indeed, will it have any major impact? Though the announcement of the summit was equally, if not more surprising, than the revelation of Nixon’s China jaunt, neither Trump nor Kim act with a level of subtlety or concession that allow for meaningful engagement.

Perhaps the level of bellicosity and brutal honesty at which these two ‘madmen’ operate is the only reason the meeting is happening in the first place. One would hope that senior diplomats and military figures within each administration will be present to temper their leaders’ excessive tendencies, for the opportunities abounding are unprecedented.

Alas, Trump listens and answers to nobody but himself, whilst the Kim dynasty has fostered a personality cult comparable to the darkest days of Mao. To challenge Kim’s instincts goes against a human’s natural tendency for self-preservation.

Realistically, the harsher sanctions being imposed on North Korea are taking hold. Yet as long as the upper echelons of the regime remain ensconced in luxury, and the military that girdles it stays onside, significant change is unlikely. The Kims have shown their willingness to allow their people to starve, confident that any popular uprising would either be suppressed by the military or, if necessary, by China, which has no desire to see chaos on its borderlands.

China fears that the collapse of the Kim regime will lead to a flood of civilians crossing its border from North Korea

A nuclear arsenal remains the only effective means to ensure the security and longevity of the Kim dynasty. Nothing President Trump says or does – and we wait with bated breath to see what on earth he will decide to do at the summit – is likely to change matters for the better. North Korea does not have the same potential to break out of its shell as the PRC had at the time of Nixon’s visit, nor does it have the inclination.

Sadly, the chance to destroy the nascent nuclear regime of North Korea has been missed by previous administrations. Trump can’t be blamed for that. Conned by the machinations of Kim Jong-Il in the 1990s, undermined by Chinese companies and banks that continue to siphon resources to the hermit state, and unable to break the failsafe that Beijing offers the North Korean regime, nuclear tensions in Northeast Asia are here to stay.

Advertisements

Xi and Ma in Historic Summit: Status Quo on Taiwan Persists…for Now

Last Saturday saw an unprecedented meeting between the respective leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC – Mainland China) and the Republic of China (ROC- Taiwan). Presidents Xi Jinping of the PRC and Ma Ying-jeou of the ROC shook hands and smiled for the cameras before their brief summit in Singapore, an historic but largely symbolic dialogue.

f8bc126e483117a7fa9c02
An historic handshake

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) comrades to flee to Taiwan, there has existed a very tense cross-Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei whose rulers both claim their governments to be the true and sole representatives of all China.

Three serious ‘crises’ have broken out between the mainland and Taiwan since 1949. The first crisis occurred during 1954-5 when the PRC seized several islands from the ROC and conducted heavy shelling of KMT defensive positions. The US administration was so concerned by the aggression of the communists that the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended dropping a nuclear bomb on the Chinese mainland, a suggestion fortunately dismissed by President Eisenhower.

In 1958, the PRC again resorted to heavy shelling of KMT positions on several disputed islands in the Tawain Strait. The ROC responded with their own artillery with the end result being 2,500 dead on the Taiwanese side, compared with 200 PRC troops killed. America intervened on the side of the ROC by providing them with howitzers and air-to-air missiles, honouring an agreement of mutual defence that had been signed after the first crisis four years earlier. The Soviets, too, put diplomatic pressure on Mao Zedong to halt his assault, fearing the American response should the conflict intensify.

Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis
Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis

For the next four decades an uneasy peace existed across the Taiwan Strait, with both the PRC and ROC largely concerned with ensuring domestic stability and (after Mao’s death at least) economic development. In 1992, a Consensus was reached between Beijing and Taipei that unequivocally stated that there was only one sovereign state encompassing all of China, the disagreement remaining over which government was the legitimate ruler.

This seemed set to cement the peace but its impact was almost immediately undermined. In 1995-6, trouble flared up again as the PRC embarked on a series of provocative missile tests in the coastal waters off Taiwan. A response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s supposed agitation for independence – which of course went against the 1992 Consensus – Beijing’s actions prompted the Clinton administration to send two aircraft carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait, the biggest American military deployment in Asia since the Vietnam War. The PRC responded by undertaking live firing training drills in the build-up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election. The attempts to intimidate Taipei and the Taiwanese electorate failed, however, with Lee’s popularity receiving a boost in the aftermath of the scare.

Since 1996 the relationship has remained relatively stable, improving significantly during Ma’s tenure, with a renewed focus on economic engagement. This has led many Taiwanese to become increasingly wary about Ma’s intentions and his decision to meet with Xi in Singapore met with widespread disapproval back home. With only a few months remaining in office and no possibility of a further term given constitutional constraints, Ma’s gesture appears one of egotism designed to secure his place in history. For many Taiwanese, however, his diplomacy has simply led to a strengthening of the PRC’s hand and given the impression that Taipei’s resolve to oppose pressure from Beijing is failing.

Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma's China diplomacy
Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma’s China diplomacy

There was never any likelihood that the Xi-Ma summit would lead to significant policy change. In this respect, it is similar to the meeting that took place between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek at Chongqing in 1945. With the Japanese enemy defeated and World War Two ended, the US hoped that they could broker a peace deal between Mao’s communists and the Nationalist KMT government, which had been sporadically fighting a civil war for the best part of two decades.

The Double Tenth Agreement that arose from the three-month negotiations included the CCP concession that the KMT was the legitimate government of China and a declaration by the Nationalists that they recognised Mao’s group as an official opposition party.

Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing
Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing

Of course in reality neither party had any intention of stopping short of outright victory and the internal conflict would rage brutally for a further four years before Chiang eventually realised that his days were numbered and he escaped across the Strait where he would rule until his death in 1975.

There will come a time when the historical enmity between the PRC and ROC will explode again and it is likely to involve America when it does. At the moment the relationship is as strong as it is ever going to be, Ma’s efforts over the course of his presidency ensuring temporary peace even if it is at the expense of his people’s honour.

Make no mistake, though. The PRC views Taiwan as part of its territory and will ultimately be prepared to use force to secure this economically-vibrant island. When its leaders choose their moment, America will have a choice whether to enforce its traditional commitment to Taiwanese territorial integrity or allow a scenario similar to the one that resulted in Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine last year.

Xi and Ma posed for the cameras, as Mao and Chiang did back in 1945. As with their predecessors, today’s leaders know that the status quo will not last forever.