International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

30 April 2017

The Trump administration’s decision to strike the Syrian regime is helping reassure Asian allies anxious over North Korea, Lionel Fatton writes.

By striking the Syrian regime in early April, President Donald Trump demonstrated that the American capacity to project military power far from home remains intact, and that he has the will to use it if necessary. The consequences of this dramatic decision on international dynamics surrounding the Syrian conflict are uncertain. But if the new US administration is entering uncharted waters in the Middle East, it is bringing stability in East Asia. Somewhat paradoxically, the strike both triggered the recent spike in tensions in the Korean Peninsula and ensured that the situation does not spiral out of control in the longer term.

The US struck Syria at a time when tensions in East Asia have reached their highest level since the end of the Cold War. China is militarising the South China Sea and is clashing with Japan over territorial disputes in the East China Sea. North Korea’s provocations continue and the country is coming closer to acquiring a fully deliverable nuclear capacity. Traditional US allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, are pondering the credibility of American security commitments. The cruise missiles that hit Syria will enhance regional stability by putting pressure on China, deterring North Korea, and reassuring US partners.

The US attacked as Trump was entertaining President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Although the strike was not made to coincide with the meeting, it sent a clear signal to China that the new American administration may act decisively and is not going to waste time weighing pros and cons if this means losing the initiative. This impression is going to help deter China from taking provocative actions in the East and South China Seas.

More on this: Solutions to North Korea beyond sabre-rattling

The other message sent to China relates to North Korea. Trump has been pushing Beijing to use its diplomatic and economic leverage, while warning that he was ready to chart his own course and that all options were on the table with regards to North Korea. The American attack in Syria was the last piece of a clear diplomatic signal: the US may decide to strike if there is no progress on the missile and nuclear programs – a worst-case scenario for China. The dispatch near the Korean Peninsula of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its escort in late April and the simultaneous swift deployment of the anti-ballistic missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea only added to the credibility of the signal.

This message was heard in Pyongyang as well, and this is going to reinforce the US deterrence posture. The fact that North Korea formed a new team of high-ranking officials in charge of foreign affairs shows that Pyongyang took notice of what happened in Syria and fears US military might. It does not mean an end to North Korea’s provocations, but it will force the country to think twice before behaving in a way that could lead to open conflict.

Deterrence is about capabilities and will. The US-South Korea alliance possesses an overwhelming military superiority over North Korea. Moreover, Tokyo recently reclaimed the right to collective self-defence and can be expected to back, and possibly participate with US forces in, any war that occurs.

On the other hand, the credibility of the US commitment to defend South Korea in a full-fledged war is questionable from Pyongyang’s perspective. The memory of the bloody Korean War is still present in the US. For the American president, obtaining the approval of Congress may not be an easy thing, even more so if North Korea succeeds in testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US mainland or territories in the Pacific.

More on this: Can Tillerson tackle a tense East Asia?

The recent strike also revealed the aversion of the Trump administration to the use of weapons of mass destruction. Because it is a generic term that includes chemical and nuclear weapons, North Korea likely understood that its nuclear program is a highly sensitive case for the new US government. Although this may not prevent Pyongyang from ultimately conducting a sixth nuclear test, this could act as a brake on its nuclear ambitions.

Lastly, the cruise missiles that struck Syria will reassure Japan and South Korea about US security commitments, for which credibility weakened under President Barack Obama. In August 2012, Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was a red line not to be crossed. Almost exactly one year later, the Bashar al-Assad government used sarin gas against rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital. The US did not respond by punitive actions, and instead worked with Russia to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile through the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Obama backed down, and American security commitments were discredited in the eyes of Tokyo and Seoul. If the US did not respond to a chemical attack that killed hundreds, would it risk escalation with China over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? Would it be ready to endanger the stability of the Korean Peninsula by responding to a limited shelling on the South by North Korea, similar to the bombardment of Yeonpyeong islands in late 2010?

By swiftly striking Syria, Trump restored the credibility of US commitments. This is going to mitigate the feeling of insecurity in Japan and South Korea and prevent these two countries from taking unilateral defence measures that could heighten tensions with their neighbours. Both Tokyo and Seoul rapidly expressed their support for the missile strike, praising US resolve. Actually, the prospect of abandonment that had worried the two capitals for years may give way to a fear of entrapment in US-led conflicts.

The American attack in Syria could destabilise the Middle East. The consequences for the region will greatly depend on the diplomatic skills of the new US administration, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in particular, and on its relations with Russia. On the other hand, the strike is going to reinforce regional stability in East Asia by freezing a fluid international situation, for a while at least. Tensions in the Korean Peninsula might be temporarily peaking, but they are unlikely to lead to open conflict. If cruise missiles may bring chaos in the Middle East, they are delivering peace in East Asia.

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