[See *UPDATE* in text below. – J.E.]
If you went by Western media coverage, you’d ignore the fact that Iran test-launched a Shahab-3 ballistic missile on, specifically, Wednesday, 24 July 2019, and North Korea test-launched two missiles seemingly similar to the Russian Iskander ballistic missile on, specifically, Thursday, 25 July; and you’d probably imagine that the missile launches were spontaneous, unrelated cosmic rebukes of Donald Trump’s policies on Iran and North Korea, which the Western media don’t like.
You would certainly ignore the fact that on Tuesday, 23 July, the day before the first missile launch, Russia and China conducted a joint strategic power demonstration with bomber flights in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), clearly intended to target the will and purpose of South Korea, while rattling Japan’s cage as a collateral benefit.
Such is the strange cognitive framework you would inhabit if you went by Western media coverage.
But if you performed the simple tasks of checking the calendar and pondering – even briefly – the connections between Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, you might be more skeptical of the cosmic-rebuke analysis regarding Trump’s policies.
Add two more factors, in fact, and you’d have yourself a more coherent theory. First, any headway Donald Trump makes with his North Korea policy – such as his unprecedented presidential visit with Kim Jong-Un at the DMZ on 30 June – tends to push the course of events beyond a stale, six-decade-old status quo on the Korean Peninsula in which China and Russia are both heavily invested. They don’t want the U.S. and South Korea to negotiate a resolution with the North that isn’t controlled from Beijing and Moscow. They will try instead to divide Seoul from Washington, through intimidation and arm-twisting if necessary.
Both nations are working against Trump’s North Korea policy. This past week, they did it noisily.
Second, something of exceptional importance was occurring on the other side of Eurasia at the same time. After Iran seized and impounded the UK tanker Stena Impero a week earlier, the U.S. was trying to set up a coalition of NATO partners to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf. Theresa May’s last major act as prime minister was to decline to join such a coalition, for fear of being associated with Trump’s Iran policy.
The new UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, immediately set to work cobbling together a coalition without the U.S., also because the UK is unwilling to break with the EU on Iran policy.
Russia and China, which back Iran and oppose U.S. sanctions, are eager to keep the U.S. and EU divided on this matter. But that’s not just because they want to back Iran. (In a vacuum that lacked the U.S., they would be competing noticeably over Iran, slugging it out to see who could achieve the greater influence.)
It’s because they want to divide the U.S. from our allies across the board. They want to foster divisions with Japan and South Korea in the Far East, and divisions between the U.S. and our European allies in the “Atlantic” region.
This is not because Trump has been ineffective. It’s because, from their standpoint, Trump has been too effective. Putin and Xi don’t want him making actual progress in a joint security effort with South Korea and North Korea, nor do they want him running “the” maritime security coalition in the Persian Gulf, while also winning de facto support (however grudging) from Europe for restored trade and financial sanctions on Iran.
A brief (and far from complete) tour of recent activities highlights their pursuit of a strategy that emphasizes empowering Iran and North Korea to defy the goals being pursued by the U.S. The Western media haven’t been putting these developments on the front page.
The North Korea problem
In early June, Nikkei Asian Review writer Tetsuro Kosaka provided a round-up of assessments citing U.S. and Japanese officials that Russia is behind the unusually rapid advances North Korea has suddenly begun making in missile technology. Pyongyang’s recent missile launches bear the stamp of the Russian Iskander ballistic missile, with fresh developments coming at an accelerated pace, because Russia is helping with North Korea’s program.
Moreover, Kosaka notes that some analysts see China’s hand in the North Korean missile program, suggesting that the test launches in May 2019 were of an Iskander-based missile that was “Chinese or a copy of a Chinese missile.
“Either way,” said Kosaka, “they were guided by Beidou, China’s take on GPS.” U.S. experts, according to Ryan Pickrell for Business Insider, “suggested at that time that the weapon’s maneuverability seemed to indicate it was designed to skirt missile defenses, such as the Patriot and THAAD batteries deployed in South Korea.”
Improved capability for evasive maneuvers has been a focus for both Russia and China in missile development over the last two decades. The accelerated advances in that capability detected with the North Korean missile launches argue strongly for backing from both nations.
Russia has also stepped in to help mitigate the effect of U.S. sanctions on North Korea, allowing North Korean guest workers to send loads of cash to the Kim regime.
Buried in the Diplomat article is another brief nugget with significant explanatory value.
The increase in North Korean workers in Russia comes amid a rising number of cargo trains bound for North Korea from Russia. Observers said this became more evident after the North Korea-Russia summit in April when leaders from the two countries met [see here, for example, on the summit].
Trains running cargo across the border between Russia and North Korea are exceptionally hard for the U.S. to try to monitor or perform effective surveillance of. Certainly we don’t have ready, reasonable-cost opportunities to interdict them, as we might interdict cargo moved by sea.
That should be kept in mind when we see reports like this one in the Wall Street Journal about Kim acquiring more nuclear warheads on a faster timeline. North Korea has mastered a warhead production capability; it’s industrial material the regime needs to do it faster, more than expertise or technology. What Kim needs most probably fits in standard shipping containers or cargo cars, and can be sent from Russia or China with minimal visibility to a foreign intelligence service.
Both Moscow and Beijing hold the nuclear upper hand with Pyongyang, and by a long shot. It would be a grave mistake to imagine the quality of their concern about a nuclear-armed North Korea is the same as ours.
For one thing, they could deal with a restive Kim relatively easily, and Kim knows it. But they already live in a neighborhood with a nuclear-armed Pakistan (and, to China’s special annoyance, India) – as well as Britain and France on the other end of the Eastern hemispheric land mass. To suppose they have the same horror Americans might of helping Kim along for the time being, if that will buy him away from Trump, is to project an American mindset erroneously onto Asia. (Russia has been abetting Iran’s nuclear program for years, remember, in full knowledge of what it’s for.)
Neither nation has had occasion to explicitly articulate such a point, at least as far as I’ve been able to discern. But their joint strategic demonstration with the bomber flights on 23 July spoke volumes. With that episode, they did, in fact, declare a common strategic intention they have never signaled before. Seoul wasn’t their only intended audience for it. They wanted the U.S. to know they will collaborate to project strategic power all over the Far East.
That covers smaller efforts, like giving North Korea a patronage alternative that might seem to offer more fun and profit than working with the U.S., at least in the short run. If Kim can even just be induced to drag his heels with Trump, trying to play his wooers off against each other, South Korea is likely to see a changing decision matrix emerging, and may even lose heart.
The Iran problem
Meanwhile, both nations are at work to undermine U.S. sanctions on Iran (especially China) and interfere with U.S. efforts to mount a maritime security coalition in the Persian Gulf (especially Russia).
China remains the long pole in the sanctions tent – which is why the U.S. imposed new, targeted sanctions on a Chinese company on 22 July, the day before the big strategic bomber demonstration with Russia. To keep oil imports from Iran going, China has used Iranian-owned tankers to move the oil over the past year, helping Iran deal with the inconvenience of being unable to insure cargoes in the normal way, and making special payment channels available through a Chinese bank.
Russia, meanwhile, has signaled support for a sluggish European effort to create an alternative payment channel, INSTEX, which would skirt U.S. visibility into international financial transactions.
But the anti-sanctions effort isn’t confined to opposing the instruments for sanctions enforcement. Almost unremarked in the Western media were reports over the last few weeks that U.S. combat aircraft in the Middle East were finding their GPS jammed by signals originating in Russia. The jamming appeared to start coincident with deployment of U.S. F-22 and F-35 strike-fighters to Qatar and the UAE in April 2019.
This is a significant move, interfering with safety of flight and potentially with operational capabilities.
In the midst of the increase in tensions, after the shootdown of the U.S. Global Hawk by Iran, Russia affirmed publicly that Iran “won’t be alone” if the U.S. takes military action against the mullahs’ regime. Jamming the signals for U.S. aircraft deploying to the Gulf is not about operations in Syria. It’s about Iran.
And more recently, analysts in the UK reportedly think GPS signal-spoofing by Russia may have drawn the seized tanker Stena Impero off course and into Iranian waters. If so, that would make Moscow a direct participant in the Iranian operation to hold a UK tanker at risk.
That suspicion remains unconfirmed, although it is not unlikely. Nor is it unlikely that Russia – and China – would seek to participate in a European coalition assembled to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, separately from any effort by the U.S. On Saturday, 27 July, an interesting article appeared in the UK Express, reporting that this collaboration is being urged on the new Johnson government.
The “interesting” aspect is that the Johnson government is said to be under “pressure” to invite Russia and China (along with Japan) into the coalition, but it doesn’t say where the pressure is coming from. The article indicates the move for their incorporation “was suggested” after the British rejected the U.S. proposal for a joint operation at a military meeting in Florida (presumably at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa), and that a plan to bring in the Asian powers has been sent to Downing Street.
But it isn’t clear where the impetus for this move has arisen. It’s also interesting that it’s being floated to the media in this opaque form via the Express, rather than, say, the Telegraph, with its greater air of journalistic gravitas and official access.
How and why things are planted with the media matters more now than it has for years. The political implications of a UK coalition with Russia and China, but not the U.S., are rather obvious, and obviously divisive.
The practical implications are significant as well. If the U.S. needs to engage in armed enforcement at some point in the Persian Gulf, would be it better or worse for us to have Russian and Chinese naval forces invited into the area by a coalition of our NATO allies? This proposal looks like an effort to outnumber the U.S. in the Gulf – and, indeed, to establish an active, operational presence there by Russian and Chinese forces that would not soon leave, once they were there on the Europeans’ political dime.
*UPDATE*: Probably not surprisingly, given the unmistakable trend of the new Boris Johnson government, the UK reached out on Monday, 29 July to resume discussion of a collaboration with the U.S. on a maritime security plan for the Persian Gulf. This is a very good sign, spiking at least temporarily the incipient effort to split NATO over the Gulf/Hormuz security problem. There is no navy with which either the U.S. or UK has as much history of allied operations – and there is already a plan drawn up. Extended deliberation and preparation can’t reasonably slow this option down. – J.E. [End update]
None of this is coincidence. It’s all happening at the same time for interlinked reasons. Trump’s policies have actually been having an effect, and Russia and China don’t like it.
There are more tricks in the bag for the U.S.; our economic power still dwarfs theirs, and not every challenge needs to be addressed symmetrically, or head-on. But we’re definitely operating now in the “tectonically” shifting, multipolar world that is Obama’s legacy, rather than the odd, preserved-in-amber pause of the post-1991 period.
Maneuver and leverage are the keys to movement, and effectiveness has to be ruthless and real. It’s not as much like 1919 – with that year’s incipient visions of Kantian internationalism – as like, perhaps, 1909. Even 1909 doesn’t fit that well, in terms of the un-clarity of vision. And it’s certainly not like 1989, when all the major lines were still the ones drawn by World War II.
We’ll see if Trump can stay ahead of threats to American security in this environment.