Jia Xiudong: US-South Korea war games add fuel to fire

CGTN | 作者: Jia Xiudong | 时间: 2017-12-08 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) launched their largest-ever joint air force drills on Monday, involving more than 230 aircrafts and around 12,000 US service members.


It is no surprise that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) described the war games as a “grave provocation”, pushing the Korean Peninsula “to the brink of nuclear war.”


The five-day drill, like previous major joint military exercises by the US and ROK, serves three purposes: a show of force meant to deter the DPRK, improvement of the allies’ combat readiness and strengthening the alliance, or in other words, demonstrating the US' credible commitment to the ROK.


But the consequences of the exercises go beyond these stated purposes. They tend to inflame an already tense situation on the Korean Peninsula.


In addition to the annual Vigilant Ace war games, the US and the ROK usually conduct two large-scale military exercises throughout the year: the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises in the fall and the Foal Eagle/Key Resolve exercises in the spring.


These exercises routinely spark condemnation from the DPRK, claiming that an accidental war might occur.


Routine as they may seem, these drills are held now against a different background: more nuclear and missile tests by the DPRK, leading to the improvement of its nuclear and ballistic technology and capability in defiance of United Nations Security Council sanctions and greater pressure from the US and ROK in the form of tougher sanctions and greater isolation, hence a vicious, escalatory cycle of tensions.


Both the DPRK and the US-ROK alliance face a textbook security dilemma.


Increased security measures by one side against the perceived increasing threat from the other do not necessarily produce a greater sense of security. Instead, they lead to more tensions on the Korean Peninsula and make it more difficult for the parties to come back to the table.


At the moment, neither Pyongyang nor Washington and Seoul would like to take the first step towards the negotiating table, with each citing their conditions and security concerns. At the heart of the security dilemma for both sides is their deep-seated strategic distrust developed over the past decades.


Both sides have genuine security concerns, and each names the other as its major security threat. The US has kept stating that in dealing with the DPRK, all options, including military, are on the table, sometimes triggering “nuclear war” warnings from the DPRK.


However, due to the unique geographic and geopolitical situation of the Korean Peninsula, a military conflict, if initiated by the DPRK, might be suicidal, and would also be devastating to the ROK and US if they were to launch a preemptive strike against the DPRK.


The massive conventional military deployment by the DPRK along the demilitarized zone may offer twenty five million and 28,000 reasons for the US and ROK to rule out a military first strike as about 25 million people or half of the ROK population live in the greater Seoul metropolitan area, within the firing range of the North’s artillery and rockets, plus some of the 28,000 US troops and their families stationed in the country.


The escalatory spiral in military preparedness, show of force and the war of words create a deadlock on the Korean Peninsula, and the prospect of coming to formal talks seems a long way off.


To find a way out of the deadlock, China made the “dual suspension” proposal, with Russia’s support, that urges the DPRK to suspend its nuclear and missile activities while the US and ROK refrain from conducting large-scale joint military exercises.


The proposal, which might not be satisfactory to all parties, is meant to deescalate tensions and create conditions for exploring a possible return to dialogue.


Statements by US and ROK officials so far indicate that they are not ready to take the proposal, insisting that they have to see some sort of positive action by the DPRK before they can take the country seriously and talk about dialogue with them.


Some pundits even argue that there is no moral equivalency between US actions and DPRK actions, so the US should not agree to such a freeze-for-freeze approach.


These arguments fall back to traditional approaches and are not conducive to creative thinking. As a matter of fact, China’s proposal leaves a great deal of room for flexibility in creating conditions for the resumption of talks on this issue. As a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman recently put it, “the ‘dual suspension’ proposal is the most feasible, fair and sensible plan in the present situation.”


US National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster said at a forum recently that the possibility of war with the DPRK was “increasing every day, which means that...we are in a race to be able to solve this problem.”


But the solution he offered is not encouraging. Speaking in an interview on Fox News Sunday, he said it was in the best interest of both China and Russia to help contain Pyongyang, but that the US was prepared to go it alone.


All parties to the peninsula nuclear issue have a role to play, but the US has unique responsibilities which no one can substitute. Not adding fuel to the fire is an important one of them.



Jia Xiudong is a senior research fellow of China Institute of International Studies.



Source: CGTN, December 7, 2017.