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North Korea’s Friday morning missile launch may have been an embarrassing flop but that did little to hide the deep sense of discomfort in the Obama administration.
Having seen its tentative February efforts to engage Pyongyang go up in a shortlived bout of smoke, the administration found itself on the end of a Republican tongue-lashing. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney immediately accused Barack Obama of being “naive”, “incompetent” and, the real nuclear option, guilty of “appeasing” North Korea.
Yet there are opportunities mixed in with this setback. The signature piece of Mr Obama’s foreign policy over the past 18 months has been the so-called “pivot” to Asia – a series of diplomatic and military initiatives aimed at reasserting US leadership in the region and pinning back China’s ambitions. North Korea has just given him a new opening.
China has been viewed with much greater suspicion in Asia over the past two years, a shift often put down to its sometimes bullying behaviour in places such as the South China Sea. But the reality is that China’s close ties to North Korea, forged in war 60 years ago, have played a central role in turning parts of Asia against Beijing.
When Kim Jong-il’s illness became apparent a few years ago, Beijing decided that it needed to underwrite the Kim family dynasty or risk a unified, US-friendly Korea on its border. It has since had to bite its lip as North Korea sank a South Korean warship and then shelled an island. Now it has had to watch another ballistic missile test – with the possibility of a nuclear test still to come.
North Korean behaviour has worked against China in all sorts of ways but one that is gathering steam is the idea of missile defence. Two weeks before the North Korean launch, Madelyn Creedon, a senior Pentagon official, said the US wanted to develop the sort of regional defence shield in Asia that has proved so controversial in Europe. The other countries, she said, could be Japan, South Korea and Australia – the strongest US allies in the region and each of which now has China as their biggest trading partner.
The idea is not a new one but North Korea’s experiments in ballistic missile technology have given it momentum. Japan has been building its own system for more than a decade since the first North Korean test and already has several Aegis warships with technology supplied by the US.
South Korea has been more reluctant to link up to the US network and has announced plans for its own defence system aimed at medium rangemissiles. Yet Seoul could still end up depending on the US for information about missile movements.
The Chinese reaction to this new US missile defence push has been angry. The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid from the same publishing stable as the People’s Daily, warned last week that “a vicious arms race in Asia may follow”.
Beijing knows that the US and its allies have only one eye on North Korea, the other on China and its fast-developing missile capabilities – including the DF-21d anti-ship missile, otherwise dubbed as the “carrier-killer” because of its potential to attack aircraft carriers, the central plank of US power projection in the Pacific.
Admiral Jonathan Greenert, head of US naval operations, said last month that if the US ever needed to shoot down the Chinese missiles, it would look to mobilise the Aegis cruisers in the region that were watching North Korea this week. In the long run, the navy hopes to have large shipboard lasers to do the job, as well as a range of jamming equipment to confuse incoming missiles.
The many critics of missile defence question if it will ever really work. But even with these doubts, the idea is binding the US and its Asian allies more closely together, despite China’s growing economic reach. It took Kim Jong-eun just four months to snub a US president. But he has also provided a new opportunity for Mr Obama to reinforce the US position in the region.
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