In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy was facing the threat of nuclear weapons within striking distance of the United States. The Soviet forward-deployment forced America to stop Russia’s advance, just 90 miles from the homeland. Brinksmanship brought Kennedy “eyeball to eyeball” with Nikita Khrushchev. It was the Soviet president who blinked.
Fast forward to 2017. President Trump will not be the one who blinks, but someone else might. If it is Kim Jong Un, then the game of chicken and nuclear confrontation has paid off for this U.S. administration. The real challenge in this crisis, however, faces not Kim but his patron in Beijing.
Indeed, the real question in 2017 is whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will blink.
Trump’s team won a remarkable unanimous-vote UN Security Council resolution to punish North Korea last week. It was a diplomatic coup that set the legal and multilateral stage for action against North Korea and any nation aiding and abetting the pariah state. Mainly, that means China.
The current North Korean escalation could not come at a worse time for Xi politically. China’s critical 19th Party Congress is approaching and the threat to Xi’s consolidation of power and leadership is real. He needs to manage a Korean Peninsula toward a politically acceptable draw, or even a win. From Xi’s perspective, China’s client state cannot be seen to suffer a humiliating loss. Indeed, he must recognize that the Cuban missile crisis shows what can happen to powerful leaders who lose face.
In October 1962, Khrushchev was at the party helm when he appeared to back down on Cuba. No amount of shoe banging was going to give him the power or credibility to control his Communist Party after the U.S. naval blockade and Cuban showdown. Khrushchev was deposed not long after that loss.
Now it is Xi who must try to save face as the North Korean crisis provides a rationale for the United States to build a bigger defensive ring around the peninsula, and, by extension, around China. Making sure that Pyongyang’s threats do not give Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam the justification for new and improved anti-ballistic missile and radar systems is a task that sits with Beijing. Those recently installed on an abandoned golf course south of Seoul are already unnerving the Chinese government.
An effective and pervasive missile defense radar system could begin to neutralize intercontinental ballistic threats posed by North Korea, but also render China’s second-strike retaliatory capabilities of its ICBMs ineffective. Altogether, a more assertive U.S. and allied posture changes the strategic equation for the entire region. The stakes have been raised for China.
While Trump’s “fire and fury” sounds an awful lot like President George W. Bush’s “shock and awe,” there is a dramatic difference: American tactical and strategic nuclear weapons use now seems on the table. Where other presidents have considered using nukes as a last resort and an avoidable mistake, this president mused casually and openly during the 2016 campaign about South Korea and Japan developing their own nuclear weapons. Nukes are discussed more and more as just another war fighting tool.
Nuclear weapons were unimaginable back when America fought its historic instincts and traditions. It avoided “foreign entanglements.” But America grew-up at the end of the 19th century and Teddy Roosevelt brought us a world of foreign adventure by starting America’s engagement with his made-to-order Spanish-American war.
Roosevelt memorably said America should be feared by “speaking softly and carrying a big stick.” Speaking softly is not President Trump’s forte. He is more of a blusterbun who believes America’s advanced weaponry and overwhelming preponderance of big sticks allows his amplified, already loud voice to get cranked up to 11 on a scale of 10. That’s his style. Rhetorical tools are often his most effective weapons. Ask 16 Republican primary losers.
Winning the unanimous 15-0 United Nations Security Council vote was exceptional. It allows the United States enormous latitude to deal with or confront an increasingly threatening North Korea. Xi likely had to approve the U.N. go-ahead vote personally. That vote responsibly sold-out its client state in Pyongyang, as duly-noted by the North Koreans who indirectly criticized their Beijing patrons. But President Xi is looking squarely at a globally responsible action that may be seen domestically as a political miscalculation that could weaken him in a contemporary whipped-up hyper-nationalist China of his making.
Nuclear brinksmanship is back and it is faceoff time. America with its power supremacy has its weapons idling, waiting for the other side to make a move - diplomatically or militarily. The hope and calculation is that Kim’s twitchy trigger finger can be effectively stilled by a future-oriented survivalist Chinese leader who values the global commons. The stakes are whether Xi and the world survive unscathed.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.