Monday, April 10, 2017



By Philip J Cunningham

“Fruitful” said the People’s Daily, while an upbeat China Daily described the Mar-a-Lago meet as a ‘win-win’ tete-a-tete.

Tellingly, Chinese state media coverage of President Xi’s visit to the US was whitewashed of any mention of the dramatic April 6, 2017 missile attack on Syria, first revealed to Xi during a ceremonial state banquet.

Chinese observers had to wait until after Xi was safely out of the US to get the news and let fly their true feelings about the provocative timing of the provocative act.

The contrast of Chinese and Western coverage is a tale of two summits, or more precisely, the two conflicting tales of the same summit.

A missile strike in the middle of a summit, what was that all about? A shot across the bow? A show of military prowess second to none? An oblique cry for help with North Korea? A non-verbal way for the potty-mouthed serial insulter who famously said “China is raping our country” to express displeasure within the confines of banquet protocol?

Trump’s sneak attack on Syria used the summit as cover. While Xi was earnestly talking “Belt and Road” Trump was thinking “Shock and Awe.”

Xi handled the rude interlude with poker-faced aplomb, despite the insult inherent in the awkward timing.

Imagine being guest of honor at a state dinner planned to trumpet bilateral ties only to have your host lean over as dessert is being served to whisper, “we’re bombing Syria tonight.”

Cause for indigestion, if not indignation, is it not?

You hold your rising sense of alarm in check. You play it cool, you play it presidential, but there’s no disguising the fact you have been played.

You get the sinking feeling you’ve been used as a prop, a backdrop, stuck in a sideshow while the clown steps into the center ring to draw more attention to himself in a more explosive drama.

Political summits are designed to generate above-the-fold publicity and wall-to-wall TV coverage while leaders build trust and solve problems

And let’s say you are a bit face-conscious as the self-styled strongman of the world’s biggest country because you have just flown halfway around the globe to a remote resort described by your media as “the southeastern US coastal town of Palm Beach” to reach out to your counterpart, only to be put on the spot.

What do you do? Confront and argue? Storm out in protest? Or finish going through your pre-scripted itinerary and quietly slip away?

The state press in your home country dutifully omits mention of the marred summit at Mar-a-Lago, but a military strike in a tinderbox country is a hard thing to hide.

You still carry the burden of showing a billion plus people back home that you are the man, one of the great political figures of the contemporary era, that you command respect wherever you go.

But your host pulled a fast one on you. It’s the worst kind of insult--you’re not even sure it’s an insult at first because it seems inadvertent--but it sticks. The trick was pulled so fast, and with so little advance warning, that you look like a co-conspirator in a gratuitous act of war in contravention to your stated policy of non-intervention.

No one likes being a chump, no one likes being trumped. No one likes being made a “cuck” of, to borrow a term popular in the White House these days.

So what do you do?

You keep your cool and continue to play the good-natured guest who respectfully endures the song and dance performances of children; musical interludes that may well turn out to be the high point of the summit.

That night, you hightail it out of that tawdry tropical town, bolt from a tinsel castle entirely lacking in the pomp and grandeur of the national capital. You get back on your custom-designed jumbo jet and make a brief stopover in Alaska to gaze at some snow-covered peaks and eat a bite of seafood, as if to salvage something from a journey to humiliation and back. You look longingly at the mountains, as if you are casting your eyes on America for the last time.

Your national media understands, even before they get detailed, explicit guidance to fill in the gaps, that you have to come out of this looking good, even if you are not feeling good about it.

It was a successful summit—could your captive media portray it as anything else? The photo coverage is adequate, even endearing. You held your own in a bewildering, gilded environment of reality TV stars, hard-gripped handshakes and aggressive non-verbal posturing.

But you were treated like a mark by a world-class con man, a mere prop in another man’s drama.

The US media is free, so what can you say? Free to ignore you, free to entertain, free to follow base impulses, free to cash in on calumny and killing. Free to bark en masse like dogs of war, free to behold the “beautiful” sight of Tomahawk missiles launched like fireworks, free to rally around the flag. Free to admire a commander-in-chief willing to kill, willing to humiliate, willing, at last, to toe the Beltway line.

You got punked by an orange-haired clown who wears too much makeup. Your august presence was but a footnote to the big news of the day. You merited less than a minute’s time, if that, in a news cycle dominated by the whoopie cry of war. 

The incredible shrinking summit. Going, going gone, You came and went. You left without luggage but not empty-handed. Your host promised a reciprocal visit to see you in your capital later this year.

Where might China let the missiles fly to return the favor?

Sunday, April 2, 2017


Protests in South Korea,   Japan Times/AP photo


By Philip J Cunningham
The much-touted Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile battery is being hastily set up in South Korea ahead of schedule, presumably in reaction to North Korea’s provocations, but also in fear of it being subject to cancelation by a possibly less pro-U.S. administration that will take over the reins of power in the wake of the impeachment of President Park Guen-hye.
While the desire to “do” something about North Korea is urgent and palpable, the devil is in the details when it comes to figuring out what to do.
The THADD missile emplacement is of dubious utility and is doubly controversial; it offers little protection to its supposed beneficiary while greatly exasperating relations with China, a key to any long-term solution with Pyongyang.
The utility of defensive missiles cannot be dismissed offhand, especially in the case of Japan, which is at sufficient remove to improve the odds of interception. The long arc of a missile crossing the expanse of the Sea of Japan, for example, might offer time and distance sufficient to target incoming strikes. But this is not the case with South Korea, which is way too close to North Korea for effective anti-missile missile defense. What’s more, field tests, even under relatively ideal conditions, have been riddled with failure.
Beijing is not wrong to assume that the underlying motivation of the controversial missile placement is both prod and shield to China itself. Although the kinetic missiles — designed to knock out incoming fire by deadweight collision — are not offensive weapons, the radar monitoring necessary to identify incoming objects is intrusive and could easily be reconfigured to focus on China. The upgraded AN/TPY-2 radar system can “look” 2,000 km over the horizon.
Perhaps U.S. strategists saw a chance to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the kinetic missile battery is a public relations ploy to show a U.S. administration being tough on North Korea, a “bring it on” taunt to notoriously thin-skinned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But it is also a prod to get China to do its share of the heavy lifting on the intractable Pyongyang problem. To install the missiles despite China’s hysterical opposition is precisely the sort of diplomatic gaffe that Trump revels in, because it leaves room to negotiate.
It’s a Trumpian bargaining point: If Beijing doesn’t get its erstwhile ally under control, Washington will double down on doing it its own way, in a way designed to bug China.
There’s not much art to such a deal but the current occupant of the White House favors a careless, obstreperous style, as was already seen in his indelicate flourishing of the Taiwan card in the face of the long-held “one-China” policy.
The plan to install missiles in the rugged mountains that down the Korean Peninsula like a spine predates the Trump presidency, but it has acquired Trumpian overtones, and not just because the deal involved a real estate swap and the sale of a golf course.
To put an advanced missile battery in South Korea is like flourishing a blade at Pyongyang that is also a feint at Beijing.
Just as North Korea is been used as a proxy target for anti-China sentiment, South Korea is likewise being used as a substitute target for anti-U.S. sentiment.
The recent upsurge of anti-South Korea agitation in China can be seen as a frustrated and misplaced attempt to castigate the U.S. missile program by blaming the recipients of Uncle Sam’s largesse. South Koreans, long regarded in China as U.S. “running dogs” (or “the cat’s paw” as China Daily delicately puts it) are being unfairly blamed for a Pentagon-devised move.
Narrowing the focus even more, Lotte, a wealthy South Korean conglomerate with roots in Japan, has been singled out for particular abuse in China, if only because it ceded control of the golf course where the missile battery is now being installed. Thus the company has become a proxy for a proxy.
The Korean Peninsula has long been a land in between. Caught in a tug-of-war of great power wrangling as World War II wound down and the Cold War revved up, colonized Korea, not aggressor Japan, got split in two. Had the Soviet Red Army turned its attention to Japan sooner, a not entirely implausible alternative would have seen the division of Japan, determined by a race to Tokyo that paralleled the race to Berlin.
With the Russians poised to hit Hokkaido and north Honshu, the Americans, working up from Okinawa and the islands would have been limited to occupying Kyushu, Shikoku and Kansai, with a DMZ running near Tokyo.
Luckily for Japan, that’s a counterfactual that never happened, and all things being equal, it was probably better for Japan to be occupied from top to bottom by dollar-rich Americans rather than be “shared” with ruble-poor Soviets, but tragically for Japan, and humankind in general, the rush to occupy was a contributing factor to a ruthless bureaucratic mood in Washington that favored a pre-emptive show of nuclear prowess. As a result, Japan got nuked and Korea got cut right down the middle.
And a revivified Cold War rages on.
If the U.S. has miscalculated in its anti-missile military outreach, China has made a mess of things with its anti-South Korean propaganda. It has scored a soft power own-goal by fanning the flames of racial enmity against ordinary South Korean citizens when the real villains are hidden away in the high towers and hidden corridors of capitals where Cold War thinking is enjoying a resurgence.
Extending the costly anti-missile program to South Korea is a hard sell strategically, but all strategic considerations aside, such sales are a boondoggle for a U.S. military industrial complex that has long raked in cash from spurious Star Wars style anti-missile schemes despite their questionable worth.
It’s not that China doesn’t have an argument about THAAD, it’s that the argument is not with the South Korean people. If it’s with anyone, it’s with Trump, under whose militant posture the provocative installation is taking place.
If China’s leadership wants to address the root of the problem, it makes more sense to boycott Mar-A-Lago than Lotte.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and consultant.