Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her on Twitter @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
While the United States has been wrecked by domestic crises for most of 2020, the rest of the world hasn’t stopped turning. Instead, many global threats – like North Korea – have grown in breadth and depth while the administration has scrambled to belatedly battle the Covid-19 pandemic and to deal with domestic divisions and the outcry over police brutality and systemic racism. Concurrently, while President Donald Trump has been waging a war on his perceived political enemies, tensions between China and India, two nuclear armed powers, have escalated with fatal consequences.
These twin conflicts in Asia present serious challenges for US national security at a time when the President seems mostly focused on attacking his former national security advisor, John Bolton, and saying whatever he thinks will score him campaign support. That approach forebodes a continued lack of any semblance of a coherent, informed strategy when it comes to dealing with security issues in Asia.
For years, Trump has treated North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, like a key foreign policy surrogate. He has inaccurately pointed to his relationship with Kim and small concessions North Korea made, like releasing prisoner remains, as a sign that he’s made progress on North Korean denuclearization. Now, Trump’s preferred foreign policy surrogate may be his biggest liability.
While Kim has continued to develop his illegal nuclear program and other conventional capabilities at a quick pace, despite summiting with Trump and becoming his preferred pen pal, North Korea has recently upped the ante on direct threats to the US and our allies.
The fact is, President Trump isn’t the only leader with thin skin - he and Kim Jong Un share that attribute. Tensions recently ramped up between North Korea and South Korea after defectors in South Korea sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border into North Korea. It’s not the first time this has happened, but this time around the Kim regime has responded with force. They literally blew up the inter-Korean liaison office that was supposed to work on improving inter-Korean relations. They’re also threatening to send troops to previously demilitarized border areas, and more.
Verbal insults are flying out of Pyongyang, including from Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, who accused the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, of “pro-US flunkeyism.” This is a far cry from the inter-Korean warmth displayed at Moon’s previous summits with Kim Jong Un. Escalation on the Korean peninsula, where the US has thousands of troops stationed with their families, is a reality now. And, if Trump’s past is prologue, there’s no certainty that he’ll side with our ally, South Korea, if Kim continues his dangerous behavior on the peninsula.
However, Kim’s ire isn’t just reserved for South Korea. After the US State Department expressed disappointment with Pyongyang for ratcheting up tensions with South Korea, North Korea’s foreign ministry sent a warning to the US. “It would be good to keep your mouth shut…This will not only be in the United States’ interest, it will also be beneficial for a successful presidential election right in front of your nose,” the foreign ministry said. The comments come after North Korea has advanced cyber capabilities which it has used against US assets in the past.
It was clear that denuclearization was nothing more than a pipe dream long ago– and Kim has more recently publicly vowed to increase North Korea’s nuclear “deterrent.” Kim’s not denuclearizing and may be backtracking on demilitarizing. The risk of direct, physical confrontation on the Korean peninsula is more of a reality as is a direct North Korean attack on US democracy.
While North Korea’s destabilizing actions have only increased in the last few months – they are clearly aware that Trump is desperate to cling to Kim as he heads into the election, and they may be trying to pressure him into giving Kim concessions to maintain some semblance of “success” with North Korea.
They know Trump prioritizes his political agenda over policy priorities, and they may be trying to provoke him into giving them what they want – sanctions relief – in exchange for cooling it during his campaign.
While Trump’s administration figures out how to respond to the chaos created by Kim – not to mention ongoing bilateral tensions with China – there has also been a direct physical altercation between India and China. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed on Monday in the Galwan Valley – an area controlled by China but claimed by both countries. India and China went to war over this strip of land in 1962 after which a tenuous status quo has existed.
This isn’t the first time those tensions have escalated, but the casualties earlier this week mark the bloodiest episode in Sino-Indian relations in decades as both countries have accused each other of not respecting the line of actual control (LAC) which serves as a de facto border. Both sides have reportedly militarily reinforced their positions in the area despite attempts to de-escalate tensions. While the strip of land in question is small and relatively inhospitable, it does hold strategic importance to both countries.
Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has proven himself willing to stand up to China’s regional ambitions. He’s been clear that he won’t let India be bullied by China. Furthermore, both leaders have politics at play – backing down from a nationalist agenda item could come with costs for them at home. While Indian and Chinese officials met Thursday to discuss escalation, there are calls in India for retribution against China.
And, while officials on both sides battle it out verbally, something’s got to give because, as we have seen, the use of force is totally on the table. An off ramp is urgently needed because both countries are probably looking for a way out. Not only are they still battling Covid-19 and facing economic uncertainties, but they need an off ramp that allows them to save face domestically. Doing that will require careful diplomatic calibration in terms of concessions for any loss of life and a coordinated de-escalation of military assets in the area.
The problem becomes, of course, who’s going to help develop that off-ramp? Trump has warm relations with Modi – he hosted him for a visit in the US just last summer, but his relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping has gone from adulation (and allegedly asking him for help getting reelected) to using China as a scapegoat for his own inadequate response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Plus, Trump can’t make his own deals, let alone mediate others. Any Trump involvement would likely make things worse, not better. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did meet with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday in Hawaii but according to Pompeo’s team, the Chinese were not “forthcoming” during the talks and said that China’s actions in the disputed border region may just be a “punch in the nose to demonstrate their superiority.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
While the State Department tries to deal with Chinese aggression on multiple fronts, they also have to contend with the fact that Trump will say or do whatever he thinks is most politically expedient. Trump even undercut Pompeo on trade issues with China by tweeting on Thursday and he’s been all over the map on other China-related issues like Hong Kong, the Uighurs and more.
These twin crises in Asia mean that during these final months of Trump’s term, his track record on foreign policy is resoundingly clear. The President has exposed the US to more risks from North Korea, not less, while also turning the country into the weakest link when it comes to trying to resolve global conflicts. We have Trump to thank for all of that, and it’s no wonder that leaders like Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping think they can act with impunity.