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North Korea: Obama in a Quandary

The increasingly adventuristic policies and actions of North Korea and China’s reluctance to tame North Korea to oblige President Barack Obama have placed him in a quandary where the US will be damned if it acts against North Korea for sinking the South Korean naval ship Cheonan in March last and will be equally damned if it does not.

2. Nothing brings out the helpless state of the US under Mr.Obama more dramatically than the reported plea of Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, who has just completed a high-profile visit to Beijing for a bilateral strategic dialogue. News agencies have quoted her as saying : “The US and China must work together to fashion an effective response to the sinking of the Cheonan. Maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula is a shared responsibility between the countries.”

3. Ever since Mr.Obama assumed office as the President in January 2009, there has been a weakening of the US will and readiness to act independently in crisis situations—–whether these related to the global economic melt-down or peace and security in regions of vital interest to the US or nuclear proliferation or counter-terrorism. The beneficiaries of Mr.Obama’s lack of will to act firmly and independently have been rogue states such as Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.

4. In foreign policy matters, the US has practically been reduced by Mr.Obama to the position of a dependency of China—- depending on the goodwill and co-operation of China for dealing with these States and for protecting vital US national interests—-whether in the Pacific region or in the Af-Pak area or in the Gulf.

5. The inability of Mr.Obama to fashion a coherent and deterrent response to the rogue states has further encouraged the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and strengthened their determination to go ahead with their nuclear projects without having to worry about a robust US response. Both Iran and North Korea have convinced themselves that they don’t have to worry about the response of the US so long as they have the support of China.

6. It is amazing that in less than 18 months, Mr.Obama has reduced the US to the position of a mediocre Pacific power, which has to depend on China for protecting its regional interests. The policy of containing China followed under Mr.George Bush has given way under Mr.Obama to one of pathetically courting China to spare Mr.Obama the dilemma of having to act against the rogue States. Mr.Obama’s power-sharing willingness in the Pacific has given China an importance which it had never dreamt of having till 2020.

7. So long as the rogue States have the confidence that China will not let them down, the US is going to find itself confronted more and more with Cheonan-like situations. North Korea’s action in sinking the Cheonan without worrying about the implications dramatically illustrates the contempt that it has for the US power in the region. It is not bothered about condemnation by the UN Security Council or by the likelihood of international sanctions.

8. Fears of a US determined to act even at the risk of a military confrontation are what kept States such as Iran and North Korea under some control in the past. The disappearance of these fears and the US-encouraged rise of the Chinese influence and role led to the adventuristic naval action by North Korea in March last and could one day lead to an adventuristic Iranian action against Israel.

9. The fear of the US Pacific Fleet once acted as the deterrent. It no longer does so. The result: The US finds itself with zero options in the Pacific either for acting against North Korea or for enforcing its will in the region as a whole.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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