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Most wars start as miscalculation. Think of Napoleon III deciding that the Prussian King’s apparent provocation had to be answered by the force of arms. Or Tsar Nicholas II’s desire to distract attention from his domestic troubles with a “short, victorious little war” against Japan; Likewise General Galtieri’s hope for the same (and, we might add, Arthur Scargill calling his strike without a ballot two years afterwards).
As I write, Kim Jong Un seems more like a small boy who threatens to run away if he’s made to do his homework. His increasingly alarming threats don’t seem to be matched by military preparation. Life in Pyongyang, always bizarre, goes on. Today is his grandfather’s 101st birthday and celebrations are in order. Let’s pass over, for now, the pharaonic arrangement where the grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who died eighteen years ago, still officially rules North Korea. Let’s reassure ourselves that his grandson would not think this a particularly auspicious day to provoke an a war he would lose. Let’s imagine that despite the bubble in which he lives, the sycophantic propaganda he is fed, and his scientists’ undisputed success in actually producing nuclear weapons, he understands that any war he started would end with his utter destruction.
Saturday’s promise by the United States and China to work together for peace on the Korean peninsula is not a good sign. China, it is well known, has more influence over Pyongyang than anyone else. Last week Beijing already called on Kim Jong Un to back down. That it did so in public should be taken to mean its private warnings have not been heeded: you don’t embarrass an ally in public if you can help it. The Sino-American meeting is ominous, and its message unavoidable: we take your recklessness so seriously that we’re willing to publicly side with your greatest enemy and our world rival. It looks like evidence that the Chinese message is not getting through.
In truth, we’ve no way of knowing what Kim Jong Il is trying to achieve. We have very little information about North Korea itself. And we’re totally in the dark about if, let alone how, he’s receiving the messages from world powers to calm down.
Kim Jong Un’s behaviour is one thing. Everybody thinks the boy is mad, so they all take extra care to appear calm but firm, like an ideal school teacher faced with a disruptive pupil. But Korea is far from the only Asian flashpoint. The continent is too well endowed with disputes in which at least one of the powers has nuclear weapons, and whose national security politics are often at best opaque and at worst downright chaotic: Between Indian and Pakistan, between China and Taiwan, between Japan and China, and between the uncomfortably large number of countries with claims to islands in the South China Sea.
When a South Korean warship was sunk in 2010 nobody doubted it was an attack by Pyongyang. Indeed, rumour has it Kim Jong Un ordered the attack. But suppose something were to happen to one of the (increasingly numerous) Chinese or Japanese submarines that patrol south-east Asia’s disputed waters. Or some fresh incident appear to happen in, say, off the coast of Vietnam. Or if military manoeuvres were to be perceived as a surprise attack, as NATO’s Able Archer 83 exercise nearly was by the Soviet Union.
It’s a commonplace to note international tension rising in Asia. Scenario planners have long imagined a nationalist-minded Japanese government clashing with an inexperienced Chinese leadership facing allegations of institutional corruption amid slowing economic growth, to say nothing of disputes over oil, minerals or shipping lanes. Meanwhile an Anglo-Saxon maritime power “pivots” to balance the overwhelming land forces of a rising industrial economy. It’s all begun to look rather like the closing decades of the 19th century.
We reassure ourselves that the world has grown up since then, and that war fever can be dissipated by what wonks like to call the “international security architecture.” Usually described in terms of the institutions that compose it, it looks like a set of organisation charts, enlarged to span the globe, but its power comes from the countless meetings military and civilian leaders have; from exchanges and conferences and from the distillation of their results, and from the way that officials in different countries who have known each other for decades working in regional bodies and on particular initiatives, understand each other and each other’s people.
This architecture is strong in Europe and Latin America, and has been important in preventing major tension between Venezuela and Colombia boiling over into war. Yet it’s weak indeed across most of Asia, where defence establishments behave in clandestine fashion (China’s real military budget is a secret, and nobody knows quite how many nuclear weapons they have), and political cultures vastly more different from each other than in Latin America or pre-war Europe.
Ten years ago it was fashionable to say that war between states was outmoded, to be replaced by “asymmetric threats,” terrorism and insurgency. Writing shortly after the Boer War, a prominent military intellectual announced that wars between countries were over, and “we face a new sort of war, a war amongst the people.” The most important task in international affairs is to make sure that this time he’s right.