MADMEN

Well, it takes one to know one. Kim Jong-un referring to Donald Trump as ‘mentally deranged’ following the US President’s characteristically blustering speech at the United Nations this week was at least a diagnosis delivered by someone who recognised the signs. The war of words between Washington and Pyongyang has accelerated again, although on the same day that Iran’s response to Trump’s criticism of them was manifested as defiantly launching a ballistic missile, the American Air Force decided to fly bombers across the fringes of North Korea’s east coast – upping the testosterone ante somewhat. There’s a lot of muscle-flexing and macho posturing going on at the moment, and though the sanity of the guilty parties is regularly questioned, I think sanity is probably one of the first casualties of power, anyway.

The actions of leaders on the world stage are often engineered to provoke the biggest impact back home, and there are suspicions that one of the ways in which the organised crime dynasty ruling North Korea is retaining its grip on the country is by overstating its global significance. The people of North Korea – or at least those not breaking rocks for the thought crimes of their ancestors – are force-fed propaganda on a daily basis that tells them how important their country is; to the North Korean people, footage of Kim Jong-un viewing missile launches and surveying the troops convey the image of a great statesman leading a great nation; if he has the nerve to repeatedly stick two fingers up at America, Kim Jong-un must be the man the media proclaims him to be.

Twice in the last month, North Korea has flown missiles over Japan, but in the wake of Kim Jong-un’s reaction to Trump’s UN speech, his foreign minister said that one option open to the great dictator was ‘the strongest hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific’. Last time an atmospheric nuclear detonation took place on the planet was in 1980, carried out by China; China’s nuclear programme from the 60s onwards had been underestimated by the west just as North Korea’s has been, and Kim Jong-un could regard such a potentially devastating test as a means of proving he means business if Trump’s confrontational rhetoric is to be taken seriously. Needless to say, the damage to not only marine life, but to the environment as a whole in the Pacific should this happen is scary. Even scarier is the thought of an accident en route. A missile carrying a H-bomb accidentally plummeting down and landing on Japanese soil could have unthinkable ramifications.

A few weeks ago I bumped into an acquaintance of mine who told me she was going away for six months – to Japan. Her son lives there, having married a Japanese woman, and while I wished her well, I couldn’t help but think there might be some safer locations in the world to spend the next half-a-year. Going by current standards, though, not many. Mind you, the lady in question has been around long enough to have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, so I should imagine she’s used up her quota of sleepless nights. The fact she’ll be residing in the same geographical neck of the woods as the world’s incumbent Public Enemy Number One also probably won’t unduly bother her; the alternative was returning home to visit her elderly mother, but as she’s American, that prospect doesn’t sound too appetising either.

For all the endless foot-stamping, placard-waving protest of Trump’s most vocal critics, the fact they live in a country where they can criticise their President without looking forward to ending their days in a labour camp is worth remembering. The ridicule Dubya received during his tenure in the White House looks like gentle leg-pulling in comparison to the treatment meted out to the Donald, though those meting it out are still allowed to do so free from fear of being carted off and never seen again. Faced with persistent provocation from North Korea, Trump is naturally going to respond; but Trump being Trump means this response will inevitably be in the style of an NFL coach bigging up his team on the eve of the Superbowl. Trump gave his adoring supporters exactly what they asked for when he spoke at the UN, whereas those on the other side were understandably appalled by his ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ approach. Obama would have done things differently, but Obama hardly left the world a safer place than how he found it by doing things differently.

One positive move amidst the rather tense atmosphere has come from China – still the one country in a real position to cut North Korea down to size without resorting to nuclear options; in response to the latest UN sanctions, China has reduced the amount of oil it supplies to its troublesome trading partner and has also stopped buying North Korean textiles. The latter might not sound much, but many of the clothes that have a ‘Made in China’ label sown into them emanate from North Korea, and the ban could cost the country upwards of £350m a year. As for the oil, North Korea purchased almost 2.2 million barrels from China last year, so that will hurt it too.

Kim Jong-un has no qualms over murdering members of his own family to ensure he remains in power, so flouting international laws and the authority of the UN probably doesn’t cause him any existential angst. And, ironically, there are enough of Trump’s own countrymen who regard their President as a dangerous idiot to find themselves in agreement with the Asian Ro-land’s opinion of the Donald. As Ray Davies once said, it’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world.

© The Editor

TURNING JAPANESE…OR CHINESE

GodzillaBrits say Falklands; Argentines say Malvinas; Japan says Senkaku; China says Diaoyu. Territorial claims are funny old things, often inciting the most fervent of passions over the least obviously appealing lumps of rock. Most such claims stretch back centuries and only acquire sudden value when ownership is threatened by a rival claim, usually provoked by the discovery of something with a far greater value lurking in the neighbourhood. In the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, these uninhabited locations resembling the landscapes upon which Godzilla battled his fellow mutant beasts are currently at the centre of a dispute between Japan and China, a dispute placing one of the most fragile fault-lines of the Far East in peril.

The waters encircled by Taiwan, China, South Korea and Japan boast a proliferation of tiny islands that even outnumber the similarly scattered little landmasses dotted around the tip of Scotland; for Japan, the most prominent served as a convenient barrier between it and the US Army during the Second World War, though the Senkaku Islands are more distanced from the Japanese mainland, closer to Taiwan. There were no real territorial claims made upon them in the eras of the ancient Chinese and Japanese Empires; British ships referred to them as the Pinnacle Islands and their value was solely as navigational markers.

The success of Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894/5) saw the dominance of the East Asian region shift from China to the victor, marking Japan’s beginnings as a major military power that would ultimately carry it all the way to Hiroshima. Although Korea was regarded as the main prize of the conflict, it was the Senkaku Islands that were first claimed as imperial possessions in the aftermath of the War, and China didn’t seem particularly concerned. A Japanese fish processing plant was established on one of the islands, Uotsuri-shima, which remained active until WWII; the very presence of the plant on the island appeared to certify the claims that it and the neighbouring islands had been incorporated into Japan’s sovereign territory.

Even when the Senkaku Islands fell under American control following Japan’s surrender in 1945, China wasn’t especially vocal about ownership claims. China only really began to make a fuss at the end of the 1960s when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East discovered oil and gas resources situated around the islands. Despite this potentially profitable future for the vicinity, the US returned ownership to Japan in 1971, something that prompted Chinese territorial claims to become official Peking policy. Taiwan had also been ceded to Japan in 1895, and it was the return of Taiwan into Chinese hands after the Second World War that China now retrospectively says should have gone hand-in-hand with the acquisition of the Senkaku Islands. History is certainly a flexible friend when it comes to territorial claims.

Bizarrely, some of the islands are privately-owned and are rented by the Japanese Government, though each outright purchase by Japan is regarded as a provocative gesture by China. One of the islands is used as a practice range by the US military, maintaining the presence America has had in the region ever since it funded the post-war financial reconstruction of Japan. That part of the demilitarisation of Japan involved the US taking on the role of the country’s defender in the event of any attack places America in a difficult position during the current dispute. Add the unstable spectre of North Korea to the equation and it’s plain to see how delicate the situation in the Pacific really is.

Strategically, the Senkaku Islands are situated in significant shipping lanes as well as fruitful fishing grounds, not to mention the oil and gas reserves, of course; but they also serve as a microcosm of the battle for control of the region between China and America. Over the last four years, China has deliberately flouted Japan’s ownership of the islands by sailing its ships into Japanese territorial waters and has also created the ‘East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone’ in an area covering Senkaku, one that the penetration of by non-Chinese aircraft apparently requires adherence to rules laid down in Beijing. Neither Japan nor the US have adhered to these rules.

Old enmities between China and Japan have been revived by this dispute, ones that rouse nationalist passions on both sides and ones that politicians of the respective nations seek to appease in the eternal quest for popularity. But while the world’s attention appears perennially focused on the Middle East, it is perhaps the Far East we should be keeping a closer eye on, especially when one considers that a couple of months ago three Russian warships – accompanied by a Chinese Navy frigate – sailed past the Senkaku Islands in what could well be perceived as an act of choreographed provocation. Any Russian intervention in disputes between nations rarely bodes well for a peaceful resolution.

© The Editor