Geopolitics

Folly of The Economissed

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On a flight back to Tokyo this week a copy of The Economist was in the magazine rack. A subscription had long been cancelled for its plunge into yet another group think rag. A long time ago, the magazine was regarded as the go to for objective journalism from economics, geopolitics through to specials. Now it is little more than a cheerleader. A chance was given to see if things had changed. If anything it has gotten worse. This article on the peace deal only reinforces the pathetic bias and wish that Trump losing is preferable to any alternative including world peace.

For no sooner had Trump sent a letter calling the peace talks with North Korea off, The Economist was writing about humiliation. They’ve got to be kidding?

While even the blind can see any postponement is a setback, it is not without reason. Trump has made absolutely clear from the beginning – ‘peace or business as usual. Your move Kim.’ 

This started when Kim Jong-Un fired angry remarks when long scheduled war games were  commenced by the South. If one wanted to gift the upper hand to the North Koreans in the negotiations then stopping annual war games would be a great way to do it. It was tactical.

Glass jaw or not, firing salvos at Vice President Pence or standing up US envoys is not conduct becoming peace talks. Trump’s letter sounded somewhat childish with respect to comparing arsenals again but the point being made to Kim is clear – “we’re not playing. Put up or shut up!

This is exactly what you’d want Trump to do. Not some Obama era red line which crossed carries no consequences. This is exactly why there is so much geopolitical instability thanks to 8 years of utter weakness in foreign policy. This isn’t about humiliation at all. This about a world leader who is using clear military and economic strengths at the negotiating table with a dictator who 6 months ago threatened to nuke Guam. We should not want Trump to appease at any cost which we’ve seen throughout history carry devastation.

The reason Kim was drawn to the negotiating table was because China realized the new sheriff wasn’t bluffing. Why was Beijing Kim’s first state visit before shaking hands on the 38th parallel with President Moon?? He was seeking assurances from the other dictator on staying in power lest booking a plot of land in exile in Sichuan province if things require him to step down.

Kim needs to realize that the ‘throwing toys out of the cot strategy’ of decades past no longer works. He was hoping to get an apology from Trump along with better concessions ahead of the negotiations. Trump essentially told him the ‘art of the deal’ in that the status quo remains if he doesn’t wake up to harsh realities. Sending home three American hostages was a token.

It will be China sending Kim back to the meeting table with Trump because it will ultimately be managing the protectorate after any peace is signed for its own geopolitical aims. China does NOT want US friendly forces on its border. Best keep the buffer by getting Kim to accept a lesser deal where he gets to keep his life. For a man in his early 30s he can either choose to go down fighting or see out his days with the embezzled billions and bevy of beauties in his concubine.

To take The Economist at its journalistic integrity, it will be secretly happy if North Korea doesn’t sue for peace because any victory for Trump is something it can’t swallow. For the magazine to have that level of disingenuous editorial speaks volumes about turning a once prestigious brand into a tabloid. Reading through the blurb of The Economist’s 2017 Annual Report and the trends tell the story.

Who will get the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Korean War – Kim, Moon & Xi or Trump?

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Will President Donald Trump be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for getting Kim & Moon to the peace table? It is unlikely in so far as the Norwegian Nobel Committee would fear the full weight of international opinion (aka mainstream media) for doing so. Surely they wouldn’t risk making a mockery of such a coveted award? Then again a one Barack Obama was handed one less than 9 months into his first term on the stated basis of a noble quest for the Holy Grail of world peace rather than anything actually achieved. In 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped 26,171 bombs on enemies. Not bad for a serial appeaser. A Nobel prize has even been awarded to a multi billion dollar embezzling terrorist of a self appointed authority, so Kim Jong-un is in with a shot.

Will Trump receive any credit (even without a Nobel) for pushing ‘Rocketman/The Fat Kid’ to the negotiating table? Probably not. How come no other administrations were able to achieve something that was relatively easier when the state of the North’s arsenal was considerably less lethal? Kim threatened Guam less than half a year ago. Trump didn’t back down and the North Korean dictator clearly realized from Twitter that the most powerful man in the world wasn’t all bluster. President Xi may well have played a solid hand in pushing Kim to sue for peace negotiations. In the interests of President-for-life Xi, his foe Trump has a maximum 7 years left to meddle. If Korea gets a peace deal, Xi can play hardball on the peninsula if a softer President enters the White House thereafter. Then he can take a stab at Taiwan. Xi can afford to wait.

We should not forget that Kim Jong-Un travelled to China on his first ‘overseas’ visit earlier this year. Best get the approval of a real dictator before progressing. Kim was there to get Beijing’s blessing to ensure North Korean sovereignty come what may so as to maintain the desired geographical buffer to pro-US nations.

Noone said peace isn’t desirable. The question is what price must one pay to get it? There are too many incidents in the past where signing peace treaties with dictatorial regimes have ended in disaster. Hitler/Chamberlain (Munich Agreement), Hitler/Stalin (Pact of Steel), Putin/Merkel/Macron (suggestion of UN in Ukraine), Le Duc Tho/Kissinger (Paris Peace Accords over Vietnam), Xerxes II/Leonidas (Greece) etc.

Will part of the denuclearization ‘deal’ call upon a withdrawal of US Forces from the Korean Peninsula? Would the US go for that? Highly unlikely. Would Moon be so gullible as to suggest a (slow) withdrawal? Of course he has the right to demand a foreign garrison pack up and go home. Trump may have pushed China and NK to act but he’d prefer the status quo than to roll over and vacate the premises. China wins in either scenario. America certainly doesn’t want to pay for the same real estate twice. Some quarters in South Korea must surely want the US military to stay as an insurance policy. Afterall how can one trust someone who comes from a dynasty that kills its own people and assassinates family members? Worryingly Moon looks to have a certain ring of Chamberlain about him.

It was clear that North Korea was dictating the moves at the Winter Olympics. It was South Korea who funded the $3mn in travel costs for the cheer squad. Anything that looked to mock the North Koreans was swiftly dealt with. It spoke volumes about which Korea was calling the shots. Anyone impersonating any other world leader could do so with reckless aplomb. Anything resembling Kim Jong-un  was quickly removed from sight. Tyrannies rarely do humour and sadly not enough democracies defend it. Still it is hardly an encouraging sign for even handed peace talks when one side looks to appease in this way.

Kim Jong-un is smart enough to realize at such a youthful stage in his life that he probably has another 40-50 years left in him. Reunification only works if he is given sanctuary. Idi Amin saw the beauty of a life in exile in Saudi Arabia. If Kim Jong-un can relax in Sichuan Province it maybe a dignified way out. One can bet his ‘some are more equal than others’ inner sanctum would rather the two stay separated. They would stand to lose way more than Kim.  It would be ridiculous to assume that Kim could be a major cog driving a reunification process with such an abysmal human rights record. Name a despot who would willing cede authoritarian rule much less without a deal which would exonerate him from any international criminal court that he would be held accountable for under a functioning democracy?

The South Koreans have had a think tank in Berlin researching the effect of reunification in Germany. The former West is still heavily subsidizing the former East. Depopulation (-15% between 1989 & 2013), unemployment rates (higher today that 1989) and inferior GDP per capita (27% less) are all a feature of the former communist state vs the federal republic over the last three decades.

How easily could South Korea absorb the North? West Germany had a population of 63mn in 1989 vs 16mn in East Germany or 4:1. South Korea has 53mn vs North Korea’s 24mn or 2:1. West Germany had a 2.3x GDP/capita ratio to the East in 1989. South Korea has a 52x GDP/capita ratio to the North. Reunification for Korea isn’t an apples to apples comparison with Germany. While Samsung might relish the prospects of tapping a cheap labour pool to build washing machines, the South would likely face far higher integration costs than the Germans. Even 30 years ago East Germany had a GDP/capita 17x that of North Korea.

In any event the only sure outcome of peace on the Korea Peninsula is that President Trump will get next to zero credit in the media. Wailing about the reckless diplomacy of an unhinged dictator will be the main with a few conceding it was at best a fluke.

What happens when you poke a Russian bear?

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As written earlier in the week, regardless of one’s views on the righteousness of any attack on Syria, Putin is being faced for the first time in a long time, a leader of a foreign nation (nations as it turns out) prepared to stand up to him. Obama fled the Syria battlefield after being given a two hour window when Russia first went to the aid of Assad. If that wasn’t the ultimate sign of a bully in the Kremlin it is hard to think of what is. While sanctions may have bitten to a degree post Ukraine and the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines flight, Syria is essentially a testing ground for Putin to weigh up Western (specifically Trump’s) resolve. If we look at Russia’s response post the Syrian strike,

The worst apprehensions have come true. Our warnings have been left unheard…A pre-designed scenario is being implemented. Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences…All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris…Insulting the President of Russia is unacceptable and inadmissible.

Kind of says it all really – Russia hasn’t been insulted. Putin has. He must have a glass jaw  like Trump! Two bullies flexing muscle. In a show down Should Putin wish to pick a direct conventional fight against 3 nuclear powers (explicitly mentioned), he knows that ‘mutually assured destruction’ is the very last option in the drawer and next to no chance of being selected despite all of the media beat up. On a conventional basis, Putin wins more battles by stirring up the hornet’s nests in other regions. Lending more support to Iran, Lebanon and Yemen. Destabilize Saudi Arabia and antagonize Israel.

CM wrote,

It is worth nothing that Syria is Rosoboronexport’s (Russia’s military export wing) 2nd largest customer after Iran. Putin is sick of having the West try to remove his clients. Assad is key to Russia’s foothold in the Middle East. With an essentially pro-Iran Iraqi government and Syria as well as Hezbollah Putin has a geopolitical doormat from the troubled separatist states to Russia’s south to Lebanon.

Some arguments have been made about the risks of the American, French or UK strikes killing Russian troops or civilians on the ground in Syria handing Russia free will to attack its enemies. Scroll back to November 2015 when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter it claimed entered its airspace. Two Russian pilots were killed in the shooting and subsequent rescue. The Russians were incensed but President Erdogan is still in power and Ankara isn’t flailing after seeing its capitol turned into smoldering rubble.

This argument that the Russians weren’t given advance warnings of the attack is ridiculous. Had the Russian defence forces been on proper alert (they most definitely weren’t passed out behind their radar screens after a vodka binge) they would have detected the missile launches. Wind back to the 59 missile launch earlier last year against Syrian chemical facilities. We didn’t hear a peep from Putin. Why now? Of course he is incensed over the booting of diplomats on the nerve agent scandal but this is a showdown of ego.

Think of the long geopolitical chess board here. Should Trump have backed down on Putin’s threats, wouldn’t China’s Xi feel equally empowered to annex Taiwan by telling POTUS that he risks ‘grave reprisals if he meddles with Chinese sovereign territory’?

For all the initial snubbing of Trump by Macron on his historic election win in France, there is no way he would have gone in alone to attack a chemical facility without the guarantee of the military might of America. It is unlikely Theresa May would have done it either. So for all of the ‘unhinged’ lunatic rhetoric bandied about by the media, foreign nations don’t gamble their own sovereignty lightly, especially over something like Syria.

General Mattis has said they plan no further strikes at this stage. Does Putin order his forces to sink a US destroyer in the Mediterranean which launched those missiles? Highly unlikely. He does have the best weapon available to do that (the ‘Sunburn’) but sending US naval vessels to the bottom of the sea on a strategic strike would seem a big response to a targeted hit.

Let there be no mistake. There is a new sheriff in town. Russia has a bloody nose it didn’t think it would find itself. Putin miscalculated that Trump isn’t all Twitter-fueled bluster. Uncertainty in foreign leaders is always a risk for enemies. Trump has shown Putin he won’t be bullied like his predecessor.

Putin doesn’t want a hot war with America. The best way to strike at the US is like the last 6 decades. Undermine her at every opportunity. Supply her enemies. As mentioned before, if the Russians didn’t think it worth hitting back at Turkey for deliberately targeting its fighters, it is unlikely that Putin, no matter how ‘insulted’ he might feel will take a strike not aimed at Russians as a pretext to pick a fight with Trump. Putin has worked out the US president’s measure. He miscalculated. He won’t make that mistake twice.

For the media, running all the scare campaign stories is not only highly irresponsible (as it did over Yemen’s attacks on Saudi Arabia) but proving the lack of depth of analysis. They can beat Trump over the head all they wish but should note the actions of Macron and May following him into the region as a tacit approval of the US leader. Was he the madman they portrayed him as in the first place they would have stayed well out of it.

Watch for Putin’s response (unlikely but will threaten it will come when the evil Americans least expect) and think deeply about why it is important that the real despots (Putin, Xi, KJ-U, Erdogan) around the world no longer have the ability to exercise free will in knowledge that the worst they face is a slap on the wrist from the UN.

Sounds more like grounds for congratulation than censure. 

For Life

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If Xi Jinping’s 3.5 hour speech wasn’t enough to torture the bladders and eyelids of attendees at the last plenary session several months ago, it seems the 10-yr presidential term limit is about to be thrown out meaning Xi can rule for as long as he likes. While many criticize the current US administration for its authoritarian behaviour it is not a lick on this. His grip on regional geopolitics from here on will challenge the resolve of its neighbours, most likely thrusting them into the bosom of the US. Watch US arms deals in Asia take off.

Also note India announced last week it is now building a major military base in the Seychelles to combat China’s influence in territorial waters. China has already got Sri Lanka on board with the Port of Hambantota which allows PLA Navy ships to dock. China is also funding Pakistan to help build the backdoor to India’s north via the Karakoram Highway.

Interesting times ahead.

Forbidden fruit(cake) in the Fordbidden City

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Sun Tzu once said, “All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”

Let us not mistake China for one second. China is the master of the long game. It knows Trump has a maximum of 8 years in power. Letting him dine in the Forbidden City, the first ever foreign head of state to do so, speaks volumes of respecting an unpredictable foe. Xi Jinping knows his adversary is not all about bark. Better to cater to his huge ego and make him feel he has their attention (which he does) and get him to work solutions in their favour now it is clear they do not have carte blanche to use the USA as a door mat as they did with the previous administration.

Recall Obama’s final state visit to China. Air Force One was met with no senior officials, no red carpet and no stairs. Obama had to climb down Air Force One’s emergency exit . No more telling display of complete lack of respect to the leader of the most powerful nation.

China built man made islands in contested regional waters and did so knowing it had a maximum of 8 years to extend its future power base. Even Australia was dim witted enough to lease a port to the Chinese. Yet it was done with military precision when it knew it could.

Now China realises that Trump is not kidding over North Korea and is doing his darnedest to get China to commit to removing the snake head or otherwise America will do it for China. China, as CM has written many times before does not want to lose the strategic buffer North Korea provides from pro-US countries. China knows it could turn the lights out (China is responsible for 80%+ of imports & exports to the hermit kingdom) on Pyongyang in a heartbeat. Yet as a priority it has not been toward the top of the list.

The flip side to China taking care of the North Korean solution could mean that the US gives it certain concessions elsewhere. Foreign policy is very often about ‘optics’. China taking care of North Korea would be seen as preferable to the world than an attack by the US. China wins only if China takes care of it by itself. America wins in either scenario. China knows it is vastly militarily inferior to this US so the idea that China rushes to defend North Korea is more bark than promise to bite.

So view the idea of allowing the forbidden fruitcake (a sop to the liberal media) to dine in the most treasured of places in China as none other than the ultimate display of respect that Trump has the upper hand (which he does) but at the same time allow China to extend the ‘timing’ of any action on dealing with the ‘Rocket Man’ to give maximum optic effect for Xi. Yes, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump must have been summoning The Untouchables – “keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer” (Xi) vs “in my neighborhood they said you can get much further with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word!” (Trump).

The press might want to critique the President’s skill with chopsticks but they should focus on the fact that China put its most expensive national crockery on display to bring Trump over to their side in negotiations over regional problems. To that end call him a fruitcake all you like but this is a win-win for both supposed tyrants.

The Wolf who cried “Boy”

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North Korea’s threat to fire a nuclear missile at Guam should the US try anything to jeopardize the hermit kingdom’s nuclear programme is more the domain of an hysteric media for now. He is the wolf crying boy – “I will eat your sheep when I wish, what are you going to do about it?” Of course, no sane government can dismiss his threats. The 33-year old leader has assassinated subjects and relatives who he feared might pose a challenge to him. He taunts his enemies in full knowledge the collateral damage the West may suffer would likely be factor fold higher than he stands to lose. North Korea’s GDP is estimated to be around $12 billion annually. Tokyo’s GDP is estimated to be around $1.5 trillion, 125x larger. Seoul’s GDP is around $780 billion (65x North Korea) but is located in shelling distance. From a purely militaristic standpoint, North Korea doesn’t stand a chance. The US has spy satellites parked permanently over North Korea surveilling troop movements, missile test sites and US submarines will have constant watch over Pyongyang’s naval activity. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is not a bargaining chip in this case. While it does raise the ‘risk’ factor, it is not enough to exclude war on the peninsula.

The problem is that all the while no action is taken, PyongYang’s arsenal grows more sophisticated. Kim has no plans to halt his development. In 1994 then President Bill Clinton came closest to taking action against its nuclear capability but in the end chose diplomacy. We are 23 years on and the capabilities are such that this game has increasingly limited life span. Trump made his thoughts clear in a 1995 interview. Try to talk him out and if all else fails take the military option

The more advanced his arsenal becomes, the more weight his demands carry. Kim is in his 30s. Assuming the West does nothing, there is another three decades of threats and bellicose to consider. Over time its weapons programme will be sufficiently credible to hit Washington DC. Just like Russian missiles in Cuba, America will not allow a condition which could threaten it to exist.

North Korea has 3 main nuclear missile launch sites (Musudan-Ri,  Punggye-Ri and Tongchang-Ri) among the fourteen nuclear facilities ranging from R&D, power generation,  mining and refined fissile material production. A surgical strike would be difficult to achieve without North Korea getting away a few missiles itself.

Why Guam? Of course one can view his threat in several ways. One, Guam is the current realistic technical capability of his nuclear weapons, two; Kim hasn’t said he’ll strike Washington DC which should be interpreted as evidence that he is not completely deranged and bragging about capabilities he does not yet have, three; he could theoretically bomb the US military installations in Okinawa which is closer than Guam and more likely to score a relative hit but he has been careful not to drag Japan into this contest (yet) and finally; his nuclear programme is his only bargaining chip. Were Kim to cease his atomic aspirations, he would literally be a sitting duck. He knows – as did his father and grandfather before him – the regime survives on the will of the Rest of the World to appease it. If he has no trump card, the RoW can ignore it.

On April 10th this year, China’s special envoy on the North Korean nuclear programme, Wu Dawei, visited Seoul with the idea of pushing a harder UN resolution in case of another nuclear test. In the short term China is hoping a short term halt to coal imports will bring Kim Jong-Un to heel they have not ruled out removing him entirely. It is the least preferred option but Trump’s moves will only mean China is being forced to up the ante. However China has been lamenting that it can’t force Kim to come to heel. Once again this is partly China testing the will of Trump versus his predecessor. Do not think for one second that China hasn’t been channeling Sun Tzu as to how it can pull off a geopolitical masterstroke by bringing Kim to heel and the US to back down. This is becoming harder to achieve, even more so with an unpredictable president.

Let us not forget the strategic benefits of North Korea to China. It provides a buffer to the US friendly South Korea and keeps furthering China’s status as a dominant force (economically and militarily) in the region. One of the last things China wants is the equivalent population of Australia (24 million) as refugees on its northern border. Best it remains contained inside a regime presiding over a tiny economy. Even less desirable is a US invasion/strike which puts a US protectorate on China’s doorstep.

Global markets are not reacting too erratically to this crisis. They are collectively taking the path of most common scenario vis-a-vis history to date. Minor risk on. Even Korean CDS spreads, at 14 year highs (61) remain well down on GFC and the death of Kim Jong-Il. However a president who wants to reassert US foreign policy after 8 years of willful abuse under his predecessor may be more than willing to take decisive action and put an end to the North Korean problem. He won’t risk it unless his generals can give a very high level of assurance the collateral damage will be minimal

While some media want to believe that Trump is itching for a war in North Korea or Iran to resurrect his sliding poll numbers, that is an obtuse way of thinking. North Korea is a growing threat. Pure and simple. If North Korea gets a capability to potentially hit the US mainland then that is untenable. Any country that threatens to attack another puts itself on a geopolitical chess board of its own making. This is dragging China into a game it would rather not play but inevitably Beijing realizes that it has to take control before Trump takes it from them leaving them in the worst of all worlds.

Cooler heads to prevail? Maybe but something suggests that North Korea is brewing beyond what markets are currently pricing.

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North Korean Roulette

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In years gone past, North Korea used to up the ante on its belligerence when it needed a cash injection. Its neighbours tended to see that as the easiest way to put the Hermit Kingdom back in its place. Sure enough the North Koreans went away until the next ‘hit’ was required. China bought coal from North Korea to give it hard currency and prevent 20 million starving refugees trying to cross its border. It is no surprise that China has mobilized 150,000 troops to watch it. China has recently banned coal imports from North Korea to send a message that KJ-U’s antics can’t be tolerated. It may well be that the Trump/Xi dinner at Mar-a-Lago wasn’t clinking champagne but scoffing Red Bull over a chess board.

The chart above shows the extent of Kim Jong-Un’s thirst for missile testing. For a man willing to knock off his own brother, a man who looked as if he had no eyes on usurping Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Un will be an all or nothing trade. Cutting the head off this snake would plunge North Korea into deep crisis. It is highly likely that the many of the adoring generals all hate each other. Although China is likely to have a puppet in waiting.

The other problem is that all the while no action is taken, PyongYang’s arsenal grows more sophisticated. Eventually it will be sufficiently credible. In 1994 then President Bill Clinton came closest to taking action against its nuclear capability but in the end chose diplomacy.

On April 10, China’s special envoy on the North Korean nuclear programme, Wu Dawei, visited Seoul with the idea of pushing a harder UN resolution in case of another nuclear test. In the short term China is hoping a short term halt to coal imports will bring Kim Jong-Un to heel they have not ruled out removing him.entirely. It is the least preferred option but now Trump has dispatched a carrier battle group nearby China is being forced to up the ante.

Let us not forget the strategic benefits of North Korea to China. It provides a buffer to the US friendly South Korea and keeps China the dominant player geopolitically in the peninsula. However China must be thinking Kim Jong-Un is becoming more of a liability than an asset. How does it keep the strategic importance of North Korea in a palatable package that even Trump can tolerate?

North Korea has 3 main nuclear missile launch sites (Musudan-Ri,  Punggye-Ri and Tongchang-Ri) among the fourteen nuclear facilities ranging from R&D, power generation,  mining and refined fissile material production. A surgical strike would be difficult to achieve without North Korea getting away a few missiles itself. Naturally Japan would be a soft target for reprisal given its pacifist nature.

China has no choice but to step up to prevent the US giving it a bigger headache than it already has. Trump has clearly shown he is willing to pull the trigger when nations get out of line. Should he shoot one of Kim Jong-Un’s missile tests down to show he isn’t joking Kim will need to weigh up being a laughing stock by backing down or go down in a blaze of glory. Somehow China will be summoning Sun Tzu before it escalates out of its control.

One interesting take is the reaction on financial markets. South Korean CDS have jumped from 50bps to 57bps in recent days.  When Kim Jong-Il died these rates surged to 240bps from around 100bps. GFC by way of comparison was 700bps. The Korean Won has slid for 6 days running but it hardly looks like a collapse.