As Pyongyang and Washington prepare negotiating stances and definitions of what constitutes “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, an increase in regional military activity – most notably large-scale naval exercises – is hard to miss.
China’s live-fire exercises near the Taiwan Strait follow closely behind the largest naval exercises it has ever conducted. Russia is conducting land, sea and air exercises around the Kurile Islands, adjacent to Japan’s most northern island, Hokkaido. Annual spring South Korean-US exercises have proceeded, albeit with a lower profile than normal.
There is good news, too. Seoul has announced that a peace treaty with Pyongyang will be on the summit table, while PLA officers have arrived in Japan – the first such visit since military exchanges between the two countries were suspended six years ago.
So, a reduction in regional tensions is possible.
Yet the recent arrival of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Sutherland at Yokosuka, coupled with news that the UK will compliment this ship later this year with two more warships, signals a possible new operation: A multinational naval blockade of North Korea.
Washington is preparing concrete measures in case recent wishful thinking leads nowhere and negotiations with North Korea collapse. A possible naval blockade of North Korea was discussed during a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in January entitled “The Situation on the Korean Peninsula and US Strategy in the Indo-Pacific Region.”
Naval blockades can be effective. An Anglo-Japanese naval blockade during the the siege of Tsingtao in 1914 ensured a German and Austro-Hungarian defeat there by depriving them of ammunition resupply. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany during WWI – devastating Germany’s home front as malnutrition took hold – are two further examples.
But the region’s complex diplomatic chessboard – as well as the unalterable fact of North Korea’s geography – creates what may be insurmountable problems for US planners.
The case against: land borders, weak allies
“Japan is not going to dispatch [warships] for combat-like duty; [South Korea] will not likely abandon its reconciliation policy and join. It will likely object instead. China does not want to see North Korea collapse or become destabilized and Russia is hardly in a mood now to accept such a drastic move in waters near its own borders,” said William Brooks, adjunct professor of Japan Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Garren Mulloy, Associate Professor of International Relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama, Japan, also questioned the feasibility of a naval blockade. “Besides the blockade busters, most likely Russian and Chinese, there is also the obvious problem of land borders,” Mulloy said. “The Chinese have proven flexible in sustaining the Pyongyang regime in fear of a regime collapse.”
Mulloy reckons HMS Sutherland’s arrival in Japan is noteworthy. “The Royal Navy is trying to keep one ship on station at all times, which it has not done in the Far East for decades,” he said. But Dr Swee Lean Collin Koh, a research fellow with the Maritime Security Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, differs.
Koh views HMS Sutherland’s Yokosuka visit as ad-hoc activity: London faces more pressing security challenges back home in the face of a resurgent Russia, while suffering a decline in naval capacity, eroded by drastic defense cuts. Beijing is also vocal against any ramping up of a UK naval presence off the Korean Peninsula or in the South China Sea.
“Maybe the frigate may help in enforcing the UN sanctions against illicit North Korean activities at sea, and Japan – which has seen an upsurge in defense and security links with London in recent years – would be most appreciative,” Koh said. “But whether this is sustainable in the long-run, given London’s own problems, remains to be seen.”
Koh suggests another European player may be more forthcoming.
“The French, by contrast, have demonstrated more willingness and resolve to contribute capabilities while stressing repeatedly that they are a real Indo-Pacific power with stakes in the region,” Koh added. “Thus, Paris is obliged to exercise its rightful duty to help preserve peace and stability.”
However, Paris and London cannot allay Tokyo’s larger fears: Beijing taking the lead in regional trade and security, particularly if Washington pulls troops from Korea in return for Pyongyang’s disarmament. And then there is the long reach of Moscow.
“Trump appears keen to display a hard face towards Putin based upon his domestic troubles,” Mulloy said. “While Abe tries to maintain cordial relations with Putin in the vain hope that this could result in a return of at least two of the four disputed northern territories, and to prevent a Russia-China deepening of strategic partnerships – particularly in security.”
Conflicted players, nuanced alliances
Mulloy describes Australia as one of the most conflicted regional states.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade debacle has made the unpredictability of Trump a real concern, especially when key US trading partners morph into quasi-enemies if their balance of payments are not to Trump’s liking. “The [China-led] Belt and Road and Asian International Development Bank appear alluring in this context, not least, given the scale of China-Australian trade,” Mulloy noted.
Meanwhile, Washington needs to be cautious against “overplaying observed signs that indicate any seismic shifts in existing alliances,” said Koh. The Philippines, for example, appears to be making a major foreign policy shift towards China, seeking economic benefits from Beijing. However, Manila intends to keep the US security card handy, while also cultivating enhanced links with Canberra and Tokyo, added Koh.
“We tend to see foreign policy choices in binary terms, which is not the case in reality,” said Koh. “Geopolitical uncertainties … do not make for permanent choices (when) it comes to alliances and strategic partnerships which dictate countries big or small to hedge.”
Steep diplomatic challenges; high military risks
Given that a naval blockade is an outright act of aggression against another state under the UN Charter, diplomatic problems arise for promoters of the concept.
“In today’s context, this would rarely be undertaken without the blessings of the UN Security Council. The politico-strategic inhibiting factors against a naval blockade would be considerable. We could not count the Weapons of Mass Destruction interdiction at sea aimed at North Korea as a naval blockade,” said Koh. “Any Japanese military actions could provoke reactions by North Korea, besides the looming naval challenge posed by China and the Russian Far Eastern military forces.”
The firepower, cunning and determination of Kim’s fleet is another concern if Pyongyang, faced with a “use-it-or-lose-it” scenario, responds forcefully.
“The Korean People’s Navy possesses certain asymmetrical capabilities that could allow it to challenge the blockade – mini-submarines, a whole menagerie of coastal defense anti-ship cruise missiles and suicide craft,” said Koh.
“Their naval forces have trained together for years to promote interoperability and coordination, to operate near their counterparts conducting this blockade,” he added. “The prospect of high-seas aerial and naval encounters between the blockade coalition and not just North Korean, but potentially Chinese and Russian forces, is significant.”