The Philippine Star - - OPINION - ALEX MAGNO

What hap­pens when you rat­tle your saber and then find out your horse has gone astray? Ask Don­ald Trump.

Last week, the gaffe-prone US Pres­i­dent an­nounced he was dis­patch­ing a pow­er­ful “ar­mada” to the Korean penin­sula. Py­ongyang was then pre­par­ing to ob­serve the birth an­niver­sary of founder Kim Il-sung. This was the holi­est day on the North Korean cal­en­dar and is usu­ally marked by mis­sile launches.

Trump seems to have sug­gested his “ar­mada” would shoot down any mis­sile Py­ongyang launched. He did sound like he was draw­ing a line against the ex­as­per­at­ing North Korean ob­ses­sion with build­ing nu­clear mis­sile ca­pa­bil­ity, an ob­ses­sion that puts the en­tire re­gion in dis­tress.

The North Kore­ans did at­tempt to launch a mis­sile. But this one ex­ploded shortly after blast­ing off. No men­tion of the in­ci­dent ap­peared in the Her­mit King­dom’s tightly con­trolled press. How­ever, the South Kore­ans and the Amer­i­cans de­tected the launch.

On that tense week­end, US Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence was on the DMZ, do­ing his own saber rat­tling. He warned Py­ongyang the US is no longer main­tain­ing its strat­egy of pa­tience re­gard­ing the North’s nu­clear weapons tin­ker­ing. All op­tions, says Pence, is on the ta­ble. Those re­marks call up im­ages of the US bomb­ing of a Syrian air base from which chem­i­cal weapons were de­liv­ered and the more re­cent use of Amer­ica’s largest con­ven­tional bomb to oblit­er­ate an ISIS base in Afghanistan.

Mean­while, US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son was press­ing on Amer­ica’s Euro­pean al­lies to re­view the lift­ing of sanc­tions against Iran. Al­though there is no ev­i­dence Tehran re­vived its nu­clear pro­gram, the coun­try is ac­tively sup­port­ing groups the US con­sid­ers ter­ror­ist.

Then some­one pulled the rug from un­der the Trump teams full court press.

The me­dia out­lets Trump loves to hate dis­cov­ered that the “ar­mada,” ba­si­cally the car­rier bat­tle group led by the USS Carl Vin­son, sailed south from Sin­ga­pore to­ward the In­dian Ocean for sched­uled ex­er­cises with the Aus­tralian Navy. Had a skir­mish bro­ken out dur­ing the “Day of the Sun” ac­tiv­i­ties in Py­ongyang, Trump would not have had his car­rier bat­tle group any­where near the scene.

There was a cer­tain ur­gency in Trump’s tone when he talked about his “ar­mada.” It sounded as if the US Navy was charg­ing to­ward the Korean penin­sula to frus­trate any North Korean show of force. Amer­ica’s friends were quite happy by the muscular Trump re­sponse – only to be dis­ap­pointed later when it was con­firmed the car­rier bat­tle group was ac­tu­ally in an­other ocean.

Trump’s pro­cliv­ity for in­ac­cu­rate ut­ter­ance is le­gendary. But this one is par­tic­u­larly dev­as­tat­ing for the cred­i­bil­ity of US strate­gic pol­icy. All the tough talk from Trump and Pence, it turns out, was not backed up by ac­tual de­ploy­ment of fire­power.

All the while, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s ruth­less leader, was taunt­ing the US. He was chal­leng­ing both Trump and Pence to bring it on, say­ing his coun­try was ready to deal with what­ever tough action the US un­der­takes. Py­ongyang showed pro­pa­ganda video of the US ap­par­ently in flames after a mis­sile at­tack.

The South Kore­ans were, un­der­stand­ably, most dis­tressed by the fi­asco. They won­der aloud whether the US will be a re­li­able ally in the event hos­til­i­ties break out in the penin­sula.

Adding salt to the wound was Trump’s com­ment that the Korean prob­lem is bet­ter han­dled by China since the penin­sula was once part of that coun­try. The penin­sula was never part of China.

With an er­ratic leader like Trump, Asians have rea­son to be con­cerned.

Seoul is within ar­tillery range of the North Korean Army. Tokyo is within range of short-range mis­siles Py­ongyang has suc­cess­fully fired. Manila, Taipei and Hong Kong are within range of the medium range mis­siles – al­though the North Kore­ans still ex­pe­ri­ence prob­lems launch­ing and aim­ing th­ese de­vices.

Most cities in main­land USA and Europe will be within range of the ICBMs North Korea is fran­ti­cally devel­op­ing. Ob­servers were sur­prised when, dur­ing last week’s mil­i­tary pa­rade in Py­ongyang, ICBMs were rolled through the streets.

They could be mere fac­sim­i­les of the real thing. But it is con­sid­ered just a mat­ter of time be­fore North Korean en­gi­neers per­fect this dread­ful weapon of war. North Korea has suc­cess­fully ex­ported its short­er­range mis­siles to Pak­istan and Iran.

So far, no amount of eco­nomic sanc­tions suc­ceeded in dis­suad­ing North Korea from its ob­ses­sion with be­com­ing a global nu­clear power. China, the only coun­try with which North Korea has any sig­nif­i­cant trad­ing re­la­tion­ship, be­gan en­forc­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions on what many con­sider its client state. Sev­eral North Korean ships car­ry­ing coal for China were asked to re­turn to port.

No one knows how much fur­ther Beijing is will­ing to go to pres­sure Py­ongyang into aban­don­ing its nu­clear dreams. A mav­er­ick North Korea could still prove use­ful for China’s own strate­gic designs. Py­ongyang could be the bully Beijing can­not be, given the trade and fi­nan­cial equa­tions.

When some for­eign crit­ics took Pres­i­dent Duterte to task for do­ing noth­ing in the face of China’s recla­ma­tion ac­tiv­i­ties in the South China Sea, the Mayor snapped back. He asked a truly rel­e­vant ques­tion: Where was the US Navy when all the con­struc­tion was go­ing on?

In the face of the gap be­tween Trump’s brave words and the ac­tual de­ploy­ment of his forces, the South Kore­ans might ask the same ques­tion. Where was the US when North Korea was build­ing its mis­siles?

The cred­i­bil­ity of US de­fense com­mit­ments has just been dam­aged by this “bluff” about an “ar­mada” rush­ing to pro­tect an ally.

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