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What Would Sun Tzu Do?


Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

With North Korea’s recent successful test of a Hwasong-15 missile that reached an altitude of 2,800 miles, more than ten times the altitude of the International Space Station, Kim Jong-un is back on the front page. This, experts suggest, gives the hermit nation the established ability to strike Washington, D.C. with a pre-emptive nuclear strike launched from within its own borders.

When confronted with the issue by reporters, Trump, characteristically, was dismissive: “We will take care of it.” How, exactly, no one knows. Sanctions clearly haven’t worked and whatever diplomacy Secretary Tillerson has been pursuing behind the scenes apparently hasn’t either. (Adding even more urgency to the issue, Tillerson, the one politician even broaching diplomacy, is rumored to be on the way out.)

According to The Washington Post, “A growing chorus of voices in Washington is calling for serious consideration of military action against North Korea,” although it is inconceivable that such options have not already been considered and ruled out as impractical. The loss of life, particularly in South Korea, would easily rival the 20 million Russians who perished during World War II, redefining the geopolitical landscape for decades to come.

China has clearly noted that it would consider any pre-emptive strike by the US to be an intolerable violation of sovereignty. Such military aggression, moreover, would be senseless unless the US was willing to follow its ordnance into the country to pick up the pieces and reshape the nation, and there is virtually no way the Chinese would allow this to happen without their strongest possible resistance.

Depending on whether Trump or China is higher on their derisory priority list on any given day, many Western media outlets have attempted to position the latest missile test as either indicative of China’s failure to follow through on the perceived commitment to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue, or Trump’s foolhardiness for believing he had that kind of personal pull in Beijing.

Personally, I think there is little incentive for China to do anything except sit back and watch. If it believes that Kim’s regime will ultimately collapse, it has little to gain by getting its hands dirty now, short of preventing the US from establishing a US military presence on the 880-mile border China shares with North Korea. Let it collapse and then step in to either push for a unification of the Korean Peninsula, with security and political assurances from the current South Korean government, or turn North Korea into an autonomous Chinese political zone not unlike Hong Kong, Macau, or Tibet. (The latter, I believe, is the more likely scenario, all things considered.)

Two things, I believe, we can say with certainty:

1. Given any say in the matter, the people of North Korea will choose a Chinese protectorate over a US protectorate. Unless South Korea takes significant steps to distance itself from the US they will not, in all likelihood, even choose unification over China. Dennis Rodman’s diplomacy aside, the North Koreans do not see the US as Donald Trump sees us.

2. China will do nothing to give Trump face. In other words, he will accomplish nothing with China’s help if they believe he stands ready to take credit for it. He is quite literally shooting himself in the foot by touting his relationship with Xi Jinping in the context of his great self-acclaimed negotiating skills. To give Trump credit would be to compromise the Chinese Dream that is at the heart of Xi’s political agenda and legacy. He won’t do it; he has no incentive to.

To this latter point, I am quite confident that China did not release LiAngelo Ball and his UCLA basketball teammates after being arrested for shoplifting in Hangzhou because Trump asked them to. They did so because they concluded that it was in their best interest. It may, in fact, have been a simple test to see how Trump would respond.


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Trump’s reaction, in fact, could not have been worse in terms of his future ability to influence Chinese behavior. In his willingness to start a Twitter feud with LaVar Ball, Trump demonstrated beyond a doubt that he has no understanding of Chinese culture and the importance of face, particularly in the political arena. Certainly someone in Washington understands this.

I believe the most effective option for the US and the world remains the same. The US must withdraw its military presence from the Korean Peninsula unilaterally, while maintaining its commitment to protect South Korea from aggression using all of its resources, including nuclear weapons, if necessary.

Given the unlikelihood that a contained exchange of cannon fire along the 38th parallel will be sufficient to convince Kim Jong-un to dismantle his nuclear capabilities, it is hard to see how a military withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula would materially compromise the US’ treaty obligations to South Korea or Japan.

Nor would it, in fact, cause a US loss of face in the region. As famous Chinese military general Sun Tzu is often quoted to have said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” In the eyes of Asia, it would take a strong and courageous America to unilaterally to pursue such a strategy, putting the clear burden for resolution of the North Korean problem at the doorstep of Beijing’s leadership.


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The proof is in the rhetoric. Why has China not seen fit to rattle its sword to the extent President Trump has? Why are there no anonymous quotes coming out of the Great Hall of the People? Is it because China is afraid? Or is it because China is clever and understands the importance of face in true diplomacy?

China can resolve the North Korean problem. And it will, if we allow them to solve it at their own pace and in their own way. In the meantime, North Korea is contained. There is no way that China will allow Kim Jong-un to unleash a single nuclear device on Guam, Japan, or the US. And there is no way that China would not know of such an attack long before the missile leaves the ground.

What is it that American diplomats are so afraid of? Does the Munich Pact still haunt the souls of our diplomatic core? The times and the circumstances could not be more different.

This would not be peace through appeasement. This would be peace through strength and confidence and a willingness to put humanity above any one individual’s standing in the polls. This is not an issue for Twitter. This is an issue for men and women of greatness to take the lead in the name of peace and stability.

If they fail to do so, history will not remember them kindly.

You may contact the author at gary@gmoreau.com
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Face Trumps Diplomacy, Again

Author Gary Moreau

With North Korea’s recent launch of an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile that experts believe is capable of reaching the US mainland, President Trump took to Twitter to publicly reprimand China. “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!” Trump tweeted.

That’s the President’s opinion, of course, and everyone expects the President of the United States to have one. Both here and abroad American politicians are known both for having opinions and for sharing them.

The bigger issue for me, however, is not whether the President is right or wrong, but whether or not his is the best strategy for influencing Chinese behavior. Diplomacy is not a real estate transaction, and even if it were, the Chinese negotiate employing a very different model than Westerners do.

All Chinese culture revolves around personal relationships and the obligations that flow from them. Both are governed by universally accepted norms established over centuries that include elements of Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion. The public expression of those norms, and whether or not they are being adhered to, is generally referred to as “face.”

There is good face and bad face. You can give face or lose face. You can save face and you can fritter it away.

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Face is a lot like respect, but broader and more nuanced in meaning. It is both subtle and fragile. Volume and vulgarity, or even gestures involving the lone digit, have little to do with it. Content is everything. What you say and what you do is all that matters when it comes to face.

The other big difference between respect and face is that respect is essentially one-directional. If my enemy disrespects me I may show disrespect in return. Each incident of disrespect, however, stands on its own. When face is lost, on the other hand, it is bi-directional from the start. He who causes a loss of face generally loses face at the same time.

President Trump’s tweets regarding China’s alleged non-intervention—I say alleged because the Chinese government is criticized by the West for nothing more vehemently than it is criticized for a lack of transparency, so how do we know what China has done or not done diplomatically—may or may not be a loss of face for President Xi Jinping. The norms of obligation are complex and delicate. North Korea shares both a border and a history with China and the North’s current intransigence with the West keeps American troops on the far side of the 38th parallel.

Trump’s behavior is, nonetheless, clearly a loss of face for Trump and the United States. I am merely observing, but for right or wrong, the President will not change the opinion of a single Chinese with his public rant. And, admittedly, that’s probably not his intent. He is talking to the American public, not the Chinese. (Perhaps, anyway. I don’t pretend to know the man’s thinking.)

I do wonder if he will change many American minds either, however. Since returning to the US in 2016 it has been my impression that most Americans have pretty set opinions on China and Chinese intentions. And they certainly have rigid opinions about Trump himself. It’s hard to imagine anything that he or his critics could say that is going to change many minds.

Having traveled the world for much of the four decades of my working career I have come to accept face as a more effective model of behavior than respect or the lack thereof. Our choices do have consequences for all involved, after all. They might as well be acknowledged. Most of life’s worst pain is self-inflicted in the end.

Because it is an individualistic standard, moreover, a social contract built around respect naturally encourages the marauder and the bully. Face, in contrast, is a collectivist perspective. It tempers the excesses of the wolf that defies the pack.

The other benefit of the standard of face is that it really eliminates the gambit as an effective strategy of influence. A barrage of insults may impair the insulter more than the insulted since, in the world of face, the intent of the blow is more meaningful than the landing of the blow itself.

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It does seem that Trump’s pre-emptive negotiating ploy is to start every negotiation with, “Screw you, just in case.” That will work some of the time, particular where victory and domination are both measured in the moment. It’s seldom a good long-term strategy, however, which is why mobsters make sure to kill the son along with the father. Revenge doesn’t expire.

North Korea will be a nuclear power. That much seems certain. China will not stop it because it is not in its best interests to do so. And Trump, of all people, should understand that. He got to Pennsylvania Avenue on the “me first” bus, after all.

President Trump claims he has a solution. “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump told the Financial Times. Trump is quick to bluff, however. And bluffing is a bit like taking hostages. Once you kill the hostage, or show your willingness to bluff, you lose all leverage.

One of the keys to face is knowing when to hold your tongue. Silence can speak volumes, but empty threats are more than just unproductive. In a world governed by face, they are counter-productive.

The thing about face is that it trumps all other considerations (pun intended). Even what China wants will be subordinated to what China must do to save face. “Just in case” is now a sure thing. Trump should face it. He’s on his own, now more than ever.

Contact: Reach the author directly at gary@gmoreau.com