The Pentagon is deploying the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to waters near the Korean Peninsula, in a move that will raise anxiety in Pyongyang just days after President Donald Trump launched a barrage of missiles against Syria.
The Syria strike rippled far beyond Damascus. North Korea called it an “unforgivable act of aggression” that reinforced its need to maintain a nuclear arsenal. The North Korean response came after Sean Spicer, White House spokesman, said Friday’s strike “sends a very strong signal not just to Syria but throughout the world”.
The signal was also received by China, not least because Mr Trump was dining with Chinese president Xi Jinping as the missiles landed. It also came one week after Mr Trump told the Financial Times that he would act unilaterally towards North Korea if China did not put more pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme.
Victor Cha, a former White House Asia official, said the Syria strike would add to the perception in China that Mr Trump was unlike President Barack Obama in that he was “not predictable and not averse to using force”, which would encourage China to act. “I liked the language he used about how years of diplomacy had not changed Assad’s behaviour. Sounds oddly familiar to North Korea.”
The US Navy said the Pacific Command had directed the Carl Vinson strike group to sail towards the western Pacific after departing Singapore. “We feel the increased presence is necessary,” a US official told Reuters.
During his first visit to Asia as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson declared that the “policy of strategic patience has ended” and stressed that all options, including military ones, were on the table.
The Syria strike may increase the unease in China that has emerged due to the tough rhetoric on North Korea from members of the Trump administration. NBC reported that a recently completed US review of North Korea policy included options to site US nuclear weapons in South Korea and to kill Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.
“Xi will now have to take more seriously Trump’s threat to go it alone on North Korea,” said Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA China analyst. “It’s very difficult to know the effect of this on Kim Jong Un, but his elites will worry about a more aggressive US policy.”
Mike Green, former Asia adviser to George W Bush, said the strike would give the US “more leverage vis-à-vis North Korea and vis-à-vis China with respect to . . . North Korea”. While some might worry that the strike will prompt Mr Kim to accelerate his nuclear and missile programmes, Mr Green said North Korea was “already going full tilt anyway”.
Yet while some US experts believe that the strike will change China’s calculus towards Pyongyang, Chinese analysts are more sceptical that it will do much beyond altering Beijing’s assessment of Mr Trump, and argue that China will continue its cautious approach to North Korea.
China has long feared that too much pressure on its volatile neighbour could cripple its economy and spark a refugee crisis. It also worries that a collapse could eventually lead to unification with South Korea and the potential for US troops to stay on the Korean peninsula on China’s border.
Zhao Tong, a foreign affairs expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre, said the Syria strike had changed China’s perception of Mr Trump to a certain degree. “Before we might have seen him as a paper tiger, but now might deal with him more seriously,” Mr Zhao said.
Like most Chinese analysts, however, Mr Zhao argued that the strategic situation in North Korea was not comparable to Syria. “North Korea’s capability to counterattack is far higher,” said Mr Zhao. “The US needs to take the consequences of an attack on North Korea into consideration, such as the safety of its troops in South Korea and Japan, and also its allies.”
While Japan and South Korea are also extremely concerned about the nuclear threat from Pyongyang, they are equally worried that any US strike on North Korea might provoke Mr Kim into launching a fusillade of missiles at Seoul and Tokyo.
Pang Zhongying, a professor at Renmin University, argued that the chance of a strike on North Korea was “very low” despite the perception the US was trying to create. “North Korea is not Syria,” he said. “Syria has fallen apart and is not capable of fighting back. North Korea is totally different and even a surgical strike could bring disastrous consequences. The US is bluffing.”
But Bong Youngshik, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said the Syria strike was an “indirect warning to Pyongyang that once North Korea crosses a red line, Trump will not hesitate to turn US power into action”, which he said would create uncertainty. “This is far more effective in terms of etching a strong image of the Trump administration in the mind of Kim Jong Un,” he added. “It shows Trump is not business as usual.”
Over the weekend, Mr Trump held telephone conservations with both Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Hwang Kyo-ahn, the acting South Korean president, about the Syria strike and the situation on the North Korean peninsula.
Joe Detrani, a former top CIA officer who has long experience dealing with North Korean officials, said Mr Kim might become concerned for his safety, but would not change his policy. “His father, Kim Jong Il, literally went into hiding after the first Gulf war when the US used overwhelming air power to destroy Iraq’s military,” said Mr Detrani. “Kim Jong Un may do the same . . . It will not, however, deter him from enhancing his nuclear and missile programmes.”
Pyongyang also stressed that the strike on Syria underscored why it needed nuclear weapons. “We must stand against power with power and it proves a million times over that our decision to strengthen our nuclear deterrence has been the right choice,” North Korea said on Saturday.