Ukraine, Taiwan, the Koreas: Is the world tilting toward major wars?
Images of the Russian army strangling the cruelly crushed Ukrainian city of Mariupol pull at heartstrings around the world, evoking indignant cries of “Stop it!” and “Do something!” to rescue survivors, drive out the invaders and save what’s left of a shattered community of more than 400,000 souls.
You cannot help but admire the bravery of ordinary people holding out in Mariupol even as Russian tanks rumble through empty streets littered with the wreckage of buildings and lives lost in a desperate struggle against overwhelming odds. You wonder, though, what the rest of the world is doing besides wringing hands, offering help that will never be enough and cringing at pleas for the kind of aid that might stop the Russians dead in their tracks.
In a battle between David and Goliath, David is supposed to win, but in the real world the biblical story may be a fantasy for Mariupol and much of the rest of the country. Yes, aid is pouring into Ukraine, and foreign volunteers are rushing to join the Ukrainian forces staving off the Russians as they advance from all sides on the capital of Kyiv and other beleaguered cities, but no one really advocates what President Volodymyr Zelensky says is absolutely necessary: the creation of a “no-fly zone” enforced by foreign air forces against Russian planes responsible for much of the death and destruction.
You can appreciate the urgency of Zelensky’s plea — and the reluctance of the NATO countries, led by President Biden, to escalate to the point of actually waging war, however limited, against Russia. No way would Russian President Vladimir Putin order his planes to stay out of the way just because the U.S and some of its NATO allies were telling them to do so. Nor would the Russians suddenly decide that now’s the time to agree to a conference at which they might have to make concessions — even, perhaps, a ceasefire.
You have to ask, though, would there be any other way to stop Russia from taking over Ukraine, other than to challenge it in the air and maybe strike Russian air bases on the other side of the border, or perhaps deep in Russia? Would the world then plunge into World War III, in which China, on the other side of the Eurasian landmass, would not only side with Russia but swing its weight ever more dangerously around Asia?
It’s not difficult to imagine China’s president, Xi Jinping — a leader disturbingly similar to Putin in his grasp on power in his own country and his vision of expanding borders — deciding the time was ripe finally to recover the lost province of Taiwan, which was last under Beijing’s thumb in 1895. That was when the Japanese took over the island, about 100 miles from the Chinese mainland, after defeating the forces of China’s last dynasty in the Sino-Japanese War. Should the U.S. and its Northeast Asia allies, South Korea and Japan, all go to war for Taiwan?
The question of when and how to exert retaliatory force is relevant in the case of North Korea, too. It’s plain to everyone that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is not going to give up his nukes. In fact, Kim gives every impression of wanting to improve his nuclear capabilities, fabricating ever more warheads while developing intercontinental ballistic missiles for carrying them to targets anywhere.
In response, there’s talk of South Korea developing its own nuclear capability, along with more and better missiles. Also, some are asking, how about the U.S. and the Republic of Korea jointly attacking North Korea’s nuclear complexes and missile launch sites?
These notions are madness. Just as enforcement of a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine could escalate into a full-scale war, NATO versus Russia, so could an assault on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities risk more than just another Korean War. It’s easy to imagine both China and Russia jumping in to defend their old Korean War ally. Korean War II could spread over Asia as easily as World War III could flare in Europe.
Such cold, rational reasoning, though, does nothing to relieve the suffering of those in Mariupol or the rest of Ukraine, any more than it helps the thousands of North Koreans suffering in the North’s gulag system. We’re left to watch in anguish as the people of Ukraine, those who haven’t fled or died, face a ruthless foe that’s hellbent on conquering a democratic neighbor.
Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.
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