Obama’s “playbook” and the threat of nuclear war in Asia

The Obama administration has engaged in reckless provocations against North Korea over the past month, inflaming tensions in North East Asia and heightening the risks of war. Its campaign has been accompanied by the relentless demonising of the North Korean regime and claims that the US military build-up was purely “defensive”.

However, the Wall Street Journal and CNN revealed yesterday that the Pentagon was following a step-by-step plan, dubbed “the playbook”, drawn up months in advance and approved by the Obama administration earlier in the year. The flights to South Korea by nuclear capable B-52 bombers on March 8 and March 26, by B-2 bombers on March 28, and by advanced F-22 Raptor fighters on March 31 were all part of the script.

There is of course nothing “defensive” about B-52 and B-2 nuclear strategic bombers. The flights were designed to demonstrate, to North Korea in the first instance, the ability of the US military to conduct nuclear strikes at will anywhere in North East Asia. The Pentagon also exploited the opportunity to announce the boosting of anti-ballistic missile systems in the Asia Pacific and to station two US anti-missile destroyers off the Korean coast.

According to CNN, the “playbook” was drawn up by former defence secretary Leon Panetta and “supported strongly” by his replacement, Chuck Hagel. The plan was based on US intelligence assessments that “there was a low probability of a North Korean military response”—in other words, that Pyongyang posed no serious threat. Unnamed American officials claimed that Washington was now stepping back, amid concerns that the US provocations “could lead to miscalculations” by North Korea.

However, having deliberately ignited one of the most dangerous flashpoints in Asia, there are no signs that the Obama administration is backing off. Indeed, on Wednesday, Defence Secretary Hagel emphasised the military threat posed by North Korea, declaring that it presented “a real and clear danger”. The choice of words was deliberate and menacing—an echo of the phrase “a clear and present danger” used to justify past US wars of aggression.

The unstable and divided North Korean regime has played directly into the hands of Washington. Its bellicose statements and empty military threats have nothing to do with a genuine struggle against imperialism and are inimical to the interests of the international working class. Far from opposing imperialism, its Stalinist leaders are looking for a deal with the US and its allies to end their decades-long economic blockade and open up the country as a new cheap labour platform for global corporations.

As the present standoff shows, Pyongyang’s acquisition of a few crude nuclear weapons has in no way enhanced its defence against an American attack. The two B-2 stealth bombers that flew to South Korea could unleash enough nuclear weapons to destroy the country’s entire industrial and military capacity and murder even more than the estimated 2 million North Korean civilians killed by the three years of US war in Korea in the 1950s.

North Korea’s wild threats to attack American, Japanese and South Korean cities only compound the climate of fear used by the ruling classes to divide the international working class—the only social force capable of preventing war.

Commentators in the international media speculate endlessly on the reasons for the North Korean regime’s behaviour. But the real question, which is never asked, should be: why is the Obama administration engaged in the dangerous escalation of tensions in North East Asia? The latest US military moves go well beyond the steps taken in December 2010, when the US and South Korean navies held provocative joint exercises in water adjacent to both North Korea and China.

Obama’s North Korea “playbook” is just one aspect of his so-called “pivot to Asia”—a comprehensive diplomatic, economic and military strategy aimed at ensuring the continued US domination of Asia. The US has stirred up flashpoints throughout the region and created new ones, such as the conflict between Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Obama’s chief target is not economically bankrupt North Korea, but its ally China, which Washington regards as a dangerous potential rival. Driven by the deepening global economic crisis, US imperialism is using its military might to assert its hegemony over Asia and the entire planet.

The US has declared that its military moves against North Korea are designed to “reassure” its allies, Japan and South Korea, that it will protect them. Prominent figures in both countries have called for the development of their own nuclear weapons. US “reassurances” are aimed at heading off a nuclear arms race in North East Asia—not to secure peace, but to reinforce the American nuclear monopoly.

The ratcheting-up of tensions over North Korea places enormous pressures on China and the newly-selected leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. An unprecedented public debate has opened up in Beijing over whether or not to continue to support Pyongyang. The Chinese leadership has always regarded the North Korean regime as an important buffer on its northeastern borders, but now fears that the constant tension on the Korean peninsula will be exploited by the US and its allies to launch a huge military build-up.

Indeed, all of the Pentagon’s steps over the past month—the boosting of anti-missile systems and practice runs of nuclear capable bombers—have enhanced the ability of the US to fight a nuclear war against China. Moreover, the US may not want to provoke a war, but its provocations always run the risk of escalating dangerously out of control. Undoubtedly, Obama’s “playbook” for war in Asia contains many more steps beyond the handful leaked to the media. The Pentagon plans for all eventualities, including the possibility that a Korean crisis could bring the US and China head to head in a catastrophic nuclear conflict.

The only solution to the danger of nuclear war is the abolition of its source—the bankrupt profit system and its outmoded division of the world into rival nation states. Workers in China, the US, Japan, Korea and around the world must reject all forms of nationalism and chauvinism and unify in a joint struggle for a globally planned socialist economy that would end the barbarism of war.