Client States & Their Patrons – Who Drives Whom?


Remember NaPakistan being lauded for decades as America’s ally and then as America’s critical partner in the war against terror? For decades America has supported, financed & encouraged NaPak military over the interests of the people of that wretched regime because it suited American interests.

Today there is nothing but frustration about the NaPak military in America. Everyone now sees that NaPak military has been playing the American establishment in spite of their financial dependency on America. The NaPak military has used American money & American weapons to support the Taleban and help them kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Yet, America cannot let go. First because it would be too embarrassing to admit this decades long mistake but more importantly because no one wants to even think about a systemic collapse in that land.

Last week Syria showed Russia who needs whom in their Client-Patron relationship. Clearly Assad has survived and regained a lot of his lost territory because of Russia’s military support. He has survived diplomatically only because of Russian vetoes in the UN Security Council. Recall Putin decided to get involved in Syria because General Suleimani of Iran went to Moscow to beg him for Russian air support in Syria. But that is history.

After Russia won back the territories Assad had lost, after his regime seemed much more secure than he had ever hoped, Assad showed Putin last week who the “decider” is in Syria. When Secretary of State Tillerson said it is up to the Syrian people to decide whether Assad stays or goes, Assad decided he didn’t have to listen to Putin any more. May be that is why he felt emboldened to strike with chemical weapons to completely destroy the morale of the rebels. 

And, counter-intuitively, Putin needs Assad more now than he did before President Trump’s strike on the Syrian air base. Because jettisoning Assad now or even not supporting him would mean a total loss of everything Putin’s Russia bet in Syria. It would also be a public humiliating climb down that Putin may not be able to survive.

Despite all of the above, neither NaPak nor Syria pose a grave problem for America or Russia because they are just too far away. In contrast, North Korea, China’s client state, is a neighbor of China. And, unlike NaPak & Syria, North Korea is actually a creation of China thanks to the war over Korea between America & China in the 1950s.

If America is worried of a systemic collapse in NaPak, if Russia is concerned about a collapse of the Alawite regime in Syria, China must be utterly petrified of a systemic collapse in North Korea. Besides the disaster of millions of Korean refugees rushing into China, the specter of a pro-American regime in North Korea on its border would be intolerable for China. The Chinese army would enter North Korea to prevent that possibility.

That makes China vulnerable to American pressure in a way neither America or Russia are vulnerable in NaPak or Syria. That is why President Trump keeps telling the Chinese to solve the North Korean problem or he will and they won’t like what happens if he is forced to solve North Korea.

What is the greatest danger to the dog in the above cartoon? That the master extricates himself and gets rid of the dog. Unlike the dog, Kim Jong Un knows that his greatest danger comes from China, his patron. What if China gets a North Korean General to depose Kim & take charge of the regime with Chinese support? America managed that in South Vietnam; the NaPak military has consistently deposed its military dictators and replaced them with other generals to preserve the rule of the officer class.

The trouble is Kim Jong Un knows this and he has repeatedly eliminated any threat to his rule from within the North Korean leadership. He has also built up his image as a crazy leader who will blow everything up including himself if attacked. That worked for the past two decades & against three previous American Presidents.

Now it may not. Because America now has a President who is also building up his image as an unpredictable leader who will drop massive bombs & blow up regimes if pushed. And, unlike Kim, Trump has already dropped missiles on a Syrian air base and the mother-of-all-bombs on ISIS in Afghanistan.

Look at what China faces – a crazy Korean leader who is telling China that he will blow up everything he can if attacked & a crazy-sounding American President who is telling China- I am a wild & crazy guy; so help me or I could just lose it. The big question before China is who they think is crazy enough to do what he is saying. That answer will determine China’s response.

The stark reality is that America cannot accept the trajectory of North Korea’s nuclear & missile program any more. In a few years North Korea could have the capability to hit America’s west coast with a nuclear missile. It is the solemn duty of the American President to eliminate that possibility regardless of the cost to North Korea or its neighbors.

The question is does China get it?


PS: The above is eerily familiar to those who remember the dictum तक्षकाय स्वाहा इन्द्राय स्वाहा or “Takshak will burn & so will Indra”  from the story of Khaandav-Van in Mahaa-Bhaarat. Today’s Delhi is where the Paandav capital of Indra-Prastha was built about 4,000 years ago. When Shree Krishna & Arjun began clearing the forest, a local king named Takshak fought them. Takshak’s patron was Indra, the Lord Protector of Heaven. When Indra tried to intervene to help Takshak, Shree Krishna warned him to stay away with  तक्षकाय स्वाहा इन्द्राय स्वाहा  – meaning “Takshak will burn & so will Indra”. Indra was smart & left Takshak to his own fate. So Takshak surrendered and left the area. The Paandav built a gorgeous capital city on that site and named it Indra-Prastha in honor of Indra’s smarts. Today’s capital city of Dehli sits on the site where Indra-Prastha was built approx 4,000 years ago. The lesson – there comes a time for smart patrons to jettison their client states. Will China heed it & will Kim avoid getting burned?


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