After Egypt and Syria, there's never been a worse time to host an arms fair

Next week London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer.

Events over the past month have dramatically illustrated the true nature of military power in the world today: not, for the most part, a means of self-defence, but a tool of internal repression and external power projection.

In Egypt, having toppled the elected president in July, the new military government moved to eradicate the political opposition, arresting its leaders and murdering hundreds of activists during a few days in August. In Syria, the armed forces of a regime with deep roots in the military appear to have used chemical weapons on civilians in rebel-held areas, again killing hundreds. In Western capitals, cruise missile strikes are threatened against Syria for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with self-defence, nothing to do with humanitarian principle (witness the continued, substantive support for the junta in Cairo), and everything to do with a geopolitical game being played with the lives of the Syrian people.

Britain’s place at the heart of global militarism is well established. It is a member of the elite club of nuclear states, spends more on “defence” by proportion of GDP than most developed nations, regularly involves itself in armed conflicts abroad, and holds perhaps 15 per cent of the global market in arms dealing, second only to the United States and ahead of Russia and France. In terms of exports, recent revelations that the UK allowed the sale of chemical precursors to Syria highlight the degree of commercial cynicism at work. But often, as one would expect from an industry largely dependent on the nanny state, political concerns shape the destination of exports. Britain mostly sells weapons to allies such as Saudi Arabia (with whom Margaret Thatcher signed Britain’s largest arms deal) not to strategic opponents like Iran.

Next week, with atrocious timing given recent events in Egypt and Syria, London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer. One of the participating firms hoping to network and make deals at the event is the Russian State Technologies Corporation  (Rostec), whose arms export wing supplies weapons to the Assad regime. It is not yet known which states the British government has invited to attend this year, but past guests provide an indication. Colonel Gaddafi’s notoriously brutal son Khamis appears to have received a personal invite in 2009, while 2011’s guests included delegations from Bahrain and Egypt. A few months before the 2011 event, Bahrain had violently crushed a broad-based pro-democracy movement with the help of a Saudi-led intervention force, while later that autumn the Egyptian military massacred two dozen civilian protestors in Cairo . Many states have pavilions at DSEi to showcase their wares, including Israel, which boasts that its kit has been battle-tested. Clearly the enemies of democracy and self-determination will once again be out in force at this year’s event.

The mindset of militarism has been reflected in the debate over Syria this past fortnight, with even the most liberal of those advocating direct intervention repeatedly insisting that the choice is between waging war and “doing nothing”. In the Syrian case, it is hard to see how serious attempts at diplomacy and serious provision of humanitarian aid (unlike the wholly inadequate efforts made on both fronts so far) can credibly be classed as inaction. Elsewhere, people wanting to do something to counteract the forces of state violence and repression, in the Middle East and elsewhere, could do worse than get involved in the range of creative anti-DSEi protests planned by campaigners for next week, including a mass action on Sunday by Occupy London, a ‘meet-and-greet’ for arms dealers and protests against government support for the arms industry outside Parliament. These too are “humanitarian interventions”, conducted at the level of civil society, aimed at ending British complicity with violent anti-democratic forces around the world.

David Wearing is researching a PhD on British relations with the Gulf states at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing

Military hardware on show at the 2009 DSEi exhibition. Photo: Getty
Getty
Show Hide image

Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear