If reports about North Korea's testing the powerful Hydrogen bomb has complicated the regional politics of East Asia, the US's deploying a B-52 bomber jet on a low-level flight over South Korea, its ally in the region on Sunday, is certainly going to make it worse.
The US military said the flight of the B-52 Stratofortress, a long-range bomber with the capacity to carry nuclear weapons, was a response to the "provocative action" by Pyongyang, which is carrying out the tests on January 6. The US said it remained firm in its commitment to defend South Korea and preserving stability in the Korean Peninsula.
US action will have repercussions in the region
The action by the American military will have repercussions in the entire region. It will not only irk North Korea more (it had threatened to launch a nuclear attack on the US after the latter had sent B-2 stealth bombers over South Korea in response to Pyongyang's last test in 2013) but also China which is already having sharp differences with Washinghton over its Asia-Pacific policy.
The irony of US & China's policies in East Asia
Herein lies the irony of the politics of East Asia. Both the US and China, despite their other differences, have been reiterating their common goal of denuclearising the Korean region, which still carries the baggage of the Cold War (the two Koreas who had fought between 1950-53 are still technically at war). In the Sunnylands talks of June 2013 as well as in Washington in September 2015, US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping spoke the common language of working together on North Korea and said its N-test was unacceptable.
But in reality, things have gone in a completely opposite direction. On January 7, a day after the Kim Jong-un regime carried out the earth-shaking test, US Secretary of State John Kerry told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that the plan on North Korea hasn't worked out. China responded through the mouthpiece of its Communist Party by accusing the stand of US, South Korea and Japan vis-à-vis North Korea for the continuing problem over North Korea. It said only expecting Beijing to do the job of taming North Korea's threatening ambition is an "illusion". Now, the US's fresh deployment of the nuclear bomber will take things back to square one.
US-China's clash of interests have helped North Korea to survive and thrive
The fierce clash of interests between the US and China and the inherent failure of their policies in dealing with Pyongyang is a major factor behind the rise of North Korea as a threat to world peace. One of the most backward countries of East Asia, the North Koreans have had every reason to believe that they have been victims of ruthless power play in the region and have taken the most dangerous route to assert themselves.
China's policy of backing failed
China has used North Korea as a buffer between its borders and regional and traditional enemies. It controlled the economic fate of the hermit kingdom, taking for granted that the political and economic influence would win it Pyongyang's unconditional loyalty for ever. But North Korea showed at the end that it was no child in the game of taking things for granted either.
It snubbed the big neighbour and went ahead with the test, creating bigger problems for Beijing, which has now a clear dilemma to choose between the devil and the deep sea. While it can't afford to isolate North Korea which could lead to an implosion there and expose its borders, an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang would also put China's regional interests in more jeopardy.
US's policy of coercion hasn't helped either
If China's cooperation hasn't succeeded in bringing North Korea on the track, the US's policy of coercion, too has failed. The moves of deploying bombers over South Korea have only increased tension and overshadowed effects of instruments like Agreed Framework. Beijing feels the continuing cycle of Pyongyang's provocation followed by Washington's hostility is going to worsen the situation and that could also be one of the reason why it has handled its neighbour too cautiously despite the threats it poses.
US and China have ultimately conflicting aims in Korean Peninsula
The ultimate aim of both China and the US also makes their common objective of seeing the Korean Peninsula as a peaceful region also a farce. While the US views ending the Kim Jong-un's rule as the only way to rein in North Korea, China is against the idea of losing North Korea as a buffer against Washington and others. This very incompatibility of the views of Beijing and Washington has given Pyongyang the space to survive and thrive today.
North Korea has thrived on the China-US mistrust
Kim Jong-un has perhaps now realised that the opportunity created by the endless hostility between the US and China can be utilised further by pursuing a naked N-ambition. The mistrust between the two big powers will continue to provide oxygen to Kim's dreams and the leader, in turn, will ensure through his regime's provocative acts that the tension continues in the future. If there is a moment which marks the beginning of a genuine cooperation between Beijing and Washington, the very existence of Kim Jong-un and his kingdom could be under threat.