Moves toward integration, increasing economic interdependence, expansion of social networks are countered by even stronger nationalistic sentiment, historical baggage, opportunistic and politically driven policies, contending territorial claims and changing geo-political conditions.
Let me talk about the triangular relationship in Northeast Asia among the three countries which are gathered here: China, Japan and Korea. I would like to do that with a particular focus on Korea`s tightrope-walking relationship with the two bigger powers, China and Japan. In the second decade of the 21st century, our three countries, close both in geography and cultural legacy, are moving in two opposite directions simultaneously: toward cooperation and integration on the one hand, but also toward conflict and a disintegration of cooperative links on the other. The move toward integration is aided by increasing economic interdependence, the accompanying imperative to cooperate, and the expansion of social networks and person-to-person exchanges among the three countries.
On the other hand, the push toward unraveling regional ties is abetted by even stronger forces: nationalistic sentiment, historical baggage, opportunistic and politically driven policies, contending territorial claims and changing geo-political conditions.
The changing power configuration among the three countries serves as a factor that both requires greater cooperation among the three countries and, at the same time, as one that also fosters grater suspicion and a perceived need to counter and check the others. China is in the process of surpassing Japan in national power and international standing, and Korea is trying to move from a distant third in the pecking order to a position closer to that of a coequal. As North Korea threatens the rest of the region with nuclear weapons, long-rant missiles, provocative behavior, and socio-economic insolvency, the situation leads to concern and frustration in all three countries, but necessarily with the same responses.
China once considered Japan’s and South Korea’s alliances with the United States as a necessary evil to maintain regional stability and to prevent Japan’s rearmament. Now, however, China regards the U.S. alliance system as mainly aimed at containing and encircling it, not at contributing to regional integration in Northeast Asia. China now considers the U.S. alliances as a legacy of the Cold War. Therefore, in the absence of a viable security structure in this region, the alliances and alignments have both strained relationships among the Northeast Asian countries in recent years as much as they have stabilized them.
The divergent perspectives and interests of the three Northeast Asian countries often make cooperation difficult. More than seven decades after the end of the Second World War, why are we still witnessing outbursts of nationalistic sentiments piled on top of a spate of territorial claims and disputes? I can put forward a few suggested explanations:
First, China’s drive for economic development forced its leaders to focus first on reform, internal cohesion and management of an economy that was growing explosively. Assertion of historical territorial claims took a back seat to those other tasks. China now feels ready to retrieve what it considers territories it should own but which were lost during the period of its weakness and underdevelopment. But as it focuses belatedly on those claims, China sees Japan contesting them and the United States checking and encircling it with regional alliances and alignments.
Another element in Chinese behavior on this issue is its penchant to “teach a lesson” to its adversaries now and potential adversaries in the future. Just as it went to war against India (in 1962) and Vietnam (in 1979), to teach them a lesson about the costs of offending China, it now wishes to send a signal to those with whom it has territorial disputes. It will not tread softly in asserting its territorial claims. Chalmers Johnson, an American political scientist, argued in a 1962 book entitled Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power that Mao Zedong’s Communist movement succeeded because of the strength of peasant nationalism in China. The Chinese leadership seems to be carrying on the tradition of legitimizing the government on the basis of not only economic betterment but also nationalist credentials. Nationalism continues to be a potent force in Chinese politics, as shown by the fact that demonstrations related to territorial dispute are sometimes seen with demonstrators carrying Chairman Mao’s portrait.
China also seems to see a hidden U.S. hand in the vigorous territorial claims of Japan in the East China Sea (and for that matter those of Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea). It sees U.S. support to those nations and the American “pivot (or rebalance) to Asia” as encouragement to defy China. China’s leadership has the political motivation to take a strong stand on territorial issues. The United States, for its part, appears to be confirming China’s fears and suspicions by actions such as the recent dispatch of the aircraft carriers to the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Second, sentiment is rising in Japan that the deal it made after the Second World War as a defeated power, including the Peace Constitution and the renunciation of military forces, is an anomaly that should be corrected. Japan, this argument goes, must again become a “normal state” with the right to a military force and to the exercise of collective self-defense. This argument carries an added weight in the face of increasing North Korean threat of nuclear weapons and missiles. The slowdown of the Japanese economy for more than two decades has caused the Japanese people to develop a sense of relative decline vis-a-vis the other Northeast Asian countries. Such sentiments can easily stimulate a more nationalistic and assertive posture.
Japan’s feeling that its neighbors are attempting to take advantage of its relative decline and beginning to look down on Japan is seen not only among ultranationalists but also among the larger population, especially younger people. They question why those generations of Japanese who had nothing to do with pre-war Japan’s imperialistic and militaristic behavior should feel responsible for things that happened more than 70 years ago. Why should Japan continue to maintain a constitution that hinders, if not prohibits, it from maintaining regular defense forces and exercising normal self-defense, collective or otherwise? Why should Japan feel guilty about possessing and wanting to possess territories that it considers rightfully its own? In the event, Japan is strengthening its security ties with the United States even further and augment its own military capabilities.
Third, Japan’s immediate neighbors, particularly South Korea, has a special challenge in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat and navigating the troubled waters of U.S.-China relations and China-Japan relations. Let me talk a little about those challenges.
Today, there are many perceived crises and challenges that South Korean public, politicians, the media, experts, government officials, and yes, the ordinary people, worry about. Let me just mention three of them and briefly discuss them in the context of the North Korean nuclear threat.
The first is obviously the threat that South Koreans feel about North Korean nuclear weapons-their implications for the balance of power between the North and the South; the direct threat it represents to not only to the South Korean people but also to Koreans of both the South and the North if exchange of nuclear attacks take place in the Korean Peninsula, and its potential to proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. Let me briefly go back to the issue of the North Korean nuclear threat. The Israelis, current Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, talk about the crucial importance of preventing its potential enemy, Iran for example, from entering, or passing through the threshold of what they call “nuclear zone of immunity.” It means a zone in which it will be impossible to punish the enemy for possessing or using nuclear weapons, because of the capability, size, number, effectiveness, consequences of the punishing action, etc. Many South Koreans feel today that North Korea, after five nuclear tests since 2006, has already entered or is about to enter that zone of immunity.
The third is what Koreans call the “big-power syndrome” of China, which seems to regard itself as the “middle kingdom” which other countries, at least in the region, should accept it as such. The Fourth is the rising rivalry and friction between China and the United States, which seems to be the inevitable result of clash of interests between a rising power and a status quo power, It portends the danger of bringing back the 20th century Cold War locking of horns of bipolarity and military competition.
There are many in South Korea who feel that if the United States, together with China, really felt the need, and wanted, to stop Pyongyang from acquiring nuclear weapons, it should have been able to do it either quietly or with a bang. Thus, according to them, the blame for the current predicament with NK nuclear weapons goes directly to successive U.S. governments, including the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. That the U.S. has failed to do so is an indication of either the lack of will or purpose, or the failure to come up with the right means and methods to achieve the goal.
In this connection, let me move on to the second issue area.
The second is what I would call the “fortress America” syndrome, which is beginning to emerge again in the United States, particularly in the context of the current Presidential election campaign. That relates to the role and policy of the United States and their relevance to North Korean nuclear weapons.
According to this line of thinking, ever since the first president, George Washington’s Farewell Address 1796, when he counseled Americans to stay clear of entanglements with other nations, particularly of Europe, the United States has been oscillating between engagement and withdrawal from world affairs, between, involvement and isolation. The only exception was during the post Second World War Period when the United States was carried away with the self-imposed mission to serve as the policeman of the world. Now, leaders as disparate as Obama and Trump agree on one idea: There is an American interest that is supreme and other interests that are secondary. From Barack Obama (a la “The Obama Doctrine” which distinguishes between America’s “core interests” involving global warming and human rights, and merely “urgent issues” such as Syria and Ukraine) to Donald Trump to whom everything is negotiable for profit and “better deal,” the idea of “America first,” and “America’s core interest,” raises the question of how much the U.S. is willing to “sacrifice” and “pay” for what purpose. To South Koreans, as to many Japanese, is the United States willing to risk Los Angeles or Chicago for either Seoul or Tokyo?
The third crisis and source of anxiety for South Koreans are related to China, its contradictory (in terms of its own interest) and inconsistent (between words and deeds) behavior and policy. China says it is opposed to North Korean nuclear arming. But why does it not do everything to stop it from investing on and working for becoming a nuclear weapons state. China says it does not want the strengthening of alliance between the United States on the one hand and Japan and South Korea on the other. It opposes the installment and deployment of sophisticated radars and missile defense system in Japan and Korea. But why does it not try harder to remove the condition in which such missile defense and strengthening of U.S. alliance system is required?
Koreans understand that China would like to right the wrongs the Chinese feel had been inflicted on them by the Western powers and Japan in the early part of the 20th century and the pride that had been hurt during the imperialistic age, when China was weak and was torn apart internally. But why is Beijing in such a hurry to treat the wounds, only to open new ones, instead of heeding to Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “hone your axe I darkness and be patient until the opportune and mature time comes.” North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile capability will only hurt China’s own security interest: North Korea’s direct threat capability to China will increase; it will contribute to strengthening U.S.’s alliances and alignment; it will require and enable the United States to pivot to Asia and Asian countries, and more of U.S. strategic weapons to Asia and the Korean Peninsula.
Writing about the “exceptionalism” of the two big powers, China and the United States, Henry Kissinger made the distinction between the American exceptionalism based on ideals almost amounting to “messiahnism” and Chinese exceptionalism defined more in terms of accepting Chinese “culture” and way of life. In the 21st century, however, exceptionalism of both big powers now tends to move toward one based more starkly on power and interest. The question is whether and how well and intelligently they define their respective interest-both short-term and long-term-and how well they chart out their respective policies and responses.
It has become almost fashionable for Korean commentators these days to proclaim that since Korea cannot count on either of the two major powers, China and the United States, two powers that have the power to determine the fate of their present and future safety and well-being, Koreans should take their fate in their own hand. They say we should take the initiative and try to lead, persuade to do what will work to remove the North Korean nuclear threat. But is this a realistic goal or method? What are the limitations? The problem is that, with limited power and constrained geopolitical conditions, not to speak of a belligerent, determined and reckless regime in the North, South Korea has to strain itself to come up with a practical policy, consensus within, which is seriously lacking, and intelligent leadership which can guide the nation out of serious foreign policy morass.
North Koreans emphatically say that Nuclear weapons are not an object of bargaining? Pyongyang says it will not give up nuclear weapons or program “even if heaven tumbles down.” But after 5 tests, NK may offer moratorium on tests and use it as a bargaining chip – such as “arms control” (de facto recognition as nuclear weapons state), US-NK peace agreement, etc.
1. What needs to be done?
2. More and continuing sanctions?
3. Negotiation with carrots and stick, as we tried to do so far?
4. South Korea going nuclear itself?
5. Redeploy U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons that had been withdrawn back in 1991?
Problems: Will U.S. do it? Opposition in South Korea, Chinese opposition. Will it work vis-a-vis North Korea -Either in deterrence or negotiation?
• Surgical pre-emptive strike
• Massive strike to change regime in the North?
No guarantee that a regime change will bring in another regime that will give up nuclear weapons as it happened in South Africa.
Fundamental change of policy or direction is easier said than done, particularly by pundits and back-seat drivers. Policies that sound brave, original, patriotic, or epoch- making may often prove to be instead fool hardy, dangerous and counter-productive. What we need is a cool and balanced head, not a Hamlet, but not a Rambo, either.
I have spent a little too much time to talk about South Korea’s foreign policy challenges.
Now coming back to our trilateral relations, needless to say, in each of the three countries, there are many different views about regional relations. Some are nationalistic and some are chauvinistic, but I think the larger number of people share more internationalist, moderate and pragmatic views that can be harnessed in the interest of regional cooperation. So, one should not say that the outlook is grim.
It is most important that the three countries take care that emotional and thorny territorial and nationalistic issues do not spill over to trade, investment, finance, and other areas where pragmatism should rule. Leaders in all three countries must act with enlightened self-interest to keep tempers cool.
Commenting the Sino-Japan territorial feud, Yan Lianke, a Chinese writer, said in a column for the International Herald Tribune, “Cultural bonds between China and Japan must be used to calm the outbursts that inflame territorial disputes.”
Cultural bonds, commercial incentives, security imperatives, a sense of shared regional destiny, and sheer reason-all these factors can either hamper or promote regional peace and cooperation. We have to make them work for regional peace and cooperation rather than for conflict and disunity.