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Maybe East Asian nations really hate each other enough to flirt with war.
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From any perspective, 2013 was a wasted year in East Asia. New leaders in China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea failed to solve any of their foreign-relations problems and now face greater tension in 2014. Conspicuous American timidity in the region only adds to the growing sense of insecurity. If current trends continue through next year, the odds of a conflict, whether intentional or accidental, will increase dramatically.
The great disappointment in 2013 was Asian leaders’ inability to make any diplomatic progress on their territorial disputes. Whether the Spratly Islands (in the South China Sea) or the Senkaku Islands (in the East China Sea), territorial disagreements became more entrenched.
China steadfastly refused to ease pressure in the South China Sea and ended the year with an unprecedented move to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that overlapped longstanding Japanese and South Korean air zones. Neither Japan nor South Korea is complying with China’s ADIZ demands. Hot-headed fighter pilots on any side could plunge the countries into crisis, as almost happened between America and China in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane.
Trend lines are moving in the wrong direction. Three years after the Japanese arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain in the waters around the Senkakus ignited a competition between Beijing and Tokyo, no diplomatic solution is in sight. Tokyo’s just-released national security strategy calls for a significant increase in defense spending in response to Beijing’s decade-plus military modernization. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended the year Thursday by visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which resulted in outraged comments from Beijing.
Meanwhile, relations between Tokyo and Seoul deteriorated to their lowest point in decades. South Korean President Park Guen-hye has refused to meet with Mr. Abe. President Park has used the visit of senior U.S. officials to publicly chastise Tokyo for its position on historical issues like comfort women. Any type of political accommodation between Japan and South Korea seems unlikely—especially after Mr. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni—thereby leaving East Asia’s leading liberal states at odds with each other and unable to work together on issues of joint concern, like North Korea.
The northern half of the Korean peninsula surged back into the news in December with the shocking execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle and the No. 2 power broker during the rule of Kim’s father. Jang was considered close to China and in favor of gradual economic reform, so his execution is internationally relevant. No one knows whether Jang’s downfall presages a bloody purge in North Korea, coming strife with the South, or even growing instability within the Kim regime.
What is abundantly clear, however, is that all hopes of Kim Jong Un turning out to be a “reformer” have been brutally upended. With the purge of Jang, effective diplomacy between Pyongyang and any outside power seems more unlikely. North Korea’s isolation will almost certainly deepen and with it will come greater uncertainty about future stability on the peninsula and beyond.
The U.S. also suffered setbacks this year. Despite the Obama administration’s continued assertions that its “rebalance” to the region proceeds apace, the president canceled his trips to the APEC and East Asian Summit meetings in October due to political gridlock at home. Xi Jinping took the opportunity of Mr. Obama’s absences to sign trade agreements and deepen economic ties with Indonesia and Malaysia, while Premier Li Keqiang traveled to Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam. The Chinese charm offensive was successful despite lingering territorial tensions with Malaysia and Vietnam.
China’s air defense zone is also being interpreted as a direct challenge to the predominant position of the U.S. military in Asia. The American failure to firmly oppose Beijing’s move beyond flying a few bombers through the new airspace—combined with its failure to coordinate any response with Japan and South Korea—raised questions about Washington’s political will. When Biden failed to press the issue publicly with the Chinese, Seoul enlarged its own ADIZ, overlapping those of both Japan and China.
So East Asia seems as unstable and insecure as ever. Despite economic interdependence that makes China the top trading partner of Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, the potential for conflict is very real. Beijing continues to build a military that is inherently threatening to outsiders. It recently tested a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead as far as the United States. It has also developed at least two stealth fighter variants and has relentlessly increased cyber espionage and attacks.
An observer can only conclude that East Asian nations want to continue the threats, inching ever closer to outright conflict. Perhaps the nations don’t take the risk of a military clash seriously. Or they feel they cannot back down and solve things peacefully, at the risk of potential backlash at home. Most frighteningly, maybe East Asians really hate each other enough to flirt with war.
Whatever the reason, the security blanket long provided by the U.S. clearly seems to be fraying, with nothing more cooperative replacing it. And so 2014 promises to be a year of living dangerously in East Asia.
Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for WSJ.com. He is on Twitter @michaelauslin.
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