Common Sense Approach to Conflicts in East Asia

A Japanese patrol boat and a Taiwanese patrol boat struggles each other in exchange of fires from water cannons off the coast of troubled Senkaku/ Diaoyudao Islands. (Photo: AP/NEWSIS)

Joint Project between the Northeast Asian History Foundation and The AsiaN

*Editor’s Note: Security in East Asia is swaying in a rough sea. North Korea’s nuclear crisis has been highly elated amid existing territorial disputes and deep-rooted conflicts between nations in the region. South Korea, China and Japan, the countries directly involved, are all looking for a new order in the process of power shift. In search of sensible solutions for historical conflicts in East Asia, The AsiaN and the Northeast Asian History Foundation have jointly featured a column series by experts on current issues in East Asia. The contribution series of in-depth analyses, insights and strategic solutions will be provided in four languages including English, Korean, Chinese and Arabic.

[Expert Column Series on Current Issues in East Asia] ① Let the big picture of peace and prosperity prevail

A big shouting match is going on in East Asia, disturbing the peace of the neighbourhood. I presume this is what went across the DMZ and the East China Sea.

“This one is for the US,” said a gleeful Kim Jong-un, referring to North Korea’s latest nuclear test, “so they – and allies like Lee Myung-bak, would know we won’t stand for their hostile attitude and threats.” He added, “we will carry out more tests, if need be.” “This serious provocation must not go unpunished,” President Lee in Seoul retorted.

Over in Tokyo, Shinzo Abe demanded an apology from Beijing over the alleged Chinese navy’s “dangerous” act of targeting its warship and military helicopter with its radar guidance system. “No such thing took place,” said the Chinese. “Japan is cooking up things to raise the spectre of a China threat.”

What do the crisis-crossing tensions portend for a region that had borned the scars of the Sino-Japanese War and the Korean War?  Some neighbouring countries favouring a de-nuclearised Korean Peninsula have denounced Pyongyang for defying the international community in carrying its third nuclear test, the latest being Singapore.

“It does not enhance the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s own security and threatens to destabilise the entire region to the detriment of all, including the DPRK itself,” its Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said. Interestingly, the conventional way of responding to the North Korean nuclear threat is coming under challenge.

Taking a fresh line, political analyst Muthiah Alagappa, Tun Hussein chair in International Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia argues that Pyongyang has a genuine security concern in seeking atomic weapons.

Unfortunately, the US and its allies as well as China had failed to address this fundamental issue, he said. The ‘military first’ communist state had paid a high price for it, having been isolated and slapped with sanctions that take a terrible toll on its citizens.

Efforts like the Six-Party talks had proved futile to roll back North Korea’s nuclear drive. “The world must now confront the reality of a nuclear North Korea,” Muthiah Alagappa said.

Wouldn’t that be seen as rewarding Pyongyang for its violation of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Arms? Not exactly. In going out to develop nuclear weapons, the Kim Jong-un regime is mainly concerned with preserving its dynastic rule and strengthen its bargaining position with the US and its Seoul counterpart.

He also did not think that this would lead to a nuclear arms race in the region as Japan and South Korea are protected by the US nuclear umbrella. President Barack Obama has warned of firm action against Pyongyang while pledging to strengthen missile defence for Seoul and Tokyo.

In any case, short of invading North Korea and for the US to conduct a surgical strike of its military installations, a new option is to face up to North Korea as a nuclear state, said Muthiah Alagappa, who is also a non-resident Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Calling for a change of mindset, he added: “It is time for Asian and Western policy circles and scholars to unravel the fake security blanket, go past post-Cold War paralysis and do some real work on the subject. Ironically, we may have to thank North Korea for this stimulus.”

In policy circles in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul the security threat in East Asia is linked to North Korea’s drive for atomic bombs and China’s new assertiveness as a up-and-coming superpower.

Offering his own insight, veteran China watcher, Professor Wang Gungwu from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy argues that it is misleading to portray China as a potential threat to the existing world order underpinning peace and security.

“What many of the headlines are trying to do is to warn China to back off from what it is doing in the South and East China seas and conform to the current international system – or be treated as a threat to world order the way Germany and Japan had been (in the last century),” he said.

Japan had challenged the international system dominated by US, Britain and France but were both defeated during the Second World War. Japan and some countries in South-east Asia that are concerned with China’s growing stature are pushing for the US strategic tilt to Asia.

“Today, they calculate that their future place must depend on using the same global system to counter a rising China,” said Prof. Wang.

“The guardians of the international system project a rising China that is unwilling to be more open and free. They imply that when China becomes more powerful, it will be harder to make it play by their rules.”

Therein lies a potential for a US-China confrontation. This is the scenario if Chinese leaders were to breach the rules of the international system in defending its sovereign claims over the disputed islands.

The National University of Society don believes some Chinese leaders may not be able yet to abide by the universal rules of the game.

Alluding to the China’s flexing its military muscles in the naval face-off with Japan, Philippines and Vietnam over the oil- and gas-rich islands in the East and South China Sea, Prof Wang said the nub of the region’s conflict lies not in China’s rise to power or even the mistakes it is seen to be making.

Rather, it stems from some countries pressure on China to conform to a system that American power would have to enforce.

“Thus, it is not only China’s own initiatives that really matter. It is also what the US is willing to do to further empower that system and how much it understands China’s needs to protect its distinctive place in the world,” he added.

War jitters arising from the Sino-Japan imbroglio have led to widespread calls for cool heads to prevail.

“The two nations need to pull and consider afresh the primacy of their relationship in the regional order. They should emphasise confidence building,”
an editorial in the Singapore national daily, The Straits Times, appeals to both China and Japan.

Taking a common sense approach, I believe the top leaders in the two countries would stop short of full-blown hostilities.

Analysts think that Chinese is using a ‘protracted struggle’ strategy of wearing down the Japanese. Beijing wants to teach Tokyo a lesson for nationalising Senkaku against Chinese protests but not to use force to enforce its claims.

After all, China and Japan had gone to war in the past and taken the measure of one another. Likewise, China and US had fought on opposite sides in the Korean War (1950-53).

“It will be madness for them to go to war,” a veteran journalists, noting the terrible devastation and deaths that a conventional war had wrought.  “Could they even contemplate a war today that would be fought with nuclear weapons?

Not, if the US, which is withdrawing from two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would see it in its interest to cool things down. The new US Secretary of State John Kerry has declared Washington is keen to establish a mutually beneficial partnership with the Chinese leadership.

On their part, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese new leader Xi Jinping may yet be able to set up a meeting and discuss a negotiated settlement.
The best hope is if both sides could focus on bigger stakes.

Both could take a leaf from the late Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping (and then Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda). In their negotiations for normalisation of relations between China and Japan in 1978, they agreed on a formula of not allowing the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and continental shelf differences to trip them up on the core issue.

Official Chinese notes quoted Deng as saying: “Don’t drag them in now, they can be set aside to be calmly discussed later and we can slowly reach a way that both sides can accept. If our generation cannot find a way, the next generation or the one after that will find a way.”

It is pragmatism at play and also a sensible thing to do: Let the big picture prevail. In the case of China and Japan it is the peace and prosperity of the entire Asia-Pacific and the world community.

For North Korea, the ascension of Park Geun-hye as President on Feb 25 offers a new opening for ‘Sunshine Policy-type” dialogue or summit that was frozen under Lee Myung-bak. That will help to mute the on-going war of words.

2 Responses to Common Sense Approach to Conflicts in East Asia

  1. Pingback: 常识的做法在东亚冲突 | THEAsiaN China

  2. ShinHeuk Kang 22 March , 2013 at 6:18 pm

    Although it is hypothetical, It is good to learn there can be Win-WIn policy among asian nations, In Korea, we indeed should solve the security problem with North Korea. Many opinions may be regarded as hostile everytime it is related to Ideology. I am wondering if the which country’s hegemony may outrace others.

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