Perhaps inspired by the centenary of World War I, this year has provoked a lot of clamouring about shifting security in Northeast Asia. The general vibe is that Japan's Article 9 're-interpretation' reflects a looming Sino-Japanese conflict, and that Xi Jinping's trip to South Korea is pulling Seoul away from traditional commitments, part of China's larger effort to woo Asians away from the Americans. No less than a former Japanese minister of defence has made this latter argument.
While it is indeed the case that Sino-Japanese tension is growing, much of this discussion misses basic sources of stability in Northeast Asia or glosses over national particularities that muddy an easy interpretation of Northeast Asia as spiraling tension. My post today will turn on the notion that Korea is 'drifting'; a subsequent post will focus on the idea that Japan is remilitarising.
Neither of these are really true. My own suspicion is that various moves in the region get quickly over-interpreted because there are many hawks on all sides of the Northeast Asian security debate who dislike the rather dull, stable status quo. Three points on Korea:
1. Deterrence in Korea is actually a lot more stable than most people think
Dave Kang has made this point repeatedly, but this argument is often lost in the media and punditry. In the 2013 faux-war crisis, I noted that the media took North Korean war-talk much more seriously than the analyst community, with lots of predictions of conflict and over-heated CNN 'analysis' of what such a war would look like. I made the same point in 2010 after the sinking of the destroyer Cheonan by the North and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea. The media ran wild with stories of Korea 'on the brink of all-out war', but no one I know in the analyst community actually believes that. North Korea does not want to fight. It will get crushed, and the Kim family will be lynched or go to jail.
At the risk of sounding cynical, there is a great deal of media hype that can be ginned up out of North Korea. Alarmism is always an easy approach. Describing members of the North Korean Kim monarchy as insane alcoholic sex fiends, providing frightening statistics about the number of cannon and rockets pointed at Seoul, listing the North Korean nuclear tests and so on, make for great copy.
But the big story in the inter-Korean stand off is that it has not turned into a shooting war after all these years. When is the last time you saw that story covered in the media?
2. South Korea-Japan tension is bad, but they are not going to fight either
Another chestnut of the 'Northeast Asia is sliding toward war' narrative is that Japan and South Korea can't stand each other, so conflict between them is possible. It is indeed true that South Korea and Japan barely talk at the diplomatic level. They do not work together, they don't really care to (unless the US simultaneously arm-twists), and the arguments over history and territory are indeed deep (see the new CSIS report on this whole tangle and how to overcome it; my own recent thoughts on this issue at The Interpreter are here).
But the formal disagreements cover up a fair amount of nonpolitical interchange.
As a professor in Korea, I see this all the time. My university in Busan regularly runs major exchange programs with Japanese universities in a way that we do not with schools in other countries, and this is common in the Korean university system. There are constant seminars and academic conferences on the difficulties of the Korea-Japan relationship. There are regular efforts to work jointly on history textbooks. I frequently meet students around Korea who study Japanese, went to school there, and so on. Both countries enjoy the other's cultural products too. Manga, film, video games, K-pop and J-pop flow back and forth. There is also a great deal of tourism between the two.
Little of this is covered in the stories about high-level tension. But there is a pretty sharp cleavage between the formal bureaucratic posturing and the reality of dense civil-society interchange. The mutual US relationship also restrains: it is all but impossible to imagine Korea and Japan using force against each other while both are allied to the US.
3. South Korea is not leaving the US alliance to cozy up to China
This is most preposterous of all the recent talk. The claim goes that Korea is torn between the US and China. It is dependent on China economically while dependent on the US for security. The Korean Government is divided into sinophile and pro-US factions. Xi's successful recent trip illustrates the 'Sinic temptation' of Korea. Korea will in time 'finlandise' and equivocate on liberalism and market economics.
Once again, there is a grain of truth here, but a lot of exaggeration and little evidence. It is true that Korea is torn between China and the US. But many states in Asia are. The big internal foreign policy debate for all of Asia's medium powers in the coming decades is precisely the same: how to benefit economically from China's explosive growth without getting pulled into its orbit politically. Not just South Korea, but North Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia all face the same dilemma.
I am not sure what the answer is. It is a difficult dilemma, and all these states are going to have to muddle through. Their defence establishments will fret about looming Chinese hegemony while their business lobbies will salivate over a rising Chinese middle class. There will be sharp intra-bureaucratic fights in all these countries as they balance these competing pressures.
Ideally they would work together to present a more united front to China, but the failure of anything like an Asian NATO, plus the failure of ASEAN to evolve from a club of government elites, suggest that each Asian middle power is going to tackle this more or less alone. That Korea is already at this point — because China has rapidly become its largest export market — does not make it unique. Indeed the intense focus on Korea 'finlandising' and abandoning the US alliance, penned by a conservative Japanese politician, suggests fairly typical Korean-Japanese sniping in order to win American favour against the other.
The other obvious reason Korea talks with China so much is that China has leverage over Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye may indeed be the 'sinophile' the Japanese are trying to paint her as, but there is an obvious reason: the road to Pyongyang goes through Beijing. Park has to flatter Xi a little (actually a lot, probably) if she is going to get any kind of movement on the North Korea nuclear issue, human rights, or unification. For these reasons, we should all be pleased about an improving South Korea-China relationship.
Northeast Asia is reasonably stable. Most of its players would rather get rich than fight. Most of its elites know that a war could easily spin out of control. Even the North Koreans know this. And the Park-Xi relationship ameliorates the one part of the status quo everyone does want to change — North Korean governance.
Despite decades of predictions that war was likely in East Asia, it has not happened. There's more reason for confidence than the media's routine alarmism would have you think.