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The year to come: Northeast Asian security in 2017

The consensus seems to be that that 2016 was terrible, but 2017 promises to be tougher.

A rooster sculpture with a Trump-esque hairstyle, celebrating the upcoming Chinese Year of the Rooster, December 2016. (Photo: Getty Images/Barcroft Media)
A rooster sculpture with a Trump-esque hairstyle, celebrating the upcoming Chinese Year of the Rooster, December 2016. (Photo: Getty Images/Barcroft Media)
Published 9 Jan 2017   Follow @Robert_E_Kelly

The consensus seems to be that 2016 was terrible (perhaps because your favorite celebrity died, or because you still have not processed that Donald Trump did actually get elected), but 2017 promises to be tougher. Trump will take office, and in East Asia, medium-term trend lines are broadly running in favor of China and North Korea. Trump will almost certainly do little good (he lacks the necessary patience, attention span, and industry) and has the potential to trip up badly. Nor will the region take its cues from him. Asia’s rise is increasingly distinct from the United States and its dynamics are increasingly independent of Washington influence. So here are four issue areas to watch in the new year:

Will East Asian elites take Trump seriously?

East Asia is generally a status quo-cleaving place, so it will be curious to see how regional leaders will respond to the orange theatricality of President Trump. Indeed, it will be curious to see if Trump himself calms down in office enough to get through an ASEAN or NATO summit without acting like a clown. So when Trump finally meets Xi Jinping and starts babbling in a press conference about, say, how he loves Chinese people because they make great takeout, especially sushi, how will the tetchy Chinese public react?

Regional elites will have to deal with him, if only for the obvious structural reason of US power. Trump, for all his ridiculousness, still represents the United States. But it is easy to foresee wars of words between the US and regional leaders (especially from China) breaking out if Trump lies or mischaracterises his meetings with them, as he did with his meeting with Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto during the campaign. At the very least, Trump’s staffers need to get him off Twitter when his presidency commences.

How to slow North Korea’s march toward nuclear weapons?

The big ‘tectonic’ issue of Asia in 2017 is the relentless pursuit of missile power by North Korea. After five nuclear tests (2006, 2009, 2013, and twice in 2016), it is now clear that North Korea has mastered the basic technology of crude atomic bombs. The yield of the last test exceeded that of the US bombs used against Japan in World War II. North Korea claimed that its fourth test was of a hydrogen bomb. This turned out to be a lie (the traditional fission bomb was perhaps ‘spiked’ with tritium), but it does indicate North Korea’s interest in continuing to move up the nuclear weapons chain. North Korea sits on its own uranium deposits, making sanctions a poor tool to slow this.

The next obvious step is missilisation. After dozens of tests, leader Kim Jong-un claimed in his 2017 New Year’s address that North Korea is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the obvious target of which would be the continental United States. Conservative voices are already calling for such a test to be shot down; I have long suspected that North Korea’s insistence on such an expansive nuclear program would bring calls for preemptive strikes. Throw Donald Trump’s combustible personality and hawkish cabinet selections into the mix, and it is easy to see the potential for escalation (so long as China continues to drag its feet on Pyongyang, as it has for 20 years).

Will Trump revive Taiwan as a major regional issue?

The recent re-surfacing of the Taiwan issue is a nice example of the shallow unpredictability that Trump brings to the region, and the problems his theatricality raises when taken from television into geopolitics. After his victory, Trump phoned the President of Taiwan, violating the informal ‘One China’ policy the US has traditionally pursued to calm Beijing’s nerves. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese hit back. Before even taking office, Trump has already picked a fight with the world’s soon-to-be largest economy. But as there was no follow-through, it is not clear why Trump did it.

The stunt was classic Trump: rule-breaking, attention-grabbing, shallow, poorly thought through, and lacking in any follow up. Two months later, nothing has come of it. Trump has dropped the issue on Twitter, failed to appoint any major China hawks to his cabinet, not spoken of his anti-Chinese tariff, and so on. So what was the point? To throw the Chinese off-guard? To what end?

The insouciance is striking. Surely, the US should stand with Taiwan if necessary. No one wants to see a nasty autocracy bully a small democracy. But it was Trump who picked this fight and for no clear purpose. This incident was not a precursor to a policy shift, just a media stunt.

The status quo, however uncomfortable, has served Taiwan well for many years. The open fiction of ‘One China’ allows all players to avoid a clash none of them want. This is not North Korea, where a military clash may well be necessary to protect South Korea. This could have been easily avoided.

Will South Korean foreign policy swing widely to the left after Park Geun-hye leaves office?

South Korea’s President has been partially impeached. The legislature voted to impeach her in December. The case is now before the country’s highest court, which must confirm the National Assembly’s (236-54) impeachment vote. Expectations here are that the Constitutional Court will concur, which would force a new election within sixty days. But even if it does not, the next scheduled South Korean presidential election is in late 2017.

Either way will see a vote, which the left is widely expected to win. President Park has badly damaged her conservative party, which is consequently in the process of splitting. Opinion polling suggests a strong (if not remarkable) presidential victory for the left. The regionally relevant factor here is that the South Korean left is still committed to the ‘Sunshine Policy’ of accommodation and engagement with North Korea. It is widely thought that this is the reason North Korea has been so quiet since the South Korean presidential scandal broke: Pyongyang is happy to see a conservative government fall and be replaced by the left. Left-wing candidates have suggested rolling back US missile defense in South Korea and intelligence sharing with Japan, and even re-opening the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Zone. This would be a major shift.

Bonus: What won’t happen

Perhaps the most important non-event of the year is an obvious Chinese challenge to the United States or Japan. Realists and conservatives of all stripes have predicted this for years, but China has been far more tactically cautious about challenging Western power than imperial Germany or the Soviet Union ever were. China has obviously learned from those cases. Regional trends are running in Beijing’s way. Why not just wait for the apple – a regional sphere of influence – to ripen and fall? There is no need to fight and risk a counter-balancing coalition.

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