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Security challenges in Northeast Asia

By Márton Ugrósdy
Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT)
September 11, 2019

As part of the Japan Up Close visitor program, I had the opportunity to engage several key decision-makers in the Japanese foreign and security policy community. My professional interests lie with US foreign policy, and due to the fact that the Pacific Basin is increasingly becoming the next major theater of great power rivalry, I tried to understand the special relationship that connects Japan to the United States, especially in the context to two regional challenges: the changing role of China, as well as North Korea.

North Korea remains one of the major threats to Japanese national security, according to some of my interlocutors this threat might be on the existential level, especially as the government of the DPRK did not give up their plans to build intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. One of the major objectives of the Japanese government is to push for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, this is one of the prerequisites of normalizing the relationship with the leaders in Pyongyang. The feasibility of achieving this status is however questionable as North Korea is already a nuclear power and it is very hard to find incentives that would lead the Northern government to give up on its nuclear weapons once they had produced them (and at the same time, no one can deny the DPRK the knowledge and experience they have accumulated in building their own bombs).

The regional role of DPRK is something upon which my partners did not agree upon; although most of them agree that the ultimate goal for Mr. Kim is survival, in the meantime ICBMs are offensive and very expensive weapons (more expensive than what the DPRK can afford). What leverage China has over Mr. Kim is something upon which there was no consensus during my visit: some argued that Mr. Kim is his own master and he is wittingly playing the Chinese leaders, while others highlighted how China is using the DPRK to tie down significant US troops and resources while it enhances its own military capabilities to be able to challenge US dominance of the high seas.

The second major issue in the Japanese – DPRK relationship is the fate of the abducted Japanese citizens, most of whom have been missing for decades now. As the Japanese government does not have any reliable information on their whereabouts, this remains a point that has to be addressed substantially before we can expect any change in the bilateral relationship.

At the same time, my interlocutors have indicated that Japan sees a true economic opportunity in DPRK: the country has an under-utilized labor force, some natural resources, and offers good investment opportunities if it possible to find a modus vivendi with the current North Korean government. In order to make Japanese companies consider investing in North Korea, the two issues I have mentioned earlier have to be addressed, while at the same time the issue of restitution of Japanese interests seized during and after the Korean war has to be settled. After these objectives are met, according to my partners Japanese companies might start to invest in the DPRK regardless that who is on power. Mr. Kim, who is known to engage in a serious drive to modernize the economy of his country (based on the personal comparisons he has thanks to the extensive amount of time he has spent in European boarding schools) could very well use Japanese assistance to achieve this goal.

Looking at the North Korea equation, Japan has to count on South Korea as well. There is a minimum amount of trust between Tokyo and Seoul, mostly because the two capital’s excessive reliance on US military assistance, however Japan assesses the Moon-presidency to be very inward-looking.

Japan has to rely in the United States to manage the situation of the Korean peninsula, however the main objective of the US is rather to contain and manage a rising China in the Pacific Basin and beyond. The dynamics of the negotiations between the US and DPRK on nuclear disarmament have experienced some spectacular twists and turns as Donald Trump took over the US presidency, and Japan remains critical of recent developments. Most of my interlocutors highlighted how Mr. Kim has stepped up to be seen as a dealmaker rather than a ruthless communist dictator by the Western media, which is quite an achievement from his side.

The role of China on the Korean peninsula is an issue that divided my partners: those in the ranks of public administration were of course more reserved on what are the objectives of President Xi by supporting Mr. Kim, while those in the think tank community were more blunt in their assessment and did not save any pleasantries to describe the complex web of interests. A think tank argument was that China regards North Korea as a buffer zone to keep US forces away, but should the US withdraw (which President Trump allegedly considered from time to time), the temptation for China to finish up the Korean war might become too high. At the meantime, China is not so much interested in Korean reunification, as the costs of this project would be to high even for Beijing to carry, while a unified Korea could easily become a middle power in China’s immediate neighborhood, and that is something that Beijing does not want to see at it turns its attention towards the high seas and the developing parts of the World. The Communist Party of China is divided internally on the DPRK as well: the party leaders of the provinces adjacent or close to North Korea are more interested in cooperation due to the possible profits they can make through trade.

When it comes to Asian security, China is obviously the elephant in the room. There is major strategic dilemma in Japan about what to do about the giant neighbor. On the one hand, there is a pressing need for more economic cooperation, as China is Japan’s largest trading partner, and many Japanese companies have operations in China, therefore there has to be at least a working relationship between the two governments. On the other hand, there are some security-related concerns about how to deal with the increasing Chinese military, especially the PLA Navy, which is partly conducting A2AD operations, and sometimes challenge the freedom of navigation, especially on the sea routes which are so vital to keep the Japanese economy running.

While one would imagine that China has the upper hand in this relationship, Japan also has an advantage, thanks to Prime Minister Abe’s image as the “Trump-whisperer”. This is an underrated advantage of Japan, since – at least according to some Japanese assessments – many senior CPC leaders do not believe that President Xi is able to stand up to President Trump and can be a meaningful partner to the US leader. This erodes the internal standing of Mr. Xi within the CPC and upsets the power balance within the party too. The desire to cooperate with Japan is very visible from the Chinese side especially as the trade war with the US is having its ups and downs. High-level meetings between the two leaders became very frequent (and the fact that PM Abe’s position remains strong and he is on course to become the longest serving PM is Japanese history).

China also needs Japan to boost its image in the developing word. President Xi’s flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative has suffered from an image problem as a few countries defaulted on their Chinese debts, losing sovereignty over some of their most important national assets, and thanks to this, pro-Chinese governments have suffered electoral setbacks across Asia. More and more developing countries are becoming even more careful with Chinese government loans, so having an outsider take part in the BRI projects might offer an opportunity to decouple the concerns that have been raised in recent years. Participating in BRI would offer a good opportunity for Japanese companies as well, since there is an enormous amount of money at play. However, Japan puts special emphasis on what Tokyo calls as Quality Infrastructure, projects which are of high quality, serving the true economic needs of the countries who build them, and are sustainable in the long run as well. At the same time, Quality Infrastructure is something that drives Japanese ODA efforts too, meaning that the dilemma whether cooperation or competition is defining the Japan-China relationship is very visible in this field as well.

Regardless of the pressure of economic cooperation, Japan clearly sees China as its main rival, however Tokyo also knows very well that China has much more funds to develop its military, therefore military balance can only be achieved through US assistance. Japan will continue to develop its navy and air force in order to control its own territorial waters (some parts of which are regularly challenged by different Chinese vessels). At this time, China cannot achieve its two major maritime goals at the same time as Beijing has neither the money nor the know-how to support a blue water navy and a serious coastal defense at the same time, but if the Chinese economy continues to grow and the PLA Navy will be better trained, this might change. According to my partners, the main challenge is not in the military sphere, but rather the Chinese exploitation of natural resources and lower environmental standards in the East China Sea, and no battleship can help to change this approach.

PM Abe has laid down three principles that define the Japan-China relationship: 1) cooperation instead of competition, 2) avoiding mutual threats and 3) fair and free trade. At this time, according to the Japanese assessment China meets neither of these principles.

China and North Korea remain the two most important challenges for Japan as far as regional security is concerned. While China based on trade and investment statistics should be a reliable partner of Japan, competition and military rivalry are defining the relationship of the two countries, which is intriguing especially as China is trying to use Japan as a proxy to manage Trump in the long run. A DPRK is still regarded as a wild card, however in the case of settling the current issues – many of which are longstanding and unresolved – Japan would be very interested in taking part of North Korea’s economic transformation. All in all, my visit to Japan has helped me to better understand the complex web of interests, concerns and objectives that define the security architecture of Northeast Asia.

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