East Asia Compass

China, Japan, Korea and the US: Region at Crossroads

06 Jan, 2014    ·   4235

Dr Sandip Mishra highlights the evolving relations in the region and their implications 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinjo Abe visited Yasukuni shrine on 26 December last year and the visit invited usual condemnations from China and South Korea. The US also reacted by saying it ‘disappointing’ and would lead to ‘exacerbate tensions’ in the region. However, Japanese posturing has been relentless and on the New Year day, Japanese Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo had another visit to the shrine. The tension and mistrust in East Asia has been escalating in recent years and Japan, China and North Korea have shown uncompromising intent to compete rather than concede and cooperate on the issues of mutual disagreements. China has recently declared its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) unilaterally, which goes beyond its contest in East China Sea with Japan over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. North Korea is also going through domestic power struggle and restructuring of equations with its closest ally China. In this problematic interstate relations in the region, the Japanese right-wing assertions in domestic politics and its impact on foreign policy has further complicated the security calculus of the region.
The East Asian region is closely connected in economic, educational and cultural spheres but there is a huge trust deficit in security arena and it poses a grave challenge for further economic exchanges and integration of the region. There are assurances that the tension among these countries would not move beyond a certain limit as economic interdependent would bring in moderation in their behaviours. However, the argument may not sustainable beyond a point. If the escalation of tension among these countries could not be checked, it may derail and disrupt their cooperation in every field. 
The role of the US is considered to be important as it has leverage to pacify Japan and constructively engage China to make the region more stable. The US could also convey China to contain North Korean provocative behaviour as well as sock-observe any instability in North Korea. Washington has been trying to reach out Beijing through its diplomatic channel but there is no indication that it has been equally keen in pacifying Japan. The Japanese aggressive posturing, even if not openly appreciated by the US, has been granted silent consent by the US and it is quite unsettling for not only China but also South Korea. Japan has been cleverly silenced Washington by remaining fully committed to the US alliance and its interests in the regional politics. For example, the day after the Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, Okinawa governor agreed to relocate the US military base at Futenma to near by Henoko. It was characterised as ‘critical milestone’ by the US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. It appears that the US is more interested in its narrow national interests in the region and it does not have any serious objection with Japanese aggressive posturing. Probably, the US thinks that an assertive Japan would be a buffer against the rise of Chinese influence in the region. Many scholars relate American concession to Japan with its strategy of ‘Asian pivot’. There are also speculations that probably the US does not have enough diplomatic leverage over Japan to stop its aggressive posturing and so it has decided to go along with Japanese plan of things rather than dictating its own terms.
Whatever be the reason, the complacency on the part of the US would definitely make it difficult for Washington have any credible and consequential engagement with China. China would not be satisfied by the use of words like ‘disappointment’ and it would definitely chart out its own course of actions, which might be detrimental for the regional security environment. The Chinese announcement to have its own ADIZ could be better understood in the light of above dynamics. Furthermore, the US conceding and accommodative behaviour vis-à-vis Japan poses a difficult question to South Korea, which is equally close ally of the US in the region. Even though, South Korea enjoys security guarantee from the US, it has to rethink about its own security equations in the neighbourhood. South Korea is challenged by a belligerent and ‘unpredictable’ North Korea as well as an aggressive and uncompromising Japan. Seoul tried to forge a cooperative relationship with China in variety of areas when South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited Beijing in mid-2013. Although, it does not mean that South Korea would abandon its old ally- the US, in near future but continuous Japanese aggressive posturing and insufficient American attempt to prohibit it, may force it to review its relations with the US. 
Thus, the East Asian region is at a crossroad and a vicious cycle of threatening and uncompromising behaviours have been posing huge risk of conflict. No single country could be blamed for present escalations and there have been chains of actions and reactions. It would be pertinent to see how soon all the stakeholders realise that the process must be stopped collectively or it may lead to a point of no return