Future of US-led security ties in East Asia
Kim Jung-un driving wedges between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul
By Tarik Oguzlu
On Sunday, Sep. 3, 2017, the Pyongyang regime tested its first hydrogen bomb as part of its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons capability.
On the heels of its two intercontinental missile tests in July and the latest one in late August, that flew over the northern part of Japan, the latest provoked a huge reaction all over the world due to the fact that North Korea now has the capability of annihilating a large chunk of the territories of its enemies with a bomb that appears to be ten times more powerful than the one it blasted in September 2016.
Amid all the furor and strong protests demonstrated against this experiment, what seems to be at stake is whether the United States is in full harmony with its treaty allies, Japan and South Korea, as regards the Pyongyang regime.
Of note is that U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis seems to have unequivocally underlined the strong security bonds among these three countries.
He made it clear that any North Korean attack against U.S. territories, military bases and allies in East Asia would be reciprocated severely. This appears to have partially allayed the concerns of allies as to whether the U.S. is still committed to their security.
Yet, the way President Donald Trump handled the latest crisis still suggests that suspicions linger over American commitment.
On the eve of the North Korean hydrogen bomb test, Trump expressed his uneasiness with the free trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea, for he thinks this serves South Korean interests much more than his country.
To Trump, South Korea employs protectionist trade measures against the U.S. while on the other hand pushing the American administration to further open its market to South Korean products in the name of preserving the decades-long liberal economic world order.
Another reason Trump feels uneasy with South Korea is the approach that the new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, appears to have adopted towards the Pyongyang regime with a view to helping find a more liberal and diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
President Moon, believing in the merits of the Sunshine diplomacy and cognizant of the fact that any military solution to the dispute would expose his country to physical destruction at the hands of the Pyongyang regime, strives to find a peaceful solution.
South Korea’s main dilemma is to strike the right balance between its security relationship with the U.S. -- its main security provider since the Korean War -- and China, its main trading partner. China wants the Seoul regime not to deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System) in its territory fearing that its presence will dilute China’s nuclear deterrence capability as regards the United States.
Despite lately inching closer to the more hawkish American position by hosting the annual military exercises with the U.S. and despite responding to the latest hydrogen bomb test by taking some military actions and adopting a more bellicose language against the Kim regime, the priority of the South Korean government is still to help maintain the current stability on the peninsula by contributing to the alleviation of the crisis through diplomatic means.
Whenever President Trump accuses South Korea of free-riding on U.S. security commitments and questions the logic of the free trade agreement between the two countries, anti-Americanism increases among South Koreans.
Seoul also seems to be at loggerheads with Tokyo concerning the transformation of Japan’s security understanding from a more civilian-pacifist tone to a more military and hawkish character under the reign of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the last couple of years.
Despite the fact that both Japan and South Korea see themselves as legitimate members of the Western international community, consider the continuation of the post-war era liberal world order to be in their national interests, and host a substantial number of American troops and military facilities in their territories as part of their decades-long security relationship with the U.S., the majority of South Koreans as well as politicians still resent the years of Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula and Japanese atrocities committed during the Second World War.
There have recently been a number of attempts, particularly initiated by Japan, at mending the fences between the two countries, yet the image of Japan as a potential bully, if not an outright security threat, still looms large in South Korea. Seoul would not feel happy if Tokyo responded to North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles tests with military instruments and decided to develop its own nuclear deterrent, fearing that Japan can no longer rely on American nuclear protection.
Given the complexity of the security alliance between the U.S., Japan and South Korea, it is not difficult to guess what the Kim Jung-un regime intends to achieve by testing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles continuously: to test the limits of the alliance by driving wedges between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.
The increasing possibility of the Trump administration punishing North Korea through surgical strikes, particularly following the latest hydrogen bomb test, does not only create fissures in its relations with Japan and South Korea but also escalates the tension between the U.S. and China, which might potentially end up with the infamous “Thucydides’ Trap” that eminent American scholar Graham Allison details in his latest book on the future of Chinese-American relations.
Though China, along with Russia, strongly condemned the latest hydrogen bomb test and sided with other members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in the first week of August in putting harsher economic embargos on the Pyongyang regime, Beijing is not happy to see the Trump administration increase the pressure on China to find a solution to the crisis and put Chinese economic and strategic interests in jeopardy in the name of further isolating North Korea.
Any regime change in North Korea, the influx of millions of North Koreans to China, the unification of the Korean peninsula under South Korean leadership, the adoption of nuclear capabilities by South Korea and Japan, the deployment of THAAD on South Korean territory, and the strengthening of American security preponderance in East Asia are all anathema to Chinese leadership.
Yet the Chinese are also aware of the possibility that unless the North Korean regime is deterred from further developing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capabilities and continually testing them at short intervals, the specter of a military solution is rising on the horizon.
If or when the Trump administration does strike North Korea, they will target only military facilities, but no one can know where it would stop and whether it would result in a military standoff between the U.S. and China, which is the nightmare scenario all countries should pray will not happen.
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