The Northeast Asian region is undergoing a major transition in its order—the fundamental norms and values by which states interact with one another. This order is shifting along three different dimensions—security, economics, and identity. Major challenges to previous patterns are occurring in all three of these but in addition, developments in each frequently are in tension with developments in the others.
On the security and economic fronts, the previously hostile relations that defined state-to-state interactions under bipolarity ended with China’s normalization of its diplomatic relationship with such previous ideological adversaries as the U.S., Japan and South Korea. For most of period from the 1980s into the mid-to-late 2000s security and economic relations across the region were tranquil if not cordial. National leaders focused on geoeconomics as cross border trade and investment became shared national targets and countries interpreted most of their interactions as positive sum, rather than zero sum, as had previously been the case. The major exception to this involved North Korea with its hostile rhetoric, expanded missile and nuclear programs and its resistance to engaging with other regional players on economically.
In addition to North Korea’s behavior, this positive picture of tranquility was also upended by a return of issues of identity and historical interpretations. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), faced with the challenges to its legitimacy as a result of Tiananmen and its aftermath, began a concerted effort to enhance its legitimacy through nationalist campaigns, mostly targeting fascism generally and Japan and its wartime actions more specifically. Glorified in the process was the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which was portrayed as the victor over Japanese army with its brutal actions in much of the country and the CCP which was painted as the only major force standing up to a reversion by Japan to its “natural” militaristic roots.
Conservative Japanese leaders in turn, no longer shackled by a politically muscular left, began shifting to the right with efforts to whitewash Japanese actions during World War II, carrying out numerous official visits to the contentious Yasukuni Shrine, and denying official support for the comfort women system which involved sex slavery for Japanese troops. Party leaders in the Liberal Democratic Party became increasingly tied to, and responsive to the ideological prompts of, right wing groups like Nippon Kaigi.
In turn, South Korean leaders have began reasserting nationalist themes particularly in regard to Japan. The new mood represents a stark contrast to the highly cooperative interactions that surrounded the Kim-Obuchi meeting in 1998 and the joint hosting of the 2002 World Cup. Recently, the maritime dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima has become a recurring theme in the deterioration of bilateral relations. So too have issues of historical interpretation surrounding Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945), the comfort women system during the war, and what South Korea claims were asymmetrical benefits to Japan from the 1965 normalization of relations between the two countries.
The United States has sought to shape these emerging behaviors in ways that seem prepared to adjust the current order but in ways that seek to balance at least four competing goals: 1) retain a high degree of U.S. influence across the region; 2) continue virtually total territorial movement within the region for its military forces; 3) keep its alliance structure intact and where possible forge multilateral ties among current bilateral partners; 4) retain such prevent changes in the current status quo via force and military action; and 5) though rarely acknowledged outside military planning circles, to keep the region free from “any peer competitor.” This last point is a continual goad to China which has chosen to interpret a host of U.S. actions linked to the first four goals as little more than mechanisms to impede “China’s rise” and its efforts to “end 100 years of humiliation.”
It is within this complicated and evolving matrix that recent events in North Korea need to be considered. For the U.S. the North provides an ongoing and increasing threat to any future regional order based on non-military solutions to problems. With Japan and South Korea often at odds, it is also difficult for the two of them to provide a united front in dealing with North Korean nuclear and conventional threats. But both the United States and China must also view the situation in North Korea though the broader lenses of their own bilateral relations and the shifting regional order. As is widely noted while the U.S. gives highest priority to denuclearization in its policies toward the North, China has traditionally given more weight to regime stability and a return to the Six Party Talks. But the fifth nuclear test and the DPRK’s unwillingness to consider denuclearization or a return to the terms agreed to in its 2007 agreement, Chinese policymakers appear to be growing in frustration with its once close ally. Signing on to a rather stringent set of United Nations sanctions now appears to isolate the North in ways that are new.
It remains of course to see how effectively, if at all, the sanctions are enforced and how deeply they affect DPRK behavior. Certainly U.S. analysts put the highest value on Chinese governmental crackdowns on the steady flow of goods across the China-DPRK border and the multiple ways in which banned goods still find their ways into DPRK elite circles. Given the increasing autonomy from official government oversight of Chinese-DPRK business networks, it remains to be seen if the sanctions will in fact begin to pinch policymakers in the North sufficiently severely as to shift their priorities.
T.J. Pempel, Jack M. Forcey of Political Science in U.C. Berkeley's Department of Political Science