Current Korean Strategy Debate in the Media: K Caught b/t the US and China

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cover_28151813This is a lengthy piece I just wrote for this week’s edition of Newsweek Korea. Here is the link for the Korean version; below is the English translation. That is the edition’s cover to the left. Needless to say, the guys who came up with that cover haven’t been to Amsterdam. Moving on… Here is that essay.

“Since the recent visit of US Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel to Japan, a rising discussion in South Korea (SK) turns on the country’s tight position between China and Japan. The looming possibility of a cold war in Asia between the US and China clearly puts Japan in the American camp and strands SK between Asia’s two largest economies. Newspaper editorials are calling for creative SK diplomacy to escape this tightening bind, but it is hard to see how even the finest SK statesmanship could pull this off. The constraints of geography – Korea cannot move itself somewhere else – limit its ability to avoid a Sino-US or Sino-US/Japanese face-off. And despite Korea’s rapid growth and modern military, it is still significantly outpaced by its neighbors. The US, China, and Japan are the world’s three largest economies, with Russia and North Korea (NK) lurking in the neighborhood as well. It would be very hard for SK to stand alone in such a dense environment (unless it unilaterally nuclearized). Once again, Korea is a ‘shrimp among whales.’

The Context of Sino-American Competition

As China grows economically – it surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy a few years ago – its perception of its interests is growing too. In the Pacific Rim, this translates into expansive Chinese claims on the South China Sea and increasingly loud insistence on Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. While China regularly claims its rise will be peaceful – and it generally has been – it is difficult to avoid substantial friction. Challengers who rise as quickly as China almost inevitably collide with status quo leaders like the United States. This is why China is often compared to Wilhelmine Germany. 19th century Germany also rose quickly and collided with status quo powers, most importantly Britain. In 1914, that rivalry turned to war, and WWI was the most horrific conflict the world had seen to date.

There is a widespread fear that something similar might happen in East Asia. China is rising fast, and it is very large. Its sheer bulk means that its rise unnerves everyone around it. America particularly worries that China intends to slowly displace it from East Asia, culminating in something like a Chinese ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in Asia. In 1823, US President James Monroe introduced the idea that no further European colonization or major intervention in the Western Hemisphere would be permitted without American consent. In effect, the US would wield a veto over the foreign policy behavior of Latin America, which became informally known as ‘America’s backyard.’ Although uncomfortably neocolonial, the Monroe Doctrine still remains informal US policy in the Western Hemisphere and is the root of American hegemony in that area. In US international relations thinking, there is a widespread fear that China may be pursuing something similar – regional East Asian dominance with the US pushed back to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, and local states like Japan and the ASEAN countries agreeing to broadly follow China’s lead on foreign policy. This is sometime likened to a re-establishment of the old Confucian Chinese ‘tribute system’ of the ‘Middle Kingdom.’

The result of these growing American concerns is the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ – a shift in US diplomatic attention and military resources to Asia, pushed hard by President Obama. So the US Defense Department claims that 60% of the US navy will be in the Pacific by 2020, and the US recently began stationing Marines in Australia. The Chinese fear this is ‘neo-containment,’ akin to the US response to the USSR, and it may well become that. But it is also a prudent shift in US attention. Europe absorbed much US commitment during the Cold War, and since 9/11, the Middle East too pulled the US in deeply. But now there is a growing recognition that Asia is probably a more important area for the US in the future than those regions. Asia’s economies are growing more rapidly. The European Union is peaceful and economically stagnant. The Middle East has become a terrible sink-hole of US power, and it takes little imagination to see that China is more important to the US than Israel or Iran.

In short, as Korean analysts have begun to perceive, the US and China are slowly sliding toward a cold war-style stand-off over the course of the western Pacific. The Chinese claim the Americans are interlopers in Asia; the Americans say they have been a Pacific power for more than a century. The Chinese are building aircraft carriers; the US is moving toward an integrated strategy to fight a maritime war against China called ‘AirSea Battle.’ China increasingly supports NK as a ‘buffer’ against the robust democracies of the US, South Korea and Japan; the Americans in response encourage Japan and South Korea to adopt missile defense systems. This spiral of tit-for-tat, move-and-countermove need not result in war. China and the US are not ‘fated’ to conflict. But a competition in the western Pacific seems likely in the coming decades, and countries caught in the middle, including SK, the ASEAN states, and Australia, will increasingly feel pressure to choose sides.

Japan, long China’s primary contestant for regional supremacy in Asia, has clearly done so already. No Asian state supports the US pivot as much as Japan, and the pivot and AirSea Battle are simply impossible for the US to conduct without Japan. Japan is the lynchpin of the US position in East Asia. Middle power US allies like SK, Taiwan, and Australia can help hold the line against possible Chinese expansion, but only Japan has the ability to genuinely challenge Chinese dominance. (Russia might, but it is far too weak in East Asia, as is India.) Hence the recent Hagel trip, and the American tolerance for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tough rhetoric. The budding Sino-US competition is in fact, a Sino-US/Japan competition. And this places SK right in the middle of the tension.

America and the Lack of a Korea-Japan Alliance

US strategic thinking on East Asia is dominated by China, and its semi-client, NK. America’s primary geopolitical concern is to hold back Chinese regional dominance long enough for China to accustom itself to good international behavior and, ideally, democratize. Until then the US will tend gloss over the distinctions and differences among its scattered Asian allies. That means that most Americans will assume that Korea and Japan are allies and will cooperate on US goals regarding China and NK.

While the Korean public is deeply suspicious of Japanese motives, most Americans are not. The notion, widespread in Asia, that Japan is frequently on the cusp of re-militarization and renewed aggression in Asia, is not shared in the US. Indeed, American officials and commentators tend to find such suggestions fantastical. Similarly, the Japanese-Korean maritime disputes are simply not seen as the existential crises the Korean public and media insist they are. That Korea would use force against Japan over Dokdo, for example – which President Roh is now known to have endorsed if necessary – would strike most Americans as exceptionally myopic. That is, most Americans would be shocked to know US allies right next to China and NK were fighting among themselves. Americans are broadly unaware of the Dokdo dispute and would assume it pales next to the looming rise of China and the North Korean menace.

Koreans find this endlessly frustrating in my experience here. In my classes and at conferences, I take regular questions and complaints from Koreans about why the US does not discipline Japan, why the US does not discourage Japanese visits to the Yasukuni shrine, why the US does not side with Korea on Dokdo, and so on. There are several answers:

First, as noted above, Americans do not see Japan as some kind of incipient fascist state, but as an ally, in fact, the US ally in Asia. Koreans dislike to hear to this, but it is simply undeniable that Japan is America’s ‘anchor ally’ in Asia. Korea cannot be that, no matter how many Koreans tell me so. Perhaps after unification, but until then, the Americans simply will not take up Korean claims against Japan.

Second, Korean-Japanese differences seem minor to Americans given China’s rise and the NK nuclear and missile programs. Indeed, a common American response to Japanese-Korean tension is also frustration: why aren’t they cooperating on the big regional issues?

Third, as an ally to both Korea and Japan, the US cannot wade into their disputes, much less impose a settlement. Ultimately, a Korean-Japanese deal must have domestic support in both countries. An American imposed agreement would be about as useful as US forced diplomacy between the Israelis and Palestinians has been. Indeed, the great irony of this may be that the US alliance with Korea and Japan reduces the incentives of both sides to find solutions. In the May 20, 2013 issue of Newsweek Korea, I argued that the mutual US alliance allows nationalists and maximalists on both sides to make outrageous claims and statements but face little punishment. There is little pushing Korea and Japan to genuinely make concessions.

Koreans may wish for a more nuanced American picture of East Asia. And certainly the many Americans working in this area professionally do know of these differences. The US has done a reasonable job of tempering Korean-Japanese tensions over the years. And this effort is matched by the many Korean and Japanese foreign policy intellectuals who do see that Dokdo and memories of WWII divide Korea and Japan to the benefit of NK and China. But until China changes, until it is no longer a fast-growing, but human rights-violating, one-party state without elections, US attention will remain focused on it. It is worth recalling how much Korea and Japan do in fact have in common compared to China – democracy, capitalism, liberal freedoms, human rights, open societies. To Americans, Korea and Japan have far more in common than Koreans and Japanese themselves may see.

Despite the American interest in a Korean-Japanese rapprochement, it is generally unwanted, especially in Korea. Distrust runs too deep. At minimum, some kind of negotiated solution to Dokdo would be required. Ironically Japan would likely accept Korean sovereignty over the islets but for the precedent it would set. Japan is tied up in two similar disputes with Russia and China. As such, ceding Dokdo unilaterally to Korea, which the Japanese public would probably accept on its own terms, would spark Russian and Chinese pressure for the same. Given that both are authoritarian great powers with poor relations with Japan, Japan cannot be seen as knuckling under to their pressure. As such, Japan remains insistent on ‘Takeshima.’

Similarly, there would need to be some kind of final deal on wartime issues. This too is unlikely, as these are as much moral as legal issues. Korean demands for compensation turn less on monetary awards than recognition. Koreans seek a German-style acceptance of guilt by Japan, which Japanese conservatives are simply unwilling to give. Indeed heavy American pressure on Japan regarding this point, an idea I often hear in conversation here, would likely lead to a US-Japan rupture rather than Japanese acceptance of war-guilt. The Japanese right simply does not accept the Korean and Chinese interpretation of the war, and no amount of American arm-twisting will change that.

Keeping America in Asia

In lieu of a Korean-Japanese settlement, the American pivot then becomes central to both. Both are reliant on the US for security. Both have a love-hate relationship with the Americans. Korean anti-Americanism comes in waves but always seems to fall apart on the realities of Korean security: without the US alliance, Korea would probably need to spend triple what it does on defense and double the length of military service terms. Japan too would spend heavily on defense and likely go nuclear.

But the American pivot is not a foregone conclusion, because America’s Asian allies need American power a lot more than the US needs them. At least four factors threaten to derail the pivot and force Japan and SK back toward each other:

First, domestic support in the US for the pivot is restricted to elites. US public opinion on Asia is poorly formed, and there is no obvious constituency in the US for the pivot. Neither American political party’s coalition is calling for it. American business, burned repeatedly by mercantilism and trade friction in Asia, is not a loud voice. The business coalition that supported regular trade relations with China in the 1990s has since fallen apart. Nor is there a vocal ethnic bloc of Asian-American voters calling for the pivot either. This is a Washington, not popular, project.

Second, Americans are more ignorant of Asia than other part of the world bar sub-Saharan Africa. Europe, Latin America, and Russia all approximate Western civilization. Even Islam is a monotheistic religion Americans can somewhat understand, and Middle Eastern issues activate deeply held Christian religious beliefs in the US. By contrast Asian religions, social traditions, and customs are far more foreign. Confucianism, Buddhism, Asian writing scripts, food preparation, traditional clothing and music, bowing, ancestor veneration, and so on are so cultural alien to most Americans, that I am highly doubtful Americans will culturally empathize enough with Asia to sustain the pivot.

Third, a heavy American commitment to Asia is less necessary for US goals than in the Middle East. In Asia, the US has many strong, functional democratic allies; the US can ‘buck-pass’ China and NK to local allies such as Japan or India. In the Middle East, the US has only Israel. Deep religious commitments tie the US to the Middle East and will inhibit the pivot to Asia, as the Syrian conflict is doing right now.

Fourth, US budget constraints and military over-extension limit the pivot. American finances are a mess, and more than a decade of war in the Middle East since 9/11 has exhausted the US public and its military. The American people are unlikely to support a major US military build-up that provokes an arms race with China.

The outcome of this crippled pivot for Korea is to then push it back, however unsought, toward Japan. The US is likely to continue to seek a Korea-Japanese rapprochement if only to relieve the burden on the US of confronting China.

Korea’s Choices

This is likely a frustrating analysis for Koreans. It places Korea in the second tier of US allies in the region, a position that deeply rankles Korean pride but will not change soon. It suggests an American indifference to the details of the Korean-Japanese dispute and a blunt American insistence that Korea ‘get over it,’ whereas many Koreans hold deep-seated grudges about Japan, Dokdo, the war, and so on. President Park has made it clear she will not meet with Abe because of his nationalist coalition, but it is also clear from Secretary Hagel’s visit to Japan that America does not mind some nationalism if it encourages Japan to carry more of the load in responding to China. Finally, this analysis effectively paints SK into the American-Japanese camp in what many suspect is a zero-sum competition between China and the US.

Korea’s geographic position, right between Japan and China, makes this almost impossible to avoid unfortunately. In past Sino-Japanese competitions, Korea was a central prize. A 19th century Prussian advisor to Meiji Japan once referred to Korea as ‘a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan.’ This has not changed. China openly refers to NK as a ‘buffer’ and tacitly supports NK’s continued existence. While China would prefer a divided Korea in any case, the heart of its opposition to Korean unity is the possible stationing of US forces in Korea near the Chinese border. Whether Korea likes it or not, China, the US, and Japan are all already treating Korea as if it were a part of the larger Sino-US competition. Hence China’s warning to Korea recently not to join a US-led missile defense program, even though its aimed at NK, for fear of severing crucial economic ties with China.

Is there a way out for Korea? I doubt it. SK is an encircled middle power. Indeed, it may be the only middle power on the planet bordered by three great powers, or four if one includes the US. This means that it almost inevitably gets pulled into the geopolitics of the larger states around it. Worse, Korea is divided, and the US provides substantial security assistance – ‘extended deterrence’ – to SK against NK. Hence, it would be politically untenable for the SK-US alliance if SK simultaneously asked for US help with NK but then refused to side with it against China in a conflict. Should that occur, the US would almost certainly exit Korea permanently.

I see three possible Korean options, all with strong downsides:

First, SK simply accepts that it is in the American-Japanese camp in a brewing East Asian cold war. Given Korea’s location, it will be nearly impossible to finesse US-Chinese differences indefinitely. Unlike countries like Indonesia or Australia, who are far enough away to draw some distance from the Sino-US competition, Korea and its demilitarized zone are ground-zero for the US-China split. The upside is the retention of the US security guarantee and a continuing association with liberal democracies like the US, Japan, and Australia. China may be SK’s biggest trading partner, but it clearly does not share Korea’s liberal, democratic values. Do Koreans really want to choose a repressive one-party state over the liberal camp? The downside though would be Chinese alienation and continued support for NK, plus Korean acceptance of Japan as ally, an infuriating ‘concession’ for the Korean public.

Second, Korea can continue to duck and weave between the US and China to forestall becoming a front-line anti-Chinese state for the US. This has the obvious upside of allaying China, a huge, potentially militarily threatening neighbor. It may also help China feel confident enough to one day let NK go and facilitate, rather than obstruct, unification. The downside of course is regular tension with the Americans and Japanese. Korea was frequently bullied by its larger neighbors in the past. The American alliance inhibits this and reinforces Korean sovereignty against local challengers. But conveniently, the alliance also costs SK little political control, because the Americans are too geographically and culturally distant to really dominate Korea. A powerful ally who is very far away is a great arrangement for Korea, and every Korean president since Syngman Rhee has defended the American alliance. It is not clear if authoritarian China will respect Korean sovereignty the same way.

Third, Korea could try to go it alone. This harkens to the idea occasionally discussed on the Korean left that Korea could be bridge or mediator between the US and China. That was always a somewhat self-congratulatory fantasy. Great powers do not let middle powers arbitrate their disputes, and both China and the US ignored that initiative. But SK is now wealthy enough that it could engage in sustained drive for heavily armed neutralism, akin to Switzerland’s centuries-old grand strategy. Surrounded by much larger states who might easily swallow it, Switzerland has adopted a rigorous neutralism over many centuries. And it has armed itself heavily to defend that. Korea might pursue the same choice. Korea spends only 2.7% of GDP on defense. It could spend vastly more, expand conscription to include females and longer service terms, and develop nuclear weapons – all options pursued by Israel which is also a small, surrounded sate. The upside would be the exclusion of Korea from the brewing Sino-US competition, a possible decline in tension with NK as US forces left the peninsula, and freedom to pursue a more explicitly anti-Japanese foreign policy. The downside would be the massive expense and social cost, and the risk of geopolitical isolation.

None of these options are ideal. They reflect the central, centuries-old Korean grand strategy quandary: how to vouchsafe Korean sovereignty in a dense neighborhood of much larger countries? There is no obvious answer, but I would guess that Korea will drift in the coming decades between choice one and two, before being eventually pushed into choice one.

Filed under: China, Japan, Korea (South), United States

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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