Year in Review, 2016: Top 5 Events of Northeast Asian Security

Image result for trump abe

If that thrilling post title doesn’t pull you away from It’s a Wonderful Life or Sound of Music, I don’t know what will.

This essay is a local re-post of my op-ed posted with the Lowy Institute this month. The pic is President-Elect Donald Trump in his first meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It well captures what a banana republic amateur hour set will be running the US shortly, which makes Trump the number one Asian security story of the year. That is Trump with his daughter and son-in-law business partners, but no US-side translator or Japan expert, because heh, what really matters is getting Trump Tower Tokyo built…

My top 5 security events for the region in 2016 follow the jump, but honestly you’re probably a lot more interested in my picks for the worst TV show and movie of the year.



As the year winds down, it is time to look back on the biggest stories in the always-tense northeast Asian region. End of year annual lists can be fairly ridiculous, but also a somewhat useful, if soft, methodological tool in that they force a ranking or prioritization on events. Events that may seem like a big deal at the time, blow over, while other reveal themselves as more critical. In that vein here are the five biggest regional shifts for the year 2016:

1. The Election of Donald Trump

Asian security has turned, since World War II, on the American regional commitment. During the Cold War, the US and Japan informally held communism at bay. When China partially defected on ‘socialist fraternity’ in the 1970s, it informally lined-up with the American ‘hegemonist’ it would today like to leave the region. As the region’s balance of power shifted after the Cold War, the US again played a dampening role, this time on China’s regional ambitions. Smaller states in the region have generally supported America’s post-Vietnam footprint here for that reasons.

All of which makes erratic, theatrical Donald Trump a hugely destabilizing prospect. This is a business-like region where elites tend toward dark suits, grey hair, and bland seriousness. Trump, right down to his orange skin and penchant for flamboyant lying, is the antithesis of this demeanor.

And indeed, the buffoonery and destabilization have already started. Trump brought family business members, but not a US-side translator, to his first meeting with Shinzo Abe. He has already managed to provoke China in way far more serious than he probably realizes with the Taiwan phone call. By contrast, had Hillary Clinton been elected, that would not even be in this top five.

2. The Impeachment of the South Korean President

Park Geun Hye was impeached by the South Korean parliament on December 9. The vote was badly lopsided against her (234-56), and her approval ratings are at an astonishing(ly bad) 4%. South Korea’s high court, the Constitutional Court, must now take up the case within the next 180 days. I believe they will impeach her, forcing a new presidential election within sixty days, which the left will almost certainly win. (My thoughts on ‘Choi-gate’ are here, here, and here.)

The left’s victory will likely re-orient South Korean foreign policy. The left here continues to believe in the Sunshine policy, a policy of engagement and dialogue (or appeasement to conservatives) with North Korea. It continues to oppose intelligence sharing with Japan (even though South Korea benefits much more than Japan from that). And it continues to oppose THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense. The latter two were pushed through by Park just prior to the explosion of ‘Choi-gate.’ If the left wins the presidential election by a wide enough margin, it may re-open those decisions.

Finally, the leading candidate on the left, Moon Jae In, has now begun speaking of South Korea taking a ‘balancing’ position between China and North Korea, and the US and Japan. This will almost certainly re-open US alliance issues, as an American defense commitment to South Korea is politically unsustainable, especially in the Trump era, if South Korea’s rejects its position as an ally.

3. The Two North Korean Nuclear Tests

It is practically a requirement that any such list include North Korean shenanigans and hijinks. Would the DPRK be what it is if it were content to act like a normal state? This year’s outrage was two nuclear tests in just nine months. The first on January 6 was approximately 10 kilotons; the second, on September 9, was approximately 30 KT. The yield of that last test means Pyongyang now has a weapon more powerful than those the Americans used against Japan.

Two tests in nine months breaks North Korea’s pattern of roughly one test every three years. It is unclear what signal the second test was to send. Perhaps it was simple defiance. The fourth nuclear test provoked a tough new sanctions package, so perhaps the fifth test is to inform us that no matter how much we sanction them, they’ll just keep charging ahead.

The last test also finally revealed the open secret that no one seriously expects North Korea to denuclearize, when the American director of national intelligence admitted as much. Denuclearization is formal US policy, but I cannot think of anyone in the North Korea analyst community, hawk or dove, who thinks it will happen. North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state whether we like it or not.

4. South China Sea Cat-and-Mouse Ramps Up

This is not exactly in northeast Asia, but it involves China and likely will suck in Japan in the future. China’s expansion into the South China Sea has been twenty years in the works, but this year, the zero-sum nature of the tussle over control starkly emerged with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s defection on the shaky coalition to push-back on Chinese control.

Ironically, it was the Philippines which brought the issue to the Hague, where it won a major ruling in its favor in July. But in October, newly-elected Duterte jetted off to Beijing to apparently make a deal exchanging acceptance of Chinese claims for development assistance. He made sure to add while there, “I announce my separation from the United States…Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost.”

It is unclear if Duterte can bring the very pro-American Philippine military with him. Nor is it clear if Duterte can survive the public backlash if he surrenders the islet closest to the Philippines, Scarborough Shoal, to overt Chinese control. But like many states around China, he is far more eager to trade with China than fight with it. Hawks expecting a robust anti-Chinese coalition have not properly grappled with how well Beijing has forestalled that with offers of trade and assistance – which makes Trump’s decision to cancel the Trans-Pacific Partnership all the more misguided.


This was also the year that South Korea finally agreed to missile defense. The system is not nearly as destabilizing as China says it is, but China has chosen to plant its flag on this issue, so it makes the top 5. THAAD provides only enough shielding to partially deter North Korea and defend mostly US assets in South Korea. It does not provide robust coverage of South Korean cities, nor is peering into China (as the China so duplicitously, endlessly argue). America has other, satellite assets that cover Chinese strategic launches.

Nevertheless, China has framed this as a fork-in-the-road issue for South Korea. An overt choice between the US and China has long been an existential anxiety for Seoul, and it is curious why Beijing chose this issue to force that choice. So uncomfortable was the South Korean left with Park’s acceptance of THAAD, that several opposition lawmakers flew to China the day after the decision to apologize. Moon’s ‘balancing’ comments capture this strategic tug-of-war as well. China is now forcing a long unwanted grand strategy debate on Seoul.

Filed under: Abe, Alliances, Asia, China, Elections, Japan, Korea (North), Korea (South), Lowy Institute, North Korea & the Left, Nuclear Weapons, South China Sea, Trump, United States

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