On the front page of recent issue of Wall Street Journal was an article titled, “An Arc of Instability Unseen Since the ‘70s.” The piece pointed out that “In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.” (The horror of shooting down a civilian 777 followed shortly.)
The origin of the instability in Middle East is a direct consequence of the blunder by the supremely confident, “shock and awe” triumvirate of Rumsfeld/Cheney/Bush. They barged into Iraq expecting a liberator’s welcome that never materialized. They were quick to lynch Saddam but neglected to restore order and install a functioning government.
History might note that the Bush administration left a mission unaccomplished but, after six years of fumbling around, it is rapidly becoming Obama’s legacy as well. In addition, thanks to a corrupt incumbent government in Kiev, the succession of Crimea from Ukraine along with unrest in eastern Ukraine has been added to the list of Obama’s foreign policy woes.
Given the real challenges his administration is facing around the world, a pertinent question Obama should be asking himself is whether he needs to add the pivot to Asia on top of his already full plate?
Obama’s pivot to Asia is widely seen, despite his administration’s protestation to the contrary, as an attempt to check China’s intent on expanding its influence in Asia. China’s response to Obama having to deal with the “arc of instability” is to launch a charm offensive on its own terms.
In early July, China’s leader, Xi Jinping made a state visit to Seoul and further strengthened his personal bond with South Korea’s president Park Guen-hye. Observers noted that Xi did not stop in North Korea to or from Seoul and seemed to have deliberately snubbed the Pyongyang regime.
It’s no secret that Xi is frustrated with the independent-minded and erratic North Korea. At the same time, Park would no doubt relish the collapse of the Pyongyang regime and go down in history as the president that actually presided over the reunification of the Korean peninsula.
China is already South Korea’s largest trading partner, larger than the U.S. and Japan combined, and South Korea has more investment in China than anywhere else in the world. Korean TV drama has a popular following in China. Views of China and President Xi in South Korea have become increasingly warm and positive.
No doubt, Xi’s deliberate snub of North Korea is intended as a cautionary message for Pyongyang to behave. It could be more. Xi could be planting the seed that Beijing would entertain the idea of a friendly Korean regime on its border and the current North Korean regime is not it.
In order for Beijing to countenance the consolidation of the Korean peninsula under the government based in Seoul, the South Korean government and the U.S. would have to rescind their military alliance and Washington would have to commit to a total withdrawal all their troops from the peninsula once reunification has been achieved.
The cost benefit calculation for Washington is simple. By foregoing the recurring cost of having to station troops in South Korea, Washington can enjoy not having to deal with a rogue state constantly threatening the peace and security of East Asia. Instead Washington can have a trusted friend of long standing govern the entire peninsula.
Would Beijing trust Washington enough to stop propping up the North Korean regime and let it fall? Probably not immediately and probably would require specific overtures from Obama to build confidence between the two major powers.
The alternative is to continue the so-called pivot to Asia. A crucial piece of the pivot depends on a strong alliance between the U.S., Japan and South Korea. This is not going to happen, especially under the Abe leadership in Japan.
Prime minister Abe wants to remilitarize Japan, even despite the reluctance of Japan’s own popular opinion. His expressed desire to rewrite Japan’s constitution to arm Japan does not seem to bother the U.S. but is alarming to China and South Korea.
In addition to their strong bilateral economic ties, China and Korea have a strong common bond based on their shared distrust of Japan. The root of their distrust is because Japan has persisted in denying the WWII atrocities to this day.
When Xi was in Seoul, he reminded the people of Korea of all the pain they suffered in the hands of brutal Japanese soldiers. He returned to Beijing in time to memorialize the 77th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which took place on July 7, 1937 in the outskirts of Beijing. The incident was a calculated provocation by the Japanese troops as they fired on the Chinese sentries guarding the bridge. China has marked the incident as official beginning of war between the two countries.
In between her visits to Brazil to watch her national soccer team, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Beijing to meet with Premier Li Keqiang on July 7. A coincidence? Probably not. One of the deals she announced was the bilateral agreement between Germany and China to standardize the plug-in interface for electric passenger cars.
Pundits inside China read this agreement as a direct repudiation of Abe’s militancy by giving German cars access to the world’s largest market with a leg up over electric cars from Japan.
Now Obama has an opportunity to break from the past and make a brilliant mark in history. He can stop following the Bush administration’s practice of “strategic ambiguity.” Instead of trying to keep Beijing off balance by acting friendly one day and hostile the next, he can cut defense spending and balance his budget by just taking the pivot idea off the table.
He should send a trusted emissary to Beijing, a person with Kissinger’s acumen, to begin a serious dialogue between true partners for world peace. Solving the impasse on the Korean peninsula would be a spectacular breakthrough and a legacy as bold and visionary as Nixon’s historic visit to China.
Dr. George Koo is an international business consultant and a director of New America Media.