East Asia has been hailed as the world’s most dynamic region for more than 30 years, experiencing significant economic prosperity and reduction in political-military conflict. China, on one hand, has risen to become one of the “G2” and a key player in international politics and economics. The U.S., on the other hand, has been in decline since September 11, 2001, and the financial crisis of 2008. A sharp conflict between the U.S. and China, which emerged after the Cheonan incident in the Yellow Sea and intensifying disputes over islands in the East and South China Seas, clearly reflects, in some sense, the rise of China and decline of the U.S. in the western Pacific.
In addition to this great power rivalry, North Korea’s nuclear program may trigger nuclear dominos in East Asia. Small-scale military incidents on the Korean peninsula and in the nearby seas continuously serve as potential for a larger military conflict. Pyongyang has stubbornly resisted suggestions that it should follow the example of China to reform and open up its economy and it stands in many ways as a singular exception in the post-Cold War era.
Balance of Interests, Not Balance of Power
Many scholars and journalists have warned of ensuing global uncertainty and instability following the decline of U.S. hegemony and the concurrent rise of the rest, led by China, India, and Brazil. Fareed Zakaria, a Newsweek editor, acknowledges in his book, The Post-American World, Global Trend 2025, published in 2008 by the U.S. National Intelligence Council, that the U.S. will become a less dominating state. Although it still continues to be a super-power, it is slowly losing its leadership strength. As conflicts among states have increased on transnational issues such as climate change, new technology, or energy distribution, U.S. leadership is being seriously pressed by China which is stepping up as leader of the rest of the world.
Although President Obama said that U.S. relations with China are the most important bilateral relations in the world, it is clear that China has emerged as the most serious challenging power to U.S. hegemony. Nevertheless, the U.S. needs China’s cooperation to resolve both domestic and international problems, such as its huge financial deficit and the North Korean nuclear problem. At the same time, the U.S. also needs to check Chinese intentions to expand its political and military influence in the region.
China, however, wants to continue its economic development and, for that purpose, maintain a friendly international environment. But it also wants to be more active in restructuring global and regional order.
Sino-American relationships started to cool last year after the Cheonan incident in the Yellow Sea. China was irritated by the ROK-U.S. joint military exercise which planned to include a U.S. aircraft carrier. China vehemently refused entry of the U.S. vessel into the Yellow Sea, conducted a military exercise in the East China Sea and test fired one of its anti-aircraft missiles. Beijing responded as if the territorial waters of South Korea, as well as the Yellow Sea, were within the Chinese sphere of influence.
The third U.S.-China strategic and economic dialogue held in Washington, D.C., last May showed clear differences between the two superpowers in many areas. The U.S. stressed that it shared with China common economic interests in the region as well as in the world. Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton quoted Chinese historical idioms – “crossing a river on the same boat (同舟共濟)” and “constructing a road when you meet a mountain and building a bridge when you meet a river (逢山開道 遇水架橋)”- in order to emphasize the necessity of close cooperation between the two countries. Nevertheless, she also pointed out areas of conflicting interest in China, such as human rights, food security and intellectual property rights, and urged the government to make more effort to improve conditions.
In this context, relationships between the declining and rising superpowers do not look stable at present. While both countries are undeniable stakeholders in the region, their areas of interest are not yet clearly defined. This is the reason why East Asia is still unstable and uncertain.
The Korean Peninsula: “Same Bed, Different Dream”
The Korean Peninsula is clearly an area of conflict between the U.S. and China. The Six-party Talks are stalemated after North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 is still in effect. North Korea has tried to split the U.S. and the ROK since the start of the Lee Myung-Bak government but so far unsuccessfully. Disclosure of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program (UEP) in November 2010 was aimed at direct bilateral talks with the U.S., while bypassing North-South dialogue.
The Obama government’s policy toward the North Korean nuclear program is based on strategic patience. For the U.S., there is no other way at present but to wait and see, due to limitations on the use of force and the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions against North Korea. Both China and the U.S. urged North Korea to return to the Six-party Talks through the North-South dialogue and the US-North Korea bilateral talks – the so-called three-step approach – but the stubborn Kim Jong Il regime stuck to bilateral talks with the U.S. only.
North Korea’s military adventures to the South, such as the Cheonan and Yeonpyong incidents last year, seem to be closely related to internal political conflict surrounding its power succession. Recent consecutive deaths of North Korean elders cannot rule out the possibility of an internal power struggle. In order to successfully complete hereditary power succession to Kim Jung Un in 2012, the last year to achieve the so-called “prosperous and great country,” Kim Jung Il certainly ordered the military provocation of a torpedo attack on the Cheoan and shelling of Yeonpyong Island to strengthen internal solidarity.
In addition to this, North Korean domestic politics and different policy priorities between the U.S., China, and South Korea, make resolution of the North Korean problem more difficult. U.S. policy priorities toward North Korea seem to run in order of importance from “no nuclear or non-proliferation,” to “no military provocation” and “no internal instability.” China’s policy priorities toward the North appear to run in sequence from “no North Korean collapse” to “no Korean war,” and, finally, “no nuclear.” South Korean policy priorities toward the North put “no military provocation” at the top, “no nuclear” as second, and then “no internal instability.” Due to the three countries’ different policy priorities and approaches to North Korea, it is difficult to pursue a consistent approach to resolve the problem.
China to Take Control to Ensure Stability
It is not easy to assess whether China will take over world political hegemony in the near future. Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr of Harvard University expects China to surpass the U.S. in economic areas, but believes it cannot be supreme in international politics until at least 2050 due to its reluctance to take international responsibility. If China wants to be a hegemonic power, it should exert more effort on such transnational issues as human rights, free trade, terrorism, climate change, piracy, drug trafficking, international crime, etc., as well as nuclear non-proliferation. Otherwise, the post-American world cannot be realised within a short time.
In order to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula, China must step up and take a more active role as a leader of the rest, especially as North Korea is heavily dependent on Chinese help and cooperation. In May 2011, Kim Jong Il made his seventh trip to China, his third visit in a year. He travelled approximately 6000km, visiting Tumen, Mudanjiang, Harbin, Changchun, Yangzhou, Nanjing, Beijing, and Dandung to see urban development and to discuss acquiring food, energy, and next generation jet fighters. He also needed Chinese endorsement for the hereditary succession of his third son.
China’s role is crucial in solving the North Korean puzzle,. It is the only country that can help the Kim Jong Il regime and guarantee its survival. Chinese political and economic aid and endorsement are the most important, among other elements, for Kim Jung Un’s successful power accession. All in all, China can play an important part in the stability of the Korean peninsula. It must share in tangible ways its experience of reform and opening with North Korea, and also educate stubborn North Korean leaders so they can apply change and open their hermit kingdom. That is the best way to ensure peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.
Bon-Hak Koo is Professor and Vice-President of Hallym University of Graduate Studies.