[Column] The Korean peninsula amid US-China confrontation

Posted on : 2015-10-15 16:29 KST Modified on : 2015-10-15 16:29 KST
Rather than working to resolve problems, the US and China are more interested in maintaining the status quo
 editorial writer
editorial writer

Last week, US President Barack Obama made an unusually harsh remark, saying “We can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy.” His words reflect the sense of crisis about the US’s crumbling hegemony. But it is unclear whether the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will open the new markets for American products as Obama hopes will happen if the US writes the rules itself.

What seems closer to the truth is the Chinese argument that no international trade regulations can be complete without the participation of China, which is the world’s second largest economy.

2015 will go down as the year in which the US forged a new international system targeting China, which is coming into its own as a great power.

This comes six years after the US first launched its Asian pivot policy in 2009, immediately after the financial crisis that began in the US. This policy - which was later renamed the Asian rebalance - is largely designed to apply US military and diplomatic assets for the goal of checking China.

The key components of this international scheme are the expansion of the military role of the American ally Japan (through permitting Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense) and the TPP. The US put both of these components into place this year. Effectively, the US has acquired institutional weapons that it can employ for at least a decade.

There are three flashpoints in the confrontation between the US and China: the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula and its environs.

The flashpoints in the South China Sea and the East China Sea are constants. There is no chance that China will stop making territorial claims or trying to expand its influence in the South China Sea by building artificial islands and installing military facilities. The moment that China backs down here, it will lose its prestige as a new power.

While the US insists that it will not tolerate China’s actions here, it not only lacks any direct connection with China’s territorial claims but also has no effective means of checking it. If the US mobilizes its military power, it would only trigger a conflict based on the assumption that might makes right.

Furthermore, the only way to disrupt the uncertain status quo in the rivalry between China on the one hand and the US and Japan on the other in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, would be to resort to the logic of force.

In contrast, there are a number of variables on and around the Korean Peninsula. Slowly but surely, the trilateral alliance among South Korea, the US, and Japan aimed at China is gaining strength.

South Korea and Japan are apparently working independently to increase the number of Aegis-equipped ships in their fleets and to acquire tanker aircraft, both of which are weapons that could be used against the Chinese mainland in a crisis. A new operations plan (called OPLAN 5015) recently adopted by the US and South Korea is predicated on the increasing ability of the South Korean military to conduct long-distance operations.

The key of strengthening this trilateral alliance is deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula. If these attempts prove successful, the military ability of the three countries will effectively be combined into one.

Behind the US’s unending calls for South Korea to take on a larger global role and to make up with Japan is the single-minded strategy aimed at China.

The reason that Chinese President Xi Jinping has continued to show interest in South Korea since coming to power in 2012 is to prevent the Korean Peninsula from joining a net of containment around China. In order to achieve this goal, China has even allowed a partial weakening of its traditionally close ties with North Korea.

But now China is aiming to restore its relations with North Korea. There are also indications that North Korea is improving relations with South Korea and China as it moves toward dialogue with the US. The attendance of Liu Yunshan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of China’s Communist Party, at North Korea’s celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the foundation of its ruling Workers‘ Party on Oct. 10 marks a turning point.

For structural reasons, the North Korean issue is not an easy one to solve. Even when the US points at North Korea, we should understand that it is really aiming at China. China embraces North Korea, even though it is unhappy with the North for giving the US that pretext. Rather than working to resolve the problem, the US and China are more interested in maintaining the status quo. The North Korean nuclear and missile programs and the conflict between the US and China are mutually perpetuating factors.

Resolving the issue of North Korea is fundamental to creating a platform for peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia. If this is acknowledged, it follows that we need to transform the rivalry in the region. While South Korea and China can provide the initiative and set the mood, they cannot completely resolve the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. In the end, the US must assert itself to bring an end to this dilemma.

This presumes a grand bargain between the US and China. The US needs to tone down its efforts to strengthen the trilateral alliance, while China needs to assuage North Korea’s insecurity and opposition to giving up its nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, South Korea should make clear that it is a force working for the good of Northeast Asia as a whole - including the US and China.

The summit between the leaders of South Korea and the US - which will take place in the US on Oct. 16 - must be the starting point for achieving all of this.

By Kim Ji-suk, editorial writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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