Commentary

Recent Challenges to US Security Interests in Northeast Asia

in Program

By Kent Mullen – The past several months have been a trying time for US diplomatic
efforts in Northeast Asia. China’s increasingly obstinate behavior, a
lack of progress in the Six Party Talks and tension with Japan over
alliance management issues all represent major challenges faced by the
Obama Administration when dealing with security issues in the region.
While these points of friction will remain for some time, it is
important not to exaggerate their implications for US interests in the
area.

The most salient challenge to the Obama Administration’s
efforts in Northeast Asia has been Beijing’s surprisingly stiff and
persistent response to the Taiwan arms sale announced by the
administration in January. The strong sentiments created by the Taiwan
issue on both sides could severely damage the relationship between the
two countries, especially in light of the Google conundrum,
disagreements over the environment and other high profile cases of
tension. The challenge for the Obama administration is to determine
whether Beijing’s response is business as usual or an indication that
there is a sense in China that it has more leverage with the US than
before.

Another challenge the administration is facing is the
persistent failure to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear
weapons program. The Six Party Talks broke down in 2008 leading North
Korea to perform another “successful” underground nuclear test, and all
parties have since failed to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating
table. To make matters more difficult, the deterioration of North
Korea’s conventional military deterrent caused by decades of economic
mismanagement has raised the value of nuclear weapons for North Korea,
reducing the likelihood that they will abandon them anytime soon.

Even
the Japan-US alliance—arguably the US’ most consistent and important
alliance in the region—has experienced great uncertainty since the
historic election of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) last fall.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s call for an “equal” partnership and
Tokyo’s reticence regarding the Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma has
led to a crisis of confidence on both sides of the Pacific. A failure
to resolve the Futenma issue, in particular, would send a dangerous
signal to both allies and adversaries of a decline in the US-backed
security system in the region.

These challenges may seem very
troubling for US security interests in the region, but a closer look at
the situation reveals a very different picture. China’s strident
response to the arms sale, for example, has been tempered by Hu
Jintao’s agreement to attend the global nuclear-security summit on
April 12 and 13th, and the threatened sanctions against US
companies have yet to materialize. And while the North Korean nuclear
program does pose serious nuclear proliferation concerns for the US, a
legitimate nuclear weapons threat from the hermit kingdom remains a
distant possibility. In fact, the growing superiority of the
well-trained and well-funded South Korean forces vis-à-vis the North
has allowed US forces to redeploy in a way that enhances their ability
to stay flexible and support US interests in a wider area. Recent
developments on the peninsula such as these even led South Korean
President Lee Myung-bak to state that the sometimes-troubled South
Korea-US alliance is “stronger than ever.”

The crucial Japan-US
alliance, on the other hand, may face a period of uncertainty due to
the DPJ’s halting approach to foreign policy. Ultimately, though,
Tokyo is unlikely to risk damaging the relationship that has been the
foundation of peace and prosperity in the Northeast Asia for 50 years
over what is really a domestic political issue, especially when its
neighborhood is increasingly competitive and unpredictable. As a
matter of fact, despite the dispute, both sides are already actively
looking for ways to deepen the alliance to ensure it remains the
cornerstone of peace and security in the region in the future.

Because
of these continuing challenges, the Obama Administration must steer a
course in Asia that prepares for all eventualities while promoting
peace and stability. In line with this approach, the Quadrennial
Defense Review (QDR) issued by the Defense Department in February
outlines the need for US forces to enhance capabilities that would be
both crucial and vulnerable in the case of conflict in the region,
including communications and intelligence (C4ISR) capabilities. It
goes on, though, to explain the need for the US to continue to work
with allies to sustain peace and stability in the region and advocates
increased transparency and open lines of communications to avoid
misunderstandings that could lead to conflict. The QDR also recognizes
the US must continue to engage with North Korea to prevent nuclear
proliferation, even if the goal of getting them to abandon their
weapons remains elusive.

Unfortunately, the diplomatic situation
in Northeast Asia is not likely to improve in the near future.
Disputes with China over a variety of issues will likely continue,
keeping cooperation difficult. As for Japan, the upcoming election for
the upper house of the legislature along with growing political
problems for the new DPJ government will keep the domestic political
situation precarious, reducing the probability of a quick resolution to
the base relocation issue. In an area plagued by festering territorial
disputes, historical antipathies and potential flashpoints, though,
continued US presence acts as a safeguard against minor incidents
spiraling out of control.

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