China, Korea and Japan: the Great Asian War Game

Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers march to their positions prior to a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ED JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

The latest issue of the National Interest asks if we are looking at “war in Asia” within the next decade or so.

The question asked collectively by the headline articles is whether the multi-sided contest between China, the Koreas, and Japan can be resolved without someone, somewhere, pulling a trigger. The urgent question for U.S. policymakers is whether America can do anything to make overt hostilities less likely.

Obviously, North Korea is in the spotlight right now, but writer Michael Auslin makes an interesting case that China versus Japan is the simmering conflict to watch as the first half of the 21st century plays out.

Auslin notes that China and Japan have centuries of history behind them, with the Korean Peninsula a perennial battleground. Japan’s alliance with the United States is a major factor in regional politics today, China and Japan would likely be adversaries even if the U.S. was not a factor at all, and Korea would be a factor even without the North Korean nuclear missile crisis.

“The two Asian nations will undoubtedly compete long after U.S. foreign policy has evolved, and regardless of whether Washington withdraws from Asia, grudgingly accepts Chinese hegemony, or increases its security and political presence. Moreover, Asian nations themselves understand that the Sino-Japanese relationship is Asia’s other great game, and is in many ways, an eternal competition,” he writes.

Technological advances during the 20th century changed the nature of the contest between China and Japan, temporarily neutralizing China’s immense advantage in physical size, natural resources, population, and land borders with other nations. The pendulum seems to be swinging again, now that China has recovered from what Auslin calls the “generational disaster of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.” Absent any new technology shocks in the coming decades, China’s size will give it military and economic power far beyond anything Japan can muster, especially since the Japanese economy has been slipping and its population is falling into a demographic death spiral.

This reality could lead Japan to a rapprochement with China, especially if American influence in Asia wanes, except for the long history of animosity lurking in both cultures and seared into both national minds by the events of World War II. Auslin cites polls that show, in essence, that three-quarters of the Chinese and Japanese populations dislike each other, and expect relations between the two countries to remain poor. A good deal of this animosity is based on Japan’s conduct during World War II, so it might be expected to dissipate as the World War II generation dies out, except the Chinese government clearly has no interest in allowing it to dissipate.

Robust commerce between the two nations hasn’t eased their rivalry either, even though conventional foreign policy wisdom holds that nations with billion-dollar trade relationships should grow more friendly towards each other over time. China is Japan’s largest trading partner, Japanese companies employ up to ten million Chinese, and yet they’re still competing for regional influence and glaring at each other over the Senkaku Islands.

North Korea is a major piece in this great game, and of course, it’s also part of the game China is playing with the United States. Figuring out exactly where China stands on the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons is a top concern of analysts around the world. There are indications Beijing has grown more serious about reining in Pyongyang during the Trump administration. Certainly, the sanctions China has agreed to enforce are serious, and North Korea is clearly unhappy with its Chinese patrons for enforcing them. But what endgame does China have in mind? How far will it go to prevent dictator Kim Jong-un from developing the nuclear ICBMs he craves, and does it really want to prevent his acquisition of such weapons, when “Little Rocket Man” (as Trump dubbed him) might continue to be such a useful distraction against China’s rivals in America, South Korea, and Japan?

Harry J. Kazianis presents a thorough argument against U.S. military action in North Korea in which he echoes a key point in Auslin’s piece on China vs. Japan, which is that technology has made the ocean a far less significant factor in Asian power equations.

North Korea is already an existential threat to South Korea and Japan, and soon it will be a credible nuclear adversary for the United States and Europe. Kazianis lays out several wargame scenarios for strikes on North Korea. All of them are unpleasant for China but absolutely catastrophic for China’s adversaries.

Kazianis advises a long-term containment strategy for North Korea as the best alternative to war. That also works out as less of a burden for China than for its regional and global adversaries, with the exception of Chinese businesses that have already suffered major losses because sanctions have closed off the North Korean market. Beijing’s balance sheet can be nudged back into the black by pricing in the concessions it can extract in perpetuity for its assistance in keeping the Kim regime isolated. Pyongyang is slow poison, and Beijing sells the only antidote.

The antidote might not be one hundred percent effective, because nuclear North Korea will likely make demands far less reasonable than China’s, and the erratic Kim regime might start a war anyway. David Santoro argues for a collective security arrangement in Asia, and a similar arrangement in Eastern Europe with Russia.

Santoro contends that American “primacy” in military, economic, and diplomatic power around the world is impossible to maintain, and attempting to do so could have the undesirable effect of prompting Russia and China to team up against American interests—something Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have already contemplated by singing a joint statement on “strengthening global stability.”

Instead of maintaining primacy, Santoro suggests the United States could recognize Russia and China as regional hegemonic powers and try to make them responsible hegemons by entrusting them with regional stability. China’s hunger for respect would be satisfied, and Russia’s insecurities soothed.

The trick is to do this without appeasing Russia, or especially China, which is a rising power with clear ambitions and careful plans for achieving them. Instead, the Chinese and Russian superpowers would be convinced that working constructively with strong coalitions of American allies in the Pacific Rim and Europe is in their best interests, with terrorist organizations and rogue states like North Korea identified as problems everyone wants to solve.

The problem is that volumes have been written about collective security, strategic partnerships, and stability networks over the years, thousands of hours of speeches have been delivered from behind podiums, and yet Asia remains tense. It might not be on the “brink of war,” exactly, but the brink of war can be glimpsed from where Asia sits right now: China seeks to claim vast amounts of disputed island territory, China threatens stern action if Taiwan seeks independence, and of course China’s feral pet North Korea menaces everyone.

As mentioned above, North Korea is precisely the kind of threat collective security agreements are built around, but China feels its security is vastly less threatened than the security of its adversaries. Also, while China does have some problems with terrorism—the restless Uighurs, for example—it may calculate that it can deal with terrorist threats more effectively than the open liberalized societies of its regional adversaries.

There are two basic reasons for war to break out: the aggressor either feels it has more to gain than its victims or less to lose. Ever since China became a rising global power, its aggressions have been slow and measured. It prefers to patiently develop conditions, over a span of years, that make yielding to its demands seem like the only sane option, so it wins without fighting. This can be seen in the South China Sea, where China’s adversaries claim victories at international tribunals and press their territorial claims at international forums, while China relentlessly builds radar dishes and airfields on every disputed island.

War in Asia could erupt because one of China’s regional adversaries decides to take action while taking action is still possible, or because North Korea slips the leash, or because China’s deniable but very active cyber-espionage squads go too far. Every other nation in the region knows that Beijing’s planning tables are covered with calendars that have “prominence” penciled in for 2035, and “dominance” for 2050. If they can’t make peace with Beijing controlling the waters through which much of the world’s shipping flows, and the financial institutions that make much of Asian commerce possible, they might decide to make something other than peace.

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