The North Korean missile and nuclear provocations over the last several months are changing the geopolitical landscape of East Asia.
Much of the world’s attention has been focused on the threats posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s repeated missile firings and its increasing potential to deliver nuclear warheads with longer-range rockets. Certainly, this alarm is warranted.
But a less-appreciated transformation in regional relations is also at work. These changes have been a boon to the United States, which the Trump administration has wittingly and perhaps unwittingly done much to shape. In short, the dangers have presented the Pentagon an opportunity to bolster its military presence in the Asia-Pacific and reverse the Obama government’s quasi-disengagement.
The East Asian nations are recalibrating their own security preparations, defense posture and their alliances as they move closer to the United States. A striking example is the Republic of Korea. The government of Moon Jae-in came to power in May with a predisposition toward accommodation with its northern neighbor.
Once in the Blue House, Moon, a former humane rights lawyer, halted the deployment of the first terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) battery of a total of five. The THAAD offered a measure of protection from medium-range ballistic missiles.
Not only did the DPRK missile firings soon convince Moon to reinstate the THAAD installation, but THEY also persuaded him to call upon his military to enhance its defense readiness. Moreover, the South Koreans participated in large-scale wargames this summer with the U.S. military in spite of the North’s shrill objections.
Across the Korea Strait in Japan, the Tokyo government has leveraged the DPRK’s nuclearization to nudge the populace to abandon its resolute pacifism, dating from the World War II Japanese defeat after decades of militarism and war.
Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, began his campaign to make Japan a “normal nation” before the North Korea’s recent spate of missile firings. Still, Abe lost little time in denouncing Tuesday’s Hwasong 12 missile flight over the country’s northern island of Hokkaido as a “grave threat.”
It was the third such missile trajectory over Japanese territory since 1998. More importantly, Kim Jong Un’s missile tests have buttressed Abe’s case to increase defense spending and to purchase the U.S.-made Aegis Ashore anti-missile system.
Japanese popular opinion is pulling back from the once staunch backing of the country’s war-renouncing constitution toward an acceptance of the need for adequate armed forces.
Abe succeeded in getting the legislature to enact a security stature two years ago allowing Japanese troops to take part in overseas combat operations, a decided change in domestic orientation. Without the North Korean-induced anxiety, it is unlikely that Japanese anti-military sentiments would fade.
North Korea’s bellicosity has also worked to damage China’s international standing. No country has done more to enable the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs than China, a fact increasingly acknowledged worldwide.
Without Chinese banks, technologies, industries and imports of North Korean goods (particularly coal), the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang would have been stopped in its tracks. Beijing has also run diplomatic interference for the renegade regime at the United Nations and in world capitals. As a fraternal communist state, North Korea appealed to China for aid.
But China’s self-interest played a larger role than shared communist ideology in securing assistance for the DPRK’s weapons and rocketry. Hard-line elements within the Chinese government found it convenient to play the North Korean card against the United States.
During the Vietnam War, for example, Beijing prevailed on Pyongyang to keep its border with South Korea tense so that the Pentagon was unable to pull U.S. troops from the ironically named Demilitarized Zone, which cuts across the Korean Peninsula, for the American war in Southeast Asia.
In recent times, Washington’s arms sales to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a wayward province of the mainland, elicited pay back through North Korea threats and the consternation they caused Washington.
But playing the North Korean card is no longer such a winning tactic for China. Everyone now understands the nuclear danger and knows China’s out-sized role in creating this peril. Countries as far away as Vietnam and Taiwan have taken the measure of China’s behavior and found it ominous.
The Obama administration began deflecting criticism for its inert "strategic patience" policy by arguing that China was to blame for the problem. The Trump administration adopted and highlighted this line to good effect.
Beijing has taken some intermediate steps to curb its economic interactions with Pyongyang. It recently voted for additional sanctions in the Security Council and it has become politically defensive when criticized for furthering Pyongyang’s atomic and missile ambitions.
North Korea’s persistent recklessness will, no doubt, reinforce the current trends among its neighbors for additional defensive weapons and closer relations with the United States, placing flesh on Obama’s skeletal Asian pivot policy.
The nuclear crisis, if anything, has reenergized America’s posture in Northeast Asia to the immediate detriment of Chinese dreams for greater sway in the region. Should Japan and South Korea perceive reluctance in Washington’s willingness to protect them, however, they will be tempted to look to their own nuclear devices.
During the 1970s, South Korea and Taiwan pursued clandestine nuclear arms until assured of a place under the American nuclear umbrella. They could reactivate these weapons programs. Japan, which possesses abundant nuclear materials and technology, might also pursue atomic bombs. None of these developments would be welcome to Beijing, which strives to dominate Northeast Asia and to project an image of benign hegemon.
America’s Pacific re-engagement was not something expected from the Trump White House with its campaign rhetoric of "America First." But Chairman Kim’s growing menace resulted in positive sea change. Such an assessment can only be an interim judgment because the outcome of North Korean nuclear crisis is unknown.
Yet the current geopolitical alignment is unexpectedly better than anticipated six months ago. The Trump administration would do well to capitalize on the new realities of East Asia so as to offset the rise of China.
Thomas H. Henriksen is a Hoover Institution senior fellow and the author most recently of "Cycles in US Foreign Policy since the Cold War" (Palgrave, 2017).
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.