Swenson-Wright: In North Korea, China and Japan new faces and old tensions

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves from a balcony at the end of a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square. (April 15, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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It is a time of tension in East Asia with growing nationalism, territorial claims between Japan and its neighbours and the persistent challenge of a nuclear North Korea. Recent leadership changes, however, offer the prospect of a fresh start in regional relations.

Xi Jinping's emergence last November as the new General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and the election in December of Park Geun-hye as the conservative leader of South Korea and Shinzo Abe as Japan's Prime Minister, provide an opportunity for the region's three most influential countries to reassess their foreign and security policies.

The need for a new approach is underlined by the gravity of the challenges facing the leaderships in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing.

North Korea's successful launch of a three-stage ballistic rocket on 12 December has highlighted Pyongyang's enhanced ability to threaten its neighbours. The rocket's range extends the North's strategic reach as far as the west coast of the United States, and preliminary evidence suggests that the technology behind the launch was developed indigenously -- a sign that North Korea is less dependent on outside help and therefore less susceptible to external sanctions.

In response to the UN Security Council's 22 January condemnation of the launch, Pyongyang has adopted a more belligerent posture, announcing that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is no longer a subject for discussion.

Sino-Japanese relations have become worryingly unstable as the two countries have repeatedly clashed since September 2012 over their rival claims to the Senkaku or Daiyou islands in the East China Sea. Chinese naval incursions into Japanese waters surrounding the disputed islands have increased and anti-Japanese boycotts and demonstrations have taken place in more than a hundred Chinese cities.

The 13 December entry into Japanese airspace over the islands of a Chinese aircraft, the first such incursion since 1958, encouraged Itsunori Onodera, the new Japanese Defence Minister, to warn that Japan might be prompted to fire warning shots if there were further incursions.

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Such tensions are especially troubling at a time when traditional alliance relations are under strain. Cooperation between Washington's two most important regional allies, South Korea and Japan, has been undermined by the territorial dispute over a group of rocky islets known as Takeshima or Tokto. There are signs of a vigorous public relations battle between the Japanese and South Korean governments to assert their claims. President-elect Park has made it clear that she views the issue as non-negotiable, and public attitudes in both countries appear to be hardening.

Despite the Obama administration's 'pivot' to East Asia and the newly re-elected President's commitment to remain fully engaged in the region -- a point underscored by Obama's November visit to Burma -- the ability of the US to manage and contain these tensions is limited.

The US remains agnostic on the rival sovereignty claims of Japan and China over the Senkakus, while clear about its commitment to support Japan militarily if its territorial interests are threatened. Public statements by US senior officials on the need for both China and Japan to avoid further provocations, underscore the seriousness with which Washington views the escalating tensions.

However, there are signs of a reassuring pragmatism developing among the region's leaders. Rationally, it makes little sense for the Chinese leader to intensify the dispute with Japan -- the world's third largest economy and one of China's most important trade and investment partners.

Similarly, in Japan, the argument in favour of moderation is powerful. As a leadership candidate during Japan's parliamentary election, Abe, the head of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), struck a combative and nationalistic tone, intended to appeal to a Japanese public increasingly alarmed by the seemingly hostile posture of Japan's neighbours. Yet since being elected, Abe has quietly backed away from his more provocative campaign promises -- including plans to station Japanese officials on the Senkakus, or the government's intention to commemorate Japan's sovereignty claim over Takeshima, or the threat to abandon earlier apologies by past Japanese leaders regarding Korean 'comfort women', who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan's military government in the 1930s.

Instead, bolstered by a victory that delivered him a commanding 294 seats in the 480-seat lower house of the Japanese parliament, Abe is focusing on boosting Japan's defence spending, strengthening ties with the US, while removing the constitutional and political obstacles to a more active role by Japan in collective security initiatives.

It is likely too that Abe will revisit some of the strategic themes he embraced when he last served as Prime Minister in 2006-7, particularly a focus on enhanced security cooperation with Australia and India, and the possibility of closer defence dialogue with both France and the Britain -- the latter through the Five Power Defence Agreement, that includes Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. In the short-term though, the Prime Minister will be preoccupied with domestic economic issues and in anticipation of the July upper house elections is unlikely to do anything to unsettle the LDP's coalition partner, Komeito, which favours a less muscular foreign policy.

Concentrating on economic policy is also likely to be the choice of President-elect Park Geun-hye. As the head of the conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party, she campaigned on a platform of promoting greater economic equality at home and sustaining the economy.

Foreign policy and relations with the North had little impact on the presidential campaign. While Park has distanced herself from the hardline posture to the North of the outgoing Lee administration, stressing instead the importance of renewed dialogue with Pyongyang and what she calls 'trust politik' -- incentives to ensure that the North honours its past and future obligations to the South -- it is unlikely that she will make any immediate overtures to the North. For now, her focus is on sustaining strong relations with the US, while also boosting ties with China. The economic and strategic incentives for closer engagement with Beijing are powerful, and Park's own experience -- her time as President Lee's special envoy to China -- is likely to serve her well.

However, as a leader, Park remains untested. She showed tactical agility and adaptability in calibrating her political message as a presidential candidate but critics argue that she is ill-suited to the practical challenge of fostering debate and reconciling views among her diverse coterie of political advisers.

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There is also the risk that she may face a challenge from the North. Under its young leader Kim Jong-un, the North has sent mixed messages, committing itself -- most notably in Kim's New Year address -- to enhancing its economy, and fostering conflict-free unification with the South, but at the same time reiterating its determination to strengthen its military preparedness while maintaining its national independence.

Last year's rocket launch was followed by a new nuclear test early Tuesday morning. Such a provocation would require continued coordination among key regional allies -- the US, Japan and South Korea -- but there is little discernible way in which such coordination can restrain the North.

As in the past, China is best placed to act as a mediator with the North, not least because of the increased economic ties between the two countries. For this reason, a pragmatic approach by both Japan and South Korea that reaffirms close ties with the United States, but keeps the door open to a cooperative and non-confrontational relationship with China seems the most sensible of options.

John Swenson-Wright is Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House and Senior Lecturer in Japanese Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge. This article was originally published by Chatham House.

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