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Northeast Asia’s uncertain, changing dynamics

MR josseBy MR Josse

KATHMANDU: The dynamics of inter-state relations in Northeast Asia offers an absorbing subject for cogitation. The principal actors are China, Japan and South Korea with the United States, Russia, Taiwan and North Korea playing an important supportive role in the unfolding drama, characterised by turbidity and suspicions.
Let us now review some of the more significant, relevant developments, of late.
In that shortlist is the two-day state visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Before proceeding any further it would be apt to remember Putin’s Japanese sojourn concluded without the coup de grace expected by optimists: a resolution of the decades-long territorial dispute that has obstructed the formalisation of a peace treaty between Japan and Russia.
Though both leaders addressing a press conference in Tokyo downplayed that it was not possible to conclude a peace treaty, hanging fire for 70 years, there had been some fragile expectations that generous Japanese economic and investment concessions to Russia, might do the trick, not least considering that Moscow is stuck in an economic crisis, exacerbated by plummeting oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea.
The territorial dispute between Tokyo and Moscow relates to the four islands off Japan’s northern coast – known as the northern territory in Japan and the southern Kuriles in Russia – seized by the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1945, in the closing days of WW 11 when its army occupied the Kurile islands and the southern half of Sakhalin island.
Incidentally, recall that Stalin’s conditions for Russia’s entry in the war against Japan, which the US had earnestly sought before the development of its atom bomb, included the recovery of all the territory and privileges that had been lost by Russia after its defeat by Japan in 1905.
No less germane to a fuller understanding of the Russo-Japanese territorial dispute is that the United States had waged the Pacific war almost single-handedly and had been able to compel Japan’s surrender without military assistance from the USSR – unlike in Europe vis-à-vis Nazi Germany. In short: while Washington acquired total control of Japan, following its surrender, Moscow barely managed to occupy the four tiny Kurile islands, off Hokkaido.
Putin’s transparent reluctance to return the islands to Japan without major economic/geopolitical concessions is understandable. Besides, considering that Japan is the US’s most important treaty ally in Northeast Asia, aside from being an integral component of the ‘West’, it was equally naive to have expected Japan to have provided one of the West’s principal adversaries more economic/trade goodies than what the traffic could bear.
Additionally, on hindsight, it is not difficult to fathom Putin’s disinclination to hand back the disputed islands because of their strategic value astride the entrance of the Sea of Okhotsk, not to mention Russian pride for having seized them as spoils of war. Moscow’s cosy relationship with Beijing, too, would have probably taken a hit had Russo-Japanese ties suddenly escalated to new, suspicious heights.  Only wisps of hints of possible future change – not change, itself – in the geo-strategic status quo, as it relates to Japan, Russia, China and the US, are turbidly discernible.
With the US now on the cusp of a presidential transition, it will be premature to read too much into the current tenuous state of Sino-American relations. Yet, new evidence has emerged underlining how liquid and uncertain its dynamics are. Following incoming American president Donald Trump’s contretemps over Taiwan and the ‘One China’ policy, Beijing has sought to underline that there are clear limits to what China will tolerate in the South China Sea, vis-à-vis the US.
That she has done both in a planned fashion and in reaction to an unplanned event. In the former category may be considered Beijing’s move in adding weapons on her South China Sea-claimed strips of land and in sending nuclear-weapon capable bombers over them, as a reaction to what she interpreted as Trump’s Taiwan provocation.
The subsequent seizure of a US Navy unmanned underwater glider, and decision to hand it back to the US, while apparently being a spur-of-the-moment action to ensure safe navigation, as Beijing claimed, has nevertheless powerfully signaled (a) China’s determination to call the shots in the region and (b) underscored its navy’s impressive capabilities.
It remains to be seen what the reaction to such messaging will be in Washington and Taipei après Trump’s inauguration. With less than a
month remaining before the transfer of power in America, the reaction of the Obama administration is of largely academic value.
The turmoil and ambiguity unleashed in South Korea in the wake of the impeachment of President Park Guen-hye has added a handful of worries to the simmering North East Asian stew, including the vital issue of how US-South Korea ties will be redefined after Trump is president, in light of his comments that Seoul should shoulder a greater share of hosting US soldiers on its soil, and other issues of strategic significance, including the future of the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) system and the fate of the recently formalised General Security of Military Information Agreement signed between Seoul and Tokyo.
It will be well to note that THAAD has been opposed both by China as well as North Korea; that the South Korea-Japan military intelligence sharing pact was vehemently opposed by a wide spectrum of South Koreans, and the political opposition.
Finally, given North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s obsession with developing ever sophisticated nuclear weapons, at any cost, and assuming that China is unlikely to do much to ‘control’ North Korea, especially if her own strategic interests in the region are ignored or threatened, one can only wonder what measures can be undertaken – soon – by the concerned actors to restore calm and tranquility.
Missteps could very easily turn the whole region into a tinder box. The world will be anxiously monitoring relevant events, particularly after Donald Trump becomes the American president.

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