Another Great Game in Asia ?
East Asia has been a contentious, confusing, and contradictory part of the world for the past few months. Conflict and, sometimes, cooperation between China, Japan, Taiwan, and North Korea have drawn major attention from Europe and the United States. It is therefore pertinent that this newsletter focus some attention on recent political and security developments in East Asia.
An examination of East Asian affairs over the past two months will evidence great complexity in three major areas: Taiwan, Chinese-Japanese relations, and North Korea.
Taiwan : In early February the first direct flights were flown in over fifty years from Taipei to Beijing (although via Hong Kong airspace) during the Chinese New Year Holiday. This event was viewed by experts on both sides of the Taiwan Straight as a major step in the progress of mainland-Taiwanese relations. However, these flights were followed in March by Beijing’s hardline and ill-timed “anti-secession law” which clearly stipulated justifications for a military attack of Taiwan should the island take concrete steps towards for formal independence. This law cost China another year of arms embargo from the European Union, provided fresh condemnation from Bush administration hawks that view China as a potential military threat, and resulted in massive street demonstrations in Taipei.
However, just one month later, starting in April and continuing into May, China and Taiwan were having the highest level political meetings and extending the friendliest gestures across the Taiwan Straight since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. The Chinese-Taiwanese meetings took place between high ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and separate visits from the main leader of the largest minority party in Taiwan, Lien Chan - Nationalist (KMT), and another leader of a smaller minority party, James Song – People’s First Party (PFP). Although the CCP has not yet agreed to talks with the democratically elected and pro-independence President of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian – Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), feelings of goodwill are high across the Taiwan Straigt with the liberalization of certain economic sectors, especially the fruits trade, and the long-awaited gift to Taiwan from mainland China of two pandas.
Therefore, after a few months of cooperation and contention across the straight, relations between Taiwan and the mainland seem quite positive and, for now, peaceful. Outside foreign powers, such as the United States and some European nations, should continue to encourage the mainland Chinese government to deal with the directly elected Taiwanese leadership and hope that both sides are able to take constructive steps to maintain dialogue and build a framework for lasting stability.
Chinese-Japanese Relations : China-Japan relations have been strained ever since the Japanese invasion of mainland China in 1937. Following this invasion, the ensuing eight year war and occupation in China by Japan resulted in horrible war atrocities; during the “Rape of Nanjing” an estimated 300,000 Chinese were killed in the matter of months by the Japanese. Although economic cooperation and trade has increased significantly in the past decade, Chinese-Japanese relations are still problematic and Japanese denunciation is often cited as an impassioned rallying cry for Chinese nationalism.
The past few months have been an extremely dicey time for Chinese-Japanese relations. Early March witnessed a joint US-Japan statement on security that maintained peace in the Taiwan Straight as a common security objective. The Chinese quickly denounced this statement as claimed that it bordered on hegemonic intervention in China’s sovereignty. Furthermore, in mid-March, just around the time of the promulgation of the Chinese “anti-secession law”, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Asia touting United Nations reform and a permanent seat on the Security Council for Japan, much to the ire of the Chinese.
These two events between Japan and the United States, the US-Japan statement on security regarding Taiwan and an offer of support for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, proved to lay the ground for a series of anti-Japanese protests in China. However, the protests were most strongly catalyzed by an issuance of Japanese school textbooks that the Chinese perceived as whitewashing Japanese World War II atrocities. The anti-Japanese protests drew thousands of Chinese onto the streets of Beijing and Shanghai and resulted in vandalism at the Japanese Embassy and Consulate, the destruction of Japanese shops, and calls for boycotts on Japanese goods. The Chinese government quickly put a stop to the protests possibly fearing greater, uncontrollable social unrest, and the CCP later claimed that the demonstrations were a result of domestic political infighting.
In an attempt to ameliorate relations between China and Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offered an apology and expressed “deep remorse” over his country’s World War II aggression in late-April at an Asia-Africa summit in Jakarta. This apology was not well received in China as Japan still allowed many of its leading lawmakers the following day to visit the Yasukuni Shine in Tokyo, where some World War II Japanese war criminals are buried and “worshipped” through such visits.
Tensions still remain high between the people of China and Japan, and a solution to this problem is unlikely to be seen anytime soon. Therefore, outside actors such as the United States or major European powers can only hope that economic ties will prosper between the two countries and that this might lead to greater cultural exchange and social understanding. However, there will probably be no major change in the animosity between China and Japan unless there is a major shakeup in the region’s power structure or either side makes major conciliatory gestures, such as the Japanese stopping high level visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (unless the bodies of World War II criminals are unearthed and moved) or Chinese unilaterally forgiving the Japanese for their World War II atrocities.
North Korea : North Korea continues to be the most perplexing and potentially dangerous player in East Asian. In February North Korea pulled away from the six-party talks between the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia, and has yet agreed to return to the table. The United States has encouraged China, North Korea’s strongest international ally, to exert more of its leverage and work to bring Pyongyang back to the talks. However, North Korea continues to defy outside pressure while posing a serious security threat to some of its most immediate neighbors, namely South Korea and Japan.
In late April the North Koreans also appeared to have tested a medium range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead into the Japan Sea. Furthermore, recent United States intelligence asserts that the North Koreans may be preparing for a nuclear underground test. However, the United States intelligence also believes that the preparations for a test, which involve the mining and then refilling of a large underground tunnel, may be another elaborate bluff on the part of the North Koreans in order to gain an upper hand in international negotiations or possibly the six-party talks.
Regardless, whatever the motivation of the North Koreans, they are playing a dangerous game, and one that could potentially result United Nations sanctions (a move that Pyongyang asserts would be viewed as “an act of war”) or military intervention from the United States and other regional players. North Korea should be watched closely by not only United States intelligence community but by other regional intelligence agencies, while the Chinese should use all of their bargaining power and to do everything possible to bring Pyongyang back to the six-party talks.
In conclusion, recently East Asia has been a hotbed of activity and should be closely monitored by all regional players and major international forces, such as the United States and European nations. All parties should do everything possible to contain and manage the threat of North Korea while working to preserve continued stability and official relations between mainland China and the elected government of Taiwan. Furthermore, the governments of China and Japan, along with the governments of the United States and other European powers, should do everything possible to encourage continued cooperation amongst all East Asian regional partners.