In his new year speech in 2016, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expressed willingness to have talks with South Korea but just a few days later, conducted North Korea's fourth round of nuclear tests. The inconsistency in North Korea’s policy and action is not easy to decipher. North Korea seems to seek proposals for peace while escalating tensions. In the past one year, the dynamics in East Asia have also been quite similar.
There have been a few bilateral and multilateral proposals intended to bring peace but there have been simultaneous counter-actions by countries of the region, which have further heightened regional insecurity. There are indications of change in regional political and economic exchanges but there are equally strong trends underlining continuity. It seems that the region is passing through a cusp in which any clear trend is difficult to decipher, with a lot of activity, both positive and negative.
For the past few years, bilateral relations in East Asia have been characterised by mistrust, provocations and counter-actions on the surface and continued economic and other exchanges below, among the countries of the region. Shinzo Abe in Japan, Xi Jinping in China, Park Geun-hye in South Korea, and Kim Jong-un in North Korea have all been less compromising on their respective positions and this has led to the emergence of many security hotspots in the region. The only exception has been continuous improvement in China-South Korea relations.
In 2015, China became more overtly assertive in the region with the establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), activities to establish the One-Belt One-Road initiative, constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea and its behaviour in the East China Sea. In the process, China had serious contentions with the US and Japan. Unlike the previous few years, it tried to reach out to North Korea in 2015 while maintaining good relations with South Korea. Chinese representative Liu Yunshan, who is ranked number five in the hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party, participated in a celebration to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. It has been the highest exchange between the two countries after the death of Kim Jong-il in late 2011.
Meanwhile, China was able to make South Korea join the AIIB as one of the founding members, keep Seoul away from the US-proposed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and also welcome the South Korean President Park Geun-hye to participate in the Victory Parade organised in Beijing to commemorate the 70th year of the victory over Japan in World War II.
The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continued his hard-line policies vis-à-vis history and territorial issues by evoking nationalist sentiments. However, on 1 November, Abe visited Seoul to participate in the three-nation summit meet, which happened after a gap of three years. On 28 December, Abe also conveyed his apology to South Korea on the comfort women issue and promised a contribution of US$8.3 million to create a fund for the victims. Japan wants to mend its relationship with South Korea but without softening its nationalist fervour and hard-line stand. The change in the Japanese approach is not a change of heart but an attempt to neutralise its isolation in regional politics.
South Korea in the past few years has been trying to walk a tight rope. It has been consistently cooperating with China in the economic sphere and also on the issue of the North Korean nuclear programme, and at the same time, has been trying to maintain close relations with the US. China’s strategy to reach out to Seoul has not been able to create any substantial gap in South Korea-US relations. However, Beijing has been successful in creating a gap between South Korea and Japan, though the gap may be attributed to Japan's aggressive behaviour more than Chinese efforts. The improvement in China-South Korea relations looks quite consistent. However, after North Korea’s self-proclaimed thermonuclear test and China’s reluctance to put forth tougher sanctions on North Korea via the United Nations Security Council, it would be difficult for South Korea to continue its tightrope walking strategy.
North Korea appears to be making all effort to reach out to other countries across the globe in the context of its relatively strained relations with China. In the past year and a half, the North Korean Foreign Minister and Prime Minister have visited more than fifteen countries with the intention to diversify economic exchanges, including India. North Korea’s uncompromising stance vis-à-vis China appears to be paying off, with China trying to placate North Korea again through high level visits and Xi Jinping’s message to North Korea. However, China and North Korea relations have had to face a few unpleasant developments: for example, when North Korean music band Moranbang returned to Pyongyang without performing in China because of a reported misunderstanding about the level of Chinese leadership participation. The so-called North Korean thermonuclear test is also going to be an issue between the two countries.
On the basis of these trends in the East Asia, the following projections could be made about the region for 2016.
First, even though China's economic attractiveness in the region has been acceptable, Beijing’s political assertiveness is going to be a cause for discomfort. Either China will have to change its course or the regional players will be compelled to more overtly create a network of resistance. The US, Japan, Australia, India and even South Korea along with some Southeast Asian countries are going to cooperate more closely to counter Chinese political and military assertiveness.
With the recent North Korean nuclear test, even South Korea has indicated that it might join THAAD, and this would definitely be a setback for China. China appears to be adamant in its demand to have ‘great power relations’ with the US, and Xi Jinping seems to want to continue his two-pronged policy of ‘economic allurement’ and ‘political assertiveness’ for some time.
Second, Japan will try to mend its relations with South Korea. Recently, both countries have reached an agreement on the issue of comfort women. If Japan and South Korea are able to improve their relations, it would be a positive for the US which has security alliances with both. After the North Korean test, it is obvious that the US, Japan and South Korea are in favour of tougher sanctions, but China seems to be returning to its old policy of protecting North Korea by asking for dilution of sanctions.
Third, the current year would be critical for South Korea, as it may have to choose between economic opportunities in China and the security imperative emanating from China’s assertiveness and North Korean nuclear and other brinkmanship. If China is unable to contain North Korean nuclear and missile programmes and its provocative behaviour, South Korea would certainly have to rethink its policy of cooperating with China, even at the expense of the US' displeasure.
Fourth, North Korea’s uncompromising stance on its nuclear programme makes it almost certain that there is only a thin possibility of denuclearising North Korea, and regional players have to reconcile themselves to a nuclear North Korea. However, continuous purges of political and military elite in North Korea along with its economic miseries makes it difficult to predict its future. A more provocative North Korea does not mean a strong North Korea but rather a weak and unstable state, and any implosion would have serious repercussions for the region.
Finally, it is going to be a critical year for US foreign policy in the region. With the growing positive and negative vibes created by China, the US also needs to come out with its responses in a more planned and coordinated way. It seems that the US has been reluctantly reacting to China - it needs to have a pro-active policy for the region. However, it is not sure whether the US has the willingness or the capacity to do so as a relatively weaker Washington is entangled in several other issues and regions.
Thus, in brief, it is going to be a critical year for East Asia, where the future course of the regional architecture will become clearer. All the countries of the region have to make critical decisions with regard to their foreign policies. There are enough political contests, which indicate an unstable time ahead. However, going by the economic interdependence and exchanges among these countries, there is a possibility that some modus vivendi might be evolved to not only co-exist but also co-prosper. Rapprochement between Japan and South Korea and a trilateral summit meet among China, Japan and South Korea are basically driven by these possibilities. The future of East Asia would depend on the choices made by the leaders of the region.