When Washington reflects on its interest in the North Pacific, specifically its relations with the Koreas, and reconciles why it’s really there, the elephant in the room becomes more apparent- Japan. Since 1945 the United States has been the main arbitrator of peace in the region, most specifically between the historical rivals- China and Japan. This is largely in part due to America’s security assurances to a Pacified Japan, which in return satisfies China’s fears. The essential piece to this arrangement is the Koreas. For centuries the Korean peninsula has always been a clashing point between Japan and China, constantly falling under one or the other’s sphere of influence. Keep in mind as well that for Japan the Korean peninsula is the doormat into Manchuria, and was the route in which China was invaded in the Second World War. In 1945 with the US having been victorious overy Japan, and capitalising on a weakened and divided China, America intimately involved itself into the Southern portion of the Korean peninsula by propping up a viable but dependent nation state- South Korea. This ultimately satisfies two of America’s geo-strategic interests: First, it anchors America’s interests into the Eastern half of Eurasia, Second, by militarily, economically, and diplomatically allying itself to this dependent nation state, America has legitimacy in mitigating inbetween the affairs of East Asia, most specifically between the great powers of the North Pacific, China, Japan, and to a lesser extent, though still relevant- Russia.
In the contemporary scenario with an increasingly aspirational China, it is to no surprise that North Korea has become and will continue to become more relevant. The North Korean regime and its continued maintenance by China reflects China’s geo-strategic response to America’s pursuits, which is simply to keep America and Japan away from its border. Simultaneously, it has been very convenient for Beijing to have influence over a North Korea that is ruled by a very paranoid regime, and one that’s enthusiastic in its outward displayal of fanaticism. Ultimately, for Beijing North Korea is a wild card that can tip and influence certain affairs in China’s near abroad towards its own benefit. For China, North Korea is not simply a buffer zone but a crucial bargaining chip.
If the status quo should maintain itself as it is currently, it is all the more likely that North Korea will possess a primitive but deliverable nuclear device within a few years. America should not be passive at allowing China to one day possess this bargaining chip, most especially if it should possess such weapons. Such consequences would be detrimental to America’s long standing ability to maintain and project its influence in the region. So a nuclear North Korea is certainly out of the question. It is in America’s interest to ensure that such a reality does not emerge.
However, to ensure this deterance requires a new orientation of America’s strategic posturing in the region. Patient deterrence has reached its end but a full on direct military intervention from the US has several negative consequences. The first- North Korea’s artillery potential could very well cause significant loss of civilian life in Seoul. Second, it would put the US on a collision course with mainland China, a conflict America cannot ensure a positive outcome from. Three, a post Kim dynasty North Korea will create a power vacumn between China Japan Russia and the US with unseen consequences. War is the least desirable resolution in the case of the Koreas.
The second route would be diplomacy. Now much of the banter from the current US administration, as was the same sentiment in the last several US presidencies, is that it is Beijing who holds the keys towards influencing decisions inside the Hermit Kingdom. Past presidents, including the current, who even goes so far as to ‘tweet’ about it- believe that the most direct way of influencing and deterring North Korea is to appeal to China. This is a feeble and naïve idea. China holds some degree of influence over Pyongyang, more than any other country, however even China has its limits of what it can and cannot influence, and even within that realm- does China really want regime change in North Korea? Why would it? America needs to rethink the strategic architecture in this region that it manifested post-1945.
America was formally brought into this region post 1945, and extended its courtesy of forging a new strategic arrangement with China in which China’s number one enemy and threat, Japan, would be pacified, and be none of China’s to worry about. And since that time has China shown its appreciation or gratitude for keeping Japan at bay? No. Every night on the news there’s a story about how China’s going to be the next superpower, how it’s building fake islands in the South Pacific, or how it will supercede America and leave it in the dust bin- such chauvinism needs to be humbled. China’s rise is based solely off American good will- China’s access to sell its cheap products in the most affluent market in the world- the American consumer, and America’s commitment in the Pacific realm in maintaining that no regional power will threaten China. And yet in such a scenario, America still has to ask the Chinese to weigh in on North Korea? It has to go to the UN and grovel for a resolution? Again, America needs to rethink the strategic architecture in this region.
If China is unwilling to reign in on its wild card North Korea, then America should extend to China the same courtesy and no longer reign in on limiting and holding back China’s number one geo-strategic foe, Japan. It’s time to make Japan great again!
Despite all the hype in the news Japan, not China, is the second largest economy in the world. Japan also possesses the fifth largest navy in the world with more destroyers than the French and British navies combined. This of course all under the auspices of the infamous Article 9 in Japan’s constitution which stipulates that Japan can only have a defacto armed force- a Self-defence army. But ,what makes Japan most attractive in forging a stronger American alliance with is Japan’s demographics. By 2060 Japan’s population will have declined from 127 million, to a mere 87 million in which over 40% will be over the age of 65. Japan is a very closed society and has no interest in using immigration as a policy to repermend this. Given its unhealthy demographics and bad neighbourhood Japan is a country that is armed to the teeth has a diverse economy but yet feels intensely vulnerable, and this is a good thing. Vunerable friends make the very best allies as there is very little ambiguity in between the two in the understanding of the bedrock of which their relationship is based upon: dependency.
With a China becoming increasingly assertive, as is reflected in Beijings ambivalence in weighing in on North Korea, it would be wise for America to forge a deeper and more intimate relationship with Japan. A relationship that includes nuclear weapons, F-16s, and a larger and more modern navy. A rearmed and assertive Japan is one that will hinder China from pursuing any regional ambition. A China that is in a naval arms race with Japan backed by the United States, is a China whose economy may very well break trying maintain its military relevance. When such an arrangement becomes more apparent to Beijing, it will lubricant the discussion of North Korean nuclear proliferation in America’s favour.