Security Cooperation in East Asia
With the advent of the Meiji era in 1868, Japan became committed to becoming an international military power, undertaking a crash industrialization program and modernizing its armed forces. East Asia has been a hotbed of regional security competition ever since. For the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th, Japan and Russia were the primary actors in the region. But with Japan decimated by World War II, and the Soviet Union focusing most of its efforts and energy on Eastern Europe, the second half of the 20th century left a power vacuum, into which the United States deliberately and forcefully stepped. The Chinese Communist Party was consolidating its power in the Middle Kingdom, but in the immediate postwar years was not yet prepared to truly flex its muscles in the region. By 1950, however, the People’s Republic of China was ready to back the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea. With the United States backing the nominally democratic Republic of Korea in the south, the stage was set for the Korean War, which was also the last time open armed conflict has taken place in the region.
The Cold War years were somewhat uneventful from a regional security perspective. While tensions waxed and waned on the Korean Peninsula, the American security umbrella and China’s general lack of power projection capability left the situation relatively static. However, things have been changing rapidly in the past decade. China is flexing its muscles in the region like never before, building a more modern and effective navy to complement its enormous land forces. Meanwhile, the United States’ role is less clear than it has been at any time since 1945. President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” never manifested in the form of much clear policy action, and now President Trump has repeatedly expressed his skepticism about alliances and regional security commitments. While he has toed a firm rhetorical line in opposition to the DPRK’s nuclear program and provocative missile launches, it remains to be seen whether US military installations in Japan and South Korea will be maintained, at least at their present strength. Will the United States continue to guarantee the security of those nations, or are direct threats to American soil the administration’s only concern?
These questions have in part inspired certain sectors of the Japanese political class, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and some of his allies, to agitate for an abandonment of Japan’s constitutional commitment to pacifism. These would allow the country’s military, now called the Self-Defense Forces, to participate in offensive military operations. While some parties have been pushing for such a move since as early as the 1950s, the uncertainty surrounding the US commitment has lent more credence to such efforts. Moves in that direction could only serve to arouse suspicion on the part of China, and to a lesser extent South Korea, both of which suffered under imperial Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century. Tensions between Japan and China, particularly over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, have already led to hostile and xenophobic protests in both countries against the other and boycotts of each other’s products. The recent deployment of a THAAD anti-ballistic-missile system in South Korea by the United States has also spurred angry reactions from China, which argues that the system’s stated purpose of defending against strikes by the DPRK is a smokescreen for its true purpose – weakening China’s own nuclear arsenal. With American objectives and commitments unclear, China continuing to gain strength, Japan restless, and the shadow of the North Korean nuclear program falling across the region, how can the international community reduce tensions and restore equilibrium? Is a new regional security apparatus in the offing, or will DiSec attempt to chart a different course?