Last year, I put up 2010 predictions for Asia and Korea. Last week, I evaluated those predictions. This week come my 2011 predictions. It’s a fun exercise, if only to see how bad you blow it 12 months from now…
1. China will back off.
Why: It has been widely noted that China seemed to suddenly get aggressive last year. They got to bullying about the South China Sea, and their behavior over the island conflict with Japan seemed extreme to almost everybody. (The video above comes from a Japanese YouTube contributor; I tried to find one that is less ideologically questionable, but generally, there is agreement now that the Chinese fisherman purposefully rammed the Japanese coast guard, per the vid above. It is worth noting that Chinese fishermen also do the same thing to the SK coastguard – only the Koreans don’t make such a big deal out of it.) But my sense is still that the Chinese aren’t foolish enough to provoke real local balancing against them – at least not yet while they are still comparatively weak. China has invested a lot over the last few decades to prevent this possibility.While I do think medium-term balancing against China is likely, I also think the Chinese think about this a lot and want to avoid it as long as possible. Events like the video above tell me that China has a big bureaucracy with multiple factions struggling to control foreign policy in a system where the chain of command is blurry and civilian control is disputed – common problems in dictatorships . My guess is last year’s belligerence was a mix of free-lancing by tougher elements to prove a point but not a conscious strategy shift toward provocation. China’s not really the ‘responsible stakeholder’ we want it to be, but I don’t think they are openly reckless suddenly either. They are likely to pull back this year toward conciliation – at least until they are stronger.
2. North Korea won’t pull any big stunts this year.
Why: Last year NK pulled some of its most foolish, dangerous tricks in years. And it got what it wanted. The whole world is once again paying attention to its noxious tin-pot dictatorship. China gave it cover, twice!, and more cash. It once again made SK look weak, vulnerable, and confused, right after the nice G-20 raised SK’s global profile. (What better way to play the spoiler of an event that made Korea look modern and normal?) Intelligent western analysts went on record saying stupid things that sound awfully close to appeasement. SK caved and once again called for the 6 Party Talks; this opens the door, yet again, for the North to play the other 5 parties off each other for gain. Not bad for a broke, dysfunctional gangster-state. So there isn’t much more to be gotten from raising the temperature further, and the costs for them are rising. The DPRK doesn’t really want to provoke a war, and SK attitudes seem to be hardening on responses. NK gimmicked its way into most of what it wants, so I anticipate calm for a while – at least until some other regime crisis (famine, currency collapse, Kim Jong-Il’s death) pushes another KPA outburst for attention and money.
3. Nothing much interesting will happen in South Korea or Japan
Why: Korea seems pretty pleased with itself as it is and should be. Inflation, unemployment, debt, deficit, tax rates, and poverty are all low. (If you are a Westerner and that sentence makes you gasp in envy, it should. Korea’s macroeconomics are miraculous). It has little reason for any major domestic shifts, while in foreign affairs it is increasingly a status quo power. That means that while it is de jure, in the constitution, committed to ending the intra-Korean stalemate, de facto, the SK population doesn’t really want to sacrifice too much for that goal anymore. They just want to be a rich trading state and for NK to go away. So expect more of the same muddling along on the NK issue, crisis-by-crisis. There are no big reasons for Korea to do anything really new this year (notwithstanding that external events might force something of course.) Japan is the opposite; it desperately needs to change. But it can’t, because its population is terrified of confronting the enormity of its troubles, and its corrupted political class is trapped in decades of merry-go-round immobilism. I see no willingness to address the spiraling debt, the overprotected sectors like retail, ag, or construction, the history and territory issues with the neighbors, or broken political system. Hugging the US alliance tight allows these issues to be pushed off indefinitely, and I see nothing to suggest Japan will finally grow-up this year. Stasis, functional and dysfunctional respectively, will be the rule on both sides of the Korea Strait in 2011.