I know the only thing people want to talk about now is Trump, but here is a parting review of Obama in Asia. I wrote this a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. All in all, I’d say he did about as well as you could expect.
There are no good solutions to our challenges out here, just as there were none to communist power in the 1950s. Hawks calling for ‘toughness’ and ‘leadership’ should remember that rollback was a catastrophe (in the Korean War) that almost ignited WWIII. We then settled for ‘hanging tough’ until communist power imploded, which it did. The contemporary Asian analogue of hanging tough is Obama’s ‘strategic patience.’ Everyone criticized it, but no one has a better option that isn’t hugely risky. So stop complaining about strategic patience until you’ve got a better, genuinely workable idea.
This is a local re-post of an essay wrote for The National Interest about 10 days ago. Basically, I’m curious why the Chinese are making such a huge deal out of THAAD missile defense. They’ve been bullying South Korea relentlessly for a year or so now over this. But THAAD doesn’t even impact them, as everyone knows now. That graphic over, from the Heritage Foundation, nicely illustrates that.
So the big question is why. Why is China making a huge deal of something where it’s so obviously on the wrong side of the debate? (Everyone can see North Korea’s nuclear missile program and South Korea’s obvious need for a ‘roof.’) Why does China think something this minor – THAAD has no impact on Chinese strategic forces – is worth wrecking a decent relationship with South Korea, one of the few regional states that is not that scared of China’s rise? Is this coercive diplomacy to prove Chinese regional hegemony, with South Korea being the first target to be bullied into knuckling under? Is Vietnam next? Or does China really care about North Korea so much that it wants NK to be able to blackmail South Korea with nuclear missiles?
I can’t believe that latter explanation is right. To me, this is China feeling its oats. It’s rising; no longer feels it has to keep its head down per Deng’s early advice. Now it’s number 2 in the world, on the way to being the world’s largest economy. So it’s going throw its weight around, and the states closest to it will feel the hammer of its prestige-seeking fall first.
The big question I suppose is whether Duterte actually follows through. He has already shown himself to be a ‘trumpian’ nutball character, talking about killing millions of drug-dealers and users while praising Hitler. Previous associates have claimed him to be erratic and difficult. Sound familiar?
And just as I figure Trump would not follow through on his outlandish promises, like stealing Iraq’s oil, or retrenching from Asia, because it would be too hard – fighting all the interest groups in Washington, Congress, DoD, and so on – so I figure Duterte may just be spouting off. When he collides with the reality that no one in Asia trusts China, that his own people don’t want to give up Scarborough Shoal, this his own military is terrified of cutting links with the US to line up with China, I imagine his ‘pivot’ to China will be hard to pull off.
But let’s say he does take the Phils out of the US Asian alliance network. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he comes to rue that decision. China has no allies; it has purely transactional relationships with places like N Korea, Pakistan, or Myanmar. Beijing would screw them over in a heartbeat if it was in its strategic interests. So I have little doubt that Beijing will come knocking again in the future, asking Manila to surrender all claims to the Spratlys too, or to ‘permit’ China to operate in its airspace. If you think a state run as a nasty authoritarian oligarchy at home, is suddenly going to be a liberal abroad, disappointment is coming.
This a local re-posting of an essay I just wrote this week for The National Interest here. That pic is mine, taken next to the US embassy in Seoul.
Basically, I’m amazed at how unhinged the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense debate has become in South Korea. The South Korea left is really digging in its heels and turning this into a huge issue. ‘Activists’ have shaven their head and and thrown eggs at officials supporting deployment. Opposition lawmakers even went to Beijing, which strongly opposes the deployment, to ‘apologize.’ The National Assembly, now with a leftist majority, wants a vote on THAAD, and this might even become a presidential election year.
I honestly don’t understand this at all. All THAAD does is raise South Korea’s missile defense roof by about 100 kms. That’s it. SK already has lower tier missile defense, and THAAD’s radar adds nothing that the US doesn’t already have (contrary to China’s assertions, which the Chinese know but won’t admit). Yet the South Korea left and China (cynically) are treating this like the apocalypse, as some massive re-orientation of the northeast Asian strategic landscape. It’s not.
This is not intended to seem partisan. I actually agree with the SK left on a lot of domestic issues, such as better regulation of the chaebol, press freedom, protests rights, the SK right’s creepy mccarthyism. But on North Korea, I just don’t get the SK left at all, and running off to China over THAAD looked like craven appeasement of a bully. Appalling flunkeyism.
Anyway, read after the jump about why THAAD only buys SK a little more time to figure out to response to NK missilization. It’s hardly a revolution.
This is the English-language original of an op-ed I published in this week’s Newsweek Japan. I was thinking about what if any impact the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea, and China’s full-throated objection to it, will have on Japan. Three things come to mind:
1. Given the size of Japan’s economy, Japan is more absolutely dependent on SCS freedom of navigation than anyone else. Its straight-up dollar interest in FON down there is huge. It is hard to imagine Japan not getting pulled in just by the criterion alone.
2. China need not start a war or do anything very dramatic to cause genuine trouble for Japan in the SCS. It only needs to stop a few transiting ships for a few days for ‘health inspections’ or ‘environmental concerns.’ Or its fishermen or coast guard could ram or block ships. Once the pressure of an incident rose, China would release the ships, saying that they were now in compliance with some bogus regulation. This would send a clear signal that China has its boot on Japan’s windpipe but in a very oblique way that would make responding to China very hard. The Chinese have proven themselves adept at this sort of salami slicing. Future one- or two-day stoppages for specious health or traffic safety reasons would constantly be hanging out there as a potential threat. At the very least, it would drive up the cost of shipping and insurance.
2. The US is probably not going to fight a major conflict with a near-superpower just over shipping lanes. Were Japan directly attacked, sure, the US would intervene. But the Chinese aren’t stupid. They learned from the massive counter-balancing the Soviets incurred when they tried to bully everyone during the Cold War. The Chinese are much more oblique and crafty, and they’ll work hard to avoid a direct military confrontation with the US. This too will likely force Japan to get more involved.