This is a reprint of an essay first published by the Lowy Institute a week ago.
The reversion of OPCON – operational wartime control of the South Korean military – to South Korea is finally over. After 10 years of endless meetings, papers, op-eds, and power-points, everyone seems to have realized it was a basically a huge mistake (which it was). The US and Korea recently agreed to push it off the 2020s, which is another way of saying it will probably never happen.
The irony is that almost as soon as reversion was agreed to last decade, the South Koreans got cold feet and tried to have it changed back. No one seems to have thought that closing down the Combined Forces Command would mean that Korea would have to do a lot more for its own defense and stop free-riding so much. Once that reality hit by the end of President Roh’s term, ‘US imperialism’ didn’t look so bad after all: it meant Seoul could continue to woefully under-invest in defense. So here we are at last, back to where we started from. And honestly, it is all for the best – if the US is going to stay here.
The essay follows the jump.
The China Policy Institute of the University of Nottingham in Britain is running a blog symposium – cool idea! – this week on Asia’s territorial disputes. Here is the series page, and here is my submission. I’d like to thank the CPI blog director, my friend Jon Sullivan, for inviting me to submit. Not surprisingly, I was solicited to write on Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt.
Regular readers of my work will notice some of my preferred themes – that Korean claim is probably stronger; that a Japanese acceptance of that is nonetheless necessary to legitimate that sovereignty claim; that Korea wildly overblows the importance of this conflict because ‘anti-Japanism’ is central to modern South Korean identity.
The other entries in the series are worth your time if this area interests you. I was happy to participate. Below the jump is my contribution:
The essay below is a reprint of something I wrote for the Lowy Institute a few weeks ago (original here). I got into back-and-forth with Brad Glosserman and Hugh White over Chinese foreign policy intentions. I am still not entirely sold on the idea that China is a full-blown revisionist, like Putin, or worse, Wilhelmine Germany. There are other possible explanations.
The map to the left is the so-called “Nine Dash Line,” China’s preposterously capacious maritime claim in the South China Sea. I wonder if it’s even worth noting anymore that UNCLOS can’t be possibly be used to justify this. Everyone knows that now, right? The claim is just nationalism, pure and simple.
What’s really struck me though about China’s maritime claims is how Beijing has really ramped up the tension in just a few months. In the last 9 months, China has picked serious fights with Japan (over its ADIZ), the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, and now Vietnam over that oil rig. That much bullying in such a short period of time, very obviously coincident with Xi Jinping’s ascension, pretty much tells the world that the new Chinese administration is becoming the regional bully we’ve all been fearing for 20 years. This strikes me as unbelievably foolish, as there is a very obvious anti-Chinese containment ring waiting in the wings. A lot of people in the US, Japan, and increasingly Southeast Asia would be happy to see this outcome. My strong sense is that US patience particularly is running out, and that ‘neo-containment’ is around the corner.
So this essay is a last ditch effort to try explain Chinese belligerence as an outcome of Chinese dysfunction. Let’s hope this is right, because if the hawks are right that arguments such as mine are just excuse-making for Chinese belligerence, then I guess we have to contain China. Scary stuff.
So Obama is off to Asia this week for a quick trip that is inevitably being over-hyped by every Asia analyst on the planet as some major turning point in the US relationship with Asia. It’s not: below is re-printed my original, ‘watch-elites-manipulate-the-Obama-trip’ comment for the Lowy Institute. The spin will be over-the-top as every Asia pundit races for media exposure. Presidential trips are a great opportunity for the analyst community to posture and hyperventilate about how Obama ‘must’ do this, ‘has’ to do that.
Most of that is bunk. A lot of that is 1) analysts trying to demonstrate their own relevance and self-importance – is it surprising that Asia hands defend the Asia pivot so vociferously? But there is also 2), the unwillingness of a lot of Asia hands and hawks to admit that the US does not actually ‘have’ to do anything in Asia. America has huge freedom to move here, and Asian states – both allies and China – need the US way more than we need them. Where would Asian economies be without the US consumer? And even China might be nervous about a US forces withdrawal given the open balancing behavior that would likely spark in Japan, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. So ignore all the commentary that the US ‘needs’ Asia; the real story is the opposite and that space which that gives the US to play hard-ball on things like Asian mercantilism and North Korea.
My comments to Al Jazeera on Park Geun-Hye’s first year in office
Last week at the Lowy Institute, I posted some comments on Park Geun-Hye’s first year in office as Korean president. Below is a longer re-up. In short, I think she has been ok. She’s basically done nothing on domestic policy to change the Korean status quo which so punishes schoolchildren, women, SMEs, and consumers. So much for the idea that a female president would be Korean an easier place for women.
The ‘474 plan’ is typical Korean industrial policy with its rigid planning and strict guidelines and bureaucratic guidance – all of which rejects the basic unpredictability and flexibility of market economics. It’s yet another example of the creativity-killing developmentalism that still treats Korea like a second-world economy in the 1970s. In the US, the Tea Party would call 474 communism. And if she really believes she can get per capita GDP up to $40,000, she’s in a dream-world.
On foreign policy, she’s managed North Korea well enough. And that is good enough for any Korean president. But she’s really dropped the ball on Japan. She’s been unable or unwilling to stop the tit-for-tat downward spiral. If I had to guess, I would say it’s because he father so obviously loved Japan, right down to his own samurai sword, that she has to go overboard the other way. Abe is creepy, but the Korean media doesn’t help and Park’s done little to guide the conversation in a healthier way.
Here’s that essay:
The pic is President James Monroe. It comes from the White House website.
The following is a re-up of my monthly column for the Diplomat. Basically, I try to sketch what a Chinese hegemony in east Asia in the coming decades might look like. Increasingly, I think the Monroe Doctrine is a good model. I find it highly unlikely China will occupy or invade anyone, especially in the nuclear age. That strikes me as another hawk fantasy on China, the kind of thing that helps justify huge American defense budgets. But it’s not ridiculous to imagine China trying to carve out a sphere of influence. Indeed, I think it would be surprising if they did not, and that is why everyone is freaking out about the South and East China Seas clashes. Here is that essay:
This graphic is a word-cloud of the president’s state of the union address last week. I am not even sure the word ‘Asia’ is in there.
The following is a local re-up of a piece I originally wrote for the Lowy Institute, where I now blog twice a month. Basically, I argue a theme regular readers here will have heard before – that the ‘pivot’ to Asia is mostly an elite project in the US and that most Americans don’t really care about Asia that much. If I say ‘China’ to my friends in the US, the first thing they think of is cheap stuff in Walmart. So whenever anyone tells me that Asia ‘needs’ the US, or that we’re ‘ceding’ Asia to China, or even Russia (oh, please), because we missed the ASEAN Regional Forum or whatever, I just roll my eyes. Without the American consumer Asian economies would collapse, and, Red Dawn fantasies aside, no Asian state is a security threat to the US (barring the infinitesimally small likelihood of Chinese nuclear strike on the US homeland).
What that means is that the only Americans who think that the US needs Asia are those who support US global hegemony and therefore cannot differentiate among US core interests – such as basic stability in Canada and the Caribbean basin, or a secure oil flow from the Persian Gulf – and US choices to be involved in places like Iraq or South Korea. The pivot to Asia, much like NATO 20 years after the Cold War, is a choice, not a necessity. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t ‘pivot’ – indeed, I think it is a good idea myself – but it must also be admitted that retrenchment from many of these commitments would not obviously harm US security, even if many allies would not like it. Neocons and think-tanker far too often elide this crucial distinction. Is Asia important? Does it matter? Yes, sure. Does the US need Asia? No – unless you believe the US and its globe-spanning hegemony are identical (hint: they aren’t). US allies interests are not always synonymous with America’s and if we don’t see that, we invite free-riding, chain-ganged conflicts, and a gargantuan national security state.