Today's date:
Winter 2011

China Challenges Unipolar Naval Power in Asia

Robert Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.

Seoul—The exchange of artillery fire between the two Koreas, which followed revelations of 2,000 North Korean centrifuges producing uranium for a new reactor, constitutes a direct challenge to President Barack Obama’s Asia policy. The latest gust of militarism and aggression from Pyongyang also demonstrates the fragility of the current system of power relationships throughout this critical region.

Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, in repeated trips have been at pains to declare that America is now focusing on East Asia, after the distractions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But China, in declaring the South China Sea a “core interest,” and now the actions of North Korea, is challenging the United States for primacy. A dominant US Navy and Air Force will in coming years be challenged by the rise of China’s own air and sea battle architecture.

North Korea’s aggression thus threatens not only South Korea but also Japan. Its leadership is as much national-fascist as communist and has manifested deep hostility to the Japanese, who occupied the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. In short, Japan is getting real-life experience of what maritime Asia would be like without unipolar America power.

The US administration should expect no respite from Pyongyang. The great Asian proclivity for thinking in terms of the long arc of history is absent in North Korea, the only country in east Asia whose leaders have no strategic vision for the long term. They are obsessed with short-term survival, most clearly expressed by their nuclear program. Precisely because economic liberalization could destabilize the fragile police state, the Kim family knows there is no way to guarantee survival except through a nuclear deterrent.

America’s fear of North Korea’s ability to proliferate—let alone to detonate—a primitive weapon in the face of an invasion is what brings Washington to the bargaining table. The North Koreans know that if Saddam Hussein had had nuclear capability in 2003, he and his sons would be in power today. Consequently the North Koreans have invested much in their program. They risk relations with neighbors South Korea and China precisely because of the program’s centrality to regime survival.

An aggressive nuclear program coupled with military attacks on South Korea, including the sinking of a South Korean vessel by a submarine last March, are also a way for new leader Kim Jong-eun to cement his credentials. In his twenties and with little experience, Kim Jong-eun is being spurred along by his powerful uncle and aunt, Jang Song-taek and Kim Kyonghui, each possessing a network of power relationships.

This means that for the first time in its history, North Korea now has a multi-polar leadership, in which power is not concentrated in the hands of one person. A regime that is illegitimate and divided best stays in power by keeping its people on a permanent war footing, which in turn encourages disparate elements of the power structure to pull in one direction.

The heightened aggression shown by North Korea therefore may be a sign that the regime is in deep trouble. A sudden implosion could unleash the mother of all humanitarian problems, with massive refugee flows toward the Chinese border and a semi-starving population of 23 million becoming the ward of the international community—in effect the ward of the US, Chinese and South Korean armies. Yet while regime change in the North is welcome in the abstract, we should remember that the only thing that might be worse than a totalitarian government is no government at all: a lesson we all should have learned from Iraq.

In any case, the relatively benign security climate governing East Asia in recent decades is starting to close. That climate was defined by unipolar American naval power and a quiescent North Korea. Both allowed economic growth across the region. With the rise of China’s military, an American military that might face cuts at home, and a less stable and more truculent North Korea, the East Asian environment can no longer be taken for granted. This will put a new burden on the militaries of all states, from Japan southward to Australia. More to the point, it will test US-China relations as never before.

© Financial Times