By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
Among others, at present, the East Asian theatre could be characterised by two key distinctions. First, with Donald Trump as the US president, regional politics is led by a squad of ‘aggressive’ leaders. The leadership in each East Asian country – namely, China, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea – was already in the hands of aggressive leaders, and the US has joined this phenomenon with the Trump’s victory. Second, the ‘rising power’, China, and existing superpower, the US, both take this region as their non-negotiable influence zone and have been at loggerheads with each other.
In the above context, it could be said that East Asia is going to be the most significant theatre of international politics in 2017. It is interesting to note that in the region, neither the countries that want to maintain ‘status quo’ nor those who want to ‘revise’ it have sufficient capacity to do so. However, all of them appear to be adamant to retain their aggressive orientation; and the implications for the region will be dire.
Scholars like David Shambough have raised questions about China’s future by conducting a survey of China’s economics, politics, society, and foreign policy. However, China’s President Xi Jinping has been more aggressive in projecting himself as the ‘core leader’ in domestic politics and has been asking for a ‘great power relationship’ with the US. China has been overtly assertive in the South and East China seas, albeit its ‘soft power’ in the region is on a decline. Beijing is talking about its One Belt One Road (OBOR) project and has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) but appears to spend more attention on strangulating the US’ regional allies and friendly countries. China’s recently published White Paper on Asia-Pacific Security outlines strategies to deal with these issues but appears to be tilted towards a non-compromising attitude.
The US under the President Donald Trump’s administration also appears to be determined to challenge Chinese aggressiveness. The US’ priority regarding East Asia in general and China in particular could be gauged from the fact that in the first foreign visit by the new administration’s representative, US Defense Secretary James Mattis went to South Korea and Japan and assured its allies. President Trump has indicated that on trade issues, South China Sea, cyber security and North Korea, China has to listen to Washington, or else Taiwan or other issues that are considered as settled may be brought on board again. Having a phone conversation with the Taiwanese President immediately after his election might be a glimpse of this policy. It seems that although President Trump had initially demanded more burden-sharing of the alliances from Japan and South Korea – which may have created a drift in the relations – the administration has realised that these allies are extremely important to Washington’s counter-strategy against Beijing, and have therefore decided to postpone burden-sharing issue.
Unfortunately, by announcing the end of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), by announcing ‘America First’ by trade protectionism, and by restricting immigration, Trump is going to necessarily hurt these allies. Overall, it seems that the US has neither the domestic means nor a detailed external strategy in place to check China but yet, it’s eager to do so.
Japan’s search for its ‘pride place’ is going to be another important variable in the East Asian regional politics in 2017. Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is determined to retrieve Japan’s economic viability and military strength, under his leadership. Prime Minister Abe has been gradually working to make required changes in the Japanese constitution and other legal documents. Furthermore, he seeks to challenge China, maintain good relations with the US and reach out to the Southeast Asian countries. Tokyo wants to challenge Beijing not only in the East China Sea where the two countries have a dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), but also in the South China Sea. In doing so, Tokyo needs to forge better relations with the Southeast Asian countries. However, it may be noted that Japan’s aggressiveness is equally alarming for the Southeast Asian countries and South Korea. Furthermore, Prime Minister Abe’s military posture must be supported by Japan’s economic recovery; and despite all the hype of ‘Abenomics’, that is still not taking place.
For South Korea, 2017 began with political crisis in which President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment by the National Assembly is being vetted by the constitutional court. There is strong possibility that she would finally be impeached, and the next president – who would be elected in mid-2017 or in the latter half of the year – would not be from the conservative party. Perhaps this is why South Korea’s Acting President, Hwang Kyo-an, has been trying to push the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea and military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan to an irreversible stage. It would be a tumultuous year for South Korea both in the domestic politics as well as its foreign policy, which has to position itself in the great powers’ contest in the region along with ongoing aggressive posturing of North Korea at its doorsteps.
Although, Pyongyang is determined to continue its provocative and aggressive behaviour, an active US involvement would make it difficult for North Korea to do so. President Trump has announced to change former US President Barack Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ vis-a-vis North Korea. Even though he does not get enough support from China in resolving the North Korean issue, he would take bilateral actions or steps with its regional allies, Seoul and Tokyo, to cap Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. China would utilise President Trump’s desperation on North Korea as a bargaining chip with the US. In all probability, North Korean foreign policy as well as domestic politics would witness significant change in 2017. If the US and China are unable to deal with the North Korean issue, there would be stronger demands by South Korea and Japan to go nuclear along with continuous increase in their defence expenditure.
Overall, 2017 will be a determining year in geopolitical relations in East Asia as well as globally; and unfortunately, it appears that there will be more overt contestations and face-offs between the regional countries. It will be a big test for the quest for a liberal order in the region and regarding the arrival on a modus vivendi of coexisting with differences.
*Sandip Kumar Mishra Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; and Visiting Fellow & Columnist, IPCS