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China Will Back Off

Predictions: East Asian Politics 2011

China Will Back Off

It has been widely noted that China seemed to suddenly become aggressive last year. They got to bullying about the South China Sea, and their behavior over the Diaoyutai island conflict with Japan seemed extreme to almost everybody watching.

My sense is still that the Chinese aren’t foolish enough to provoke the local balance 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 give this great consideration 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 hazy and civilian control is disputed – both common problems in dictatorships .

My guess is that last year’s belligerence was a mix of free-lancing by the more hard line 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 have suddenly become openly reckless either. They are likely to pull back this year and move towards conciliation – at least until they are stronger.

This shocking 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 purposely rammed the Japanese coast guard ship, per the video. It is worth noting that Chinese fishermen also do the same thing to the South Korean coastguard – only the Koreans don’t make such a big deal out of it.

North Korea Won’t Pull Any Big Stunts this Year

Last year North Korea pulled some of its most foolish and most 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 (along with more cash!) and it once again made South Korea  look weak, vulnerable, and confused. This, right after the well orchestrated G-20 raised SK’s global profile. (What better way to play the spoiler of an event that made Korea look modern and normalized?)

Intelligent western analysts went on record saying unintelligent things that sounded 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 gained by raising temperatures even further, and the costs for the regime are rising. The DPRK doesn’t really want to provoke a war, and SK attitudes seem to be hardening on how they would handle future responses. NK worked its way into getting 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 outburst for attention and money.

Nothing Too Interesting Will Happen in South Korea or Japan

South 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 constitutionally committed to ending the intra-Korean stalemate, 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 overarching reasons for South Korea to do anything really new this year –notwithstanding that external events might force its hand.

Japan is the opposite; it desperately needs to change. And yet, 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, agriculture, or construction, the history and territory issues with the neighbors, or a broken political system. Hugging snugly to the US alliance allows Japan to push these issues 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.

You can read Robert E. Kelly’s highly informative Asian Security Blog here or you can email him here.

The contents of this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.




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