Danger is mounting in Asia
Friday, February 15, 2013 – As US President Barack Obama ponders his second-term foreign policy, he faces jihadists spreading across North Africa, Syria dissolving into chaos, Israelis and Palestinians further apart than ever, Iraq trending toward civil war, Afghanistan mired in corruption and Iran relentlessly accelerating its nuclear program.
That may turn out to be the easy stuff. In Asia, things could get really scary. Since he entered the White House, Obama has wanted to shift attention and resources to the Pacific. The biggest opportunities are there: economic growth, innovation, potential for cross-border investment and trade. That the 21st century will be a Pacific century has become a cliché.
The cliché may still prove out. But rather suddenly, the region of economic miracles has become a zone of frightening confrontation. The North Koreans are turning out videos depicting New York in flames. Chinese warships have fixed their weapon-targeting radar on a Japanese ship and helicopter. Quarrels have intensified between South Korea and Japan, North Korea and South Korea, China and the Philippines, India and China. Taiwan is always a possible flash point. Any one of these could drag the United States in.
The scariest development may be in North Korea, the world’s only hereditary prison camp, where the young leader — the third-generation Kim — seems determined to expand and improve his nuclear arsenal until he becomes a genuine threat not only to South Korea and Japan but to the US as well. Chinese officials are said to be alarmed by his intransigence but unwilling to try to rein him in, fearing even more the instability that might result.
Obama in his first term adopted a reasonable policy of ignoring North Korea as much as possible, while making clear that he would reciprocate if it became more accommodating. Kim Jong Un, who is thought to be in his late 20s, could find ways to make that stance untenable. If all this seems decidedly last century, maybe it’s because new leaders in every key country are second- or third-generation, bearing the burdens of their past. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the grandson of a leader of Imperial Japan — including in occupied China — who remade himself as a pro-American prime minister after World War II. South Korea’s president-elect, Park Geun Hye, is the daughter of a long time president; her mother was killed by a devotee of North Korea. (The bullet was intended for her father, who was later assassinated by his intelligence chief.)
Xi Jinping, China’s new president, is the son of a revolutionary colleague of Mao Zedong who helped battle the Japanese during World War II. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is the grandson of Kim Il Sung, who according to North Korean mythology fought the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s and the Americans and South Koreans in the 1950s. It’s intriguing to speculate on the ghostly whisperings these leaders may hear. It may be more useful, though, to focus on the national weaknesses that may propel them to act. North Korea is a failed and hungry state for which blackmail and bluster have long been the only survival strategy.
All of this makes the region hungry for US presence and leadership, which Obama understood with his first-term promise of a “pivot” to Asia. Regional leaders hope he can make good on that promise in a second term but wonder whether US policy, too, will be shaped by political weakness. They notice when the US Navy announces that it is, again, reducing its planned number of ships or US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta orders an aircraft carrier kept in port because of budgetary constraints. They wonder who will inherit the Asia focus of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and departing Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell. They see the dangers, from Mali to Kandahar that pulls Obama’s attention.(Fred Hiatt)