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The United States Is Marginalizing Itself in Northeast Asia

The United States Is Marginalizing Itself in Northeast Asia

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for China Susan Shirk warns that growing nationalism in South Korea and Japan will exacerbate the Bush administration's inept diplomacy in the North Korean nuclear crisis. She examines possible multilateral options for the region.

By Leslie Evans

"The other countries ... are interested in multilateralism ... as a way of restraining the United States as well as North Korea."

[The following is an edited text of the seventh session of Honors Collegium 155, given in Dodd Hall at UCLA May 15 by Susan Shirk, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Dr. Shirk is currently a professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego. This unusual 10-part seminar for undergraduates is also open to the general public. The class is sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. Dr. Shirk is the author of How China Opened Its Door: The Political Success of the PRC's Foreign Trade and Investment Reforms and The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China.]

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Even in the last year or so there have been some dramatic foreign policy shifts in Northeast Asia, not just the North Korean nuclear crisis, that I would like to talk about this morning.

I would argue that some of these major foreign policy changes and developments in Northeast Asia have not been well recognized by the American public. They do not get a lot of treatment in our mass media and I'm not really sure that they are well understood in Washington. Let me begin my survey, of course, by talking about North Korea, because that is the one situation that I definitely would call a crisis even though the administration does not, largely because the President said he would not have two crises at the same time.

The North Korea Nuclear Crisis

North Korea has now withdrawn from the Nonproliferation Treaty. It has kicked out the international inspectors. And it has threatened to begin reprocessing the plutonium from the 8,000 fuel rods that have been sealed for the last eight years. If it does so it could produce enough plutonium for six nuclear weapons in the next six months. So this is a challenge with some real urgency.

The North Koreans, when they met with the United States and China in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, said that they have already reprocessed these fuel rods. Our intelligence agencies have thought that this is not the case, that this is just bluster. But the fact that the North Koreans have now said this puts our intelligence agencies under a lot of pressure. What if they are wrong? So therefore the latest assessment is that, well, they don't know. We're pretty sure they haven't completely reprocessed all the 8,000 fuel rods.

It is also worth pointing out that North Korea has long range missiles, that they have tested, that can deliver a nuclear weapon to Japan, including our forces in Japan, or even to Alaska. Of course they can also sell this nuclear material to other hostile states or to terrorists. They are desperate for cash, and they have a track record of selling whatever they have to sell to anyone who has got the money to buy: missile technology, drugs -- why not nuclear material. Another thing worth pointing out is that North Korea threatens a lot, but past history shows that what they have threatened to do they usually do.

A Major Shift in Public Opinion in South Korea

Moving on to South Korea, there have been dramatic changes as well. South Korea is now the eleventh largest economy in the world. In the last year or so South Korea has strengthened its relations with Russia, and particularly with China. Its foreign policy is less dependent on the United States than it used to be. When you look at public opinion polls in South Korea you see that people now, and I find this extraordinary, that people in South Korea view their cold war allies, the United States and Japan, more negatively than they view their old cold war enemies, namely North Korea and China. They have a more positive assessment of North Korea and China than of the United States.

Support for the alliance with the United States has declined from 89% in 1999 to 56% in 2002. This public opinion was reflected in the massive demonstrations during the winter presidential campaign in favor of kicking out U.S. forces from Korea. And of course the Korean people elected a president, Roh Moo-hyun, who is today visiting Washington. They elected a president who is on record favoring the withdrawal of U.S. forces, although he has now changed his position and I will return to that. The economic relationship between China and South Korea has also become very strong.

Growing Nationalism in Japan

What about Japan. There is a growing nationalism in Japan as well, and some of it is reflected in anti-Americanism. But in Japan this is tempered by a real worry about a rising China. And so the nationalism tends to be more focused on China than in a negative way on the United States.

The Japanese are moving closer to what is called a normal power. Meaning one that has a military role as well as a political and economic role. During the war in Afghanistan Japan was reported to have sent ships to participate in noncombat roles with the United States, all the way to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea with the U.S. Navy. They even sent an Aegis cruiser, the most advanced ship that anyone in the world has, to participate in that operation.

The prime minister of Japan, Koizumi, has been paying annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which is the symbol of the wartime dead from World War II. This action of going to the Yasukuni shrine really perturbs the Chinese and the South Koreans, and yet the prime minister continues to do it because in terms of his own domestic support he needs to do this. The Chinese have reacted quite negatively, refusing to have a summit meeting with Koizumi until he ceases going to the Yasukuni shrine.

A Nuclear Japan?

There is even some talk in Japan about nuclear weapons, something that had been anathema since World War II. I'm not saying that they are close to making a decision to go nuclear, but I think there are reasons to believe that if North Korea's nuclear capability is not addressed then there is a real possibility that, regardless of what the United States has to say about it, Japan will move from being a virtual nuclear power now, meaning it has material, it has technical know-how, closer to becoming a real nuclear power.

China Is Bending Over Backward to Accommodate the United States

China is probably the one important player in Northeast Asia where we could say the U.S. is benefiting from these recent changes. I would argue that in South Korea and Japan the U.S. is not benefiting from the changes. But China is now bending over backward to accommodate the United States and to have a constructive relationship with the United States. There are a whole variety of reasons for this.

China is not disagreeing with or challenging the United States. You might argue that relations with China are the best they have been since Tiananmen in 1989. China is also showing an uncharacteristic initiative in the region, stepping forward to play a leadership role in how to handle the North Korea crisis. Typically China likes to hang in the background and let others, and particularly the United States, be out in front and handle the problems. China in a sense free rides on the efforts of other major powers to solve problems. One reason they do this -- obviously free riding means they don't have to bear the risks or the costs -- is that up until very very recently China liked to say, We are still a poor third world country, we are a developing country, we are not really a major power or a leader. And I think they say this in the hopes that people won't be afraid of them. It will reduce the sense of threat from China's rise. And that you won't have other countries pointing a finger and blaming China for becoming stronger or making problems.

China's Effort to Mediate between the United States and North Korea

But recently China has become more comfortable with its identity as a major power in the region. And as they watch this crisis develop in North Korea, they have felt that they could not afford not to take some initiative. So they have offered themselves up as a mediator between North Korea and the United States, which is really a remarkable development in terms of China's international behavior. They even cut off oil shipments to North Korea for three days about eight weeks ago. They said it was just technical problems, but the message was very clear. That China is ready to exert economic pressure on North Korea, which is very significant, because China provides 70% of North Korean oil. So obviously this gesture was very much appreciated by the United States and helped bring about a greater spirit of cooperation between China and the United States.


The United States Is Marginalizing Itself in Northeast Asia

What about the United States? In response to all of these new shifts in foreign policies. I am not talking about Russia. Russia frankly is not very important in this region right now. I would argue that the United States is in effect marginalizing itself in Northeast Asia. Its role in Northeast Asia could become much less significant in the future. Its influence could diminish in the future because of how we are handling the North Korea crisis and how we are handling our relations with our allies South Korea and Japan.

South Korea, Japan, and China believe that the North Korea problem can be solved through diplomacy if the United States would only enter into the kind of diplomacy that is needed. What these three countries believe is that if the United States offered reassurance to North Korea that we will not attack them, that they can be secure so long as they give up their nuclear and missile programs, that if we could find a way to reassure them either through some formal statement or even possibly just through a presidential letter -- it needs to be written -- that North Korea would give up its weapons of mass destruction programs and integrate itself into the world. We would also need to help North Korea carry out the economic reforms that it attempted to begin last summer. Essentially they believe that former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine policy should be extended, that the United States should adopt a Sunshine policy too. I don't know whether or not this assumption is correct. But it is one that these other countries seem to believe.

The United States Won't Talk

We have been taking a very different approach to the North Korea situation than our friends and allies in Northeast Asia. Our approach has been to refuse to engage North Korea. This was true even before it was revealed this past summer that North Korea had cheated on its commitments to South Korea and to the United States and had a second uranium enrichment program that it had hidden from everyone. And when we caught them at it and discovered that they had been cheating on these prior agreements then it stiffened the administration's resistance to talking with North Korea and to pursuing this kind of diplomatic approach.

On the other hand, President Bush did not want another military engagement at the same time as we were still in Afghanistan and we were about to enter Iraq. So basically North Korea was put on the back burner and we took an approach of neglect. Just ignore North Korea, let them stew for a while and see what happens. Well, what happened was that North Korea engaged in a series of brinksmanship moves that were highly provocative, including kicking out the inspectors and claiming that they were starting up their nuclear plants, etc., etc.

To the South Koreans, the Japanese and the Chinese it looked as if North Korea was simply trying to get our attention, to get us to sit down and talk to them. And of course to us it looked like very very threatening actions on the part of North Korea and we really don't have a way of determining which it is.

That is where things stand right now. The United States did say that the solution to the North Korean problem was diplomatic, but that it had to be multilateral. We were not ready to cave in to blackmail. And with each one of those provocative steps that North Korea took, we became more resolved not to cave in to blackmail, defining simply having talks with North Korea as giving them some favor, some benefit.

China to the Rescue

The Chinese stepped in and helped us and the North Koreans save face and begin a process. They said, well, we will have a multilateral process because the process will consist of North Korea, the United States, and China. Of course North Korea was saying that they would only address the problem bilaterally and we were saying we would only address it multilaterally so the Chinese stepped in to help both sides save face.

Well this first meeting, in Beijing a few weeks ago, had quite an ambiguous result. On the one hand, in a pull-aside in the hall, the North Korean representative made the statement I referred to earlier about already having reprocessed the nuclear fuel rods, and saying, now it is up to you whether or not we use this nuclear material to sell it or use it for weapons, or not; it all depends on how you act. So that was just another step in this kind of brinksmanship. On the other hand, inside the room what the North Koreans said was that they were ready to give up their nuclear program but they should do it in a series of reciprocal steps and at the end of that process they would give it up.

But of course the United States is saying, no, you have to first give it up. And then we can talk about other things. So there is still a kind of deadlock between North Korea and the United States on this question.

Multilateral Possibilities in Northeast Asia

Now let me move to talking about multilateralism. The Bush administration is now advocating a multilateral approach to the security problems in Northeast Asia. This is a major turnaround in U.S. policy. Of course right now there is no multilateral institution or process in Northeast Asia. In fact all of Asia is notable for the lack of formal multilateral mechanisms to handle security issues. This is a striking contrast with Europe, which of course is at the other end of the spectrum with a lot of multilateral structure.

Asia does now have the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is for the entire region, all the Asian countries plus the United States, Australia, Canada, and the EU. This organization is led by the Southeast Asians and I think it is fair to say that it hasn't accomplished very much. The major powers in the region, including the United States, describe it disparagingly as a talk shop. A lot of meetings, kind of feel-good talk, but not really solving problems. The ASEAN Regional Forum hasn't solved the South China Sea problem. It didn't solve the East Timor problem. It can't solve the North Korea problem. It exists and people are glad it is there, but it really hasn't managed to do much.

We also have APEC -- Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation -- and APEC does have an annual summit of the leaders of APEC countries, which again is a very broad regional organization, but that meeting hasn't proved to be very useful either and it only happens once a year. APEC is basically an economic organization, which hasn't even been very effective in terms of producing greater trade liberalization or cooperation.

Northeast Asia is one of the most dangerous places in the world. It is one of the places where there really is still a risk of war. Not just on the Korean peninsula but also in the Taiwan Strait. And yet there is no official multilateral mechanism. And a lot of that is because the United States hasn't wanted one. Let's go back to the first Bush administration. The United States has said that we preferred, as the most powerful country in that region, to use our bilateral relations to solve problems. We liked what we called the hub and spokes. Of course, we are the hub and then we have the spokes or the bilateral relations we have, especially with Japan and South Korea.

The Russians have been promoting a Northeast Asia regional multilateral process for some time. The South Koreans are very keen. The Japanese are very keen. And even the Chinese, who originally were quite skeptical, have come around to being much more positive about it. At present all we have is what is called a Track Two process, meaning it is not a formal government-to-government meeting. It is something that I have been very involved with since 1993, that we founded at the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. It is called the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue. And we have foreign ministry and defense officials and academics from the United States, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, and North Korea. That is probably the six countries with the most at stake in Northeast Asia, who probably should be sitting around the table talking to one another. But as yet there is no formal process.

It is worth pointing out, by the way, that a Northeast Asian multilateral process or institution would be in effect a kind of concert of powers for the entire Asia-Pacific region. Because you would have the United States, China, Russia, and Japan, the four major powers, sitting around the table. But you wouldn't have to call it a major power concert. You could call it a Northeast Asia process, because you would also have the Koreas there as well, which gives it kind of cover in this politically correct world where talking about major power concerts is probably not politically correct anymore.

Contrasting Motives for Supporting Multilateralism

So the United States has been advocating a multilateral approach to solving the North Korea problem, which represents a big change in the U.S. view of multilateralism. Now the other countries, as I said, have been more positive about having a multilateral approach than the United States has been in the past. And so I would say that now for the first time there really is the possibility that such a structure might emerge. Of course the Bush administration wants a multilateral approach so that it can share with the other countries the costs of pressuring North Korea to renounce and dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. It wants the concerted pressure of all these countries brought to bear on North Korea.

But from the standpoint of the other countries, the reason that they are interested in multilateralism now is that they see it as a way of restraining the United States as well as North Korea. They want to make sure that the United States is really willing to work diplomatically to solve the North Korea problem and not in actuality aiming at bringing down the North Korean regime, which would cause tremendous costs on North Korea's neighbors. If our goal in North Korea is not to resolve the weapons of mass destruction problem but to bring down the North Korean regime, then you are talking about tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of refugees flocking into China, getting on ships and ending up in Japan and South Korea. It could be a humanitarian and political catastrophe. It could also involve a last-ditch aggression on the part of North Korea on Seoul.

So that kind of regime change, the hard landing regime change, is something that is very much feared and opposed by other countries. And there is a suspicion, then, that at least some people in the Bush administration and perhaps even the President himself, have this as their objective, not ending North Korea's weapons programs.

Is the Bush Administration Considering Preemption in North Korea?

There is also the risk, given the Iraq precedent and our new national security doctrine, that the United States would consider preemption, a military strike on North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Certainly this is something that has also been discussed in Washington. And North Korea's neighbors are fearful that any such military action by the United States could cause North Korea to retaliate against Seoul. It has massive artillery within fifty miles of Seoul  aimed right at the South Korean capital. And it is conceivable that in addition to that conventional artillery they could use other types of weapons, including those two nuclear weapons that our intelligence agencies tell us may have been hidden in the caves before the 1994 agreement with the United States to stop reprocessing nuclear material. There are tremendous risks, including military risks, of any military preemption by the United States.

I would like to conclude by simply saying that we may be on the brink of a new multilateral initiative in Northeast Asia and like most multilateral institution building it is usually the result of different countries having different motives. Our motive is to pressure North Korea and to share the costs of doing that with other countries. China, South Korea, and Japan's interest in multilateralism comes more from trying to find a way to restrain the actions of the United States in Northeast Asia. And so we may see that stemming from these different motives there is a new multilateral initiative in the region.

Burkle Center for International Relations