Post-Cheonan Northeast Asia Poses Policy Challenges for U.S.

HONOLULU (Sept. 6, 2010) – With a rising China, a destabilizing North Korea and a politically shifting Japan, Northeast Asia poses some big challenges for U.S. policymakers, two former National Security Council officials said recently at an informal briefing at the East-West Center. But some of the Obama administration's biggest policy hurdles related to the region may actually lie at home, they said, such as securing congressional approval on critical trade agreements.

During the informal session with journalists and EWC officials, Victor Cha, now director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and Michael Green, associate professor at Georgetown and the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, discussed evolving security, economic and social concerns in the region. Both held National Security Council staff positions in the George W. Bush administration. They were in Honolulu working on research projects as EWC visiting fellows.

During the discussion, East-West Center President Charles E. Morrison noted that Northeast Asia is an area "where we have a nuclear proliferation threat in North Korea; where we have an emerging power, China, whose economy may surpass that of the United States in the coming decades; and where we have a traditional ally, Japan, that is going through some very difficult leadership and political challenges."

Green said the March sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in what a multinational investigation team concluded was a North Korean torpedo attack sent a shockwave of effects through the entire region.

For example, he said, the implications of the attack contributed to the recent leadership change in Japan, and caused some factions there to reconsider their criticism of the U.S. military presence in the country. The abrupt resignation of short-lived Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was only the latest twist in the seemingly ever-changing Japanese leadership saga that has made it harder for the U.S. to maintain a strong strategic relationship there, he said.

The Cheonan sinking also has affected regional views of China, Green said, noting that Beijing has often turned a blind eye to North Korea's numerous provocations. This is particularly true in South Korea, he said, where "the image of China has collapsed. Even though Koreans have considerable historical issues with Japan, the [post-Cheonan] instinct there has been toward much more trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and Japan."

Cha, who served as a key Bush administration advisor on North Korea, agreed that "the Cheonan incident made clear that "the single real obstacle to Korean Peninsula reunification right now is China more than anyone else."

As for North Korea's intentions, Cha said, "It's anybody's guess, and I mean that literally, because there's so little that we know about what's going on in this country." One prevalent theory, he said, is that the attack – for which North Korea has denied responsibility – was nonetheless aimed at building the revolutionary credentials of leader Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Jong-un, who has recently emerged as his expected successor.

Meanwhile, Cha said, more policymakers in South Korea have started to view reunification of the two Koreas as the best solution for the region. Many South Korean leaders, he said, had previously seen "costs of reunification as being prohibitive. Now they still see it as high, but now they see the cost of the status quo as increasingly higher."

Cha said that, despite problems such as China's support of North Korea, the general U.S. hope is that China's rise will be accompanied by contributions to the "public good" on such issues as climate change, and that it will "operate within the international systems rather than operating outside of them or trying to change them fundamentally."

Green, however, noted that the recent financial crisis has shaken the foundations of Asian international relations, increasing the confidence of the prosperous Chinese and making them less interested in compromise.

Morrison added that key questions for the region are how China sees itself in the future and how the U.S. responds to China's rise. He said the Chinese, in the short term, don't want Korean reunification, but in the long term may accept it if a unified Korea is not too closely allied with the United States.

All the speakers agreed that President Obama's warm relationship with conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has been one of the most positive, if somewhat unexpected, developments in U.S. relations in Northeast Asia.

However, Green pointed out that the relationship could potentially be undermined by the difficulty of getting the long-pending Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement ratified by Congress. More than 100 Democrats have signed a letter raising concerns over the agreement and Obama's goal of getting congressional approval for it by the end of the year, he said.

Cha agreed that – ironically for a president who has not been known as a strong supporter of free trade – the success of Obama's policies in Northeast Asia may rest substantially on trade issues.

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center