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J. Nguyen: North East Asia - War or Peace?

Ever since the end of World War II, North East Asia has been a very important region in global economics and politics and has the greatest geostrategic interest for China, the US, and its allies and partners.

This region is in fact the meeting place of two powerful blocs, namely the continental state of China and its client state North Korea, on one side, and the maritime powers of Japan, South Korea, and their ally the USA, on the other side. These two powerful and hostile blocs have not yet found a stable balance of power, and their relationship remains fragile and uncertain.

Pax Americana provided security and stability for this region until 2008, when the People’s Republic of China became assertive in its foreign policy after 30 years of peaceful development, creating a series of incidents and tensions with Japan directly and South Korea indirectly, with the assistance of Pyongyang. Objectively, the rise of China is the destabilizing factor for this region and other regions too.

What is China’s message? It would like to intimate to the US that China is now strong and powerful enough not to continue passively accepting the old world order established by the West, particularly the US, and that the time has come to think of a new order in world affairs.

What does China want concretely? She wants to keep American maritime power as far as possible from China’s coasts, from north to south in order to recover her ancient status as the central empire of Asia. China has the economic, financial, and human resources to challenge Uncle Sam’s declining position.

In response to this, beginning late last year and especially early this year, US President Obama made public America’s grand military strategy for Asia Pacific, complete with diplomatic and economic programs for the region. President Obama reiterated US priorities in the Asia Pacific and his decision to reorganize American armed forces in the region in order to protect American interests, allies, partners, and friends; insure free navigation in the Asian commons; and counter China’s attempts to deny free access to American and allied vessels and airplanes. His overall policy is security, prosperity and human dignity, as he solemnly proclaimed in his speech to Australia’s Parliament in November 2011.

Thus the scene seems set for a perilous confrontation between the US as a superpower and China as a rising regional power.

The risk of tension and hostility is real and serious in North East Asia, in particular because North Korea is an unknown factor. This militarized and ultra-isolated state is believed to have nuclear weapons and long-range delivery capacity. Since the death of its leader Kim Jong-il on December 17 last year, its new, very young, and apparently inexperienced leader Kim Jong-un and his regents may represent a dangerous elements of uncertainty and instability. Any internal fight for power may generate risks and perils for South Korea and Japan, because when a militarized nuclear state is under stress, strife, tension, and fear, anything could happen to nearby nations, such as South Korea and Japan and the US troops stationed there. The US and China may be drawn into a direct military confrontation with unknown consequences.

Despite this dark vision, I see many reasons for hope: China has done her utmost to stabilize the situation in North Korea, both alone and in concert with the leaders of the US, Japan, and South Korea, and as of today the power structure in North Korea seems to have evolved towards a certain degree of stability.

The second reason for hope is that the Chinese leaders on the whole have responded with moderation and wisdom to the new American strategy for the Asia Pacific region, stating that as long as this new design is not aimed at containing and threatening China they would consider US engagement in this region to be profitable for Beijing. On the American side, the intention is not so much to antagonize and confront China but rather to engage her to cooperate responsibly and transparently as a global player with due rights and obligations.

From my experience as a specialist in geopolitics, in deploying a new scheme for the Asia Pacific region, the US ultimately seeks to invite China to come to terms with the West in defining a new and just pax pacifica that offers security, prosperity, and human dignity for the region and the world at large.

This seems to me to be a fair and excellent foundation for cooperation for universal peace.