The Formation of a System of Security in Asia

By Fernando Delage (for Safe Democracy)

Fernando Delage outlines the changes in Asia‘s geo-strategic framework with the entrance of North Korea into the nuclear club. In Delage‘s opinion, China, Japan, and South Korea have a strong motivation to unite, and form a unified foreign policy with regards to Pyongyang. With the danger of nuclear contagion, as well as North Korea‘s new threat to global security, Washington does not trust the possibility of multilateral diplomatic solutions. But while Washington deliberates, Asia should act, and use the diplomatic dynamism instigated by North Korea‘s nuclear test, as an opportunity to take the first steps towards the formation of its own system of security.

Fernando Delage is a member of the Advisory Council of the journal Foreign Politics in Spain.

ON OCTOBER 9TH, FOLLOWING the announcement it had made a week before, North Korea detonated its first nuclear bomb, thus becoming a member of the nuclear club.

The nuclear test delivered a frightening blow to the worldwide efforts to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As if the agenda of global security were not full enough, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, and the instability in the Middle East; now a new challenge has arisen in Asia.

As in all of the above global threats, it has been the United States’ role to have the last word. As the only superpower, Washington should be the leader of a multilateral system to avoid the greater proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The problem is that the current administration does not believe in multilateral approaches. Washington’s recent agreement on nuclear energy with India, still subject to ratification by Congress, is evidence of a latent hypocrisy that has not escaped foreign eyes.

The United States should ask itself if its declared hostility to North Korea has been productive. After four wasted years, the Bush administration adopted a policy in 2005, similar to Clinton’s (which the Republicans had harshly criticized), but by that point it was too late.

It will not be easy to solve this dilemma: Washington does not have faith in the possibility of a diplomatic solution (perhaps with good reason), but it also lacks any viable military answers.

And while the United States reconsiders its strategy, it is the neighboring countries who will have to formulate a response urgently. With his nuclear test, Kim Jong-il has successfully shaken the equilibrium on the continent, and created a grave danger of contagion. Will Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan want to develop the bomb as well? The only thing that is certain is that Pyongyang has set off a diplomatic dynamism, which could offer an opportunity to the region to take the first steps in forming a stable, united network of security.

Pyongyang’s actions have put great strains on South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, which obliged Seoul to take a more accepting attitude of the North. China has also felt greatly betrayed by its long-standing ally.

The nuclear test is proof of the limits that Chinese influence has over Kim. But Chinese patience is wearing thin. After putting its diplomatic prestige on the line to stand up for North Korea in the six party talks of 2003, China will be the first now to propose the use of sanctions.

The hardening of South Korea’s and China’s positions, favors a consensus with the country that feels most threatened by Pyongyang: Japan. It was a work of destiny that Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new Prime Minister, was in Seoul upon the announcement of the nuclear test, only one day after having visited Peking.

The visits of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, to Yasukuni Temple, where he paid homage to the Japanese victims of war, as well as 14 renowned war criminals, hindered talks between the heads of state of China and Japan for 5 consecutive years. Only a week after his nomination, Abe flew to Peking, where both governments celebrated the summit as a great achievement, and agreed to look towards the future, together.

But the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations does not signify the end of problems between the two countries. The growing economic interdependence of both, and their rivalry for the leadership of Asia create a complex scenario that demands the formation of a new equilibrium. But Peking knows that without Japan, it would not be able to construct the Asian order it hopes to see in the 21st century. Tokyo is also conscious of the danger of diplomatic isolation in the region. With Koizumi’s withdrawal, it will also be easier for South Korea and Japan to recover the good relationships that should correspond between two neighboring democracies.

These three countries in North East Asia find themselves now with a lot of motivation to unite, and form a deliberate and unified foreign policy towards North Korea. Kim Jong-il has done an excellent job in judging the timing of his actions, but he has almost completely disregarded the consequences. Asia will no longer tolerate blackmail.

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