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Danger is mounting in Asia

by Fred Hiatt

The Washington Post

As U.S. 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 cliche.

The cliche 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 U.S. 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.

Meanwhile, China’s increasing assertiveness discomfits neighbors throughout Southeast and East Asia. China has claimed pretty much the whole South China Sea, though its coastline is farther from much of it than that of Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines. It has sent planes and ships to challenge Japan over a few rocky outcroppings that Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyu Islands. It has been steadily increasing the size and capability of its military forces; for the first time in many years, a neighbor, Japan, is following suit.

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 longtime 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.

China is a rising power and a growing economy — but led by a one-party regime that may be tempted to use nationalism to distract a restive population from domestic troubles. Japan has discarded one prime minister after another, pretty much on an annual basis, for most of the past decade, an instability that leaves it punching below its economic and military weight.

All of this makes the region hungry for U.S. 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 U.S. policy, too, will be shaped by political weakness. They notice when the U.S. Navy announces that it is, again, reducing its planned number of ships or U.S. Defense 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 pull Obama’s attention. They hope it won’t take a more dangerous crisis in their region to make the pivot a reality.

Fred Hiatt is the Post’s editorial page editor

  • Guest

    This leaves several questions to beg an answer. Indeed, Asia is becoming an economic power, but the standard of living in places like China and India have lagged well behind most of the West by a hundred years or so which will end up absorbing much of their new-found wealth for generations to come. In the meantime, however, any of these countries end up only hurting themselves and their “image” with incessant squabbling over the past. The pettiness being exhibited merely demonstrates that none of these “civilizations” are ready to become world leaders or, much less, even become responsible members of a global cooperation of mankind.
    It is one thing to govern your own country and it’s people. It is quite another to get along with your neighbours while doing it.

    • Christopher-trier

      “Asia” “is” becoming “an” economic power? By that you mean that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong are not already major economic powers or centres? Realise that everything from Nicosia to Tokyo is Asia. That bit of pedantry aside, your comment is otherwise spot-on.
      If one’s view of China does not extend past Shanghai’s economic core, Beijing’s political nerve centre, or Hangzhou’s more pleasant areas it is forgiveable to think that China has gone further than it truly has. Outside these few isolated pockets of prosperity it is a different matter. Anhui, bordering China’s wealthiest province, is utterly poor and backwards. India is an utter mess.Great wealth and profound poverty right up against each other, the poverty having the larger share of the population.

      It will take so much effort to govern China and India that they might not be able to become the hyper-powers that many would expect, if not like them, to. China’s hatred of Japan is hardly flattering and it misses the reality that Japan has done a great deal to help China develop over the past few decades, especially after the complete economic collapse which China subjected itself to under Mao. India’s tendency to blame the British for all their failings, most of which resulted from Nehru’s economic policies and their own political corruption, is also hardly the sign of a mature society.

    • sonny317

      The local Governments in South East Asia take little stock of what the ‘common people’ need or want. They pay lip service to ‘progress’ but their eyes are on their immediate neighbors and all are jealous of each other. It is precisely this reason that we the USA could end up in a war in Asia. We have treaties with several countries there, not to mention our membership in ASEAN. The fledgling democracies in Myanmar and Thailand are struggling just to overcome the massive corruption and inherent nepotism and cronyism just to stay viable and Viet Nam is still working to overcome the long war they fought with us. Add the growing Islamic influence in Malaysia and Indonesia and the pot boils steadily. It does not matter who the US President is he or she will have their hands full in the next few years while all these jealous countries jockey for their slice of the global pie.

  • Christopher-trier

    As odd as it might sound considering the financial crisis there, this is a great century in which to be from Europe. Our old continent still has a high quality of life, unemployment outside of the disaster zones is fairly low, and even in the disaster zones it is not much worse than in the USA when similar standards are used. Best of all, we are largely irrelevant. With no major conflicts looming, with few real commitments abroad our problems have become somewhat less frightening in comparison.

    As for Asia, my fear is that Obama will provoke China one too many times. He’s quite good at that, but he does not have the credibility Bush had. Bush at least carried through with his threats making the US less likely to be seen as a true paper tiger.