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SINGAPORE — U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent visits to Japan, South Korea and China were a key test of U.S. diplomacy in Northeast Asia. His renewed focus on the region comes amid growing anxiety in Tokyo and Seoul over Pyongyang’s nuclear brinkmanship and increasing resistance on the part of Moscow and Beijing to the hard line the United States has adopted toward both Iraq and North Korea.

Washington’s traditional alliances and ties are being challenged in Northeast Asia as China’s influence increases. Russian influence in the region is growing as well. Japan’s decline, meanwhile, contrasts starkly with the rise of the Chinese giant. Already in dire straits, the weak Japanese economy will suffer substantially more if the Korean crisis causes regional confidence to further erode.

Tokyo has urgently looked to Washington for security assurances, even though the U.S. military presence in Japan continues to stir controversy (although to a lesser degree recently because of Pyongyang’s actions). The Japanese government is now walking a diplomatic and political tightrope between openly siding with Washington on Iraq and Pyongyang, and keeping the door open to negotiations with Pyongyang in line with the diplomatic wishes of Seoul, Beijing and Moscow.

Under new left-leaning President Roh Moo Hyun, South Korea appears to be progressively distancing itself from the “hawkish” American position. Roh appears to be supported by the country’s younger “386 generation,” which does not carry harsh memories of the bitter Korean War and thus has no qualms about demanding a more “balanced” relationship with Washington.

Roh’s inauguration heralds a “new” South Korea, which may not necessarily be the staunchly faithful and loyal American ally that the U.S. has known for the past 40 years. A more “mature” relationship will now have to be worked out between Seoul and Washington, which could affect the presence of U.S. forces on Korean soil. In the longer term, South Korea will most likely seek to balance U.S. and Japanese power by allowing Chinese and Russian influence to rise on the Peninsula.

China is using the Iraq and Korean crises to challenge U.S. diplomacy. Although it is in China’s own interest to seek a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, Beijing is nervous about Washington’s growing unilateralism in world affairs.

New Chinese leader Hu Jintao is taking over the helm at a very crucial time for Sino-American relations. Washington expects Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang, given its status as North Korea’s biggest economic donor. China seemed to take its first timid step toward doing so when it voted with the vast majority in the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Pyongyang’s nuclear case to the U.N. Security Council. But it is unclear whether Beijing will drop its insistence on bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang as a means of resolving the Korean crisis.

As the fourth crucial player in Northeast Asia, Russia has considerable leverage. Not only did Moscow vote against the IAEA decision to refer Pyongyang’s case to the Security Council, it also recently feted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s birthday with a gift of horses.

At this point, Moscow’s backing of Pyongyang appears to be even stronger than Beijing’s. The Kremlin would likely confront Washington if Pyongyang is outwardly challenged. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has already hinted that Russia would veto a second Security Council resolution against Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Asian diplomacy is being put to test as he explores the limits of his personal relations with U.S. President George W. Bush.

In this regard, Russo-Japanese relations are also being tested as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Putin attempt to settle outstanding issues that continue to plague Tokyo-Moscow ties.

As anti-Americanism and antiwar sentiments in the region rise, U.S. dominance in Asia will become more openly contested. America’s power and influence could diminish in the region — along with that of traditional ally Japan — to the general benefit of its major regional contenders, China and Russia.

In European history, whenever a nation became too powerful (such as Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany), an alliance of “threatened” powers coalesced to balance or counter it. Strident calls by Russia, France, Germany and China to check U.S. “unilateralism” perhaps reflects this phenomenon. Although Washington has no worries at this stage given its economic, technological and military prowess, it should nevertheless pay heed to this trend.

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