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It’s all fine and good for Prime Minister Taro Aso to denounce North Korea’s missile launch as a “provocative act.” Indeed, a missile darting across Tohoku skies understandably raises ire. Mobilizing the missile defense system sends a signal to North Korea that Japan is serious about protecting itself, but such actions also fuel South Korean and Chinese fears (as baseless as those fears may be) of a militarily re-activated Japan. In the quest for Northeast Asian stability, deploying missile defenses may be a net negative. Japanese leaders, it does seem, are caught between a rock (North Korea) and a hard place (South Korea and China).

So, what’s the best way for Aso to send the message that Kim Jong Il’s precarious power dance isn’t to be tolerated? The answer lies in the Japan-China relationship. China, the only country to really have Kim’s ear, must be the main actor in any brokered peace. This is because China and North Korea share a so-called victim identity, seeing themselves as sustaining decades of humiliation and alienation by foreign bullies. This bond gives China a leg up in finding a timely yet lasting solution to this dreadful crisis. If Japanese policymakers want to protect against the vicissitudes of Kim and assuage his paranoia, they must focus on confidence building in their own relations with China.

The onus falls on Aso. For one thing, his hardheadedness on the East China Sea controversy, which in part led to a postponement of the Japan-China summit that was originally planned for March, is a step in the wrong direction. He must realize that China holds the key to East Asian stability, and sidelining them is a grievous case of missing the forest for the trees. Simply put, coaxing Kim means courting China.

benjamin robbins

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