Commentary / Japan

Weighing the impact of Korea and Taiwan crises on the region

by Kuni Miyake

Last weekend, the Canon Institute for Global Studies conducted a 24-hour policy simulation (or so-called war game) focused on simultaneous crises in the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan in the foreseeable future.

This was the 31st game hosted by CIGS — a Tokyo-based think tank whose foreign policy/national security shop I direct — since 2009, and some 50 participants, including government and Self-Defense Force officials, regional experts, scholars, businesspersons and journalists, gathered Saturday morning to play roles as officials or reporters from North and South Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan and the United States.

The participants in the war game performed so realistically that the outcome of the simulation became something worth examining. Although CIGS will eventually publish a more detailed report on this event, the following is my personal take on its outcome.

This time the simulation was based on the following assumptions:

First, in the year 20XX, the U.S. president agrees with his North Korean counterpart to lift financial sanctions as well as to gradually withdraw the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) over four years in return for Pyongyang dismantling its intercontinental ballistic missiles as the first step toward complete denuclearization.

Second, while Taiwan finally loses all its official diplomatic relations with other countries, in a referendum by the local government in Taiwan’s Quemoy island near the mainland, an overwhelming majority of the residents vote for “belonging to mainland China” rather than “belonging to Taiwan (the Republic of China).”

This is just another war game and we should neither overestimate the lessons we learned from it, nor believe that those are the things likely to happen in East Asia in the future. Having said that, the endgame of the latest policy simulation was neither rosy nor promising and my tentative takeaways are the following points.

Team North Korea

Pyongyang’s strategy was to secure its survival by agreeing with the U.S. on “denuclearization,” while it had no intention to completely denuclearize itself. It was ready to dismantle its ICBM programs but would not give up its shorter-range missiles. While it accepted verifications, it would hide sensitive items in secret places.

Pyongyang, however, may not welcome a complete withdrawal of the USFK, which would include the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense systems, either. This would eliminate the U.S. threat to the Chinese missile arsenal and strengthen China’s grip on North Korea.

Team South Korea

Seoul’s strategy was to promote inter-Korea rapprochement while maintaining a strong South Korea-U.S. alliance. Seoul, therefore, did its best to slow down the USFK withdrawal, while trying to improve economic relations with Japan. Tokyo’s mistrust toward Seoul, however, was too strong to achieve that goal.

Team Taiwan

Taipei was helplessly divided. While realist leaders favor well-balanced relations with mainland China, pro-American politicians believe that only strong ties with the United States will guarantee the security of Taiwan. The gap between the two camps was never bridged during the simulation.

This might have been one of the reasons why Taipei’s initial response to the Quemoy plebiscite was so slow and ineffective that Taiwan eventually allowed Beijing’s military intervention on Quemoy island. Beijing didn’t hesitate to send 100,000 armed police troops to control the island.

Team China

Thanks to the U.S. gradual but unilateral USFK withdrawal, China was a natural winner without fighting. On Taiwan, however, Beijing was so uncompromising in defending its “core interests,” even by using force if necessary, that it not only failed to seize the golden opportunity but even isolated itself in the region.

Team America

While the president’s biggest concern was his reelection, his advisers were more concerned about how to make the best use of the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan in confronting China in the larger game of hegemonic rivalry between the two major powers in the Indo-Pacific region. On North Korea, Washington was ready to live with the idea of an emergency redeployment of the USFK, if Pyongyang agreed to dismantle all its ICBM programs. On Taiwan, however, the U.S. team was more active in perusing closer international security cooperation involving the armed forces of Taiwan.

Team Japan

Tokyo, as usual, could not do a lot. While Japan tried to make a deal on its abductions issue with North Korea, the talks stalled because Pyongyang gave priority to economic assistance from Japan. Shocked by the U.S. decision to withdraw USFK troops, Japan tried to further ensure the U.S. extended deterrence.

On Taiwan, Tokyo was more willing than ever to promote security cooperation with Taiwan, of course together with other like-minded countries. In the war game, a joint communique was signed by the defense ministers of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the U.S. to enhance maritime security in the region.

This is just another policy simulation, but its implications shall not be ignored. Two months ago in this column I wrote, “As in the 1930s, we are entering once more an era of uncertainties where decisions by “intuition, coincidence and misjudgment” prevail again.” At that time, I had Europe and the Middle East in mind.

Having observed the war game over the weekend, however, I wondered if the phenomena of domination by “intuition, coincidence and misjudgment” is finally becoming a reality in East Asia as well. I hope I am wrong, but the policy simulation implied otherwise.

If U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or Chinese President Xi Jinping have started making irreversibly wrong decisions and continue to do so, the entire free and open Indo-Pacific region will be in danger. As this is the region that Japan calls home, what Tokyo do?

The answer is extremely conventional. We must always keep in mind that when analyzing the global situation we should weigh each sensitive issue using logical and cool-minded thinking and we should never be emotionally driven by intuition, coincidence or misjudgment.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.