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Articles on Japan after 2016
East Asia's National (In)Security
Articles on Japan published before 2020

  • (october 2020) East Asia's National (In)Security.
    How much east Asia can decouple from the USA is debatable. (See The Great Decoupling: How Western Europe and the Far East could decouple from the USA The USA remains a vast market for Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese exports. More importantly, their national security depends on the US presence in their waters. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are a strange trio of country: highly developed, rich by world standards, democratic, and surrounded by an existential threat of one kind or another; but virtually disarmed. Taiwan is in a further odd situation: it's a country that officially doesn't exist. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan need the US alliance both to protect themselves from the new emerging regional superpower, China, and to protect the trade routes: they are industrial powers that lack in industrial minerals and need to import them from distant regions. Whereas Africa and the Middle East are just across the Mediterranean for Europe (and have historical ties with the European nations), Africa and the Middle East are almost at the other end of the world for east Asia, via the straits of Malacca and Hormuz and the Suez Canal. For example, 82% of Japan's oil and 24% of its natural gas come through the Strait of Hormuz (2017 data), and its dependence on oil and gas has increased since the Fukushima nuclear accident. Japan started World War II precisely to obtain access to mineral resources such as oil and iron. Japan is blessed with a strategic geographical position: it is a natural air carrier off the coast of China. During the Cold War it deterred the naval expansion of the Soviet Union and now it deters the naval expansion of China. As long as the USA wants to maintain its naval power off the coasts of China, it will need Japan; and will therefore protect Japan's trade and supply routes. So far, this alliance has worked: the Soviet Union never became a Pacific power, and China remains primarily a land power. Any change in the balance of power will be an existential threat to Japan: a retreat by the USA (due for example to a president like Trump who obeys orders from Russia or to a future president who wants to abandon Asia), a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a military treaty between China and the USA limiting the activities of the USA in that region, a North Korean invasion of South Korea, etc. While none of these scenarios is likely in the short term, they can all become likely as new leaders come to power with new foreign agendas. Usually, the first reaction to insecurity is rearmament, but Japan's national insecurity has not translated into rearmament because of its pacifist constitution and because of public opinion. Japan's 1947 constitution, crafted by the USA, forbids Japan to ever become a military power again, but it could be changed. In fact, that's precisely what Shinzo Abe wanted to do before he got sick and had to resign. Japan's public opinion, though, remains staunchly pacifist and is unlikely to approve any amendment to the constitution that would result into Japan fighting a war, any kind of war. Nothing would worry China more than Japanese rearmament.

    Taiwan is caught between two fires: China's promise to some day absorb Taiwan, and with force if necessary, and the USA's unreliable military umbrella (would the USA really go to war with China over Taiwan? There haven't been US soldiers on Taiwanese soil since 1979). Furthermore, Taiwan has come to depend more on mainland China than mainland China depends on Taiwan (40 years ago it was the opposite). Taiwan exports a lot to China (about 60% of its GDP) and tourism from mainland China is a lucrative business. The most important Taiwanese export to mainland China is precisely the kind of semiconductors that Trump's USA wants to keep from mainland China. Taiwan's foreign direct investment is also mainly directed to mainland China, and, again, vulnerable to a US-China trade war. Trying to lessen Taiwan's economic dependency on mainland China, in May 2016 Taiwan's president Ing-wen Tsai launched the New Southbound Policy (NSP) to foster bilateral and multilateral cooperation in culture, tourism, agriculture and technology with the ASEAN countries, the Indian subcontinent, Australia and New Zealand. But the NSP feels like an act of desperation: Taiwan is running out of options.

    South Korea is in a similar predicament except that the country that pledged to conquer it is not China but North Korea. In the past North Korea was unlikely to try something so outrageous and risky because it would have been easily annihilated by the USA, but the day when North Korea can strike the USA in retaliation is coming closer. That day South Korea will not be able to count on US protection just like Taiwan cannot count on it: would the USA enter a war against a nuclear armed North Korea that can strike Alaska and California? South Korea, however, has a choice that Taiwan doesn't have: nobody can really tell what would happen if South Korea suddenly became a close friend of China. China is the one country that could facilitate the denuclearization of North Korea, and today's South Koreans are more interested in denuclearization than in reunification. Even a reunification of the Korean peninsula under terms that South Korea could accept, basically by making North Korea capitulate, can only happen through Chinese intervention. For 70 years it was clear who benefited from the presence of US soldiers in South Korea: South Korea. Now that China has become the USA's #1 geopolitical rival that is no longer clear: perhaps the USA benefits more than South Korea does, or, at least, South Korea has become a highly strategic military post for the USA, at least as much as the USA is a strategic ally for South Korea. A few days ago Lee Soo-hyuck, the South Korean ambassador to the USA, stated: "we are now a country that can choose [between the U.S. and China], not be forced to choose". Just like in Taiwan's case, China is South Korea's largest economic partner. South Koreans are increasingly resentful of the way in which Trump treats South Korea: in 2018 Trump forced South Korea to revise their free-trade agreement, asked for an increase in the amount that South Korea pays for the US soldiers deployed in South Korea, and in 2018 Trump wasted the opportunity created by South Korean president Jae-in Moon to negotiate with North Korea's dictator Kim (which ended in a humiliation for both the USA and South Korea). Meanwhile, mainland China has invited South Korea to join Beijing's global data security initiative.

    All three countries have reasons to be wary about the current state of the USA. On one hand the USA is being destabilized by a pandemic that is out of control. On the other hand the USA is entering uncharted territory with an election that might be disputed (Trump shows no sign of being willing to concede). De facto, they can't count on the USA to do much for the next few months. Even worse for them is the fact that there seems to be a lose-lose situation ahead: Biden has said nothing about confronting China or North Korea, as if the fate of east Asia didn't concern him, and four more year of Trump would be four more years of chaos and incompetence.
    See also The Great Decoupling: How Western Europe and the Far East could decouple from the USA.

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