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Asia's Big Fear: Is America Emboldening China and North Korea?

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While world attention has focused on crises in Syria, Crimea and the Middle East, the security situation in Asia has deteriorated. As North Korea pursues another of its periodic charm offensives, it appears quiescent. Yet the regime continues to refine its nuclear strike capability. It is only a matter of time before Pyongyang resumes its escalatory, provocative behavior. That it will do so is certain; the only unknowns are the timing and the form—whether it will again violate UN resolutions through nuclear and missile tests or launch another deadly attack against South Korea.

Most experts still assess that Pyongyang has not yet mastered the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead or deliver it via missile. Media reports habitually declare that North Korean missiles cannot yet reach the United States. Based on this benign conclusion, policy makers presume the U.S. and its allies still have several years to diplomatically constrain North Korea’s nuclear program, timidly pursue incremental sanctions, and prepare military defenses. This view has led to U.S. policy complacency toward the North Korean threat.

But North Korea has likely already achieved warhead miniaturization, the ability to place nuclear weapons on its medium-range No Dong missiles, and a preliminary ability to reach the continental United States with a missile. As such, the United States and its allies face a greater threat today than is widely construed.

Pyongyang also poses a global nuclear and missile proliferation threat. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be just as belligerent and dangerous as his predecessors.

Yet, the Obama Administration continues to resist imposing the same level of targeted financial measures against North Korean violations and provocations as Washington has already levied on Iran, Syria, and Burma. Obama’s “strategic patience” policy does indeed require patience, since there is no strategy.

In response to Pyongyang’s two deadly attacks in 2010, the U.S. and South Korea have improved their joint deterrent and defense capabilities. But while the two militaries are formidable and well-integrated, Seoul’s political leaders are distracted by unresolved historic tensions with Japan which prevent the trilateral military cooperation critical to defending the Korean Peninsula.

The Abe administration’s inept handling of controversial historic issues and unwillingness to condemn politicians who utter offensive revisionist statements have needlessly exacerbated bilateral tensions with South Korea. Tokyo and Seoul must begin an overdue reconciliation process. Japan needs to go beyond its minimalist, legalistic approach and instead embrace bolder measures to atone for its past actions and offer compensation to surviving victims.

For its part, South Korea has to offer Japan assurance that it will publicly accept such steps—recognizing that mutually agreed solutions may not be perfect. Reconciliation will allow Japan and Korea to prioritize the real threats of today rather than fictional resurrections of threats long past. History is important, but it must not hold the present and future hostage.

While North Korea is the wolf closest to the sled, it is China that is challenging national interests throughout Asia and testing U.S. resolve to defend its allies and friends. Beijing is apparently emboldened by its increasing military prowess and economic influence as well as timid U.S. responses to its assertive and belligerent behavior.

Washington’s weak response to Chinese bullying forced the Philippines, a U.S. ally, to effectively cede its claims to the Scarborough Shoal. Since then, Beijing has continued to press extra-legal claims to nearby seas through physical intimidation, economic threats, and coercive diplomacy.

China established an air defense identification zone over other countries’ territory, deployed its civilian law enforcement ships (and more obliquely, its navy) to support its claims, sent a $1 billion oil rig into Vietnamese waters, and conveyed additional legal authorities onto itself. To further expand its territorial claims, Beijing has even undertaken land reclamation efforts to expand or create islands.

The site most likely to spark a military clash in Asia is the Senkaku Islands – administratively controlled by Japan but claimed by China. Since 2010, tensions have risen due to Chinese air and naval incursions and a greater Japanese willingness to stand up to Beijing. Rising Chinese nationalism, Beijing’s hyping of historic tensions with Japan, and the close proximity of two large militaries means that even a minor confrontation could escalate to a major conflagration.

Growing Japanese nervousness over Chinese actions led Washington to declare—quite clearly and at the highest levels—that the U.S.-Japanese mutual security treaty does apply to the Senkaku Islands. Although that had been long-standing U.S. policy, Washington responded having the secretaries of state and defense, as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, all declare the U.S. would help Japan defend the Senkakus. President Obama affirmed the statement during his 2014 trip to Asia.

Despite these reassurances and the Obama administration’s loudly proclaimed “Asia Pivot,” Asian nations increasingly question U.S. military capabilities and resolve. The pivot strategy is sound only if Washington devotes sufficient resources to deploy the requisite military forces in the Pacific. Without this, it fails to reassure allies or deter potential opponents. But even well before sequestration, it was obvious that the Obama administration was underfunding U.S. defense requirements.

Secretary of Defense Hagel commented in February 2014 that, due to sequestration, the military readiness and modernization budget would be cut, leading to “a hollow force . . . that is not ready, that is not capable of fulfilling assigned missions. In the longer term . . . the resulting force would be . . . too small to fully execute the President's defense strategy.”

The Asia Pivot—which never provided for new permanent deployments of additional military forces to the Pacific—has been derailed by defense budget cuts. Beyond that, Seoul and Tokyo were flummoxed by Obama’s refusal to live up to the pledged military response when Syrian President Assad crossed the U.S. redline against using chemical weapons against civilians. The allies have privately expressed fears that Obama might similarly abandon U.S. defense commitments if North Korea or China attacked them. Similarly, U.S. inability or unwillingness to prevent Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea generated concerns that China would be encouraged take similar action against areas Beijing claims as its own.

Despite strong U.S. rhetoric, America’s opponents haven’t moderated their behavior. Our Asian allies now fear that the administration’s slashed defense budgets and unfilled ‘red lines’ will embolden Beijing and Pyongyang to employ more coercive diplomacy—or worse.

 - Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

Originally appeared in The National Interest

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