ARTICLES

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(Sent May 13, 2003)

FAR EASTERN STRATEGIC TRIANGLES 

By
M.L. Sondhi and Ashok Kapur

Two strategic triangles are taking shape in the Far East and they show that Far Eastern international relations depend on triangles, not military duels.  International history is a story of duels and triangles but there is a contrast between the Middle East and the Far East in American thinking.  The American military campaign against the Taliban in Kabul and Sadaam Hussein in Baghdad were duels between a major power and third rate terror regime whose bark was worse than its bite.  But North Korea is another matter.  America is less concerned about Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons and missiles, it is less concerned about its export of such weapons and technology to Pakistan but it is concerned about North Korean ability to send the missiles to America and Japan, and to export them to Iran where Israeli and American interests are engaged.  America is not concerned about North Korea imploding but that would produce refugees who move to China and that cynically speaking is China’s problem which requires it to secure North Korean moderation.  Thus, Pyongyang has to be dealt with differently than Iraq.  It fought the American forces in 1950-53, the military campaign was a stalemate, it has a well trained military.  It is open about its nuclear capabilities and it seeks a diplomatic solution with America.  North Koreans are skilled diplomats and unpredictable military fighters.  So the risks of war are high for America vis--vis North Korea.

Moreover, the Far Eastern strategic playground is densely populated with three regional powers – China, Japan and Russia, the neighbourhood is dangerous, and the USA must adopt a nuanced strategy that requires partners and negotiations rather than unilateral action.  America is now trying to create a web of diplomatic and strategic triangles which give it the space it needs to manoeuvre in the region.  There America is a leader, not the leader because the triangle participants have their own interests and they possess trajectories to develop their power and autonomy vis--vis each other; they have autonomy.  Each triangle is about security and each player is making short term moves with long term calculations.  In Iraq the US rejected the diplomatic option because it could act unilaterally.  In the Far East the US chooses the diplomatic option because other powers are firmly engaged and entrenched.

The first triangle involved USA, China and North Korea.  Japan, Russia and South Korea were kept out of a critical meeting with the North Koreans, the first trilateral talk since the armistice in the Korean war.  So note that the North Koreans have placed the April 23 meeting already in the context of the armistice.  North Korea wants to end the armistice, sign a peace treaty with America, offer America the concession to dismantle its nuclear program in return for American recognition and financial support, and then turn to the international community for economic reconstruction. The April meeting required both American and North Korean concessions.  North Korea agreed to let Beijing in as US demanded, and USA agreed to keep South Korea, Japan and Russia out to preserve the trilateral armistice type meeting structure, as North Korea wanted. China is a willing participant in this exercise because it does not want nuclear weapons in its immediate neighbourhood (nukes in Pakistan and Iran are at a distance and useful for Beijing’s interests), it does not want North Korea to implode and send its refugees to China, and it does want the USA to maintain its military presence in the region to manage Japan’s defence build-up and to check its independence in military and diplomatic affairs.

But America is also buying insurance through the second triangle which involves USA, Japan and Australia.  Here the US is encouraging Japan to shed its pacifist constitution and to join its broader Far Eastern military plan.  In May Japan joins the US in military exercises for aerial refuelling involving Japan’s F-15s and USA’s KC 135 tankers, and Japan is beginning to train with US carriers at sea.  These are first ever activities and they indicate a desire to enhance Japan’s power projection capabilities.  The common aim is to manage China’s strategic threat, to make Japan a military partner, and not a junior assistant as it has been so far.  America’s triangle partners have a division of labour where Japan is being built up to engage China, and Australia is meant to play a strategic role vis--vis Southeast Asia.  America is managing and encouraging Japan’s desire for a stronger defence capability and role, and Japan is now seeking to advance itself in the area of space communications, and intelligence work because of China’s rising power.  American policy has a fallout, it raises suspicions in North and South Korea about American intentions in making Japan into something more than a forward American base in the region.

America’s approach has an interesting base.  South Korea, an old ally, is developing a neutralist stance in regional politics.  It wants a bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang, its wants peace, and in the meantime it also wants to develop its space and missile program which the USA opposed as it could accelerate a space race in the region.  Also a unified but disarmed Korean peninsula would emerge as a Myanmar of the Far East, balancing its relations with two powerful neighbours – America and China, just as Myanmar seeks balance with China and India.  So the assumption is that South Korea has its own agenda and it is an unreliable ally even though American generals in South Korea have formal control over South Korean forces during a crisis.

In the first triangle, ties with China and North Korea are important for the American strategy to disarm North Korea, allow Korean unification and the development of an economy-driven neutralist Korean peninsula which is tied to economic globalist forces rather than to militarism and to instability.  However, in the second triangle, Japan’s rearmament is a must in part because Japan’s political, military, commercial and scientific classes seek Japan’s expansion and in part because the USA needs Japan and it cannot function alone in the Far East.  In these triangles South Koreans are isolated, they are out of the decision making loop as far are the formation of the two triangles are concerned.

 
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