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Kerry’s Visit to Asia: Defusing escalating regional tensions

Amidst escalating regional tensions in Asia, US Secretary of State John Kerry undertook a six-day trip to Asia on 13 February 2014 with a view to press China and South Korea not to let regional disputes escalate into armed conflict. Kerry’s visit will pave the way for US President Barack Obama’s visit to the region in April. This was Kerry’s fifth trip to Asia in the past year and this demonstrated Washington’s increasing concerns about being dragged into conflicts between China, South Korea and Japan. He returned to Washington on February 18.

Both Japan and China are locked in the territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Beijing declaring air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over South China Sea in November 2013 has also irked its neighbours. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remains another worry. The Obama administration is also working to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American and a missionary who is being held in a North Korean labour camp and this too figured in Kerry’s agenda. Bae has been sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. North Korea extended an invitation for Robert King, the US special envoy on human rights in North Korea, on 5 February 2014 to travel to Pyongyang but withdrew three days later, much to the frustration of the State Department. North Korea said it was doing so because the US and South Korea were scheduled to hold joint military exercise, which raised tensions in the peninsula. Kerry sought Beijing’s help in the release of Bae. Kerry’s trip also included Indonesia and United Arab Emirates.

Issue of China’s ADIZ

Though Kerry’s itinerary did not include Japan, Kerry met Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on 7 February in Washington and the two leaders pledged to collaborate further on security and oppose China’s declaration of an ADIZ. Kerry reaffirmed the 1960 treaty with Japan and vowed the US would defend its ally against attack, including over the islands claimed by China. As expected, Kerry conveyed the US opposition to the ADIZ while in Beijing. In the interest of maintaining peace and stability in the region, the US is urging China to take a more cautious approach on the East China Sea issue as it worries that because of its treaty obligation to its allies, the US would be constrained to be involved if there is an armed conflict between Japan and China. Though Kerry demanded that China does not declare an air defence zone in the South China Sea, Beijing did not make any such promise. As a result, both the US and China remain deeply divided on the issue.

Lately, China has hardened its stand on the ADIZ issue. Beijing has blasted Washington’s “irresponsible” warnings over Beijing’s move to declare the AIDZ in the South China Sea. In a press briefing on 10 February, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying observed that foreign officials should reflect carefully on their stances regarding China’s legitimate rights before making such comments. The Chinese reaction was in response to the US Pacific Air Force commander’s description of China’s new territorial claims as very provocative. From Washington’s perspective, China’s new air defence declarations have created insecurity and instability in the region, though Beijing defends the moves as its sovereign right. According to China’s new air defence declaration, foreign aircraft passing through the airspace, including passenger planes will have to identify themselves to Chinese authorities. The zone includes the skies over islands at the heart of a territorial dispute between Japan and China. Beijing’s declaration of the ADIZ sparked concerns in the Far East, and also triggered protests from the US, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. China is also locked in territorial rows with the Philippines over wide swathes of the South China Sea and has said it might set up a similar zone there. Beijing’s intentions to claim almost in its entirety the South China Sea, even areas far from its shorelines, has raised many eyebrows in countries such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam which have contending claims on some portions of the South China Sea.

Chinese officials have repeatedly urged Washington not to take sides over the issue. That is unlikely to happen, however. The situation is getting more complex as days pass.

It may be recalled that two American B-52s on a training mission conducted from Guam on 4-5 February crossed through the Chinese self-declared ADIZ without incident. China insists that foreign aircraft notify China before penetrating that zone, which covers much of the South China Sea. But both the US and Japan do not recognise that zone, though Pyongyang charges the flight as a provocation.

Abe’s Yasukuni visit

The position that Japan has taken under the nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has further contributed to the heightening of regional tensions. In defiance of the US advice, Abe visited the Yasukuni War Shrine in Tokyo late December, which honours millions of Japan’s war dead, including 14 leading war criminals. This triggered furious responses from Beijing and Seoul. In anticipation of such reactions from Beijing and Seoul, the US had advised Abe against the visit. When Abe defied the US advice, Washington, in a rare move, criticised its ally Tokyo for provoking tensions. At a time when the South Korean President Park Geun-hye is accelerating push for unification of the two Koreas, how will-o-the-wisp that it may be, the nationalist moves by the Abe administration to whitewash Japan’s wartime aggression as perceived by South Korea and China, is only fuelling tensions in the Northeast Asian region.

While the incident deepened China’s mistrust of Japan and the US, it also exacerbated Tokyo’s suspicion that the US may not back if any conflict suddenly erupts. Though the US is well aware of the mistrusts that exist between Japan and China because of the shadow of history and therefore wants to strike a balance in the region, it finds the tasks tricky because when emotive issues take the centre stage, even shrewd diplomacy fails. The same is the case between Japan and South Korea, the two allies of the US in the region. Both the allies continue vying for attention from Washington as they confront each other over territorial disputes and their wartime past.

Kerry’s task was indeed arduous. North Korea’s nuclear program was also on the top of Kerry’s agenda. He, therefore, discussed with Seoul and Beijing how to coordinate policies towards Pyongyang. As per the announcement by South Korea’s Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin, Pyongyang is already preparing for another underground nuclear test and that the site seemed to be complete and therefore Pyongyang’s willingness to return to the stalled six-nation nuclear talks would be a mirage. Kerry’s objective obviously was to get a clear picture of how China and South Korea will handle a possible nuclear test by Pyongyang because different nations are contemplating different actions against North Korea in that case.

Role of Beijing on North Korea

While in Beijing, Kerry wanted China to take steps to bring “the North Korean leadership to the realization” that pursuing the capability to deliver nuclear weapons with a ballistic missile “does not bring security” and “is simply not tenable”. Kerry had delivered the same message to the Chinese leadership during his previous visit to Beijing in April 2013.

The US knows that Beijing enjoys a special relationship with Pyongyang and proved helpful in pushing some of their mutual goals such as the denuclearization of the peninsula and getting Pyongyang to desist taking provocative actions. But in recent years, especially after the rise of Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang has even defied Beijing and pursued an independent stand on issues that have grave regional implications. Beijing has shown frustrations on some of the young leader’s actions. And yet, Beijing is unlikely to abandon Pyongyang because other strategic and geopolitical considerations will compel Beijing to tolerate some of Pyongyang’s mischievous deeds. The problem is, nobody knows what is going on in Pyongyang. China is the only country which could be North Korea’s principal contact and that is not working lately. But whether the US should count on China on a breakthrough with North Korea is a difficult question to answer. So far, the US has not come up with any new initiatives and China is the only country that has shown some way irrespective of whether those initiatives are working or not. But in the process, North Korea has got enough time to build its nuclear program. North Korea has already conducted three nuclear tests and its nuclear program appears to be proceeding without interruption. Pyongyang is least bothered that its nuclear weapon program and its development of long-range rocket systems have angered many in the West, including the West and emerged as a matter of concern in its neighbourhood.

Having allowed enough time to North Korea to do what it wanted, now if it sends message that it is willing to participate in the Six Party Talks, the US puts the condition that it will not resume talks with Pyongyang until it agrees to restart nuclear inspections. That makes the real chance of progress difficult. The US takes the position that talks for talk’s sake are not the path to verifiable denuclearisation. To assuage the feelings of the US, Pyongyang ought to be ready to participate as a serious negotiating partner but there is no hint that suggests Pyongyang is ready for that.

What does it mean then in the realm of peace and stability in the region? Given the complexities of the issues involved and with no sign of immediate resolution in the horizon, the only plausible way seems to be to maintain the status quo. Such a policy suits China because it is helpful for its policy to have the US off-balance as the US will get embroiled with the North Korean issue without any solution in the horizon. For the US, the maintenance of the present status quo could also serve its interests as it is already drained during a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and might not have immediate priority to address to the North Korean issue with any direct and serious involvement.

Joint Military drills

Kerry reached Seoul before the joint military exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle that were planned from 24 February to 18 April. These drills are among the largest military exercises in scale in South Korea. These drills are conducted every year by the Korean military alongside US Armed Forces and include 200-thousand Korean troops and more than 12 thousand US troops. These joint drills include computer-based exercises and a set of ground, air and naval operations to test the capabilities of the South Korean and US militaries in the event of an all-out war. These annual war mock are not unfamiliar practices to the Korean Peninsula but Pyongyang considers this as a provocation and reflection of the hostility of Seoul and Washington and a rehearsal for war against North Korea. Pyongyang takes this opportunity to escalate tensions between the two Koreas and justify its nuclear and weapons program. South Korea and the US see this kind of rhetorical propaganda and say these exercises are very defensive-oriented. Having studied and prepared very decisively for the last 20 years, both South Korea and the US know that these are Pyongyang’s propagandistic manoeuvres to legitimise its actions and do not take seriously. But this time it could be different ball game. It is speculated that Pyongyang might launch the military threats around the time of the joint military drills. Though Kerry met his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se amid heightened tensions spurred by Pyongyang’s recent nuclear threats and provocations, and made a courtesy visit to President Park Geun-hye, the talks did not seem to have yielded the desired outcome, except reassuring South Korea as an ally that the US would come to its rescue in case a regional conflict breaking out in the region. This was the second face-to-face meeting in 2014 between Kerry and Yun following the first one held in Washington in early January 2014.

The Korean peninsula is rife with tensions over the belligerent threats issued by Pyongyang. The two incidents of March and November 2010 with Pyongyang’s suspected involvement lurks as a warning in the minds of Seoul and Washington. Addressing a press conference in Seoul, Kerry was firm in announcing that “North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power. The rhetoric that we are hearing is simply unacceptable.” He also made it categorical that the US will continue to support the defence of South Korea with the “full range of U.S. military capabilities” and will “modernise to be prepared to face any threat”. While endorsing Kerry’s observation and terming the recent developments in North Korea very serious, his counterpart Yun observed “in the event of any North Korean provocation, we will both respond according to our joint posture and take measures which we deem necessary”.

Pyongyang’s charm offensive

Lately, North Korea led an unusual string of charm offensives towards Seoul and Washington. In a surprise move to reach out to the South, Pyongyang proposed a joint meeting with senior South Korean officials, which resulted in a meeting of officials from the two Koreas at high level in the truce village of Panmunjom on 12 Februar. Since as in the past Pyongyang’s friendly actions are often followed by military provocations, Kerry and Yun examined carefully Pyongyang’s charm offensive as they are wary of such gestures.

Why was his charm offensive on Pyongyang’s part and how seriously Seoul and Washington took to these offers? It is the general pattern on the part of North Korea first to issue verbal threats and warning the US and South Korea to stop the military drills or prepare for nuclear “holocaust”. This is followed by the threat of cancellation of reunions of separated families if the drills go ahead. This time around, Pyongyang seems to have been cornered as they have been pressurised by not only the neighbouring countries but also China, its main benefactor. Moreover, Pyongyang needs Chinese cash and had to weigh this consideration in its moves. The truism is that, the recent threats are part of a propaganda game Pyongyang launches each and every start of the New Year to unify the people of the communist state. But can the reason be so simplistic?

Probability of a missile strike and possible US response

Washington is worried that its intelligence assessment suggests North Korea may have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon on a missile, though top officials try to play down concerns about the capabilities of the Pyongyang regime. Though Pentagon’s intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency, assessed with “moderate confidence” about Pyongyang’s capability to deliver a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, it qualified its assessment by clarifying that the reliability of the assessment is “low”. This, however, demonstrates the clearest acknowledgment by the US about potential advance that North Korea has possibly already achieved.

However, even if the US calculation that a test launch of mobile ballistic missile by the North Korea actually takes place, there is no indication that the missiles have been armed with any nuclear material. On its part, though China too is growing more concerned about North’s provocations, it is also closely watching Washington’s latest military moves in the region. While in Beijing, Kerry tried to convince the Chinese leaders that Pyongyang is “putting China’s own interests at risk”. Though Pyongyang’s provocations are the immediate threats for the US and South Korea, Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” has broader strategic implications for Beijing and Beijing will calibrate its long term policy from this perspective. What Kerry, therefore, was doing during his Asia tour was to strike a balance between his short-term and long-term diplomatic objectives. Daniel Twining, the German Marshall Fund’s senior Fellow for Asia observes: “Secretary Kerry can reassure regional states that, as a Pacific century dawns, the United States will continue to be right in the middle of it and will not allow any power to edge the United States out of a region where nearly every country welcomes its leadership.” He further observes: “He should also make clear that the United States will not countenance aggression against any territory covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and commit to working closely with Japan to meet security challenges across Asia, starting with North Korea”.

While in Beijing, Kerry also addressed the climate change issue and maritime claims with the Chinese, apart from the North Korean issue. On 15 February, Kerry delivered a speech on climate change in Indonesia. While in the UAE on 17 February, Kerry consulted with the Gulf officials on Syria and the nuclear talks that the US and its partners are holding with Iran. The visit was also intended to lay the groundwork for Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia in March. As it transpires, there are no readymade solutions to the unfolding and deepening of tensions in Northeast Asia. The best that can be expected from any serious diplomatic initiative either by the US alone or by the US in cooperation with its allies is to restore the status quo and thereby deescalate the tensions.

(The writer,Dr. Rajaram Panda, is The Japan Foundation Fellow at the Reitaku University, Japan. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com)

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