| Measured steps
Two strategic triangles are taking shape in southeast Asia and they show that international relations in the region depend on triangles, not military duels. Although much of international history indeed consists of duels, there is a difference in the way the United States of America thinks about west Asia and southeast Asia. American military campaign against the taliban in Kabul and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad were basically duels between a major power and third rate terror regimes, whose bark was worse than their bite. But North Korea is another matter. The US is not so concerned about Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons and missiles, or its export of such weapons and technology to Pakistan. The matter it is worried about is North Korea’s ability to send the missiles to the US and Japan, and to export them to Iran where Israeli and American interests are engaged.
Again, the US is not so concerned about North Korea imploding but the fact it could produce refugees who could move to China. Although technically, it would be China’s problem, it would require North Korean moderation. Thus, Pyongyang has to be dealt with differently from Iraq. North Korea fought the Americans in 1950-53. Though the military campaign reached a stalemate, there is no doubt that North Korea’s military is well-trained. It is open about its nuclear capabilities and seeks a diplomatic solution with the US. North Koreans are skilled diplomats and unpredictable military fighters. So the risks of war are high for the US vis-à-vis North Korea.
Moreover, the strategic playground in southeast Asia is densely populated with three regional powers — China, Japan and Russia. The neighbourhood is dangerous, and the US must adopt a nuanced strategy that requires partners and negotiations rather than unilateral action. The US is therefore trying to create a web of diplomatic and strategic triangles which will give it the space it needs to manoeuvre in the region.
If the US is the leader here it is not because the triangle participants have their own interests and they have their own trajectories to develop their power and autonomy vis-à-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 southeast Asia, the US has chosen the diplomatic option because other powers are firmly engaged and entrenched.
The first triangle involves the US, China and North Korea. Japan, Russia and South Korea were kept out of this critical meeting with the North Koreans, the first trilateral talk since the armistice in the Korean war. 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 the US, offer America the concession of dismantling its nuclear programme in return for US recognition and financial support, and then turn to the international community for economic reconstruction.
The April meeting required both the US and North Korea to concede. North Korea agreed to let Beijing in, as the US demanded, and the US agreed to keep South Korea, Japan and Russia out to preserve the trilateral armistice-type meeting structure, as North Korea wanted. There are several reasons why China is a willing participant in this exercise. One, 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). Two, it does not want North Korea to implode and send its refugees to China. Three, it does want the US to maintain its military presence in the region to manage Japan’s defence buildup and to check its independence in military and diplomatic affairs.
But the US is also buying insurance through the second triangle which involves America, Japan and Australia. Here the US is encouraging Japan to shed its pacifist constitution and to join its broader southeast Asian military plan. This month, Japan joined the US in military exercises for aerial refuelling involving its F-15s and the US’s KC 135 tankers. Japan is also supposed to have begun 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 as a junior assistant as it has been so far. There is a fine division of labour in this triangle. Japan is being built up to engage China, and Australia is meant to play a strategic role in the region as well. The US meanwhile is managing and encouraging Japan’s desire for a stronger defence capability and role, given that Japan is now seeking to advance itself in the area of space communications and intelligence because of China’s rising power. The US policy will have an inevitable fallout though — raising suspicions in North and South Korea about its intentions to make something more than a forward American base in in the region.
America’s approach has an interesting side. South Korea, an old ally, is developing a neutral stance in regional politics. It wants a bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang and it wants peace. In the meantime, it also wants to develop its space and missile programme, which the US once objected to on grounds that it could promote a race region. A unified and disarmed Korean peninsula would emerge as the Myanmar of southeast Asia, balancing two powerful neighbours, just as Myanmar seeks to balance China and India. Thus although US generals in South Korea have formal control over South Korean forces during a crisis, South Korea is believed to have its own agenda and is supposed to be an unreliable ally.
In the first triangle, ties with China and North Korea are important for US strategy to disarm North Korea, to allow Korean unification and the development of an economy-driven neutral Korean peninsula which is tied to the global economic forces rather than to militarism and instability. However, in the second triangle, Japan’s rearmament is a must in part because of Japan’s expansion, and because the US needs Japan as it cannot function alone in southeast Asia. In these triangles South Korea is isolated. It is out of the decision-making loop as far as the formation of the two triangles is concerned.