Published in Japan Forward 19/9/2017
“The four islands of the archipelago should be sunk into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche… Japan is no longer needed to exist near us.” Such was the message recently delivered by North Korea’s bizarrely-titled “Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee.”
Even by the standards of the regime’s bellicose rhetoric, threats of outright genocide are extreme. The next day millions of citizens of north Japan awoke to the sound of sirens and loudspeaker announcements advising them to shelter underground or in a sturdy building. North Korea had launched another ballistic missile over Japan and the “J-Alert” warning system had kicked into gear for the second time in three weeks.
The shock to the usually phlegmatic Japanese public was palpable. Coupled with North Korea’s recent successful test of a nuclear bomb – the explosion was the world’s largest in 25 years – the missile launch summoned up memories of the devastation of 1945.
Within Japan, the short-term effect will be to increase support for Prime Minister Abe, an instinctive hawk who made his name as a politician by campaigning on behalf of the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents. The long-term effect will be higher military spending, reform of Japan’s pacifist constitution and total commitment to the alliance with the United States.
The North Koreans understand these consequences. Much more significantly, so does China, North Korea’s key ally and enabler. Neither are ruled by fools or madmen. Rather the leaders are calculated risk-takers and their judgement is this is a risk worth taking.
The North Korean perspective is simple. The regime has learned from long experience that outrageous behaviour has many benefits and few drawbacks. The greater the sense of crisis amongst its enemies, the more likely they are to offer inducements to reduce tensions.
Hence, the seemingly endless series of provocations. Abductions, bank frauds, currency forgery, drug smuggling, “ransom-ware” attacks, assassination by chemical weapon in an international airport, fatal injuries inflicted on young American imprisoned for a triviality – all attract attention and increase leverage. As long as China remains committed to the survival of the regime, penalties imposed by America and its allies – such as the sanctions recently approved by the United Nations – are meaningless.
The Chinese Calculation
What of China though? Why would it endorse actions which will lead to a more security-conscious and militarily capable Japan joined at the hip to the United States?
On the surface that would seem a counterproductive strategy. Writer Richard McGregor ponders a similar question in his new book Asia’s Reckoning: China, the US, Japan and the Struggle for Global Power in relation to China’s attitude towards the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (now known as the Democratic Party).
In 2009, the DPJ swept to power in a landslide victory that seemed to presage the end of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party’s long monopoly of power. One of the DPJ’s distinguishing characteristics was a negative attitude towards the U.S. alliance and a desire to “pivot” towards Asia and China in particular. Soon after the election, Ichiro Ozawa, the political puppeteer who masterminded the DPJ’s victory, took a delegation of 150 politicians and 300 businessmen to Beijing to meet Communist Party boss Hu Jintao and usher in a new era in Sino-Japanese relations.
The new era never happened. China offered no carrots to the new DPJ government. Indeed, it was during the DPJ’s stint in power that China seized on what seemed to be a minor change in the status of the disputed Senkaku Islands – from ownership by a Japanese individual to state ownership – as justification for an orchestrated campaign of anti-Japanese rioting and arson.
The outcome was predictable. A few months later the DPJ was gone, crushed electorally by Shinzo Abe’s resurgent LDP. There would be no more talk of snuggling up to China.
McGregor comments that in both countries “many officials and scholars were bewildered that Beijing had not reached out more enthusiastically to an overtly China-friendly government in Tokyo.” He quotes retired diplomat Kazuhiko Togo as saying “I’ve never understood why China did not use a more effective wedge between Japan and the U.S.”
Unravelling the Conundrum
There are two related answers to this apparent conundrum. As McGregor shows in his book, Jiang Zemin kicked off the “patriotic education” drive in 1991 in response to the existential threat to Communist Party legitimacy posed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Demonization of Japan is absolutely central to this project. The volume can be dialled up or down to match political requirements, but the switch can never go to off.
The second point is more basic, though beyond the world-view of most diplomats and scholars. As Niccolo Machiavelli stated, “it is far safer to be feared than loved.” If North Korea, with its tiny population and barely functional economy, can face down the United States and Japan, then the post-1945 world order is truly dead. For China, that would be a highly desirable outcome.
China has its ally’s back, no matter what. Despite sanctions, Chinese exports to North Korea appear to be growing at some 30% year on year. Meanwhile Japan, the U.S.’s most important ally, is preparing to live under the threat of nuclear bombardment for the foreseeable future. Media images of Japanese citizens running for cover while politicians rail impotently reinforce the image of weakness. Other countries in the region, particularly those confronted with Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, will duly take note. They might recall Osama Bin Laden’s variation on Machiavelli’s axiom – “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they side with the strong horse.”
In the popular mind, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 ended when, in the words of President Kennedy, “the other guy blinked.” In the case of the Asian Missile Crisis, the United States and its allies avoided eye contact for decades and are now reaping the consequences.