US-China Confrontation and the Korean Peninsula

“We can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy.”

A rare case of name-calling emerged in President Obama’s speech. It reflects America’s concern for its own waning hegemony, but, despite the ardent stance expressed in the statement, it is questionable whether this partnership (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) will become the new market Obama hopes it to be, where America “[writes] those rules, opening new markets to American products.” Instead, China’s claim that “[any] new economic rules cannot operate effectively without the active participation of China” would be a more accurate portrayal of the truth.

This year will be remembered as the year in which America established a new international system that was poised to confront a newly rising China. It has been six years since the U.S. faced the 2009 financial crisis and announced its “Asian pivot” policy. The policy was relabeled as “Asia rebalance,” but its content remains the same. It seeks to refocus American military and diplomatic resources on China. In terms of the international system, the policy largely concerns itself with an expanded role for the Japanese military (the right of collective self-defense) and the TPP. America achieved these two goals this year, gaining an institutional weapon that can be utilized for at least the next decade.

The points of geopolitical contention between America and China include the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Korean Peninsula, including its surroundings. Among them, conflicts in the South China Sea and the East China Sea are constant. China’s efforts to increase its claim and influence over the South China Sea, as exemplified in the establishment of man-made islands and military bases, have very little chance of waning. China believes if it backs down now, it will lose the momentum it has gained as one of two global superpowers. While America resolves to not let these actions stand, it has no good excuse to directly involve itself in this matter, nor does it have the practical means to oppose China’s expansion into these areas. If it mobilizes its military power, it will boil down to a power struggle, with the logic that “power is justice.” Territorial disputes over the East China Sea and the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) Islands, which involve China, Japan and the U.S., must also rely on the logic of power to avoid the currently unstable status quo.

In contrast, the Korean peninsula and its surroundings have numerous variables. Even now, a trilateral alliance between Korea, the U.S. and Japan is being quietly reinforced. Korea and Japan are working separately to improve their Aegis Combat System capabilities, and in times of emergency, this could be used as weapon against mainland China. The new Operation Plan 5015, recently signed by both Korea and the U.S., also includes a plan to reinforce the Korean military’s long-range operation capability. But perhaps the crème de la crème of efforts to strengthen the trilateral alliance would be the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in the Korean Peninsula. Once this effort comes through, the military capabilities of the three countries will practically be unified as a single force. Hence, it is not difficult to see why America is demanding that Korea develop a “more enhanced global role” and reconcile with Japan; it is about China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s constant show of interest in (South) Korea is indeed an attempt to avoid (South) Korea becoming another part of the U.S.’s China blockade. China even risked sacrificing its traditional alliance with North Korea, to some degree. Now, Beijing seeks to remedy its relations with Pyongyang, while Pyongyang tries to remedy theirs with Seoul and Beijing, in order to initiate a dialogue with Washington. Liu Yunshan, the first-ranked secretary of the Central Secretariat of the Communist Party of China, attended the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, an event that may well be the point where they began their course of action.

The North Korean issue is by no means an easy situation to solve. America may point its finger at North Korea, but its true intended target is China, which stands behind North Korea. Meanwhile, China, which is unhappy with North Korea for giving America an excuse to point fingers, has no choice but to stand behind them. At this point, America and China are maintaining the status quo rather than being forces to bring about change. The issues of North Korean nuclearization and U.S.-China confrontation are strengthening and entrenching one another.

Solving the North Korean issue is at the core of establishing a peaceful and cooperative system in Northeast Asia. If we can acknowledge this necessity, then we can change the system of confrontation around the Korean Peninsula. While China and South Korea can provide the momentum and the environment to address the issue of nuclear missiles, these actions are ultimately incomplete without U.S. input. Fundamentally, only active participation from the U.S. can end the problem. This precondition is the grand compromise between the U.S. and China. The U.S. can slow down its efforts to mobilize the trilateral alliance, while China can defuse North Korea’s resistance and the anxiety. It goes without saying that we must remind everyone that we, just like America and China, have an imperative to further Northeast Asia. The upcoming U.S.-Korea Summit needs to be the cradle for all these actions.

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