Growing Tension in Northeast Asia

by Abraham M. Denmark
December 19, 2013

This is one of eleven essays in the “2014 Asia-Pacific Watch List.”

By Abraham M. Denmark

December 19, 2013

The past year has seen intensifying disputes among Japan, South Korea, and China over issues of history and territorial sovereignty. 2014 will likely see even greater tension, the results of which will have profound implications for regional stability and for the United States.

Beijing has grown increasingly assertive in advancing its claims of sovereignty over territories that are the subject of disputes with its neighbors. Nowhere is this assertive approach more blatant than in the East China Sea, where Japan claims and administers the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands by China). Most recently, China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over much of the East China Sea. All of these efforts have been designed to challenge Japan’s claims to these islands, establish some degree of authority over them, and further solidify control over China’s periphery.

Such provocations have contributed to an increasingly hostile relationship between Japan and China. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s response to Chinese assertiveness has been robust. The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) have shifted their focus to the disputed islands in the south of the Japanese archipelago, and the Japanese defense budget has begun to increase (albeit modestly). More significantly, Abe has begun a process of national revitalization that not only includes measures to jump-start Japan’s long-stagnant economy but is paving the way for a gradual “normalization” of the JSDF to make it more capable and proactive. In December 2013, Abe announced an ambitious set of reforms that included a nearly 3% increase to the defense budget, several military investments designed to deter an attack from China or North Korea, and a National Security Strategy that announced a policy of “proactive contribution to peace.” As a result, the U.S.-Japan alliance is undergoing significant change as Japan looks to play a more significant role both in its own defense and in regional affairs.

Such ambitions have raised concerns in both China and South Korea about a resurgent Japan. Seoul is also troubled by historically revisionist statements coming out of some leadership circles in Japan that tend to minimize Tokyo’s culpability for its occupation of the Korean Peninsula. These concerns have been inflamed by Japan’s claims over the Takeshima Islands, which South Korea also claims as the Dokdo Islands.

The coming year will be a time of strategic uncertainty for South Korean strategists. While still concerned about historical and territorial disputes with Japan, China’s assertion of an ADIZ over some areas claimed by South Korea will limit Seoul’s interest in leaning toward Beijing. A recent spate of agreements between Seoul and Tokyo over Korea’s also-expanded ADIZ claim may portend a gradual warming of relations between the two sides, but for now this trend is nascent at best.

Critical variables in the coming year that may determine South Korea’s long-term strategic trajectory include China’s handling of future provocations from North Korea, Japan’s management of its military “normalization” initiatives, China’s enforcement of its maritime and ADIZ claims, and the Japanese leadership’s handling of historical issues. The United States will continue to play a critical role in determining Northeast Asia’s future. While refraining from serving as a mediator between its allies, Washington has been encouraging Seoul and Tokyo to overcome their differences and enhance cooperation on military, political, and economic issues as a strategic imperative. The issues confronting Northeast Asia are daunting, and the coming year will be another challenging one for the region.

Abraham M. Denmark is Vice President for Political and Security Affairs at NBR, where he manages a team of resident and non-resident experts and staff to bring objective, detailed analysis of geopolitical trends and challenges in Asia to the attention of policymakers in Washington, D.C.