The Future of Northeast Asia
An American Perspective
Northeast Asia has been undergoing a fundamental restructuring since the beginning of this decade. Long-delayed changes have now been set in motion and are still in progress. As a result, the region has been moving away from a long-established pattern of geopolitical stability and predictability toward one of multiplying uncertainties.
Northeast Asia has been undergoing a fundamental restructuring since the beginning of this decade. Long-delayed changes have now been set in motion and are still in progress. As a result, the region has been moving away from a long-established pattern of geopolitical stability and predictability toward one of multiplying uncertainties. The old Cold War dangers have vanished but are being gradually replaced with dangers of a new kind.
For nearly forty years after the Korean War, American policymakers generally saw Northeast Asia as an island of relative calm in a worldwide sea of tumult and complexities. Throughout the years of the Cold War, the U.S. view of its primary interests in this region, and its primary tasks there, seemed fairly uncomplicated. On the one hand, there was the defense of the Republic of Korea against a menacing predator regime to the north installed by Stalin. On the other hand, there was the alliance with Japan, which was both the irreplaceable underpinning for the defense of South Korea and the cornerstone for all American efforts to limit Soviet geopolitical influence in Asia.
Throughout the Cold War, this sense of shared external threat (although two somewhat different kinds of threat, to be sure) tended to outweigh emerging problems in the U.S. relationships with both the Republic of Korea and Japan. The U.S. alliance with Seoul was sustained over the years by the memory of the Korean War, by Pyongyang’s various terrorist initiatives which furnished periodic reminders of its implacably hostile attitude, and by Washington’s sense that the defense of South Korea against the North was a vital part of the larger American struggle against the central antagonist in Moscow. So long as the Soviet Union—and Kim Il Sung—endured, these considerations remained predominant for both Americans and Koreans. This was despite a variety of bilateral difficulties, including the emergence of a new generation of young Koreans naturally impatient for reunification, without memories of the Korean War, and who in some cases had illusions about North Korea.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-Japan alliance was fortified throughout the postwar era by the extraordinary arrogance the Soviet leaders displayed toward Japan and Moscow’s remarkable inflexibility in the territorial dispute with Japan. For four decades Soviet intransigence regarding Tokyo’s claim to the Northern Territories north of Hokkaido served to reinforce Japanese-American cooperation against the Soviet Union despite emerging bilateral economic frictions. Thus the U.S.-Japan relationship remained the key link in the U.S. presence in the western Pacific.
As we know, most of this once-clear picture has now been radically altered. Moreover, the transformation is ongoing, with the end not yet in sight. Without exception, all of the important actors in the region (not least the United States) have begun major internal changes, some dramatic and immediate, others more gradual but no less profound. These shifts have already had some effect on the U.S. relationship with the region. How much more of an effect there will be remains to be seen.