The result of the recent snap election called by Shinzo Abe and Japan’s steady military build-up are a portent of things to come. The Korean crisis, which owes at least as much to Washington’s flexing of military muscle as to Pyongyang’s misguided nuclear antics, holds the key to many of these ominous developments.
Despite the numerous scandals that have engulfed Abe’s government and his rapidly declining popularity, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner managed to retain a two-thirds ‘supermajority’ in the lower house. This will almost certainly provide the Abe government with the platform it needs to press on with the erosion, if not outright abandonment, of Japan’ ‘peace’ constitution.
US actions in the Korean peninsula, dutifully supported by Australian governments, have helped create the present dangerous impasse. Over the years successive US administrations have built a formidable presence in Northeast Asia designed largely to intimidate the North Korean regime, contain Chinese power and influence, and keep Japan securely tied to US strategic priorities.
So much commentary that passes for serious analysis either ignores or downplays the sheer scale and potency of US military power in the region, and its far-reaching impact on the North Korean psyche. Some 40,000 US military personnel are stationed across more than 100 bases in Japan, while the Seventh Fleet, the largest of the US navy’s deployed sea forces, has its headquarters in Japan. It boasts some 50-70 ships and submarines, including 14 destroyers and cruisers at any given time, the aircraft supercarrier, USS Donald Reagan, 140 aircraft and approximately 20,000 sailors across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. It is equipped with both long-range Tomahawk land attack and anti-aircraft missiles.
Similarly, with South Korea. Since 2009, the US military alliance has been broadened from a purely bilateral to a regional and even global arrangement. The number of US troops deployed in the country has risen to 35,000, while increasingly advanced joint military exercises now include US B-52 and B-2 bombers. Despite China’s furious objections, the United States last month went ahead with the installation of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence system, or Thad, the net effect of which may be to fan the flames of regional militarization.
Guam, often referred to as a ‘permanent aircraft carrier’ is the third crucial prong in the Pentagon’s projection of military power in Asia Pacific. The Anderson air force base, which hosts B52 bombers and fighter jets, and the Naval Base Guam, which is the home port for nuclear submarines and special operations forces, play a key role in US-Japan and US-ROK joint military exercises over Japanese airspace and the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, Guam is the centrepiece of the rapidly expanding three-way coordination between the military establishments of the three countries.
Not surprisingly, the North Korean regime views Guam as the ‘tip of the spear’ of the US nuclear and conventional arsenal that can at any moment strike at the heart of North Korea’s industrial and military infrastructure. Simply put, Guam is seen as posing a direct threat to the regime’s survival. All of which helps to explain why North Korea has specifically threatened Guam with ‘enveloping fire’. For Pyongyang, Donald Trump’s threat to launch ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’ was but the rhetorical expression of a highly provocative US policy long in the making.
We may soon be nearing the denouement of this rather tragic tale. Most obviously, we are in the grip of a highly volatile, potentially catastrophic standoff between the United States and North Korea. Yet, this is no new sudden crisis. Successive US administrations have issued mounting threats, conducted ever more muscular military exercises, intensified diplomatic and economic sanctions, applied increasing pressure on China, and are now experimenting with new forms of cyberwarfare. In so doing they have produced the very outcome they were intent on preventing: a nuclearized North Korea that sees the nuclear weapon as the only antidote to its increasing isolation and vulnerability.
But there is more to the damage done by US actions and those of its allies than Pyongyang’s nuclear bomb. The Korean crisis is providing the hawks in Japan with their best opportunity yet to steer the country towards acceptance of greater military capabilities and deployments beyond its borders. It has greatly weakened the hand of moderate voices in South Korea wishing to explore dialogue and enhanced cooperation with the North. More generally, it has provided added ammunition to those in Asia Pacific, including Australia, that are committed to preserving US military dominance in the region and the military alliances that sustain it.
All of this is making it much harder for the region to adjust to the power shift that is the result of China’s rise and America’s corresponding decline. It is encouraging US allies, not least the Turnbull government, to believe that the solution to the Korean crisis ultimately lies in US military superiority, and in the short term in sustained pressure on China to punish North Korea for its indiscretions.
What is perhaps most regrettable is that Australia and other US allies have to date failed to take at all seriously the Chinese proposal for a negotiated resolution of the conflict. The ‘dual track’ approach advocated by Beijing envisages North Korea stopping its missile and nuclear tests, and the United States, South Korea and Japan ending their joint military exercises in and around the Korean peninsula. That military de-escalation of the conflict would benefit China’s strategic interests is no reason to ignore the proposal if it is also in line with regional and global security.
Joseph A. Camilleri is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and Executive Director of Alexandria Agenda, a new venture in ethical consulting. Visit his personal website at www.josephcamilleri.org.