It’s the time of year for predictions, but rather than looking at what might happen in Northeast Asia in 2014, let's flag some events that, although they might or should happen, probably won’t happen.
1. There will be no Sino-Japanese war
The analogies of China to Wilhelmine Germany are coming hot and heavy now (here, here, here). China is an encircled, fast-rising state with too much nationalism, territorial grievances, growing military reach, and so on (I will take up this analogy in detail in a post next month). Japan is a possible bulwark, but it is struggling to keep up. Russia and India are still too weak to really challenge China. And the US is deeply ambivalent.
What's more, since the expansion of China’s air defense identification zone into the East China Sea, analysts increasingly expect some kind of Sino-Japanese clash with the possibility that it might spin out of control. Shinzo Abe seems to be banking his prime ministership on standing up to China. Of all the big security issues in East Asia – Taiwan, North Korea, Russia’s decline, Indo-Chinese border clashes, China's claim in the South China Sea – nothing is more dangerous now than the overt balancing between Japan and China.
Thankfully, however, the media-fueled alarmism is likely wrong. I do think incidents in the East China Sea are now a growing probability. But I also have confidence that the Japanese and Chinese governments both can and want to contain such incidents – even without the threat of US intervention. In other words, both Tokyo and Beijing should be able to prevent local commanders from running away with the game. Both have the state capacity – resources, professionalism, bureaucratic depth – to rein in local risk-taking.
Also, I doubt elites in either state really want to go to the brink. Japan is in relative decline to China; a spiraling clash could make that very apparent as it cries out for US help. And China's reputation as a destination for foreign investment would be set back dramatically, a containment ring from India to Japan would be triggered, and the US 'pivot' to Asia would become a flood.
2. North Korea will not change
North Korea’s new-year messages are famous for seeking better inter-Korean terms. But almost inevitably some manner of blackmail, crisis, nuclear or missile test, or outrageous rhetoric about the South comes along to sink better prospects. I see no reason to doubt this will happen again this year.
Analysts have a long history of hanging big hopes for North Korea on the slightest changes (me included; I too threw around the requisite Gorbachev analogies when Kim Jong Un took over. *Sigh* ). We are constantly projecting dates by which North Korea will collapse.
But increasingly I think we need to accept that North Korea is actually more stable than we like to admit, a point Bruce Cumings particularly has made many times. The sources of that stability are mystifying. The best explanations I have heard are that: the Kim family cult really has brainwashed the population; the Orwellian national security state is astonishingly effective at stamping out any dissent before it begins; or Chinese aid bails out the regime.
My own sense is the final explanation. I think Eastern Europe 1989-90 and Arab Spring demonstrated just how brittle dictatorships really are. North Korea would have to be an enormous outlier to avoid the popular, military, and factional pressures that challenge other autocracies. Nor does the ideological explanation seem that persuasive to me anymore. Kim Il Sung is twenty years dead; his son was responsible for the famine and his grandson scarcely knew North Korea till five years ago. Jang Song-Taek’s recent ‘factionalism’ tells me North Korea does in fact have internal politics; that is, the unitary ideological state is a myth.
But so long as China is handing out aid and retains its geopolitical interest in North Korea as a 'buffer' against South Korea, Japan and the US, then North Korea will be under little pressure to change economically. And regime ideology, built around hostility to the US and its South Korea puppet, does not permit North Korea to meaningfully give up belligerence.
3. ASEAN will not get congeal to resist China
Am I the only one who thinks ASEAN is wildly overrated? Indeed, I find the whole narrative of organisation and institutionalisation in East Asia wildly over-hyped. To me, East Asia is most notable for its lack of organisation. Western liberals, raised on the EU, IMF, UN, and so on, may think these are good solutions to Asia’s geopolitical tensions – and I would agree. But that does not mean Asians do.
My own sense is that nationalisms in Asia are way too strong – likely because they often have a very toxic racial element to them. So organisations can be built, sure. Asian states have the money, professional bureaucrats, and interdependence to build them. But they will be (are) incredibly shallow. They are talk-shops.
Nothing illustrates this problem like ASEAN, which inexplicably captures enormous amounts of scholarly and media attention despite doing almost nothing. It is about two-thirds the age of the EU but has accomplished perhaps 10% what that organisation has – no free trade zone, no currency coordination, no alliance, no joint passport. Chinese pressure on the South China Sea should be pushing the ASEAN states toward each other. But the organisation is so soft that states like Vietnam and the Philippines are, amazingly, looking to the US instead of to their proximate neighbours. It is time to ignore ASEAN.
Photo by Flickr user (stephan).