Possible conflicts in Northeast Asia: Implications for Bangladesh

Monzurul Huq
North East Asia is seen by some analysts as a volatile region that has the potential to disrupt peace and stability not only of the areas of immediate geographic proximity, but of Asia as a whole and beyond. It is also a region that many in other parts of the world would like to follow the examples it had shown in achieving economic miracles within a short period of time. The two visibly opposing views obviously compel us to look for an in-depth analysis of the complexity of the situation that the region is facing, which might also help us to identify at least some of the repercussions that Bangladesh and other countries of the South Asian region might have in case a crisis situation arises.

Throughout the Cold War period Northeast Asia was at the center stage of rivalry between the East and the West. The vast expanse of the Soviet empire reaching the Pacific coast in the Far East made Northeast Asia an integral part of the Cold War game played between the two blocs of the great divide. Moreover, China having turned communist in 1949 increased the concerns of the Western camp that was already preoccupied in partial wars in a number of countries adjacent to the region. The war in the Korean peninsula was the first full-scale confrontation where the two sides and Moscow’s newly emerged ally, the People’s Republic of China, for the first time got involved in a serious conflict of far-reaching consequences for the whole region, including the influence on shaping of political mould of countries till now.

It is now commonplace that the collapse of the Berlin Wall had no impact at all on the great divide in Northeast Asia where, despite a much closer inter-Korea understanding, antagonism between some countries, particularly that between Japan and North Korea, runs very deep. This is one of the most visible destabilizing factors that pose a serious threat to the overall situation of the region and has the potential to disrupt not only peace and stability, but also can influence and slow down the pace of economic prosperity that the region is now experiencing.

Looking at the Northeast Asian region from the Japanese perspective might give a clear understanding of the complexity of the situation facing the region. Japan has unresolved territorial disputes with virtually each and every Northeast Asian country. Paradoxically, the only country that remains out of such conflict with Tokyo is North Korea, though misunderstanding over other issues of serious nature leaves no scope at all to think that Pyongyang and Tokyo can forge closer relationship any easier than what the other countries of the region can do. The deep-rooted mistrust between Japan and North Korea widened further in recent years despite two visits to Pyongyang by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Although the six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program has shown signs of easing the overall atmosphere, Pyongyang and others still remain poles apart in terms of reaching a conclusive agreement.

On territorial issue Japan has a longstanding dispute with Russia that also shows no sign of any rapprochement in the foreseeable future. The four northern islands off Hokkaido and closer to the Kurile Islands chain have been under Russian occupation since the end of World War II. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, hopes on Japanese side ran high as Tokyo thought that the end of the totalitarian rule in Moscow would help the newly-emerged leadership of Russia to forge a closer relationship with Tokyo and as Russia at the time was in dire need of economic cooperation of advanced industrialized countries. Japanese leadership obviously saw in Russian situation an opportunity to press for the resolution of the territorial dispute, and in the initial days of a new democratic Russia the two sides made some progress on that particular question. However, as the administration of President Vladimir Putin has somehow managed to bring back order in the economic process of Russia, the newly gained assertiveness allowed Moscow to harden its position and Russia seems to have gone back to the earlier Soviet era claim that a peace treaty between the two countries should come first before resolving the territorial dispute. As a result, there are few signs these days of overcoming the stalemate.

If the nature of Japan’s disagreement with Russia is more or less overt and covers the sole issue of territorial claim, Tokyo’s other territorial conflicts with its two closest neighbors, China and South Korea, are part of a complexity that runs much deeper to cover other issues related to history as well as present defense capabilities of nations of the region. The islets of Takeshima, known in South Korea as Tokdo, constitute a flash point of dispute between Japan and South Korea. The dispute is also fueling nationalistic feeling among the peoples of both nations and certain political groupings in both Japan and South Korea are already in the process of exploiting the situation to enhance their respective political positions. The islets’ peculiarity lies not in its potential undersea resources, but in defining the exclusive economic zone that both countries consider vital in terms of fishing in the Sea of Japan. As a result, concerned pressure groups in Tokyo and Seoul are keeping no stone unturned to convince their respective governments that giving even a slightest concession to the opposite side might be tantamount to the selling out of sovereignty.

For Japan, a much more worrying sign is the process of rapprochement between the two Koreas. President Roh Mu Hyon’s administration made significant progress in closing the gap between North and South Korea and, unlike Japan, does not consider North Korea “a serious destabilizing factor”. The 2005 annual report of the Japanese Defense Agency released in early August defines North Korea’s nuclear weapon’s development as “not only a security problem for Japan but an important problem for the whole international community.” The report also stated that “the possibility of North Korea having considerably advanced its nuclear weapons programs cannot be excluded” and hence pointed out on the necessity to keep a close watch on Pyongyang’s development, deployment, and proliferation of ballistic missiles.

On the other hand, a much watered down attitude of South Korea towards her northern neighbor runs contrary to such harsh assessment and, as a result, there is a possibility that a rapprochement between the two Koreas might come at the expense of South’s relationship with Japan. The recent joint celebration by two Koreas of victory against Japanese occupation came as a clear sign of what might lie ahead in the future.

Despite the fact that North Korea poses an immediate threat to Japan by trying to become a nuclear power, Japan is visibly more worried about the growing military might of China and the future course that a more assertive Beijing might take in foreign policy. The dispute surrounding the island of Senkaku in South China Sea symbolizes that trend, as China did not hesitate to go ahead with deep sea drilling near the disputed island despite repeated objections from Japan.

The 2005 Defense White Paper of the Japanese Defense Agency was also relatively blunt in identifying China as the most serious concern for Japan in the future, as Beijing has been actively promoting the modernization of its military capability in recent years. Noting that China has expanded the scope of its activities, including operation at sea, the Report expressed concern that Beijing had not clarified such things as the state of its possession of specific equipment, its total defense budget, and the detailed breakdown. It stressed the necessity of “paying attention to those modernization trends and to carefully evaluate whether the modernization of China’s military forces exceeds the level necessary for its national defense.”

Japan’s neighbors, particularly China, on the other hand, look equally suspiciously on the US-Japan defense arrangements, particularly on the realignment plan of US troops in Asia that might bring Japan much closer to US military strategy in the region. The proposed realignment will move the command headquarters of the first US airborne division from Seattle to Camp Zama, situated on the outskirts of Tokyo. No doubt, defense strategists in China are taking into consideration all such developments in matters of modernization of the country’s armed forces.

Despite such worrying signs of erosion of trust between Northeast Asian neighbors, the region still enjoys unprecedented economic cooperation among countries, particularly among China, Japan and South Korea. This economic cooperation has helped defuse much of the tensions that otherwise would have flared up in a relatively bigger way. Hence, it is unlikely that conflicts would aggravate as long as countries continue to enjoy the benefits of economic expansion. And in case direct confrontations do flare up, the consequences would be of serious nature for the whole of Asia, not only because China having nuclear capabilities and Japan enjoying the protection of nuclear umbrella of the lone superpower, but also because a sharp line of division would cut through all over Asia compelling others to join the ranks of opposing sides. What will be the position of Bangladesh in such a situation? It seems Dhaka has already given signals to Tokyo on the important issue of where it belongs.

The most visible opponent of Japan’s aspiration of becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council has so far been China; an early dividing line has already been drawn on who belongs where when the issue was discussed recently at the bilateral levels. Japan joined hands with three other countries with the hope of overcoming China’s objection by enlisting the support of two-thirds majority at the UN General Assembly and asked for Bangladesh’s support. Instead of taking a carefully calculated diplomatic stand, Bangladesh chose to be blunt enough to decline the request, and by doing so gave an early signal of where the country’s leadership would stand should a crisis situation emerge in Asia.

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Monzurul Huq writes from Tokyo.