Monday, December 12, 2011

US misses its cue in Pacific theater, just like everywhere else..., as North Korea's implosion heralds the real crisis....

US misses its cue in Pacific theater, just like everywhere else..., as North Korea's implosion heralds the real crisis....

By Yong Kwon

North Korean implosion creates many perils, such as "loose nukes" entering the global black market. She calls on the United States, South Korea and China to start planning together - now - for the staggering task of managing North Korea's collapse.....

More than six decades after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States conception of security has failed to evolve from the bloody island-hopping days of the Pacific war. The same misconceptions that underpinned the analyses leading up to World War II and during the Korean War dangerously reverberate among Washington's policymakers. This has become even more evident lately as President Barack Obama repeatedly emphasizes America's place in Asia-Pacific and Capitol Hill agonizes over a $1 trillion cut to the Pentagon budget.

The case against cutting back on the US military presence in the West Pacific is best encapsulated by J Randy Forbes, a Republican congressman from Virginia and chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, who argues in a recent article that forward-deployed military assets allow the United States to deter or respond to crisis situations without having to "fight our way in". [1] That is all well and fine - if the significant threat to the US or regional security is as clear and present a danger as Forbes presumes it is.

Nonetheless, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are surging forth, declaring the South China Sea an area of vital US interest and promising that defense cuts will not affect US military presence in Asia. Perhaps Washington mistakenly believes that its only leverage in the West Pacific lies with its military assets; however, one must also not ignore the government's apparent apprehension towards China as a key motivator.

What is interesting is the source of this fear - a historic, deep rooted presumption that Asian political orders do not engage in internal disputes, leading to the false impression that any state policy emanating from Beijing (or Pyongyang) represents a consensus and a doctrine.

It's not just China that has been subjected to this prejudice. The State Department analyzed Imperial Japan under the same light in the months leading up to the Day of Infamy, ruling out the possibility of negotiating an end to Japanese expansion into China without applying crippling economic sanctions. [2]

This conclusion was reached under the notion that dissenting views within the Japanese Imperial Army could not exist because of its collectivist tradition. It would be unfair to reduce the origins of the war to this single disposition, but the fact that Washington failed to imagine internal division within the Japanese military hints at the undercurrent of cultural bias in the policymaking community.

The same preconception colored US interpretation of North Korea, China and the Soviet Union during the Korean War. Archival evidence points to significant division among communist leaders and even within the North Korean leadership throughout the war. [3] Not only did policymakers not imagine the possibility of internal division during the Korean War, the notion that North Korea was some kind of a puppet state in a monochromatic communist bloc held firm through the Cold War.

Historically, too many US policymakers have jumped on single or a handful of actions by an adversary that they knew little about to determine US policies abroad. Furthermore, studies that attempted to ''objectively'' discern the political and societal culture of the group in question, such as Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, often than not merely consolidated preconceived notions of that society.

So why is it so difficult for Washington to imagine internal division? Analysts are certainly aware that open discussion of government policy is restricted in authoritarian states, but why does that necessarily exclude internal discussion and conflict between agencies and within the leadership?

Returning to the Obama administration's anti-Beijing offensive, the new policies are being developed based on presumptions regarding China's intentions in a time when committing to a mere prediction is the most inappropriate.

Yes, Beijing has been heavy handed in approaching issues regarding its surrounding waters and ties with Pyongyang appear to be deepening. [4] Nonetheless, this does not mean that some kind of monolithic force is driving the country towards some sinister end like Forbes seems to be implying.

According to many China scholars, there is an ''explosion of intellectual ferment'' in China and US analysts are mostly ignoring the phenomenon. [5] China of the 21st century, finally recovering from the legacy of Maoist anti-intellectualism, is showing more socio-political diversity than ever before.

The number of people with college degrees has increased from 0.4% in 1982 to 8.9% in 2010 and thousands of foreign-educated professionals are repatriating every year. On top of this, high-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party are showing increasing willingness to break from the pack and engage in self-criticism. It is now safe to assume that the country is not ruled by People's Liberation Army, but rather by a diverse group of people whose ideologies range from militarism to progress liberalism.

A long-term US policy in East Asia must take into consideration both the current transition and the transformative capacity of the Chinese leadership. Instead, Washington appears to be forcing Beijing's hand by increasing its military presence in the region, which will inadvertently strengthen the very group of people that the US does not wish to see in power; a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

Perhaps the immediate question that one should ask is how having physical military presence on Asian and Australasian soil will make a difference in the security of the region. It does not diminish Chinese investments in military hardware nor significantly stall North Korea's provocative actions.

In fact, the military assets currently placed in Northeast Asia do not guarantee the territorial sovereignty of South Korea along the Northern Limitation Line nor protect Japanese territorial waters around Senkaku Island because Washington rightly avoids provoking Beijing.

Washington acts like it is preparing for a new protracted Cold War to militarily and diplomatically contain Beijing, but its rationale is crude and the oversimplified method yields little actual changes for America's regional allies. The United State should do better - in fact, it must do better.

1. J Randy Forbes,
Puncturing the US base myths. The Diplomat, December 2, 2011.
2. Michael Barnhart, Japan prepares for Total War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.
Korean War Archives, compiled by North Korea International Documentation Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
4. Robert Carlin, John W Lewis.
North Korea's New Course. LA Times, December 8, 2011.
Intellectuals Divided: The Growing Political and Ideological Debate in China. Brookings Institute: A John L Thorton China Center Event, September 14, 2011.

Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.