By Jacob L. Shapiro

It is easy to forget that as recently as the 19th century, China and Japan were provincial backwaters. So self-absorbed and technologically primitive were East Asia’s great powers that German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “The extensive tract of eastern Asia is severed from the process of general historical development.” His description seems laughable today. China and Japan are now the second- and third-largest economies in the world. Japan’s failed quest for regional domination during World War II and its subsequent economic reconstruction profoundly affected the world. China’s unification under communism and its pursuit of regional power in the past decade have been no less significant.

And yet, for all the strength and wealth Beijing and Tokyo accumulated, since 1800 neither has been powerful enough to claim dominance of the region. Since European and American steamships discovered their technological superiority relative to the local ships in the first half of the 19th century, Chinese and Japanese development has proceeded at the mercy of outside powers. Japan tried to break out, and came close to breaking out during World War II, but was ultimately thwarted by the United States. China, already anointed by many as the world’s great superpower, remains a country divided. The lavish wealth found in its coastal regions is noticeably, if not entirely, absent from the interior.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the G-20 leaders’ family photo in Hangzhou on Sept. 4, 2016. GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

This state of affairs is beginning to change – and the U.S.-North Korea stand-off over Pyongyang’s pursuit of deliverable nuclear weapons shows just how much. The United States does not want North Korea – a poor, totalitarian state of roughly 25 million malnourished and isolated people – to acquire nuclear weapons capable of striking the U.S. mainland. The U.S. has threatened North Korea with all manner of retribution if Pyongyang continues its pursuit of these weapons, and yet North Korea remains undaunted. It is doing this not because Kim Jong Un is crazy. It is doing this because it figures it will be left standing, come what may.

It may not be such a bad wager. From Kim’s point of view, there are only two ways to get North Korea to halt its development of nuclear missiles: The U.S. either destroys the regime or convinces it that continued tests would call into question its very survival. (For that to work, the regime would have to believe it could be destroyed.)

The U.S. can rail all it wants in the U.N.; it will fall on deaf ears. The U.S. can try to assassinate Kim Jong Un; someone else will take his place. The U.S. can forbid China from fueling North Korea; the North Koreans don’t use that much fuel anyway, and they have already demonstrated they will sacrifice much to defend their country.

One Step Closer

But can the U.S. take out the Kim regime, or at least make Pyongyang think it can? It’s hard to say. There are only two ways to take out the regime. The first – using the United States’ own vast nuclear arsenal – would set a precedent on the use of weapons of mass destruction that Washington would rather not. The second – a full-scale invasion and occupation of North Korea – would strain even U.S. capabilities and wouldn’t have the desired outcome. The U.S. might be able to defeat the North Koreans in the field, but as Vietnam and the Iraq War showed, defeating the enemy in battle is not the same thing as achieving victory. And there is, of course, the question of China, which came to Pyongyang’s aid in 1950, the last time the U.S. fought on the Korean Peninsula, and might well again if the U.S. struck North Korea pre-emptively with massive force.

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Limited military strikes are another possibility. Politically attractive though they may be, they can only delay, not destroy, North Korea’s nuclear program. And they would surely enhance Pyongyang’s credibility. Every U.S. attack that doesn’t succeed in knocking out the political leadership would be used as propaganda, spun in the North Korean countryside as a victory against the “gangster-like U.S. imperialists.”

Thus is the extent, and limit, of American power. Around the world, the U.S. has been struggling to execute a foreign policy that does not rely on direct U.S. intervention. This is easier said than done, especially when the issue at stake is nuclear war. Analysts like me can scream until we are blue in the face that North Korea would never use its nuclear weapons because doing so would invite its own demise. But we are not the ones making the decision. We don’t bear the burden of being wrong.

That is the brilliance behind North Korea’s strategy. The goal is to prod the U.S. to react to its behavior – and then to use its reactions to shore up support. And the strategy is working. The U.S. has said time and again that it will not allow North Korea to have a nuclear weapon. If North Korea gets a nuclear weapon, then what good is a U.S. security guarantee? If the U.S. attacks North Korea without destroying the Kim regime – and I believe it can’t – then North Korea can say it defeated the imperialists as it continues to pursue its current strategy. If the U.S. agrees to remove its forces from South Korea in exchange for North Korea’s halting its testing, then North Korea is one step closer to its ultimate goal: unifying the Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang’s rule.

Doing, Not Saying

In every scenario, the conclusion is the same: The United States alone cannot dictate terms in East Asia. It cannot bring North Korea to heel. It cannot make China do what China does not want to do. It cannot even persuade its ally, South Korea, to pretend that a pre-emptive military option is on the table. Japan looks at all the things the U.S. cannot do, and for the first time since 1945 it must ask itself a question that leads to a dark place: What does Japanese policy look like if Tokyo cannot rely on U.S. security guarantees?

The North Korea crisis may not have created Washington’s predicament, but it exposed it in ways previously unseen, to China’s benefit. The U.S. has shed blood and spent untold sums of money forging an alliance network in East Asia to prevent any country there from challenging its power. And so it is the region’s great power, China, not North Korea, that is putting U.S. strategy to the test. Already an economic behemoth, China is rapidly developing its military capabilities. Its newly declared dictator-president, Xi Jinping, intends to preside over a massive transformation of the Chinese economy that, if successful, would make China more self-reliant and politically stable than at any point in the past four centuries. China still has a long way to go – too long before it first loses its political stability, in our estimation – but in the short term, China’s power is growing. Chinese adventurism in the South and East China seas, its strategic investments around Asia, and the continued development of its navy all validate its growing power.


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Its ascendance will inevitably bring China into conflict with Japan. Such conflict is nothing new – these civilizations have fought their fair share of wars. The brutality of the Japanese invasion of China in the 20th century – an invasion for which Korea was a staging ground – still lingers fresh in the memories of the Chinese and Korean people. But the conditions for conflict are different this time. For one thing, China and Japan are both powerful. In the early 20th century, Japan discovered the difficulties that many of China’s would-be conquerors did when it attempted to take over the Middle Kingdom, but Japan was still by far the superior power. It’s hard to say which is stronger today. China has a greater population, but Japan is more stable and boasts better military and technical capabilities. This has the makings of a balanced rivalry.

China and Japan, moreover, are no longer worried about being subjugated. This may seem an obvious observation, but in fact it is the first time since the Industrial Revolution that both countries have been able to call their own shots. They came close a few times, of course. Japan nearly came to dominate the Pacific but was eventually subdued by the United States. China wanted to conquer Taiwan in a bid for complete unification, but the arrival of the U.S. 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Strait dashed the government’s hopes.

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Now, the first signs of the coming Sino-Japanese competition for Asia are reaching the surface. Ignore the things Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping have said to each other recently – their statements seek to obscure reality, not uncover it. Look instead at what they are doing. China is investing significant financial and political capital in the Philippines in an attempt to lure Manila away from the U.S. Japan is there with military aid and support, as well as economic incentives of its own. China sees strategic potential in cultivating a relationship with Myanmar, and Japan is there too, with promises of aid and investment without the kinds of strings China often attaches. Much has been made in the mainstream media about China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, a testament to Beijing’s excellent PR skills. Less time has been spent examining Japan’s counters – resuscitating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pledging to invest more than $200 billion in African and Asian countries, and announcing various initiatives involving the Asian Development Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Japan Infrastructure Initiative. China has bullied other powers out of the South China Sea, but Japan won’t be bullied out of the East China Sea. Meanwhile, Japan advocates the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a grouping of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia – to keep China’s power confined to its traditional terrestrial domain.

The conflict will develop slowly. Its contours are just now taking shape. The United States won’t simply disappear from Asia entirely – Washington still has an important role to play, and how it manages the North Korea crisis will go a long way in defining the long-term regional balance of power. But over the next few years, the U.S. will begin to reach the limits of its powers, and as it does, it will pursue a new strategy that employs skillful manipulation of relationships instead of brute force. It will find that China and Japan are no longer severed from world history but shaping history on their own terms.

GPF Team
Geopolitical Futures is a company that charts the course of the international system. It’s an ambitious mission, maybe even foolhardy, but hear us out.