North Korean Bomb Tilts Asian Balance of Power

This a guest post by Ray Hunt…

The balance of power throughout Asia is rapidly changing.

China and India are industrialising and accumulating wealth at break-neck speed.

Indonesia is morphing, Viet Nam is successfully forging a socialist development path different to China’s, while South Korea and Malaysia are becoming affluent middle-class societies.

In the past three years, North Korea has detonated two nuclear weapons and fired missiles over Tokyo, and the main Japanese island, Honshu.

North Korea’s big bangs are a frightening development for a country that had two cities destroyed by nuclear weapons.

But China’s growing economic and political strength, the historical grudges and Chinese maritime disputes with Tokyo and every Asian neighbour with an adjacent coastline, are much bigger Foreign Affairs problems for the clumsy Japanese Government to manage going forward.

Some informed sources say China’s military build-up and increasingly assertive foreign policy are primary reasons why Japan could change direction.

In the Sea of Japan Chinese submarines have been playing Art of War style games with the Japanese navy for the past four years. There are hotly contested claims over various bird-shit covered islands and potentially oil-rich waters. And, of course, there’s a hateful history of hundreds of years of bad relations between Japan and China.

From 1945 until recently, Japan was happy to shelter beneath America’s nuclear “umbrella.” A subservient defence alliance with the US minimised diplomatic friction with the neighbours and allowed Japan to invest more in productive economic infrastructure and building the world’s second largest economy.

However, given shifty behaviour by Cheney and Bush, US forces stretched by two slow-burn wars, America’s economic problems and a relative decline in its regional capacity to project power – coupled with China openly flexing its muscles – Japan is not longer so sure about the validity of its military insurance policy from “Uncle Sam.”

For these reasons Japan – which has everything it needs to assemble accurate nuclear warheads in months – could may deploy nuclear weapons in the next few years.

If this happened, South Korea would also acquire nuclear weapons, that’s assuming they aren’t already motivated by the Dear Leader’s fireworks to be quietly manufacturing deployable warheads now.

A number of other major Asian countries would then follow suit. China would build more nukes. Then the wheel would turn again.

So what can we do to prevent the region’s two superpowers assuming a nightmarish “mutually assured destruction” nuclear posture?

Step one, sort North Korea. Easier said than done but there are some available levers. Without Chinese energy supplies, the Dear Leader’s regime has no future.

What specific role might Australia play in helping our neighbourhood peacefully chart the stormy seas that lie ahead?

Well, we could employ some enlightened self-interest and push for increased regional political interaction. At an institutional level.

The Asia Pacific Economic (Community), among other established Asian institutions, could help. The Hawke-Keating government, supported by quiet Japanese diplomacy, built APEC from the ground-up.

Maybe now is the right time to update APEC’s 20 year-old institutional mandate? Consider making APEC a diplomatic talk shop?

A place where serious Asian disagreements could be sorted behind closed doors without anyone losing ‘face?’

We should explore all plausible options. Looming on the horizon is the ominous spectre of mushroom clouds and Australian officials who know the APEC fine-print back to front.

Ray Hunt