Northeast Asia Economic Rise, Political Threat

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Muscat, Oman – By embracing globalization, Northeast Asia has emerged as a central force in the world economy. The first country in Northeast Asia to recognize the importance of globalization (by going global in the export market) was Japan in the 1950s. A defeated and shattered nation after World War II, Japan, by the 1950s and 1960s, re-engaged with the global economy by providing high quality goods and well known global brands.

South Korea then followed. From a developing nation, South Korea has risen from poverty to prosperity by adopting a highly successful export-driven growth strategy in the late 1960s.

The reform program launched by Deng Xiaoping after 1979 witnessed an economic transformation in China. The strategic choice to embrace economic globalization has lead to China’s peaceful rise in the global economy. China’s unprecedented economic growth for three decades has made it the world’s second biggest economy and the world’s leading surplus nation.

Today, China, Japan and South Korea are the world’s second, third and 11th biggest economies in the world. Collectively, these three Northeast Asian countries hold significant global economic power in the 21st century. Another emerging economy from Asia, India is trying to catch up in the race.

Japan followed outward foreign investment, Korea adopted export-driven growth, and China launched a going out strategy. The economies of these three nations differ in some respects, but have resemblances in many areas. They may have embraced globalization for their rise, but not embraced one another politically. Violent outbursts of nationalism often generate tremendous mistrust.

Another Northeast Asia country, North Korea, though nowhere near in the race in economic power, by acquiring nuclear power has challenged the world to break the nuclear monopoly. While globalization of the economies of these three North Asian countries generated prosperity, North Korea opted for nuclear capability as a priority, rejecting the threat of economic sanctions against it. The influence from China is not unknown. This is fueling mistrust and peace in the region.

Nationalism in South Korea and China is often directed against Japan, while in Japan, anti-China and anti-Korea nationalism is dominant. In spite of tremendous economic growth displayed by Northeast Asian nations, the feeling of nationalism, suspicions, and territorial disputes are ringing alarm bells in this region.

Several Asian countries are in friction with China over border and territorial disputes. China’s aggression and desire for a greater role in international politics are causing concerns for several Asian nations. Territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea are some examples.

The dispute over the Senkaku islands has led to a Sino-Japanese confrontation and tension in the region. If one tries to dig up the history, the dispute over these islands is a complicated one, since the rising Japanese empire grabbed these islands when China was weak.

The role of the US is also complicated, as the US returned sovereignty over the islands to Tokyo in 1972. Although it supported Japan’s policies on this issue, it is now trying quietly to step back.

Japan, on the other hand, has taken an aggressive decision to redefine the country’s self-defense force, increase military power, increase the defense budget, and revise the pacifist constitution. All these have been initiated after a territorial dispute with China over the group of uninhabited, but potentially resource-rich and strategically important Senkaku Islands.

Redefining the country’s defense force, military expenses may be aimed at to get more of what it is bargaining for. Japan’s sense of insecurity in the wake of China’s rise might be cause for its leaders to arouse excessive nationalist behavior, but war between Japan and China sounds illogical, as war against China would shatter Japan’s economy.

China is a major export market for Japan; on the other hand, Japan is the largest foreign investor in China. In such  a strong economic partnership, neither Japan nor China will want a war. Significant support by the US to Japan and its decision to rebalance alliance in the Asia Pacific region have led China and Korea to issue a reminder to Japan for its 20th century warring situation.

The economic relationship of the US with South Korea and the new US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement are not a major concern for China, as they are economically strong enough to resist this. But South Korea, being a medium-sized ally of the US, will be in a better position to act as a facilitator in Northeastern Asia. China, on the other hand, does not want war against the US, as it holds a huge amount of US Government Debt (over $1 trillion).

However, a cold-war-like situation is prevailing in the region. Tensions started gripping slowly but alarmingly in this part of the Pacific region, which had been pretty safe for the past 60 years. Northeast Asia’s present political relations look similar to Europe’s balance of power in politics in the early 20th century. Comparisons are being made in terms of the power shift. In Europe, Britain’s power was in decline, but Germany’s power was rising.

Similarly, Japan seems to be in the process of decline as compared to China. If US foreign policy pursues favoring Japan, politics in Northeast Asia will see a polarized situation similar to one witnessed in the early 20th Century in Europe. Continued inflexibility on all sides could lead to a misstep that would bring armed conflict.

The leaders must wake up and find solutions to develop multilateral cooperation and a sense of security before it flares up to cause serious harm in this region.

Mousumi Roy
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Mousumi Roy has a Masters (MA - Political Science) from Calcutta University and is a visiting professor of International Relations in Muscat, Oman

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