Unhappy New Year!
The author is an editorial writer and the head of the Military and Security Research Center at the JoongAng Ilbo.
It will be a far more tumultuous year for the world in 2020. The Korean Peninsula will surely be no exception. Last year’s U.S.-China trade war was the prelude to a whirlwind. Unrest in the Middle East seemed to be settling when ISIS forces were defeated, but other disputes between religious sects and ethnic groups kept the region on a boil. America’s international leadership is waning as U.S. President Donald Trump brandishes his “America first” policy, and Trump’s Asia policy is barely making any progress due to conflicts in the Middle East.
The U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks have reached their limit. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is fed up with international sanctions bogging down his economy. He declared a “head-on battle” to overcome difficult circumstances this year yet is refraining from actually carrying out any follow-up measures because he’s worried about possible repercussions. Based on an analysis from the Korea National Diplomatic Academy and the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, here’s what to expect in the international security sphere in 2020.
The international order that was formed from the 1990s has been unravelling at a rapid pace, and this year will likely be worse. The chaos is affecting security on the Korean Peninsula, not to mention the North Korea nuclear crisis. Trump’s wrath is what started it all. From the beginning of his term, he criticized both U.S. allies and non-allies based on his America first policy, claiming that the United States was spending too much on other countries’ defense and that American allies were taking “advantage” of the United States more than its enemies. He’s pressing those allies to spend more on the cost sharing of U.S. defense and does not even hesitate to abrogate treaties.
At the center of international conflict are China and the United States, whose strategic competition is adding uncertainty to the world order as the United States tries to block China from stealing its long-held hegemony. Their competition began on the military front but is now spreading to other areas like economics, ideology and political systems. The two countries are set to sign the first phase of a trade agreement on Jan. 15, but the second phase will not be easy to reach. The first phase is about reducing and canceling some new tariffs, but the second phase is about more contentious issues in the areas of forced technology transfers, intellectual property protection, Beijing’s subsidies to Chinese industry and the liberalization of China’s financial sector — things that are impossible for the two countries to reach a consensus on. Many countries including South Korea are hesitating to choose a side.
Washington will take far bolder steps this year to contain Beijing’s spread of its military influence. In its 2017 “National Security Strategy,” the United States defined China as a “revisionist power” that tries to “shift the regional balance in its favor.” On the trade and economic fronts, the United States want to strike a deal with China. On the security front, the United States’ position is detailed in last year’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy report, which explained that Washington will continuously conduct a multinational freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea to demonstrate that Beijing has no right to unilaterally control that sea.
The United States’ show of force resulted from China’s aim to seize control over the South China Sea. Beijing has been disturbing neighboring countries with the construction of 11 military bases on the Paracel and Spratly islands yet claims that it is peacefully cooperating with other nations in the South China Sea. China’s next goal is to control the East China Sea, through which Korea’s maritime trade passes. To deter this, the United States has teamed up with Japan, Australia and India to form what’s called the “Quad.” Washington is urging Seoul to join the pack, but the Moon Jae-in administration, fearful of Beijing’s reaction, is not budging.
China’s monolithic power system centered on Chinese President Xi Jinping goes against the flow of history. Beijing is violating human rights in repressing the Hong Kong protests and growing more obsessed with unifying with Taiwan. Washington has expressed opposition to Beijing’s attitude in both cases and is supporting Taiwan and Hong Kong. Last July, the U.S. government decided to sell $2 billion worth of military hardware to Taiwan including Abrams tanks and anti-tank weaponry. Last November, Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law, inviting sharp criticism from China. After withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Washington has been vying to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in South Korea, Japan, Australia and the Philippines in order to contain China. An actual deployment, which is the flash point of the U.S.-China conflict, might occur this year.
China is strengthening military ties with Russia as it battles against the United States in the arms race of nuclear, missile, cyber and space warfare. Last year, the two countries conducted a combined naval operation, aerial surveillance operation and nuclear war emergency operation. Last December, China, Russia and Iran held a combined naval operation in the Indian Ocean. Last July, China issued a white paper to expound on its national defense policy of “the new era” and stressed that it would never seek hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence. Yet the drills proved otherwise as they are aimed at boosting anti-American solidarity in the area. On another front, China asserts that it supports North Korea’s denuclearization but allows North-Chinese smuggling, increased North Korean tourism and the donation of 800,000 tons of food, which does nothing to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
Japan is very shrewd about the diplomatic situation surrounding its country, from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats to China’s military buildup and challenge to the international order, as well as American protectionism. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategy is to take both sides. Japan contains China while participating in the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and selectively joined Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Tokyo is also pushing to establish a security hotline between Beijing. With Russia, Japan is looking forward to holding a summit and foreign ministerial meeting.
At the same time, Japan maintains that the U.S.-Japan alliance is the backbone of its national security. The two countries agreed to hold new combined operations in the space, cyber and electronic fields. Tokyo is set to add 147 U.S. F-35 stealth fighters and SM-3 interceptor missiles to its defense force.
Tokyo-Seoul relations are at their worst state. Japan believes that if it cooperates with South Korea, it will only help North Korea to build nuclear weapons and missiles. The Moon administration’s anti-Japanese policy only catalyzed the souring of bilateral ties.
A turbulent year is in store as power shifts on the international stage and conflicts arise all over the world. Trump’s random generation of tension will add to the risk. The war front for the United States expanded from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula in the Far East. The conflicts in Iran and Iraq are holding back America’s Asia policy, and neither North Korea nor Iran is buying Trump’s boastful promises. It’s only a matter of time before North Korean leader Kim Jong-un resumes his intercontinental ballistic missile tests and nuclear experiments. Trump, meanwhile, is more inclined to adopt a wait-and-see mode ahead of the presidential election. South Korea must not rely too much on the United States. It’s our job to handle the nuclear issue. Our government and military must devise a thorough strategy to prepare for the security crisis set to land on the Korean Peninsula this year. We must abandon our delusional hope that the nuclear issue will be resolved and start looking at reality squarely.