There is a certain predictability about international diplomacy in north-east Asia. Once again, the communist regime in North Korea has launched a unilateral military attack on the land and people of the democratically elected South Korean government. And, once again, the former Democratic United States president Jimmy Carter has effectively said that the way to handle the current crisis is to ask the dictators in Pyongyang what they want and then to give it to them.
The decision of North Korea to fire artillery shells at Yeonpyeong Island last week – killing civilian and military personnel alike – is just one of a series of provocative acts.
Not long ago, North Korean forces torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Recently, the regime in Pyongyang let it be known it was proceeding with developing uranium enrichment processes. Now it is warning of all-out war on the Korean peninsula.
Carter’s response was typical of that part of the American left which wants the US to disengage from the world, insofar as the projection of power is concerned. Writing in The Washington Post on Thursday, Carter opined that “it is entirely possible” North Korea’s actions “are designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations that will shape their future”. Well, anything is possible. Especially since virtually no one – including Carter himself – knows anything about the regime in Pyongyang, including its leader, Kim Jong-il, and his son and anointed successor, Kim Jong-un.
Carter’s view that all North Korea wants is a bit of respect has been around for some time. The lesson is that the more the West gives dictators in Pyongyang, the more they want. This is scarcely surprising since what Carter is on about is a revival of a form of the discredited phenomenon of appeasement.
Fortunately, Barack Obama’s administration has rejected Carter’s advice. Obama had declined to send a respect-bearing envoy to Pyongyang. Instead he has dispatched an aircraft carrier to undertake joint military exercises with South Korea. North Korea has responded by threatening more strikes on South Korea. We shall see. But the fact remains that the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island took place before Obama sent out the latest manifestation of the message that the US will continue to back the government in Seoul – as it has for half a century.
There are no easy answers to the continuing crisis on the Korean peninsula. The physical location of Seoul, the South Korean capital, within artillery range of the North-South border, entails that South Korea is in a permanent hostage-style situation. The North would be destroyed in any military engagement with the US-backed South – but not before it had done considerable damage to Seoul and its environs. There is little alternative for the US and its ally to stand up to Pyongyang, as it has since the Korean War began in 1950. The hope is that North Korean communism will collapse as European communism did two decades ago – due primarily to the fact that it presides over an economic disaster, which entails even starvation.
The current instability in the Korean peninsula underlines the importance of the US to the Asia Pacific. The Kim communist dynasty answers to nobody outside of China and may not even respond to China’s wishes. This is not clear. What is clear is that a number of nations in the region regard the US presence as essential. The list includes, of course, South Korea – along with Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Australia. At present New Zealand is working on improving its relationship with the US.
All of the above have what amounts to alliances with the US. Then there are nations such as
Vietnam which regard the US as a counter to China’s growing power and influence. The commentators who regard Australia as too close to the US – under both Coalition and Labor governments – overlook the fact that the likes of John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard hold views on the importance of the US in the Asia Pacific which are shared by many of their counterparts.
As far as the nations of the Asia Pacific – along with India – are concerned, the US is not regarded as involving itself in unwarranted imperial overreach. This is a criticism of sections of the American left and right along with those who oppose US influence in the world.
It is not a complaint heard much in the Asia Pacific.
In his recent Quarterly Essay titled “Power Shift”, Hugh White essentially argued that Australia should distance itself from the US and spend more time attempting to cultivate China. This is not a stand that many of Australia’s friends in the region – including Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and India – would encourage. Nor is it likely that the economic woes now being experienced by the US will result in inevitable decline.
Sure, the US economy is of concern to America and America’s friends alike. However, in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Nye jnr makes a plausible case that the story of the decline of the US and the rise of China has been exaggerated. He points out that population growth, including immigration, is likely to have a positive impact on the US in the years ahead. Also the US is likely to be the world’s pre-eminent military power for decades to come.
Over the last couple of years, Obama has refrained from delivering a message that the US has a special role in the world. Yet many of his countrymen still believe this – as do US allies around the world, including South Korea.