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Political News

Sino-Japanese Rivalry: North Korea's Nuclear Test - A critical advantage to China

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


Within a few days after Shinzo Abe took over from Junichiro Koizumi as Japan’s Prime Minister, he rode into a perfect diplomatic storm caused by North Korea’s nuclear test. Abe is an ardent nationalist, proud of resurgent Japan’s imperial history. Emerging economic powerhouse China under President Hu Jin Tao is no less proud of its ancient civilisation and culture. Both nations aspire to a leadership position in Asia. After Koizumi, the unbending nationalist, the rise of the accommodating elitist Abe, determined to quietly take Japan to the centre stage of international affairs, was bad news for ambitious China. In the context of the ongoing Sino-Japanese rivalry about who is going to take its due place as the dominant power in Asia, a strategic challenge from China was not unexpected. As before this time too, China used a proxy to make its point.

Beijing is acutely sensitive to the symbolic significance of the famous Shinto Shrine called Yasukuni Temple which honours the memory of 14 war criminals apart from 2.5 million war dead of the Second World War. Its name being linked to the reign of terror and oppression allegedly unleashed by the Japanese occupation forces in Manchuria and Mainland China during WW2, China is strongly opposed to any Japanese Prime Minister paying visits to the Temple. South Korea, also a victim nation of wartime Japanese atrocities, shares emotions similar to China’s.

Junichiro Koizumi was a frequent visitor to the Yasukuni Temple, ignoring Chinese and South Korean sensitivities. Which is why he never got an opportunity to pay visits to either Beijing or Seoul during the entire tenure of his office as the Prime Minister of Japan. China was so upset with Koizumi’s visits to the Shinto Shrine that it signalled in anger that it opposed Japan’s permanent membership of the UNSC.

Before Shinzo Abe became the Prime Minister, he too was a regular visitor to the Yasukuni Temple. In an obvious attempt to calm the nerves Abe, after assuming charge, decided to refrain from paying his first ritualistic visit to the temple. Will Beijing alter its position on the UNSC issue on Japan, now that a supposedly more accommodating Prime Minister is in charge in Tokyo? The chances are that Chinese objections may outlast Japanese patience.

China’s other bete noire is India, with whom it has a border dispute which refuses to go away. Beijing opposes India’s aspirations for a permanent membership of the UNSC too but for different reasons. Significantly, India and Japan have teamed up with Germany and Brazil into what has come to be known as the G4 group of nations but such coming together has not produced sufficient persuasive powers to promote their case for permanent seats in the UNSC. Chinese intransigence must share the major part of the blame for the impasse in the reform process in the UN. In the year 2006, the UN remains an unrepresentative institution rooted in the year of its formation, 1945.

Shinzo Abe has indicated that he would seek to redefine Japan’s place on the world stage from being a pacifist power, having been led into it by the US at the end of the World War II, to a proactive world power projecting its military and diplomatic muscle. Tokyo has already started committing peacekeepers under UN command to the world’s trouble spots indicating that it is no longer bound by its past isolationist commitments. Make no mistake that Japan remains the world’s second-largest economy after the US and is a bigger and a more powerful economic power than China. It spends $ 46 billion annually on its military and is building its Defence Forces at a frenetic speed. It has some of the most sophisticated and technologically advanced weaponry in its inventory. Tokyo’s self-imposed disconnect with the diplomatic world is a distortion of history, which is awaiting a course correction. Abe seems to be the man for the job.

China has also other reasons to be worried about resurgent Japan’s intentions. Abe had given indications when he was serving as the Cabinet Secretary to the Japanese Government that he wishes Tokyo to work together with such democratic powers as Australia, South Korea, India and the US and maybe a few others in the region as strategic partners. He did not mention China because it is still a democracy-deficit country. In a Japan-led Asian strategic condominium, India would be a key beneficiary. An alliance of this nature with the potential of developing military undertones in time could not be to the liking of Beijing.

The relationship between Japan and India is friendly and remains free from any clash of interest, controversies and sensitivities. In fact the ashes of Subhas Chandra Bose, the highly revered leader of the Indian National Army during India’s freedom movement, who allegedly died in a plane crash on August 8, 1945 remains treasured in a Shinto Shrine in Tokyo and India has never objected to its being there.

Within a fortnight of Shinzo Abe assuming charge as Prime Minister in September 2006, the East Asian power balance underwent a sharp and a dramatic makeover. It was not a sudden development. President Hu Jin Tao and Prime Minister Wen Jia Bao of China are both close friends and allies of North Korea’s reclusive and unpredictable “Beloved Leader”, President Kim Jong Il. Kim came out with an ominous announcement that he was preparing to test a nuclear weapon.

Pyongyang tested its nuclear device in a deep underground tunnel in the Kamchaek mountain range about 60 miles south of the border with China. Significantly, the date Kim chose for the nuclear test was the day when fellow Korean Ban Ki Moon, South Korea’s Foreign Minister, was to be formally nominated by the UN Security Council as the new Secretary General succeeding Kofi Annan, the outgoing UN Chief. The bonding that South Korea has established with North Korea founded on its so called “Sun-shine policy” of engagement seems quite solid and unbreakable despite all odds, at least as of yet.

Having sensed the urgency of the situation and hoping to use the good offices of Beijing, North Korea’s ideological buddy, to stop the test from going ahead, the Japanese Prime Minister decided to pay a visit to Beijing – his first foreign visit which took place within a fortnight of his assuming power. Seoul was his next stop.

After Abe completed his 2-day trip to China, he was on a short flight from Beijing to Seoul. It was on this flight that Abe was informed on Monday October 9, 2006 that North Korea had tested its first atomic bomb. The plutonium-reprocessed implosion produced less than a kiloton in its yield. According to scientists, the test almost certainly was not entirely successful. North Korea may need to go in for a second test or even a third such, which if undertaken will look like an overly insensitive defiance of international opinion. Typically, Pyongyang has half-heartedly denied that it was planning further tests, perhaps indicating that pressures brought to bear by the international community are beginning to take effect. It could turn out to be a diversionary talk. With one failed nuclear test, NK became the 10th member of the exclusive but infamous yet prestigious Nuclear Weapons Club.

The international community cannot ignore the fact that Abe’s mission to China, which was supposed to put a stop to the test, failed. He must have arrived in Seoul angry at the new and ominous development. It was a done deal, seemingly an irreversible development. If any one could it was China, who had the capability to force or at least influence North Korea not to go ahead with the controversial testing. Obviously China was not prepared to oblige Japan. It was finally left to the UN Security Council, after the test, to adopt a resolution, which came to be known as Resolution 1718 to prevent North Korea to continue with its nuclear activities. The resolution imposed sanctions on North Korea but to be effective China’s ground-level co-operation is imperative, which may not be easily come by. China is NK’s mentor and has a long border with that country, which is unlikely to be sealed.

China has a history of clandestinely providing nuclear technology to its closest allies, helping them to play their part in holding back its rivals. Vis-a-vis India, clandestine nuclear arming of Pakistan by China is the worst kept secret in the history of illegal nuclear trafficking. Without China’s military help and political support, famine-stricken NK cannot survive for more than a day. To imagine that Pyongyang was acting or could have acted alone in testing its plutonium bomb in defiance of international opinion is naive.

The two nations that can challenge China’s hegemony in Asia are Japan and India, together more effectively than independently. Both are democracies and have close relationships with the West. In the midst of the ongoing dialogue with India, the spanner in the works is China’s refusal to agree to settle its outstanding border disputes. A problem-free relationship is seen as too “artificial a construct”. Similarly Sino-Japanese bilateral talks get clouded with hark-backs to WWII atrocities preventing a trouble-free relationship.

North Korea’s nuclear test may be an indicator that China may have successfully “outsourced” the strategic confrontation with India and Japan respectively to Pakistan and North Korea. These low-cost operations help in tying down both India and Japan. Neither Pakistan’s nuclear capability nor North Korea’s is a threat to anyone except China’s competitors and rivals, namely India and Japan. With North Korea’s nuclear weapons aimed at Japan and Pakistan’s directed at India, the pieces in China’s chessboard are perfectly placed.

In July 2006 North Korea tested seven military missiles including the long-range Taepodong 2 missile into the Sea of Japan. It was followed by the nuclear test. Together these tests have sent shivers down the spine of the Japanese security community. It could not be that Tokyo is not internally debating whether there is a case for it to exercise the nuclear option. There is already an undercurrent of thinking in Japan that the US nuclear umbrella may have lost its effectiveness given that China, a rising super power, and North Korea, an unpredictable Chinese proxy, are nuclear powers menacingly positioned at its doorstep. Japan’s strategic security is seriously threatened. Will Japan follow India’s example and go nuclear, if only to defend its population against irresponsible predators? If Tokyo takes the plunge, the international community should not be surprised.

Nuclear weapons are much safer in the hands of democracies than if they are in the possession of dictatorships. What is worth noting is Abe’s declaration made after NK’s nuclear test: “Japan needs to take severe, unilateral measures as soon as possible”

Shoichi Nakagawa, Chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council has said that he believed Japan would adhere to its policy of not arming itself with nuclear weapons but added that a debate was necessary. “We need to find a way to prevent Japan from coming under attack”. Nakagawa told a TV programme “There is an argument that nuclear weapons are one such option”. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has for now rejected the idea. Meanwhile, intervening in the debate, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on October 18, 2006 during her important tour of East Asia in an attempt to dissuade Japan from taking the plunge assured that, Washington was prepared to defend Japan in case it is attacked. I am not sure if Japan in the context of its threat perception and its present nationalistic mood will be impressed by the assurance. China-backed nuclear NK is a Japan-specific problem; it is best left to the capable hands of Shinzo Abe to address or come to terms with it without outside interference.

This leaves America to consider what other options it has if it wants to help Japan. There may be none to be honest. Like Iraq, NK is also an “axis of evil” nation. Will Washington take military action against Pyongyang and destroy its nuclear facilities? The US is in a state of severe military over-stretch in Iraq, which may not permit such a course of action to be successfully undertaken. In the midst of the security disaster in Iraq, popular opinion in the US has strongly turned against America embarking on wars. The unpredictability of China’s response to a US attack of NK must be a huge disincentive for Washington to undertake such a course of action. Will sanctions work? Elsewhere they have not worked and produced unintended consequences. Will the US try and succeed in driving a wedge between Beijing and Pyongyang with economic incentives? With such high stakes invested in North Korea, China will do everything in its power to frustrate any such hostile move to succeed.

The US should better concentrate on Iran but that will not be easy either. The thinking in Tehran is that if Sunni Pakistan and Communist North Korea could have nuclear weapons, which America either discreetly supported, as in the case of Islamabad, or could not stop, as in the case of Pyongyang, it can precious do little to stop resurgent Shia Iran from having it too. Iran needs the A-bomb more to make a point in the divided world of Islam than confronting the West. As for Japan, its security menacingly threatened, the alternatives are equally limited. The nuclear option may become compelling in the ultimate analysis.

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