Tag: east asia

North Korea: Kim Jong-il’s Death and the Coming Succession Struggle

North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is dead. There is now no prospect of negotiating and implementing a new nuclear agreement with the North in the near future. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is likely to be consumed with a power struggle which could turn violent. Washington’s best policy option is to step back and observe.

After his stroke three years ago, Kim anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. However, the latter Kim has had little time to establish himself. The previous familial power transfer to Kim Jong-il took roughly two decades. There are several potential claimants to supreme authority in the North, and the military may play kingmaker.

Some observers hope for a “Korean Spring,” but the DPRK’s largely rural population is an unlikely vehicle for change. Urban elites may want reform, but not revolution. If a North Korean Mikhail Gorbachev is lurking in the background, he will have to move slowly to survive.

During this time of political uncertainty no official is likely to have the desire or ability to make a deal yielding up North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The leadership will be focused inward and no one is likely to challenge the military, which itself may fracture politically.

Nor is China likely to play a helpful role. Beijing views the status quo as being in its interest. Above all else, China is likely to emphasize stability, though it may very well attempt to influence the succession process outside of public view. But China does not want what America wants, preferring the DPRK’s survival, just with more responsible and pliable leadership.

Washington can do little during this process. The United States should maintain its willingness to talk with the North. American officials also should engage Beijing over the future of the peninsula, exploring Chinese concerns and searching for areas of compromise. For instance, Washington should pledge that there would be no American bases or troops in a reunited Korea, which might ease Beijing’s fears about the impact of a North Korean collapse.

Most important, the Obama administration should not rush to “strengthen” the alliance with South Korea in response to uncertainty in the North. The Republic of Korea is well able to defend itself. It should take the steps necessary to deter North Korean adventurism and develop its own strategies for dealing with Pyongyang. America should be withdrawing from an expensive security commitment which no longer serves U.S. interests.

Kim Jong-il imposed unimaginable hardship on the North Korean people. However, what follows him could be even worse if an uncertain power struggle breaks down into armed conflict. Other than encourage Beijing to use its influence to bring the Kim dynasty to a merciful end, the United States can—and should—do little more than watch developments in the North.

Explaining Aircraft Carriers

Yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made the following comment regarding China’s maiden voyage in the old Varyag carcass it has been tinkering with for over a decade:

We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment.

This echoes Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks at the 2005 Shangri-La Dialogue in which he puzzled in quintessentially Rumsfeldian fashion:

Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder:

* Why this growing investment?

* Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?

* Why these continuing robust deployments?

Maybe, like me, the Chinese are reading Aaron Friedberg’s new book on U.S.-China security competition (Friedberg worked on Asia for Vice President Cheney). Perhaps high-ranking military officials there shudder a bit when they read, on page 184, that someone very close to the levers of power in Washington admits mildly that

Stripped of diplomatic niceties, the ultimate aim of the American strategy is to hasten a revolution, albeit a peaceful one, that will sweep away China’s one-party authoritarian state and leave a liberal democracy in its place.

Given this, as Friedberg sensibly notes later (p. 231),

It is difficult to believe that the present Beijing regime will accept indefinitely a situation in which its fate could depend on American forbearance, and hard to see how it can escape that condition without building a much bigger and more capable navy.

I actually agree with David Axe’s characterization of the Shi Lang as “a piece of junk,” and given the geography of the region, I wouldn’t—as the Chinese aren’t—pour many resources into aircraft carriers to remedy this predicament. But if the roles were reversed, and China spent four times as much as we did on our military—and if China had naval bases ringing my coastline and fancied itself the “hub” of a “hub-and-spokes” set of alliances between itself and a variety of Latin American countries and Canada—I’d probably think that these facts, when assembled, constituted a pretty strong argument for spending more money on anything I could use to defend myself. Especially if China had recently gone on an ideological rampage trying to “hasten revolutions” and leaving smoldering wreckages in its wake.

At any rate, what’s good for the goose ought to be good for the gander, so I anxiously await the Pentagon’s detailed explanation for why we need each of our 11 aircraft carriers, every one of which is enormously more powerful than the PRC’s puny flattop.

Cross-posted from the National Interest.

Time for Japan to Do More

It seems that the Japanese government no longer seems entirely comfortable relying on America for it’s defense.

Reports Reuters:

A draft of Japan’s new mid-term defense policy guidelines is calling for the reinforcement of military personnel and equipment in the face of growing regional tensions, Kyodo news agency said.

The draft, obtained by Kyodo, says Japan needs to reverse its policy of reducing its defense budgets in light of North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear tests, as well as China’s rise to a major military power, the news agency said.

The document urges the government to raise the number of Ground Self-Defense Forces troops by 5,000 to 160,000, Kyodo said.

The new National Defense Program Guidelines, covering five years to March 2015, are scheduled to be adopted by the government by the end of the year.

The draft also says there is a need to “secure options responsive to changing situations” of international security, indicating Tokyo’s intention of considering if it should be capable of striking enemy bases, Kyodo said.

This is good news.  Historical concerns remain, of course, but World War II ended more than six decades ago.  The Japan of today is very different than the Imperial Japan of yore – the mere fact that Japanese have been so reluctant to become a normal country again illustrates the change.

There’s still a substantial distance for Japan to go.  But the Japanese government is moving in the right direction.

Obviously, peace in East Asia benefits all concerned.  That peace will be more sure if Tokyo is prepared to defend itself and help meet regional contingencies.  It is time for prosperous and populous allies to stop assuming that Washington’s job is to defend them so they can invest in high-tech industries, fund generous welfare states, and otherwise enjoy life at America’s expense.

Who’s Going to Buy Your Debt, Mr. President?

The administration’s presumption that America can borrow its way to prosperity has taken a couple of big hits over the last couple days.

First, just as the Third World debt crisis destroyed the belief among international bankers that countries don’t go bankrupt, so is the West’s borrowing binge ending the belief among international investors that the U.S. and other Western nations are safe economic bets.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Britain was warned by Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service that it may lose its coveted triple-A credit rating, triggering a drop in U.K. bonds and sparking global fears about the consequences of massive debts being incurred by the U.S. and other major nations as they try to dig out from the economic crisis.

The announcement quickly sent waves across the Atlantic. Investors initially dumped U.K. bonds and the pound, heading for the relative safety of U.S. Treasurys. But within hours, worries about an onslaught of new U.S. bond sales and the security of America’s own triple-A rating drove down the prices of U.S. Treasurys.

The yield of the benchmark U.S. 10-year bond, which moves in the opposite direction to the price, rose by 0.15 percentage point from Wednesday to 3.355%, its highest level in six months.

The relative gloom about the U.K. and the U.S. was apparent Thursday in the market for credit-default swaps, where investors can buy and sell insurance against sovereign defaults. Five years of insurance on $10 million in U.K. debt jumped to around $81,000 a year, from $72,000 earlier in the day. U.S. debt insurance cost the equivalent of $37,500 — in the same range as France at $38,000, and Germany at $35,000.

A shot across the bow of the American ship of state, some analysts have called it.

But shots also were being fired from another direction:  East Asia.  The Chinese are starting to have doubts about Uncle Sam’s creditworthiness.  Reports the New York Times:

Leaders in both Washington and Beijing have been fretting openly about the mutual dependence — some would say codependence — created by China’s vast holdings of United States bonds. But beyond the talk, the relationship is already changing with surprising speed.

China is growing more picky about which American debt it is willing to finance, and is changing laws to make it easier for Chinese companies to invest abroad the billions of dollars they take in each year by exporting to America. For its part, the United States is becoming relatively less dependent on Chinese financing.

Financial statistics released by both countries in recent days show that China paradoxically stepped up its lending to the American government over the winter even as it virtually stopped putting fresh money into dollars.

This combination is possible because China has been exchanging one dollar-denominated asset for another — selling the debt of government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in a hurry to buy Treasuries. While this has been clear for months, new data shows that China is also trading long-term Treasuries for short-term notes, highlighting Beijing’s concerns that inflation will erode the dollar’s value in the long run as America amasses record debt.

The national debt is over $11 trillion.  This year’s deficit will run nearly $2 trillion.  Next year the deficit is projected to be $1.2 trillion, but it undoubtedly will run more.  The administration projects an extra $10 trillion in red ink over the coming decade.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need more money.  The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is in trouble.  The FDIC will need more cash to clean up failed banks.  The effectively nationalized auto companies will soak up more funds.  Then there’s the more than $70 trillion in unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities.

But don’t worry, be happy!