According to a survey of 195 diplomacy and national security experts from Japan, the US, China and South Korea conducted by Japan’s independent think tank Genron NPO in 2021, of the “top ten risks threatening the peace in Northeast Asia”, the number one risk is “US-North Korea denuclearisation negotiations and North Korea’s status as a nuclear power”. The next highest-ranked risks were “the US-China conflict and the struggle for control over the digital realm” and “conflict over territorial land and waters in the South China Sea.” “Accidental clashes and other incidents in the Taiwan Strait” was ranked fifth. The North Korea issue remains a key issue to be addressed on Northeast Asia’s security agenda.
During the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, attention was focused on whether or not the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) policy would be continued. This was due to the fact that continuation of the FOIP would be an indication of the Biden administration’s policy toward China. In fact, the Biden administration has indicated it will maintain a tough stance toward China on maritime issues and continue the FOIP strategy, albeit with a change in the initial wording.
So how about the North Korea issue? Currently, a new missile defence programme is being formulated in Japan, after the Japanese government abandoned its plan to introduce Aegis Ashore in response to the threat of missile attack from North Korea. The US government is also strengthening its missile defence system against North Korea, and the Biden administration is continuing in this direction. Some within the Biden administration emphasise cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea on the North Korea issue, and there are strong calls for improving Japan-South Korea relations in order to achieve this. The question is to what extent Japan and South Korea are able to cooperate on the North Korea issue. Here, however, I will focus on the North Korea issue in terms of the relationship between the US and China.
However, even if China were willing to cooperate with the US on the North Korea issue, it would use this as leverage to ease tensions on the Taiwan issue and maritime issues.
The Biden administration is likely to take a bottom-up, step-by-step approach, rather than employing the more hasty policy of holding summit meetings to try to achieve a breakthrough as the Trump administration did. In doing so, the Biden administration will place emphasis on the relationship with its allies, namely between the US, Japan and South Korea. However, any discussion and resolution of the North Korea issue cannot ignore China. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea’s dependence on China is deepening.
The US is toughening its policy toward China in Taiwan and the South China Sea. The question is whether it must pursue a certain level of cooperation with China on the North Korea issue. If so, this would mean the US cooperating with China on the North Korea issue while at the same time adopting a tough stance toward China in its FOIP strategy. For the present, the US is taking a tough stance on China while hinting at the possibility of cooperation on a number of issues. Given that the Biden administration determines its stance on individual issues, the US will likely pursue some degree of cooperation with China on the North Korea issue. But is it really possible for the US and China to cooperate on the North Korea issue when the two nations are in severe conflict on the Taiwan issue and maritime issues? This can only be achieved if there is a willingness on the part of China to improve its relationship with the US. However, even if China were willing to cooperate with the US on the North Korea issue, it would use this as leverage to ease tensions on the Taiwan issue and maritime issues.
Close attention needs to be paid to South Korea’s stance in terms of its participation in the missile defence system, the FOIP strategy and Quad.
This issue also relates to the stance of South Korea. Will South Korea choose only to be involved in the North Korea issue, in which there may be cooperation between the US and China, and not to be involved in the FOIP strategy and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which sees the US squaring off against China? If South Korea demonstrates such a stance, then it becomes a very important player for China. In other words, it is highly convenient for China to have an ally of the US that stays out of China-US conflict but gets involved in China-US cooperation.
China is very wary of the missile defence system being deployed by the US in Northeast Asia. Close attention needs to be paid to South Korea’s stance in terms of its participation in the missile defence system, the FOIP strategy and Quad.
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