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In first days of July 1937, Chinese and Japanese soldiers skirmished in Wanping, a few miles southwest of what is now the Chinese capital. China’s Chiang Kai-shek then knew his army was no match for Japan’s, and he had many opportunities to avoid battle with a vastly superior foe. Yet he ultimately chose war.
So why did Chiang decide to fight? And how did a minor—and probably accidental—clash turn into years of disastrous conflict? Now, analysts think today’s Asia feels like 1914 Europe, and last month in Davos Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likened today’s situation involving his country and China to that of England and Germany a hundred years ago. The better comparison, however, is 1937. The parallels between then and now, unfortunately, are striking.
The “China Incident,” as the Japanese then called the war, began on the banks of the Yongding River in Wanping during the night of July 7, 1937. Imperial troops, shooting blanks in an evening exercise, found themselves under fire, presumably from elements of the Chinese 29th Army. After the minor exchange near Lugouqiao, commonly known as the Marco Polo Bridge, Japanese officers were alarmed when one of their soldiers failed to turn up for a roll call. They then demanded that Chinese guards let them search nearby Wanping, where the Japanese had no general permission to enter.
A refusal triggered days of skirmishes. Once the fighting started, it did not matter that the stray Japanese private, who is thought to have wandered off to urinate, eventually turned up unhurt. Soon, Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was at war. The Japanese in short order would take the Marco Polo Bridge, cut off Beijing from the rest of the country, and seize that city. They would then drive Chiang’s forces from the metropolis of Shanghai, the capital of Nanjing, and most of the rest of eastern China.
Chiang could have avoided the descent into a war in July 1937. In fact, both sides had agreed to a truce after the initial fighting around the Marco Polo Bridge. Yet the agreement did not hold. Oxford professor Rana Mitter compares the events then to those surrounding the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914. War, in both cases, was coming.
It is not hard to see why conflict between China and Japan was inevitable in the late 1930s. Japan was obviously determined to control portions of continental Asia. Its troops were stationed near Wanping pursuant to a 1901 treaty signed after foreign powers, including Japan, had put down the Boxer Rebellion. Japan had previously humiliated the Qing dynasty in a quick war ending in 1895, wresting control of Korea and Taiwan. Japan had also grabbed a portion of northeastern China from the Russians in the first decade of the twentieth century and invaded Manchuria in 1931, establishing puppet state of Manchukuo there. The Japanese massacred Chinese under their control.
In the late 1930s there were many incidents involving China’s troops and those of Japan. Most of these were settled quickly because Chinese commanders on the ground would give into Japanese demands or make concessions of some sort. In July 1937, officers guarding Wanping refused Japanese demands and Chiang realized he would have to make a stand. “The dwarf bandits have attacked at Lugouqiao,” he wrote in his diary, using one of his favorite terms for his enemy. “This is the time for the determination to fight.”
North Korea’s nuclear-weapon developments and belligerent rhetoric, along with China’s military modernization and growing assertiveness, are creating direct challenges for Japan and South Korea, Washington’s Northeast Asian allies. In response, the United States has adapted its force posture and declaratory policy, and taken important steps to strengthen deterrence and reassure its allies. The recent decision to send an additional US Army combat force of eight hundred soldiers to South Korea with tanks and armored troop carriers and the pledge to maintain the US nuclear umbrella against North Korean threats is another step in Washington’s efforts to enhance defense of its ally.
While major conflicts have been deterred, it is unclear whether Japan and South Korea are reassured. Publicly and in private discussions, Japanese and South Korean officials insist that they trust US defense commitments. But they ask revealing questions about the conditions under which the United States would act, and how it would do so. They wonder about their roles and responsibilities, as Washington presses them to assume more of the defense and deterrence burden. And they worry about the reduction of roles and numbers of nuclear weapons in US strategy and, despite Washington’s rebalance to Asia, the ability of the United States to defend them well in a fiscally constrained environment. Plainly, US disengagement is a concern.
Could these concerns drive Japan and South Korea to resort to self-help and develop nuclear weapons? Both are technologically capable of going nuclear quickly, and this would be the cheapest way of increasing their indigenous military capabilities. But the real question is whether they would be willing to do so. While Japan remains allergic to the idea of crossing the nuclear threshold, there is growing public support, backed by influential elites, for manufacture of nuclear weapons in South Korea.
Neither Japan nor South Korea would develop nuclear weapons lightly. In all probability, the determining factor in their decision would hinge on its impact on their alliance with the United States.
What reaction, then, should they expect from Washington? There are two alternatives. One is that while unhappy, the United States would keep its alliances to maintain a favorable balance of power in East Asia. That logic would be bolstered by the idea that possession of nuclear weapons by each country would strengthen deterrence of North Korea and China. US policymakers would view Japan and South Korea as the United Kingdom―a US ally with nuclear forces integrated with US forces, with shared nuclear roles and responsibilities―or France―an ally operating independent nuclear forces. In other words, geopolitical dimensions would dominate the US reaction.
The second alternative is that the United States would terminate its alliances. Washington would conclude that permitting a nuclear-armed Japan and South Korea to remain as allies would drive others to follow suit. It would assess that the odds of this happening in Asia are high given growing nuclear latency, complex regional dynamics, and the absence of an organization like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to hold US allies and partners together. Washington would also fear that this cascade could spill over into other regions, threatening the entire nonproliferation regime, creating instability, increasing war prospects, and ultimately eclipsing the US role as a responsible stakeholder for international order. Here, nonproliferation considerations would drive the US reaction.
Should Washington choose geopolitics over nonproliferation? The short answer is no. In the face of Japan’s and South Korea’s nuclearization, the United States should cut them adrift because endorsing their decision (through a UK-like arrangement) or acquiescing to it (à la France) would be untenable.
Recall that the United Kingdom and France went nuclear before the conclusion of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). (Even then, this generated important concerns in Washington.) With nonproliferation now proscribed under international law, entrenched as an international norm, and given such a major focus in US nuclear policy, not upholding it for its allies would be a nonstarter. Significantly, the net result would be a double failure for Washington: a reassurance failure and a failure to enforce nonproliferation rules, exposing the United States to considerable risks it should not take.
The 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review commits the United States to strengthening regional security architectures as needed and in a tailored manner. In Northeast Asia, substantial progress has been achieved through the bilateral consultative mechanisms it has established with Japan and South Korea. As the “strengthening” process continues, Washington should remind its allies that if they broke out of the NPT, they would break up their alliance.
David Santoro is a senior fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS, where he specializes in nonproliferation and nuclear security, disarmament, arms control, and deterrence issues, with a regional focus on the Asia-Pacific region and Europe. You can follow him on Twitter:@DavidSantoro1.