Subtle Geopolitical Shifts In North East Asia

Some subtle geopolitical shifts are underway in North East Asia.

Firstly, Chinese President Xi Jinping is currently visiting South Korea. Given that Chinese heads of state always visit their traditional ally North Korea before the South, Xi's trip is being interpreted as a snub to the North. For some time now, there have been reports that Beijing is frustrated with Pyongyang's sabre-rattling and provocative behaviour. It is still doubtful that China is really prepared to turn up the pressure on North Korea by cutting off economic aid, given that Beijing does not wish to see the North collapse into chaos, which would spill over into China itself. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a greater coolness between the two.

Secondly, and related to the above dynamic, North Korea is pursuing a rapprochement with Japan, with the aim of breaking out of isolation and rupturing tripartite US-Japan-South Korea cooperation against the North. Pyongyang also hopes to extract economic concessions, such as an easing of Japanese sanctions (which Tokyo has just agreed to). For its part, Japan wants North Korea to fully account for the fate of missing Japanese nationals whom Tokyo believes were kidnapped by Pyongyang's agents in the 1970s and 1980s. More broadly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to view a rapprochement with North Korea as a means for Tokyo to draw Pyongyang out of Beijing's orbit, while bypassing Seoul (Japan's relations with South Korea are tense due to the latter's perception that the former has not repented sufficiently for its occupation of Korea).

Nevertheless, there are obstacles to the above dynamics having a lasting impact. Although economic ties between China and South Korea are very close, a recent poll showed that 66% of South Koreans regard China as a military threat (albeit down from 73% in 2012). Meanwhile, a legacy of severe mistrust between North Korea and Japan will take many years to come. Former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and former Japanese premier Junichiro Koizumi attempted a rapprochement in 2002-2004, but this ultimately failed.

The third recent shift in North East Asia of late was the Japanese cabinet's decision on July 2 to reinterpret its war-renouncing constitution to allow the country's participation in collective security arrangements. This decision has met widespread opposition in Japan (whose generally pacifist citizens fear being dragged into regional wars) and in China and South Korea, which have territorial disputes with Japan and harbour negative sentiment towards Tokyo, perceiving it as being unrepentant for atrocities committed against them in the 1930s and 1940s.

Even though Japan does seem to be moving towards a more assertive military posture, triggered by fears about North Korean sabre-rattling and the rise of China, the constitutional reinterpretation hardly means that Japan will be able to rush to war in Asia or elsewhere. The Japanese public will remain dubious about getting involved in situations that do not directly threaten Japan itself. Also, the country's ageing and shrinking population will arguably make society more risk-averse. Therefore, any Japanese leader seeking to take the country into regional conflicts without a political mandate or public support would risk jeopardising their position in office.