Japan fails to get to grips with North Korean challenge
Kevin Rafferty says Shinzo Abe’s call for Japan, South Korea and the US to work together has little chance of success with Donald Trump leading Washington. And leaving out China, whose support is essential, dooms any plan
Issues raised at the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg, from US President Donald Trump’s snub of Japan’s first lady to the failure of the summit in tackling any of the leading issues threatening the safety of the world, are alive and active, as North Korea and Trump demonstrate daily. New UN sanctions on North Korea merely illustrate how far we are from finding a peaceful solution.
Potentially Earth-endangering volcanoes are bubbling dangerously: Pyongyang’s truculent nuclear weapons quest and threats to reduce the US to ashes; China’s rise with memories of centuries of humiliation by the West and Japan, which could easily lead to a modern Thucydides’ trap; war and misery without end in the Middle East; the halting steps to reduce greenhouse gases that will suffocate the world; and Trump’s daily tweeting tantrums that set friends and foes on edge, and make both worry who can trust America.
Trump is principally to blame. But the G20 together showed a failure of global understanding, let alone leadership. We should be concerned that the world is becoming increasingly dangerous because of a surfeit of wishful and woolly thinking mixed with a toxic growth of nationalism.
South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in demonstrated well-meaning inexperience in offering talks with North Korea to ease tensions on the peninsula; Pyongyang snubbed him, and then with Kim Jong-un presiding, lobbed another intercontinental ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, this one potentially capable of hitting most of the US mainland.
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The theme of the G20 was supposed to be “shape an interconnected world” – fat chance. Before the meeting, the two hot issues were the dangers posed by North Korea, and climate change. The G19 – the 20 minus the US – reasserted their commitment to the Paris climate change agreement. The final communiqué did not mention North Korea.
The challenge to Japan is especially great. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might note that he hardly figures in anyone’s list of global leaders. Tokyo’s foreign and, especially, security policy depends on a Washington that risks becoming unreliable. Japan is exposed and vulnerable, especially as a declining power in the same waters as a rising China with plenty of scabs of old grievances to pick over. Kim might attack US bases in Japan on the way to fulfilling his promise to reduce Washington to a smouldering ruin, adding mayhem in Japan as a pre-emptive measure.
Is there an opportunity for Tokyo to respond to the challenges and be a catalyst for a more peaceful world? So far, that is also wishful thinking.
Abe talks of Japan, South Korea and the US working together, which avoids two questions: how to get Trump’s Washington to think internationally and strategically? And how to involve China, whose support is essential for lasting security in East Asia?
Japan’s relationships in the immediate region matter most. President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) resurgent nationalistic China will not be an easy friend or partner. Moon Jae-in’s South Korea is learning how tough Pyongyang is. Abe, as the most experienced regional leader, should examine where he should best spend his energy – on pushing constitutional change, which will only open old sores with China and both Koreas, or seeking creative ways to turn North Korea’s missile prowess into peaceful use for the region.
The appointment of Taro Kono as foreign minister may add a new international dimension to Japan’s policy. Kono was US-educated at Georgetown. His father was chief cabinet secretary who made Japan’s official 1993 apology to the “comfort women”. Kono has a history of being prepared to stand up to the old power brokers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. His appointment, however, seems to have occurred as an accident of Abe reshuffling his cabinet rather than a considered démarche to get to grips with the problems of Japan’s survival in a turbulent world.
Kevin Rafferty is a former Osaka University professor and World Bank official