The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has plunged the Asia-Pacific into a period of uncertainty and risk. Having just extricated itself from Iraq, the U.S. military would undoubtedly be troubled by the prospect of being dragged into a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. However, assuming the nightmare scenarios of full-scale war or North Korea’s total collapse can be avoided, the opportunity to cultivate key relationships with Japan and South Korea may be a silver lining for U.S. strategic planners.
With the Iraq war now over and the timeline set for withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington is looking for ways to reassert its presence in the Asia-Pacific without being seen as antagonising or encircling China.
At the same time, the Chinese are starting to more aggressively pursue their claim to regional hegemony. As a result, Beijing has been highly critical of U.S. efforts to become more active in China’s backyard. Amidst tensions in the South China Sea earlier this year, for example, the U.S. attempted to bolster naval ties with Vietnam and the Philippines. In response, China publically chastised Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and bluntly warned Washington to stay out of the dispute.
However, instability inside North Korea may mitigate Chinese concerns – or at least mute criticism – about new measures to strengthen U.S. military co-operation with Japan and South Korea. If greater U.S. involvement is seen as a response to regional insecurity rather than as a cause, Beijing may find the pill easier to swallow.
This was immediately put to the test on December 20 (a day after the world learned of Kim Jong-il’s demise), when Japan announced the selection of Lockheed Martin’s F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter as its next-generation fighter aircraft. Japan’s decision has many negative implications for China, both symbolically and practically: Japan will now remain interoperable with the U.S. Air Force for decades to come; Japan will introduce the most advanced U.S. fighter technology into Northeast Asia as a counterbalance to China’s indigenous J-20 stealth fighter program; and Japan has set a precedent for South Korea (and potentially Taiwan) to follow in due course, if they so choose.
Under different circumstances, any one of these ramifications may have provoked a reaction from Beijing. However, by offering no public reaction to the deal, China appears to have chosen to give a free pass to what is a significant investment in the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance is, of course, a much more delicate endeavor under present circumstances. In the near term, both countries will be keen to avoid doing much of anything for fear of inciting the new regime in Pyongyang. The last thing Washington or Seoul wants to do is give Kim Jong-un a reason to prove his hardliner credentials.
Conveniently, much of the work to strengthen the bilateral military relationship has already been undertaken as a result of North Korean aggression in 2010. With the transfer of wartime operational control postponed until 2015 at the earliest, the U.S. military is firmly committed to maintaining South Korean security throughout North Korea’s leadership transition.
However, there’s still room to grow military ties, especially through U.S. arms sales. South Korea is actively pursuing the purchase of four RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles to enhance its national airborne surveillance capability, but this purchase is still awaiting formal U.S. government approval. Additionally, the South Korean air force is hoping to soon select a platform for the third phase of its F-X fighter program, and there are two U.S. platforms in contention: the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle and the Lockheed Martin F-35. Thus, both Seoul and Washington will have opportunities in 2012 to reinforce what is already a strong military partnership.
If this kind of closer co-operation with Japan or South Korea could be achieved with minimal resistance from China, it would be a win all round for President Obama. Obama’s foreign policy credentials would be hurt if he was seen to be yielding to North Korean or Chinese pressure. On the other hand, starting a foreign policy spat with China over U.S. intentions in the Asia-Pacific could incur real economic and political costs. Neither are good options, particularly in the run-up to next year’s U.S. presidential elections.
In this sense, the current instability in North Korea could be a blessing in disguise for the U.S. administration. The death of Kim Jong-il and the resulting period of instability in Pyongyang could provide the U.S. military with the political cover it needs to deepen relations with key allies in the Asia-Pacific without raising the ire of Beijing.
Alexander von Rosenbach is a senior analyst on the armed forces at IHS Jane’s.