Cold War Structures and Tectonic Shifts

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Cold War Structures and Tectonic Shifts

Longstanding U.S. commitments to East Asia complicate an already complex region.

Cold War Structures and Tectonic Shifts
Credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing

Recent events in Northeast Asia have undermined the prospects for regional cooperation in the near term. These include Beijing’s ADIZ pronouncement, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit amidst Tokyo’s larger defense reforms, and concerns over Pyongyang’s internal stability or external provocations. Although heightening concerns, these events can be seen as an outgrowth of existing tensions and disagreements in the region. Despite heady claims of a coming regionalism following the end of the Cold War, Northeast Asia remains marked by historical animosities and increasingly divergent security and economic logics. It would appear Gilbert Rozman’s assessment remains as appropriate today as it was ten years ago. In short, Northeast Asia lingers in a state of stunted regionalism, suffocated by the residue of the Cold War.

The din of current events and diplomatic recriminations can make it difficult to understand current trends. Thus, a shift in focus to larger historical and systemic frameworks may help clarify matters. The contention here is that the current state of affairs, of regional tension, is partly the consequence of the incongruity of a Cold War U.S. alliance structure with a post-Cold War Northeast Asia. Paradoxically, the historical success of the alliance structure contributed to the formation of this same post-Cold War regional architecture. While the latter continues to evolve, Seoul and Tokyo’s enduring subordination within the U.S. alliance structure distorts the process thereby exacerbating the divergent economic and security logics noted above.

Subordinate Allies in Historical Context

Historically the essential makeup of the alliance structure has been two-fold. First, the U.S. provides a fundamental security guarantee to both Tokyo and Seoul backed by the full panoply of U.S. conventional and nuclear forces. Second, the two allies remain subordinate partners within the U.S. strategic framework, characterized by truncated sovereignty and occasionally intense pressure to adhere to (or at least not significantly deviate from) U.S. interests. To be fair, the contours of both bilateral alliances have evolved significantly over time, resulting in much greater independence on the part of Tokyo and Seoul. Moreover, U.S. pressure is often unnecessary or masked by the fact that Japanese and Korean policymakers view their own interests as overlapping with Washington’s. Nevertheless, these qualifications do not alter the fundamental dependence and truncated sovereignty that characterize both bilateral alliances.

The original Cold War rationale behind this hub-and-spoke system consisted of two logics of containment: George Kennan’s realpolitik logic and Dean Acheson’s world economy one. These two logics, that of power and that of plenty, worked reciprocally in Northeast Asia. While the Korean War delayed execution of the vision embodied in earlier drafts of NSC-48/2 (“The Position of the United States with Respect to Asia”), it provided a much needed boost to Japan’s “reverse course,” kick-starting Japan’s economy as an engine of growth within the capitalist “grand area.” In the words of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, the Korean War was “a gift from the gods.” Moreover, the war opened Congressional floodgates to fund the military Keynesianism of NSC-68, cementing the foundation of the U.S. national security state at home and global power projection abroad. Lastly, the war firmly embedded South Korea within the U.S. orbit as a heavily militarized bulwark on the perimeter of the so-called free world, to which the U.S. would provide enormous amounts of economic and military aid over ensuing decades. The ROK’s own growth and modernization was given much needed support with both the normalization of relations with Japan in 1965 (resulting in the transfer of formerly leading Japanese technologies in a steadily advancing product cycle) and the war-induced incubation of key Korean chaebol during the Vietnam War. Each event facilitated President Park Chung-hee’s developmental (and dictatorial) push into heavy and chemical industries in the coming years.

In a matter of decades, both Japan and South Korea would move from postwar destruction and occupation to high-speed economic growth and modernization backed by unique developmental state policies. Over time, U.S. protection, payments and tolerance of each ally’s closed economy turned to pressure, not only to take on a larger share of the defense burden, but also to lower barriers to trade and engage in internal economic reform. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea’s own remarkable growth and nationalism, and the increasing complexity of Cold War politics (including the Sino-Soviet split, U.S.-Soviet détente, U.S. rapprochement with China, and the Nixon Doctrine) propelled both allies to take more assertive roles based on their own interests.

The end of the Cold War cleared away the conditions that had provided the original rationale for the alliance structure, namely, a global geostrategic and political economic standoff. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the normalization of relations with China, containment as a power-political standoff simply withered away. Moreover, the ascendance of free-market capitalism proved capable of battering down even Chinese walls (indeed, as Marx said it would), ending containment as a world economy project. In short, Kennan and Acheson’s joint visions proved masterfully successful.

Yet the U.S. presence and alliance structure remained intact, backed by explicit U.S. policy aimed at preventing the rise of another regional hegemon on the “Eurasian land mass” (read: China). Additionally, with all the major villains gone, Washington shifted its attention to the lesser sort (read: Kim Il-sung), citing the twin dangers of weapons proliferation and rogue states. In facing new threats, U.S. leadership would be indispensable, backed by an unequivocal military plan for “full spectrum dominance.” In sum, the U.S. presence and therefore its alliance structure was turned to new purpose following its success in fulfilling its original raison d’être. The problem, though, was that the new purpose cut against the very conditions the original arrangement had so successfully helped bring about.

What has emerged is a highly contradictory set of logics: one geared toward further economic integration, the other toward a classic security dilemma. If the Cold War alliance structure fused power and plenty in symbiotic fashion, its post-Cold War iteration split one against the other. Seoul and Tokyo are caught in the middle, both bound to their longstanding strategic partner, yet simultaneously faced with shifting realities that this same relationship complicates. Each country’s position is explored in turn.

South Korea: Diverging Logics and Clashing Whales

The winding down of the Cold War shifted the economic and strategic calculus for Seoul. In addition to its normalization of relations with the Soviets in 1990 and China in 1992, it has faced a new political economic geography. The regional dynamic shifted from a Japan-led “flying geese” model to a “swarming sparrow” model, wherein Korean firms moved toward more value-added, capital- and technology-intensive industries, such as semiconductors and computers. They were no longer adopting Japan’s formerly advanced products in a “harmonious intra-industrial division of labor,” but were engaging in a highly competitive race to stay ahead. To be sure, Japan remains an important economic partner. Moreover, Korea’s transition has been marked by continued U.S. pressure and severe crisis. Still, Seoul has achieved greater relative autonomy from U.S. political pressure and Japanese technological hegemony. Crucial to this process has been South Korea’s relationship with China.

Starting in 1991, Seoul and Beijing opened mutual trade offices, followed by full normalization of relations a year later. The realignment would spur a rapid boost in investment and trade over the next twenty years based on the obvious complementarities between the countries’ economies. Beyond the sheer size, proximity, and gravitational pull of the burgeoning Chinese market, it was a source of natural resources, cheap labor and low-cost consumer goods for the ROK’s technologically advanced, export-oriented economy. Conversely, the ROK served China as a lower cost competitor to Japan, providing both medium- and high technology-goods and significant foreign direct investment. By 2004, China surpassed the U.S. as South Korea’s largest trade partner. In 2012, China received 24.8 percent of the ROK’s exports and was the source of 15.5 percent of its imports, and export numbers are on the rise. Meanwhile, South Korea is China’s fifth largest export destination, third largest source of imports, and third largest source of FDI.

Strategically, the South Korean government remains firmly wedded to the U.S.-ROK alliance, stressing that its very survival depends upon it. Nevertheless, relations remain beset by doubts over the credibility of the U.S. commitment as well as the strategic orientation of same. While Seoul is undoubtedly concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program and its external provocations, it would like to broaden the agenda by stressing the relationship between security and the North Korean economy. In addition to Washington’s overriding focus on denuclearization and nonproliferation, Seoul is most concerned with peace and stability on the peninsula, a view it shares with Beijing. As a result, both have begun to engage in greater strategic dialogue based on these shared priorities.

Seoul’s more nuanced approach is also evident in its relatively toned down response to China’s ADIZ pronouncement (as compared to Washington and Tokyo’s) and its continued independence from joint U.S.-Japan missile defense efforts. Seoul and Beijing also remain deeply skeptical of Tokyo’s right to collective self-defense (U.S. assurances notwithstanding) and miffed by what they perceive as Tokyo’s intransigence in failing to atone for its past imperial crimes. At the same time, Seoul and Beijing have responded with what Tokyo views as equally irresponsible nationalist-driven recriminations. In broad stokes, then, the post-Cold War period has witnessed a sort of return to the significant historical affiliation between (South) Korea and China, yet with additional economic, political and even strategic ties. As a result, Seoul, the proverbial shrimp among whales, is caught between two crucial yet divergent relationships: a longstanding strategic alliance with the U.S. (and by extension Japan) and an economic, cultural and deep historical relationship with China.

Japan: Resurgence Fostered, Constrained, Distorted

While Japan and China’s economic relationship began to develop in the early 1970s, China’s importance to Japan has grown even more since the 1990s. Today it stands as Japan’s largest trading partner in both exports and imports, accounting for roughly a fifth of both. Japanese firms have also been one of the largest sources of FDI in China. Moreover, by providing about $21 billion in ODA from 1979-2009, Japan was China’s largest aid donor, and China Japan’s largest aid recipient. Nevertheless, despite the clear complementarity between their economies and the benefits of cooperation, Tokyo and Beijing have entered a period of increased tension and worsening diplomatic relations.

If historically Korea’s cultural achievements have been situated in a larger Sinitic order, Japan’s unique culture was formed outside of it. Nevertheless, much like Korea, Japan’s modern history has been marked by abrupt changes triggered by larger external shifts in the international system. This is the result of Japan’s geostrategic location and its severe economic vulnerability, most notably its almost complete dependence on outside sources for raw materials and energy resources. Over its modern history Japan has attempted two separate grand strategies in search of security. First, it pursued its own empire in response to the fracturing of the Sino-centric order by Western Imperialisms, a strategy ending in firebombed cities, atomic assault, and foreign occupation. Second, following World War II it traded full sovereignty as an appendage of American power for protection and the freedom to pursue rapid economic growth.

Japan’s first strategy produced unmitigated disaster and national humiliation. The second proved immensely successful. However, the end of the Cold War once again altered the international system. Importantly, this tectonic shift coincided with the start of a lengthy period of economic stagnation, the emergence of a new generation of leaders, and the seemingly inexorable rise of China. Thus, a new strategy is evolving. The problem or incongruity, though, is that the alliance structure that underpinned Japan’s second strategy remains in place and profoundly affects this process. 

Since the end of the Cold War and even before it, Japan has moved toward a more assertive role in the region. On the one hand, with the decline of its relative power and increased involvement elsewhere, Washington has pushed Tokyo to take on a greater share of its own defense. On the other hand, Japan’s emergent Heisei Generation, no longer under the shadow of Japan’s imperial and wartime past, is eager to take on a more “normal” role in the international system. This process has included: entering joint missile defense efforts with the U.S. in 2003, upgrading the Japan Defense Agency to ministry status in 2007 while reforming limits on SDF forces, increasing mention of China as a potential threat, overturning longstanding limitations on Japan’s defense industries, and drafting of a new national security strategy. These changes, especially the more recent ones, move explicitly toward rewriting the government’s decades-old interpretation of the pacifist Constitution in order to lift Japan’s self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense.

The argument here is not that Tokyo has no interest in pursuing greater assertiveness. It does. China’s rise and assertiveness poses a problem for obvious structural reasons, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is threatening. The point, though, is that the U.S.-Japan alliance provides crucial cover for what might otherwise be an untenable strategy. What would Tokyo do without Washington’s extended deterrence? The argument is often made that they would militarize even more vigorously, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons, thus spurring regional proliferation. However, it is hard to see how Tokyo could balance against China alone, and it would have a difficult time building a balancing coalition. Others in the region (read: South Korea) not only view balancing against China as counter to their national interests, but also remain profoundly skeptical of Japanese militarization. Japanese policymakers are not unaware of this dynamic.

When viewed from this angle, Tokyo’s more assertive stance makes sense. By taking on a greater share of the defense burden, Tokyo hopes it will decrease the chances of strategic decoupling. Tokyo is aware that without U.S. protection it would have a difficult time balancing against China, and it is concerned about the credibility of Washington’s commitment. In fact, Tokyo has openly cited the relative decline in U.S. influence as a reason to reform its defense posture. In other words, Tokyo views the Japan-U.S. alliance as the “indispensable” deterrent, yet its concerns about having to go it alone spur it to get what it can while the protection remains. Unfortunately, this more assertive stance increases Beijing’s own sense of insecurity (for example, the U.S.-Japan missile defense system, while ostensibly directed against Pyongyang, lowers the deterrent value of Chinese missiles) and, in its estimation, justifies an assertive response. This then confirms U.S. concerns about an aggressive China, justifying its continued presence in the region to balance against the same. In short, the protection provided by the alliance permits Japanese behavior that exacerbates the very tensions and security dilemma it is supposed to protect against.

Qualifications and Conclusion

The Cold War U.S. alliance structure did not create China’s economic rise or military modernization, just as it did not create the DPRK’s nuclear and missile program. Leaders in Beijing and Pyongyang unquestionably calculate their policies with the alliance structure in mind, but they are possessed of their own agency. The DPRK poses a clear threat to Seoul, Tokyo and greater regional stability. Furthermore, China’s rise poses problems for obvious structural reasons, as has historically been the case during periods of great power transition. This is made worse by the fact that China remains politically authoritarian, despite its almost three decades on the capitalist road to development. Put crudely, in Northeast Asia theories of democratic peace or security communities remain just that, theories. However, while not responsible for these hard realities, the U.S. Cold War alliance structure complicates Seoul and Tokyo’s ability to address them.

The very success of the alliance structure in achieving its original rationale helped create conditions that contradict the new purpose to which it has been turned. The former symbiotic relationship between power and plenty has shifted, becoming contradictory where it had been reciprocal. For Seoul, it is more interested in cooperation with Beijing, less amenable to serving as a strategic artery for Tokyo and Washington, and clearly circumspect regarding Tokyo’s moves toward collective self-defense. Even in the case of the DPRK, it is intent on taking greater ownership of the negotiating process and expanding the scope of priorities beyond just denuclearization. For Tokyo, it is searching for a role that more accurately reflects its status as one of the world’s premier powers. However, it is searching for this more normal identity while remaining subordinate to the U.S. Therefore, while Tokyo share’s Washington’s concern about China’s rise, U.S. protection prevents it from developing a policy all its own. In other words, one wonders if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could be as assertive without the full backing of U.S. forces. Without such backing, a more cooperative engagement might be the only realistic and worthwhile option.

The decisive point is that the U.S. shows no signs of radically pulling back from its alliance commitments. Although some have questioned the veracity of the so-called pivot to Asia, Northeast Asia remains one region in which a bipartisan U.S. foreign policy remains relatively intact. The Obama Administration has reaffirmed this commitment in both word and deed, and its recent deployments fit into an ongoing rebalancing strategy in place since 2004. The aim of this rebalancing is to deepen ties with Tokyo and Seoul in order to maintain a prudent deterrent against threats to regional security and stability. Thus, as long as the U.S. as a global power remains committed to deterring the rise of another regional hegemon, it will continue to exacerbate already complicated logics within the region. This seemingly ineluctable process may very well be the tragedy that is great power politics.

Clint Work is a Seoul-based writer focusing on Northeast Asian international relations, history and political economy, U.S. foreign policy in North East Asia, and U.S.-Korean relations.