NORTH-EAST ASIA

Waltz now, dirty dancing later?

NORTH-EAST Asia, one of the world's most volatile regions, saw new leaders - the descendants of Cold War-era political leaders - emerge within just a few months.

In China, Mr Xi Jinping - the son of Chinese Communist Party veteran Xi Zhongxun - took the helm in November.

On Dec 16, the Liberal Democratic Party's Mr Shinzo Abe - the grandson of Cold War-era premier Nobusuke Kishi, won in Japan's general election. Three days later, Ms Park Geun Hye, the daughter of South Korean strongman Park Chung Hee, won that country's presidential polls.

Add these events to the fact that Mr Kim Jong Un - the grandson of North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung - had taken over as the country's top leader following the death of his father Kim Jong Il last year, and the initial prognosis for regional security is not cheery.

The reason is simple: all the three new leaders in China, Japan and South Korea have shown leanings to the right.

Ten days after taking power, Mr Xi paid one of his first visits to a key military base in Guangdong. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mr Xi's frequent use of the words "rejuvenation" and "renewal" was seen as a call for the recovery of territory that China ceded during its years of weakness in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

"That term 'harmonious society' is finished," Mr Jin Canrong, a political scientist at People's University in Beijing, was quoted as saying by the Times.

The same goes for Mr Abe, who said while campaigning that he would amend Japan's pacifist Constitution. This could lead to restoring Japan's right to collective defence, enabling it to aid the United States, its ally, in a military conflict.

He also visited the Yasukuni Shrine which honours Japan's war dead; the move angered countries such as China and South Korea.

While Ms Park stressed that she would promote "reconciliation, cooperation and peace in North-east Asia", she added that this would be achieved by a "correct understanding of history" - a phrase aimed at Japan that could easily have been taken from the phrasebook of China's leaders.

That said, however, Ms Park, Mr Xi and Mr Abe would most likely play it safe over the next six months at least, so as not to jeopardise North-east Asian stability.

To his credit, Mr Abe said the Japanese government would not observe Takeshima Day on Feb 22. Commemoration of the day would would have buttressed Tokyo's claims to the disputed island (Seoul calls the island Dokdo).

And Ms Park's so-called "trustpolitik policy" towards the North will arguably require assistance from China and Japan. The policy, which Ms Park detailed in a Foreign Affairs column last year, proposes taking a tough line against Pyongyang at times, to be accompanied by a position open to negotiations at other times.

The new leaders in China, Japan and South Korea would not seek to endanger North-east Asia stability by pushing too hard on the issue of the disputed islands, said Mr Yo-Jung Chen, a retired French diplomat based in Japan.

In addition to the Takeshima/ Dokdo dispute between Japan and South Korea, China and Japan are also fighting for control over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

Said Mr Chen: "I believe the new leadership in the three countries, despite the right-wing blood in their DNA, are trying to find a soft landing point, knowing that the overall relationship between them is too important to be sacrificed for these small islands."

Moreover, all three leaders' priorities in the medium term gravitate towards domestic issues, in particular their economies.

Mr Abe's focus would be large- scale construction projects and getting the Bank of Japan to implement inflation targets to kick- start the moribund economy. Ms Park wants to enhance people's livelihoods and put curbs on the country's powerful chaebols.

Mr Xi's priority is sustaining China's economic growth. His Guangdong trip earlier this month followed in the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping who, in 1992, visited the province to restart China's moves towards a market economy.

That, however, does not mean there won't be diplomatic fireworks among the three countries. Moderation in the medium term might give way to dynamics of a deeper nature in the longer term.

For one thing, regional institutions in Asia - such as the East Asia Summit, which includes Asean and eight other countries, including the US, China, Japan and South Korea - are still largely driven by Asean countries in South-east Asia, not North-east Asia.

North-east Asia remains a dangerous region, given North Korea's nuclear programme, China's fast-developing military, and the military power South Korea and Japan can bring to bear, thanks to their alliances with the US.

Historic mistrust among China, Japan and South Korea also runs deep. Already, Mr Abe has refused to acknowledge the World War II-era comfort women issue. He has even suggested that the 1993 Kono statement, which tabled the Japanese government's apology for the Japanese Imperial Army's recruitment of Korean women as sex slaves, be replaced. This would only give China a window of opportunity to leverage on the complex web of bilateral relationships in North-east Asia, leading to less stability all round.

Like the policy that Beijing has employed on Australia - using growing economic ties as leverage for diplomatic capital - China has sought to encompass South Korea in its orbit. Beijing has not called on Seoul to leave its alliance with the US, nor has it asked Seoul to say "yes" to an alliance with it, which is out of the question. What Beijing has done, however, is to seek to influence South Korea to gradually say "no" to measures that could bolster the US' so-called hub-and-spokes alliance system. Earlier this year, for example, South Korean politicians shied away from a historic intelligence-sharing deal with Japan, because they saw it as part of a US-led move against China.

Indeed, Seoul, a longstanding US ally, seems more inclined to stay neutral in the US-China-South Korea triangle, a position not welcomed by American officials at a time when Washington is "rebalancing" back to Asia.

Speaking to The Straits Times recently, Mr Park Joon Yong, director-general of the North-east Asian Affairs Bureau at South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said that Seoul will not participate in US moves to check China's power.

"If the US' rebalancing seeks to check China, South Korea won't be part of that policy. If it is to maintain peace in this region, South Korea as a US ally would contribute to it," he said.

Seoul's position only means that the power balance in Northeast Asia will remain relatively unstable, at least until the US and China find a way to share power in the region.

Till now, neither Beijing nor Washington have found such a way. Beijing, for instance, still views the US' rebalancing to the region as a blatant attempt to contain growing Chinese power.

No wonder, politics continues to trump economics. China, for example, views suspiciously US and Japanese involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which now involves nine countries including Singapore and Australia.

Japan has not formally joined the TPP talks but Mr Abe's LDP recently hinted that Tokyo might.

China - not part of the TPP process - has focused on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which comprises Asean's 10 countries and six others including China and Japan. Analysts see the US-led TPP and the China-led RCEP as competitors.

The upshot of all this is straightforward: moderation in China, Japan and South Korea will undergird stability in North-east Asia in the medium term. In the longer term, however, there is no assurance that diplomatic pyrotechnics can be avoided.

williamc@sph.com.sg