The New York Times

June 3, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Crying Wolf


HANOI — The world resounded with ritual condemnations of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, but perceptions of them differ.

In the West, they are seen as a major threat to nonproliferation as well as to South Korea, Japan and even the United States. In much of the East they are seen more as a rude gesture toward the West and as a move in a succession power-play than as a threat to peace.

By contrast, the South China Sea, where major-power interests do collide, is perceived as ultimately more dangerous.

The prevailing sense in Asia is that with the U.S., China and Japan roughly in agreement, not much real damage can be done by North Korea. In smaller countries, there is even a sneaking admiration for the North’s defiance not just of the U.S. and Japan but also of China.

As for nonproliferation, the Asian attitude is why worry about North Korea when Pakistan’s bomb met no such reaction? Like Israel’s bomb, North Korea’s is seen a means of deterrence and a symbol of isolation. The regime may be appalling, but its only goal is survival.

These views may be a bit na´ve, but they are understandable, given so many cries of “wolf” over North Korean arms and so little ability in the West to stop them. Why not ignore the attention-seeking Kim, goes the Asian thinking? Let the Chinese handle it.

China is both the closest neighbor and the one country which has, by default and by providing food and oil aid, enabled North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. And who has more to fear from a nuclear-armed and potentially united Korea — China or the United States?

China has fostered a dangerous nuisance on its own doorstep and given Japan justification to build its defenses. Pyongyang is now primarily China’s problem.

If the U.S. would cease making hollow threats that it “won’t allow” a nuclear Pyongyang, the rest of the world would see more clearly how short-sighted China has been in trying to use North Korea as a bargaining chip with the U.S., with the eventual aim of getting American forces out of Korea.

Meanwhile, more significant for longer-term East Asian security is the resurgence of disputes over the South China Sea. Recently there was the news that Vietnam is to buy six submarines and 12 SU-30 fighters from Russia for $2.3 billion. This signaled that despite its need for good economic relations with China, Vietnam does not intend to let China’s sea claims go unchallenged.

The sale followed the Chinese harassment of a U.S. Navy vessel off the China coast in March, which stemmed from a long-standing disagreement over China’s “Exclusive Economic Zone.”

Also in March, President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines signed a law delineating Philippine claims in the eastern parts of the sea. Though the law merely established baselines for existing claims, it drew an immediate rebuff from China, which sent vessels to the area.

Then Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi drew Chinese criticism for reaffirming his country’s claims in the South China Sea by visiting a disputed island. He also visited Brunei and laid the foundation for ending a seabed dispute which would enable exploration in areas claimed by China.

However, this was the only sign of cooperation between the Asean members over the South China Sea, although they need to act in concert if they are to counter Beijing’s claim to the whole sea, stretching 2,000 kilometers from China’s mainland to the coasts of Malaysia and the Philippines and close to Indonesian gas fields.

In 2002, Asean members signed a Declaration of Conduct with China to avoid conflict over overlapping claims and to promote joint exploration. Though the declaration initially succeeded in reducing tensions, no joint exploration has occurred and Asean has remained divided.

No Asean members offered support to Vietnam in the face of Chinese threats against its offshore exploration, and none has shown willingness to present a united front to China.

For China, the issue is not primarily hydrocarbons — the deposits are valuable to smaller countries but marginal to China’s needs. The sea’s primary importance is strategic, so many see it as locus of competition between China and the U.S. and its Asian allies — including old enemy Vietnam.

The struggle to prevent the sea from becoming a Chinese lake will intensify if China neutralizes Taiwan, which straddles its northern entrances.

So while the headlines scream “NK Nukes,” the bigger strategic struggle is evolving to the south.