Predicting the future is impossible. If anyone tells you that they know exactly how America’s devolving relationship with the Kim regime in North Korea will or won’t unfold in 2018, you would be well within your rights to call them a fool. Same goes for Russia’s approach to its neighbors or China’s economy. Don’t let the local tarot card reading ‘psychic’ fool you, nobody knows precisely what the future holds. Not even Kim Jong-Un, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or Donald Trump do.
With that said, we do know with a fair measure of certainty what issues, international relationships, and threats foreign and abroad will reside on each region’s to-do list as the new year emerges from its nascence. As part of an international accounting, ‘The World in 2018’ will roll out the most pressing items on each region’s plate.
Part 2: East Asia
In comparison to a world stage in which despots, bloodshed, and ideological clashes was the rule, Eastern Asia served as somewhat of an exception. While the volatility in North Korea which continues to alarm, especially in non-Chinese Pacific powers such as Japan and South Korea, much of 2017 in Asian unfolded fairly predictably. But, will 2018 follow suit, or is the region primed for powder-keg status?
You can’t speak of the future in East Asia without mentioning the bellicose, nuclearized little brother who is, to say the least, impetulant. North Korea’s approach to its nuclear program and how it chooses to use or not use it going forward has immediate implications for the safety of its Pacific neighbors. But it also could prove a precedent for American military intervention in the region not seen since Vietnam. Make no mistake, North Korea will be on the forefront of East Asian foreign relations in 2018, as crazy as that may have sound just years ago.
America will rely upon its allies – Japan, South Korea, the Phillippines, and Australia – to serve as iron-fisted peacekeepers with respect to North Korea, so long as they are willing and able. We have already witnessed public rifts between Donald Trump, who is unafraid to levy threats of annihilation, and South Korean leadership who would rather assume that an armed North Korea is not going to take action against their southern neighbor. Should Kim Jong-Un’s rhetoric continue to escalate, and the rift between America and its allies grow wider, unpopular decision will almost certainly be made. Assuming Trump were, in theory, able to gain domestic support for a limited strike against North Korean nuclear facilities, it may still be against the wishes of our pacific allies.
America is in a tough spot, and its allies in the pacific region are likely to lose confidence in the United States’ ability to keep them safe regardless of which approach is taken. Should President Trump permit Kim to gain nuclear weapons, he will appear weak. Should he launch a military strike, South Korea will almost certainly bear the burden of a direct counterattack, with America left holding much of the blame, fairly or not. And in light of these dually poor outcomes, China will be waiting in the wings to poach whichever nations decide that American protectionism is no longer as protective as it once was.
The Coming Showdown Between China and Japan
Once China and Japan were opened to free trade and international influence, it was not long before Japan came to establish a ruthless grip over the Eastern Pacific. Until WWII, it was the military industrial powerhouse that took what it wanted, often brutally, from its pacific neighbors whose resources it is still, to this day, dependent upon. However, since the war China has evolved greatly, leveling the playing field between the two nations while establishing that one would not come to dominate the other, as Japan once did. That relative balance of power has also meant increased competition between Japan and China on a number of fronts.
With America’s protectionist policy toward Japan seemingly less effective, especially as an unpredictable tyrant ramps up the capability of his nuclear arsenal, our pacific ally may have to face the reality that it has to, in some respects, fend for itself to protect its interests. In light of Chinese president Xi Jinping essentially cementing his role as a dictator, the Japanese people seem to understand that they must once again establish their own military protections. Despite numerous scandals, President Shinzo Abe won a snap election this year based primarily on his vow to re-write the Japanese constitution in a way that would allow them to once again militarize.
Japan has already participated in efforts to establish greater alliance between them, the US, Australia, and India, with the South China Sea set as the likely crux of potential military conflict. They continue to cozy up to traditionally Chinese-loyal nations in hope of garnering as many allies as possible. The arms race of allegiances is officially underway with respect to China and Japan, and that is a drastic change from the decades since WWII.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping faces his own set of challenges. As China touts its economic growth, there is an elephant in the nation, and it resides in its rural pockets where poor farmers still live in relatively poor conditions. Jinping has made efforts to spread some of wealth resulting from China’s urban growth to the countryside. This, many believe, is the goal at the center of his crackdown on loose regulatory standards and the people who have most benefitted. As he does, the businessmen who hold significant sway have and will continue to voice their disapproval of this increased regulation. Many of them have and will disappear or end up in a prison. But, this is the way that Xi, who has praised the late Chairman Mao and recently solidified his power for years to come, has determined best suits China’s collective strengthening going forward. Keeping up with the emergent Japan is no small part of this attempt to strengthen China’s entire economy, which currently is highly concentrated in few hands, and in urban centers.