Amid rising military tensions caused by regional territorial conflicts and the unpredictable nuclear arms development in North Korea, the East Asia region this year is marked with the emergence of new leaderships.
China’s Xi Jinping, who will soon take over the presidency from Hu Jintao, is facing slower economic growth and a rising number of middle class in China who want more say in daily political life. And one of the simplest ways to channel the aspirations and frustration of the people is by targeting the outside world, especially Japan, its former colonial master.
The new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been preoccupied with an ambitious agenda to deliver on his campaign promise to revive the country’s dying economy. The meaning of rightist or ultra-nationalists is shifting as the nation is now moving closer to the right amid the stalled economy which has lasted for decades, while China continues to shine in the international arena.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was just sworn in last month and one of her most pressing concerns is how to deal with the North Korean leader who continues to threaten open war with the South and its military ally, the United States.
South Korea also has an overlapping sovereignty claim with Japan, and military forces of both countries are increasing their presence in the disputed waters although on a smaller scale compared to Japan’s problem with China. But the bitterness of Japan’s occupation still lives among millions of South Koreans and it triggers anti-Japanese sentiment from time to time.
When North Korea’s Kim Jong-un replaced his father Kim Jong-il last year, there was hope that as a young man he would be more open to the outside world, including the opening of its economic door because millions of North Koran people have been living under extreme poverty and China as its main donor may soon experience fatigue.
China was also upset with North Korea’s stubbornness on its nuclear program and Beijing has taken tougher measures against its ally by endorsing a UN resolution to condemn and to take tougher economic sanctions against the North.
The possibility of military conflict and even — limited — wars in East Asia cannot be completely ruled out because of the overlapping territorial claims and the confrontational behavior of Kim Jong-un, who apparently thinks war is one of the most realistic choices to maintain his family’s control over the country before the people say they can no longer endure the prolonged and severe poverty and human rights abuses.
A combination of tension between Japan and China on one side and between Japan and South Korea on the other, is provoking more hostilities and more rapid military buildups in the region. But
knowing the often irrational and unpredictable behavior of North Korean leaders, the source of open war is more likely to come from Pyongyang.
China and Japan are facing an escalation of military confrontation over the sovereignty rights on Diaoyu Island (the name of the island according to the Chinese) or Senkaku Island, according to Japan’s map. China has insisted that it would not hesitate to use maximum military means, while many people in Japan feel they should not allow China to behave as it likes. Domestic pressure on both sides can trigger direct military confrontation although both sides realize that they will pay a very high price when they cannot maintain the conflict at a manageable level.
Following its successful nuclear tests last month, the North Korean regime has increased its threats to attack the US and the South. While in the past both the allies refrained from reacting to such threats because they were perceived more as propaganda, now they regard them more seriously. The security of Kim Jong-un is now directly targeted.
“We have all preparations in place for strong and decisive punishment, not only against the source of the aggression and its support forces but also the commanding element,” said Maj. Gen. Kim Yong-hyun of the South Korea Military Army, as quoted by Reuters on Wednesday.
Indonesia, as the largest member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), needs to take the diplomatic initiative — no matter how small it is compared to other countries’ more powerful influence — to reduce tension in East Asia, because an open and direct military conflict and escalating armament in the neighboring area will have military and economic implications in this region.
The Associated Press quoted the UN investigator for human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman from Indonesia, who recommended an investigation of the North’s “grave, widespread and systematic violations of human rights”.
Indonesia has had good relations with the North for decades. Citing its own experience, Indonesia can raise the issues of Marzuki’s report to convince Kim Jong-un to pay more attention to improve the living conditions of the people; because in the end, the survival of a regime is not determined by its brutality but by its ability to bring a better life for the people.
The possibility of war in the East Asia region cannot be ruled out at all. And when it happens it is not just the people in the region who will suffer but also the world, because the region is one of the world’s powerful economic engines.
The writer is senior managing editor at The Jakarta Post.