After the Iraq War: The View from Asia

James B. Steinberg
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University

April 16, 2003

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TOKYO—Without much notice or credit, East Asian governments have provided the United States some of the strongest support for the military intervention in Iraq. Australia offered the most robust backing, dispatching combat troops to participate in the operation. Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi offered unequivocal political support, and, more surprisingly, South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo Hyun offered to send non-combat troops. Even China distanced itself from the European “axis of opposition” on the Security Council—France, Germany, and Russia. While China was not prepared to offer explicit support, it made clear it would not stand in the way of UN action and even took steps to temper public opposition at home.

Yet the war has caused considerable unease throughout East Asia. Government officials and analysts in this region are looking at Iraq through the lens of its implications for the crisis that affects them most directly—North Korea. All the countries in the region are anxiously awaiting signs of whether the U.S. action in Iraq presages a more confrontational approach to the DPRK, notwithstanding U.S. assurances that there is no “one-size-fits-all” policy for dealing with proliferation threats, and the Administration’s repeated statements that it is seeking a diplomatic solution.

For both Japan and South Korea, solidarity with the United States is seen as essential to assure U.S. support for engagement with them on how to handle the North Korean nuclear program. The concern is most keenly felt in Seoul, where the government has made clear that it is strongly opposed to any military action, even if North Korea moves forward with reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel that could provide plutonium for up to six nuclear weapons. For South Koreans, the possibility of a U.S. pre-emptive strike poses an unacceptable risk that the North will retaliate, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Many, especially younger ones, question whether North Korea really poses a threat—at least to them. The mere possibility of conflict on the peninsula is already having an adverse impact on the South Korean economy. As President Roh prepares for his now accelerated first trip to Washington, he is eager to show a willingness to help out where it matters most to the U.S.—by providing support on Iraq in the face of strong public opposition, in the hope that President Bush will reciprocate and heed South Koreans’ concerns.

The situation is more complex in Japan, where the North Korean missile test in the late 1990s heightened Japanese fears about North Korea’s military intentions, and the controversy over North Korea’s treatment of abducted Japanese citizens has hardened attitudes toward the North. For this reason, Japan has been more willing to back America’s harder line, but most would like to see the United States be more forthcoming in negotiations. More important is the broader Japanese discomfort with U.S. unilateralism in Iraq, and the apparent U.S. disdain for multilateral treaties and institutions like the UN. For Japan, the open-ended security alliance with the U.S. has been at the heart of Japan’s security strategy for over 50 years, and, in the future, with the possibility that North Korea will become a nuclear-weapon state, and the growing military, economic and political power of China, the reliability of the U.S. commitment could take on even greater salience.

Japanese are even beginning to broach, however tentatively, the question of whether a contingency strategy might be necessary to guard against abandonment by the U.S. This even includes discussion of the heretofore taboo question of whether, under some circumstances, Japan might need to build offensive weapons to pre-empt the North Korean threat—and even the possibility that Japan might need to renounce its non-nuclear commitment. The UN, too, has been central to Japan’s broad approach to global security, but today some Japanese are beginning to question why Japan should provide 20 percent of the financial support for an organization that is being marginalized by the United States (and where Japan’s own quest for a Security Council seat has been relegated to a far-back burner).

For China, the Iraq war has posed the most complex dilemma. It already seems clear that the U.S. action has contributed to China’s willingness to be more active in trying to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. China’s leaders fear that after Iraq, the U.S. just might be rash enough to contemplate using force against North Korea. Such an action could unleash a conflict that could send hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to China, and runs the risk of destabilizing the whole region.

More broadly, some in China wonder whether the Administration’s willingness to resort to the unilateral use of force might have implications for future action toward China, perhaps in the context of a crisis involving Taiwan. Notwithstanding the dramatically improved ties between Washington and Beijing, the Chinese have not entirely forgotten the Administration’s earlier tough posture toward their country, and they are wary that the pendulum could swing back.

China is also watching with interest and concern the longer-term U.S. strategy toward the Middle East in the post-Iraq-war period. With its rising need for imported energy, China has a growing stake in a stable oil-producing region, but also worries whether growing U.S. influence in the region (as well as Central Asia) might jeopardize China’s access to oil in a future crisis. For now, this combination of factors has led China to accentuate the positive in its relations with the U.S., for lack of a better alternative, but few in China have any conviction that a more assertive United States will redound to China’s interest.

Thus all the major powers in the region have more or less embraced the U.S. action in Iraq, in the earnest hope that such an impressive, largely unilateral, un-UN blessed assertion of military power never, ever happen again.