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A Dangerous Distraction

3 minute read
Anne Wu

“When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,” goes the old proverb. It might have been coined for China and Japan. The rekindled tension over clashing versions of their shared history now threatens the resolution of the most pressing security dilemma in North Asia: the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program.

The tension between China and Japan comes at a time when the situation on the Korean peninsula is deteriorating and the need for multilateral diplomacy is mounting. North Korea has already declared itself a nuclear power, one that is entitled to formal disarmament talks like any other nation with nuclear arms. It is impossible to verify if Pyongyang really has the Bomb, but neighboring countries think it unwise to test whether Kim Jong Il is bluffing. So getting Pyongyang back to the negotiating tablethe “six-party talks” that the North walked out of last Junebecomes more urgent by the month. Recently, the apparent shutdown of a reactor at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear power plant has increased anxiety that Pyongyang might be stalling for time while it harvests weapons-grade plutonium to make more warheads.

China and Japan, participants in the six-party talks, share a common need to defuse the crisis. A North Korea armed with doomsday weapons poses an indirect threat to China, because regional powers (Japan among them) would then be encouraged to equip themselves with their own nuclear deterrents. In addition, the talks offer China a chance to play a major role in solving a sensitive and intractable diplomatic issue, while at the same time improving its often rocky relations with the U.S. Japan, too, stands to gain from disarming Kim. North Korea fired a long-range missile over Japan in 1998 and has dozens of other ballistic missiles that could strike its islands within minutes. If there were ever a major conflict on the Korean peninsula, Japan would quickly be dragged into it, thanks to Tokyo’s security treaty with Washington.

Yet despite this shared goal, Japan and China can’t see eye to eye on how to deal with the North. China, together with South Korea, favors compromise, conciliation and economic aid, hoping that such largesse will persuade Pyongyang to give up its nukes. Japan sides with the U.S. in calling for a more hawkish engagement with the North, one that contemplates referring the issue to the U.N. Security Councila step that could result in economic sanctions being imposed on Pyongyang.

Deteriorating relations between China and Japan only make it harder to bridge the gaps. Yet together the two countries may hold the keys to the solution. As North Korea’s biggest benefactor, Beijing can nudge Pyongyang into accepting that it must negotiate if the issue is to be resolved peacefullythereby preserving North Korea’s existence and subsistence. At the same time, Japan, as Washington’s close ally, is uniquely placed to press the U.S. to show some flexibility in American demands for “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization by the North.

Made together, these efforts could break the deadlockand produce other lasting benefits. Managing the North Korean challenge could usher in a new era of security cooperation in North Asia and allow China and Japan to resolve age-old differences and begin dealing with each other with a measure of trust. It’s time for these two giants to transcend their discord and instead focus on the long-term stability of their region. When elephants fight, no one wins.

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