Think the Middle East is dangerous? Check out Northeast Asia
Northeast Asia is starting to look uncomfortably like a tinderbox, and Japan's Prime Minister Abe is playing with matches. While I have assumed for decades that the Middle East had the greatest potential to ignite a catastrophic world war, Japan, China, and the two Koreas are offering some serious competition in the volatility sphere.
Japan's Prime Minister Abe has seriously ticked off China and the Koreas by visiting Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of the war dead are believed to rest, including not just the Imperial warriors who inflicted incredible suffering on Japan's neighbors, but also the war criminals. Rowan Callick of The Australian reports:
TENSIONS between Japan and its neighbours, already high, surged last night following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's unexpected visit yesterday to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japanese war dead.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry called in the Japanese ambassador to deliver a "strong protest and severe reprimand".
South Korea also blasted the "anachronistic" move and Tokyo's chief ally the United States declared itself disappointed with an act that it said would worsen tensions with Japan's neighbours.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Mr Abe's 15-minute visit was "a flagrant provocation against international justice and treads arbitrarily on humanity's conscience", according to a ministry statement on its website.
Sino-Japanese relations were "already grim", it said, adding: "It's absolutely intolerable for the Chinese side".
The Japanese embassy in Beijing said a meeting between Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and visiting Japanese MPs had been cancelled.
Mr Abe paid his respects on the exact first anniversary of his taking office.
This takes place, of course, in the midst of escalating tensions over the Senkaku Islands, claimed by Japan and China, where military brushes have already taken place, and where the Chinese claim the right to shoot down airplanes (including civilian airliners) which enter the islands' airspace (as they regularly do). Meanwhile, on the Korean Peninsula, Kim Jong-un, the baby-faced hereditary dictator who just had his uncle dragged from a public event and shot, is rattling his sabers and causing a response from South Korea. News.com.au:
NORTH Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has urged the country's military to boost its combat readiness, saying war could break out "without any prior notice."
The call comes at a time of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula following the execution of Kim's uncle and former mentor in an unusually public purge.
Kim visited the Command of Large Combined Unit 526 on Christmas Eve, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.
"He instructed the unit to put utmost spurs on rounding off its combat readiness... always bearing in mind that a war breaks out without any prior notice,'' it said.
North Korea, it must be noted, is armed with nuclear weapons, and has a young dictator willing to take unprecedented actions to shore up his leadership, which cannot be presumed to be entirely secure. It is fair to say that the North Korean economy and regime itself are failing. Young Kim is already seen to be rash - it is reported that he ordered his uncle (who was supposed to be his sage older adviser) killed in a drunken rage. The former complete isolation of North Koreans from news from overseas is crumbling, thanks to cell phones dropped into border regions that can pick-up signals from China and South Korea, and to DVD players smuggled into the country across the Yalu River. As a result, the populace to an unprecedented degree understands their own poverty is anomalous as their neighbors to the south and across the Yalu in China (where ethnic Koreans live in large numbers) are prosperous beyond their own dreams.
In such circumstances, a go-for-broke gesture towards war cannot be ruled out. The Korean war, after all, broke out when Kim's grandfather launched a go-for-broke invasion of the south, and for the first 10 days, was winning, almost taking the entire south before the Americans were able to move in large forces.
Meanwhile, the Japanese public is fairly strongly behind Abe, who is seen as restoring some kind of honor and pride to Japan, which has groveled before the outside world since its defeat in WW II, or as the Japanese call it, The Pacific War (so as to distinguish it from Japan's successful military forays into Asia - it was only drawing America into the war that ruined things for Japan). For the Japanese, obligation to one's ancestors who made sacrifices is a central cultural value. Despite the unfortunate results, those who died in the cause of the Emperor are seen as having made a noble sacrifice. That is why Abe felt so strongly as to make a Yasukuni visit on the first anniversary of taking office - a kind of moral force multiplier.
Japan is suffering from a kind of spiritual crisis for the last two decades, as its economy has stagnated, and its younger generation is declining to reproduce. The population is falling by 200,000 people a year, resulting in shrinking markets. In such an environment, reverting to tradition, and honoring those who sacrificed is a kind of comfort that has wide appeal.
Meanwhile, China is having difficulty maintaining its astronomical growth rates, if only because the rest of the world cannot continue handling the immense quantity of Chinese manufactured goods being sent their way. But its political stability depends on being able to provide better living standards, or at least maintain what its urban middle class (perhaps 20% of the population) has enjoyed of late. Lacking political legitimacy through democratic support, and having visibly abandoned the egalitarian ideals of Mao, and being unbelievably corrupt, if the regime cannot deliver the goods, its prospects are limited. One thing every Chinese person understands from their unparalleled history is that dynasties rise and fall. No matter how powerful the regime looks to people like Thomas Friedman, its own leaders understand that their power is brittle, and subject to being shattered.
So we have domestic political dynamics at work in three countries that push each regime toward bluster and confrontation. And a power-mad, callow, and insecure dictator armed with nukes. Throw in deep historical grudges still clung to with passion, and you have a recipe for Armageddon.
Let's hope that cooler heads prevail.
Oh yeah, and then there are the mad mullahs who could launch a war that would block the Persian Gulf and cut off oil supplies to East Asia, which would lead to extreme privation at the least, and over a matter of months, probably starvation. 2014 could end up being one of those years like 1914, where the world changes forever.