Sun, Apr 14, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Korea may be the focus, but China vs Japan is the real story

Beijing has absolute control over North Korea and is using the current ‘crisis’ to gain leverage over disputed islands and provide secure supplies of oil

By Timothy Mo  /  The Guardian, LONDON

The desire for a personal telephone call from US President Barack Obama would be puerile if the potential fallout — literal and figurative — were not so deadly.

Finally, Kim believes that a certain amount of obstreperousness will, as in the past, ease sanctions and bring a resumption of aid.

The majority of South Koreans are still relatively blase. Not so in Japan, where the public is genuinely edgy. They have had three nuclear disasters already: two in war, one in peacetime. They did not fight in the Korean War, but Japanese civilians were abducted from their streets and homes by North Korean kidnappers and held in Korea for decades. Kim is a real bogeyman in Japan.

Yet, he needs to be careful he does not get a chopstick straight through the heart. To perceive Japan as something of a diplomatic and military soft touch would be a catastrophic error. The Japanese Self-Defense Force and, in particular, the navy and coast guard — whose ratings, in full anti-flash gear, did not hesitate to sink a North Korean spyship with gunfire in 2001 — constitute a formidable obstacle.

Japan has amassed enough plutonium to make as many bombs as China. The Japanese public genuinely abhors nuclear weapons, and, under the constitution, these are explicitly banned from Japanese shores. Nevertheless, if Japan does not already possess an arsenal of hydrogen bombs, they can be put together very rapidly.

Barring misadventure — always possible when delinquent children play with firecrackers — a real shooting war is out of the question.

Basically, what we have now is very heated bargaining in an Asian mall selling pirated goods. Japan wants as large a share of the Diaoyutai’s oil as possible; China wants to concede as little as possible. In the end, Japan will be prepared to play second fiddle to China, as it has done to the US for half a century, while the US will be bought off with lucrative contracts for service companies, such as Halliburton.

As for the deposits in the South China Sea, the US has a very poor record of loyalty to its defeated allies. The Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia can expect to be sold out if China takes the fields by brute force. The so-called pivot to the Pacific cannot work: This is China’s backyard. It is as forlorn as it would be for a Chinese armada to steam to the Gulf of Mexico to secure its oil wells.

The real drama is going to be an Israeli attack on Iran — 100 times more likely than the curtain rising in Korea. The implication is that the more conciliatory and moderate the West is over the shadow puppet-show and dress rehearsal playing out in Asia, the more it can justify extreme measures against Iran.

This is what we should be concerned about.

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