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Hawkish leaders take over in N. Asia

December 23, 2012|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Both Koreas soon will be governed by the progeny of Cold War strongmen. China is in the hands of the son of one of Mao Tse-tung's revolutionary comrades. The incoming prime minister of Japan is a long-standing hawk and the grandson of one of Japan's war cabinet leaders.

The future is looking uninspiringly like the past in Northeast Asia. And although few (other than doomsday theorists) are predicting another war, the alignment of new leaders seems likely to cause some bumps in the year ahead.

"In the short term, I take a pessimistic view. Some kind of new Cold War-type confrontation could happen," said Han Yong-sup of the Korea National Defense University, speaking in Seoul this month at a conference on China's transition.

Any transition is a sensitive period, as new leaders try to establish their nationalist bona fides with their own public, and Northeast Asia is going through three simultaneously.

The Chinese Communist Party last month installed Xi Jinping as general secretary amid a robust campaign to assert Chinese sovereignty in the South China and East China seas. He is to become president in March. Japan and South Korea had elections three days apart last week, selecting conservative governments.

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, 29, has been in power only a year and directed a satellite launch Dec. 12 in what many believe was an effort to assert his legitimacy as the heir to his late father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

Foreign policy analysts say that as the leaderships go through transitions, the countries are also jockeying for position in a changing world order in which China plays a newly dominant role.

China's rapid growth has it on course to become the world's largest economy this decade, and its projection of newfound power is putting pressure on all the other countries in the region.

"There is potential for rising tensions and mishandling of important relationships from every direction," said Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Though family legacy may not be destiny, it is at least an interesting coincidence that all four of the new Asian leaders have significant nationalist bloodlines.

China's new leader is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a Communist guerrilla who later became a key economic reformer. Although advance billing pegged the younger Xi as a pragmatist and reformer as well, his early speeches have had a nationalistic edge that is causing anxiety. He's spoken frequently of "renewal" and "rejuvenation," unlike the outgoing president, Hu Jintao, whose favorite catchword has been "harmony."

Some analysts interpret Xi's words as a call for the recovery of territory ceded during China's years of weakness and humiliation in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

"That term 'harmonious society' is finished," said Jin Canrong, a political scientist at People's University in Beijing speaking at the conference in Seoul.

Ten days after Xi replaced Hu as party secretary, as well as commander of the military, China announced its first successful landing on its new aircraft carrier. Xi also made one of his first visits to a key military base in Huizhou, in the southern province of Guangdong, telling soldiers that China must "ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and a strong military."

Xi's involvement in the disputed seas began well before moving up to the leadership. Over the summer, he joined a high-level maritime commission and, according to a former military officer, is close to Liu Cigui, the head of the oceanic administration, an agency at the forefront of the disputes.

The Chinese oceanic administration's ships in April closed off a lagoon near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, 140 miles off the coast of the Philippines' Subic Bay, and have refused to leave, taking "de facto" control, according to Philippine officials. Chinese vessels -- and a surveillance plane -- have also become a presence in Japanese waters near the contested islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

"The Chinese have concluded that everything short of the military use of force is acceptable," said Bonnie Glaser of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who says the Chinese have used their marine and fishing vessels as paramilitary in the dispute. "China wants to protect their interests and they have developed a much bigger toolbox to do so."

Teng Jianqun, a military analyst with the China Institute of International Studies, points to a speech Xi gave in July in which he referred to foreign policy being designed to uphold sovereignty as well as stability.

"It is only a slight adjustment to restore balance in foreign policy.... There will be more emphasis on sovereignty," said Teng.

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