NEW YORK As U.S. and North Korean officials meet in Beijing, there is far more at stake than the nuclear status of the Korean Peninsula. The future of U.S. influence in Asia and its relations with the key regional powers - South Korea, Japan and China - hangs in the balance.
Much to the dismay of its allies and partners in the region, the United States has spent much of the past six months preoccupied with Iraq and playing hardball with North Korea. As a result, Washington now confronts substantial anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea; the potential for a remilitarized and even nuclear Japan; and a China increasingly perceived as more sensitive to East Asian needs than the United States. If these trends are not reversed, American influence will be diminished and regional instability will increase over the long term.
Anti-U.S. sentiment in South Korea is at its highest level since the country's founding in 1948. Most South Koreans believe the United States does not appreciate the danger it confronts on a daily basis from North Korea - and they see recent America's recent harsh rhetoric as having exacerbated that danger, by increasing the North's sense of isolation and paranoia.
The way the United States has handled North Korea has also accelerated dangerous trends in Japan. While Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reassures the Bush administration of Japan's continued fealty, he is out of step with much of the Japanese public and parts of the leadership. For the first time since World War II, Japan is openly considering the possibility of developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, many respected Japanese officials are calling for the abolition of Article 9 of the constitution, which prohibits Japan from having an army. The result may be a remilitarization of Japan and an arms race in East Asia.
The Bush administration's North Korea policy has brought a different kind of challenge in its relations with China, which is emerging as a credible alternative to the United States as the leading power in Asia - not through its military might, as the Bush administration has long feared, but rather through the strength of its diplomacy.
China succeeded in brokering the deal that brought Washington and Pyongyang to the negotiating table this week. But North Korea is only the latest diplomatic opportunity for China. Over the past year or so it has assumed an increasingly important role as a regional economic leader and military player. It is offering development assistance to poorer countries, pushing for a regional free trade agreement with Southeast Asia and supporting regional cooperative ventures on drug trafficking and the environment.
Even more significantly, after more than a decade of rejecting formal participation in regional security organizations, China signed last summer a code of conduct governing development of resources in the South China Sea and joined the multilateral effort for development of the Mekong River basin.
Bringing North Korea back from the nuclear brink is obviously the first priority for the United States. But these negotiations offer the opportunity to do much more. The United States needs to address the current political situation in the region in a way that ensures that Asia remains responsive to U.S. security initiatives, economic leadership and diplomatic initiatives on issues such as terrorism and human rights.
First, the United States should assert its leadership on North Korea beyond the nuclear issue. Washington should use economic engagement and the promise of international legitimacy to bring North Korea in from the cold.
Second, the United States must stabilize the regional security situation by persuading Japan not to develop nuclear weapons. Committed negotiations with North Korea will help assuage the fears in Japan that triggered the nuclear discussions.
Third, this is the wrong time for the United States to discuss redeploying its forces in South Korea, whose presence helps stabilize a potentially volatile region.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the Bush administration must develop and articulate a long-term regional strategy that advances U.S. interests but also accounts for the complicated politics of a region in the midst of significant change.
Elizabeth Economy is director for Asia studies and Eugene A. Matthews is senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.