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Rising above the fray

Publication Date : 28-12-2012


The only thing in sync as new leaders take office in North-east Asia is the coincidental timing of the events. But with regard to the old and complex issues dogging the region, their arrival portends more uncertainty rather than a unified approach to problem-solving.

Conservative Park Geun Hye's election as South Korean President last week completes the set of transitions in this important zone that also places new faces at the helm in China and Japan.

Xi Jinping, who takes over as President of an increasingly assertive China, and extreme rightist Shinzo Abe, who has reassumed Japan's premiership, risk locking their countries in a damaging ultranationalist contest over islands in the East China Sea. Chinese air and sea probes to press their claims and Japanese readiness to respond can easily spiral towards calamity if left untended.

The situation calls for circumspection and a clear focus on what is at stake broadly, including multibillion- dollar trade and investment - both affected by boycotts and protests during a previous escalation in September.

In an even wider context, the new leaders must concentrate on a more intractable problem - North Korea and its nuclear arms obsession. A North Ko-rean long-range rocket launch meant to prevent Park's electoral victory served as a reminder that Pyongyang, itself with a leader only slightly more than a year in power, remains all too ready to resort to provocation.

As if the situation is not complicated enough, South Korea also has a maritime dispute with Japan, over the Dokdo/Takeshima islets, that threatens to distract from what should be a multilateral effort to deal with North Korea.

Neither the hard-line approach nor the Sunshine policy of her predecessors having proved effective, Park has proposed an in-between course. Her call for "trust-based" diplomacy, however, is likely to go unheeded as Kim Jong Un's regime clings on to nuclear weapons even with economic stagnation testing starvation levels.

A durable settlement continues to lie beyond Seoul's capability. A return to six-party talks remains the best hope. But with attention of at least three of the parties diverted to populist bilateral disputes, prospects have dimmed.

Although China has become her country's biggest trading partner, Park should not harbour any illusions of an era of peace unfolding soon. China will likely continue to see a reunited Korea as not in its interest, even if it has to tolerate a nuclear-armed North on its border.

It's clear the biggest source of tension will continue to fester as long as the region's new leaders do not see beyond their countries' current narrow interests.


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