The Trump Administration is about to get a crash course in the dynamics of China, Japan and North and South Korea. This is one of the most complex military, economic and geopolitical tangles in the world. And these peoples have been playing their grand power games for literally thousands of years. Trump is like a child walking into a house of mirrors of staggering complexity. One mistake by the Americans would be enough to set off a pattern that leads to renewed conflict.
Trump does not seem to understand that the Chinese are now the world’s second largest economy and have amassed huge power in the world, not just the region, and that power extends to their deep embrace with the American economy. President Xi Jinping talks of fulfilling “China’s dream” of finally standing toe-to-toe with the Americans as a world power. We have to manage a compete-and-cooperate relationship with China that is inherently confusing and multifaceted.
The crisis of the moment is the Korean peninsula. In the North, Kim is getting closer to possessing nuclear-capable missiles. In the South, we are about to see a different ideological wing of the South’s political class take charge. The likely new president wants to warm relations with the North and is skeptical about the American role in defending South Korea, including building a new missile defense system there.
Historically, most of the wars in the region have centered on the Korean Peninsula. If you stand at the top of Nansam Mountain in central Seoul and gaze north, you learn that the peninsula has been invaded 400 times. Both the Chinese and Japanese worry about instability on the peninsula and always seek to shape outcomes. If you’ve ever played the game of Risk, you know that this has been a zone of intense rivalry.
What is Xi Jinping thinking? He’ll want to know whether Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have any idea of the seriousness of the issues. China is for the first time trying to seriously lean on North Korea to halt or slow down its missile work. At the same time, it is using economic punishment to discourage the South from allowing the Americans to deploy the THAAD missile system.
The Japanese appear to be the strongest, most stable U.S. ally at the moment. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been working hard on developing a relationship with Trump. The Americans and Japanese really need to stay close to each other to manage their way through the minefields, literally and figuratively. Abe is building up militarily but needs the Americans to be able to resist China.
Other issues loom–China’s grab for the South China Sea, China’s claiming power over islands held by Japan, and China’s treatment of Taiwan. This is a game of three dimensional chess–or maybe four, if there is such a thing. The Trump Administration needs to enter this game with humility and a thirst to learn, which are not characteristics it has displayed in abundance. If Trump thinks that the firestorms he has encouraged domestically over health care or a border tax or tax reform are complex, wait to see what happens if he trips up in one of the greatest games on earth.