The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
History Made; Media Blind

Amid the scramble in newsrooms and government offices around the world that followed Kim Jong-Il’s death, one important piece of news from Asia missed all the headlines.

The real news in Asian politics yesterday, the kind of thing that will likely show up in the history books, was a quiet meeting announced by the State Department. If you missed it, it’s because people didn’t cover it much, but for the first time ever, India, Japan, and the US held a round of trilateral talks on the future of Asia and the strategic picture. The session, reads a State Department media release, “mark[s] the beginning of a series of consultations among our three governments, who share common values and interests across the Asia-Pacific and the globe”.  These three powers aren’t an alliance; the US and Japan have a treaty of alliance, but India remains non-aligned — and has no plans to change.  This is an entente, not an alliance.  It is a community that rests on common concerns and common views about important developments — but ententes are important.  This one in particular (which besides the Big Three also includes important regional presences like Australia, Vietnam, Singapore and others) may play a bigger role in US foreign policy than NATO as time moves on.

This event received little attention in the media. Yesterday’s newspapers were awash with obituaries for North Korea’s Dear Leader. Breathless reporters gushed about a succession crisis on the peninsula; others made lists of Mr. Kim’s favorite toys. But the launching of trilateral strategic consultation between India, Japan and the US is a much bigger event than the latest twist in the Kim dynasty’s fortunes.

How did Beijing take the news of the meeting? It “raised eyebrows” according to one report. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said the “US, Japan and India are countries with great influence in the Asia-Pacific region. We hope the trilateral meeting will be conducive to regional peace and stability”. Very cautious; butter wasn’t melting in his mouth — but the PLA and the Foreign Ministry are paying close attention as China’s biggest nightmare takes a giant step onto the world stage.

We don’t have to tell you that disputes over the South China Sea, political developments in Myanmar, resource competition on mainland Asia, riparian conflict over Asia’s biggest rivers, security and terrorism issues, and much else is all connected in a competitive landscape that will drive Asian geopolitics for years to come. We’ve been writing about that for months. The US-China minuet — sometimes competitive, sometimes cooperative — taking place against this background is the most important story in world politics today, but the media is only gradually taking note.

Beijing has been thrown off its game by Washington’s diplomatic blitzkrieg in Asia this fall — and by the steady move away from Beijing’s orbit by the Burmese junta, one of only two reliable Chinese friends in the region.  Burma’s move toward the US, India and Japan is a shock for Beijing, and it makes the Dear Leader’s death even more unsettling. North Korea is China’s last reliable regional partner after the Burmese defection; now Kim is quite suddenly dead, and Beijing has to wonder what comes next.

China jumped quickly to recognize Kim Jong-Eun as the Great Successor amid reports that officials in Beijing were worried about North Korea. The foreign ministry was “shocked” by the Great Leader’s death but quickly followed up with support for his son, announcing Beijing’s “faith” in “Comrade” Kim Jong-Eun and welcoming his future first official visit to China. And let’s not overlook Chinese president Hu Jintao’s hasty excursion to the North Korean embassy in Beijing where he expressed his condolences for the Dear Leader’s passing. The details of his other meetings there are not public.

There is speculation that the Great Successor will not be quite as pro-China and anti-West as his father, but this is premature. We didn’t even know what Kim Jong-Eun looked like until last year, much less what kind of leader he will turn out to be. Suffice it to say that Beijing is worried about a Myanmar-style opening in North Korea, however far-fetched that might seem at the moment.

One suspects that the North Koreans are watching what happens in Myanmar/Burma as the generals shift towards the entente.  North Korea has to worry sometimes about a too-total dependence on China; diversifying its diplomatic portfolio could make sense.

In any case, the Asian games continue.  Hopefully as time goes by the mainstream press will do a better job of helping readers connect the dots that connect places like Burma and North Korea, and historic developments like triangular strategic talks between the three most important democratic powers in the region will actually be deemed worthy of attention.  Until then, we’ll do our poor best at Via Meadia to help readers watch history unfold.

Published on December 20, 2011 12:52 pm
  • Eric J.

    Any idea who at the State Dept. is behind this Asian Awakening for US diplomacy? It’s going well enough and quietly enough that it seems to be no more than rubber stamped by Obama and Clinton. Neither of them would be willing to allow positive developments like these without front-page headlines (even if those headlines had the potential to scuttle the developments.)

  • Kris

    “the PLA and the Foreign Ministry are paying close attention as China’s biggest nightmare takes a giant step onto the world stage.”

    As I’ve repeatedly said, they seem to be objectively pro-nightmare.

  • Kansas Scott

    “Until then, we’ll do our poor best at Via Meadia to help readers watch history unfold.”

    That’s why we readers pay you the big bucks. (Seriously though, thank you for this continued level of insightful commentary).

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I would like to see much more US military equipment sales to India. Ships, subs, Patriot missiles, F-35′s, comm gear, etc… the first step in a defence alliance should be common equipment. It’s unfortuate that India can’t afford the best, and has gone with Russian quantity over US quality for so long. I would really like to see the world’s largest Democracy India, replace China as America’s 2nd largest trade partner after Canada.

  • KTINLA

    Over at the National Review Online, John Bolton remarks: “(T)he risk of massive cross-border refugee movements should have prompted intense U.S.-Chinese consultations about the inevitable succession crisis. Unfortunately, little appears to have been done, despite continuing, visible evidence of Kim Jong Il’s physical decline.” New ententes aside, it is worrisome there appears to be a lack of strategic communication with China on the Kim issue.

  • Anthony

    WRM, China and U.S. part of current world order framework facilitating international system…. Actually what appears to be happening is a strengthening of the international system – by which China benefits. Does it actually alter U.S. and China dynamics because trilateral talks were held?

    Asian games, triangular strategic talks are part of current world order framework with Pacific emphasis.

  • Corlyss

    Hallelujah!

  • Luke Lea

    “China’s biggest nightmare”? Really? I can think of some bigger ones. Maybe you meant China’s biggest foreign-policy nightmare.

  • http://Thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    Sorry for the accidental post. iPads can be touchy. I was saying from my Australian POV, there is an Anglo Sphere element at play here. There is also the fact that Indoeuorpean language is common to India and the West, while the Sinosphere is linguistically different. These natural divisions need not end in war, but they are natural cultural factors in the process of global convergence caused by world wide industrialization. The Islamist naysayers to that process will cause a lot more trouble, but knitting the west and Asia together in this way is a great long term strategy. The Chinese reacted correctly. It need not be an anti Chinese entente. Well spotted WRM. BTW, I think WRM’s hopes for better from the press are misplaced. They are largely intent on fitting events into tired ideological stereotypes, not promoting new understandings. They all have canned obits for dear leader and Steve Jobs, but they wouldn’t notice a shift in Grand Strategy if it bit them on the backside.

  • Jim.

    That’s why Via Meadia is as worthwhile as The Economist, and much more economical. ;)

    The fact that Time and Newsweek aren’t beating down your door to replace their regularly scheduled Lefties with your insightful commentary is the reason why they’re going bankrupt.

  • http://Thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    Agreed Jim. Interesting that this post about an actual strategic move with far reaching implications attracts about 10 comments while the one on the mere possibility of war with Iran produces heaps including a couple of feuding Persians and a “comma cop”. in some ways we get the media our reptile brain wants. OR you gotta love human nature!

  • ltlee

    All the mentioned powers and regional presence are either former western colonies or currently partially occupied by the US. Nah. The media does not miss anything. A certain mentality separating the colonized and the semi-colonized has been etched on the western mind for decades. Such linking up, in one form or the other, is anticipated long ago, not really ground breaking news. In contrast, peace or normality with North Korea will be ground breaking.