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The Coming Conflict Between China and Japan

2017 was not kind to certain aspects of our East Asia forecast. We expected the US to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea?s nuclear program. The strike never materialized, in large measure because of objections by South Korea, which is unwilling to sacrifice Seoul to keep the US out of range of Kim Jong Un?s missiles.

We don?t expect that to change in 2018. There will be no repeat of the Korean War. At most, the US will launch a limited tactical strike to slow North Korea?s progress toward a deliverable, long-range nuclear weapon. In other words, the world is going to get used to the idea of a nuclear North Korea. That takes the focus in the region away from the back-and-forth threats between Kim and US President Donald Trump and places it firmly on the Sino-Japanese relationship.

Theirs is a relationship that has remained steady for many decades, and with good reason. After all,?China and Japan have many economic interests in common. But a nuclear North Korea changes the game. It would signal to Japan that a US security guarantee is perhaps not worth what it once was?and that means Japan will become more aggressive in pursuing its own interests. It would signal to China that the US is all bark and no bite, and that Trump is a paper tiger.

In 2017,?Xi Jinping became the newest dictator in China, and Shinzo Abe pulled off a stunning electoral comeback in Japan, cementing his mandate for years to come. They are two powerful leaders of two powerful countries with a history of mutual mistrust and a hunch that the US is too self-absorbed to throw its weight around in the region the way it used to. That means China and Japan will begin competing with each other directly?on the Korean Peninsula, in Southeast Asia, and as shown above, in areas that both claim for themselves.