SHENYANG – China’s little-known northeast, or Dongbei, is a vast area rich in natural resources and strategic importance.
China’s Manchu Emperors made the ancient city Shenyang (formerly Mukden) their imperial capitol. Today, the greater Shenyang region is one of China’s most important industrial centers.
The first chilly winds of the great Siberian winter are beginning to sweep down. Just to the east is North Korea’s sealed-off border. To the north is Harbin, the fabled refuge for White Russian aristocrats and Jewish refugees from Russia’s 1917 Revolution.
Few westerners come to Shenyang. It is a high security zone with many strategic industries that wreathe this city of 7.5 million in a perpetual miasma of choking pollution and smog.
In 1905, Russia and Japan were locked in their climactic struggle to carve up the rotting corpse of the Chinese Empire. Russia was driving railroads south from Siberia into Manchuria and developing the important rail heads of Mukden and the key ice-free ports of Dalny and Port Arthur.
The two expanding powers waged an astoundingly bloody war here from 1904-05, including the epic siege of Port Arthur, that was a precursor of the oncoming horrors of WWI.
In the 1905 Battle of Mukden, 850,000 Russian and Japanese soldiers fought here along a 90-mile front that was the biggest battle in history involving western forces until 1914.
Russia lost nearly 200,000 casualties at Mukden, another 30,000 at Port Arthur, and was forced to abandon Manchuria and sue for peace. In 1944, the Red Army returned: it occupied Mukden and Port Arthur until 1948. During the Korean War, Manchuria served as rear base for Red Chinese armies fighting In Korea.
American Gen. Douglas MacArthur urged his superiors to use a dozen nuclear weapons against Shenyang and the nearby Yalu River crossings. President Harry Truman refused.
Half a century later, Manchuria remains the epicenter of Asian geostrategic tensions. Recent shifts in the regional power equation are undermining the status quo in force here since 1952.
Until recently, America’s Pacific military power, explicit US nuclear guarantees to Japan, and strong but less precise guarantees to South Korea and Taiwan, maintained the regional balance of power.
North Korea’s recent mini nuclear test upset this half century old balance, sparking demands in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan for their own nuclear forces.
Clumsy efforts by the Bush Administration to draw Japan into explicit guarantees of military support for Taiwan in the event of war with China have strained relations between Tokyo and Beijing. China’s enormous growth is forcing a rethink of all current security arrangements.
Russia, worried about the vulnerabilities of its thinly populated Pacific regions, is trying to draw Japan into its strategic orbit through huge oil and gas deals in Sakhalin and eastern Siberia. Moscow still sees Manchuria as essential to its Far East security. But lingering wartime disputes over the Kurile Islands, and deep mistrust, still cloud Russo-Japanese relations.
The advent of Japan’s new conservative prime Minster, Shinzo Abe, produced an immediate improvement of previously strained relations with Seoul and Beijing, and a tacit agreement to drop the sterile recriminations over WWII.
President George Bush’s lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their mammoth costs, have already begun to undermine US power in Asia. North Korea is calling America a `paper tiger.’
This weakening of the North Pacific security system occurs just when a steady American hand is needed.
Washington and its Asian allies face the most serious and difficult strategic challenge of the past 50 years: managing China’s emergence as a regional and world power, while dealing with an assertive India, and declining American military power.
The North Asian powers all need to tap and share Siberia’s and Manchuria’s energy and water. They must prevent the implosion of starving but dangerous North Korea, which feels itself cornered.
The rebirth of Japanese militarism must also be curbed – particularly as right-wing Japanese groups clamor for nuclear weapons and reject any wartime guilt.
A regional nuclear weapons race could be likely unless diplomacy deals effectively with North Korea’s challenge. North Asia’s powers need to alleviate the deep historic mistrust that has plagued their relations.
Finally, North Asia’s powers must find some delicate way of easing the influence over North Asia of the no longer-all powerful USA without undermining the region’s security which America has so long assured.