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Foreign Policy

Prospects for Regional Cooperation in Northeast Asia

Aug 21 , 2013
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

On August 8, I attended the second China-South Korea strategic dialogue, whose participants were scholars and diplomats from both countries. During the discussions, I had a basic feeling that the two sides held nearly opposite views on the contemporary roles of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Chinese scholars believed that, as the legacy of the Cold War, the continuation of U.S.-South Korea alliance was one of the main reasons for the tensions on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia, while Korean scholars regarded the alliance as a linchpin for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in Asia.

How to evaluate the functions of the U.S. Asian alliance system post-Cold War is an important perspective in learning U.S. roles in Asia, the relationship between the U.S. and Asian countries and the relations among Asian countries. My personal view is that the U.S. Asian alliance is not only the product of history, but even more the reality of current international politics in Asia. The alliance has played a positive role in relieving the Asian humanitarian disaster, preventing Japanese remilitarization, and keeping the balance of power on the Korean peninsula. However, when recognizing its positive effects, we should also be concerned about its growing negative implications, which can be generalized as the following four points:

Firstly, the U.S. Asian alliance system poses a challenge to the development of relationships among regional powers. From a historical perspective, the U.S. Asian alliance was in response to the challenges of the communist bloc. However, with the end of Cold War, the targets for the alliance are becoming increasingly blurred. Logically speaking, the alliance should come to an end. However, in order to further safeguard its Asian alliance system, the United States emphasized the real security threats in Asia (mainly from North Korea) while deliberately shaping the new strategic threat- China’s rise. Therefore, when relations between China and the major Asian countries continued to improve, the United States took advantage of various ways to maintain the argument of China threat, trying to find a reasonable and legitimate basis for keeping a U.S. military presence in Asia. However, it increased distrust among major Asian countries, especially China and Japan, which has not only become an obstacle for the smooth development of the relationship, but also sowed the seeds for regional instability.

Secondly, the U.S. Asian alliance produces an obvious negative effect on Northeast Asian security, which is mainly reflected in the Korean issues (including the North Korean nuclear program, DPRK-ROK relations and DPRK-Japan relations, etc.). Actually, the US-ROK alliance provides the security protection for South Korea, but it also poses a security threat to North Korea. As a result, there is a new pattern of imbalance on the Korean peninsula, which could make North Korea take risks, thus worsening the situation on the Korean Peninsula, even bringing more danger to the entire Northeast Asian Security.

Thirdly, the U.S. Asian alliance increases more uncertainty of Sino-US relations. The U.S. allies in Asia include South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. Among them, there are 3 countries that have territorial disputes with China. Obviously, the U.S. Asian alliance inevitably poses a challenge to China’s security and sovereignty, at least in psychology. At present, the importance of Sino-US relations is clear, and so is the vulnerability. Particularly after the Obama administration launched the “rebalancing” strategy, the fragility of Sino-US relations has become more prominent. There is no denying that the success of U.S. strategic transformation largely relies on the U.S. Asian alliance system. However, this transformation has created new uncertainties for Sino-US relations. Though the U.S. has reiterated that the strategy does not aim to contain China but to deepen U.S. credibility in the region at a time of fiscal constraint, many Chinese scholars think the “rebalancing” strategy toward the Asia-Pacific lays too much emphasis on the military, which obviously has a strong implication of countering against China. Therefore, it is reasonable and necessary for China to take corresponding measures, including increasing its military modernization.

Lastly, the U.S. Asian alliance restrains the regional integration process in Asia. There are some typical characteristics of the current international political situation; namely economic globalization deepening, regional integration expanding, the international political actors diversifying, and the landscape of world powers experiencing a big transformation with the East going up and the West stepping down. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the “Butterfly Effect” in international political and economic fields has made most countries shudder. As a result, regional integration has become a significant protection measure from the negative impacts of globalization. As the region with the most active economic activities, the most complex geopolitics and the most cultural diversity, Asian countries have faced many challenges in promoting regional integration, especially in Northeast Asia. As the pillars in the region, Japan, Korea and China are entangled by historical problems and territorial disputes. Since 2010, Sino-Japanese relations have been in bad condition. It should be noted that the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” or “rebalancing” strategy was an important background for the deterioration of the relationship. Moreover, due to the U.S.-South Korea/U.S.-Japan alliance, there is lack of autonomy in policymaking for Japan and South Korea, which also severely restricts the effectiveness in promoting regional integration.

However, it is in the common interest of Asian countries to enhance cooperation in regional integration. Regardless of the negative effects of the U.S. Asian alliance, it is likely to advance this process, while also promoting regional cooperation in Northeast Asia, which is the most significant and urgent.

Firstly, to promote Northeast Asian cooperation there needs to be a correct view of history, as well as a tempering of the rising nationalist sentiment. Obviously, China, Japan, South Korea are the most critical actors in the cause. However, due to historical factors and the reality of interest conflicts, many efforts like the FTA negotiations came to a deadlock, which was a heavy blow to the construction of a regional cooperation mechanism. Therefore, establishing the correct view of history and controlling the rising nationalist sentiments have become the essential element for them to go forward. Of course, the two issues have obvious relevance. Fundamentally speaking, the correct view of history is the first step to break the ice.

Secondly, to promote Northeast Asian cooperation, even Asian integration requires that the regional states play an autonomous and leading role. Although the United States has important interests in Asia, the Asian countries should play the main role in promoting regional cooperation. Of course, this does not mean to exclude the United States from the regional integration. In fact, Asian regional integration should be the unity of the subjectivity, dominance of Asian states and the openness, inclusiveness of Asian system.

Thirdly, to promote Northeast Asian cooperation, we must must avoid the “pan-politicalization” phenomenon. There is a contradictory state in Northeast Asia. In the geo-economic landscape, the relationship between China, Japan and South Korea are the closest, and this determines the common interests in promoting regional economic and trade cooperation. Meanwhile, the three countries have a complicated dilemma in a geopolitical context. As a result, once blending the economic and trade issues into the political factors, all efforts come to naught. Therefore, in promoting cooperation in Northeast Asia, China, Japan and South Korea should discriminate the economy and trade from the politics, and thereby reduce or avoid the negative effects of “pan-politicalization” phenomenon.

Last but not least, to promote Northeast Asian cooperation, we should follow the principle of gradual improvement and adopt an approach of starting with the easy things first. Nowadays, the Northeast Asian countries have common needs in promoting economic growth. Therefore, it is ripe for them to build an economic community in the region. With the increasingly close economic ties, it could lay a solid foundation and provide convenient conditions for these countries to build a comprehensive regional cooperation mechanism, which will be comprised of economic, security, political issues and other core elements. Though there are many difficulties and constraints in the process, as long as there is sufficient political will and wisdom in the related countries, the prospects for regional cooperation in the Northeast Asia, even the whole Asia, deserve to be expected.

Chen Jimin, Ph.D, is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C.

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