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A Security Dilemma in Northeast Asia

May 18 , 2013
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

In the global landscape, Northeast Asia is a fragile, complicated region in the world’s security chain. The security dilemma in the region is concentrated and intensive, due to complex reasons, especially in historical issues, ideological factors and the dispute of real entangled interests. 

Firstly, historic factors. In modern times, Northeast Asia has been a region full of turmoil and strife. Presently, issues such as territorial disputes between China and Japan, South Korea and Japan, the separation of the Korean Peninsula are all historical problems. Actually, the Japanese attitude towards historical issues has almost become one of the core variables that affects China-Japan and the South Korea-Japan relationship. Recently, members of Japan’s Cabinet paid a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which aroused strong dissatisfaction from China, South Korea and other Asian countries. From this point, historical factors have lead to important and obvious impacts on the current political landscape in Northeast Asia. 

Secondly, ideological factors. During the Cold War, the ideological struggle was one contested field for both the United States and the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War, however, does not mean the end of this ideological struggle. The current security situation in Northeast Asia is still plagued by a Cold War mentality, and the US alliance system in Asia is one typical external manifestation. To some degree, US behavior is an important reason for the increased security dilemma among the Northeast Asian countries. For example, one of the key issues in North Korea’s nuclear crisis is that North Korea has claimed that there is no guarantee for national security. For North Korea, a reliable nuclear deterrent is an effective practice to safeguard national security in a self-help system. Essentially, the core point of the North Korean nuclear issue is still the scarcity of safety and security. 

Thirdly, the factor of real interests. There are disputes in real interests among major Northeast Asia countries. Divided into types of interests, most of them are core interests related to territorial sovereignty, which leaves a narrower scope for coordination between the relevant countries. Additionally, the nationalist sentiment in those countries is generally higher, especially on sovereignty issues. As modern countries, heeding public opinion and considering people’s interests and aspirations have become an important source for the legitimacy of state power. For this reason, decision makers are heavily influenced by people’s emotion, which may lead to irrational policies. It should be noted that, given the impact of the international financial crisis, many countries in Northeast Asia have experienced hardship in economic development. In order to regain power, political forces have resorted to inciting nationalist sentiment against neighboring countries, which makes the countries’ relationship in the region more complex and worse. 

In view of this, to solve the security dilemma in Northeast Asia, we should at least do the following things: first, face up to history, and look into the future. All countries should calmly rethink lessons from history, especially for countries that have caused untold sufferings to the people of Asian countries. Based on and beyond that, these countries should turn their attention to the future, go forward and work together to build a long-term, stable security mechanism in Northeast Asia. To a larger extent, dealing with historical issues between the Northeast Asian countries, including the problems in the factual and psychological field is the first step toward a new security relationship among the Northeast Asian countries. 

Secondly, countries should discard the Cold War mentality and ensure mutual assured security. Whether it is in theory or in practice, the zero-sum game of the Cold War mentality has been proven to be outdated. The policies of power against power are not conducive to the regional stability and prosperity; while common security, cooperative security, collective security are based on mutual assured security thinking are the most useful means for safeguarding regional security and stability. Any country that wants to build up its own security based on another’s insecurity, pursue so-called absolute security is bound to get counterproductive results. 

Thirdly, countries should strengthen multi-level exchanges, and reduce the risk of miscalculation. At present, the academic community has formed a basic consensus, namely the lack of a Northeast Asia security mechanism, which is largely reflected in the lack of an effective, comprehensive, institutional exchange mechanism among Northeast Asian countries. As a result, the risk of strategic misjudgment increases, especially in times of crisis. Therefore, to build the Northeast Asia security mechanism needs to establish institutionalized communication channels first, which is not limited to the government level, but going to the non-governmental level. Mutual understanding and mutual trust between the public is to build the most reliable guarantee of harmonious relations between nations. 

Last but most important, we should strengthen Sino-US relations, and effectively increase cooperation. On the surface, Northeast Asia security involves many actors, but in essence, Sino-US relations are the core factor in the Northeast Asia security pattern. At this point, the state of security in Northeast Asia is highly subject to the state of Sino-US relations. From this perspective, the nature and form of Sino-US relations has become one of the critical variables for the Northeast Asian security situation. Actually, Northeast Asia security and Sino-US relations are interactive. In other words, the state of security in Northeast Asia will have counteractive effects on the state of Sino-US relations. Thus, to increase cooperation in Northeast Asia also provides the favorable opportunity and important platform to cultivate a new type of relations between China and the United States. 

Chen Jimin is Ph.D and 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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