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Northeast Asia’s Challenges and Opportunities

Jun 06, 2023
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member at Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding, Peking University

Relations between major countries that have a decisive influence on peace and stability have seriously deteriorated and become imbalanced. Within this group, the worsening of China-U.S. relations has particularly far-reaching negative effects. If relations are allowed to devolve into a new cold war featuring a standoff between cliques and camps, peace will suffer a fatal blow, along with prosperity in Northeast Asia.

Over the past two years, the military alliances between the U.S. and Japan and the U.S. and Republic of Korea have been increasingly consolidated. Three-way U.S.-Japan-ROK security cooperation has seen the same trend. Meanwhile, their dialogue with China, North Korea and Russia has stagnated. Multilateral security dialogue and cooperation have suffered even greater setbacks and have been virtually absent for many years.

America’s bilateral alliance system has shown a tendency toward multilateralism throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The Quad, AUKUS, Chip 4 alliance and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework have emerged, and NATO is constantly enhancing regional partnerships. Such developments have further escalated tensions and instability in Northeast Asia.

Issues involving the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan have influenced peace and stability in Northeast Asia since World War II still exist. They have stood out prominently over the past two years. Compared with the Taiwan question, the Korean issue is more complicated, and more likely to trigger military, even nuclear, conflict.

Amid such tensions, all countries in Northeast Asia have been engaged in an arms race. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is determined to develop nuclear weapons, even at the cost of its economy. The ROK’s military spending has hovered above 2 percent of its GDP for many years. Japan decided last year to double its military spending in five years. At the same time, the United States has continuously strengthened its own military presence in Northeast Asia, and China is racing against time to prepare for a possible military confrontation. Under these circumstances, a security dilemma has emerged in Northeast Asia, especially on the Korean Peninsula.

It deserves special mention that the policy proclamations made by ROK President Yoon Suk Yeol during his U.S. visit changed the policy of relative balance between China and the U.S. that previous ROK administrations had followed for decades. Yoon highlighted “values alliances,” and became one-sidedly pro-U.S. Following this path, South Korean policies will further exacerbate tensions on the Peninsula and worsen the ROK’s relationship with China. The “achievements” of Yoon’s visit have resulted in extreme concern and vigilance on China’s part. 

Opportunities in Northeast Asia 

Opportunities are few and small compared with the various major structural challenges in Northeast Asia. However, so long as we are able to identify the opportunities that remain, or that present themselves only briefly — and then decisively grasp them and make concerted efforts to move forward — those challenges may gradually de-escalate. Some may even be resolved. Opportunities may gradually increase and expand.

Currently there are four opportunities in Northeast Asia:

• End of the global pandemic. This has presented countries with opportunities for restoring communication. There is a strong desire to restore people-to-people exchanges in all countries, so this is of  great significance.

• Trade cooperation. As the world economy faces possible recession, maintaining and enhancing economic and trade cooperation is desirable for all countries in Northeast Asia, especially China, Japan and South Korea, which have been heavy trading partners. The China-Japan-South Korea summit will be held in South Korea after a three-year hiatus. This will undoubtedly be an important opportunity for the three to improve relations, enhance economic and non-traditional security cooperation and promote regional peace and stability.

• Improved relations with China. After their relations with China deteriorated for a time, some U.S. allies, including Japan, Australia and Britain — along with Germany, France and the European Union — have begun trying to ease, stabilize and improve bilateral ties. Even the worst-hit China-U.S. relationship has been showing some positive signs. Although the opportunity to improve China ties is slim, it has emerged after all.

• Fear of war. As tensions have escalated on the Korean Peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait, the need to prevent conditions from getting out of control, triggering military conflict, all-around war or even the use of nuclear weapons has become a common concern for all stakeholders. Though this is an opportunity arising from fear of the worst-case scenario, it should in no way be ignored.

Stakeholder countries should make efforts in six dimensions:

• Prevention. East Asian countries should prioritize crisis prevention and control and prevent conditions in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula from further deterioration — especially preventing them from escalating out of control, creating military conflicts or leading to the all-around revival of cold war. It is thus critically important for countries to stick to the one-China principle on Taiwan, while on the Peninsula there should be no vacillation on the twin goals of denuclearization and establishing peace mechanisms.

• Diplomacy. China, the U.S. and Japan should all take advantage of the signs of a thaw and strive to reverse downward trends so that bilateral relations can be stabilized soon. China and South Korea should do the same. It is key that South Korea avoid establishing a one-sided policy favoring the United States. China, Japan and South Korea should also seize the opportunity presented by the upcoming trilateral summit to restore high-level strategic communication, improve relations with one another, and strengthen economic and security collaboration.

• Communication. To achieve these first two goals, all countries involved should restore, maintain and enhance all-around bilateral dialogue and communication at all levels. These are indispensable for managing differences and crises, eliminating misunderstandings and misjudgments, enhancing cooperation and increasing strategic mutual confidence on the basis of common interests. “Dialogue is better than confrontation” should become the consensus of all countries in Northeast Asia.

• Cooperation. Against the backdrop of the extremely harsh situation on the Korean Peninsula, the sequence of priorities now should be restoring dialogue, crisis management, humanitarian aid, mutual security guarantees and arms control.  Only then can denuclearization and permanent peace mechanisms be established on the Peninsula, proceeding together on parallel tracks in different stages.

• Security. China-U.S. cooperation remains indispensable for preserving peace and stability — as well as avoiding conflict — on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait, even as bilateral competition escalates. China and the U.S. can engage in active or passive security cooperation on the Peninsula. On Taiwan, however, they must reach a passive sort of security cooperation. Judging from present circumstances, only after they do well on that can they restart and enhance cooperation on the Peninsula. 

• Partnerships. To ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia, all countries in the region should make efforts to establish bilateral partnerships and to develop multilateral mechanisms for security dialogue and cooperation. The present absence of multilateral security dialogue and cooperation should be changed as soon as possible. The previous six-party talks had brought hope for establishing multilateral security mechanisms for the region. Restoring such talks should continue to be a joint goal.

Meanwhile, U.S. military alliances in Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific should not be limitlessly expanded and strengthened but should rather be properly transformed — increasing transparency, adhering to defense, eliminating Cold War thinking, avoiding interference in other countries’ internal affairs, forsaking confrontation and playing a constructive role in preserving regional security. The future regional security framework may feature the long-term coexistence of both peace and stability, but the former could gradually become dominant.

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