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Security in Northeast Asia

Interviewee: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
February 1, 2010

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North Korea's efforts toward nuclearization have posed an intractable foreign policy challenge for Washington. The regional security environment is further complicated by a frozen war in the Korean peninsula, China's growing military prowess, growing tensions between the United States and China over a planned $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, the Sino-Japan rivalry, and continued U.S. defense support to South Korea and Japan.

But the diplomatic framework created to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue--the Six Party Talks--have proven an important experiment for bringing the countries of Northeast Asia together. To review further opportunities for cooperating on security issues, CFR Senior Fellow Sheila A. Smith started CFR's Northeast Asia Security Architecture project in 2007. She says the project, which brought experts from the United States, South Korea, China, and Japan together, touched on very deep sensitivities in the region, and underscored the importance of having China at the table for a regional security dialogue.

Can you talk about the rationale behind the project?

It began early in the process of getting ready for political transition here in Washington. The serious impulse for CFR's engagement in this topic was to review the possibilities and opportunities for the United States in what was seen to be a very dynamic and, at the time, troubled effort to bring the countries of Northeast Asia together. As you know, the Six Party Talks were the focal point of Northeast Asian discussions about regional stability and were an attempt to negotiate with North Korea. [They] really created new conundrums for the United States in terms of its management of the alliance relationship in Northeast Asia with Japan and South Korea, and also with this burgeoning effort to work with Beijing in a security conversation.

What were the objectives?

We started out thinking that this should just be a conversation between Japan, the United States, and South Korea. But pretty quickly it became apparent that if we were really going to delve deep into thinking about the possibility for cooperation or dialogue on security issues in Northeast Asia, then China had to be at the table. So we began by seeking out partners in all of those countries, we looked for regional experts both close to government and those more in the academic world who could give a critique of policymaking as well. We ended up with a very dynamic team, many of whom went on to be in political administrations not only in Washington but in South Korea and more recently in Japan as well. So the idea really started out to inform the U.S. policy debate but it broadened into a larger effort to engage in the policy debate in South Korea and Japan and in China.

[The Six Party Talks] was the first time for the major countries of the region with these deep antagonisms [to] sit down at the table in the recognition that they did share a common concern.

What were some of the main observations or conclusions?

Again, the Six Party Talks loomed so large in trying to think through the common security concerns of the region. We started off with a workshop in Tokyo, and at that very first meeting in the fall of 2007 it was primarily a conversation with very clear differences of opinion between the Japanese and Chinese participants. The Chinese wanted to get immediately the question of Taiwan off the table; this was not going to be discussed in a multilateral setting, and it did not constitute a shared problem for the Chinese. It was a domestic issue for them.

[Then] it very quickly moved to how to deal with Pyongyang and the nuclear efforts of the North Koreans. And the Japanese rejected outright the idea that the Six Party Talks could evolve into a regional mechanism for security cooperation. They felt very strongly that the alliance with the United States was the best means to provide for Japanese security and Northeast Asian stability. So very early on, you ran into some very deep sensitivities in the region, both about Chinese national interest and perceptions about their security, and also about the always rather tense and uneasy relationship between Japan and China about how to construct a common road forward in the region.

The Six Party Talks have highlighted the difficulties of a collective approach in the region. How do you see a formal multilateral security mechanism working productively on issues such as North Korea?

It's important to remember that there has been no multilateral effort to deal with common or shared security interests. In fact, the antagonisms between the states of Northeast Asia have been the defining factor of that region. Sino-Japanese rivalry, the division of Korea, leftover flashpoints from the Cold War, Taiwan Straits, these are all reasons for basically a very pessimistic view of whether a multilateral approach was ever possible.

What happened with Six Party Talks, however, is that they were an experiment. It was the first time for the major countries of the region with these deep antagonisms [to] sit down at the table in the recognition that they did share a common concern, and that they saw value in a shared approach in solving the common problem of North Korea's nuclear gambit.

As you said, Japan sees its alliance with the United States as the most important one to its security. The United States, too, hasn't shown much interest in a regional institution. Where do you think U.S. policy stands on achieving a security mechanism in the region?

During the latter part of the [President George W.] Bush  years, Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice began focusing a lot on a Northeast Asia security mechanism. I don't know if today you could find anyone in policy circles who would advocate a Northeast Asian formal mechanism. But you do find many across the region who would point to the Six Party Talks not as solving the problem of a nuclear North Korea but rather as an opportunity to create habits of cooperation among these countries that have such antagonisms and such diverse security interests. These are countries that did not have habits of cooperation or dialogue on security issues, so this idea of creating habits of cooperation is very valuable.

These are also countries that recognize that the rise of China and [the] fundamental power transition, which is global, has a large impact on Northeast Asian security.

These are also countries that recognize that the rise of China and [the] fundamental power transition, which is global, has a large impact on Northeast Asian security. They understand that this regionalism, not in a formal kind of way but in a more ad-hoc and problem-solving kind of way, is in one way going to help them navigate the power transitions that are ultimately under way over the next decade or so.

How does this impact how China feels about such a multilateral alliance?

The Chinese have a diversity of perspectives in their academic community. China in some ways embraced Six Party Talks in part because it gave them an opportunity to lead the regional talks. They were the host; they played a key mediating role between the countries involved and continue to do so today. There was some initial optimism in China that this could be a very effective way for gaining a multilateral footing for thinking about security issues. That view has been tampered somewhat by the experience of the Six Party Talks, but I still think that China, by reaching out to U.S. allies in the region, now understands that regionalism and a regular set or sets of conversations with neighbors over common concerns is deeply in China's interest. It behooves Beijing to know its neighbors better, but also to reassure its neighbors that it will take a peaceful, negotiated approach to dealing with their own security concerns in the region.

Do you see a formal multilateral alliance organization that deals with security issues emerging anytime soon?

No, and I am one of the few people who would argue that not only is it premature for Northeast Asia, but it may never be appropriate. We should resist the impulse to borrow European experience and impose it on Northeast Asia. Instead, what we're seeing emerge is the Six Party Talks as being a foundational set of relations to deal with the complexities of the Korean peninsula and the nuclear question. On top of that, you're seeing the new "Plus-Three" summit between the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and China, and this will be a very significant conversation. It's a meeting of these leaders annually, with the third [meeting scheduled] in May. It's very early in the process, but they have already embraced a broad set of issues such as financial regulation, human security, North Korea, [and] border transparency issues, so I would watch that trilateral conversation very closely.

Beyond that, all of these powers regularly attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum, which is the main Asia-Pacific security dialogue venue, and they do that to hold bilateral meetings as well as to engage in some of the functional issues that interest defense ministers in the region. There is some opportunity here for the United States. I would like to see the United States, Japan, and China initiate their own trilateral conversation at some basic level, and with that Northeast Asia will have to look at the question of how the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea can better match with the aspirations for greater regional integration in Northeast Asia. A U.S.-Japan-China piece would be very important in accomplishing a little bit of clarity and transparency on the military balance in Northeast Asia.

The United States will have to make choices about its partnerships in the region, and how it balances those partnerships with the strategic relationship it is crafting with China.

How do multilateral regional alliances play into U.S. interests in the region, and what would be your policy recommendations for Washington?

I am very supportive of Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton's desire to engage more forcefully in the region. She and our president have been very clear that the United States is now a player in Asia and continues to be engaged in the regional institution-building in security and economic realms. The next piece of it will come when the United States seeks to make some choices about when and where it seeks to participate and shape the agenda in these new institutions. The ASEAN forum is clearly a place that requires the United States to play a significant role, and I think other ASEAN nations look forward to that. This administration's signature of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation was overdue and is to be commended, as it makes us a key player.

The United States will have to make choices about its partnerships in the region, and how it balances those partnerships with the strategic relationship it is crafting with China. Very clearly, this administration has put forward that the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone to our security engagement in the region, even as Japan's government shifts its gears. But the United States will also have to think about the extent to which it will balance its own interests with China with those of other regional countries. It's important that [South Korean] President Lee Myung-bak came to Washington last year asking for a security guarantee and an extension of the American nuclear deterrence, and you get a similar desire on the part of the Japanese security community. It is a very tender time for these alliances. The United States will have to be very careful about its nuke commitments and commitments to defense of Japan and South Korea as it goes about embracing a broader engagement in Northeast Asia.

One final point is there will be some forums in which the United States does not have to join. This is something the United States will have to be careful about. Clearly we want to be at the table; we want to be at the table in a dynamic way, especially in economic forums. This is where I worry a bit about the lack of attention of American engagement to trade. We ought to be somewhat understanding of the impulses in the ASEAN Plus Three [ASEAN's ten member countries cooperate with China, South, Korea, and Japan  on economic, political, and security issues] conversation, and perhaps some of the broader conversations that are happening. Sometimes we can be at the table as a participant rather than a leader, and I think the discretion that the United States brings to those choices will be critical.

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