This post was co-authored with Kang Choi, the vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and director of the Center for Foreign Policy and National Security.
The establishment of a comprehensive vision for the U.S.-ROK alliance is based on converging interests and shared values. As a result, U.S.-ROK coordination in response to North Korean provocations has been strengthened, as demonstrated by how both sides worked together in support of tension-reduction during the recent exchange of fire in August along the DMZ. The United States and South Korea also coordinate regularly on other global issues, which include international public health, international development, and climate change. Nevertheless, a gap in U.S. and South Korean approaches on regional issues remains. The United States has framed its “rebalance” to Asia in regional terms while South Korea’s signature initiative in support of multilateral institution building, the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), focuses on the sub-region of Northeast Asia. The gap exists despite the fact that both countries share the goal of strengthening a strong foundation for the effective application of international norms within the region.
Historically, the United States has pursued a “hub and spokes” model for managing the set of bilateral alliances in Asia. Yet, the U.S. rebalance to Asia encourages greater cooperation among like-minded partners in the region as the basis for strengthening the application of international norms on issues such as non-proliferation, maritime security, and disaster relief. This emphasis has been particularly clear in U.S. efforts to strengthen the capacity of the East Asian Summit.
Nevertheless, throughout the post-Cold War era, while keeping its alliance relations with the U.S., South Korea has focused on efforts to build multilateral cooperation primarily within the sub-region of Northeast Asia. At the end of the Cold War, then-South Korean President Roh Tae Woo proposed a Northeast Asian consultative conference, the Northeast Asian Security Dialogue, to promote confidence-building measures. Since then, almost every Korean president has had a proposal of one sort or another to institutionalize multilateral cooperation as a way to manage Northeast Asian tensions. The latest iteration is President Park Geun-hye’s Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative, which borrows from the Conference on Security Cooperation in Europe.
Nexus between NAPCI and the Rebalance
In her address to the joint session of the U.S. Congress on May 2013, President Park Geun-hye stated that NAPCI “will be firmly rooted in the Korea-U.S. alliance.” During her press conference the day before, Park indicated her belief that “there would be synergy between President Obama’s policy of rebalancing to Asia and [her] initiative for peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia as [the United States and South Korea] pursue peace and development in the region.” For South Korea, the Korea-U.S. alliance has been and will remain indispensable, as it is the most reliable strategic insurance available. A multilateral mechanism would only complement the alliance. Furthermore, a multilateral initiative would not function in any meaningful way without U.S. participation. Hence, Seoul has eagerly sought Washington’s endorsement and participation in the establishment of NAPCI.
At the same time, the United States has sought greater South Korean voice in regional forums such as the East Asia Summit (EAS). In June last year, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel publicly encouraged South Korea to speak out in favor of approaches to maritime security in the South China Sea that are consistent with international law. While the United States and South Korea share the commitment to peaceful resolution of international disputes based on the rule of law, the two countries might have differences with regard to strategies.
From a broader perspective, both EAS and NAPCI share the objective of strengthening the regional commitment and implementation of international norms in many areas, such as nuclear safety and non-proliferation, maritime security and safety, and efforts to cooperate to prevent pandemics and preserve the environment. Given that both institutions face much uncertainty, why not double-track these initiatives?
NAPCI provides an opportunity for the United States to remind Asians of its continuous presence and credibility. Many times over the past several decades, U.S. commitment to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia has been questioned. NAPCI offers opportunities for the United States to participate in the process of establishing additional networks of cooperation in several emerging issue areas. As a consequence, the perception of U.S. staying power in the region will be enhanced.
Moreover, NAPCI could make the rebalance more appealing in Asia. The rebalance is about preserving the current international order in the face of a rising China, not containing it. Hence, the rebalance should focus less on hard security and more on developing an “adaptive” and “evolutionary” policy by strengthening the norms, rules, and processes of a liberal international order at the regional level while preserving the fundamentals of the existing liberal international order. One of NAPCI’s objectives is to strengthen the post-Cold War order and to foster liberal norms, rules, and processes (and possibly institutions) where they do not already exist. In a way, NAPCI is a soft approach toward achieving the objective and could add very much to the rebalance.
NAPCI could also lead to improved China-Japan and South Korea-Japan relations since effective multilateral cooperation provides opportunities to strengthen bilateral relations. One often hears the argument that the antagonistic state of relations between Beijing and Tokyo and Seoul and Tokyo presents a major obstacle toward any major multilateral initiative. A multilateral platform, however, might actually lead to breakthroughs in bilateral relations as well. U.S. participation might further help, as the United States was able to do during the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in Hague. Of course, NAPCI cannot solve the history issues, but it might help Japan and Korea cooperate on other issues relating to peace, stability, and prosperity while building confidence between the two countries.
Finally, NAPCI could be a tool for community building among experts and professionals in Northeast Asia and the United States. Asian communities of experts based on functional issues have grown rapidly in recent years, but U.S. representation in such groups is weak. With more U.S. experts participating in these groups, the United States would be able to bolster its presence in Northeast Asia. At the same time, experts could have more opportunities to provide their insights, adding a grassroots dimension to the rebalance to Asia.
Given the growing complexity and risks inherent in Asia’s regional security environment, NAPCI, as a multilateral body capable of addressing a wide range of security issues, is a useful complement to the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Most importantly, parallel and mutually reinforcing efforts by the United States and South Korea to strengthen regional norm-building could fill the gap that currently exists in U.S.-ROK cooperation.