The East Asia Summit and the Difficulty of Establishing a Security Regime in Northeast Asia

Current Issues in U.S.-ROK Relations

November 17, 2011


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Northeast Asia

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The United States' membership in the East Asian Summit (EAS) may mark a new step in U.S. involvement in East Asia. But East Asian regionalism does not currently provide an answer for how to institutionalize security cooperation in Northeast Asia. In that region, the global interests of the four major powers—the United States, China, Russia, and Japan—intersect in complicated ways with the divided Korean peninsula. The fourth trilateral summit between South Korea, Japan, and China was held in Tokyo last May, and since 1997 the three countries have regularly met on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. These meetings demonstrate the need for a region-specific political dialogue and consultation, if not an independent institutional entity. The EAS and other ASEAN-led multilateral gatherings are mainly centered on Southeast Asia and pay less attention to Northeast Asian concerns, such as the Six Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. However, it is unlikely that South Korea, Japan, and China will be up to the task of effectively addressing the challenges unique to Northeast Asia.

Leaders of Northeast Asian states should identify and draw consensus on strategic interests through close consultations.

Northeast Asian leaders at the tripartite meeting have failed to prove that subregional multilateral initiatives are more effective in addressing their needs for enhanced cooperation in finance, trade, and environmental protection, not to mention the absence of agreement on North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship and its military provocations against South Korea. This lack of progress can be explained by several interrelated factors: persistent nationalism and mutual mistrust caused by colonial history and war, territorial disputes, ideological confrontation throughout the Cold War period, U.S. engagement in the region based on a bilateral "hub-and-spoke" system, and the lack of political will in facilitating multilateral cooperation. Political and security matters are still perceived as contentious rather than cooperative.

Despite these impediments to regional cooperation, the evolution of institutional arrangements in Northeast Asia is an irreversible trend. To facilitate regional security regime-building efforts, four interlinked conditions, or the "four Is," should be considered: interest, idea/identity, image, and institution. First, leaders of Northeast Asian states should identify and draw consensus on strategic interests through close and frequent consultations. In addition, they should be willing to put the interests of the region ahead of their own national interests, particularly on issues that affect the region as a whole. The second requirement is a common identity, shaped and strengthened by shared values, ideas, norms, and experiences. The role of the "epistemic community," a network of professionals and opinion leaders, is essential in conceptualizing regional ideas and identity and helping decision-makers pursue value-oriented regionalism. Third, the manner in which one state's general populace views another's will be pivotal in the establishing regional cooperation. Positive images will help reduce historical animosity and nationalist sentiment, and increase reciprocal regional communication, particularly when common interests diverge. Fourth, institutionalized cooperation is necessary to provide principles and rules for states to abide by to achieve regional objectives. However, institutional arrangements can only be meaningful if the first three conditions are satisfied.

Making the EAS process relevant to Washington and accommodating Beijing will be a tall order.

In addition to these requirements, current efforts to build a Northeast Asian security regime must grapple with two questions. How essential is ASEAN to East Asian regionalism? ASEAN states moved to an ASEAN+3 structure—bringing in Japan, China and Korea—to prove the credibility and relevance of the association, but they are anxious about their ability to remain in the driver's seat and control the future direction of the organization. To secure support for its centrality, ASEAN has sought to solidify its relationship with outside powers, particularly the United States. A second controversial question is how and to what extent the United States should be included in Asian regionalism. The current U.S. shift in policy from years of perceived indifference in Southeast Asia is related to the rising regional influence of China. Despite Beijing's eagerness for an "Asian-only" regional bloc, the inclusion of the United States in the upcoming 2011 EAS signals a shift of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis ASEAN's desire to remain central to the development of a regional architecture.

While U.S. participation in the EAS is expected to balance growing Chinese influence in regional affairs, there is a risk that "smaller" regional states could be caught up in the divergence of interests between a possible future U.S.-China rivalry, as witnessed in China's expression of grave concern about the recent U.S.-led free trade pact, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In this circumstance, making the EAS process relevant to Washington and accommodating Beijing will be a tall order; smaller states may have to choose sides. There is also the possibility that the EAS could come into a wasteful competition with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which would benefit the ASEAN+3 and the Northeast Asian community process. In this case, the question of U.S. participation could again become an issue.

From a South Korean perspective, East Asian multilateral initiatives that exclude the United States would cause considerable apprehension. It is difficult for Seoul to discount its bilateral alliance with the United States, given that the success of South Korea's foreign policy relies heavily on what strategic choice North Korea makes and on regional dynamics that are mostly beyond its control. U.S. inclusion in the EAS is an important component of Seoul's regional strategic calculation.

Thus, it would be difficult and undesirable to avert ASEAN centrality and U.S. involvement in the development of East Asian regionalism. But there is still a contradiction between the expanded EAS and efforts to establish a Northeast Asian security regime. Considering its geopolitical position among regional great powers, South Korea is not likely to play a balancer role. Even so, it could contribute by presenting a common regional vision and objectives and in developing strategic communications and mature negotiation skills. South Korea's initiatives and leadership in the East Asia Vision Group (EAVG) ten years ago and the second EAVG launched last month are a testament to how well the country is poised to coordinate differing interests, to expand shared ideas and identity among regional states, and to play a role in the genesis of a regional institution based on open regionalism (i.e., the EAS). The newly launched Seoul-headquartered Office of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, which is composed of Japanese, Chinese, and South Korean officials, is expected to play a constructive role in managing regional affairs. Still, its success depends on whether to build a "bimultilateral cooperation framework," through which newly emerging multilateral mechanisms complement existing bilateral relations in the region. Success will also be determined by whether the character of a Northeast Asian security regime is open and acceptable to other regional groupings.