Northeast Asia: Changes and the Potential for a Cooperative Future

Kongdan Oh
Kongdan Oh Former Brookings Expert, Asian Specialist - Institute for Defense Analysis

January 1, 2003

The Missing Links

Why is there so little multilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia? Certainly, there are plenty of models to choose from. Europe has its EU, NATO, and the former Warsaw Pact. In Southeast Asia we find ASEAN and ARF. APEC spans the Pacific. And globally the UN and WTO are well established. But in Northeast Asia, most international relations are bilateral. There is certainly a need multilateral cooperation. Consider the potential for conflict between China and Taiwan, and between North Korea and South Korea, the United States, and Japan. Multilateral trade organizations might also boost intraregional trade.

But a decade after the end of the Cold War, still no multilateral cooperation. Why hasn’t multilateralism been successful before? Given the changes that have occurred in the region in recent years, is there any reason to believe it might have a better chance of working now? Specifically, are there now fewer obstacles and/or more opportunities for multilateralism? Or to view the matter objectively, might there be more obstacles and/or fewer opportunities? And if conditions are more favorable for multilateralism, what form or forms should it take? These are the questions I want to briefly address in this article.

What Has Changed in Northeast Asia?

In some important respects, the political situation has not changed in the last decade. The United States is still the world’s only superpower. China is still ruled by a small cadre of Communists. North Korea is still ruled by an even smaller cadre of communists. Japan is still basically conservative in its politics and economy. Russia is still struggling to reform its economy and political system. But the situation is not static.

China continues to grow stronger, more market oriented, and somewhat more democratic. It will be many years before China, with its hundreds of millions of poor people, will become a superpower. But thanks to its size and growth, China is overtaking Japan as the major power in the region.

Japan is still the regional leader in terms of wealth and technology, although in recent years the Japanese economy has struggled to overcome structural weaknesses. Externally, Japan has become more proactive in its foreign security policy, in part as a response to U.S. pressure on Tokyo to take a more active role to support, and to some degree, replace U.S. forces in the region. Prime Minister Koizumi’s initiative toward the North Koreans indicates that the Japanese government is willing to take formulate foreign policy outside of the policy guidelines that come from Washington.

Over the last decade, the North Korean economy has grown so weak that it lacks the resources to pull itself out of a downward spiral. The only hope for economic improvement is to get aid, trade, and investment from other countries. Consequently, the Kim Jong-il government has increased its contacts with neighboring governments (including the South Korean government), and with the broader international community. After the coming of the George W. Bush administration, Chairman Kim may also have been motivated by the need for regional and international support to counter an increase in U.S. pressure against North Korea. Beginning in 2002, the government also attempted to introduce market mechanisms into the North Korean economy in order to motivate workers and reform money-losing businesses. To provide a stronger deterrent against a U.S. attack, and to gain the support of the North Korean people for his government, Kim Jong-il has taken the country on a permanent war-time footing with a “military-first” policy.

South Korea’s economic growth is not as rapid as it used to be, but the economy is still strong. The problem of dealing with an uncooperative North Korea seems to be exhausting the South Koreans. After four decades of Cold War separation and hostility, the signing of the Basic Agreement in 1991 seemed to offer hope for reconciliation, only to be followed by the disappointment of the President Kim Young-sam years. President Kim Dae-jung’s engagement policy led to the 2000 inter-Korean summit meeting, but despite a dramatic increase in inter-Korean contacts, most South Koreans have become convinced that reconciliation and reunification lie far in the future. In fact, as the poverty of North Korea becomes more apparent, many South Koreans are not eager to take on the burden of rescuing the North from a half-century of economic mismanagement.

Russia has a long way to go before it learns how to use the market economy. After the Soviet Union was disbanded, Russia lost interest in North Korea. But the Russians have lately realized that they cannot expect South Koreans businesses to throw money into an undeveloped Russian economy, and so Moscow is once again turning toward North Korea, not as a trade partner or political ally, but as a tool to regain influence in the region, and perhaps tap some of South Korea’s wealth for cooperative Russian-Korean development projects. The Russians cannot also not afford to ignore the U.S. drive to become an even stronger superpower.

The United States has adopted a pro-active security policy, at least in its rhetoric, and is modernizing its military forces. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration warned that any individual, organization, or state that is considered to pose a threat to U.S. security may be targeted by a preemptive military strike. In Northeast Asia, the only state that the Bush administration considers to be such a threat is North Korea. Although the Bush administration says it is willing to engage the North Korean government in dialogue without preconditions, it appears that unless the North is willing to halt its nuclear and missile programs and accept international inspection of those programs, pull back some of its conventional forces from the border with South Korea, and provide its people with Western-style individual human rights, the prospects for improved relations with the United States under the Bush administration are poor.

In regard to bilateral relations, all countries within the region have normalized relations except the United States and Japan with North Korea. North Korea has tried, in its own way, to improve its relations with all its neighbors, but still has a long way to go. Inter-Korean relations have improved, but are still abnormal. China and Russia are getting along well, and China and South Korea are closer, despite minor conflicts. Japan and Russia have still not signed a peace treaty. China and Taiwan continue to talk.

The region has been free of serious conflict, although China makes threatening gestures toward Taiwan, and North Korea routinely threatens the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The only armed clashes have involved North Korean troops fighting with South Korean sailors (in the West Sea) and Japanese sailors (in the East Sea). Because of its growing military power and its more proactive security policy, the United States is viewed with suspicion and/or respect by all the states in the region, and is considered by some to be the most likely state to spark a conflict in the region in pursuit of its enhanced security goals.

Another Change: The War on Terrorism Begins (but Never Ends)

Immediately after September 11 (9/11), most governments announced their support for the United States in its pursuit of the terrorists and governments that supported them. The United States collected a broad coalition of partners in this pursuit, but this coalition was more virtual than real. That is, it was not a formal organization. It is probably fair to say that the 9/11 attack emotionally touched Americans much more strongly than it touched other peoples, for whom it was stunning news but not a personal or national experience. The international coalition pursued terrorists in principle, but the George W. Bush administration pursued them with vengeance.

The “war on terrorism” focused international attention on the dangers of terrorists’ using weapons of greater lethality, and police agencies in many countries cooperated in hunting down members of the al Qaeda organization. But after the initial period of capturing, killing, and dispersing members of al Qaeda and the Taliban government that supported them, some potentially divisive aspects of the war on terrorism became evident, both in the United States and abroad. For example, more intrusive police investigations, and in some cases the laws that were passed to facilitate those investigations, eroded personal freedoms of innocent citizens, many of whom objected to this attack on their liberty. Also, the new laws and regulations interfered with day-to-day life and business.

Potentially even more divisive for the international community was the fact that the Bush administration considered that an attack on Iraq, and perhaps other two members of the “axis of evil” (North Korea and Iran) were an integral part of the pursuit of terrorists. Any government suspected by the Bush administration of aiding or abetting terrorism, especially a government with possible access to weapons of mass destruction, is considered to be a fair and necessary target. Many in the international community, including many citizens of the United States, do not agree that some of these targets are guilty of terrorism or should be made targets of war, creating a disagreement that is potentially divisive. In summary, the acts of 9/11 have triggered a force for action that is not easily controlled.

Conditions Favoring Multilateral Cooperation in Northeast Asia

What factors might be favorable toward multilateral cooperation? For one, governments in the region are engaging in more bilateral dialogue, the most recent case being Japan and North Korea. With China’s entrance into the WTO, four out of six states with a presence in the region are now WTO members (all except North Korea and Russia). All states are either democratic or moving toward democracy and greater transparency, although the movement is slow in China and almost imperceptible in North Korea. All but the United States and Russia share an underlying Confucian culture, with its family-oriented cohesiveness. These countries also share aspects of the same language—either the spoken or written form. Only one country (North Korea) is very poor, although in China many individuals are poor. All countries have well-educated populations (although many people in the rural areas of China lack a modern education). And all desire peace in order to pursue their own domestic agendas.

Continuing Obstacles to Multilateralism

And yet, serious obstacles to multinational cooperation still exist in the region, largely in the form of differences. These include differences in political ideologies and systems, in economic systems, in national wealth, in size of populations and territory, in military power, and in language and culture (the United States and Russia are clearly outsiders). Two other factors divide the regional states. One is historical animosity, for example Chinese and Korean animosity toward Japan, animosities between the two Koreas, and American animosity toward North Korea. There is no simple way to erase the memory of history: it only gradually, but never completely disappears.

The existence of differences, bitter historical memories, and lack of transparency of policy making in some governments (most notably North Korea and China) creates a lack of trust. Lack of trust is an especially big problem for Asians, who prefer to base business and politics on human relationships rather than on legal agreements. Notice, for example, that in its dealings with North Korea the United States has insisted on agreements with strict qui pro quo arrangements, explicitly avoiding trust, whereas the North Koreans have demanded that the Americans must first discard their hostility toward North Korea.

Another obstacle to multilateralism, admittedly a factor that not everyone may agree with, is that the North Koreans, who are in the geographic center of Northeast Asia, proudly espouse a political and economic system “of their own style.” As a consequence, it is difficult for them to work with other people, individually or in groups; and it is even more difficult for other people to work with them. Ask even the Russians and the Chinese about this.

And then there is the “abnormal” condition of having 100,000 U.S. troops stationed in the region. Many people in the United States, the host countries, and other countries in the region believe that these troops help keep a previously unstable region stable. But the troop presence may also distort inter-state relations by introducing a powerful outside force into the region and emphasizing bilateral relations (South Korea-U.S., Japan-U.S.) over regional bilateral or multilateral relations. The American presence may discourage the indigenous states of the region from coming to terms with their problems through their own efforts. This, of course, is what the North Koreans have always claimed, and on this point they may be correct. The question is, have the Northeast Asian states “matured” sufficiently to handle their own affairs, and do they have the confidence to handle their affairs? Every year that passes in peace and prosperity argues that the answer to these two questions is “yes.”

Forms of Multilateralism

Following this brief consideration of the opportunities for and obstacles to multilateralism in Northeast Asia, let us now turn to the question of what types of multilateral organizations might be most practical for the region, especially in the near future.

Political realists, who continue to guide the foreign policies of most governments, relegate multilateral institutions to a supporting role, viewing them as a sometimes convenient means to achieve a state’s national objectives. The realists doubt that multilateral institutions can transform the nature of international relations from a competitive to a cooperative game. I don’t want to take one side or the other in this argument, beyond recognizing the predominance of the realist position in practical politics. Notice, for example, that the United States and China—the one a superpower and the other an aspiring superpower—have shown little interest in establishing active multilateral organizations in the region, presumably because such organizations would constrain their behavior. This skepticism toward multilateralism is loudly voiced in the United States, especially by the Bush administration.

So as a first step, it may be more practical to organize “track two” multilateral institutions whose main purpose is to talk rather than act. The best current example is CSCAP. Another issue is whether regional multilateral organizations should initially tackle economic problems or political/security problems. Although armed conflict is the greatest threat to states, it may be wise to begin international cooperation with dialogue and agreements on economic matters. This, for example, is how the EU got its start.

A Time for Multilateralism

I would like to suggest that multilateral organizations cannot work unless all members share common political values (in the case of political multilateral organizations) or common economic values (in the case of economic organizations). For example, consider the membership requirements of the EU or the WTO. Common cultural values are helpful as well. Multilateral organizations that consist of members that differ on these important dimensions can provide a useful forum for dialogue, but not for action.

The time for meaningful multilateral organizations in Northeast Asia may not yet have arrived. Much as multilateral organizations may be needed to provide additional assurances of continued peace and stability in the region, the environment may not yet be favorable for anything more than dialogue forums.

I have a vision that in the coming years, two great changes will occur in the region. China will abandon its communist/socialist politico-economic system and become a democratic and market oriented country. Taiwan will then join the mainland. And North Korea will abandon its dynastic autocratic politics and its futile attempts to make socialism work, and reunite with South Korea. At that point there will be only three indigenous countries in the region—China, Japan, and Korea—still differing in language and historical legacies, but having much more in common than they do today. There will be no need for a U.S. military presence. Both the United States and Russia will deal with the Northeast Asia threesome as business partners and cultural neighbors, but not as political mentors or security guarantors. The destiny of the region will be guided by the people of Northeast Asia, who will find it much easier to establish their own multilateral institutions, and participate as a prosperous and secure region in broader multinational institutions.

The author is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. The opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily represent those of IDA or its clients, or the Brookings Institution. Ralph C. Hassig assisted in the preparation of this article, which is based on Kongdan Oh’s presentation at the 14th Hokkaido Conference for North Pacific Issues, Sapporo, October 2, 2002. The conference theme was “Searching for a New Framework for Cooperation in the North Pacific Region.” An earlier version of this article was presented at Stockholm.