Whither Northeast Asia? Managing Tensions and Avoiding Conflict in a Troubled Region



Tensions are rising in Northeast Asia, threatening more than a generation of peace and prosperity that has made the region’s growth and development the envy of the world.  Regional reaction to China’s declaration of an “air defense identification zone” encompassing areas controlled by South Korea and Japan is the latest sign that longstanding rivalries, territorial disputes, and historical antagonisms increasingly have the potential to result in conflict.

The downturn in relations between China and Japan and between Japan and South Korea represents a serious challenge to regional stability and a deep concern to the United States, which has a major stake in the region and important alliances with both Seoul and Tokyo.

Many of the Northeast Asia region’s problems have deep roots and long histories, and emotion and resentment play a significant role in keeping old disputes alive.   If the region is to avoid conflict, it must find a way to move past the often-tragic legacy of its history.  China, Japan, and Korea must understand the seriousness of the situation and share responsibility for addressing it.  Failure to do so is not an option, since the region’s stability and prosperity are at stake. 

This essay offers ten principles and guidelines for managing current tensions and creating a framework for intra-regional cooperation.  The United States has a major role to play, including by reassuring its allies and by making clear to China that it is prepared to defend them.  Those tasks will be high on Vice President Biden’s agenda during his visit to Asia this week.  Helping the region resolve its current crisis will be a major test of the credibility of the U.S. “rebalancing” policy and could bring about another generation of peace, stability, and prosperity in Northeast Asia.

Rising Tensions

Relations between China and Japan and between South Korea and Japan are deteriorating, escalating tensions in an already troubled Northeast Asia region.  Now, China’s declaration of an “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) that includes territories controlled by Japan and South Korea is fueling concerns that things may be about to get worse among the three neighbors.

Rivalries and difficult relations are nothing new in a region marked by competing nationalisms, historical antagonism, a legacy of past invasions and occupations, and territorial disputes.   Still, the region has managed to produce more than a generation of peace and unparalleled prosperity that has made it the envy of the world.  However, there are signs that cooperation is fraying as old resentments dressed in new clothing are dominating regional relations.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Northeast Asia witnessed a dramatic shift in power as a rising Japan sought to lead the region and replace a Western imperialist-dominated order with its own.  This shift and Japan’s ambitions led to a bitter legacy of invasions, colonialism, and war that eventually drew in the United States.  Today, it may be fair to ask whether we are witnessing a 21st century version of this tragic drama, this time with China in the role of the region’s ambitious rising force.