Can South Korea Fix Northeast Asia’s Cooperation Deficit?
South Korean president Park Geun-hye and Japanese premier Shinzo Abe join U.S. President Barack Obama at a 2014 trilateral meeting.
Image Credit: Official White House Photo

Can South Korea Fix Northeast Asia’s Cooperation Deficit?


Northeast Asia has a regional cooperation deficit, and a new South Korea-proposed institutional process seeks to address it. Although welcome in principle, it holds little prospect for transforming Northeast Asian security dynamics. It will inevitably generate opportunities for China to try to undermine the regional liberal order and the U.S. alliance network. It may even negatively impact efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

And yet, for all its flaws, Northeast Asia’s newest institutional process has a chance to achieve something that may be impossible without it: preventing competition in geopolitics from permanently overriding cooperation in non-competitive domains.

Geopolitics in Northeast Asia is a high-stakes game whose basic logic is well understood by its players. Whether the Korean DMZ, the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, the Taiwan Strait, Chinese claims of influence over the Yellow Sea, or the Japan-held Senkakus, all of today’s Northeast Asian flashpoints have existed largely unchanged for decades.

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The region’s frozen conflicts create acute competitive security dynamics that tend to dominate all else. In such an environment, the risk of conflict is high, and all players have strong incentives to demonstrate strength and resolve. Northeast Asia more closely resembles a realist security environment—in the classical, structural, and neoclassical sense—than perhaps any other sub-region in the world.

It therefore comes as little surprise that Northeast Asia is bereft of institutions or regimes to manage regional cooperation, let alone security-related forms of cooperation. Northeast Asia is full of rivalries of varying intensity, and rivals are usually defined more by their irreducible conflicts of interest than by their ability to take collective action to solve collective problems.

Given this state of affairs, South Korea’s newly established multilateral process—the Northeast Asia Peace and Security Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI)—should be welcomed. With an official mandate to tackle “low level” security issues and an open architecture that includes China, Japan, the United States, Russia, Mongolia, and even possibly North Korea (invited), NAPCI responds to a clear need in Northeast Asia. Not only does it attempt to fill the institutional gap Northeast Asia suffers from, but it also attempts to create more positive patterns of interaction to help balance out the negative ones that have dominated for decades. And according to the official marketing material for NAPCI, it harbors ambitions of transforming the troubled Northeast Asian sub-region into a peaceful community.

But what prospect does NAPCI have of remedying the shortfalls of Northeast Asian security? The answer depends on the measuring stick.

If one is primarily concerned with preserving the status quo ante in the region and globally, then new initiatives of any kind are an inherent risk. For example, China has been working for years to achieve global leadership in the area of internet governance. Since cybersecurity is an already planned agenda item for NAPCI, China may co-opt the institution to advance its vision of a less free and less open internet. China may further use NAPCI as a venue to create fissures among the United States, Japan, and South Korea, by exploiting it as an alternative “security architecture” in the region, which has long been doublespeak for ending U.S. alliances. And with Northeast Asian countries getting in the habit of convening to discuss nuclear safety—another core NAPCI agenda item—there’s a risk that North Korea’s nuclear program will be granted a kind of de facto legitimacy. Either North Korea’s nuclear program will be discussed in terms of nuclear safety rather than disarmament, or it won’t be discussed at all.  As time passes, either one of these approaches risks de-prioritizing nuclear disarmament.

But just because something is possible doesn’t make it likely, and there’s nothing inevitable about any of the above possibilities. How one supports the status quo should depend on circumstances. And if any of the aforementioned downside risks of NAPCI came to pass, it would only be through the complicity of its participants, since NAPCI is not a rule-making and enforcement regime.

Whatever the risks NAPCI may pose, debating them is not the same as examining the merits of the institution, especially for the region. NAPCI can serve a number of purposes in Northeast Asia that don’t directly relate to geopolitics.

For one thing, Southeast Asian countries have expanded their influence in the region by acting as a cooperative bloc—ASEAN—even though among them there are many territorial disputes, latent rivalries, and zero-sum competitive logics. But by acting as a bloc in certain areas of “low level” politics, they’ve managed to coordinate and bargain with much larger outside powers on more or less equal terms. Northeast Asian governments, by contrast, approach ASEAN and every other institution and regime as disaggregated, self-interested nations. There may be unforeseen areas of engagement with other sub-regional blocs like ASEAN where Northeast Asian nations benefit from coordinated interaction.

NAPCI will also serve as a bridge between two separate trilateral Northeast Asian arrangements that have proven vulnerable in the past. The Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat among China, Japan, and South Korea, which focuses primarily on economic cooperation, has in the past been disrupted by the politics of historical memory and geopolitical tension among the three parties. Japan-South Korea-U.S. cooperation on North Korea policy has also faced fits and starts, due as much to the vacillations in North Korean denuclearization negotiations as to South Korean reticence to expand the scope of any cooperation with Japan. Because NAPCI involves all the members from both sets of cooperative trilateralism, its participatory broadening may make interaction among the parties more resilient to the caprice of historical and nuclear issues.

Finally, and much more pragmatically, NAPCI provides a systematic means of addressing issues that require long-term—not ad hoc—cooperation, such as the spread of pandemic disease, cybersecurity, and disaster management capacity building. This offers two types of benefits. At the regional level, improved capacity to address transnational security problems promises to prevent or mitigate their consequences; these are by definition issues that cannot be resolved by any individual state.

For individual nations though, NAPCI allows states to identify and broker opportunities for their respective private sector interests that can’t be reduced to simple economic issues. The “low politics” issues that are the grist of NAPCI’s agenda impact states by virtue of impacting its citizens. NAPCI’s primary value isn’t in brokering connections among governments, though it does that too. Its value is in brokering connections between non-state actors who can help solve—and might be vulnerable to—transnational threats on the one hand, and intergovernmental cooperation that might be necessary to empower and legitimate them. Individuals and firms in Asia can’t simply collaborate freely across borders, and even if they could, they couldn’t systematically support national or regional security interests without some means of coordination—NAPCI is a mechanism for doing precisely that.

So as with anything, NAPCI poses risks. And there is little hope of its highest ambitions—transforming the region’s geopolitics—ever being achieved since those issues lay outside NAPCI’s scope. Yet it fills an important gap in Northeast Asia, conceptually and in practice. Absent NAPCI or some comparable mechanism, there’s no way to govern the cooperation necessary to address security challenges in a world more complex than territorial disputes.

Northeast Asia’s geopolitics are frozen and confrontational, and there’s no reason to expect that to change anytime soon. But the world is changing while Northeast Asia stands still.  Preserving stability in the emerging world requires stitching together cooperation despite geopolitical competition.

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