China Power

Solving the Northeast Asia Security Dilemma

Several steps need to be taken to reduce regional tensions, but improving Sino-U.S. relations is the most critical.

Northeast Asia is one of the most complex, fragile regions in the global security landscape. The regional security dilemma is concentrated and intensive, and is generated by a complex and tangled mix of historical issues, ideological factors and disputes over real interests.

Consider the region’s recent history, which features more than its share of turmoil and strife. The ruptures have left Northeast Asia with lingering issues such as territorial disputes between China and Japan and South Korea and Japan, and division on the Korean Peninsula. Japanese attitudes towards history are among the core variables that influence its relations with China and South Korea. Recently, members of Japan’s Cabinet paid a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, arousing strong protests from China, South Korea and other Asian countries. Clearly, historical factors have important and obvious impacts on the current political landscape in Northeast Asia.

As do ideological factors. The Cold War was in part the struggle of competing ideologies between the United States and the Soviet Union. But this struggle has outlived the Cold War. The current security tensions in Northeast Asia are still exacerbated by a Cold War mentality and its manifestation in the U.S. alliance system in Asia. To some degree, the strong U.S. presence in the region contributes to the increased security dilemma. Take the North Korean nuclear crisis, which Pyongyang claims is driven by the absence of a guarantee of its national security. For North Korea, a reliable nuclear deterrent is an effective means of safeguarding its own national security. Essentially, the key to the North Korean nuclear issue is still the lack of safety and security.

Third, there are disputes involving real interests among major Northeast Asia countries. Most entail core interests of territorial sovereignty, which narrows the scope for coordination among the nations involved. Nationalist sentiment in these countries runs high, especially on issues of sovereignty. As modern nations, these states see serving the interests and aspirations of their peoples as an important source of legitimacy. For this reason, decision makers tend to be heavily influenced by public emotions, which may lead to irrational policies. Meanwhile, a number of countries in Northeast Asia have faced economic difficulties in the wake of the global financial crisis. In some cases, political parties have resorted to inciting nationalist sentiment against neighboring countries, to the detriment of relations within the region.

Given these factors, a multifacted approach is needed to resolve the security dilemma in Northeast Asia. First, the countries involved should squarely confront their histories, even as they look to the future. All countries should of course calmly rethink the lessons of the past, but this is particularly important for a country that has caused immense suffering among the people of Asia within its modern history.

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Building on this, the region should then turn its attention to the future, go forward and work together to build a long-term, stable security mechanism. To a larger extent, dealing with the historical issues that exist between Northeast Asian countries, including factual disputes and issues of mentalities, is the first step toward a new security relationship among Northeast Asian countries.

Second, we must dispense with a Cold War mentality and seek mutual assured security (MAS). Whether in theory or in practice, the zero-sum approach of the Cold War has been proven to be obsolete. The policies of power against power are not conducive to regional stability and prosperity; rather, common, cooperative, and collective security based on a commitment to MAS are the most useful means for keeping the peace within the region. Any actor wanting to bolster its own security at the expense of another's, pursuing so-called absolute security, is bound to find it counterproductive.

Third, we must strengthen multi-level exchanges, reducing the risk of miscalculation. At present, the academic community has formed a basic consensus, namely on the lack of a Northeast Asia security mechanism, which is largely reflected in the absence of any effective, comprehensive, institutional exchange mechanism among Northeast Asian countries. As a result, the risk of strategic misjudgment increases, especially at times of crisis. Therefore, to build a Northeast Asia security mechanism, we first need to create institutionalized channels of communication, at both non-governmental and government levels. Mutual understanding and trust between peoples is the most reliable guarantee of harmonious relations between nations.

Finally, but most importantly, Sino-U.S. relations must be strengthened, with greater cooperation. On one level, Northeast Asian security involves many actors, but Sino-U.S. relations are key, with the regional outlook very much linked to the status of the relationship between the two powers. Thus, the nature and form of Sino-U.S. relations have become critical variables for Northeast Asian security. But it runs both ways. In other words, the state of security in Northeast Asia influences the state of Sino-U.S. relations. Boosting cooperation in Northeast Asia therefore offers an excellent opportunity and an important platform to cultivate a new kind of relationship between China and the United States.

Chen Jimin, Ph.D is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C