On August 8, I had the opportunity to attend the second China-South Korea strategic dialogue, which brought together scholars and diplomats from both countries. During the discussions, I got the feeling that the two countries’ representatives held almost opposing views on the contemporary roles of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Chinese scholars believed that as a legacy of the Cold War, the continuation of U.S.-South Korea alliance was one of the main factors for tensions on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia. In contrast, Korean scholars see the alliance as a linchpin for peace and stability on the peninsula and in Asia generally.
Evaluating the functions of the post-Cold War alliance system in Asia is important if we are to understand the roles of the U.S. in Asia, relations between the U.S. and Asian countries and relations among Asian countries. My own view is that U.S. Asian alliances are not only the product of history, but even more a reflection of the realities of current international politics in Asia. Certainly, the alliances have played a positive role in humanitarian disasters, preventing Japanese remilitarization and maintaining the balance of power on the Korean peninsula. But even as we recognize the positive elements, we should also be concerned about the growing adverse effects, which can be generalized as the following four points.
First, the U.S. Asian alliance system complicates the development of relations among regional powers. From a historical perspective, the alliance system was formed in response to the challenges of the Communist Bloc. With the end of the Cold War, however, the targets of the alliances are less clear. Logically, this ought to signal an end to the alliance system. But to safeguard its Asian alliance system, the U.S. has emphasized actual security threats in Asia (mainly from North Korea) while deliberately shaping a new strategic threat: China’s rise. Therefore, as relations between China and major Asian countries continued to improve, the U.S. has taken every opportunity to make the argument of a China threat, trying to find a reasonable and legitimate basis for maintaining a U.S. military presence in Asia. However, this has increased distrust among major Asian countries, especially between China and Japan, which not only hinders development of the relationship, but sows the seeds of regional instability.
Second, U.S. alliances in Asia have an obvious negative effect on Northeast Asia security, which is mainly reflected in Korean issues (including the North Korean nuclear program, DPRK-ROK relations and DPRK-Japan relations). The US-ROK alliance clearly provides protection for South Korea, but it also poses a security threat to North Korea. As a result, there is a new pattern of imbalance on the Korean peninsula, one that could encourage North Korea to take risks to overcome its security dilemma, worsening the situation on the Korean Peninsula and making Northeast Asia an even more dangerous place.
Third, the U.S. alliance systems injects uncertainty into Sino-U.S. relations. Washington’s allies in Asia include South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. Three of these countries have territorial disputes with China. Their alliances with the U.S. inevitably pose a challenge to China's security and sovereignty, at least in psychological terms. The importance of Sino-U.S. ties is obvious, but the relationship is vulnerable. Particularly after the Obama administration launching its “rebalancing” strategy, the fragility of Sino-U.S. relations has become more apparent. There is no denying that the success of the U.S. strategic transformation largely relies on its alliance system in Asia. However, this transformation has created new uncertainties for relations with Beijing. Although the U.S. has reiterated that it does not aim to contain China, but rather deepen U.S. credibility in the region at a time of fiscal constraint, many Chinese scholars view the “rebalancing” strategy as too heavily oriented towards the military, which obviously has a strong subtext of countering China. It is thus reasonable and necessary for China to take corresponding measures, which would include continuing with its military modernization.
Finally, the U.S. alliance system in Asia impedes the regional integration process. The international political environment today is marked by deepening economic globalization, expanding regional integration, diversifying international political actors, and a sweeping transformation of the global power structure, as the East rises relative to the West. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the “butterfly effect” in international politics and economics has had repercussions for most countries. Regional integration offers significant protection from the negative impacts of globalization. With vigorous economic activity, complex geopolitics and cultural diversity, Asian countries have faced many challenges in advancing regional integration, especially in Northeast Asia. As key players in the region, Japan, Korea and China are entangled by history and territorial disputes. Since 2010, Sino-Japanese relations have been poor. The Obama administration’s “pivot” or rebalancing strategy should be understood as part of this deterioration. Moreover the U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan remove some autonomy in policymaking in those countries, which severely restricts the effectiveness with which they can advance regional integration.
However, Asian countries share a common interest in bolstering regional cooperation. This process should move forward irrespective of the effects U.S. alliances, especially in Northeast Asia.
First, promoting Northeast Asian cooperation requires a correct understanding of history as well as the ability to overcome the negative impacts of rising nationalist sentiment. Obviously, China, Japan, South Korea are the most critical actors here. But because of historical factors and conflicting interests, many efforts like the FTA negotiations have stalled, which is unfortunate for the building of mechanisms for regional cooperation. Establishing a correct view of history and reining in the rising nationalist sentiment are thus essential if we are to move forward. Of course, the two issues are related, and accepting history would be the first step in breaking the ice.
Second, to facilitate Northeast Asian cooperation, and achieve integration, regional states must have autonomy and play the leading role. Although the United States has important interests in Asia, the main role in promoting regional cooperation should be played by Asian countries themselves. Of course, this does not mean excluding the United States from integration. The goal should be for Asian states to have the lead, but for the system to be inclusive.
Third, Northeast Asian cooperation must avoid the “pan-politicization” phenomenon. Northeast Asia is a contradiction. In the geo-economics landscape, relations among China, Japan and South Korea are very close, which gives these countries a shared interest in promoting regional economic and trade cooperation. But at the same time, the three countries have a complicated dynamic in the geopolitical context. If political factors hijack economic and trade issues, all efforts at integration will come to naught. Therefore, in pursuing cooperation in the Northeast Asia, China, Japan and South Korea must discriminate between trade and the economy on the one hand and politics on the other, avoiding “pan-politicization.”
Fourth, and finally, Northeast Asian cooperation should be advanced with a gradual, incremental approach, starting with the easy things first. Northeast Asian countries have a common need to stimulate economic growth. Conditions are ripe for the creation of an economic community. Closer economic ties could then in turn create a solid foundation and provide conditions conducive to the building of a comprehensive regional cooperation mechanism, comprising economic, security, political issues and other core elements. Although there would undoubtedly be many hurdles and constraints in this process, with political will and wisdom, regional cooperation in Northeast Asia, and even in Asia generally, has a real chance.
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.