Regional integration can help countries achieve wealth, peace, and stability through cooperation aimed at addressing issues of common concern. Integration can be both economic and political, with security concerns generally emerging as part of the latter. Regional economic integration in the Asia-Pacific, in particular East Asia, has moved forward a step since the conclusion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Beijing last year. Intra-regional trade has increased and foreign direct investment has surged. Yet security integration has barely budged. Five factors are playing a role in this.
First, recent political developments in the region, specifically the disputes over the South China Sea and East China Sea, have created a “security dilemma.” Pertinent or not to its disputes with its neighbors, China’s substantial military buildup worries the other countries involved in the disputes and has encouraged them to step up their own military procurement. In response, China has increased its own military expenditures still further. The security dilemma has provided opportunities for confrontation and could further destabilize the region, particularly since China is unlikely to seek international arbitration over the island disputes. The Chinese government considers the disputes internal affairs, and it has re-claimed sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands as well as the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and others. Japan has also affirmed its territorial sovereignty over Diaoyu/Sankaku and has shown no intention of proposing international arbitration. The resulting impasse, together with the unwillingness of the parties involved to address sovereignty disputes through legal means, has added to the political complexities.
Second, the absence of mechanisms of trust between China and its neighbors makes security integration difficult. Most of China’s neighbors are political allies of the United States, except North Korea, Pakistan, and Taiwan (an unofficial semi-ally). The U.S. military presence in Okinawa and Southeast Asia, as well as its military assistance to its allies, has driven China to consolidate its national defense through “assertive” foreign policies. China’s establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) might seem “offensive” to its neighbors and the U.S., but it is in the interests of China’s national security – after all, the U.S. and Japan first established theirs soon after World War II. Continuing to protest or reject China’s ADIZ will simply abuse mutual trust.
Third, historical issues have divided East Asia. Japan and South Korea, America’s most important political allies in the region, with shared values and equivalent economies, cannot even achieve security integration themselves. Japan’s reluctance to address the historical issues that have alienated it from Korea (and China) – including comfort women, prisoners of war (POWs), textbook revisions, rejection of the Kono Statement, and the Japanese prime minister’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine – is the primary obstacle. Washington’s tepid position on the issue has concerned Koreans. Concerned about the rise of China, the U.S. demand that Japan take on a greater leadership role in Asia and worldwide has troubled Koreans and threatened the U.S.-Korea alliance, and certainly hasn’t helped the Korea-Japan relationship. This can be seen from South Korea’s fury at Shinzo Abe’s reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, and at the commissioning of the Izumo-class helicopter carrier.
Fourth, the unstable North Korean regime presents a continuing challenge. Pyongyang’s animosity towards Seoul and Washington, its abductions of Japanese citizens, the disabled Six-Party talks, and the recent deadlock in Sino-North Korean relations have limited North Korea’s participation in regional affairs. More broadly, the global (and regional) dislike of the regime and the weakening of Chinese support have drained North Korea’s will to cooperate. A less provocative foreign policy might have encouraged its Asian neighbors to develop their own initiatives to respond to North Korea’s nuclear program, downplaying and replacing the current U.S. deterrence with a regional proposal. A local institution led by Asian states, like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), would hardly be likely to pursue a hawkish policy. That in turn could have attenuated North Korea’s aggression, which after all is driven largely by its perception of united action by Washington and its allies as its biggest threat. It would also have enhanced the role of Southeast Asian states and provided opportunities for them to cooperate with North Korea.
Finally, geopolitical realities are preventing Southeast Asian countries from developing security integration with Northeast Asia, with the exception of China. One way to overcome this would be for the two regions to develop links to each other through China, yet this is difficult because both have problems with the dragon empire. ASEAN countries diverge on the question of the best diplomatic approaches to China and the US. Their differing national interests could jeopardize the cohesiveness of ASEAN, which is the basis for building security integration within the region. They will need to achieve a strategic power balance between their alliance with the U.S. on the one hand, and their partnerships with China on the other.
The development of confidence-building measures, immediate action by Japan to address historical problems, an Asia-led institutional approach to the North Korean regime, and an ASEAN-wide consensus on its strategy to seek a balance between the U.S. and China are all central to the development of regional security integration in the Asia-Pacific.
Yuxin Zhang previously worked as an aide to Congressman Ed Royce. He is a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations as well as the CSIS Pacific Forum Young Leaders Program.