If we have a chance to choose a word to describe the chaos in Northeast Asia, I guess most of us would select the word “dilemma.” The reason is that no effective solutions have been found to help the states break their security deadlock. To be precise, the stakeholders in Northeast Asia have not reached useful agreements to mitigate the present intense situation. As a result, all the states are committed to enhancing their strategic advantages by modernizing their militaries, and coordinating their defence policies and security cooperation with their allies or partners inside and outside the region, resulting in a stalemate in the region.
Such a scenario is quite similar to the security dilemma in international relations theory, in which every state tries to strengthen its military capabilities to enhance its national security. However, such behavior will reduce the security of other countries, especially neighboring countries, and will thus trigger similar actions in these states. In order to help states get out of the security dilemma, experts have proposed various instruments aimed at promoting security cooperation between countries under the security dilemma, such as signing bilateral and multilateral agreements and holding bilateral and multilateral forums. Yet, when we review the security situation in Northeast Asia, we find that such policy tools are ineffective.
Why? From the perspective of the author, at least three factors contribute to the security dilemma in Northeast Asia, including the preference for relative gain, the deep-rooted animosity, and the damping effect of multilateral security cooperation mechanisms. In general, survival is the top priority for nations, and therefore security enjoys a supreme position in these countries. Moreover, due to the existence of anarchy, states always pursue more weapons and soldiers to satisfy their endless defence demands. In other words, states prefer to have relative rather than absolute security, by which I mean what the countries are really concerned with is whether their country is more powerful than others. Hence, states attach more importance to relative rather than absolute gains when they cooperate in security areas.
Such a security dilemma has evidently appeared in Northeast Asia. Apparently, states have either tried to develop more powerful armies than those in neighboring countries, or are committed to catching up with the most powerful countries, which has caused a rising arms race in the region. The recent THAAD is an evident case. Although South Korea claimed that its national security would be safeguarded by deploying THAAD, in particular defence from nuclear threats from North Korea, such a behavior was perceived as an adverse action that would undermine the national interests of its neighbors, mainly China, North Korea, and probably Russia. As a response, China, North Korea, and Russia initiated a number of retaliatory actions to offset the security threat brought by THAAD. According to the March 14, 2017 edition of South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper, China has deployed sky-wave radar with a 3,000-km investigation radius to closely monitor the military activities of South Korea as well as Japan, and plans to set up a new radar system with a 5,500-km investigation radius in Hei Longjiang, targeted to retaliate against South Korea. Additionally, another ambitious state in the region, Japan, is also alleged to be preparing for the deployment of THAAD. If that happens, the uncontrolled arms race in Northeast Asia would be sped up, thus threatening the peace and stability of the region.
The rising arms race in Northeast Asia has adversely affected bilateral as well as multilateral cooperation schemes in the security area. In fact, despite the number of bilateral and multilateral cooperation mechanisms aimed at discussing strategic and defence issues, such as the China-Japan-Korea Foreign Ministers Meeting, they have failed to reduce the strategic distrust or enhance the mutual trust between the regional countries. The main reason is that each side has attempted to pursue more relative gains rather than make concessions to the other sides. To be sure, in the context of seeking relative gains in security cooperation, it is extremely difficult for regional countries to formulate efficient cooperation mechanisms to meet the security demands of all sides.
Meanwhile, the lasting political hostility has been a significant obstacle to successful security cooperation in Northeast Asia. Northeast Asia has been observed as being one of the regions with the most complicated geopolitical competitions since WWII. Currently, the mutual strategical distrust between the regional states has not only not been bridged but enlarged, even though in the past decades there has been increasing engagement and communications between the countries in their economic as well as social realms. In the meantime, the long standing territorial disputes in the region have further strained bilateral relations and deepened political hostility between the countries in the region.
According to the three different kinds of international systems cultures defined by Alexander Wendt, Northeast Asia is probably in the first one — Hobbes culture (defence cooperation), in which every state perceives the others as competitors and even enemies, and therefore, effective defence cooperation is unlikely to emerge. What’s more, cooperation in other fields, such as economic relations and people-to-people exchanges, has been eroded over the years by deep-rooted animosity. For instance, there has a decreasing trend of economic cooperation between China and Japan as well as South Korea due to the political deadlock. Recently, South Koreans have strongly called for reducing their economic dependence on the Chinese market because of China’s attempt at pressuring South Korea to abandon THAAD by limiting the goods trade between China and South Korea. Even before that, Japan had successfully withdrawn numerous Japanese companies from China and moved them to Southeast Asian countries. Also, there has been growing anti-Chinese sentiments in both South Korea as well as Japan, and rising xenophobic propaganda in China, which has fundamentally undermined their peoples’ friendship between the regional countries.
The pursuit of relative gains and the deep-rooted animosity have contributed to the break-neck development of a series of security cooperation mechanisms in the region. In fact, those schemes were active from the beginning and were highly anticipated by the regional countries. Currently, the six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, the China-Japan-Korea Summit, as well as the trilateral foreign ministers meeting have either been suspended or delayed. Furthermore, institutional arrangements aimed at managing risks in the security area haven’t been successfully built up, particularly the discussion of reaching a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea between China and Japan in the East Sea.
If we try to rely on bilateral and multilateral mechanisms for mitigating the intense situation in the region, and promote cooperation and coordination in the security area, we should attach high importance to these mechanisms, and take measures to prevent them from being marginalized. Moreover, we should realize the high costs of pursuing relative gains, as well as its harmful effects on security cooperation in the region, and thus switch to the pursuit of absolute gains. Such significant changes wouldn’t be achieved unless the states step on the brakes of their arms race and review their security concepts.
Now, it’s time for all sides to stop hostile actions, including suspending THAAD and the US-Korea and US-Japan joint military exercises, and China’s restraining its military activities which are perceived as being aggressive by the other states in the region. It’s also time to restart bilateral as well as multilateral security cooperation forums and speed up negotiations. What’s more, all countries in the region should minimize the negative effects of their security disputes on economic cooperation as well as people-to-people exchanges. Last but not least, all sides should manage their fast-growing nationalism by stopping xenophobic propaganda.