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Is There a Path to Peace in Northeast Asia?

January 06, 2022
Patrick Hulme


The Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD) has been meeting annually for the past 30 years since the winding down of the Cold War. Discussions at this year’s virtual get-together in December were dominated by intensifying geopolitical, military, and strategic jostling between the United States, China, and their regional allies in and around Northeast Asia. Other topics discussed in this Track 1.5 forum of academics, policy experts, and military and foreign ministry officials from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, included North Korea, nuclear security, and the impact of COVID-19.

“We are looking for multilateral solutions to challenges in Northeast Asia,” said Vice Admiral (ret.) Robert Thomas, senior research fellow with the UC Institute on Conflict and Cooperation and chair of NEACD. “Interestingly, both COVID and the climate crisis present opportunities for that type of cooperation. Given the candid exchange between participants that has become a hallmark of NEACD, the dialogue continues to have an important role to play for policymakers.”

The NEACD meeting came at a challenging moment for Northeast Asia. Despite the inauguration of a new presidential administration in Washington, Sino-American relations continue to be fraught, with concerns growing over confrontation across the Taiwan Strait. As countries slowly recover from the effects of COVID-19, the goal of North Korean denuclearization seems more distant than ever. North Korea’s continuing absence from NEACD highlights the unwillingness of Pyongyang to engage with the international community.

The state of Sino-American relations fueled robust debate at NEACD. From the Chinese perspective, the United States and China are on a collision course. Chinese participants reported that many Chinese elites believe America is demonizing the Chinese political system, and there is suspicion over the economic relationship as well, including concerns that the United States is pushing for economic and technological decoupling between the two countries. The Taiwan issue was also prominent. While China has maintained its preference for peaceful reunification, some Chinese participants suggested that, with Taiwanese nationalism inflamed, armed conflict may be possible.

American participants agreed that U.S.-China relations have sunk to a new nadir, and overall, suggested that bipolarity in Northeast Asia is returning, even if countries officially deny it.

“The discussions on U.S.-Chinese relations were very gloomy,” said NEACD founder and IGCC emeritus director Susan Shirk. “Both Chinese and American scholars expressed worries that even after the leaders’ virtual summit, relations seem frozen, and we don’t see a way to get them moving in a more positive direction.”

A growing arms race in the region and the recent collapse of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty has led to calls for a new arms control framework. One widely acknowledged challenge, however, is that while the United States and the Soviet Union had rough nuclear parity when prior arms control agreements were concluded, China today has far fewer nuclear weapons than the United States or Russia. Thus, attempting to freeze current stockpiles would effectively force China to accept nuclear inferiority—a proposition all sides agree is unlikely.

Similarly, the possibility of concluding agreements over missile deployments and developments seems unlikely. North Korea is developing INF-range missiles that it will almost certainly refuse to give up voluntarily. Chinese participants saw the possession of INF-range missiles as essential for Chinese defense and deterrence against other nuclear powers in the region, and opined that if there is any hope of concluding an INF-range missile treaty, it would have to include U.S. sea- and land-based capabilities, which were notable exceptions to the original INF Treaty.

A key pillar of U.S. strategy in Northeast Asia since the end of the Cold War is extended nuclear deterrence—the use of U.S. nuclear forces to protect allies. Some participants questioned whether this has decreased—or inadvertently increased—nuclear risk. Though the policy has reassured American allies and made their own pursuit of nuclear weapons less attractive—benefitting China—it has also encouraged Chinese military modernization, which itself makes greater American deployments in the region more likely, leading to a superpower arms race. Overall, participants agreed that extended deterrence will become a more divisive issue in U.S.-China relations in the future.

It was widely agreed that confidence-building measures would be helpful in the region. But there was also widespread recognition that this had been on the agenda for thirty years and yielded relatively few results. Some American participants admitted that they felt that virtually every policy option had been tried and nothing had proven fruitful—leading to significant pessimism that the Korean peninsula can ever be denuclearized.

Despite the gloom among participants over the near and longer-term prospects for Northeast Asia’s security and stability, “NEACD demonstrates the importance of having regular and candid exchanges of dialogue among participants from different countries to mitigate against misperception and find ways to find common ground,” said IGCC director Tai Ming Cheung.

NEACD was created in 1993, to strengthen peace and security in Northeast Asia, improve mutual understanding and trust, and eventually establish the foundation for an official multilateral dialogue. In the mid-2000s, those goals looked near achievement with the Six-Party Talks as a mechanism for security dialogue established. Today, however, that goal is receding, though the determination to continue to pursue it remains. Ultimately, participants rejected accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, yet a plausible solution to the problem seemed elusive.

Learn more about The Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue.

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