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Northeast Asia Rivals Come Together to Discuss Geopolitical Fault Lines

May 29, 2024
Paddy Ryan


On May 9-10 in Tokyo, academics, military officers, and government officials from the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan came together to discuss regional security in the Indo-Pacific at the 32nd meeting of the Northeast Asian Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD).

The track 1.5 dialogue, which included a closed-door Defense Information Sharing Meeting on May 8, was attended by 65 participants, making this year’s meeting the most well-attended NEACD in its three-decade history. Notable attendees include Camille Dawson, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs; Ambassador Liu Xiaoming, special representative of the Chinese government for the Korean Peninsula; Lee Joon-il, South Korea’s director-general for North Korean nuclear affairs Korean Foreign Affairs Office, and Takehiro Funakoshi, Japanese deputy vice minister of foreign affairs.

“While the differences between the discussants are real, there is strong commitment across the region to sustaining meaningful dialogue following the APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] summit in San Francisco last fall,” said UC San Diego research professor and IGCC research director Stephan Haggard, who chaired this year’s dialogue. “A dominant concern was that misperception not give rise to inadvertent conflict.”

IGCC research director Stephan Haggard speaks at the 2024 Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD) in Tokyo.

The gradual transformation of Japan’s security policy was a central topic of interest throughout the three-day exchange. Participants surveyed the changes underway since Japan’s government published three milestone national security documents in December 2022, which include moves to enhance Japan’s military budget, capabilities, and organization. On the final day of NEACD, news broke that the Diet had approved the formation of the Japan Joint Operations Command (J-JOC)—a single headquarters coordinating Japan’s land, air, and sea forces—which had been discussed throughout the meetings.

Surrounded by several nuclear-armed neighbors and dependent on U.S. extended deterrence, Japan has announced a sharp increase in military spending and the determination to acquire long-range strike capability. One participant noted the potential to cause Beijing and Pyongyang to react by sustaining their high levels of military spending, with the potential for arms races. Another questioned the support behind Japan’s defense transformation, citing public opinion polls that show a Japanese electorate still broadly skeptical of changing the country’s peacetime constitution and reluctant to pay higher taxes to double military spending.

Japan’s foreign policy revamp touched off a broader conversation on the development from a “hub and spoke” model of bilateral security partnerships with the United States to a more integrated network of military cooperation agreements. There was much discussion about Japan’s interest in participating in a security quadrilateral with the United States, Australia, and the Philippines, as well as Japan’s efforts to enhance cooperation with the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) partnership—which some participants referred to as “JAUKUS.”

Whether the United States was forcing alliances with weaker partners in the region to contain China, or whether these nations were acting on their own to enhance their security amid perceived challenges from Beijing was a matter of heated debate. One U.S. speaker acknowledged the “asymmetric advantage” regional alliances give the United States, highlighting the importance of working together to maintain military interoperability with a diverse array of partners in the Indo-Pacific. However, the speaker concluded, the economies of scale that a network of alliances could offer—while attractive—were unlikely to evolve into a formal multilateral alliance. Talk of an Indo-Pacific NATO is clearly premature. Of particular note were the difficulties in bringing Japan and South Korea together, with South Korean speakers citing public hostility toward Japan stemming from historical issues. “Japan has to think globally,” one NEACD participant noted. South Korea, on the other hand, is constrained by security concerns on the peninsula.

The implications of the war in Ukraine for Northeast Asia featured prominently. Observers noted how transformative the conflict has been in deepening understanding of the nexus between technology and warfighting. Japanese participants echoed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s statement that “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow” in explaining the country’s evolving defense posture. Russian participants likewise noted that as Moscow’s relations with Europe deteriorate following sanctions most Russian policymakers assume will be permanent, Northeast Asia is taking on greater importance strategically and economically.

The nature of Russia’s relations with China and North Korea was a subject of lively conversation. While Pyongyang supplies weapons to Moscow to support its war effort, Russian participants insisted that this military collaboration is a one-way street, and that their assistance in turn to North Korea is solely economic. Chinese participants also stressed that their relationship with Russia was strictly non-military in nature, insisting that Beijing is not a party to the conflict and wishes to mediate its end. Instead, some argued that blame for the war should be directed at the West and its policy of NATO enlargement, to which U.S. participants strongly objected.

The state of U.S.-China relations was a dominant theme at the meetings. That the relationship is frayed was not up for debate. Despite widely noted positive outcomes from the November 2023 APEC summit and related “San Francisco vision” participants agreed that the presidential election campaign in the United States will prove a major headwind for any efforts at rapprochement in 2024.

Nonetheless, speakers commented on what they viewed as a shared desire in Washington and Beijing to stabilize the relationship and outlined a number of areas in which common action could be taken, including governance of artificial intelligence and the cyber and space domains. Avoiding the worst effects of climate change was seen as another area where joint action may be possible, with one U.S. speaker stating that the two rivals were “locked together, doomed to cooperate” on global commons issues.

Participants agreed that despite heightened techno-industrial competition, economic decoupling was unlikely, as both the United States and China benefit greatly from their trading relationship. Both sides noted the importance of keeping open military-to-military dialogue to avoid accidents at sea and in the air. Though expectations for improving the relationship are low in the short term, both sides saw a path forward focused on placing “guard rails” to prevent worsening ties. As one speaker said, “sometimes U.S.-China relations have to get worse before they can get better.”

Areas of disagreement between the United States and China were discussed at length. Chinese participants admonished the United States for its “small yard, high fence” approach to restraining China’s access to technology. They also criticized Washington’s “Cold War mentality” that seeks to “divide democracies against autocracies.” One U.S. participant defended technological controls aimed at preventing a “proliferation of things that could be used against us.” Another argued that on the economic front, China should—as a measure of goodwill—curb its use of export rebates to lessen the harm its industrial overcapacity is inflicting on the global economy.

Nuclear weapons were another point of contention. As China grows its nuclear arsenal, U.S. speakers expressed a strong interest in engaging Beijing in an arms control dialogue. Chinese speakers insisted that the United States could create goodwill on this front by proclaiming a “no first strike” policy as China has done, although one U.S. interlocutor called this “a strategic gesture” with little value.

Taiwan was both an area of agreement and disagreement. Chinese participants expressed frustration at the U.S. government’s inability to prevent the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from visiting Taiwan, and complained about upsetting statements from low-level U.S. military officials. In one of the more heated exchanges at the dialogue, one U.S. speaker retorted that their Chinese counterparts did not understand how the American system worked, which provides for free speech and a strict separation between the executive and legislative branch.

Discussions on a possible Taiwan conflict were frank. One Chinese speaker warned that war could be avoided only if Beijing were convinced that peaceful reunification remained possible—“if not, China will go to war.” One participant from the Chinese delegation complained that while national reunification was a deeply felt issue in China, the United States cared about Taiwan only insofar as Washington could “use Taiwan to contain China on its chessboard.”

By contrast, another speaker noted that Taiwan was less of a thorny issue than the South China Sea, since war over Taiwan would be the result of a deliberate choice rather than an accident or miscalculation. All speakers agreed on striving to maintain the status quo, and saw a path forward in working toward lowering the temperature. Strategic ambiguity will persist, but South Korean participants expressed their intention to stay out of a Taiwan conflict if they could, fearing that Pyongyang would use an outbreak of hostilities to initiate an invasion south of the Demilitarized Zone.

Although NEACD was founded in 1993 primarily to address tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and recent aggressions featured less prominently in discussions. However, on the sidelines of the meetings at the International House of Japan, the Chinese and South Korean nuclear envoys met to discuss these matters in private. “I had expected that the meeting would be held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Embassy of Japan in Tokyo, or the Iikura diplomatic mission,” recalled Ken Jimbo, managing director of the International House of Japan, “but instead, a conference room in the International House of Japan became the site of the official meeting.”

A group of attendees at the 2024 Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD) pose for a photo outside of the International House of Japan in Tokyo.

As NEACD has proven over three decades of convening, the lines between official and unofficial diplomacy are easily crossed in track 1.5 settings such as the Tokyo meetings. “At a time of rising tensions in the region and the world,” recounted Stephen Del Rosso, senior program director for international peace and security at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the meetings “provided an all too rare opportunity for representatives of the five participating countries to have a frank and open exchange of views both in the plenary sessions, and, as is one of the charms of these dialogues, outside of the meeting room.”

Despite the high politics discussed in set-piece discussions, the human side of diplomacy stood out most. As the agenda moved neatly from panels and keynotes to breaks and meals, one could see colleagues from the different sides engaging in warm conversations which underlie the collegiality and even friendships which have grown over repeated NEACD meetings. Perhaps the most consequential discussions of NEACD are the ones had over lunchtime bentos or evening cocktails, away from the watchful eyes of rapporteurs.

In discussing the great issues of security of a region one speaker described as a “pre-war environment,” it was the theme of participants’ common humanity that closed the final day of NEACD. At the end of the last panel, U.S. and Chinese participants bonded over their shared conviction that even in a fraught geopolitical environment, policymakers cannot lose sight of the need to always humanize and seek to understand the other side. One commander noted that amid war, he would discipline his soldiers for using dehumanizing terms to refer to the enemy, noting that on the other side were men who held convictions just as strongly as his people did. This year’s NEACD made clear that all sides are committed to understanding the deeply held convictions of their adversaries, even when the divides remain significant.

Paddy Ryan is senior writer/editor at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC).