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The Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue Convenes for the 28th Year

July 13, 2020
Lindsay Shingler


Scholars and former government officials from the United States, China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan met virtually July 10-11, as part of the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD), an unofficial track 1.5 forum for discussions about security among scholars and officials in the region. North Korea was absent at this session. The meeting came at a challenging moment: Tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula; relations between the U.S. and China are at an all-time low; and countries are grappling with the immediate and potential long-term economic and political shocks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The experience and expertise of the participants and guests at this year’s Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue contributed to a robust discussion on a wide range of policy issues in the region,” says Vice Admiral (ret.) Robert Thomas, senior research fellow with the UC Institute on Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) and new chair of NEACD. “It is clear that the dialogue is more important than ever at this critical juncture.”

NEACD was founded by IGCC in 1993, with the aim of reducing the risk of military conflict in the region and to lay the groundwork for an official multilateral process in Northeast Asia. Previously chaired by IGCC director emeritus Susan Shirk, NEACD has proven its value over the past three decades, as the only ongoing regular channel of informal communication among the six countries. It was the precedent for the Six Party Talks on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program, which met between 2003-09.

One of the major topics of discussion at the 2020 dialogue was the current state and trajectory of Sino-American relations. It was widely acknowledged that bilateral relations between the two countries are at their lowest point in the past thirty years.

Said one participant: “No moment in the past is comparable to now. COVID-19 is pushing both sides further apart. How far will decoupling go? Financial markets? High tech markets? Flow of students? The question is how to avoid the worst-case scenario in bilateral relations.”

Most were pessimistic about the current trajectory of the relationship, with consensus that things seem likely to get worse in the near term. Both states were seen as culpable for this development, as the U.S. government has taken a much more aggressive stand toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while simultaneously backing away from taking the lead in organizing an international response to the novel coronavirus crisis. China, on the other hand, is widely seen—not only in the United States, but in Europe and Asia—as attempting to take advantage of the instability wrought by the pandemic. Countries across the world—including those previously disinclined to follow U.S. warnings about China—have reacted negatively to China’s increasingly aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy and have imposed investment restrictions on PRC entities.

It was widely thought that both the United States and China have damaged their international reputations in their response to the pandemic. “COVID-19 was a test of the [U.S.-China] relationship. They completely failed the test,” said one participant. “This is a real tragedy for the global commons. People will die because the U.S. and China couldn’t pull in the same direction. Neither country has enhanced its reputation for leadership. No one has won and both countries and the world have lost.”

Said another participant: “We’re always worried about U.S.-China relations but we always also see some off ramps—ways out of the dilemma. But it’s hard to see them now. COVID-19 was a test of the relationship. They completely failed the test. Previously the countries have been able to carve out cooperation on health issues. The pandemic has made the relationship more adversarial. This is a real tragedy for the global commons. People will die because the U.S. and China couldn’t pull in the same direction. It will inhibit the world from coming together in a joint effort to help developing countries, to fairly distribute therapies and vaccines. Neither country has enhanced its reputation for leadership. No one has won and both countries and the world have lost.”

Relations between Japan and South Korea have remained poor over the past year due to a South Korean court ruling that Japanese companies could be held liable for certain human rights violations occurring before 1945. Boycotts and other measures of economic statecraft have been employed in the confrontation and there seems to be little immediate prospect for solving the issue between these two democracies, which are among America’s most important allies.

Relations between Russia and China, on the other hand, have been steady and have continued to improve during the pandemic. The two states have increased cooperation in multiple areas, and Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin seem to have a genuinely close relationship.

Participants discussed events on the Korean peninsula, which have continued to cycle from aggression, to rapprochement, and then disaffection (and back again). On the subject of whether there will be further provocations from North Korea, there was agreement that the DPRK has been seriously weakened by COVID-19, but mixed opinion on what will happen next, with some suggesting that more low-level provocations should be expected while Pyongyang presses the U.S. to accept a deal more favorable to North Korea, and others suggesting that they will instead look to pacify their external relations. Offers to the DPRK of humanitarian assistance for the pandemic have been rebuffed except help from Russia. It was suggested that the DPRK may be experimenting with trying to reduce its dependence on China.

What about the prospect of new arms control agreements? The recent breakdown of the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty between the United States and Russia has led to growing concerns of the prospects of an international arms race. But a coordinated international agreement to replace the old, Cold War-era arms control framework will prove challenging. Any new agreement, for example, would likely need to include China and potentially other states such as India and North Korea. Furthermore, the disparity in the quantity of warheads possessed by states will make any mutual agreement difficult as any arrangement could be viewed as an “unequal treaty” by domestic audiences. The financial strain of the pandemic, however, may spur countries to reconsider the benefits of arms control as states now have stronger incentives to reduce military spending as overall government budgets come under stress.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a “black swan” in international relations—an event few anticipated but that has had an enormous impact. Six months after Chinese scientists notified the World Health Organization of the new virus, COVID-19 has spread to almost every country around the world and killed more than 500,000 people. Asia has fared relatively well in terms of stemming the tide of infections, but there is no regional multilateral response. A main impact of the crisis has been to seemingly accelerate the prior trend of “decoupling” between China and the United States and some other countries as they seek to diversify their supply chains. It remains to be seen whether U.S.-China relations will improve after the U.S. November election, or whether the increasingly negative opinions of the two publics toward one another will continue to exert strong pressure on the relations.

NEACD will meet again in 2021 and may meet again virtually later this year.


Read an interview with Susan Shirk, director emeritus of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) and chair of the 21st Century China Center, on 30 years of NEACD.

Learn more about past NEACD meetings here.

Read the 2019 Defense Transparency Policy Brief. The Defense Transparency Index (DTI), presented each year at NEACD, ranks six countries on their dedication to policies that ensure transparency in defense and national security: China, Japan, North Korea, and the Republic of Korea, along with the superpowers most involved in the region—the United States and Russia.

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