The 13th Tokyo-Beijing ForumExperts mull Japan, China roles in keeping peace and order in Northeast Asia

December 17, 2017

⇒ Sino-Japanese cooperation essential for peace and prosperity in Asia and the world
⇒ Experts discuss future of free trade, globalization and Japan-China cooperation

Experts from Japan and China conducted a panel discussion on the role of the two countries in maintaining peace and order in Northeast Asia during a breakout session on security issues at the 13th Tokyo-Beijing Forum on Dec. 16. Discussions in the Chinese capital centered on how Japan and China view the security situation in the region and what the two nations should do to reduce tensions there.


Region needs multinational framework

Zhang Tuosheng, director of research and a senior fellow at the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, kicked off the discussion by sharing his views on the situation in Northeast Asia. With North Korea continuing to challenge the nuclear non-proliferation framework by pushing forward its nuclear development program, and with U.S. President Donald Trump vowing that "all military options are on the table," Zhang said, "The North Korean issue has reached breaking point. It is the greatest threat in Northeast Asia." He noted that despite the situation being critical, the relationship between the major powers in this region remained unstable except probably between Japan and the United States. The U.S. shift toward strengthening bilateral relationships is threatening the region's multinational framework and "fails to contribute to the stability of the region," Zhang said.

Zhang, however, commended the progress made on establishing an air and naval communication mechanism between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities to avert accidental clashes, saying, "The risk between Japan and China has been reduced." He also mentioned that the improved relationship between China and South Korea is a positive factor.

Zhang said that Japan and China must join efforts to protect the policy of denuclearization and make averting military conflicts on the Korean Peninsula the priority. He added that the two governments needed to make further progress on establishing the communication mechanism and make the South China Sea "a sea of peace," as well as resolve any military confrontations through military exchanges, high-level meetings and cooperation on non-traditional security threats. He repeated the importance of a multinational framework and urged the governments to hold the six-party talks, or at least have discussions among Japan, China and the United States, to avoid any confrontation.

Three major structural changes

Masanori Nishi, a former administrative vice minister of Japan's Defense Ministry, described the three major structural changes that have occurred in the region. Since 1945, Japan has been the only nation among the four major powers in Asia where nuclear arms were not an option. But with North Korea now brandishing the nuclear option, the Korean Peninsula, which has always been a likely flash point between those powers, has become a threat in itself. Meanwhile, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has taken a step back from getting involved in the affairs of Northeast Asia. Today, the Russian population in the region is about 5 million compared to the Chinese population of 100 million. Last, the consistent and steady expansion of the Chinese military is also a major structural change, and the nations in the region are faced with the need to make choices in order to adapt to all these drastic moves, Nishi said.

For now, Japan is expected to maintain its alliance with the United States, but depending on the direction of future discussions, Tokyo may shift its policy to seek a multinational framework, Nishi said.


China is under stress

The discussions moved on to the theme of the defense policies of the two nations and views on a framework for regional security. Ouyang Wei, professor at the PLA National Defense University, said the Chinese security environment was full of stress. The relationship between China and other countries was strained, not only with the superpowers, but with neighbors such as nations in Central Asia. There were also other geopolitical factors such as being surrounded by countries allied with the United States and having a neighbor preparing to manufacture nuclear warheads. Furthermore, China is expanding its scope of activities as seen in its One Belt, One Road economic initiative. It has developed relations with distant nations such as in Africa, and consequently is exposed to the risks of such nations. Other non-traditional security risks such as terrorism and cyberattacks also add to China's woes. In order to address these risks, China announced at the National People's Congress in October that it "will seek to remove the new types of risks and secure new benefits. "With regard to a new regional security framework, Ouyang said it should be formed on the basis of economic coexistence, strengthened partnerships, common systems, establishment of rules, and promotion of military and working-level exchanges.

Meanwhile, Ouyang and Jin countered, "Has China ever interrupted Japan's passage through the South China Sea?" to which Koda responded, "No it hasn't. But if we agree to the Chinese way of doing things, every country will start enforcing their own laws on their seas. If that happens, won't it be China that faces trouble, 20 or 30 years from now?"

Coexistence of competition and cooperation

Hideshi Tokuchi, a former Japanese defense vice minister for international affairs, explained that Japan's policy of imposing pressure on North Korea while stepping up its own defense system by introducing more defense missiles was a necessary measure "in order to show that Japan was ready to fight, if it had to." With regard to maritime defense, Tokuchi said Japan is engaged primarily in establishing crisis management systems, as well as making sure the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) have the areas surrounding the Nansei Islands off the coast of Kyushu fully covered. In particular, Tokuchi said it was vital that a mechanism, not only between the military but also between law enforcement authorities, was established for crisis management. He added that there was room for cooperation between the two nations in non-traditional security issues as rules and protocols have yet to be established in this field.

Meanwhile, turning to a regional security framework, Tokuchi argued that the coexistence of competition and cooperation was a characteristic of East Asia. He said that the region is made up of an "international society" consisting of sovereign states, as well as a borderless "Earth society." There is always competition to gain a balance of power in the "international society," but global cooperation is the key to the "Earth society," so if mutual benefits exist, there is room for cooperation between nations, Tokuchi explained.

The former defense official introduced another approach to explain the situation, where he described this region as having a "large economy" sitting on "small security." Security in this region consists of a "batch of alliances" that is centered around the United States, but without the participation of China, hence the term, "small security." Sitting on top of this is a "large economy" that includes China, and this distorted structure makes the region unstable, according to Tokuchi. However, there is room for cooperation, as seen in the Chinese participation in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise.

As another characteristic of East Asia, Tokuchi mentioned the "vast seas" where competition occurs when China ventures into them. But here again, Tokuchi said there was room for cooperation, since the more one ventures into the seas, the more one needs to follow their rules.

With the end of the Cold War, Tokuchi said there is a possibility that new competition between Japan and China will arise, between an authoritarian regime and a democratic system. "Rules and values like the rule of law and respect for human rights are necessary to stabilize the global society," said Tokuchi.

Japan and China should cooperate to review the maritime law

The discussion moved on to the theme of maritime issues between Japan and China. Jin Yongming, deputy director of the Research Center for Japanese Studies at the Shanghai Science and Art Society (SSAS), said public order at sea was very important, given how the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea has affected the entire Sino-Japanese relationship. Jin pointed out the problems underlying the international maritime law established in 1982. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a result of compromises in the international community, leaving room for different interpretations, such as about different understandings of freedom of navigation.

In order to rectify the faults of UNCLOS, Jin said Japan and China should cooperate to resolve specific issues such as territorial disputes and natural resources based on a new set of rules. He added that there is ample room for the two countries to cooperate, particularly at academic and research levels, and that was actually starting to take place in Track Two diplomacy.

Why does Japan interfere in the South China Sea issue?

Yoji Koda, a former fleet commander of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, pointed out the complexity of maritime issues between Japan and China, describing it as a "chronic disease" that the two neighbors suffer from. For example, despite some progress in the establishment of an air and naval communication mechanism, "as a matter of fact, nothing much has changed." With regard to the freedom of navigation, "The Chinese say Japan is an outsider in the South China Sea issue, so it should stay out. Yes, we are an outsider in regards to your territorial dispute, but we are talking about the issue of freedom of navigation," Koda said. If different rules coexist, ships navigating the seas will be confused, hence there is merit in following a single rule. But if China starts claiming the South China Sea as its own and starts imposing Chinese laws, the rest of the world will be confused. "That is why this sea needs to continue to be regarded as international waters. We should share our wisdom and resources to keep it that way," Koda said.

The session moved on to a free discussion, which concentrated on the topic of the seas. In response to Zhang's remarks that the progress in the communication mechanism has helped improve the situation in the East China Sea, Onoda argued that there were still many irregular flights of Chinese warplanes and that the Japanese SDF was forced to allot many of its resources to respond to such provocations. "That is why we must urgently set up the communication mechanism and the hotline," he said.

Meanwhile, Ouyang and Jin countered, "Has China ever interrupted Japan's passage through the South China Sea?" to which Koda responded, "No it hasn't. But if we agree to the Chinese way of doing things, every country will start enforcing their own laws on their seas. If that happens, won't it be China that faces trouble, 20 or 30 years from now?"

Yao Yunzhu, director of the Center on China-American Defense Relations and a senior researcher at the Asia-Pacific Office in the Department of World Studies of the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Science in China, pointed out that Japan and the United States also appear to have different interpretations of the maritime law. Koda agreed that while the two countries are generally in agreement about the law, they do not agree fully about working on setting up new rules. The United States, in fact, has conducted Freedom of Navigation operations against Japan. "That is all the more reason to start the discussion by trying to recognize the differences in understanding," Koda said.

How Japan can address the North Korean threat

The second half of the session focused on the North Korean issue. Former Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani initiated the discussion by explaining the various measures Japan was taking to counter the North Korean threat. Aside from the sanctions being imposed on Pyongyang, Japan needs to build an "overwhelming retaliation force," which includes the purchase of cruise missiles, as well as strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and enhance coordination with concerned parties, he said.

Nakatani added that Japan needed to prepare an evacuation plan for its nationals in South Korea, as well as measures to address problems that may arise in the event the Kim regime falls. With time appearing to be running out before a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Nakatani pressed the Chinese panelists for a response on whether Beijing was indeed serious about imposing sanctions on North Korea, and what its course of action was.

A great chance to improve bilateral relations, but obstacles remain

Yao explained three possible scenarios regarding the North Korean crisis. The first was a peaceful resolution through dialogue, a scenario sought by China. But there was the problem of the United States, where the administration appears not to be in total agreement over its approach to the Stalinist state. Another option would be to rebuild the strategy on the premise that North Korea will develop nuclear weapons. But such a scenario would result in North Korea being further isolated from the international community, and merely add to the instability and complexities of the situation. The third option would be military action led by the United States, and the fear was that this option was quickly turning to be the most likely.

However, it is also true that Japan and China share the same concerns over a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, hence the two nations should try to expand their cooperative relationship using this crisis as a trigger, Yao said. There are many areas in which Japan and China could collaborate, particularly on protecting the nuclear non-proliferation scheme and on avoiding military conflict. It will also help to build a crisis management mechanism and improve mutual trust on security issues, Yao said.

Meanwhile, Yao warned Japan of the risks of blindly following the United States, as it would severely limit the choices that Tokyo can make as well as force it into action that it doesn't want to take or be made to share the burden with the United States. The Japan-U.S. alliance considers China as a virtual enemy and is a framework that tries to eliminate China, making it easier to create conflict than build a cooperative relationship. She urged Japan to maintain a balanced distance between China and the United States.

In response to Nakatani's query about how serious China was about imposing sanctions, Yao retorted, "Can the situation be resolved by sanctions?"


Whose problem is the North Korean crisis?

Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea and a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, said the issue of North Korea's nuclear development is basically a problem between Pyongyang and Washington, and there was not much that Japan or China could do. Tokuchi responded that North Korea's nuclear armament was a denial of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty framework and that the problem, while being one between the two countries, was also a global problem. Tokuchi said there are other nations that want nuclear arms, such as in the Middle East or in South America, and if the NPT framework fails due to the fallout from the North Korean crisis, that would increase the risk of other nations possessing them. That is why there is a need to put a stop to North Korea now, Tokuchi said.

Military conflict should be avoided, but preparations are necessary

Tokuchi further said that while he agrees that military conflict should be avoided at all costs, at the same time preparing for a possible conflict would actually serve as a form of pressure on North Korea. Given how the sanctions since 1994 have been largely ineffective, "there is a need to prepare for this 'pain' called military action as a last resort," Tokuchi said.

Zhu Feng acknowledged that a political and diplomatic approach was not working, and that Japan and China should discuss the limits of the kind of measures that could be taken against North Korea.

Concerned nations should urgently conduct dialogue

Since North Korea and the United States do not seem quite ready to take military action, "there is time for us to take measures. We can show North Korea the kind of good future that would be waiting for it if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear development program. The global community should agree to that and we should never give up," Zhang said, calling for the five concerned nations to set up a structure to discuss a comprehensive solution.

Miyamoto pointed out that while Japan and China agree that increasing pressure was a way to urge North Korea to engage in dialogue, the two countries appear to be disagreeing probably because neither has expressed clearly what it believes would happen as a result of pressuring Pyongyang. He said that while pessimistic views dominate, Japan and China should stand firm against North Korea ever possessing nuclear arms, as that would drastically affect the region's strategic environment.

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