Asia Peace Conference Public Forum Session 1What are the top threats to peace in Northeast Asia?

February 06, 2020

The Asia Peace Conference, a Track II multinational dialogue platform for peace in Northeast Asia, was established on January 21, 2020 with representatives from Japan, China, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the United States of America attending. To commemorate the establishment of the conference, a public session was held on the theme of threats faced by Northeast Asia in 2020.

Yasushi Kudo, President of The Genron NPO and chair of the Asia Peace Conference, opened the discussions an announcement regarding a new report titled, "Top 10 Risks Threatening the Peace in Northeast Asia." He reminded those gathered that there are numerous serious threats to the peace that may surface in Northeast Asia in 2020. Despite this, the region lacks the mechanisms needed to handle the situation and avoid conflict, and there is insufficient trust between the major powers. The region even lacks a formal multilateral mechanism through which countries can discuss means and methods of achieving a sustainable peace in the region amidst the tension.

He noted that it is significant milestone for the region as the Asia Peace Conference is the first such multilateral forum for dialogue aimed at achieving peace in Northeast Asia.

With that, Kudo launched Session 1 by asking the experts to provide commentary on what they believe is necessary to prevent war in Northeast Asia.

With essentially no mechanism for regional trust-building, the biggest risks lie in inadvertent incidents and deliberate military provocations
-Yoji Koda, Japan


Yoji Koda is a former Commander-in-Chief of Japan's Self-Defense Fleet, and he described how Northeast Asia is home to many of the world's military powers, with the U.S. in 1st, followed by China and Russia in 2nd and 3rd respectively, Japan in 7th, the ROK in 11th, and Taiwan in 12th when the nuclear arsenal is taken into account. Asia differs from any other region in the world, with a military environment that includes nuclear weapons.

Koda noted that new national security fields such as space and cybersecurity are closely linked to economic and military concerns in Northeast Asia, and he expressed the opinion that there is little communication or trust-building between the countries concerned.

Koda also theorized about two possible events that could lead to war in the region: inadvertent incidents and deliberate military provocations, both of which have precedent. His first example was an unintended clash between forces of the great powers, i.e. the collision between a U.S. electronic surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet above Hainan Island in 2001. The second example was that of a deliberate military attack by North Korea on South Korea, such as that which occurred in 2010 when North Korean forces opened fire with artillery on the island of Yeonpyeong and South Korea responded in kind.

Largest threats come from distrust between the U.S. and China, North Korea, and Taiwan; multilateral trust-building measures are needed
-David Shear, USA


Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear offered an American perspective of three threats facing Northeast Asia.

First is the relationship between the U.S. and China, which is seeing increased risk and instability. Shear stated that he has hopes for the January 15 "phase one" trade deal signed between China and the U.S., but also warned that distrust between the two countries could have a deleterious effect on regional stability.

The nature of this distrust lies in the fact that Americans see China as trying to weaken the US alliances in the region, trying to gain regional economic hegemony through mercantilism, and blocking U.S. interests and technological developments. The Chinese sees the United States as trying to contain China along with its allies.

Shear stated that management of the mutual distrust is what the two countries must deal with in the near term. Trust-building efforts must be initiated not just at the highest levels, but also at the level of the State Department, the Department of Defense, the military and their respective counterparts in China, in order to build a multilayered framework allowing for high-level communications.

Shear stated that the second threat is the situation in North Korea, mentioning leader Kim Jong-un's hardening attitude, evidenced by last year's refusal to call a halt to nuclear weapon and missile testing. Shear believes that each country should commit to the continuation of sanctions, and to the re-opening of six-party talks to stabilize the situation, or at the very least, five-party talks excluding North Korea.

For his third threat, Shear pointed to the re-election of Tsai Ing-wen as President of Taiwan this month, and he called upon the Taiwanese leadership to abide by the "One-China policy" agreed upon during the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China that started back in 1972. He also noted that the U.S. itself should refrain from taking a hardline stance when responding to issues regarding the relationship between China and Taiwan.

Lastly, Shear mentioned that there are frequent bilateral exchanges among naval forces of the four countries, and that it would be extremely beneficial to develop these existing bilateral exchanges into multinational trust-building mechanisms.

The four risk areas are the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and cybersecurity, but the possibility of war cannot be completely eliminated
- Tuosheng Zhang , China


Tuosheng Zhang is Chairman of the Academic Committee at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, a think tank affiliated with the People's Liberation Army. Zhang declared his belief that the potential for war in Northeast Asia is low, but it can't be completely eliminated. Zhang described Northeast Asia as facing four risk factors - the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, South China Sea and cybersecurity - and he acknowledged that these risks are due to the worsening relationship between the U.S. and China.

First, Zhang argued that to avoid war on the Korean peninsula, it is important to bring about de-nuclearization of the peninsula, and to transition from the current cease-fire to peace treaty. Zhang also called on all Northeast Asian countries to offer their collective support for continued negotiations between the United States and North Korea. He mentioned that China and Russia jointly proposed the re-opening of the six-party talks and easing of the sanctions to the UN Security Council last December and called for support from other parties involved on the proposal.

Next, to prevent war in the Taiwan Strait, he emphasized that the "One-China principle" must be followed, and a firm stance must be taken against Taiwan's independence.

Regarding maritime security, Zhang stated that he believes all of the countries involved are opposed to the use of military force so that a full-fledged war is unlikely, but we must be prepared for contingencies. Zhang spoke about Chinese efforts to work with ASEAN to formulate a Code of Conduct to maintain the peace in the South China Sea. He also spoke of the necessity that the strengthening of bilateral risk management mechanisms between China, and Japan, Korea, and the U.S. and Japan for the East China Sea, using such established bilateral treaties as the US-USSR INCSEA agreement.

Zhang expressed his perspective on his fourth point, cybersecurity, by saying that the international framework for dialogue is disproportionate to the increasing risk. He said that it is necessary to build a bilateral or multilateral cybersecurity conference and form rules through which risk can be managed, and added that he hopes the Asia Peace Conference will expand its purview into cybersecurity and other new areas of discussion in the future.

Risks come from the stalled U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks and undeniable potential for clashes, and Chinese military activities around the Korean peninsula
- Lee Sang-Chul, ROK


largest risk in Northeast Asia lies in North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. Lee expressed concern that since the U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi last February, denuclearization negotiations between the two countries have stalled completely, and there is an undeniable risk of military clashes not only between North and South Korea, but also between the U.S. and North Korea. All of the countries in the region must work together to re-launch talks and get the peace process back on track, he added.

Lee also offered a Korean perspective regarding military operations undertaken by Chinese naval and air forces in the region around the Korean peninsula. He stated that Chinese naval operations in the Yellow Sea are expanding to the seas just off the Korean Peninsula, and that Chinese air force reconnaissance aircraft have penetrated South Korea's air defense identification zone. Lee described this behavior as a major threat to South Korea, and suggested that there should be a direct channel of communication between naval and air forces of China and South Korea.

After the first four panelists spoke, Kudo summarized the underlining theme of the four speakers in terms of the threats they presented, suggesting that what they have in common is that they all arise from the struggle regional powers are facing as they deal with China rise and its increased projection of power. Next, he asked the participants what they think should be done to manage inadvertent incidents caused by a lack of communication channels, and how to manage deliberate military provocations undertaken in the region's hotspots.

Northeast Asian risk factors arise from inconsistent strategic goals and domestic nationalism

Dean Akio Takahara of the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo stated that the risks in Northeast Asia emerge from factors that lie much deeper than the phenomena we can see.

Takahara's first example was that the strategic objectives of the two sides are not in accord - with Japan, the U.S. and South Korea on one side, and China and Russia on the other. He explained that this inconsistency arose directly after the end of the Cold War, but it only became a large problem with the rise of China as a major power. Takahara believes that this issue will be difficult to manage.

His second example was the incidence of nationalism in each country that is interconnected with foreign diplomacy, explaining that people do not always act rationally. Some situations will be marked by emotion-based refusals to communicate, or judgements made using incorrect information. This lack of awareness on the part of citizens in each country is behind the crisis in the region, Takahara explained.

The focus in the future will be on the struggle between the U.S. and North Korea, and how to deal with North Korean provocations this year

Katsutoshi Kawano is the former Chief of Staff of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, and he commented first on the issue of inadvertent clashes, saying that since the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands, interactions between the defense authorities in Japan and China have been re-initialized through such means as the Maritime and Air Communication Mechanism launched last year. A major step forward has been achieved through on-site communication between Japanese and Chinese ships which come in close contact in the East China Sea, and with the creation of a framework for annual meetings between top-level officials from the two countries.

Kawano also talked about North Korea, calling it the hotspot of greatest concern to Japanese experts, and noting that the international community was deceived when it offered North Korea compensation after believing its assertions that it would stop its nuclear program. That resulted in the relevant parties requiring de-nuclearization to begin before compensation was offered again, but North Korea is now going on the offense, demanding that compensation be provided before any efforts are made. Kawano said that perhaps North Korea originally met with President Trump after feeling some military pressure due to Trump's behavior, but after speaking with the U.S. president, they may have determined that he is a leader who is motivated by the balance between loss and gain, and that he is unlikely to use military force.

However, Kawano believes that North Korea is now re-evaluating its assessment of the U.S.'s level of commitment, particularly after the statements Trump made at the end of last year regarding the use of military power against North Korea, and the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. He stated that careful attention should be paid to this struggle between the U.S. and North Korea in the future.

Kang Choi is Vice President of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in South Korea, and he predicted that North Korea may engage in provocative behavior between February and April and in October.

Choi explained that North Korea has declared that it will "take a new path" if the U.S. continues its sanctions, and may justify a provocation between February and April by calling U.S.-ROK joint exercises a threat to their regime. In addition, North Korea may try to dominate bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea by issuing some sort of challenge in October, when President Trump will be focused on achieving diplomatic successes in the run-up to the election.

Choi also warned that while the provocation likely won't include the launch of an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S., possible alternatives include short-range missiles, which are a lethal threat to South Korea and Japan.

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences faculty member Yunling Zhang offered his perspective on North Korea, saying that the nuclear weapon problem is a clear threat, but it is not a simple problem that will be over once the weapons are gone. He believes that an inclusionary environment in which North Korea can abandon its nuclear weapons must be created. In contrast to Choi, Zhang believes that any strong messages sent to North Korea by Trump as he faces re-election could make the crisis more immediate. Agreeing with his fellow citizen Tuosheng Zhang, Yunling Zhang said that one option is for China and Russia to take the initiative to find a multilateral means of breaking the deadlock, such as through the United Nations.

Ralph A. Cossa is President Emeritus of the Pacific Forum, an American research institute, and Cossa touched upon the fact that past Security Council resolutions were unanimous in disapproving of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, before stating that he believes this should be the starting point for Japan-U.S.-China-ROK collaboration over North Korea. Cossa appealed to the panelists, saying that the four countries should send a unified message opposing nuclear weapon and missile testing, and delineate what sort of consequences will be incurred by North Korea if testing were to continue.

Meanwhile, Cossa also suggested that North Korea is suffering from a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the U.S. government. North Korea may believe that provoking the U.S. could lead Trump to make a deal as he considers the upcoming election, he said, but in fact, North Korean missile launches have little effect even on U.S. stock prices, and a deal with North Korea may earn him criticism from his base among right-wing Republicans. Cossa feels that any provocation on the part of North Korea will only lead the Trump administration further from the negotiating table.

Japan, the U.S., and South Korea must coordinate with each other and bring North Korea back to negotiations by balancing pressure and dialogue

Kudo asked the Korean panelists whether some parts of the South Korean government have a different stance towards North Korea than that found in the U.S. and Japan. Lee responded that South Korea's preparations against North Korean provocations are still very strong. He added that North Korea may want to show that it can be a threat to the U.S., as the world's greatest military, by making provocations of a strategic nature in the form of nuclear and missile threats.

As both pressure and dialogue have failed as means of resolving the issue in the past when used on their own, Lee suggested that it is necessary for Japan, the U.S., and South Korea to work together to find a balance of pressure and dialogue together. The three countries must offer the incentive of guaranteeing the system will continue to operate even after denuclearization is achieved, Lee explained, and this will help lead the U.S. and North Korea back to the negotiating table.

There is room for cooperation between China and the United States in the de-nuclearization of North Korea

Tuosheng Zhang reassured the panelists by stating that China still supports the U.S.-North Korea negotiations, although the U.S.-China friction since 2018 has resulted in the creation of a diplomatic space in which North Korea could work between the United States and China. He noted that China provided the aircraft required by Kim Jong Un to travel to the U.S.-North Korea summits in Singapore and Hanoi. Zhang called the nuclearization of North Korea a threat to China as well, since it undermines the NPT regime and it may result in the U.S. deploying nuclear missile defense systems in Japan and South Korea. For these reasons, Zhang stressed the importance of U.S.-China cooperation in bringing about the de-nuclearization of North Korea.

Takahara added that both the United States and China will benefit from de-nuclearization of North Korea, and noted that there are people in both the U.S. and China calling for the six-party and five-party talks to be re-launched.

Inter-military interactions as a means of stabilizing the worsening U.S.-China relationship

Finally, in his position as moderator, Kudo asked the panelists if the existing maritime and air risk management mechanisms between the United States and China are still operating amidst the ongoing U.S.-China tension.

David Shear responded positively, stating that in spite of the increasing strategic distrust, the U.S. and China are maintaining various lines of communication, including the hotlines between the defense authorities, and meetings between high-level navy and air force officials held under the auspices of the MMCA. In addition, the two countries have agreed to give notice of military exercises, have signed MOUs in 2014 and 2015 on rules of behavior to help prevent incidents at sea and in air, and both the United States and China took part in the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium, at which they were two of 21 countries which joined the CUES agreement. Shear stated that all of these channels are still being maintained despite the worsening relationship between the U.S. and China, and he feels they can serve as models for other countries, Japan included, when designing their own risk management frameworks.

Tuosheng Zhang explained that the U.S. and China are connected by more hotlines than exist between China and Japan or between China and South Korea. In addition, Zhang explained that experts from both the U.S. and China have been engaged in Track II crisis management discussions since 2004. Zhang suggested that, with the overall relationship between the U.S. and China worsening, unforeseen situations could arise if the military relationship worsens as well, which is why he expressed his desire to make the relationship between the U.S. and Chinese militaries a stable element in the comprehensive relationship between the two countries.

Provided a summation of the Session 1 discussions as moderator, Kudo recognized the various issues faced by Northeast Asia, but expressed his hopes that the Asia Peace Conference can serve as a forum for the review of existing mechanisms, and as a means of providing crisis management and accident prevention proposals to prevent unintended incidents from exploding in war. With those words, Kudo brought Session 1 to a close.



Building a sustainable and stable order in Northeast Asia

February 06, 2020

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