Consensus for the rules-based order; disagreement on how to achieve it

February 26, 2021

On February 24, as the conflict between the United States and China continued to intensify and tensions increased, the Genron NPO held a conference on how to address that issue - the Asia Peace Conference - and welcomed almost twenty participants from four countries: Japan, the US, China, and South Korea.

The Genron NPO President and conference moderator Yasushi Kudo began the proceedings with a report titled, Top Ten Risks Threatening Peace in Northeast Asia in 2021, which was compiled from a survey held in conjunction with the conference that gathered the opinions of 195 diplomatic and national security experts from Japan, the United States, China, and the Republic of Korea. After the Kudo's presentation of the survey results, the session began with an individual from each country giving a keynote speech on how to address security risks in Northeast Asia in 2021.


Common interests offer a glimmer of hope in the competition between the great powers

US participant Frank Jannuzi is President and CEO of The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, and he provided the first keynote speech.

Jannuzi spoke of the nuclear threat from North Korea, describing it as a long-term threat rather than an immediate one. He stated that while he thinks the complete denuclearization of North Korea will remain the US policy objective, a different approach might be necessary.

"The more reasonable approach to that goal is one that begins with an arms-control approach...halting permanently the testing of nuclear missiles, nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles, and getting a better handle on North Korea's production of fissile material and eventually halting that and rolling it back," he said.

On the other hand, he noted that one reason some sort of approach is necessary is the danger of nuclear proliferation of nuclear weapons from North Korea to other countries.
"We need to work on this problem on an urgent basis, and to do so, we need a US-China relationship that is constructive. Unfortunately, we do not have that relationship right now. There's a profoundly pessimistic tone in Washington about US-China relations," he explained and attributed the problem to three factors: China's rise as a global power and the decline of relative US power, the ideological struggle between political models, and waning US confidence in globalization and the liberal democratic order.

"The way to find glimmers of hope in an otherwise bleak competition is by identifying areas of common interest, specifically, the Korean Peninsula...and also climate change, where we have a shared global imperative of saving the planet from the worst consequences of global warming."

In order to be successful, Jannuzi feels that the two countries need to find a mechanism of cooperation that will work while they still compete, and that will require some adjustments on both sides. The US may need to adapt its thinking to its new place in the world, one very much different than the position of power it held in the decades after the end of the Second World War. He also suggested that there needs to be some "deep soul-searching in Beijing." For the liberal democratic order to be sustained - an order that Jannuzi believes has "served China's interests very well" - it has to be defended by the US and its allies, but also by China.

"The security challenges of Northeast Asia are very manageable. I'm confident about that, but only if we are able to work together and not if we are deeply distrustful of each other's strategic intentions. It should be a matter of some urgency in both Beijing and Washington to see if we cannot forge a more candid relationship over our differences, but also a more constructive relationship where our interests overlap," Jannuzi concluded.


Handling the five major security risks in Northeast Asia

The next keynote speech was provided by Zhang Tuosheng, Principal Researcher and Chairman of the Academic Committee at the Grandview Institution in China. In Zhang's opinion, the region is facing five major security risks in 2021, the first being the "new nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula," which can be triggered by three factors.

First, the DPRK-US dialogue completely stalled last year, and conditions have seriously deteriorated over the last two years. Second, the DPRK has continued to develop nuclear weapons. Finally, the situation between having the US and the ROK on one side and the DPRK on the other side might be hard to sustain.

"At present, in order to prevent the outbreak of a new nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, the top priority between the US, the ROK, and the DPRK should be to resume dialogue and contact as soon as possible," Zhang emphasized. "Thereafter, all parties concerned with the Korean nuclear issue should try to resume six-party talks in due course. In this, the coordination and cooperation between China and the United States will be very important."

To Zhang, the second major risk is the potential for military conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and two main factors could trigger such a conflict. One is the potential for accidents and misjudgments between China and the United States on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

"The other is if Taiwan and foreign secessionist forces cross the border set by China," Zhang said. "The second scenario is less likely under the Biden administration, but the first remains highly likely."

To prevent the outbreak of a military crisis, Zhang believes that the most urgent task for the two countries is to implement proper crisis management, but from his perspective, the most effective method involves a change in US policy. "The fundamental way is for the United States to return to the "One China" principle and the position of the Three Joint Communiqués, and for the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to research dialogue and consultation on the basis of the 1992 consensus." he stressed.

Zhang pointed to the emerging tension in the East China Sea as the third major risk for the region.

"In 2020, the friction between Chinese and Japanese law enforcement forces in the waters of the Diaoyu Islands was obviously on the rise," Zhang explained. "Public opinion in Japan reacted strongly to this. So far, the two sides remain sharply at odds. The ongoing epidemic has also greatly hindered the two sides from carrying out security dialogue and it has constrained the construction of crisis management."

Zhang pointed out that US comments on the issue have not helped mitigate the friction, but offered a means by which tensions in the East China Sea could be lowered.

"China and Japan must manage and gradually cool down the resurgent maritime friction in the waters of the Daioyu Islands, and to do that, China and Japan must jointly adhere to the principle of not using force to settle issues, and earnestly strengthen diplomatic and security dialogues and construct a crisis management mechanism. Any US promise about military involvement in the dispute would only be counter-productive."

Zhang proposed that the fourth major risk in the region is the dispute in the South China Sea. Many factors can aggravate the situation, including US and Chinese forces in a military emergency and intensified disputes over sovereignty and rights on the part of neighboring countries. "The process of forming a COC between China and ASEAN countries has stalled, and the South China Sea has become more militarized. To prevent further escalation, the first priority is for China and the US to strengthen crisis management and conduct strategic dialogue on avoiding militarization of the South China Sea. At the same time, neighboring countries should...strive to conclude a code of conduct in the South China Sea by 2021."

The fifth security risk lies in the potential that the ebb and flow of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue throughout 2021 and beyond. "Recently the trend is on the downside...however, we must remain highly vigilant against disease variation, vaccine nationalism, and the politicization of the pandemic and the use of it to denigrate other countries." Zhang concluded that while these five risks are most likely, vigilance against a "black swan event" is also needed. "Major terrorist attacks, nuclear safety accidents, serious hacker attacks, and major natural disasters due to global climate change...wherever and whenever these events happen, we must join hands to deal with them and overcome them."


Japan-US alliance key to building an order with China in the Indo-Pacific

The third keynote speech was provided by Yoji Koda, former Commander in Chief of Japan's Self Defense Fleet. Koda believes that despite the fact that North Korea is building its nuclear missile capability and working to change the balance of power against the US-South Korea alliance, Japan and other Western nations have raised the possibility of bringing a halt to the US-South Korea joint military exercises in the interest of improving relations with North Korea. He noted that there has been a steady decline in operational capability of the different armed forces to deal with an emergency situation, particularly in the case of handling an incursion by North Korea, and in the meantime, North Korea has been enhancing its ballistic capabilities against South Korea. For Koda, serious thought needs to be giving to this situation. In addition, regarding the issue of transfer of wartime control, he mentioned the need for the US and South Korea, and perhaps Japan as well, to come together and reach a mutual understanding on this issue.

Moreover, Koda explained that the limit of the Quad - the strategic dialogue between Japan, the US, Australia, and India - lies in how much will be heard about the economic dependence of Australia and India on China and about the differences in economic power. The Japan-US Alliance should be at the heart of order-building with China in Northeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific, Koda stated, and the question is how Japan and the US can individually maximize their capabilities as they gather friendly nations and work with China to build a security order in the Indo-Pacific and Northeast Asia.

Biggest security risk in Northeast Asia is the "fault line" between countries

The final keynote speech was given by Go Myong-Hyun, Senior Fellow at the Center for North Korean Research and The Asan Institute for Policy Studies in South Korea. Go argued that while there are many risks in the region, the biggest is the existence of a "fault line" in regional geopolitics that exists in the mismatch of interests between South Korea, the US, Japan, and China.

"South Korea's main agenda has almost entirely about North Korea, and so South Korea views alliance management and the relationship with Japan entirely from this perspective - how South Korea can leverage its relationship with Japan in order to improve our relationship with North Korea," Go said. "In contrast, the American interest in East Asia in general is less about North Korea...and really about rebuilding the trilateral security cooperation between Korea, Japan and the United States. The reason why the United States is more focused on (this issue) is because of China."
Go also noted that the South Korea-Japan relationship is at "rock-bottom," and he feels that Japan's policy towards South Korea seems to be aimed at rebuilding the relationship so that South Korea no longer brings up certain issues with Japan.

Regarding Chinese foreign policy, he said that China, "is also clearly about fending off US pressure in the guise of Indo-Pacific strategy, and in this sense, North Korea is a liability when it comes to China's relationship with the United States."

"The question is whether North Korea understands that there is a fault line between China and the rest, but also within the allied structure itself," Go continued. "I think if North Korea is smart enough, it's going to employ this fault line to its advantage...I think that's going to be a big dilemma for everyone."


The differing rules-based order between Japan, the US, and China

Masayuki Masuda is Senior Fellow in the China Division at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies, and he pointed out that among the countries involved there are points of agreement and disagreement as to what China's role should be and about where it should be positioned within the international community. He explained that it was once thought that an understanding could be reached with China regarding security and military matters because we all share the same planet, but that expectation is no longer as strong as it once was, particularly in the US. In contrast, while the US is becoming more pessimistic in terms of its economic relations with China, Japan and South Korea have not reached that point, so we see disagreement even between Japan, the US, and South Korea. However, Masuda pointed out that the Maritime Police Law that China enacted in February may help mitigate the differences in position between Japan, the US, and South Korea, and bridge the gaps in security expectations. He posed a question to the Chinese panelists, asking to what extent China will take rules-based actions in security and military matters, and whether it be possible to share the stage with Japan, the US, and South Korea.

Zhang Tuosheng responded to Masuda's question by stating that in principle, China can agree with a rules-based order, but he added that talks are needed to determine the form it will take. "China is a part of the international order and benefits from it, and China is also a builder of the international order. But now the world is changing so greatly, and something must be done (to respond to that change). We need to establish some new rules. Of course, they should not just be made by China or the United States. It needs international collaboration. New rules need to be established in multilateral organizations."

In conclusion, Zhang said that China does not oppose the rules-based order, but it is looking for clarification on what those laws should be.

Next to address the subject was Yoshihide Soeya, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Relations at the Faculty of Law at Keio University. He expressed his agreement with Jannuzi in that he believes China, as a member of the international community, has benefited greatly from the post-war liberal international order, and noted his belief that China does appreciate that fact. However, Soeya suggested that perhaps China takes two different standpoints when interacting with the world.

"When China engages in global institutions and organizations, China behaves as one of the members. But now, as one of the powerful members, it claims its due role in that Chinese voices should be reflected in the management of the global order, and that's understandable. But when it comes to Chinese behavior in its vicinity, which is our region, there seems to some different criteria. At the risk of over-simplification and being misunderstood, we tend to sense a recovery of Chinese centrism - the way to deal with countries surrounding China as China comes back to the center of an Asian order. So, we are confronting China both in traditional and modern contexts. The combination of these two is a huge challenge for Asian countries. When it comes to "so-called" core interests, most of the issues of core interest in our region are as defined by China, and the Chinese behavior and thinking appear a little bit different from those applied in Chinese engagement with global and international institutions."

Katsutoshi Kawano, Former Chief of Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, had a somewhat pessimistic view of the current situation, but preferred to make a more optimistic proposal for dealing with the issues up for discussion, reminding the participants that there already is an existing dialogue mechanism between Japan, China, and South Korea. Kawano believes that mutual effort to capitalize on this mechanism is needed to avoid issues, particularly on the question of the Senkaku Islands.


Important to institutionalize norms while sacrificing values and ideologies

Go Myong-Hyun brought up that while some may have the impression that South Korea is gravitating towards China, this perception should be qualified.
"There's a little bit of policy overlap between Seoul and Beijing regarding North Korea. I don't think it's based on ideological similarities; it's mostly about convenience and expediency. South Korea's foreign policy energy is almost 90% focused on North Korea."

Go emphasized that South Korea is a liberal democracy and China is not, so the perceived closeness between the two countries is based only on the temporary policy overlap, and any policy change in Seoul should cause that perception to die down.

Professor Lee Shin-wha of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Korea University followed Go's comment by arguing that security risks include not only territorial disputes but also ideological disputes.

"Whether to compromise with norms and institutions, as well as who will respect international laws, whoever defines it, this is also a very important security risk," she said. "Compromise will be dictated much by the ideology that the claimant party holds. Ideology plays a vital role because it also dictates the perception and the stances and position of the concerned parties. As long as the region is ideologically polarized, it will be difficult if not impossible for the conflicting parties to concede for a compromise. Which will in return require them to sacrifice the values that they hold. The only viable option would be to institutionalize the norms rather than let the norms be what they are."

On the subject of values, Lee pointed out that even when values are shared, other issues can arise that raise difficulties. "Japan and South Korea, who share the same values and norms, still have a difficult time, over history or the way we define national interests. It's ironic that we have to depend on the US to dictate to us how to improve our bilateral relationship. I think that's not good for our diplomatic influence in international relations," she said, and asked for some feedback from the Japanese side on this point.

Yoji Koda offered a Japanese perspective on Lee's comment, suggesting that many Japanese feel that the Moon Jae-in administration seems to be trying to undermine the trilateral relationship between Japan, the US, and South Korea. However, if one is to set aside national sentiment in the two countries, the South Korean military and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces share a foundation that, if there were a means of communication between the two that allowed for discussion and analysis of situations without the engagement of the ministries in charge, could lead to a path towards dialogue.

Frank Jannuzi agreed with Lee's point on compromise, but also addressed the issue of why it can be difficult to find it.
"Nations can always find compromise when it's on the price of wheat or the price of steel," he said. "Nations have more difficulty finding compromise when they have their values engaged - China does with respect to the future of Taiwan; America does with respect to our devotion to a political debate and the ability to criticize one's governments. That's why there are these cleavages or dividing lines that need to be minimized if they cannot be eliminated."


Rules must be observed, but preventing miscalculation requires clarification of intentions

Robert P. Girrier, President of the Pacific Forum, provided a summary of the discussions and proposed a target to aim for in terms of resolving the current tension in the region."The common theme is the erosion of status quo through unilateral acts, often undertaken through force or via coercive means. That's what we're talking about. Are these risks preventable? Yes, they are. They're preventable. They require good faith adherence to international norms and a commitment to not change the status quo through the use of force or by committing aggravating unilateral acts."

In addition to a goal for the countries involved, Girrier also offered a method by which a solution can be found. 

"Number one, acknowledging the preeminence of international law. These are global - not American or western-centric - norms. They are the standards that exist today. Number two, individual flash points may involve two or more parties, but the solution lies in almost every case in multilateral action. Another point, security problems in Northeast Asia extend well beyond the immediate region. These are global issues in many cases. In parallel with the above, I think the articulation and demonstration of commitment to the aforementioned international norms and law signals intent and helps reduce miscalculation by those on the other side. Honoring international agreements is foundational to maintaining peace and stability. It's fundamental to building trust, and trust is that essential element in making any progress in any of these issues," Girrier said.


Yang Chao Ying, Vice Chairman of the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies proposed that they session's discussions could be divided into two areas. 

"First, what are the risks? And second, how to address them? I think we have identified about a dozen security risks. I think most agree that the North Korea nuclear issue is a top one. Issues like the dispute in the East China Sea, the escalation of tension in the South China Sea, the risk of potential conflict over the Taiwan Strait; these are all issues of concern. I think the easier part is that we agree a lot on the risks and the priority of the risks. What differs is how to address them."

He agreed with the proposal that the China-US relationship is at the core of many of the issues, and that cooperation in areas with a common interest and managing of differences is important. Ideology is another important point, but he disagreed with Lee's assessment that differing ideologies preclude agreement. "We have a lot of different ideologies, but that doesn't mean that we cannot have a common, globally-recognized order. China's policy is not to define foreign policy based on ideological rights, and in fact, that's not a practicable approach. I think we have agreed basically that the key is to address those problems based on rules and principles."

Katsutoshi Kawano provided another perspective, noting that some feel that the exclusion of China is a part of the perspective of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative, but he stressed that he does not agree with that assessment.

"FOIP is a gathering based on values, and the ultimate value is the freedom of the seas," he said. Regarding this, if China could come to share this shared idea of protecting that freedom, Kawano believes that this would enhance peace and stability in the region.

That ended the two-hour heated discussion on how to respond to security risks in Northeast Asia in 2021, and Session 2 began shortly afterwards.


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