No room for unilateral changes to the status quo in Northeast Asia

March 17, 2022

For Session 2 of the Asia Peace Conference, Genron President Yasushi Kudo moderated a discussion on how to manage security risks in Northeast Asia. For the opening remarks, Kudo was joined by three other participants from the US, China, and South Korea, who he asked to provide their ideas on what sorts of efforts are needed to maintain peace and stability in the region. The session began with these opening remarks, after which a discussion of the issues presented was held.

In his role as moderator, Kudo opening the meeting by reiterating the agreements reached and issues raised at the previous two meetings of the Asia Peace Conference, before pointing out that the US-China conflict has revealed a number of risk areas in Northeast Asia, and that the security environment in the region is degrading.

Kudo asked the presenters if the previously reached agreements were still holding strong.

"Do we still agree that we should be aiming for a peaceful order based on inclusive rules rather than dividing the region?" he asked.


In response, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Matters Daniel Russel offered a proposal on how to begin a dialogue on finding common interests and establishing a mechanism for crisis management in the region.

"My suggestion is that we start by taking a step back and looking at the current situation. We are in a period of disruption where the emerging power, China, is dissatisfied with the status quo, and the preeminent power, the United States, objects to the direction in which the emerging power is pushing. The peace and stability of Northeast Asia is being jeopardized by these trends, and the problem is being magnified, frankly, by unfavorable political developments in both Beijing and in Washington. The result is the surge in destabilizing friction that the conference has explored," he said. "We have to analyze; we have to unpack the key factors that are pushing us in the wrong direction."

He also suggested that what truly matters is the behavior of the emerging power, "...once it becomes strong enough to bend or ignore international norms and laws when they seem unfavorable to its own national interest."

He concluded by addressing China's recent behavior in that light.

"Revisions to the status quo need to be agreed on by others and not imposed unilaterally. It's not that the status quo is sacred. It's not that the status quo can't be changed. The essential issue is how it is changed. Is it changed by consent or by consensus, or is it changed by disruption and coercion? I think it's useful to examine the questions that Kudo-san laid out, but I also believe that the starting point for examining them has to be a clear understanding of why we haven't been able to reach those goals to date."


Building an effective crisis management mechanism for the Taiwan Strait

Yang Chaoying is Vice Chairman of the China Foundation for International & Strategic Studies, a PLA-affiliated think tank, and he provided another interpretation of current events in the region. Yang began by speaking about what lies at the core of security tensions in Northeast Asia - a lack of trust among the various actors - and expressed his hopes for the building of a mechanism for achieving strategic stability as the US-China conflict continues.

"Building trust involves understanding and being understood," he said. "These have a lot to do with intentions, matching words with actions, honoring one's commitments or agreements made with others, power and subsequent responsibility, and also being sensitive to the concerns of others."

He proposed that the underlying focus of the discussion should shift.

"We should do our best to work on common interests. Despite the serious divisions that exist, there are important common interests, such as climate change, environmental protection, dealing with the pandemic, economic prosperity in the Pacific region, de-nuclearization in the Korea peninsula, avoidance of open war over the Taiwan Strait, etc. Policy makers should make decisions that best serve the interests of the people and the region, and not simply be highjacked by public opinion or party politics. (The countries should also explore) mechanisms that help to establish stability and prevent war," Yang explained.

Moreover, while he emphasized the need for a conflict prevention mechanism, he also explained that efforts like the US-China Military and Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) have not been very effective thus far.

"Maintaining stability and preventing war is a common aspiration. To achieve this end, we should seriously explore and work on mechanisms concerning various conflict areas. We experimented with different practices, including the Code of Conduct crisis mechanism to avoid incidents at sea or in the air. But even though these have not been very effective, they are helpful in avoiding accidents or misfires, and I propose that we should seriously work on those to make mechanisms already established more effective, and establish new, more effective, mechanisms."


Next, former Brigadier General Heo Taekeun of the Republic of Korea's Ministry of National Defense spoke about the importance of discussing a multilateral framework in Northeast Asia, but suggested that the focus should first be on improving bilateral relations that are currently facing difficulties, i.e., those between the US and China, between Japan and China, and between South Korea and Japan.

"Before the discussion of a multilateral dialogue mechanism and shared understanding of the impending security issues, we need to put effort into improving each bilateral relationship first. In order to improve those relationships and share a peaceful order, each country should have internal change, especially from politics."

Heo feels that the different countries are using "external policies for internal politics" to shape a favorable environment for their governments in an attempt to strengthen domestic nationalism.
"These trends will make it more difficult for us to make better bilateral and multilateral relationships for the future," he said.

Regarding regional peace and stability, Heo argued that more effort needs to be put into the multilateral creation of a shared set of principles to protect the region, and into multilateral revision and establishment of rules preventing military contingencies.


For Session 2, the 18 participants from four countries were joined by Daniel Russell, who provided opening remarks, and by retired Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, former Chief of Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. The 20-member discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule, which states that information can be used freely, but "neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."

Questions raised over China's stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine

The discussions in Session 2 focused on three issues.

The first issue covered the building trust between the US and China. During the US-Soviet Cold War, both sides took measures to build trust through accident prevention agreements and other efforts. However, the current US-China crisis management mechanism is not functioning as designed, and participants discussed whether that mechanism can be fixed, whether new steps can be taken, and what sort of mechanism is needed.

The second issue delved into whether the fundamental values of achieving peaceful resolution to any conflict are truly shared throughout Northeast Asia, namely, those values that proscribe any use of military force, and stop changes to the status quo made by application of force. Russia's actions in Ukraine are an example of just such an attempt at changing the status quo, and throughout the day's discussions it was repeatedly mentioned that China's stance towards Russia's behavior is unclear.

As Russian forces were gathering near the Ukrainian border, Chinese leaders were expressing their support of Russian President Vladimir Putin on his visit to Beijing. US participants in the discussion questioned the timing of that public statement of support and Russia's subsequent military invasion of Ukraine. Many of those in attendance questioned why China, which is concerned with its own territorial sovereignty, has not clarified its stance over the breach of sovereignty arising from the Russian invasion.

Finally, the third theme touched upon how to build a framework to prevent military clashes in the Taiwan Strait. All attendees expressed strong concerns about the possibility of such an event, and there was much discussion on how to get a prompt dialogue started.

Limited time to start a crisis management dialogue on the Taiwan Strait

During the discussions, US participants provided two perspectives on what can be done to build trust between the US and China.

The first was regarding the immediate situation between the US and China. One participant described that US-China bilateral relations have already become polarized, with each side merely asserting their own claims and opinions. It was suggested that it is difficult to provide a practical solution when both sides seem to lack the intention to foster trust.

However, many attendees pointed to the growing risk of accidental clashes in the Taiwan Strait, emphasizing the need for all parties to become more involved and engage in dialogue. What is particularly necessary, it was said, is for military commanders to be able to quickly communicate with each other, and for political leaders to continuously interact. It was also mentioned that time to establish such interactions is running out.

Both the US and China seemed to agree that it would be effective to start engaging in dialogue at the field commander level, and then gradually move that dialogue up the hierarchy to the level of the political leaders.

On maritime issues, a consensus was reached on the need for the prompt construction of an effective crisis management mechanism, but on the topic of freedom of navigation, an opinion from the Chinese side suggested that military activity should not be permitted near coastlines, even when those areas are technically international waters. So, while there was some consensus, the discussion revealed a difference in how the participants from different countries view specific aspects.

On the topic of the East China Sea, the Japanese side asked why the joint resource development agreement signed with China in June 2008 seems to have stalled after 14 years. The Chinese side responded by pointing out that the situation surrounding Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands remains unchanged, and there are still issues regarding improvement of China-Japan relations, making it clear that there is little prospect of resuming negotiations any time soon.

China argues no similarity: Ukraine is international, Taiwan domestic

The next issue began with China expressing their view of Russia's military action against Ukraine. Numerous speakers mentioned the similarities between the situation in Ukraine and the structure of the Taiwan issue.

The Chinese side stated their view that China's intentions for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue is clear. The greatest effort must be made to maintain sovereignty and territorial integrity, they said, and that desire lies in the fundamental thinking underlying the Charter of the United Nations.

They disputed the idea that the Taiwan issue is similar to the situation in Ukraine, describing them as completely different, with one individual saying, "The Ukraine issue is an international issue. The Taiwan issue is a domestic issue." In addition, while Russia is acting within the sphere of influence of the former Soviet Union, they argued that China stands in the position of the victim in East Asia, subjected to the pressures of the US and other countries.

The issue of Ukraine is a clear challenge to the global order and its foundation of international law, but during the discussions, there was no definitive protest made by the Chinese participants regarding Russia's unilateral military action in Ukraine.

Statements were made by the attendees from China pointing to their view of the Ukraine issue as a conflict between the US and Russia, and in the face of the deepening conflict between the US and China, it seemed that the Chinese government may be showing some understanding towards Russia's actions.

The South Korean attendees stated that the Ukraine issue is illustrating the importance of alliances, and that a stronger alliance with the US would guarantee both peace and stability. Even if the world changes in significant ways, until a new set of principles can be established, the South Korean side stated their belief in operating within the framework of existing alliances.

Statements from US side criticized the leadership of the Biden administration by asserting that in order to protect shared values against tyrannical behavior, what is needed is not only sanctions but also a stronger military response.

Can a new framework for US-China crisis management replace the MMCA?

Finally, the discussion turned to the possibility of military contingencies as activity increases in the Taiwan Strait, and participants agreed that practical dialogue including military commanders is urgently needed. Many speakers proposed a new framework for regional accident prevention considering that previous agreements like the MMCA are not functioning properly.

With the discussion winding down, three attendees were then asked to summarize the discussions to bring the Asia Peace Conference to a close.

From Japan, Former Ambassador to the People's Republic of China Yuji Miyamoto pointed to the strong consensus reached regarding the seriousness of the current security situation, the need for crisis management to navigate the treacherous path ahead, the essential requirement for dialogue and trust-building, and the need for finding common interests. He emphasized that at the next Asia Peace Conference participants should begin discussing specific issues to be resolved, and proposed that a better atmosphere of mutual understanding could be fostered through that type of concrete collaboration.


China agrees on the need for an effective crisis management mechanism

Jia Qingguo is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and is former Dean of the School of International Studies of Peking University. He offered his view of the Taiwan issue by criticizing the US and Taiwan for their actions that go against the 1992 consensus and thereby prevent peaceful reunification. He argued that if the West opposes the pro-Russian independence movements in Ukraine, it should also oppose the independence of Taiwan.

He added that China agrees regarding freedom of navigation in the Taiwan Strait, but opposes military activities and surveillance efforts in the region. Jia believes that dialogue is needed to bridge the gap in how the different sides view the situation, and agreed with the panelists from Japan, the US, and South Korea that an effective crisis management mechanism is required.

He emphasized the importance of Track II dialogues like the Asia Peace Conference, and argued that governments should respect the move towards such dialogues.


Commitment to "One China" remains, but the situation has changed

Frank Jannuzi, President of The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in the US, noted that consensus was reached on a number of discussions that took place during the Asia Peace conference. First is that the rules-based international order is under pressure. Second, there remain "fissures" in understanding on what a new global order should look like and there is a need to update the rules in line with a new vision for the order. Finally, such discussions should be inclusive, involving the participation of all countries, not just the great powers.

He also noted that the commitment to the principle of One China continues, but indicated that changes in the US, China, and Taiwan have transformed the situation such that the important question now is on how to reinforce the rules through candid, open dialogue and ensure peace and stability. Until that update is complete, however, there should be an effort to follow the existing international order and maintain the status quo.


Moving forward step-by-step to find common ground through dialogue

Yasushi Kudo wrapped up the discussions by reminding the attendees that public opinion polls clearly show that the people of Northeast Asia have a powerful desire for peace and maintaining the rules-based order, and asserted that "Our will to build that in any way possible is unwavering." He looked back at the discussions held throughout the conference, and noted that the talks also showed that there is an obvious lack of mutual trust, which is affecting how each country interprets what the other countries are saying.

"We have no option but to continue to engage in dialogue, to search step-by-step for common ground, and to build trust with each other," Kudo said, and expressed that he is very much looking forward to the next Asia Peace Conference, and to future bilateral dialogues between Japan, and the US, China, and South Korea.

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