Differing priorities and lack of trust dominate, so the private sector will play an important role in building US-China dialogue and promoting concrete actions

August 25, 2023

The first session of the Asia Peace Conference began upon completion of the opening ceremony, and the discussion revolved around the Northeast Asian security risks deemed to be most serious in 2023, namely, issues centered on North Korea and the US-China conflict. The session was moderated by Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO.

Locked in a "security dilemma," the US-China relationship will remain difficult to repair as long at their interests are structurally at odds. The APC should offer a way forward.

The first session began with one panelist from each of the four participating countries ? the US, Japan, China, and South Korea ? presenting an issue for discussion. The first speaker was Daniel Russell, a former US Assistant Secretary of State and the current Vice President of the Asia Society Policy Institute. Russell began by presenting his thoughts on the potential sources of the risks faced by Northeast Asia.

He places the drivers of these issues in three general categories. First, hot spots or flashpoints such as North Korean missile launches, regional maritime disputes, and Taiwan. Second is transnational or non-traditional security threats such as threats from cyberspace and transformational technologies like artificial intelligence, and those caused by extreme weather, water and food insecurity, etc. The third driver is threats that "emanate from the way that China's rise has been occurring...and more broadly, the accelerating strategic rivalry between China and the United States, and between China and other industrialized democracies in the region."

Russell believes that a "security dilemma" exists between the US and China, and that dilemma intensifies all other risk factors. He explained that this dilemma arises out of the fact that both countries believe that the other poses a significant threat to their own national security and other interests.

"That conviction drives a vicious cycle of moves that one side sees as defensive and justified, and the other side sees as aggressive and unfair," he said. " We now operate in a hair-trigger environment in which an incident can quickly escalate into a crisis, and where the lack of trust or dialogue, combined with nationalism, means that a crisis could very well lead to conflict. Something that neither side intended, and neither side wants."

He noted that this security dilemma has substantially increased the risk of conflict over Taiwan and has given North Korea more leeway to threaten Japan, the ROK, and the United States, without being reined in by either China or Russia.

Russell pointed out two main obstacles that are making it difficult for the two countries to improve their relationship. First is that they are currently both looking for an advantage in emerging technologies with military and strategic applications ? technologies that could potentially change the global economic and security environment. The second obstacle lies in the fact that global issues will only worsen if China and the West cannot cooperate fully in preventing, "new pandemics, food insecurity and hunger, environmental degradation, and global warming," the last of which Russel described as being close to a tipping point from which the world will be unable to return.

He described the cyclical and structural elements of the relationship between the countries, pointing out that while there is effort being made to cool the friction, but structural issues remain, with more areas where interest is diverging, and fewer areas where interests converge.

Finally, Russell described a number of issues and situations that the region will almost certainly have to face in the coming years and lauded the APC as an effective means of finding answers.

"We may not be able to prevent these things from happening," he said. "But this conference is an important opportunity to explore practical ways that we can prepare for them, that we can manage them, and that we can reduce the risk of conformation and conflict in Northeast Asia."


Pessimism about the increasingly ideological U.S.-China relationship remains, but a "window of opportunity" will remain open until the end of the year. Japan-China dialogue also important.

The next speaker was Jia Qingguo, a Member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University. Jia also discussed the current state of China-US relations.

Jia began by expressing his somewhat pessimistic view of the situation, stating that while the economic relationship is still close, ideological competition and military confrontations are increasing, and there are now efforts being made to de-couple the two economies. He believes that the relationship is currently the worst it has been since the 1970s, and it will likely get worse before it gets better.

Jia noted that too many people on both sides believe that rising powers must clash with established powers, a theory Jia does not agree is true, and both countries are emphasizing ideological and political differences, which makes the "pragmatic management of the relationship more difficult."

"If it is about interests, we can always make a deal," he said. "But if it is about ideology or identity, it is more difficult because everything is cast in black and white, good and evil."

In addition, the "tough approach towards China" begun by former US President Trump will likely remain because competition and confrontation with China is considered the only correct way to defend American values and interests. A similar environment can also be found in China as well, as "nowadays, you don't see any positive news about the US in China." He pointed out that the US press doesn't offer positive news about China either, or members of Congress agree on nothing but maintaining a hardline stance towards China.

"We don't have diplomacy anymore," he said. "And that's a problem."

However, while Jia remains pessimistic about the current relationship, he believes that there is a window of opportunity that the two countries could use to stabilize the relationship. China can take advantage of the decisions made during the 20th Party Congress to approach the US, and President Biden is able to take advantage of the fact that since the democrats lost the House during the previous midterm election, he is no longer bound to Congress' decisions and can move independently to work with China.

"But that window is very small," he said. "We only have a few months. By the end of the year, the US presidential election will be at full steam, and President Biden will probably have to take a tougher position on China."

Jia also touched upon the current China-Japan relationship, saying that although the two countries are celebrating the 45th anniversary of the signing of the Peace and Friendship Treaty, relations are cool and there exists a chance that the peace will be broken.

"This is something that both countries have to take seriously," he said. "In reality, I do not think that China and Japan are destined to be enemies. We have a lot of shared interests and stakes. We are great economic partners. We are neighbors and share a lot of security interests. We are stakeholders in regional peace and prosperity, so we must cooperate."

Jia offered a few suggestions on how the two countries could work to improve the relationship, saying that Japan should work to reassure China that it does respect China's territoriality, and that it is not encouraging the US to confront China. He admitted that he does not believe that this is Japan's intention, but the close relationship between the US and Japan means that there are suspicions in China regarding that. He also said that China needs to reassure Japan that "it does not seek to keep Japan down, and wants to work with Japan to develop a mutually respectful and beneficial relationship."

Jia concluded by supporting the idea of maintaining private-sector channels that are immune to the effects of political events, and that allow for the exchange of views on sensitive issues and provide pragmatic ways to manage those issues.


North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities improving, and Washington Declaration unable to cope alone. Japan-U.S.-South Korea cooperation should be strengthened.

Next to speak was Choi Byung-Hyuk, former Deputy Commander of ROK-US Combined Forces Command. He focused on the North Korean issue, which he believes to be the most important in Northeast Asia, and began by expressing his relief that the experts from all four countries shared his stance because having a "common perception" of an issue is essential to resolving it.

After an overview of recent North Korean missile development and testing, Choi pointed out that recent technological breakthroughs suggest that its missiles not only threaten the peace of Northeast Asia, but they are now also able to reach the US and Europe as well. He looked back at the 2019 Hanoi Summit and described how a failure to reach an agreement there changed North Korea's strategy.

"Kim Jong-un presented a five-year plan for the development of defense science and weapons systems...in 2021. He ordered the objective to be the development of advanced weapons that included the development of hypersonic glide vehicles, ICBMS, multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), nuclear-powered submarines, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, military reconnaissance satellites, etc."

He reviewed the number of nuclear warheads North Korea is estimated to have ? between 40 and 90 ? and noted that it is possible that they were be used for offensive purposes rather than only defensive purposes. As only Kim Jong-un can authorize the use of nuclear weapons in North Korea, Choi believes that the greatest threat lies in Kim's mental instability and potential miscalculations, and the fact that no one in North Korea has the authority to reverse an order to launch given by the dictator.

"The greatest threat to neighboring countries is that a country like North Korea, ruled by a dictator, can change its nuclear strategy at any time," he said.

Choi concluded by stating that the Washington Declaration has improved confidence in U.S. extended deterrence to some extent, but that it is not enough to deal with North Korea, which has become a global threat. He stated that to address the threats to peace in Northeast Asia, Japan and South Korea must strengthen bilateral security cooperation, alongside stronger trilateral cooperation between Japan, the US, and South Korea.


North Korea impatient, and a solid, unified response by Japan, the U.S., and South Korea is needed. China should assure others that it intends to peacefully re-integrate Taiwan.

The final presenter to provide context for the subsequent discussions was Katsutoshi Kawano, former Chief of Japan's Joint Staff.

Kawano began his remarks by discussing the North Korean issue, noting that Kim Jong-un may have learned from the breakdown of the U.S.-North Korea talks that not even diplomacy can extract concessions from the US when North Korea's nuclear and missile development is still incomplete. He expressed the opinion that negotiations would not be possible until after the completion of Kim Jong-un's five-year plan for the development of defense science and weapons systems. (The plan was announced in 2021 and included calls for (1) the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and tactical weapon development; (2) the production of large-scale nuclear warheads; and (3) the development of hypersonic glide weapons and nuclear submarines.)

In addition, Kawano said that Russia's successful "nuclear blustering" against Ukraine, a non-nuclear power, has lent more legitimacy to North Korea's desire to possess nuclear weapons, and if it continues, "denuclearization will likely become impossible."

Regarding Taiwan, Kawano said, "Japan supports the One China principle if the situation can be resolved peacefully, but Japan would have no choice but to respond to any military intervention as it would directly affect Japan's own national security."

Such concerns on the part of Japan are difficult to assuage as long as President Xi Jinping refrains from ruling out unification through armed force. Kawano called for Japan to take a completely passive stance on the Taiwan issue, making no moves in regard to Taiwan, and expressed his hope that China would follow a similar path and declare its desire to achieve unification through peaceful means only.

With the issues now presented, the discussion began.


The North Korea Problem: Different Priorities for the U.S. and China

On the North Korea issue, Choi Hyeonjung, Director of the Center for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that sanctions are an extremely effective way to send a message. However, no additional international sanctions have been imposed upon North Korea even though the country has continued to launch ballistic missiles, so he proposed that the actors involved discuss how to maximize the effect of current international sanctions and enhance bilateral sanctions.

Jia Qingguo, on the other hand, stated that he believes increased sanctions would be ineffective, and the proof of that lies in the desperate conditions North Korea faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. He added however that current sanctions should probably be maintained.

Russell recalled that even when US-China relations where at their best, "China, which has a lot of leverage over North Korea, was never willing to use that, and as a result, China didn't have influence over North Korea...China's tolerance of North Korea's behavior is driving the threat of nuclear war."

"The result is that China's worst nightmare is being realized," he added. "Not only does it have a dangerous North Korea on its border, but the US, South Korea, and Japan are coming closer and closer together as a tightly knit, resolute alliance network. Ultimately, China's geopolitical situation will suffer badly as a result of its failure to restrain North Korea."

Nicholas Szechenyi is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He returned to Jia Qingguo's statement about the difficulties of addressing ideology in diplomacy.

"When we talk about ideology, we can't do very much, but when we talk about our shared interests, there's potential," he said. "I can't think of a larger shared interest than the urgent challenge we face with North Korea's determination to further develop its ballistic missile and nuclear programs."


Taiwan: China Doesn't Trust Intentions of US and Japan

The discussion turned to Taiwan, and Kudo asked why China is so suspicious of countries like Japan and the US, both of which have stated that they will abide by the One China principle.

Jia Qingguo explained why China is worried about extremist opinions about Taiwan in the US congress.

"Because they manage to get their voices translated into policies," he said. "We see the administration, under the pressure of Congress, revising its approach to the Taiwan issue...the political basis of China-US relations is being undermined to the extent that we find it difficult to maintain diplomatic relations. Peaceful unification is predicated on the US upholding its commitments."

Ouyang Wei is a former professor of China's National Defense University and Vice-Director of the Academic Committee of the Grandview Institute. He emphasized that the Anti-Secession Law denotes that peaceful re-unification with Taiwan remains Chinese policy.


U.S.-China Conflict: Concrete Action, Not Just Dialogue 

Yoji Koda, former Commander of the Self-Defense Fleet, offered suggestions on how to harness communication channels to avoid war. He recalled when the then-Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the U.S. imposed severe sanctions on the Soviet Union and closed most diplomatic channels. However, the one channel that remained open was the agreement to prevent incidents at sea and keeping that open helped avert a crisis. Koda said that the U.S. should learn from this precedent, and ensure that no matter what happens, it should never cut off channels that continue to function and endure.

Yuji Miyamoto, former Ambassador of Japan to China, pointed out that countries often act upon their own perceptions of other countries' intentions, and oftentimes those perceptions differ somewhat from the stated policies of the countries in questions. An example of this is the idea of competition versus containment, a topic that arose from China's vehement opposition to G7 Hiroshima Summit Leaders' Declaration. Whereas the G7 stated that its intention was not to contain China but to engage in healthy competition, Jia Qingguo's statement about China's first priority being to escape from US containment shows that China's perception of the G7's intentions does not mesh with the G7's actual statements. Miyamoto pointed out that concrete actions, not only tailored statements, will be necessary to assure China that the intention is not to contain their rise.

Russell agreed that there is a need for concrete action but added that dialogue is also important.

"The fact that there has been so little communication has been tremendously damaging, to the US, to China, and to the world. An argument is not diplomacy. A one-way lecture is not diplomacy. But to listen, to understand, to creatively explore ways to co-exist and cooperate is diplomacy, and it's very difficult (to achieve these) now.

"The more communication we have (at various levels) and the more engagement we have, the better are our chances of escaping this vicious cycle with the world intact," Russel said.


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