Northeast Asian Regional Cooperation: An Elusive Necessity

Commentaries and Op-eds May, 2020, IFRI, pp. 78-84

This commentary is part of IFRI’s publication: “East Asia Security in Flux. What Regional Order Ahead?”

Despite the decreased tensions on the Korean Peninsula since the end of 2017, there has been a failure to manage, and more so to resolve, the North Korean nuclear issue. Since the Singapore Summit in June 2018, the denuclearization process could be compared to a train crash in slow motion. That negotiations would reach an impasse has been increasingly evident as North Korea has been very explicit in its demands and refusals to compromise on its core interests; likewise, the United States has pursued a maximalist approach focused on complete denuclearization before the lifting of sanctions or the signing of a peace treaty. Furthermore, even if there is international consensus on a peaceful and denuclearized Korean Peninsula, the major stakeholders are greatly divided in practice on how to resolve the nuclear quandary, something that has greatly benefitted North Korea’s position. This lack of consensus and failure to maintain sanctions at the level needed to convince the regime to change its current policy has weakened leverage over North Korea, with Chairman Kim Jung-Un arguably masterfully exploiting the divisions. Today there is little, if any, possibility to force North Korea to denuclearize unless a major internal crisis erupts.

The continuous failure on the Korean Peninsula is not only due to the lack of consistency of approach among the international community, or that bilateral dialogue between the US and North Korea has failed to achieve any sustainable breakthrough; any dialogue process is bound to experience ups and downs. Arguably, much more important is that the breakdown of bilateral negotiations on the Korean Peninsula leaves the whole process in limbo, without being embedded in a regional multilateral structure that could build on the progress made and reestablish dialogues in a more sustainable format less prone to breaking down. The stalled denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula, its implications, and the need for multilateral negotiations and structures is increasingly evident.

Seeking Stability and Managing a Top-down Process

Northeast Asia, in which I also include the US due to its strong position in the region (with military bases in South Korea and Japan and major geopolitical interests), has a long history of broken promises, nationalism, historical animosity, tension, and aggression, even if there have also been times of temporarily improved relations and détente. Contacts between states and political entities as well as improvements in relations have been initiated both by bilateral and multilateral means, but there is major concern in Northeast Asia about leadership of a regional structure and how to establish such a structure. China would prefer to have a regional structure for Asia by Asians, excluding the US, but the rest of the states, arguably also including North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: DPRK), would prefer to have a more balanced regional structure, i.e. balancing China, but not necessarily having the US dominating the future. There are today no agreements on how such a regional structure should be structured, and in the short to mid-term there seem to be limited opportunities for such a development.

However, it is often generally assumed, not least among the more powerful actors in a regional setting, that bilateral relations are the primary driving engine in creating security. This is not too far from the reality in Northeast Asia. I would even argue that bilateral dialogues are more often than not the engine for change in a Northeast Asian security setting. This is partly because there is no alternative to bilateralism, for historical and geopolitical reasons, and partly due to the fact that change is often driven by individual leaders with relatively strong power positions in Northeast Asia. There is no doubt that bilateral relations will continue to be predominant, and that multilateralism can only be successful when all actors define it as in their national interest to engage multilaterally. The European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), but also of course ASEAN, are cases where this has been the situation. None of these cases is without its weaknesses, however, and it is fair to say that the international space is dominated by realpolitik and imperfect multilateral security solutions.

With the exception of the Six-Party Talks, which ultimately failed, however, the lack of success in establishing a sustainable multilateral regional structure or system in Northeast Asia is worrisome. It is evident that bilateral interactions between states are often more flexible, but this does not mean that they are more stable: on the contrary, they tend to be dependent on personal relations and domestic political realities. Bilateral frameworks can be, and often are, more fragile than their multilateral counterparts, and are better used for short-term political momentum rather than sustainable long-term security dialogue. It is apparent that multilateralism has not worked, but neither have bilateral talks, power politics, sanctions, etc. The proposal here is to create multilateral structures, albeit weak, that reinforce the current fragmented dialogues through a process of official and semi-official channels.

While not disregarding the importance of bilateral efforts for achieving diplomatic momentum, these are vulnerable to setbacks. Breakthroughs have often failed to survive political transitions and geopolitical change, while being subject to the vicissitudes of individual leaders’ personalities and decisions. Despite the positive effects a top-down approach could have, the reliance on personal relationships can compound the insecurity and fragility of long-term relations as these relationships inevitably change over time. The personification of diplomacy through summit meetings between President Trump and Chairman Kim, as well as between President Moon and Chairman Kim, has ultimately failed to transcend the political realities faced and the domestic constraints in each country. Unfortunately, this is not unique for this time period or for the Korean Peninsula. Accordingly, there are still substantial gaps in how to secure long-term engagement at both the bilateral and multilateral level.

While the realpolitik aspects of international relations will continue to dominate world politics, and possibly especially so in Asia, the question is how to decrease their negative impact and secure positive development for the broader region. While all political processes are driven by political interests and unilateral agendas, these become more diluted (or stable) in a multilateral setting. This is not to say that the two approaches are mutually exclusive: multilateral meetings need to work in parallel with bilateral meetings to support and reinforce bilateral processes, and vice versa. This is why it is essential to strengthen bilateral dialogues between the different actors within a multilateral framework that could push any process beyond short-term bilateral interests. Weak multilateral structures, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), were extremely sensitive to unilateral interest, i.e. the US leaving the agreement, while stronger multilateral structures such as the EU are less concerned about unilateral measures such as Brexit. The reality in Northeast Asia in the short to medium term is that, even within a multilateral structure, unilateral interests will still affect the region to a very high degree. This said, there is always a higher degree of reluctance to break a multilateral agreement as this would damage that actor’s reputation, and it is unlikely that they would be trusted in forthcoming negotiations.

Obstacles and Challenges

Establishing multilateral security frameworks, of course, faces major obstacles, not least prevailing national interests and individual political leaders’ egos. National (or personal) interests drive much of the agenda even within multilateral frameworks (but arguably even more so in bilateral settings), but immediate results from more flexible dialogue between two leaders, such as in Singapore, could be reinforced by a more complex and stable multilateral structure that builds on formal or informal gains in the bilateral setting. The challenge will be to manage the linkage between bilateral and multiparty structures in an effective way.

A broad inclusiveness in a proposed regional framework in the Northeast Asian context would be essential to create more stable negotiations as it would be difficult to move forward without having a broad coalition agreeing on the future path. Without a multilateral framework, it would be impossible to sustain sanctions if negotiations break down; and on the other hand, it is impossible to lift the international sanctions without a multilateral agreement. It is even difficult for humanitarian organizations to operate in North Korea in areas such as food shortages, children’s vaccinations, etc, without a broad international agreement. It would also be difficult to promote a sustainable approach to economic development and political normalization without wider agreement.

In an unsuccessful or incomplete scenario, which is likely considering the failure in Hanoi or during working-level negotiations in Stockholm, there will be a need to mitigate tensions and try to reestablish security- building and denuclearization in a situation of no or limited trust between actors. Failure is a real option, as the main parties are not on the same page at this juncture in time, and the value of different actions is perceived very differently among the states involved as well as the organizations that have a stake in the process. This necessitates a compromise on all sides, and that the interests of all actors be taken into consideration, without necessarily surrendering the core values of each individual state. This is not an argument to unconditionally lift the current sanctions or to unilaterally dismantle the nuclear program, as national and international interests still remain, and it is important to remember that sanctions were put in place due to North Korea breaking international law, and nothing so far has changed that fact.

Spoiler problems could be endemic in the Korean Peninsula if strictly bilateral negotiations continue to be the primary route of action. China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan all have interests in the process, and will not sit idly by waiting for decisions that directly concern their future. Incorporating the interests of a broader group of actors will be essential if a peace treaty or economic deal is to be successful, but also to prevent competing bilateral agendas undermining long-term security. Furthermore, there are limits to negotiations if the positions and interest of other powers are not included, in particular those of great powers in the region. A regional mechanism would be able to address some of the issues of contention between different actors, not least Washington and Beijing, which so far have prevented a long-term solution of the situation in several contentious issues. A multilateral framework, therefore, would give each actor a voice and stake in shaping the outcome of the peace/denuclearization process, confidence building, and economic development, among other issues.

What is Needed in the Future?

Accordingly, multilateral negotiations between the key regional parties are also needed in the future to discuss more relevant regional security issues, such as peace treaties, international sanctions, pandemics, economic and humanitarian aid on the Korean Peninsula, but also maritime and cyber security as well as environmental and economic security. In fact, the latter will become increasingly necessary for reasons of inclusivity and coordination, and to address issues that cannot be resolved bilaterally. It is also clear that multilateral security instruments need to be integrated into a longer-term process of denuclearization and normalization in the region. Long-term measures to solve nuclear issues in Northeast Asia should look beyond the details of the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Cooperation should be gradually built on collaboration, such as to promote the safe use of nuclear energy and non-proliferation, which would potentially lead to more ambitious denuclearization issues such as safeguards and verification systems. Such measures would better answer whether a regional approach can be applied to Northeast Asia to resolve the common problems that countries are facing in the region. It is necessary for all sides to reaffirm that the end goal remains full denuclearization of the Peninsula and to complement bilateral negotiations when possible.

It is not feasible to go into depth in this paper what such a multilateral framework would actually look like, how it would operate in the context of Northeast Asia and in relations to the structures that presently exist, even if they are weak and underdeveloped. It would be useful to use the existing frameworks and build a regional consensus on how to operate the existing frameworks in a more effective way and to raise the question of sovereignty, potentially the most crucial obstacle to any regional structure in the region. However, the initial structure will be limited and built on both official and semi-official channels due to the low level of trust and the political considerations. The aim would be to reinforce the bilateral dialogues before any truly multilateral structures can be established.

Established and regularized structures will be required, as often there is a small window of opportunity to meet and discuss relevant issues. As one example, the current window of opportunity in the Korean Peninsula is limited, and there is a need to establish a multilateral framework not only to lock in the progress that has been made so far, through multilateral discussion and operational implementation, but also to create a format to oversee implementation and to create a more sustainable process involving economic and political normalization in the region. Personal contacts between Chairman Kim and President Trump are reportedly good, but they will both need some gains in order to consolidate support at home. Similarly, and potentially more troublingly, President Moon shares some of these needs, and he has so far been instrumental in the peace process. His support domestically has been declining and if he loses his momentum to act in this process, it could potentially jeopardize the positive climate that has been in place since January 2018. This in the light of the recent failure to get North Korea on the denuclearization bandwagon, which threatens the formal and high-level process, and it will be difficult to maintain the positive momentum that Trump has tended to boast about in his tweets. Similarly, there are always opportunities to seek out compromises and long-term solutions in most conflicts, but the window of opportunity is very limited due to changing political circumstances. When such opportunities arrive as a result of other processes or incidents, the region needs to be ready to act on them quickly, and there is no time to prepare a structure to seek out what could be accomplished.

Due to the limitations to the impact or even possibility of multilateralism and the stability of bilateralism and unilateralism, more space can be given, in tandem with the formal track one process, to support informal or semi-formal track 1.5 or 2 processes until a more coherent formal track is established. Despite the obvious need for such multilateral dialogue mechanisms to complement and support official processes, there is a lack of broader sustainable funding to support long-term initiatives, as short-term thinking and interests often prevail. The Korean Peninsula is one of the most obvious cases where informal tracks would be useful. The challenge is that low-key initiatives struggle to find political traction, space and support, with the focus primarily on a direct crisis situation and not on how to prevent situations from developing into crisis in the first place. This could very well be an issue for a multilateral dialogue in the Northeast Asian region as well: when there is not a direct crisis, there is less interest in sustaining dialogues, and starting a fresh dialogue is difficult when a crisis is already occurring, and trust is lacking. The challenge is that track 1.5 and 2 processes need to develop in times of relative stability, to be used in more problematic times.

Would a multilateral security structure resolve all the issues? No, but neither will strictly bilateral security arrangements. A regional framework can only succeed if each party is willing to invest political will, resources and, to a minimal extent, surrender some form of sovereignty in favor of regional security. It is imperative, therefore, that reinforcing structures be established to build trust and a process of interaction in the security field. The very lack of trust in the extended region is one of the most serious challenges – and the rapid growth of China as a dominant regional security actor has not increased trust but rather insecurity and distrust.

Read the chapter as part of IFRI’s entire publication here.

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