The Asia-Pacific Leadership Network (APLN), in cooperation with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), hosted a virtual workshop on 16 February 2022, assessing actionable steps towards a Northeast Asian security architecture. Participants included senior former officials from the region, and policy experts from South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, Vietnam, Australia, Mongolia and the United States.
The workshop was the culmination of regional consultations on how to expand cooperative security mechanisms in Northeast Asia and formed part of a project sponsored by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. These consultations included examining the desirability and feasibility of potential substantive elements of a regional security architecture; the complex concerns of states in the region; and the merits and challenges associated with implementing differing regional frameworks for future cooperation (an ecosystem approach, a declaratory process, and a nested institutions approach – three cooperative security schemas that were developed following CEIP-hosted workshops in November and December 2021).
An ecosystem approach
Consultations indicated strong support for an informal “ecosystem approach” to cooperative security-building, drawing on existing institutions, fora, and multilateral arrangements. This approach was considered pragmatic, flexible, inclusive and cooperation-oriented. However, a few workshop participants expressed doubts over the value of such an approach, especially in the context of worsening US-China relations. They argued it would be more productive if states in the region focused on expanding “mini-lateral” security initiatives or creating a Helsinki-type process.
A major theme of the discussions was the worsening trust deficit among states, which constrains regional cooperation and contributes to the region’s uniquely weak cooperative security mechanisms. There was broad agreement among participants that a sense of regionalism, common security and trust-building need to be cultivated.
Some participants argued that expanding the activities of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) or a similar Track 2 organisation could help build trust or at least sustain dialogue. For example, in the past, CSCAP Study Groups such as the Nuclear Energy Experts Group have contributed to trust-building by improving transparency among Northeast Asia’s nuclear safety and security experts and regulators. However, sceptics wonder whether such initiatives might have been overtaken by events: they view them as products of the 1990s, when a more hopeful spirit prevailed and multilateralism experienced a renaissance. Nevertheless, there was general recognition that Track 2 initiatives, including CSCAP, provide important venues for building and maintaining dialogue, including among the next generation of experts and leaders.
“Functional spillover” effects
An idea that is central to the ecosystem model – that functional security cooperation in some areas can “spill over” into more sensitive, traditional security areas – provoked some interesting discussion among participants. It was pointed out that such spillover doesn’t often materialise. The example of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (a joint initiative by China, Japan, and South Korea) was used to illustrate this problem, in that it carefully fences off cooperation on environment, culture, and people-to-people exchanges from more difficult security issues.
It was speculated that the prospects for functional spillover might be limited due to a lack of adaptability and relevance of existing cooperative security mechanisms to today’s deteriorating strategic environment. The uncertainty surrounding this issue highlights the need for an in-depth study on whether and how functional spillover can be accomplished in a time of rising tensions, power shifts and rapid technological change. One participant argued that in today’s challenging security environment, spill over requires stronger leadership from the top. Another added that security experts could facilitate spill over if they speak up and do more to ensure their ideas are heard by political leaders.
Participants noted that environmental security cooperation has progressed in East Asia in the past 15 years and offers a promising area for further expansion. The results of the survey conducted by RUSI also indicated that this could be a constructive area of focus, especially since the United States and China have declared climate action to be a joint priority. One participant suggested this presents an opportunity to launch a formal Northeast Asian climate change dialogue, which could be modelled on the recently established ASEAN-ROK Dialogue.
Some were sceptical that cooperation on environmental challenges could help restore trust between states. Others pointed to the release of treated wastewater from the Fukushima power plant as an example of a missed opportunity: while it could have been managed in a way that fostered a sense of common security via dialogue, joint monitoring and research, Japan treated it as a national and technical issue. Improved cooperation in this area is both desirable and feasible, and could mirror cooperation in Southeast Asia, where China and Japan have cooperated with regional partners on ocean research.
One way to help build trust in the long-term and revitalize stalled dialogue initiatives is for states to focus on building networks among the region’s younger generations, with the goal of nurturing future leaders and developing trust and understanding between them. As one participant argued, “we cannot rely on offensive realists and nationalist bureaucrats” to break the cycle of mistrust in Northeast Asia. Instead, we need to expand epistemic communities and people-to-people linkages that help foster regionalism and a sense of shared responsibility for tackling security challenges.
Overall, workshop discussions confirmed the widely held view that trust-building among states in the region is an urgent priority, and unless this occurs, the prospects for improving security cooperation in the region are poor. It also confirmed the prevailing pessimism over the region’s ability to tackle traditional security challenges – participants stressed the need to address the growing risks associated with arms racing and militarism, but acknowledged that the current political climate makes this extremely difficult.
There was frustration that the type of security cooperation envisaged by an ecosystem approach could end up being a case of too little too late, and yet at the same time it might be all that is currently feasible. Based on these discussions, it seems sensible to energetically pursue a hybrid eco-system approach to cooperative security-building, focusing on expanding mechanisms that address areas of common ground, while also pushing for new mechanisms that address the region’s most pressing security challenges.