Can shared interests in the region pertaining to nontraditional security challenges (including trade, food security, climate, and public health) facilitate trust-building and cooperation toward a new regional architecture? How?
Although it would be desirable to expand security cooperation beyond traditional domains, that expansion is highly unlikely at this time. In recent years, we have seen both the United States and China weaponize trade and economic interdependence as tools for coercion. The United States started a trade war against China in 2018, followed by a massive, rapidly escalating sanctions campaign against China in 2019 with clear intention to derail Chinese industrial policy and the global expansion of Chinese high-tech companies such as Huawei. China, meanwhile, conducted a large-scale sanctions campaign of its own against South Korea in 2016 and 2017 over the deployment of the American THAAD missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula. This campaign, while successful in limiting South Korean defense cooperation with the United States, has resulted in the rapid rise of anti-Chinese sentiments in South Korean society and politics. Later, in 2020 and 2021, China also carried out retaliatory measures against the United States and unleashed a sanctions campaign against Australia.
Both superpowers are engaged in economic warfare against each other and are increasingly using instruments of economic coercion against smaller countries (for example, Chinese sanctions against the Philippines and South Korea, or U.S. sanctions against North Korea and Myanmar). Smaller countries have also sought to weaponize economic interdependence, as seen in Japan’s use of punitive export controls against South Korea in 2019. Although nonmilitary forms of conflict seem preferable to outright war, they can make it more difficult for parties to cooperate on traditional security issues. In this context, even cooperation on public health now looks difficult, since vaccines are being used as foreign policy tools, while Washington and Beijing continue to trade unhelpful allegations related to the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus.
In sum, the current foreign policy goal for the United States is to achieve maximum possible international isolation of China and Russia, who, in return, are boosting their cooperation to weaken and undermine U.S. influence as much as possible. These are the realities of the new cold war, which are defining today’s whole international system. The ongoing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine—along with the corresponding blockade of Russia from much of the global economic system—threatens to sever U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations entirely.
Possibilities for new cooperation may reemerge if this new cold war enters a period of relative détente, like the Soviet-American relationship in the 1970s. In such a situation, environmental protection, climate change cooperation, and combating cyber crime may be promising areas for collaboration.
What are the divergences in the region today on economic matters, including trade and development? To what extent should economic considerations and a shared interest in regional development and growth be built into a new architecture?
We are at an early stage of economic fragmentation within the region, which will likely go on for much of the 2020s and result in the emergence of two blocs centered around the United States and China, with some nonaligned countries. More and more states will be forced to choose between China and the United States, in both economic and security dimensions, even if they try to avoid such a situation. While Japan is likely ultimately to end up in the U.S. camp and Russia in the Chinese one, South Korea is seen by China as a battleground country that can be influenced by Chinese economic diplomacy.
Economic considerations still play a productive role in relations between the Northeast Asian countries. However, that cooperation will be increasingly affected by Chinese and American economic practices including economic coercion, import substitution, and protection of supply chains. China, in spite of its public rhetoric in support of free trade, is turning inward with a “dual circulation strategy” aimed at prioritizing the internal drivers of economic growth. Increased productivity based on the current large-scale investment is supposed to be one such driver, while increased consumption should be the other. Both elements of this strategy depend on the success of current Chinese industrial policies, which is far from guaranteed, especially taking U.S. pressure into account.
The existing system of trade agreements and the robust economic ties between the countries of the region will make the process of decoupling and fragmentation rather slow and gradual; still, they will not change the general trend.
Which nontraditional security issues are likely to hold the most promise for fostering the broadest multilateral cooperation in the region?
Climate appears to be one of few issues on which all players are ready to cooperate. Such cooperation will have its limits, however, because of the ongoing technological war between the United States on one side and China and Russia on the other. The United States is currently trying to isolate China from sources of Western technology by limiting scientific cooperation with the Chinese, sanctioning certain high-tech exports to China, and monitoring Chinese investments into certain sectors.
China has set ambitious climate goals in its fourteenth Five-Year Plan and has shown great commitment to the restructuring of its energy sector, which contributed to its energy crisis in autumn of 2021. Chinese leaders apparently see energy sector reform as an important part of their general modernization strategy. The agreement reached by the chief climate negotiators of the United States and China, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, contrasts with other aspects of U.S.-China relations.
Russia is also getting increasingly serious on climate issues, which suggests this area could be a uniting platform for trilateral cooperation. Russia is currently developing green financing platforms and plans to increase its solar and wind generation as part of its long-term goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, Russia is trying to find international partners in developing the production of renewable energy equipment at home. However, the ongoing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine has completely collapsed most areas of cooperation between the United States and Russia. Despite urgency and incentives to work together on climate issues, there are likely no prospects for any kind of multilateral cooperation with Russian participation for the foreseeable future.
To what extent are competing economic interests between regional players likely to hinder efforts to establish a new architecture?
The China-U.S. economic and political conflict appears to be unreconcilable and may persist for the long term. The increasing economic isolation of Russia—by the United States, the European Union, and several Asian actors—deepens this division, leaving China as Russia’s only possible major partner in the region. At the same time, there has been a separate but rapid expansion of the use of sanctions machinery by China, including Beijing’s first use of secondary sanctions, which were imposed against Lithuania in late 2021 and early 2022. These trends could lead to increased economic fragmentation and exacerbate the ongoing arms race in the region; thus, they will likely be defining factors for any new architecture.
The main issue here is the incompatibility of the current Chinese economic model and the models chosen by the United States and some other developed countries. The Chinese economic model relies on large-scale public investment and subsidies of domestic high-tech industries, which are supposed to achieve dominating positions on both the domestic and global markets. Programs such as Made in China 2025 are distorting the global market and may ultimately lead to massive losses for U.S. corporations. The United States is trying to prevent this development by waging economic and technological war against China.
Chinese economic and trade policies pose a threat to other developed industrial economies as well, but to a much lesser extent. Russia does not see a major threat from Chinese expansion, being predominantly a commodities exporter with relatively small and highly specialized high-tech industries, which at some point may be included in common production chains.
South Korea and Japan are likely to be caught in the U.S.-China economic war and be subject to extensive economic pressure from one side or the other, depending on their political choices.
What role should human factors, including human rights, have in shaping a new architecture and cooperative approaches to security in the region?
Human factors are a deeply divisive issue in the region, since the United States uses human rights issues to pressure its geopolitical adversaries, while China and Russia see any human rights agenda as a threat to their security and sovereignty. However, even in this context, there are positive examples of cooperation on some issues related to human security, specifically on law enforcement. The police and security services of regional countries continue to cooperate on combating cyber crime, human trafficking, and the illicit drugs trade. Such cooperation should be maintained and preserved to provide a starting point for future reestablishment of ties.
U.S. attempts to build a legal case regarding China’s responsibility for the genocide in Xinjiang might make any human rights dialogue highly unlikely. Recreating the success of the Cold War’s Helsinki Process is possible, but it would have to wait until a period of relative détente in relations between the United States, China, and Russia. Notably, in the Helsinki Accords, human rights issues were interconnected with territorial integrity and security issues. That might be impossible as long as the Taiwan issue is not resolved or deescalated.
To what extent should a new architecture seek to promote multilateral scientific and technical cooperation on common global challenges, including, but not limited to, climate change and pandemics?
A new architecture should promote such exchanges and attempt to weaken the current trend toward technological nationalism and egoism. Climate change remains the main dimension of possible cooperation. There is significant possibility of struggle over the technological standards concerning 5G and other advanced technologies, and cooperation should be aimed toward limiting the fallout from this rivalry. Notably, China and the United States, countries which are key providers of critical technology and production components for the rest of the world, and Russia, as a major provider of energy, agricultural exports, and some other critical industrial commodities, could discuss a code of conduct concerning technological and economic warfare in areas related to healthcare, climate change policies, or other relevant issues.