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Can a new security architecture help transform geopolitically tense bilateral relationships (for instance, U.S.–China, U.S.–Russia, U.S.–North Korea, South Korea–Japan, China–Japan), or can a new architecture only be realized as a result of better bilateral relations between its constituent states?

The United States and China are engaged in what could be called a new cold war. Despite the two states’ long-standing diplomatic relationship, high degree of interdependence, and continued cooperation and exchanges in the economic, social, and cultural fields—even somewhat in the area of military security—they are engaged in unequivocal strategic containment of each other.

This new era of cold war thinking has contributed to increasing tension in the region, prompting fears of arms-racing behavior and possible military escalation. This competition also stifles cooperation among other powers in the region, who must carefully balance security and economic relationships with the United States and China against each other.

Li Nan
Li Nan is a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of American Studies. His research mainly focuses on U.S.–North Korea relations and China–North Korea relations.

For progress to be made at the regional level, a resolution of larger geopolitical competition must first be reached to achieve some sort of détente between the United States and China. Major powers in Northeast Asia—the United States, China, and Russia—should abandon this new cold war and instead seek a new model of coexistence that accommodates competition while promoting cooperation in areas where it is feasible. Instead of exacerbating their strategic and ideological divergences, the United States and China should instead focus on building functional cooperation in areas that serve each country’s national interest. A secondary goal of this cooperation would be to demonstrate to other countries in the region that the interaction between China and the United States does not preclude collaboration on important functional issues.

Joe Biden’s administration defines the China-U.S. relationship in terms of strategic competition, and it prioritizes its alliances over any relationship with China and Russia in the region. Given the cluster of bilateral alliances that exist in the region, the question inevitably arises: How will the future Northeast Asian security architecture relate to existing alliances? There are currently three bilateral alliances, namely the U.S.-South Korea alliance, the U.S.-Japan alliance, and the unofficial China-North Korea alliance, or “Traditional Friendship.” A Northeast Asian security architecture may not replace existing alliances, so the coexistence of bilateral and multilateral regimes seems a desirable option.

This raises other questions: What is the relationship between the hub-and-spoke structure and the network structure? Will there be tension between them? In order to ease tensions, the bilateral alliance must be restrained in some way to limit its potential negative impact on regional peace and security. U.S. power in Northeast Asia, however, largely relies on the U.S.-South Korea and U.S.-Japan alliances. The United States’ continued buildup of military capabilities within these relationships has spread strategic distrust throughout the region. As a result, both North Korea and China are increasingly unwilling to diplomatically engage with the United States, instead preparing for confrontation with the United States in the long term. In the context of China-U.S. competition—given that the United States keeps building up its alliances through military means, even making progress on trilateral cooperation between its allies—the tension between these alliances and possible multilateral regimes will grow, leaving no space for the multilateral.

In this environment, a viable Northeast Asian security architecture will have to include the creation of new and effective rules, norms, and institutions.

What are the key ideational divergences among states in the region on sequencing? Do these differences tend to be philosophical or more practical?

There are three core divergences among states in the region. The first pertains to the new cold war and understandings of the world structure. Even though both China and the United States have publicly said that they will work to prevent a new cold war, their relations have entered a cold war–like phase, from each other’s perspective, as North Korea has officially acknowledged. As a U.S. ally, South Korea shares this concern about a new cold war and worries that it will be forced to choose between its security cooperation with the United States and its economic relationship with its neighbor, China.

Relatedly, a second divergence concerns the U.S. role in the region, where countries have sharply different views. From a Chinese, North Korean, and Russian perspective, the United States is trying to seek hegemonic power by building up its alliances, which is destabilizing the region. But from the South Korean and Japanese perspective, the United States has played a constructive role since the Second World War, stabilizing the region through its alliances and the spread of democracy. For North Korea, diplomacy with the United States has always been a top priority in its foreign policy, yet the United States’ continued economic pressure, coupled with its increased military support for regional allies, has made any prospect of diplomacy difficult.

A third divergence concerns China’s development. Where will Chinese foreign policy go as it rises? Will China become another hegemonic power or a peacebuilding partner? Will the traditional “tribute” system return to the region? Naturally, the United States and China have sharply divergent views on this.

Finally, there are sharp divides in the region concerning territorial disputes and historical issues. These issues are difficult to address because of their emotional resonance within these countries. Every state involved in a territorial or historical dispute approaches these issues without compromise, resulting in totally divergent views regionwide.

Given domestic political constraints, existing geopolitical realities, and threat perceptions in the region, what sort of sequencing is desirable and feasible?

Several principles should guide the sequencing of any regional security architecture. The most feasible way of making progress would be to start with the easiest, least politically contentious issues, build trust among actors, and gradually expand to more ambitious cooperation.

In this process, parties should maintain flexibility when it comes to sequencing. They can pursue cooperation in multiple issue areas simultaneously; there is no need to separate issues according to strict priorities. However, functional issues should take precedence over the institutional in order to advance cooperation. Institutions and norms do not need to be constructed at the outset; rather, they can emerge naturally over time, but this approach will require serious efforts to foster mutual understanding of each other’s concerns and common interests.  

Without great power cooperation or coordination, the likelihood of a security architecture emerging and succeeding is not high. The failure of the Four-Party Talks serves as a cautionary example. These talks, held from 1997 to 1998 between North Korea, South Korea, China, and the United States, were intended to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and lay the basis for a formal peace agreement to end the Korean War. At the talks, the United States provided no specific road map for North Korean denuclearization, and China was reluctant to involve itself with negotiations between the two states. As a result, China and the United States were unable to find a path for cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue, and the Four-Party Talks ended in failure.

Although it is necessary for great powers to set the tone for cooperation, it is important that other parties in the region, like the Koreas or Mongolia, play a more active role in actual cooperation at the functional level.

Based on the logic of this sequencing, what concrete steps might be attempted first and what other notional steps could follow? What issues and elements should be addressed in the near term as regional efforts toward a new architecture might proceed? Which issues should be addressed later in such process?

Policymakers should seek to address nontraditional security issues first, as they are the least politically contentious and thus the easiest on which to reach consensus for all parties.

Historically, the top-down process of hosting summit meetings has been effective for the inter-Korean relationship and the fastest way to achieve inter-Korean confidence-building. Early in the architecture building process, people-to-people exchanges, especially in the academic and artistic fields, could help to improve the emotional ties and mutual understanding between states.

As trust builds between the two Koreas, cooperation could expand to include transportation, infrastructure building, and immigration, as well as environmental governance on issues like smog, dust storms, and climate change, which inherently affect all states in the region. States could also seek cooperation on emerging technology issues, especially those aimed at improving quality of life, since these areas could be particularly attractive for North Korean involvement.

Finally, the Korean Peninsula is witnessing a serious arms buildup, and reducing the tensions associated with an arms race is a critical issue that all countries in the region should want to address. When enough trust and consensus has been built, countries can expand cooperation into more traditional areas, including militaries, arms control, territorial disputes, and historical issues.