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To what extent should a new regional architecture for Northeast Asia be formally institutionalized, and what role can existing institutions in the region play to facilitate a new architecture? What sorts of bilateral, trilateral, and plurilateral arrangements can complement a new regional architecture?

Proposals for Asian architectures have often varied between prescribing formal, institutionalized means and more piecemeal, informal approaches. Despite the appeal of more structured cooperation within the region, a formal regional security arrangement in Northeast Asia is neither practical nor feasible for the time being, for several reasons. First, the region remains burdened by the legacies and historical grievances of World War II, particularly seen in Japan’s bilateral tensions with South Korea, China, and Russia. Furthermore, the region is encumbered by post–Cold War tensions as the strategic competition between the United States and China intensifies and states continue to grapple with North Korea’s nuclear ambition. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the different responses by the countries in the region—Japan and South Korea stand with the United States and Europe, while China and North Korea give at minimum tacit support for Russia—will likely have a lasting impact on the regional dynamics, including countries’ willingness to establish a security architecture in Northeast Asia. Finally, the status of Taiwan in such an institution would likely be highly sensitive, making it even more challenging for participants to agree on the terms on which a formal regional institution would be established.

For these reasons, a new regional architecture for Northeast Asia might be most appropriate if it were confined to more informal arrangements that include, but are not limited to, regular consultations across multiple levels of government, from working-level to ministerial-level. Such arrangements could also include issue-specific working groups.

Yuki Tatsumi
Yuki Tatsumi is a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center. She is an expert on Japanese security policy, the U.S.-Japan alliance, and U.S. foreign policy in Asia.

Fortunately, the region has several existing frameworks that provide valuable precedents to consider and possible foundations on which to build further informal cooperation. One is the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Inaugurated in 1994, the ARF was established “to foster constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern” and “to make significant contributions to efforts towards confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.” The ARF is led by the ASEAN chair, which rotates each year and has a permanent unit within the ASEAN secretariat that supports its management. In addition to its annual ministerial-level meeting, the ARF holds a series of regular consultations across different levels of government, as well as issue-specific study groups, workshops, and trainings throughout the year. These issue-specific initiatives encompass a wide range of areas, including disaster relief, urban search and rescue, sustainable fisheries, youth and cultural exchanges, conflict resolution, confidence-building measures, and preventive diplomacy.

Another useful example is the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat (TCS), which was established in September 2011 with a vision “to promote peace and common prosperity” between China, Japan, and South Korea (CJK). The TCS’s secretary general and two deputy secretaries general rotate among the three countries, and four TCS departments support the management of trilateral activities: Political Affairs, Socio-Cultural Affairs, Economic Affairs, and Management and Coordination. The TCS manages various programs that focus on facilitating people-to-people exchanges among the three countries in six broad categories—youth exchanges, media, environment, culture, economy, and smart city. The activities offered by these programs include the Young Ambassadors Program, the Trilateral Journalist Exchange Program, the GREENA Program, the Trilateral Common Vocabulary Dictionary project, and the CJK Free-Trade Agreement Seminar. While many of these initiatives were launched within the last five years, some of them are older; the Young Ambassadors Program, for example, has been held annually since 2013, despite the tension among Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul at the diplomatic level.

Finally, the Quad (the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) has recently emerged as an additional potential cooperative framework for Northeast Asia. Originally launched in 2007 as a strategic dialogue grouping at foreign ministerial level, the Quad was revitalized in 2017 after a long hiatus. During Joe Biden’s administration, the Quad has expanded beyond a framework for regular ministerial consultation, with summit meetings occurring at an accelerated pace. Moreover, the four countries have now identified seven specific areas for intensified policy coordination: responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccination production and distribution; combating climate change; promoting infrastructure; fostering educational exchanges; and partnering on initiatives addressing emerging technologies, cybersecurity, and space. In addition, similar to the ARF and the TCS, it appears that the Quad countries will rotate hosting of the summit meeting among themselves: Japan will host the next Quad Summit in 2022, followed by India in 2023 and Australia in 2024.

If formalized, what kind of rules, procedures, and memberships make most sense for a new regional architecture?

These three frameworks have a few elements in common that contribute to their success as regional institutions. One is the patience and flexibility with which they were established. None of them were born out of concerted diplomatic efforts to institutionalize cooperation among the participating countries. In the case of the ARF, even though the framework for the dialogue itself was launched in 1994, it was not until 2004 that the ARF Unit was created to support the management of various activities conducted under the auspices of the ARF. In the case of CJK cooperation, it took three years after the CJK summit was first convened for the TCS to be established. Similarly, the deepening of Quad cooperation has been built over time through consultations among the participating countries, highlighted by the first in-person Quad Summit held in Washington, DC, on September 24, 2021.

The ARF and the TCS also share the style in which their supporting organizations are managed. While their secretariats (the “unit” in the case of the ARF) are established in one of their participating countries, leadership of their secretariats rotates at a regular interval, as does the responsibility for agenda-setting. While the Quad does not yet have a secretariat-like organization, its established patterns in rotating between host countries for meetings and consultations are similar to the methods used by the ARF and CJK. In a region where any cooperation is difficult to maintain, the stability and longevity of these institutions are notable.

However, despite their successes, each institution faces serious challenges, and relying on any one of these frameworks as the foundation for a regional security architecture will not necessarily produce instant, tangible results. Specifically, all three organizations rely on consensus-based decisionmaking and agenda-setting processes, which prevents them from tackling more ambitious targets, including those that would have a direct impact on participants’ national sovereignty. For instance, the ARF has not even been able to agree on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, let alone proactively tackle more concrete challenges related to the issue.

However, these institutions can still help foster an environment conducive to progress by building habits of cooperation and providing venues for communication among actors. For instance, the TCS has been successful in keeping the programs that are nonpolitical, such as the Young Ambassadors Program, operational despite the diplomatic tensions between Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing. The ARF, as well, has been able to convene working-level dialogues and workshops on topics such as preventive diplomacy, counterterrorism, arms control, and confidence-building.

If a regional cooperative framework in Northeast Asia is to be formalized, it makes most sense for such an organization to include all regional players—China, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. The challenge for such a formal institution would be the status of Taiwan. Any new architecture in Northeast Asia would need to have buy-in from all the major players in the region to be effective. In other words, it would be best for the framework to adopt consensus-based decisionmaking and agenda-setting.

In this context, China’s wary response to the Quad needs to be kept in mind. Tensions will likely continue to rise between China and Russia’s “no limits partnership” on one side and the United States and its partners and allies on the other. In addition, the status of Taiwan—including whether it should be allowed to participate in the framework—could present a significant challenge. China can be expected to oppose Taiwan’s participation in such an architecture in any capacity (including observer status). However, Taiwan’s contribution could be important in many potential areas of cooperation—including pandemic response and disaster relief—and therefore its participation should be allowed, even if only on a case-by-case basis.

What elements of an architecture are best managed through informal arrangements, and which best lend themselves to formal institutions? Which elements would be most feasible for an architecture to address?

Given the complex regional dynamics among the key players in Northeast Asia, any architecture in the region would be most productive if the formal arrangements are kept to a minimum. For instance, the new architecture could follow the model of CJK and have a relatively lean secretariat, staffed by officials from the member countries with leadership roles rotating at agreed-upon intervals. In fact, the TCS may be a useful foundation to build on by expanding membership to include Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea, with Taiwan preferably allowed to participate as an observer. The purpose of a formalized arrangement is to ensure that all players can be represented in the institution, have equitable opportunities to hold leadership positions, and play roles in the agenda-setting and management of the institution. Importantly, this structure can help to instill in stakeholders a sense of shared responsibility, which contributes to the longevity and effectiveness of the institution over time.

The actual substantive cooperation can be either left to informal arrangements or nested within the architecture in the form of working groups or expert-level dialogues focused on the issues, building upon the ongoing cooperative arrangements that already exist. Education, people-to-people exchanges, public health, regional trade and economics, disaster relief, maritime safety, aerial and maritime accident prevention, codes of conduct in case of accidents, counter-crime (including human trafficking), and pandemic response are some of the issues that all the major players in the region can agree necessitate cooperation. While some may argue that the Quad’s areas of focus—particularly on emerging technologies, cybersecurity, and space—are aimed toward countering China, one can still make an argument that they are topics of shared concern not only among the Quad countries but also in the broader international community.

The three aforementioned existing frameworks all predominantly focus on facilitating cooperation on issues that are less politically sensitive. In other words, these institutions choose to focus on the areas where there is relative consensus among participants and stay clear of trying to resolve more controversial issues, such as territorial disputes, disagreements over historical grievances, and human rights practices. The same should be the case for any architecture in Northeast Asia if it strives to be inclusive of all the major players in the region, limiting its purpose to build habits of cooperation among the countries in the region.