Amid an exceptional regional arms buildup, spiraling U.S.-China tensions, and the unfolding consequences of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Northeast Asian states are grappling with an increasingly complex web of perceived security imperatives. Meanwhile, the emergence of new military technologies and capabilities threatens to destabilize the already precarious status quo. Now, more than ever, arrangements to manage regional security and mitigate worst outcomes are needed.
Yet, bilateral efforts to address military competition have largely failed, and the broader challenges to institution-building leave the region without many multilateral venues for diplomacy, cooperation, or crisis management. In the absence of such venues, sources of insecurity have become more acute. Notably, attempts to reverse North Korea’s nuclear weapons program through diplomacy have failed to yield sustainable progress toward denuclearization, historical and territorial disputes remain unresolved, and competing conceptions of sovereignty and security drive estrangement and friction among big powers in the region. Regional insecurity is also compounded by growing geopolitical friction, primarily between Washington and Beijing. The impending ramifications of Russia’s war in Ukraine and changed role in the international order loom over all of these issues and will undoubtedly affect the prospects for any regional cooperation.
In this context, efforts to improve regional security will require additional modes of diplomacy, as well as a focus on a broader range of issues. To address this need, regional policymakers could consider adopting the framework of a regional security architecture: an arrangement of formal and informal mechanisms to regularize dialogue, affirm norms of behavior, mitigate sources of tension, and temper crises before they escalate into military conflict.
Given past failures and the many challenges involved in creating security institutions in Northeast Asia, creativity and flexibility will be key to designing a twenty-first-century architecture for the region. Models could vary in terms of their structure, formality, rules, membership, and sequencing. Previous proposals for security architectures in Asia often varied between prescribing formal, institutionalized means and more piecemeal, informal approaches. A potential middle ground approach could seek to build on the existing ecosystem of institutions, forums, and plurilateral arrangements, and could expand over time in issue areas where progress is feasible.
Potential architecture options each have their advantages and drawbacks. Models with a more formal, institutionalized structure could be empowered to tackle urgent hard-security challenges, but they would require significant, sustained, and risky political investment in institution-building—a rare commodity in today’s geopolitical environment. Informal models that rely on largely declaratory tools to address rising sources of tension are highly flexible and have a low institutional barrier to entry, but without stronger implementation and enforcement mechanisms, they risk being ineffectual in times of real crisis. Models built upon status quo institutions are feasible, inclusive, and holistic in scope, but may be seen as lacking urgency or as merely perpetuating the increasingly untenable status quo.
Beyond form and structure, a regional security architecture requires flexibility regarding the issues it could address. The great consequences of small- or large-scale military conflict in the region make focus on traditional security challenges a desirable goal. Yet the current political divides between states may preclude simple cooperation in these areas at first. One of the benefits of an architecture approach is its ability to engage with a wider range of issues, especially nontraditional security issues. Addressing common interests like public health and climate change could avoid the political tensions that bedevil cooperation in other areas, while building trust and cooperation that could translate into progress in other domains in the future.
Making meaningful progress on any of these issues will not be simple; neither will reaching consensus on the prioritization of elements among member states. Policymakers must be prepared to address many potentially thorny questions. For instance, how should an architecture account for sharply divergent threat perceptions and differing conceptions of sovereignty in the region? How should a new architecture relate to existing alliance structures in the region? To what extent can an architecture formally incorporate crisis management and other guardrails to mitigate the possibility of war, including nuclear war?
These questions, among many others, require serious and innovative exploration. To this end, we present the following papers as a fruitful starting point for further discussion. Here, four regional experts offer perspectives on the questions that could inform the shape, sequencing, and structure of any future regional architecture. These papers are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to provide an overview of the elements and issues that policymakers would need to consider as they develop a new security architecture. These papers were conceived prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, yet the issues they raise remain central to the future of regional security in Northeast Asia.
Given political tensions in the region, it is unsurprising that many scholars—including those whose perspectives are included here—find utility in the framing of a new or second cold war. This is a historically nuanced term that could have a wide range of meanings depending on the context. Here, we understand this to broadly describe the tense competition—ideological, political, military, and economic—between the United States and both China and Russia. Unlike the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the effects of this intensifying competition are both mitigated and complicated by high economic interdependence and functional cooperation on an array of issues that cut across the divides of existing security alliances.
Despite the many likely challenges to achieving a new regional security architecture, without a broader, more inclusive mechanism—or set of mechanisms—in place to address the competing concerns of regional states, Northeast Asia faces a growing risk of conflict. Regional policymakers should contend with these questions with urgency.
This volume results from a joint project between the Royal United Services Institute, the Asia Pacific Leadership Network, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on future steps toward a Northeast Asian security architecture. The project was made possible by generous support from the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.