NE Asia needs strong regional framework to avoid geopolitical traps

By Lee Jong Won Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/19 21:43:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Northeast Asia has emerged as a new unit or framework of international relations, with the European Union taking the lead. Even strife-ridden countries in the African continent cooperated to establish the African Union. For the past centuries, nation-building has been the common goal of many countries. But as the historic limitations and dysfunction of the sovereign state system become apparent, the world now seems to have entered a new era of region-building. As of 2010, the number of regional or sub-regional organizations amounted to 173, almost the same as that of United Nations member states.

Two dynamics are competing with each other, affecting the progress and prospect of region-building: geopolitics and geo-economics. Geopolitics, often combined with national interests and aspirations, tends to be in conflict, while geo-economics, with its emphasis on shared economic interests, encourages states to cooperate across borders.

East Asia is the region where the interplay between the two dynamics unfolds in the most evident way. Since the late 1970s, with China opening to the world, East Asia has emerged as a region, deepening economic interdependence and heralding the advent of an Asian Century. Even with recurrent conflicts among regional states over historical and territorial issues, East Asia shows a higher degree of intra-regional trade ratio than NAFTA in North America.

Against the backdrop of highly intertwined economies, East Asian countries advanced the vision of an East Asian Community at the ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN nations plus China, Japan, and South Korea) in 2001. As a step toward the community, the East Asia Summit was established in 2005, the first gathering of regional heads-of-states in its history.

However, from the beginning, the vision of the East Asian Community itself has become the target of geopolitical rivalries and suspicion, caused by the historic power transition. Concerned by the rapid rise of China, Japan and some ASEAN nations argued for the expansion of the East Asia Summit, to include such countries as India, Australia and New Zealand. In 2011, the US and Russia joined the summit as formal members to counterbalance the ever-growing influence of China.

Thus the East Asia Summit, which was expected to be the platform of the East Asian Community, transformed into an arena of geopolitical battles, particularly between China and the US, losing momentum toward regional cooperation. Instead, China began to push forward its own design for regionalism, based on its increasing economic power - the Belt and Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in the economic arena, and the revitalization of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia as a regional security framework.

Region-building in East Asia, which has been promoted by geo-economic dynamics, is now facing multi-layered geopolitical challenges: the old and new Cold Wars. The ongoing nuclear crisis in the Korean Peninsula basically is the direct outcome of the continuing Cold War confrontation. For the past decades, we have witnessed the repeated frustration of initiatives for regional cooperation in the midst of recurring military tensions in the peninsula. It is now clear that without resolving the nuclear deadlock between North Korea and regional nations, Northeast Asia will not be able to realize its tremendous potential for development.

More broadly, a new Cold War between China and the US, and between China and Japan, casts a long shadow over the prospects of East Asia in general. Rising tensions among the regional states are expressions of power transitions caused by the relative decline of American hegemony and the rapid rise of China. As history shows us, periods of hegemonic change and power transition are rife with mutual suspicion and conflicts. To avert such a mutually destructive course of events, the so-called Thucydides Trap, we need to build a comprehensive regional framework, overcoming the geopolitical division among various regional groupings.

The author is a professor at Waseda University, Japan. The article was selected from his thesis delivered to the Tumen River Forum held in Yanbian last week.


blog comments powered by Disqus