President Park Geun-hye’s administration is actively promoting a multilateral mechanism in Northeast Asia to help overcome the gap between economic interdependence and security competition. But what is the likelihood that her Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) will succeed in overcoming ‘Asia’s Paradox’? Even if the process moves forward in both official and unofficial venues, will it arrest the growing trust deficit among regional actors?
The Park administration is currently socializing the broad concept of NAPCI as a trust-building process around the region. A quiet track 2 meeting involving experts and a few officials in Japan in December went better than expected. However, that assessment changed markedly after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine later that same month. A similar exercise in Washington, D.C. this past week garnered conditional support, but hardly an enthusiastic endorsement. A meeting in Beijing is planned for March, after which Seoul will have a baseline understanding of just how difficult it will be to fashion an integrated regional network. Even if subsequent discussions in Russia and Mongolia were to go brilliantly, the absence of active Japanese, American and Chinese participation would make the initiative appear quixotic. What are the chief impediments?
One obstacle is that high politics trumps low politics. Tensions on and around the Korean peninsula suggest the time for yet another institution may not be ripe. The one preexisting multilateral network—the Six Party Talks over North Korea’s nuclear program—remain moribund. The recent purge of Jang Song Thaek calls into question nuclear North Korea’s internal stability. Pyongyang’s begrudging acceptance of family reunions and reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex suggest that inter-Korean relations experience modest improvement only when the North runs out of other options. In short, scenarios for sudden change and the possible erosion of deterrence are a higher priority than glacial progress on secondary issues. Yet NAPCI’s low expectations could actually prove to be a benefit.
This points to another hurdle: content. The Park administration is floating a list of non-traditional security issues—from dealing with micro dust, water, the environment, energy and climate change to nuclear safety, disaster response, cyber security and public health. Officials in Seoul are using the preliminary visits to regional capitals to ascertain what animates the prospective dialogue partners. And what—beyond having a discussion that is not focused on its weapons programs--might entice North Korea to find benefit in joining the party? These preliminary findings could be crucial to refining the NAPCI project. The hindrances of high politics and content can be bypassed if compelling answers can be found to four threshold questions.
First, what would motivate the United States to throw its weight behind the concept? Some in Seoul mistakenly think America is worried that Korea is tilting to China. Structurally, Korea may be interested in expanding economic ties with China and a Singapore-like ability to maintain a stable regional balance of power. But in her address to Congress last year, President Park emphasized that NAPCI is made possible by the foundation of a strong ROK-U.S. alliance. That may not be a selling point in Beijing, but Americans have considerable faith in the Blue House. Even so, the U.S. will only be enthusiastic about a mechanism that offers results.
Second, what would motivate China to support a regional platform giving the U.S. another foothold in Asia and not led by China? Xi Jinping is not looking for a venue to complain about pollution made in China. Nor is China likely to enlist in a scheme that might be construed as designed to encircle North Korea. Despite Chinese impatience with Pyongyang’s misbehavior, Beijing’s top goal remains stability on the peninsula. But perhaps Xi’s ‘periphery diplomacy’ will make him more open to finding progress on thorny problems.
The third hurdle for NAPCI is trying to insulate strained Japan-Korea relations from undermining cooperation. Politics are impeding meetings even when shared national security interests are at stake. For instance, the defense communities in Seoul and Tokyo recognize the benefit that could be gained through intelligence sharing and contingency planning, but they are limited in what they can do by the absence of high-level political support. So why should the two capitals be able to engage in secondary issues without disruption?
Finally, what value is added by another multilateral mechanism in Asia? Given the existence of a set of overlapping, inclusive institutions centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—including an annual East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum—what extra benefit would be derived from NAPCI?
By seeking to address the questions above, architects can narrow goals and identify activities likely to produce visible results. Civil nuclear safety is a shared interest. Similarly, tuberculosis, including drug-resistant TB, could create a niche issue on which development agencies and nongovernmental organizations could find common cause. In both cases, moreover, there is a potential inroad into North Korea. Quick wins could demonstrate the mechanism’s potential over the long run. NAPCI might help lure additional outside actors and mobilize civil society, not by institutionalizing but by guiding actors to a pressing problem. A common fund could empower civil society and human development exchanges that might reinforce the network. Asia’s paradox could gradually be converted into Asia’s promise.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.