Northeast Asian Security: A New Paradigm?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 16

For a decade or more there has been active discussion of a security framework, structure, or mechanism for Northeast Asia. The discussions, which intensified over the last half decade, coincided with the Six-Party Talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapon program. Many imagined that the talks, representing noteworthy cooperative efforts by the principal regional players, could, and maybe should, carry over into some sort of security arrangement or organization—certainly including the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia, notably China, and possibly North Korea; other countries as close and as distant geographically as Mongolia and Australia expressed interest in joining the initiative.

Contentious Debate over the Mechanism Concept

Although this security mechanism idea has been institutionalized in the form of a working group in the Six-Party Talks, establishment of a formal mechanism or structured organization seems premature to both practitioners and many specialists on regional security, as they have expressed in conferences and symposia on the Six-Party Talks. They point out that concentration, without distraction, on achieving a satisfactory outcome with respect to the North Korea nuclear program and a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is generally seen as paramount. The concept received gentle affirmation when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, in anticipation of a meeting with the foreign ministers of the other countries involved in the Six-Party Talks (North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia), that the United States wants to “look forward” to the future, including the formation of a Northeast Asian security regime—after the North Korean nuclear issue is solved, she importantly stipulated (Chosun Ilbo [Korea], July 22). Press reports of the meeting, which was held on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on July 23 in Singapore, do not, however, confirm that the subject was specifically raised (The Associated Press, July 23; Xinhua News Agency, July 23). Nevertheless, this signal of U.S. support is significant for the future. Despite this recent broad, rhetorical support from Secretary Rice, the time is still not ripe in Washington, Seoul, and even Beijing [1], and particularly in Tokyo [2], for considering Pyongyang now as a co-equal in dealing more broadly with regional security problems (at least not while it is still a de facto nuclear power).

Indeed, Pyongyang’s surprising and disconcerting tests of missiles and a nuclear explosive device in 2006 led even Beijing, a generally very understanding and supportive treaty ally, to express frustration and anger toward the intransigent and unpredictable Kim Jong Il regime, as widely documented by both Chinese and Western analysts. China had warned North Korea not to aggravate tensions, stating: “We hope North Korea will adopt a responsible attitude … and come back to resolving the issue through dialogue and consultation instead of taking any actions that may further escalate or worsen the situation” (China Daily, October 18, 2006). After the test, Beijing even let it be known that it was giving thought to contingency planning for the possible deployment of large numbers of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) if an unstable situation there were to leave the status of nuclear warheads and fissile material in doubt—subject to falling into the hands of terrorist organizations, for example [3].

At a more fundamental level, conventional wisdom among security specialists has it that the region is not suited or ready for a formal security mechanism. Although the same NATO acronym might seem to fit (Northeast Asia Treaty Organization in this case), they suggest that it is infeasible to establish a NATO-like body for this part of the world. As a recent major study by the Japanese National Institute of Defense Studies concludes, “one option that is not possible is a NATO-like collective defense mechanism” [4]. Among the complications, some of the countries key to the organization are, even now, potential, even if unlikely, adversaries (e.g., concerning Taiwan) or suffering from significant tensions in bilateral relations over such things as disputes involving seabed resource extraction (e.g., the Chinese-Japanese disagreements over Chunxiao and other gas and oil fields in the East China Sea), territorial claims (e.g., Diaoyutai and Dokdo), and historic issues—vivid memories of invasions and other transgressions from the last century or long before. There is also the matter of radically different political systems between, on one hand, democratic countries including the United States, Japan, and the ROK (Republic of Korea) and, on the other hand, China and the DPRK—with Russia an increasingly open question. This makes it all the more remarkable that, while the mechanism idea’s time may not have come or be coming soon, something truly noteworthy has happened—almost, it might be said, while the United States was not watching.

A New Sino-U.S. Relationship and Possibly More

The United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are, at a minimum, part-time partners in handling regional security matters—with other regional players also accepting China’s new role. Washington and Beijing are far from resolving all their differences over Taiwan, trade, human rights and more. At the least the incessant accusations, name-calling, saber rattling, and diplomatic confrontations are greatly diminished and notably replaced by:

– cooperative efforts in the very difficult talks concerning North Korea and with respect to terrorist activities (the global war on terrorism [GWOT] of the Bush administration);

– good “chemistry” between Presidents Hu Jintao and George Bush and frequent constructive consultations between China’s foreign minister and the U.S. Secretary of State, dating back to when Colin Powell held the office and continuing to the present;

– promising regularized senior-level strategic and economic dialogues;

– a rejuvenated and improving military-to-military relationship including unprecedented exercises [5] as well as visits both ways of senior officials and officers;

– relaxation of cross-Strait tensions boosted greatly by a more conciliatory new government in Taiwan, and;

– early signs of improved China-Japan relations even if Beijing is unhappy about strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance and U.S. support for a “normal” Japan [6].

There have recently been encouraging developments in the Six-Party Talks, in which China has been playing a key role. Pyongyang submitted its declaration of past nuclear activity (although it was not as comprehensive as desired), disabled the Yongbyon reactor, and demolished the cooling tower. Washington indicated it would lift sanctions. The talks resumed in Beijing after a nine-month lapse (Xinhua, July 12). These developments remind us of another point. The cooperative efforts have, admittedly, featured Beijing and Washington with Pyongyang as the antagonist. However, the interactions between Beijing on one hand and Tokyo and Seoul on the other—as well as Moscow—also reflect a new, positive and uncharacteristic role for China as an effective interlocutor in the eyes of all those countries in dealing with an issue central to the security of all parties affected by these issues.

Toward A New Security Paradigm for Northeast Asia—Inclusive of China

The larger point, and one arguably as important as resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, is that a new regional security paradigm or environment (although not a structured or formal arrangement, of course) has evolved but has not received much attention within the U.S. government and among American specialists. As former National Security Council Asia director Mike Green said publicly at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in May, “We’re playing one game to counter proliferation, to end a nuclear threat. But the big-picture, long-term game is the future of Asia, which is increasingly the strategic center of gravity of the international system. … [N]o matter how this turns out, the reality is the United States is talking to China about North Korea and the security of northeast Asia in a way we never did before. It’s not just us. The Japanese are; the Koreans are … ” [7]. Bilateral relations have improved and broader strategic cooperation between the United States and China has propitiously developed. Arguably, this surprising Sino-U.S. accommodation, accompanied by multilateral cooperation, represents a quiet but momentous evolution of a new Northeast Asian security regionalism.

This quiet evolution, the start of which might be dated from the Tiananmen debacle and then seen as stretching past the bombing of the PRC embassy in Belgrade and the EP-3 collision off Hainan Island, reflects an extraordinary change. The U.S.-PRC bilateral relationship has moved from markedly confrontational and adversarial, where the United States and China were working at cross purposes—if not displaying open hostility—to a very much improved situation, particularly after 9-11.

Several years ago evidence appeared that this new regional security paradigm was evolving or taking shape. There evolved a new, or at least altered, version of an unstructured arrangement of components such as has existed with respect to regional security for the last several decades: a disparate conglomeration of bilateral alliances, multilateral organizations, joint communiqués, government policies and statements, national strategies and force structures, understandings and many misunderstandings. On the part of the Chinese, this transformation was catalyzed in part by the introduction of new concepts in China’s foreign and security policy such as “New Diplomacy” (xin waijiao) and “New Security Concept” (xin anquan guan) in the late 1990s [8]. The remarkable new paradigm governing the international order, while retaining some of the old components, has most notably, as described, become inclusive of China—a China with a more progressive foreign policy, an altered prospective on proliferation, a commitment to get along with the world’s only superpower, a possibly more relaxed Taiwan posture, and a heightened desire to be a constructive player in the community of nations. China is less a major part of the problem and more a key part of the solution.

Obligations in a New Regional Security Environment

A new regional security paradigm or environment for Northeast Asia evolved and is continually being shaped. It, like its predecessor, consists of a variety of components tacked together in a crude, ramshackle framework, absent a blueprint or even a foreman to direct the work. It falls on us and others to recognize and appreciate that new situation, ensure our interests are tended, and work to mold it, alter or expand its (informal) membership as desired, consider the implications for our alliances, and determine an appropriate U.S. role in certain somewhat novel or unfamiliar (to us) elements of the framework (e.g., the East Asia Summit and Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

To sum up: (1) This altered security arrangement has come about—like it or not—and we need to exercise heightened awareness and develop focused policies to make it come out “right” as time passes. (2) It is not just a “habit” of U.S.-China coordination but rather a pattern of multilateral (notably and newly with China) activity with respect to regional security. Indeed, it may seem strange or even contradictory that we (and at least Japan) are both engaging seriously and preparing militarily [9] vis-à-vis China. However, on reflection, that seems to be simply a remarkable characteristic of the maturing (albeit imperfect) U.S.-China relationship and something—the military-preparedness component—that may diminish as the rituals of cooperation and coordination becomes more even more comfortable.

Is this the Road the United States Should Take?

Possibly the most significant and currently pertinent question, and one some Americans find very troubling, is whether we should be actively fostering, striving for, and seeking to strengthen such a China-inclusive security environment. Those distrustful of Beijing and concerned about the prudence of what might be seen as a condominium with China will emphasize and want all to consider such factors as:

– the possible short- and long-term and first- and second-order implications for our long-standing bilateral alliances in the region;

– the seemingly inconsistent and somewhat awkward balancing of the desire to engage China across the board while recognizing the need to prepare militarily against it;

– the associated residual dilemma of cross-Strait relations and the matter of U.S. concern about the people of Taiwan and their defense, as Beijing stresses its one-China policy;

– the discomfort of accommodating to acceptance of the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and dealing with a government in China whose policies are troublesome to most Americans.

Is There Another Reasonable Option?

Those more favorably inclined toward good relations with China will emphasize the positive aspects, as previously described, and suggest that there is not a reasonable alternative—that the new paradigm of regional security, including a rising China, is the hand we have been dealt—a good hand that can be well bid and played. If so—as seems logical, almost inevitable, to many—then how do we finesse or take into account all the complicating factors and go about playing the hand—including enhancing the prospect of influencing China’s future intentions so that a more powerful China is not a more dangerous China? The short answer is that it is a better hand than we were dealt with respect to North Korea and one we should play more insightfully from the outset rather than stumbling backward and having to await the dealing of a new, possibly worse, hand, as we did with the Six-Party Talks. It appears—at least for now—far better to have China seated as a partner at the table than, as in past decades, widely opposing U.S. efforts, prowling the developing world, and unwilling to consult. For Washington and Beijing then, the new game or paradigm of regional security is a desirably evolving multilateral process but with a bilateral side game where both engage seriously and prepare their armed forces seriously—determining how best to do more of the former and less of the latter as time passes.


1. Beijing generally supports including North Korea in a security mechanism but wants the nuclear issue resolved first; for example: Pang Zhongying (who was at Nankai University in China and is the current Chinese visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution) wrote: “From a Chinese perspective, a Northeast Asian security mechanism would have the following characteristics:

• It would include China, and even a denuclearized North Korea….” Pang’s words are from:

“Beijing seeks multilateral Northeast Asian security,” Asia Times Online, April 9, 2004 available at

2. The Japanese government remains dedicated to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea several decades ago as well as to concern about the North Korean missile threat—a real threat to a Japan that is within range of these ballistic missiles that Pyongyang tests from time to time.

3. A prominent Chinese think-tanker, well-connected and experienced in the North Korea and nuclear proliferation issues, advised the author in the early fall of 2007 of this apparent contingency planning, saying that the thinking contemplated a large force deep inside the DPRK, not just a blocking force against refugee flow into Northeast China. Subsequently, others have reported similar information from other reliable Chinese sources.

4. Security Issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, National Institute for Defense Studies, Japan and Center for Military and Strategic Studies, General Staff of the Armed Forces, the Russian Federation, NIDS JOINT RESEARCH SERIES No.2, March 2008, Chapter 3;

5. In addition to bilateral naval exercises in recent years in waters off China and the U.S., the U.S. Pacific Commander, Admiral Timothy Keating, in answering a question asked by this author at Heritage Foundation on July 16, 2008, said he and the Guangzhou Military Region commander, Lieutenant General Zhang Qinsheng, had agreed the previous evening on the conduct of U.S.-PRC humanitarian assistance exercises in both countries. Adm. Keating acknowledged that the FY 2000 National Defense Authorization Act, which constrains military relations with the PLA, specifically permits humanitarian assistance operations and exercises.

6. As this author hears repeatedly from Chinese military officers, diplomats, and think-tankers.

7. Transcript of CSIS-Bob Schieffer School of Journalism Dialogue: Status of the North Korean Six Party Talks, May 29, 2008.

8. Liu Yongtao, “Northeast Asian Security Regionalism: A Chinese Perspective”, Korea Review of International Studies, Vol.10, No.1, 2007, pp.33-45.

9. Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy, former U.S. ambassador to China and Assistant Secretary of State, argues persuasively that the currently popular use of the word hedge in this context, intended to mean military preparation, is poor wording—imprecise and possibly misleading. It is not that we and Beijing are taking compensatory measures so as to counterbalance possible loss (the definition of hedge as an intransitive verb) but rather that we both must be prepared militarily to deter unwanted actions by the other or to protect our interests if deterrence fails. Ambassador Roy argues that we should cease calling this hedging and revert to more conventional language, as has been done in this article.