Wading into the rough waters of diplomacy in Northeast Asia, President Park Geun-hye has been pushing for a bold initiative to foster peace and cooperation in a region beset by security rivalries and historical and territorial disputes.
Buoyed by South Korea’s enhanced diplomatic stature, the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative has fed hopes for regional trust-building, but also raised questions over its feasibility.
Supporters for the NAPCI say that it might develop into a crucial mechanism to institutionalize dialogue and multilateral cooperation to build trust and tackle transnational issues.
But skeptics argue that despite the need for a confidence-building tool, the NAPCI could flounder due to the unstable security landscape where military competition is intensifying with deep-seated distrust among countries in the region.
An OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter conducts air support operations during a South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise at the Rodriguez Firing Range in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, April 11. (Yonhap)
Based on her signature “trustpolitik” vision, the much-vaunted initiative aims to address what Park bills the “Asia Paradox,” which refers to an escalation in territorial and historical disputes in contrast to the region’s deepening economic cooperation.
It seeks to build trust first on soft, nonpolitical issues such as the environment, nuclear safety and energy security, and then move on to challenging, “high-politics” issues such as military security.
Seoul officials said that the initiative does not seek to build a specific institution right away, but it is a “process-oriented” approach aimed at promoting dialogue and cooperation in a gradual fashion.
The initiative calls for the participation of the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, Mongolia and North Korea, while seeking to invite other countries and organizations outside the region as observers.
Michael Raska, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, described Park’s initiative as a “conflict-prevention” plan in the realm of comprehensive security.
“Park understands that success in resolving East Asia’s security challenges demands a greater share of international cooperation that would gradually complement and eventually surpass the present security order,” he said.
“So, we have to see the initiative as a positive facilitating factor that in the long term could add to a gradual institutionalization of new multilateral security arrangements in Northeast Asia that would not only enhance the regional security framework, but more importantly, assure reconciliation and peace in the region for the future.”
The NAPCI carries few elements that are objectionable to regional powers given its causes of trust and peace. However, the volatility in regional security and politics could dim its prospects.
A series of issues in Northeast Asia and its adjacent regions have led confrontation to prevail over cooperation. They include the intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry over military primacy in Asia; an escalating sovereignty dispute between Beijing and Tokyo; and territorial and historical conflicts between Seoul and Tokyo.
Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula has exacerbated distrust among regional powers. But some experts say that Seoul should take advantage of the fluid security environment to push for the NAPCI.
“If security conditions are good, it would be rather difficult for Seoul to find the momentum to accelerate the initiative as regional powers may not feel any urgency for a confidence-building vehicle,” said Park Won-gon, security expert at Handong Global University.
“Given the current security situations, the U.S., Japan and many others may want somebody else to offer a venue for talks to express their opinions, and encourage reconciliation and cooperation.”
Balbina Hwang, political science professor at Georgetown University, noted that Europe’s peace efforts also came at a time of grave security concerns.
“Recall that Europe’s peace process was initialized during the height of the Cold War, which one could argue is a similar environment, although even far less drastic than the current Sino-U.S. competition,” she said.
Different strategic calculations of potential participants in the NAPCI also could pose hurdles to Park’s peace initiative, although regional partners have positive expectations for the peace-making initiative.
For the U.S., the initiative could become a source of concern should it conflict with its Asia-oriented external policy, in which it seeks to maintain security primacy based on its network of alliances with South Korea and Japan.
Although the NAPCI has not taken any concrete shape yet, the initiative could allow China, America’s strategic rival, to flex more diplomatic and security muscles in a multilateral framework ― apparently a disturbing scenario for Washington, analysts said.
For China, Park’s initiative could be perceived as a potential replacement for the long-stalled six-party talks, which Beijing hosted with the aim of denuclearizing North Korea. China has sought to revive the multilateral talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia to evolve it into a multilateral security forum for the entire region.
China could also have concerns over how South Korea would manage its alliance with the U.S. and how the alliance would affect Seoul’s peace initiative. It has long believed that the alliance, along with the U.S. partnership with Japan, could be used to keep it in check.
Beijing might also feel concerned that it could be put into a difficult position should the NAPCI touch on human rights, apparently a sore spot for China. Seoul has said that it would take lessons from Europe’s so-called Helsinki process in which one of the core “baskets,” or topics, was human rights.
The Helsinki process was a peace initiative that provided much-needed momentum to encourage reconciliation, cooperation and ultimately an enduring peace in a divided Europe during the Cold War.
Another challenge facing the NAPCI is setting the agenda. As Park said, the initiative adopts a gradual approach to deal first with soft issues. But this approach might not prove effective given that there has already been much progress in fostering cooperation in nonpolitical areas.
“Regional exchanges in trade, economy, investment, tourism, people and culture are nearing some type of regional integration. I can hardly imagine how the Park government can foster regional trust and multilateral cooperation by adding more items to that list, such as climate change, terrorism and nuclear safety,” said Park Myung-lim, a historian at Korea University, in an interview with The Korea Herald last year.
“The centerpiece is the trust and cooperation in areas of politics, the military and history. I hope President Park will demonstrate her capability to lead innovative multilateral cooperation in these areas in a way that encompasses North Korea, Japan, China, the U.S. and Russia.”
Above all, one of the most pressing security concerns in the region is about a nuclear-armed North Korea. Unless this threat element is removed, Northeast Asia’s efforts for enduring peace would continue to falter.
“I am not really hopeful that it (the NAPCI) will achieve anything concrete until the ‘North Korea’ problem is ‘resolved’ ― this means either reunification of the Korean Peninsula or a collapse of the regime, which will not come for a very long time,” said Hwang.
“This is because the existence of the DPRK (North Korea) perpetuates the Cold War structure of the last century, and until this problem is ‘resolved,’ ultimately those Cold War dynamics will persist in Northeast Asia.”
As for the prospect of the NAPCI, analysts differed over the critical question of whether South Korea has sufficient diplomatic clout to forge a culture of dialogue and cooperation in the region.
“South Korea’s diplomacy has evolved significantly over the past decade, particularly in its ability to combine diplomacy, economic cooperation and strategic communications at the global level. As with any dimensions of power, however, South Korea’s ‘smart’ power strategy will be limited in terms of its capacity to shape the external environment ― particularly in the context of U.S.-China relations,” said Raska.
“However, South Korea’s internal political and resource constraints might be more challenging: Bureaucratic and institutional rivalries, political fragmentation and overall polarization of South Korea’s political culture may result in short-term policy outcomes.”
But South Korea is the “only natural and frankly most appropriate power” to push for a regional peace initiative given that it has more credibility than its neighbors including China and Japan, said Hwang.
“None of the countries in East Asia actually have such ‘diplomatic power’: China does not have enough credibility since many East Asian countries are suspicious about its motives and, if anything, considers it to be a diplomatic bully,” she said.
“Moreover, Japan certainly does not have the diplomatic credentials to do so, and it never has, despite its economic power. And the U.S. cannot really be credible as the initiator for such a regional initiative, as China especially does not trust its motives.”
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)