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‘Hot peace’ to take hold in East Asia

Experts say U.S., China may seek cooperation, fight terrorism together

The security and diplomatic landscape in East Asia is expected to be relatively stable in 2016, as major powers seek cooperation in fighting terrorism and focus on domestic issues such as elections and economic revitalization, analysts forecast.

Geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China are set to persist as the latter strives to expand its sphere of influence in the region and beyond. But they may seek to deescalate tensions and avoid military clashes to fostermutual cooperation, analysts noted.

Tourists watch the sun rise on Jinha Beach, Ulsan. (Yonhap)
Tourists watch the sun rise on Jinha Beach, Ulsan. (Yonhap)

A stable regional environment is likely to facilitate South Korea’s diplomacy with the major powers. But North Korea’s nuclear adventurism is expected to remain a policy challenge due to a lack of momentum to tackle it.

“In 2016, there may be a ‘hot peace,’ meaning that even if there are conflicts and rivalries, regional players would refrain from escalating them and make mutual efforts in crisis management,” said Kim Heung-kyu, a political science professor at Ajou University.

“Countries may use some provocative rhetoric against each other, but they wouldn’t want to needlessly waste their energy by getting mired in external conflicts, given that they are swamped with their own internal issues.”

Last year, China was at the center of regional conflicts as its maritime disputes in the South China Sea escalated with its construction of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands. From its push to build maritime and land-based “silk roads” to creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, its geostrategic moves have fanned regional tensions.

China’s efforts to expand its clout will continue, but its policy focus is expected to remain on economic revitalization and structural reform to curb the economic slowdown and boost domestic consumption and investments, given that economic flip-flops could dent the Communist Party’s leadership and stoke public distrust.

In the third quarter of 2015, China’s economic growth dipped to 6.9 percent -- below 7 percent for the first time since the first quarter of 2009, when it tumbled to 6.2 percent. The weaker pace of expansion has added pressure on China to contrive measures to prevent a sharper economic downturn.

“China is facing a slew of domestic issues, ranging from economic issues to environmental ones, and to income disparities and regional gaps. Thus, China is likely to focus on addressing them,” said Kim Tae-hyung, international politics professor at Soongsil University.

“But there are also possibilities that China could take a hard-line stance on external affairs to help deflect public attention away from the internal problems should China’s efforts to address domestic issues go awry,” he added.

Uncertainties over the disputes in the South China Sea remain, with China associating the territorial issues with its “core” national interests. The U.S.’ “freedom of navigation” operations could cause an abrupt clash with China, as the U.S. is determined to continue its operations to protect the “global commons.”

But the two sides are expected to find a way to defuse their potential frictions, given that they have sought to establish confidence-building measures and bolster strategic communication under a memorandum of understanding, signed in 2014.

Continuing terrorism in the Middle East is likely to create opportunities for the U.S and China to strengthen their cooperation.

Since it was confirmed in November that the Islamic State militant group had abducted and killed a Chinese national, China has taken a hard-line stance, raising the prospects of China’s military involvement in the antiterrorism campaign.

China had maintained a lukewarm stance over the ongoing fight against terrorism, based on its long-standing positions that any conflict should be settled through political dialogue and that a country should not meddle in another country’s internal affairs.

After the killing of a Chinese citizen, Xi called terrorism a “shared enemy” against humanity, vowing to strongly retaliate against it.

China’s support for the antiterrorism campaign has been welcomed by the U.S. and opened a new area of bilateral cooperation, which may reduce the chances of bilateral conflict, experts pointed out.

Particularly when Washington has had a confrontational relationship with Moscow since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, it may want to maintain stable, cooperative ties with China.

“Should the IS expand its terrorist activities, the U.S. and China are likely to forge a cooperative partnership on this security front,” said Choo Jae-woo, political science professor at Kyung Hee University.

“With the united front, their conflict over the South and East China Seas could calm down to a certain extent, at least for a certain period of time next year.”

The U.S. presidential election, slated for November, is expected to affect American foreign policy. Analysts say that the Obama administration may focus on domestic politics while seeking to avoid any significant shift in its policy toward Asia.

But “China bashing” during the election campaigns in the U.S. could trigger tensions between Washington and Beijing, even if harsh rhetoric might not escalate into genuine confrontation.

Affected by its engagement in Syria, the U.S. is likely to strengthen its “retrenchment” policy of reducing international engagement and expenditures, under which Washington may further pressure its core Asian allies -- Japan and South Korea -- to share the burden of maintaining regional security.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. may also strive to seek closer trilateral security cooperation involving the two Asian allies.

In a positive development for the U.S., Seoul and Tokyo officially settled the issue of Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women in December, paving the way for closer security cooperation. Enhanced ties between the two Asia neighbors could also contribute to stability in the region, analysts said.

However, there are still possibilities that historical feuds could flare anew should conservatives in Japan provoke China and South Korea with incendiary remarks to deny Japan’s wartime atrocities, said Bong Young-shik, Japan expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

On the global stage, Russia is likely to seek to bolster its influence based on the robust domestic support for President Vladimir Putin and the nationalism in the country that has risen since the West’s sanctions against it for the annexation of Crimea.

But to ease international isolation and improve its economy, Russia may strive to strengthen diplomatic and economic cooperation with China, Japan and South Korea, which would help improve the regional security prospects, said Chang Duck-joon, Russia expert at Kookmin University.

By Song Sang-ho (