New Frameworks for Northeast Asian Security: Bilateral Alliances and Multilateral Unofficial Talks

Masashi Nishihara
June 1997

The views of prominent Japanese thinkers on current policy issues, which are not normally accessible to an international audience because of the language barrier, have been translated and made available through JCIE’s Global Thinknet Insights. This piece is by Professor Masashi Nishihara of National Defense Academy.

Destabilizing Factors in Northeast Asia

The end of the cold war effectively put a period to U.S.-Soviet conflict in Asia Pacific. Nevertheless, the region is still subject to many destabilizing factors. Uncertainty surrounds Russia’s Asia policy, North-South relations on the Korean Peninsula, Chinese relations with Taiwan and with Hong Kong following its hand over to the motherland, and disputes over the borders of exclusive economic zones in the East China Sea. Anxiety is especially pronounced in regard to the Korean Peninsula, where 1.5 million troops are massed at the thirty-eighth parallel, and China, which is building up its military strength along with its economic clout. There is also concern that China will become more nationalistic, and thus more assertive toward other countries.

The harshest aspect of the security environment in Northeast Asia at present has to do with North Korea: its opaque hierarchy of authority, its unilateral abrogation of the 1953 cease-fire agreement, its hostility toward South Korea, and its continued missile development and possession of chemical weapons even as it grapples with severe food shortages. Pyongyang is sending out conflicting signals. On the one hand, it is reported to be maintaining combat readiness as the military gains increased influence; on the other, it is pushing ahead with construction of light-water reactors with the assistance of Japan, South Korea, and the United States. It is hard to judge what external stance North Korea will take in future.

The Japan-U.S. Alliance as a Stabilizing Factor

In these circumstances, maintenance of Japan-U.S. economic, political, and especially security relations is extremely important as a stabilizing factor in Asia Pacific, particularly Northeast Asia. With the exception of the Japan-U.S. relationship, during the cold war relations among China, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States were generally either unstable or hostile. Sino-Soviet relations, for example, fluctuated wildly, from alliance in the early post-World War II period to conflict in the 1960s and then rapprochement in the 1980s. China’s relations with Japan and the United States were unfriendly at first, since neither Japan nor the United States recognized China. Diplomatic relations were finally established in the 1970s, and the three countries adopted a united front to counter the “Soviet threat.” At present China-Japan and China-U.S. relations are good in some respects but also include many areas of conflict. If the Japan-U.S. security relationship were to become unstable at this point, probably China would worry about Japan’s developing its own military strength and bilateral relations would deteriorate. Tension between China and Japan would most certainly destabilize Asia were it to escalate into a struggle for regional hegemony. For this reason, too, stable Japan-U.S. relations are crucial.

Of the one hundred thousand or so U.S. armed forces personnel in the West Pacific, those stationed in Japan and deployed at sea are charged with assisting in the defense of Japan and South Korea. Their brief also includes duties within the sphere of defense of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The importance of U.S. forces in Japan mounted after the December 1991 decision to shut down U.S. bases in the Philippines. Personnel stationed in Japan can be dispatched to the Taiwan Strait, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. U.S. forces in Japan took part in the 1991 Gulf War. During the crisis in the Taiwan Strait in March 1996 a U.S. aircraft carrier was dispatched from its home port at Yokosuka and also took part in the retaliatory bombing of Iraq in September 1996. Since it is the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty that makes the U.S. military presence in the West Pacific possible, indirectly Japan is making an extremely important contribution to regional security.

The Significance of Strengthening the Japan-U.S. Alliance and Asian Countries’ Reactions

The April 1996 summit between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto reaffirmed that the bilateral alliance play an appropriate role in regional stability. The Japan-U.S. Joint Declaration on Security issued on April 17 reaffirmed that the combination of “appropriate defense capabilities for the Self-Defense Forces of Japan and the Japan-U.S. security arrangements” was the most effective way of defending Japan and that the United States would continue to keep about one hundred thousand troops in the West Pacific. Japan and the United States also agreed to promote “studies on bilateral cooperation in dealing with situations that may emerge in the areas surrounding Japan and which will have an important influence on the peace and security of Japan” and to “jointly and individually strive to achieve a more peaceful and stable security environment in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Specifically, they agreed to review the 1978 Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, to promote cooperation on the basis of the acquisition and cross-servicing agreement betwen the two forces, signed on April 15, 1996, and to “consolidate, realign, and reduce U.S. facilities and areas” on Okinawa to build a more stable alliance. The declaration reveals a more active stance on Japan’s part than heretofore. In regard to the defense guidelines review, two interim reports have already been issued, and the final report is due to appear in September. Basically, the role of the SDF will be to provide logistic support for U.S. forces; joint offensive operations on the Korean Peninsula are not envisioned. The SDF will not take part in combat, but will perform such functions as supplying fuel, engaging in minesweeping operations in international waters under noncombat conditions, and inspecting suspicious ships in international waters in accordance with sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

There has been great controversy within Japan’s ruling coalition over the geographical extent of “areas surrounding Japan,” but recently the government announced the view that the phrase does not have geographical connotations. This is an appropriate stance.

Other Asia Pacific countries evinced a variety of reactions to the Japan-U.S. joint declaration. The governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, and South Korea expressed official support for strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance. On April 18 the South Korean government issued a statement praising the declaration for making it clear that the U.S. role in Asia Pacific peace and stability would be firmly upheld in future and expressing the hope that this would also contribute to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.

In contrast, on April 18 a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman cautioned against a stronger Japan-U.S. alliance, stating that “the Japan-U.S. security treaty is a historically established bilateral defense framework. This defense framework cannot go beyond bilateral limits. If it should, this would complicate regional conditions.” And the Beijing Declaration issued on April 25, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin was in China for summit talks, proclaimed a “Sino-Russian strategic partnership.”

Russia, meanwhile, is drawing closer to China, selling it large numbers of modern armaments (including SU-27 fighter bombers, destroyers, submarines, and components of SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles). At the same time, it appears to be wary of a Chinese military buildup. Russia is also making overtures to Japan in an effort to check China. In 1996 and 1997, for example, Japan and Russia exchanged visits of naval vessels and defense ministers. Basically, Russia also favors the strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Northeast Asian Countries’ Complex International Relations

As we have seen, the entangled interests of the four major powers have created complex relationships among them in Northeast Asia. On the one hand we have a “strategic partnership” between China and Russia to counter the Japan-U.S. alliance; on the other, Russia’s wariness of China has led it to draw closer to Japan and the United States. In the meantime, China, South Korea, and the United States are cooperating to deal with North Korea in four-party talks to discuss peace on the Korean Peninsula. In this area Chinese and U.S. interests are linked to some extent. In regard to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), however, Japan, South Korea, and the United States are collaborating closely, and China is not a participant.

North Korea, while respecting its traditional dependence on China, also seems to be trying to balance this by approaching the United States. China and North Korea are still joined in a military alliance, but China appears critical of North Korea’s foreign policy. South Korea and the United States are allies, but at the same time the United States is wary of South Korean military adventurism and wants to retain control of South Korea’s defense. Meanwhile, Japan and the United States enjoy close relations, but the United States also opposes an independent Japanese military apparatus.

In short, the countries involved with Northeast Asia are enmeshed in complex relationships dictated by their own interests. It goes without saying that the United States is playing a vital role as a stabilizing factor.

Two Approaches to Regional Security

There are two approaches to regional security in Northeast Asia today. One is reinforcement of bilateral alliances centered on the United States; the other is multilateral talks on security that include as many regional players as possible. The first approach is seen in the redefinition or strengthening of U.S. security relationships with Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The second is exemplified by the “Northeast Asian security dialogue” proposed by South Korea and the United States. The latter is not yet a reality, but in the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), a so-called track two forum straddling the public and private sectors that has gained North Korean participation, actual Northeast Asian security dialogue is beginning. North Korea was represented at the February 1997 meeting of the CSCAP’s North Pacific Security Working Group, which is cochaired by Canada and Japan; the May 1997 meeting of the Working Group on Confidence and Security Building Measures; and the first general meeting of the CSCAP, held in Singapore in June 1997.

As indicated by the above, at present track two forums are more successful than government-level organizations when it comes to multilateral security dialogue in Northeast Asia. Meetings and seminars of this type advance informal contacts among diplomats, civilian and military defense officials, and scholars engaged in policy-oriented research. Such multilevel exchange is playing a major role in building understanding and trust among the countries involved.

Nevertheless, this kind of multilateral security dialogue should not weaken bilateral alliances centered on the United States. Both approaches to security should coexist. The important thing is to enhance regional security dialogue while supporting the U.S. military presence in the West Pacific. In other words, the United States’ bilateral alliances in the region and regional security dialogue should serve complementary functions.

All the opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author as a private individual.

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