[Viewpoint] Security in NE Asia

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[Viewpoint] Security in NE Asia

From an American perspective, the optimal security architecture in Northeast Asia remains the preservation of the hubs-and-spokes system of bilateral security relationships. Over the past decade, China has made little effort to improve military transparency and North Korea has retrenched in nuclear ambitions.

As the collapse of the six-party talks illustrates, these conditions probably prevent adoption of a formal, regional security architecture in Northeast Asia capable of accommodating these powers.

That said, there is a strong argument to be made that the United States should now layer on top of its traditional bilateral relationships a separate, formal Trilateral Strategic Partnership (TSP) with Japan and South Korea. This new initiative should emphasize not only enhanced defense and diplomatic cooperation but also should prioritize the pursuit of a common identity as a shared national security objective.

Despite a long history of cooperation, the partners must acknowledge the stark absence of a common identity not only within the region but also between one another. This all too often reduces the U.S.-ROK, U.S.-Japan and Japan-ROK relationships to strategic calculations based solely on short-term national interests.

For these partnerships to deepen, the three powers need to leverage the TSP to forge a common identity that complements (rather supplants) their strong national identities.

At the start of the Asian century, the U.S. has failed to properly integrate the culture and language of its large Asian immigrant population into mainstream America.

While the U.S. possesses a unique capacity to retain a common identity with Europe while simultaneously forging a new one with Asia, it has thus far squandered this opportunity.

To meet emerging strategic objectives, the U.S. therefore must make Asian cultural integration a national priority. This includes investing in programs that better reflect Asian history, culture and language in American education and fine arts.

Japan and South Korea likewise need to prioritize forging a common identity between one another and the U.S. This involves more than compulsory English language training. It requires a national mandate to overcome historical divides and implement new domestic and international education and cultural relations programs.

The development of a common identity would lower barriers to cooperation in other areas within the TSP and bilateral relationships, including those related to security and defense.

This would not only help the partners better weather future shocks but it also would bind the U.S. more closely to its long-term security commitments in Asia.

With time, it is possible to see the agenda of the TSP expanding beyond foundational issues, which should be limited to the North Korean threat, nontraditional security concerns and a common identity.

Continuing to handle more divisive issues through bilateral relations would prevent the TSP from being undermined by more complex issues, such as Chinese military modernization, at the start.

This would enable the TSP to evolve into a mechanism capable of either containing or accommodating a rising China once its intentions are better known.

Progress on a common identity through the TSP could someday spawn a new regional security architecture encompassing like-minded Asia-Pacific partners.

At first, possible candidates could include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines and Russia; countries struggling with the Asianness of their own national identities, sometimes questioning the long-term viability of U.S. security commitments in Asia-Pacific and sharing concerns over the North Korean nuclear program.

However, there would be no need to restrict future membership beyond ensuring that all partners exhibit a strong commitment to the maintenance of peace and stability in Asia-Pacific. This would leave the door wide open for the eventual inclusion of both China and North Korea, as well as ASEAN members and other Asia-Pacific countries, if the proper conditions are met for TSP expansion.

*The writer is a nonresident WSD-Handa fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.

By Eddie Walsh
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