Peace and Security in Northeast Asia By Hugh Miall  |  15 October, 2021

What If… We Could Build Trust in Northeast Asia

Image:  Model of the V&A Dundee, Kurtis Garbutt (Flickr)

The new V&A Museum, designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, opened in Dundee, Scotland in 2018. ‘What If’…’ is one of its opening exhibitions.

A Scottish architectural practice brought together 25 citizens from run-down towns in Scotland. The citizens were asked what changes could make their lives better ‘if only’ things were different. ‘If only there was a place for the young people to meet.’ ‘If only the high street could be revived.’  ‘If only the waterfront could be a thing of beauty.’ They were teamed up with 25 architects who designed new urban features to respond to these needs. ‘What if … the town had a new youth centre’. ‘What if… craft workshops and galleries brought life back to the high street.’ ‘What if…a new harbour wall created walkways on the seafront, while also protecting the town against climate change.’

What would the people of Northeast Asia want in the field of peace and security ‘if only’ things were different?

According to a Carnegie survey, the majority of people in South Korea believe that a unified Korea should continue to have an alliance with the United States after unification. A majority also feel that a unified Korea should have an alliance with China. A great majority hope that unification can be brought about by a peaceful compromise.

People in Japan yearn for peace and an end to nuclear weapons.

People in China want a peaceful, prosperous future and an end to national humiliation.

People in the United States want a peaceful and open Indo-Pacific.

Everyone wants peace. Why then are we seeing new nuclear submarines deployed by AUKUS, new intermediate range missiles and aircraft carriers deployed by China, new nuclear-capable cruise missiles deployed by North Korea, and increasing perceptions of threat and tension in the East and South China Seas?

‘If only’ North Korea, South Korea and the US could agree on a way to turn the armistice agreement into a permanent peace treaty. ‘If only’ Taiwan and China could agree a formula acknowledging their common Chinese legacy and closely bound future destiny. ‘If only’ China, South Korea and Japan could agree to address their history problems in a spirit of openness, mutual respect and mutual acknowledgement. ‘If only’ China and the ASEAN countries could agree a formula for the contested islands in the East and South China Seas.

‘What if’ a conflict prevention approach was taken to the issues of the region? What if the parties gave trust, and peace, a chance? What would that look like?

What if the parties to the Korea conflict were to trade restraints on missile and nuclear tests for reductions in military exercises and easing of sanctions? A phased sequence of denuclearisation and tension reduction could lead to a declaration of the end of the state of war on the Korean peninsula. This could be followed in time by economic ties, people to people links and wildlife corridors across the two Koreas. This could lead in time to comprehensive security framework for the peninsula and the adoption of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in Northeast Asia, as advocated by the Research Centre for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University.

What if South Korea, Japan and China could take a new approach to their past? Accepting, rather than denying, the terrible things that have happened, but also acknowledging that the future can be different from the past? Recognising the positive contributions Japan’s trade and investment have made to the modernisation of the region, as well as the awful damage its armies exacted before 1945? What if the US were to lead a process of historical acknowledgements, starting with accepting that dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused unspeakable suffering to tens of thousands of innocent civilians?  This could be linked to repeated, sincere apologies on behalf of Japan to the civilians who were treated so brutally in China and Korea in the wartime years? And what if the Chinese Communist Party also apologised for its treatment of Chinese civilians, and civilians from non-Han populations? Could an orchestrated sequence of steps help to recognise what has happened in the past, and commit the states in the region to avoiding imposing such unnecessary suffering in the future?

What if Taiwan and China agreed to continue to avoid secessionist declarations and also avoid the threat of the use of force? In 2011, Chinese and Taiwanese leaders agreed in principle to end the state of hostility between the two sides and reaching a peace agreement ‘that accords with the common interests of the Chinese nation and the common wish of compatriots on both sides of the Straits’, in the words of a Chinese spokesman. The principle of separating an easing-of-tensions agreement from a longer-term agreement on status and sovereignty issues has been accepted before. Hitherto both sides have tacitly accepted the status quo position, of no formal independence declaration and no forceful takeover of the island. But this position is under threat, as military deployments escalate tensions, and more outside powers adopt postures that suggest a readiness to intervene. The issue has been securitised by the perception that Taiwan is a key strategic asset, crucial to the control of the South China Sea and the trade and shipping routes on which China, Japan and other states in the region rely for much of their trade.

What if the United States and China came together to work out a way of responding to climate change, dealing with pandemics and de-securitising the Asia Pacific together? What if confidence-building measures were agreed to prevent incidents at sea and in the air from escalating rapidly? What if instead of increasing their naval forces, the two agreed a set of arms control and disarmament agreements? What if they were to agree a framework for a regional security system, along Helsinki lines? Could such an agreement be the key to making progress with the other conflicts in the region?

To take forward the ‘what if?’ questions in depth, and apply them to the ‘if only’ challenges in the region, the Toda Peace Institute is convening a Study Group of scholars and experts from Northeast Asia in 2022. In preparatory Public Conversations, Kevin Clements and Hugh Miall have been interviewing leading scholars and policy-makers about their views on the ways forward. These interviews can be viewed on the Toda YouTube platform.

So far, the interviews include one with Barry Buzan (LSE) and Evelyn Goh (ANU) on Addressing Sino-Japanese Alienation. The second is on the Prospects for Stable Peace on the Korean Peninsula, with Chung-In Moon (Sejong Institute, Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Non-proliferation and Yonsei University) and Peter Hayes (Nautilus Institute, Melbourne University). The third is on US Policy Towards North Korea, with Ambassador Joseph Yun and Frank Aum (USIP).  More will follow.

Hugh Miall is Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Kent, and Chair of the Conflict Research Society, the main professional association for peace and conflict researchers in the UK. He has been Director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre and Head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and a Research Fellow in the European Programme at Chatham House. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute.