Peace and Security in Northeast Asia By Hugh Miall  |  30 March, 2024

Floating in Uncertain Waters: Northeast Asian Outlook January–March 2024

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Since the San Francisco summit between President Biden and President Xi on November 2023, US–China relations have at least stopped deteriorating. The summit seems to have fulfilled at least the minimal hopes that were pinned on it. It created guard rails for a relationship that neither side wanted to see going too far off track.

Nor has China yet become as loud an issue in the US presidential election campaign as might have been expected. Biden has been playing down the China threat. Trump has not been playing up the Taiwan issue. Biden has declared four times that he would defend Taiwan if it was attacked. Asked what he would do, Trump replied: ‘"I don't want to say it because if I'm in the position of president, I don't want to say what I'm thinking’. He added that Taiwan had taken away the US semiconductor business. ‘We should have stopped them. We should have taxed them. We should have tariffed them.’

The Taiwan election in January 2024 left Lai Ching-te, the DPP’s successful presidential candidate, with a less clearcut majority than his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen enjoyed. The DPP lost control of the parliamentary assembly. At least until President Lai makes his inaugural speech on 20 May, Taiwan remains relatively quiet.

Meanwhile, though the US–China trade war has eased, trade issues continue to be a source of tension. At the meeting of the National People’s Congress in March, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that relations with the U.S. have improved since the San Francisco summit, but America has not fulfilled its promises.

“If the U.S. always says one thing and does another, where is its credibility as a major power? If the U.S. gets nervous and anxious when it hears the word ‘China,’ where is its confidence as a major power?” he asked. “If the U.S. is obsessed with suppressing China, it will eventually harm itself.”

Tech issues remain a sore point, notwithstanding the US’s overwhelming lead. Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives supported a bill to ban the Chinese social media app Tik Tok. In response China is turning to domestically produced tech and encouraging Party and Government users to turn away from Intel chips and Windows software. China is more dependent on imported semiconductors than it is on oil, and if Edward Snowden’s revelations are to be believed, China is probably more vulnerable to US surveillance than the US is to China’s. Delinking of the high tech sectors of the two economies thus seems likely to continue.

Cyberattacks have been another source of tension. The US, UK and New Zealand governments have all complained of cyberattacks by hackers thought to be linked to Chinese espionage agencies. These have compromised electoral data and targeted critics of China. In response China has complained of cyberattacks by the west, and argues that the western claims are unsubstantiated.

Perhaps the most significant threat to the US–China relationship is the prospect of a strengthened security arrangement between the US and Japan, which President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida are due to announce in April. But it remains to be seen what the content of this will be. Tokyo is pushing for ‘nuclear sharing’ and a stronger US command structure in Japan. The US is pushing for Japanese support in the event of a Taiwan conflict. Neither side appears willing to give the other all it wants.

While the US has strengthened its alliances with Japan and South Korea, there are also indications that South Korea, at least, is interested in repairing relations with China. South Korea is planning to host a summit for Chinese, Japanese and Korean leaders later this year. The bilateral relationship between South Korea and Japan is also improving.

While the US–China relationship has been undergoing a period of welcome quiescence, two other hot spots show signs of getting more dangerous. The first is the situation on the Korean peninsula. Kim Jong-Un ordered North Korea to ‘prepare for war’ in March as he oversaw training exercises in response to US and South Korea’s ‘Freedom Shield’ military exercise. He had previously blown up a statue symbolising future Korean unification, and declared that South Korea is an enemy state. With the removal of the Comprehensive Military Agreement, ‘the last remaining guard-rail’ there is now little distance between the opposing forces, and there are fears of incidents at sea along the contested Northern Boundary Line. On the other hand, in a speech on January 15th, Kim Jong-Un also announced a new long-term regional development policy with decentralised industrial development – not a sign that he believes war is imminent. 

Further south, the relationship between China and the Philippines has continued to deteriorate. The Philippines and the U.S. have accused China of aggressive tactics in trying to block Philippines ships from reaching reefs that both sides claim, most resulting in a collision between coastguard vessels in March.

“For unreasonable provocations, we will take just countermeasures,” Wang Yi said. “We also advise certain countries outside the region not to stir up trouble, choose sides, and not to become disruptors and troublemakers in the South China Sea.”

This period of relative quiescence should be an opportunity for proactive diplomacy. The San Francisco summit in November emphasised people-to-people diplomacy, and the potential for informal track-two discussions is better than it was. The Toda Peace Institute hosted its own dialogue for Chinese, Japanese and Korean scholars on the theme ‘Understanding China: Myths and Realities’ in November 2023 and a follow up meeting is planned in June.

However, while there appears to be an opportunity for improving relations, the US and China continue to clash in international fora, including at the UN, and the US domestic political environment remains hostile to China. In these circumstances, the military establishments of both sides plan for the worst, and continued military buildups and new deployments, together with rising defence spending, risk driving the relationship in a negative direction. Clausewitz remains in charge, and worst-case scenarios are the order of the day. The next Northeast Asia blog will examine the military dynamics of the region in more detail.

Related articles:

Understanding China: Myths and Realities (20-minute read)

Northeast Asia Prospects after the G7: High Winds, Choppy Waters and Even Dangerous Storms (3-minute read)


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.