Ever a mirage -- Northeast Asian regionalization
IT'S AN ODDITY of East Asian intranational politics that the most vibrant multilateral organization in the region is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Wealthier Northeast Asian nations China, South Korea and Japan are most certainly concerned with influencing ASEAN, yet NEA lacks any equivalent organization. The potential clearly exists for both NEA regional economic and security cooperation involving China, South and North Korea, Japan, Russia and Mongolia. Nevertheless, a history of animosity, disparate cultural values, institutional barriers and security concerns have impeded progress in regional integration.
The Six-Party Talks -- involving China, the Koreas, Japan, Russia and the United States -- at long last appear to be making progress in the denuclearization of North Korea. Optimists hope denuclearization will create more economic cooperation between NEA nations. Moreover, there is clear Chinese and South Korean interest in morphing the SPT into a regional security apparatus.
Pursuit of either economic or security cooperation faces daunting challenges. China and Japan are locked into a struggle for regional supremacy. China was the dominant player in East Asia until Japan usurped China's position with its victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. The Japanese invasion of China during World War II and China's insistence that Japan has yet to atone for its atrocities remain a flashpoint in their relationship. What is more, China holds that unacceptable U.S. intrusion into the region is anchored by close U.S.-Japanese relations.
For its part, Japan is deeply suspicious of China's long-term intentions against a background of burgeoning Chinese economic, military and diplomatic influence. Strong Japanese support for Taiwan and territorial claim to Diaoyutai (Chinese) or Senkakushima (Japanese) Islands hamper the relationship.
Both Koreas clearly remember the period of Japanese colonialism and share with China nightmarish memories of World War II. The Chinese market is especially important to South Korea and helps to balance its huge trade deficit with Japan. China and South Korea have shared a similar negotiating position in the SPT, yet well- informed South Korean observers, who asked not to be named, remain mistrustful of China. Despite North Korean dependence on China for fuel and food, state propaganda debunks China for abandoning communism and shows little appreciation for Chinese materiel or diplomatic support.
Furthermore, some South Koreans feel that the Japanese don't consider them equals. Others feel that America favors the U.S.-Japanese relationship to the U.S.-South Korean relationship. The recent flaring of a sovereignty dispute over the Dokdo (Korean) or Takeshima (Japanese) Islands only intensifies negative feelings.
As for North Korea, periodic Japanese government interruption of cash transfers by Koreans living in Japan to relatives in North Korea and suspension of passenger ship service between the two countries produce venomous propaganda. North Korean missile launches over Japan and failure to disclose the fate of Japanese abductees have contributed to calls for a more aggressive, less constitutionally bound Japanese military.
The division of Korea, in the geographic center of the NEA, also is serious obstacle to regional economic or security cooperation. Seen as a land bridge between China and Japan, who at different times have dominated Korea, the country is of vital security interest to both major powers. The Korean peninsula is one of the most heavily armed areas in the world and pits the numerically superior North Korean army against the more technically sophisticated South Korean military supported by 29,000 U.S. troops that the North demands be withdrawn. The South's Sunshine Policy has tried to use food, fuel and other incentives to get the North to the bargaining table to carry out family reunions, to prevent the Pyongyang regime from economically imploding, causing an economically crippling rush South of refugees, and to stop development of nuclear weapons.
Chinese commercial and criminal influence is growing in the Russian Far East and is of key concern to the Russians. Russian nationalistic and security concerns squelched Chinese offers to lease and develop the ports of Zarubino and Posyet that would have stimulated economic growth for the RFE and given China's economically struggling, landlocked Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces access to the sea.
Russia seems to be the least interested party in ramped up regional cooperation, although it has held joint military exercises with China and exports oil to its southern neighbor.
Until Russia and Japan settle the Kurile Island territorial issue, their relations will not likely improve.
The obstacles to regionalization make it a long-term process. The Honolulu-based Northeast Asian Economic Forum -- headed by Chairman Lee-Jay Cho, emeritus fellow of the East West Center, and supported by the Hawaii Asia Pacific Institute, led by former Gov. George R. Ariyoshi -- strives to promote regionalization by promoting dialogue, pinpointing bureaucratic procedures that impede regionalization, and advocating that natural gas, oil and electricity can play an role in integration.
As challenging as the obstacles are, the economic benefits are huge.
China could gain access to the sea for its northeastern provinces and to Russian Far Eastern natural, mineral and water resources. Western Japan, a less developed part of the country, would experience new economic vitality as a trade hub facing other partners. Japan would more readily acquire Russian natural resources.
In addition to RFE resources, South Korea would gain a valuable train connection to transport its goods to Europe through North Korea and on to the Trans-Siberian Railway. South Korea would benefit from cheap North Korean labor and an expanded market in the North for its goods. North Korea would be given an opportunity to gain more economic self-sufficiency and to make up for the gap in lost Soviet aid.
Mongolia could develop transnational rail links, giving it access to seaports.
Bereft of its Soviet-era subsidies and receiving scant attention from Moscow, the RFE is considered Russia's economic basket case despite its resource wealth. Its economy would benefit from economic integration in NEA, which would bring it more investment and more of the consumer goods Russians so desperately crave.
And what about the United States? The end of the Cold War and the rise of China have made it difficult for the United States to adhere to bilaterally based diplomacy in NEA as South Korea and Japan consider other forms of interaction with America. While speeches by leading Chinese cadre always promote multilateralism and suggest there would be an American role in any regional security arrangement, America worries that it is a Trojan horse designed to give China time to build economic and military influence that could muscle the United States out of NEA. However, given its own military power, capital assets, technological creativity and ravenous market, it's unlikely the United States would be completely sidelined; it would be a far more equal partner that could witness a far less dangerous, more economically robust region. The challenge for the United States is dealing with a changing NEA.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the domestic and international politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. firstname.lastname@example.org