IGCC Hosts Track 1.5 Dialogue on Northeast Asia
Scholars and current and former government officials from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States met virtually February 3-5, as part of the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD), an unofficial track 1.5 forum for discussions about security and cooperation in the region. North Korea was absent at this session.
The meeting came at a challenging moment: Tensions persist on the Korean peninsula; relations between the United States and China are at an all-time low; and countries are grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“An unfortunate consequence of overlapping strategic and global health crises has been a significant reduction in candid communications among policy communities around the world, which has the potential of sowing misunderstandings,” says Tai Ming Cheung, director of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC), which hosts NEACD. “As a forum that straddles the official and unofficial worlds, NEACD is a vital mode of communication during these strained times.”
NEACD was founded in 1993, with the aim of reducing the risk of military conflict in the region and to lay the groundwork for an official multilateral process in Northeast Asia. NEACD is the only ongoing channel of informal communication among the six countries and the precedent for the Six Party Talks on the North Korea’s nuclear program that met between 2003 and 2009.
One of the major topics of discussion was U.S. alliance relationships in Northeast Asia. Although there was a general consensus that the Biden administration hopes to strengthen American alliances, several participants suggested that the inconsistency in U.S. policy during administration changes has damaged U.S. credibility in the region. Others pointed out that rifts between key American allies—specifically Japan and South Korea—could create challenges for addressing regional issues.
In a discussion about the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”), an informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, the possibility of closer relations was discussed. One discussant suggested that the Quad should not, and likely would not, become a formal alliance, and instead, was best situated to promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Participants also discussed the role of European powers in the region, specifically the United Kingdom and France.
During a discussion on defense issues, in which results from the 2020-21 Defense Transparency Index were presented, several participants suggested that a framework for managing competition in new technological domains, such as space and artificial intelligence, is needed.
Another major theme of the 2021 NEACD was the contentious Sino-American relationship. While many agreed that the relationship has worsened dramatically, others pointed to encouraging, if modest, signs of military-to-military cooperation. For instance, a new crisis communication working group reflects a commitment by leadership on both sides to avoid misunderstandings, one participant suggested. Nonetheless, the relationship remains tense overall.
In contrast to worsening U.S.-China relations, many agreed that Russian-Chinese relations are better today than at any other time in the past half century. One participant suggested this is simply a “marriage of convenience,” but many pointed to deep structural factors that have facilitated the strategic relationship for decades. Russian NEACD participants expressed little hope for improvement in Russo-American relations in the near term, and most participants from other countries agreed with this sentiment.
On the subject of arms control, many were cautiously optimistic about the recent extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—the last remaining bilateral arms control treaty between the United States and Russia. The recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), however, suggests that arms control is not performing well overall. China has expressed unwillingness to join an arms control framework because of the small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, which would make any agreement “unequal”—one participant likened it to the Washington Naval Treaty of the 1920s. Russian participants expressed an unwillingness to pressure their Chinese partners to join any such agreement.
On the subject of North Korea, participants agreed that the regime remains a potent nuclear and missile threat. “The North Koreans have been biding their time and keeping a low profile while,” one participant said, “and at the same time ramping up their nuclear missile capabilities.” A participant noted that the North Koreans have applied to COVAX, a consortium co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and WHO to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines and guarantee equitable access among developing countries. COVAX requires ministries of health to submit detailed distribution plans, which the DPRK has so far failed to do, leading to questions over whether they will try to negotiate with China or Russia as an alternative to COVAX.
Overall, the outlook for the region as a whole, and for great power relations specifically, was decidedly gloomy.
The scope of challenges underline the importance of forums like NEACD for improving understanding and building confidence among countries. NEACD is an unusual and powerful forum for track 1.5 dialogue in the region. Having met nearly every year since 1993, some dialogue participants have known and worked together for decades. Their longstanding relationships enable frank and friendly discussions, even in the midst of heightened tensions.
“Several NEACD participants noted that the current moment is similar to the dramatic shifts that occurred with the end of the Cold War in Asia, when we founded NEACD,” says Susan Shirk, IGCC director emeritus, who previously chaired NEACD. “We may need to get creative about ideas for confidence building measures again.”
Since it was founded in 1982, IGCC has also facilitated track 1.5 and 2 dialogues in India-Pakistan and the Middle East.
NEACD will meet again in the fall of 2021 either in person or virtually depending on the health circumstances.
Read an interview with Susan Shirk, director emeritus of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) and chair of the 21st Century China Center, on 30 years of NEACD.