Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration?


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With a few exception e. Samuel Kim , most analysts appear to commit a fallacy of reductionism in which they deduce the regional dynamics of East Asia, Asia, and the Asia-Pacific from that of Northeast Asia. Regional dynamics vary by sub-region Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia , region East Asia , meso-region Asia , and mega-region Asia-Pacific , depending on sheer size, geographic distance, historical and cultural background, economic interdependence, levels of institutionalization of regional cooperation, and overall security environment.

Thus, the level of analysis needs to be differentiated with some analytical and empirical qualification. Selection bias seems to be another shortcoming of the existing literature, especially realist one. Units of analysis in IR of Northeast Asia are diverse, ranging from probability of war such as great power conflicts, regional stability or instability to peace-making, regional cooperation and integration, and institutionalization.

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Among these, stability turns out to be the favored research topic. Preference of stability as the unit of analysis at a structural level has been quite common across the political science discipline Duff and McCamant, ; Hurwiz, ; Ake, But a conceptual understanding of stability seems faulty. Let's take an example from Northeast Asia. For others, East Asia in general and Northeast Asia in particular are unusually stable because of the prudent and patient security management by the regional states Solingen, ; Tonneson, Likewise, the concept of stability is over-used but under-specified and under-conceptualized.

The concept of stability in IR has been implicitly understood as a static notion that illustrates peacefulness, harmony, and absence of conflictual elements. It is then inferred that the presence of conflictual elements has been assumed to mean instability per se in a political system Kaplan, If analysts observe temporary activation of unstable elements or threats to the system, then they tend to treat them as evidence of systemic instability. Northeast Asia has been seen as one of the most unstable regions in the world because of such uncertain elements as a rising China and power transition, North Korea's nuclear ambition, historical animosity, territorial disputes, and lack of institutional templates.

Structural realists have been particularly adamant about such a position. For them, stability in world politics is believed to come either from the equal distribution of power i. Both, however, do not directly operationalize the concept of stability, but essentially equate it with the presence or absence of general wars among major powers. According to structural realism, the notion of stability is consequential, not procedural. In this vein, structuralists regard the level of systemic stability as a function of polarity in the system Powell, Thus, from a neo-realist perspective, stability is assumed to be certain equilibrium points that sustain and control destabilizing elements in the system.

Time ripe for promoting peace in Northeast Asia

With such secured equilibrium, system is said to be balanced, therefore stable. From the concentration perspective, however, the international system becomes stable as long as a dominant actor sets the norms and regulations within the system.

For the remaining of members in the system are assumed to follow the hegemonic leadership, as they have no material incentives to go against it, due to the preponderance of material power enjoyed by the hegemonic power. Regardless of the contending perspectives, one may argue that a region is stable as long as it can illustrate the intrinsic capacity to avoid and manage major harms that would devastate the existing regional order.

Stability as an observable phenomenon is a function of regular behaviors conforming to the prevailing codes of conduct among the constitutive actors. In a stable system, actors should have no incentives to defect from the status quo but much-enhanced motives to cooperate with each other. Therefore, stability can be also a measure of cooperation among actors in a given system.

In an unstable system, actors have strong inclination to defect, namely not cooperating with others but seeking to change the status quo. The key to understanding stability should then lie in the effective management of conflictual elements in the system. In this sense, all major actors might desire stability in a system, but they must agree on what constitutes stability Alagappa, , p.

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Realist observers of Northeast Asian regional dynamics have been preoccupied with this stability and instability dimension. While power transition precipitate a new hegemonic rivalry between China and the United States at the systemic level, structure of finite deterrence among major actors in the region, along with suspicion and distrust emanating from the intrinsic disagreements over history, territories, and even trade, is likely to shape hostile terrain at the sub-systemic level Kim, ; Tammen and Kugler, ; Legro, They favor the continuation of status quo under American hegemonic leadership, while raising concerns over China's rise.

However, this line of reasoning needs to be re-examined. Notwithstanding visible signs of power transition between the United States and China in recent years, the region has not suffered from instability. Moreover, we have increasingly witnessed that newly emerging regional norms and expectations as well as cultivation of policy networks and constant dialogues among countries in the region have to some extent mitigated perennial security dilemma in the Northeast Asia. Major ideational shifts in favor of solidarity order in China, Japan, and South Korea must have also contributed to the trend Alagappa, Of course, the idea of power balancing that would normally accompany strategic misperceptions has not vanished yet, but may be no longer dominant.


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Evidently, a strong but maybe still implicit sense of agreement on such ideas as aversion of war, regional stability for economic development, and the need for multilateral security cooperation has been arguably ingrained in the mental template of Northeast Asian countries Choi, a , b. Thus, excessive preoccupation with stability in terms of continuation of American-centered regional order may not reflect an accurate reality of the new regional landscape.

The realist perspective, which has been dominant in accounting for regional dynamics in Northeast Asia, is still valid and rich in theoretical, empirical, and policy implications. Nevertheless, the over-emphasis on power, alliance, and regional stability led many analysts to under-specify the finer pictures of regional dynamics, resulting in the diverging gap between regional realities and the theory-based predictions for the region. Close examinations of regional interactions reveal that interests and identity have played an equally important role.

Although distribution of power and the resulting external security environment essentially delimit the scope of maneuver by state actors, they do not necessarily determine and dictate their behavior. They simply serve as input variables or necessary conditions. They are perceived, processed, and ultimately translated into policy outcomes after going through tense domestic political bargaining process in which interests, identity, and domestic political dynamics are closely intermeshed.

As a Norwegian scholar Stein Tonneson aptly puts, one of the greatest puzzles in East Asia in general and Northeast Asia in particular is the phenomenon of an amazingly long peace Tonneson, Enormous conflict potential notwithstanding, the Northeast Asian region was devoid of any overt and full-scale conflicts since the end of the Korean War in Although realists could argue that this is an outcome of military deterrence based on the balance of power, newly emerging norms, interests, and formal and informal networks have played a crucial role in mitigating conflict potential and sustaining the relative long peace He, ; Suh et al.

Liberal transition projects pacification of inter-state relations through proliferation and intensification of economic interdependence, multilateral cooperative platforms and democracies. Whereas the realist vision is predicated on a gloomy portrayal of regional order, proponents of liberal transition project a much more optimistic outlook. According to liberal transition perspectives, Northeast Asian countries can escape from the trapping structure of the security dilemma by forming a security community as Western European countries have done.

But the formation of a community of security is predicated on the satisfaction of two pre-conditions.

One is the region-wide spread of the free market system, and the other is the enlargement of democratic political structures. Shared norms and values, increased economic, social, and cultural interdependence, and institutionalized cooperation can remove the fear of negative spirals of mutual suspicion, eventually leading to a stable and durable peace in the region. Such a liberalist position essentially challenges the realist premise about the structural impact of various polarities i.

Commercial liberalism and democratic peace epitomize the essence of liberal transition perspective Hass, ; Doyle, , ; Rosecrance, ; Keohane and Nye, Strengthening economic interdependence promotes systemic gravitation towards peace-making while enabling states to increase their wealth without using forceful means. On the other hand, liberal states become more accountable for their domestic constituencies and less conducive to violent means for resolving conflictual issues.

Thus, if the regional interactions gravitate towards one set of shared code of conducts, namely, political democracies with interdependent economic relations through multilateral cooperative platforms , then such code of conducts among states will enhance the incentives to avoid the use of military forces to settle disputes between regional states. A reality check shows that the Northeast Asian region is far from achieving a European type of liberal transition Choi, a , b ; Capannelli, and Filippini However, the concrete Northeast Asian phenomenon is a natural formation of intensified trading zone of Northeast Asia without artificial institutional designs.

South Korea, Japan and China have drawn their economic developments and prosperity from export-driven outward policies.

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According to its proponents, however, democratization of China and North Korea, along with the introduction of market economy, can facilitate the diffusion of shared norms and values, ultimately leading to a community of security and stable peace Moon, ; Kahler, ; Haggard and Noland, While South Korea and Taiwan have achieved a mature market economy with a high degree of democratic consolidation, Japan is a stable democracy with strong market economy. When and if China and North Korea join the liberal camp of democracy and market economy, intra-regional peace-building will be much more plausible.

The expectation is that such developments can foster the rise of open regionalism and intra-regional security cooperation, further facilitating the transition to liberal peace in the region. Such transformation will inevitably entail concurrent changes in domestic political structure.


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  • As historical experiences of South Korea and Taiwan demonstrate, capitalist economic growth is bound to melt authoritarian political templates, paving the way to expansion of civil society, the rise of the middle class, culture shifts, and ultimately democratic changes. China is full of signs of such changes.

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    Although the Chinese Communist Party CCP holds a firm grip on political power, local politics in China has undergone remarkable democratic changes, especially in the Southern provinces such as Guangdong. As civil society expands and activates, the Chinese government has become increasingly responsive to citizen demands Wang, Thus, no matter how tardy and incremental, democratization in China seems to be an irreversible trend Dicson, ; Friedman, North Korea will be much slower in following China's suit in sequencing of opening, reform, and democratization.

    But it cannot avoid the process either Ahrens, Likewise, the spread of the free market and democracy in China and North Korea will make Northeast Asia all the more freer and safer. Along with these domestic changes, there are other important signs of liberal transition in the region, in particular, the increasing trend toward multilateral security and economic cooperation.

    Deepening intra-regional economic interdependence and dense informal networks have propelled more formal economic cooperation and social and cultural exchanges among countries in the region Katada and Solis, Institutionalization of tripartite summit talk involving China, Japan, and South Korea, along with various joint inter-governmental efforts to foster intra-regional cooperation, underscores this trend such as the Tripartite Environmental Ministerial Meeting and the Tripartite Summit.

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    Although there is no formal mechanism to address security and peace in the region, Northeast Asian countries have been active in promoting the idea of multilateral security cooperation. And an array of security dialog among government officials and non-governmental organizations has been instrumental in cultivating a sense of epistemic community among regional actors. Liberal transition offers us good news, but as with power, the politics of national identity has surfaced as another hindrance to peace and stability in the region. Diffusion of liberal democracy and market economy cannot heal the past scars of colonial domination and subjugation.

    Shared traumatic memories have shaped opposing collective identities, which have in turn led to antagonistic forms of nationalism. Collective cognitive dissonance over the reversed Confucian order and subsequently changed status are seen as the primary sources of Northeast Asian instability. Such collective identity has made the structure of finite deterrence an integral part of conflict system in Northeast Asia.

    When and if the overlay of the Cold War is completely lifted, new patterns of bilateral suspicion and rivalry are likely to ensue, complicating the process of peace building. For students of constructivism, identity, rather than power and interests, is a more reliable predictor for strategic interactions among countries in the region. Identity-driven regional politics, as manifested through the revival of right-wing nationalism and ramifications in foreign and national security policies, is likely to make Northeast Asia more unstable than before Lind, ; Moon and Suh, For example, one may argue that pre-existing antagonistic memory has been causing spirals of persistent suspicions manifested in an arms race and security dilemma between China and Japan Christensen, , Violent nationalist outrage in China and South Korea in over the issues of then prime minister Koizumi's tribute to the Yasukuni Shrine and amendment of Japan's middle school textbooks also presents a vivid testimonial to profound impacts of collective memory of past history and national identity on foreign policy.

    While China and South Korea have maintained an amicable relationship since diplomatic normalization in , a recent dispute over the Koguryo historiography symbolizes a delicate dimension of Northeast Asian regional dynamics from the identity perspective Moon and Li, ; Chung, Likewise, historical memory and the politics of national identity would generate negative perceptions with intrinsic mistrust, which would become an impediment to forming a stable regional order Manning and Stem, ; Duffield, What should be kept in mind is that collective memory of past history and national identity tend to remain dormant unless they are misused or abused for domestic political purpose.

    For instance, neither realist nor liberal perspectives could offer an adequate explanation for the recent anomalous behavior of Japan. At the risk of international isolation and defamation, Koizumi and Abe pursued a hard-line nationalist foreign policy on neighboring countries by proposing a coalition of democracies against China, undertaking tough sanctions on North Korea, claiming territorial sovereignty over Dokdo, paying tribute to the Yasukuni Shrine, and whitewashing Japan's past colonial injustices, such as the issue of comfort women.

    Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration? Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration?
    Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration? Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration?
    Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration? Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration?
    Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration? Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration?
    Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration? Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration?
    Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration? Northeast Asia: Ripe for Integration?

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