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East Asia Security Order and Cooperation

Remarks to the 7th World Peace Forum Panel, Tsinghua University, Beijing, 15 July 2018

States and their leaders who make a difference to their region and the world are of two basic kinds. There are those who are on the right side of history and those who are not – those who make the right calls at critical, pivotal moments in national or world history and those who do not. The resolution of tensions between the major players in East Asia is, for the foreseeable future, going to matter more for the peace of the world than what happens in any other theatre. So when it comes to ensuring peace and stability in East Asia, what does it mean now to be on the right side of history? What are the steps that can and should be taken by our present generation of political leaders that will have future generations thinking of them as true visionaries for peace?

The overwhelming, primary need is for all of them to bring to the geopolitics of East Asia a mindset focused not on confrontation and competition but on cooperation – to adopt a ‘cooperative security’ approach. The idea of cooperative security has been round for a long time, but it’s one of which we constantly need to remind ourselves, because it is the only rational and defensible way of conducting international relations in the contemporary world, and certainly the only rational and defensible way of conducting relations in an area as volatile as East Asia.

It embraces a number of distinct elements, but three in particular: the idea of common security, first articulated by the Palme Commission in the early 1980s, that security is best achieved with others, rather than against them; the idea of comprehensive security, that international security in the modern age is multidimensional, demanding attention not just to political and diplomatic disputes but underlying economic and social issues; and thirdly, the recognition there are an ever-growing number of non-traditional, transnational threats to both state and human security – like terrorism, climate change, unregulated population flows, health pandemics and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – that depend on cooperative solutions because they are beyond the capacity of any one state, however big and powerful, to solve for itself.

What cooperative security demands in practice are mind-sets that emphasise consultation rather than confrontation, reassurance more than deterrence, transparency more than secrecy, prevention more than reaction, and interdependence rather than unilateralism. Not all of the messages we have been getting from key players have been consistent with these principles. Getting on the right side of history in East Asia will require in most cases some more to be done.

A lot more is going to be required, for a start, from United States policymakers, and not just President Trump. It was President Obama, after all, in his 2016 State of the Union Address who said, in the context of the TPP, “China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do.” For the US, being on the right side of history now means, above all, psychologically adjusting itself to the reality that it is no longer the world’s sole superpower. That while it will have, for the foreseeable future, an important – and for most countries in the region still welcome – stabilizing role in East Asia, it can no longer expect to have primacy or dominance: it is going to have to share strategic space with China. It is going to have to accept the reality that China wants to play a part in regional and global rule-making not just rule-taking. And it is going to have to recognize the acute risks not just to the regional but the global economy in launching an all-out trade war rather than trying to settle grievances, legitimate as some of them might be, through mutually accommodating cooperation.

For China itself, being on the right side of history means more consistent language like that very persuasively used by President Xi Jinping when he visited my country, Australia, in 2014 and actions in practice that are more consistent with that language. President Xi told the Australian Parliament that he understood that China was seen as the “big guy in the crowd” and that others “may be concerned that the big guy may push them around, stand in their way or even take up their place”. He argued that, on the contrary, what China needed most was both a stable domestic and peaceful international environment, that turbulence or war was utterly against its fundamental interests, that it was committed to peacefully addressing territorial and other disputes through dialogue and consultation, and that it wanted win-win progress with all its neighbours.

Some have wanted to argue that China’s spectacular Belt and Road Initiative is inconsistent with this commitment, not really a ‘win-win’ enterprise at all, but designed to secure China’s geostrategic as well as economic dominance, forcing small countries into a dependent relationship through debt. I think those concerns are very much overblown, and that subject to resolving some issues about transparency and governance about which Australia has expressed some concern, this can indeed become a classic example of productive international cooperation.

What concerns me much more, and a great many other countries in East Asia and the wider world, is China’s “big guy” actions in the South China Sea, continuing to insist on roughly 80 per cent of the area being its own “historic waters”, rejecting the determination of the Hague Court of Arbitration that under the international law of the sea no state can claim sovereignty over some of the reefs and rocks on which it has built major installations, and that notwithstanding President Xi’s commitment in 2015 not to militarise these artificial islands, we have now seen the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and more recently the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island. While everyone understands that China has legitimate maritime interests of its own which it is fully entitled to advance and protect in the South China Sea and further afield, these actions have caused many alarm bells to ring, and in the interests of achieving a stable and confident East Asian Security order it is very important that Beijing reconsider its position.

For both Japan and South Korea, being on the right side of history means, for a start, escaping once and for all being prisoners of history. Japan should long ago have put behind it, as has Germany, any suggestion that it is not completely apologetic to all its neighbours for its war of aggression in Asia and the atrocities that were then committed. The comfort women issue continues to nag away in the background of Korea-Japan relations, as does the Dokdo/Takeshima territorial dispute, which also owes something to lingering wartime memories but which should long ago have been resolved by legal adjudication or joint development negotiation.

For both South Korea and Japan to be on the right side of history in the context of East Asia security issues generally, and not just in their relations with each other, it will be important for both to develop a greater degree of healthy independence. While there is no serious mood in either country to walk away from the US alliance, with the continuing US presence in the region rightly seen as an important stabilizer, President Trump’s evident belief that, here as elsewhere, traditional allies as more an encumbrance than an asset, has been accelerating the sense (as has also been the case in Australia) that all of us need to work harder to develop deep and multi-layered engagement not just with our allies but with all sides. In that context, a very encouraging development for those advocating cooperation rather than confrontation as the way forward was the resumption in May this year, after several years lapse, of the China-Japan-Korea Trilateral North East Asia Summit – aimed at downplaying longstanding disputes and grievances, promoting regional trade and investment, and better coordinating diplomatic relations, especially in relation to North Korea.

As to North Korea, there is no doubt what it needs to do to put itself on the right side of history: negotiate the complete dismantling of its nuclear weapons program, stop committing the extreme human violations that have made it an international pariah, improve the standard of living of its people by opening itself up economically, and generally resume membership of the international community of more or less civilised – if not necessarily democratic – nations. North Korea is never going to put its regime survival at risk. But – as a close observer of previous nuclear negotiations as Australia’s foreign minister and in other roles –I do not believe that all the blame for the breakdown of previous negotiations belongs with Pyongyang. and despite all the sceptics I have long believed that seriously committed, step-by-step trust-building negotiations, giving the DPRK real confidence that its national security and regime survival will be protected – negotiations of the kind long now so effectively being advocated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and those in his present government – will bear real fruit.

How the US plays its role in all of this will obviously be crucial. President Trump, whatever his motivations, did the right thing with his circuit-breaking Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un. But the trouble is that with his manifestly superficial understanding of the issues, indifference to process, fragility of temperament, track record of total inconsistency, and being surrounded with advisers like John Bolton, it is hard for anyone to be confident that the ultimate outcome, which will necessarily involve protracted multilateral diplomacy, will be one of triumph or disaster.

If serious talks can be started there are a number of scenarios as to how all the necessary pieces might ultimately be brought together. One of the most ambitious, and I believe attractive, is that proposed by former senior US officials Morton Halperin and Tom Pickering, Peter Hayes and others, which involves a new Treaty on Peace and Security in North East Asia with the following elements: termination of the state of war in Korea; a permanent monitoring council; mutual declaration of no hostile intent; provisions of assistance for nuclear and other energy; and, most ambitiously, establishment of a North East Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, embracing both Koreas and Japan, which all the NPT nuclear-weapon states, including the US, China and Russia, while not being required by this treaty to relinquish their own nuclear weapons, would agree to abide by (and in the process effectively protect a disarmed North Korea). Protection would be given to South Korea and Japan by their having the right within a certain period to withdraw from the Treaty if its denuclearization provisions were not being effectively implemented. (But that said, if either were tempted to go nuclear themselves, they would be very definitely putting themselves on the wrong side of history.)

A North East Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone of this kind, sitting alongside the existing SEA Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, would not of course be anything like enough to constitute the fully comprehensive East Asian security community for which we must continue to dream. But defusing the nuclear issue would be a huge start. And supplementing it, using in particular the policy mechanism of the East Asia Summit, with an ever growing body of other cooperative security arrangements, on maritime codes of conduct and the like; with an ever more dense texture of trade and economic cooperation arrangements; and with joint strategies to address environmental and other regional and global public goods issues, would take us a very long way in building an East Asian security order really worth the name. Cooperation of this kind is manifestly in everyone’s interest, and with the necessary political will – above all the mindset change I described at the outset – it can be delivered.