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Event report - What Role for the EU in North East Asian security?

19 March 2015

What Role for the EU in North East Asian security?

A panel debate on 18 March organized by the EU-Asia Centre considered opportunities to increase cooperation between Korea, China and Japan, and obstacles to deepening and formalising such cooperation. The panel, made up of experts and officials from both Korea (Dr. CHOI Kang, Vice President of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, Seoul; Mr SHIN Beomchul, Director General for Policy Planning, MFA Seoul) and the EU (Professor Shaun Breslin, Warwick University; Alfredo Conte, Director for Strategic Planning, EEAS) was moderated by Fraser Cameron, director of the EU-Asia Centre. An audience of officials, academics and businessmen gathered to exchange views on regional cooperation, the EU’s potential role and to gain first-hand experience of the North Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI).

Fraser Cameron opened the debate with a short description of the complicated security environment in NE Asia. It was against this background that President Park had launched the NAPCI initiative.  He hoped the speakers would analyse the prospects for more cooperation between Japan, China and Korea and the relevance of the EU model.

Dr. CHOI Kang presented the stumbling blocks to integration: in the post-1945 structure, China and Japan have engaged in a power competition based on how they perceive regional order. China in a longer perspective has its own idea of local architecture, including a G2 with the US. Japan remains firmly tied to the US military guarantee. Other obstacles include the rise of nationalistic sentiments in Korea, Japan and China based on very different interpretations of recent history. Although cooperation in the region is increasing, and Korea and Japan are moving towards normalising relations, there are still some sensitive issues, including territorial disputes, plus a worrisome arms race. There were also two approaching anniversaries this year that would have to be handled with care.  In addition, there are many outstanding issues concerning North Korea – its parlous economic situation, appalling human rights record and its nukes – that call for a coordinated approach.

Shaun Breslin explained that the core issue lies in the definition of the region – China is trying to build a regional architecture, but for which region? Everything China seeks to do has to take place under an overarching US hegemony. Arguable the South China Sea was more dangerous than NE Asia. Real cooperation is however taking place on functional transnational issues. A dangerous spiral of mutually reinforcing nationalisms will continue to be an issue, particularly in China where a growing young community are increasingly nationalistic (anti-Japan), encouraged by the state. Korea was regarded in a much more favourable light.  

Mr SHIN Beomchul then gave a presentation of why multilateral cooperation is necessary in North East Asia. The Korean government is trying to enhance multilateral cooperation, as Korea is the ‘middle power’ in the region, providing the necessary impetus to regional integration. It was hosting the first meeting of foreign ministers from China, Japan and Korea for many years this weekend. Korea is also a strong promoter of multilateral cooperation through the MITKA group, which brings together Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey and Australia and Korea. He stressed that cooperation in North East Asia is necessary, but is hampered by three issues: history, the remaining cold war structure and lack of practice and experience. History hurts the vision of the countries (i.e., Japan) which in turn hurts multilateral cooperation.  The remaining cold war structure and a divided Korea heavily influences the geopolitics of the region. The lack of experience and habit means the three countries have little trust and no practice of cooperation (whereas in Europe, many forms of cooperation had existed before). In this sense, the European experience holds interesting lessons for North East Asia.

Alfredo Conte explained that the EU has a strong stake in what happens in Asia, as what happens in Asia matters to Europe. The NE Asian paradox was one of intensive growth of economic cooperation but little political/security cooperation. The EU always favours regional cooperation as this was a positive experience for Europe; however the EU is conscious that geopolitics, culture, history still matter, meaning each region has its own realities to take into account. Regional cooperation needs to be embedded in institutions and NAPCI can play an instrumental role here. The EU has indicated many areas where the EU would be ready to cooperate, such as connectivity, disaster management, maritime security. Following the EU experience, cooperation should begin in areas where convergence is possible – people to people, cultural exchange – and which have transformative potential. It will then be important that this bottom up approach be supported from the top.

The participants also discussed the speech by German chancellor Angela Merkel in Tokyo, addressing the Japanese audience about the importance of historical reconciliation with neighbours. Dr. CHOI Kang stressed the strong support in Korea for cooperation with Japan. Shaun Breslin pointed to the difficulty of overcoming sensitive issues, e.g. for the Chinese, territorial sovereignty is a bottom line, non-negotiable interest. He added that crises drive cooperation, meaning that if North East Asia wants to get rid of nationalism, it is likely they need a crisis. The participants discussed the role of politicians in addressing historical issues and righting wrongs and highlighted the importance of NAPCI as a trust-building basis.

The Q&A included discussions of changes in Japan since the end of the war. One participant noted the peaceful development, increased media freedom and democracy in Japan but others pointed to the negative impact of PM Abe visiting the Yasukuni shrine. One official suggested a common history school text book. Another hoped for more youth and civil society contacts between partners. Alfredo Conte highlighted that the EU’s revised external policy will put more emphasis on Asia. Dr. CHOI Kang stressed the EU’s potential role as a model for overcoming historical issues in North East Asia. Mr SHIN Beomchul highlighted that there were many potential areas of cooperation, and that differences in regional visions could be overcome. Shaun Breslin highlighted again the importance of having a bottom-up process. Some areas, for instance territorial disputes, will remain sensitive, but functional cooperation (in areas such as energy, forestry) is possible.