There is certainly a place for regionalism in Northeast Asia.1 It already exists in various amorphous ways, but regional identity is relatively weak in Northeast Asia, and for this and other reasons little structure has emerged to channel dip- lomatic or economic activity in the area. In Northeast Asia there is no regional trade pact like the North American Free Trade Agreement, no forum for dip- lomatic and economic dialogue or policy coordination such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), no movement for regional unity like the League of Arab States or the African Union, nor any other broad-based forum or organization such as the South American Regional Union, the Organiza- tion for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union (EU), or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This is true despite the fact that Northeast Asia is one of the world’s most economically vibrant regions with high levels of intraregional trade. It also stands at the forefront of global efforts to combat nuclear and missile proliferation and other forms of illicit trade. Such circum- stances have led nations in other parts of the world to join with neighbors to create rules, norms, and institutions for promoting mutual benefit or guarding against dangerous threats. Why have they not done so in Northeast Asia, and what does this suggest for the region’s future?
One can offer a variety of theories to explain why Northeast Asia is “under- institutionalized,” the two most basic of which are that such a move is either (a) unnecessary or (b) too difficult. It could be unnecessary because global, broader regional, and smaller multilateral (even bilateral) institutions and agreements are usually sufficient to address Northeast Asia’s needs, whether it is the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), or the bilateral security alliances of the United States with Japan and South Korea (Republic of Korea or ROK).2 The region has been relatively stable and prosper- ous for decades, and, although it faces some intractable security and territorial disputes, they have not hampered regional growth overall. It is highly doubtful anyway that a Northeast Asia–specific solution can somehow address these is- sues more effectively than other possible approaches (for example, bilateral or through international arbitration).
It is true that historical animosities and distrust run deep through many of these nations, and trend analysis of public opinion polls during the past few decades shows how tenuous and event-dependent warmer intraregional relations have been.3 Simmering disputes over islands, borders, ocean rights, history text- books, and other issues quickly overwhelm regional cooperation initiatives and make them politically expensive when disputes rise to the surface. Moreover, these disputes involve all of the major players in Northeast Asia in different combinations, including the ROK-Japan territorial disagreement about Dokdo/ Takeshima, the Japan-China argument about Senkaku/Daiyoutai islands, or the Koguryo controversy involving China and South Korea. In this sense, meaningful institution building in Northeast Asia might simply be too hard to accomplish. Nationalism supersedes regionalism, and there is no lingua franca that helps to bind the region together.4
An unsatisfying (but probably accurate) answer to the question above is that the lack of robust Northeast Asian regionalism is the result of both (a) and (b). Regional institutions are often not necessary to maintain stability and prosper- ity, and when they might be considered marginally useful, the barriers to their creation are formidable and largely prohibitive. In many respects, the fault line along which cooperation and division coexist is Korea’s Demilitarized Zone and the ROK–North Korea border (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK). Cooperation has been necessary to address certain problems related to the North, but the divided peninsula is also a major reason why the region has trouble moving beyond the Pacific War, the Korean War, and the Cold War. On almost every security, economic, or political issue, a comprehensive regional response is practically impossible without North Korea’s involvement, and it does not seem feasible with North Korea, either.
The future of Northeast Asian regionalism must acknowledge this paradox and make minor advances despite its retarding effects. The best way to do this is to take advantage of existing mechanisms (bilateral, minilateral, regional, and global) and use them to promote standardization and dispute resolution within Northeast Asia, as well as to consolidate and strengthen Northeast Asia’s voice in regional and global institutions. Two regional constructs are critical to mak- ing this work: the budding trilateralism among China, Japan, and South Korea, and the six-party talks (with or without North Korea’s active participation). Together they can build around (and upon) the U.S. bilateral alliances with South Korea and Japan. With the right leadership and sufficient commitment from the countries involved, the Northeast Asian region can build a more solid foundation for its future prosperity and stability. The nascent regionalism evident in Northeast Asia could be a useful tool in the future for mitigating potential negative effects of changes in the regional balance of power and any growing rivalry and competition.