Workshop on Managing International Conflicts in East Asia

Date: Saturday, February 1 2014
Venue: Shinagawa Prince Hotel 12th Floor, "Silver"
Hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo

The Security Studies Unit (SSU) of the Policy Alternatives Research Institute (PARI), was delighted to organise and host the Workshop on Managing International Conflicts in East Asia. This workshop, which comprised four closed sessions and one public event, has seen an extraordinary exchange of views among leading experts on the topic of regional security in East Asia. The workshop was attended by several high-ranking diplomats and by outstanding academics from Japan, China, the Republic of Korea, as well as from Australia, the US, and Europe. His Excellence the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan Mr. Fumio Kishida honoured the event by greeting and addressing the guests with a brief speech.

Photo: Izawa Hiroyuki

The workshop was organised around four recurring themes in the discussion of East Asia international and security politics, namely the idea of an ongoing power shift or power transition and the consequences which it is generating, the problem of historical memories and their impact on current political arrangement, the question of nuclear weapons, arms control and disarmament, and finally the explorations of ways to build confidence in the region, ideally by means of established rule-based international institutions and organisations.

Those themes constituted the rationale behind the breakdown of the discussions into four sessions, respectively entitled Interpreting the Crisis: Security Dilemma and Power Transition (Session I), The Past and the Present: War Memories and Territorial Disputes (Session II), Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Arms Control (Session III) and Proposals for Building Peace (Session IV).

As mentioned above, and in the light of the SSU's mission to disseminate in the broader public ideas and information related to ongoing international political debates, the workshop has been integrated by a public debate entitled Crisis in East Asia, in which Professor Kiichi Fujiwara (SSU, University of Tokyo), Professor Zhu Feng (Beijing University), Professor Gareth Evans (Australia National University), and Professor G. John Ikenberry (Princeton University) have discussed the current situation and the possible trajectories for the attainment of a safer international environment in this region of the globe.

Overall, the workshop has delivered important reflections on a number of central issues which remain unresolved. As highlighted several times by a number of participants, the North Korea security question remains one of the most important uncertainties, which has also the effect of worsening a difficult diplomatic context in which mutual trust is already difficult to achieve. Not only in fact the question of stability in the Korean peninsula is vital for the Republic of Korea (ROK), but it has implications for the relations between the ROK and China, China and Japan, China and US. Because of the military implications of the North Korean threat to regional security, it is difficult to advance dialogue on a score of outstanding issues, particularly regarding nuclear security and arms control.

The problem of suboptimal or even deteriorating interstate relations in East Asia has continuously re-emerged, being variously framed as a product of geostrategic tensions and/or of domestic (nationalistic) pressure faced by political leaders in the respective countries when it comes to possible reconciliation moves towards what is sometimes perceived to be a historical competitor or adversary. This is especially evident on the question of war memories, and of territorial disputes. Within this diplomatically strained atmosphere, it has become increasingly difficult for political leaders to meet, and consequently to build the level of mutual confidence and trust, even at personal level, which is often at the basis of major breakthroughs for the success of negotiations and the improvement of bilateral relations.

Finally, the issue of power transition or power shift in the East Asian region has been analysed and discussed from a number of different academic and diplomatic perspectives. On the one hand, the emergence of China as the new centre of gravity for the region offers risks and opportunities. In some analyses, China appears to have profited from a liberal global order which has not created nor contributed to in terms of its maintenance, and it is time for Beijing to assume a more direct involvement in global governance along the rules and institutions of that established liberal order. In doing so, China should also be preoccupied not only with the growth of its power, with also with the improvement of its international reputation. On the other hand though, the present self-perception and future trajectory of China appear to be rather uncertain, given the extremely rapid transformation of the country in a relatively short time, whereby the political-cultural change which is needed to manage this very transformation seems to be lagging behind China's already acquired great power status.

The workshop, which was extremely successful also with the regard to a quickly established atmosphere of cordiality among its participants, has in essence delivered a picture of the East Asia's international situation as characterised by numerous risks and in need of a generalised effort for the re-establishment, first and foremost, of a more cooperative relation among national leaderships.