On Tuesday, December 6, 2016, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies hosted a meeting entitled, “Asan-Asia New Zealand Foundation Strategic Dialogue.” Panelists from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies discussed regional issues regarding Korea-New Zealand bilateral relations, U.S.-China relations, and North Korea. The main objective of this meeting was to share knowledge and ideas for strengthening the relations between the ROK and New Zealand.
Session 1: Stocktake of NZ-Korea bilateral relations and regional economic architecture
The first session began with Dr. Lee Jaehyon’s presentation on ROK-New Zealand bilateral relations. In his presentation, Dr. Lee discussed the current relationship between the two countries and its forecast for the future based on cooperation in regional frameworks and statistics regarding various areas of exchanges. His main argument was that the increase of trade and socio-cultural exchanges has steadily improved the bilateral relations between the two states. Next, Executive Director Simon Draper of the Asia New Zealand Foundation provided his insights on bilateral relations in the historical, political, security, and economic contexts. He stated that the bilateral relationship is quite short but deep, though the two countries have different interests in security and economics. After the two presentations, the panelists raised questions and debated the key issues. During the discussion, there was a general consensus among the panelists that the two countries must continue to find new areas of cooperation to strengthen their bilateral relations. One of the panelists from New Zealand suggested that increasing Track II dialogues, such as this meeting, would help policymakers develop long-term policies that would further bolster the ties between the countries. The panelists also discussed potential areas on which South Korea and New Zealand can find commonality. Questions on the concept of likeminded countries were also raised. Dr. Lee Jaehyon explained that this means a group of countries that can cooperate for specific security or economic goals. Lastly, Ambassador Chun Yungwoo pointed out the importance of trade in foreign policy for countries like South Korea. He commented on the foreign policy of the Park administration, stating that it is a huge mistake to split up trade from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and said the trade should be taken back as a major part of foreign policy.
Session 2: Regional Political-Security Architecture: Facing Traditional and Non-Traditional Challenges
The second session, moderated by Mr. Simon Murdoch, deputy chairman of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, discussed what traditional and non-traditional challenges the Asia-Pacific region is facing and sought to understand the different viewpoints and priorities between the two countries. Of the two panelists, Dr. Mark Rolls, Senior Lecturer and Director of IR and Security Studies Programme at the University of Waikato, noted that there is a “lengthening and worsening list of security issues” in the South Pacific region. His prognosis of the regional security environment was that it is deteriorating, although there are some positive developments. He emphasized non-traditional security (NTS) issues, which include unregulated fishing, transnational crimes, environmental security, sea piracy, counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief as pressing problems with growing significance for New Zealand and the region. His assessment of East Asia was that the security dilemma in the region was worsening. Dr. Rolls warned that the spirals of tension can be seen in practice between the United States and China and also between China and Japan to some degree. Because of mistrust towards the U.S. and heightened threat perceptions, he argued that China will further build-up its military power. Continuing maritime territorial disputes in the region and conflicts over freedom of navigation and overflight were pointed out as flashpoints that could heighten risk of conflicts from misperception and miscalculation.
The second panelist, Dr. Leif-Eric Easley, Visiting Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, started his presentation by saying that there are two themes that usually come up when talking about East Asia’s security architecture. First is that the regional architecture is insufficient and under-institutionalized, and institutions that already exist have not developed as much as expected. The other theme is about parallel orders and competing institutions established by the U.S. and China. He argued that domestic politics of regional states will have larger effects on the existing regional order in the short-run. Because of the uncertainty in South Korean domestic politics, Dr. Easley said that it is uncertain whether the trilateral summit that was supposed to take place in Tokyo in mid-December will be held. He also noted that the controversial Comfort Women Agreement and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) signed by South Korea and Japan may come under severe strain when the new administration takes power in South Korea. The leadership change in the U.S. early next year was also noted as a factor that would create more uncertainty as the U.S.’s role and commitment to the region is questioned by allies and partners. Dr. Easley argued that Chinese foreign policy will increasingly become an extension of its domestic politics. In that context, he predicted that there would be little room for China to maneuver in the South China Sea dispute or other regional conflicts. With regards to North Korea, he stated that their domestic politics is creating serious challenges to the region. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons have now become a crucial element of legitimacy in North Korea’s domestic politics,” he said. “And domestic politics are largely driving their provocation timelines.” On a concluding note, Dr. Easley argued that the region should strengthen its institutional capacity, learning from a tumultuous 2016.
Session 3: US-China Relations: Current Challenges and Future Prospects
In session three, Dr. Lee Ki Beom opened the session by explaining the rising uncertainties of security and trade after Donald Trump’s victory.
Dr. James Kim continued the conversation by laying out the internal and external threats the two countries faced. China is surrounded by formidable countries and its economic growth is slowing down while economic and social inequality rises. The United States is also experiencing economic and social polarization. Externally, it is threatened by terrorism and power competition in different regions, including East Asia. China’s intention behind militarization could be either to maintain the status-quo or to be the regional hegemon. Given the history, Dr. Kim finds Beijing to be expansionist in nature. Washington could make a grand bargain with China to compete peacefully with each other as the Obama administration did or to pursue a zero-sum game. Based on Trump’s pledges, Dr. Kim foresees that the incoming administration’s diplomatic policies would be centered on strengthening the military and pursuing a selective interventionist approach. Though it’s early to tell, possibilities of conflicts in the region has increased.
Next, Dr. Robert Patman challenged the idea of South Korea as “A shrimp amongst whales.” Key features of the East Asian regional dynamic are determined by China-U.S. relations. South Korea’s relationship with China used to be subject to that of the U.S. However, since 2012, Seoul and Beijing has had warmer relations than ever, as revealed in President Park’s attendance at the Chinese military parade in Beijing, its participation in the China-led AIIB, and the conclusion of the bilateral FTA. There are growing concerns over the sustainability of the paradoxical structure of security and economy. Dr. Patman said that South Korea needs to achieve a delicate balance between the two countries as the incoming U.S. administration has shown unclear intentions. Nevertheless, it was reiterated that there is plenty of room for South Korea to operate as a significant middle power between the two countries in order to pursue greater regional cooperation.
Session 4: North Korea and the Stability on the Korean Peninsula
In the last session, Dr. James To and Dr. Go Myong-Hyun discussed the North Korea problem and its impact on the stability on the Korean Peninsula. Dr. To stressed that stability on the peninsula is important for New Zealand because of its strong economic and trade ties with China, Japan, and South Korea. He expressed concerns about the lack of policy options available, especially with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the domestic situation in South Korea. He stressed that while North Korea is a problem that the main actors must sort out amongst themselves, in particular the United States and China, New Zealand is willing to contribute, where appropriate, and join the international effort to deal with the current situation. He added that Trump’s election may bring South Korea and New Zealand together economically, politically, and strategically.
His counterpart Dr. Go provided an analysis of North Korea’s long-term strategy. He did so by first emphasizing that the North Korean regime is stable and that Kim Jong-un is firmly in power. He observed that the regime’s finances are not working particularly well and that recent sanctions may have some impact. He did admit, however, that sanctions may be working not because they are particularly effective but because Kim Jong-un has been spending too much money on frivolous activities. Regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, he hinted that we may be transitioning into a new phase where North Korea will begin to negotiate. As part of that negotiation, North Korea will want the U.S.’s acknowledgement that it has become a nuclear power.
He also pointed out that North Korea will look to create rifts between the U.S. and China, and between South Korea and Japan. He predicted that North Korea will continue to provoke in the form of a long-range missile test early next year. While many experts have downplayed the possibility of an imminent provocation, he believes North Korea will want to put itself on the top of Trump’s policy agenda. He raised concerns that the next Korean president may come from the opposition party and may look to roll back THAAD and GSOMIA. If that is the case, he predicted an increasing tug-of-war between the U.S. and China. Overall, he identified three factors that would influence stability on the Korean Peninsula: South Korea’s domestic politics in the short-run, Trump’s priorities in Asia in the medium-run, and North Korea’s behavior in the long-run.