Shin Kak-soo For The Straits Times

East Asia's murky strategic situation needs stabilising

Historical revisionism propelled by a right-leaning Japan, led by its prime minister Shinzo Abe, is precipitating a "history war" in the 21st century. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
Historical revisionism propelled by a right-leaning Japan, led by its prime minister Shinzo Abe, is precipitating a "history war" in the 21st century. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

It is becoming more important to stabilise the fluid and murky strategic contour in East Asia.

Four prominent factors are stirring the strategic equation in the region. The primary factor is the power transition triggered by the rise of China. In terms of economic and military might, China has already surpassed Japan and is closely trailing the United States. This power shift has brought stiff strategic competition among major players.

Another challenge stems from the chronic North Korea problem. Isolated North Korea's archaic regime is under mounting strain. Its unfettered quest for nuclear and missile capability is posing a grave threat to the security of the region.

The third element of trouble is the lingering spectre of nationalism that could spark a vicious spiral of enmity manifested in a myriad of territorial and maritime disputes in the region.

Lastly, historical revisionism propelled by a right-leaning Japan is precipitating a "history war" in the 21st century.

It is high time for East Asia to embark on serious efforts to address this strategic instability.

Primarily, the major states in East Asia must forge a desirable strategic vision by accelerating strategic dialogues. Unfortunately, while Sino-American strategic talks are well under way, Tokyo's frozen channel with Beijing and Seoul requires an early thaw.

What would a common regional vision look like? A sound and stable regional order hinges upon several key elements: America's continued balancer role, appropriate accommodation of the rise of China, the creation of regional economic and security architectures, and the steady build-up of strategic trust.

In East Asia, no nation or alliance of nations can match the sheer size of resurgent China. That is why the US rebalancing to Asia is essential despite the domestic constraints and global overstretch.

Simultaneously, a peaceful power transition requires the reasonable accommodation of China's quest for a role commensurate with its raised stature. In return, China should steer away from reviving the old vertical regional order, but live up to international norms and standards as a responsible stakeholder.

In the economic arena, the ongoing multi-layered economic integration in East Asia necessitates regional institution-building. On the security side, East Asia should start from a comprehensive confidence- building process with an East Asian version of the Helsinki Process and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe that have served as region-wide platforms for dialogue, cooperation and security in Europe since 1975.

Second, urgent action must be taken to stop further progress in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile capability. Current strategic patience has failed to stem stockpiling, weaponisation and miniaturisation of nuclear devices as well as the development of inter-continental and sea-based missiles.

The resumption of talks is urgent to ascertain whether North Korea is ready to suspend nuclear activities that can lead to a comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible dismantling, or face tougher sanctions. On a broader level, the deepening North Korea problem calls for serious regional attention and preparation.

Third, all states in the region must refrain from resorting to nationalism to meet domestic political ends. Rampant nationalism would undermine the quest for strategic cooperation and damage the supply network in East Asia.

Together, the governments in the region should consider a freeze on the territorial and maritime disputes to preclude their flare-up, pending an agreed settlement like joint development. It is worth noting that European peace rested on the recognition of the post-World War II borders.

Finally,Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should reaffirm his country's apology for its past aggression and colonial rule in his statement marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, and desist from all acts negating its sincerity.

The historical revisionism in Japan undermines the post-war international, as well as East Asian, legal order committed to world peace and human rights. It also discredits Tokyo's leadership pretensions in calibrating a new regional order in East Asia. Japan's post-war peaceful contribution, not its violent imperial past, should be the source of inspiration for the Japanese people in the 21st century.

Given the gloomy outlook for the world economy, the importance of East Asia as the world's factory and market will continue, but strategic stability is indispensable for sustainable economic growth. Self-interest dictates that all stakeholders in East Asia work together to achieve strategic stability founded on a rules-based, equitable, open and peaceful regional order.

Dr Shin Kak-Soo is former vice-minister at South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and was ambassador to Japan from 2011 to 2013.