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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

A. Lukin: Multilateral Cooperation in Northeast Asia and Prospects for Regional Community

Systemic factors in multilateral cooperation

Before analyzing issues of multilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia, it makes sense to specify which states comprise this geopolitical region. The author of this paper presumes that NEA includes China, Japan, Korea (both North and South) as well as Russia and the United States. It should be noted that China, Japan and Korea are often viewed as the core states of the region.

Russia and the U.S., although influential actors in NEA, are somewhat peripheral to the region. Russia is present in NEA in geopolitical terms, thanks to its Far Eastern territories and remaining military-strategic capabilities, but Russia’s most vital political and economic interests are concentrated in the western part of the country where most of its population live. On the contrary, the U.S. does not belong to NEA geographically, being only adjacent to it. Nevertheless the U.S. can be regarded as a part  of the regional system due to America’s substantial military, strategic and economic engagement in the region.

The prospects for creating institutions of intergovernmental multilateral cooperation in NEA have been actively discussed since the late 1980s and early 1990s. The proponents of multilateralism point out to mutual interest of NEA states in peace and stability, their complementary economies and their huge potential which could be greatly enlarged if integration projects were successfully implemented. However, despite numerous attempts to launch region building in NEA, multilateral cooperation there still remains at incipient stage, not having reached the level of intergovernmental agreements neither in economic integration nor in the field of strategic security.

The list of main obstacles to the development of multilateral  cooperation in NEA usually includes the following factors: 1) historical resentments and traumas complicating relations between NEA countries (above all between China and Japan,  Korea and Japan, Russia and Japan, Russia and China); 2) considerable differences in the levels of economic development of NEA countries; 3) incompatibility of their political systems: 4) periodically escalating territorial disputes (Russia – Japan, China – Japan, Japan – South Korea).

These negative factors can be supplemented with the “structural cause.” Northeast Asia is a unique region, the only of its kind, wherein all of the countries, except for Korea, have the great power status. As one can infer from historical evidence, multilateral cooperation has been proceeding more or less successfully in those regions where great powers are either absent or their presence is “qualified” by middle and small countries or there is only one indisputable hegemonic power.

For example, there is no manifestly dominant leader in ASEAN. In the European Union, France and Germany play the leading roles (while there is another major power – Great Britain), but their possible ambitions and conflicts are bound and tempered by the mass of small and middle member-states. Similar situation exists within Latin American bloc of Mercosur wherein Paraguay and Uruguay act as a buffer between the two giants – Brasilia and Argentina. Within NAFTA, on the contrary, there is the only and unchallenged leader – the United States which dictates the rules to the other members of the integration grouping.

NEA lacks the stratum of buffer states capable of moderating disagreements among the great powers. This does not augur well for multilateral cooperation in the sub-region. The only “non-great power” in NEA which could act as a moderator is the Republic of Korea. Other NEA states, including Russia, do not see Korea as a serious geopolitical rival. That is why Seoul’s initiatives in support of region-building do not make them wary. South Koreans are well aware of this fact. They show an obvious desire to become the key element around which the system of multilateral cooperation in NEA could be formed. In particular, South Koreans aspire to be the bridge between the main NEA antagonists – China and Japan.

Another factor, which makes one to be very cautious assessing the prospect for region building in NEA, is the surge of nationalistic sentiments in the core regional states – Japan, China and the two Koreas. Recent aggravation of tensions between Tokyo and Beijing accompanied by attacks on Japanese offices in Chinese cities in April 2005 once again testified to this trend.

Modern nationalism is one of the products of Westphalian international order which is based on nation-states possessing unlimited external and internal sovereignty. Westphalian order, having emerged in Europe by the mid-17th century, was produced by the Western civilization and afterwards spread in other parts of the world. Evolution of this order in Europe was accompanied by the rise in great power nationalism, reaching its peak approximately by the turn of the 20th century and culminating in the First World War.

Since the mid-20th century, Western countries began gradual transition towards liberal, or post-Westphalian, international order of the postmodernity era which treats sovereignty and nationalism as not necessarily positive values anymore. In Europe, the notion of sovereign and “nationalistic” nation-state is now seen by many as a vestige which should be overcome, whereas in Asia the potential of this concept is still very far from being exhausted.

Being ancient civilizations, China, Korea and Japan are still relatively young as modern nation-states. In Northeast Asia, the Western concept of a nation-state began to take root only since the mid-19th century and by the present time the Westphalian order has prevailed in the region.

In addition to historical megatrends, there are several factors at work stimulating nationalistic tendencies in each of the three countries. After the end of the cold war, Japan aspires to become a “normal country” (that is to attain great power status not only in economic realm but also in military and political dimensions). This desire is prodded by the Japanese worries about the rise of China. Japan seeks more independence in defense policy. Koizumi’s Cabinet seems bent on revision of peace Constitution, changing the Self-Defense Forces status and promoting more active SDF involvement in operations abroad. It appears that Tokyo’s foreign policy has become more assertive and less accommodating towards its regional neighbors. Japan’s more nationalistic policies  have resulted in destabilizing effects such as new escalation of territorial disputes with the PRC and South Korea and the row over new editions of history textbooks.

The surge of nationalism in the PRC is explained by many as a development reflecting Beijing’s de facto abandonment of socialist way. Nationalism supplants communism as a dominant ideology enabling the ruling elite to retain control over society.

One of the key reasons for the growth of Korean nationalism has been the remaining division of the Korean peninsula. It appears that political and ideological differences between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea are becoming less important, while their awareness of common national interests has been rising. Then it is hardly surprising that in the six-party talks on the nuclear problem Seoul often tends to side with Pyongyang, not with Washington, its principal military and political ally. By the outside observers, North and South are increasingly seen as players acting in concert.

Russia’s role in multilateral cooperation

In addition to political and diplomatic involvement in multilateral efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff, Russia can contribute to building multilateral cooperation system in NEA through large-scale energy and transportation projects.

The biggest among transportation projects is to enhance capacity of Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR) as the pivotal Eurasian “East – West” transport bridge as well as to connect TSR with the planned Inter – Korean Railroad after its reconstruction. According to some estimates,  it is one and a half times cheaper and twice faster to ship cargoes (especially containers) via the TSR compared with the sea route.

In this connection, the appointment in July 2004 of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov’s son Peter Fradkov as deputy director-general of FESCO, the biggest shipping company in the Russian Far East, is significant. As it was reported, Peter Fradkov would oversee strategic projects, including those with foreign partners. It is not unlikely that Prime Minister son’s assignment was somehow related to the fact that FESCO, teaming up with the Russian Railways, launched the implementation of schemes to increase container shipments from East Asia to Europe. Peter Fradkov’s coming to FESCO might be seen as an indication that Moscow attaches high importance to the Eurasian transport corridor project.

At present, there are several projects of Russian energy supplies for Asia-Pacific countries which are at various stages of discussing, planning and implementation.  Prospective large-scale exports of energy resources from the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia, driven by increasing demand in China, South Korea and Japan, can constitute a foundation for energy cooperation in NEA. Indeed, as some analysts point out, energy cooperation can serve as an integrating factor in East Asia, leading to formation of “energy community,” just as coal and steel were at the origins of the European community.

The biggest and most publicized projects are: 1) construction of a pipeline from East Siberia, with its terminal point either in the Chinese Daqing or on the Russian Pacific coast; 2) development of the Kovykta gas field in Irkutskaya oblast’ – there are plans to build a pipeline from Kovykta to China and South Korea; 3) development of Sakhalin oil and gas fields (those projects are already under active implementation); 4) schemes to export electricity from the Russian Far East, such as Sakhalin – Japan “energy bridge” and building systems of electrical power transmission from Primorskiy krai to Korean peninsula with further prospect of connecting the power grids of Russia, North and South Korea.

However, energy and transportation projects can not by themselves guarantee the establishment of viable multilateral cooperation system in NEA. Indeed, under certain conditions, they may even lead to fierce rivalries. In particular, this is illustrated by the planned pipeline from East Siberia which became bone of contention between Japan and China, both seeking to secure access to Russian oil supplies. Shipments via the “East – West” railway corridor may also become the issue of competition – between Russia, seeking to use the TSR to its maximum capacity, and China, which proposes the shorter, southern route from Korea to Europe through its railway network.

As mentioned in the above, many of multilateral projects in NEA are focused on North Korea. This is due to its key geographic position in the center of NEA as well as necessity to draw North Korea out of its present isolation and make Pyongyang a more responsible and peaceful actor. At the same time, multilateral projects centered on North Korea can likewise encourage multilateral partnership as well as rivalry.

For instance, according to Japanese sources, Tokyo wants to decrease China’s influence in NEA through weakening Beijing’s role in the North Korean negotiating process. Therefore Japan intends to take steps so that big energy and transportation projects, which involve North Korea and are deemed in Japan as means of facilitating North Korean nuclear problem resolution, bypass the territory of the PRC. Only financial contribution by China is acceptable, but it has to be proportionate to participation of other countries. This, as the Japanese hope, would make it impossible for Beijing to exercise pressure on Pyongyang and Seoul, ease tensions at the negotiations on the nuclear issue as well as finally bury plans to build oil pipeline from East Siberia to China which run contrary to Tokyo’s interests. Furthermore, Tokyo expects to use revitalized Trans-Siberian route to ship Japanese goods to EU (in future, the use of the Inter-Korean railway connected to the TSR is also likely for that purpose, but only if Pyongyang unambiguously guarantees secure shipments via this route).

Russia has historically been exercising considerable influence on North Korea, but at the present time it is not capable of granting the DPRK large-scale assistance. At the same time, Russia is a potential supplier of oil, petroleum products, gas and electricity for North Korea. Russia, however, lacks financial resources to invest in the construction of pipelines and power grids needed to supply energy for the DPRK.  Since acute power shortages are one of the main reasons for Pyongyang’s reluctance to abandon its nuclear program, the optimal way to solve the problem would be to assist North Korea to overcome its energy crisis. Yet, the issue should be tackled by joint efforts of all the parties concerned. For instance, the U.S. and Japan could invest in projects to provide the DPRK with Russian oil and gas as well as electricity.

Moreover, it would serve interests of all sides to reanimate North Korean transportation infrastructure which would improve the general economic situation in the DPRK. Therefore participation of neighboring countries in a multilateral project to reconnect North and South railway networks, subsequently joining them with the TSR in Russia and railways in Manchuria, should be viewed as an important step toward resolving North Korean nuclear standoff.

North Korean sources note that the DPRK is willing, in principle, to freeze its nuclear program under IAEA controls, while, in return, Pyongyang expects large-scale economic projects, including transportation and energy ones, to be carried out on North’s territory that could help stabilize the DPRK’s economy. The North is ready to guarantee smooth and stable operation of such projects on the DPRK’s territory. Indeed, transit schemes are even more preferable for Pyongyang as they do not involve long-term residence of foreigners in North Korea. So, transit projects have more chances to succeed. In fact, it is quite possible to make funding and operation of such projects conditional upon Pyongyang’s readiness for compromise on the nuclear issues.

Sub-national level of multilateral cooperation

To understand the processes of multilateral cooperation in NEA, one should not be confined to the analysis at the level of relations between the state capitals only. It is also important to take into account sub-national level, that is involvement in multilateral cooperation of domestic regions and administrative territories.

Moscow sees integration into the Asia-Pacific and NEA – and this is regularly reiterated in official statements and speeches – as one of the key ways to revitalize the economy of the Russian Far East and raise the standard of living of its population. Meanwhile, Russia needs viable and economically resilient Far East to feel confident within the regional system of economic interdependence and to secure vital state interests in the Asia-Pacific and NEA. So, the Russian Far Eastern territories are deemed both the means and the end of Moscow’s Asia-Pacific policy.

The Far Eastern territories of Russia (members of the Russian Federation), in turn, hold their own views of regional multilateral cooperation as well as their own interests in such cooperation. One of the ways of the Russian Far Eastern territories’ institutionalized participation in NEA multilateral cooperation lies in the activities of NEA countries’ local and regional administrations forums. The Association of North East Asia Regional Governments (NEAR) is one of the most prominent bodies of such a kind.

The Association presently consists of 39 regional governments and administrations of six countries: Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia. Association’s principal goal is formulated as “contributing to the establishment of the system of trust-based relations and comprehensive development of the NEA region through building cooperation mechanisms among the NEA countries’ local and regional governments based on the principles of mutual understanding, equality and mutual benefit.”

Although such organizations as NEAR make some contribution to expanding multilateral cooperation, local governments of the neighboring NEA countries have not as yet achieved coordinated and effective strategy toward regionalism. Not only the limited authority of local administrations (the most important decisions are made in the states’ capitals) is to blame but also the lack of coherent approach to regional multilateral cooperation. Indeed, there are disagreements not only among different countries’ local authorities but also among the territories belonging to the same state. This can be exemplified by the Russian Far East’s territories, which, although stating their extreme interest in integration into the region, do not seem to pursue this goal with joint efforts. Instead, they make separate moves, often even rivaling with each other.

The problem is that the Russian Far East, although it is often perceived by outside observers as a single and integral area, is extremely heterogeneous in political, social and economic terms. Each of the Far Eastern members of the Russian Federation has its own political system with political and business elites, enjoying a certain degree of autonomy. The coordination of common interests is almost nonexistent. This is mainly due to the lack of shared economic interests. Indeed, major international oil and gas projects have direct bearing on Sakhalinskaya oblast’ only, while Primorskiy krai and Khabarovskiy kray can gain indirect benefits. However, the Northeastern territories – Kamchatskaya oblast’, Magadanskaya oblast’ and Chukotka – are not affected by those projects and can not expect to benefit from them.

The most populous and economically developed areas of the Russian Far East are Primorskiy krai and Khabarovskiy krai which, in fact, has been rivaling since the Soviet times. The leaders of the two territories have different approaches to economic development and integration into the Asia-Pacific and NEA.

Viktor Ishaev, who, since the early 1990s, has been continuously governing Khabarovskiy krai — the Far Eastern territory with the highest concentration of heavy and defense industries — champions state-centric developmental approach. He argues that the Russian Far East “has become a special economic zone of Russia needing special social and economic governmental policies to overcome its extreme dependence on natural resources-based economy” . He believes that the state support of the Russian Far East “in the form of partial restoration of centralized distribution of resources” is the most desirable option.

The administration of Primorskiy governor Sergey Darkin advocates more market-oriented strategy of joining the system of international regional cooperation. The authors of this concept employ a special brand Pacific Russia – the region of a special kind emerging over the administrative borders of Russian territories, which have certain interests in entering the Asia-Pacific markets. Primorskiy krai, due to its geo-economic and geo-political location, is positioned, as the authors of the concept put it, just “at the front edge of Pacific Russia.” Primorskiy krai is touted as “the natural gates for Russia and the CIS countries into the Pacific region,” “experimental ground to test and improve Russian enterprises’ working mechanisms under open market conditions,” “interregional hub to service national and international firms in the Asia-Pacific markets.”

The governments of Khabarovskiy krai and Primorskiy krai has competing ambitions, both promoting their territories as Russia’s and its Far East’s main gates to the Asia-Pacific and NEA. In addition to active engagement in the NEAR’s activities, Khabarovskiy krai’s authorities play a leading role in the Russian National Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation (RNCPEC), which is chaired by Governor Ishaev. On the contrary, Primorskiy krai shows little interest in RNCPEC. Instead, Primorskiy krai’s leadership comes up with its own ambitious plans which call for Primorye to play one of the key parts in multilateral cooperation in NEA.  Primoskiy krai’s vice-governor Viktor Gorchakov, addressing  the forum of Russian and South Korean legislators, held in Vladivostok in August 2004, argued that NEA has long been “in need of an organization similar to the European Union.” He went on to say that Primorskiy krai’s government champions “single investment area, single energy rim, single audit and even single educational standards” for NEA countries. According to the vice-governor, Vladivostok is the best place to satisfy geopolitical concerns of all the countries of NEA. Governor Sergey Darkin visiting Tokyo in December 2003 announced that Primorye is ready to take part in multilateral humanitarian projects related to the DPRK. In particular, it was said that Primorskiy krai could host North Korean illegal immigrants from China.

However, despite the local administrations’ numerous statements of their interest in promoting multilateral cooperation in NEA, no large-scale projects have  been implemented in the Russian Far East so far, except, perhaps, the development of Sakhalin oil and gas deposits. In the early 1990s, the “Tumangan” project was vigorously discussed. It envisioned “another Hong Kong” on the junction of borders of Russia, North Korea and China. Nevertheless, those grand plans never turned into reality. They were blocked mainly by the Russian and Primorskiy krai’s authorities, which feared losing control over the strategically important area and leaving local ports unemployed. It should be noted that currently there are no multilateral projects on the list of priorities of Primorskiy krai’s leadership. Instead, the territory’s administration has focused its efforts on purely bilateral, Russian – Chinese, project of cross-border trade and industrial park “Pogranichiy – Suifenhe.” This project is not just another grand vision as it is already based on considerable trade flows between Primorye and Northeastern China, promising investors sizable profits.

As mentioned in the above, Russian Far Eastern territories do not have a common strategy for joining the system of economic interaction and multilateral cooperation of the Asia-Pacific and NEA.  Neither has Moscow offered such a strategy for the Russian Far East. Although after the chaotic 1990s the federal center has regained almost complete political control over the Far East and continues to reduce the federation members’ prerogatives, the federal government still has not bothered to move from general declarations to the formulation and implementation of policies aimed at integrating the Russian Far East into international economy.

Moreover, some high ranking Moscow officials sometimes make statements to the effect that the Far East is a burden rather than an asset for Russia. For example, one of the federal ministers visiting Vladivostok expressed his personal opinion during an informal conversation, arguing that the acquisition of the Far East proved to be a historical “mistake of the Russian czarism”. It is evident that such views do not reflect the position of the majority in the Russian leadership, including President Putin. Nevertheless, one has to acknowledge that the Far East, although remaining a vital Russian interest, is not currently the chief concern for the federal government which is much more preoccupied by the developments in western and southern parts of the country, such as North Caucasus. All that results in an impasse: the federal authorities do not simply have enough time and resources for the Far East, while the local administrations do not have sufficient powers and can not reach agreement among themselves.


The creation of regional community in Northeast Asia looks extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future. There are several powerful systemic factors at work in the region inhibiting the formation of an institutionalized community which could be even remotely approaching the level of political integration found in EU or at least in ASEAN. Among such obstacles are the structure of the region itself consisting almost entirely of great powers and increasing nationalist sentiments in China, Japan and both Koreas.

At the same time, most Northeast Asian countries pursue highly pragmatic policies in the sphere of economic interactions which makes possible major multilateral projects, above all in such fields as energy and transportation. Russia is well placed to play a key role in implementing these projects which gives her a chance to raise her profile in the region and to encourage development of her Far Eastern territories.

Source: From a paper presented at a conference on "Innovative Approaches to Peace and Stability in Northeast Asia: Focus on the Korean Peninsula," May 26-28, 2005, Moscow, Russia, co-organized by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace and the Russian Political Science Association. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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