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Crucible of challenges

Major-country relations in Northeast Asia are complex and intertwined

By HAN XIANDONG | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-02-28 07:55
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Major-country relations in Northeast Asia are complex and intertwined

In recent years, major-country competition, characterized by the United States' suppression and containment of countries such as China and Russia, has emerged as a key factor influencing the global and regional orders. However, competition is neither the defining trend of the era nor the whole of major-country relations. Cooperation still plays an important role in major-country relations.

Currently, the main factors driving the evolution of geopolitical landscape in Northeast Asia include China-US relations, the domestic politics and economy of regional countries, and the Ukraine crisis.

First, China-US ties concern not only the two nations. The intensity of the competition between them and the extent of their cooperation affect the strategic decisions of other regional countries in Northeast Asia. If the US continues to challenge China's bottom line on issues concerning its core interests such as the Taiwan question, there is a genuine risk of a direct China-US conflict. If the US respects China's core interests and manages the bilateral relations in a responsible way, the competition will develop in a stable way and steer the Northeast Asia region away from a full-scale confrontation.

The meeting between the leaders of the two countries last November laid out the future-oriented "San Francisco vision", pointing out the direction for the healthy, stable and sustainable development of China-US ties. The meeting injected a strong dose of certainty and stability into a volatile world.

Second, the domestic politics of the US and the Republic of Korea are also important factors shaping the future of Northeast Asia.

The ROK is a "structural power" which endows the nation with an influence that's beyond its real strength. The country's policy decisions have a big impact on the relations among regional nations and combination of power. The ROK has deep-seated political divisions, with the progressive party and the conservative party having taken divergent stances on many issues such as the control of its military forces in times of war, the transformation of US-ROK alliance, the "United Nations Command", the establishment of a peace mechanism of the Korean Peninsula, as well as the policies toward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Japan.

The domestic politics of the US is another key factor affecting the order of Northeast Asia. Since Joe Biden took office as president, his administration has had a consistently low approval rate, hovering around 40 percent. The US Congress has grown ever more polarized, and it's increasingly impossible for the Democrats and the Republicans to work together and make compromises on key issues. A return of Donald Trump to office after the 2024 presidential election in November would have a big impact on the US' policy toward Russia, its attitude toward allies in the Asia-Pacific region, and its DPRK policy, thus affecting the security policies of and relations among Northeast Asian countries and inducing changes in the regional political landscape.

Third, in today's world, due to the global division of labor and the forming of supply chains, economic elements, such as technologies, materials, energy, food, finance, and market, might be used by major countries as instruments or tools in their competition with each other. However, natural resources endowment and position in the global industry chains, as well as the interdependent relations developed among countries mean that no country can wield these "tools" unscrupulously.

The ROK and Japan are highly reliant on China both for materials and market. And the three neighboring countries have developed close partnerships via the industrial division of labor. The volume of intermediate goods trade is a key indicator of the closeness of the three countries in their industry chains. From 1998 to 2022, the intermediate goods trade took a majority share in China-Japan trade. And research by ROK scholars shows that in 2020, among the 5,300 types of goods the ROK imported from China, 1,088 had a rate of dependency on China of over 50 percent, while 653 types had a rate of over 70 percent, among which 604 were intermediate goods. The data show that it is impractical for the ROK and Japan to decouple from China in the short term.

For high-tech companies of the ROK and Japan, it best suits their interests to have both access to US technologies and the Chinese market. It is likely that both countries will cave to the US pressure and choose US technologies over the Chinese market. However, once they lose the Chinese market, the technologies would ultimately become valueless. Recently, Chey Tae-won, the chairman of the SK Group, said if the ROK gives up the large market of China, the country won't be able to recover. That the US replaced the hype of "decoupling "with a more low-profile "de-risking" also indicates that economic elements are also shaping the regional landscape.

The author is a professor of international politics and the director of the Center for the Korean Peninsula Studies at the China University of Political Science and Law. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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