Adjust font size:

Geopolitical Hotspot Issues in Northeastern Asia and Transformation of International Order

CIIS Time:12 08, 2017 Writer:Yang Xiyu Editor:Wang Jiapei


Security issues of Northeastern Asia have increasingly been complicated since 2016. Significant changes have taken place such as, deterioration of Korean nuclear issue, rebuilding of armed forces in Japan, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in the ROK, US adjustment of relations with Japan, the ROK and others. Northeastern Asia is caught in chaos featured by sudden increase of uncertain and unstable strategic factors. The chaos is by no means accidental but has its underlying reasons. It reflects that the security order in Northeastern Asian initially established following the end of World War II and distorted by Korean War is entering a period of historical and structural changes. What drive this change is whose solutions should be followed to address Korean nuclear issue and what kind of new security order should be put in place in this region. Facing up to the chaos, we must be fully aware that security order in this region is experiencing extremely fragile and treacherous “peaceful evolution,” which is the inevitable outcome of the changing world security order at an increasingly faster pace. In this sense, when we discuss a seemingly isolated hotspot, we must take into the account the changing regional and even the global security order as well as the common security framework of Northeastern Asia in plan.


I. Three Hotspot Issues Affecting Geopolitical Strategic Game in Northeastern Asia
One of the key features leading to dramatic changes in Northeastern Asian security order is that security issues resulted from the Cold War and other historical events are witnessing profound and quiet changes which matter to the future. This is manifested in the following three evolving hotspot issues.

1. Korean nuclear issue is in the process of changing from quantity to quality and has become a strategic issue influencing layout of major countries and regional security order

In less than 9 months in 2016, the DPRK conducted two nuclear tests successively. These two tests displayed two noticeable characteristics compared with previous three previous ones from 2006 to 2013. First, the DPRK announced “hydrogen bomb test” for the first time; second, explosive yield of the fifth nuclear test far exceeds previous ones. Signs and indicators all point out to the fact that the DPRK has mastered the technique of miniature nuclear warhead with the explosion equivalent of over 10,000 tones. The DPRK also conducted about 10 ballistic missile tests including submarine-launched missile test. In early 2017, Kim Jong-un, president of the DPRK announced that the DPRK almost finished the preparation work for launching intercontinental ballistic missile. This indicates that the DPRK has made key breakthrough in nuclear striking weapons. More importantly, it means that a DPRK nuclear force guided by the concept of “preemptive strike” is emerging unexpectedly apart from the fragile China/Russia-US strategic balance of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” It is like a geopolitical lever, forcing the US to move defense and military striking forces strategically to Northeastern Asia and speeding up military expansion of Japan and the ROK. As a result, the strategic balance of Korean Peninsula and Northeastern Asia which has been maintained over 60 years is growing fragile. This region has run into all-round arms race with countries competing to enhance its military power. Northeastern Asia stands ready to become home to military forces of highest density.

2. Japan is speeding up to become a “normal country”

The “Exclusively Defense-oriented Strategy” Japan has been committed to for 70 years will be transformed into the so-called Positive Pacifism, which will enable Japan to practice the right to war. Over the years, Abe administration has accelerated the process of rewriting Pacifist Constitution. This is inevitable because for 70 years since World War II, right-wing forces in Japan have stubbornly pursued wrong political standing of its aggression history and steadfastly pushed Japan to become a “normal country.” Preventing Japan from being a “normal country” is not only the fruit of anti-fascist war victory, but also a cornerstone of post-war international order. The legal basis of this is “illegitimacy” for Japan to practice right of war, which has been enshrined in the ninth Article of Pacifist Constitution. It is based on the 9th article that Japan sets its peace defense framework with “Exclusively Defense-oriented Strategy” at its core and its self-defense forces.

Since his first term as Prime Minister of Japan, Abe has quietly initiated the process of transforming the “Exclusively Defense-oriented Strategy” by upgrading Defense Agency into Ministry of Defense. During his second term, he set the abolition of the ninth Article as his administrative target. Meanwhile, by levering the advantages gained from the coalition government in the houses, he pushed for transforming and upgrading its armed forces from the following three aspects. First, lifting the ban on collective self-defense right forcibly, revising security bill and relative laws and regulations limiting Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) to practice “collective self-defense right.” This is to “untie” JSDF and pave the way for it to become national defense force legally. Second, putting in place a new national defense system. Efforts are made to extend functions of Ministry of Defense, establish National Security Council, and enhance “black-box operation” power of military and security policy-making departments of the Cabinet by amending secrecy laws and upgrading military establishment of self-defense forces. Consequently, post-war defense structure of Japan has been adjusted from policy-making mechanism to self-defense framework for better centralizing power and conducting aggressive attacks. Third, since 2012, Abe administration has increased defense budget for 5 years in a row to expand military build-up, enhance the power of ground, marine and air forces and build modern arms. This lays a foundation for upgrading self-defense forces into national defense forces when time is ripe. At the same time, Japan is rebuilding its weapon industry, cooperating closely with western countries such as the US and abolishing three principles on arms export. As Japan, a country pursuing peaceful development road for 70 plus years after World War II presses the above-mentioned three aspects ahead step by step, it will inevitably become a world military power practicing Positive Pacifism.
3. THAAD in the ROK will break the strategic balance of “mutual deterrence” by undermining missile striking capabilities of China and Russia

The ROK has bargained with the US for years over THAAD. It’s no accident that it introduced THAAD in 2016. As a matter of fact, to deploy THAAD in the ROK and even in Japan is pre-determined by the US, because the X-band radar on THAAD will enable the US to get early warnings and tracks of Chinese missiles. This will undoubtedly break the already fragile strategic balance between China and the US. Similarly, the US can also gain advantage over Russia with this X-band radar. This is why the US has kept urging the ROK to deploy THAAD. In 2016, the DPRK notably sped up R&D on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. This helps create an excellent atmosphere and environment for the US to push for deployment of THAAD in ROK and also offer a ready excuse for the wrong decision made by Park Geun-hye administration. The ROK and the US have originally agreed to finish deployment work of THAAD by the end of 2017. However, following the cronyism scandal, Park Geun-hye made the hasty decision to complete the deployment by mid-2017 in an attempt to divert people’s attention away from the scandal. This decision is made based on domestic conditions, but fits in exactly with the wishes of the US. This move is not only highly praised by Obama administration, but regarded as the most important topic by James Mattis, Defense Minister of Trump administration during his visit to the ROK in January 2017.

In the US, both Democratic and Republican parties are for deployment of THAAD in the ROK, but two largest parties representing conservative and progressive ideas respectively in the ROK share different opinions. The largest progressive party out of power strongly recommends leaving the issue of THAAD to the next administration, which is unacceptable for the US. Current poll shows a leading-edge of the party candidate. However, based on timetable made by the US and the ROK to finish THAAD deployment in advance, it will have already been firmly established in the ROK by the time next administration forms. This will leave a thorny problem for the next administration. Furthermore, THAAD in the ROK will not only cast an unprecedented impact on China-ROK relations, but will also intensify the game between China-US and Russia-US on issue of missiles and anti-missiles.

II. Geopolitical and Strategic Implications of the Three Hotspot Issues

The abovementioned hotspot issues have profound implications on geopolitical strategy of Northeastern Asia. They prompt changes in geopolitical structure of this region through interaction and mutual influence.

1. Denuclearization of Korean peninsula not only decides its security landscape in the future, but also determines the security environment of Northeastern China and deeply affects security order of Northeastern Asia in the future

Korean peninsula is located at the core of Northeastern Asia with Northeastern China as its close neighbor. The past century has witnessed conflicts of China, the US, Japan and Russia over issues of the peninsula. In a word, the peninsula has already become a “sally port” of major countries’ game. China has lost Taiwan twice in history, both of which are associated with Korean Peninsula. The first time was during Sino-Japanese War in 1894. The war, originated from internal conflicts in Korean Peninsula, forced the losing party the Qing Dynasty to cede Taiwan and Penghu Islands to Japan. The second time was Korean War breaking out all of a sudden on June 25th, 1950. Then US president Truman declared military intervention. However, his first military move was not sending troops to Korean Peninsula but dispatching the seventh fleet to Taiwan Strait, which prevented China’s military force to cross the Strait to liberate Taiwan. Many geopolitical outcomes of the War are still of influence today. For example, in order to use Japan as the staging base to interfere in Korean War, the US roughly finished “peaceful transformation” of Japan. This paves the way for the revival of militarism in Japan. Besides, during and after Korean War, the US signed alliance treaty with Japan, the ROK and Taiwan, putting in place “the First Island Chain” against China in East Asia.


To steadfastly ensure a Korean peninsula without “war, conflict and nuclear weapons” is a lesson China has learned at the cost of huge geopolitical loss. In view of this, when a war was on a verge of breaking out on the peninsula in March 2013, President Xi clearly stated China’s objection of messing things up on the peninsular by any country out of any motive during his keynote speech in annual conference of Boao Forum for Asia. In May 2013, President Xi made it clear that denuclearization of Korean peninsula is in accordance with the will of people and the trend of times during his meeting with Choe Ryong-hae, special envoy of Secretary General Kim Jong-un.


Like Korean War, solutions of Korean nuclear issue concern long-term strategic and security interests of China. Three decades have passed since Korean nuclear issue broke out. It has been changing the security landscape and strategic geopolitical layout of the peninsula and Northeastern Asia at large, far exceeding DRPK-ROK and USROK relations. On the one hand, the DPRK and the ROK compete to enhance their attack capability. The US has already withdrawn tactical nuclear weapons from the ROK following the end of Cold War. But it makes the suggestion of offering “extended nuclear deterrence” and deploys large number of advanced weapons to the ROK again using this opportunity. In this military race between the DPRK, the US and the ROK, Korean peninsula near Northeastern China has become a powder keg. On the other hand, escalation of Korean nuclear issue accelerates the process of the US moving its global strategic point to the east. Meanwhile, the idea supporting “possession of nuclear weapons” is growing widespread in Japan and the ROK. American President-elect Donald Trump even vowed support for Japan and the ROK to develop nuclear weapons. These which seemed impossible are highly possible with deterioration of the nuclear issue.

At present there are three proposed solutions to address Korean nuclear issue: First, the DPRK solution. Based on this solution, the DPRK will possess nuclear weapons permanently to become equals with the US strategically. The DPRK will sign peace treaty through bilateral negotiations to establish a security order on the peninsula jointly governed by it and the US. This order will take the place of “Interim Truce Agreement” of 1953.

Second, the US and ROK solution. According to this solution, a two-track strategy has to be made. One is to force the DPRK to abandon nuclear weapons through comprehensive sanctions and lockdown. The other is to constantly upgrading and revising the “surgical strike” plan (made in 1994) against the DPRK. If sanctions do not work, military actions will be taken to destroy nuclear facilities in the DPRK at the right time even at the cost of subverting the state.

Third, China’s solution. The core of this solution is to achieve denuclearization and permanent peace through “dual-track negotiations.” On the one hand, six-party talk mechanism will be used to settle Korean nuclear issue peacefully and address concerns of the DPRK in politics, security, economy, diplomacy and others. On the other hand, a mechanism to ensure permanent peace on the peninsula will be put in place through negotiations of the DPRK, the ROK, China and the US. This mechanism will replace “Interim Truce Agreement” to formally terminate the war on the peninsula. Whichever solution is adopted, it will determine the security structure of Korean peninsula and profoundly impact security order of Northeastern Asia in the years to come. Should China’s solution fail, it will confront the toughest geopolitical environment and security landscape since the end of Korean War.

2. Japan’s turn to Positive Pacifism from Pacifism brings huge uncertainty to Northeastern Asia and Asia Pacific at large and even prompts reorganization and reconstruction of regional security order

The so-called Positive Pacifism initiated by Abe during his second term is a comprehensive strategy involving internal affairs, security and diplomacy. Policies adopted by Abe administration over the past several years give us a hint of what is Positive Pacifism. The so-called Positive Pacifism is more active and direct intervention into security affairs of Asia Pacific and the world at large. Main practices are: getting rid of post-war system featured by pacifism; amending the ninth Article of Pacifist Constitution; lifting ban on collective self-defense rights; lifting restriction on arms export; promoting JSDF to go abroad. In order to achieve this goal, JSDF have to be dramatically upgraded both in quantity and quality. This drives Abe cabinet to create the record of increasing defense budget for five fiscal years in a row. The budget is set to breach the red line of not exceeding 1 percent of its GDP. Japanese and international experts all share the idea that it is only a matter of time before Abe administration crosses the line.

Japan’s U-turn in defense policy and system will first of all add new strategic variables to Northeastern Asia and Asia Pacific. JSDF upholding Exclusively Defense-Oriented Strategy over the past seven decades cast almost zero influence on security landscape in this region. However, with the spread of Positive Pacifism, Japanese army will evolve into an important regional strategic force. Even a tiny move of this force must be taken into account. Recently, Japan made a switch from its policy over the past decades by declaring active interference into South China Sea issue at a high profile and vigorously provided arms to concerned parties. It even goes farther by claiming to conduct “joint cruise” with the US over South China Sea. This reflects the essence of Positive Pacifism and shows the direction where JSDF will go strategically.

From larger perspective, Japan’s attempt to abolish post-war system through Positive Pacifism will inevitably reorganize and reconstruct regional security order which was put in place since World War II. “Pacifism” policy adopted by Japan is one of the fruits of World War II and also a vital part of Asian security order. When Japan breaks through the post-war system preventing it from using forces, original regional security order and rules are bound to be rewritten. For example, if Japan lifts the ban on collective self-defense, the standoff in Northeastern Asia will be undoubtedly strengthened and transformed. In this case, countries in this region will be clearly separated into “collective security” member and non-member countries. For members, i.e. the US, Japan and the ROK, the so called “collective self-defense right,” a unique right for the US, can be practiced by a new player all of a sudden. A senior official of Abe cabinet said bluntly that once a crisis takes place on Korean Peninsula, JSDF will be at the forefront. The underlying meaning of Japan to get rid of post-war system is fully manifested in these words.

For non-member countries, China, Russia and the DPRK, the closer the US, Japan and the ROK are, the more insecure they will feel. Therefore, they will enhance their defense capability accordingly. However when any of the three non-member countries successfully do so, members will feel upset. This vicious cycle will lead to negative competitive pattern, which will roll Northeastern Asian countries into ever-intensifying arms race be it willing or not.

3. THAAD in the ROK signals the beginning of the deployment of anti-missile defense system in Northeastern Asia

It’s a sign that the US has started to kick off its anti-missile defense scheme in this region following its success in Europe. The final aim is to win a unique strategic advantage in anti-missile system across the Atlantic and Pacific. By deploying THAAD in the ROK, the US has tied the country to its “war wagon.” Over the years, the US has been urging the ROK to deploy THAAD in American military base in the ROK by claiming to confront threat from the DPRK. This seemingly tactical arrangement displays its long-term strategic planning. That is to replicate the anti-missile defense system in Europe in East Asia. THAAD is only the first step. It is known to all that the US has established a whole set of anti-missile defense system in Europe covered by the excuse of responding to “Iranian missile threat.” The system deployed near Russia wins US strategic advantage. Now, with the completion of anti-missile defense system in Europe, the US is to establish such a system in Asia Pacific with confronting “missile threat in the DPRK” as an excuse. The US is located between Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. The ultimate purpose is to put in place a global anti-missile system in European continent and East Asia, thus gaining strategic advantage over Russia and China. THAAD is an important part constituting the global plan. Equipped with three different interceptors, THAAD, Minuteman III and Block I and II, the US will establish a comprehensive anti-missile defense system with coordination at low, medium and high altitude. This will dramatically enhance America’s ability of interception and getting early warnings in dealing with China’s strategic weapons and erect another anti-defense wall in Eastern Russia, as it did in Europe. In this sense, the US will eventually establish two anti-missile defense
walls: one in the east and the other in the west. This will fundamentally break the strategic balance between China, Russia and the US. This accounts for why it is explicitly pointed out in the joint statement of President Xi and President Putin that the danger of anti-missile defense system, THAAD included is to undermine regional and global strategic stability. When a bird’s nest is overturned, no egg can remain intact. Similarly, once regional strategic balance is broken, the ROK will encounter more insecurity. Therefore, such deployment will impact the whole world, setting to trigger arms races not only between the DPRK and the ROK, but among major countries across the world.

III. Geopolitical Evolution in Northeastern Asia: Part of International Order Transformation

Northeastern Asia is witnessing speedy changes in security order. Korean nuclear issue continues to escalate. Japan pushes for transformation of the country by getting rid of post -World War II system. THAAD in the ROK will break regional strategic balance. The three hotspot issues are a manifestation of the grim tendency: the international political, economic and financial order established after World War II fails to meet the requirements of governance and change of powers of the 21st century. Current regional security order is increasingly hard to maintain, but the new one is yet to take shape. How to address Korean nuclear crisis? Which direction Japan will step in to establish a “normal country”? Whether THAAD in the ROK means an anti-missile defense system like that deployed by NATO will be established in Northeastern Asia? Answers to these questions hold the key to the future security order in Northeastern Asia. Meanwhile, the world order is also entering a period of historic transformation never seen before.


In history, it is large-scale wars, those between major countries in particular that set new international order or determined its transformation. For example, the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century set an order on European continent based on the Peace Treaty of Westphalia; the order was overturned by Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 and consequently, Vienna Order and Continental Balance of Power were put in place; Continental Balance of Power was shattered by Franco-Prussian War in 1871. An order featuring “armed peace” between two military blocs, “Triple Alliance” and “Triple Entente” was gradually phased in. The “armed peace” order was ended following the breakout of World War I in 1914 between “Central Powers” and “Allies.” Versailles-Washington System took the order. Versailles-Washington System started to shake since Japan invaded Northeastern China in 1931 and collapsed when World War II was widespread. Yalta System based on joint governance of US and Soviet Union and Bretton Woods system with dollars at the core were set when World War II ended in 1945.

In early 1990s, Yalta System was phased out following the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. However, one of the two “super powers” still exists and even grows stronger. This helps basically maintain the world order set in 1945 in spite of evolution.

Now the world is at a historic turning point. The weakening of the US in global leadership makes the US-led world order increasingly difficult to maintain. Development of times and structural changes of power among major countries call for a new international order.

However, how to establish a new order? How to enable a new one to replace the outdated? Historical experience points only one way out: wars between major countries. Just as winner takes all, the winner will decide the new order. Historical rule seems to be that new world order will not emerge without wars and the outdated ones will not step down from world stage without finding out winner and loser through wars. This is the underlying reason of the increasing unrest during the transitional period. Steve Bannon, chief consultant to President Trump said bluntly in March 2016 that a war would surely break out between the US and China in South China Sea within five to ten years. This prediction is also widespread in the US, Japan, Russia and even in China. The so-called “World War III” is also frequently reported in western mainstream media in 2016. These show that strategic uncertainties are notably on the rise during this transitional period. The old wisdom that to stop war preparation will undoubtedly put a country in danger is more reality-targeted.

Fortunately, human civilization has progressed to a new high. Current international pattern is also a contrast from the Europe-centered pattern. Ethnicities from different countries and regions are independent towards each other. These offer an opportunity for countries to explore transformation of international order in a peaceful way for the first time.

At the historic turning point of international order transformation, President Xi proposed to establish Communities of Common Destiny for Asia and for all the human beings. This is the only road to safeguard peace and development and achieve “peaceful transformation” of international order. Human beings, who have achieved high-level civilization and mastered high-tech, should join hands to build a new type of international relations featuring mutual benefit and win-win cooperation rather than to repeat “zero-sum” wars during the colonial and imperial era. With this aim in mind and faced with an unfair international order and unreasonable global governance structure, China is not for scraping the old order and build a new one. What China advocates is to first ensure the stability of current order and then gradually put in place an inclusive, open international order built and shared by all through constant improvement and equal participation of all the countries.

Under this prerequisite and against the backdrop, it is highly possible for Northeastern Asia to transform regional security order peacefully. However, this possibility cannot appear by itself or remain unchanged. To make “peaceful transformation” a reality, China has to seize this opportunity to enhance its capability and play the leading role proactively.


From the development tendency of the geopolitical hotspot issues and strategic features in Northeastern Asia, Korean Peninsula is the “sally port” to maintain a stable and peaceful Northeastern Asia and establish a regional security order in accordance with new type of international relations of the 21st century. The key is sticking to China’s solution to build a permanent security order. Among the three hotspot issues, to realize denuclearization of Korean Peninsula peacefully serves the interest of all the parties including the DPRK. It also acts as a strategic lever to promote “peaceful transformation” of regional security order and stimulate change from “zero-sum” Cold War security structure to one featuring common security. If six-party talk mechanism can lead to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula by successfully resolving the complicated crisis, it will naturally become a cooperation mechanism that can be copied to address other security issues. In this process of promoting six-party cooperation, Japan will be influenced by positive energy and its move towards a “normal country” will also be restricted. Meanwhile, the issue of THAAD can also be readily solved.


In conclusion, geopolitical change and security order evolution in Northeastern Asia constitute as an important part of international order transformation. Only by keeping global trend in mind, can we accurately seize opportunities and confront challenges brought by geopolitical changes in Northeastern Asia. Furthermore can we vigorously push regional security order to evolve in the direction of building a Community of Common Destiny for Asia and for all the human beings as proposed by President Xi?



Yang Xiyu is a Senior Fellow at China Institute of International Studies.


SourceChina’s Initiatives:Responses to an Uncertain World, Word Affairs Press, 2017