Insights and Analysis

Northeast Asia in Transformation: The Future of the Region and the Role of the United States

October 26, 2016

By Zhao Kejin

avarabannerpicfinalNortheast Asia is the economic and geopolitical region comprising China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, and Russia’s far east, all of which stood at the forefront of the Cold War. Unlike other regions, which quickly recovered after the end of the Cold War, Northeast Asia was left with a series of enduring stalemates—the Korean Peninsula, the Kuril Islands, the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, and the Diaoyu Islands—that remain obstacles to regional cooperation.

Downtown Beijing

Despite recent downward pressures, China seems likely to maintain a 6 percent economic growth rate. Photo/Giulia Marchi

Nevertheless, the forces of economic globalization, technological change, and transnational population flow are rapidly transforming the region, from bipolar strategic competition to a cooperative and diversified network. The states of Northeast Asia also face many common challenges, including resource scarcity, threats to the environment, and the stubborn persistence of strategic tensions amid flourishing economic cooperation.

Population Movement

With the acceleration of urbanization, transborder population movement has rapidly increased. Industrialization and urbanization have contributed to the concentration of populations in megacities. In 2015, the populations of Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, and Osaka exceeded 20 million, with Seoul close behind, and Ulaanbaatar, though not quite a megacity, exhibiting many of the same vulnerabilities. The rise of megacities has brought problems in housing, electricity and water supplies, transportation, food safety, public security, environmental degradation, and solid waste management.

The aging of these urban populations over the next 20 years will coincide with growing transborder migration and a growing presence of vulnerable groups—illegal migrants, minorities, and disadvantaged groups—in metropolitan areas. The number of Chinese living and working abroad will rise from 100 million to 200 million over the next 20 years; African migrants in Guangzhou have already exceeded 200,000; and Korean minority populations in China’s northeast region have experienced unprecedented growth. The regional issue of transborder migration will play an increasingly important role in China’s domestic politics over the next 20 years.

Resource Scarcity

Rapid urbanization will give rise to pressing shortages of energy and water. With China’s economic boom, demand for natural gas and water has grown rapidly. At the same time, China’s dependence on imported energy, especially oil, will continue to grow, with imports accounting for an estimated 80 percent of oil needs by 2035. Finding sufficient energy and resources to fuel China’s economic engine in the long run will be a non-trivial problem for Chinese foreign policy. Meanwhile, the Fukushima nuclear accident has exacerbated the problem of Japan’s national electricity supply; turmoil in the South China Sea and the Middle East have worried energy-dependent Japan and Korea; and the problem of energy and water has never ceased to trouble the landlocked Republic of Mongolia.

Threats to the Environment

Urban development in Northeast Asia has come at the cost of aggravated pollution from wastewater, gases, garbage, agricultural waste, and noise. The unsustainable exploitation of natural resources has resulted in soil erosion, grassland degradation, and decreased biodiversity. The Chinese leadership has felt growing pressure from domestic grievances about air pollution. Sand storms resulting from soil and grassland degradation have become an intractable problem for Mongolia. Climate change is no longer a remote scenario, and melting polar ice and sea-level rise are a constant theme of the Japanese media.

Strategic Tensions

Northeast Asian economic development and influence over the next 15 to 20 years will depend on China’s successful rise and the strategic choices of the United States. China seems likely to maintain a 6 percent economic growth rate, despite recent downward pressures, and the United States could find itself in the near future having to cope with a much stronger rival. If Northeast Asia becomes a global power with China at its center, the United States may shift towards containment in its rebalance towards Asia, while emphasizing competition rather than cooperation. In this Sino-U.S. bipolar scenario, Japan’s relative power, in the absence of serious political reform, would continue to decline. Other middle powers like North Korea, South Korea, and Mongolia would have little impact on the process of regional power transition, even if they achieved impressive economic growth. These countries would find it increasingly difficult to formulate their national strategies, thus displaying a degree of fickleness in various policy areas. South Korea’s current hedging strategy is a case in point: it must strengthen its security alliance with the United States, while cautiously managing its relationship with China in order to benefit from China’s economic rise, putting it in the difficult position of trying to avoid choosing sides in the strategic competition.

This essay is a sneak preview excerpt from the forthcoming Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance—Strategic Recommendations for the Incoming U.S. President on Foreign Policy Towards Asia. Zhao Kejin is associate professor at the Institute of International Studies, director of the Center for China’s Statecraft and Public Diplomacy, and deputy director of the Center for Sino-U.S. Relations, Tsinghua University. He is a contributor to Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of Asia.

The Asia Foundation’s quadrennial project convenes a series of closed-door, high-level working groups of Asian and American thought leaders across the Asia Pacific to craft foreign policy recommendations for the incoming U.S. Administration to coincide with U.S. elections. This year’s report includes a chapter on The Future of Asia written by a new generation of Asian leaders, including Zhao Kejin. To read Zhao Kejin’s recommendations for the incoming U.S. president, tune in to on November 15, just after the election. 

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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