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[Research Reports] "Ad Hoc US-China Concert" on the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait Issue

Hideya Kurata (Professor, National Defense Academy of Japan)
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Research Group on 'China' FY2021-#4

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

1. Introduction: The Patchwork of the US-China Conflict

The confrontation between the United States and China is not necessarily an all-out confrontation. It is true that there is little room for compromise on issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. However, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi met in Honolulu in June 2020, Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell said that "the opportunities for cooperative behavior with PRC of late--seems to be fewer and fewer," but raised the issue of North Korea "one of the areas of obvious cooperation between the US and China. In the past, the US and China have deliberately cooperated on issues pertaining to the Korean Peninsula, as seen in the multilateral arrangements such as Four-Party Talks and Six-Party Talks, despite confrontational issues in other regions and domains. Today, amidst the tensions in the Taiwan Strait, what kinds of challenges face "ad hoc US-China concert" on the Korean Peninsula? Can that framework still be effective?

2. The Four-Party Talks and the Japan-US Joint Declaration on Security: The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis

(1) The Original Model of Decoupling

The third Taiwan Strait crisis, which occurred after Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) President Lee Teng-hui visited his alma mater Cornell University in June 1995 and before Taiwan's presidential election in March 1996, comes to mind in connection with tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. China conducted three missile exercises to prevent the election of Lee Teng-hui, and the Clinton administration rushed the USS Nimitz carrier strike groups from the Persian Gulf to the waters east of Taiwan in addition to USS Independence. On the other hand, looking at the Korean Peninsula, North Korea dropped its long-held insistence on a US-North Korea peace agreement after the end of the Cold War and signed the North-South Basic Agreement with South Korea at the end of 1991, pledging to work for the establishment of a peace regime between the two Koreas. However, after declaring its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in March 1993, North Korea returned to its original insistence on a US-North Korea peace agreement when talks with the US were realized, and around the same time as the third Taiwan Strait crisis, proposed a US-North Korea interim agreement as a transitional measure leading to a US-North Korea peace agreement, deliberately raising tensions at Panmunjom.

It should be pointed out here that on March 20, 1996, amidst heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait, South Korean Foreign Minister Gong Ro-Myung visited China and met with Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, Premier Li Peng, and President Jiang Zemin. He visited the US immediately afterwards and met with Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Furthermore, on April 16 at the US-ROK summit on Jeju Island, President Bill Clinton and President Kim Young-sam proposed a Four-party Talks among South Korea, North Korea, the US and China to conclude a peace agreement between the two Koreas in accordance with the North-South Basic Agreement. China also considered its engagement as a de facto party to the Military Arminstice Agreement in multilateral arrangements as North Korea insisted on a US-North Korea peace agreement that excluded China. Jiang Zemin reportedly told South Korea that he was ready to play a "constructive role" in this proposal.

Given this history, Gong's visits to China and the US can be seen as putting the final touches on the Four-Party Talks proposal. Kim Young-sam later revealed that he had sent a "formal letter to President Jiang Zemin 20 days before" the Four-Party Talks proposal, and 20 days prior to this proposal roughly coincides with Gong's visit to China. It was also demonstrated that in addition to the cooperation between the ROK and China on the establishment of a peace regime, the US and China could also work together on this agenda despite the heightened tension in the Taiwan Strait. Two days after the Four-Party Talks proposal, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher met with Qian Qichen in Hague to discuss the prospect of a "constructive role" for China" in the offered Four-Party Talks.

(2) "Outsourcing" to the Japan-US Alliance

The Taiwan issue, which was decoupled from the Korean issue, was placed in the context of the Japan-US alliance. The day after the US-South Korea summit in Jeju, Clinton flew to Tokyo and issued the Japan-US Joint Declaration on Security with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, making clear the shifting importance of Article VI contingencies in areas surrounding Japan under the Japan-US Security Treaty. There was some domestic controversy over whether these areas include the Taiwan Strait, on the assumption that South Korea, which had been hit by the North Korean nuclear crisis a few years earlier, would be within its scope.

Article VI of the Japan-US Security Treaty relates to the prior consultation system for the use of the US bases in Japan, bringing to mind the Japan-US Joint Statement (by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon) of November 1969. The statement included a "Korea clause" that the security of Korea was essential to Japan's own security," as well as a "Taiwan clause" that the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan region was also a most important factor the security of Japan."

Following the US-Japan Joint Statement, Prime Minister Sato pledged Japan to respond "positively and promptly" to the prior consultations in a speech at the National Press Club. Subsequently, the "Korea clause" was updated as the "new Korea clause" in the Japan-US Joint Announcement to the Press (by Prime Minister Takeo Miki and President Gerald Ford) in August 1975, and later confirmed by the leaders of Japan and the US as the "Korean Peninsula clause," while the "Taiwan clause" was not renewed. Even though the Japan-US Joint Declaration on Security did not directly refer to "the security of Korea" and "peace and security in the Taiwan region," it did place the "Korea clause" and the "Taiwan clause" in a post-Cold War context. As clearly stated in the Joint Declaration, the Japan-US Defense Cooperation Guidelines were revised in September 1997, stipulating activities of the Self-Defense Forces in "the high seas and the airspace around Japan, which are distinguished from areas where combat operations are being conducted" as "rear area support". In April 1998, the Act on Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Perilous Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan was passed, and the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) between Japan and the United States was revised to conform to this Act.

3. Moon Jae-in's "Korean Peninsula Peace Process" and Its Affinity with Wang Yi's "Parallel Track Process"

The establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula continued thereafter to be decoupled from the Taiwan issue. Under the Bush administration, there was a debate about the need for the US forces in South Korea to break away from their rigid role of deterring North Korea only and become more "strategically flexible", and a plan to relocate the US bases in South Korea was initiated. In response to this, the Roh Moo-hyun administration strongly opposed the mobilization of the US forces in the ROK, especially to the Taiwan Strait, and insisted on the need for prior consultation with South Korea, a stance since called the "Roh Moo-hyun Doctrine." Along with the plan to relocate the US bases in Korea, the direction of the US-ROK alliance toward a regional mission was also mentioned, but this did not result in any major changes in the force structure of the US forces in Korea. Even though the US ground forces in Korea have been relocated, the US Navy in Korea still does not have a field force or permanently stationed ships.

Meanwhile, this has given China room to engage in local issues pertaining to the Korean Peninsula, separate from other issues such as Taiwan. In February 2016 Wang Yi proposed a "Parallel Track" involving simultaneously pursuing a two-pronged approach of denuclearizing North Korea and establishing a peace regime, saying that China would play a "constructive role" and be willing to involve itself in the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, using the same words that Jiang Zemin had used when he expressed his readiness to participate in the proposed Four-Party Talks a quarter-century before. In response, President Moon Jae-in said during Wang Yi's visit to South Korea in November 2020, "I hope that you will also play a constructive role in the development of inter-Korean relations," while Wang Yi remarked, "Countries in the region do not want to be forced to choose sides between China and the United States", taking into account South Korea's concerns about the US-China rivalry spilling over onto the Korean Peninsula. Wang must have thought that, as long as the US-ROK alliance remains a local alliance, there is room for cooperation with South Korea on local issues pertaining to the Korean Peninsula.

4. The US-Japan "New Taiwan Clause" and the US-ROK "Taiwan Clause"- Joint Statements from Two Summit Meetings

(1) Renewal of the US-Japan "Taiwan Clause"

Amid the heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the Japan-US "2+2" (Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting) joint statement issued in Tokyo on March 16, 2021 noted that "the ministers underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait". Needless to say, this statement was made with the "Taiwan clause" in mind, which labels "the maintenance of peace and security in the Taiwan region" a "most important factor" for the security of Japan. The "Taiwan clause," which unlike the "Korea clause" had not been renewed since the 1969 Japan-US Joint Statement, was thereby reaffirmed after more than half a century.

Furthermore, on April 16, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga held a summit meeting with President Joe Biden in Washington, DC, and issued a joint Japan-US statement, the first part of which was based on the Japan-US "2+2" joint statement. Thus, the "Taiwan clause" has been reaffirmed as a common understanding between the leaders of Japan and the United States after more than half a century, which is why it has been termed the Japan-US "new Taiwan clause" (Tetsuo Kotani). In retrospect, Prime Minister Sato had told the National Press Club regarding an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait that "fortunately we do not foresee such a situation". In contrast both Suga and Biden must have recognized that an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait was more likely than on the Korean Peninsula, about which the "Korea clause" had been repeatedly renewed. Depending on China's use of force, the area of operations could even extend into Japanese territory. Such a contingency would fall under Article VI, which presumes the use of the US bases in Japan in keeping with the "Taiwan clause," and at the same time it could fall under Article V.

Since the Japan-US "New Taiwan clause" reaffirms the "Taiwan clause," it implies the use of the US bases in Japan and the support of the Self-Defense Forces in the event of an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Naturally, China has discouraged this. Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, "We will take all necessary measures to resolutely defend our national sovereignty," and the Global Times editorialized that the deeper Japan was embroiled, the bigger it will pay.

(2) Failure of Decoupling?

In contrast, South Korea sought China's cooperation on the issues of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of a peace regime, despite the tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and attempted to prevent the US-China confrontation in other areas from spreading to the Korean Peninsula. Following Moon Jae-in's New Year's press conference in 2021, in which he emphasized that China and the US have "a relationship that must cooperate to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula" and said that he would make efforts to arrange an early visit by President Xi Jinping to South Korea. Forthermore in early April South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong met with Wang Yi in Xiamen, when they "exchanged a wide range of views on issues of various regional and global dimensions". With the US-ROK summit scheduled to take place shortly thereafter, Wang likely warned Chung against the ROK joining the ranks of countries hostile to China. The US-ROK "2+2" joint statement issued in Seoul also avoided mentioning China, and discussion on the US review of its North Korea policy dominated. According to Kang Min-seok, a Blue House spokesman, the US "has a complex relationship with China that is adversarial, cooperative and competitive, and we hope to have close consultations with South Korea in the future". In this context, South Korea probably hoped that the US would decouple the Korean Peninsula from the Taiwan issue and other issues that have a strong "hostile" and "competitive" aspect, and that South Korea would have a voice in the formation of "cooperative" relations.

The willingness of the US and China to form an "ad hoc US-China concert" on the Korean Peninsula was also demonstrated at the US-China Foreign Ministerial-level Meeting in Anchorage. In the presence of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan from the US and Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi from China, the two sides had heated discussions on a wide range of issues, including Taiwan and human rights in Xinjiang. After the meeting, however, Blinken said the two sides also discussed areas where their interests aligned, including "Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and climate change".

In this context, the joint statement from the May 2021 US-ROK summit between Moon and Biden was certainly a standout. This is because here, for the first time, the US and South Korean leaders referred to "the importance of preserving peace and security in the Taiwan Strait". It is safe to assume that Biden, who has emphasized the ideological aspect of "democracy versus autocracy" in his confrontation with China, got Moon to confirm his political position on the Taiwan Strait, and Moon responded in kind. The US-South Korea "Taiwan clause" - unlike the Japan-US "new Taiwan clause" - does not mean that the US bases in South Korea will be deployed in the event of an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait for the time being.

China was aware of this. Just before the US-South Korea summit issued its joint statement, an editorial in the Global Times directed its criticism to the US for trying to incorporate South Korea into its policy toward China, saying that "South Korea would be drink a poison chalice" and that it was "much wiser than Japan keeping diplomatic balance diplomatic balance". Spokesman Zhao Lijian also avoided criticizing South Korea by name, saying, "The countries involved should be cautious in their words and actions on the Taiwan issue, and we encourage them not to play with fire".

5. Conclusion: Room for South Korea's Engagement with China

In retrospect, with the outbreak of the Korean War and the intervention of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army, the Korean issue and the Taiwan issue were linked. In response to the outbreak of war, the Truman administration withdrew its "Declaration of Non-Intervention in Taiwan" and sought to "neutralize" the Taiwan Strait. China was forced to postpone the liberation of Taiwan by having the People's Volunteer Army intervene in the war. However, as seen in the Four-Party Talks after the end of the Cold War, the US and South Korea envisioned the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula separately from the Taiwan issue, and the "peace and stability" of the Taiwan Strait was "outsourced" to the Japan-US alliance. As the ROK considered China's cooperation essential for the establishment of a peace regime, it was only natural that the ROK did not want to be "drawn into" the US-China conflict, especially the Taiwan issue. Despite the US-China confrontation in other areas, there is still room for the ROK to promote cooperation with China on local issues pertaining to the Korean Peninsula. Chung Eui-yong, who met with Wang Yi in Xiamen the month before the US-South Korea summit, told the National Assembly that the joint statement at the US-South Korea summit "strengthened the ROK-US alliance by making a U-turn after the past low-key diplomacy with China". It is possible that South Korea will return to what Chung calls "low-key diplomacy" in order to gain China's cooperation on local issues, such as the establishment of a peaceful regime on the Korean Peninsula, regardless of the tensions in the Taiwan Strait.