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Prospects for Cooperation in Northeast Asia—An Interview With Susan Shirk

Susan Shirk, director emeritus of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) and leading U.S.-China relations expert, reflects on nearly 30 years of the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, which she founded, and the prospects for improved cooperation in the region. The interview has been edited for length.

July 7, 2020 | Interview with Lindsay Morgan

You founded the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD) in 1993, an unofficial track 1.5 forum for discussions about security among officials in the U.S., Japan, Russia, and North and South Korea. How did this come about?

Susan Shirk

At the beginning of the Clinton administration, I was the director of IGCC, and we organized a small workshop on Asia-Pacific security together with the Council on Foreign Relations. We brought together the East Coast foreign policy elite, and some academics from California. Interestingly, the Californians promoted the idea that the U.S. couldn’t rely on a “hub and spokes” model of influence in the region—maintaining its leadership role in the Asia-Pacific on the basis of bilateral alliances. This should be supplemented with regional, multilateral arrangements. At the time, I was interested in the idea of a “concert of powers” for East Asia, the idea being that the United States would work together with the other major powers in Asia, especially China and Japan and Russia to keep the region peaceful. The idea was a way to diversify the U.S. position in the region to make it more resilient to an uncertain future.

The Clinton administration was willing to experiment with our idea of a Northeast Asian multilateral arrangement including the four major powers and the two Koreas, especially Winston Lord who was the new Assistant Secretary for East Asia. Winston helped arranged meetings for me in Asia with foreign ministries to see if they would be interested in a track 2 security dialogue for Northeast Asia. The North Koreans were actually quite enthusiastic. The Chinese were worried that regional multilateral institutions meant that other countries would gang up and point fingers at them. We got U.S. government financial support from the Department of Energy’s Nonproliferation Bureau. And then we got the support of the State Department and from the Clinton administration. That’s how the whole thing started. 

When NEACD began, did you think it would be something that would last for almost 30 years?

The long-term goal was that it would be a kind of testing ground for the idea of a Northeast Asia security arrangement, and that it would evolve from track 2 to track 1. It was an experiment to see if governments would want to turn it into a more permanent arrangement at the official level. 

What was it like the first time you all sat down together? Were there funny moments, or moments when you thought it wasn’t going to work?

The initiative coincided with a growing awareness on the Chinese side that they could increase their influence in the region in a nonthreatening way by participating in these meetings. In the beginning, they were scared of it. They thought they were the big gorilla, and everybody would blame them for everything. But it didn’t work out that way.

Because I’m a China scholar, I was able to work pretty well with the Chinese participants. The Chinese foreign ministry sent a woman about my age who was a mid-level official in the Asia department, and she and I would plan out what we were going to do each day. Maybe we worked well together because we were the only two women, but she had the creativity and the vision to see that this could be good for China. She introduced me to her boss, who is now the foreign minister, and he was very supportive. The Chinese really turned around to become big fans of regional multilateralism.

The other thing that was interesting was the North and South Koreans had a wonderful time together. They got along very well.

Isn’t that interesting.

We had some amazing meetings. We tried to go to places outside the capitols to have a retreat-like atmosphere. One of the most amazing meetings was in ’96 at a retreat that the Russian central committee used to have outside of Moscow. Beautiful place. There was hardly any food in Russia in the 90s, and when we met in a hotel, you could see the truckloads of food going out from the kitchen to some black market.

At that time, the Russians were very gung-ho on democracy. Every now and then they would needle the Chinese about being an old-fashioned authoritarian regime. I remember one dinner at my home in which the North Koreans, the Russians, and the Chinese were all needling one another. The Russians were needling the Chinese about having no democracy, and the Chinese were needling the Russians about how poor they were, and the Russians, who were feeling very liberated, said to the North Koreans, “And what about you? You only have one radio station.”   

The North Koreans dropped out in 1994. What happened?

Relations got very tense with the nuclear crisis of 1993-94 [tensions increased when North Korea refused to allow international inspectors to inspect its nuclear sites]. Pyongyang basically dropped out for a decade. But then they came back. The first meeting with the North Koreans back again was in Moscow in 2002, and I remember being really worried about it. After the first session, during the break, I went up to the head of the North Korean group and asked how it was going. He said, “Oh I think this is really wonderful. People are very frank but friendly.” 

We had a few years with a lot of good North Korean participation, but it’s been increasingly difficult. That’s been disappointing, but NEACD has never been about just North Korea. If they don’t come, we can still make progress.

Why do you think that this kind of model—track 1.5—is important for reducing conflict?

Track 1.5 means that there are more officials in the room than there are private people. So even though the whole process is unofficial, there are a lot of political officials there. The people who participate really get to know one another. They’re able then to follow up informally afterwards. It became a kind of back channel that wasn’t as scripted with talking points, and you could develop a better understanding that could move the official process forward.

We’d always have a lunch for the foreign ministry officials, and I would say: when we have an official Northeast Asia security dialogue, then NEACD can go out of business. And they would say: “Oh no this is so much better because the formal meetings are so constrained.” Even when we have a formal security arrangement, they’d always say they wanted to keep NEACD.

What is the biggest impact of this over the years? What are you most proud of?

I am proud of the fact that it was the template for the six party talks. I think it remains a foundation for a concert-like arrangement among the four major powers in the region, and I believe that eventually we could have a security arrangement for northeast Asia.

But now it’s very hard to sustain the momentum, with U.S.-China relations being as strained as they are. South Korea and Japan have extremely strained relations. The Russians frankly have never really cared that much. Most of their focus is on Europe or in the Middle East.

Due to the uncertainties surrounding travel, the 30th meeting of the NEACD will be held in 2021. Researchers from the six parties will meet virtually for a mini-session in July to discuss regional implications of the pandemic and bilateral relations.

Susan Shirk is research professor and chair of the 21st Century China Center at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego. She served as director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation 1991-1997 and 2006-2010. Shirk first visited China in 1971, and has been teaching, researching and engaging China diplomatically ever since. From 1997-2000, Shirk served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, with responsibility for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia. Shirk's publications include China: Fragile Superpower; The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China; Competitive Comrades: Career Incentives and Student Strategies in China; and her edited bookChanging Media, Changing China. She co-chairs a task force of China experts that issued its second report Smart Competition: Toward an Effective and Sustainable China Policy in February 2019. She also co-chairs the UC San Diego Forum on U.S.-China Relations.