Keeping Northeast Asia “Abnormal”: Origins of the Liberal International Order in Northeast Asia and the New Cold War


Northeast Asia is at a crossroads. One road leads to continued economic growth, regional integration, and globalization, while the other leads to trade-wars, territorial disputes, and an arms race undergirded by resurgent nationalism. If history and geopolitics are our guide, the latter road will be taken. The region is riven by historical animosities, ideological tensions, and territorial disputes, as well as geopolitics, which seem to condemn it to perpetual conflict. Unlike in Europe, the post-WWII settlement in Northeast Asia failed to address the war-time grievances, engender a sense of community, or construct a multilateral security architecture. The region lacked any democratic or liberal traditions.

Despite the historical and geopolitical forces arrayed against it, and contrary to all expectations, Northeast Asia has, until now, enjoyed unprecedented economic growth and integration. The economic rise of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China in rapid succession has turned the neighborhood into the most economically dynamic region in the world. The region has become tightly integrated through the creation of the world’s most efficient regional supply-chain network and vibrant intra-regional trade all undergirded by a liberal international order. How was this possible?

The seemingly insurmountable odds were overcome by a combination of two factors: pragmatic leaders and the US-led alliance system. The foundation for the “miracle” economies of Northeast Asia and their integration were laid by leaders such as Yoshida Shigeru of Japan, Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Chiang Ching-kuo of Taiwan, and Deng Xiaoping of China, whose pragmatism overcame history and geopolitics. In their single-minded pursuit of economic development, they normalized relations with historic foes, ideological enemies, and strategic nemeses. In doing so, these leaders swept territorial disputes and historical grievances under the carpet, quelling dissent, silencing nationalists and ideologues. For its part, the US-led alliance system provided each US ally in the region, and even China, with security that enabled the leaders to strike out on a path of economic development that they otherwise would not have been able to pursue.  

Now, however, history and geopolitics are back. The region is seeing the rise of leaders such as Abe Shinzo, Xi Jinping, Tsai Ying-wen, and Moon Jae-in, who espouse nationalist rhetoric and embrace inward-looking worldviews while openly invoking geopolitical considerations as the centerpiece of their foreign and national security policies. Each regards the post-WWII regional security order and his or her country’s relations with the United States as “abnormal” and in need of fixing. 

Adding fuel to this increasingly volatile mix of nationalism and geopolitics, as well as the felt-need to “normalize” relations with the United States, is the election of Donald Trump as US president. With his own brand of nationalism, which envisions the United States increasingly taking on the role of a great power trying to maximize its “national interest,” Trump is exacerbating the rising tendency in the region towards nationalist rivalry, “balance of power” politics, and anti-Americanism. As the United States continues to shed its traditional role of guardian of a “rules-based” and “liberal” international order, and the US-led alliance system upon which it is based, national rivalry and great power competition is increasingly becoming the order of the day.

Providing the spark to a resurgent great power competition and a concomitant arms race in the region is North Korea. Until now, North Korea has been the outlier in Northeast Asia. It has refused to join the region-wide march towards economic development and regional integration, clinging to its juche ideology, an ultra-nationalist ideology of racial purity and autarky. As the region shifts its focus from economic development back to geopolitics and history, North Korea finds itself center-stage. As its nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery near completion, the one-time outlier is now leading and shaping regional dynamics. 

China has reacted harshly to South Korea’s decision to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system THAAD to defend itself against the rising North Korean nuclear and missile threat. While refusing to rein in North Korean nuclear weapons, citing fears of the regime’s collapse, China claims that its vital strategic interests are compromised by the deployment of THAAD in South Korea. As the United States, Japan, and South Korea are spearheading economic sanctions against North Korea, China is imposing its own economic sanctions against South Korea. After years of neglect, China has apparently rediscovered the strategic value of North Korea.

As the famous night-time satellite image of the region shows, North Korea is an economic “black hole.” Now, it is fast becoming a geopolitical black hole as well, sucking in the rest of the region into mutual economic sanctions and an arms race. The inability or the unwillingness of the other countries in the region to stop North Korea’s WMD programs will ensure the region’s continued slide into the “Thucydides’ Trap” and a new Cold War.1 In the meantime, the historic window of opportunity for economic development and regional integration of the past 50 years is closing. As we witness the forces of history and geopolitics overwhelm the unlikely and uncharacteristically “liberal” economic order that East Asia had constructed over the past half-century, it is timely to question what made that liberal order possible in the first place and how it is being undermined today.

Post-WWII Disorder

For Korea and China—the two nations that bore the brunt of the Japanese Empire’s brutality and exploitation both before and during WWII—Japan’s surrender was a mixed blessing, at best. For Korea, the end of WWII meant liberation from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule. However, it also signaled the beginning of the Cold War, the most concrete manifestation of which was national division. In Europe, Germany was divided by the allied powers for having started the war. On the contrary, in Asia, Korea was divided even though it was a victim of Japanese imperialism. The northern half of the divided Korea was taken over by the Soviet army, which set up a puppet government under Kim Il-sung. In the southern half, the US army imposed a military government that ruled the country until 1948. Although the two Koreas became independent in quick succession in 1948, the two were immediately plunged into the Korean War, which broke out in June 1950 and lasted for three years, devastating the peninsula. 

National division and the Korean War demonstrated the urgency of fighting the communist threat. Coming to terms with the colonial past and insisting on justice in its relationship with Japan took a back seat. For its part, the United States began to push South Korea to mend its relations with Japan, Korea’s recent colonial overlord, but now an indispensable partner in the war against communism. Anti-communism and anti-Japanese nationalism, the two ideological pillars of the newly founded Republic of Korea, worked at cross-purposes. Waging the Cold War took precedence.

In China, with the end of the WWII, the long-running civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang, which was temporarily withheld by the Japanese invasion, resumed. The fighting stopped only when the defeated Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan. However, national division, which continues to this day, followed. The ensuing Cold War, which was simultaneously a civil war, absorbed all of China and Taiwan’s resources and attention. China, which went from intervention in the Korean War (1950-1953) to the upheavals of the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), the Sino-Soviet split (1960-89), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), was hardly in a position to address postwar issues with Japan. As for Taiwan, it signed a US-brokered normalization treaty with Japan in 1952. Here too, the exigencies of fighting communism took precedence. 

The onset of the Cold War immediately following Japanese surrender forced the United States to radically alter its policy towards Japan under its occupation. Initially, the US policy had been to permanently disarm Japan, so that it would never again become a threat to peace. However, as the Cold War began to intensify, the US policy shifted to quickly “settling” the war through a peace treaty with Japan and remilitarizing it as a bulwark against communism. The result was the Treaty of San Francisco signed in 1951. The hurried and haphazard nature of the process was highlighted by the fact that neither Koreas nor China were even invited to the Treaty through which 48 nations “settled” WWII in the Asia-Pacific. For the United States, stopping the communist takeover of East Asia, not the messy process of settling the legacies of WWII, became the priority. The result was a series of bilateral alliances with South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. 

The US-Japan alliance did two things: one, it assured the Japanese that they need not worry about their own defense as the United States would guarantee it; and two, it assured Japan’s neighbors who suffered from Japanese imperialism that Japan would never rise again militarily. The alliances with South Korea and Taiwan were also designed to play dual roles: to defend US allies, but also to prevent South Korea or Taiwan from waging wars of national reunification against North Korea and China, respectively, thereby “entrapping” the United States in another hot war in Asia. 

As a result, unlike in Europe where the United States was able to build NATO—the textbook case of a multilateral security mechanism—in Northeast Asia, it had to settle for the “hub-and-spokes” system, a series of US-led bilateral security arrangements with very few, if any, ties amongst the US allies. This was, of course, a reflection of the deep-seated historical animosity and mistrust between the US East Asian allies. When South Korea signed the ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty in 1953, only eight years had passed since the end of Japanese colonial rule over Korea (1910-45). South Korea did not want Japan to have any role in its security. Koreans knew well enough of the indispensable role Japan played as the rear-base for the US military during the Korean War. Still, they refused to give Japan a direct role in its security. South Korea and Taiwan, the other US allies in the region, had nothing to do with each other in terms of security, either. In fact, the United States scrupulously tried to keep the Taiwan Strait and the Korean issues separate. 

This was the situation amongst the US allies who belonged to the same US-led ideological camp. The relations between these countries and their ideological foes on the other side of the ideological divide were, of course, worse. History and geopolitics, indeed, seemed to condemn the region to perpetual tension and conflict. Few would have predicted that Northeast Asia would become the engine of the global economy in the next half-century. Nevertheless, out of this historical and ideological morass, a thriving, open, regional economic order began to emerge. 

Overcoming History and Geopolitics

The Northeast Asian economic “miracle” was made possible, first and foremost, by the emergence of pragmatic leaders who set aside history and geopolitics in favor of economic development and trade. They began to reduce defense spending in the interest of economic development. They normalized relations with neighbors, even those who had perpetrated historical wrongs that were never properly addressed or who were on the other side of the Cold War ideological divide.

On June 22, 1950, 3 days before the outbreak of the Korean War, John Foster Dulles, President Truman’s special envoy met Yoshida Shigeru in Tokyo. The purpose of Dulles’ trip was to begin the negotiations for a peace treaty to settle WWII. One of Dulles’ demands was that Japan rearm. This was a major reversal of the US policy towards Japan since the US occupation began in 1945. Yoshida dismissed the idea.

Dulles returned to Japan in January 1951. By this time, the Korean War had broken out, and the war was going badly for the United States. The spectacular success of the Incheon Landing of September 1950 had turned into a military debacle for the United States and UN forces after the Chinese forces intervened on North Korea’s behalf in October 1950. Rearming Japan and making sure that “it will play its full part in resisting the further expansion of communist imperialism” became that much more urgent for the United States.2 However, Yoshida firmly resisted the idea of Japanese rearmament. He reasoned that it would invite the militarists who had gone “underground” to resurface, and impose a severe economic burden.3 Most of all, Article 9 of the so-called “Peace Constitution” of 1947 explicitly forbade Japan from remilitarizing: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Yoshida would repeatedly invoke the Constitution in order to resist US pressure to remilitarize. For him, the priority was economic development. For security, Japan would rely upon the United States. Thus was born the “Yoshida Doctrine” that defined post-WWII Japan until recently and laid the foundation for its postwar economic “miracle.” 

The Japanese economy started to grow rapidly. In 1946, the year after the war ended, Japan’s GDP shrank by 24%. However, in 1947, the economy started to rebound by growing 4.7%. In 1948, it grew even faster, at 7.9%. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, Japan’s growth reached an astonishing 15.9%. By the time Yoshida left office in 1954, economic, political, and national security foundations for Japan’s economic take-off in the 1960s were firmly laid. 

In early 1964, news broke in South Korea that the government had been conducting secret negotiations with Japan for the normalization of relations between the two countries. It had been nearly 20 years since Korea’s independence from Imperial Japan in 1945. Still, the opposition parties and university students rose up in massive protest against what they called a “humiliating” treaty with the former colonial master. On June 3, 1964, Park Chung-hee declared martial law. More than a thousand politicians, journalists, and student leaders were arrested and sentenced to prison terms. The protest movement was the defining moment for a new generation of political leaders, the so-called “6.3 generation.” Among the student leaders who led the protests was Lee Myung-bak, who would later become South Korea’s president. It was against this background that the “Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea” was signed on June 22. To this day, the treaty remains a source of recurrent nationalist ire in South Korea, and Park Chung-hee’s legacy is still haunted by his “pro-Japanese” proclivities, which allegedly led to the “humiliating” normalization treaty with Japan.

However, the normalization of relations between South Korea and Japan laid the foundation for Japanese aid, investment, and transfer of technology to South Korea. It also laid the first foundation for the economic integration of Northeast Asia. In 1965, the volume of trade between South Korea and Japan was USD 220 million. By 1985, it reached $12 billion. In 2011, it passed the $100 billion mark for the first time and has consistently remained within the $70-80 billion range since.4 Today, South Korea is Japan’s 3rd largest trading partner and vice versa. The pragmatism of Park Chung-hee was proven right. 

In 1972, Japan and China signed the “Joint Communique,” which restored formal diplomatic relations. During the negotiations between these two bitter historical, ideological, and strategic rivals, history issues never came to the fore. The Japanese invasion of China during WWII and the atrocities committed by the Japanese military were never brought up by the Chinese. Nor did China demand reparations. During his visit to Japan in October 1978, Deng Xiaoping uttered his famous words on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute: "It does not matter if this question is shelved for some time, say, 10 years. Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all."5 In 1972, the total volume of trade between Japan and China was $1.1 billion. In 2016, it surpassed $280 billion. Today, China is Japan’s largest trading partner and Japan, China’s 3rd largest. In 2015, 5 million Chinese tourists visited Japan while 2.5 million Japanese tourists visited China. The same year, Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) in China came to $9 billion.

In 1992, South Korea and China normalized diplomatic relations. The two countries fought against each other in the Korean War. As far as the South Koreans were concerned, it was the Chinese intervention during the Korean War that prevented the unification of Korea. As for the Chinese, more Chinese soldiers died in the war—including Mao Zedong’s oldest son, Mao Anying—than South Korean, US, and all other belligerents combined. The Korean War, which broke out less than a year after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, was a defining moment for the PRC’s national and ideological identity. Yet, the two countries normalized relations in 1992, agreeing to bury the recent past. No historical grievances were raised by either side. When Deng Xiaoping sent Yang Shangkun to North Korea’s Kim Il-sung to explain the upcoming normalization of relations with South Korea, Kim asked for a one year delay so that he could better prepare. Deng refused, and South Korea and China formally recognized each other on August 24, 1992. In 1992, the total trade volume between South Korea and China was USD 6.4 billion. By 2016, it had increased to $211 billion. In 2015, 6 million Chinese tourists visited South Korea while 4.4 million South Koreans visited China. South Korea’s FDI in China that same year reached $5.4 billion.

In 1987, Taiwan began to allow visits to China, including those by old Kuomintang soldiers who had been separated for decades from their families left on the mainland. In 1990, Taiwan set up the “Straits Exchange Foundation” to manage contact with the mainland. China responded by setting up the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) in 1991. In 1992, Taiwan and China reached the historic “1992 Consensus” in which both sides agreed to a “One China” policy while leaving each side free to interpret the term as it deemed appropriate. The Consensus was a dramatic denouement to decades of hostile relations marked by a bitter civil war, national division, and ideological standoff. It led to explosive growth in cross-strait trade and investment.  In 1992, the volume of trade between China and Taiwan was USD 11.7 billion. By 2016, it was $180 billion, a 14-fold increase. Between 1991 and 2013, Taiwan’s total investment in China came to $134 billion. In fact, 80% of Taiwan’s total FDI goes to China.6 As of 2016, more than 70,000 Taiwanese companies operate in China.7

Each treaty between the region’s historic rivals, ideological foes, and territorial disputants, laid the foundation for a massive rise in trade, FDI, technology transfer and tourism that led to the phenomenal economic development and regional integration that has been the envy of the world. Each is a testament to the enduring pragmatism of the leaders who saw it through.

Abnormal Alliances

Besides pragmatic leadership, the other factor that made Northeast Asia’s economic miracle possible was the US-led “abnormal” alliances of the region. They were “abnormal” not only because they failed to measure up to a truly multilateral security architecture like NATO, but also because of the inordinate burden, financial and otherwise, born by the United States in each case. Indeed, the security of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were so completely dependent on their respective alliances with the United States, that criticisms of “free-riding” became a constant theme. However, it was the near-total reliance on the US for security that enabled her allies to devote scarce resources to economic development rather than arms. Given the history, ideology, and geopolitics of the region, it would have been nearly impossible for the countries to reduce defense expenditure no matter how pragmatic the leaders may have been. Because of the security guarantee provided by the United States, Yoshida Shigeru, Park Chung-hee, Chiang Ching-kuo, and Deng Xiaoping were not only able to forge unlikely ties with oft-antagonized neighbors, but also unilaterally cut their respective country’s defense spending.

Yoshida’s steadfast refusal to rearm, despite US pressure, enabled him to keep Japan’s defense spending in the post-war years to a minimum. He did go along with the US insistence that Japan accept long-term US bases in japan. Indeed, Yoshida did everything to make sure that the US forces stayed in Japan. However, he refused to resume war production, rebuild a military force, or join the United States in a collective regional defense structure.8 In 1952, the year in which Japan regained independence, Japan’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP was 2.1%. It dropped steadily and dipped below 1% in 1962, where it has remained ever since.9 

South Korea’s defense budget was 7.4% of GDP in 1960. Park Chung-hee, a former army general who came to power through a military coup, slashed the military budget. By 1965, the last year of Park’s first 4-year term in office, the defense budget was 3.73% of GDP. Park Chung-hee even sent South Korean troops to Vietnam in order to make sure that the US military commitment to South Korea would not waver. Ever since then, with the exception of brief spikes, such as during the collapse of South Vietnam and the military coup of 1979, South Korea’s defense budget as a percentage of the GDP continued to drop. In 1995, it dipped below 3% where it has remained ever since.10

In 1959, Taiwan’s defense budget topped 10% of GDP.11 In 1978 when Chiang Ching-kuo came to power, the defense budget stood at 7% of GDP. By 1988 when he passed away, it had dropped to 5.1% of GDP.12 This would not have been possible without the presence of US troops. Even after the United States severed formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it has been defended by the “Taiwan Relations Act” and the US Seventh Fleet.

In 1955, China’s defense budget was more than 7.14% of GDP.  In 1978 when Deng Xiaoping launched his “Open and Reform” policy, China’s defense budget stood at 4.6%.13 By 1992, when he retired from the political scene, the figure had dropped to 2.5% of GDP.14 Deng would not have been able to embark upon his “Reform and Opening” policy had it not been for the normalization of relations with the United States, after which the United States sided with China in the Sino-Soviet dispute.

Of course, as the countries of Northeast Asia came to “free-ride” on the United States for security while keeping their defense budgets to a minimum, the US defense outlays continued to grow. In 1950, the year the Korean War broke out, US defense spending as a percentage of GDP was 4.9%. By 1953 when the war ended, it had increased to 13%. It continued to hover around 7-9% during the Vietnam War years from the early 1960s to mid-1970s. It dipped below 5% in the late 1970s, but went back up over the 6% mark during the Reagan years. After the Cold War was over, it dropped below 4% and even 3% in the late 1990s, despite slipping back up to 4.7% in 2010. In 2015, it stood at 3.3%.  Regardless of the actual percentage rate, US defense budget consistently remained bigger than the next top 9 countries in the world combined.15 The United States began to demand that its allies do more for their own security. “Burden sharing” became an increasingly important and thorny issue between the United States and its allies.

“Abnormal States”

The “abnormality” went deeper than merely the structure of the alliance architecture or the unequal financial burdens it placed on the United States. The abnormal alliances created what its critics call “abnormal states.”

According to international relations theories, the default mode of international relations is anarchy.16 When conflicts inevitably arise between sovereign states, the use of force is an essential, as well as legitimate, means by which to settle them. A “normal state” is one that has the means to defend its sovereignty and interests in the international arena. An “abnormal state” is one that does not. According to this standard definition of a normal state, most states of Northeast Asia are abnormal. 

Japan is the quintessential “abnormal” state. Article 9 of its “Peace Constitution” states that Japan “abrogate[s] the use of force in the settlement of disputes.” The UN Charter recognizes the right of all sovereign states to engage in “collective self-defense.” Japan, until recently, had foresworn even this right, rendering itself doubly abnormal. Today, Japan, the third largest economy in the world, spends less than 1% of its GDP on defense. A country with a proud martial tradition maintains no formal military, only a “Self-Defense Force,” severely constrained in its operations by the country’s constitution.  

The right-nationalists have been chaffing under this arrangement for a long time calling Japan “abnormal.” Many, including Japan’s current government led by Abe, consider this an undesirable and unsustainable state of affairs. They advocate reclaiming the right to collective self-defense and revising or, at least, reinterpreting the Constitution to allow Japan to bear arms again, to make her “normal” again. They call for Japan to assume greater responsibility for its own defense and the security of the region, and to change the articles of the Constitution that prevent it from playing such a role. 

In time of war the operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military is transferred to the commander of the Combined Forces Command, in effect immediately involving the US forces in the event of another attack by North Korea. In South Korea, some argue that as long as the wartime operational control of the Korean forces is retained by the commander of the US Forces in Korea, South Korea cannot be a “normal” country. In fact, this “abnormal” state of affairs has been the cause of fierce domestic political debate in South Korea. According to the left-nationalists, no self-respecting sovereign country would allow the commander of foreign forces to have control over its forces. They not only regard this as humiliating, but also consider this to be clear evidence of “US imperialism.” They argue that once OPCON is transferred back to South Korea and the US forces leave, the two Koreas will be free to determine their own fate without foreign interference and thus achieve rapprochement and peaceful co-existence, ultimately leading to reunification. Indeed, the alliance itself is a sign of abnormality for the extreme left in South Korea. That is why the left in South Korea continues to call for the “return” of wartime OPCON of the South Korean forces.

The parallel between the South Korean and the Japanese domestic debate over “normalcy” is striking. In both countries, it is assumed that a “normal” nation is one that not only has a powerful military that is capable of defending the nation, but also has full control over it. In both countries, it is ultimately the United States that is seen as the culprit that keeps the country “abnormal.” The right in Japan thinks that it is the “Peace Constitution” and unequal military treaty imposed on Japan by the United States that have kept Japan abnormal. In South Korea, it is the US meddling in Korean affairs that has kept the peninsula divided and the two Koreas at each other’s throat. The only difference is that while in Japan, it is the right that is making such arguments, in South Korea, it is the left.

In Taiwan, the movement towards Taiwan independence began to take hold in the early 1990s. Lee Teng-hui, the first native Taiwanese to be elected president of Taiwan, started advocating a political identity and a state independent of China while reneging on the “One China Policy.” In 2000, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected president campaigning on a Taiwan-independence platform and rejecting the 1992 Consensus. In 2007, the DPP passed a resolution that called for a new constitution that would make Taiwan a “normal country” by asserting a separate identity and independence from China and abandoning the name “Republic of China” altogether. Since the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan in 2016, she has yet to publicly endorse the 1992 Consensus.

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping enunciated the principle of “setting aside disputes and pursuing joint development.” First propounded in the context of the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, it became the guiding principle for China’s “peaceful rise.” Between the late 1970s and the early 2000s, China settled almost all territorial disputes with its neighbors, except the Spratleys/Nansha and Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes.17 China joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1984, the Asia Development Bank (ADB) in 1986, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1991, the G20 in 1999, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. 

However, starting in 2009, China began to adopt a different narrative. In 2009, Liu Yunshan, a member of the standing committee of the CCP said, “the establishment of new China […] put an end to the situation in which old China was split up, the nation was subject to humiliation, and the people experienced untold sufferings.”18 The narrative of victimhood as encapsulated by the term “a century of humiliation” has become the framework through which China views its recent history and its place in the world. The way to overcome this humiliation is by creating a powerful state armed with a powerful military. In a 2012 speech, Xi Jinping said, “Realizing the dream of the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation, is the greatest dream of the Chinese people since the advent of the modern age. It can be said that this dream is the dream of a strong state and in terms of the military, it is the dream of a strong military. If we wish to realize the dream of the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation, we must sustain a balance between rich nation and strong military, endeavor to build strong national defense and powerful military.”19

Many in the United States have also been criticizing the “abnormally” large defense outlays and overseas commitments and have been calling for a return to “normalcy.” Indeed, the United States has a long tradition of invoking “normalcy” in its international relations. The first US leader to advocate the return to “normalcy” in US foreign policy was Warren Harding. In a campaign speech that he gave in May 14, 1920, Senator Harding said, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”20 It was Harding who frustrated Woodrow Wilson’s effort to have the United States join the League of Nations. To Harding and his supporters, Wilson’s “internationalism” was “abnormal.” 

As the Cold War was coming to an end, Jeane Kirkpatrick said, “The United States preformed heroically in a time when heroism was required; altruistically during the long years when freedom was endangered. The time when America should bear such unusual burdens is past. With the return of ‘normal’ times we can again become a normal nation.”21 In 2007, Patrick Buchanan wrote, “Had Bush II heeded her (Jeane Kirkpatrick) wise counsel, America would not be in the hellish mess it is in today.”22 Trump’s “America First” policy is the latest incarnation of the recurrent “normal state” narrative in the United States.

The Only “Normal” Country

North Korea is providing the spark to ignite the volatile talk of returning to “normalcy” into a full-fledged arms race. Until now, North Korea was the one exception to the great success story of Northeast Asia. However, from the perspective of “normal state” theory, North Korea has been the only truly “normal” state in Northeast Asia. All through the 1960s to the 90s when other countries of the region were slashing their defense budgets, North Korea continued to spend 30% of its GDP on defense on average.23 Between 2002 and 2012, North Korea spent a quarter of its GDP on average on defense, winning the distinction as the country that spent the most on its military relative to GDP.24

The economic consequences of such a single-minded focus on defense have been dire. In 1965, North Korea’s per capita GNP was USD $248, more than two times that of South Korea, which was $105. It was only in 1976 that the per capita GNP of South Korea which had reached $797, finally overtook North Korea’s $775.25 However, in the 1980s, South Korea completely overtook the North in economic terms. In 1990, North Korea’s total volume of trade was $4.2 billion, while South Korea’s was $135 billion. In 2015, North Korea’s total volume of trade was $6.2 billion, 0.65% of South Korea’s, which stood at nearly $1 trillion.26

While the rest of the region was single-mindedly focused on economic development, at the expense of defense, for which it relied heavily on the United States, North Korea kept a single-minded focus on propping up its defense capability at the expense of the economy. Despite two decades of efforts by the international community to stop it, North Korea continues its development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in the name of self-reliant national defense. Now, North Korea’s investment is beginning to pay off. Its nuclear arsenal is providing it with leverage that it has long sought.

North Korea’s growing nuclear capability has prompted South Korea to start building a hitherto non-existent anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. One of the first components of this fledgling ABM system is THAAD, which South Korea has decided to allow the US forces stationed in South Korea to deploy. However, the decision has elicited a vehement response from China, which claims that THAAD undermines its strategic interests. In retaliation against South Korea’s decision to allow the deployment of THAAD, China began sanctioning South Korean products and companies doing business in and with China. Since the THAAD decision in March 2017, sales of Hyundai Motors in China dropped by 43% compared to the same period the year before. South Korean TV dramas, movies, and singers, who used to dominate China’s popular culture scene, have all but disappeared. The South Korean cosmetics company, Amore-Pacific, which used to dominate China’s cosmetics market, saw its profits for the second quarter of 2017 drop by 58%. The number of Chinese tourists visiting South Korea dropped by 46.5% in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year. 

Despite the steep drop in Chinese trade, South Koreans are talking of drastic increases in armaments to counter the growing North Korean threat. One of the major opposition parties has recently adopted, as its official party platform, the re-introduction of US tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn in 1992. The current government is openly talking about the possibility of building nuclear submarines. The United States and South Korea have recently agreed to allow South Korea to develop missiles with ranges up to 800km. They agreed to drop any limits on missile payloads. South Korea’s defense budget for 2018 will see the biggest rise in a decade. 

For its part, the Japanese Defense Ministry is seeking a record high defense budget, a 2.5 % increase from fiscal 2017.27 It plans to deploy new weapons systems such as THAAD, AEGIS Ashore, and SM-3s. There is talk of acquiring a first-strike capability against North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.28 Of course, there are also louder calls for scrapping Article 9 of the Constitution. 

Taiwan’s military spending is set to rise by 50% in 2018 compared to 2017.29 Taiwan is set to purchase USD 1.42 billion worth of arms from the United States, including early warning radar, high speed anti-radiation missiles, and torpedoes. This is in addition to the $1.83 billion of arms purchases in 2105, which included two navy frigates, anti-tank missiles, and amphibious attack vehicles.30

Further pushing Northeast Asia towards “normalcy” is the “America First” policy of the Trump administration. The specter of weakening US defense commitment to its allies in the region, be it for economic or ideological reasons, gives added impetus for her allies to try to “do more” for their own defense. 

“Abnormal” countries of Northeast Asia are rapidly becoming “normal” again. Increased defense spending and procurement of more sophisticated weaponry for defensive or offensive purposes are eliciting alarm from neighbors. In a region already riven with historical and ideological tensions and mutual suspicion, increasing armament for whatever reasons, creates its own vicious cycle of an ever-increasing arms race. 

Towards a New Abnormal

In recent years, it has become fashionable for the nations of Northeast Asia to advocate becoming “normal.” The assumption is that “normal” is good and that “abnormal” states are bad. However, what has made the remarkable economic success of the countries of this region possible was precisely the “abnormal” nature of the states that they had built and maintained since the end of WWII and the abnormal alliance structure that had undergirded their security.  

The abnormality that has been so beneficial to the economic development of the region has created its own reaction, however. Those who have been chafing under US domination of the region economically, politically, and ideologically, have developed the narrative of the “normal state” in order to undermine the system that they think has been detrimental to national identity and pride. The “normal state” discourse is thus reviving old narratives of nationalism, balance of power politics, and geopolitics, which pragmatic leaders had tried to contain in the interest of economic development and regional integration. The economic and security structures that have ensured the rise of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China are being undermined by a new generation of leaders who have benefited the most from them. In their mistaken effort to locate the source of national pride in a “normal state,” they are destroying the very foundations of their prosperity.

To be sure, the post-WWII “abnormal” states and the security architecture are no longer sustainable in their old forms. The nations of Northeast Asia have become far too prosperous to justify the continued low level of defense spending and reliance on the United States, which has been laboring under abnormal burdens. However, the solution is not a return to “normalcy” as advocated by so many. Instead, the nations of the region should aspire to find a “new abnormal” 31 that would once again enable the region to overcome history and geopolitics while economically binding the region together ever tighter. This would mean greater “burden sharing” in security, greater cooperation among US allies who have hitherto been reluctant to work with one another for historic reasons. Nevertheless, the goal should be to preserve the liberal international order that the region has been able to create.

Finally, the first step towards a new abnormal is the denuclearization of North Korea. Indeed, the key to a new abnormal in the region is opening and reforming North Korea. If North Korea, the one outlier in the region of economic over-achievers, is brought into the fold, not only would it become the new epicenter of economic growth, but it could completely reverse the dynamic that is currently hurtling the region towards trade-wars, an arms-race, and a new Cold War. As can be most clearly seen in the case of North Korea, “normal state” is an overrated concept in international relations and detrimental to the peace and prosperity of the region. As such, it should be discarded.

1. Graham Allison, "The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?" The Atlantic, September 24, 2015,

2. Richard B. Finn, Winners in Peace: MacArthur, Yoshida and Postwar Japan (Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), 272.

3. Finn, 275.

4. KITA (Korea International Trade Association), national import and export statistics,

5. “Vice Premier Teng at Tokyo Press Conference: New Uprising in Friendly Relations Between China and Japan,” Peking Review 44(1978), 16,

6.  Joshua Meltzer, "Taiwan’s Economic Opportunities and Challenges and the Importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership," East Asia Policy Paper 2 (January 2014),

7. Cary Huang, “Does Taiwan still matter to mainland China?” South China Morning Post, January 16, 2016,

8. Takemae Eiji, tr. Robert Ricketts and Sebastian Swann, The Allied Occupation of Japan (New York: Continuum, 2003), 490. ]

9. SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), SIPRI Military Expenditure Database,

10. SIPRI, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database,

11. Eric S. Lin, Yi-Hua Wu & Ta-Sheng Chou, Country Survey: Defense Policy and Military Spending in Taiwan, 1952–2009, Defence and Peace Economics 23, no. 4, (August, 2012): 343-364; Ibid, Figure 1: Defense spending as a proportion of government spending and GDP in Taiwan, 1952–2009, 349.

12. SIPRI, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database,

13. 新中国历年军费支出分析, The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, September 29, 2009,

14. SIPRI, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.

15. SIPRI, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.

16. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001)

17. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, "Set aside dispute and pursue joint development,"

18. 刘云山, “激发爱国热情 振奋民族精神 凝聚人民力量”, 人民日, April 14, 2009, quoted in Alison A. Kaufman, “The ‘Century of Humiliation’ and China’s National Narratives,” March 10, 2011, 3.

19. 「中国梦 是强国梦也是强军梦」, 习近平, 2012年12月8日和10日, 在广州战区考察.

20. Warren G. Harding, Return to Normalcy, May 14, 1920,

21. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “A Normal Country in a Normal Time,” in Owen Harries, ed., America’s Purpose: New Visions of U.S. Foreign Policy, (Oakland, CA: Institute for Contemporary Studies, May 1991): 163.

22. Patrick J. Buchanan, “The Good Neocon,” The American Conservative, May 7, 2007,

23. Ministry of National Defense, Defense White Paper (various years),

24. “N. Korea spends quarter of GDP on military from 2002-2012: US data,” The Korea Times, January 4, 2016,

25. Eui-Gak Hwang, “North and South Korean Economies Compared,” Pacific Focus 9 (1994): 175, 177.

26. KOSIS (Korean Statistical Information Service), by nations’ exports and imports,

27. “Record 5.2 tril. yen defense budget sought amid N. Korea concerns,” The Mainichi, August 23, 2017,

28. Franz-Stefan Gady, “US, Japan Conduct Military Exercise in Hokkaido,” The Diplomat, August 15, 2017,

29. Adela Lin and Ting Shi, “Taiwan Plans Military Spending Surge to Counter Rising China,” Bloomberg, March 16, 2017,

30. David Brunnstrom and Arshad Mohammed, “The U.S. Will Sell $1.42 Billion Worth of Arms to Taiwan, Courting China’s Wrath,” Time, June 30, 2017,

31. I am indebted to Hugh White for suggesting this term.

Now Reading Keeping Northeast Asia “Abnormal”: Origins of the Liberal International Order in Northeast Asia and the New Cold War