When President George W. Bush traveled to Asia last month for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum he found himself on unfamiliar ground--not just geographically, but diplomatically. Whereas American presidents have previously been star attractions at the annual economic gathering, this year Bush had to share equal billing with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The change signals that, after almost 60 years of U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing is emerging as a new powerbroker there.

Trade numbers help explain the transformation. Japan, the world's second largest economy, now imports more from China than from the United States, and China has become the largest trading partner of South Korea, the world's 12th largest economy. China's geopolitical power is also on the rise. Beijing has emerged as a critical player in resolving the North Korea crisis, for example. And Washington's failure to win support for its initial hard-line stance toward North Korea shows that the region's security no longer revolves around policy made in Washington; today, it revolves around policy increasingly shaped in Asia, by Asians, with U.S. input.

The Bush administration must recognize the economic and security components of this transformation and develop a comprehensive vision that encompasses both. While it is addressing the economic component through APEC and a series of bilateral trade agreements, it has yet to find its footing with respect to the security component, particularly in northeastern Asia.

Ironically, North Korea, the region's bad boy, could be of help. It could serve as the catalyst for the creation of a regional security organization. Such a group--the Northeast Asia Security Forum--would initially consist of the players now involved in resolving the North Korea crisis--the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea--but over time other countries could also join. The forum would deal with security-related issues, including arms control, crisis management, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and confidence-building measures.

The foundation for this new organization may be close at hand. The Bush administration appears to be giving in grudgingly to the demands of China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea with respect to North Korea. While announcing its intention to scrap the 1994 Agreed Framework, Washington has announced that it is willing to provide a written statement--also to be signed by Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, and Seoul--that would guarantee Pyongyang's security in exchange for its giving up its nuclear ambition. In addition to resolving the nuclear issue, such a statement could formally pull together a group that might evolve into the Northeast Asia Security Forum.

Ultimately, Washington may have little choice. After decades of passivity in the face of U.S. dominance, the nations of northeastern Asia are coming into their own. Proud nations with fiercely nationalist histories, they are tired of taking direction from the United States. To be sure, China, Japan, and Korea have historic rivalries that need to be addressed. But we should not take their troubles in the past as a sign that they will not work together in the future.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • James T. Laney is President Emeritus of Emory University and Co-Chairman of an independent task force on "Managing Change on the Korean Peninsula," sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea from 1993 to 1997. Jason T. Shaplen was Policy Adviser at the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) from 1995 to 1999 and is a member of the task force.
  • More By James T. Laney
  • More By Jason T. Shaplen