Intergovernmental forums lacking legislative, executive, or judicial functions show a distressing tendency to devolve into talk fests that produce ineffectual announcements and thick reports that only lead to more announcements, studies and, if they are particularly productive, more intergovernmental forums. Their subjects range far and wide, but the one common feature of such a venue is its staying power. Lacking true governmental functions, it is rapidly mined out of any value that it ever possessed. But once established, it is hard to kill off, so the principals keep showing up, if only for appearance’s sake, like a relationship that has long lost its magic. Thus it is that the world is littered with secretariats bearing acronyms—too frequently sponsored by the letters U and N—that only enter the layperson’s consciousness when a google search turns up an obscure document therefrom or a reference thereto.
That is why I am very skeptical about any suggestions of a Northeast Asia security forum growing out of the Six-Party Talks. For starters, what the hell are they going to even talk about? China’s military buildup? Territorial and quasi-territorial issues? Taiwan-China? North Korea? (Come to think of it, are we going to include North Korea at all?) Some people believe that talk is its own reward. But how can we talk about China’s military without India—assuming that China acquiesces to being subjected to plurilateral scrutiny? How does, for example, bringing Russia and the United States (or even South Korea) into the picture on the Japan-China give-and-take on the East China Seas gas fields help? The Senkaku Islnds? As for Taiwan, the day China is willing to talk about its relations with its “province” in an international forum is the day the sun rises from the west. As for North Korea…well, what about it?
Some people no doubt want to see it as a confidence-building measure. But if there is any danger that it will deteriorate into a talk show where the principals show up only because they can’t quite come around to kicking the relationship and whose main headline value sometimes comes from the skits those principals perform or the funny clothes that they wear for the group photos, then the governments should think twice and more before they set us on such a course.