This article is in three parts: 1) an overview with comparisons; 2) an introduction to analysis of the Southern Tier centered on ASEAN, Australia, and India; and 3) an introduction to analysis directed at the Northern Tier centered on Russia, China, and North Korea. In a rapidly changing Asian landscape, focus on the core of East Asia has the effect of leaving on the margins developments to the south or the north. The centerpiece of the former is ASEAN. The latter is driven by Sino-Russian relations, but a second factor is North Korea’s independent strategy and the efforts by South Korea to play a central role in this tier by virtue of its stewardship on the peninsula. The comparative section explores aspects of ASEAN centrality and jockeying over the Korean Peninsula, including South Korea’s attempts to establish its centrality.
Comparison of Centrality in Asia’s Southern and Northern Tiers
Comparisons showcase three themes: managing great power rivalries, promoting regionalism, and achieving a more unified entity at the core of the region. ASEAN faces five great powers—China, the United States, Japan, India, and Russia—, with the first two carrying the most weight. South Korea faces four great powers—China, the United States, Russia, and Japan—again with China and the United States first in significance. ASEAN has been striving to maintain its centrality, although that is now increasingly at risk. South Korea has been searching for a way to establish its own centrality with uncertain results given signs of alternative regionalism excluding it. Questions abound about ASEAN’s coherence, whether its limited cohesion is now in jeopardy. Likewise, concerns about prospects for Korean reunification lead some to wonder if that is a sideshow in a region becoming more polarized with a hardening divide between North and South Korea. Each of these themes is explored separately for the two regions after elaboration on our comparisons across the breadth of Asia.
Tensions in the Southern Tier focus on the South China Sea—the artery connecting the parts of the region and testing the national interests of great powers as well as the commitment of both to regionalism. Tensions in the Northern Tier focus on the nuclear program of North Korea as well as on the fate of that isolated country—also testing great power interests and varied approaches to regionalism. The balance of great and middle powers is clearer in the Southern Tier in regard to the primary source of tension. China appears increasingly isolated due to its uncompromising and assertive stance but wields so much clout and has such an immediate presence especially in Asian mainland member states that member states find themselves unable effectively and jointly to counter Beijing’s regional policies. If ASEAN is not rendered helpless, it at least is weakened substantially by its inability to agree on how to manage these rivalries. In the Northern Tier, the close Sino-Russian strategic partnership and the strong alliance ties between the United States and both Japan and South Korea result in a great power balance less amenable to change. Seoul’s repeated attempts to bring the great powers together around its initiatives contrast to ASEAN’s near inaction, but hopes are repeatedly dashed because the great power divisions are more pronounced, and its middle power diplomacy gives South Korea much less leverage than it acknowledges. Ties to the north are far more fraught with the danger of repeated crises and polarization than ASEAN’s to the south.
The South China Sea disputes are exposing the serious limits to ASEAN centrality and unity, and North Korea’s rejection of the Six-Party Talks centered on denuclearization without a united front forming to pressure it to recommit to the Joint Statement reveals South Korea’s lack of centrality. At the root of both phenomena was the combination of revised narratives by Beijing in 2009 implying reduced support for ASEAN centrality, rejection of the plea for six minus one in order to pressure Pyongyang, and Beijing’s interpretation of the Obama foreign policy (including the rebalance to Asia) as an excuse for polarization. Great power alignments soon were taking shape that demonstrated the limitations, despite lingering hopes, of ASEAN’s established leadership and shared opposition to North Korean nuclear weapons as a basis for great power cooperation. Polarization of great power policies has intensified in the 2010s in Asia’s northern and southern tiers.
Although great powers are more divided, ASEAN boosters cling to hopes that it will steer regionalism to ameliorate tensions and South Korean leaders press for NAPCI, the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative, as a framework for regionalism, gradually building trust among the great powers while beckoning to North Korea. High hopes for regionalism in the 2000s have subsided, but it retains its allure as the alternative to more open competition or even conflict. In the Southern Tier, ASEAN remains so deeply entrenched that regionalism mainly takes the form of seeking to strengthen it as a strategic force in the face of China’s strong opposition, while, at the same time, the United States, Japan, and Australia are active in working around ASEAN—both through a coalition of the willing on security and through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new economic regime that while not including all ASEAN members nevertheless is seen to have significant regional ramifications, not least in entrenching American interest in the region. China has its own economic framework through the Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road. Competing ideas for regionalism are emerging. In the Northern Tier, the linkage between China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, shepherded by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, is aimed at one framework for regionalism, while the alliance triangularity sought by the United States strives for another. Neither Pyongyang nor Seoul is comfortable with these plans. The former insists on more autonomy as a nuclear state without the economic reforms required for integration into the Chinese or Russian plans, and the latter so fears regionalization of the ROK-US alliance that it counters appeals for triangularity with NAPCI as an alternative form of regionalism embracing both sides of the divide. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia continues to pursue its agenda of an Indo-Pacific Treaty that would encompass all major regional players and commit them to non-aggression.
The ideas of ASEAN cohesion and Korean reunification have dominated thinking about the Southern and Northern tiers respectively. They have become sacrosanct with staunch defenders even when prospects for them have grown more daunting. As divisions within ASEAN harden, making agreement on security matters harder, and as prospects for moving toward reunification keep getting dimmer, supporters of these ideals remain assertive, perhaps with disguised desperation. China may not have much interest in regionalism that it does not lead, but it keeps others’ hopes alive—agreeing to talks with ASEAN states over a code of conduct for the South China Sea, however drawn out they have become, and contrasting its support for NAPCI with US hesitation, even if few think that China is serious about NAPCI. For now, distractions over ASEAN’s presumed cohesion and Korea’s presumed bonanza through reunification serve to obscure the fundamental currents in each region.
Asia’s Southern Tier
Through the 1980s, the Cold War and India’s “strategic autonomy” left a smaller ASEAN with little impact beyond its own members. At this point, ASEAN’s diplomatic attention and resources were primarily focused on opposition to the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. In the 1990s, ASEAN not only expanded, it greatly increased its centrality and its image as a viable bridge for relations among great powers, especially Sino-US relations with the formation of the ASEAN Regional Forum, and Sino-Japanese relations when both agreed to form ASEAN + 3. The 2000s saw the peak of global attention to ASEAN. The decade began with the ambitious declaration of an Indonesia-inspired blueprint for the formation of an ASEAN community premised on deeper integration over a wide slate of issues. Underlying these efforts lay a major recalculation premised on shifting geostrategic trends, where the emergence of China and India as regional powers of consequence both economically and politically threatened ASEAN’s continued relevance and centrality in regional affairs. This led ASEAN to the conclusion that the acceleration and deepening of regional integration was the only viable response. Great powers were evaluated for how well they could persuade ASEAN of their own preferences or, in the case of the United States, whether neglect of ASEAN was a strategic mistake. Clearly, this was a unique period: China was still hesitant to break from Deng Xiaoping’s legacy to keep a low profile; Japan still prioritized close cooperation with China despite increased wariness; and the South China Sea did not loom as a matter of urgency, giving the United States no compelling reason to press for a collective response to China’s growing clout. India’s “Look East” policy was slow to gather momentum, and Australia’s relationship with Indonesia remained clouded by differences over the 1999 East Timor crisis. ASEAN had become so much a part of the conversation about developments affecting more than Southeast Asia that the meaning of East Asia was broadening to include its territory, but there was still little thought of what in the following decade would become the Southern Tier.
What accounted for the qualitative change in international relations on the southern edges of Asia and including Australia? At least three factors can be identified. First, the driving force is China’s assertive behavior on many fronts, driving countries together. India has been drawn into the fray by China’s behavior while at the same time boosting economic ties to China, and Australia has found countries in Southeast Asia more eager for its strategic involvement. Within Southeast Asia, concern about Chinese intentions grew more acute, particularly among littoral states. A second factor is US leadership, entering the ASEAN-centered East Asian Summit and rallying other countries in response to Chinese behavior. The third factor is the way the South China Sea galvanizes countries to respond; it is of vital strategic interest, and the emotional impact of threats to territorial sovereignty has a rallying effect. In the background are forces of commerce and political and social interdependence that are undercutting national autonomy and leading to more wide-ranging forms of regionalism. This has been expressed in the proliferation of regional mechanisms and the creation of a proverbial “alphabet soup” of regional organizations ranging from the EAS (East Asia Summit), the ADMM and ADMM-Plus (ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus”) to the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) and other ASEAN-plus meetings. If Indonesia and Malaysia have their way, the Indo-Pacific Treaty, brainchild of Indonesia’s former foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, which is still “in play” in the regional diplomatic discourse, and the Global Movement of Moderates, conjured up by Malaysian prime minister Najib Tun Razak, will doubtless be added to the register. While some are trying to keep the focus on narrower forms, others are telling us that we must recognize the Asia-Pacific and also the Indo-Pacific region. In The Asan Forum, this broader view of the region was championed by Rory Medcalf.
In the search for multilateralism in Asia, ASEAN has stood in the forefront. In the spring of 2014, The Asan Forum explored changes in the search for multilateralism in which ASEAN has played such a prominent role, problems in how this concept has contributed to confusion in the study of international relations, and the limits of multilateralism that fall short of regionalism. Evelyn Goh warned that channels of action become ends in themselves rather than means to achieve a sustainable order with rules of the road. She warned that ASEAN’s role is limited; the great powers must strike their own strategic bargains. Increasingly, the focus has turned to the South China Sea, as the centerpiece in the challenge of reaching a durable bargain. In subsequent issues, the journal carried articles by Malcolm Cook raising doubts about such a bargain as the divide across Southeast Asia keeps growing, and by Amitav Acharya arguing that the problems are not so serious and that ASEAN would survive great power rivalry since it continues to pursue a compelling agenda. Notice of the emergence of the Southern Tier is not a repudiation that ASEAN forms its core and still has a significant role as the nexus of dialogue, but it does suggest that great power rivalries are not alone in broadening involvement and limiting ASEAN’s role; wider economic linkages and shared security needs reach from India to Australia.
The South China Sea disputes have intensified in the past two years, both weakening ASEAN and beckoning concerned states to more actively lobby ASEAN and its members to change course. The Special Forum of July-August 2015 assessed their impact on ASEAN’s centrality with assessments ranging from Ian Storey’s failing grade for ASEAN on this matter to Satu Limaye’s conclusion that such grading is all in the eye of the beholder, but Joseph Liow warns that due to misperceptions and blind spots one cannot easily trust what beholders think they are seeing. Diverse judgments are apparent in Kuroyanagi Yoneji’s question about whether ASEAN centrality is myth or reality, or whether, as Evelyn Goh’s earlier piece also implicitly asks, it is a means to an end or an end in itself. Scott Bentley gets to the crux of the matter by asking if the image of a special relationship with China, which has interfered with priority for an ASEAN consensus, is now fraying in Malaysia. Such images are being tested as more outside great and middle powers make the case that ASEAN must be bolstered and China should not be allowed to cultivate such an image at ASEAN’s expense. Underlying this is a concern—creeping into Southeast Asian discussions on the issue—that unless ASEAN is able to demonstrate unity in the face of Chinese assertiveness, the South China Sea will fast become an arena for great power rivalry. This is precisely the kind of situation that worried the “founding fathers” of ASEAN, to the extent that the organization has nurtured aspirations to create a zone of “peace, freedom and neutrality” since promulgating a declaration by the same name in 1971.
Three countries in Southeast Asia have drawn the bulk of attention as questions fly about the future of ASEAN and the impact of the South China Sea disputes. Malaysia found new reason to doubt China after the disappearance of flight MH370, which is discussed by Kuik Cheng-Chwee. Indonesia has hesitated before the challenge of exerting regional leadership, as Joseph Liow analyzed in a prior article. Finally, Vietnam stands as a country on the frontline of the South China Sea tensions, while, unlike the Philippines, it keeps exploring with China ways to overcome differences. Vietnam’s struggles have been documented by Mark Manyin and Truong Vu in The Asan Forum. Vietnam as well as Indonesia has been a key object in Southeast Asia for the United States, Japan, Australia, and India as they seek a greater regional role.
Australia’s realization of a big values gap with China and its goals in “pivoting” to Asia through Southeast Asia have been the subject of articles that shed light on the emergence of the Southern Tier. Its relations with the United States and India also merit consideration in the context of security cooperation in Southeast Asia. The articles of John Fitzgerald and Andrew O’Neil cover the values and pivot themes, as Australia along with India is making the case for use of the term, Indo-Pacific region.
India is the anchor of the Southern Tier, giving weight to forces beyond ASEAN now not just claiming to “Look East,” but also to “Act East.” Articles in The Asan Forum by John Garver, Daniel Twining, and Rahul Mishra have examined India’s new ties to Japan, its search for a leadership role in East Asia, and the transition under Modi to a more active eastward tilt. Commentaries after a January 2015 Modi-Obama summit gave varied perspectives on how this relationship would affect India’s role in Southeast Asia. Again Twining and Mishra contributed to the journal, and so did Takenaka Chiharu from a Japanese perspective. After all, India’s involvement in strategic maneuvering in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean comes with active US encouragement.
Unlike the Northern Tier, old alliances are not being strengthened or revived. A new regional architecture is taking shape marked by China’s assertiveness, a wide range of actors are responding with India and Australia the most important neighbors of ASEAN involved, and ASEAN is being tested as never before. We are only at the first stage of conceptualizing what we mean by the Southern Tier, to what extent it could materialize alongside ASEAN as a focus of analysis in Asia, and what framework is most useful for assessing relations within this area. We have tried to make a start by concentrating on such themes as multilateralism, centrality, and great power rivalry in coverage of the security side of developments along Asia’s southern fringe.
Asia’s Northern Tier
The four countries on the northern fringe of Asia went their separate ways after the end of the Cold War, but strengthening Sino-Russian relations and the looming endgame in North Korea’s strategy of threats and isolation are signs that we now need to think about this area through its connections. Mongolia still is rather aloof in its foreign policy, but geography leaves it no escape from dynamics particular to the Northern Tier. South Korea has struggled to prevent a revival of the Northern Tier, but its leverage is limited. Looking back to what existed in an earlier incarnation of the Northern Tier and focusing on Chinese and Russian views of North Korea, we are able to explore the implications of the increasingly close Sino-Russian relations.
There was a Northern Tier until the end of the Cold War. For the decade after 1949, it was unambiguously in existence as the eastern flank of the socialist commonwealth, comprising the Soviet Union, China, Mongolia, and North Korea. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 solidified both the Soviet bloc and the American-led triangle of Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Although the Sino-Soviet split wrecked the cohesion of the Soviet bloc (from the late 1960s until the late 1980s Beijing and Moscow were strategic rivals), bloc logic continued to apply on certain issues, North Korea being the most important of them. Pyongyang did not see eye to eye with either of its allies, and China and the Soviet Union were at times in a bitter competition for North Korea’s loyalties, but, on the whole, they continued to offer support and enjoyed considerable influence with their difficult client well into the late 1980s. In this sense, the Northern Tier survived until the early 1990s, leaving a lasting legacy.
Northeast Asia was an unlikely focus of great power maneuvering following the end of the Cold War. There were plans for turning it into the centerpiece of great power coordination for a new regional and world order: multilateral energy cooperation in the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia, cross-border regionalism around the Sea of Japan, and, above all, collective security assurances to steer North Korea into a regional framework conducive to reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula but also to great power trust. That Pyongyang would balk at such plans—demilitarization, loss of its ability to play one great power against another, reforms that threatened to shake the legitimacy of a hermit dictatorship afraid to unseal its chamber of horrors, and a Tumen River development project opening the country to transit movement—should have come as no surprise. More unexpectedly, Chinese strategies to use North Korea to rekindle splits between great powers even as it made some effort to facilitate trust as well as cooperation defied hopes for putting the Cold War in the past. While no country’s blueprint for the future of North Korea was realistic, its revival as the nexus of contestation was the predictable outcome of great power dynamics from the 1990s.
The US posture toward North Korea has repeatedly been perceived in Beijing and Moscow as overriding their concerns with Pyongyang. This was the case for Beijing in 2003 when it feared that the “axis of evil” speech and the invasion of Iraq would be a prelude to a push for regime change in North Korea, and it was true again in the fall of 2005 when unilateral US sanctions against Banco Delta Asia revived the charge that regime change was being aggressively pushed.1 Only when North Korea defied both China and Russia in late 2006 by brazenly testing both a long-range missile and a nuclear weapon did Beijing pressure Pyongyang, resulting in the February 2007 Joint Agreement. Yet, after similar tests in the spring of 2009, Beijing’s response was different, encapsulated in its three euphemisms: “maintaining domestic stability in North Korea, peace on the Korean Peninsula, and social stability in China.” These were invoked in 2009-2010 for “enabling North Korea’s misdeeds,” before China in late 2010 may have restrained the North from military retaliation against planned South Korean military exercises, and they are used to justify putting blame on US aggressiveness more than North Korea’s belligerence and overlooking China’s own passivity, acquiescence, or enablement of the North Korean regime’s conduct.2
The Chinese narrative on North Korea in the 2010s
Discordant voices were heard in 2004 when a Chinese journal was closed for its coverage of North Korea, in 2006 and 2013 after nuclear tests by North Korea, and occasionally at other times as well. Yet, the prevailing tone was in sharp contrast to what these voices had to say. In 2002-2003, when Pyongyang broke away from the IAEA regime set by the Joint Agreement, again in 2008-2009, when it abandoned the Agreed Framework set by the Six-Party Talks, in 2010, when North Korea twice attacked South Korea, and finally in 2014-2015, when many thought China’s dissatisfaction with Kim Jong-un meant a sharp shift in policy, Chinese publications overwhelmingly reaffirmed a narrative of little comfort to those arguing for five versus one or for reunification led by South Korea.
The June 2015 Special Forum article by Cheng Xiaohe characterizes China’s stance toward the Korean Peninsula as a “drawn-out competition,” in which China is taking an increasing interest to the point it may tip the balance on the peninsula, which has been tilting toward South Korea. Treating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a means to reverse the trend and South Korea’s prospect of achieving unification on its own terms as very unlikely, Cheng calls for resuming the Six-Party Talks as a way to change North Korea’s calculus. His perspective draws equivalence between the North and the South, treats the standoff as a struggle over the security interests of the great powers, and assumes that balance between North and South and among the great powers is the pathway to unification. To persist in South Korea’s current approach to unification as a “bonanza” is an illusion, he adds, neglecting only to note directly that China does not view this outcome as in its interest. Without praising the North’s nuclear program, Cheng credits it with helping Pyongyang to turn the tables in its competition with Seoul. Thus, it makes China’s goal of pursuing a path to reunification based on equality easier. He argues that whether Seoul can go forward with efforts aimed at reunification depends heavily on China’s cooperation, which, in turn, depends on Seoul not supporting the US rebalance targeted against China. The obvious conclusion is that Seoul faces a zero-sum great power clash, and its ties to Pyongyang, as influenced by Beijing, depend on how it balances the two powers. Deterrence and trust building are at odds. China can help with the latter, but efforts to bolster the former that play into the US rebalancing will not win China’s support. Cheng’s article in English is but the tip of the iceberg of Chinese writings insisting that Seoul must abandon its current strategy and change course for reunification. Even if Sino-DPRK ties are strained, Beijing sees an alignment versus US alliances.
China appears to be seeking regime reorientation as the path to domestic stability in North Korea. This means its readiness to work with China on diplomacy, economic reform, and regime revitalization. China also seems to be in pursuit of peace on the peninsula through a balance of North and South security concerns with input from China and other powers, but there is reason to expect that China’s input will carry the greatest weight, given its likely impact on the North and the South’s awareness that China has far more levers to shape the process than any other country. Finally, success as the host of the reconvened Six-Party Talks and the protector of the North would give a boost to the legitimacy and stability of the Communist Party in China. In the background the Sino-Russian partnership in August 2015 conducting military exercises at sea near the Korean Peninsula is a reminder of their bilateral interests.
The Russian narrative on North Korea in the 2010s
The Russian narrative on the Korean Peninsula closely parallels the rhetoric found in China. In the December 2014 Special Forum, I analyzed the Russian “turn to the East,” emphasizing China’s central role, but, increasingly, North Korea’s salience is also being emphasized, as reported in “Country Report: Russia” in February 2015 where the views of Valerii Denisov, former ambassador to North Korea, are relayed. Blaming the United States for trying to destroy the regime in North Korea while also finding merit in the argument that the September 19, 2005 agreement was violated by the United States, South Korea, and Japan, provoking North Korea to resume its nuclear activity, Denisov suggests that the real danger to peace in the region comes from the US-ROK alliance, not North Korea. He justifies Russia’s warming to North Korea, mentioning the souring of Sino-North Korean relations without putting much blame on either party. The burden is placed on Washington and Seoul to win the confidence of Pyongyang, leading to the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, notably of the fifth working group headed by Russia to address a regional security framework, which Denisov puts foremost in his analysis of what is needed to resolve the crisis.
A strong China and a close Sino-Russian partnership are decisive factors in reaching the kind of arrangement Denisov and most other Russian writers on the peninsula are seeking. They focus on reassuring North Korea, bolstering it, transforming the US-ROK alliance, and developing a regional economic program for a north-south corridor from Russia through South Korea. In light of the expected hesitation of Seoul to embrace this agenda, Russians lean more to pressure than persuasion. Strengthening bilateral ties to North Korea both makes the North a more viable force and puts Russia in a less marginal position. Behind the facade of cooperative Russo-ROK relations—Park Geun-hye’s Eurasian Initiative is still being pursued—, Park offended Putin by not attending the 2014 Sochi Olympics ceremonies and the May 9, 2014 celebration of the seventieth anniversary of victory on Red Square. Relations have cooled, as high officials visit less often. Yet, discretely Seoul strives to sustain relations, recognizing that it needs Russia to manage North Korea. As long as Russia affirms its support for the non-proliferation treaty and denuclearization of North Korea and suspicions are not confirmed that it is, through official or unofficial ties, assisting the North’s missile programs, Seoul is likely to avoid giving further offense. In these circumstances, Russia has considerable room to boost political ties with Pyongyang, using the possibility of closer military ties and arms transfers as a kind of blackmail against South Korea.
Georgy Toloraya noted in his June 11, 2015 paper for the Korean Economic Institute that Russia “is increasingly less interested in a momentous Korean unification under the ROK’s guidance which would result in a sudden shift of balance of power in the region.”3 He added that the nuclear issue is less urgent now. What really matters are security guarantees to North Korea and for Washington and Seoul to offer those, the regime must be more resilient. Russian support for economic projects and appeals for Seoul to lift sanctions and back trilateral projects serve that end. Toloraya notes neither Moscow nor Pyongyang would accept any deterioration in the strategic balance, which leaves Seoul in the position of no prospects for unification unless it defies Washington, puts aside denuclearization for the distant future, and engages Pyongyang as well as Moscow and Beijing on a massive economic program treated as the foundation of reconciliation, while simultaneously refocusing away from the US alliance and security ties with Japan in order to forge the kind of power balance in Northeast Asia conducive to regional diplomacy and regime reassurance.
Russia could be marginalized by China and wants to capitalize on arguments aimed at Pyongyang and Seoul that the only realistic alternative to China’s dominance is a triangular arrangement with it that accommodates China, to a degree. Yet, on both the meaning of peace and stability and the reinforcement of the Pyongyang regime, Moscow is close to Beijing in its posture, albeit with more support for the status quo in the regime and wariness about reform, which could play into Beijing’s strategy. It is no less obsessed with preventing a blow to legitimacy at home from a new “color revolution.” Moscow and Beijing differ somewhat, but their overlap is substantial.
The Sino-Russian-North Korean triangle
Over the past decade Chinese and Russian sources have rarely had a critical word to say about each other’s approach to the crisis and to talks over North Korea. There is silence also about the triangular implications of their overlapping logic on both the nature of the problem and the steps needed to address it. This serves to conceal prospects for a northern triangle as well as points of contention that are anticipated.
After bolstering Pyongyang to face Seoul from strength and supporting its regional role in a competition among great powers, Moscow and Beijing have reason to cast doubt on each other’s long-term intentions. Russian sources are prone to describe an ideal partnership of their country and a united Korea, as if Russia is the natural partner and China may have in mind some sort of sinocentric arrangement about which Koreans should be wary. They envision a north-south corridor, strengthening the Trans-Siberian railway and making Busan the terminus, bypassing the east-west corridor through China. Filling the void somewhat left by China’s tougher posture toward North Korea in 2014, Russia appears to be communicating to Kim Jong-un that it is an alternative that allows him to avoid the heavy dependence on China that he fears. In these respects, it is not simply reinforcing China’s approach to the North.
Chinese sources often appear to overlook Russia’s role on the peninsula. China has the stronger presence in North Korea. Its transportation corridors are far ahead of Russia’s with access to much greater funding, independent of what Seoul decides to support. The Korean Peninsula is a symbol in China of Tsarist Russia’s imperialist conduct in the 1890s-1900s. Russia situates Korea in the postwar order from 1945 to justify its approach, but China has two millennia of sinocentric reasoning to back its preferred outcome. While coordination is more doubtful in fast-changing circumstances than in today’s slow-moving efforts just to restart diplomacy with North Korea, this does not mean that divergent national interests are likely to negate the prospects for triangularity. As long as unification is perceived as an ideological threat (one more “color revolution”); a historical travesty (reversing the outcome of 1945), a civilizational defeat (the Western approach to democracy and human rights would be boosted); and a loss of equilibrium in the regional balance of power (even a neutral Korea would not be trusted to remain so), China and Russia will agree on supporting North Korea as a matter of national identity and national interest. Given the shared obsession with identity gaps with the West, above all the United States, there is little reason to anticipate that Sino-Russian differences will take priority.
In 2015, Kim Jong-un refuses to take the diplomatic track, preferring unilaterally to boost his military might and threaten other states. The focus on finding a path for restarting the Six-Party Talks has centered on coordinating to put denuclearization in the forefront, however negotiations would proceed once the September 19, 2015 Joint Statement was reaffirmed. South Korea has turned its focus to reunification led by it, asking for the support of others. China finds it useful to emphasize cooperation with South Korea and the United States, aware that no issue serves this purpose better than the North’s nukes. Russia too, however much it views the world through the prism of a new cold war, repeats its support for the non-proliferation treaty. All of these circumstances have distracted attention from the way China and Russia are looking at North Korea as a factor in regional security, a reunification process on the peninsula, and the construction of national identity to serve regime legitimization.
Yet, North Korean war threats and Chinese and Russian economic troubles impinge on planning. Falling commodity prices also put North Korea in much greater duress. Until deepening instability of 2015 is clarified, inclinations will not easily translate into commitments. The nature of the Northern Tier remains to be defined.
In The Asan Forum, Sino-Russian strategic relations have been assessed by a Russian, a Chinese, and four DC-based writers with insights from the think-tank community. Clear contradictions between their arguments open a window on how sharp the contrasts are in thinking about this relationship, what is driving it, where it is likely to be heading, and how much the Russian pivot to Asia is relying on ties to China. At one extreme are assertions of a strong ideological and national identity bond even if cultural ties are weak, a closer relationship ahead given the international context, and one-sided Russian reliance on China without other close partners in East Asia. At the other, are suggestions of limits due to clashing regional interests as well as more serious civilizational divides. In articles on bilateral relations in a trilateral context, a contrast can be seen between confident Chinese voices, Russian bravado in light of the Ukrainian crisis, and DC realists sowing doubt on how bilateral ties are playing out across Asia and in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The Asan Forum has covered strategies focused on North Korea, offering views from two Chinese authors, one Russian author, and two analysts looking from the outside more soberly at Russian ties and Chinese ties, respectively, to the North. Again, a diversity of thinking is presented, supported by different types of evidence. Rozman and Radchenko have posed alternative scenarios on whether a triangular support system reminiscent of the northern triangle of old is or is not now emerging. This is not easy to test until Pyongyang changes its strategy, seeking diplomatic support.
1. Thomas J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.), 227.
2. Ibid., 258, 271-277.
3. Georgy Toloraya, “Korean Security and Unification Dilemmas: A Russian Perspective,” Korea Economic Institute of America, Academic Paper Series, June 11, 2015.