The term “honeymoon” has been used for three bilateral relationships in Northeast Asia, and there remains some uncertainty whether it still applies today. It gained popularity following what I would call the 2013 “engagement” phase in each case. The Abe-Putin, Putin-Xi, and Park-Xi relationships all blossomed in 2013, reached “honeymoon” status by early in 2014, and appeared in 2015 to media commentators and various other observers to be poised for a sort of convivial bliss before being rocked by troubles through the autumn of 2015. Meanwhile, the Abe-Obama and Abe-Park relationships hit rough spells in 2013-2014 and never were perceived as in a “honeymoon” mode, but by the end of 2015 were in better shape than observers had anticipated. Comparisons of disappointments from the three “honeymoons” help to grasp the illusions that recently flared in Northeast Asia and to lead us toward more sober expectations. If the fact that none of the “honeymoons” has, to date, led to a “divorce” means that the term may still reemerge along with renewed hopes, we have even more reason to look closely at unnoticed parallels in what has transpired.
What is meant by a “honeymoon?” The term can be used, blissfully, as a sign of hope that a personal connection between the leaders of two nations is so strong that it could transform bilateral relations or, disdainfully, as an attack on a connection that threatens the national interests of a nation through a misguided emotional quest. The pejorative use is found in Japanese writings about Park’s wooing of Xi, while the rose-colored lens on Abe’s wooing of Putin is viewed in an entirely different light. In the case of Putin’s wooing of Xi, hesitation to use the term comes from those who are intent to show that Putin is doing no more than pursuing the national interest or from critics of Putin who consider that too much is being made of a relationship that is poised to deteriorate. Yet, over the past few years these three cases of “wooing” should be examined together, not through a narrow national lens restricted to each case, but as far-reaching phenomena with similarities worth noting and lasting impact of considerable significance for foreign relations in Asia at this critical juncture.
The intended offspring of these relationships are clearly etched in the minds of the pursuing nation. For Japan, it is return of the “Northern Territories,” a territorial and symbolic victory showcased in national identity discourse since the early 1980s. At long last, the new, special, personal “Vladimir-Shinzo” bond would, Japanese media trumpet, yield this enormous dividend. For Russia, the prize would be the economic transformation of Siberia and the Russian Far East and the dream of Eurasianism by capitalizing on China’s infrastructure and industrial investments into long elusive megaprojects. After decades of vacuous plans, Russia’s “presence” in Asia would at last become a reality. For South Korea, the byproduct of wooing Xi Jinping was to be China’s support for reunification under Seoul’s leadership accompanied by a tough response to new North Korean provocations, especially any new nuclear test. A close relationship with China would be the foundation of a reunification “bonanza.”
The aspirations voiced by Abe, Putin, and Park were couched in realist terms—as geopolitical strategies of strong leaders defiant of reservations at home and abroad. They were also expressed in national identity terms, promising breakthroughs after periods of more timid pursuit of goals deemed essential for revitalizing the nation. Japan would gain an autonomous Asian foreign policy, becoming a “normal” state. Russia would turn to the East, gaining new stature in Asia, as a “bridge” to the West. Finally, South Korea would secure the supreme identity prize of a reunited Korea.
Each case was personalized by a supposedly close bond with a foreign leader, whose vigor was treated with admiration. While many in other countries were troubled by how Putin and Xi were consolidating power using increasingly authoritarian means, wooing them meant cultivating an atmosphere where excesses were downplayed as hopes were elevated to capitalize on bold leadership to realize bilateral objectives. Hoopla surrounding Abe’s pursuit of Putin, Putin’s pursuit of Xi, and Park’s pursuit of Xi contrasted with the more balanced or darker analysis of relations with others. Abe’s meeting with Putin at the February 2014 Sochi Olympics, Putin’s summit in China in May 2014, and Park’s hosting of Xi in July 2014 were each highly touted.
At the beginning of 2016, the symbols of success from each special relationship were more elusive than had been presumed. Russia’s stance on the territorial question with Japan had hardened beyond anything seen since Gorbachev opened talks early in 1986. China’s willingness to invest in Siberia and the Russian Far East was more in doubt than at any point since the early 1990s if one looks objectively at changes in the energy prices that made Russia’s resources appealing and in China’s growth model that spurred its quest for resources. Finally, China’s readiness to tilt toward South Korea and pressure North Korea was met with more doubt than was the case at any time since Sino-DPRK relations withered in the 1992 ROK normalization. If the pursuit were to resume in any one of these cases, the symbolic breakthrough would, it follows, no longer be the focus. Yet, this painful realization is proving hard to acknowledge, as lingering hopes are still being voiced in all three pursuing states.
Comparisons of “honeymoon” politics and media hyperbole serve an analysis of the leadership dynamics, geo-economic context, geopolitical ambitions, and national identity expectations in the country more actively in pursuit. I reflect on the peak period of pursuit, when expectations were highest, and I point to the illusions that drove these pursuits. Finally, I look at the state of these bilateral relationships at the start of 2016, explaining why the “honeymoon” is over and what it can tell us. In doing so, I do not deny the possibility that one of the “honeymoons” may resume. Abe is still seeking a summit with Putin, and Putin is still heavily dependent on Xi.
New leaders seek to enter office with a splash, eyeing foreign policy as the venue where a breakthrough relationship with another leader conveys a transformative image. They envision an activist image, differentiating themselves from the passive charges leveled against their predecessor. At a time of creeping polarization in great power relations, they grasp for symbols of empowerment of their country. Without doubt, they find encouragement from the leaders they target, who may spot a golden opportunity to disrupt existing partnerships or boost their own image of activism in foreign policy. Yet, there should be no ambiguity about who was wooing whom. Abe was pursuing Putin, despite Japanese perceptions that Putin’s March 1, 2012 call for a “hikiwake” solution to their dispute meant that Abe responded in 2013. Park was clearly pursuing Xi, even as South Koreans kept referring to Xi’s decision to favor her over Kim Jong-un. Finally, Putin in this period shifted to aggressively pursuing Xi in Russia’s “Turn to the East” and, even more, in its rejection of the West exposed in the Ukraine crisis of 2014. Abe and Park claimed to be building the best relations ever with the United States, but portrayed their diplomacy as “pro-active” since they saw other options as well. Putin, in contrast, argued that relations with the West were at a nadir; he cultivated an alternative so Russia would pay no price for this.
Each “honeymoon” had its own rationale steeped in national identity associated closely with a new leader. Abe’s grandfather and father had espoused Asianism and pursued a breakthrough with Moscow, respectively, and Abe has championed many national identity causes, such as the abductions issue with North Korea as if he has unique qualities to solve them. For Abe, the wooing of Putin was explained as the way to regain the “Northern Territories.” Park’s father had normalized relations with Japan, but he was later perceived to have left some issues to fester as well as to have had no success with Pyongyang despite diplomatic exchanges in the early 1970s.
For Park, her cultivation of Xi held the promise of support for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Putin had reignited Soviet thinking about national identity in his first two terms as president, while raising hopes of a deal with China to stimulate development in Asiatic Russia. He insisted that his dalliance with Xi would be the key to the shift from Russia as an outlier being hounded in the West to a full-fledged member of the East, where it would be welcomed. As these three leaders began to woo their counterparts, it seemed to many to be their destiny to reach agreements and to leave their mark in history as the one who accomplished a remarkable feat.
Looked at closely, none of these rationales had real merit. Japanese publications on Russia offered no evidence that Putin seriously considered returning more than two islands—a deal Japan had rejected more than once and had long insisted it could not accept. Korean publications on Xi presented no more than flimsy arguments for why Xi would lean away from North Korea in the reunification process or enforce tough sanctions that would contradict its prevailing logic about the North’s significance.
Russian coverage of China was derelict in analyzing how the goals of Russia’s “turn to the East” and “multipolarity” would be achieved, counting too much on the appeal of Russia as a balance of power in Asia and a treasure house of resources. Illusions of personal chemistry between leaders and an activist leader capable of forging ties with transformative impact undergirded the “honeymoon” narratives. As evidence contradictory to these narratives grew more obvious, leaders clung to them. In late 2015 Abe was still arranging the next meeting with Putin, Park was joining Xi on the reviewing stand in Beijing, and Putin was so isolated that Xi loomed as his last hope. Yet, by year end, Russian official were scorning Japan’s aspirations, Chinese refused to answer South Korea’s phone calls about the North’s nuclear test, and the record of Chinese investments showed the opposite result from what Russia had sought.
The tone of official remarks and media coverage grew more sober about what were earlier perceived as “honeymoons.” By September, Japanese officials were engaged in a “tit-for-tat” set of charges against remarks by Russian officials, while Japanese newspapers turned pessimistic about prospects for Putin visiting Japan as well as the future of relations. After Park’s presence along side Xi on September 3 raised a lot of controversy, her visit to Washington was accompanied by assurances that ROK-Chinese relations should not be a cause of US concern and then by a deal over the “comfort women” with Abe that disproved the charge that she was aligning with Xi against Japan. The shift in Putin’s position in regard to Xi was marked more by silence rather than any reversal, as Russian media euphoria earlier in 2015 about China’s role as the savior of the Russian economy as it turned from West to East was fading into reluctant acknowledgment that economic plans were on hold.1 Despite signs later that Abe was still preparing meetings with Putin and awareness that Putin and Park had compelling geopolitical reasons to keep in Xi’s good graces, the mood by the beginning of 2016 was much less hopeful than it had previously been.
The upshot of these experiences in 2013-2015 is that observers should discount media hype about personal ties between national leaders. It appears that wooing another leader has a particular objective, which the other leader encourages just enough to keep the infatuation alive. Taking a closer look at the way the object of the pursuit was reasoning about the desired target—transferring islands despite an alarmist view of sovereignty, investing in Russia’s “wild East” with its dismal prospects for financial gain, or pressuring and abandoning North Korea at a time of ascendant Sinocentrism—should have cast the partner in a more realistic light. By early 2016 after China had revitalized relations with North Korea and then failed to respond with adequate toughness to its fourth nuclear test, Park’s gambit was in doubt. By the same time, following Russia’s flaunting of its control over and military build-up on the islands claimed by Japan, Abe’s gambit was in deep trouble. Finally, Putin’s hyperbolic claims about the economic bonanza from deals with China had crashed against the reality of declining trade, little investment, and China’s economic crash. Talk of “honeymoons” faded fast when the desired byproducts were beyond reach.
Wooing meant catering to economic aspirations of the other party. Abe recognized that Putin’s principal objective was to secure Japan’s massive support for projects in the Russian Far East, requiring large-scale investment in infrastructure, e.g., for gas exports and industry—petrochemicals and shipbuilding high on the list. Park knew that Xi sought a free trade agreement (FTA) and, later, buy-in for the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Putin was fully aware that Xi was intent on opening up Central Asia without further obstruction in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Recognizing these opportunities, leaders anticipated that they could achieve their own ends, among them economic benefits. Dramatic shifts in economic conditions played a visible role in the “honeymoons” of 2013-2014, but sudden adjustments in those very conditions were decisive in the setbacks of 2015. Financial issues looked promising during the courtship phase before the harsh facts of more integrated economies were revealed.
Abe, Putin, and Park took advantage of economic aspirations of their counterparts as they also sought some economic payoff for their own country. Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, leading to the shutdown of all nuclear reactors across the country, led to speculation that Russian natural gas would fill the void. Although Japan could readily obtain liquid natural gas from other suppliers, Russians were emboldened to expect Japan to need their country’s supplies without objectively assessing the real balance of need for each other. Even so, once talks begin, it was obvious that Russia made economic relations the priority, while Japan was obsessed with the territorial issue even as balancing China’s rising power loomed in the background. Putin began his wooing of Xi in full awareness of China’s “March to the West” and persistent call for the SCO to embrace economic integration with the possibility of an FTA centered on Central Asia. In 2014 and 2015, it was clearly Russia seeking economic benefits as it increasingly yielded on China’s concerns. Park too had mixed motives in ceding to Xi’s wish for a bilateral FTA and joining the AIIB, while boosting South Korea’s deep ties to the Chinese economy. Before China’s economic troubles from late 2015, satisfying its requests in this sphere smoothed the way to Park’s primary objectives.
Without Russian and Chinese economic aspirations, talk of a “honeymoon” would have seemed quite far-fetched. Conceding more to these aspirations offered hope that the other side would do more in return. Russia’s far-reaching needs for the Far East raised Japanese hopes earlier. Its ambitious development plans gave new life to these hopes, and finally its economic plunge in 2015 fueled hopes anew. China’s aim to encompass much of Asia in “One Belt, One Road” may have revived Russian alarm, but it was twisted to mean that the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) would be able to ride this wave to regional integration. South Korea long assumed that China’s economic needs would give it the edge over North Korea, and this continued in assumptions about why China would support reunification led by Seoul. Misjudgments about the role of economics in international relations fed illusions before they were exposed in the sharp economic downturns of 2015 and in policy shocks at roughly that time.
Even when economics or national identity were cited as the reason for pursuing this relationship, there was considerable interest in the impact on the balance of power. To Abe, preventing a close Sino-Russian military relationship was the rationale he articulated when meeting Barack Obama in April 2015. In making this argument, he disagreed with the geopolitical thinking of US officials, insisting that Asia is different from Europe—and Russia must be treated differently in these two theaters.2 Putin did not change his stress on closer relations with China even when the economic payoff was minimal in 2015. Instead, Russian sources were adamant that the core of this relationship is geopolitical, looking at China through a global lens as a balance to the United States, not through a regional lens as Abe was doing. Park’s lens for China was the narrowest, countering US and Japanese arguments about Chinese aggressive behavior in the South China Sea by insisting that Northeast Asia is such a dangerous sub-region due to North Korea that geopolitical concerns there must take precedence. In arguments with or about Washington, geopolitics became the focus.
Washington was not persuaded by Abe’s geopolitical case for wooing Putin and Park’s geopolitical argument for wooing Xi. In Park’s case, given “strategic patience” in Obama’s own willingness to test Xi’s intentions by holding back on some actions until North Korea tested another nuclear weapon or long-distance missile, restraint in responding to Park’s overtures to Xi—even her attendance at his September 3 military parade—was understandable. US patience ended just as Park herself came to the conclusion that her policy toward Xi had failed, meaning that no serious split ever came to light. Even if Park’s geopolitical gambit had raised eyebrows, the two allies maintained a largely united front. The situation was different between Abe and Obama in 2014-2015. While Obama saw Russia as a grave threat to world peace, Abe gave priority to his geopolitical thinking that Russia can be split from China and contribute to peace in the Asia-Pacific region. Tensions between allies deepened. Yet, Abe joined in G7 sanctions and made too little progress with Putin to the end of 2015 to allow this split to overshadow a tightening alliance in the face of China and, in January 2016, growing momentum for US-Japan-ROK trilateralism against threats from North Korea but with wider ramifications for regional geopolitical balance.
As other arguments lost force, more sober geopolitical reasoning took hold. The January 16 trilateral meeting at the vice foreign minister level pointed to South Korea, following the “comfort women” agreement and North Korea’s nuclear test, joining more closely with the United States and Japan on facing North Korea and on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and enforcement of rules and norms at what Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken called a “pivotal moment in regional relations.”3 Just as the geo-economic case for the three “honeymoons” lost force by 2016, the geopolitical case for Park’s wooing of Xi was upended and that for Abe’s wooing of Putin was greatly undermined. Yet, both leaders clung to geopolitical logic to keep their pursuit from dying, while Putin made it the essence of his reasoning.
Even if the “Northern Territories” were to be shelved, Eurasianism and the “pivot to the East” were in jeopardy, or the “bonanza” of reunification was only a pipedream, the fallback position behind the pursuit of an entirely new level of closeness in ties with the targeted country proved to be geopolitical reasoning. This appeared to be completely separate from national identity. In making the case to US officials, Abe and Park presented themselves as realists with clearer geopolitical judgment than the US side appeared to have. Putin was the most adamant that he was the genuine realist, whose turn to China was necessitated by US actions altering the balance of power. Geoeconomics evidently is secondary to geopolitics in these recent pursuits, while the chosen national identity symbols could also become secondary even when other national identity themes might still be working to salvage the pursuit, most of all the legacy of communism in Putin’s thinking about why Moscow needs Beijing.
Controversial arguments about what is geopolitically advantageous arise in some media outlets and in diplomatic exchanges, but they tend to be overshadowed by national identity claims in the media and in domestic communications, even if the evidence for such claims is tenuous. The predominant narrative in Japanese media is that Abe is pursuing Putin in order to regain territory occupied by Russia. Somehow, the result—usually assumed to be four islands if not left unstated—would be the long-sought solution to one of Japan’s principal national identity quests. Koreans are directed by the government and media to view Park’s pursuit of Xi as the path to the long-sought reunification of their country. In turn, Russians read in their media that not only is China not in any way a civilizational threat, rather it is the answer to the threat from the West to their civilization and the partner whose ties will enable the consolidation of a long-sought identity bridging Europe and Asia. These narratives cater to aspirations of empowerment in an era of globalization and loss of freedom of maneuver as Sino-US polarization intensifies. Multipolarity and the civilizational pluralism accompanying it are the inspirations for such quixotic rhetorical claims.
Consider how Abe, Putin, and Park would feel pressured to reframe national identity in lieu of their wooing of their recent special target. Abe attempted to reach a deal with North Korea on the issue he used to climb the political ladder in 2001-2006, but it failed in 2015 after more than a year of diplomatic priority and patience. He may try to present his progress in relations with Southeast Asian states, Australia, and India as distinctive Japanese achievements, but they are all proceeding in the shadow of US initiatives. Escaping from the shadow of the United States is further complicated by the need to tighten the alliance and even to find a compromise with South Korea under persistent US pressure. Appealing to Washington to join Tokyo in steps to hedge against Beijing likewise reduces any sense of autonomy. Russia alone serves as an unquestionably independent foreign policy linked to a clear identity objective.
The problem of the “Northern Territories” is generally perceived by the Japanese public opinion as a problem of national dignity. Some Japanese go further, suggesting against prevailing stereotypes that there is “commonality of historical development that the two countries share: the split between Western values and something inherently of its own: Peter the Great versus the Slavophiles and Meiji Japan’s ‘entering Europe abandoning Asia’ versus ‘Japan’s own traditions immersed in the Asian world.’” As Abe and Putin each search for a new concept of national identity in the shadow of Sino-US polarization, they might build on this sense of historical commonalities.4
Putin also is intent on differentiating Russian national identity from that of Europe and the United States, while not subsuming it under China’s identity—a return to socialist identity would have that effect. He is walking a narrow path between joint pursuit of identity with China—no criticism of China, joint rejection of the West, and overall pride in the history of socialism—and affirmation of a distinctive identity of Russia as a great civilization. Sergei Karaganov doubts that this has been achieved beyond drawing from pre-Soviet identity on themes of defense and sovereignty.5 If not accomplished, the goal has become so central to Russian narratives that it is not disputed. To cast doubt on China’s merits as an identity partner would leave Russia alone hostile to the West, economically in serious trouble, and with nowhere to go.
Claiming to be the true guardian of Western traditional values—anti-homosexuality is the prime symbol of late—, Russia may not say much about how much overlap is present with China’s communism or with what is seen as its Confucian heritage, but the implications of Putin’s compact with Xi are that there is considerable overlap. In attacking Western insistence on “universal values” and “color revolutions” this link is unmistakable. There is a void in Russian writings on China that leaves this vague.
The most complicated national identity case is South Korea’s pursuit of China while declaring growing allegiance to universal values shared with the United States. Past mention of shared Confucian identity with China is rarely invoked these days, but the “culture wars,” beginning with the battle over the identity of the Koguryo state and extending to other symbols of historical identity, has quieted some. Chinese put South Korea in a category of “too Westernized” and insist on acceptance of symbols of authoritarianism unappealing to their neighbors. Moreover, China’s rejection of human rights criticisms of North Korea and UN action on that basis fails to convince South Koreans of shared identity. This weakens the foundation for Park’s pursuit of Xi, as many in both countries recognize that it is not leading to genuine closeness.
In early 2016, the South Korean identity gap with China is widening fastest of these three gaps. Taking their cue from Abe, many in Japan are hesitant to point to the gap with Putin’s Russia, although Sankei Shimbun repeatedly does so. Russians are quiet about a possible identity gap with China, following the government’s position. That leaves South Koreans, now angered over China’s handling of the nuclear test, least reticent, but here too, caution prevails since what China will eventually do remains unknown. Chinese had also found it convenient to assert that Xi and Park have a special relationship, most recently valuing her September 3 presence at his side. Thus, it is too early to say that the identity gap is really in the open and intense.
The end of a honeymoon rarely means a breakdown in relations. Disappointments in all three cases are being met with renewed efforts to keep the relationship alive. Abe continues to talk about meeting Putin with the objective of cutting a deal on the islands, while those around him emphasize the geopolitical rationale while arguing that the Obama administration is making a mistake in its tough policy toward Putin. In light of widespread pessimism that officials other than Putin would be delegated to pursue this breakthrough, Japan’s entire case rests on Putin’s personal thinking and the Abe-Putin relationship. Putin, in turn, keeps the lid on any media criticism of Xi Jinping or China, making sure that Russian sources write glowingly of the Putin-Xi meetings in 2015 and tightening the geopolitical bond between Moscow and Beijing. In his isolation from other leaders—not even attending the East Asian Summit or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 2015—, Putin clings to the possibility of more bilateral summits having a strategic payoff for Russia, if not necessarily an economic one. Meanwhile, Park is intent on keeping the edge over Kim Jong-un she has with Xi, preferring a symbolic UN Security Council resolution condemning the North’s fourth nuclear test, backed by China, to US-led sanctions against North Korea that would result in targeting of China as well as a downturn in Sino-US relations and possible increasing Chinese aid to Kim Jong-un. None of the three leaders in pursuit is likely to announce the end of the “honeymoon.” Even without the main benefits they had been seeking, there still is a lot at stake. These relationships are going forward in a more sober manner, but in the absence of candor about recent troubles, interested parties may again invoke the “honeymoon” image as if it will still be applicable in the coming year or two.
Geo-economics is losing its significance in undergirding the pursuit of a much closer relationship. Tokyo has long put that below geopolitics and national identity. Seoul too is consumed with geopolitics along with national identity. Moscow tried in 2014 and part of 2015 to make geo-economics a centerpiece of relations with Beijing along with geopolitics and national identity, but it failed. Wooing may mean catering to the other side’s economic desires—at least more than before—, but this is not its raison-d’etre. Stirring media or political elite support does not depend on business backing. The driving force for these much-ballyhooed endeavors is not economics.
The balance between geopolitics and national identity may shift over time. The two are generally treated as if they are fully in synch. At times, the identity rationale is left in the background, as if realpolitik is the sole driving force. At other times, little is said about the need for closer relations to alter the balance of power for fear that it will give the other side confidence that a harder bargain can be driven. Moscow, Tokyo, and Seoul all are wary about highlighting arguments that could raise doubts in their essential military partner or ally. High levels of sensitivity in regard to both this powerful partner and the country being wooed lead to ambiguity over causality.
The sobering mood of early 2016 makes valentine’s wishes in Northeast Asia seem a thing of the past. China is insisting that new sanctions on North Korea are not the answer to its provocative actions, scuttling South Korea’s three-years of anticipating a different response. Russia is warning that a new cold war has begun, leaving little chance for Japan after three years of trying to find a path forward, but Abe appears to want to try again. Most uncertain is how Russia will respond to China’s insistence that it put aside all doubts and embrace China’s Silk Road Economic Belt, although the rewards and risks are far different from what Russians had anticipated barely a half year earlier.6 Two “honeymoons” had attempted to defy the rising tide of Sino-US polarization. The third is testing whether Russo-US polarization can merge with Sino-US polarization into something akin to a Sino-Russian alliance. That is the main question remaining from the mid-2010s “romantic” interlude in regional affairs.
1.Evidence for these observations and many others in this article can be found in Country Report: Japan, Country Report: Russia, and Country Report: South Korea in recent issues of The Asan Forum.
2.Bungei Shunju, No. 1, 2016.
3.“US-Japan-ROK Trilateral Press Conference,” January 16, 2016.
4.Togo Kazuhiko in Sekai, October 2014, as reported in Country Report: Japan, The Asan Forum 2, no. 5 (2014).
5.Sergei Karaganov, December 29, 2015, personal site, as reported in Country Report: Russia, The Asan Forum 4, no. 1 (2016).
6.Zhao Huirong in Eluosi, Dongou, Zhongya, No. 6, 2015, as reported in Country Report: China, The Asan Forum 4, no. 1 (2016).