The G20 summit will easily pass into oblivion for its collective agenda, but it should long be remembered for its bilateral and trilateral summits and one that failed to occur between the leaders of Japan and South Korea. Xi Jinping conducted many meaningful meetings. Modi Narendra balanced two triangular agendas with the United States and Japan on one side and China and Russia on the other. Moon Jae-in followed his presence in Osaka with a summit in Seoul with Donald Trump ushering in the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit at the DMZ. Of course, as the host, Abe Shinzo pursued wide-ranging diplomacy, followed immediately by launching an unprecedented blockage of trade with South Korea. Above all, on display was Donald Trump’s pattern of hijacking international, multilateral gatherings for his personal agenda. The final week of June 2019 and the month of July should be noted for a far-reaching diplomatic transformation.
The following arguments give an indication of why the early summer of 2019 deserves scrutiny: 1) China appeared to be on the verge of resuming trade talks with the US—potentially critical in shaping a G2 emerging world order—but pulled back from concessions the US saw as necessary, leaving a rupture between the world’s two leading powers in plain sight, while it significantly strengthened its quasi-alliance with Russia in preparation for more assertive challenges to the old order; 2) India executed the most precarious diplomatic balance of recent times, bolstering trilateral security ties with the US and Japan just hours before it stood on the side of China and Russia against much of the Trump unilateral agenda; 3) South Korea first took some credit for orchestrating the unexpected third Trump-Kim Jong-un summit before it found itself under a trade onslaught by Japan, a military flyover, collective assault by China and Russia, and new pressure from Washington without the desired support in pushing back against Japan; and 4) Japan threw off old fetters, pursuing more autonomous regional diplomacy without an open break with Trump. Looking back two months after the conclusion of the G20, we find much to consider in the way the Indo-Pacific region is evolving in the shadow of Trump’s disruptions.
Below, we take a triangular approach to developments set in motion in Osaka and afterwards. We start with the Sino-US-Russian triangle, proceed to the Sino-Russian-North Korean triangle, and proceed to the Sino-US-North Korean triangle in a sweeping panorama of the legacy of the Cold War. In the next cluster, we briefly review four configurations—the North Korea-South Korea-US triangle, the China-South Korea-North Korea triangle, the China-South Korea-Japan triangle, and the Japan-South Korea-US triangle—in recognition of Seoul’s position at the pivot of regional transformation. For a final cluster, we test the resurgence of the Japan-US alliance by coverage of a Hong Kong-Taiwan nexus, then attention to China, Russia, and India in sequential order. For each triangle, we limit ourselves to comments on the impact of early summer changes. Following this triangular tour, we summarize the articles to follow focused on four countries.
The Sino-US-Russia triangle
Russia was beckoning, China was inclined but a little hesitant, and the US was preparing for Trump’s summits with Xi and Putin in Osaka. Putin had met Xi in late April at the BRI summit, Xi paid a three-day state visit to Russia earlier in June, and they were together in Osaka with an overlapping agenda aimed at a global realignment led by a “new era” between the two. With the false start in Sino-US trade talks and Trump’s subsequent increases in tariffs and the inability of Trump to capitalize on his warm attitude toward Putin in a meeting of little note besides joint objection to “fake news,” the contours of the old strategic triangle appeared anew. Beijing and Moscow drew closer, Washington was alienated from both, and few saw any hope for future summits among these leaders to change the trajectory of this fateful triangularity. At Osaka, signs of polarization became decidedly more pronounced with little US strategic response.
The Sino-Russian-North Korean triangle
After Putin hosted Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok in late April and Xi Jinping visited Pyongyang just before the Osaka summit, the old socialist triangle appeared to be reviving. Trump’s photo-op with Kim just after the G20 did nothing to change the narrative. Although Kim did not secure sanctions relief from Putin or Xi, he did win backing for diplomacy that put the onus on the US and made a major leap forward in normalizing relations with his country’s long-term defenders. Moreover, whether he could still contemplate playing one off against the other, the thrust of the new closer economic ties joining with China and Russia promised a shared strategic ideal of weakening the US-South Korean alliance and the US presence in Northeast Asia. The failure of the Trump-Kim summit juxtaposed with the promise of the others points to a revived triangle.
The Sino-US-North Korean triangle
The pretense that the ups and downs in Sino-US relations do not affect the way China treats the North and perhaps the way the North treats China was harder to affirm after the early summer. Kim Jong-un’s obstinacy in resuming working level talks is being increasingly attributed to his confidence that China has his back. Warnings from China about reduced cooperation in dealing with North Korean denuclearization and presumably in sanctions enforcement are hard to miss. Trump had tried to bypass China in cutting a deal directly with Kim, but Kim met with Xi Jinping five times over fifteen months and showed no inclination to rest his hopes on Trump alone. In the summer of 2019, more observers accepted the argument that North Korea is a pawn in the emerging Sino-US hegemonic struggle even if Kim keeps pressing autonomous aspirations.
The North Korea-South Korea-US triangle
Moon Jae-in sought to be not only the facilitator of Trump-Kim diplomacy but the indispensable booster of dialogue when talks stumbled. He faced a rude awakening when he was relegated to the sidelines at the Trump-Kim Panmunjom summit and North Korea proceeded to ridicule his pretensions. Moon’s entire strategy for reconciliation and eventually reunification reached an impasse. He had envisioned this triangle as the core of regional transformation, beneficial to the two Koreas and to keeping the US engaged if in a lessened capacity. Unfortunately for him, Kim Jong-un prefers to deal directly with Trump minus intermediaries and anticipates a very different outcome on the peninsula, requiring balancing the US and undermining the South. In dismissing Moon ruthlessly, Kim in a matter of weeks overturned Moon’s triangular framework. Meanwhile, Trump seems content with bilateral diplomacy to both Moon and Kim with no apparent linkage.
The China-South Korea-North Korea triangle
Both Beijing and Seoul have designs on economic integration with Pyongyang, favoring models of reform at great variance with one another. Seoul is counting on Kim Jong-un’s wariness of heavy dependence on China and a shared Korean identity. Beijing is confident that Kim would be too fearful of Seoul’s dominance to welcome integration with it. This triangle has shifted as Xi Jinping in Pyongyang pointed to new economic cooperation with Kim and Kim made clear recently that he has no interest in the paltry humanitarian assistance Moon has offered. Yet, Kim is keeping his options open without committing to the economic reforms Xi seeks, and Xi has yet to break substantially from the sanctions regime he agreed to impose at the Security Council. The Sino-South Korean competition depends on decisions Kim must make, but Xi is bypassing Moon.
The China-South Korea-Japan triangle
This triangle has altered more than others in recent years, including new developments this summer. Five years ago, Seoul and Beijing were enjoying a “honeymoon,” but that abruptly ended. Four years ago, Seoul and Tokyo appeared to have put a sensitive historical issue behind them as Washington was making progress on three-way military cooperation, but recently Seoul and Tokyo have become alienated, while Beijing and Tokyo have resumed normal ties on economic matters. The upshot of so many changes is that tensions on all sides are entrenched. The outcome in the early summer strongly tilted the balance toward a wider Japan-ROK gap, a narrower Japan-China gap, and a somewhat wider China-ROK gap after Xi’s summit with Kim Jong-un. Aspirations for a CJK community with annual, productive summits have not been met due to one or another breakdown in cooperation; they may resume but little progress is foreseen.
The Japan-South Korea-US triangle
A failure of US leadership, an obsession by Moon with playing the “history card” against Japan, and an orientation by Abe antagonistic to reconciliation with Seoul over history have left this triangle in deep trouble. At its core, this is a struggle over history and national identity. In July Abe turned it also into an economic confrontation. Moon responded in August by pulling out of intelligence sharing, undermining military cooperation and more directly affecting the United States. The Japan-ROK leg of this virtual alliance triangle has long been its weakest link, but by pulling this leg out from under the triangle the damage has become extensive. Moon’s refusal to accept arbitration on the forced labor claims in June appears to have led to Abe’s imposition of export controls (on a pretext) in July, which resulted in handwringing in Washington but no active intervention, and finally to Moon’s withdrawal from intelligence sharing. The triangle is no longer what it was following this chain of events in the wake of a missed opportunity at the G20, when Trump failed to press for a trilateral summit and make the case for halting the slide.
The Japan-US-China triangle
For most of the 2010s Sino-Japanese relations appeared to be more troubled than Sino-US ties. The history and territorial issues aroused China, and Japan was urging the US to take a tougher stance on China’s behavior, including in the South China Sea. Although that pattern had started to change when Abe explored working with China on BRI and Xi Jinping hosted Abe in October 2018, it was only in Osaka in June 2019 that a clear contrast could be drawn between the way Xi was welcomed for finally normalizing summitry with Abe and the backdrop to the Trump meeting with Xi, where claims of good personal chemistry were belied by the stakes involved. As the Sino-US trade war is heating up and Abe is thinking about a Xi state visit in early 2020, the US-Japan gap is widening. Trump’s pressure on Abe may have led to hedging behavior.
The Japan-US-Russia triangle
Abe pursued Putin for five full years, making a major unilateral concession on Japan’s demand for the return of islands in anticipation of intense negotiations in 2019 leading to the desired breakthrough in Osaka when he met Putin. With Russo-US relations deeply troubled through this five-year period, Abe appeared to be putting Japan at the pivot of a configuration capable of impacting the overall framework of great power relations. Yet, Putin chose to intensify the demands Russia was making on Japan and the military pressure it was applying to get its way. Refusing to lose hope, Abe had persisted through disappointments one after the other, but it was only as the June summit approached that the hopelessness of it all could not be denied. Not only was there no prospect of Abe gaining leverage against Xi Jinping or serving as a bridge between Trump and Putin, he was left on the sidelines in Putin’s agenda in Osaka, coming after Putin’s summits with Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping. Nevertheless, Trump’s personal pursuit of the Russian leader at odds with US policy left the future of this triangle confused, and Abe insisted that he would persist too. Putin showcased a new cold war, but the other two refused to agree.
The Japan-US-Hong Kong/Taiwan triangle
This is another triangle that appears different in August 2019 than in June. It was stabilized by two frameworks: “one country, two systems,” protecting Hong Kong’s legal rights and civil society until 2047, and agreement to disagree on PRC claims to Taiwan forty years ago, which gained new clarity about ten years ago with a Sino-US understanding about maintaining the status quo for the near future. Both frameworks are unraveling by increased Chinese pressure on Hong Kong’s legal autonomy and Taiwan’s quest for political space as well as by Trump’s response, briefly oblivious to Hong Kong’s plight amid massive demonstrations and assertive in support of Taiwan, politically and militarily. These two potential hot spots for Sino-US conflict suddenly appear more volatile with China considering unprecedented armed intervention in Hong Kong to restore order and Xi and Trump weighing moves the other sees as provocative. If most attention focuses on Sino-US relations, Japan enters the picture with Chinese suspicions of its support for Taiwan independence and US expectations for its backing on Taiwan. Perhaps, a crackdown in Hong Kong will lead to Japan being put on the spot, as in Tiananmen from 1989.
The Japan-India-US triangle
High hopes for this triangle as a defensive bulwark against China were shaken in the summer of 2019. Modi appeared to be hedging with Xi Jinping and Putin against Trump’s assertiveness. Modi’s decision to remove Kashmir’s autonomous status shifted attention from collective defense of the Indian Ocean to the Indian-Pakistan divide, complicating the US effort to sustain positive sides with both sides. Viewing itself as a bridge between India and the US, Japan faced new complications in boosting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. If in 2016 a wider Sino-Indian split had given momentum to this triangle (and the Quad with Australia), the situation had grown more complex over Modi’s Hindu nationalism and Trump’s America First bilateralism. Abe met with both leaders in Osaka touting plans for a stronger triangle, but that was now in doubt.
Gilbert Rozman, “Abe’s Korea Policy”
The relentless build-up to the Osaka G20 summit showcased a world with deep economic as well as security challenges and the significance of Abe hosting the gathering at a critical juncture in history. Without arguing that Japan had the clout to reverse global trends, its media prized Abe’s role as an advocate of a rule-based order and as a leader who has cultivated good relations with leaders on both sides of many of the sharpest international divides. An image was conveyed of Japan as a bridge-builder, a leader in its own right, and a country intent on a pro-active foreign policy. It would not break with Trump but would work to narrow differences between him and other leaders, and it would not seek to “decouple” China from the world economy but would strive to get it to adhere to rules. The G20 summit was a success in the eyes of conservatives for Abe’s personal diplomacy and to some progressives for Japan’s contribution to global order when it was under threat. If in 2018 the message was anti-protectionism, this G20 faced much greater threats to world order—both economic and strategic as well as environmental—and Japan stood up for the right causes. Yet, Trump humiliated Abe in his trip to Japan and South Korea only a month after Abe had pulled out all stops to host Trump. He unsettled the Japanese by questioning the mutual defense treaty (i.e., Japan would not come to the aid of the United States if it were attacked and instead would “watch it on a Sony television”); he blocked a statement on climate change that Abe had expected to again make a cornerstone of the G20 consensus; he overshadowed Abe with his summits with Vladimir Putin as well as Xi Jinping, undermining values diplomacy also by his warmth to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, whom much of the world blamed for ordering the grisly murder of a Washington Post columnist; and he refocused the high-priority task of denuclearizing North Korea on his own camaraderie with Kim Jong-un, inviting North Korea’s leader to meet and greet at the DMZ just a day later.
Hesitant about challenging Trump or acknowledging the reality of his behavior, Abe transposed his image of obsequiousness and weakness into a proactive attack on Moon, showing strength.
Various possible linkages can be drawn: 1) Trump’s indifference to trilateralism and preference for Abe freed Abe to be more assertive; 2) Trump’s pressure on Japan and disorienting policies made it more important for Abe to buttress his national identity credentials by targeting Moon; 3) new US assertiveness toward China tilted the US toward Japan, leaving Moon more vulnerable to Abe’s aggressive moves; and 4) Moon’s obsession with improving relations with Kim Jong-un, although on the surface in accord with Trump’s wooing of Kim, left him isolated and vulnerable. In response to Trump’s visit with Abe, Korean and Japanese media both stressed how Moon was excluded, was not a mediator on North Korea after all, and would not be holding a summit with Abe at the G20, while Xi Jinping also had decided not to go to South Korea. When Moon went to Washington in April he was given only a few minutes of Trump’s time, unlike the many hours Trump spends with Abe. Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” united Tokyo and Washington, as it exposed Seoul’s wavering. Abe had gained confidence in Moon’s isolation by the G20 summit.
The economic dimension is where Tokyo found Seoul most vulnerable and itself most in need of diverting attention. Hit by Trump’s demands for a trade deal and Trump’s trade war with China, Abe could make Moon pay for the fines being imposed on Japanese companies for wartime labor coerced from Koreans while showcasing pro-active moves in the face of passivity before Trump. On the security dimension, Abe’s resentment over Moon’s refusal to address China’s aggression and downplaying of North Korea’s threat coupled with anger over military direct affronts toward Japan led him not to fear Moon’s retaliation for trade restrictions by cutting GSOMIA sharing of intelligence, knowing that Moon would thereby arouse a US response on Japan’s side. National identity was at stake too for Japanese conservatives, believing that the US-Japan gap could, in spite of Trump’s provocations, be managed, the Sino-Japan gap had narrowed enough to be kept on the sidelines, and the Japan-ROK gap was now so serious and amenable to action that Abe had a golden opportunity to rally his nation, isolate Seoul, and weaken Korean progressives.
Eun A Jo, “Moon’s Failed Balancing Act”
If in the summer of 2018 Moon Jae-in seemed to be in the driver’s seat, riding the wave of optimism generated by the Trump-Kim Singapore summit, a year later he was accused of irresponsibility and irrelevance, marginalized by some and demonized by Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong-un. In a span of two months, Xi Jinping went to Pyongyang to meet Kim not having gone to Seoul to meet Moon, Trump met with Kim at the DMZ leaving Moon on the sidelines, Kim rejected more meetings with Moon, and Abe dealt a blow to Seoul’s economy leading Moon to retaliate at the price of US anger over the resulting loss to allied security. Moon was left isolated by late summer.
Moon’s strategy depends heavily on US-North Korean relations, for which he has, broadly, three objectives: 1) closing the gap between their varying approaches to denuclearization; 2) ensuring South Korea’s say in shaping a negotiated settlement for peace; and 3) advancing inter-Korean relations (not necessarily in tandem with US-North Korea relations). Such mutually contingent objectives depend greatly on timing and coordination, but also on the strategies of foreign leaders over whom Moon has little control. Washington and Pyongyang are losing faith in Moon’s ability to mediate in their favor; Washington repeatedly warning against unilateral moves to deepen inter-Korean ties. Though Seoul has yet to defy Washington in any overt manner, it has contemplated unilaterally lifting sanctions on Pyongyang, alarming Washington. Pyongyang has been more forthright in its criticism, telling Seoul “to mind its own internal business.” Fears of “Korea passing” have reemerged, being bypassed in a deal or a breakdown.
Alarmed by what they deem a visible shift toward bilateralism in US-North Korea relations, conservatives condemn Moon for passivism and advise strengthening alliance coordination with Washington to protect Seoul’s interests. Meanwhile, progressives still applaud the success of trilateralism and see little reason to change the direction of Moon’s strategy—they recommend, simply, more of the same. Photo-ops appear to have run their course, unmasking the fundamental differences between the US and North Korea that Seoul is unable to reconcile, leaving the talks with North Korea and Moon’s policy toward it at an impasse compared to before the G20.
Seoul’s diplomatic isolation is exacerbated by disputes with Tokyo, coming to the head during the week of the G20 summit. Abe refused to meet Moon and then imposed export restrictions on three vital chemicals, leading to a cycle of threats and retaliation. Moon’s two-track strategy with Japan of inflaming history issues without spillover has failed. Mounting mistrust has driven a big wedge between the two sides. Though Tokyo has repeatedly denied that its trade measures are in retaliation for history-related disputes, Abe’s reference to broken “trust” implies their intimate link. Complicating the matter for Moon is the public’s hardened attitude toward Japan—one he helped to arouse. Negative public sentiments have begun to materialize in a campaign to boycott Japan-made goods and services, as progressive politicians seem to be reinforcing “No Japan” sentiments for electoral advantage.
If both conservatives and progressives portrayed Japan’s actions as disproportionate, conservatives have been more critical of Moon for failing to respond effectively or, in harsher accounts, for “triggering” Tokyo’s trade measures. They warn against any form of tit-for-tat retribution and support a diplomatic resolution mediated by Washington. At the same time, they warn that Washington’s intervention may not be favorable to Seoul; after all, Tokyo has followed Washington far more closely on key strategic issues. For the progressives, Washington’s intervention is unlikely to be helpful as it is an advocate—and in fact the architect—of contemporary “trade retaliationism.” The only sustainable solution is, therefore, to diversify South Korea’s trade partnerships and grow economically independent from Japan.
As for the Sino-US trade war, it threatens to corner Seoul into making an impossible choice. An outsized part of exports entails supplying intermediate goods to China, which then assembles final goods for sale elsewhere including, most notably, the United States; this means South Korea suffers directly from any disruptions in the US-China trade. Beyond the economic costs, a conflict between Washington and Beijing creates complex diplomatic challenges for Seoul—in particular, their rivalry bodes poorly for Moon’s signature policy of inter-Korean reconciliation.
Because Seoul’s relations with both are pitched in zero-sum terms, Moon’s ability to implement “balanced diplomacy” is contingent on whether they are willing and able to accommodate his balancing acts—and given alliance commitments, Washington’s tolerance is especially critical. As its trade war with Beijing heightens, Washington has begun to pressure and, increasingly, threaten Seoul to decouple from Beijing, as in its anti-Huawei campaign. In the Xi-Moon Osaka meeting, Xi raised the THAAD issue again, presumably, to remind Moon of what havoc Beijing could unleash on Seoul if it posed any harm, and discussed the results of his latest summit with Kim, signaling Beijing’s political sway over Pyongyang and underscoring the importance of Beijing’s role in Moon’s inter-Korean reconciliation. Moon must resist Washington’s pressures or endure overwhelming economic and diplomatic costs that Beijing will inflict in retribution.
Thus, the three diplomatic contests have one theme in common: Seoul’s growing powerlessness.
Editorial Staff, “Trump’s Illusions”
In the eyes of US observers, the G20 summit was more a series of bilateral meetings than a multilateral summit, more a prelude to Trump’s visit to the Korean Peninsula and meeting with Kim Jong-un, and more a round in the on-again off-again talks with Xi Jinping over trade than a turning point. Trump overshadowed other leaders, driving the newsworthy coverage, and reshaped the agenda away from customary G20 aspirations. Trump appeared to achieve three objectives: to restart US-North Korean negotiations left to stagnate after the February Hanoi summit, to give new energy to Sino-US trade negotiations after alarm about a deepening trade war had risen, and to further solidify US relations with Abe Shinzo and Moon Jae-in. Yet, talks with North Korea failed to materialize as it repeatedly launched short-range missiles, optimism about Sino-US trade talks proved ephemeral after a high-level US delegation to Beijing returned empty-handed and the trade war intensified, and Abe’s trade restrictions on South Korea and the unprecedented collapse in Japan-ROK relations meant that aspirations for a triangular alliance had suffered their worst blow as if Trump were a bystander.
On North Korea, Trump preempted any joint move by insisting that his personal relationship with Kim Jong-un was the solution to the problem, leaving Abe with no room to rally world leaders behind a multilateral approach. The Japanese saved most of their criticism of weakness in the face of threat for Moon Jae-in. In downplaying criticism of Trump, as frustrating as that was, they turned vehemently to charges that Moon’s approach had endangered the sanctions regime, threatened Japan’s own security, and put South Korea in opposition to the US and Japan. That Trump gave short shrift to Moon when Moon visited the US in April and again at the summit with Kim Jong-un was welcome news. Americans left puzzled as to why Trump was handled gingerly and the outburst against Moon reached an extreme level have overlooked the triangular nature of Japan’s reactions. In the prior two months both Putin and Xi had met with Kim Jong-un, raising questions about whether they were using North Korea as a “card” in their conflicts with the United States. US coverage of these summits was, at most, moderately critical, doubting that anything much had happened, nor did Trump rally resistance in Osaka meetings, preferring to find bonhomie with Putin and warm words for Xi despite the trade tensions. Openings were lost.
Many waited anxiously for the Trump-Xi summit at the Osaka G20. Trump failed to maximize the opportunity in at least six respects: 1) he did not show respect for open and free markets in the spirit customary at previous G20 summits; 2) he eschewed multilateralism; 3) his message regarding China was diluted by his vocal demands on Japan aimed at forcing concessions in bilateral trade talks; 4) he personalized the dispute with China, as if progress depended on his ties to Xi Jinping rather than on the strength of the case based on principles; 5) his decision to follow the G20 with a meeting with Kim Jong-un distracted from the urgent priority to avert a trade war for reason of vanity; and 6) his use of tariffs, arbitrarily increased and decreased, was widely seen as a flawed strategy.
The trade war, which has far-reaching consequences for many countries, failed to become the central theme on the G20 agenda, even if few doubted it was foremost on the minds of leaders. This cavalier approach to what should have been addressed through preliminary talks and reports left the subject of China’s distortion of market principles and coercive ways as a tug-of-war between an unpopular and unpredictable US president and a wily leader of China able to count on pressure Trump would feel as he prioritizes reelection. At the G20, there was an image of disarray—Abe focusing on improved economic ties to China and Trump focused, despite words of praise for Xi, on threats to upend bilateral ties unless Xi yielded.
Finally, the fact that Trump would be in one location with both Abe and Moon meant that the US had an opportunity to address the serious breakdown of relations between its close allies, but the very notion of triangularity appeared anathema to a leader obsessed with one-on-one meetings, where he can capitalize on the greater clout of the US. Korean presumptions that Japan still must confront its past and must be reminded of alarm about its remilitarization find no sympathetic audience in DC, where there is a well-established outlook on security and national identity, in sharp conflict with messages being received from the Korean side in the latest reiteration of the “history wars.” US priorities center on ending these “wars” between allies as quickly as possible. The Moon administration strategy does not address the growing strategic consensus of the US and Japan in contrast to the deepening US-ROK divide. If Trump missed a chance in Osaka to deal with an alliance crisis, Moon would not find a better occasion as Abe gave vent to Japanese anger. Not only were opportunities missed at the G20, but the outcomes did more harm than good. The state of the Indo-Pacific region is worse off in late August than in early June 2019.
Constantino Xavier, “Modi’s Middle Way”
“Rarely have meetings on the sidelines around one summit carried as much import on India’s future policies as the G-20 summit in Osaka.” This article introduces this quotation to point to the significance of the way India’s foreign policy has shifted this summer. Modi engaged in two
contrasting geostrategic trilaterals with equal excitement: one with Trump and Abe, the other with Xi Jinping and Putin. For a seasoned practitioner of non-alignment like India, used to crafting difficult balances in constantly changing orders, the current fluidity may bring some concern but does not pose a dramatic challenge, Xavier argues. India’s balancing act is focused on pursuing a middle way: limiting exposure to the increasingly conflictual Sino-American dynamics by keeping decent relations with both Washington and Beijing, giving minimally necessary love to Russia, and also deepening partnerships with other middle powers such as Japan. In pursuing this geostrategic equilibrium, India will have to work hard at home; Modi’s maneuvering hinges on his ability to increase India’s limited economic and military capabilities.
India’s non-aligned and dual strategy is not without dangers because it often boils down to a lazy attempt to just muddle through, warns Xavier. Up for debate is whether and how to engage with the emerging “Indo-Pacific” construct. Is it an American ploy to rope in India as a junior ally in a containment strategy against China? Or is it also an Indian concept, giving Delhi the chance to step up and take the leadership in its own region? Trust in the US has fallen under Trump, bringing to the surface several latent differences that were simmering, from trade liberalization and market access to intellectual property rights and immigration policies. Not sparing Delhi, Trump has called India a protectionist “tariff king,” among other accusations and tirades. The long US-India honeymoon of the last fifteen years is now coming under stress.
At the same time, India’s diversification strategy demands a tactical engagement with China, even if only to make the most of rising US-China tensions. Alternating among four modes of managing China, Modi, however, is unlikely to move the needle from tactical engagement to strategic normalization, concludes Xavier. Russia’s proximity to China and its openings to Pakistan have forced India to no longer take Putin for granted and put in the effort to sustain a more transactional relationship. Modi’s middle way diplomacy is seeking to re-engage Russia to slow down Moscow’s convergence with Beijing and, at the same time, fend off American and European pressures. This fine balance has translated into a succession of Modi-Putin summits, as well as multilateral initiatives.
Yet, Japan is the key unit in a plan to reduce reliance on either the United States or China, Xavier adds. Free from irritants, this bilateral relationship is strong and is personified by the link between Modi and Abe, whose long meetings at the G20 in Osaka illustrate the depth and scope of the relationship, on which many smaller Asian states now rest hopes when they speak about the need for an alternative to China. Japan plays a critical role in infrastructure modernization, they have a free trade agreement, and both bureaucracies have overcome myriad obstacles to cooperate on infrastructure and capacity-building in third countries.
Modi’s external balancing game is either shrewd and ambitious or naive and dangerous, depending on whom in Delhi you speak to. It relies on Modi’s ability to address urgent reformist requirements at home, but those are not going well. Modi’s government has achieved less than a third of the thirty critical reforms to modernize the economy. There are now worrisome signs of the economy tanking. Failing to keep technocrat advisors, Modi has put increasing emphasis on both populist and protectionist measures. Security-centric foreign policy to compensate for economic protectionism at home is simply unsustainable. It may also be counter-productive by inviting China’s wrath. China’s BRI has dramatically changed India’s “operating environment,” and it will continue to do so by financing infrastructure in India’s backyard, using Pakistan as its security proxy to tie India down, or luring Indian companies to advocate for its 5G network.
Together these four articles paint a picture of a region abruptly thrown into turmoil, leaders in pursuit of new foreign policy strategies, and US policies failing to show necessary leadership. Abe is frustrated and lashing out while sticking with Trump. Moon is isolated and out of options for now. Trump’s façade has been exposed as he doubles down on a disruptive trade war. Modi is leading the way in hedging. If Xi Jinping would appear to be the winner, he too faces troubles after being blindsided by the dizzying pace of change. The first half of the summer of 2019 was disruptive of the existing regional order, but it left little clarity about the order that is to follow.