There is every expectation that Joe Biden will replace Donald Trump’s diplomacy, with stress on multilateralism. In Europe, this clearly means a reemphasis on NATO. In the Indo-Pacific region, three options—which are not mutually exclusive—stand apart: trilateralism with Japan and South Korea; the Quad with Japan, Australia, and India; and outreach to China in search of a format for collective discussion if not management of regional security challenges, following the Six-Parry Talks of the 2000s. Here, we assess the prospects for each of these multilateral possibilities. As the designated secretary of state, Tony Blinken represents the forces of multilateralism who may seek to forge a Quad-Plus, incorporating trilateralism to a considerable extent, striving to enlist countries within ASEAN along with accepting a degree of ASEAN centrality, while leaving the door open to elements of inclusive multilateralism engaging China, especially on North Korea. In order to assess the prospects for US-led multilateralism, we concentrate on three perspectives: 1) Japan-ROK relations and South Korea’s pivotal role in Northeast Asia; 2) China’s relationship with North Korea and its recent thinking about coordination with the US and South Korea on North Korea; and 3) contention in the Southern Tier toward the US-led Quad and regionalism. 

US strategic thinking will benefit from the eagerness many countries have for the reassertion of US leadership, but the challenges will come mainly from the diverse responses across the Indo-Pacific. In forging a trilateral alliance framework, Washington must reckon with the difficulties in Japan-ROK relations as well as Moon Jae-in’s reluctance to arouse China’s displeasure and likely retaliation. In order to solidify the Quad and begin to expand it into the Quad-Plus, Biden must grasp the dynamics in Asia’s Southern Tier from India to Australia, and the still lingering expectations of ASEAN centrality. Finally, amid a rising cold war competition with China, the key area of geopolitical cooperation could be North Korea, but that depends largely on China’s latest thinking about the multilateral framework for addressing this persistent conundrum. Thus, in the three articles to follow we concentrate on the gap between Japanese and ROK attitudes on the peninsula and regional policy, a Chinese outlook on diplomacy about North Korea and how to achieve a breakthrough, and a well-rounded, updated survey of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific.

Multilateralism stands in stark contrast to Trump’s unilateralism: it prioritizes diplomacy; it calls for inter-agency coordination; and it adjusts policy-making to follow consultations with allies or important partners. The US president recedes into an occasional role focused on specific, highly consequential matters, raising the profile of US officials. The Trump legacy casts a dark shadow. It pressed Tokyo and Seoul unilaterally, privileging bilateralism with no regard for the triangle. It skirted ASEAN, missing presidential attendance at annual ASEAN-led summits. Finally, policy toward China after initial cooperation on North Korea ignored its role on the Korean Peninsula to the point China’s leaders proceeded unilaterally on North Korea and redoubled efforts at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Conditions for US-led multilateralism had worsened by the time Biden was preparing the agenda for his administration to meet Indo-Pacific challenges.

US options in the Indo-Pacific have deteriorated since 2017. That year the December 2015 “comfort women” agreement was holding, boosting hopes for trilateralism, Sino-US agreement on pressuring North Korea was at its peak, and there was hope that Obama’s upgrade of US ties to Southeast Asia would persist supplemented by more vigorous Freedom of Navigation action in the South China Sea as well as a new National Security Strategy targeting China’s behavior. In the background, however, loomed Moon’s election, promising unwelcome moves toward both North Korea and Japan, and Sino-US tensions, pointing to the shakiness of the coordination on North Korea. Meanwhile, Trump’s contempt for multilateralism defied an NSS crafted by aides.

Optimism in 2018 rested on the façade of the Singapore summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un and the appearance of parallel Chinese and US diplomacy with Kim, when their objectives were at odds. Sino-US and Japan-ROK relations were deteriorating before falling more sharply in 2019 and not recovering in 2020. Because Trump hogged the spotlight, few grasped how Xi Jinping was driving events or even how badly damaged were Seoul’s relations with Washington.

Even if the Biden administration adroitly plans its diplomacy for multilateralism, Moon Jae-in may only respond with Trilateralism Light and nominal interest in Indo-Pacific multilateralism in order to keep his initiative to Pyongyang and cooperation with Beijing on course. Moreover, for Xi Jinping, confident that China is ascendant and the US in decline, attacking the Democrats as anti-China (if more subtle than Pompeo and Pence in couching their ideology) may be engrained. Given the latest reasoning on how to exert leverage over Taiwan and North Korea as well as other points of contention, prospects for China-inclusive geopolitical multilateralism are grim. Prospects for the Quad-Plus are also limited but better than for substantial trilateralism and far better than for Sino-US coordination on regional security issues. The key is India in the US-China-India triangle with Japan’s important role, given its dogged pursuit of Narendra Modi.

Gilbert Rozman,Challenges to Biden’s pursuit of trilateralism”  

While the Quad remains a far-reaching target and the coalition to approach China through a consensus is a paramount objective that requires many intermediate steps, trilateralism is the low-hanging fruit, albeit a long-elusive one. Biden’s new foreign policy team is intimately familiar with the Obama administration’s hard-won success in 2015, which collapsed in Japan-ROK bickering and Trump’s apparent indifference not long afterwards. Not only must they reflect on the lessons from the past decade, they have to face the more urgent imperatives at the start of the 2020s as they pursue US-Japan-ROK ties anew. The Biden administration is bound to question the impact of national identity preoccupations and seek to refocus both national identity and national interest attention on China’s threats, as it prioritizes a vision inclusive of Japan-ROK commitment to universal values and wide-ranging security ties.

For Tokyo and Seoul trilateralism requires a fundamental reconceptualization of both national interests and national identities in the region closest to home, which have contributed to diplomatic impasses and weak coordination with the United States. For Abe, they minimized past history understandings with Seoul, focused on abductees with Pyongyang, and pretended that the Northern Territories supersede universal values with Moscow, leaving an albatross around Suga’s neck as he tries to distance his country in Northeast Asia, where results were much more problematic, from Abe’s much-lauded legacy in foreign policy. The challenges facing Moon Jae-in regarding trilateralism are even greater since his progressive camp has widened the national identity gap with Japan to a far greater degree, obstructing the normal course of building future-oriented relations centered on national interests, and his identity obsession with national reunification has been exposed as an illusion with serious consequences. Koreans talk of putting history aside for a time and boosting ties to Japan, but not trying to resolve the timebomb now being faced, which makes Japanese wary of making any commitment. 

Realism dictates that we recognize five major changes in the quest for trilateralism at this time. First, China’s continued rise and “wolf warrior” aggressiveness are tilting the priority challenges. Second, Japan’s stepped-up leadership role and intensified alliance with the US have a skewed effect on the triangle. Third, conceptualization of an Indo-Pacific region is concentrating minds on the wider range of US-led multilateralism, extending to the purposes of trilateralism. Fourth, tensions between the Moon administration and the US, beyond the Trump impact, have raised worrisome doubts about how to reset this bilateral alliance. Finally, impatience with historical memory as a distraction has accelerated in light of strategic demands for a vision of the future. Apart from shortsightedness in Tokyo and Seoul, these recent changes raise new challenges.

At least four goals for the US-Japan-ROK triangle can be discerned in late 2020. First, it is seen as a force for more effectively influencing North Korea: clarifying a stage-by-stage approach to negotiations, should they be resumed, and tightening both pressure and deterrence to impact North Korean thinking. Before coordination with China and Russia can be newly addressed, the US can be expected to seek a united front with its allies. Second, the triangle is viewed from the perspective of security policy in Northeast Asia, where China and Russia as well as North Korea are rapidly boosting their military capabilities. Shared intelligence, missile defenses, control over exports, vulnerability to surveillance, and force structures are on the table in bilateral and trilateral exchanges. Third, Biden has expressed the intention to put “values diplomacy” in the forefront, including an early summit of the democracies. This would put pressure on Seoul and Tokyo to prioritize their commitment to universal values, limiting mutual attacks over identity differences. Fourth, Biden’s policy toward China, including beefing up the Quad and searching for a Quad-plus will make demands on Japan and, especially, South Korea. All four objectives raise questions for Moon Jae-in and could lead to new pressure on Moon to work with Japan. 

The triangle is critical because: 1) linking forces are essential to fighting North Korea; 2) only the triangle can show China it has to pressure the North or the triangle will strengthen; 3) China sees a green light to pressure others unless US alliances are strong: and 4) when Japan and Korea together seek a US response, they are most likely to get results. Koreans expect more pressure on their side to improve ties to Japan, in doing so, they can gain Biden’s trust. Yet this is easier than a regional approach viewed negatively in China. A delicate balance is required. If trilateralism is sold as promoting peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia, China may agree, but this is too vague to solidify the security and values agenda others are seeking. The coalition is not against China but for a region that can reshape the environment for China not to coerce others. Its response is at issue. Few expect China not to retaliate, pretending that it is being contained and targeting South Korea as the most vulnerable to its pressure tactics, as seen in the sanctions over THAAD.

Attitudes toward China’s approach to North Korea are a decisive factor in divergence toward trilateralism. Washington has essentially given up on Chinese cooperation, while Moon thinks that Seoul must accommodate China to win its further cooperation. Different lessons are drawn regarding Park Geun-hye’s failure to get closer Chinese cooperation in 2013-15 and decision to tilt to the alliance, including authorizing THAAD. Washington and much of the South Korean public have soured on China and are resigned to more Chinese retaliation, but progressives in Seoul are intent on not provoking Beijing again, even fueling Chinese optimism that it has veto power against trilateralism. The US side has concluded that China was only playing for time in diplomacy over North Korea and now, under the sway of “wolf-warrior” thinking, will tolerate greater risk and further reduce the priority of denuclearization. Given the China factor as well as Moon’s obsession with engaging North Korea, Seoul is not on board with genuine trilateralism, democracy promotion, or a broadened, regionally-oriented alliance framework, such as the Quad-Plus.

Moon cannot avoid US coalition-based strategy toward China, pressuring Seoul to align, maybe even asking Seoul to join the Quad-Plus and to call out human rights abuses. Blinken is bound to press for better ROK-Japanese ties. Seoul prefers to work with China for peace on the Korean Peninsula and for the sake of South Korea’s economy. Thus, he would strive to boost Sino-US cooperation. A big problem for Seoul is that Beijing is more intolerant of it playing the “human rights” card than of Washington or even Tokyo doing so, whether this is due to a bigger power differential, an historical image of Korea’s place in Sinocentrism, or a strategy to target the ROK as the weak link in the US alliance and defense partnership system. South Korean leaders have encouraged China by making common cause against Japan over history and have proved to be deferential even when provoked, feeding China’s high confidence that its approach is effective. Seeking regional dominance, China strives for the removal of US influence on the peninsula.

Overtures from the Moon administration to improve relations without resolving the issue of court-ordered compensation for forced labor some eight decades ago have been rebuffed. In early December Suga was refusing Moon’s appeal for a CJK summit by year’s end without some resolution of the threat to cash funds from Japanese companies for this purpose. Another idea floated from Seoul is to prepare a new “Japan-Korea Joint Declaration,” invoking the legacy of 1998 when the prior declaration ranged widely from cooperating in reconciling historical issues, coordinating on the North Korean nuclear and missile issues, and coordinating in UN diplomacy and maintaining international economic order. It was the foundation of Japan-Korea relations articulating what appeared to be a shared vision. Now a resolution might aim to skirt history.

Cheng Xiaohe, “US-DPRK relations and China’s response in the Biden era”

This article presents four principal conclusions, which many still fail to appreciate. First, China’s cooperation with the United States on North Korea is heavily conditioned on the overall state of relations. Second, cooperation on North Korea has broken down badly during the Trump era despite the fact that China welcomed the Singapore summit. Third, China’s relationship with North Korea has been greatly normalized over this time, although the pandemic temporarily set back trade ties. Finally, China has improved ties to South Korea considerably since the low point after THAAD deployment and expects further consensus on how to engage North Korea and to resist US moves to intensify pressure on it or to join in measures to contain China. China is keeping its policy options open, as it awaits new moves by Washington, Pyongyang, and Seoul.

Cheng reviews the failure at the Hanoi summit, misrepresenting the US will to compromise. He says that the US and North Korea had never been so near to concluding a pathbreaking, comprehensive deal, when many think there was no such prospect. Many factors contributed to the grand failure, but the lack of mutual trust and the absence of political will to compromise were paramount, argues Cheng. Kim unrealistically expected Trump to reciprocate, and Trump wanted Kim to make additional concessions is the apparently even-handed Chinese evaluation. Summarizing the Trump legacy on US-DPRK relations, Cheng includes a nearly three-year-long tranquility on the Korean Peninsula (with no mention of North Korea’s increased nuclear build-up and missile threat) and the unravelling of Sino-US cooperation on the its denuclearization as the two began to turn against each other in a grand strategic rivalry. Failing to cooperate with Beijing on North Korea is a negative factor; reducing pressure on the North is a positive one.

Also noted are the positive effect of Kim Jong-un making overtures to Xi Jinping to rebuild relations and pursue a diplomatic track and the negative impact of Trump pursuing a course at sharp variance from what China has long conceived as the pathway to a breakthrough. What is needed is not frequent contacts between the US president and Kim, but a different negotiating strategy. Nor is strategic patience, which Cheng attributes to the Obama administration, waiting for North Korea to make its decision to denuclearize, the answer. He disagrees with what the US put on the table for a deal as falling far short of what Pyongyang as well as Beijing considers necessary; so he dismisses it as no more than unilateral demands. What remains in 2021 is what Cheng calls a half-accomplished infrastructure on which Biden can build, praising the consensus on some major issues, including diplomatic normalization, turning the armistice into a permanent peace mechanism, economic assistance to North Korea, etc., while minimizing as today’s only unsettled issue North Korea’s denuclearization and US agreement to lift sanctions.

The article next lauds the solid and significant progress in normalizing China’s relations with North Korea. Since March 2018, Kim Jong-un has visited China four times, and Xi paid a return visit, the culmination of Sino-North Korean relations. Politically, Xi Jinping clearly stated “Four Firm Supports” for North Korea and its paramount leader—for the DPRK’s socialist enterprise, for the implementation of its new strategic line, for a political solution to solving the nuclear issue, and for realizing lasting peace and security on the peninsula. As a result of this lasting foundation for the relationship, the strategic trust between the two countries’ top leaders, which had been undermined by the two countries’ conflicting positions on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, has been repaired if not totally recovered, and both countries are in the process of normalizing and improving their political and diplomatic relations.

Although the improved momentum in bilateral relations was suddenly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, this does not stand in the way of the commitments both countries have made. Economic ties between China and North Korea still have been treading water thanks to UN-imposed sanctions, but the high-profile political interactions naturally aroused high expectations from North Korea that warmer political relations could help to warm up their economic ties. What China has done in the economic field are threefold: to offer the necessary humanitarian assistance to North Korea, including food and medicine, in order to fend off any humanitarian crisis and mitigate the pandemic fallout; to conduct business with North Korea that is allowed by UN resolutions, even though the space for legal business is quite limited; and to take the lead to call for the lifting of some sanctions against North Korea, including drafting a resolution with Russia. There exists significant potential for economic ties to grow. Undoubtedly, this will be a high priority for both China and North Korea as soon as disrupted economic lives return to normal., Cheng concludes.  

Cheng sees in this period of entente on the peninsula South Korea and China beginning to find themselves on the same page with regard to seeking a solution to the Korea question through peaceful means, maintaining stability on the peninsula and opposing any regime change attempt, stopping or scaling back military exercises targeting North Korea, and offering North Korea assistance if needed while seeking early partial lifting of sanctions against it. He adds that they found themselves sharing a strong aversion to Trump’s heavy-handed pressure, while taking common stands on multilateralism versus unilateralism and globalization versus protectionism. In contrast to the two allies seemingly drifting apart, China and South Korea are moving closer. The Covid-19 pandemic, which further drove a wedge into the fractured Sino-US relationship, pulled China and South Korea together. As in-person diplomacy was put on hold due to the pandemic, two senior Chinese officials’ visits to South Korea were eye-catching. In August, Yang Jiechi confirmed that South Korea is at the top of the list of countries that Xi will visit “as soon as the right environment is created,” and he proposed ways to elevate the China-South Korea strategic cooperative partnership to a new level. In November, Wang Yi visited Seoul and agreed on a ten-point consensus, including launching a 2+2 on diplomacy and security, while launching a China-ROK dialogue on maritime affairs. This will be the first of this type China has forged. Both sides sent a clear message to the world that they intend to build closer relations and such an effort will not be affected by the ongoing strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington, argues Cheng.

As for Sino-US ties, Cheng notes that in 2017 Trump made a proposal to link China’s support for a deal with North Korea with the trade issue between the US and China. Although China did not accept the linkage, it still endorsed the passage of UNSC resolutions 2371, 2375, and 2397 after North Korea conducted an ICBM test and its sixth nuclear test. Yet talks over these resolutions did not go well, creating mutual grievances; the US government alleged that China was not tough enough, and China believed that the US was too demanding. The US National Security Strategy was published, leading China to cave and break the deadlock on resolution 2397—the toughest of all. Within months a trade war was under way, escalating into a full-blown confrontation that pitted China and the United States against each other in almost every field, including the North Korean nuclear issue. In October 2018 Pompeo spent less than half a day in Beijing on his four-state tour. Given the fact that he had just visited Pyongyang and met Kim Jong-un, such a short stay clearly demonstrated that the US and China had lost interest in finding common ground.

Kong Xuanyou, who for two years from August 2017 was the Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Korean Peninsula Affairs, never visited Washington. No successor has been appointed, seemingly reflecting the battered state of international cooperation on the North Korea issue and revealing that Beijing is no hurry to jump start the stalled talks over it. Cheng concludes that in the foreseeable future, we can hardly see any possible chance for the two nations to resume their cooperation. The low possibility of cooperation will have a significant impact on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. China allowed the Security Council to slap sanctions on its traditional ally North Korea in order to maintain stability in Sino-US relations and keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear free, but the mounting strategic rivalry between China and the United States inevitably changed its perceptions. Both are now more likely to perceive Korean issues from the perspective of Sino-US strategic rivalry, the US will become increasingly vigilant about lifting sanctions against North Korea, whereas China will become increasingly reluctant to further punish North Korea, even if it does something provocative. Cooperation, we read, is becoming increasingly dependent on the overall state of Sino-US ties.

Rory Medcalf, “America’s Indo-Pacific Challenge”

America cannot effectively compete with China if it allows Beijing hegemony over “the most populous, dynamic and consequential region in the world.” The challenge and opportunity for the Biden administration is to translate its promises about working with allies and partners into a multi-layered and sustainable strategy for the Indo-Pacific. As of February 2021, early signs are reassuring, including in senior appointments and signals to allies. Will the United States effectively resource and manage the many tasks that constitute a comprehensive strategy to work with allies and partners in preventing Chinese dominance of the Indo-Pacific region?

While the events of the past year have shaken regional order and the whole world, they have left the concept of the Indo-Pacific tempered and true. a year of turmoil prompted or provoked in large part by China’s own hubristic behavior is lending even greater coherence to the ideas of multipolarity, agency, sovereignty, and inclusion that lie at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. Regional middle players like Australia, India, and Japan have stepped up their efforts to join forces—with one another and America—to protect their interests across obsolete geographic boundaries.

The Indo-Pacific thus serves as a stage for crafting policy responses to Chinese power, especially two complementary kinds of balancing: a web of security cooperation based on the US alliance system, most notably the Quadrilateral dialogue of America, Japan, India, and Australia; and emerging middle-power coalitions involving Japan, India, Australia, and occasionally others such as Southeast Asian or even European states. This conception of a two-ocean system privileges multipolarity—reflecting that this expansive region has always been a shared space, never been dominated by a single power. It also reflects the importance of the sea, including in seaborne trade, resource exploitation, the protection of the commons, and the effectiveness and flexibility of sea power. There would be no modern Indo-Pacific without China’s vast and growing two-ocean footprint, in trade, investment, infrastructure, aid, diplomacy, espionage, political influence, and military presence—and its integrated use of all these instruments to build and project national power abroad while tightening regime control at home.

If the Indo-Pacific had been a superficial and faddish notion, the Trump factor would have quickly sabotaged it. After all, he was entirely the wrong champion for an idea meant to advance stability via respect for allies and partners. It thus attests to the resilience and flexibility of the concept that so many other nations embraced it anyway. Contrary to some claims, the Indo-Pacific was not an intellectual confection made in Washington and foisted on an unreceptive Asia. Instead, it is an authentically regional approach to diplomacy, security, and economics, which has achieved growing support in Asia and beyond. A pattern politely described in earlier years as mere “assertiveness” underwent a step change towards comprehensively confrontational “wolf warrior diplomacy.”. 

Rather than isolate or subdue the middle players, China’s actions in 2020 reinforced their earlier Indo-Pacific strategies of seeking common cause with one another, while building domestic resilience and keeping the door open for engagement on terms of mutual respect. Notably, throughout 2020 and into 2021, Japan, India, and Australia strengthened their bonds with each other and in a quadrilateral with America. The Quad is starting to become a core group for larger coalitions to address shared problems. A British proposal to extend the G7 to the D10 has reportedly been met with caution from Japan, said to be wary of the notion of bringing South Korea, in particular, into this trusted circle. Among other things, this reinforces the need for the United States to redouble efforts to emphasize common ground between its two north Asian allies, and to draw Seoul into wider Indo-Pacific efforts,

A new pattern is emerging. On the one hand, it will be even more difficult for nations to balance against Chinese power when their own wealth and power have been so damaged by the impact of the pandemic. On the other hand, this new strategic frugality will encourage even greater efforts to build partnerships, to find safety in numbers. The pandemic has not put a stop to strategic balancing. It is just getting started. The Biden administration is off to a credible start. It is already becoming clear that the administration intends to own, adapt, and enhance the Indo-Pacific character of American policy in recent years.

There will be several essential ingredients to a Biden Indo-Pacific strategy. Engagement with allies and partners is an obvious one, and the right intent is already being amply shown. The Biden administration will also need quickly to develop and demonstrate its own appetite for strategic risk in managing China. It will need to move quickly to translate the good ideas of its new officials into the kind of military capability and posture a more dynamic deterrence relationship with China will require, including affordable and asymmetric capabilities, long-range conventional strike capabilities, unmanned systems, dispersed and hardened bases. Ultimately, this will go to the question of how successfully the administration can both protect and discipline defense spending amid the immense pressures for expenditures on the pandemic response, economic recovery, and national infrastructure. Strategic primacy is no longer the right goal for America in Asia, since it connotes a leading power without great-power rivals. A more realistic goal is pre-eminence, “a condition in which a state leads on most critical metrics of national power,” and US policy should focus on utilizing continued global pre-eminence to marshal allies, partners, and America’s own capacity for renewal in order to prevent a closed Chinese sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific.

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