In the early autumn of 2016, there were repeated seminars and exchanges in Seoul and Washington, DC on three interrelated topics: how to respond effectively to the North Korean threat, how to manage Sino-US relations with North Korea more than the South China Sea in the forefront, and how South Korea should reassert its drive for multilateral security architecture in Northeast Asia. The choices had sharpened. US impatience was palpable. South Korean nervousness was growing. There was greater anticipation than in many years that some turning point was in sight, but what was it: a shift in the geopolitical center of gravity, a shakeup in bilateral ties that had seemed relatively fixed, a confrontation that could lead to a new Cold War? These themes serve as a backdrop for assessing the 2016 South Korean realignment.
On September 23, the Seoul Forum for International Affairs held its 30th anniversary meeting with lively panels, a keynote address, and many insights about discussions in South Korea on the state of Northeast Asia. Without trying to capture the fullest range of presentations and exchanges, this synopsis concentrates on how anxieties about foreign relations are being addressed: How do shifts in the geopolitical center of gravity affect South Korea? What has gone wrong, and who is to blame? What are the prospects for renewed multilateralism? How should Seoul steer relations among the various great powers? Even as some viewpoints sought to turn the clock back to renew initiatives pursued earlier, others accepted the ongoing realignment, eying new, if limited, responses. The forum opened a window on debates about change.
The three themes—responding to the North Korean threat, managing Sino-US relations, and reasserting South Korean-led multilateralism—separately and, even more, together, had created a depressing atmosphere. Optimism had faded rapidly that common interests, such as saving the global financial system or fighting climate change, would be able to keep in check contradictory (even antagonistic) views of the regional order. Despite the fact that China and the United States have been the two biggest winners in globalization and in regional peace and prosperity, peaceful problem-solving appears to be increasingly problematic in regard to North Korea and the South China Sea as well as other matters linked to the architecture of Asia. Utter lack of confidence in the prospects for Sino-US relations is fueling pessimism.
The two formats that had worked over more than a decade to check rivalries over North Korea and the South China Sea were so badly discredited in 2016 that many were calling for working around them. For ASEAN, there was talk of ending the veto of any one member. Instead of calling this the death knell of regionalism, some saw the best hope for regionalism—rather than helplessness in the face of challenges—to be a rump ASEAN ready to tackle security issues, including freedom of navigation and militarization of existing and artificial islands. As earlier hopes were dying, they grasped for new answers, but the forces in support of reinvigorating ASEAN remain dominant. Similarly, the remnants of the China-led Six-Party Talks were disparaged as incapable of addressing North Korea’s threat to South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Talk of bypassing these channels through “unilateral” (actually, trilateral) sanctions and deterrence was being heard increasingly often. Even so, attempts to revive China-centered diplomacy continue to be actively explored.
The State of South Korea in the Fall of 2016
The long period of peace and prosperity in the country and the region is now under threat, listeners were told. At best, South Korea has entered a period of low growth, low inflation, and regional instability, as Sino-US relations are more competitive than cooperative. A critical juncture has been reached, and managing the challenge now needs to be the focus of attention. In 1986, another juncture was in sight, giving rise to an optimistic mood in South Korea, which became a force for democratization and nordpolitik—each serving to accelerate the optimism. Peacefully transitioning to democracy and successfully normalizing relations with first Moscow and then Beijing against the warm glow of the Seoul Olympics gave a big boost to national pride. Three decades later, there is danger that the difficult challenges of reforming society to sustain the economy and face demographic obstacles and of sustaining multi-directional diplomacy to meet severe security problems will lead to despair and division. Seoul rode the wave of economic globalization, the unilateral US order, and regional economic integration to success, but now there is no model for what is needed and no expectation that external conditions or domestic politics will provide the right answers. Distrust that the great powers are thinking positively about joint action to solve problems rather than nostalgically about lost or fading empires lies at the core of South Korean concerns. This became the starting point for discussion.
Whereas equating North Korea in 2016 with Japan in 1941 seemed apt to many, the interpretations offered for the other great powers were more difficult to accept. The critique of Washington for strategic patience, which did nothing, ignored the impact of South Korea’s insistence on giving trustpolitik and a “honeymoon” with China time to work. The implication that Washington had a way to induce Pyongyang to agree to talks on denuclearization was dubious or that it could have earlier imposed unilateral sanctions misjudges the regional environment. Giving the label “strategic ambivalence” to China gives it the benefit of the doubt when many think it already was guided by a strategy, which South Koreans are hesitant to acknowledge, to split Seoul and Washington as well as Tokyo without contemplating putting pressure on Pyongyang that many in Seoul were wrongly expecting. The tendency to minimize the role of Russia as a troublemaker leaning to North Korea and to overstate the role of Japan as a country striving for its “old glory” also muddle the regional picture.
A Chinese viewpoint holds that the geopolitical center is not moving to Asia from the “West” for the next two-to-three decades. Rather than stress geographical concepts, it places the United States and its allies—including Japan and Australia—in the West, hinting at a geo-cultural frame of mind. Adding economic data or military assets, this view is insistent that China (as if the comparison is between one country and the US alliance system) is far behind, even more so if soft power enters the picture. Acknowledging that there is no Asian culture recognized as universal in appeal, but in China and Japan only local cultures, the argument holds that it will take China decades to rise to an economic superpower and longer still to rival the United States in other power and to broaden its own appeal in values that could lead the world. Yet, this appears to suggest that China’s catch-up phase will parallel the Soviet catch-up after WWII, justifying the label Asia Pacific, but warning against Sinocentrism as, at the least, premature since China lacks the power to exclude the United States from nearby. In this argument, China must avoid trying, as the Soviet Union did, to compete with the United States everywhere, and it should aim at the defense of core interests such as the South and East China seas, while cooperating with the United States elsewhere, such as in North Korea and Iran. Prioritizing reform at home as a new model of economic growth emerges, is proposed, but many in China clearly do not concur.
Among those in Seoul who disagreed that China would adopt the low, long-range profile described above, were some who tied themselves in knots to find a scenario of empowerment of Seoul amid growing polarization. First, they argued that the US role as global superpower will endure, but an overextended power will rely more on offshore balancing. Second, they accepted that competition for regional hegemony is deepening as China consolidates ties with Russia and boosts North Korea, preferring that to its collapse. Third, they agreed that US-Japan ties will tighten, as TPP and RCEP pull Asia in two directions economically. Yet, into the mix they add that Seoul can achieve yonmi huajong (ally with the United States and harmonize with China), and it must view China as an indispensable strategic partner, including resolving the THAAD dispute and further pursuing CJK as vital to regional cooperation. Somehow, dialogue with Beijing after a new US administration engages Beijing will prioritize common interests, while Seoul agrees to boost ROK-Japan ties (US trilateralism). In this thinking, China’s intentions are limited, avoiding competition strategically.
As in many exchanges of late, the crux of the division is what to make of Sino-US ties in the next administration, which usually centers on China’s intentions. If China is confident that North Korea never poses a threat to it and insistent that bilateral ties take priority over denuclearization (refusing to pressure the North strongly), then how does this fundamental difference over management of a regional hot spot end in Sino-US or Sino-ROK cooperation? If China demonizes Japan over history and is intolerant of Japan’s defensive build-up while persistent with its own militarization of disputed maritime areas, how can Sino-Japanese relations be managed? Further, if China conceives of Asia as Sinocentric—China as the geographical, economic, and cultural center if not also the political and security center—, how is this reconciled with the prevailing view elsewhere that an inclusive region with the United States in a leading role too (especially a military one, not a military retreat) is essential?
Two hot-button issues have entered the discussion at this time of uncertainty, as Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump are all seen as destabilizing forces. For some in Seoul “preemption” is the scariest notion, fearing that Washington would be concerned only by its own defensive interests and entrap Seoul in a very costly war. For others, possession of nuclear weapons is the answer, preventing “abandonment” and the unreliability in extended deterrence that they see emerging. Talk of efforts to avoid preemption, as a last resort, including renewed joint US-ROK attempts at dialogue with Pyongyang, in lieu of US-ROK-China coordination, did not allay fears. To conceptualize the extremes of preemption and nuclear self-defense narrows the focus in place of close analysis of the ongoing jockeying among four great powers.
The Geopolitical Center of Gravity
An exchange over whether the geopolitical center of gravity is moving drew diverse responses. There was scant discord about the long-term shift from Europe to the Euro-Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific, but what is meant by and how to label the latest transformation spurred debate. While there were elements of Asia’s rise in Japan’s push for regional hegemony in the 1930s-1940s and in the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s, the peripheral role of Asia in the 1980s as the Cold War was ending defied the earlier predictions that the geopolitical center was already relocating. Still, the post-Cold War era vividly revealed this transformation, even if its nature remained clouded in dispute. Four labels for depicting the new geopolitical center were heard.
The most popular label is the Asia Pacific, which is popular among those convinced of two distinct arrangements. One dreaded arrangement in some circles even if it is viewed as a savior in others is a G2, whereby a Sino-US condominium agrees on the main contours of the region. Perhaps, Xi Jinping had this in mind when he proposed a “new type of major power relations,” but this has generally been interpreted as a drawing a line down the middle of the Pacific, leaving the United States excluded from Asia geopolitically. When Obama hesitates to apply heavy pressure on China, it is often feared to be a precursor to a G2. The other interpretation of the Asia-Pacific label is parallel to the Euro-Atlantic label during the Cold War with China in place of the Soviet Union and US activity in Asia reminiscent of its alliance system in Europe. Polarization is the obvious outcome on a regional level more than a global one, as was the case in the early stages of the Cold War before the Soviet reach broadened.
A second label has drawn increasing attention in recent years. “One-Belt, One Road” and “Asia for the Asians” are ideas of Xi Jinping, which imply a Sinocentric order at the exclusion of the United States. The parallel that many have in mind is the tribute system of pre-modern Asia centered on China. Acceptance of the centrality of China involves a high level of political deference, acceptance of cultural arguments that are at odds with universal values, and rejection of a US-led balance of power that limits China’s leverage on surrounding areas. This label is less popular, but it may spread in the absence of countervailing forces, perhaps before many awaken to its advance.
A third label has emerged as less China-centered, if still excluding the United States. It is a Eurasian order, which would combine the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “Eurasian Economic Union,” as agreed by Xi and Vladimir Putin, perhaps with room for India, Iran, and others to exert some centrality. Although China is also advocating the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” and Russia is now pushing for the inclusion of ASEAN in an FTA broader than what it is planning with China, many understood that this label prioritizes continental Asia, while parts of maritime Asia, including Japan, are still tied to the United States. A separate, maritime regional order is assumed.
Even if one agrees that the geopolitical center is gravitating east, one may calculate that US supremacy will persist and that the nature of its alliances and partnerships in Asia involve more autonomous actors than in Europe during the Cold War. Thus, a label with wider scope, notably the inclusion of India, best showcases what many have in mind. Increasingly popular is the Indo-Pacific to capture the broad range of this architecture, leaving China and its more limited regional order in an unequal position. Combining military power, economic power, and soft power, the US-led order would, for the foreseeable future, maintain a large edge over the Sinocentric or Eurasian orders. The competition among different geopolitical orders will not be settled quickly. Awareness of the choices can help to clarify the options states face.
Only by conceptualizing alternative geopolitical orders can strategic thinking move beyond short-term and largely sub-regional calculations. Pretending that narrower choices are within reach is likely to give rise to illusions. Northeast and Southeast Asia have their own dynamics, but they cannot escape the broader environment.
South Korea’s Bridging Role
South Korea, similar to ASEAN, has raised expectations that it can achieve a kind of bridging role. This rests on at least five assumptions. First, the Sino-US relationship will not lead to Cold War type polarization, as cooperation continues to be pursued along with competition. This appears to be increasingly problematic, complicating the hopes for a bridging role. Second, South Korea, as a middle power, will be able to maintain sufficiently positive ties to both China and the United States to have clout to act autonomously in some circumstances. Already in 2016, leverage over China was in such doubt that this assumption was proving hard to sustain. Third, North Korea serves more as a force for South Korea’s leadership and the great powers coming together than as a force for polarization. Abruptly, in 2016 this enduring assumption since the late 1990s was being challenged. Fourth, Japan and Russia are secondary actors that do not seriously interfere with Seoul’s bridging role. In 2016, with Tokyo pressing Washington for a more assertive stance toward Beijing and Moscow urging Beijing to give greater backing to Pyongyang and be more cautious about agreeing to Security Council sanctions, this assumption has looked doubtful. Finally, optimism in Seoul has rested on confidence that South Koreans are largely together in pursuit of a regional strategy, but this was increasingly unclear after the general consensus behind Park’s 2015 diplomacy grew shakier in the realignment.
One response in Seoul was to recognize that the situation is very challenging, but not dangerous. It holds that Park’s foreign policy has been an improvement over the situation she inherited from Lee Myung-bak, when he had left relations with Japan at their nadir after defying his advisors, and had single-mindedly made ROK-US relations the only bright spot in Seoul’s major relations. This approach gives her credit for seeking improved ties to China and puts the blame on Japan and North Korea for unwillingness to meet her overtures. The betrayal by China in 2016 in how it has responded to the North’s 4th and 5th nuclear tests and to the decision to deploy THAAD has contributed to a sense of crisis over foreign policy, listeners were told. The list of crises captured the mood in South Korea in the fall of 2016: 1) the threat from a nuclear North Korea, altering the balance of power on the peninsula and creating the danger of proliferation; 2) the fortress America syndrome with its potential for unilateralism and abandonment of allies; 3) the big power, “middle kingdom” syndrome of China; 4) the Sino-US clash of interests portending a return to the Cold War; and 5) South Korea’s lack of a strategy, national consensus, and leadership in these trying times. Rather than getting its act together, South Korea has degenerated into the “blame game” along with others who are doing this is what might be surmised. At least, there is a sense of urgency for not just the happenstance realignment to date, but for a systematic strategic review—in consultation with the United States to some degree, and in search of consensus among South Koreans.
The targets of blame, listeners were told, range widely. Park Geun-hye is blaming Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun for giving money to North Korea that helped to fund its plans to use nuclear weapons to forge a “zone of immunity,” from which it could no longer be punished for belligerent behavior. In turn, progressives blame conservatives for discontinuing the engagement to North Korea, which could have resolved the situation. The Korean media targets the foreign policy establishment in general, while some others blame the media and much of the intellectual community for failing to assess the situation correctly. For many it is easier to focus the blame on the United States and China for not taking denuclearization seriously enough. In the background is awareness that Donald Trump and many Republicans blame the Obama regime and Hillary Clinton, and that China blames South Korea and THAAD as well as the United States. Whether one is critical of not offering Pyongyang more incentives or of not being prepared for unilateral sanctions and preemption, e.g. at the time of Kim Young-sam, lashing out at one target or another is commonplace.
Discussion swirled around the growing tendency to blame Washington or Beijing. In charging that three US presidents lacked will or purpose, making the wrong choices, that they vacillated between engagement and withdrawn isolation, and that they did not take South Korean interests seriously while making US interests supreme, this line of analysis casts doubt on US reliability ahead, once a nuclear strike on a US city is feared. The analysis also finds that Seoul cannot count on Beijing, even if it is shy about recognizing the misjudgment in prior expectations for Beijing and the large responsibility of Seoul in seeking to persuade Washington that Beijing would be a reliable partner in managing Pyongyang. Focusing on Washington and Beijing, one by one, rather than on the dynamics of the triangle with Seoul gives equivalence to the two countries that let Seoul down rather than showcasing Beijing’s long-term strategy and Seoul’s complicity, one listener reflected. In response, he was told that Bush told Roh that Iran (or Iraq) is the more serious problem, pleasing Roh, and then that Bush’s about-face in softening the US posture to North Korea in 2005 and, more so, in late 2006, were mistakes. Moreover, accepting assurances from China’s leaders in 2002-2003 that China would try to play a positive role in denuclearization when the United States was threatening force if China were not more active was another mistake. Despite these regrets about past policy, the advice is not for Seoul to acquire nuclear weapons or pursue an independent diplomacy with Pyongyang, but to have a cool head and avoid counterproductive ideas not based on realism.
If one starts with the recognition that talks with North Korea had little chance of success and that sanctions would morph into talk of preemption at some point if China did not agree to strict sanctions, then the focus of discussion should be what are China’s intentions, how should they be tested, and to what degree can Seoul and Washington coordinate in diplomacy with Beijing. While both sides at times gave Beijing more benefit of the doubt than they should have, the South Korean side is far guiltier of viewing China as “ambivalent” or “divided”—especially in 2013-2015 of an optimistic outlook in contrast to deeper skepticism in Washington (this was true at almost all times except in the period around 2010). If today’s understanding of its intentions had been reached earlier (as many US officials and analysts had done), different policy choices could well have been made. Perhaps, the implications of a much more negative assessment of China were too threatening to South Korea’s 30 years of hope that it had diplomatic leverage and a path to an autonomous foreign policy, as well as, eventually, to confidence that economic dependency on China does not give China undue leverage. This logic, however, was at odds with another firmly held by some South Koreans with a different assessment and a different solution.
Citing historic failures when Korea was caught between maritime and continental powers (1592, the 1890s), one speaker concluded that Seoul needs multilateralism for security and that the US hub-and-spokes system does not suffice. Explaining the Sino-US competition as just another rising vs. established power—China’s influence is growing and US influence is on the decline—, the speaker proposed delinking the South Korean policy to North Korea from the broader Sino-US split. This means to tell Washington not to pressure it into joining an anti-China coalition (and also to push back against Japan’s effort to arouse South Korea against China). China should also be told to stop trying to damage ROK-US ties. On the assumption that all three of these outsiders are opposed to Korean reunification, Seoul should turn to North Korea for steps toward integration—people-to-people ties—simultaneous to moves toward denuclearization. In this rendering, Seoul can pursue an autonomous policy with Beijing demanding little and not seeking domination on the peninsula, and it can reward Pyongyang before it does much in the way of denuclearization, as if this would follow. Again, reasoning about China is questionable, and refusing to prepare for a growing North Korean threat or to cooperate if China is more aggressive in the East and South China seas could seriously damage trust in Washington and Tokyo.
With some in Seoul renewing the call for multilateralism—useful for reunification and for ameliorating Sino-US tensions—, debates cast doubt on its prospects. Those supportive tend to blame Washington—the Defense Department is too anti-China—, while critics view appeals for multilateralism as idealistic in today’s conditions. One perspective is that ASEAN is losing its capacity to press multilateralism, since great power politics has greatly impinged on its cohesion. Further, China has shown in Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia as well (e.g., rejecting five vs. one) that it is not a fan of multilateralism. While the United States is accused of being against this too, others disagreed, arguing that it seeks a stronger East Asia Summit and ASEAN and a renewal of the Six-Party Talks if denuclearization is on the agenda. US pursuit of alternatives is a fallback position, they argue. The late September discussion in Seoul pitted voices in favor of a return to objectives in 2015, setting aside forces of realignment in 2016, against others ready to reinforce the realignment with a new US administration and the Abe administration, although coverage of Japan apart from its economy was thin. The mood is rather dark, as clinging to aspirations from before the realignment may be overshadowing an awakening to the realities behind the realignment so far and the likelihood that in 2017 the prospect that they will intensify, not recede.