Washington Forum (September-October 2021)
In the late summer and early fall 2021 the number of webinars increased. China was, of course, on people’s minds, but most attention centered on the southern tier of Asia, given the AUKUS agreement and the Quad summit, and on the Korean Peninsula, in light of recent stirrings in North Korea. We begin with discussion of Asian architecture, which paid primary attention to Southeast Asia, turn to the Quad, and conclude with the Korean Peninsula, North and South.
With some calling the organizations active in Asia a “spaghetti” web with little rhyme or reason, one exchange pointed to flexible multilateralism, accepting a central role for ASEAN but working around it as well. Different entities address varied missions, but the US and its allies now have the Quad, trilaterals, and CTTPP as core entities. Moreover, the Biden administration is giving the most priority to Asia’s southern tier of any administration, while recognizing the importance of ASEAN’s centrality in the region. Meanwhile, it avoids the anti-China obsession that Trump stressed, building ties by addressing the foremost concerns of states facing COVID-19, climate change, and other urgent challenges. US concerns regard (1) how to draw South Korea and Japan more closely into the broader architecture; and (2) how to include Taiwan in such areas as economic integration, global health, supply chain reorganization, regional security, and the defense of democracy including initiatives to fight misinformation. With the UK seeking a role in ASEAN venues, the US effort to draw European powers into the Indo-Pacific is picking up. After the negative response of France to AUKUS, its more active role will pose a challenge.
Recent issues drew attention. The failure of ASEAN on Myanmar and the South China Sea is a concern, even more so with Cambodia returning as chair despite the fiasco in 2012 when it last had that role. Yet, for two decades, ASEAN has been the primary architect in Asia, and there is no path forward without recognizing its centrality and role in bringing all of the key players together. The US position in the Indo-Pacific still depends on accepting this ASEAN role. Also, it is critical to recognize that US leadership is not what it once was, as in the Quad, where joint efforts have prevailed. In this one arena, continuity with the Trump administration and bipartisanship are conspicuous.
A season of summits is set to commence, and the US is keen to deliver a clear, consistent message. Security is in the background, but for now, pandemic relief and supply chain resiliency are more on the minds of many. There is no talk of an Asian NATO, no sign of institutionalizing the Quad, but increased preparation to solve specific challenges, beginning with delivering on the promised March vaccine initiative, which will build the Quad’s credibility. At this stage, it is essential to reinforce a vision of the Quad of like-minded countries supporting key regional priorities, while trilaterals pick up the slack, as in the case of AUKUS. Multiple architectures are here to stay in the Indo-Pacific, and the US is seeking to expand a more robust architecture in search of greater effectiveness. Sino-US competition at ASEAN and in organization-building is only growing, as China seeks to diminishes ASEAN effectiveness, while the US seeks to enhance it.
Another webinar asked where the Quad is headed. In 2008, the Quad lost momentum with new leaders in Australia and Japan, and because China under Hu Jintao was on relatively good behavior. The Quad is back and here to stay, but managing expectations is a challenge. China is at the center of changing dynamics in the Indo-Pacific with comprehensive coercion against many countries. The theater of threats has widened, and more players have entered the picture. The lead has been taken by Japan, India, and Australia—not just the US. China dismissed the Quad as “ocean fun,” and many saw it as unrealistic. It has no prospect of becoming a NATO-type alliance, and the four countries accept that. A lot of promising developments are not in the military domain. The group is a core for providing public goods, coexisting with ASEAN-centric institutions and European partners. A new venture is to build cooperation in supply chains. The will exists for an issue-based platform for regional stability with variable geometry depending on the issues.
One view points to the formation of an Asian international order, even if some states are backsliding from democracy and many insist on being treated as equal partners. China is becoming number one economically in the world but does not understand the equality of sovereign nations and has a clashing historical worldview. Now, China is capable of invading Taiwan. Only a coalition can offer a robust deterrent. Xi Jinping is determined to be as great as Mao, risking stability with overconfidence and requiring external restraint. South Korea is now incapable of taking a strategic stance in Asia, but European powers are. Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines are promising Asian partners for a diplomatic coalition, but not militarily. Taiwan may be a partner to include, but only quietly. Xi Jinping is the driver, bringing states together and leading to the Quad.
During the Obama era, states sought engagement with China, but now the public accepts the Quad as a way to face China. Thus, the Quad is highly durable in the US, Japan, and Australia, crossing party lines. Even Kevin Rudd is a huge advocate, and Biden has steered the Obama legacy firmly that way. India is clearly the pacesetter for the Quad, and it is eager now. A lot of the challenges in the neighborhood for India, even without China, are addressed by the Quad.
China has made it easier for India to embrace the Quad, but India does not regard it as the only foundational Indo-Pacific forum. Abe was the persistent force with growing public support for his idea, leading to wider support for the Quad. Japan has abandoned all thought of continental expansion, but it is not capable yet of crafting a maritime security strategy. Many there have not thought about national security, particularly the business world and senior leftists. But there is no sympathy with China, and younger progressives oppose China for human rights reasons. The Senkaku pressure is a big driving force for anger against China. Taiwan has stopped being a taboo. It is big on the agenda, involving Japan directly unlike a Korean scenario.
The Quad is suddenly being linked to Taiwan. In Washington, the Taiwan Strait is viewed as more dangerous than in a generation. Does the Taiwan issue affect the debate in Australia or India? The democracy argument matters—despite reluctance to discuss military contingencies. Taiwan offers parallels as an island with about the same population under pressure similar to what Australia could face, apart from an invasion. Dissuading China from using coercion is a shared interest. The PLA navy could position itself to cut off Australia and isolate Japan. For India, the Taiwan debate cannot be set aside. India cannot shy away even if direct action is not considered. India would double down to prevent a spillover into the Indian Ocean and would fear China using the takeover of Taiwan to behave more aggressively in its neighborhood. The PLA would likely try to complicate US operations in the Indian Ocean in this scenario.
The Quad summit and a summit of democracies matter to Biden even more after the collapse of US Afghanistan policy. In China’s push for “Asia for Asians,” we see a parallel to the Japanese approach of the 1930s. Stress on values (and issues based on values) is critical for a response. Myanmar is an urgent situation. Japan has delayed, but maybe it is time to take a clear position. Does the Quad have a role in Myanmar and defending democracy? Australia is hesitant, pursuing principles rather than values—respect for international norms and sovereign equality of nations. The need is to be multi-layered, case-by-case, and accepting of non-democratic states. India is, likewise, hesitant to impose a uniform approach to values.
Given the Afghan tragedy, how can the Quad offer reassurance? It helps countries deal with situations where they are stretched, and India will be even more so. The US is likely to redouble its commitment in the Indo-Pacific. Much depends on how the Taliban government proceeds at home. Public opinion is not isolationist, and Biden decided to leave Afghanistan to focus more energetically on the Quad. What is the impact of the Quad on ASEAN? Countries are moving individually on China, being pushed away from it—at least for maritime countries. There is much to do to keep Indonesia from being leveraged by China. Australia is close to Indonesia, and Japan to Vietnam—dividing the challenge ahead.
The US Indo-Pacific strategy is emerging. Making ASEAN stronger is one aim. Making the US-ROK relationship more strategic is another. Korea is seen as a global hub of technology, a leader in cutting-edge technologies and the model of a framework that other countries can follow. It can be a major actor in defending democratic institutions and setting standards, as in 5G.
Another webinar in DC stressed joint activities in the Indo-Pacific, accepting ASEAN as central to the region’s architecture as well as bilateral cooperation. COVID-19 cooperation stands in the forefront. Stress was renewed on operationalizing science and technology cooperation, which is changing dramatically. The US and South Korea are in the forefront in implementing this effort. Much has occurred since the May Moon-Biden summit, including supply chain and R&D cooperation. KORUS FTA made this possible with investments tripling and trade doubling. Some Korean companies have recently announced investments in the US for EV batteries and semiconductors. There has been a spike in Korean investments, helping the US transfer to a green economy. Reducing dependency on unpredictable supply chains is essential. AI and 5G cooperation is visible, too. The US is forming a technology alliance based on shared values with its allies.
China has introduced rules pertaining to foreign investment and export control. Supply chains will be more easily decoupled in this setting. To ensure supply chain resilience the US needs close consultations with allies, some of which are vulnerable due to economic dependence on China. Complex supply chains cannot be fully decoupled. Some allies will be exposed to weaponization of interdependence, and the US needs to understand and cooperate. The US needs to respond to China’s presence in RCEP and application to join TPP. This impacts supply chains. Digital rules must be standardized, which requires US leadership with plurilateral agreements. China seeks technological dominance in every advanced field. They want no economic vulnerability.
Partnerships on export controls are crucial. More cooperation is needed to confront Chinese subsidies. Forced transfer of technology should be resisted jointly. China can hold states hostage. Joint supply chain mapping efforts can combat this. Suspicion of Europe’s moves against US companies has caused distrust in the US. Korea should avoid this route. What is a value-driven technological and digital ecosystem, as called for in the US-ROK summit? Market mechanisms, protection of IP, and close allied ties matter to combat digital authoritarianism in China. Internet governance must not be state-governed. Companies must decide on their own without pressure. US industrial policies that are not market-driven could be costly, especially given a labor shortage that may turn off external investors.
The Korean Peninsula
In mid-fall, after Kim Jong-un had begun reasserting his prowess, a webinar asked what is next. What is coming next with North Korea? It keeps testing new missiles. It shows no inclination to resume talks although it has reopened communications with South Korea, at least on occasion. Speculation centered on four developments that could alter the status quo. One, the Beijing Olympics could offer Beijing a chance to put itself at the center of Korean talks and to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. In this scenario, Xi Jinping invites Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un to attend the game and to meet on the sidelines. Moon sees this as a last chance to set a path for his successor and leave a legacy for North-South reconciliation. Kim, in turn, seeks more support from China for his economy and to increase the prospects for a progressive to be elected president in March. Xi Jinping aims to marginalize the US and affect its policy to China.
A second scenario is for a progressive elected in South Korea to start his tenure with a more active engagement policy toward Pyongyang. Not worried about a new election for five years and tired of waiting for Biden to make unilateral concessions or support Seoul doing so, a new leader may choose a long-shot approach, even if public opinion and the US are opposed to it. A third possible scenario is for a conservative victor in March to embrace triangularity with the US and Japan and put outreach to Pyongyang on the back burner. This would likely arouse not only the North but also China and Russia. The region stands poised on the edge of polarization, which Seoul has been anxious to avoid but cannot do, many now argue, in light of powerful forces beyond its direct control. Finally, there is the possibility that China will more openly link Taiwan to North Korea, stepping up aggressive moves against Taiwan with the not-so-subtle message that China’s cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue depends on US accommodation over Taiwan. South Korea is in danger of becoming collateral damage in such a confrontation centering mostly on Taiwan.
North Korea seeks three early goals: sanctions relief, a wedge between the US and the ROK, and a sense in South Korea that the US is not reliable as an ally. No period of engagement with the North has led to sustained reduction of tensions, and that cannot be anticipated in a new cycle. That is in accord with North Korean thinking. It fears détente with South Korea as too costly, no matter how much material benefit would result. The South looms as a cultural threat of huge proportions. Development of nuclear weapons has been a consistent goal for at least three decades, despite misleading messages about how Washington and/or Seoul could have altered this by avoiding previous, supposed missteps. Pyongyang is strategically consistent, if its tactics vary. It relies on brinkmanship and wedge-driving policies. But in late 2021, it appears to want to send out mixed signals, probing a gap between Moon and the Biden administration at little cost and to project strength in advance of Kim Jong-un’s 10th anniversary in power and in the face of potential domestic unease over severe economic hardships contrary to Kim’s promises.
North Korea launches missiles for development, demonstration, diplomacy to avoid alienating China and to win acceptance as a nuclear power, and domestic packaging—notably now to refocus minds in times of hardship. To China, it offers the allure of being a strategic partner and a strategic asset, seeking more diplomatic and material support. For North Koreans, the message is that the outside world is hostile and that economic hardship is not caused by Kim, a planned economy, or military priorities. The North is trying to ride out the pandemic without vaccines, seemingly a dead-end strategy. A charm offensive may try to impact the presidential election. It could lead to an inter-Korean summit, but one with little effect.
In a webinar about South Korea’s New Southern Policy (NSP), many issues were raised. Motivations for this policy were examined, stressing diversification, economic and diplomatic. A factor is to reduce dependency on China, especially in light of economic coercion being employed by China. THAAD was a wake-up call for economic diversification. The Sino-US trade disputes increased the need for diversification. This expands Seoul’s room to maneuver. There is also a desire as a middle power to expand Seoul’s influence. Yet, wary of antagonizing China, Seoul is constrained on security, including freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Some think it should switch from this strategic ambiguity to side with the US and states in Southeast Asia. Hesitation is apparent, although defense cooperation is spreading.
The NSP is bound to continue under a new president and will be welcomed in the region. On India, little has been achieved due to India’s ties to North Korea, closeness to Japan, and Seoul’s caution over offending China. Yet the goal of reducing strategic dependence on China or even the US led to some progress in selected areas as in defense industries, a digital and green new deal, new supply chains, and cyber issues. Yet, there is a lack of mutual confidence. Seoul loses by drawing a line between economics and security when so much now blurs the line. China bullies South Korea even if Seoul is cautious not to offend Beijing. Many voiced that the New Southern Policy needed to be much more comprehensive. Avoiding entanglement in great power rivalries is the priority.
Gaining support for Seoul’s North Korean policy also takes precedence. Vietnam is the country with the closest relationship. Seoul does not fully embrace the Indo-Pacific strategy, seeing it as Japan-initiated. The NSP is heavily bilateral, not aligned with other countries. Conservatives may rebrand the NSP, closer to the US position on FOIP and the Quad. Alliance comes first versus the ruling party’s stress on autonomy and avoidance of taking sides between the US and China.
On Sino-ROK relations, a webinar asked why South Koreans are more negative now today and what is to be expected. Numerous surveys show this downturn. Apart from 2013-15, it has been the trend since 2004, especially among younger generations. The trend is not unique to South Korea; other advanced democratic countries show it, too. If South Korea generally demonstrates a bifurcated pattern in views on foreign policy, on China the consensus is considerable. Even so, Moon is viewed as more positive to China than his two predecessors, even though Park Geun-hye courted China.
Among key events that dismayed South Koreans have been (1) THAAD sanctions, which they deemed disrespectful of their national interests, (2) Xi’s move to become president for life, and (3) human rights issues within Chinese borders, especially for young people. Chinese and South Koreans have started using derogatory names on the internet for each other’s country: Communist China and South Chosun. Each side has shown intense pride, sensitive over the lack of respect from the other side. On the South Korean side, there is the strong impression that the Chinese state controls and manipulates attacks on their country, driven by Han chauvinism and Sinocentrism. In the crises over the past three decades, the first two were bilateral—the garlic war and the Koguryo dispute—but the second two were over security, pointing to more fundamental tensions in the relationship and the triangular linkages that impact ties—the Cheonan sinking with North Korea in the triangle, and the THAAD controversy in which the US was involved. These linkages make disputes harder to resolve.
The webinar heard that South Korea is the weak link in the US alliance system. As early as the Roh Moo-hyun administration, Beijing sought to drive a crack into this alliance and assumed it had found some success before the return of conservatives to power left it disappointed. When a conservative president in 2013 gave Beijing new reason to hope, as Park wooed Xi Jinping, she tried to do so on the back of strong ties to the US, much less welcome by China. Still the fact that it had found Seoul more accommodating gave it reason to push harder, and there is reason to think Beijing feels it had some success. What will be the next decision by Seoul that leads to new sanctions or other punishment? Some thought that the 2021 revised missile guidelines could be the trigger, but Beijing may have kept relatively quiet since Korean missiles are better than US ones and this is not an opportunity to divide the allies.
There are three types of challenges in the US-ROK alliance: (1) traditional security challenges, (2) technological or information challenges that threaten security (misinformation and cyberattacks, among them), and (3) emergent crises such as climate change and COVID-19. South Korea is a natural partner for the US in every possible way and should be ambitious about the regional and global scope of the alliance with a broad coalition. Biden has shifted the focus of the Quad from military to non-military, altering the region’s political atmosphere, easing the way for South Korea to deepen cooperation with the US. It is progressing on climate change and vaccine provisions.
This election has huge foreign policy implications not only on North Korea, but on relations with Japan and with China, on cooperation with the Quad, on supply chain resilience, and on freedom of navigation. The differences between progressives and conservatives are huge. It is this sense of significance about the March election that is driving increased interest in Seoul.
Two challenges stand out to the US: fallout from Afghanistan must not lead to anxiety about the US commitment to security in the region; perceptions of a new cold war’s emergence, but the US is denying that it seeks this even if the Quad and AUKUS may suggest otherwise without arrangements that include China. Koreans value the shift at the May bilateral summit from overwhelmingly a security alliance. US leadership is insufficient; it is not doing what Seoul seeks enough. US-led multilateralism is not general enough, but mission-driven. Seoul should not join the Quad due to China’s retaliation. The US should address the ROK’s regional concerns, as it did not do with THAAD. The scope of the alliance has been restored under Biden, not expanded.
This is a reset. Security ties have been normalized again. A lot of work remains on future DPRK policies. The two sides seem to be at loggerheads. The US still does not have a trade agenda in Asia, such as a digital services agreement, supply chain issues, and regulatory treatment in Korea. Finally, more work is needed on the trilateral with Japan. Progressives say the US is not reliable after Afghanistan and Seoul should quickly get OPCON and press for more autonomy. Conservatives respond it is necessary to stick even closer to the US. Progressives are anxious about US policy toward North Korea, doubting China’s cooperation, a moralistic US approach, and a narrow US focus on military matters, as if these assumptions had earlier failed.
The US must refocus on its security interests, and overcome China’s rising influence. North Korea is being pushed into China’s orbit, with spillover to South Korea since China has so much leverage. North Korea should be engaged to limit the China impact. Engagement of Vietnam offers a model. Such thinking ignores US willingness to engage. The US is ready to talk about a lot of subjects, but nothing will happen for a year or longer due to Xi’s focus on the Olympics and the party congress, and Biden’s need to wait until the mid-terms. This is not a matter of US disinterest, however. It is ready and active. The Kim-Trump summit enabled Kim to get more leverage on China; they had to engage him more, listeners were told in this exchange of views.
Webinar listeners heard that there are two slippery slopes before us if a peace declaration is reached. First, it is inadequate to consider North Korea deterred. If that is seen, nonchalance toward the North could spread. Second, if the South Korean public thinks this is a turning point, coupled with an OPCON declaration, it could lessen resistance to the North Korean strategy. Moreover, to admit North Korea as a nuclear state would ignore the consequences for the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-un miscalculates that he can gain this acceptance, then achieve decoupling of the US and South Korea, then undermine the survival of South Korea because the US is deterred by the North’s nuclear capabilities. Deterrence from the long-term objectives of the North requires international consensus. Without that, Kim will remain intent on achieving his multiple objectives. Trump was amenable to a peace declaration if Hanoi had ended with a deal. Moon is pushing it, but Biden realizes its negative potential. It is not just symbolic. There would be a slippery slope. Afghanistan has no bearing on US determination to stand with South Korea. Implicitly, one webinar suggested that if Pyongyang is strategically consistent, Washington must be, too, even as Seoul has not been. Kim is prepared for isolation, self-reliance, refusal to engage in negotiations—all exacerbated by the pandemic but not changed in any important ways. Improving his threat capacity is critical to his continued agenda.
Will Kishida’s foreign policy change? This was unlikely, since (1) the international environment will only worsen for Japan due largely to China’s un-peaceful actions; (2) internal politics in the LDP have produced a new coalition with a similar outlook to the past; and (3) most of the opposition parties support the US-Japan alliance. Kishida is more predictable than Kono Taro. Geopolitical change surrounding Japan has driven strategic choices: the shift in the military balance of power toward China; the rising North Korean threat; and the greater danger of war, especially over Taiwan. Abe is a conservative and realist on power. Kishida is pragmatic and more liberal. This could mean some warming of ties with China in the anniversary year of 2022 with senior-level dialogue and stabilizing moves. But if China is provocative, Japan would respond in kind. As foreign minister for five years, Kishida was eager to engage Seoul, as in the “comfort women” agreement. The next president in South Korea may seek to ease tensions, too, but the challenges remain. Kishida seeks to double the defense budget to 2% over the long term, as NATO states target, but Komeito will resist it somewhat.
Strike capabilities to supplement missile defenses are another goal, but Komeito is against it. How will Japan respond to Chinese and Russian ships traversing the Tsugaru Straits? Revised national security strategy is needed for a qualitatively different war: asymmetric warfare, drones, and cyber capabilities are on the horizon. Sole reliance on the US for a counterattack is no longer enough. What can Japan do to prepare for a Taiwan contingency with countries other than the US? A combination of multi-layered mechanisms can send a clearer message. Japan is reaching out to the UK and France for peacetime deterrence with port visits and joint exercises, even if this is minor compared to China’s vast and growing fleet. They could act to free other zones and enable the US to send more ships. Joint operation planning is likely under way. Japan does not want the SCS to be a sanctuary for submarine LCBMs, and AUKUS is a plus against this.
Kishida is creating a Cabinet position on economic security, overcoming business indifference to such issues. Technologies must be protected, backed by new legislation. Japan notices that China is taking opposite approaches to it and Australia; Japan feels much less pressure. China may fear further strengthening of the US-Japan alliance, but there is little bilateral progress. A minority camp in the government seeks talks with China on CTTPP to push reform in China. The majority views China as incompatible with the high standards required, but China may get support from other countries and pressure Japan. Gains by Ishinokai could complement the LDP, isolating Komeito ahead on defense and constitutional reform. If Kono Taro succeeds Kishida, generational change will be accelerated.