Washington Insights: February 2015


Triangularity figured heavily in DC seminars over the first two months of 2015. With the United States and China standing at opposite ends, coverage ranged from ASEAN to India to South Korea to Japan. Russia and North Korea also entered the picture at times, adding to the array of triangles or, on occasion, introducing a quadrangular angle. Accepting that the Obama administration is pushing TPP and that Obama was demonstrating his commitment with a second visit to the region in three months, DC audiences were less focused on domestic US divisions toward the Indo-Pacific area.

Contention over US policies toward the Indo-Pacific region was subdued in early 2015. Obama’s visit to the region in November went well. His commitment to TPP by the end of the year was unambiguous. His visit to India was a success. Realists in DC had little cause for concern. Moreover, China had lowered its assertive tone. There was less concern about the inexorable rise of its economy and more optimism about continued US preeminence, albeit with a smaller margin, based on economic growth, energy sufficiency, innovation prospects, and geostrategic support, as well as the impact of TPP in forging an economic order to underpin the security order. Yet, few were under any illusion that Sino-US relations would not be deeply strained at times or that divisions in Washington could not prove problematic for US planning, given the complexity of the region. Some in Washington think that Obama tilted too much to Japan in Tokyo in April, pledging that the alliance applies to islands administered by Japan, arousing distrust in China; others argue that he provoked distrust in Japan in Beijing in November by proceeding under what seemed to be the umbrella of China’s “new model of major power relations.” Despite such reservations from the two sides of the spectrum, discord was muted toward a policy perceived as sticking to the framework of US management of the region established in the mid-1990s.

Optimists took heart from the Obama-Xi summit in November and the plans for Xi to visit Washington in 2015 as well as from recent positive indicators of a resurgent US economy and more active regional leadership. Interpreting China’s foreign policy as more cooperative on North Korea and more supportive of US leadership, they found the prospects favorable for coordination in the Asia-Pacific region. Doubters in DC saw US politics as still precarious, China’s cooperative mood from late 2015 as more tactical and still hard to evaluate, and prospects for managing North Korea still quite problematic. The rise in optimism in DC was palpable, but skepticism about it was widespread, not only because of the spillover from dangerous situations in Ukraine and Syria/Iraq as well as divisions over Iran, but also due to no consensus on ways forward in dealing with the South China Sea and North Korea as well as the dim prospect of mitigating Sino-US and Sino-Japan security rivalries in recent summits.

The situation in the South China Sea was recognized as quieter than in recent times. China was applying less pressure, especially toward Vietnam. Yet, a Code of Conduct agreement appeared to be a mirage, and ASEAN states were skeptical that China is returning to its soft power emphasis of the 2000s. One possibility raised is that the focus is turning to Taiwan, as China grows more impatient with developments there and concerned that the DPP is gaining ground in advance of the 2016 elections. With China constructing artificial islands and airstrips in the South China Sea, however, it was seen as a matter of time (less likely in 2015 than later) before China declared an ADIZ over the South China Sea and moved an oilrig back into Vietnam’s territorial waters. Meanwhile, US observers are estimating China’s capabilities for such moves.

Maritime security in the western Pacific continues to be a popular theme for DC audiences. Whereas China’s challenge exists in the Yellow Sea as well as the East China Sea, the bulk of discussion centers on the South China Sea. All of these seas have emerged as “core interests” for China, where it is engaged in a risky game to gain control, e.g., by stopping US-ROK military exercises in the Yellow Sea. While the US commitment to stand with Japan in the East China Sea has been reaffirmed, there is less clarity about the US position on the South China Sea at a time when China is reclaiming land and building artificial islands to strengthen its presence. Having had a successful summit with Obama in November and made overtures to Japan on new confidence-building measures and to Southeast Asian states on talks about a Code of Conduct, China seems to have a strategy to diminish anxieties even as it fortifies its presence in the South China Sea. Some in Washington worry that Southeast Asian states will respond with growing doubts about US resolve. Others see China’s quest for strategic depth in the first island chain, as consistent with the current state of its forces—ships, land missiles, and air force—, but predict a further push to the second island chain once its forces are ready. Before long, there will be no doubt that China has become the second maritime power, as the Soviet Union was in the 1980s. Will it fail to approach the might of the United States, as happened to the Soviet navy, or will it keep strengthening, audiences pondered. They could choose between views that argued China has specific, limited goals with a moderate military budget and would be restricted by the demographic slowdown bound to occur by the 2030s, and that warned China’s ambitions are more far-reaching with Japan standing in the way of its maritime expansion. US-Japan defense cooperation takes on increased significance, especially for those who are pessimistic about China’s maritime goals.

With visits by Abe and Xi expected in 2015, DC audiences reflected on how the two leaders were positioning themselves. In the case of Abe, expectations had risen that he was well positioned for a deal on TPP, that a compromise between the LDP and Komeito would produce significant, but limited, progress on a realist agenda, and that revisionism would complicate but not seriously derail closer relations with the United States. Most think tank discussions concentrated on the realist issue, seeing reinterpretation of the right of collective self-defense as delayed following the July 1 cabinet decision in 2014, while internal discussions await timing that suits Komeito as it prepares for local elections in April. If Abe arrives in Washington at the end of April, a bill may not yet be proposed with Diet passage possible only in the summer, but that should not interfere with agreement on defense cooperation guidelines and on a far-reaching joint statement by Abe and Obama. The alliance is strengthening, and that is welcome news to DC audiences, despite their uncertainty on how much.

Japan’s reinterpretation of collective self-defense is likely to lead to more logistical support by the Self-Defense Forces, but Komeito may block a law that enables this whenever needed without having to seek Diet approval in each instance. Given the broad definition of activities that do not involve the use of force, this could permit rescue missions for Japanese nationals if the local government consented. A second outcome of the reinterpretation is to strengthen Japan’s presence in peacekeeping operations, allowing use of force to protect other PKO forces. Finally, the principal meaning of collective self-defense draws the greatest controversy, as examples are cited in the case of a North Korean attack on US forces stationed in Japan even if it does not involve a direct attack on Japan or if Japan’s supply of oil is put at risk in the Middle East. While Japan has long declared that it has the right of “individual” self-defense, should it be attacked, its survival still could be in jeopardy unless it joins a collective endeavor. Again, Komeito has the deciding voice on this issue.

DC audiences were inclined to turn discussions of new realist moves into questions about possible revisionist ones. After all, the Constitution is both the core of national identity since 1945 and the barrier to a more active defense—each linked to calls for Japan to become a “normal nation” and both the subject of criticism by neighboring countries. Outrage over the beheading of two Japanese hostages by ISIS has added to the impetus by some not just to reinterpret the Constitution but to amend it, which is unlikely until after Upper House elections in 2016 when Abe would hope to gain more support while also building momentum for a national referendum. Yet, others were unnerved by the ISIS killings as a sign that Japan is being targeted as a country joining the US-led coalition after succeeding since 1945 in avoiding involvement. In this divide one sees two contrasting views of Japanese national identity not just in the future but in the war era, the postwar period, and the post Cold War decades.

The debate about national identity ranges from the well-known split in redeeming the war era as critical for the honor of today’s Japan or repeating apologies for it as proof that Japan made a fundamental change since 1945. The postwar era may often be overlooked as another divide in thinking: the time of an abnormal, dependent state unable to take pride or of a successful, democratic and peaceful state having found new sources of pride. Recalling the war era in the 1990s, the Kono statement on the “comfort women” issue was consistent with the latter point of view, and the recent push to overturn it reveals the ascendancy of the former viewpoint, insisting that Japan is being humiliated by an “apology” mentality” as well as South Korea’s use of the “history card.” Audiences sought to understand how Abe’s handling of a series of anniversaries in 2015 would affect this balance. Will Japan feel closer to the United States in values as both resist Chinese efforts to marginalize Japan and to create a sharp values divide with the United States, or will it stress its own autonomy as a mark of “normal Japan,” while growing more suspicious of Sino-US cooperation? Will Abe be satisfied with moves to amend the Constitution mainly to strengthen Japan’s security role, or will he capitalize on increased frustrations and nationalism after two “lost” decades as China has succeeded more than Japan in becoming the driving force in Asia. Realists in DC are mostly optimistic that “realist Abe” will prevail, at least in 2015, but others consider “revisionist Abe” to be irrepressible. Both hear the message that gaiatsu now backfires and Japan will choose its own destiny, for which its economic performance should have considerable impact.

Japan’s policy toward Russia arose in some DC discussions. It was recalled that Abe has established good personal chemistry with Putin and that even in November in Beijing their meeting led to new optimism. By focusing the message at home on the favorable prospects for the return of territory and a peace treaty, Abe has had some success in distracting attention from alarm about Russian aggression and the message that might send to China that it too can get away with the unilateral use of force to alter boundaries contrary to international law. In order to avoid that, one heard, Japan must set aside its pursuit of Putin and make clear that it stands, as a member of the West, behind the values invoked to sanction and isolate Russia. Yet, steeping their argument in realist balancing of China or the urgency of avoiding a problem in the north at a time Japan’s security priority is in the south, others were in favor of more overtures to Putin as if they would give Japan more leverage versus China. DC respondents were skeptical that Abe’s pursuit of Putin would have much of a payoff. They saw Japanese overestimating Japan’s clout and underestimating the forces driving Putin toward China and against the West, considering the timing bad (once again) for Japan and Russia to reach a breakthrough. Indeed, few appeared to understand why Abe persists, but given the long odds, they did not take it seriously.

At the end of January a sharp series of exchanges between Japanese and Russian officials seemed to set back prospects for Putin’s visit in 2015, as divergent views of what happened in 1945 rose to the surface. Yet, cautious handling on February 7 of “Northern Territories Day” by Abe drew a positive response in Russia that indicated no real harm had been done. Abe had stressed the desirability of concluding a peace treaty without putting the territorial dispute in the forefront. Few in Washington were following these starts and stops, which may have been a relief in Tokyo that this relieved Japan of some pressure, but they also saw it as shortsighted thinking to overlook the role of Russia in Asia in contrast to Japan’s broader strategic vision.

The problem of troubled Japan-ROK relations never seems to fade from the seminar scene in DC. There appears to be unanimity that this is a bad thing, but Japanese and South Koreans still have the habit of focusing more on who is to blame than on what is to be done. The starting point that some have recognized is to explain why better relations are urgently needed. Three clear-cut answers are: to manage North Korea more effectively; to deal with China’s rise and maritime tensions; and to solidify the TPP agreement as South Korea negotiates with Japan, above all, to join it. Many in Washington are troubled not only by worries that South Korea does not understand Japan, but also that this compounds the danger that China also does not understand it, as it is considered to stand on the cusp of a new security order in Asia. In both cases, there is under appreciation of the strength of the US-ROK alliance. Doubts on its durability are heard far more often in Tokyo than Washington, while analyses in Beijing suggest that they are believed also by a sizable number of Chinese, giving them reason to expect that Sino-ROK relations will continue to draw closer despite deepening divisions between China and both Japan and the United States.

The details of Park-Abe relations have recently been reviewed with anticipation in some circles of another US effort in 2015 to bolster Japan-ROK relations in a year of challenging anniversaries. In 2013 after a troubled start, it seemed that Park was in the mood to improve ties as visits by US officials to the region were preparing the way for a Park-Abe summit when Abe’s Yasukuni visit derailed plans. Then months of US initiatives in the first third of 2014 appeared to be stabilizing the situation when Japan’s obsession with the “comfort women” issue from the summer made it difficult to arrange a meeting when the two leaders were together at November summits. New momentum is building in early 2015, despite much uncertainty over whether Abe’s plans for an August 70th anniversary statement will derail efforts to commemorate the 50th anniversary in a harmonious spirit. In Seoul, some perceive the Abe cabinet as so right wing that they advise waiting for political change. Others recognize that the time has come to normalize relations in general, but seek to do this without a summit, avoiding the embarrassment of what Abe may do next. Still others see an opening for some kind of grand bargain, culminating in a summit and sustained momentum. An impression exists of secret, ongoing talks, US planning for a trilateral meeting, and some progress on the “comfort women” issue to satisfy the South Korean public and refocus attention on responses to the North Korean threat. Given that neither side accepts a tradeoff between compromise on “comfort women” and solidarity on North Korea, Washington’s insistence that the North Korean threat be prioritized means that, as in 2013 and 2014, it is the driver in bridging their gap. DC audiences are hearing less about how Japan and South Korea are competing for a public relations edge in the United States and more about hopes for quiet diplomacy.

Concern about Japanese political leaders losing tolerance for long-time friends of Japan and undercutting a realist agenda parallel concerns about Korean political leaders deferring to Chinese sensitivities and refraining from realist steps, such as the introduction of THAAD. Yet, many in Washington expect realism to triumph in both settings, especially with sustained US efforts and a clearer sense of the danger. They see firm strategic objectives and warmth toward the United States as working together to keep Abe focused on critical realist measures and Park opposed to tilting towards China. Yet, one hears warnings that US involvement could backfire if it leads to open criticism of either side. Instead, it is the sense that both alliances are in sound shape and focusing on urgent strategic goals that facilitates active US diplomacy.

National identity gaps have widened, raising increased suspicions. Various seminars reflected on these. Japanese fear rising cultural affinity between South Koreans and Chinese. South Koreans fear the revival of a former militarist identity in Japan amid signs that vocal Japanese are insisting that the colonial period was good for Korea. Recent Chinese pragmatism appears dubious against the background of the image of sinocentric rejection of the international order that was spreading in 2014. Russia’s role in Asia, as in Europe, is seen through the lens of Soviet national identity. Given the anxieties aroused by anniversaries planned in 2015, history’s part in the identity of nations is even more in the forefront than usual. Thus, DC discussions not focused on this concern often led to questions that raised it. It casts a shadow over ongoing diplomacy and over analytical thinking on the forces shaping regional relations.

The complexity of international relations in Asia—ranging from Russia, crossing Central Asia, and extending to India—grew even more apparent in the first months of 2015. With Obama’s visit to India, that country’s future as a regional force drew more attention. With Modi’s new policies and India’s growing labor force, many saw it growing faster than China in the coming decade or longer and attracting FDI at increasing rates. Indonesia’s Jokowi also is seen as a more active force, especially in pressing his country’s role in ASEAN and as the “global maritime nexus.” Falling energy and natural resource prices matter for his country, as for Russia and states in Central Asia. The implications for the reordering of Asia are only beginning to stir debate, as long-standing topics continue to draw the bulk of interest in DC seminars.


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