Washington Insights, October 2014
The Obama visit to East Asia in April marked a transition from one set of discussions in Washington, DC to another. Instead of agonizing about Japan-ROK relations, there was new thinking about the future of the Korean Peninsula, stimulated by debates in South Korea encouraged by Park Geun-hye. Rather than a narrow focus on bilateral maritime disputes in the East China and South China seas, discussion concentrated on Sino-US relations as well as Sino-Japanese relations in the broad, longer-term context of military confrontation. By the beginning of the fall, India had entered the picture through the Obama-Modi summit in Washington and as a result of Modi’s meetings with Abe and Xi. In the background were divided views of Russia’s rising interest in Asia. It is hard to recall a time when US discussions of Asia were as far-reaching as they had become in the summer of 2014, a time of greater US urgency regarding a series of conflicts in other parts of the world. Yet, the core of strategic discussions remained the US-Japan alliance, the alignment of US and South Korean thinking on North Korea, and the uncertainty of China’s policies in several directions around its borders from the Korean Peninsula to Southeast Asia. The showdown in Hong Kong was just beginning in the early fall, casting its shadow on other events.
The US-Japan alliance
A kind of schizophrenia prevailed over the alliance deemed vital for the US response to China’s growing assertiveness. On the one hand, security cooperation appeared to be better than ever. On the other, Abe’s image was troubled, compounded by failure in late September of bilateral negotiations on TPP. While there was still nervousness about his lack of strategic vision toward South Korea, the strained efforts to sustain his initiative to Putin, reach a breakthrough with North Korea, and inculcate a view of history at home at odds with what Japanese had accepted earlier, added to doubts about US-Japanese close coordination. Discussions had broadened from the specific concern about visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and revising the Kono statement to the general direction of Japan’s foreign policy in the context of its domestic politics.
Abe represents many things US observers have long desired in a Japanese leader. In comparison to his first stint as prime minister, he is more disciplined, runs a tighter ship under chief cabinet secretary Suga Yoshihide, and has overcome the infighting and expectation of frequent turnover that had plagued his predecessors. Along with the Japanese public, US observers feel a sense of relief, thirsting for stability. The fact that Abe is unwavering in his support of the alliance is also greatly appreciated. One more welcome development is Abe’s evident success in boosting Japanese self-confidence. “Japan is back” is a long-awaited message in Washington. Talk of Japan declining to the point it could not serve as an anchor in East Asia has receded. Yet, longstanding issues linger, and doubts about the sustainability of strategic thinking never seem far below the surface. For many, it is premature to conclude that recent progress on the issue of US bases on Okinawa, on consensus about universal values linked to views on history, and on management of geopolitics is already assured. The idealist worldview endures, as in recent foreign ministry thinking about ridding the world of nuclear weapons and cluster bombs, despite what is seen as their importance for Japan’s own security and the linked security of South Korea. The expected delay to the summer of 2015 in bringing a security bill for Diet passage after the watering down of the recommendations in the Kitaoka Report is seen as a reflection of this legacy, as is the public controversy over the secrecy law (not just about its excesses) and over the right of collective self-defense. While the political left has lost ground, signified by the DPJ turning to centrist Noda in 2011 after leftist thinking aroused confusion and by the recent self-criticisms of Asahi Shimbun amid a flurry of denunciations of it, the idealism it embraced is not dead. Meanwhile, the threat to pragmatic internationalism from the right keeps growing, manifested in a lack of respect for South Korean anguish over Japan’s overtures to North Korea as the latest thorn in bilateral relations. Uneasiness about Japan has not disappeared.
After much discussion in Washington of how essential TPP is for Japan as well as the United States, the late September image of Abe refusing to challenge vested interests casts doubt on his seriousness about the “third arrow” and the priority he places on Japan’s national interests as opposed to his obsession with its national identity. The TPP is not only the latest test of the alliance, but the most important test of whether Abe is the reformer he claims to be and of joint US-Japanese leadership of a rule-based architecture for the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, American audiences interpret this as the test of Japan’s revitalization after so many years of dire stories about how Japan is mired in stagnation caused by a combination of structural factors, including demographic ones and leadership failures. With an increase in the consumption tax poised to derail the fragile recovery, failure of TPP would add a devastating blow. In Washington, hopes for Abe’s success had been rising, but worries are widespread.
The ROK-US divide in the summer of 2014
The sharpest exchanges occur between Koreans who see a new opening for gradual, peaceful reunification and Americans who argue that deterrence now needs to be solidified. DC doubters raise questions about China’s willingness to support the kind of unification anticipated in South Korea and North Korea’s susceptibility to actions that would make such change possible. Those who expect to engage the North more, actually are likely to increase the odds that byungjin will succeed, doubters argue. In their view, there is too much complacency about North Korea’s capacity or intention to surprise with a military provocation. Instead, they call for closing vulnerabilities in the alliance’s capabilities to respond, greatly improving the missile defenses, e.g. by installing the iron dome system around Seoul, and making doubly sure that the determination to retaliate decisively is clearly communicated to the North. A focus on deterrence in DC circles contrasts with talk in Seoul of peaceful reunification. One difficulty for the alliance is that US thinking about deterrence through punishment applies also to costs that would be imposed on China, either in a context of enabling North Korea after a belligerent move or, separately, as a result of China’s aggressive behavior toward the United States or its allies and partners. Different approaches to China are becoming a more serious challenge in the effort to coordinate the alliance.
On the American side there is little doubt that North Korea is driven by the goals of regime survival, recognition as a nuclear state, and removal of US troops from South Korea in the quest for reunification on its own terms. The alliance holds firm, given South Korea’s opposition to all of these goals. China, however, only expresses its opposition to a nuclear state, and that may be subordinated to its support for both regime survival and weakening the US presence on the peninsula. The challenge is less finding agreement between Washington and Seoul on how to respond to North Korea’s objectives than coordinating in response to China’s objectives, given its role in diplomacy and support for the North Korean regime. The triangle with China puts the alliance at greater risk than recent handwringing over the triangle with Japan.
The repeated refrain from Chinese, Russians, and progressives continues to be that more vigorous engagement of North Korea—coordinated among five countries and extending well beyond what Park Geun-hye has offered—would unlock the door of trust, economic development, and peace in the region. While this resonated a decade ago when there was uncertainty about why North Korea was pursuing its nuclear weapons program—perhaps, it was meant as a bargaining chip—and more optimism that it would launch economic reforms with a potentially transformative impact, postponing unification and reducing the financial burden associated with it no longer offer any solace when the danger from North Korea keeps growing. Thus, Park’s call at Dresden and elsewhere to focus on unification and consider it to be a “jackpot” is neither an endorsement of the unconditional engagement still sought by progressives nor a sign of support for the deterrence-oriented approach preferred in Washington. DC observers seem to be puzzled by it. Is it really aimed at keeping alive interest in unification in a younger generation forgetting about the North? Is it an indication that South Korea regards recent developments in North Korea as proof of instability, which raises the chances of collapse? Is it a sign of confidence that the new Chinese stance toward North Korea means that it will pressure the regime into changes that lead to unification? None of these possibilities seem salient right now.
There is growing impatience in the US community of experts with strategic patience as insufficient to counter the growing North Korean threat, leading some to argue that after all of the approaches by three US administrations have not worked, the only option left is to seek unification through absorption. Denuclearization with lip service to reunification does not suffice, we are told. It is easy to list the benefits of success with the proposed new strategy: for security, for human rights, even for the economy eventually as the dividend from developing North Korean resources takes hold. Similar views are heard from security experts in South Korea, who say Seoul should be given more leeway by the combined forces command to retaliate against new, armed provocations. Yet, the message that a stronger signal should be sent to North Korea and China as well on the retaliation that lies in store is complicated by South Korean reassurances to China on not disturbing regional peace in the current stage or in the process of unification, should that be under way. Toughening joint deterrence poses problems with the goal of beckoning China in joint engagement.
In the background in discussions on South Korean and US strategies is awareness of three increasingly obvious gaps in strategic thinking on North Korea and on regional security more broadly—ROK-Japanese, ROK-Chinese, and ROK-US. Park’s March speech in Dresden and her intensified pursuit of outside support, beginning with the July summit with Xi Jinping, brought these differences to the fore. The gap with Japan had been overshadowed by bilateral disputes over history and territory, but in Washington, it was increasingly obvious that Seoul and Tokyo diverged in their thinking about China and the nature of the US pivot—a divide made more serious by the lack of strategic dialogue between the two. The gap with China was clarified in the aftermath of the summit, as differences over the future of the peninsula drew more attention and broader strategic concerns eclipsed those discussed bilaterally. Finally, with US attention diverted to Russia and the Middle East, as well as to how China was behaving in Southeast Asia, Park’s narrower focus on winning support for unification got little traction. Indeed, Abe directed attention at “greater Southeast Asia” (including India and Australia in his vision) and considered likeminded US thinking as the true test of “rebalancing.” With Xi working to keep Park’s gaze fixed on North Korea and on divisions with Abe, both of which would lead to more active engagement with China, calls for alliance building favored more deterrence of China.
One heard comments in Washington that Abe is strategic on maritime issues, but has a blind spot on Korean issues, while others saw Park as strategic on North Korea and unable to extend that to Japan. This led to concern that Japan is obsessed with identity issues and the rise of China to the degree it risks undercutting US-ROK relations, and that South Korea is ignoring the value of the US-ROK alliance and the contribution that would be made by the new Japanese approach to collective self-defense to the degree it risks harming its own security. Even as hopes were rising as fall began for an Abe-Park meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit, such worries did not dissipate. In these circumstances, Susan Rice kept a very low profile in her September trip to China without stopping in Tokyo or Seoul and the speech she gave at the Brookings Institution on September 22, narrowly discussing Southeast Asia.
The future of the Korean Peninsula
There have been an unusual number of conferences and seminars on the future of the Korean Peninsula, reflecting interest building from before that is more than a response to recent developments. In the previous postings of Washington Insights, similar events were covered, but because the topic draws attention from many angles, it has been of continued interest to informed audiences. Among the questions raised are: what are the prospects of peaceful reunification in the aftermath of Park Geun-hye’s new focus on this, how are recently deepening tensions between the great powers and new diplomatic overtures to North Korea influencing events, and what insights can be gleaned from developments inside North Korea for predictions on its fate?
Even more than before, there is recognition that South Korea needs to deal with the disunity among states facing the North Korean military threat that survived the Cold War, and that tension is rising between its reassertion of a close alliance buttressed by shared values with the United States and its intensifying pursuit of China for help in countering the North Korean threat. Clearly, the US response to disunity in facing the North and the South Korea response are becoming harder to coordinate. There is much talk of US admiration for South Korea, the continuing closeness of alliance exchanges, and the close personal chemistry between Obama and Park (in contrast with the lack of that between Obama and Abe), but US calls to double down in joint confrontation with the North, leading the civilized world and insisting on a mixture of denuclearization, democratization, and free market economic development, puts South Korea in a tough spot, since China and other states are not approaching the North with a similar agenda. It is this disconnect between the objectives of states active in diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula that keeps stimulating fresh discussion. The fall began with discussion of the THAAD missile defensive system for the South in line with US plans for countering the North, but in the face of China’s resistance.
Discussions about peaceful unification are split in three main directions: 1) it could occur through the collapse of the North Korean regime from its internal dynamics; 2) the only way it could happen is if the regime succumbed to a strategy to change the thinking of North Koreans, undermining the regime; and 3) diplomatic accords are essential to bring about this outcome. Those who foresee the first option point to a leadership power struggle, rising expectations stimulated by information on the outside world (especially South Korea), and the impact of already present external pressure, lately coming from China as well as from the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry. Among those who doubt this prospect are some who advocate a campaign to bring about regime collapse through tougher sanctions centering on financial transactions and concerted efforts to inform North Koreans of the contrast between their existence and that of South Koreans or even Chinese. As new technology reduces their isolation, an existential threat to the regime can be created through intensive efforts. Many participants in recent discussions react dubiously to such prognoses, responding, however reluctantly, that the regime is likely to keep power, leaving no alternative but diplomacy for changing its nature.
While those who anticipate either of the first two options generally look for South Korea to absorb North Korea, however complicated that may prove, there is much doubt that any diplomatic process would lead to that outcome. After all, China and Russia appear to regret that East Germany collapsed with undesirable geopolitical consequences and prefer to shape a transition in North Korea with different impact. If stability in that country depends on the development of nuclear weapons and the suppression of human rights, they give ample indication that alternative sources of stability should be found before reunification is seriously pursued. Yet, optimists in South Korea articulate conditions that could allow China to countenance absorption. One stems from new perceptions that North Korea is causing instability without any end in sight, which can only be overcome by China using its influence—including its supply of crude oil and other important imports—to pressure policy transformation likely to lead to incorporation by the South with substantial benefits for Northeast China as it capitalizes on more open borders and reforms. Another condition that is likely to be critical for China is improved Seoul-Beijing ties, which South Koreans are inclined to view as empowering the new, unified Korea as a regional power still able to have a close alliance with Washington, but outside analysts foresee as a possible trap, by which Beijing keeps upping the stakes for its acquiescence to unification to the point that the prospective, unified state will be dependent on it, not Washington.
Observers are puzzled that after the first nuclear test in 2006, Sino-US cooperation tightened, making possible the Joint Agreement of February 2007, after the second test in 2009 cooperation declined, leading to stark differences in responses to the provocations of 2010. After the third test in 2013, Sino-ROK cooperation grew much closer, putting far greater pressure on North Korea. The explanation lies less in outside diplomacy toward China than in the ups and downs in Sino-North Korean relations. Observers see China trying to steer the North in a particular direction.
South Korea-China relations
Park’s warm relations with Xi Jinping have worried Japanese observers much more than Americans, who see her building on strong relations with Washington, doing nothing to cast doubt on them. Whereas there are some shared interests with China, only with the United States are there shared values. Moreover, it is China that most credit with driving the new relationship, raising the question why is it doing this. If the main reason is because of animosity toward Japan and a desire to drive a wedge between it and South Korea, then analysts focus more on Park’s relations with Abe than with Xi. If it is to send a message to North Korea, then they focus on Xi’s ties to Kim Jong-un. Another focus is on Chinese leadership shifts, exploring whether Jiang Zemin or those close to him, such as Zhou Yonggang, were the chief backers of the North Korean regime before they were replaced. Whatever the reason, pointing to China’s initiative further absolves Park of any intention of excluding Washington.
Discussions of peaceful unification stumble on questions of China’s response. Aware that North Korea remains paranoid about any talk of unification as signifying regime change, China has, at least until recent unreported discussions, refused to conduct talks on the topic. It seems clear that only an understanding about the future of the peninsula might persuade China to impose more sanctions and apply pressure that could result in economic reform, albeit new leadership—perhaps a military coup—might be required. After all, unlike China after Mao, North Korea’s leadership faces a dynastic hurdle in charting policies at odds with those of past leaders. Regardless of North Korea’s leadership, South Korea must start with China’s insecurities in order to coordinate over the peninsula’s future. Yet, there are different opinions about the nature of these insecurities or, some say, ambitions. The minimalist view is that only assurances about a unified state not becoming part of a containment coalition would be needed, with US troops kept to a minimum or absent and no alliance role in case of Sino-US confrontations in the East Sea or the South China Sea. Another view puts China’s demands in a different light: rejection of a democratic Korea with values not in keeping with China’s and, thus, perceived to be part of Western civilization; and insistence on strategic neutrality or even alignment with China in an increasingly polarized region. Continued efforts to find common ground in order to clear the way to peaceful reunification confront the uncertainty about China’s true objectives.
South Korean diplomacy in the summer of 2014
Comparisons of Seoul’s relations with Beijing and Tokyo need to weigh agreement on views of the period of Japanese annexation and occupation with disagreement over views of other historical periods (notably the Korean War), human rights, peace and security around the globe, and the role of the United States for its values and geopolitics. Public opinion may be obsessed with revisionist history, which is spilling into views of collective self-defense and a territorial dispute, but potential for mutual understanding is higher between Tokyo and Seoul if leaders prioritized this relationship. They do not, unlike in 1998, for reasons of identity and strategy, given the current importance of Seoul’s ties with China in dealing with North Korea. The focus in DC is shifting from historical memory to geopolitical causes of a split.
When Americans meet with South Korean and Japanese academics, realists usually are in the forefront, and they strongly support efforts to improve ROK-Japanese ties by mutually downplaying identity themes. Each side puts security concerns at the top of the agenda. Yet, while in relations with Washington security arguments draw widespread agreement, in relations with each other they are easily trumped by the identity discourse—in government circles and, even more, in the media. There is no serious analysis of each other’s strategic thinking, explaining why Japanese realists are determined to build collective self-defense and South Korean realists continue to be in favor of cooperation with China. Realists on each side are frustrated by the way debates on the other side have been unfolding. While Park and Abe both pride themselves on long-term strategic thinking, overt hostility to their predecessors and the officials who worked with them accompanied by satisfaction that public opinion is supportive of their hardline relations with each other makes strategizing difficult.
Dissident views from Japan and South Korea on regional security
When a Japanese academic discussed Japan-Russia relations and Korean academics discussed strategies for unification with North Korea, American security experts did not accept the premises of some of their arguments. In the former case, overtures to Russia, despite its aggression in Europe, were deemed helpful for Asian security. In the latter, overtures to China, despite its threatening moves in Southeast Asia, are no less desired. Both examples testify to the quest for an independent foreign policy in their own backyard, the concern that US strategies do not adequately serve their national interests and national identity, and the hope that their current leader is, at last, threading the needle of tightening ties with Washington and gaining autonomy.
The timetable for Abe’s pursuit of Putin in 2014 appears to have been as follows. In February, Abe showed his independence and the value he put on personal ties to Putin, being the only G-7 leader to attend the Sochi Olympics. Not wanting to jeopardize a relationship nurtured through five meetings over fifteen months and indicating that Ukraine is only a secondary concern for Tokyo, Abe’s March “slaps on the wrist” gave Japanese the impression that Russia appreciated the distance Abe was showing from the United States, not long after his Yasukuni visit had rankled the Obama administration. With Abe keen on securing Obama’s explicit commitment to apply the security treaty in case of an island confrontation with China, he had little choice but to agree to a second round of sanctions in late April, as Japanese again explained that circumstances forced their hand and again escaped severe blowback from Moscow. In May, Putin even sent a message that Russia, for the first time, was prepared to discuss all four islands and seek a final solution that would not harm the interests of either side. This time there were signs that Russia had drawn the line, saying that everything now depended on Japan. When Russia was sanctioned for a third time, following the downing of the Malaysian airline, it waited to see Japan’s stance before finally losing its patience. The message to the DC audience that Putin is looking for an excuse to balance China, which he does not trust, and prioritizes a breakthrough with Japan, which he needs for his “turn to the East, assumes that a compromise on the island dispute was within reach and concludes that the United States is both blocking Japan’s pursuit of its national interest and failing to address the great threat from China strategically. In short, Japan would act in the US interest.
The DC response pointed to at least five areas of doubt about the reasoning in Japan. First, the notion that Japan has its only chance because of Putin’s strong leadership and popularity ignores the fact that he is a fierce nationalist and rests his image on arousing emotions against the West. Japan’s similar argument about the opportunity to work with Yeltsin in 1997-1999, as if he could ignore public opinion after weakening the State Duma, at least had the benefit of focusing on a leader who was not challenging the international community. Second, there was no sign of agreement with the assumption that Russia is so focused on a threat from China and so convinced of Japan’s values as a great power counterweight that it would turn to Japan for geopolitical balancing. Third, the view that the Russian people admire Japanese culture (from sushi to novels) suggested that civilizational ties distinct from the West may serve as a glue in this relationship appeared as wishful thinking. Fourth, listeners wondered why the possible return of two islands (nobody seemed to think that more could be had) is so appealing and could serve together with the resolution of the abductions issue with North Korea as Abe’s two pathways to what is perceived to be “historical glory.” Instead, it seemed that Russia, as is North Korea, is trying to drive a wedge between the United States and its ally and would keep demanding more in return for the illusion of success with no reward commensurate with the price Japan and the alliance would pay. Finally, questions were raised about the impact on Japan’s relations with other countries, leaving doubts about support for Japan’s defense of territory when it would not support a case where the West was united against an aggressor claiming to right an historical wrong and emboldening China to think it could get away with similar brazen conduct.
North Korean outreach in the summer of 2014
Comparisons of Japan and Russia’s improved relations with North Korea drew some attention with general agreement that the Russian move is more consequential. It is designed to enable the byungjin policy of guns and butter to succeed and signifies a reversion to the socialist system of trade—in rubles apart from market principles. The Russian move would enable North Korea to ameliorate the impact of financial sanctions, increasing trade ten-fold by 2020 to one billion dollars. So far, it is not clear that Japan’s initiative would have comparable effect, although Pyongyang may attempt to combine a ransom for abductees, wives, and remains with reparations, repeating the 2002 demands for roughly 30 billion dollars from Japan. Even if Japan at that time debated the possibility of providing roughly 10 billion dollars in lieu of reparations—equivalent to the sum provided to South Korea on the basis of their 1965 agreement—, this was a result of normalization. That is something unlikely to occur unless the nuclear and missile threat is also resolved. Its approach is skeptical and narrowly focused unlike the Russian approach, which is broadly oriented and generously empowering. The two powers have different geopolitical objectives in mind in dealing with the North.
Japanese coverage has no illusions, although it is also not forthright in identifying the North Korean strategy of offering some tantalizing possibilities, then raising the costs at each stage. Russian coverage is rife with distortions and wishful thinking.
Chinese and Russians propose ways of dealing with North Korea with little appeal to US audiences. In 1999, this was seen in the response to the alternative, war plan that was briefed to China, although it was superseded by William Perry’s engagement plan, which opened the door to Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy. Awakened to this option of forcing regime collapse and the absorption of North Korea by the South, China may have been aroused to tighten relations with the North to make sure that no collapse or absorption would occur. Today, as they hear of new proposals aimed at “peaceful unification,” which is perceived as directed at a similar outcome, their general response is that this is wildly unrealistic. Indeed, they insist that deterrence is also no more than a stalling factor. Their stark choice is either to restart the Six-Party Talks or to stand back and watch the nuclear threat grow more serious. This simple dichotomy ignores the possibility much anticipated in Washington that a renewal of the talks would do little but enable North Korea to boost its economy while still adding to its threat capacity, rather than slowing its build-up, as the proponents claim. The proponents narrowly discuss a trade-off, avoiding talk of the larger geopolitical impact of renewed talks, enabling North Korea and giving China and Russia as well, enhanced leverage on the open-ended discussions that would follow. Their aim appears to be to strengthen the regime, while changing the geopolitical dynamics of Northeast Asia, rather than prioritizing denuclearization and embracing reunification on terms perceived as favorable to South Korea.
Discussion of Russia’s changing posture toward the Korean Peninsula has aroused recent uncertainty in US audiences. They have heard from Russians that Putin sees the world as having entered a new Cold War. Instead of a divided Germany, the end of the first Cold War brought a united ally of the United States, which is threatening Moscow. How can Moscow again cooperate in a reunification plan that would result in the loss of a former ally and a threat of similar confrontation? Now that Russia is being sanctioned, how could it consent to sanction North Korea again? The implied message is that if North Korea were to test another nuclear weapon, the UN Security Council would be unable to respond because of a Russian veto. Having cut off North Korea in 1990 by insisting on conducting trade in dollars, Moscow has given Kim Jong-un a victory by forgiving most debts and resuming trade in rubles. It has also shown resentment toward Park for snubbing the Sochi Olympics and for the vote in favor of sanctions at the Security Council. Viewing the world as polarized and South Korea as a US ally, Russia appears now to be on the side of reinforcing the North and keeping the peninsula divided. Moreover, instead of buying uranium from Australia, which has joined in the sanctions, Russia seems ready to resume the purchase of uranium from North Korea, while in other ways no longer sanctioning the North.
Renewed attention to Southeast Asia and interest in the Indo-Pacific region
Having visited two Southeast Asian states in April and expecting to visit another in November, Obama is prioritizing this region beyond what might be expected given other pressing foreign demands on his time. Susan Rice gave an indication of what is at stake in her Brookings remarks. She went so far as to suggest that Southeast Asia is the key to maintaining peace and stability in Asia. As a firm champion of stronger regional institutions—seen as support for maritime security cooperation and for the overall global order now under threat—, Washington is encouraging a more united region. Rice equates the region realizing its full potential with preventing pressure by large states and preserving the independence and sovereignty of all—a warning against Chinese hegemonic ambitions. Southeast Asia has two other important roles in US calculations. Rice noted that the area is the recipient of the greatest amount of foreign investment and that one-third of the states in the vital TPP talks are located there. She echoed statements from the region about the strategic importance of TPP as a test of US commitment in the region, as, in the background, many are concerned about excessive dependence on China. Also stressed by Rice is the strengthening democratic foundation in Southeast Asia. This was part of her rationale for arguing that no region has changed so dramatically over the past several decades. Coupled with remarks by the foreign minister of Singapore just prior to hers, the session left no ambiguity that the United States has underwritten security and stability vital to the rise of East Asia and that Southeast Asia with its critical sea lanes and growing uncertainty about the impact of China’s rise is the center in the search for a new East Asian architecture to allow countries not to choose among great powers and to mitigate the effect of their rivalries. Washington audiences hear that US reliability is assured, but the messages from Congress and China leave doubts across the region.
Thinking about East Asia has been broadening since the end of the Cold War. The arrival of ASEAN+3 led to new emphasis on Southeast and Northeast Asia belonging to one expansive East Asian region. The expansion to ASEAN+6 under the name of the East Asian Summit brought Australia and New Zealand into the fold, and India’s role drew attention too, greatly enhanced in August and September 2014 by Modi’s meetings with Abe, Xi, and Obama. Combined with the inclusion of both the United States and Russia in the East Asian Summit in 2010, an inclusive region is clearly on the radar. China has been the driving force of a changing geographical architecture of East Asia, linking countries in Asia more closely economically and persuading them of the benefits of closer security ties with each other or with China, in the case of Russia. Mostly, China has driven other states together under US leadership. If Modi’s active diplomacy persists, this will enhance the centrality of Southeast Asia, but not with the ASEAN Way as the blueprint for cohesion and regionalism at a time of intensifying competition among great powers. Indeed, one hears talk of China’s less cooperative approach to the great powers and turn to bilateralism in Southeast Asia as striking a blow against ASEAN, which had depended on a win-win atmosphere. In the Indo-Pacific region, ASEAN remains central, but its prospects depend on greater cohesion within its ranks, perhaps with a more assertive role from Indonesia, and on China stepping back from its recent belligerence in the South China Sea with new interest in lowering tensions with the United States, Japan, and India. ASEAN could facilitate a Chinese strategy of enhancing trust, but it is less able to manage China’s shift to dividing the great powers and applying pressure in bilateral relationships.