Washington Insights (Vol. 3, No. 3)


In the shadow of the Abe and Park visits to Washington and Putin and Xi’s first joint observance of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II mixed with their joint celebration of the arrival of Eurasianism, there was much to ponder at DC seminars, conferences, and book launches in the late spring of 2015. Tensions over both North Korea and the South China Sea grew more acute, talk of trilateralism among Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington intensified, and Modi’s visit to China drew attention. This edition of Washington Insights begins with the staple of ROK-Japanese relations, as Park’s visit to Washington was anticipated until it was cancelled, turns to Sino-Japanese-US relations, jumps to Indo-Chinese relations, then focuses on other triangles involving one or both Koreas, before concluding with Southeast Asia.

ROK-Japanese Relations

Changing the narrative in Seoul and Tokyo from zero-sum to win-win, including a new view of their history since normalization, aroused interest in the one and one-half months between Abe’s visit and Park’s planned visit. Milestones were marred with the thirtieth anniversary year 1995 spoiled, despite the Murayama Statement, by a high Japanese official recalling Japan’s positive record of colonialism, a joint statement on history by the Chinese and South Korean leaders, and the demolition of the national museum that once had been Japan’s headquarters in Seoul. The downturn was not reversed until 1998, affecting cooperation at the time of the Asian financial crisis. The fortieth anniversary of normalization accompanied an even worse three-year slide in relations, starting with Shimane-ken’s designation of Takeshima Day and leading in 2007 to Abe, during his first term as prime minister, abolishing the Asian Women’s Fund. Thus, the three-year downward spiral from 2012 should not be seen as a surprise, nor is it worse despite the absence of a summit for the first time in a long time between new leaders in the two countries. What may be more difficult to overcome, however, is the unprecedented deterioration in Japanese views of South Korea and the divisive impact of the China factor, as the two doubt the reliability of each other in the way they deal with China in the face of situations now prioritized. Yet, DC discussions found some signs of hope amid the narrative of recurrent failure.

The first rapprochement of 1991-1995 brought a narrowing of the gap on historical memory as liberal thought was embraced at the top in Japan and both sides were expecting to work together in a US-led order. The second rapprochement in 1998-2004 brought a narrowing of the cultural gap as Korea dropped its barriers to the influx of Japanese culture and Japan was engulfed in the “Korean Wave,” while the co-hosted World Cup added to the good feelings during a time when joint pursuit of regionalism seemed promising. The third rapprochement in 2008-2012 is viewed as the best ever, driven by geopolitical forces, especially after both sides were alarmed by North Korea and China in 2010, as the DPJ downplayed divisive national identity themes and Lee Myung-bak did too. A fourth rapprochement may be on the horizon. DC audiences discussed what would make it possible, beginning in 2015. The first factor is that a deal was almost made on the most sensitive issues, such as the “comfort women,” in 2012, and talks in 2015 are showing promise despite no full consensus. Second, since Xi Jinping’s July 2014 offensive speech at Seoul National University that overreached in its attempt to drag Koreans into Chinese-led demonization of Japan leading to the seventieth anniversary of the end of the war, the backlash in South Korea has reverberated to Japan’s benefit. Third, the impact of the Abe-Obama summit, suggesting that Abe was outmaneuvering Park, was another kind of wake-up call. Fourth, Abe has, step-by-step, in recent months been affirming statements about history, including acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, easing the way to reconciliation, even if that still awaits the August 15 Abe statement and whether it recognizes responsibility for colonialism as well as some state responsibility for the “comfort women.” A fifth factor is a change in South Korean confidence that it had the edge over Japan, based on overestimation of its own “Global Korea” and “middle power” diplomacy and underestimation of Japan’s vitality and also its international standing. Finally, US determination to facilitate reconciliation combined with rising awareness in each of the urgency of a stronger alliance is having a timely impact. DC audiences found reason for some optimism as they probed these positive factors.

Sino-Japanese-US Relations

From a Japanese perspective, the Abe-Obama summit was more about China than about South Korea, as many others seemed to think. DC audiences heard the TPP described as a response to China’s challenge; Japan’s reversal of economic fortunes with China (dropping from three times China’s economy to a projected one-half to one-third of it in the first quarter of this century) as less serious with closer US ties and more emphasis on quality; and Japan’s position on the South China Sea as in support of the United States challenging China’s military facilities there. This was buttressed with the argument that Xi needs a successful summit with Obama more than the other way around; so Obama should hold tough, opposing more construction of “islands” and leaving a clear message that US pressure will continue to grow if China proceeds. Audiences heard that Beijing has been emboldened because it thinks that Washington has been backing down in the face of Chinese pressure, especially in the South China Sea. The message from Japan is to avoid inflaming tensions, but to be more resolute. As for the intentions of Xi Jinping, it was said that he is confident, has consolidated power, and has grand ideas, including making China into a maritime power. Yet, this was not an argument against Japanese diplomacy pursuing China when opportunities present themselves, as in today’s Abe-Xi dialogue or may occur through the China-Japan-Korea trilateral meetings. Japan clearly has an agenda in Asia separate from the US one. This extends to capitalizing on Japan’s high favorability ratings in Southeast Asia (twice as reliable as the United States, which, in turn, is three times more reliable than China) and continuing to test Russia’s intentions independent of the US position, although timing matters. DC audiences were treated to a “proactive” approach to foreign relations, questioning at times the mix of plans in the pipeline.

Indo-Chinese Relations

In mid-May, Narendra Modi visited China, and shortly afterwards a DC audience had an opportunity to consider its impact. This meant assessing how Modi was changing Indian foreign policy from utopian idealism to proactive pragmatism. No longer was an Indian leader on the defensive about relations with the United States, but there was also an effort to remove the adversarial thrust in relations with China, making less of historical legacies and the expansionist discourse about China. Turning the two states into developmental partners was at the center of the summit, as Modi showed himself eager to attract Chinese investments, notably in manufacturing and to reduce India’s large trade deficit, for which a working group was established. The two leaders made some headway on their separate efforts to international Buddhist networks. Modi is stressing cultural and religious ties, especially to India’s diaspora, but not to Tibetan Buddhists, opening the way for China and India to discuss links between their Buddhist traditions and communities. Indeed, Modi seeks to involve society more in bilateral relations, fostering more stakeholders, e.g., at the level of the provinces. Other new constituencies are small Indian firms, using components from China and students and tourists rising in number, but the military on both sides, alert to enduring border disputes, is a big factor in the lingering trust deficit. The final day of the summit was marred by this issue, as Modi struck a firm tone on the need to define the actual line of control. Yet, there were some advances, e.g., more border trade, more passes across the border, and a direct military hot line.

Multilateralism figured into the Modi-Xi summit in ways that stimulated discussion by the audience. The fact that Xi had visited Pakistan less than a month earlier with promises of massive investments and a large-scale sale of submarines indicated that relations are growing closer, which raised doubts about underlying tensions at the Modi-Xi summit. The prospect that both India and Pakistan will be admitted to the SCO led to dubiousness about how that would impact the organization, despite some optimism that this would be good for India because the organization has a track record against terrorism and will give India an opportunity to press Pakistan that does not now exist in bilateral relations. The May 9 Moscow parade when Indian and Chinese troops both marched hinted at the seriousness with which India takes the Indian-Russo-Chinese triangular grouping, but some wondered if India is not the odd country out. The impression was also conveyed that China not only welcomes India in the SCO as a full member, it is at least considering India’s desire to become a permanent member of the Security Council and India’s interest in APEC. In return, India accepts China as an observer in SARC, the South Asian association. Overall, the upbeat tone of reports on the Modi-Xi summit was undercut by the conclusion that border talks are no more than window dressing and that Modi is firm on his concerns about security. The two leaders meet again on September 3 in Beijing.

South Korean-US-Chinese Relations

A tension existed between assertions that welcomed Seoul’s warmer ties to Beijing since 2013 and concerns that Seoul’s overconfidence in its ability to steer relations among great powers, most of all the United States and China, is counterproductive. DC audiences were often skeptical of rosy statements about the state of US-ROK relations as evolving into a comprehensive global partnership when ROK caution about offending China actually appeared to be narrowing the scope of cooperation on security issues. The pretense that the line-up in the framework established by the Six-Party Talks is five versus one, in which there is remarkable unity, helped to embolden Seoul’s diplomacy with Beijing and even to Moscow, when sharp divisions on how to negotiate with Pyongyang and to proceed should Six-Party Talks be resumed should have been a reason for more caution. Doubts expressed as China should do more to pressure North Korea underestimated the nature of the problem. Calls for Seoul to do more in support of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea failed to account for China’s likely response. Recognition that Washington is supportive of Sino-ROK dialogue, as if it is about persuading China that it must shift its backing decisively to South Korea, omits what Beijing is seeking to accomplish in these exchanges and how weak Seoul’s leverage on it is. The optimism of some speakers that China is on track to embrace democracy and market values as others stress cooperation more than competition drew skepticism that this justified ROK diplomacy rather than reflecting the currents of our time. In preparation for the visit of Park Geun-hye, the tone of exchanges on policy issues was warm, but the divisions were significant.

One issue on which the divide was unmistakable was THAAD, with most Americans arguing that it poses no threat to China and even that China is well aware of that, but many Koreans citing one reason or another why a decision in favor of THAAD at this time is undesirable, noting a balancing act between the ROK-US alliance and Sino-ROK cooperation. Whether citing Seoul’s status as a middle power or the special circumstances of North Korea’s proximity, the case was made that Seoul must have a narrow focus within Northeast Asia on matters affecting China’s security interests. This position is buttressed by the argument that the demise of North Korea is near, and China’s concerns can be satisfied by restricting US troops to the South, while others questioned China’s willingness to accept this demise and to limit its demands to the expansion of the alliance into the North. Both China and Japan—some would add Russia to the mix—have been posing new problems for alliance coordination.

Russian Relations with North and South Korea

Insisting that there is no hope for denuclearization and no prospect of reunification by absorption, a Russian perspective on relations with the peninsula drew interest in DC. The explanation given is the lack of assurances to North Korea by the United States and South Korea, which have resulted in an impasse. The solution is first to be realistic about what is possible. North Korea has an entrenched regime, listeners were told. It is resilient and stands little chance of collapsing. Seoul’s discussion of paths to reunification is a pipedream, not only because it is unacceptable to the North, but also it would mean revision of the results of WWII in both the global and regional system—an outcome neither China nor Russia would accept, since it would be bad for their security. The only realistic approach is unification that is voluntary for Pyongyang and takes its interests into account, proceeding peacefully on the basis of equality between North and South. It was assumed that Pyongyang would insist on security guarantees from the United States and South Korea, involving China and Russia in the process. Second, to proceed realistically, Seoul should put concerns about denuclearization aside, listeners were told. After all, the nuclear arms are not directed at it (North Korea can already destroy Seoul in half an hour), and the nuclear issue should be reserved for multilateral settings. Moreover, the North’s nuclear weapons are really not such a problem since proliferation to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan is not occurring. Seoul should abolish its sanctions, fulfill the promises in the October 2007 North-South summit, stop looking backward to the Cheonan incident or other earlier events since that is not a way to go forward, and be guided by the argument that security will be ensured and Pyongyang will be more flexible and cooperative through engagement and reconciliation. The burden is entirely on Seoul to change course, not on Pyongyang in this interpretation.

A second theme in the Russian analysis is that Seoul and Moscow are ideal partners in the transformation of Pyongyang. Russia has been turning to the East for five to six years, and this has accelerated since the downturn in relations with the United States and European Union in 2014. Strong voices in Russia are calling for diversification away from concentration on China, stressing the importance of Northeast Asia and the neighborhood by Russia’s border, i.e., the Korean Peninsula, the key to the gate to increased integration into the Asia-Pacific Region in economics and security, not least of all in great power relations. Already in 2010-2011, Russia was boosting ties with North Korea, and after a pause with the death of Kim Jong-il, the pace has intensified. Kim Jong-un’s absence from Moscow on May 9 may have been because he did not see how he would stand out in a crowd or because Russia made his plan to attend public when he prefers secrecy, but Russia was not offended with the visit of the nominal head of state and sees not slowdown in the rapid expansion of ties. Yet, Russia has no intention of repeating the assistance used to develop the North’s economy in the 1950s-1980s. Instead, it seeks to enlist South Korea in triangular ties. It invested $300 million in the railroad from Khasan to Rajin, expecting that South Korean containers would use this route to reach the Trans-Siberian railway on the way to Europe, but Seoul refused. Now to make some use of this infrastructure it is trying to export coal through Rajin through a joint venture, whose shares it plans to sell to South Korean firms. These comments hinted at pressure on Seoul to realize Russia’s plans without any explicit mention of the consequences should it not do so. The same logic applied to the gas pipeline and electric grid welcomed by Pyongyang as well as the refurbishing with modern technology of factories Russia had helped to build. All depends on South Korean capital and even its technology. To the audience it was unclear why South Korea would be persuaded by these arguments; so it was easy to imagine that Russia’s strategy has an undeclared element of support for the North Koreans in ways that would trouble Seoul if it decides not to go along.

Audience queries drew additional observations on Russia’s ties to North Korea. One, despite officials in the context of consultations in the Six-Party Talks framework still putting stress on Russia’s support for denuclearization, it was made clear that for the past two years this goal is rarely mentioned in Russia, which realistically accepts that North Korea will keep its nuclear weapons. Two, Russians recognize that North Koreans—officials, military officers, professionals, and new oligarchs combining political positions with new economic roles—see no prospect of fitting into a South Korean led state. Also having fought a war against the South, there is even less chance that they would surrender. Moreover, they can realize that a semi-market economy is compatible with an authoritarian state; so instability should not result from a transition with reforms. If somehow South Koreans were imposed on them, the result would be guerrilla war. Thus, Russians advice South Koreans to go slowly. Moreover they should avoid antagonizing China and Russia, as they would do by introducing THAAD, which is of little value versus North Korea but would damage China’s capacity for retaliatory missiles, affecting the strategic balance. Finally, if North Korea is playing the “Russian card” versus China, given China’s harsher way of dealing with it of late, this is not a return to the 1960s. Moscow and Beijing consult each other, and Moscow has no intention of filling the role Beijing has been playing.

North Korean-US-Chinese Relations

While Seoul, Moscow, and even Tokyo play important roles in the struggle over the denuclearization of North Korea, there is a distinctive dynamic to the triangle seen most prominently in Sino-US relations. Behind the shared understanding of a joint undertaking to denuclearize the North and improve security on the peninsula, few doubt that Washington faults Beijing for not applying enough pressure and Beijing faults Washington for military exercises and other moves that add to Pyongyang’s sense of insecurity. They agree on no big-ticket items for Pyongyang, but there is a difference in how to interpret opposition to the economic side of byungjin. Neither great power takes actions that would arouse the other to proceed more unilaterally. Thus, the US counter byungjin pressure and possible intensification of sanctions outside of the Security Council framework are restrained to avoid prompting new moves by Beijing (and Moscow) that would undermine the sanctions framework. The US overtures to find a path to dialogue with Pyongyang, most importantly the Leap Day agreement, also serve to reassure Beijing that regime change is not the aim. Moreover, patience has been needed in intensifying sanctions; so that when a new launch of an ICBM or nuclear test does occur, as many suspect will happen in October around the time of the seventieth anniversary of the ruling party’s establishment, Beijing will be more inclined to apply pressure in concert through the Security Council. The assumption has been that Pyongyang has been eager to split the five countries seeking its denuclearization through deliberations rooted in the Six-Party Talks process, and keeping it from succeeding (in 2015 there was no Park-Kim summit as some had feared early in the year, no Putin-Kim summit, as had seemed likely on May 9, no Abe-Kim summit after the breakdown of the abductions talks by early April, and, so far, no Xi-Kim summit, but September 3 is still ahead of us). All are calling on Kim Jong-un to denuclearize and offering him too little incentive for him to agree to a summit. Holding the line as Kim Jong-un chaotically leads his state, arousing fear that works against reform or risky suggestions for more promising diplomacy, increases North Korea’s isolation and keeps alive hopes for five versus one ahead.

In 2009-2012, Sino-US mistrust over North Korea proved difficult to overcome, coming on the heels of deep mistrust between Chinese leaders and Lee Myung-bak. Despite North Korea’s rejection of the Joint Agreement of 2007 and Joint Statement of 2005 and its nuclear and missile tests to greet the new Obama administration, China was calling for resumption of the Six-Party Talks. Even when the Cheonan attack became unmistakably identified as the North’s aggression, China was not seeking common ground to corner it. In contrast, mutual credibility has risen as both sides tested Kim Jong-un and recognized that the other was sincerely working toward a common aim. The improved atmosphere in Park-Xi talks has made Sino-US understanding easier in regard to North Korea. Yet, some in DC audiences remain skeptical that the sense of agreement about getting Pyongyang to acknowledge the Joint Statement will be an adequate basis for five versus one to persist. They suspect that both Moscow and Beijing will link cooperation on North Korea to the way their aggressive actions elsewhere are handled. They also are concerned that the revival of the Six-Party Talks would expose sharp differences on regional security and the future of the peninsula. Also, they doubt that new provocations would result in clear agreement on new pressure. Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic fiascos so far have kept the image of five versus one alive, but that could be changed by either more diplomatic finesse or a shift in the focus of concern.

Southeast Asian Relations in a Broad Context

With tensions increasing in the South China Sea and the US-Japan alliance focused more on security there, linkages between Southeast and Northeast Asia drew new interest. The impression was conveyed that states in Southeast Asia have grown more eager for these and other linkages, ranging to Australia and India, just as the doubts about ASEAN cohesion have intensified. Not only have different approaches to China divided the organization, but competing economic regionalism and rising troubles over migration have increased uncertainty about its traditional solidarity. DC audiences were told that ASEAN has long been seen as a mechanism more to protect the individual sovereignty of states than to prioritize regional coherence. As international rivalries have impinged on the region, ASEAN claimed centrality and took a balancing approach to great powers. What, however, began as a platform for these powers to meet and respect ASEAN’s leading role has turned into an arena for competition, which threatens to rip apart ASEAN. Of late, non-ASEAN-led groups—formal or informal—have come to the fore, highlighting ASEAN+1s, where the one has sought to set the agenda. There still is a struggle over organizations under the jurisdiction of ASEAN, especially the US effort to boost the East Asian Summit, and the Chinese determination to strengthen organizations such as ASEAN+3, where the United States is excluded. The result is a multitude of overlapping, contested arrangements for the regional order with disputed functions. Washington seeks a broader range of priorities, including maritime security and non-proliferation. The discussions asked whether ASEAN has the capacity to push back against the United States and China and again take charge, but few thought that this is likely. They also asked whether broad-based economic integration could continue to go forward when security matters are forcing divisive choices. There was more optimism here. The overall consensus seemed to be that Southeast Asia is ripe for fragmentation.

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