Park Geun-hye’s visit to Washington, the aftermath of Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington, the state of Japan’s military, Russia’s assertive policy toward Japan, and the state of Central Asia were among the topics that drew scrutiny in autumn discussions in DC. In light of an upsurge in terrorism and great uncertainty over Syria, the pessimistic mood about East Asia was obviously of secondary concern. Yet, for some audiences growing signs of polarization in East Asia were, no less than the West’s standoff with Russia in Europe, an indication of a troubled path ahead. Suspicions of China and Russia reverberated in alliance ties. Was Park leaning too close to Xi? Was Abe edging too close to Putin? Were China and Russia linking strategies in Central Asia? Queries at DC gatherings made for lively exchanges even as overall patterns grew clearer.
Security communities in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul were attentive to the same negative trends in the region. The concentration on military buildups has kept intensifying: in China, North Korea, and Russia, above all, as others scramble to find some response. Parallel theaters of escalation could become interconnected, as new trouble in one theater, e.g., the South China Sea, could reverberate in another—a sign of interlocking parts, given the involvement of some of the same actors in different theaters. Also, democratic politics and the complexity of the landscape add to the difficulty of forging long-term strategies, as in the bipartisan approach to the Cold War, leading allies to question why they do not discern a clear-cut strategy. In these familiar debates, audiences found more coherence in the fall of 2015: clarity about the competitive Sino-US relationship in the shadow of the Obama-Xi summit; clarity about the closer US-Japan alliance as expressed in new defense guidelines and in Japan’s new collective self-defense laws; and strategic strengthening of triangular defense ties led by the United States from the US-Japan-ROK triangle to the US-Japan-Australia triangle, to triangles involving Southeast Asian states and even India. The complicating problem in all directions is that triangles are caught in broader frameworks to which US allies and partners defer in ways that undercut the effectiveness of the triangle. This is where strategic ambiguity continues to thrive.
Park Geun-hye’s mid-October visit galvanized discussions about this relationship. Exchanges about US-ROK relations revealed underlying concerns as well as overall satisfaction centered on both bilateral alliance ties and the promise of new global frontiers. With deterrence holding well and a long agenda of global challenges the two sides are prepared to tackle together, the general mood is positive. Given signs of South Korean readiness for a thaw in relations with Japan, the number one thorn in relations in 2014 also had faded as a preoccupation in Washington. Yet, somehow, uneasiness about the relationship had crept into discussions. Park’s presence at the Beijing military parade on September 3 served as a reminder that the US and ROK trajectories toward China were not in sync. While China continued to take satisfaction that its diplomacy had helped to widen the divide between Tokyo and Seoul, South Korea was also pleased that its efforts had helped to widen the gap between Pyongyang and Beijing. Neither of these gambits redounded much to Seoul’s credit in DC. On October 10, when a high-level Chinese delegation joined Kim Jong-un at a military parade, doubts in DC grew about Seoul’s success, albeit with a wait-and-see attitude. Concerns were rather muted, as the Obama-Park meeting promised to be upbeat.
Expectations for the Obama-Park summit remained quite high. After all, following Abe’s success in Washington and her own not well understood trip to Beijing, Park would be eager to reaffirm the alliance and her personal chemistry with Obama. It was clear that sensitive topics, such as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), would not be on the agenda. In light of the heavy expenditure of Obama’s capital on the Iran nuclear deal, Park could be under no illusion that, in the absence of a positive signal from Pyongyang, Obama would focus on anything but continued deterrence mixed with diplomatic pressure. DC audiences anticipated reemphasis on deterrence, reflecting a close alliance.
A mixture of South Korean thinking on China and on unification raises skepticism in DC, but there is an overall mood of trust in South Korea’s current leadership. Talk of unification seems to be incomplete as if some taboo exists. Little is said now about unification by absorption, anathema to the progressives and inconsistent with the stress on trustpolitik. When there is also little on the obstacles to unification, that leaves the stress on unification by political settlement, which stands as an illusion in light of the obstacles that are left unexamined. In such thinking, there is no strategy to proceed. If progressives were to win the presidency for the third time, there was talk that it could be more troubled than when Kim Dae-jung benefited from his stature outside South Korea and the unsettled questions about North Korea’s intentions and China’s rise, and even than Roh Moo-hyun’s tenure, when he operated in the shadow of a multilateral negotiating framework. A new progressive leader would face a more settled US strategy and US-Japan alliance to deter North Korea, and in helping the North, sidestepping the nuclear issue and pressing for a peace regime, it would be tilting to China, as the key to unification, at a time of Sino-US polarization. It would likely do so by assuming more leverage on China than Seoul actually has and misjudging Chinese thinking, not realizing that China manipulates public opinion in favor of Park Geun-hye as a tactic that can easily be turned off. Yet, the progressives are fractured and are missing opportunities to move to the center; so they may not be able to gain a larger voice after the National Assembly elections in April 2016. Even so, DC audiences wondered if Park and South Koreans in general would be willing to pay the price of worsening relations with China and increased Chinese pressure if and when the time comes for some kind of showdown over North Korean behavior.
How will the Park-Xi “honeymoon” bust? DC audiences heard that Xi is only focused on Washington, much less so on Tokyo, and hardly at all on Seoul. The notion that Seoul has a special relationship or must be deferential only feeds into the attitude that China will retake Asia as the United States departs and that kowtowing is what it requires. Some affront to South Korean dignity may be the turning point. Another possibility is that Seoul will cross a Chinese red line due to North Korea’s military buildup, e.g., by going forward with THAAD rather than playing into Chinese hands by staying silent. A further possibility is that Seoul’s regional policy will rankle the Chinese leadership, coming late to a “look Asia” stance, reflecting extensive foreign direct investment (FDI) in Vietnam already and heavy dependence on the South China Sea for trade (all oil imports and about 40 percent of exports). Defense ties with the Philippines and other states in ASEAN could test relations with China after US pressure on support for freedom of navigation had an impact. Closer ties to India seen in Modi’s May visit to Seoul are another thorn in Chinese relations. Finally, the belated decision to separate security from history and boost defense ties with Japan may be most unwelcome in Beijing, but it was necessary to prevent trouble in ROK-US ties. No matter how negative Abe’s image remains, this path will gather steam in 2016. Of course, if Abe were to assuage some concerns, this would be a lot easier. Wrenching accommodations will continue to trouble the South Korean government in the new year. Yet, when DC queries about Russia were added to the mix, there was more optimism that Ukraine has little spillover to the Korean Peninsula and little Korean concern.
DC audiences draw on the record of the past two decades to indicate that North Korea has been tested and is well understood, giving little credibility to optimism and to wishful thinking about internal change that leads to a positive outcome. They also have settled on a view of Xi Jinping that leaves little room for the kind of hopes heard from South Koreans. Yet, they largely accept that it is worth trying to test Xi on responding to new nuclear or missile tests by the North, even to the point of Park seeking to explain that a unified Korea would not be against China’s interests. This is what Washington has tried repeatedly, especially in 2013 and early 2014 when the path Xi would take seemed still to be in doubt, and Seoul’s persistence is not faulted. But testing skeptically is different from wishful thinking and raising expectations on weak pretenses. The main DC message seems to be to slow down, soberly awaiting confirmation of China’s intentions. Although Park’s policies are mostly respected, the Korean media and official messages raise more concerns. Also, what is omitted in Park’s regional policies is drawing more criticism as dangers keep increasing.
When Chinese prioritize “stability” on the peninsula, many in DC see this as a code word for something else—a balance of power, an end to US-ROK military exercises, a reduction of the US role on the peninsula, etc. China’s posture in the South China Sea is not seen as altogether different from on the Korean Peninsula. Given this way of thinking, DC commentators are discussing when and how sanctions separate from UN ones may be imposed on North Korea, wondering too if Seoul will agree. As they get more serious about US leadership in the Indo-Pacific, intensifying deterrence on multiple fronts and establishing rules from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to security that form a web to keep China’s rise within acceptable bounds, they raise more questions about how willing Seoul is or will be to play an active role. Such questions may percolate for years, but it is assumed a turning point will arise when the alliance is seriously tested. In one commentary, North Korea’s acquisition of a second strike capability was deemed the time when Washington would press Seoul in this manner. Others see it coming due to some action by Beijing such as in the South China Sea. While DC audiences focus on dangerous tests ahead, some see South Koreans as avoiding thinking of this sort.
Following the Park summit, the overall assessment was that it had been carefully orchestrated to maximize a positive outcome. Nagging doubts about the future of the alliance were left as a postscript, as some observers warned that the day will be coming before long when unmentioned divergence on regional challenges can no longer be ducked. Fundamentally, DC experts anticipate a direr situation in the event of a North Korean missile or nuclear test or some sort of showdown in the South China Sea, while the message they hear from Seoul is more positive about the prospects for diplomacy. One concern is that impending elections could deepen the divide, as a more assertive US president pushed harder for tightened sanctions on North Korea or for alliance-building versus China and a more regionally inclined South Korean president put less priority on close coordination. Sparks could fly over specific bilateral matters, such as US arms exports in the face of defense industry nationalism, or over broad regional ones. In delaying addressing issues that are already in sight, Park may be failing to seize the ideal timing for locking in a future-oriented alliance. Also, she may not be conveying to Xi how isolated China is on the South China Sea. By focusing on history and unification as two preoccupations well removed from today, Park may, commentators suggested, be losing sight of what is most pressing strategically at present. Yet, all of these rumblings could be quieted if a North Korean provocation, as in August, refocused both sides on joint deterrence.
Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington had low expectations and little upbeat momentum.
Assessments of the Obama-Xi summit were more negative than those of the Obama-Park summit a few weeks later, casting a lingering shadow. There was recognition that Xi has quickly dismantled collective decision-making, institutionalized from the 1980s. He wields so much power that few decisions of consequence for US leaders are made without him. He is seen as determined, impatient, and unperturbed about increased tensions with Washington. Unlike discord in recent years about whether China has a clear strategy, the consensus is that Xi does, especially a maritime one. He views China as a maritime power, intends to set markers as far as the second island chain reaching Guam and the Indian Ocean, and aims to remove any US reserve for involvement in conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Exposing the US commitment to the South China Sea as weak, Xi hopes to peel away US allies and defense partners, but, if that proves unsuccessful, he is preparing more direct tests of power. This is the sobering refrain in DC exchanges, which contrast a hierarchical mindset to remake the regional order with the US status quo approach intent on firming up rules that serve it. Concern is expressed that China’s timeline has led to assertiveness on the South China Sea in the 2010s and will lead in the 2020s to more confidence in its military prowess and attempts to make dominance of the sea a fait accompli. Prior to that, it presumably will avoid triggering a US response, but audiences debated if an earlier response is justified anyway and if an accident or miscalculation could be the turning point. Some suggested that there is no precedent for handling the complex nature of Sino-US relations, which contrasts to the sharp Cold War divide and puts a premium on diplomatic agility and third-party relations where economic and strategic interests do not necessarily overlap and even allies prefer to hedge.
Reports of Xi’s interest in discussing history add a dimension few in DC appear to be considering. His interest in showcasing Sino-US cooperation against Japan in the war era, as if Washington could pick up the mantle South Korea has worn, while glossing over Japan’s peace orientation since 1945 or even charging that it is now in jeopardy, wins little sympathy in DC. Similarly, the way peace has been kept in the Taiwan Strait is not acknowledged, opening the door to destabilizing behavior that may be difficult to manage peacefully. The unbridgeable divide in looking back does not bode well for agreeing on measures to maintain stability as conditions change.
Discussion of Japan’s potential to play a leadership role in East Asian security noted the far-reaching transformation in its security posture and in the US-Japan alliance in 2015. The emphasis was on how the United States can facilitate Japan’s increasing role, seen as consistent with the US rebalance to Asia and a regional order in which all nations win. Japan is praised as respecting freedom of navigation, opposing the use of coercion, and respecting human rights. Given these positive views of Japan, it is no surprise that the United States is eager to do more things with it: developing new technologies, cooperating in widening the scope of strategic partnerships, and increasing interoperability through the new alliance coordination mechanism. This is even compared to the US-ROK Combined Forces Command, despite limitations. The notion of “growing the alliance” especially pertains to wider regional cooperation, as seen in three triangles. The triangle with ASEAN expects a greater Japanese role in capacity building, reflecting new cooperation on maritime domain awareness. The triangle with Australia has particular significance of late, as new US facilities come on line, consolidating forces on Okinawa, boosting them in Guam and Iwakuni, and adding new ones in northern Australia. The triangle with India was showcased in exercises in the Bay of Bengal. Finally, the triangle with South Korea was boosted through intelligence sharing and the Shangri-La trilateral summit. DC discussion questioned the prospects for the last of these triangles, especially from the point of view of Japan playing a leadership role, organizing multilateral responses to the region’s security challenges, and Japan’s tendency to spend on its own arms when a coordinated approach would favor less costly, more effective US weapons systems.
The discussion about Japan’s prospects for becoming a regional security leader hinged on all three of these words. “Regional” raised questions about the range of territory in question. Northeast Asia is doubtful since South Korea is the obvious target, but a very reluctant one. Southeast Asia could be the target, but it is unclear how the US role yields to Japan in that sub-region nor how ASEAN leaves space for a leadership role. As for “security,” given the image of Japan as a “cheap-rider” reliant on the United States, the exact nature of Japan’s contribution remains obscure. If it sought to be more autonomous from Washington, which the notion of leadership may imply, it could duplicate efforts and spend wastefully. Indeed, there is concern that in aiming for precision strikes against mobile missile launchers, Japan may not be maximizing coalition deterrence, given the enormous US lead. An amphibious assault carrier would be another unnecessary, expensive venture if US capabilities are taken into account. The DC audience narrowed the notion of “leader” to a strong advocate of multilateral security ties, of joint development of shared weaponry, and of an active posture without requiring pressure for it to proceed. Yet, the transition from isolationism to internationalism (not to militarism) remains in doubt. Apart from Japanese public opinion, its slow-moving bureaucracy is seen as not making optimal choices, even if, in recent years, on ballistic missile defense and mechanisms for crisis management change has been palpable. Another concern about readiness for leadership centers on right-wing zealots who alienate Japan’s partners. Support for Japan doing more was substantial. Recognition that it has come a long way was unmistakable. Concern that change is coming slowly and with problems yet to be resolved was also evident. Yet, the tone was upbeat in light of Japan’s 2015 record.
While few have been paying attention to the dalliance between Abe and Putin over the past few years with prospects looking even dimmer in the shadow of Russia’s hardened position in recent months, DC exploration of the relationship indicated more hopes for a breakthrough than expected and more tensions between the Abe and Obama administrations over it than many had noticed. Some on the US side are less critical. Some on the Japanese side have retained hope despite the downturn in September and October and in the face of deeper skepticism from Russian experts. It is worth considering some of the reasoning presented as well as questioning views of those who heard these exchanges and want to make sense of any possible deal.
Reasons why a breakthrough seemed to be within reach, in the minds of some, were: Abe and Putin’s personal, long-term interest in one another and their frequent talks and upbeat statements; signs that Japan was resigned to accepting a territorial deal close to what Putin had once appeared to offer; energy complementarity after the Fukushima disaster shut down Japan’s nuclear power plants and Russia doubled down on initiatives to export national gas from the Russian Far East; interest in multipolarity by Russia, giving it some space from China in its “turn to the East,” and in balancing by Japan, limiting China’s growing ties with Russia; and public opinion in which the most likely opponents are trusting of Putin and Abe, respectively, neutralizing any backlash to a deal. The audience heard comments such as that for two years prior to the Ukraine crisis, Japan-Russia relations experienced a “golden age.” Yet, that mood has seemingly passed, and conditions deemed favorable have quickly deteriorated.
The basis for optimism came from Putin’s call for a “draw” on the territorial dispute, clarified in response to a Japanese query that two islands would not be considered a draw in Japan with the hopeful comment “let’s begin.” It derived also from Abe’s visit to Moscow with a large delegation of businessmen amid talk of a substantial economic dividend from normalized relations. Added to the picture were 2 + 2 talks on security, and Putin’s notably cordial hosting of Abe at the Sochi Olympics. Yet, the skeptical DC audience pointed to contradictory developments, intensifying since the Ukraine crisis: Russian denial that the two sides are discussing anything more than a peace treaty, when Japan has no inclination to do so without a territorial element; suspicions that Putin is now leading Abe on in order to break the unanimity of the G-7 group on sanctions; Russia’s threatening military posture toward Japan in place of any security cooperation; low and uncertain energy prices as well as unstable values of the ruble that turn away potential investors in Russia’s energy economy; and the impression that elites in Russia and Japan as well as concerned governments in the United States and China would be resistant to any deal reached. Such an extensive list of barriers to a diplomatic breakthrough would seem to make it impossible.
The strange thing about discussions of Japan-Russia relations is that, even in the face of deep skepticism, there remain some who see a real chance for a deal, albeit not right away. Some start from economic, geopolitical, or even national identity assumptions, not finding an adequate rationale for the lingering impasse. Others focus on particular leaders—attentive to Abe and Putin’s aspirations for a deal and the narrow window remaining to achieve it. Finally, there are those who anticipate a shift in the global or regional environment, which would provide an impetus for a quick spurt in negotiations. DC discussions found Russians most pessimistic, many Americans also doubtful but a few seeing a ray of hope after a wait-and-see period, and some Japanese more hopeful even if recent months have lowered their sights.
A DC discussion on Central Asia in a reconnecting Eurasia looked at the region from multiple angles, emphasizing three major players—Russia, China, and the United States—while noting the presence of Turkey and Iran and dismissing Japan as once a player but not one now despite Abe’s recent tour of the region and the European Union as losing its impact, too. Each major player has a competitive edge: China in finances, Russia in networks, and the United States in modern know-how. The audience heard of varied visions for Central Asia: a future as part of an enlarged Europe; a US vision of facing south toward Afghanistan in a global orientation; a Russian vision of regionalization without globalization as the area faces north in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and is locked away in a regionalized world; and a Chinese vision of a long east-west axis via the Silk Road Economic Belt linking China to Europe and the Middle East after it had earlier concentrated on the extraction of resources. Opposed to the intrusion of the United States and China, Russia has shifted in awareness that social stability in the region requires development, and cooperation with China can serve that goal as China offers assurances that it supports Russia’s regional role and that its emphasis is transit. Discussion centered on whether Russia and China really can get along in this contested zone, as is promised in “merging” the EEU and the Silk Road Belt. The word “soblizhenie” suggests closeness, but not merging, listeners were told. Even if there would be some joint elements and trade-offs, proposals were described as far from realization. Also, skepticism was shown to whether China would invest much in industry—vital for jobs for the growing Central Asian population, since China is keen on using its industrial surplus and ample labor supply in nearby areas. There were few answers to the challenging questions about how the competition over the Central Asian area will evolve coupled with many doubts about local difficulties.