Rarely has there been such a tumultuous period in US foreign policy, reflected in DC discussions of it; many unknown figures were joining a new administration as lines of authority and influence were not only in flux, they were in chaos. Few in the think tank community spoke for the Trump team, but on Asia policy, there were also few who were not relieved as it pulled back on plans for a radical break from the Obama era. The administration may have appeared to be a bunch of bunglers, leakers, and back-stabbers, but, gradually, on East Asia they were reverting to a degree of order. Yet, the setback in US-Australian relations from the Trump-Turnbull phone call and the lack of clarity about the US response to North Korea’s missile launch were just two signs that there remained ample reason for wariness over events in this region. In the forefront was uncertainty about US China policy after the turnabout from no confirmation to confirmation of the “one-China policy” in the span of two months.
Three trilateral relationships drew much of the attention in the first two months of 2017: the Sino-Russian-US triangle, as US relations with Moscow and Beijing were unsettled; the Sino-ROK-US triangle, as Seoul was in a state of limbo with an acting president and the timing of new elections uncertain; and the alliance triangle of US-Japanese-ROK relations, as a North Korean intermediate-range missile test cast a shadow over the Trump-Abe summit. Also, looking at the overall prospect for Sino-US relations, views were exchanged on whether stability would prevail or a crisis situation would be likely to materialize as the two states face East Asian security.
The Sino-Russian-US Triangle
With Trump intent on not just resetting but fundamentally transforming Russo-US relations into some sort of trans-civilizational axis, DC discussions about relations between Russia and China acquired more immediacy. China’s leverage over Russia and reasoning about US policy in Asia drew close attention. While Russia continued to pay lip service to multipolarity, China steered thought toward the great powers in zero-sum competition, where new arrangements can be made to define spheres of influence—an appealing approach, which Russia embraced. Both decided that after the US invasion of Iraq, the United States was overextended, and after the global financial crisis, it was economically restricted, weakening US hegemony to the point other powers are able to pursue a sphere of influence—facilitated by China and Russia coordinating. Their joint objective is to weaken Western-led multilateralism and US alliances as well as the notion of a US-led international community, opening the door to greater regionalism exclusive of the West. While they did not revert to an ideological appeal in opposition to capitalism, essentially they were back in the mode of the Cold War in attacking the West as driven by ideology, striving for containment, and mired in a zero-sum competition with each of them separately and both of them together.
Two barriers to Sino-Russian trust had been military cooperation—as arms sales had slumped over copying of Russian weapons leading to reduced Russian exports and even competition in export markets—and overlapping spheres of influence in Central Asia, as Russia blocked moves in the SCO that would have strengthened the position of China there. Some see the imposition of sanctions against Russia in 2014 as the turning point in overcoming these barriers. Others find the newly assertive national identity narratives and foreign policies of Putin in 2012 and Xi in 2013 as driving a “quasi-alliance,” which partially overcame these barriers before Ukraine served to accelerate their cooperation. Putin’s Russocentrism within the bounds of the Soviet Union and extending to old allies, such as Syria and North Korea, and Xi’s Sinocentrism, concentrating on maritime areas, could have led to a clash in Central Asia, but each side directed it against the United States and its allies and partners in areas removed from Sino-Russian competition. These leaders found common cause.
One exchange on Russia’s relations with China stressed the decision in 2013-2014 to accept China’s role in Central Asia, anticipating a continued division of labor with room for Russia to exert influence. This far-reaching shift was taken in awareness of widespread animosity toward China in much of Central Asia and in preference of a Chinese presence intent on ousting the West in the region over a US presence. One other exchange noted the reduced presence of Chinese in the Russian Far East, as the falling value of the ruble compounded other problems—the cold, the treatment by Russian police, the availability of jobs in China, etc. Conversely, tourism from China has grown, as travel to Russia is now cheaper. Less concern about Chinese as migrants and greater appreciation for them as tourists is a plus for the relationship.
On arms sales, DC discussion stressed a short-term outlook in Russia to maximize sales over the next 10 to 15 years, while Russia retains the technological edge. Yet, tensions persist because China seeks advanced technology more than weapons and Russia seeks money from continued exports. Meanwhile, Russia and China agree to disagree on India, where Russian arms sales remain robust, and on Vietnam. China does not have veto power now on Russian ties to these states, but it may have more clout on ties to Japan, just as Russia has more leverage on Chinese ties to certain states in Europe, such as Georgia, than on other relations. The two sides are still sorting out their spheres and what this means with signs that Russia may be more cautious with its relationship with Vietnam as China’s leverage keeps rising.
Discussion of the Sino-US-Russian triangle ranged from when did Russia tilt sharply to China, what leverage does Washington (and Tokyo) have to alter Moscow’s calculus, and how is Russia likely to respond to Trump’s overtures? Some in DC argue that the shift to China is less about the Ukraine crisis and more about internal Russian moves and national identity, as seen in Putin’s decisions in the spring of 2012 to visit China first and not attend the G8 in Washington and to downplay economic reform that would be needed for closer economic ties to the West while doubling down on such ties with China. Also, there was pushback against the notion that by being too hard on Moscow, Washington has driven it to Beijing (a view common in Tokyo). Still, some see Moscow insecure in its relationship with Beijing and argue that keeping the door open may lead to opportunities ahead. Finally, few expected Trump’s early posture of a values-free approach to Russia to last, expecting too that Putin would not be confident enough that he would reciprocate actively in the face of ambiguity.
At one DC seminar, the audience heard that we are in uncharted waters, as danger is growing of misperceptions and conflict. Although US policy toward Russia and China is in unusual flux, transitions are also under way in China and, perhaps, in Russia. The three countries are described as not only the three most powerful and influential in the world, but as states that no longer have a shared understanding, undermining the stability of the international system and leaving the rules of the game unclear. In the transition after WWII, an overall framework took shape to manage two different systems. At the end of the Cold War, one system sought to impose its principles, but it found itself from 2001 preoccupied with international terrorism as China and also Russia were shifting the balance of power while questioning the new order. Russia is bent on upending that order, while China has a different view of what that order is. Together, they share a common cause in shaking up the order, casting doubt on how to keep peace among the great powers and reach agreement on shared values.
In searching for minimal rules of the game, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons would seem to be an obvious point of agreement among the three powers, but some success in reaching a deal with Iran contrasts with the failure to agree on how to stop North Korea. From China and Russia, the argument is heard that, as a sovereign state, the North has the right to protect itself, and it has been forced to turn to nuclear weapons due to the threats from the United States and its allies. In this thinking, nonproliferation to North Korea could only be achieved if the United States and South Korea took a range of often vaguely unspecified steps—some put
weakening the US alliance system among them. The most serious effort to work out new norms occurred in the Six-Party Talks, which failed in 2009 not only due to the North Korean stance, but primarily because the three powers have been at odds. In the maritime arena, notably the South China Sea, there is also no consensus on the rules of the game—this time with India and Japan among the great power actors. Again, China insists on its notion of sovereignty to deny international norms, as it does, along with Russia, to oppose the application of “universal values” to matters internal to it and possibly linked to a “color revolution” occurring in other countries.
As for Trump, there is a sense that he wants to make the world work better for the United States, but he has no interest in how the world order may change. Yet, he may accept the notion that a few great powers have special responsibilities for trade and peace. Audiences were reminded that both Russia and China intend to convince Trump that US unilateralism does not work, agreeing with Trump that the current order needs change, and striving to strike a deal on a few great powers joining hands while limiting sovereignty in lesser powers such as South Korea, which has no right to deploy THAAD, and Ukraine, which has no right to partner with the EU.
Questions raised in discussions of this triangle include: how important was the Ukraine crisis in 2014 in altering its dynamics—reducing Russia’s reservations in cozying up to China and holding back on the Silk Road Economic Belt in Central Asia? how much room does Russia have to maneuver in East Asia given its need to defer to China there—and is it taken seriously by China there or merely allowed an incidental role? How long-lasting are the geopolitical implications of OBOR as China strengthens its presence in Central Asia and, through that area, in South Asia and the Middle East in ways that may be uncomfortable for Russia? And how welcome to Russia is China keeping the United States tied down in East Asia, giving more room for Russia to be assertive elsewhere? Discussions in DC sought answers to these and other questions, recognizing that Sino-Russian relations are consequential and that humility is needed on the ability of US efforts to affect the dynamics of these ties. In general, the message heard is that the opportunities for closer Sino-Russian ties are seen as greater than those for weaker ties. Of relevance is the conclusion that over time diplomacy has lost promise: China’s diplomats lost what control they had in 2003-2004 in dealing with ASEAN, Japan, and the Korean Peninsula, and, even more in 2008-2009. Russia’s diplomats lost control in stages too, with Putin imposing stricter demands. Finally, US diplomats are being eclipsed in 2013. Resolving problems in a triangular context is no longer a challenge that diplomats can expect to handle.
Conclusions about the Sino-Russia-US triangle note the role of foreign policies that arouse one state or another to respond, but also point directly to domestic drivers. Xi Jinping, Putin, and now Trump are consumed with radically remaking their own societies—marginalizing cosmopolitan interests. Risk-adverse responses abroad serve more to embolden them than to encourage compromise solutions. Critics of Obama blame him for being too risk adverse, e.g. in the South China Sea. Yet, others criticize Republicans for refusing to work with him, e.g. to end sequestration, in a way that made the United States look weaker. Misplaced perceptions of growing US weakness—accelerated by the self-inflicted wounds of the global financial crisis—were a factor in making the West look weak and giving China and Russia reasons to pursue their assertive aspirations. Yet, they misperceived weakness, which has been corrected, some argued, either pointing to Obama or to Trump as showing strength. Others worried that Obama was held back and Trump’s bravado may not be enough.
The Sino-ROK-US Triangle
After China indicated its curtailment of coal imports from North Korea, there was discussion of what that means for Sino-ROK-US cooperation. Given recent Chinese pressure on South Korea over THAAD, few expected that Sino-ROK ties would be
advanced by China’s move, although a progressive government in the spring might try to capitalize on it in launching new bilateral talks. Some saw China’s move as aimed at the Trump administration, dangling the possibility of Sino-US talks on North Korea, e.g., on crisis management of WMD but also possibly leading toward a grand bargain. Any such talks could test US-ROK relations, since China’s objectives include weakening the US-ROK alliance and gaining leverage over North Korea at the expense of South Korea—unless the South accepts China’s terms for the future of the peninsula. One example is the case of securing WMD through intervention in an unstable and unwelcoming North Korea. In this case, proximity to WMD sites and a long border would give China the edge in an onerous task, which all three states should welcome, but South Korea is likely to view anxiously as China positions itself to play a larger role in North Korea. Of course, safeguarding WMD is the US priority.
North Korea had some success in 2016 in altering the bilateral relations of other states. It seriously damaged Sino-ROK relations—no doubt one of its priorities. If Sino-US cooperation on two UN resolutions suggests that it had negative results in shaping this relationship, then signs by the end of the year of rising Sino-US tensions over North Korea offered some relief. Even the potential worst effect—South Korea drawing closer to the United States—needs to be seen in a different light, since the growing weight of progressives in South Korea would have been welcome. The year brought mixed results, but some decided that North Korea had mostly made gains.
Some South Korean speakers have presented a picture of a progressive president worrisome to DC audiences. Altering sanctions, perhaps under the label “tailored sanctions,” appears to be at the expense of the united US-ROK front. Seeking to engage North Korea through market activities—with reasoning that confrontation over ten years has failed to spur dialogue—seems idealistic. The idea that there is a “nation-centric” perspective or even a “market-centric” one different from a “state-centric” one suggests that national identity would take precedence over realism in policymaking. Criticism of THAAD for being imposed too suddenly and not in a democratic manner seems to be a pretext for caving in to China’s pressure. There is little understanding in DC circles for the policies a progressive leader might adopt even as word spreads that Moon Jae-in has lately hardened his approach.
The US-Japanese-ROK Triangle
Concern has replaced the optimism of 2016 regarding Japanese-ROK relations. The problem as seen in Tokyo and Washington is that many Koreans regard not only the December 28 “comfort women” agreement as illegitimate, but also the original 1965 normalization agreement and any secret agreements associated with it, as in a “live and let live” 1965 deal on Dokdo/Takeshima. Viewing past agreements as done by leaders who acted improperly and did not reflect the will of the people, Koreans are under the illusion that they can start over: 1) ignoring diplomatic protocol; 2) acting as if moral superiority trumps geopolitical realities; 3) misjudging the will of both the Japanese and US people and governments; and 4) letting activists drive foreign policy through actions such as pressure on comfort women not to accept funds and erection of “comfort women” statues that defy the spirit of the agreement and give offense. Repeatedly Korean leaders, beginning with Kim Young-sam have failed to comply with the terms of the 1965 agreement and courts have ruled against terms negotiated by diplomats. This is the message conveyed to DC audiences. While in the 1990s an unusual political alignment in Japan opened a window for compromise, the Korean rejection of the 2015 agreement threatens to be a point of no return. Yet, such pessimistic conclusions are in the minority, as many heard that once a new president takes office, a calmer approach to Japan would prevail, unlikely to block the pace of trilateral military cooperation that has recently been accelerated.
In 2012, the visit by Lee Myung-bak set back relations badly, but the consequences of the Busan statue and what is likely to be Korean demands to renegotiate the 2015 deal could be worse, audiences were told. For the first time, Japanese are feeling that they are the victims in the Japan-ROK relationship, giving up their lingering hope in Korean society. However much Abe is at fault in his revisionist thinking, he has won in the eyes of Japanese who are not revisionists and of Americans. In 1996 and again in 2013, Korean leaders had good reason to feel offended by new Japanese leaders with historical views offensive to their country. In the event of reunification of Korea, Japan may be seen as shortsighted for not taking reconciliation seriously beyond the deals already reached. Yet, for the foreseeable future, allowing voices obsessed with making Japan apologize properly and protecting extremist activists while the media avoids balanced discussion of the geopolitical implications bodes poorly for South Korea’s image. Progressives, who are driving the national identity narrative, use the Japan issue as a driver in their ideological worldview, linking it to a misplaced view of China as an opportunity, to the United States as target for more equal relations, and to North Korea as a partner that can be persuaded. Unable to build on the December 28 opportunity to shift direction on Japan and trilateralism with the United States, South Korea is in danger of a foreign policy based on illusion. Some in the audience disagreed, but others in DC drew these sobering conclusions.
The Trump-Abe connection is bound to draw the attention of the next president of South Korea, even if his temptation is to draw close to Trump and keep his distance from Abe. The problem is not only Abe’s head start with Trump, but the meeting of minds by two leaders intent on remaking their societies at odds with much of the press and elite and on working together versus China. Given the overwhelming goal of preventing North Korean belligerence, Seoul has little choice but to accept the US lead in dealing with Japan was the increasingly clear message heard by Koreans.
One puzzle for realists is South Korean public opinion that favored Russia over Japan, although that was changing in 2016, accompanying the upswing in views of the United States and downturn in views of China. Obama’s image was rising at the end of his tenure, as he managed to convey an image of seeking THAAD but without pressure and wanting ROK-Japan relations to improve, but keeping the US role in the background. In contrast, Xi Jinping’s image has worsened, as he has failed to show respect for South Korean sovereignty and its need for self-defense. Putin is too marginal in South Korean national identity discussions to have a big profile, but his strong views on THAAD and ambivalence on North Korea cannot help his image. In sustaining a relatively benign image of him for a time, Koreans were yielding to wishful thinking about their options in Northeast Asia. More sobering responses in 2016 are especially reflected in Xi’s image, but even that is surprisingly positive in the view of US observers. So far, Trump’s image in South Korea, while unfavorable, is not a serious enough problem to alter the goodwill toward the United States.
Overall Sino-US Relations
Optimists foresee stability in this relationship over the next 5-10 years, but they offer different explanations for why. One view is that China is just a regional power focused on economic interdependency. Another is that the East Asian economic model promotes security, and there is no ideological polarization, while institutions work well enough to calm rivalries. A third view is that Trump is focused elsewhere and both domestic and regional constraints will limit his disruptive impact. Finally, there are those who see China biding its time, even if it tests US responses, and other states in Asia preferring the status quo and damping down Sino-US tensions. Voices of pessimists can also be heard. Some see North Korea causing trouble, which China and the United States will allow it to drag them into serious conflict. Others see the end of the regional projects that in the 1990s and 2000s left countries cooperating for common goals even as they competed. The death of regionalism has left a void. The United States was trying to fill it, but Trump has no such strategy after killing the Obama TPP. China is not welcome as a leader, e.g., OBOR only draws weak states as partners. Without a joint aim, countries blame each other more, listeners heard.
While members of the academic community are more inclined to the optimistic side, the think tank mainstream in DC leans toward pessimism. This was the inclination in the late Obama years. It is a response reflecting how Xi Jinping has been viewed. It also is a reaction to problems in the region that increasingly are drawing the two sides apart. Lately, the Trump factor has added to this sense of doubt about how this relationship is unfolding. Given Xi’s desire for stability (but not to show weakness) before the party congress later this year and Trump’s desire to concentrate (if he can prioritize) on the Middle East for now, some commentators see a window of potential restraint on both sides—which could be broken as a result of an accidental encounter or a North Korean crisis. There is still little discussion of what types of positive agreements and compromises could—perhaps in 2018—hold promise. In some academic circles optimistic voices are heard, but the mood remains heavily weighted toward pessimism in DC given the emphasis on recent developments not on academic abstractions and theoretical deductions.