Washington Insights, Vol. 8, No. 1


The coronavirus originating in Wuhan cast a dark shadow on efforts to look ahead in East Asia. It kept China at the center of attention, while only reinforcing the tendency to analyze events through the prism of Sino-US relations. While some kept their sights on Russia and India in this context—embracing a forward-looking great power perspective—others took a more targeted, triangular approach showcasing Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. The US government response to China drew the most interest, proceeding on a professional, bipartisan basis as it was presented at DC think tanks against the backdrop of the December trade deal and the unfolding epidemic.

The Department of Justice China Initiative was rolled out in January, clarifying thinking about how to combat the China’s unfair and illegal theft of technology. The challenge was viewed from the perspective of the FBI, ongoing legal cases, and panels from the business and academic communities. While some stressed how to prevent the pilfering of secrets through greater vigilance and prosecution, others mentioned how to compete better. A central message was to find balance between denial of access and maintenance of openness. Yet the thrust of the session was a call for greater vigilance in the face of a deepening threat.

Ad hoc, unilateral, politicized decision-making means that observing, analyzing, and responding to the broader picture are generally not taking place. As North Korea shifts from a diplomatic mirage to an urgent challenge for deterrence and reanimated talks among countries once part of the Six-Party Talks, who is preparing? As South Korea faces intensified pressure from China and Russia, who is preparing a joint allied response? After Abe, how much worse will Japan-Russia relations and Japan-ROK relations become? After Moon, how will Seoul emerge from its isolation? After Trump, what will be left of US credibility or strategic leadership?

More and more, one hears criticisms of foreign ministries being marginalized, leaders giving their own offices all of the clout in decision-making, and politics overriding strategic thinking. This is the pattern in democracies, as Trump ignores experts on North Korea, Ukraine, and Iran, but so too has Moon on Japan and North Korea, and Abe on Russia, South Korea, and China. In the think tanks of DC, strategizing continues on the South China Sea, North Korea, and other issues, even if many lack confidence that leaders are attentive or even would put politics aside.

The accelerating impact of covid-19 left in doubt what was expected in 2020—whether economic forecasts or diplomatic plans. Meetings in DC did not get very far in anticipating the consequences of this new and unprecedented force at the turn of the year naturally and even through February. Here, the tenor of those discussions is reviewed with stress on China and the Korean Peninsula. The overall tone is troubled, beginning with skepticism about leadership.

By the end of February attention was turning inward as each country faced its own onslaught of the COVID-19 epidemic. Great power relations were likely to be put on hold although attitudes toward China were hardening as leaders could be blamed for failing to take precautions out of hesitation to offend it or of stirring anger against it by imposing excessive restrictions. Earlier, however, lingering sources of regional tension were aired in DC with interest in their effect.

Japan-South Korea

There was a drop-off in the intensity of DC exchanges over Japan-South Korean relations. After GSOMIA was sustained in November and Kim Jong-un failed to deliver the “Christmas surprise” that he had promised, attention turned elsewhere. Although the Trump administration played a pivotal role in the GSOMIA outcome, it took little interest in broadcasting its role. DC watchers appeared to assume that Seoul and Tokyo would go their separate ways with no likelihood of a return even to the cool relationship prior to July 2019, not speculating much on South Korean enforcement of the court verdict on forced labor compensation, which could have brought ties to a crashing confrontation, or on North Korean provocation, which would have left the two on the same boat. With Moon looking to April National Assembly elections and Abe to August Olympic Games and the coronavirus epidemic arousing panic over health and economics, the prospect of Japan-ROK relations causing a serious distraction appeared rather minimal.

Although in late 2019 Trump’s demand for vastly increased military burden-sharing from South Korea and Xi’s summitry with Moon and Abe upping pressure could have been a harbinger of more trouble in early 2020, the two dominant powers were preoccupied as well. Neither Moon nor Abe relished increased Sino-US tensions, taking satisfaction in the phase 1 trade deal between the two and anticipating a calmer atmosphere through the first half of 2020. Ideas for bypassing the Japan-ROK dispute to build people-to-people networks harked back to hopes for new cultural openness from the 1998 Kim-Obuchi summit to the “Korean Wave” in the early 2000s, but they had been dashed, and leadership was wanting in the US and the two regimes.

Japan between the US and China

The overwhelming impression in DC is that Abe is a steadfast US ally whose talks with Xi Jinping are driven by narrow economic objectives with no discernable, negative impact on US policy in the Indo-Pacific region. Yet some in Japan detect a more independent streak in Abe’s actions, as if he is duplicating his overtures to Putin or, at least, distancing himself from what is regarded as a hawkish trend in US policy toward China. Calling this balancing or even hedging is a stretch few have made but considering it prudent avoidance of entrapment in light of Japan’s economic and geographical situation appears accurate. The centerpiece, of course, is the shift since 2017 to cooperation with BRI, at odds with US policy. Thus, FOIP is downplayed somewhat from an economic counterweight to BRI, avoiding calling it a strategy as if it is just an initiative. The current test is whether Japan will agree to China’s urgency in completing RCEP in 2020 without India, when Japan had pressed for India to join and had feared China’s dominance without it.

Other tests of Abe’s warming ties to Xi Jinping await. Having long pressed the US to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, is Abe becoming quieter on this issue? In the aftermath of Tsai Ing-wen’s resounding reelection and signs of increased pressure from the PRC on Taiwan, is Abe’s longstanding affinity with Taiwan less in evidence? Will the Chinese warnings against deploying intermediate-range missiles in Japan lead to restraint? If decoupling between the US and Chinese economies in high tech and digital sectors proceeds as expected, will Abe begin to distant himself from the US? Will new attention to comparative civilizations in Japan be a sign of distancing Japan from shared values with the US and positioning it to deal with China as well as Russia as if Japan is an independent pole, albeit not directly on security matters? If Abe distances himself from the US in one or more of these ways, observers may ponder is it due to Trump alienating Japan, to Abe’s quest for a more autonomous Japanese posture or identity, a shift in Chinese foreign policy that accommodates Japan, or some combination of the above?

The logic behind this approach is sometimes perceived as a distinctive Japanese worldview not captured by traditional IR theory. It is not liberalism with its rose-colored thinking on bringing countries together nor realism limited to seeking balance among powers. It appears to be some variant of constructivism, assuming a unique way of softening differences, harking back to the idea that Asian values can operate to transform international relations shaped by the US. At its core is wishful thinking that adversaries of the US such as Russia or China will appreciate Japan as an autonomous actor, allowing it to gain leverage in the region. Whereas some assume that this outlook is confined to Japanese progressives, Abe’s behavior suggests otherwise. How else could one explain Abe’s pursuit of Putin even after a territorial breakthrough and attempts to lure Moscow away from Beijing had proven elusive. Counterarguments were offered as well.

Among the responses to this Japanese outlook were the following: 1) it misinterprets China and Russia and how they have been behaving; 2) it exaggerates Japan’s clout in changing their behavior; 3) it misjudges the degree to which the US is likely not to be hawkish but eager for an accommodation on reasonable terms; 4) it looks back on the past three decades arguing that Japan missed windows of opportunity, as if it could have altered the course of history, slighting the real driving forces; and 5) it takes Japan’s heavy dependence on China as a basis to decide that Japan cannot afford to stand firmly against China rather than as a warning against further increases in dependence. Observers of Japan who think that Abe is not considering serious ties to China should stay alert, but critics of Japanese idealism are doubtful of any breakthrough.

Another area where Japanese foreign policy thinking has aroused discussion is in how views of South Korea have evolved. On the one hand, the narrative in Tokyo is that it has handled ties to Seoul properly, agreeing in 1965 to normalization to resolve pending issues, making a deal in 1998 that would allow Japanese culture persuade Koreans that they misjudged Japan, and agreeing to a further deal in 2015 to resolve a remaining thorn in relations. When it turned out that the cultural impact was greater in the other direction—as Japanese embraced Korean dramas—Japanese paid little heed to Korean psychology that put historical identity far above any present-day cultural affinity. Indeed, the effect of increased confidence was not to move beyond grudges over the past but to feel emboldened to air them more forcefully. While in DC many also are not attentive to such psychological factors and agree that Abe is right to blame Moon Jae-in for forcing the history issue again, others acknowledge Japan’s misstep to make light of the longstanding damage to trust its occupation and lack of remorse have caused.

A discussion of Japan’s options in the context of deepening Sino-US rivalry raised three choices and dismissed a fourth. It can draw even closer to the US such as by integrating armed forces beyond deterrence. It can expand partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, filling gaps left behind by US unilateralism or use of excessive pressure. Also, it can accommodate China, recognizing its greater vulnerability to retaliation than the US faces. The choice of going nuclear, striking out more on its own was discounted, given the dual pressure from the two powers. As Abe awaits a state visit by Xi Jinping, he appears to be navigating between rocky shoals, eschewing a sharp move in any direction. He has satisfied the US although there is concern about his wooing of Xi. He has filled the vacuum in economic multilateralism in Asia’s Southern Tier, while giving China hope for cooperation with the BRI. And he has agreed in principle with China on RCEP and on a state visit to jump start relations. Yet Abe is walking a tightrope, facing both Chinese pressures to agree to a kind of vision statement in a fifth state document and US pressures to do more to decouple in high technology from China. If Trump’s inconsistent attitude toward Xi and Xi’s urgent need for Abe in 2019 gave Abe some room to maneuver, the situation is uncertain today. COVID-19 and China’s economic setbacks may slow Xi’s diplomacy, while Japan now faces strong economic crosswinds as well. Uncertain about Trump’s electoral prospects in these hard times, both Abe and Xi may put big decisions on hold.

Trump’s unpredictability and impulsive moves that defy strategic thinking have made it easier for others to follow suit. Having committed himself, he is loath to admit error; this means bad choices do not get reversed. Abe similarly feigns progress with Putin though failure is clear. Trivial proposals are taken seriously, allowing Putin to keep stringing Abe along. The Japanese media are toothless on foreign affairs, even when Sankei posts articles critical of Russia, the editorial staff, sympathetic to Abe, refuses to press their import. Given Abe’s support, Mitsui has joined the Yamal LNG project, handing Putin a victory. The best that can be said for Abe’s diplomacy with Russia is that he has lowered Japanese expectations of four islands being returned. Despite Abe’s record, he may secure an unprecedented fourth consecutive term if Trump wins reelection, since the case would be made that only he knows how to manage the US president. On South Korea too, the price of alienating the Korean public by imposing export controls just prior to the July Diet elections may be apparent after Moon’s tenure when a reboot is sought. Moon’s latest mistake was retaliating through threatening to end GSOMIA, a decision bound to unleash maximum US pressure on him. At a time when allies need to strategize together on how to respond to intensifying challenges in East Asia, there are no prospects from any side.

The degree of outrage being expressed toward Trump’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula is without precedent. Whether extortion of an ally in mercenary defiance of the trust expected in such a relationship or blithe tolerance of an adversary’s provocative behavior on the contorted belief that personal warmth with its leader had been achieved, Trump’s handling of peninsular matters is arousing shock from those who have nurtured the relationship over many decades. The divide between political parties has been obliterated within the think tank and academic communities on matters of such strategic significance. While Trump’s policy toward Japan is not receiving comparable attention, the unease is palpable in those watching that as well.

Sino-US competition

Looking back two decades, one exchange focused on the primary theme in the region—the Sino-US competition as it affects the balance of power amid clashing visions of regional order. Along with past examination of China’s expansion policies, the focus turned to perceptions of the rivalry in the Trump era with an effort to discern what would follow Trump. When asked if the conflict was inevitable, some answered that China’s approach may make it so although pushback from the US was slow. When asked if the current US strategy is viable, the answer offered was it depends, to a considerable degree, on the responses of others since US power is limited in the Indo-Pacific. Washington has tried to avert a far-reaching shift of the balance of power to China economically with scant success and militarily with more staying power. It has relied on a contradictory approach combining engagement with hedging, but that is running its course. US thinking was so obsessed with the world formed since WWII that it was ill-prepared to contemplate a return to the world that led to WWI. Meanwhile, society became so intertwined with China it constrained state behavior until, only recently, the lesser rewards states received led to change. The memory of the Soviet challenge in the Cold War distracted from awareness of what is different, especially given the resourcefulness of the Chinese people and the strategic thrust of the state.

Strikingly different in the Chinese and Soviet challenges is the elevated need to understand how other states perceive US policies and the way the rivalry is evolving. The responses are diverse, reflecting different interests and elite perceptions. One set of responses is to welcome greater US pushback against China while still striving to protect one’s own interests. Japan is the prime example, as are Taiwan and Australia. A second response is discomfort at the deeper degree of competition, leading to greater effort to engage both sides. South Korea and some of the Southeast Asian states do this. A third response is to exploit the rivalry to one’s own gain. Some states in Oceania have been doing this. Central Asian states have tried this at times. One more response cited for states in other regions is hapless, becoming bystanders with no options.

The situation is fluid, and states may slip from one category to another. Similar choices existed in the US-Soviet Cold War, as states sided with the US, were discomforted by a deeper rivalry, or tried to play off both sides. Yet the times are different: China’s economic lure leaves fewer siding fully with the US; China’s toned-down ideology confuses the national identity discourse; a relatively weaker US leadership role shifts the calculus; and US divisions and indecisiveness put multilateralism at risk. Comments addressed the perceptions in various countries but also the importance of studying China’s shifting and differential strategies to countries in each of the above categories. The tendency to focus on US bilateral relations to grasp the responses in the countries of the region risks missing the triangularity at work and China’s strategic behavior.

Criticizing the US arrogance to have assumed China’s development path with so little insight into China’s internal dynamics, some claimed that in this emerging cold war the US will not be able to spend its way to victory. What will be key are US allies, who reject China’s economic model and insist on economic autonomy from China’s domination. So far, the GDPs of state-controlled economies pale before those of other economies, giving hope to more alliance-building. Made in China 2025 must be blocked, but that does not mean not seeking ways to cooperate. One twist to this wake-up call is blaming Obama for weakness or withdrawal and crediting Trump for turning things around in 2019. Yet Obama’s alliances-first conforms to the new agenda more, while Trump’s sympathetic tone toward Xi Jinping leaves resistance in some doubt. Moreover, the nuances of dealing with countries hesitant to jump into a cold war are missing, as if all that is required is a strong US leader calling for unconditional support. Also missing is a strategy to persuade the Chinese people that the US is not the cause of trouble.

Much depends in DC discussions about China on assessments of both the Chinese and the US economy. Those are in flux. Some argue that the combination of the exhaustion of its previous model, a demographic timebomb, the trade war with the US, and then the epidemic of 2020 bode poorly for growth in China. Others argued that the flawed, debt-driven Trump approach is not the answer, and only a Democratic approach addressing inequality would give the required momentum to the US. DC think tank discussion on geopolitics rarely resolve such debates.

Competition in the emerging cold war will differ in important respects from that in the original Cold War. Chinese are trying unlike the Soviets to claim the mantle of globalization. It is the US in this narrative which closes markets. Chinese also seek a more credible claim to opposing any colonization and having no record of provoking war, gaining influence instead through a build-up of economic leverage. BRI is a model of forging a sphere of influence using investment and infrastructure. China also insists on its tolerance for multiple forms of governance even if there is waning tolerance for criticism of China’s internal or external policies. This approach obscures the essence of the competition between two systems (two models) that is unfolding. So far, the narrative from the US side, DC commentators warned, fails to capture clearly the nature of this new competition, muddled of late by Trump’s idiosyncratic approach to economics and security. 

China and the Korean Peninsula

Some may have been under the impression that Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in have brought Sino-ROK relations back to normalization after the rough patch following THAAD deployment and the unofficial Chinese sanctions that followed. Neither leader is satisfied with the US posture toward North Korea. Moon’s ties with Japan are troubled, as China has sought. Strains between Trump and Moon would seem to offer Xi an opening. Xi is expected to visit the ROK in 2020 (albeit not as early as anticipated given the COVID-19 epidemic) with talk of a new stage in relations. Yet all is far from well based on recent exchanges in DC.

THAAD is not over even if Chinese retaliation is quieted as part of China’s ongoing strategy to keep its focus on countering the US. It is in abeyance, with many expecting it to be resurrected. Moon’s hope to use Xi’s visit prior to April parliamentary elections is thwarted by absence of any optimism about China’s economic ties lifting South Korea from its doldrums. Above all, concern has grown in Seoul over the new state of Sino-North Korean relations, what is called the “second stage” of their alliance in North Korea (even if Chinese sources are more guarded) after an interval. Bolstering North Korean confidence is what they are alleged to have heard from Xi, reviving Cold War rhetoric. Key terms such as “blood alliance,” “one command center,” and “lips and teeth” were revived, as Pyongyang declared that the alliance is back, supported by five summits with Xi over one and a half years including Xi’s visit to Pyongyang.

If in 2012 young Kim Jong-un failed to show deference to his senior and superior Xi Jinping and Chinese officials remained unsure if Kim really wielded power, Kim’s brutal purge of his uncle in 2013 left no doubt that Kim was in charge. Yet, relations remained tenuous because Kim would not declare his intention to denuclearize—a condition Kim accepted only in 2018, which immediately gave rise to a summit with Xi even before Moon Jae-in met with Kim. Sino-US relations were another driving force, one presumes. Task forces to the US returned home, convinced that the US stance toward China has fundamentally changed, and even after Trump, Congress, the Pentagon, and opinion leaders are girding for a long-term rivalry, reinforcing the conclusion that anti-China and anti-socialist attitudes are here to stay. North Korea has always been viewed through the triangular prism with the U.S., and its strategic value has now risen.

Chinese have long calculated that South Korea is the weak link in the US alliance system and seem more determined than ever to wield sticks not carrots to get it to change. Indeed, tough pressure on Seoul is deemed essential as a lesson to others, showing the economic costs of any decision to defy China on a matter of national security or national identity. Already in 2016, the message delivered to South Koreans was clear: no longer would China acquiesce to the dual approach of economic closeness to Beijing and security closeness to Washington. These are two wheels of a chariot, which cannot turn in different directions. When Xi Jinping had visited Seoul in 2014 his message, especially in his talk at Seoul National University, was an appeal for unity on identity grounds versus Japan rather than a charm offensive. Despite the ongoing split with Japan over the “comfort women” issue, Koreans recognized that this signaled pressure to split with the US, too. At times, China has referenced a shared tradition of Confucianism. When Moon met with Xi in December 2019 an erroneous message was reported that Moon agreed to Hong Kong being just an internal matter for China, and Moon delayed his effort to publicize a purported break from standing up for universal values to the discomfort of the Korean public. Eager for Xi to visit in early 2020 prior to the National Assembly elections, Moon was loath to allow discord over an identity issue, but Xi also pushed for deeper economic ties.

As seen in THAAD, security is foremost in China’s thinking. If Seoul narrowly focuses on North Korea’s nuclear threat and insists that US alliance counters that, Beijing asserts that the problem needs to be widely framed as one of regional security. Instead of agreeing to work with Seoul on constraining Pyongyang, Beijing seeks bilateral cooperation on regional security. If at times it has been Washington pressing for broadening the alliance into a regional one, now it is China that is more insistent on a regional approach at odds with the US one. Moreover, the message is that turning to Trump to strike a way forward with Kim Jong-un has failed, and now only working with China can achieve that objective through a “denuclearization roadmap.” Seoul should join Beijing in forging a joint proposal, which Seoul would sell to Washington and Beijing to Pyongyang. While Moon hesitates, Chinese seek to find think tank partners in Seoul to work on a roadmap. Meanwhile, Xi and Kim Jong-un are believed to have an understanding to keep Chinese oil flowing in return for no provocations despite Chinese pretenses that there is no such thing and that it has just restored normal state-to-state relations with the summitry.

Visible in Chinese ties to South Korea are at least three agendas: 1) to seize the Trump period as an historical opportunity to accelerate China’s rise; 2) to single out South Korea under Moon as the most vulnerable link in the US regional network, using North Korea, economic dependency, and security pressure; and 3) to use sharp power and national identity tensions inside the South to exacerbate doubts about the US and mobilize apologists for China. With memories of how China responded to North Korea’s attacks in 2010 deeply imprinted in the younger generation, however, and human rights violations and THAAD sanctions still fresh in people’s minds, China’s agenda is not likely to succeed. Moon’s slow response to COVID-19, allowing the epidemic to spread rapidly in South Korea, is being blamed on his unwillingness to hurt China’s feelings. This is serving to rally further skepticism against Korean weakness in the face of China’s pressure.

ROK-US relations

The best face is being put on ROK-US relations despite widespread awareness of tensions over burden-sharing, the balance of sanctions and engagement with North Korea, and the regional security framework inclusive of Japan and restrictive of China. Washington’s message was that these matters were being handled effectively; the US had compromised on SMA and considered diverse South Korean contributions toward logistics, construction, and personnel even if it is being asked to do more as the April 1 deadline is nearing. On North Korea, the bilateral working group has kept meeting and has softened over the differences. Finally, the US values cooperation with Seoul on the Indo-Pacific, agreeing that Moon’s New Southern Policy aligns well with the US strategy for economics, security, and governance. Rather than make more than passing reference to differences, the US position is to stress shared values, common concerns, and overlapping economic interests as well as two special qualities to relations: 1) the legacy of the Korean War—in 2020 reaching the 70th anniversary of its start—that resulted in democracy prevailing over communism and freedom over tyranny; and 2) the extraordinary admiration in the US as elsewhere for Korean culture (as the Oscar-winning movie Parasite) and firms at the cutting edge for products. Both reflect the innovation of a free society. Whatever the US does or seeks, the message heard in DC is that it pursues both an equal relationship and does not get distracted by talk of a peace dividend from keeping its eyes on future readiness.

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