In mid-2020, US policy took a decidedly more negative turn toward China, driven by leaders whose foreign policy judgment was highly suspect. While there was bipartisan consensus on what was objectionable in Chinese foreign and domestic policies and on the necessity of a more robust pushback by the US and its allies, the specifics and tone of top officials’ statements were often viewed as election-driven. No sustained policy process would bind Biden if elected. Other themes were discussed in webinars, but they paled before the overriding foreign concern, even as the domestic fixation with a disastrous response to the pandemic superseded foreign issues.
The Korean Peninsula managed to draw some attention. Would North Korea revert to hostility, beginning with a break in ties to the South, symbolized by blowing up the liaison office? Would Trump keep striving for an October surprise summit with Kim Jong-un, as speculated when he sent Biegun to Seoul as well as Tokyo? Would Moon Jae-in defy the US with a softer line toward Kim Jong-un as his new appointments suggested to some, perhaps prompting Biegun’s visit? DC think tanks, through Zoom sessions, enlisted South Korean participation and hosted lively exchanges. Japan appeared both in a trilateral alliance context and in a trilateral Sino-US conflict context.
Whatever the topic, it was hard to avoid the rising prospect that Biden would replace Trump in the White House, turning foreign policy in a different direction. As a known quantity, he would be dealing with familiar leaders—apart from Moon Jae-in—in Northeast Asia. Discussions were beginning to include a question about how Biden would handle the situation. Often the answer was a cross between the Obama precedent and the new consensus on a tougher China policy.
The Korean Peninsula
The ROK-US alliance gap was scarcely disguised in exchanges around the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. From Seoul one heard: stick to engagement, accept it taking center stage in forging a peace regime on the peninsula, listen to it on matters of Northeast Asia, focus the alliance on securing peace on the peninsula, recognize that Seoul has the leading role in peace and security on the peninsula, accelerate transfer of wartime opcom transfer, be pragmatic by engaging North Korea more, take a long-term perspective, and accept Seoul as an equal partner in an alliance narrowly centered on managing North Korea. As for China, Seoul has to deal with it differently than other US allies and partners owing to the North Korean issue, resulting in a unique geopolitical dilemma. The pandemic is not a reason to abandon globalization or to not calm Sino-US relations in 2021 amid talk of modernizing the alliance, as if deterring Pyongyang and denuclearizing it are decidedly lesser goals than before. Without openly acknowledging the challenge, Koreans are calling for a fundamental change. A hidden message may be that the US nuclear umbrella has been weakened, China’s rise cannot be halted, North Korea is still not criticizing Trump and is diverting attention with its rhetoric from economic troubles and the damaged image of its leader without ending diplomacy, and Seoul can steer the way to trust by refraining from criticism of the North, China, and Trump.
From the US side, one heard: both Pyongyang and Beijing are strategically predictable in ways Seoul is overlooking; both want to drive a wedge between the two allies; Seoul’s efforts to link inter-Korean engagement and denuclearization are not sustainable; China will not play a role on the Korean Peninsula that will be constructive; maintaining sanctions is vital to diplomacy; the US priority is China and alliance modernization means addressing China’s challenge in the broad context of the Indo-Pacific; an agile alliance must change with the times; Seoul and Tokyo must actively cooperate; the alliance has done well on peninsular issues and improved significantly on global issues but regional issues are increasingly exposing its shortcomings; realism requires facing threats as they are; Seoul will not be able to avoid choosing but slow, hard work may be needed to make the transition; other US allies such as Australia have been adjusting to a networked, regional, security architecture; if elected, Biden too will seek Seoul’s support for this not to contain China but to limit its aggressive behavior; if Seoul fears entrapment vs. China, the US needs to be sensitive to its unique circumstances; if China thinks the ROK is fearful of standing up to it, China will push harder to drive a wedge and be less helpful on North Korea; alliance equality appeals ignore the leading US role in regional strategy with China’s challenge now the organizing principle in security planning; the ROK-US alliance is in danger of becoming irrelevant if the regional challenges are not addressed; and Seoul is being asked not to contain China but to affirm sovereignty, international norms, peaceful resolution of disputes, i.e., shared values.
Messages about US-ROK relations were far from optimistic in mid-2020. The SMA talks were not expected to reach a successful conclusion due, many assumed, to Trump’s insufficient flexibility, as he sought to send a message to his audience at home and to other host nations. Although furloughed Korean workers had returned, lowering pressure for a deal, this did not suggest that talks were going well. The tactical focus of talks was missing the strategic issues that had to be resolved. There was no meeting of the minds on policies toward North Korea or China. As US pressure was mounting toward Pyongyang, Seoul was exploring reduced pressure through inter-Korean projects. Different thinking about how to link denuclearization and some relief in sanctions persisted. Additional Sino-US tensions put Seoul on the spot. In one calculus, it had faced at least ten such tugs-of-war and sided fully with the US only once. Now the Hong Kong issue saw Beijing and Washington pulling in different directions, and Seoul trying to hedge by making a bland statement in support of “one country, two systems.” As some saw evidence that North Korea is in dire economic straits (including coercive bonds viewed as expropriations) and Kim Jong-un’s is possibly unwell, the issue of more or less pressure was on the agenda. A minor THAAD upgrade had drawn Chinese concern, while some saw US secondary sanctions on Chinese banks as a looming test that could put tensions over North Korea on center stage. Trump invited Moon Jae-in to a September G7 summit, but he wanted Moon to take positions critical of China, including on Hong Kong, putting Moon in a difficult position.
One theme in exchanges on US-ROK relations is the US desire for Seoul to be more assertive on issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, i.e., matters sensitive to China. As the only ally of South Korea, the US is asking for it to be more of a strategic partner. When Seoul seems to be intent on striking a balance in its relations with the two great powers, things do not go well. Indeed, there is talk that only in this way will the message to China and others be clear that they cannot drive a wedge between allies. When asked if the US is doing enough to reassure an anxious South Korea, the response may not suffice, as if an invitation to the G7 plus is some kind of answer. Yet the impression is left that the US is telling Seoul that its moment has come and is awaiting a clearer answer. Mid-2020 is different for various reasons.
At least five reasons are being cited for a juncture in ROK-US relations of broad regional impact: 1) a new cycle of provocations by North Korea has begun, in which the US views China as part of the problem, not the solution; 2) both China and North Korea are stirring grey-zone challenges at the same time; 3) China’s use of economic dependence for aggressive moves has been fully exposed, especially to South Koreans; 4) The US response to China has shifted to arenas where Seoul can play an important role, such as export control, 5G networks, quality infrastructure projects of a multilateral nature, and Southeast and South Asia as critical battlegrounds. While Seoul’s New Southern Policy can be joined to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy with a range of non-security centered projects, the arrangements so far are not yet very substantial.
Seoul aims to show it has multiple partners in the EU and Southeast Asia, seeking partners in multilateralism until the US moves that way. Diplomacy, the WTO, and trade all work for Seoul. Fear of US troop withdrawal in Germany is having ramifications. The Bolton book’s revelations make South Koreans nervous, bringing tensions more into the open as well as showing Trump in a shockingly negative light. Seoul saw Kim Jong-un’s offer in Hanoi as credible, it is reported. The US did not. Kim Jong-un tried diplomacy with no planning for it; no advisors, no plan B, just belligerence as the alternative. Yet Trump was still tempted, indicating that there could be an October surprise. There is no Bolton in the White House any more. Listeners also heard that
only Seoul cares about a peace regime. Trump is ready to delink the missile issue from US allies. Trump raised Kim’s expectations in Singapore. Despite the North blowing up the liaison office, there are new hints at talks ahead. Time is on our side only if the sanctions regime is not too leaky, it was said on the US side. Kim needs prosperity and will make a deal—the US has the upper-hand, was a Korean view. Another view is there is no US bandwidth to deal with North Korea now, while Seoul has no stomach for a statement on Hong Kong or other likely G7 topics should it be drawn into a summit, as Trump proposed to Abe’s apparent unease.
Concern about South Korea’s narrow foreign policy was raised in one exchange. Compared to the period after the global financial crisis, it is avoiding global issues and intensely concerned about inter-Korean relations at the expense of everything else. While other states join to stand behind the rules-based order and recognize that the Southern Tier of Asia is the key testing ground for multilateralism in Asia, Seoul does what it can to stay on the sidelines, apart from the New Southern Strategy—not a real answer. The organizing principle driving rethinking is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Germany, France, and Great Britain are becoming more engaged, and Australia, Japan, and India are drawing closer. Concern was raised about Seoul remaining aloof, as if this would help it with North Korea. Countries such as Australia think that Japan is their close partner while South Korea is marginal. As the Sino-US conflict further heats up and Seoul tries to avoid offending Beijing, its isolation from these other states may keep growing.
As for what was occurring in North Korea in the early summer, there was talk of a parallel to 2010, when a successor had to prove worthy credentials by acting tough. Also, the threat of massive numbers of balloons flying across the border raised the urgency of a response. Thus, economic pressure was presumed not to be the principal cause. Lashing out at Seoul left open the possibility of renewed diplomacy with the US. It was assumed that the main objective of the North was not confrontation; the response needed to be balanced, allowing room for talks.
Questions arose about the China factor in the maneuvering over possible resumption of talks with North Korea. Is the collapse in Sino-US relations a boon or a detriment to such talks? One suggestion is that Pyongyang will see an opportunity here, cozying up to China as on the Hong Kong issue but also expecting more US interest in driving a wedge between it and Beijing. On the other side was the argument that China would have more reason to buttress North Korea, as had happened on other occasions of downturns in Sino-US ties. Given that the US will sustain sanctions and North Korea is focused on sanctions relief, while China is both the chief enforcer and chief violator of the sanctions, prospects for talks are dim despite Trump’s wild-card role.
On the trilateral relationship with Japan, the foundation of security in East Asia, stress was put on its continued significance. Seoul has boosted spending on jet fighters, but coordination is now harder with Japan. There were times when Japan-ROK relations were in a better place, as in the 1990s. This can change again. 2016 was a high point with active diplomacy. GSOMIA, high-level meetings, presidential involvement, and Abe’s pragmatism were cited factors. Tony Blinken at the vice foreign minister level played a big role. Needed deliverables marked quarterly meetings with Blinken. 2015 had parallels to 1964-65 efforts, when the US also played a big role. The media and politicians on both sides are obstacles and a possible August nationalization of Japanese assets in Korea threatens a new low. US policy in Asia starts and finishes with this trilateral since there is tremendous overlap in the alliances.
As people wondered if there would be an Abe-Xi summit, the odds appeared to diminish. The rise in Chinese ship activity in the East China Sea as Japan’s security environment was seen as deteriorating worked against a summit. Meanwhile, Japan was more active in promoting a joint strategic vision for countries recognizing China as a strategic adversary. Yet states differ in their goals on how to compete with China, deter North Korea, and coordinate with the US. If Japan’s decision to suspend deployment of Aegis Ashore raised more questions about deterrence, few regarded this as a sign of any policy redirection. Neither Abe nor Moon appeared to be ready for a Biden victory. Abe had invested heavily in Trump and was part of an LDP inclined to doubt the fortitude of Democrats in facing threats, especially from China. Moon had counted on Trump’s personal approach to Kim Jong-un, despite tensions with Trump on other matters. While trust in Trump has been problematic, trust in Biden remains a question mark. Neither Abe nor Moon is likely to be confident how a more assertive US push for triangularity would play out. However, it is understood that a more multilateral US outlook would seek support from Tokyo and Seoul.
In addition to the impact of China’s policies and the impasse in diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, COVID-19 drew attention as a possible source of change in grand strategy. Japan sought to make supply chains less dependent on China, but it still supported globalization albeit with awareness that the US role will diminish and Japan will have to keep stepping up in the Indo-Pacific region. It cannot manage China by itself, recognizing that grey-zone behavior is intensifying. It is feared that China is ready to change the status quo by force and recognized that in response security ties to the US need to be further strengthened. Some decoupling in high technology is on the agenda too, but this does not mean that wider decoupling is contemplated. Japan’s national security secretariat now has a new economic orientation. While the US is further along in identifying the areas of new technology at risk, Japan is still figuring out who has what and what export controls and protection against company buyouts are required. Problematic are reservations in academia about cooperation with the ministry of defense and a lack of clarity in industry on what is no longer advisable. Despite lingering barriers against investing in offensive weapons, interest is building in space, cyber, electromagnetism, and other areas of modern warfare through an aerospace force. The pandemic weakened the US, but it did not appear to cause Japan to reconsider its growing strategic closeness to its ally and anxiety over China.
Past debates about China’s intentions where clashing opinions were aired contrasted with the relative consensus displayed in mid-2020. Xi is authoritarian and ruthless. The trade war will be intense and long-lasting even if some accommodations are reached. Tensions over Hong Kong and the danger of conflict over Taiwan are unlikely to be under control. “Wolf warrior” diplomacy is the direct cause of regional instability, and there is no sign that it is fading away. Slower economic growth and more international tensions fuel nationalism. Patriotism will be further hijacked is predicted. Taiwan, North Korea, or the South China Sea could become the most serious hot spot. Recently, it is Taiwan drawing the most attention as China begins to see time as not on its side due to de-sinicization, deeper democratization, new US forms of support for Taiwan, and China’s shift toward an aggressive “wolf warrior” orientation.
China’s plans for Taiwan were foremost in some minds. It has lost hope in unification through voluntary means, in light of the fall of the Kuomintang. Confident of its relative success in the handling of the pandemic, it is more alienated from democracies and even more tightly under Xi Jinping’s grip. If Taiwan should undertake constitutional reform or a referendum reducing the chances of reunification further, China can be expected to raise tensions a lot. Should Biden be elected, it may welcome renewed dialogue with the US in a manner that would keep some lid on such strains. Biden, however, is likely to include Taiwan in an economic strategy in line with the US security strategy in the region. Still, he could revert to a broader affirmative agenda with China and be more wary of using Taiwan as a card or for ideological purposes.
Sino-US relations had no prospect of improvement in the remainder of 2020. A Xi-Abe summit was difficult to imagine as well. Kim Jong-un, who had become the diplomatic driver in 2018 was nowhere in sight. The pandemic had put international diplomacy on hold. Watchers kept an eye on China’s actions in Hong Kong and intensified crackdowns at home with few defenders.
In one exchange on Russia and US alliances with Japan and South Korea, it was clear that the goal is not to balance China but to diminish the US. Welcoming the troubled state of Japan-ROK relations, Russia positions sovereignty and national interests versus alliances. It seeks Finlandization of South Korea and Japan, turning them into neutral countries. Meanwhile, it strives to lure the South into engagement with North Korea and Japan into peace treaty talks with territorial resolution as the bait. Russian diplomacy relies on implicit coercion—either through more overt support for North Korea or joint military positions with China. With little cost to Moscow relations could grow tenser. Both Moon Jae-in with the visa-waiver program and Abe with new concessions on the territorial issue have tried to keep Putin’s interest. Yet Russia has lost soft power through military moves and its tough stance on issues of concern. Even so, neither Moon nor Abe is abandoning his pursuit of Putin. Some see this as hedging due to doubts about Trump and the weakening of the US-led order, but it is more about prudence in the face of threats.
One Webinar on the great powers in Central Asia found Russia easily the most popular and the US less popular than China. Extensive people-to-people contacts and deeper cultural roots matter. Geographical proximity to China and degree of media openness matter as well. Isolationists in rural areas are wary of all three powers, while those positive to one power tend to be more open to the others. Kazakhstan has broader openness. While treatment of Uighurs and Kazakhs damages China’s image, business cooperation proceeds. Xinjiang was thought to be a bridge for China’s outreach to Central Asia and soft power; the opposite has happened. Conservative values—Islamic or otherwise—turn against the US image. Some signs are also found of post-colonial criticism of Russia for Soviet policies. Post-Karymov Uzbekistan has been opening in all directions. Overall, official attitudes are more positive; public opinion less so.
The June 15 clash on the border between India and China drew close attention in DC. Would this lead to a sharp reversal of the improved relationship since China in 2018 shifted course? Would India respond by tilting further to the US, putting strategic autonomy aside? Caught in the middle, would Russia, e.g., at the virtual trilateral summit a week later, seek to play some kind of mediator role? Many questions were on people’s minds soon after the clash.
On the Indian side, the impression conveyed that this clash would not be a gamechanger. The key is that Xi Jinping had acted to make a point about territorial sovereignty but not move away from his policy since 2018. China saw India’s construction of infrastructure in the disputed area as a change in the status quo and pushed back. Perhaps, it wanted to signal its objection to closer Indo-US security ties in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific framework. Yet Modi would not need to view this as more than a warning. When Modi agreed to go forward with the virtual summit so soon after many Indian soldiers had been killed, it was evidence that he was limiting the Indian backlash even as the public was aroused. Still, some expected Modi to go further with the Quad.
On the Chinese side, there was a split message: for domestic and foreign audiences, and from the foreign and defense ministries as well as the media. Wang Yi was quick to credit India with sticking to strategic autonomy. Others, however, were inclined to accuse of India of aligning more closely with the US and not being a reliable partner of China. One message is that India is hiding under the mantel of strategic autonomy for leverage while actually cozying up to the US. Yet China avoided provoking a harsher downturn in public opinion in either country by concealing the number of casualties on its side. Overall, this aggressive move was further proof of wolf warrior diplomacy in 2020, whether from a feeling of weakness due to US pressure and the pandemic or from newfound confidence sensing US vulnerability and China’s successful recovery compared to other states. Xi appears supremely confident of his summitry in driving relations with Modi as with Abe and Putin, albeit the summitry with Trump has not turned out as he desired. On territorial issues, he draws the line; as seen now with India, but also with Japan and in the South China Sea. There is no room for third-party intervention. Russia was wise at the virtual summit to avoid a role.
China caused the confrontation and is fortifying posts for an extended stay. It will have a domestic impact in India, which must appear strong and in control. Indian denials proved weak. It was slow to deploy to stabilize the situation. Will India now act? Will Pakistan start a two-front conflict? Rumors of Pakistan mobilizing or that Chinese forces are operating there are not confirmed. Yet, China remains firm on staying put. How can the US help India? It has offered assistance of any kind, but India is declining intelligence support and diplomatic back-up. This gives China the impression India is not yet aligning with the US. China wants to keep gains and normalize ties on that basis. It could be a 1962 scenario, possibly linked to toughness in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the East China Sea. Is this defensive about preventing losses on sovereignty? Or is this Xi’s aggressive seizure of new opportunities? Few saw China’s moves as anything but aggressive.
With many assuming that China has gained preeminence in Southeast Asia, a discussion noted Japan’s significant economic role and that more Japanese live there than in China. In Bangkok the Japanese community shifted to accept the military government, listeners were told. Some argue that Japan is having success in building mutual trust in the region while managing its relationship with China through dialogue on economic coordination. One person called this “smart accommodation.” Japan recognizes the area’s priority on economic development as it finds a way to balance other goals and transitions to a model of governance in which the size of the investment is not foremost. Japan shows concern with the quality of life, urbanization as a driving force in social changes, and risk management. Japan tries to reinforce ASEAN, widen the Japan-US alliance network, and combine engagement with China with containment of it. This is made easier by the attitudes of overseas Chinese welcoming Japan and the US and by Japan’s emphasis on human resource development.
When the US has periodically been inattentive in Southeast Asia, Japan has tended to fill the gap. In 2015-16 Abe was particularly active in the area, activating diplomacy followed by heavy investment in quality infrastructure and capacity building programs. Its FDI far exceeds China’s. Its interests are congruent with US ones. Yet listeners heard that the US effort remains unimpressive and that combined, the two allies have fallen short in competing with China in Southeast China. Recommendations include: working more closely together along with Australia; increasing the diplomatic effort not just with the US focusing on defense; co-opting elites against China’s dark methods; and cooperating with China in limited ways without falling into the trap of a grand bargain. The BRI model of excessive debt, elite corruption, and Chinese labor substituting for local workers is increasingly suspect.