Washington Insights, Vol. 9, No. 1
This year is the kick-off for Xi’s reelection campaign in 2022 after the Party Congress and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP. Xi will be hypersensitive. Beijing is not starting the new Biden era with cautious engagement. Wolf warrior diplomacy is a feature of the system. China is more confident after 2020. As Xi becomes more powerful, more mistakes are likely.
China has a spirit of seeking revenge and using a 19th century power struggle to be No. 1. It distorts markets and builds maritime power in threatening ways. It is an alien force against Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Only by uniting can the Western camp engage China from strength. A strategy is needed. A power balance led by the US is needed. A market economy is needed with the US back in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). These were among the messages transmitted in exchanges on line in the first months of 2021.
China could get Taiwan in two weeks. Whether the US position is ambiguous or not, China will act. Japan needs the US to commit. Biden is continuing a much tougher stance toward China. It sees security and economics and technology intertwined. The Indo-Pacific focus and the Quad will stay. Yet big differences from Trump include a much more strategic framework and removal of contradictory and missing pieces, which are needed for a balancing coalition against China. The degree of coordination with allies and partners will be unprecedented. Engaging China will not be at the expense of confronting China in other areas. Trump was unpredictable to China, and China welcomes more consistency and balanced priorities despite its wary anticipation. Stability in the relationship is sought, as before. China approaches Japan when its ties to the US are bad. Japan welcomes this, but sees China’s threats as continuing. A key approach will be technology controls and better management of supply chains.
The winter of 2021 brought renewed life to exchanges over Zoom, as Trump faded into the rear-view mirror on Indo-Pacific matters and Biden’s approach drew speculation. The liveliest debates centered on Japan, which was uncertain not only of its own post-Abe leadership but also of its preferences for US policy. On the one hand, many called for a stronger commitment to defend Taiwan and boost the Quad or the Quad Plus. On the other hand, fear of US entrapment and loss of hope for autonomous diplomacy was also palpable. As observers awaited clarification on Sino-US relations and Biden’s position on Japan-ROK relations, diverse opinions were raised.
Japan is stepping up, and the US is refocusing. New administrations and unprecedented stress in the regional and global order since the end of WWII lead to new attention. Interdependence is replacing interoperability. The consensus behind the alliance has grown greatly over twenty years. US pressure has yielded to an equal alliance. Beyond military ties, technology is at the center. Abe took up the mantle of the alliance and regional economics and security. Suga’s comments indicate continuity, and he should be among the first to visit Biden in 2021. The need for a strategic vision for shaping the region is urgent, while resetting the conversation on the alliance.
The US and Japan share interests in all domains of competition with China: strategic, economic, technological, and governance. No other countries are so aligned in all of these domains. The US should join the TPP, kept alive by Japan, with changes and requiring parallel steps in the US. More coordination in assistance to Southeast Asia is desired. Trilateralism is key as well as ties to Australia and India. Seoul has a critical role in the FOIP and versus North Korea. The focus needs to be on the future, led by the US geopolitical reasoning. Missile defense is now critical, requiring a joint command and control structure. Japan is playing a big role in developing informal networks in the region, notably in contrast to US inactivity. Soft power by Japan or network power is working well. The Quad plus is a focus now, becoming a strategic coalition. Trump downgraded ASEAN for the Quad. Biden will boost ties to ASEAN, South Korea, and other states, reentering Southeast Asia. On technology, South Korea is an important player. In defense of the Quad, it is critical in security. ASEAN is fragile after China broke it. Southeast Asia does not deter China. These were messages in US-Japan exchanges as Biden was awaited.
Attention is turning to the Quad. Four navies signal to China more consequences. India sought the November meeting of the Quad foreign ministers, pointing to more robust ties ahead. There is no need to exclude ASEAN and South Korea, but the US-Japan relationship is the core, while US ties to the ROK are more troubled and need rebooting. There is broad convergence on China in security and human rights. Trump erred in turning the matter into China versus the US, not China versus the world. Europe is now critical to a coalition to hold back China. Europe has rediscovered China, but not yet Japan, despite Japan’s big role in technology. Every indication is that the US-Japan alliance will keep strengthening a lot. Six eyes are hard to achieve until Japan figures out how to control intelligence sharing at home. In Japan there is more discussion of Taiwan, but it is unclear what can be done to ensure democracy in peace.
China will welcome a return to normalcy in process, reducing the rough edges, but expect similar strategic substance, not a reset. Congress is likely to retain the most hostile tone, focusing on alliance-strengthening and human rights criticisms, tech-decoupling, and Taiwan policy. Systemic decoupling lies ahead with mutually exclusive systems in 5G, financial systems, and in higher education and exchanges in various disciplines. We now have a whole-of-society messaging, pressuring Biden when he is cautious. A confident China is not backing down or considering new ideas. The US is viewed as a declining and flailing power. China says we should cooperate on the pandemic and climate change and set differences aside. Few in the US see issue linkages or in-depth cooperation, fearing China will demand linkages to cooperate.
Japan welcomes a more stable US relationship with a more strategic approach. Yet there are doubts that relations will improve since: 1) US objectives will not align well with Japan’s due to US domestic preoccupations leading to some abandonment; 2) the US is reluctant about multilateral trade and not supportive of Japan balancing CPTPP and RCEP; 3) the US will damage Japan’s economic ties with China by decoupling too much or pressuring Japan to do too much and leading to Chinese sanctions against Japan; 3) there is uncertainty that the US will embrace Japan’s initiatives on the FOIP and carbon-neutrality or will try to redefine the agenda in US terms; and 4) divisions in the US will lead to dysfunctionality. These are concerns aired in Japan.
India expects Biden to sustain the momentum in relations, especially regarding the threat from China, while also easing trade tensions. India will not abandon its one-China policy, but Taiwan has a new public profile with its COVID-19 success. Also, the territorial dispute with China has opened Indian eyes to Taiwan more. Searching for more diverse technology also leads to Taiwan. Israel-India ties pre-normalization could be a model for Taiwan to expand ties with actors in India, aiming for investments and accepting Indian skilled laborers. Diplomatic and security ties with low visibility are possible, too. The US and Japan can encourage such contacts. Taiwanese could be included in Quad Plus track 1.5 dialogues.
Suga is seen as disinterested and passive about diplomacy, as his popularity wanes. There is no focus on what kind of Japan is desired. Yet Suga’s stress on digital transformation is welcomed in US digital circles, fighting against inertia in Japan. On Myanmar’s military coup, the Japanese response was to be wary of sanctions as likely to drive the country to China. The US response was more nuanced, doubting that the military is inclined to draw close to China and stressing the importance of a values agenda. Suga’s support for values diplomacy is not seen as a factor.
The greatest uncertainty over Biden’s policies is seen on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-un is not happy that Trump was not reelected, and Moon Jae-in is concerned about Biden’s stance on the North and on the trilateral relationship with Japan. Early moves by Moon on Japan may be targeted at easing the way for cooperation on North Korea. Yet Moon also seeks China’s help to reengage with the North. Japanese did not express much optimism over diplomacy with South Korea.
Territorial integrity is second only to preservation of communist party power in China. This is the prime focus of legitimacy now, and the status quo is unacceptable. Whether in ties to Taiwan or in the extension of control over the South China Sea, there is urgency in China. On all sides there is no willingness to relinquish what China wants. Resistance to China is growing with more coordination to reenforce it. When China has exhausted other means, it will be more tempted to use coercion. Taiwan and Japan are distant targets, but others are earlier ones. It is not necessary, a respondent asserted, since other types of coercion are available at lower cost. The 2022 Olympics and the 20th Party Congress are reasons for proceeding cautiously. China is too isolated and fears spurring a coalition against it with the US position strengthened. China can use gray-zone actions instead. It has time on its side as its capabilities prevail; so why not just stick to economic and other pressure? Yet, most countries do not take coercion by China seriously.
The US will not be able to build a strong coalition. The benefits are so high for China to achieve its goals that it can accept the costs. The US is awakening, leaving China little time to act. The US would lose credibility and China could prevail in some arenas; but China lacks the capabilities. The most likely contingencies are maritime Vietnam and the mountainous border with India. The costs to China would be high afterwards, some say, but confidence in success could outweigh this. US land-based missiles could thwart China’s military threat to Taiwan in a decade or so. Another view is that Japan’s fear of Sinocentrism is so great that Japan must boost the US presence in the region or network widely to supplement eroding US power. Yet in economics Japan is trying to manage high economic interdependence with China and fears decoupling as harmful to regional prosperity.
There has been a general convergence of the US and Japan, but some noted different priorities and means to promote their shared ends. Japan prefers US primacy but many are reluctant to push for it if Japan is forced to choose versus China and assume a much bigger defense burden. Fear of China is real but many prefer stable relations, seeing Japan’s future as tied to China. The US notion of decoupling goes too far, and on Taiwan Japan prefers strategic ambiguity. On human rights, Japan is more cautious than the US. Some assume that Japan can join in hedging against the US to prevent conflict. Others feared overoptimism toward China and failure to rally against it. Idealism without urgency was the main concern. The US take on the Quad is not shared by partners, all less antagonistic to China. Some focus on the US as the driver, but others stress China’s role and how it drives the deeper contradictions.
Japan seeks to defend the liberal international order, now seeking an Asian liberal international order. It also recognizes the need to challenge China since it became the challenger in line with the Soviet Union, becoming overconfident from 2008 with a patriotic ideology with emotional revanchism. We can only engage China with a united West and new democracies in Asia and US leadership. China will try to take Taiwan. The US is too far away to defend Taiwan. Will the US extend the nuclear umbrella to Taiwan? Japan will fight with the US, but there are no others. These were among the messages transmitted from Japanese speakers in early weeks of 2021.
Protecting free trade and supply chains under China’s control is key. Japan has a unique, critical value for the US and should not be taken for granted. New risks demand attention beyond the major upgrades of the past decade. First, there was the Hatoyama shock and then the Trump shock to the alliance. Japan played a greater regional role from 2017 with an element of hedging with other middle powers—Australia and India. This became America + 1. How can one build on this? Can the Quad be repurposed? It was stunted, as India resisted with non-aligned baggage and the US did little concrete beyond its rhetoric. It has sparked anxiety in ASEAN and scared some off as too overtly anti-China. China’s BRI takes a hub-and-spokes bilateral approach, while the response seeks a network of multi-directional openings. But more public-private financing is needed versus China. Japan has refocused on Taiwan, fighting with Americans outside Japan. Even the Japan-US alliance is not sufficient to face China. How can Japan deter China over Taiwan? South Korea will not join. Australia is far. Nuclear deterrence is the only way to protect Taiwan.
Japan’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy is middle-power diplomacy, compromising between Abe as an ideologue and realities of Chinese expansion. It was explained as a liberal agenda, downplaying Abe’s ideology and reinforcing the US presence. The two Quad meetings accepted ASEAN centrality and the inclusive order with China, building on agreement over problems from China and obscuring the lack of a common strategy for responding to China. South Korea should be in the FOIP, made easier if it is seen as middle-power diplomacy and the peninsula is not surrounded by four great powers. Japan is not strategically independent and shares a lot with South Korea in its circumstances. Japan is now overcoming the fluctuations between Article 9 and Article 5, mixing the Constitution and the security treaty. Japan drew closer to the US and gained more autonomy. The prime ministers who drew closest to the US succeeded in gaining more scope for autonomy. Consolidating the alliance gave Japan more responsibility. Abe enhanced the alliance and then, step-by-step, improved ties to China through dialogue based on deterrent power. On Taiwan, Japan needs to be quiet and not rock the boat. Mutual decoupling is getting worse, and Japan can give some guidance. Geography means Japan should stress its connectivity to Russia as well as South Korea when possible. Biden wants a relationship of trust between Seoul and Tokyo, but Suga shows no flexibility. Compromise is possible. Abe sought supply chains cooperation with Russia. Suga hoped for a meeting with Putin and the 2020 pandemic prevented it. With attention on Navalny, Suga may hesitate, but he should go ahead. ASEAN is fearful that Quad will weaken ASEAN centralism; so Japan must proceed cautiously. FOIP should be linked to BRI, not pointed against it. These Japanese views differ from many in the US.
Japan’s goal is an inclusive community, accepting US initiatives but pursuing China through regionalism. Hopes for this were doubted as misunderstanding China and weakening the US as a regional leader. Joint ODA from Japan and China would draw on the overlap of BRI and Indo-Pacific projects. Many Japanese are alarmed by growing military dangers, doubting India’s involvement as Taiwan, the Senkakus, and North Korea loom as challenges. On Japan-South Korean relations, the US can prod the two into greater dialogue without getting into history. ASEAN countries do not want Japan or the US to press them against China. There is little more that Japan should do. The Biden administration should raise human rights issues, but with few demands, as in Myanmar, which the US and Japan are discussing at this time. The US should encourage real multilateralism, minimizing pressure and supporting ASEAN unity. Japan needs to encourage the US to take a comprehensive regional approach is the message that was heard.
The upshot of these diverse views from Japan is proof that a sharp divide exists. On one side are those welcoming Biden’s renewed commitment to a regional strategy to deter China, defend Taiwan, and reenforce the Quad. On the other are those who see Japan as carving out a more autonomous path, able to bridge the US and China, capable of rallying others such as ASEAN and Russia into a strategy independent of the two superpowers, and critical to steering the US away from security, technology, and human rights positions that would polarize the region.
Increasingly, discussions were turning to Taiwan as the “most dangerous flashpoint in the world for a war” between the United States and China, with Japan unlikely to be on the sidelines. In one exchange after another, the issue of avoiding war arose. The question raised was how to protect Taiwan’s democracy and security without triggering a Chinese attack. Stress was not put on formal independence but on political and economic autonomy. Apart from standing by as China took Taiwan in a matter of weeks or escalating into a war spreading to mainland China and the United States, options were explored. Again, bifurcation was visible between those keen on forestalling an attack (threatening the Senkakus, too) and those eager not to provoke.
China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and the obliteration of its promises and the rule of law have had dramatic, far-reaching consequences. It reinforced the will, backed by electoral judgment, in Taiwan to resist China and reinforce its independence with more rearmament. It contributed to more fervent “wolf warrior” and xenophobic rhetoric inside China and a much more aggressive approach to Taiwan. Inside Japan, there was renewed concern about China’s threat to Taiwan. Finally, in the United States the backbone to stand up to China, focused on support for Taiwan, considered more beleaguered, was greatly reinforced. In the transition from Trump to Biden not only did the anger over what was happening in Hong Kong rise sharply, even more serious was the alarm that the danger of an attack on Taiwan and a war over Taiwan had risen rapidly.
Biden needs to deal with states in a very challenging position with China. Taiwan is an early warning system for its assertiveness, now aimed at Australia most of all. As Australia looks for partners, Taiwan is one possibility. The name FOIP is less important than the reality and how Biden proceeds. What should Australia do in a Taiwan crisis? Given Taiwan’s response to the pandemic in a democratic framework, its successful election against Chinese pressure, and the view that a threat to Taiwan is a threat to balancing China, closer economic ties offer a starting point. Multilateral organizations exist but are weak on security. Taiwan’s deterrent power serves regional stability and security. It is important to the security of Japan, the South China Sea, and Oceania. There is much for the US to do as for Taiwan to boost its defenses. Others must do more, especially Japan, which sees it as a red line for Japan and the US. US-Japan discussions should not focus on contingencies. Taiwan is a key player in technology in protecting and innovating. Biden is thus likely to sustain Trump’s Taiwan policy.
For Taiwan, recognition of shared interests and values of democracies is vital. A stronger Quad and a larger Quad Plus are sought. A Japanese view is that there should be a platform allowing Taiwan to participate in FOIP, expanding from the Quad as it institutionalizes, and to join the regional free trade network, as CPTPP. So far, it is excluded. There is a big domestic challenge for Taiwan. The Quad may become an economic platform, too, allowing for Taiwan’s participation. A breakthrough is needed in national security ties with Taiwan with the US in the lead. GSOMIA with South Korea sets a precedent with the US as intermediary. Taiwan is indispensable, being at the center of the Indo-Pacific area. Can the Quad include Taiwan in some way? Is Australia agreeable and also for CPTPP expansion to it? Taiwan is weighty in the linkage between economics and security: the two blend together. Australia will be careful, given strains with China already. The Quad is informal, not helping Taiwan in a crisis and for regional stability. Backdoor intelligence sharing is more possible. A Japanese Ministry of Defense official asked Biden to be strong and warned of a red line.
There are many worries about the US turmoil as well as China’s aggressive moves and the chance it could exploit the US situation. So far, China is focused on changing Hong Kong, where risk is lower. Japan’s red line is no change of the status quo by using massive military means. China is doing it in small steps. Japan needs the US for this. Taiwan considers three levels: Taiwan’s immediate responses to an attack; the US response; and the US-Japan alliance response, if Japan agrees. China’s seizure of the Dongxia islands from Taiwan would be seen as its breakout from the first island chain, a precedent for a later attack on Taiwan. On the US side there is a difference on how much to shift from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity. The Japanese military is reluctant to engage with counterparts in Taiwan, even for dialogue. Coast guard quiet cooperation is growing. The bar against operational cooperation or naval ties is much higher. Communications can speed the process. Taiwan can join in a supply chain with the Quad or Quad Plus. China is trying to break up the Quad, splitting the states one by one.
The appeal in Seoul is to separate the Korean Peninsula from Sino-US competition. Otherwise, tragedy could again be in store for the Korean Peninsula. Biden is viewed as more likely to do that. The US supports unification so that North Korea does not become a dependency of China. In contrast to the narrow focus heard from Seoul, the US stress is on a broad-ranging scope for relations, including regional security and management of China with coordination on values and interests. Is South Korea fearful of further Chinese sanctions? The joint message to China must be that we will deter its use of economic power. The message to Seoul also must be to prepare for North Korean provocations, not just to renew engagement without a pathway to serious talks. Some say level down the alliance to create room for Moon’s diplomacy. They misjudge the grave security environment, which requires a strong alliance and rebuilding trust rather than narrowing the alliance.
The past four years have been very difficult for the alliance on almost every dimension, but public support in both countries is still strong, and the alliance fundamentals are strong. Biden is widely seen as a positive force for alliance. The challenges ahead are: North Korea’s likely early provocation to challenge Biden and China’s rise and its role in North Korean policy. Japan poses a challenge, given the quest for trilateralism. Deterrence will be Biden’s first priority, while Moon seeks a peace declaration first—a recipe for trouble in the alliance. South Koreans are asking how far they can trust the US nuclear umbrella. Above all, Koreans seek agreement on a principle for policy toward North Korea.
On China, Koreans are split between strategic ambiguity and a principled approach, which need to be aligned with the US while maintaining friendly relations with China. It is China that is forcing Seoul to make binary choices, but the US also seeks less strategic ambiguity. Deepening competition could bring US missile defense to Korea against China’s will. US forces on Korea may be directed at Taiwan, again versus China. The Quad-plus poses another challenge. Seoul needs to work with China for peace on the Korean Peninsula and for the sake of South Korea’s economy. Thus, it will strive to boost Sino-US cooperation. Seeking regional dominance, China strives for the removal of US influence on the peninsula, expressed openly since at least 2009. There needs to be a customized policy for South Korea due to North Korea, supporting its engagement of North Korea. Given that the US did not defend Korea’s interests in the case of THAAD sanctions what assurances are there for the future? A reserve fund is one idea. On the North Korean issue, three-way ROK-US-China dialogue is recommended with Seoul in the key role. Inter-Korean cooperation should win support. Seoul should call for supporting the Singapore agenda and get US backing if the US delays for a time.
Facing declining public support and a worrisome “lame duck” image, Moon seeks US support for a peace declaration on the end of the war and coordination not to be bypassed. Meanwhile, pro-US opinion is based heavily on anti-Chinese thinking, seeking for the US to stand up to China on behalf of the South. The South Korean people are more negative to North Korea and are unlikely to blame the US for responding to new provocations. Meanwhile the Sino-US relationship has shifted to competition as the core and enmity as the alternative. Unfavorable ratings are at an all-time high, shared widely and bipartisan. The South Korean talking point is that each country has its own situation and strategy toward China. On Hong Kong and the Uyghurs, the US position is putting pressure on Seoul, threatening to isolate it, including from the Quad Plus. North Korea’s priority is obtaining a vaccine, which may cool its instinct for provocations. It may seek to get Biden’s attention without a big provocation. No antagonism is being expressed toward the Biden administration. It is worthwhile to send a signal that the US will explore an interim deal, not only for Pyongyang but also to show to Seoul and Beijing the US is inclined to negotiate. In Beijing July 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, a time for Xi to articulate a vision; preventing provocations is urgent. Yet US signals have scant promise for China and will not suffice for long with Seoul. The US needs to clarify its goals, not just preventing an ICBM launch. The divergence is growing between the Korean public and government on the US, China, and North Korea, especially among young people. Even the progressives are splitting. The absence of a vaccine is weighing on Moon’s popularity.
In an exchange on Korea-China relations, one heard that increasing “extreme” competition between the US and China is leading to US rejuvenation policies with supply chains and other technology issues at the center, while China strives to improve ties to the weakest link in US alliances, South Korea. Will emphasis on strengthening the US at home means less attention to allies? No, Biden seeks to restore US leadership, including the Quad. The Biden-Xi phone conversation lasted two hours, and the US stressed it is results oriented, not process oriented. Chinese sanctions on South Korea continue. Moon’s stance is close to accommodation, if not appeasement through the “three nos.” The effort was futile. Moon has closely followed China’s approach to North Korean and is quite silent on Chinese intrusions into Korea’s air defense zone and more. The gap with public opinion has grown with concern over the impact on the alliance and on sovereignty and national interests. The gap may have muted since Trump constrained the embrace of the alliance.
Under Biden, what changes? The Korean government policy toward China rests on economic dependency, North Korea, and ideological affinity of its elite. China is becoming an election issue in Seoul. The US did little to support Seoul in the face of Chinese sanctions. Biden needs to provide reassurance. There is no guideline in Seoul, just ad hoc responses as Washington and Beijing step up their pressure. It is time that Seoul set its goal clearly. There is growing likelihood that the US will ask more, and China will respond strongly, The North Korean issue will be affected. What would a strategic framework look like? The US is an ally, not China. The US is much closer in values. South Korea’s achievements rest on these values, after breaking out of the Chinese order. Yet, full adherence to the US is inadvisable. South Korea need not go as far as Australia or even Japan in leaning to the US. In the wake of THAAD public opinion has turned away from China, but that is not yet dominant. Chinese are saying, “the East is rising, the West is declining.” This persuades countries to lean to China, but China also uses sanctions pressure, Korea’s policy should be between hedging and balancing, but it is between hedging and bandwagoning. Given its democratic values, alliance, and history with China, despite its proximity to China, it should distance itself more from China. South Korea should join the Quad, but not as anti-China, and it should not join China in its 5G campaign.