In the summer of 2016, Washington DC has been consumed with the Clinton-Trump race and the unprecedented revolt of the Republican national security establishment against their party’s presidential candidate. Three bilateral relations have been in flux against the background of increased uncertainty about Sino-US relations. DC discussions have in particular focused on Sino-Russian relations, while awaiting more news about the downslide in Sino-South Korean relations and possible upswing in Russo-Japanese ties. Below, we review discussions about the shifts in all three of these relationships, devoting the most space to what the security community seemingly regards as the most serious matter.
The three well-recognized middle powers in the Asia-Pacific region—South Korea, the ASEAN, and Australia—have seen their hopes dashed in the summer of 2016. South Korea in 2015 celebrated its middle power prospects, only to discover in early 2016 that China did not take them seriously. Further, after the THAAD agreement with the United States in July, China treated South Korea as little more than a US tool, not worthy of having an independent voice. After the court ruling in July on the South China Sea, ASEAN also found that China dismissed its voice, making sure to play on divisive forces in Southeast Asia. Finally, China protested against Australia in response to its support for the international tribunal and the countries subject to China’s aggressive moves. The region appeared to become rapidly polarized: China was showing that it can no longer tolerate states that claim the middle ground, and the US “rebalance” was seeking to reassure those nervous about China.
Russo-Japanese relations enjoyed relative quiet since Abe and Putin met in Sochi in May. Some were skeptical that any breakthrough would be reached. Some said that even if some deal was possible there was little reason for US concern. They found it hard to believe that Japan would invest heavily in Russian energy given a global oversupply or in Russian industry when their reforms have been so anemic. That Japan would not unilaterally break the sanctions regime led others to conclude that US interests are at stake in any Japan-Russia deal. Yet, others were concerned that Japan would reinterpret the sanctions in a manner that allowed Abe to advance a broad economic agenda, as he had proposed at Sochi. The case for Abe and Putin to proceed has a geopolitical element (stressed by Japan versus China, but understated by Russia), an economic element (stressed by Russia for the Russian Far East and recognized by Japan as the only means to forge a deal on territory and geopolitics), and a national identity component. Whereas in past coverage of Russo-Japanese relations, national identity was treated as the main barrier to a deal, this time those who see a good chance for agreement see it as pushing ties forward. Both Abe and Putin look to each other to boost their country’s claims as a great power.
On the surface, the decision by Abe and Putin to agree to two islands plus alpha would seem to fly in the face of both countries’ nationalist sentiments. Yet, Abe’s preoccupation with Japanese national identity gap with China and Putin’s similar obsession with the United States have lowered the profile of the gap with each other. Putin needs to frame the agreement as Japan acknowledging Russia’s victory in WWII—a tall order for Japan to accept. In turn, Abe must depict the return of the two islands and normalization of relations as resolving the last (if not for North Korea) legacy of Japan’s abnormal, defeated status. Having already backtracked on a deal with Park Geun-hye last December due to his identity compulsions, Abe may do so again with Putin at a time Japan sees itself under duress and fading in relevance. Abe may see the recovery of Japan’s voice—lost in 1945—as another national identity benefit. Some commentators argued that the obstacles to a deal are serious, given economic and geopolitical realities and Russian arousal over national identity linked to territory; there is no consensus now on the prospects of Russo-Japanese relations in 2016-18.
Sino-South Korean Relations
Some in DC still are placing more blame on the Obama administration than on Xi Jinping for the worsening crisis in North Korea. They charge that “strategic patience” signifies a low priority of the North Korean issue, requiring Washington to rely too much on Beijing. Instead, they argue that it should approach Pyongyang for direct dialogue and offer incentives. Yet, the majority seems to favor greater pressure on Pyongyang through encouraging Beijing to implement the full scope of the new sanctions. Presidential transitions in both Washington and Seoul should not reduce coordination on sanctions implementation, even if some in Seoul fear isolationism by Trump’s campaign and others in Washington fear appeasement initiatives by ROK progressives. The two need to speak with one voice to China to execute the existing sanctions. Yet, as the summer proceeded, new concerns arose about China’s willingness to implement the sanctions, considering its anger toward Seoul and Washington over new developments regarding the South China Sea and THAAD.
How sanctions are being implemented attracted great interest. Given that prior sanctions were neither though—compared to those on Iran—nor implemented well, many felt that more could be done. Pressure on the North is possible (only) if China cooperates. DC audiences heard of North Korea’s sanctions evasion techniques, such as using Chinese middlemen, local banks rather than international ones, and underreporting statistics. Yet, they also heard of declining coal exports and remittances as well as tough effects that may not have been intended by China. For instance, some Chinese firms hired compliance officers to make sure that they are not violating the sanctions, which could cost them access to US markets.
Analysts also offered recommendations for US actions to help implement sanctions, either by engaging China (encouraging China to use its anti-corruption drive against Chinese middlemen and officials involved in prohibited trade with North Korea), or by pressing China harder. Yet, commentators were skeptical that China would cooperate, arguing that, after the 2013 sanctions, local interests in China found ways around the sanctions mechanism, which lacks trained inspectors. Another suggestion was to trace Chinese and North Korean networks and to try public shaming through disclosures of specific Chinese firms involved in sustaining illicit activities.
A deeper understanding of how Sino-ROK relations have evolved under Xi and Park has been emerging. There was always a fundamental disconnect between the expectations of the two sides. Seoul was overly impressed with the chill in ties between Xi and Kim Jong-un, captivated by hope that China may prefer South Korea to its Northern counterpart and positively contribute to their reunification under Seoul’s leadership. In contrast, Beijing saw a way to weaken the US rebalance to Asia, pressure Japan, and make a point to Kim Jong-un that his defiance had consequences. If in 2010-12, Beijing had tilted toward Pyongyang after professing to seek balance between the two Koreas in 1992, it gave the impression of tilting to Seoul in the last few years, only to demonstrate that its support was conditional (in ways few in Seoul were prepared to acknowledge).
One DC discussion divided Chinese views of South Korea into four schools. Optimists foresaw Seoul and Tokyo in continued animosity and Seoul, so eager for Beijing’s help with Pyongyang, would form a Sino-ROK alliance parallel to the US-ROK alliance. Another school had somewhat lower expectations, envisioning a neutral Seoul that does not participate in US encirclement of China and relies on economic and personal ties with both countries. A third school argued that it would suffice to keep pressure on the weak link in the US alliance system, as Seoul is not overly preoccupied with what Beijing might do. Most influential of all, however, was the fourth, traditional school, which suggested little hope in Beijing’s capacity to weaken the US-ROK alliance. This school also postulated that the Sino-DPRK ties must be sustained as a way to balance against US-ROK alliance.
Evidently, all of the schools demonstrated that the Chinese had lost hope in Park over the course of 2015 and 2016. Engaging in maritime exercises with the United States and strengthening the alliance were seen as adding to the geopolitical imbalance in Northeast Asia and threatening North Korea. Acquiescence to Japan’s historical thinking and US-led trilateral alliance was perceived as evidence that Park had chosen the West over the East in historical, civilizational terms, despite Park’s willingness to stand with Xi at the military parade on September 2. This was later confirmed by the December 28 “comfort women” agreement. Further, responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in January and February 2016 by closing the Kaeseong Industrial Park was deemed a total abandonment of “trustpolitik,” recalling instead Lee Myung-bak’s policy of regime change and discarding the legacies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Finally, Park agreed to deploy THAAD, which was depicted as joining in US efforts to contain China and breaking the regional strategic equilibrium.
In retrospect, the breakdown in Sino-ROK relations was unavoidable. South Koreans had misjudged China’s commitment to resolving the North Korean issue as China attempted to split Seoul from both Washington and Tokyo. Pyongyang could have undermined these ties either by agreeing to rejoin the Six-Party Talks and giving Beijing an opening to insist on a peace treaty at the expense of the US-ROK alliance or by ratcheting up its provocations to which Seoul would respond by tightening the US alliance. Either way, Beijing’s demands on Seoul were bound to be unacceptable, leading Beijing to place all of the blame on Park and to prepare retaliatory measures. This breakdown was expected in DC exchanges in June even before the THAAD decision confirmed it for everyone.
DC audiences grappled with the nature of the Sino-Russian relationship and US options. The revival of this triangle in international security relations was finally being recognized, along with warnings that misjudgments about it may have consequences, as was in the US decision to undertake the Vietnam War. The notion “back to the future” was raised, as was the view that we have entered a perplexing time in major power relations. Three questions were posed: 1) Is the warming Sino-Russian relations a superficial development or a far-reaching, long-term one?; 2) Should the United States concentrate on China or Russia as the desired partner or patch up relations with both?; and 3) what strategic discourse will serve to clarify US options and guide its strategy? With China framing what was once called the strategic triangle the “new three kingdoms” and Russia talking of a “new cold war” with two major powers against one, there is a growing risk for the United States in dealing with other issues, the likes of ISIS, without considering its primary strategic concerns, China and Russia.
Optimism about Washington’s options, whether with Beijing or Moscow, was steeped in five lines of thought. First, strong and friendly Sino-Russian relations are based not on an ideology but on national interests, which have a mixture of commonalities and divisions; so the overall relationship cannot be very strong, and much depends on how they manage divisions in their overlapping spheres of influence and the shifting balance of power that leads to suspicions of unequal ties. Second, both sides recognize that US policies have driven the two closer; so changes in the international environment can have the opposite effect. Third, the two countries have built ties by trying to hold the other in check, as Russia strives to limit China’s ambitions in various Asian sub-regions and China seeks to refrain from provoking Russian insecurities. Fourth, the recent apparent breakthrough in relations is deceptive due to their refusal to give genuine backing to each other’s principal initiatives: Russia’s aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and China’s aggressive moves in the East and South China Seas. Finally, despite the hyperbolic claims in 2014-15 of far-reaching economic integration, the level of trade and mutual investment has remained modest with particularly disappointing results in 2015 and so far in 2016.
China and Russia do have reason to try to check each other and have been doing so in the SCO, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Russian Far East. As China’s relative power has risen rapidly, one would expect that Russian checks on China would grow correspondingly. Indeed, the Russian leadership, in private meetings with foreign statesmen and officials, has often expressed concern about China. As they have been “forced” to draw closer to China since March 2014, many see their reservations intensifying under unequal relations. In 2013, Chinese navy ships veered into the Sea of Okhotsk without prior notice to Russia, setting off alarm. There is little doubt that until 2014 Russia restricted Chinese investments in energy and other priority sectors and that China saw Russia thwarting its inroads in some states. Yet, despite competitive elements, some analysts countered the above narrative by arguing that there has been a convergence of national interests—not only since 2014, but from the 1990s—which have intensified under Xi and Putin, given the latter’s “turn to the East.” They agree that their overlap is greater than their divergence. Both see the US-led world system as leaving them disadvantaged, in fact, placing them in a similar, besieged position. The “rebalance to Asia” and the Western role in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union as well as the Warsaw Bloc deny them the strategic space they demand.
As for the oft-recurring argument that ideology is absent in Sino-Russian relations, it is based on a narrow interpretation of ideology associated with traditional communism. This view ignores the ideological aspects of the history of communism under Stalin and Mao. It also treats national interests as the default option when ideology is dismissed, rather than analyzing national identity in all of its dimensions, including the overlapping interpretations of “color revolutions.” Putin and Xi are more intent than ever on inculcating a narrative of national exclusivity and pride. They are focused on anger against the “universal values,” careful to criticize each other’s country and its identity. It is misleading to overlook the identity factors boosting their relationship.
That their national interests are divisive also raise questions. Of course, managing differences over Central Asia is complicated, although they could find common cause in preventing the rise of Islamic terrorism. In responding to the Silk Road Economic Belt, Russia was suspicious that this would undercut its role in Central Asia. Meanwhile, China was initially agitated about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a country in which China’s role was growing. The developments in Crimea could also set a bad precedent for Taiwan as it seeks to secede from China. Yet, Russia, after sanctions were imposed by the West over Ukraine, decided that it could link the Eurasian Economic Union and the SREB through Chinese investments in infrastructure. In turn, China, at a time of deepening tension over the South China Sea, determined that the main problem in Ukraine was not Russia but Western intervention. As such, the overall international environment continues to lead Chinese and Russian leaders to put their differences aside, however real they are. Given their shared discontent toward US-ROK decision to deploy THAAD, friendly relations are likely to prevail.
Russia’s quest for a breakthrough in relations with Japan and India, arms sales to Vietnam, and push to fill the void in North Korea as Sino-DPRK ties worsened, are all cited as proof that Russia and China have contradictory notions of regional security architecture in East Asia. There is no doubt that these differences matter, but none rises to the level serious enough to hinder the favorable trajectory of Sino-Russian relations. Even if Russia strikes a deal with Japan, it will insist that this does not diminish the Sino-Russian security bond; this will probably be right since Japan and Russia have little room to maneuver in a rapidly polarizing region. India and Vietnam are increasingly looking to other great powers, and Russia recognizes that its ties with China are far more salient. On North Korea, Moscow and Beijing have worked closely together for the most part and are making the same arguments for unconditionally resuming the Six-Party Talks and giving North Korea a larger say on the future of the Korean peninsula, in opposition to the views presented by the US alliance.
Finally, arguments about the weakness of Sino-Russian economic relations, in comparison to Sino-US ties and Russo-EU ties, continue to be invoked, as they have been for a quarter century. This is an oft-cited reason for why China and Russia will not forge a strong relationship. In 2014-15, exaggerated promises raised Russian hopes too high; that such promises did not materialize is treated by some as proof not only of weak economic ties, but also constraints in their political ties. Yet, projects are advancing; economic complementarity exists even if the Russian side keeps failing to create favorable investment conditions for China. Moreover, neither China nor Russia appears to feel so vulnerable that their economic ties with the West can stand in their path to draw closer. While much needs to be done to improve economic cooperation in the near term, the severity of its problems is exaggerated by the skeptics of Sino-Russian relations.
Skeptics raise other arguments, too. Some say Sino-Russian relations depend on the special chemistry of Putin and Xi. Others say the cultural gap and the lack of exchanges to understand each other are decisive. Moreover, US diplomacy has the power to improve ties with Putin and Xi without trying to pit one against the other in a manipulative, potentially counterproductive manner. Some say that Sino-US relations are actually not in bad shape, with an effective dialogue mechanism and a broad horizon of cooperation. Others say that Washington can work with Putin, since US allies, most notably Japan, are finding success in doing so. Here, better communication and management of perceptions could be useful, though some still find that the Obama administration did not try hard enough to promote them for the next leadership. The idea that Washington could resume as the pivot of the triangle—as it was until mid-1990s—or that there is a viable strategy for changing the course of Sino-Russian relations is taken as controversial by the skeptics.
What is driving Moscow and Beijing closer? In DC discussions, those who insisted on their differences were left on the margins. Security issues are compelling for both, as as Moscow presses militarily in eastern Ukraine and Beijing, in the South and East China Seas. This overlap continues to intensify; it allows the parties to threaten joint action against the THAAD missile defense system set for South Korea. History has likewise brought the leadership of the two closer, as Putin and Xi stood side by side in celebrations of victories in 1945, together rewriting the meaning of the legacy of WWII. Another point of convergence is their opposition to “color revolutions” and their response to the criticism regarding ongoing crackdowns on civil society and foreign NGOs. As they both regard Hillary Clinton with particular animosity and see her chances of winning the US election rising, they are even more likely to confide in each other. Communist ideology that proved fatal during the Cold War has left a legacy that is proving increasingly irresistible in the twenty-first century.
Some commentators still speak of “fundamental mistrust,” “facade of cooperation,” “irreconcilable conflicts of interest,” “parallel circumstances that do not add up to real collaboration,” a built-in time bomb as Russia’s status as a “junior partner” deepens, and “no binding institutionalization” as ambitious projects fall flat. Yet, they are countered by an increasing number of commentators who point to evidence of closer relations between the two countries and prospects thereof. Arms sales as well as joint research and development of cutting edge weapons offer proof of genuine collaboration. Shared reasoning about “strategic stability” provides further evidence. The straightforward balance of power logic also compels the two countries to improve their relationship and welcome each other’s distancing from the United States. Finally, despite some recent unrealized or delayed joint projects, some demonstrate that the two have decided to transition into a common, integrated economic space. Earlier barriers in the Russian Far East and Central Asia are being removed, and, expectations that the West will remain hostile to their interests allow them to become mutually dependent.
On the contrary, uncertainties about the trajectory of Sino-Russian relations are highlighted by barriers to integration. One obstacle is the presence of interest groups in Russia among the siloviki, who continue to resist both economic reforms and close integration. Another is the recent economic conditions in both countries, which slowed Chinese investment. A third obstacle is red tape on both sides that slow the implementation of previously announced plans, triggering a greater centralization of authority in respective governments. Finally, there is a sense on both sides that the other’s culture is not only foreign, but cannot be trusted. Russians are viewed in China as too integrated into the West and opposed to Chinese notions of the East, while Russians are suspicious about China’s renewed territorial claims in the Russian Far East. In these circumstances, relations may improve, but are likely to hit a ceiling at some point.
An alternate point of view is that Russia, while accommodating China, will quietly move to balance it. If sanctions are listed on Russia, some expect that this would work against the Sino-Russian relationship. One reason for this is that Russian ethnicity is such a big part of Russian national identity that it complicates the rise of statism, which would be easier to meld with Chinese statism. One analyst noted various types of nationalism in Russia in contrast to China’s mainstream model, complicating consensus on close ties. Another view is that Russia’s quest for multipolarity will eventually lead to frustration in the face of China’s shift toward bipolarity. Even if Russia can accept the disparity, some see China as pressuring Russia in ways that will eventually prove counterproductive. Discussion of Russian nationalism showed that this is a key variable for predicting the prospects of Sino-Russian relations. Commentaries and questions leave some doubt, but many have become convinced that this relationship will continue to strengthen for some time.
The G20 Summit
The emphasis of the G20 summit in Hangzhou will be on stability, not new initiatives. While Germany might continue to seek fiscal restraint, others would call for fiscal stimulus. Yet, struggle over the next phase of fiscal policy would occur under growing public doubts about globalization and uncertainty about international security. Some suspect that China will take aggressive action in the South China Sea upon the completion of the summit in order to prevent spoiling the gathering it is hosting. There has been talk of how the G20 can serve as a platform for global governance, but such ideas have faded, while concerns have accumulated that the G20 is not delivering as much as it did during the global financial crisis. While it may still be seen as a force for boosting global growth and perhaps fighting climate change, its role in reducing barriers to trade and corruption is in doubt. Indeed, some say that its credibility is at stake, as the G7 enjoys a revival and China is focusing more on its own, narrower, regional institutions. Many await the December determination of whether China is granted market economy status. The G20 is seen as a force against protectionism, but those fighting protectionism in China fear that its refusal to do more may unleash retaliatory moves. As security concerns and public anxieties eclipse economic cooperation, the G20 gathering is expected to test whether economic globalization is back on track.