Synopsis of the Asan Plenum 2015: Is the U.S. Back?


The overall theme, “Is the U.S. Back?” provided the context for discussing in various panels timely issues concerning international relations in East Asia. Given the stress on US policy, this synopsis begins with views regarding Obama’s “rebalance to Asia,” proceeds to discussions of Sino-US relations, and continues with themes where the US role loomed more in the background or in a triangular context. Unavoidably, this is a selective set of reflections on the plenum with no attempt to be comprehensive. Indeed, it is but a small sample of the rich range of themes covered over two days.

Rebalancing to Asia: What Should Be Next?
Through the ongoing exchanges in the plenum keynote addresses and panels, four viewpoints were conspicuous: US critics of Obama taking a more hawkish stance; supporters of the overall Obama approach even if they raised some doubts; Chinese critics supportive of China’s foreign policy; and South Korean commentators whose responses to Obama or China’s policies indicated a search for common ground. Due to the prominent place at the plenum given to Obama’s critics, this synopsis leads with them.

The US critics blamed Obama for weakness conducive to rising disorder around the world, including in East Asia. They faulted him for passivity in the face of increasing aggression, e.g. China’s bullying in the South China Sea and its determination to eject the United States from the region while challenging US national interests. In this view, only Washington upholds order, but, as in the administration of Jimmy Carter, it is turning inward, lacking in confident leadership, and suffering under a president who believes that US power is the cause of not the solution to the world’s problems. Unlike some critics on the left who doubt the need for the “rebalance” or at least some of its elements, these voices charge that there is really no “pivot” at all. Obama is a mere bystander. Yet, just as Reagan in 1981 pulled the United States out of its malaise, so too could a new leader achieve a turnabout through military strength, TPP, and consummation of the relationship Abe is forging with the United States. At the very time, given that Obama was pressing for TPP and meeting with Abe, it was awkward for his critics to be insisting that he was not doing much. Others came to his defense.

The alternative US thinking credited Obama with leadership, insisted that US assets are being used effectively, and Obama’s preference for engagement is a sign not of weakness but of strength. It rejected pessimism about the military balance of power, praised the US economic recovery and other strengths, and recognized the reality of new, messy challenges in our century, which do not lend themselves to simplistic solutions. Yet, amid talk of patience and confidence in US resilience, there were also calls for a long-term vision and a grand strategy. Mention was made of a legitimation crisis facing global institutions of all sorts, as information networks are advancing exponentially, which requires new US thinking. Even with its unparalleled power, the United States is facing unprecedented challenges, including in East Asia where the asymmetric use of power and the dispersion of economic centers change the way power is effectively utilized. Thus, the rebalance remains a work in progress.

The Chinese response was that both US sides, especially Obama’s critics, have their heads in the Cold War, blinded by zero-sum thinking and misjudging China’s win-win intentions. Without using the term, they offered a G2 partnership, in which China supports many US global objectives as the United States takes a much more cooperative attitude toward China’s regional moves. The US policy failure on AIIB was often cited as an example of excessive suspicions and a misreading of China’s intentions. Chinese speakers went further in insisting that no rebalance is needed, sometimes arguing that China’s traditional culture—no extremes, acceptance of differences between states, etc.—is proof of good behavior to come. The overall thrust is that the US side is exaggerating problems instead of working together to maximize global and regional growth where all benefit together. In comparison to the Obama critics who appeared to dismiss the promise of such an approach and the supporters who were skeptical of Chinese arguments and insisted on tackling areas of clashing interests sooner rather than later, some Chinese preferred to set them aside, assuming, optimistically, that there would be no spill over into other arenas.

Although there were panelists from many other countries, the larger number of Koreans ensured that their voices would be widely heard. Their perspective raised questions about some aspects of the US role in Asia, but it was much at variance with both the US critics of Obama and the Chinese viewpoint. They too recognized the diffusion of power that delegitimizes international institutions based on US leadership and the increasing range of crises and problems around the globe that leaves the United States spread thin. They were critical of US gridlock and loss of bipartisanship in foreign policy, apparently blaming the critics for causing the very problems they want to fix. More than the critics, Korean speakers acknowledged the serious impact of bickering between allies, especially Japan and South Korea. Finally, they tended to point to China, Russia, and North Korea as posing complex problems, which require less US unilateralism, more reliance on allies, and a mix of hard and soft power. While seeing the United States as constrained and not retreating, they warned about perceptions of retreat at times overshadowing reality. However much rebalancing has succeeded in identifying priorities, there were repeated suggestions that the next steps would be crucial as panelists groped to identify what is needed.

In the most definitive statement, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se asserted that the US rebalance is real despite distractions, as seen in Obama’s frequent travel to Asia and the invitations in 2015 for the Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese leader to visit the United States. He added that the United States now needs to reinforce its stabilizing role, expanding its forward presence. Disagreeing with those in China who see alliances as destabilizing and those in the United States who see the AIIB as contrary to the postwar global economic order, Yun spoke in favor of striving for reduced mutual suspicions and a win-win approach. On the one hand, he welcomed the new US-Japan defense guidelines as contributing to peace and stability as long as they are transparent. On the other, he identified the need for a regional dialogue mechanism, mentioning both NAPCI and the East Asian Summit as possibilities.

Sino-US Relations: A G2?
Many panels struggled to reach an understanding on the essence of the relationship between Washington and Beijing and what steps should be taken next. The Chinese case was formulated in various ways, arousing responses both doubtful and critical. A pervasive message was that the two sides need to trust each other more, avoiding a downward spiral in relations due to mirroring of bad intentions. Sure, China seeks a greater say on regional matters, but it only wants to limit the US role, not exclude its rival, in contrast to the US enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, which chased others away from the Western hemisphere. Chinese insisted that there is no interest in drawing a line across the Pacific. Charging that the United States has overused its power in repeated wars since the end of the Cold War, in regime change and nation building, a Chinese speaker argued that Washington has exhausted international and domestic support, while bringing its financial system into crisis and eroding alliance solidarity. Finally, however, Obama has recognized some limits on power, reducing unilateral exercise of it and appreciating a greater role for multilateral arrangements without resorting to military force. In these circumstances, China is welcoming responsible power sharing in the interest of reforming the international order, accepting diversity, and moving beyond Cold War alliances to a new security arrangement for the Asia-Pacific reflecting the changing balance of power. In this perspective, the first issue is US defense of Taiwan—even if that is left ambiguous—, and the second is US intervention in maritime territorial disputes. Yielding on these matters and on alliances would lead, positively, to an inclusive security framework.

Although Chinese speakers used the term “multipolarity,” there was little sign that Japan, India, Russia, or any other state is a meaningful pole in regional security. The impression of a G2 was conveyed. Nor was there any indication of flexibility on the Chinese demands. Talk of a win-win outcome sounded to many as zero-sum logic. In response, US and other speakers argued that what they heard was that the United States is actually being excluded as a non-resident power, and compared to what was said by some of the Chinese speakers, harsher visions of exclusion are popular in China. The speakers are ignoring the insistence of US allies that the US presence be strengthened. While there is room to explore some Chinese formulations, it is not Beijing that is rejecting a G2, but Washington, since this notion has been distorted to wreck alliances and reconfigure both the regional and international order contrary to renewal of US leadership, based on greater self-confidence and a clearer sense of the big picture. This was not a plea for a return to US primacy—described as “just talk” by those inattentive to more diffuse power in the Asia-Pacific region—, but a search for a more professional strategy, unlike how the AIIB has been handled.

Sino-US exchanges hinged on many controversial concepts. One is core interests, which are non-negotiable and treated as a test of whether China is respected. The reality is that neither side accepts the other’s claims to core interests, e.g., the US insistence on freedom of navigation and flights, including military surveillance. Thus, the South China Sea dispute between the two sides cannot be resolved. A second concept is alliances, which Chinese criticized as relics of the Cold War, a problem for China and North Korea and others, and supposedly misused against the interests of China. They put the burden on Washington to abandon them. In response, others argued that they had brought stability to Asia after WWII, contributing to economic prosperity, and cannot be discarded without a chaotic impact as states scramble to find new security assurances. A third concept is a regional security system, which Chinese see as a natural outgrowth of Sino-US mutual understanding, while others warned that there are no prospects for it at present. Its emergence must be on the basis of cooperation to solve disputes, not a precondition for joint efforts to address them. Security in Asia is becoming a zero-sum problem—a cold peace in which competition overshadows cooperation—, and proposals that aim to split the United States and its allies only deepen dilemmas.

The impact of value differences between China and the United States figured often in panel discussions. One Chinese view is that the differences have narrowed. After all, there is considerable agreement on a market system, and China is moving further to the rule of law. Others were hesitant about accepting such claims, disagreeing about the spread of the rule of law in China and emphatic that the Chinese government is steering public opinion to view the United States as a country with values dangerous to China’s values. Instead of arguments for and against universal values, discussions were directed to a clash between nineteenth century and early twentieth century values steeped in claims of absolute sovereignty and uncompromising territorial demands versus twenty-first century values, reflecting increasing forms of connectivity and new age power capable of drawing people together without narrow sovereignty intruding. In the face of pre-Westphalia values gaining strength in the Middle East and elsewhere, Beijing proposes that Washington revert to sovereignty-centered values in order to find common ground, even as Washington proposes that Beijing embrace the new age network values for mutual understanding rather than contentious, old values.

The Sino-US divide pervaded the two-day meeting, ranging from how leadership is to be shared to how to avoid confrontation in an evolutionary accommodation of each other within the East Asian regional context. Even on the AIIB, where many sympathized with China’s argument that the United States should join in order to support increased international spending on much-needed infrastructure in Asia, the issue grew more complicated when posed as a matter of consultations to make sure that China was not leading the region into an arrangement that would foster corruption, little transparency, and intentions at odds with international standards and the integrity of international institutions. There was concern that China seeks to lead the world into region vs. region confrontation, gaining preeminence across Asia and redefining the world order, but it miscalculated US resolve and the determination of most East Asian states that US leadership be reasserted, albeit in a manner that accepts China’s rise if it agrees to a strong US alliance system there.

Russia in Asia: Benign or Part of a New Cold War?
The Russian role in Asia arose in a few panels, including in one broadly concerned with Russian foreign policy. There was agreement that Putin is pivoting to the East, but disagreement on whether this means Russia is throwing its lot in with China or is entering the region as an equal to China and even balancing China, as in relations with Vietnam. Likewise, views diverged on whether it is wooing Kim Jong-un in order to play a positive role toward denuclearization and expecting a cooperative approach with South Korea or is using Pyongyang for leverage with the balance of power more of a priority than denuclearization. Looking to the Yalta Agreement as the foundation of the order that needs to be reconfirmed in Europe, Russia may also see the division of the Korean Peninsula as the foundation of the Asian order, which the United States and its allies are seeking to change through regime change (as has happened in Ukraine), e.g., pressure for denuclearization is about such change.

The discussion about Russia in Asia figured into the assessment of Sino-US relations and also of the regional strategies of South Korea and Japan. There were parallels in arguments that Russia and China’s interests are not being respected and that they are not accepted as civilizational equals. In response to the assertion that the legacy of communist identity is driving Russia and China closer together, a Chinese person in the audience asked how that could be when communist identity had caused the Sino-Soviet split. The answer given was that national identity has many dimensions, and for a time ideology trumped other dimensions, but the legacy of communism is much more varied than this, e.g., in similar views of the history of the Cold War, not excluding the Korean War. While the case was made that Russia and China have been drawn together not only by extraordinary economic complementarity, but also by similar national interests in the face of US pressure or even containment, there was also a case that, despite distinct civilizations, they have both defined themselves in opposition to Western civilization and “color revolutions” broadly interpreted. In denying that Russia’s shift in thinking about Central Asia and the SCO means that it is accepting a subordinate role for the Eurasian Economic Union to the Silk Road Economic Belt, a Russian affirmed that Russia views the latter as limited only to infrastructure development and trade without interfering with Russia’s primary place in the region and its plans for integration through the Eurasian Union. As for Japan and South Korea, Russian thinking that both should join it in development of the Russian Far East and support for its pivot to Asia since its intentions are benign aroused skepticism. Others saw in Russia’s view that a new Cold War has begun and in its strategic interest in North Korea and China a more sinister regional outlook.

The End Game in North Korea:
In contrast to views in the 1990s that the North Korean regime and state would soon fall, there was awareness that reforms are now strengthening it—sanctions do not apply to more than 10 percent of its economy even if they were working, agricultural reforms mean that despite drought there was no famine and that much produce is now marketed, and as many as 100,000 workers sent to Russia, Mongolia, and the Middle East and are sending back foreign currency. Doubt was expressed that sanctions have much bite or that byungjin would be stopped. The US response was that overestimation of North Korea’s success in building bombs and economic gains serves its goal of arousing fear and a sense of urgency and that just restarting the Six-Party Talks, as some propose, would not serve the objective of sharpening its choices. Rather than seeing the allied approach as a failed policy since North Korea keeps building nuclear weapons and expanding its missile prowess, we should see the North’s policy as a failure since it remains isolated and is getting nothing for its nuclear weapons. Pressure must be maintained, and Pyongyang must know that it will keep paying a price, deterrence must keep being intensified, as the door is kept open to authentic Six-Party Talks, consistent with the agreed goals from before.

Naturally, the discussion turned to China and whether its priority on peace and stability over denuclearization has changed. One Chinese speaker asserted that, in his personal view, it has, following North Korea’s decision to conduct a nuclear test and satellite launch soon after Xi came to power. China has refused a summit and has more strictly enforced economic sanctions. Yet, the impression was left that there is still uncertainty over China’s priority, and this depends on US and South Korean policies as well as on whether the North conducts new nuclear or missile tests. Since few in China see the prospect of collapse even in the medium future, their concern is mostly about the danger of military conflict, which could lead to a Sino-US conflict. In seeking to prevent conflict, Chinese express concern about what the US side calls deterrence, e.g., joint ROK-US military exercises. Worried about the high risk of waiting to resolve the issue, they call for the immediate resumption of the Six-Party Talks, perhaps with the one precondition that the North accept the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement, as one report suggested that it had recently done in Singapore. In response, the US side insisted on other preconditions: a halt to its operating reactor and to the spinning of centrifuges. Talks for the sake of talks are not credible if it is continuing to add to its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, they would serve the goal of legitimizing its nuclear program, i.e. they are worse than no talks.

While some urged China to pay more heed to joint crisis management, preparing for worst-case scenarios, others asked it to boost sanctions to both stop subsidizing the North and show that it is serious about denuclearization. As opposed to the view that the priority is to demonstrate to North Korea that there is no hostile external environment, the US side argued that it has shown pragmatism and found in the Leap Day agreement that the North is uninterested in halting the declared elements of its nuclear program. Should some common ground be found, leading to a freeze in the Yongbyon reactor with inspectors, North Korea would keep building nuclear weapons through centrifuges. Thus, a correct declaration of clandestine enrichment facilities with verification is more important. Chinese do not discuss this, raising doubts about how much consensus there is on how to proceed apart from five states insisting that they support denuclearization and peace. The discussion clarified the US position that denuclearization is not a precondition to talks and left vague the Chinese position about their objectives once talks were resumed. Japanese input was cognizant of the sharp differences among five states facing the North and the South Korean views were close to the US ones, but expressed greater urgency.

Sino-Japanese Relations after the November 2014 Summit: Are They Advancing?
After two years of deeply troubled relations, China and Japan not only conducted a brief summit in Beijing in November but followed it with a short summit in Jakarta just a week before the Asan Plenum and Abe’s state visit to the United States. Views from many countries were heard about the state of Sino-Japanese relations, against the background of Chinese press coverage of the US welcome to Abe as “blind trust in a recidivist troublemaker.” A Chinese speaker pointed to the bright side: channels are open between the two governments, Chinese public opinion is less anti-Japan, and Chinese visitors have been going to Japan in droves—notably during the recent Spring Festival. Yet, he doubted that ties would improve much in the near term, as a result of Abe’s lack of respect for history and also due to his advocacy of the “China threat” theory, as seen during his earlier time as prime minister when the idea of an “arc of freedom and democracy” {prosperity} was advocated. He further explained that the new defense guidelines target China and jeopardize its interests, i. e., the alliance is undermining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, as Washington uses Tokyo as its proxy. Japan must strictly follow the four joint statements it signed with China, which, he contends, it is not doing in its claim to the East China Sea islands and its approach to history. Thus, it is violating the post-WWII order and the normalization understandings that transformed that order in Japan’s ties to Asia.

An American analysis attempted to explain why China had changed course in its dealings with Japan from late 2014. The fact that Xi met with Abe a second time makes clear that it was not because he needed the image of a good host at the APEC summit. Indeed, Xi is quoted as having said that relations have improved somewhat, as contacts at many levels have intensified. This suggests that China has recognized that its past approach was counterproductive: arousing Japanese public hostility; reducing Japanese investments at a critical time for a slowing Chinese economy; and hardening Japanese security policies as well as complicating China’s diplomacy due to Japan’s more active engagement in Southeast Asia and Obama’s negative view of China’s approach. No Chinese goal was realized, listeners were told, and US support for Japan, another speaker asserted, was critical to China abandoning its isolation strategy towards Japan. Such unvarnished praise of Obama’s diplomacy, especially its successful avoidance of entanglement with Japan and alienation of China through moves encouraging the two to turn to each other, is not often heard these days.

While South Koreans have spent much of the past year anticipating some sort of reunification, as if it finally is within reach, Americans and other South Koreans are spending more time preparing for more serious challenges from North Korea, such as “cyberwar.” It was made clear that this actually falls short of war, but, as seen in the recent Sony incident, it is easy to use and may trigger retaliation without any likelihood of escalating conflict with the potential for outright war. The deterrence that stood in the way of the use of the “last big weapon,” nuclear arms, is unlikely to work with cyber weapons, which are hard to attribute. Given Sino-US inability to agree on the ground rules for cyber-attacks, it is doubtful that they will cooperate in responding to such attacks from North Korea. It was said that since both the United States and South Korea welcome the spread of the Internet in North Korea, steps to block it in retaliation for an attack are not favored. Yet, there is more talk of a cyber-strategy, stepping up deterrence, cognizant of the serious vulnerability of both the US and South Korean information-based networks, compared to North Korea.

Chinese comments on cyber-attacks were interpreted as one sign of the likelihood of increased security cooperation. Referring to the Snowden revelations about the way US surveillance is undertaken, China portrayed itself as a victim too. Acknowledging that a Sino-US cyber dialogue had begun and then been interrupted after the mid-2014 US indictment of PLA officers, a Chinese speaker gave the impression that even if they are restarted, agreement on cyber security norms is problematic. Meanwhile, China and Russia, listeners were told, are integrating cyber into hybrid warfare, as North Korea values it for asymmetric warfare. Given US insults to North Korea, one Chinese speaker argued that North Korea’s resort to cyber is a form of deterrence. He noted that China disagrees with the sharp line Washington is drawing between military spying as okay and commercial spying as not. If the goal is greater Sino-US coordination in dealing with North Korea and preparing for any sort of end game with it, then the effort to bridge the Sino-US divide on cyber security suggests that, at present, we are far away from reaching this goal. As the country most victimized by North Korean cyber-attacks, South Korea is aligned with the United States in the effort to deter them and seems no better able to find common ground with China.