Washington Insights: December 2014

The November summitry—APEC, the EAS, and the G20 as well as concomitant bilateral, trilateral, and other multilateral meetings—stimulated rethinking about regional relations. In Washington, this took the form of reassessments of how the US rebalancing was proceeding, renewed examination of the broader regional context, and reactions to appeals from Koreans to give further thought to reunification of the peninsula and to President Park’s NAPCI diplomacy. Compared to earlier in the year, seminars shifted from specific bilateral issues such as Sino-Japanese and ROK-Japanese relations to the more far-reaching Sino-US competition and the evolving regional architecture. The Japanese presence was less in evidence. The range was wider, as Mongolia and Russia figured into discussions in unprecedented ways.

The demand for more clarity about US policy intensified in 2014. There was worry about US distractions elsewhere and personnel changes as well as signals perceived as lacking clarity from the Obama administration. Given the chaotic messages from Congress, US steadfastness was in doubt. Perhaps, more serious, was the deepening divide within both Northeast and Southeast Asia among the countries clamoring for more US reassurances. Satisfying all sides required focus on addressing their gaps in national identity and strategic reasoning at the same time as Obama had to test the intentions of a new Chinese leadership team. Speakers explained that charges of a G2 outlook bypassing allies and of siding with one ally or another at the expense of an all-around approach or consistent balancing of China oversimplified the dilemma.

Using the lame excuse of US decline or Obama’s strategic inattention/dysfunctional leadership, voices in Northeast Asia insistent on local initiatives are reverberating in DC. They can, of course, be heard in Russia, which blames US exclusion of their state in the region, US isolation of North Korea, and US pressure on Japan or South Korea with interfering with a major upgrading in its relations. There is no surprise that Chinese thinking draws attention in DC as well charges against US alliance pressure on Japan and South Korea. While Moscow and Beijing diverge on how to handle North Korea in the short run, both are calling for resumption of the Six-Party Talks as the basis for a multilateral regional security architecture marginalizing Washington. In Japan, failure to coordinate well with US policies toward Northeast Asia (on South Korea, Russia, and North Korea) is blamed on US shortcomings, not Japan’s. In South Korea, failure to change North Korea, as well as lack of support for NAPCI as a bold path to a new multilateral security framework are blamed on Obama’s “strategic patience” and distractions. The message from all sides is that whatever Obama did in his November swing through Asia related to Southeast Asia and bilateral ties to China, he lacks a Northeast Asia policy as the situation in the area keeps worsening.

In the final month of the year, US officials spoke more frequently and confidently in defense of the pivot. The November summits went well, the US economy registered impressive results, the fall in oil prices was a boon to US foreign policy, and Obama was flexing presidential muscle with increasing signs of public support. Putin was weakened, Abe strengthened, Xi was seen as more willing to cooperate, Kim Jong-un was drawing new retaliation, and Obama was soon to be the special guest of Modi. All of these developments worked in support of US rebalancing. Indeed, the success was framed as a result of a clear vision, a consistent multidimensional strategy, and a cohesive set of policies to what is increasingly called either the Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific region. Despite the spotlight in November on the Obama-Xi summit, the US message is that the alliances and defense partnerships are the center of the pivot and the defining element in the regional architecture. From 2009, they are being modernized, casting a wider net and responding to new threats. In the face of new challenges from China, they are tools to increase US legitimacy and power, while limiting the vulnerability of states in the region to coercion and pressure. Audiences heard that modernizing alliances is a work in progress—not so much a function of how much money or how many ships and troops the United States reallocated to the region, but a function of the readiness of other states to meet US expectations. In the case of the allies in Northeast Asia, much progress has been achieved; yet, Seoul is still weighing a decision to bolster missile defenses (THAAD), and Tokyo is still in talks on new defense guidelines for the alliance and faces domestic resistance on various realist adjustments, as on the Futenma base relocation. The establishment of triangular defense arrangements is now on the agenda with notable progress on the US-Japan-Australia triad in dealing with the South China Sea, some recent gains in the US-South Korea-Japan triad aimed specifically at North Korea, and even some movement on US-India-Japan cooperation applicable to the Indian Ocean. The overall impression conveyed is that 2014 was a great year for Obama’s rebalancing.

Officials went to great pains to explain that US rebalancing is not Cold War thinking, which Chinese publications and officials keep charging that it is, and is compatible with greater Sino-US cooperation bilaterally, regionally, and globally. Alliances can serve to stabilize a region—without them, chaos would ensue in East Asia. They can reinforce multipolarity, and states that welcome a strengthened US military role are in favor of that. They also should not be seen by China as in conflict with more active bilateral diplomacy to upgrade relations, as evidenced in the Obama-Xi summit on the basis of renovated channels of communication between the two states. In light of optimism that TPP talks would succeed—for strategic and economic reasons—, that alliance and partnership networks are steadily expanding, and that the image of the US pivot and US capacity is improving, the tone in recent discussions with officials is that the rebalancing is succeeding and a regional framework is taking shape that is favorable for China to recognize that its economic interests and strategic calculus should lead to greater cooperation with the United States in support of stability. In light of the worsening security situation in Europe, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia, closer Sino-US cooperation to stabilize East Asia has increased in urgency.

Despite uncertainty about the US Congress and Abe’s will to tackle agricultural interests, optimism that TPP would succeed was widespread in policy circles. It has been seen as a make or break development for Obama’s “rebalancing” and for the US effort to manage China’s rise. There is talk that it would expand in a second stage from 12 to about 16 members—including South Korea and more states in Southeast Asia—, it would become the template for talks with China and pursuit of an FTA of the Asia-Pacific, and it would both set the rules for the emerging trade framework at odds with China’s more parochial and self-serving approach and showcase an Asia-Pacific identity over an exclusive Asia for the Asians identity. In this way, it would be a big asset in managing relations with China and reassuring other states in Asia.

The rebalance is understood to be a balancing act, in which the United States shows that it is prepared to work with China, reassuring almost all of its neighbors who are inclined to hedge rather than to balance. Thus, US progress with China in late 2014 on climate change and mil-mil relations as well as some cooperation on Iran and the Middle East and a less confrontational interpretation of TPP furthered a grand strategy of strengthening alliances too. Also conducive to widespread trust in how the rebalance is targeted is US support for multilateralism, continuing to make ARF a more serious framework for security talks and striving to turn the EAS from a dull meeting where leaders read prepared texts into something of substance, e.g., where the tensions over the South China Sea can be addressed. In November, this did not seem to be the case, as media coverage of Myanmar’s human rights overshadowed references to security concerns. China’s push for “Asia for the Asians” casts further doubt on its willingness to strengthen the EAS, leaving the US as its main champion.

DC audiences were asked, is strategic rebalancing working? This led to discussions about what it really is, refuting Chinese charges of containment and parallel claims that it means establishing a NATO of the East or some other framework exclusive of China to reinforce US hegemony. Both views understate the complexity of relations between the United States and China and of attitudes among China’s neighbors. The multi-layered nature of rebalancing, drawing on all elements of national power, and the importance of expanding cooperation with China where possible also complicate these discussions. To be sure, the primary purpose of rebalancing is understood to be reassurance to the rest of the region, beginning with military deterrence in the face of rising tensions. In the first part of 2010, “demand signals” were unmistakable that US credibility was at stake and it had to step up its presence in East Asia. Even so, the front line states—South Korea facing North Korean aggression and Southeast Asian states disturbed by China’s challenges to ASEAN and the existing instability in the South China Sea—were not seeking a confrontational response. There was fear, for example, that China would cooperate less on North Korea if the rebalance were too aggressive. Looking back, presenters attributed the renewal of tensions after a respite in 2011-2012 to China’s policy choices, not to overly assertive rebalancing.

Washington think tank audiences are relatively sophisticated about trade-offs at a time when maintaining an alliance and partnership confidence stumbles against moves to find ways for greater cooperation with China; tilt toward an upbeat approach to meetings with China, and risk alarm abroad and in the security community at home that a G2 and abandonment of those in need of reassurance. This happened to some degree in Obama’s November travels; tilt toward shoring up defense cooperation, and risk fear of entrapment as well as loss of opportunities to make progress with China on one or another issue. This was feared in Obama’s May travels to Asia. The quality of administration leadership and strategic analysis matters for instilling the confidence that balance is being maintained. This was in growing doubt in 2014.

The US emphasis on cooperation with China with North Korea in the forefront is more than a decade old, intensifying during the George W. Bush administration. The Chinese strategy for drawing neighboring states closer, making them increasingly dependent and building infrastructure independent of international institutions, is accelerating. China’s lack of coordination with other states and insistence on China-centered arrangements that omit checks on hierarchical controls puts the United States in a position of either endorsing China’s willingness to no longer be a free rider and to meet an unfilled demand in the region for infrastructure or confirming China’s charges that the US strategy is to maintain hegemony and stand in the way of China’s rise. In this complex environment, where most neighboring states agree to tap into China’s largesse, it is not easy for Washington to strike the right balance between raising expectations that rebalancing will keep China in check and giving its blessing to China-centered economic regionalism that expands available credit. Making it harder to receive credit for balanced policies is the sharp divide between Japan, seeking a tougher response, and South Korea, preferring a softer approach.


Occasionally speakers came to DC preaching a rosy scenario of rapprochement with China changing course to prioritize soft power or even North Korea starting to open its doors. In the upbeat mood of summitry in November, this optimism was repeated. DC audiences respond with skepticism, finding tactical shifts occurring, not strategic transformations. Sino-Japanese relations gave them little cause for optimism. Those following China closely remained convinced that it was not returning to Deng’s past slogan of “biding its time.” The fundamentals have not changed, most concluded.

Pessimism grew in 2014 on three sources of instability in East Asia: North Korea, due to its increasing threat capacity and lack of interest in denuclearization under any circumstances; China, due to its uncompromising attitude on maritime issues treated as core interests as it transforms its coastal navy into a blue sea navy; and Russia, due to its determination to “turn to Asia” as a military power in conflict with the West. The mood in Washington on all three dangers remained grim even after the Obama-Xi summit brought some improvement in lessening the possibility of an accident that could spiral into a clash at sea. Because the maritime standoff put the two leading powers in direct conflict and control over the sea lanes had long been recognized as the key to global influence, the clash between US insistence on open seas and Chinese claims of sovereignty with Southeast Asian states in the middle captured the limelight in 2015. In addition to the South China Sea, the East China Sea was a front in this standoff, with more explosive potential due to the fact that Japan has the naval capacity and US alliance support to retaliate. When the Abe-Xi brief meeting in November occurred, Japanese insisted that they had won after China stopped demanding as a precondition that Japan recognize the existence of a dispute, and Chinese insisted that they had won because control over the islands is in doubt.

The debate persists over the US response to Xi Jinping’s notion of a “new type of major power relations.” China’s habit of proposing broad but vague principles that appear to promote cooperation is viewed with skepticism by many in DC. In order to test China’s intentions, some consider it reasonable to accept the new concept as a starting point to strive for problem-solving agreements. Yet, others detect in China’s reluctance to use the label “great power” a smokescreen for what is clearly a design for two great powers to carve up the Pacific Ocean, marginalizing “little” Japan and driving a wedge into the US-Japan alliance. When Chinese interpret the label as a pathway to mutual respect for each other’s core interests rather than a search for balanced solutions to the interests of two states, resistance grows. While Chinese are still using the label, it is rarely repeated in DC, as if it has been discredited. Yet, in reaching important agreements with Xi in November, Obama had no reason to say anything that would impugn the concept or get in the way of managing relations.

Other DC discussions cast doubt on how China will respond to the success of the pivot, given Xi’s provocative stress on “Asia for the Asians,” the strong pull of Russia in distress and more amenable to China drawing closer, and the prevailing view of the pivot as containment of China. Some may argue that China’s position is weaker at yearend, in part because of signs of new economic weakness, but its financial resources are unprecedented, Xi’s consolidation of power is intensifying, and the response to US successes, some argue, is no less likely to be intensified struggle than increased compromise. US officials are more upbeat, but DC audiences are skeptical.

Chinese voices raise some hope for more cooperation on North Korea, but leave DC respondents with deep concerns. They note that China’s relations with South Korea (personal ties of leaders, an FTA deal) have never been better, while relations with North Korea are at their nadir. Meanwhile, Sino-US relations after a rough patch are back on track with the Obama-Xi summit. This would suggest an ideal atmosphere for coordination in facing North Korean challenges. Yet, Chinese depict the United States as standing in the way of closer Sino-South Korean relations (pressure for it to deploy THAAD and not to join the AIIB as well as opposition to participation in the Zhuhai air show for fear of leakage of advanced technology). Thus, misgivings in China about US strategic intentions (opposing South Korea joining China in regional arrangements, seeking regime change in North Korea) are only deepening, speakers insist. They further put the burden on the United States to alleviate these concerns. One reason is that China is at a crossroads with two clashing sets of interest and no coherent foreign policy. It is both a developing and a developed country, an ordinary power and a superpower. The public sees no reason for further restraint. THAAD is seen as anti-China; so its introduction without convincing Chinese would set back ties with both Washington and Seoul. Without more incentives for North Korea, the Chinese response is likely to be suspicious. Given zero-sum reasoning, US pressure on South Korea and its acquiescence would unbalance the triangle. The implication is that the broader framework with North Korea (and Russia) would come into play. Audiences respond that this thinking conditions cooperation against real threats on South Korean priority for China over the United States and US accommodation of North Korean nuclear power in a transition that would serve China’s regional goals.

Chinese commentators are correct that US pressure on South Korea is mounting. In light of the worsening security situation in the region and the intensifying US push for a new regional framework with stronger institutions, this is to be expected. Even as the focus of security multilateralism is further south, a sense of urgency about THAAD and trilateralism inconclusive of Japan is unmistakable. Seeking a stable and inclusive regional order is not containment, as Chinese zero-sum thinking charges. It is a way for Washington and Beijing to shape the region’s future together, widening shared interests and reducing conflicting ones in order to forge “Asia for the world” rather than “Asia for the Asians.” Washington sees the many existing multilateral institutions (APEC building on TPP, the EAS incorporating ARF, and ASEAN with a new, enforceable “code of conduct”) as worth strengthening as sources of stability. It fears that China seeks to build an exclusive set of institutions under its leadership, which would be apt to cause instability. The Six-Party Talks failed, in this view, not only due to North Korea’s behavior, but also due to China’s unwillingness to proceed with 6-1 as the fallback position to coordinate against the North’s belligerence. Yet, US officials refuse to blame China beyond saying that it could do more against the foremost threat to the region. Moreover, China could be more honest in reporting the US posture in support of a peaceful solution and in recognizing that the North is not open to “authentic and credible” negotiations, at least without increasing the pressure on it. Officials also seek more Chinese accuracy in acknowledging that the US alliances have positive goals capable of reinforcing multipolarity and offering a stable path forward for China’s rise as well as regional stability and prosperity.

South Korea and Japan

In 2014, China again found considerable success in raising US officials’ hopes for improved bilateral relations to the point US allies and partners grew nervous that a G2 arrangement is taking shape. Obama was focused on tangible successes at the APEC summit and his state visit to Beijing, and Xi Jinping made sure that he found some. Yet, audiences in DC were often not confident that the Obama administration with its lack of heavyweight figures strategizing about East Asia was succeeding in reassuring allies that the overtures to China were not at their expense. As difficult as it has proven to sustain an image of triangularity under US leadership with Japan and South Korea, it is not clear that US officials have given adequate attention to the challenge. A certain disquietude exists toward not only allied inattention to strategic priorities, but also toward insufficiently sustained and strategic US leadership.

The response heard in Washington to these charges is that it is offering clear policy directions, but they are being undermined by states working at cross-purposes and in no mood to proceed collectively. The message to Tokyo and Seoul consists of four main parts: 1) after the painstaking US efforts in January to April to put the relations of its two allies in the region back on track, do no further harm; 2) given Russia’s most serious challenge to the international order since the end of the Cold War, which has been gaining steam since March and crossed the most serious red line yet in July, stick together; 3) as Kim Jong-un looks every which way to find a path to realize his byungjin policy of both nukes and economic development now that China is standing in his way too, keep the pressure up; and 4) in light of Xi Jinping’s recent embrace of “Asia for the Asians” backed by bountiful financial resources, insist on an Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific approach to security, economic regionalism, and values. In proposals being vented in DC, US specialists and officials see repeated challenges to these four objectives. Meanwhile, there is little confidence that either Tokyo or Seoul recognizes the threat to all of them from steps that would undermine just one.

Even before Abe extended his likely tenure at the top with new elections, a debate was under way on the relative priority of realism and revisionism in his thinking and how the United States might tip the balance. One viewpoint is that Abe is more of a realist and that public opinion, the rise of civil society, and the international environment all will keep realism in the forefront. A conflicting viewpoint is that Abe is obsessed with revisionism, already from the time of his Yasukuni Shrine visit has prioritized it, and does not face serious checks in the Diet, the media, the courts, or a weak civil society on intensifying this preference. To be sure, the Komeito as a coalition partner is a brake, and public opinion is hesitant about both realist and revisionist actions, but Abe has demonstrated that he will persevere, eschewing pragmatism, as in the case of his handling of South Korea. Were the United States to insert itself squarely in the struggle over Abe’s quest, the thrust of his efforts would be turned not only against the postwar regime fostered by it, but also against such symbols of revisionism as the Tokyo Tribunal and the San Francisco Peace Treaty. The cost to realism would be much greater. DC audiences recognize that Abe seeks to end the postwar regime and gain autonomy from the United States through a more independent foreign policy (as seen recently toward North Korea and Russia), but they are split on how far Abe intends to go in reinterpreting history at odds with shared views with the United States and in regaining “sovereignty” at the expense of coordination with Japan’s ally. These issues gained new salience with the elections.

Whatever US reservations about Abe’s revisionism may be, there exists a genuine sense of commonality in facing threats (China and North Korea), in cooperating to forge a regional security community to constrain Chinese aggression, and in appeals to universal values as the foundation of the Asia-Pacific as well as the international community. Growing South Korean impatience with US policy in 2014 has raised the question in Washington circles of whether South Korea’s obsession with diplomacy to manage North Korea leads to similar outcomes. Not only is there less indication that China’s assertive moves elsewhere in East Asia are troubling South Koreans, but even steadfastness in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threat is left in more doubt. Japan focuses on a breakthrough over the abductee issue is perceived as less of a challenge to solidarity against North Korea than is South Korea’s recurrent debate on how to engage North Korea rather than to hold the line based on some variant of “strategic patience.” More serious is the perception that South Korea seeks to keep its distance from expanded regional security cooperation to hedge against China. On values, too, hesitation about provoking China in South Korea leaves doubt that it will put the same priority on them as Japan does. Thus, Japan’s preoccupation with the threat from China in a period of growing bipolarity is leading many in Washington who face both Japanese and South Koreans to see more in common with the former. Yet, distrust of Abe complicates this comparison, while Park’s image remains good.

Satisfying both Tokyo and Seoul, both of which strongly endorse rebalancing, is not easy. Both want Washington more heavily engaged in East Asia, but they disagree on priorities and the application of rebalancing toward China—one seeks backing for balancing and the other for bridging. Tokyo wants a firm stance against China, buttressing its comportment, while Seoul prefers a flexible approach, giving it room to maneuver. The former approach sees the region as inexorably polarized, versus a view that middle powers can steer the region toward greater cooperation. As the rebalance became centered on Southeast Asia and beyond—India and Australia—, the split over Northeast Asia was interpreted as if it were just a matter of historical memory and not of great strategic significance; but, that is being questioned of late.

It is perplexing to US audiences how South Korea has made a hero in Japan of the Sankei reporter under house arrest in a defamation case, fueling more tensions in this fragile relationship. No less troubling is how Japan has doubled down on the subject of “comfort women” as the key to restoring national pride with no regard to how damaging this is for relations with South Korea. The baffling conduct of the two states that rattled Washington in the first months of 2014 has again left many in a state of disbelief in the final months of the year. There is no sign of any way forward. As so often has been the case, Japan is seen as the more guilty party as a perpetrator who fails to express genuine remorse, but why Lee Myung-bak decided to visit the island of Dokdo, how much weight is put on the right kind of compensation for the “comfort women,” and why South Koreans reject collective self-defense is a mystery. The strong sense of shared values with the United States established under Lee Myung-bak and Koizumi Junichiro is being eroded through Japan-ROK relations.

Deployment of THAAD has become a hot topic in South Korea, which reverberates in discussions in Washington. This topic has ramifications for Seoul’s effort to navigate between Washington, which officially is seen as driving the call for THAAD, making it seem to be a US problem, and Beijing, whose warnings suggest that this is seen as against China’s core interests. Although the issue has been floated for a while and was downplayed by South Korean media as forcing a choice too sensitive to make, it has taken on new urgency for several reasons. First, the North Korean missile threat has grown with new Rodong missile tests at a higher altitude, which demonstrate that they can be targeted at South Korea. This has added to a sense of vulnerability and a call for deterrence, even if defense is more costly than offense. Concern that North Korea is acquiring a second strike capability and would be more willing to act provocatively or start a limited war is making a decision on THAAD more urgent. Second, the honeymoon in Park-Xi relations, when Park was very sensitive about doing anything to damage them, appears to be fading with a final push to complete a bilateral FTA seen as successful. China’s credibility is declining, as it is doing too little to restrain North Korea and may even be prioritizing weakening Seoul’s ties to Washington as well as Tokyo. Third, US patience has worn thin, as it has brought into the open its request for South Korean deployment. While there has been much talk of an independent missile defense system, as if this would reassure Beijing that Seoul is not joining what is seen as an anti-China coalition with Washington and Tokyo, the costs would be too high. Some in South Korea suspect a US plot to force strategic clarity, which would alienate China. Yet, the high priority of protecting US troops stationed abroad is just one reason why Washington is losing patience. DC audiences have expected the time to come when a choice would have to be made. Preoccupied with deterrence, they seem to expect that THAAD will go forward.

Mongolia and Russia

While Mongolia has from time to time been mentioned in the context of Russia and China (and now as an entrant into the SCO), a recent DC seminar focused on its role in the Korea Peninsula. The audience was attentive to the argument that there is a special affinity to Korea (history, ethnicity, language, etc.), a strategic overlap both as shrimps among whales and as supporters of a multilateral security framework and regional economic integration, and a parallelism between President Elbegdorj’s Ulaan Bataar Dialogue and President Park Geun-hye’s proposed NAPCI. The notion that Mongolia’s unique relationship with North Korea (helped it in the Korean War, accepts North Korean labor, hosts talks such as between Tokyo and Pyongyang, and invigorated relations in 2013) raises the possibility it would be more acceptable to North Korea’s leaders as a model and non-threatening partner than are its great power neighbors drew some wary responses. The affinity to South Korea was more convincing (democracies, number one destination for Mongolian workers, partner in third neighbor strategy, and strategic overlap). Given that human rights are an issue Mongolia is not inclined to ignore, despite its abstention on the UN resolution in order not to lose the credit it has built with North Korea, it would appear to be less appealing as a partner than Russia or even China should the North decide to change course on denuclearization. After all, they consider North Korea of strategic value, whereas Mongolia is likely to be more open to unification under South Korea.

Discussions of Russia pivoted on the question of how much strategic and identity overlap exists between it and China. On the one side, one hears that there is more heat than light in China’s economic involvement inside Russia, that Russia’s move into North Korea is at the expense of China not in coordination with it, and that China is wary of Russia’s confrontational approach to the West and even is in contempt of the overall mess into which Russia has put herself. The two states are no more than instrumental partners whose interests do not much overlap in the regional context, listeners were told. On the other side, arguments were raised that Putin’s options other than China have been slipping away, that bilateral and global overlap between China and Russia has intensified, that arms sales are solidifying strategic relations, and that national identities have drawn considerably closer. In this view, the bilateral relationship will grow stronger not only as long as Putin has an adversarial approach toward the West, but also as Xi Jinping and those close to him treat Obama’s rebalance as aimed at containment. National identity even more than national interests are leading to more overlap as Russia pivots to the East and, as many in Russia now understand, it is essentially little more than a pivot to China.