Washington Insights: February 2014

US year-end review programs were preoccupied with Syria and Iran with mention of Afghanistan, leaving little or no time for coverage of East Asia. They painted two leaders—Obama and Putin—as weak and strong, respectively, without reference to four other leaders—Xi Jinping, Abe Shinzo, Park Geun-hye, and Kim Jong-un. Events in East Asia, however, would not pause while pundits pontificated on what was most newsworthy to a public accustomed to deadlines elsewhere that threatened to make the difference between war and peace. Kim Jong-un ended the year by raising the specter of imminent attack. Abe Shinzo defied appeals and warnings by Obama, Xi, and Park not to pay homage at the Yasukuni Shrine. Meanwhile, Xi steadily centralized control as he moved against those who over the past decade had loomed as leadership rivals. In early January, as official Washington awakened from its holiday snooze, the scene in East Asia was changing and talk in the corridors and at seminars turned to how to take stock of recent changes and deter growing threats to peace or stability. A month later, after Obama’s State of the Union address, which said little about Asia, concerns were mounting that events in the Asia-Pacific would catch many off guard.

Again, in our assessment of what is being said, we ask a series of questions that are on policymakers and pundits’ minds and summarize the responses that are being heard most clearly. Washington may have lost clout in blocking undesired actions and rhetoric in East Asia, but it remains the center of deliberations on what should be done. New US action is being urged from many sides, each anticipating events in 2014.

Did Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine seriously damage US-Japan relations?

Many in Japan think not, believing that in the new polarized environment of Sino-US strategic competition a national identity issue of this sort does not rise to the level of serious US concern. As long as Abe keeps satisfying security objectives, of Republican realists perhaps more than Democratic liberals, he need not expect serious pressure, they anticipated. Indeed, should the Obama administration “overreact,” resentment by right-wing Japanese, as already manifested in responses to its mild expression of disappointment, may well dissuade it from proceeding along this line. After all, the US need for Japan as a military partner is greater than ever. Moreover, similar to Israeli leaders, Japanese leaders seem to calculate that partisanship is becoming so rife in regard not only to domestic policies but also to foreign policy that Obama can be bypassed if he should listen to the voices calling for a tougher stance toward Abe. There is general agreement that Obama will visit Japan in April, concentrating on the two issues of TPP and security, leaving differences over identity in the shadows. Whereas some progressive sources in Japan claimed that Abe had done serious damage, the security-focused DC discussions were hesitant to draw this conclusion.

Japanese news accounts have been fascinated with the alleged gap between the US State Department and US Department of Defense (DOD) in dealing with China and Japan’s responses in the East China Sea. By almost simultaneously visiting the shrine and “settling” the longstanding issue of the Futenma base relocation in Okinawa, Abe was ignoring the repeated warnings of the State Department while satisfying the repeated urgings of DOD. What he discovered was that the relief registered in DOD did not compensate in any appreciable way for the anguish felt throughout the US government. Some speakers insisted that he crossed a red line, if not in policy toward China, but in policy toward South Korea and the US strategy toward rebalancing. He showed that he is not a realist internationalist who would prioritize working with his ally to find the right balance of strengthening alliances and hedging against China. Instead, he is in the camp of diehard national identity boosters who prioritize overturning the verdict on history at almost any price. For the entire first year of his tenure in office the Obama administration had been testing him, uncertain which camp he finally would choose. Many now agree that they were right to be encouraging but wary. Now that Abe has made his decision, wariness is in the forefront. This means Japanese concern about US equidistance between Japan and China in handling the Senkaku/ Diaoyu dispute is only likely to be reinforced, however much the US side sees itself on Japan’s side, apart from striving to calm tensions. Some suggest that Japanese concern about Obama favoring Park over Abe, which seemed to diminish in November and December, is likely to mount again. Finally, it means that Abe’s efforts to persuade the Japanese public that he has strengthened the alliance and has firm US backing are set back. Many doubt that relations will fully recover. Yet, the US appetite for getting involved in matters peripheral to the central challenges in security and economics in a region that is not as explosive as the Middle East is not very strong, and Abe may ride out the tide. The result is anguish, but, most likely, not a serious setback to bilateral relations in these dangerous times. The overall message in DC puts security in the forefront with TPP linked to that goal.

Are ROK-US relations easier due to Abe confirming Park Geun-hye’s repeated warnings?

Initial signs were positive that US officials who had considered Park extreme in her views of Abe have reconsidered. While US perceptions of Abe as a realist contrasted in late 2013 to ROK ones of him as a revisionist, the Yasukuni visit meant that Park’s views would have to be taken more seriously. Yet, if one compares recent concern over Abe’s revisionist provocations and Park’s neglect of realism in building a trilateral alliance, the weight of the latter in security-conscious Washington could well be greater.

Despite the fact that many refer to this as the “model alliance,” stronger than any other US alliance due to its historical record and exceptional military partnership, there is a growing sense that vital interests diverge more than before. Yet, in regard to North Korea, the alliance has shown no sign of fraying. Assessments of previous initiatives, such as the Leap Day agreement of 2012 and strategy of the Kim Jong-un regime, are in sync. Each side credits the other with close coordination and earnest efforts to engage Pyongyang, and both look with great suspicion at the latest “charm offensive.” There is every indication of common assessments, shared patience, and mutually agreed proportional responses without overreactions at a dangerous time. The counter-provocation plan in place is working, as seen in Washington, where one finds little of the speculation in some foreign circles about diplomatic options or a change of heart by Kim Jong-un. The Jang Song-Thaek purge confirms this outlook. The popular theme in Japan of Park leading Korea toward balancing China and the United States at the expense of the alliance is not widespread in DC.

North Korea with its more dangerous capabilities and clearer intentions sustains the alliance. In the past six years neither US nor ROK leaders have done anything to cast doubt on close coordination. Both sides agree: the stronger the alliance, the greater the effectiveness of deterrence; the greater the coordination in diplomacy, the less likely that North Korea can find benefit in its earlier tactics; and the more costly the North’s persistence in not denuclearizing proves to be, the more likely it is to change course. It may continue to increase its capabilities, but it is becoming more isolated and has no prospect of gaining an advantage. In short, although the situation keeps growing more dangerous, there is no mood to reconsider what is widely recognized as the best possible strategy under existing circumstances, based on the alliance.

The challenge to the alliance comes less from North Korea than from third countries, many in Washington are arguing. After all, the rebalance is a broad regional strategy with Japan in the forefront and China of primary concern. US discussions of China are more open in assigning blame, while discussions of Japan are effusive in praising its national security changes. The conventional wisdom is that China can modify North Korea’s behavior, but despite its positive role in the Six-Party Talks, it is not doing so. Yet, a gap with South Korea is not evident, since both sides continue to credit China with past behavior and hold out hope for further cooperation, especially if a new provocation occurs. This shared attitude could be tested in a crisis in which China intervenes in North Korea. After ROK-Japan intelligence sharing failed, concern rose about this as well as integrated missile defense and trilateral operations to foster connectivity. Bases in Japan are essential for reinforcing forces in South Korea, and joint assets are required for missile defense. The point has been reached where Japan-ROK relations are perceived as a problem for US-ROK relations.

If, as expected, North Korea tests a nuclear weapon or long-range missile, what follows?

Given Chinese cooperation on Iran and the positive atmosphere of Sino-US talks on North Korea, as well as a deepening sense of Chinese dissatisfaction with what has been transpiring in North Korea, there is some optimism that UN sanctions will be strengthened. Indeed, this may be one reason for relative US patience in dealing with China’s assertiveness. At Sunnylands, the St. Petersburg G8, the Biden visit to Beijing, and on other occasions of lower-level exchanges, US officials, it seems, have perceived a shared understanding of the North Korean challenge and its urgency, but they are not confident about how far China would go in expanding sanctions. Thus, they are prepared to act independently if needed. Already, North Korea is more isolated economically as well as diplomatically; profits from weapons exports and access to advanced technology have been reduced. Additional measures of deterrence also are expected through a comprehensive alliance approach. As the direct threat to the United States rises, the focus on more onerous sanctions intensifies. Recently, there have been signs that China, perhaps with a coordinated Russian role at the Security Council, would cooperate more. Yet, one does not get a sense, despite more anxiety in Jilin province about nearby nuclear tests and among Chinese officials about the loss of Jang Song-thaek, their main hope, of confidence in how China will respond. China’s upbeat tone in meetings with US officials and signals about dealing with North Korea are welcomed, but taken with skepticism.

How do Sino-US relations play out in Myanmar?

While China and the United States share an interest in resolving ongoing ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, collaboration on this issue has not taken place thus far. China became more interested in actively resolving the conflicts once the rising tensions threatened its oil and gas pipeline project in Myanmar, as well as border stability, with many refugees flooding into China. The US interest in the country also provoked China’s more active involvement. China, therefore, in the matter of one year changed from an observer of the conflicts to becoming a participant. The lack of collaboration between the two states seems to be more a result of China’s unwillingness than that of the United States. China’s special envoy did not allow the United States and United Kingdom to participate in observing recent peace talks, not accepting US assurances that its policies are not aimed at China. Some US NGOs, however, are trying to test out whether collaboration could begin on economic issues in Myanmar, while abstaining from political matters. Given Myanmar’s role as host to ASEAN meetings in 2014 and preparations for elections, many point to 2014 as a critical year for the US-China-Myanmar triangle and for Myanmar in general.

Was 2013 a bad year for “rebalancing” toward Asia?

The US image took a hit from the impasses in Congress and inability of the executive branch to follow through on some plans, as in the cancellation of the visit by Obama to the APEC and EAS meetings. Many in East Asia wrote about these and other signs of the “weakening” of US power. China seemed emboldened to be more aggressive in the East and South China seas. Some even saw US efforts to improve relations with China as deferential, accepting Xi’s concept of a “new type of great power relations” and hesitating to challenge China, as in Biden’s visit to Beijing in December. With its military budget reduced by the sequester and the TPP negotiations extended after the deadline of the end of 2012 was missed, there were reasons to doubt that the year had been successful for US policy in the region. Above all, many sought a more forceful expression of resistance to China, pointing to rebalancing as needing renewed vigor.

There is a need, however, to see “rebalancing” as a marathon, not a sprint. If US plans were largely plodding along in 2013, what about China’s plans? It lost ground with North Korea, when Jang Song-thaek was executed and blamed for his dealings with China. Cambodia at year-end asserted its support for ASEAN on the issue of a code of conduct, restoring consensus after China had relied on it to prevent that. If China had urged Russia to draw closer, moving toward a military alliance and not taking an independent stance with countries with which China’s relations had turned adversarial, Russia quietly pursued an autonomous foreign policy toward Japan and Vietnam, while rejecting closer military ties. With the insensitive way it declared an ADIZ, China alienated not only Japan and South Korea, but states in Southeast Asia expecting to see a new ADIZ in their area. Moreover, its domestic image suffered from signs of greater authoritarianism. Even if China threw more money at countries in support of its foreign policy objectives, there is no sign that it gained more goodwill or any advantage over its competitors.

The Sino-US competition has military, economic, and cultural components. While China is reducing the military hardware gap, few US experts think that the gap is not still substantial. The “rebalancing” is on track, benefiting from Japan’s Futenma base agreement of late December. Economically, the United States looks stronger than at any time since 2008 and China looks more vulnerable, albeit China’s rate of growth is still at least twice as fast. As much as US fiscal problems are a lingering topic of concern, China’s fiscal vulnerability is emerging as a no less serious concern. What may be most surprising is that despite many reasons for a decline in US soft power, there is no reason to think that China has gained any advantage in this dimension. If the “rebalancing” is viewed in this comparative light, 2013 was not a bad year. The debate in DC over the past year has quickly shifted to a sharp exchange over what is needed in 2014.

What would rebalancing 2.0 in 2014, as many are advocating, look like?

The answer depends on China, above all. If the danger of military conflict grows due to China’s moves to fortify sovereignty claims in neighboring seas, then the strategy is bound to change. With Japan and the Philippines in the lead, there are countries already charging that the United States is falling short of rebalancing expectations. Even as observers recognize that most states prefer a balance between engagement and hedging, concern has been growing that Obama, for reasons of prioritizing other regions or being too enamored of a G2 arrangement to deal with various problems, is veering too much toward engaging China. As with the State of the Union address, he is criticized as too passive in responding to the challenges of East Asia and no longer has Kurt Campbell out front, while John Kerry has not replicated Hillary Clinton’s forthright remarks in response to new Chinese assertiveness even if he backs freedom of navigation without ambiguity. Obama’s April visit to China’s neighbors may be viewed suspiciously by some as an encirclement strategy, but the greater danger, as seen by many in Washington, is that it will be seen as weak leadership at a time when the states he visits will mostly be seeking a stronger commitment.

Obama’s likely stop in Japan should draw the most scrutiny not only for what is said about national identity issues and the TPP, but also for how well the two countries coordinate on rebalancing. Japan is asking for a blueprint for operationalizing this concept, drawing sharper lines between allies and close partners on one side and those posing threats on the other. It wants a unified approach to maritime and nuclear threats, showcased through clarity about values. After all, the assumption in Japan is essentially that a new cold war has begun. Since the TPP is understood to be a strategic component within comprehensive rebalancing, should it be in jeopardy due to divisions in Washington, this would be interpreted as a big blow, especially in Japan. Without a visible renewal of rebalancing, Japanese are likely to be pointing to a power vacuum due to the US retreat, some even suggesting that it began as early as the 1970s with the paired loss of the Vietnam War and normalization with China. Japanese assertiveness is drawing more attention in DC.

The pressure on Obama to reinvigorate rebalancing will come also from states in Southeast Asia. Some will emphasize TPP as the real test, seeking a bridge to more states in the region that are not part of the group of 12. Others will make maritime security the principal test. Regardless of the issue, countries will welcome support for the centrality of ASEAN, affirming its goal of establishing a community in 2015 and urging greater US interest in regional architecture-building, starting with the EAS under ASEAN leadership. This struggle over the agenda for Obama’s policies and trips to Asia in 2014 is increasingly evident in DC.

Is there a strategy to discourage China’s creeping expansionism?

The answer heard in Washington is to strengthen alliances, defense partnerships, and military preparedness. Should China’s push to the first island chain and expected expansion to the second island chain be treated as parallel to the Soviet maritime expansion in the Pacific and in the demands on the US-Japan alliance? Some worry that such a response could become a self-fulfilling prophecy from treating China as a threat. Others warn that failure to respond in this way only emboldens China’s “salami tactics” of expansion. At the same time, there remains a desire to test how far China’s claims to be improving relations and making constructive contributions on some challenges will lead. Few give the impression that they expect the year 2014 to be the time when China crosses a red line and the US response turns decisively more critical. The wait-and-see approach with no sense of when a turning point may be reached is indicative of the fact that China and North Korea as well have the initiative. If Abe appears more eager than Obama to go on the offense, many are dubious of his motives, making it even more difficult to agree on a response to China. There is growing impatience in DC with Obama’s caution toward East Asia, but no clear consensus.