Washington Insights, Vol. 7, No. 4

Donald Trump keeps seizing the initiative, overshadowing Abe Shinzo at the G20 meetings, changing the narrative at will in diplomacy with Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, and, on every occasion, relegating human rights and democratization to the sidelines. Just as he sets the agenda on the world stage, he drives the discussion at DC think tanks. Distracting from warnings of a showdown between Trump and Xi, which could lead to decoupling the world’s largest economies, Trump briefly hinted at a “deal” he could trumpet as a unique achievement on which he could run for reelection, but soon it became clear that progress toward a deal was not visible. Trump also shifted attention from a breakdown in his diplomacy with Kim Jong-un to a breakthrough on the basis of a “small deal” “delaying” denuclearization—timely for Trump’s reelection⁠—but that too appeared to be a mirage, given the slow pace of bilateral follow-up. In the aftermath of the G20 summit in Osaka, not a lot has changed in US policy toward East Asia.

Stark conditions faced every country active in Northeast Asia in mid-2019, as reflected in views exchanged in DC. Abe’s diplomacy with Russia had failed, he had gained no traction with North Korea, relations with South Korea were abysmal, coddling of Trump was rewarded with threats of an unprecedented nature, and expectations for China had improved but were rather limited. In the only option left for him to be pro-active, Abe impeded vital exports to South Korea, playing the national identity card before an Upper House election—after failing on the Northern Territories and abductions, two of his other favorite identity issues. The image in DC was not of success in managing Trump and restoring relations with Xi Jinping, but of a calculated act to put national identity back where he wanted it when other options had failed amid US trade pressure.

The situation was worse for Moon Jae-in. The economic blow exacted by Abe’s export cutoffs hung ominously over his country, Kim Jong-un had lost interest in inter-Korean diplomacy, Xi Jinping had failed to go beyond the limited normalization Moon had anxiously sought in late 2017, and Trump’s attitude toward bilateral relations cast a dark shadow. Moon’s desperate hope was that Trump’s transformation of the late June visit to South Korea into a DMZ photo-op with Kim would lead to a “small deal” breathing new life into negotiations more about inter-Korean ties than denuclearization. Trump gave him some reason for optimism, but when word leaked of US consideration of such a move, Trump pulled back, leaving Moon with no fallback. Any effort to play the “Japan card” as Abe played the “Korea card” was backfiring, given the onus on him.

While the think tank community largely faulted Trump for making a mess of US relations in East Asia—from the way he handled China and North Korea to the unprecedented tensions within the “alliance triangle”⁠—he had succeeded in rallying his base so fully behind him and diverting the public’s attention so frequently that he was not paying much of a price for his failure. Unlike Abe or Moon, Trump had the initiative. People awaited his next move with Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping and assumed that he had the leverage to press Abe and Moon much harder without many asking how he put the US and the region in its current situation and if he had a plan to proceed. Yet, the ROK-Japanese breakdown was beginning to arouse US angst in the latter part of July.

As for the overall tone of discourse, there is no doubt that optimism is in short supply in DC arenas. Topping the list of dark clouds is the Sino-US trade war, newly aggravated with little prospect of early resolution. Casting an ominous shadow also is the breakdown of diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang, confirming the dead-end nature of the path Trump had chosen, much in line with the prevailing expectations. Those who had found some measure of hope in regional diplomacy apart from the US have cause to be pessimistic as well. North-South diplomacy has nearly ground to a halt, leaving humanitarian food assistance as the residual prospect. Russo-Japanese diplomacy has reached an impasse too; despite Abe’s last-ditch compromise approach, the Russian side keeps moving the goal posts, e.g. in its demands for legitimation of Russian historical seizure of the islands and its vague linkage of weakening the US-Japan alliance to get a deal. Polarization of Northeast Asia is marching ahead with little room for maneuver for Seoul or Tokyo even on economic matters. The demanding US Huawei policies (until Trump met Xi at the G20) made exchanges and control over 5G a divisive battleground. On top of all of this, Abe’s decision to stop vital exports to South Korea put alliances in turmoil.

The summits

The big themes of the Trump summits in late June were expected to be the trade war with China, the related US pressure on South Korea to keep Huawei away from its 5G, and looming trade talks with Japan and Huawei’s role in Japan’s 5G. North Korea was expected to have a pro forma presence with little new to be said by Trump, Moon, and Abe. Security more broadly was to have a place in the talks, but apart from its link to high-tech ties to China it looked to be secondary. That Trump would set the agenda, no matter how Abe tried to do so as G20 host, was obvious.

The Hanoi summit left US-North Korean ties in limbo, reducing talk about them when few new details emerged, and the next steps were difficult to fathom. Trump’s dramatic meeting with Kim Jong-un at the DMZ, including a stroll onto North Korean territory, abruptly revived talk about this relationship. Yet, apart from a flurry of speculation less than two weeks later that Trump was ready for a “small deal,” which would postpone negotiations over serious denuclearization, only days later walked back, there was little follow up. The situation remained much as before: Moon Jae-in pressed for a “small deal,” possibly giving new impetus to North-South relations; Trump was given to spontaneity without strategic planning in his administration on how to proceed; and Kim Jong-un was skeptical but mostly patient, assuming again that the ball is in the US court.

In the Trump-Abe summits (three in a short span with more likely before the end of September), the dark cloud of trade hung over head even as upbeat reports were issued. The meeting in Osaka saw Abe overshadowed but not overlooked by Trump’s warnings of tough policies ahead. As the preparations advanced for Trump’s trip to Osaka and Seoul, DC audiences weighed its prospects. They recalled his trip to South Korea in late 2017, where North Korea topped the agenda, while relations with Japan, China, and the Indo-Pacific figured in the talks, and bilateral items included trade and burden-sharing. North Korea is still the priority, but the balance has shifted from pressure to diplomacy. In speaking to the National Assembly, Trump had dwelt on the evils of the North, but he had held aloft a vision of economic prosperity. If he resists Moon’s appeal to accelerate diplomacy, he may go further than before in opening the door to a “small deal” to put talks back on track at the risk of undermining the case for a “big deal” as the only way forward.

ROK-US relations

Beneath the surface, the divisions between the two countries are becoming more difficult to control. The most obvious split is over North Korea with South Koreans calling for creative diplomacy, as if there is a way for the US to recalibrate its approach that would succeed in unlocking the door to energetic diplomacy and a path to denuclearization. Implied is the argument that the recent Trump approach has not offered enough to Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, South Koreans weigh whether nationalism or alliance should be given preference, being asked to choose for the first time due to Pyongyang’s turn to diplomacy. Recalling a history of other states controlling the fate of Koreans, some are hesitant to let the current opportunity to take charge slip away, as if Pyongyang is no longer a threat to South Korea and a new threat to the US and damage to the alliance would not leave the South extremely exposed to blackmail or even attack without the current support. Given Trump’s soothing words about Kim Jong-un, Moon is unlikely to break openly with Trump, meaning that both keep stressing the positive.

A corollary to breaking with the US over North Korea is turning to China for a common posture on diplomacy. This flies in the face of North Korean fear of China over the long run and Seoul’s own experience with Chinese pressure and sanctions after THAAD deployment. At the heart of the debate over China is an assessment of China’s motives: Would it respect Koreans being in charge of the diplomacy and reunification process? Would it be content to stay on the sidelines as it is now, once diplomacy gained momentum? How much does China prioritize North Korea’s denuclearization or does it insist on regional security transformation at odds with Seoul’s plans? To date, there is little sign of warming ties to Beijing, given its different strategy for the North.

South Korean officials are also showing distrust for the broader US regional strategy, including not only polarization with China, but also antagonism toward Russia, unprecedented closeness with Japan, and military reconfiguration with the Quad. Their queries about US motives reveal misunderstanding of the causes of tensions and the degree to which Cold War thinking drives US policy. Taking pride in nordpolitik and normalization with China as great accomplishments of South Korean diplomacy, they fear that Washington is seeking to push back and leave Seoul in the state of total dependency on one ally it had during the Cold War era. The Sino-US split and the US tilt toward Japan as well as the ROK-US divide over North Korean diplomacy are raising fundamental questions about Seoul being boxed into a corner and needing to act before long.

Seoul takes satisfaction that so far it has kept tensions with Washington from spreading beyond North Korean diplomacy and even that has been largely controlled. Seoul reached deals on KORUS FTA reform and host nation support that took sensitive issues off the table for now. it expects US preoccupation with the trade war with China, with auto imports from Germany and Japan, and with host nation support from others to be in the forefront for a while, giving Seoul room to avoid becoming Trump’s looming target. These are difficult conditions to navigate, and Trump is unpredictable; so much care needs to be taken at this sensitive time in regional affairs.

The reasoning driving the US push for more host-nation support—up 8 percent after the recent round of talks and expected in DC to rise more than that amount after a new round in 2019—is a sense that the US spends $5 billion on its forward presence in Korea while, even after falling from $24 to $18 billion, it runs a trade deficit. This thinking about burden-sharing and deficits prevails in the Trump administration. The deficit has been falling mainly due to LNG imports, for which South Korea is the world’s largest importer. Also assuaging US concern is the rising investment by South Korean companies in the US, including some big projects coming on line.

On 5G the impression was left that Seoul is watching the United Kingdom to see how its dispute with the US over Huawei is resolved. The ideal may be a compromise deal, allowing Huawei into peripheral but not core communications systems. This is not a time to push back hard against the US, given Trump’s vindictiveness and overall resentments toward Seoul, but to move fast to take a revised KORUS FTA and burden-sharing off the table as well as to praise Trump for his diplomacy with Kim Jong-un rather than openly pressing him to do more, thus keeping a positive mood for two years. Trump’s visit to Seoul in June seemed to sustain that impression.

The Trump-Kim Jong-un “handshake” at the DMZ at the end of June should have reinforced the mood of Moon Jae-in and those around him that his strategy to bring the US and North Korea to dialogue was working, but it had the opposite effect, according to discussions in DC. A low level of trust in Trump defies any basis for optimism, while Trump’s lack of respect for Moon in the way Moon was excluded from the main proceedings and, more broadly, Trump dealt with him, is a bad omen, as Kim Jong-un makes no secret of keeping Moon at arm’s length. Temporarily, the biggest worry was a deal between Trump and Kim that would not only leave denuclearization in grave doubt but could boost North Korea’s standing and possibly be part of a deal with China of greater priority for Trump than the Korean Peninsula. Pleading with Trump not to insist on a “big deal” in order to keep diplomacy on track has given way to fearing Trump’s idea of a “small deal.”

Not only does the lack of rapport between Trump and Moon give South Koreans reason to feel unhinged, other factors contribute to a sense of isolation. Pyongyang is not forging inter-Korean ties as expected in 2018, Tokyo is intent on teaching Moon a lesson for his audacity in wrecking relations, Moscow has failed to build trust with its inclination to boost ties to Pyongyang, and Beijing is also disappointing after failing to put the trouble over THAAD behind it. If relations between Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping prior to THAAD deployment were never as good as portrayed, Moon never found a way to build rapport with Xi. His agreement to the “three noes” only normalized relations on the surface, his overtures to North Korea along lines sought by Xi proved insufficient, and his alienation from Japan did not convince Xi to improve ties. If in past times of possible isolation, the ROK-US relationship assured Koreans of a fallback position, this time Trump’s possible extreme choices—toward North Korea from “fire and fury” to a deal that may ignore Seoul’s priorities, and toward China from the mother of all “trade wars” to a deal that might sacrifice the interests of allies—are arousing anxieties beyond those seen in the past.

Lost in the hubbub over the Trump-Kim Jong-un photo-op on both sides of the DMZ was news of the official summit between Trump and Moon, roughly 1½ years after Trump’s prior trip to Seoul and 2 months after Moon’s latest visit to Washington. Of course, North Korea was the foremost theme for the allies—in November 2017 now remembered for Trump extending an olive branch to Kim but then an occasion for Trump primarily to rail against Kim, and in June after 3 months of backtracking following the Hanoi summit failure when new working level talks were anticipated within weeks of Trump meeting Kim for the third time. A second important theme was restricting 5G from China, a US request that could again upend Sino-ROK relations, as THAAD did in 2016, from which Moon had only partially extricated his country just after the prior Trump visit to Seoul. Not overlooked in the visit was US concern about the deterioration in ROK-Japanese relations, but without any indication Trump intended to get involved—it turned out on the eve of Abe’s decision to hamper vital chemical exports for South Korean companies. Concern over the supply chain involving China’s 5G was eclipsed by the chain with Japanese chemicals. In this overlooked summit, Trump did not ignore his favorite topics of trade deficits and burden sharing, despite agreements already reached with Moon that reduced the immediate pressure. In queries raised by a summit review, it was asked if the US needed to intercede on the split between its allies, with Koreans pressing the US to do so and warning that only China wins.

The ROK-US relationship also aroused controversy in DC exchanges, especially when Koreans presented the case for Moon’s thinking on North Korea. Having pointed to other turning points in dealing with Pyongyang, they argued that the brief Trump-Kim encounter at the DMZ finally validate that there is no turning back. The stalemate after the Hanoi summit is broken, and a direction for peace on the peninsula has been set. The priority is economic cooperation⁠—lifting sanctions followed, it is presumed, by denuclearization. Cooperation will give Pyongyang the needed incentives to shift to a market economy, as Seoul and Washington work closely together to achieve a transition in its economy. In this trilateral framework, Seoul stays on the sidelines in the Sino-US trade war and in rival security strategies for regionalism and persuades the US side to pressure Japan to roll back its export restrictions, since North Korea is the one issue that must be resolved. Driving such optimism about the US stance is the impression that Trump is intent on reaching a deal, regardless of his advisors, and could have accepted a “small deal” in Hanoi if Kim had compromised sufficiently on the next steps and on a roadmap for what lies ahead. The “photo-op” on the DMZ proves that Trump is not deterred and gives Kim more standing at home. Even if Moon Jae-in was an “outsider” there, he gets credit for restarting talks as the convener.

Different views on the meaning of the third Trump-Kim meeting and on Moon’s approach were aired as well. One viewpoint is that Trump is misleading Seoul by acting on instinct without any strategy and flirting with tolerance for a nuclear North Korea when that is bound to be repudiated in US policy. Given the South-South divide in Korea, the isolation of Japan from the process, and the eagerness of China and Russia to drive a wedge between the US and the ROK, the North Koreans are not facing an environment favorable to a breakthrough, some suggested, and trust in the assumptions of progressive thinking is in short supply. For many in the US the decision by Kim Jong-un to agree to diplomacy resulted from pressure, and even more pressure is needed to go beyond platitudes since Kim is not inclined to denuclearize. This contrasts to a South Korean viewpoint that Kim now prioritizes economic reform and responds to trust in him with readiness to denuclearize; thus, increase carrots, not sticks, and avoid sensitive issues for optimal results.

The progressive view of China’s role in diplomacy appears conflicted. Should it be bypassed, reassured, or used as a common enemy to entice the North? The choice depends on how one interprets both Xi and Moon’s relationship with Kim Jong-un. Many on the US side doubt that any approach but reassurance to China will work since it can turn the spigot of economic ties on and off and North Korea’s hostility toward China is a tactic more than a strategy. One position voiced in DC was that the US should capitalize on such hostility, recognize that Pyongyang is no longer opposed to US forces stationed in South Korea, and ever since 1991-92 an opportunity has existed to reassure it in a meaningful way that the US would not attack. Unlike the views of some progressives, who see unification as possible only if the US pulls its troops out, this stance interprets the North as seeking a regional balance of power with a pronounced US presence. In response, there was doubt that Korean progressives could agree to such a strategy toward China.

One Korean view is that Hanoi came close on Yongbyon + alpha and serves as the basis for a deal that goes beyond it. The failure centered on the definition of the scope of what North Korea would offer and already that is being addressed, offering proof of irreversible dismantlement. In light of the fact that a window of about one year remains until Trump focuses on his reelection and South Korea holds National Assembly elections, a deal should be struck soon to realize what is within reach. Doubters raised the US demand for verification, which has scuttled talks in 2008, and wondered why one should be optimistic about the North’s response. Also raised were doubts that North Korea would agree to economic reform and openness, for which they have had ample opportunity. The idea that Kaesong and Kumgang-san are just unilateral South Korean sanctions, whose lifting would give North Korea hope and not undermine the sanctions regime, was also met with incredulity. Questions were raised too about a small deal falling short of the JCPOA deal with Iran, which Trump has overturned and how Trump could accept a much less stringent arrangement as well as whether Congress would tolerate the discrepancy. Above all, one could detect great skepticism toward arguments that Kim Jong-un is a different type of leader with a focus on the economy, who cannot be pressured but can be incentivized and whose anxieties about the US threat are key rather than his concerns about the impact of sanctions on stability.  

The DC analysts’ response to the third summit is that it accomplished nothing but to give Kim a much-desired meeting, including on North Korean soil, and it would not change the rhetoric of threats unless the US made further unilateral concessions. The pattern has not changed in any meaningful way from the time of the Six-Party Talks. Kim refused to resume working level talks after Hanoi and is not so inclined after the DMZ meeting. The US side has even less coordination than during previous talks, and Kim takes advantage of that by playing Trump off against others. It knows its goal unlike the US side, seeking arms control in phases rather than denuclearization through a grand bargain. Agreeing to exclude Moon from the room where Trump and Kim were talking sent the wrong message. Meanwhile, China is intent on marginalizing South Korea as it now increases its own role and expects to take advantage of Moon’s ardor by driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington. To the extent the US is aloof from worsening ROK-Japanese relations, it weakens its position. Yet, China is keeping the pressure on Kim, sending a North Korean trade delegation home empty-handed in April. For South Korea to relax pressure and expect to persuade Americans that this is the right move defies the necessary strategy. For Trump to downplay new missile launches also undercuts the needed negotiating strategy.

US-North Korea relations

Five key questions arose at one seminar showcasing US-North Korean relations: 1) why did the Hanoi summit fail? 2) why is the terminology used to label the North Korean launches of May 9 confused? 3) should we be concerned about riling North Korea during this diplomatic process? 4) what is the role of Congress in the current stage? and 5) what do each of the six players in the region plan to do next? While no optimism that Kim would denuclearize was heard, there was also scant objection to pursuing diplomacy. Even if only a tiny chance existed for Kim to agree to this, why not try it if the cost of diplomacy is low, some argued. Others averred that with “maximum pressure” now being applied and capable of being intensified, the diplomatic track is just a secondary factor in impacting Kim, but it is worth continuing. A third argument could be that, in light of disparate views among many states and raw memories of the alarm stoked by bellicose rhetoric in 2017, exploring the path of diplomacy is optimal for maximizing support from other regional actors. Continue talking but expect little to happen is the message.

Why did the Hanoi summit fail? This is a familiar question, asked over and over since the end of February. One popular answer is that Pyongyang was tested on its willingness to denuclearize, and its refusal doomed the meeting. Another answer is that Pyongyang had little interest in the issues raised prior to the summit, such as a peace declaration or a liaison office, proving that it is obsessed with sanctions, which Washington is intent on maintaining until intentions toward denuclearization are clear and serious steps are on the table. A third response is that, given the North’s lack of initiative in advancing compromise ideas, the US could have tried to salvage the summit with a limited agreement on some sanctions relief (through the South Koreans and oil) in return for partial closure of the Yongbyon facilities, but that was not welcomed, weakening the sanctions regime before the North had made its intentions clear. A fourth answer is that, as in the Six-Party Talks, the North does not prepare well for diplomacy—it ignored the working level preparations, it did not have a Plan B when its proposal was not accepted, and it lacked a roadmap or diplomatic playbook. A fifth response is that Trump had lulled Kim into complacency by the way he dealt at the Singapore summit and his comments thereafter, as if a vague statement about closing Yongbyon could suffice, as it had in the 2007 Joint Agreement. A final explanation is that both Trump and Kim needed a failure in Hanoi to satisfy hardliners who only gave qualified support for the talks in a lengthy process where compromise must take time.

Why is the terminology used to label the North Korean launches of May 9 confused? The short-range ballistic missile tests, which clearly violated UN Security Council resolutions, were called not ballistic, not long-range, but just rockets and projectiles, as if softening the wording would make it easier to avoid any need to take the North before the Security Council as a violator of sanctions, as had happened prior to 2018 when missiles of any type were fired. When in the 2012 Leap Day agreement, Pyongyang had insisted it was not firing a missile but just engaging in a space launch, that was rejected. Yet, desperate to keep diplomacy proceeding, Trump and Moon are seen as only encouraging more provocations by refusing to take this one seriously. One may recall Abe’s desperation to keep diplomacy with Putin alive by ignoring what, at any earlier date, would have been called by the Japanese side violations of the spirit of the talks. Trump sent an earlier signal to Kim along the same lines by reversing looming Treasury Department sanctions.

Should we be concerned about riling North Korea during this diplomatic process? Assuming that Kim is close to making a decision to denuclearize, one might avoid tilting the balance with more pressure on him. Yet, assuming that “maximum pressure” is what gets his attention, one would be hesitant about not applying pressure that he has been warned would be coming if his moves crossed any red line. The DC audience appeared to be heavily on the side of applying pressure to avoid eroding sanctions. One commentator noted that, whether it is rhetoric or behavior, the North follows the practice of “tit-for-tat,” and that is the language it understands best. When a deal, such as the Moon-Kim Panmunjom Declaration is violated, as happened with missile tests that were inconsistent with promises to reduce military pressure, a response is not optional.

What is the role of Congress in the current stage? Having imposed sanctions, Congress sees these as its means to make an impact. Yet, there is not a lot of room to impose additional sanctions on the North, leaving sanctions on China and Russia for alleged cheating on sanctions a possibility. Another interest of Congress is to get more oversight by being briefed more fully. Yet, the body is divided, not so much by party line but by a split between those alarmed by the war rhetoric of 2017 and still wary of what might be on Trump’s mind if an impasse persists and those intent to double down on “maximum pressure.” A new resolution could find some easy, common ground, aiming to reinforce the US alliances, but that only would avoid the areas of obvious division.

What do each of the six players in the region plan to do next? That question hovered over the discussion on the assumption that a third summit will likely take place but without the big deal Trump is seeking, opening the door to multilateral maneuvering. After engaging in a period of reflection, Pyongyang would likely avoid any big provocation and get by despite sanctions with some help from Beijing and Moscow. Seoul would persist in trying to give concessions to it, but Moon is likely to be further marginalized without much leeway. Beijing is the beneficiary of this environment, pleased that joint exercises are suspended and waiting for its opportunity. If Tokyo may strive not to be left out while watching Seoul nervously and not being sure about Trump, for Moscow it is a matter of avoiding marginalization but with less nervousness at an impasse. In the meantime, diplomacy is in poor shape: Trump is not one to listen to allies, trilateral ties are now in trouble, US relations with Beijing and Moscow do not lend themselves to serious talks on North Korea, and hopes rest on a bilateral summit deal as if the interests of the other four parties can be handled as an afterthought. Many doubt that multilateralism is expendable. The Trump-Kim hand-shake summit at the DMZ was unlikely to alter such thinking about multilateralism.

China-South Korea relations

Since Moon traveled to China in December 2017, Sino-ROK relations have been in limbo—no longer in a freeze with barely disguised Chinese retaliation for the deployment of THAAD, but with continued economic pressure over Seoul only going as far as declaring the “three noes” but not removing THAAD. With US pressure mounting over 5G, China is preparing to apply its own pressure on behalf of Huawei. Seoul is in an untenable position. The situation is little different regarding US calls to embrace the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, which raises the danger of China retaliating. Moon has launched the New Southern Policy toward South and Southeast Asia—covering much of the scope of FOIP—with the aim of expanding markets and Korean manufacturing as well as its influence. Washington may try to build on this overlap, but, unlike in the case of Japan-US relations, ROK concerns about China complicate this, and large infrastructure projects are not under consideration. Seoul has not joined freedom of navigation operations nor even joined the US in criticizing the militarization of the South China Sea, even if its language on a rules-based order suggests an indirect connection.


Indian-US relations have continued to grow closer in security under Trump, but they are not as close as US leaders have wanted. One explanation offered for Indian reluctance, as Modi prepares for his second term as president, is uncertainty about US reliability and seriousness about such moves as a Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. Ties have improved, especially in response to the pressure China put on India in 2017, at the end of a decade of building pressure. In 2018 China took steps to assuage India, Xi may visit India this year, and India’s response to the 2019 BRI forum was much quieter than in 2017, although it still refused to participate. The growing Indian acceptance of trilateralism with the US and Japan and even the Quad, to some degree, has heartened the US side, but economic tensions remain, caused by protectionism on both sides. One new focus is on Indian oil imports from Iran and Venezuela, as well as the US sanctions on Iran and Russia, as India has scrambled to diversify its oil suppliers with support from the US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Given the trade trouble with the US and the security ties to counter China, some see a two-track approach that Modi will find unsustainable in his new term. Others see China pushing harder to strengthen the economic side, perhaps with RCEP talks succeeding by year end, while Trump’s behavior reinforces India’s desire for autonomy. The clash of civilizations rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, treating the West as superior as others talk of the Western liberal order, damages the US image. China’s claims to be showing the way to “Asian values” works to the US advantage, but the situation remains in flux.  

Russia in Asia

Debate over the extent and durability of Putin’s “turn to the East” persists. One DC exchange heard the case that Russia historically has waxed and waned in its attention to Asia, and its turn that way to 2019 is likely to be similarly short-lived. Russia is disappointed in what it has gained from China, its key national interests remain in Europe, and the “pivot” is flagging, the audience heard. The latest iteration of its turn, the “Greater Eurasian Strategy,” has little substance, it was asserted. Yet respondents wondered how this conclusion could be reconciled with the closeness seen in Sino-Russian relations, the deference shown to China on many issues as China generally reciprocates with deference to Russia in Europe, and the national identity forces driving Russia to China and away from the West. The case of Central Asia was raised with one interpretation that it is important for awakening Russia to the danger of catering to China and another that so far Russia is reassured by the migration flow directed toward it, the local elites keeping their distance from China while remaining tied to Russia, the importance of Russia as a market, and the investment of capital in Russia. The idea that Russia is using China to win a better deal with the West clashed with the argument that the Sino-Russian collaboration is a regional division of labor with durability and continued promise to weaken the United States and the European Union.

DC exchanges faulted Trump in dealing with China, above all, for neglecting expertise through area studies and fudging the divide over values, which could reassure allies and partners. China’s domestic order matters greatly. Neglect of what is, in essence, an alliance with Russia, is faulted. The threat to democracy is seen as existential. Despite some interests at odds, complementary interests are stressed, as Russia covets Europe and China covets Asia. Although in the long term the goals of the two states do not coincide, a lengthy interim of close ties can be anticipated.

A seminar on Russia offered the perspective that the US is ignoring the transformation of the international system to multipolarity and that more than great power rivalry we have entered an era of cold war by other means intended to defeat one’s opponent. Today we see: systemic contradictions, rejection of Russia as a legitimate great power, images of the other as malevolent, assumptions that one is on the right side of history, demonization of the other, and refusal to consider compromise. Yet, listeners were told, the US has misjudged in anticipating China versus Russia; as long as the two stand together, the US cannot emerge victorious. It will take time, but the US will recognize Russia’s legitimacy as the decisive step in the rise of a new world order. In this transition China’s role has been critical: its technical modernization and BRI have broken monopolies. A fundamental change in US national identity will occur—away from isolationism and internationalism as the two options to a shared world order. Failing to convince allies and partners such as South Korea to join in confronting China and Russia, the US will finally work out a deal with Russia and perhaps with China later, the audience was told. In the meantime, there will be a rising danger of a military clash, which needs to be managed.

In response to this Russian perspective, anticipating that a deepening US divide with China, will lead to reconsideration of relations with Russia, DC responders argued that Russia’s relationship with China is not consistent with the arguments being advanced. As acknowledged, in 2014-17, China was hesitant about drawing closer to Russia, and its interests will keep it leaning away from an alliance. The Sino-US competition is intensifying, but not to the extent of sharp break. Another point of view is that the Sino-Russian relationship in Asia is already so strong based on Russian acquiescence to China’s dominant role that bipolarity far overshadows multipolarity. A third view focuses on the US capacity together with allies and partners to remain strong enough to balance China and Russia and deny them the regional spheres of influence they are seeking. Finally, the view that Russia has an unsustainable strategy and will sour on China challenged the scenario being proposed. Clearly, controversy over the old strategic triangle has been resurfacing.