The subject of interests versus values figures importantly in queries on international relations in Northeast Asia. Four prime examples are: 1) What is driving the tensions in Sino-US relations, and how should the US respond to China’s perceived ideological challenge? 2) Is Abe Shinzo driven by national interests or national identity in foreign policy, and how is today’s deterioration in Japan-ROK relations affecting the balance between the two? 3) In making a choice between the United States and North Korea in his diplomacy, how does Moon Jae-in weigh the importance of national interests and values, and what should be driving the broader framework of ROK foreign policy? And 4) is the close Sino-Russian strategic partnership motivated by interests or values, and, looking back at the Sino-Russian-US triangle, what lessons can be drawn for the future? The four articles in this Special Forum seek answers to these tantalizing questions. 

The Mueller report dropped like a bombshell on Washington and the world in April 2019, raising questions not only about US domestic politics but about whether the national interest is being served more broadly. As diplomacy comes and goes among the countries most active in the Indo-Pacific region, how does US leadership balance interesst and values, and how do the other major actors do so? What do recent panels on the region at Washington think tanks, the March International Studies Association (ISA) meetings in Toronto, and the April Asan Plenum in Seoul tell us about this balance? Clearly, these questions are on people’s minds, making them ripe for fresh analysis and for review of recent discussions through synopses of their arguments in general terms.

This Special Forum is, as usual, comprised of four articles and an introduction, but two of the articles are synopses of panel exchanges and the other two center on bilateral relations of critical regional importance. One of the articles concentrates on the role of ideology in China, advocating for a rebalance in how the US approaches the two strains of policy-making in Sino-US relations: pursuit of the national interest and adherence to values for which the US stands. A second article places the emphasis on Japan’s balance of these two strains and pays closest attention to the Japan-ROK relationship. Of the two synopses, one concentrates on the Sino-Russian relationship in regard to managing ties to the United States, and the other puts the stress on the South Korea-North Korea relationship, as Seoul is perceived as struggling with a choice between its US ally and its brethren. Some of these analyses delve into the historical background of balancing between interests and values, while bringing coverage up to date through examples from current events. Others draw together recent exchanges on the latest challenges.

Some clarification of the guiding concepts of values and interests is required. Clearly, they are too simplistic to serve as counterpoints without further differentiation. The traditional political science division into realist behavior and constructivist behavior has long been found inadequate. Constructivism fails to distinguish between types of perceptions and ideas that influence policy-making, and realism assumes prevailing anarchy in international relations that defies path dependency and alliance logic.

Here, we divide values into two, broad types: universal values supportive of the liberal international order, and national identities in pursuit of distinctive goals for one’s state.  We further divide interests into two, broad types: distrustful pursuit of what currently suits putting your country first; and coalition-building with awareness of the need to make concessions to critical partners in the national interest. In covering the balance of late among these options, five leaders figure heavily: Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Abe Shinzo, Moon Jae-in, and Vladimir Putin. They each have tilted the balance in critical ways, which have been the subject of intense interest in recent, wide-ranging panels. The liberal, international order has lost ground as these leaders seek bilateral benefits.

For the most part, these leaders, commentators agree, have been driven by values steeped in a reconstruction of national identity, not prioritizing universal values or multilateralism in pursuit of national interests. Abe may appear to be an exception, but his approach to South Korea casts doubt on that impression. Xi Jinping and Putin stress the absence of ideology in their close, strategic partnership, but that argument rests on a narrow notion of ideology rooted in the history of communist dogmatism while ignoring how ideology fits into national identity as a force in the foreign policy of both. Of all the leaders, Trump’s impact is greatest—launching trade wars, bullying allies, claiming diplomatic breakthroughs when little has been accomplished, and forcing responses.

Our attention centers not only on the current leaders reshaping policy choices, but also on their approaches in the historical context of their countries’ management of various important bilateral relations. In late April we learned more about Russia-North Korea ties as Putin hosted Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok and about US-Japanese ties as Trump hosted Abe in Washington, DC. At the start of May, Kim Jong-un resumed missile firings as a warning to Trump and Moon, while Trump threatened more tariffs on China when trade talks stumbled. The bilateral relationships covered here are constantly in the news. In the background, as the four articles make clear, are Sino-Russian ties, seen as in pursuit of a new world order. With big stakes before them, leaders weighed how much to prioritize one or the other type of values and one or the other approach to national interest. We assess their ongoing moves in a far-reaching historical context.

Addressed in the articles here are the following bilateral and trilateral relationships: Sino-US, Japan-South Korean, South Korean-US-North Korean, and Sino-Russian-US. These have been the preoccupations of the six leaders most active in Northeast Asian diplomacy. If at times prior to 2018 there was optimism about national interests or universal values rising to the forefront—Sino-US cooperation on climate change, the forward-looking “comfort women” agreement between Japan and South Korea, South Korean caution and broad diplomatic improvements to face North Korea’s intensifying military threat, US strategic success in building a sanctions coalition with room for overtures toward the North, and a growing economic tilt in Sino-Russian relations—the pendulum by 2019 had shifted toward distrustful nation-first and national-identity-first approaches. In light of a litany of shifts in foreign policy orientation worthy of attention, we showcase identities and interests at work as critical relationships stay in flux.

The democratic tide of the late 20th century has been receding

The history of the 20th century is often written as the struggle between: democracy and fascism, won through hard-fought battles in World War II; democracy and imperialism, settled through national liberation struggles intensifying after WWII; democracy and racial and social bigotry, enjoined with the civic movements gaining momentum in the 1960s; and democracy and communism, seemingly culminating with the collapse of the communist bloc and the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. A narrative of triumphalism arose in the 1990s, as if universal values now face no serious opposition and national interests could be tamed by pragmatic compromises. On the US side some pressed for more unilateralism as if that was optimal for US interests.

The pervasive feeling of triumphalism in the West was short-lived. At a minimum, six forces—some domestic and some foreign—could soon be observed posing a threat to democracy, with an increasingly powerful hybrid of the two gaining traction. They link interests and values. The former strives for greater power and wealth for one country at the expense of others, readily discarding multilateralism, while capitalizing on such forces as corruption, military clout, and asymmetrical economic dependency. As for the latter, it emerges from a cluster of values inimical to democracy, even threatening the ideological primacy of the national identity dimensions supportive of the US-led liberal, international order. After all, democracy is a cluster of values centered on the identity dimension of state-society relations but accentuated into the core of an ideology. This has had a powerful impact in forging a community of like-minded states, drawing some into alliances and encouraging others to alter their practices in light of this clear model.

Recently, democracy has fallen to a secondary priority, at best, in light of the different claims of national identity gaining ascendancy. Prominent now are civilizational claims rooted in religion, race, and nationality that have become weaponized against premises—many in constitutions—about state-society relations. Thus, universal values cannot be prioritized, impacting also the way national interests are being presented more narrowly. Demands to subordinate the means to the ends subvert the democratic processes, as a strong state inattentive to much of civil society is deemed better able to achieve the national identity goals that are manipulated to galvanize many people in their frustration.

A sour mood pervades Washington think tanks’ coverage of US foreign policy and North Korea, US commentaries on China, Japanese media coverage of the travails besetting their country, the Asan Plenum’s stark characterization of Korea’s choice, and US observers’ coverage of Sino-Russian relations. Is this attributed to newly worsening conditions that have brought national interests into more open and serious conflict or to spikes in national identity aroused by strong leaders resistant to universal values and multilateralism consistent with the liberal international order? Trump has turned much of US foreign policy on its head. Moon has made a fundamental change in the foreign policy of South Korea. Xi and Putin took office in 2012 with obvious determination to make their county’s foreign policy more assertive. However much some claim that one or another of these leaders has found a pathway more in keeping with basic national interests, the pattern in all cases is a far-reaching reconstruction of national identity. At various occasions, few suggested that Trump weighs national interests in much of his spontaneous decision-making, that Moon’s inclinations are sober calculations of the national interests, or that the democracies they represent lead voters to carefully assess interests rather than tugging them one way or another by targeted emotional appeals.

How can interests take center stage when the United States and South Korea are now riveted by values polarization? In the US in the aftermath of the Mueller Report, the president is viewed by most who follow national news and international relations as a narcissistic man of instincts, driven by value judgments from his past rather than by the usual array of intelligence briefings and policy deliberations. In South Korea, after the Hanoi summit, similarly informed observers view his outreach to Kim Jong-un as a gambit driven mostly by wishful thinking by someone whose values have been shaped outside mainstream national and international security circles. If diplomacy with Kim Jong-un to test his intentions is widely approved, the bypassing of diplomats to find a shortcut raises serious doubts about whether national interests are being well considered.

China, Russia, and North Korea share a desire to roll back democracy. Japan, South Korea, and the United States each have faced challenges in bilateral settings to their adherence to universal values and multilateral diplomacy. The way these alterations to values and interests have been playing out is the subject of the four articles that follow.

Scott Harold, “Winning the ideological competition with China”

What role do ideology and ideological competition play between the world’s most powerful liberal democracy and its most technologically-sophisticated communist dictatorship, and how might the US leverage its own identity and ideals to compete and win such a great power competition with China? Harold asks these questions, noting that not all observers see China as a threat to the liberal international order. They often start with the assumption that national interests are the predominant driving force in the Sino-US relationship, which leads to at least some degree of optimism that it can be managed in a conventional manner—fundamentally different than the way Soviet-US interests needed to be addressed. Not only are such observers dismissive of ideology, they are inclined to treat other values as of little consequence. National interests are, thus, not affected in any notable way by values embraced by a country’s leadership, it is assumed.

Abroad, Xi’s administration has sought to reinvigorate China’s ideological influence, rolling out ideas and normative positions to advance its vision of what the world should look like and how international relations should be conducted. In this perspective, global governance led by the West is “deteriorating” and should be replaced by the Chinese concept of a “community of common destiny.” Yet, Harold adds, despite the CCP’s renewed enthusiasm for ideological purity under Xi, China’s leaders have betrayed almost all the core values that the CCP leadership claimed conferred legitimacy on it at the time of the revolution. By the time Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” narrative of ‘national rejuvenation’ and martial glory had been announced, the transformation from a focus on class to a focus on nation had been completed. The identity variables showcased under Xi add up to an ideology centered on the nation.

The US must compete in the realm of ideas if it is to succeed in meeting the challenge posed by illiberal or authoritarian rivals such as China, warns Harold. That competition with China requires a vision of the norms, values, and regional order for which the US stands. For its part, the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy recognizes and tries to lay out a set of value and goals for the region focused on good governance, transparency, openness, the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms. This is a start, but also necessary, many experts have argued, is to strive to undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s unfounded historical claims, propaganda lines, and key policy initiatives. Weak claims China has tried to get the international community to accept as truth would seem to be prime candidates. This ideological competition plays on areas of known Chinese Communist weakness, whereas the United States is exceptionally well-placed to engage in debates over its history, with the recent Me Toomovement, the debate over Confederate statues, schools, and road names, and the growing call for a serious discussion of reparations to the descendants of slavery. They show American society’s dynamic ability to address past and present injustices. The competition needs to be joined of China versus the liberal international order centered around the United States and its allies and partners. In meeting the China challenge, the US will need to continue to articulate a compelling set of ideals and support norms and institutions, which embody beliefs that other nations find more appealing than China’s offer of low-cost technology and debt-financing, says Harold. 

Gilbert Rozman, “The Case of Japan under Abe Shinzo”
Abe Shinzo, who presented himself as the Japanese leader most committed to pursuing value-laden issues, became touted by 2019 as the one world leader in the caldron of Northeast Asia eschewing such issues for pragmatic pursuit of the national interest. Whether dealing with the leader of the United States, China, or Russia, Abe, without renouncing the symbols of his long-time values orientation, has established himself as the grown-up in the room. He has prioritized diplomacy, catered to the emotional whims of other leaders, and offered deals conducive to forward-leaning relations. Even in his handling of South Korea since the end of 2015, Abe has gained the upper hand as the pragmatist. Yet, the recent, rapid deterioration of Japan-ROK relations and even the perilous nature of Japan-US ties in light of Trump’s obsession about their unfairness raise questions about how Abe will continue to manage the nexus between interests and values in a difficult environment. Abe is bound to be tested anew in his final tenure.

Abe has reinvented himself as a pragmatist, intent on forging better relations with leaders regardless of their reputation, without renouncing his past as an ideologue, who has built his career on such emotional issues as the Japanese abductees assumed to still be in North Korea and the return of the Northern Territories. In 2012-14, when he had newly assumed the top post for a second time, his ideological side appeared to be in the forefront. More recently, the pragmatic side has garnered most attention. Abe has sought to bridge the two types of values. Straddling the divide between interests and values, increasingly his record as prime minister leans decisively to the side of national interests. Abe has a knack for linking strategic priorities to one or both sets of values, often shifting the emphasis while sticking to his policy direction. On his pursuit of Russia, the initial goal seemed to be fulfillment of the long-cherished dream of Japan recovering the Northern Territories. Gradually, however, that shifted to a secondary objective with more room for compromise, as the central aim was recast as limiting Russia’s tilt toward China. On China, Abe has straddled between championing the universalist initiative he had introduced, a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” targeted at constraining China’s hegemonic ambitions to the south, and seeking more cooperative economic relations and even agreeing to coordinate on China’s Belt and Road Initiative despite the fact that FOIP and BRI are competing, and some see hedging versus the US.

Of all of Abe’s challenges in combining interests and values, none has aroused such perplexity as his management of the relationship with South Korea, whether under conservative or, lately, progressive leadership. Historical memory, as in the “comfort women” issue, universal values, national defense, and liberal economic interests all figure into calculations about a relationship steeped in triangularity with the United States, North Korea, or China. Abe’s advocacy of values has not disappeared. His reputation, early visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, and framing of bilateral issues has kept his reputation as a champion of narrow national values alive. He compromises without relinquishing the symbols of his past boosterism. This requires treading a narrow line, as in the Abe Statement of August 2015, on the critical occasion of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in WWII and the loss of its empire in Asia. The US audience was mostly satisfied, the Chinese audience found few grounds for renewed anger, but there were few signs of concessions to Korean thinking, which satisfied Japanese hardliners even if it did nothing to advance reconciliation. At a time of sustained US pressure on Seoul to find a way to stop hammering Japan on the “comfort women” issue, Abe just four months later cut a deal on this sensitive issue without alienating his most fervent followers. The tenure of Moon Jae-in has put new stress on how to manage relations, combining historical revisionism and universal values on the one side, and bilateral or multilateral interests on the other. Japanese overreaction is possible, demonizing South Korea, rekindling “hate Korea” thinking, demanding retaliation in economic pullouts and decoupling, and showing no understanding for the other side. In the court of public opinion, Abe is largely spared blame, having cooled his rhetoric and signed the 2015 deal. The situation remains fluid, as the US stays on the sidelines despite the high stakes.

Editorial Staff, “Korea’s Choice: Synopsis of the Asan Plenum 2019”

The theme of this year’s Asan Plenum was Korea’s Choice, and the core of the choice perceived was between reaffirmation of the ROK-US alliance and prioritization of reunification with the long-separated northern part of the peninsula. For the first time in seven decades this choice had become a serious factor in Seoul’s diplomatic thinking, even if the alliance remains primary and wooing of Pyongyang has not defied sanctions.
Opinions reflect a state of pessimism about both the impact of domestic politics in each country on the environment for choosing and the state of diplomacy with North Korea and the wider Northeast Asia. Concern has been raised about the degree to which national interests are being pursued under the guidance of experts—whether officials steeped in security analysis or social scientists informed on regional affairs—or are being disregarded by the unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of the White House and Blue House respectively, while Kim Jong-un need heed nobody.

Relevant panels included: “Values or Interest?” “Nationalism or Internationalism?” “ROK-U.S. Alliance,” “US-Japan Alliance,” “Collective Memory or Collective Future?” “CVID or ‘Peaceful Coexistence?’” and “Is Democracy in Crisis?” There were also panels on “North Korea’s Choice: Nuclear Issue” and “North Korea’s Choice: Economic Reform.” Together, they offered a well-rounded approach to Korea’s Choice.

Realists who stress concrete security or economic interests are eclipsed in Washington, at least with the dominance of far-right unilateralists, and in Seoul, with the dominance of far-left progressives intent on resolving intra-Korean issues for identity reasons. The idealists, pacifists, and Asian regionalists prone to ignore hard facts about tensions have been replaced by a different breed of national identity boosters ready to strain alliances. This is the message that some observers took away from some of the panels listed above.

There is no trust in Japan’s recent claims to the mantle of values leader in a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Dropping human rights as a short-term concern in managing North Korea, Moon has moved further from universal values to national ones in his diplomacy.

The widening values gap and new confrontation between Washington and Beijing leaves Koreans, especially progressives, determined to stay on the sidelines. To the degree that this is the great power values divide of our times, replacing the “free world” versus communism, it prompts South Koreans to lean toward avoidance, opening more space for the choice of North Korea as a values target. China’s shift from national interests in the forefront under Deng Xiaoping to values, as if it can forge a “community of common destiny” not only with economic ties but with some degree of value agreement, also alienates South Koreans. Yet, Chinese insist that China respects value diversity as it does multiple economic models and that it is opposed to national identities hostile to regional multilateralism and globalization without acknowledging the opposite reality perceived
by others. By advocating that Seoul choose to be a bridge between China and the United States and keep its autonomous pursuit of Pyongyang despite US concerns, Chinese take a position on Korea’s Choice implicitly serving their own national interests.

Attentive to the widening Sino-US divide but wary of rhetoric that China is a revisionist power, some suggest that middle powers including South Korea band together and stand apart from the two combatants, striving to soften their contestation. This is based both on an impression that national interests overlap among these other states and that they are not entrapped by the national identity arguments of the two great powers. Thus, Korea has a choice, which is manifest not only in its divergence from the US in North Korean diplomacy but also in its role in regional diplomacy, remaining at a distance from the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy and from the potential US-Japan push for alliance trilateralism in Northeast Asia or the regional Quad. So far, however, suggestions that middle powers can promote values or serve as a bridge between China and the US fly in the face of these great powers not wanting to listen and the urgency of the North Korean nuclear crisis, which leaves little room for other themes to gain headway. At present, trade is also divisive, as the Sino-US divide is playing out first on that ominous front.

With democracy, South Korea became a model for the world, soon backed by the global aura of its K-drama and K-pop. “Global Korea” further boosted Korea’s positive image as a contributor to the liberal international order. Yet, the weight of internationalism was not as great as many said, especially for many left behind in society. Distrust of the US, as if it was in Korea for selfish motives, was one sign. Refusal to focus on Japan’s place in the liberal order rather than its pre-1945 history was another. Reunification as a boost to nationalism was a third sign. Whenever the North opened the door to diplomacy, the response would test the degree of internationalism, although, so far, only within limits.

Editorial Staff, “The Case of Sino-Russian Relations in the US Shadow”

The triangle of Beijing, Moscow, and Washington has been of the utmost consequence over the past seven decades and promises to be so in the coming decade. Whether the focus be the spread of communism across the globe, the breakdown of the communist bloc, or the victory of the US-led world order, this triangle and its components have continuously served as the principal test for anyone daring enough to predict the future in geopolitics on an international scale. On matters of global ideology, strategic arms, and spheres of influence, these three powers stand at the forefront. Drawing lessons from repeated historical shifts, Rozman’s article puts the forces driving Moscow and Beijing at the center of attention while looking ahead to the coming decade of the 2020s with an eye to the balance of values and interests in setting the future course in a triangular context.

Two types of values are differentiated in this analysis: universal values and national identities. The former was anathema to the traditional communist regimes in Beijing and Moscow, and in the era of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin they have regained that clear, irredeemable stigma. Resistance to the danger of democratization, rule of law, and human rights spreading in their countries keeps appearing as a shared objective influencing the relationship. Meanwhile, the highly charged role of a dogmatic ideology dominating in national identities has been replaced by multi-dimensional identity construction amenable to Sino-Russian relations. Ironically, narrow orthodoxy overlapping in many respects about the pillars of communism made agreement on national identity aspirations nearly impossible, while diverse identity themes with varied areas of overlap make it compelling.

If one were to take a realist perspective on possible threats in an indeterminate future, then China and Russia would be doubtful cases for a close relationship in the current period. They overlap in the residue of socialist ideology, in historical thinking on the negative impact of the West, in demonization of Western civilization, in rejection of civil society, and in opposition to the liberal international order. Values drive coordination. The decade of triangularity most similar to the emerging pattern is the 1980s. The Sino-Russian relationship of the 2020s would, accordingly, resemble the Sino-US relationship of the 1980s. It promises to be strategically close on the surface without a lot of depth behind it, but only to a slight degree tested by Russo-US diplomatic overtures to each other as Sino-US relations set the main direction for the coming decade. The chance of a Chinese Gorbachev—the hated target of heated Chinese invectives for three decades—is close to zero, making a turnabout highly unlikely. In a likely strategic reaffirmation after Trump, a US turnabout to woo Putin or Xi is also highly improbable. A Putin defection from China might appear possible, as could have occurred in the 1980s with a Chinese defection from the US, but, as argued below, the chance is even lower for that to occur.

Putin’s Russia in the 2020s has, according to this framework, more reasons to stick with China than did Chinese leaders to stick with the United States four decades earlier. US national identity underscored by criticism of Russian sharp power interference and its international support for “rogue” regimes, such as in Venezuela and Syria, poses a far greater challenge to Moscow than did Soviet national identity to Deng’s China once Deng had broken with Mao’s ideological legacy. For an energy exporting state, today’s energy-rich US lacks appeal, as the Soviet Union lacked appeal for Deng’s China, but US leverage over the global financial system could change the calculus if Xi Jinping does not follow the US example in the 1980s of finding increasing ways of holding a partner’s interest. Of all factors that might keep Beijing and Moscow close, none may supersede calculations of the balance of power: In the 1980s, Beijing prioritized the Soviet threat along its border, but that faded quickly. In the 2020s we can expect Russia to keep prioritizing the US opposition to its annexation of Crimea and US pressure on Russian policy toward Ukraine as well as to other former Soviet republics and allies. The strategic case for Russia sustaining firm geopolitical opposition to the US is much stronger than it was for China to maintain its anti-Moscow position. And China is intent on this outcome.

Over the past three decades, the Sino-Russian-US strategic triangle has shifted continuously in the direction of a stronger Sino-Russian nexus with deeper cleavages repeatedly emerging in the ties of both with the United States. The 1950s precedent is a poor model for today when ideology is less significant, dependency less pronounced, and levels of economic integration far greater. Yet, in comparison to all later decades, the national identity overlap of Beijing and Moscow is rising to a level second only to the 1950s. The 1960s with one party isolated does not serve as a model, and the 1970s does only insofar as two parties joined versus a third but does not given the absence of national identity overlap or meaningful economic ties. The 1990s saw suppressed affinity due to calculations in Beijing and Moscow of urgent economic requirements. Incipient tendencies in the 2000s are better revealed in the 2010s, which appear headed to fuller expression in the 2020s. In the 1980s we can identify the most parallels to the outcome of these tendencies without positing a turnabout similar to what occurred under Gorbachev.

Studies of the history of the Cold War find the impact of values so overwhelming that national interests were left on the sidelines by Beijing and Moscow to their deep, later regret. Claims by both Moscow and Beijing over the past quarter century to be building a relationship based only on national interests defy evidence in plain sight. Throughout both periods, Washington looms high over this bilateral relationship. Values again take precedence over interests in ties between Moscow and Beijing.