The six countries of Northeast Asia are led by leaders known for their assertiveness. This forum excludes the two who are most bellicose: Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. Despite some claims at times that they could be swayed to make a deal, their inclination to resort to provocations is no longer in doubt. Abe Shinzo spent years wooing Putin in the hope that he would forsake a threatening posture. Moon Jae-in devoted his foreign policy in 2018-19 to trying to persuade Kim that he could gain stability and prosperity by agreeing to denuclearize. Now, it can only be assumed that both Putin and Kim will eschew a pathway to regional cooperation unless they are successful in their far-reaching geopolitical objectives. That leaves the other four leaders in the Northeast Asian diplomatic caldron challenged to work together or go their separate ways. Given their own assertiveness, coordination is proving difficult. All four—Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, Abe Shinzo, and Moon Jae-in—have striven to transform the regional order, and today, in the face of a region being pushed toward confrontation, must decide how vigorously to proceed. It is their recent assertiveness that is the shared subject covered in the following four articles.

As we enter the 2020s, the patterns of the previous three postwar decades are not replicable. In the 1990s, unipolarity failed to secure Northeast Asia despite Russia’s marginality in a slump and North Korea’s isolation amidst famine. China bided its time with limited cooperation, Japan was blinded by the illusion of its leadership through regionalism, South Korea diversified its ties in pursuit of an appeal to North Korea for a path to reunification, and the United States thought it could convince China through globalization with US allies falling in line. The decade ended with Seoul doubling down on its overtures through the Sunshine Policy, Tokyo still committed to regionalism albeit with more uncertainty after the Asian financial crisis, and Beijing edging toward more activism with upgraded ties to Moscow and quiet but real support for Pyongyang.

The decade of the 2000s brought a more competitive atmosphere behind the façade of joint support for the Six-Party Talks and ASEAN centrality without direct challenges to US leadership by any of the four. North Korea grew provocative, including nuclear tests. Russia grew confident from its oil and gas bonanza, unafraid to antagonize the US, which was sidetracked by the “war against terror” from prioritizing this region. Japan edged toward competition with China, aiming to promote open regionalism with the US presence, but rapid leadership turnover rendered it inactive. South Korea was on a quixotic course to both lure the North and gain autonomy from the US. With the rise of Xi Jinping to the Political Standing Committee and the US comeuppance in Iraq and the global financial crisis, China was moving toward activism and bypassing regional multilateralism. This was seen in more support for North Korea despite its abandonment of the Six-Party Talks, closer ties to Russia despite Russian hesitation over reverse engineering of arms and fear of economic integration, and barely disguised pressure against Japan. The initiative was in the hands of China, hostile toward Obama’s idea of cooperating and restoring alliances.

Putin, Abe, and Xi gained their positions at roughly the same time, early in the 2010s, and left no doubt that they would strike a more assertive course. Abe chose to break with the US in his wooing of Putin, and Park Geun-hye distanced herself from the US by pursuing a “honeymoon” with Xi. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un failed to give any satisfaction to Xi, while Xi was trying to lure Obama into a division of spheres of influence down the Pacific. Thus, Xi’s first term coinciding largely with Obama’s second term saw Xi hesitant about Putin’s and Kim’s tactics, while the US and its two allies were cautious about responding to growing signs of destabilization and even polarization. The real impact of regional assertiveness waited until the second half of the 2010s.  

As the following four articles make clear, the mirage of cooperation over North Korea, which had shifted to a diplomatic track in 2018, could not obscure the way leaders were forcing deep and destabilizing changes in Northeast Asia. Every bilateral relationship has been driven in the direction of polarization with the odd exception of Sino-Japanese relations, where economics and summitry are, at the moment, out of step with geopolitics. Xi has punished and threatened Moon, cajoled and successfully pressured Putin, and stood his ground against Trump. Trump has antagonized and tried to pressure Xi, while disrupting ties to Moon and even toward Abe, who had humiliated himself to keep Trump happy. If Trump’s rhetoric toward Putin and Kim are often at odds with the deepening bilateral gaps, it is necessary to look beyond his warm words. Moon and Abe have failed to defy ongoing trends, leaving their countries regionally isolated, as they engage in a bilateral trade war, while public distrust reigns toward the regional aggressors.

We open with Jude Blanchette on Xi’s impact on foreign relations affecting the region, turn next to Scott Harold’s coverage of Trump’s impact, shift to Glenn Fukushima’s take on Abe’s influence and finally present Chung Min Lee’s treatment of Moon’s leadership effect. There is little indication here of leaders making pragmatic decisions conducive to regional peace, as each is obsessed with an approach catering to the longstanding political instincts of an aroused base. The kind of assertiveness observed to date is seen as spelling trouble ahead.

Jude Blanchette, “The Case of Xi Jinping”

While we have become accustomed to discussing all that is different under Xi’s rule compared to previous Chinese leaders—from the extreme centralization of political power and decision-making at home, to the more “aggressive” behavior abroad as exemplified by the militarization of the South China Sea—Blanchette argues that the view of the leader’s impact on the PRC under Xi Jinping has swung too far. Rather, she suggests his actions are in keeping with long-standing priorities of the CCP dating back to the late-1970s. Xi’s own style of leadership and vision for China are undoubtedly important, but an over-estimation of his singular role in forming China’s evolving grand strategy and implementing its foreign policy will leave foreign capitals disoriented when they confront challenges that persist beyond his reign. Like Deng Xiaoping, Xi stressed that China was experiencing a period of systemic volatility and risk, or what he called “profound changes unseen in the world in a century,” requiring a “high degree of consistency within the Party’s Central Committee in its ideological and political operations to ensure strict obedience and unified action.” Xi shared Deng’s vision to build “a modern, powerful socialist country,” albeit under a slightly different, even older formulation: The “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Rather than just a vague or inchoate slogan, the idea of “national rejuvenation” would come to serve as the lodestar for both foreign and domestic policy, with its final objective being national prosperity and dominant military strength under the socialist system by 2049.

China’s ideological underpinnings were kept at bay so long as the US-led economic order dominated, but as soon as cracks appeared, voices emerged within China’s political system calling for a new world order. The final blow against Deng’s “low profile” consensus followed Obama’s announcement of the US “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific in the fall of 2011. By 2011-12, the CCP was feeling confident about its economic and military capabilities, and better able to deal with possible increased US involvement in what it saw as China’s backyard. When Xi fully ascended to power in November 2012, elite domestic rhetoric in favor of a more aggressive foreign policy was already observable. The domestic discussion was less focused on maintaining the posture of “hiding one’s brightness and biding one’s time”; instead it revolved around seizing the initiative and “striving for achievement.”  Unlike previous leaders, Xi raced ahead.

2013 was a year of far-reaching change in China’s foreign affairs. This was an astounding pace of events for a new general secretary, most of whom typically spend their first five-year term consolidating power and purging rivals so that their second term can be spent driving policy and cementing their legacy. Xi was a leader chosen by the Party elite to ride a wave of rising Chinese confidence to address long-standing challenges, but also to re-draw and reconstruct the global order to better accommodate China’s continued rise and long-term success. He is playing an entirely different game from his predecessors as in his drive to centralize foreign policy decision-making – indeed, all policy decision-making – to a degree not seen in PRC history. This trend reached its apogee in March 2018 at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, at which the Xi administration unveiled a wide-reaching bureaucratic restructuring that left no part of China’s political system untouched. Of central importance was the upgrading of the Central Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs to become the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, giving the body vast new and direct powers over China’s foreign policy apparatus, with Xi serving as the commission’s chair. Xi’s inclinations have only been strengthened since the election of the trade protectionist Donald Trump and the UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union in 2016. The list of institutions China claims to have created or co-created to benefit “mankind” by filling the perceived “governance deficit” is long, including the AIIB, the BRICS bank, and the BRI. However, they have all, in their own way, been controversial, and at times, China’s efforts to draw its neighbors and developing countries closer into its embrace have been undercut by competing geostrategic, economic, and territorial aspirations.

While many foreign analysts describe China’s grand strategy and its resulting foreign policy as primarily defensive, as an attempt to make the world “safe for autocracy,” this view is at odds with how many elite foreign policy voices within China view the country’s place in the world, and it is also at odds with how Xi Jinping sees the world. Xi’s worldview – indeed the Party’s worldview – is imbued with confidence about China’s continued rise and its role in shaping the global order of the 21st century. China under Xi careens ahead, overflowing with confidence and convinced that the global order is tipping – as if by iron historical law – back towards the East.

Scott W. Harold, “The Case of Donald Trump”

Harold highlights four key changes in US regional policy under Trump: 1) a more competitive framework for describing how it sees China; 2) greater pressure on allies, pushing them hard on contributions and trade, even as there are sources of continuity and arenas of new or expanded cooperation; 3) a shift in tone and optics toward Taiwan; and 4) a fundamental change towards North Korea, permitting Seoul and Pyongyang greater sway in setting goals and timelines and shaping narratives. Trump mistrusts China and US allies and has not been hesitant to approach both Taiwan and North Korea in a novel manner despite the sensitivity of policies toward both.

The first change reflected a mistrust of China over its rampant intellectual property theft; doubts about China’s sincerity in seeking the denuclearization of North Korea and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; skepticism over global warming and the merits of working with China to address it; and suspicions that China would simply pocket any form of cooperation on any issue and go on doing just as it planned to do anyhow. The Trump administration has adopted a view of the international environment characterized by a return to great power competition, with China as the leading rival to the postwar order. To compete with China it has undertaken a number of steps, including articulating a framework and goal of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”; reestablishing a Quadrilateral Dialogue mechanism with Australia, India, and Japan as one avenue along which to advance its vision; and renaming U.S. Pacific Command as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) to reflect a greater prioritization on cooperation with India. There is also enhanced screening of Chinese foreign direct investment through the 2017 Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRMMA) that reformed the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). Additionally, the administration has sought to push Huawei and ZTE out of US networks, supply chains, and markets. USINDOPACOM has been authorized to increase the number and publicity of its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, as well as the number of transits it makes of the Taiwan Strait. Harold depicts a wide range of changes in US policy toward China.

He also notes challenges the US has faced, as some allies and partners have been reluctant to confront China as fulsomely as Washington would like, while others have expressed concerns that they will be pushed to block Huawei only to find that the US has itself reversed course. As for the second change, Harold mentions that complicating plans have been tensions stemming from the administration’s decision to treat some of these same partners as economic competitors and to push them aggressively over host-nation support (HNS) funding. It has been criticized by some observers for failing to assemble a broad coalition, even for creating a “perfect storm” in which the US–ROK alliance, and as a consequence, US national security could become casualties. Also, the US image has declined substantially across key countries in the Indo-Pacific.

Harold then addresses the third change, noting that the optics with Taiwan since late 2016 have been almost uniformly positive and clear. Continued arms sales to Taiwan, authorizing not only the sale of 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger surface-to-air missiles, but also up to 66 F-16V fighter jets, as well as regular sail-throughs of the Taiwan Strait by the U.S. Navy may have encouraged other nations, such as France, to transit those waters with their own vessels, thereby signaling to Beijing that intimidation of Taiwan and attempts to privatize international bodies of water will not succeed. How far the administration will be willing to go in developing ties with Taipei is not clear, but the door has certainly been opened to more fulsome contacts. 

Finally, on the fourth change, he finds that no progress on denuclearization has been achieved, but the North has been able to gain valuable time, capture the prestige of three summits (a later, brief meeting occurred at the demilitarized zone separating North and South), and achieve space for developing and testing advanced conventional weapons such as a super-large rocket launcher.
Subsequent administrations will face a more capable North Korean military with a less well-prepared US–ROK alliance, but with somewhat greater economic leverage and a knowledge that the Guerrilla Dynasty, as long suspected, has no intention of ever abandoning its “treasured sword,” is willing to employ its chemical weapons overseas, and is continuing to develop its “all-purpose sword” of cyber tools.

The article concludes that the Trump administration’s first three years have clearly resulted in a substantial evolution of US policy toward the Indo-Pacific. With adversaries such as China and North Korea, confrontation and even possible conflict have at times appeared closer. With allies, the break with tradition has at times played to their preferences, enabling Seoul to take the lead on engagement with Pyongyang or Tokyo to conclude that the US is moving more forcefully to confront the China challenge, though they also worry that Washington might cut a deal at their expense or even abandon them. Taipei has been glad for the greater implicit promise of the TAA and TRIA as well as the substantial arms deals and the diplomatic support. Whether Trump is reelected or replaced, the challenges of a more powerful, authoritarian, and aggressive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea remain unresolved amid new uncertainties about allies.

Glen S. Fukushima, “The Case of Abe Shinzo”

Fukushima observes that for the past seven years Japan has had one prime minister, supported by Suga Yoshihide, who also assumed office in December 2012 and by July 2016 had become the longest-serving chief cabinet secretary and in many respects the power behind the throne, protecting Abe and enforcing discipline and continuity across successive cabinets. The pendulum has swung to such an extent away from bureaucratic leadership that power is now more fully centralized in the Kantei than at any time since the end of WWII. Among the lessons Abe learned from his first time at the top was the need for the prime minister to exercise control: to monitor and shape the environment to the benefit and advantage of himself and the party in power, including information, as collected, disseminated, and explained by the mass media under government pressure and restrictions on information access justified on national security grounds.

A second important element for Abe to shape was the academic narrative on Japan, including especially its role before and during WWII. A third method of shaping the environment is to control the career path of senior government bureaucrats. In 2014, Abe established a Personnel Affairs Bureau in the Cabinet Office, which allows him to control more than 600 bureaucratic appointments, three times the previous number and more prone simply to follow orders from their political bosses than to ask questions, challenge, or undertake policy initiatives. A fourth method of control is to increase the number of “political appointees” assigned to the government ministries to ensure that these ministries adhere faithfully to the Kantei’s policy line. Finally, Abe has strengthened enormously the power of the Kantei by hiring numerous political allies as “advisors,” “special advisors,” and “deputy special advisors” to assume policymaking positions,
most famous among them is Imai Takaya, long-time confidant of Abe who is credited with playing a key role in policies toward China, Russia, North Korea, and the United States, at times diverging from policies recommended by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The NSC now has a staff of over 60 officials, primarily seconded from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense. However, a recent reorganization of the NSC has resulted in expanding the personnel and authority of the organization to encompass issues of economic security.

By shaping the media reporting and academic discourse, by controlling the career path of senior government bureaucrats, by imposing more political appointees on government agencies, and by strengthening the Kantei through adding both individual hires and institutional functions, Abe has succeeded in creating a “presidential” prime minister in Japan, where power is consolidated in the Kantei. This is the context to understand Abe’s leadership in international affairs in Asia.

Fukushima asks whether his nationalist leanings and revisionist views of history would dominate or his realism would take over, answering that, over seven years, he has attempted to do both and with a measure of success. But Abenomics has not met the goal of curbing deflation or raising wages, and Abe’s top priorities—negotiating the return of the Northern Territories and a peace treaty with Russia, securing the return of Japanese abductees from North Korea and signing a peace treaty with the DPRK, and revising the Constitution—remain unfulfilled.

The continuity, stability, and experience reflected in Abe’s tenure means that he is able to claim the status of “senior global statesman,” something few Japanese prime ministers could claim. It allows him to assert—at least to a Japanese audience—that he is the foreign leader most trusted and sought after as an advisor on issues of foreign policy by none other than Trump. It leads some observers (curiously, not many in Japan) to place high expectations on Abe to assert leadership to preserve and promote the liberal international order. Yet, in the view of many Japanese, Abe is the right person at the right time to be their prime minister. With Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Trump in the United States, the rise of populist and nationalist parties and politicians around the world, and the need to stand up to autocratic and dictatorial leaders, who can best represent Japan on the world stage, possessing the combination of fortitude, determination, guile, and chutzpah to “handle” the likes of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Erdoğan, Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, and Narendra Modi?

Given the importance of the United States to Japan since the end of WWII, it is not surprising that one of the criteria by which Japanese evaluate their prime minister is how well he “manages and handles” the American president. The role models to emulate were Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and his “Ron-Yasu” relationship with President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and his “Junichiro-George” relationship with President George W. Bush in the early 2000s. Abe has joined this pantheon of legends. With Trump focusing on short-term “deals,” e.g., casino concessions, arms sales, and agricultural sales that can help him capture votes from the heartland of America in the 2020 presidential election, Abe is plotting a long-term strategy of how best to use Trump for his own and Japan’s advantage. 

Trump’s trade war with China is clearly benefiting Japan.  If US-China relations were amicable and cooperative, China and the United States would be embracing each other. Demonizing China, Trump has forced Xi Jinping to seek friends and allies other than the US. Warming between Japan and China would not have been possible without the anti-China rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration. Also, Trump’s warm relationship with Putin means that Abe has wide room to maneuver and to pursue his Russia initiative without US opposition, even if Putin shows no interest of late in finding common ground with Abe, let alone making a deal on territory.

Abe has been skillful in cultivating close relationships with world leaders, including those generally considered to be strongmen or dictatorial—including Putin, Erdoğan, Duterte, Modi, and Trump. (He also has capitalized on Xi’s eagerness for a resumption of normal relations, including summits which show Abe in the role of a statesman.) Coupled with his desire to raise Japan’s visibility in the world, this has resulted in it being perceived as playing a more prominent global role than at any time since the bubble period of the 1980s. In the most striking case of a bad relationship with a foreign leader, Abe has gone on the offensive against Moon Jae-in, seizing upon the deep unpopularity of South Korean policies to reassure the Japanese people that there is a way to strike back and prove that Japan is no longer a passive player. Abe’s three stated policy priorities—revising the Constitution, resolving the Northern Territories issue with Russia and concluding a peace treaty, and bringing home the abductees from North Korea and concluding a peace treaty—are not likely to see success in the near term.  His supporters might argue that precisely because these tasks remain unrealized, Abe should be given a fourth term.

Chung Min Lee, “The Case of Moon Jae-in”

In his obsession with North Korea, Moon has followed a narrow and dangerous foreign policy alley, Chung Min Lee argues. Convinced that an irreversible reset must be put into place between the two Koreas during his single, five-year term, Moon has placed the highest priority in forging a “permanent peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula and remains confident that his unparalleled détente with Kim Jong-un will usher in a new era in inter-Korean and US-North Korea relations. Moon has pushed inter-Korean détente to the forefront. More than any other leftist or progressive leader since democratization in 1987, he has advocated making unparalleled progress with North Korea as the centerpiece of his national security agenda. While Moon has also launched his New Southern Policy strengthening ties with ASEAN as a major foreign policy initiative, virtually every aspect of his foreign policy has centered on pushing South-North reconciliation to new heights. His US and China policies have been subordinated to this goal.

The prevailing logic in Moon’s North Korea policy is to guarantee North Korea’s security so that Kim will be compelled to denuclearize. He has done everything in his power to bolster Kim’s security, obsessed with building a peace regime. South Korea’s progressives have argued for decades that bringing about genuine peace on the peninsula must begin with the signing of a permanent peace treaty followed by arms control between the two Koreas. The critical roadblock for ensuring genuine peace on the peninsula is the continued stationing of US forces and the “imposition” of a US nuclear umbrella. Thus, such an obsession opens the door to North Korea pressing for changes in the alliance that would lead to the weakening of South Korea’s defense. While it is nearly impossible to imagine that Kim Jong-un would ever consider giving up his nuclear weapons or other WMD assets, he could lure South Korea as well as an American government that places the highest priority on denuclearizing North Korea into steps to significantly weaken the ROK’s defense capabilities and a promise that the US would draw down its military commitment, including a gradual removal of the US nuclear umbrella. What makes this scenario more plausible, at least in bits and pieces, is the fundamentally erratic nature of Trump’s North Korea policy and his deeply imbedded mistrust of US allies.

There is a “strategic alignment” between Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and Moon Jae-in. All three leaders are seeking to reset security conditions on the Korean Peninsula that cater to their core interests. But what Trump has done since he entered office in January 2017 is to blur the raison d’etre of the US-ROK alliance. Meanwhile, Moon downplays the range of threats flowing from North Korea, putting priority on sustaining inter-Korean dialogue and South-North détente despite North Korea’s unchanging military posture.

For South Korea, putting almost all of its security eggs in the North Korea basket means that there will be no credible leverage against growing Chinese power in and around the Korean Peninsula. Together with a weakened ROK-US alliance and politicized threat assessment in South Korea, China’s expanding military shadow in Northeast Asia portends negative consequences for the ROK’s longer-term security posture. As China’s leverage continues to grow towards the two Koreas on account of Beijing’s ongoing support for Pyongyang, amid weakening of the ROK-US alliance due to Trump’s erratic Korea policy and the Moon administration’s own tilt towards China, the ROK’s key leverage flowing from its alliance with the United States is also likely to decline. Consequential for Kim is the fact that so long as China remains stalwart in its support for North Korea and believes that a nuclearized North Korea is preferable than a reunified peninsula under the auspices of the ROK, there is virtually zero possibility of Xi Jinping cutting off life support for the Kim regime. Notwithstanding South Korea’s growing economic and political ties with China and Beijing’s increasing leverage, China does not trust South Korea, which remains a key US ally. Given the expanding US-China competition, it remains in China’s interests to make sure that South Korea is decoupled from the United States.

Trump’s dangerous outreach to Kim combined with Moon’s relentless détente with North Korea has coincided with China’s sustained increase in power projection capabilities. Indeed, one of the most negative side effects arising from a bad nuclear deal between Trump and Kim is that it could lead to a gradual reduction in US forces and shifting strategic priorities such as limiting the introduction of US strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, including bombers and aircraft carriers, on an ad-hoc basis. If such a trend were to materialize, China would gain critical dividends. A new Trump-Kim deal could also accelerate Moon’s desire to put into place an “irreversible peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula such as the signing of a peace treaty, a full reversion of wartime operational control (OPCON) to the ROK, and possibly, a conventional arms reduction roadmap that could include a gradual removal of the USFK.

Trump’s highly inconsistent comments on allies having nuclear weapons, his fierce opposition to joint US-ROK exercises as war games that he deems too expensive and dangerous, and incessant pressure on South Korea (and Japan) to significantly increase their host nation support defense costs all combined to send extremely mixed messages to Kim Jong-un. Kim understands Trump’s psychology of wanting a major breakthrough with North Korea to burnish his foreign policy credentials in the critical November 2020 re-election. If Trump meets Kim, especially before the April 2020 South Korean National Assembly elections, it would provide a major political boost to Moon and the ruling Democratic Party by re-emphasizing the importance of normalizing ties between the US and North Korea. Moreover, if Kim really wanted to provide Moon with a major windfall, he would agree to a pathbreaking visit to Seoul in the spring 2020.