Introduction to Topics of the Month

Topics of the Month is the Asan Forum’s venue for sustained discussion about three themes on international relations in the Asia-Pacific chosen for their significance, timeliness, and need for closer scrutiny. In addition to the mid-month statements by three specialists who follow their topic closely, early each month we will circulate responses by informed commentators, often with different points of view. The plan is normally to pursue each topic for six months through back-and-forth exchanges.

In Topics of the Month, we seek an organized discussion oriented to readers who follow developments in the region closely. We are inviting additional experts to respond to the statements, followed by statements the next month that take these responses into account. Informed readers who would like to become respondents are welcome to contact the e-mail address listed herein. To join the discussion, submit your comments by the end of the month. We plan to limit the number and length of responses in order to keep the discussion concise, civil, and on a high plane. Exchanges on the Internet have a tendency to sprawl out of control, taxing the patience of many readers. We seek a managed discussion useful in informing us all.

Each topic is also the subject of one article in the Open Forum section of the bi-monthly journal. In the July/August issue we carry three such articles, which provide more extended treatment of each topic and serve as background for following the monthly statements. The discussion leader writes the article and the statements as well as helps to choose respondents and reflects on their views in subsequent postings.

For the first round we have selected as our three themes: the “China Dream” widely touted by President Xi Jinping since he became party leader in late 2012; US-South Korea relations after the alliance’s sixtieth anniversary in search of meaning for the concept of a “strategic alliance”; and Japan-Russia relations in the aftermath of the Abe-Putin summit on April 30, 2013. A brief introduction to the choice of these themes follows before the initial statements of our three discussion leaders. If they appear provocative, this is what is intended, as long as arguments are based on the fullest and latest information, in order to stimulate a lively and sustained discussion.

The China Dream

Since President Xi Jinping embraced the theme of the “China Dream” in late 2012, it has come to symbolize the renewal of ideology in a clearly rejuvenated China. As we take a closer look at how the term has been used and interpreted, we also can delve more closely into how it fits into the recent Chinese narrative about national identity. Xi’s presentation of it is embedded in a wider discussion that has great bearing on Chinese foreign policy. Observers differ in the way they see such terms influencing relations with other countries, in no small part because there is a dearth of analysis that puts the “China Dream” discourse into this broader context.

Closely following how this theme is used by Chinese leaders and debated in Chinese publications opens a window on how the narrative about China’s place in the world is changing. Keeping close watch on this issue, including on how leaders explain the “China Dream” in their meetings with foreign leaders, Ming Wan is our guide over the coming months. In this first installment, he draws attention to the fact that this theme is presented differently to foreign and domestic audiences.

The ROK-US Alliance

In the first issue of the Asan Forum we post a synopsis of the June conference held in Washington, DC in connection with the sixtieth anniversary of the alliance. This reflects both glowing tributes to what the alliance has accomplished and sober warnings about the challenges that lie ahead. Over the past five years this alliance has reached new heights, confirming assumptions about its rosy future. Rather than simply taking them for granted, we plan to bring them into the open and see how they stand the test of close scrutiny at a time of flux in Northeast Asia. In the wake of the June summits of Xi Jinping with Obama and Park, what new challenges should we expect? In aspiring to a “strategic alliance,” what options are available to leaders in Seoul and Washington? These questions will drive the discussions that lie ahead.

Leading our examination of the alliance between South Korea and the United States is Choi Kang, who in the government and now as vice president of the Asan Institute has followed this relationship closely. In his opening statement, he indicates how he plans to analyze the alliance, identifying issues critical to sustaining it in new times.

Japan-Russian Relations

There may be no topic that produces a wearier feeling of deja vu than Japan-Russia relations. On the Russian side, when the subject is broached one is met with yawns. Distrust in Japan is so strong that even normally pragmatic respondents say they will not even think about this issue and see no reason for their government to do so until Japan’s prime minister states openly that a compromise on the islands is acceptable. Arguing that Russia today is in a much stronger position, many take the attitude that there is no need to bother with Japan. On the Japanese side, even some pragmatists doubt that Vladimir Putin is willing to return any of the islands, while many others interpret his call for a “win-win” outcome and “hikiwake” (a judo term for a draw) to be no more than an effort to lure Japan into the deal it has refused in the past: Two, small islands in return for a peace treaty and final settlement of the dispute. No strategic gains seem possible given Putin’s commitment to relations with China. Skepticism is compounded by doubts that Abe Shinzo, with his strong credentials as a revisionist, would abandon a primary symbol of past humiliation.

In the face of apparent hopelessness on both sides, Abe and Putin called for vigorous efforts by their respective ministries of foreign affairs to reach agreement. Rather than ignoring this apparent breakthrough after more than a decade of recent stalemate, those of us who closely follow international relations in Northeast Asia should take a closer look. We are guided by Togo Kazuhiko, who has played the lead role as a diplomat and academic in efforts to overcome the Russo-Japanese divide.