The Pivot vs. the “Progressives”

For more than a decade the two most divisive issues in East Asia have been the gap over how to deal with: 1) the Sino-US relationship and which side is responsible for damaging it and endangering regional stability; and 2) North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile threats and how best to resolve them. In recent commentaries we find misleading talk of both China’s limited aspirations as if it is not a communist-led state and the heir to two millennia of sinocentrism, and of five versus one support for denuclearization, ignoring clashing thinking about the path to denuclearization, e.g., for regional security and a process that could lead to reunification. In 2016, the agreement of the five parties and the UN Security Council on resolution 2270 raised hopes that, at last, the sanctions against North Korea would be severe and implemented in an uncompromising manner. Yet, the split between South Korean conservatives, Japan, and the United States, on one side, and South Korean progressives, China, and Russia, on the other, has come more into the open. It is now symbolized by differences over Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), military exercises, conditions for resuming the Six-Party Talks, and timing the pursuit of a peace regime or a freeze in nuclear weapons programs and signs of genuine denuclearization. At the heart of the split on both issues is divergence in perceptions of the US “pivot” to Asia, i.e., how Washington deals with and should deal with China and North Korea bilaterally or in a regional context. New sources help us to grasp both sides of this irreconcilable division, which continues to intensify.

The man oft-credited with being the hands-on architect of the US pivot to Asia, Kurt Campbell, has set forth his arguments in a new book, both defending US policy and proposing where it should be heading.1 Korean progressives, Chinese, and Russian authors have also been asserting views on US policy and how it should change toward Northeast Asia.2 Juxtaposing Campbell’s arguments (which acquire greater immediacy because he was chosen by Hillary Clinton, developed his approach under her, and stands for proposals that might again become a blueprint for US policy) with a range of insights from the camp of “progressives” offers clarity into how a polarized debate over the Sino-US divide, North Korea, and alliances versus security multipolarity is unfolding. These ideas appear widely; so we do not cite progressive sources nor provide references to Campbell.

The aim here is a point-by-point contrast, reflecting what US policy really is and the reasons for it and assessing how the progressives are opposing it. At the root of analysis is the finding that behind the facade of five countries agreeing on appeals to denuclearize, there are two fundamentally different approaches to how the North Korean challenges should be met, and that, in 2016, rather than a consensus building on the Security Council resolution 2270, the US-led coalition is determined to make sanctions so onerous that North Korea is pressured to yield, while those on the other side are insistent that the next steps should be incentives to the North that lead to resumption of the Six-Party Talks and toward a regional security framework distinctive from the US hub and spokes system.

Campbell’s book stresses challenges on the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait as well as US relations with Japan, South Korea, and China. Although it overlooks Russia, this does little to undercut the case Campbell makes or the comprehensiveness of his look at the pivot. Our effort to interpret the book does not do justice to the breadth of its analysis. The counter arguments to Campbell vary with their place of origin—each showcasing national themes. In this article, we highlight the sharp contrasts over Sino-US relations and the Korean Peninsula, which have brought out most vividly clashing assumptions between US arguments represented by Campbell and the contrasting arguments, whether from South Korean progressives, Chinese, or Russian analysts. A separate approach to differentiate these three sources is desirable, but given the high degree of overlap in recent arguments of the three, it is not essential now.

Above all, this clash of perspectives is about the meaning of the US “pivot” to Asia. Is it a reaffirmation, in new conditions, of the historic principles of a role that has been vital to regional stability and prosperity or an impediment to the natural course of a region now finding its way to its own architecture? There is a fundamental divide on this point. Are US objectives in East Asia and on the Korean Peninsula conducive to regional stability or is the intent to enable the extension of the US presence and regime change on the Korean Peninsula in a manner that would cause an imbalance of power or block the emergence of a multilateral system of regional security? The Campbell and progressive interpretations are at odds; they represent two fundamentally different ways of understanding the history of the US role in Asia, the nature of the post Cold War era, the way forward to stability in Northeast Asia, and the path to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. Polarization places China and Russia on one side, the United States and Japan on the other, and South Korea leaning toward the US side but split in how issues are framed by opposing sides.3

Historical Contrasts

Historic US role was anti-colonialism, pro free trade and a liberal Asian order
vs. Historic US role in East Asia was comparable to the other imperialist powers
History is never far from the surface in the “pivot vs. progressives” debate. In the opinion of Campbell, the US role has been overwhelmingly positive in East Asia, but he does find its role in the Philippines an embarrassing exception, which is now widely acknowledged. To deny the validity of the pre-1930 US strategy to Japan is to invite denial of a realistic strategy toward China today, he implies. The error toward Japan was slow responsiveness to aggression in the 1930s, not provocative moves forcing Japan into war in 1941, as is argued by some Japanese. The economic sanctions came too late and were not buttressed by hard power, which only emboldened the aggression. The lesson from this is to not be passive before new signs of aggression by China, but to reinforce the US presence in all respects, and to avoid distractions by focusing excessively elsewhere. On the progressive side, arguments charge that the United States has been looking out for its own interests at the expense of those in the region, and in its approach to Korea, China, and Russia it has kept striving for hegemony, a variant of past imperialism. In Russia and China, we read that South Korean conservatives are guilty for viewing their state’s role on the peninsula historically as rapacious and subscribing to the myth of an eternal threat. Russia or China’s past role on the peninsula is glorified, not the past US role. Progressives in Seoul do not glorify Russia and China (both responsible for the Korean War), but are prone to view the US historical role in a much more negative light than are Korean conservatives.

US cycle of surge and retreat in Asia has invited war—must keep US resolve
vs. US refusal to accept rising or unifying Asian powers is wrong; United States must yield
The erratic past US policy and lack of any enduring commitment to Asia must now be replaced, Campbell insists. The pivot is overcoming this pattern, when in the 2000s there were new signs of a loss of Asian priority in US policy. Others have seized on US fits and starts to seek domination of the region, and this could happen again as China rises. Viewing Asia only as a secondary theater, the United States has lacked consistency. As a result, it has pulled back and, then, in dire situations, surged again. In contrast, critics view one or more of the surges as moments of US intrusions into the natural course of regional development. While some Japanese have blamed the US role in 1941 and some Koreans blamed the US actions in 1945, the progressive camp is more focused on US behavior in the postwar era and, especially the post Cold War surge. In their thinking, a US retreat from hegemony is the way to Asian stability. One side sees retreat leading to nineteenth century rivalries, the other as aiding harmony through recognition of twenty-first century pan-Asian integration and power balances, starting with an idealistic notion of how inter-state relations would evolve without a strong US leadership role. This is the mirror image of liberal idealism—economic integration without “universal values” forges mutual trust.

Serious concerns arose in the 2000s on durability, resilience of US power in Asia
vs. US willingness to share power with China in the 2000s served Asian stability
Differences exist on how to interpret the US approach to East Asia in the decade of the 2000s, extending to the first two years of the Obama administration. Campbell sees rising concern among US allies and others that Washington’s interest is focused elsewhere, and, without criticizing colleagues at the National Security Council, he suggests overemphasis on “China first” at the expense of the State Department’s “pivot” approach. In opposing arguments, Washington is seen as unwilling to accept China as a rising power with natural interests in its surrounding neighborhood. This caused China to grow assertive. On one side, Obama has corrected for Bush’s inconsistent commitment to East Asia, notably in Southeast Asia; on the other, Obama doubled down on stymieing China’s full rise. The progressive camp is more concerned about US failure to accommodate China than about sinocentric infringement on national interests, crediting US support for multilateralism in East Asia in the 2000s rather than faulting China’s denial of multilateralism in the 2010s.

Sino-US Relations

The pivot is reassurance to allies and a signal to China the United States stays engaged vs. The pivot is refusal to accept China’s rise and a sign of US containment of it
The various dimensions of the pivot were interpreted differently with a balance that even within the Obama administration proved hard to achieve. This led to mixed messages, at times, since the National Security Council concentrated more on preserving smooth ties with China and turning to it for bilateral breakthroughs, as on North Korea, as opposed to the State Department, which perceived China as more intent on challenging long-standing US positions in the region and saw more need to resist and reassure allies and partners. Overall, at times not guided by the principles articulated in Campbell’s book, Washington vacillated, until the “China first” (G2) approach was discredited, as spheres of influence increasingly emerged as China’s desired outcome. The pivot strategy was obfuscated, but it prevailed. At the same time, progressives, criticizing the pivot, denied the existence of a China first approach or that Obama was seeking a strong, cooperative relationship with China as part of the pivot, and they insisted that the pivot, in reality, is a zero-sum choice antagonistic to China (and Russia), e.g., Washington using North Korea as a pretext to extend its hegemony. Pivot boosters see it as seeking to shape a positive outcome for US- China relations; critics charge it with dividing the region and driving China to a newly aggressive stance, at the same time forcing others to choose sides, contrary to their goals.

China is pressing for regional hegemony and must be dissuaded by the pivot
vs. China supports multilateralism and should be encouraged by ending the pivot
The US quest for regional architecture is welcoming to China and would make possible its full integration into a regional order favorable to China’s continued rise. Countering this view is the argument that only a new, different regional institutionalized framework would encourage China to accept multilateralism, which South Korean progressives see as reinforcing the liberal regional order, while Russians see it as rejecting that order. One Korean progressive refrain is that the current hub-and-spokes system of US alliances may be useful in deterring potential aggression, but it is neither constructive nor conducive to building a new enduring architecture of regional economic and security cooperation in the Asia Pacific. This interpretation of China’s aims as consistent with an architecture that would serve the interests of other states contradicts Campbell’s view that China must be embedded and guided or it will focus on shaping its own, closed, regional order. Pain at losing their exaggerated hopes for leverage has caused some in South Korea to grasp at idealist answers, while Chinese and Russian policies have aroused anti-American ones.

Bilateral alliances and defense partnerships are the essence of the pivot
vs. Priority for these over a G2 means acceptance of the “China Threat” view
While alliances and defense partnerships have been showcased in the pivot, the US claim is that they are about preserving the status quo, as on the Korean Peninsula, and not for containing China unless China commits aggression against its neighbors. The aim is to influence Beijing through a regional, multilateral strategy—from which it is excluded until it changes course, while also boosting military-to-military exchanges, transparency, and confidence-building measures with it. Russian and Chinese arguments that boosting such ties to allies is a throwback to “Cold War” thinking and, according to zero-sum logic, means containment based on the “China threat” theory and a drive for dominance over Russia too is in evidence. They depict US alliances and regional security architecture as zero-sum; the more alliances develop, the less room exists for a genuine regional approach. In searching for common ground, as Campbell repeatedly does in his book, the US side is in favor of a win-win approach, but progressives insist that it is guilty of a zero-sum stance.

The pivot’s diplomatic engagement serves the needs of multilateralism
vs. US insistence on a leading US presence undercuts regional multilateralism
Campbell describes the pivot as strengthening Asia’s operating system, not hub and spokes alone. It can be a building block for multilateralism, e.g., the US alliances with Japan and South Korea are consistent with the Six-Party Talks. One does not need to choose between the two formats. Indeed, strong alliances are seen as conducive to the decisions necessary for genuine multilateralism. The same thinking applies to the US alliances and defense partnerships in Southeast Asia and US acceptance of ASEAN as the nucleus of regional multilateralism. Coming from a distance, the United States is an outside balancer. Without it, Campbell assumes, one or another Asian country (as of late, China) would press for dominance, forcing other states to yield and also destabilizing the region. They, thus, welcome the US presence and expanded involvement. Progressives in Asia view Washington as forcing itself on the region, and, in the process, preventing true regionalism without its presence—natural to Asia’s geography—or, at least, with just a secondary US role, reflecting new times when power is dispersed. One side sees US support for multilateralism in the face of China’s possible hegemonism; the other sees Chinese support for multilateralism against further insistence on US hegemonism.

The pivot’s US military ties serve regional stability and balance of power
vs. The US military role is destabilizing the region and sustaining hegemony
Campbell stresses preserving the balance of power, vital to Asian regional stability. The progressives stress preserving the balance of power against US moves that threaten it and refuse to accept US-sought adjustments that would maintain a balance in the future. They charge that the US aim is to sustain hegemony, not to find a balance. Asia is being pulled between hegemony and a regional balance of power, both concur, but they split on whose hegemony and what produces a balance of power. Campbell warns against being dragged back to nineteenth century spheres of influence; the other side against “Cold War mentality” and the imperialist roots of hegemonism. Each side envisions a community; Campbell placing a transpacific community within existing global institutions, and the others calling for a new community—whether  “Asia for the Asians” or some variant of that.

TPP blends globalization and regionalism’s high standards open to all
vs. TPP undermines China’s role in economic regionalism and aims to polarize
Campbell champions the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a form of regionalism accepting of globalization and favoring open economies following high standards. The alternative, some see as a form of closed regionalism, which would distort trade and investment through the power of state-owned enterprises and non-transparent rules making it possible for one country to tilt the system in its favor. Asymmetrical economic relations could be used to pressure one-sided concessions or to achieve non-economic goals. Russian authors, however, criticize TPP as an exclusive club aimed at isolating China (and Russia too), steering economic integration toward the United States. On one side is insistence that Washington seeks to maintain free trade and counter soft protectionism centered on the state-owned enterprises. On the other is the argument that Washington seeks to weaken China’s economic prospects and even isolate it with self-serving US-centered regionalism.

The Korean Peninsula

North Korea is a dangerous threat against which others must unite
vs. North Korea is a partner to assist in achieving stability and prosperity
Assistance to North Korea as it continues its nuclear program and poses a growing threat is dangerous, as is China’s relative unwillingness to pressure it. US policy has been about as it should have been, Campbell suggests, while warning that China fears a united Korea that would be both democratic and allied with the United States. This issue still tests US credibility and the Sino-US relationship, and Campbell does not focus on blaming China for the US lack of success. On the other side is the view that economics can be separated from security to transform North Korea even without any immediate reciprocity. The Sunshine Policy is prized as a proactive way to induce incremental, voluntary changes for peace, opening, and reform through patient pursuit of reconciliation, exchanges, and cooperation. It laid the foundation for peaceful unification by severing the vicious cycle of hostile actions and reactions through peaceful co-existence. This is a view shared by Korean progressives, Russians, and most Chinese sources. They praise abandonment of the idea of unification by absorption and of measures to undermine or threaten North Korea. If they found room for new sanctions, they insist that these are not the answer.

Pyongyang seeks more than regime security and has rejected real reform
vs. Regime security is its driving force, and it will be flexible if that is achieved
Repeatedly, one hears from US officials and ex-officials such as Campbell, that there is no intention of pursuing regime change. Should North Korea make a commitment to start on denuclearization and a desire for reform, US and ROK cooperation can be expected. In contrast, accusations fly among progressives about US refusal to talk due to pursuit of regime change. Little analysis is offered regarding what either North Korean sources say about the country’s objectives or what US and South Korean officials have repeatedly said about the kind of deal they could accept with assurances not to directly challenge the security of the North Korean regime. Instead, one finds comments such as that the real intention of South Korea is to suffocate the North and repetition that Washington is only obsessed with ridding the world of the “evil empire.” Talk of reunification is twisted to mean destruction of that regime, whose right to exist is taken for granted without mention of blemishes on its human rights record or of South Korea’s greater legitimacy. This leads to arguments that it is up to Seoul to win the Pyongyang’s trust, not vice-versa.

Unconditional economic engagement undermines denuclearization prospects
vs. Active economic engagement increases the prospects for peace and stability
Strengthen North Korea’s economy, give it confidence to engage in economic reform, and build trust that it can achieve economic integration with the outside world, and its leaders will become cooperative partners. This is the message from the Russians, who conclude that the Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) was a success, and it is also the primary message of Korean progressives and many in China, despite disappointment with Kim Jong-un. The principle of separation of economics and politics, fostering inter-Korean economic relations, is a standard position of progressives, taking the stance “economics first, politics later.” Closing of the Kaeseong Industrial Complex is, thus, regarded as a bad mistake. Russian and Chinese economic ties with North Korea were, prior to Security Council resolution 2270, seen, in contrast, as conducive to openness and reform. Indeed, even if the North engages in military and political provocations, the promotion of such exchanges is deemed desirable as part of “peaceful coexistence” unlike the Cold War. In the US view, economic incentives must be strictly linked to progress on denuclearization. Campbell is in the mainstream in tying economic engagement to a shift by North Korea.

US sanctions encourage choices that would advance economic integration
vs. US sanctions are interfering with economic integration in Northeast Asia
Washington views its sanctions as a means to induce more responsible behavior, which would open the floodgates to increased economic integration of the countries in question. North Korea could then expect large-scale investment in response to steps leading to denuclearization. Russian authors, however, insist that South Korea, despite claiming not to impose sanctions over Ukraine, has failed to broaden ties with Russia in foreign policy and security, which was anticipated when Putin went to Seoul in November 2013. They express concern that without “real cooperation” ROK-Russian relations will fall into crisis. Similarly, Chinese warn that through missile defense, especially THAAD, South Korea is damaging relations and inviting Chinese retaliatory measures. Unilateral US and ROK sanctions are, likewise, viewed as harmful to regional economic integration as well as North Korea recognizing that carrots as well as sticks are available to it ahead.

Closer ties with nuclearizing North Korea work against regional security
vs. Closer ties with Nuclearizing North Korea favor a regional framework
According to US thinking, when Beijing, Moscow, or Seoul expands cooperation with Pyongyang without demanding progress on denuclearization or reciprocity, there is more money for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and, also, less willingness to seek a resolution to the standoff on the peninsula. The opposing side insists that the North will be more secure and more inclined to find a regional framework. The Russian view of ROK interest in cooperating with Moscow rests on Russo-DPRK ties. In 1994, the first nuclear crisis had the positive effect of prodding Kim Young-sam to take Russian security concerns into account; in 1999, Kim Dae-jung’s awareness of renewed Russian ties to Pyongyang led to overcoming a few years of troubled relations; and in 2003, Roh Moo-hyun’s need to enlist Russia’s help in the Six-Party Talks all worked in favor of ROK-Russian relations. The obvious message is that Seoul only takes Moscow seriously when Moscow is building ties to Pyongyang and is needed for new diplomacy. China’s critique of Lee Myung-bak is not only of his North Korean policy, but also of his lack of cooperation with China, as he one-sidedly supported the US position on ties to the North. South Korean progressive criticize Lee and Park Geun-hye for their regional diplomacy as well as overreliance on US ties and failure to engage North Korea with regional ties.

Deterrence is the only way forward to change the calculus in North Korea
vs. There is no military solution, and agreement on a peace regime is the key
North Korea’s security interests must be met is the mantra from the progressives, but the nature of those interests is characterized differently. For Russians and Chinese they must include changes in the US-ROK alliance, perhaps even the end of it. Code words such as “stability” conceal arguments against the US alliances as harmful to regional stability. To Campbell, intensified military deterrence stands the best chance of altering the North’s calculus on denuclearization. For progressives, there may be room for more deterrence, but their stress is on proceeding quickly to talks about a peace regime, as if the choice is either military pressure or trusting the North to be amenable to a long-term peace based on conditions favorable to stability and denuclearization. One side views deterrence as necessary to secure a new outlook on a feasible peace regime; the other sees military pressure on the North as interfering with pursuit of a peace regime and only hints at the type of peace regime that it would welcome, hiding its essence in weakening the South. 

Cooperation by Japan and South Korea with Russia and China is welcomed  
vs. Japan and South Korea must be threatened for their cooperation with the United States
Despite anticipating more tension and acrimony in Sino-US relations, Campbell insists that cooperation can progress with Washington and its allies, increasing government ties at every level. He does not discourage allies from the same approach, although he lists the challenges ahead, including the need to respond to China’s “assertive turn.” He seeks to manage competition jointly through “pragmatic cooperation.” Tokyo needs assurances that Washington is comfortable with independent initiatives, even some diplomacy with Russia, Campbell adds. There is no sense of hostility toward Russia in his book as he leaves open the future of its role in the US-led response to China’s assertiveness. Russian writers, however, describe strong US pressure on Seoul and Tokyo, which is costly to the economic interests of Russia, but Seoul is fearful to go to the point it could “change the balance of relations of Russia with the two Korean states.” Yet, they warn, as do recent Chinese commentaries, that proposed missile defenses in South Korea would cross a line, threatening regional stability and altering the balance of power, leading to a polarized region. Increasingly, Russians and Chinese are threatening “retaliatory” steps, in their ties to North Korea and each other, among other responses, to supposed acquiescence to US designs for aggravating the region, minimizing any need to respond to North Korea. This threatening posture is playing out in South Korean politics as a key election approaches. Some in Beijing and Moscow view Seoul as the weak link in the US pivot, hoping in 2017 to capitalize on the popularity of the progressive worldview while threatening the conservative Park regime with punishment for proceeding on the basis of its worldview.


The Campbell book is the most important book on the reasoning behind the US pivot to Asia and a compelling statement of the lessons to be drawn from the Obama era for four more years, at least, of extending the pivot. It is both a strong affirmation of the policy choices already made and a fervent appeal for a further shift in strategy toward China from luring it to join the existing wider community to constraining its choices as it does not refrain from challenging a rules-based order through coercion and threats thereof. It clashes with progressive views by arguing that the United States has repeatedly offered China clear reassurances that it is welcome to play a larger role in Asia, but that they have failed due to the absence of reciprocal Chinese assurances about accepting a continued, major US role in Asia. In contrast to the simplistic approach the progressives offer, Campbell acknowledges that his is a complex strategic approach: positively engage China where possible and be firmly vigilant where necessary. The most compelling message, however, is that the US approach to Asia must be regional, not just preventing Chinese hegemony but embedding China policy within an operating system for the region that is the number one battleground for shaping future great power relations and the world economy. At stake, Campbell warns, are the bedrock principles of the world order—China is now challenging freedom of navigation, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and economic relations based on high standards rather than soft protectionism. Yet, he rejects the “China threat” school as hawks, who do not recognize the urgency of working with China and of working with partners who do not support such a definitive US approach.

In a wide-ranging book, some subjects are bound to be treated more briefly than many an interested reader would like. In addition to neglecting Russia, Campbell devotes just a few sentences to ideas apart from democracy, noting that China is warning against the threat of Western ideas and is driven by resentment and grievances. This omits a broader struggle over national identities, which complicates US alliances and partnerships and leads to complex struggles over historical memory and other themes not easily treated as “universal values.” Potential for China and Russia to find common ground and the true nature of the challenge would be better explained with greater coverage of values and identities. Calls for the United States to be more respectful to Japan’s independent thrust and to try to dissuade South Korea from anti-Japanese rhetoric also can be faulted for delving too little into the challenges Washington may face from revisionist Japanese thinking and South Korean progressives inclined to challenge principles of the pivot.

There has been a prolonged conspiracy to overstate the correspondence between views of the North Korean challenge: opposition to denuclearization, agreement on stability in the region, and even (emphasizing South Korea) support for a regional framework with both economic and security in the forefront. Russians and South Koreans greatly exaggerated their overlap in thinking (in the process overstating the potential of their country to shape the region’s future), but Americans and Chinese (but less Chinese writing in Chinese) also did so, implying that the G2 was working on this issue much better than it actually was. In the US case, this offered a ray of hope that an intractable problem could be resolved. The progressive camp directly challenges this thinking. Although Campbell does not dwell on the past struggle over North Korea, he puts it in a wider perspective.

Taken in total, this book serves as a refutation of the arguments of the progressive camp. If there is little prospect that Chinese and Russians will seriously weigh its points against their own reasoning, in the intensifying struggle between South Koreans of two, clashing persuasions, Campbell’s arguments could serve the Korean conservatives and the US-led international community in debates about how well the progressive assumptions hold. As we approach first the US and then, a year later, the Korean presidential elections, critics of the pivot to Asia will need to refute these arguments or, if their own views are properly scrutinized, be faulted for facile oversimplifications likely to make conditions worse.

1. Kurt M. Campbell, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia (New York: Twelve, 2016).

2. For examples of “progressive” viewpoints, see review articles in The Asan Forum and Country Report: Russia, Country Report China, and Country Report: Korea.

3. There are, of course, exceptions in each country. Japanese progressives are hard to classify, and Japanese conservatives include some who have a less benign view of the US historical role in Asia. US critics of the pivot to Asia would not easily fit into this dichotomous classification. Yet, Campbell’s framework is representative of the thinking in the US security and diplomatic community, including many who have supported Republicans. Dissent in China and Russia occasionally challenges what I call the progressive camp, taking its name from the South Korean side of it, but the level of consensus has lately been high on the various points identified in this article.