Washington Insights

The mood in DC approached alarmism at the beginning of 2018. Following the Olympic Games in South Korea, not only was it assumed that North Korea would revert to provocative behavior, but Moon Jae-in was not trusted to apply more pressure, trying to sustain the rosy atmosphere that took shape in January. The Trump administration’s determination for a trade showdown was finally becoming manifest with many anticipating a trade war, centered first on China but embroiling South Korea too, as seen in the opening salvo in late January over its exports of washing machines. Perhaps, the biggest source of alarm was the assessment of how Trump had altered US foreign policy in his first year and what he was doing in early 2018 adding to the damage. In annual reviews and forecasts, there was awareness of US failures, Chinese successes, regional turmoil, and a lack of clarity about what moves can be expected to improve the situation.

In one review, panelists agreed that after the forty years of the Cold War, the United States lost its single organizing principle for foreign affairs—terrorism was not an adequate substitute— and Trump is compounding the damage by: undermining the US image of standing for ideals, coddling authoritarian rulers and those who oppose media freedom, and leaving past alliance commitments in a cloud. His low popularity abroad and the public’s loss of confidence in the US president have put America in retreat. Contradictions between what Trump tweets and what US officials say and official documents assert arouse a sense of chaos. Disdain for international institutions opens the door for China to forge alternative ones. It is harder for states to resist China when no US vision looms for them to embrace. The upshot of these developments and forces gathering steam in the Obama years is the fraying of the liberal international order, symbolized by the pullback from TPP by Trump, the loss of hope for ASEAN centrality, and the rise of populism skeptical of that order in many countries, including across much of Southeast Asia. Recent hopes for a new Indo-Pacific framework serve as an exception, raising the prospect of an ideological response to China and Russia’s envisioned regional order. Yet, as in the case of the high-sounding National Security Strategy issued in December, official words lack substantive back-up and are contradicted by actions of the president. Vague notions are no substitute for the Obama “pivot” with its important economic component, or for continued pushback in the South China Sea enabled by the near silence after the 2016 court ruling and then the failure by Trump to show US resolve there, leaving China to see it as a low priority for the United States and countries in the region.

Another concern about US policy raised in DC gatherings was a lack of alliance reassurance from the Trump administration. Some speakers called for more US trust of its allies: Abe’s pursuit of Putin should raise no serious concern since Japan is a reliable ally with no prospect of cutting a deal with Russia that would undercut US interests; and Moon’s testing of North Korea’s interest in dialogue should not be interpreted as contrary to US interests. More steadfastness and care in policy coordination is needed to convince Seoul and Tokyo that Washington trusts its allies. Yet, against the background of Trump rejecting Victor Cha as his nominee to be the ambassador in Seoul, there was fear that coordination would be sacrificed to impetuous, unilateral US moves. If no preventive war ensues, as so many in DC agree with Cha, there is still the question of what the alternative of a massive build-up of deterrence would be, particularly if Chinese cooperation continues to fall short. This would be THAAD on steroids, angering China and Russia and putting at much greater risk Moon’s efforts to satisfy Xi and Abe’s efforts to satisfy Putin. More active signs of US containment of China and Russia would likely also accompany this shift in approach to North Korea, in keeping with the new National Security and National Defense strategies. This polarization with a strong ideological component could pose a big risk to alliance partners in 2018, as Abe seeks to make this a year of improved Sino-Japanese relations without setting back Russo-Japanese ties and Moon is eager to build on overtures to Beijing and Moscow in the last months of 2017. Alliance divergence on key security issues appears to be growing worse.

At a DC panel on East Asian security there was a sense that Trump’s visit to Asia reassured all sides that there was no fundamental change in US policy despite Trump’s rhetoric at times and lingering doubts about impending troubles. The Trump-Xi meeting did not suggest a G2; Trump in Seoul did not sound bellicose; trade conflicts were left to be handled later; and Xi already had avoided setting a timetable for unification with Taiwan. China draws most attention with a complex foreign policy of more assertive hard power and more active soft power. This is seen in policies toward Taiwan: frequent patrols, fake news, pressure on those who go to the PRC, and a “cold peace” with quiet cooperation but no official dialogue. Talk of military action here has quieted in favor of “peaceful unification,” bolstered by additional moves to entice people through economic ties. Meanwhile, Chinese confidence has grown that it will have full control over the East China Sea and is succeeding in diplomacy tied to the South China Sea as its military build-up continues. After visiting China, Trump stressed his “Indo-Pacific” framework, leaving many, including in China, wondering about its meaning apart from the focus on India. One observer compared it to BRICS, an idea that precedes figuring out what states have in common with both concepts floundering over an unreliable India. The National Security Strategy devotes some space to the “indo-Pacific” strategy, but vagueness prevails. Loss of TPP and the “rebalance” leaves China winning in Southeast Asia with no clear US commitment to the region, i.e., a self-inflicted wound or “own goal.” This assessment early in 2018 set the tone for more pessimistic interpretations as further developments occurred.

Russia in Asia

Russia draws attention in DC for its aggressive foreign policy, including its mixed signals on North Korea. At one session the focus was put on Russia’s quest for status, including through its own sphere of influence and other attributes of a superpower emeritus. This includes respect for the historical achievements of Russia and the Soviet Union and insistence that there is no unipolar world, where Washington can dictate terms and belittle Russia’s status. The fact that the National Security Strategy of the United States mentions Russia as many as 25 times is seen as proof of its high status—Russia is taken seriously. Russia’s hunt for status in Asia also serves its overall quest, but listeners were told that its quest is unsustainable. China gives Russia status with its deference on security in Central Asia, but it does not support spheres of influence in Asia, whether Russia in Central Asia or India in South Asia. Maneuvering for a voice on the North Korea question—to the point many in Russia are okay with the North possessing a nuclear deterrent—does not suffice to give Russia the illusion it really has a big role to play, while if this were to lead Japan and South Korea to join the nuclear club, Russia’s status would be diminished by this club becoming less exclusive. Aspirations for status are tied to Russia’s fundamental decision by the end of the 1990s to redefine itself, the core of its national identity, as the successor to the Soviet Union in foreign policy. There was not much optimism expressed about Russian foreign policy or Russia-US relations given this analysis.

In another discussion on Eurasian integration skepticism was raised about BRI as a mercantilist and geopolitical challenge, but it was recognized as the most compelling, if vague, vision of integration with the effect of marginalizing the United States. Not only is it after five years the most steadfast of proposals, China has the foreign reserves and excess capacity to make it look viable. Yet, Xi’s intention of forging a community of common destiny has implications for sinocentrism and deference to Chinese preeminence that keeps countries on edge as they wait rather suspiciously for what is to come. Debt traps arouse suspicion that China is seeking to build its military bases in return for unrepayable loans. Other designs for Eurasian integration are peripheral, as the SCO is now mired in irreconcilable antagonisms, e.g, between India and Pakistan, and the EEU is a rearguard operation with meager potential. Russia is driven by two fallacies: its military power gives it a considerable leverage to be a great Asian power when it lacks demographic, infrastructure, expert, and diplomatic assets to realize that aim; and its hopes remain centered on using its tilt toward China to regain leverage in the West. Kazakhstan is intent on separating spheres, keeping political and military ties focused on Russia while expanding economic ties with China, plus drawing know-how from the West without provoking Russia in the manner of Ukraine—a delicate balancing act dependent on Nazarbayev and vulnerable to China’s growing clout. Yet, fears of China abound for national identity to the point of opposing property ownership by the Chinese, unlike the US welcome to Chinese ownership. Claims to be able to manage China and to achieve multipolarity ring increasingly false but are required as policy justification.

Another exchange was gloomy about the prospects for a breakthrough between Abe and Putin despite recent Japanese hopes that Putin provides the strong leadership needed and a weaker Russian economy makes a deal more likely. The number one problem is the Northern Territories in Japanese view, but the consensus in DC is that Putin is very unlikely to yield on the return of any islands. So where does that leave Abe’s trust-building crusade with its 20 summits over 5 years? It was convenient for Japanese to excuse the meager results of talks in 2014-15 as a side effect of bad Russo-US relations over Ukraine. Yet, DC respondents wondered, how could the past 15 months of unrealized hopes—after a half year of mounting expectations in Japan—be reconciled with any optimism today? Is not the obvious message now that Putin has no interest in a deal over the islands and has decided to focus on trying to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington, leaving Abe no choice but to stick with Japan’s ally and boost missile defense in response to an increasingly threatening environment? In addition to security, history more than before is standing in the way, as Putin has glorified 1945 as the sacrosanct cornerstone of national identity, allowing no room for a deal that would sacrifice fruits from that victory.

A number of themes arose in the discussion of Japan-Russia relations, which can clarify the situation. “Vassal Japan” is how Russians refer to Japan’s deference to Washington, as if it is not an independent, sovereign state. Only by defying Washington, not just in conducting summits that angered Obama but on matters of sanctions and defense, could Japan hope to escape this label. “Aged islanders” refers to Abe’s impatience to strike a deal, reminiscent of the
South Korean quest for honor for the “comfort women” before the last surviving victim dies. This gives Putin the sense that Abe is desperate and will keep making concessions. “Pivot to Asia” as well as “multipolarity” are what Japan cites as driving Russia to make a deal, but respondents downgraded their significance due to: 1) Putin’s view that his success with China is the top achievement in foreign policy since he took office in 2000, and his determination not to endanger that, making the pivot China-centered and multipolarity in Asia a secondary matter; and 2) the conclusion that Japan does not have much to offer, as seen in the measly contents of Abe’s “8-point plan,” and that Japan’s business community has scant interest in what Russia has to offer, despite the few METI figures whom Abe has enlisted to champion big projects. Another theme is “Aegis Ashore,” which Japan has decided to deploy, infuriating the Russians, who do not take Japan’s defense needs seriously, as if they are just concessions to the US containment strategy of China and Russia. One additional theme is the “Russia card,” eyeing improved Russo-Japanese relations as a means to weaken China and Sino-Russian relations, but this logic ignores the far greater importance of the “China card” for Russia versus the United States and exaggerates Japan’s geopolitical importance. As long as Xi is hostile to the US alliance system in Asia, including the US-Japan alliance, this complements Putin’s hostility to the same system and even his greater revisionism versus the existing US-led order. Perhaps, Russia will awaken to national interests that raise Japan’s value and lead to improved US ties, but as long as strengthening “Putinism” is the focus of national identity, Japan’s prospects are grim.

Further discussion of Japan-Russia relations provided more explanations. In its more assertive military presence around Japan, Russia is helping China pressure Japan, not, as some argue, really aiming at China. In substituting for China in meeting some of North Korea’s needs, it is also working against Japan, which Japanese are reluctant to criticize and some Chinese even see as a reason to complain. One viewpoint is that Japan has a bad balance of power in Asia and is approaching Russia from desperation, perhaps accounting for Japan’s tenaciousness despite the poor return from its overtures. Another comment in DC is that Japan is making 2018 the year of China, suggesting that despite the hopes raised about Putin taking action after his reelection Abe puts little stock in that prospect. Discussion proceeded to the question of why Abe and the pro-Abe media in Japan has kept a façade of optimism about Japan-Russia relations with little honesty and what has been occurring. Is it a “hail Mary” attempt to ward off an even closer Sino-Russian relationship, perhaps cognizant of some new frustrations on the Russian side since the high hopes of 2014-15? Or is it a way for Abe, as Japan becomes ever more dependent on the United States, to create an image of an independent foreign policy?

The Korean Peninsula

South Korea is being followed more closely in DC, especially following Moon Jae-in’s visit to China and his agreements with Xi. At one seminar, emphasis was placed on deepening polarization: a result of conservative alienation after impeachment and a highly connected society with omnipresent social media. Moon is popular and has been careful to listen to public opinion and approach the United States with restraint. The North-South talks on January 10 gave him and the Winter Olympics a boost, reducing the chances of any sort of provocation. Yet, there was not much optimism about what happens in April when military exercises resume along with likely ICBM tests. One question raised was why had Kim Jong-un waited till January for his overture to Moon—seen as a strategy to weaken sanctions. Ties to Washington will now be more difficult to manage, as South Koreans remain wary of a preventive war, but they appear to see it as not imminent as long as US civilians have not been evacuated. Talks with the North also buy time. In 2017, attitudes toward China have been most volatile, deteriorating early as China’s informal sanctions over THAAD were felt, and improving as bilateral talks intensified. Yet, anger against China endures, while no deal on THAAD or end to informal sanctions is in effect. While some reports suggest that China gave ground, the prevailing view is that Seoul received little—no apology or compensation, loss of sovereignty over what Chinese interpret as promises (“three nos”) restricting future policies, and more pressure ahead. While there has been some zero-sum thinking about China versus the United States, some blame Washington for not helping Seoul since it was US insistence on THAAD that caused the problem. As for views of Japan, Moon may have decided not to scrap the “comfort women” agreement, but he is keeping the pressure on and is unlikely to get Abe’s help with any kind of supplemental measure beyond that agreement, or US help to press Abe, given the Trump-Abe relationship. The gap is delaying the expected CJK summit in Japan and leaves a visit by Abe to the Olympics doubtful. The seminar revealed a fragile US-ROK alliance that could fall apart fast due to Trump’s moves on North Korea, North-South talks, or KORUS FTA. Meanwhile, the US image as global leader is in jeopardy, leaving in doubt how to balance a rising China. There is fear that Moon will prioritize peace over denuclearization, as progressives have formerly done, and Trump will prioritize the trade balance, while Kim Jong-un plays on the differences as does Xi Jinping. The year 2018 is anticipated with trepidation, as North-South talks loom less as a sign of reconciliation than as a stratagem for driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

Seeking clarity on South Korean thinking, one DC session stressed fear that, at a crossroads, the country is pummeled from various sides, as in the 1890s. China in 2017 was the latest example, and US behavior ahead is worrisome. There seems to be no escape. Trying to line up in a new middle power grouping to diversify beyond the four dominant powers or reaching to India, as in Moon’s summit with Modi, does not provide an answer. Since Russia has long advocated for a regional security regime, Seoul could be tempted by this as a way to restrain the great powers. As the region grows more polarized between China and the United States, could Russia appear tempting or even Japan? The former is too keen on playing the North Korea card and too close to Beijing, while the latter is on the wrong side of the history issue and close to Washington. It is not clear what Seoul can do. Meanwhile, one questioner asked if the United States can trust it after the “three nos,” when Moon has apparently ruled out steps that could be vital for US security. The North-South talks in early 2018 have further aroused concern about Moon. Has he bought stability for a couple of months to ensure the success of the Olympics or is he apt to undermine the front against the North’s nuclear weapons and ICBM missiles? Given the simultaneous concern about Trump’s handling of the Korean Peninsula, anxieties have been rising over managing US-ROK relations in what is projected to be a difficult year.

The Olympic overture, it was reasoned, would elapse by the end of March, as Pyongyang made demands for suspending joint military exercises and sanctions relief. If those were not met, the world would be back to escalation, as Pyongyang sought to prove its capability in missile reentry and US talk of a “bloody nose” strike grew more ominous. A crossroads appeared near in 2018 between turning to this sort of military option and living with a nuclear North Korea. In these circumstances, Trump’s restraint could not be assumed, Xi’s cooperation was far from given, and Moon’s adeptness in finding common ground with Trump was viewed with doubt. Commentators suggested that the best outcome would be US recognition that an alternative to war existed, rather than assuming that a limited strike would not draw serious retaliation, Kim recognizing that he had to stay short of redlines, Xi agreeing to maximum joint pressure, and Moon prioritizing denuclearization with alliance strengthening. Yet, some speakers feared that China has reached the limits of its cooperation, keeping the oil pipeline open, and Moon is too keen on maintaining momentum with the North to coordinate with Trump closely, while US diplomacy is not up to the task of managing this conundrum, even as trade tensions prove difficult to isolate from distrust over security. The fundamental divide on which Pyongyang may capitalize could be US insistence on greater deterrence through new missile defense measures and Beijing and Moscow’s strong opposition to such measures.

The failure of Trump’s approach to enlist China to pressure North Korea until it backs down and of his promises to prevent an ICBM that threatens the continental United States could lead him to change the subject, focusing on troubles with China in 2018. So much depends on Trump, and few in Washington claim to know his mind or to trust his policy-making procedures. Some fear in a scenario that goes awry that Moon would tilt toward China. Evacuation of US citizens, talk of preventive war to stop the development of a capability, and other moves could, along with trade tensions, put the alliance in jeopardy. Most, however, expected a better outcome, even if the alliance is strained more than at any time than in recent decades.  

Whereas many depicted the struggle in South Korea over foreign policy as a choice over how to manage North Korea, one exchange in DC refocused the matter as a choice between two regional orders for Northeast Asia: the liberal international order or an alternative, China-led order. After democratizing in the 1980s and being seen as one of the key gateways in the 1990s to integrating China into the liberal order, South Koreans continued in the 2000s to be emboldened as a confident member of that order able to serve as a bridge to its expansion. Yet, the contradictions were mounting, and in 2010 came shocks from China of multiple kinds: disregard for South Korean security in the face of North Korean aggression; assertiveness about the “Beijing consensus” in pursuit of a different order; and economic success as it overtook Japan’s economy and threw its economic weight around as in the rare-earth export restrictions aimed at Japan. Even so, many Koreans kept their hopes alive that diplomacy with China, e.g., in the “Park-Xi honeymoon,” could leave space for preserving the customary order in Northeast Asia. Yet, in 2016-17, there were shocks no less severe than in 2010: Brexit, the Trump election, North Korea’s nuclear and missile breakout, and China’s decision to use the pretext of THAAD to pressure South Korea to recognize that it could not keep delaying a choice between the two regional orders. The thrust of the seminar was not about China’s thinking, but about South Korean thinking in historical context in regard to the regional order. In the 17th century, Koreans, who had basked in a close sense of identity with Ming China—shared neo-Confucian ideology as Chosun arose in the aftermath of the Ming’s overthrow of the Mongol-based Yuan—were confronted with two Manchu invasions of Korea and then the establishment of the Qing dynasty. In response, the Koreans chose to regard their country as the center of a separate civilization and quietly distanced itself from Qing’s narrative of the order it led. The discussion proceeded to make parallels between loyalty to the Ming and loyalty to the United States versus keeping on the good side of the Qing and now of China led by Xi. This is useful background for today’s challenges.

Many issues arose in considering the challenge of choosing between two regional orders. One, does China’s view of this choice mean that this is not a false dichotomy but a task that cannot be much delayed? One DC questioner asked if current Chinese historical writings do not blame Chosun Korea for its disloyalty—even to the point it is accused of wanting to establish its own regional order, suggesting little tolerance for waffling between orders when sinocentrism has historical legitimacy and is the only way to assure regional peace and stability. Another theme is whether South Koreans have a record of testing the limits of the liberal international order, as in Park Chung-hee’s 1971 Yushin agenda, insisting that Confucian learning boosts nationalism and provides for greater state control needed for development, and in lingering progressive nationalist thinking obsessing about Korea as a victim of imperialism and in need of unification as the pathway to a new order. A third reservation about how South Korea can manage the choice between regional orders was strongly expressed in DC responses, worrying that Trump’s impact—despite the positive response of many in South Korea to his November Seoul speech on the South-North contrast—will continue to undercut the liberal order’s image with uncertain effects on cozying up to China. Pessimism seemed to easily outweigh optimism, as some noted how costly it would be for South Korea to thwart China—from which it earns so much through trade—and how weak Korean opposition to China’s behavior have been—unlike anti-Japanese and anti-American demonstrations—in the face of harsh reprisals, most recently the costly informal sanctions on culture, trade, and Chinese tourism.  

The optimistic position, however, was well presented on why South Korea would stick with the liberal international order. Public opinion polls show that young people now prioritize national security and have lost interest in unification and the values associated with it. The response to Moon’s decision to form a joint women’s hockey team with North Korea is a case in point. The impact of China’s pressure tactics also has made a difference, leaving few disposed to trust a China-led order, especially given deeply rooted consciousness about victimization at the hands of those claiming that big powers can disregard the will of a smaller power. When Xi in April 2017 gave Trump a lesson on Korean history it further awakened Koreans to the way China disregards Korean self-determination and autonomy, a sign of the real distinction made between “a new type of great power relations” and other “daguo” vs. “zhoubian” relations in a China-led order. Another note of reassurance is that Koreans appreciate how much they have gained, economically and in soft power, from being part of the liberal international order.

A sharp divide was evident in views of Seoul’s agreement on “three nos” with China dealing with THAAD, missile defense more broadly, and trilateralism including Japan. One view is that by yielding to Beijing it had chosen to be a vassal, outsourcing its security under pressure. Yet, another opinion was that Seoul gave little away and acted much as NATO and the United States had done in conveying “three nos” to Russia, while it has much room ahead to maneuver. In light of concern that Sino-US relations will worsen in 2018 and North Korea may intensify its efforts to split Seoul and Washington, there was worry that Seoul’s strategy of avoiding a real choice between the two regional orders will prove more difficult and that Moon’s progressive outlook may lead to delay as the debate in South Korea about this choice keeps intensifying.

India’s Increased Salience

With Sino-US relations likely to be newly troubled in 2018 and Sino-Indian relations unlikely to escape the downslide seen in 2017, Indo-US relations appeared to offer an opportunity for the Trump administration. Even as Xi was working with Abe to make 2018 a forward-looking year and had gone some way to mend relations with Moon, hopes for ties to Trump and Modi were slim. In fact, after the threat of military conflict over North Korea, the Sino-Indian border is seen as the next most dangerous arena. In response to the BRI, India has shown the greatest resistance, even after Japan’s about-face from the time of the BRI summit in May 2017. Trump has little to trumpet about partners in Asia apart from his relationship with Abe, and a divide over trade and China policy may be imminent, so he may be tempted to focus on Modi. Given the strong Abe-Modi bond, this could be a three-way relationship even if Abe is more reluctant than in the past. After all, Japan has pushed for a “free and open Indo-Pacific’ anchored in India. A common agenda could emerge with a focus on quality infrastructure in South Asia, but India has proven rather unreliable on economic and security relations, while Trump is oblivious to economic multilateralism and at a loss in developing a narrative to counter China’s increasing success in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Even so, 2018 is unlikely to be a year of rampant polarization, DC audiences heard. Xi is proceeding with some caution, Asian countries generally prefer to hedge than to firmly take sides, both BRI and US military ties are advancing simultaneously (despite stories of debt traps for the former and the bad image of Trump for the latter), and Sino-US divisions add to pressure to take sides.

The idea of the “quad” had been raised by Japan a decade earlier and was still viewed as its suggestion, if now jointly embraced by the United States. The strong Abe-Modi bond is seen as a lynchpin of this vision. Yet, apart from the lack of substance behind US talk of a “quad,” there was much skepticism in DC. Japan has broken with India in indicating its willingness to join BRI, as Abe is intent on pursuing Xi in 2018. How much weight will he put behind the objective of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region”? Meanwhile, Trump is more likely to prioritize actions that drive countries toward China over US unilateralism—economic or military—than to cultivate through diplomacy the bonds necessary for the “quad.” In other words, instead of approaching India through a strong and unshakable system of US alliances, Washington’s troubles with allies as well as defense partners in Southeast Asia will leave the “quad” in limbo in 2018.