Washington Insights: Issue 3

With this issue we begin an addition to the Open Forum, reflecting on recent conferences and talks in Washington, DC and by high US officials on the themes covered in The Asan Forum. Our objective is not to report specifically on who said what, apart from speeches by top officials, but to give a sense of the tenor of remarks by those knowledgeable about US policies. There is no place comparable for understanding not only US views, but also how US leaders interpret what is being said by leaders in the region. Much analysis in China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea starts with assumptions about US policy; so this synopsis of views from Washington, DC serves as a balance to broaden the debate and to test assumptions against an essential yardstick. In this coverage, we raise questions of current interest and interpret the responses to them. It is, of course, normal for officials to avoid sensitive remarks on controversial themes. Interpretations below are sometimes extrapolations or inferences and should not all be taken as actual indications of the government’s positions. In a span of one month Chuck Hagel, Susan Rice, and Joe Biden all spoke at length on US policy in the Asia-Pacific region, and their remarks serve as markers in efforts to interpret remarks by lower-level officials and by knowledgeable specialists or former officials that fill-in additional details about government thinking. We proceed by identifying a series of questions recently being asked and following each with a summary of how they are being answered by those who articulate US policy or who are in a position to interpret it, as reinterpreted by some of those listening to their words.

Is China Overtaking the United States?

October and November 2013 have been a rough stretch for US Asia policy. Obama was forced by a government shutdown to cancel his trip to APEC and the EAS, rescheduling travel to East Asia to April 2014. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is sharply differentiating friends and foes, resuming “smile diplomacy” along with “pocketbook diplomacy” to the former and intensifying pressure on the latter, especially Japan, leaving in doubt how assertively the United States would respond, given its recent preoccupation with Iran. The result was new speculation about policy changes, reassurances that did not quiet the speculation, and anticipation, culminating in more hype surrounding Joe Biden’s travel to Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul in the first week of December 2013. At this time of increasing uncertainty, a clearer idea of the way thinking in Washington is being expressed can be instructive. In no uncertain terms, the answer to doubts about China overtaking the United States is that it is not happening. There is no diversion of attention, no loss of resolve, and no sign that China is gaining in soft power or has substantially closed the gap in hard power, even if it is narrowing the gap. Being more assertive is not equivalent to gaining the advantage. Yet, US calming efforts in search of a mutually agreeable path forward leave some still in doubt that this is speaking softly but carrying a big stick instead of beating a quiet retreat.

Does the United States Have a Coherent Policy toward East Asia?

In the midst of disarray over the website of the Affordable Care Act and divisions over how to manage policy shifts in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, efforts were made to convey continuity in policies toward East Asia. Chuck Hagel and Susan Rice delivered important speeches to Washington audiences. Seminars focused on the East China Sea, even involving roleplaying in response to a hypothetical crisis prompted by aggressive Chinese behavior. Some clarification was offered about US policy toward North Korea. Expressions of angst appeared over what should be done about the impasse in Japan-South Korea relations, even as prudent responses continued. From such occasions in Washington, we can draw conclusions about the policies of the Obama administration, as 2013 is nearing a close. They suggest a clear overall direction, a reactive approach as China is the driving force, and a general sense of priorities that still stand the test of time. Given the need to test China’s intentions and to rally cautious allies and partners behind policy choices, it is hard to expect a more coherent, proactive policy direction unless a clear line is drawn that is likely to lead quickly to a new cold war. Staving off this bad outcome postpones any litmus test for Sino-US relations, but it may well come in 2014.

What Term Best Characterizes US Policy in East Asia?

Although no single label supersedes “rebalancing” in characterizing US policy in East Asia, Hagel labels US foreign policy “principled realism.” This, he explains, leverages all aspects of power, acknowledging that there are cultural and economic components of the various security challenges that the United States faces. Hagel eschews the notion that the military component is in the lead, and recognizes that a comprehensive, balanced strategy is needed to integrate the various elements. He agrees there are now shifting geopolitical centers of gravity, leading to more independent, assertive powers, but firmly rejects the notion of multipolarity. This results in a more volatile world, in East Asia as well as the Middle East, Hagel conveyed the tone of an anxious, but not arrogant, power, refusing to accept assertions that it is in decline, while strengthening alliances and partnerships as a leader. Because of common interests, prospects continue of working with China and Russia; so there is no sign that the United States wants a new cold war or expects it in the form of one great power adversary becoming the defining threat in the coming decades. This is not a policy of containment. It is not a one-sided military approach, even if events keep bringing the military dimension to the forefront. It is more clarity on “rebalancing.” The problem is that China keeps pushing the limits, requiring further clarification. Few are satisfied that we have yet reached a point when US policy for our era is crystal clear.

What is the US interpretation of a “New Model of Great Power Relations?”

Apparently more eager to stress positive prospects, Susan Rice two weeks later affirmed the US commitment to rebalancing, while insisting that no matter what hot spots arise elsewhere, Asia will draw the highest level of attention. Accepting the goal of forging a new model of great power relations with China, Rice focused on operationalizing it. Yet, the relative brevity of her remarks on security and her lack of focus on the Sino-Japanese struggle over the East China Sea left doubts about how vigorously the United States is supporting its ally. In her comments on China there seemed to be more concern for sustaining the momentum of the Sunnylands summit, even if observers saw that as dissipating rather quickly, than responding to recent Chinese assertive behavior. The one test of relations on which she dwelt was North Korea, a further sign that as in 2009-2012, this issue is foremost in US relations with China, and enough agreement has been reached for it to remain a force driving relations forward on a positive footing, as in 2003-2008. The mood in Washington is to keep exploring with China the promise of Xi’s notion of a new type of relationship, putting a US twist on what it should mean, and keep vigilant watch. It seems likely that there will be no agreement on this term as China uses it in ways that seem to call for the US side to acquiesce to its own retreat, but that point has not arrived.

How Does North Korea Figure into US Diplomacy with China?

If ongoing improvements in military-to-military exchanges encouraged Hagel to look beyond dark clouds and Rice is in the follow-up process after Sunnylands, those who accuse Obama of trying to contain China would find it hard to draw that conclusion from recent speeches. At the same time, there is an unmistakable sobering mood about the dangerous trends in the region accompanied by greater urgency for China to offer reassurances. As before, the case of North Korea is the principal testing grounds, although other hot spots have been added to the list. Rice made it clear that the United States will only negotiate if the talks are about the entire North Korean nuclear program and lead to irreversible steps toward the goal of denuclearization. It will not accede to the North’s efforts to negotiate while still running parts of its nuclear weapons program. For China, her message was that the United States wants it to increase pressure on North Korea to denuclearize and that, even in the absence of new multilateral sanctions, it would impose its own sanctions should the threat from North Korea grow. Along with other discussions of the North Korean nuclear issue, these comments showed that Iran and North Korea’s nuclear threats remain the two foreign policy priorities of our times. North Korea occupies a larger place in US diplomacy with China than many observers have been noticing. If US caution in other areas casts doubt on its resolve, there is steely clarity on North Korea and on its impact on Sino-US relations that so far attests to a firm US will in late 2013.

Is US policy toward North Korea Changing?

The message about North Korea communicated to Washington audiences is that it has had plenty of opportunities to show that it would denuclearize, but that there no longer is any doubt that its drive for nuclear weapons is too strong for that to occur. In the 2000s, highly enriched uranium was the covert method it was intent on pursuing, as became evident in the fall of 2008, and the new slogan of byongjin signifies parallel pursuit of economic construction and a nuclear weapons program, not abandonment of the latter for the former. Given the lack of US diplomacy, some may wonder if its policy has shifted to containment of North Korea or just nonproliferation, goals that could later lead to the resumption of talks. In fact, the policy remains comprehensive denuclearization without any agreement to talks until North Korea has put its entire program on the table. There is no sign of any change in this fundamental principle of Obama’s policy, inherited from the late Bush administration. This reflects a sharp divide with China, but one that some think can be narrowed, especially if the example of cooperation on Iran is still positive in 2014.

Will the Sino-US Rift on how to Deal with North Korea Grow More Serious?

As over the past decade, China appears more eager to keep the peace than to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. Yet, considering North Korea to have gone too far, China has changed its attitude somewhat, which leads the United States to cooperate more closely. While China favors talks to slow North Korean nuclear and missile tests, the US view is that does not really slow things down; it just suits a time when the North needs to prepare for the next steps in the cycle. The dispute over the threshold for returning to the talks has persisted for four years: China setting a low bar and the United States firmly rejecting any rewards since it is convinced that North Korea’s strategic intentions are clear. There is clearly frustration over lack of pressure by China on North Korea, but in anticipation of the next move, US planners still are inclined to work with China, able to set aside any pressure it may try to apply on other countries at times to go back to the talks, in the hope that more pressure will be exerted on North Korea in dire times. The Sino-US division on how to deal with North Korea may change depending on future moves by North Korea. It could become a major factor worsening Sino-US relations, but given the possibility of further cooperation, that prospect remains only in the background. One reason to strive to keep working with China is that the prospect remains of cooperation on North Korea.

Do US Officials Think that China Is Abetting North Korea?

Another aspect of US disappointment is China’s policies since 2009 that reduce the effect of sanctions while carving out room for China to gain economic control, as in reducing administrative obstacles against cross-border business. In contrast to the logic that a more economically viable North Korea would be more cooperative, the US position is that an economically powerful North Korea would make it secure in holding onto its weapons and acting belligerently. Getting beyond this divide in the way the two states view the challenge, the United States is particularly focused on how Xi Jinping’s thinking is evolving. Assuming North Korea will test its next nuclear weapon in the first part of 2014, US officials are looking for indicators on how China will react without any sign of subcontracting their policy to China. In the meantime, there is suspicion that China’s goals prioritize keeping North Korea afloat and using it for China’s objectives on the peninsula and in the region rather than denuclearization. The notion that China is actually abetting North Korea may be gaining new currency as China’s new ADIZ puts pressure on South Korea as well as Japan, adding to North Korea’s pressure on them. Still, this is a concern that is not now reflected in efforts to improve bilateral relations. As the Sino-US divide widens, finding common ground toward North Korea in 2014 will be critical.

Does Washington Trust Park Geun-hye’s Trustpolitik with Pyongyang?

One question being asked in Washington is whether Park Geun-hye, in seeking a new “trustpolitik” with Pyongyang and in striving to work closely with China, might take a softer line on restarting talks and leave vague a precondition of denuclearization. If North Korea agreed to other steps toward trust-building, such as family reunions and an expansive view of the Kaeseong industrial park, then Park might be under domestic pressure to change, especially for some progressives who now think that the Six-Party Talks are needed and the United States has become the main obstacle. So far, there is no sign of concern that she would break ranks in this manner. If some are waiting to see if she becomes more like Roh Moo-hyun or like Lee Myung-bak, she keeps walking a narrow tightrope without appearing to be at either extreme. North Korea may seek to lump her with Lee, but China and Russia are not doing so. Japan may be tempted to align her with Roh, but this is not resonating in the United States. After China declared its ADIZ in a manner that alarmed South Koreans as well as Japanese and revelations followed about Chinese pressure on South Korea to pull back in the Yellow Sea and stop naval exercises there with the United States, such Japanese accusations are less likely. At a time of diminished Chinese restraint, even with South Korea, and doubtful prospects for diplomacy with North Korea, observers generally expect Park to become more like Lee.

Does Washington Think that Park Will Sustain Positive Relations with Xi Jinping?

A skeptical strain in US responses to Park’s policies holds that China does not take her straddling seriously, given her insistence on the US alliance and her rejection of China’s strategy for the Six-Party Talks. Eventually, she would awaken to the realization that she has little influence on China’s policies. Perhaps, the anticipated turning point was reached after South Korea asked China to modify its ADIZ intrusion into South Korea’s ADIZ, as if it could cut its own deal, ignoring the disputes unsettling Japan and US relations with China. When this was rejected, the response in Washington was that the time has come for all on the frontlines of China’s assertiveness to close ranks. A more forthcoming view of strategic cooperation with Japan and triangularity has been long overdue, many argue.

Is South Korea or Japan the No. 1 US Ally in Asia?

In 2009-2012 South Koreans took some satisfaction that their country had replaced Japan as the principal US ally in East Asia. Personal rapport between Lee Myung-bak and Obama and the apparent priority of standing against North Korea gave this impression. Yet, as the challenge from China centered on the East China Sea and South China Sea and Japan increasingly took it seriously, the priority on the US-Japan alliance became clear for all to see. They cooperate closely on maritime issues covering broader areas. Joint US-Japan development of missile defense contrasts to South Korean ambivalence to avoid angering China. The overlap in US and Japanese realist thinking about China is driving relations much closer at a time when Park, however much she impressed observers during her May visit to Washington, had a security agenda not fully in sync with that of Obama. Yet, the concern in Washington that sending a strong message in support of Abe would embolden him to push a revisionist agenda more offensive to South Korea means that there is also a strain of caution in embracing part of the agenda Abe prefers in US-Japan relations.

Does the United States Have a Coherent Policy towards Central Asia?

Two years after Hillary Clinton put forward the concept of the “new silk road” as US policy towards Central Asia, it remains unclear what exactly this policy entails. Lynne Tracy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia attempted to clarify it at a recent Central Asia conference. The key focus of is on regional economic development and integration, which includes establishing the appropriate infrastructure and regulatory practices. Helping Central Asian states to create efficient transport, communications, and energy infrastructure, as well as to adopt the necessary practices, regulations, and legislative agreements continues to be a top objective. Beyond increasing inter-regional trade, Tracy pointed to the importance of linking Central Asia to South Asia, as well as Central Asian states to international economic organizations, such as the WTO. When speaking about the region, she placed a strong focus on Afghanistan, providing a number of examples of US economic assistance there and stressing the importance of integrating Afghanistan into the Central Asian region. There has been much discussion recently on the competing policies of China and Russia in the region. It seems that the United States holds a pragmatic attitude towards China’s involvement, realizing that it is going to be the key player as it contributes to developing Central Asia. Tracy’s talk was in contrast with the general sentiment of the conference complaining of the US “nonexistent” policy towards the region. Instead of perceiving China as a partner, most other speakers saw it as a dangerous competitor, which could transform its economic influence into other domains, including security. It appears that while the United States is still committed to being involved in the region, the “new silk road” is not as ambitious or as coherent a policy as the concept implies. China’s “silk road economic belt” overshadows it.

What Are the Implications of the Iran Agreement for Policy toward North Korea?

One pressing question from the end of November is what are the implications of the interim P-5+1 agreement with Iran for US policy toward North Korea? One point of view is that despite certainty in some circles that Iran is bent on developing nuclear weapons and is following the North Korean playbook of the 1990s-2000s of buying time through a deal that does not really stand in the way of its nuclear aspirations, the Obama administration, preoccupied elsewhere as was Bush at the time he was negotiating with North Korea, has relaxed its principles. It presumably will be inclined to relax sanctions, as it did for North Korea in 2007, to cater to Russian and Chinese voices for taking a soft line, as happened with North Korea, and allow time for denuclearization in stages, even if that seems unlikely. Critics of Obama see not only a repeat of past mistakes with North Korea, but also attitudes conducive to a new cycle of mistakes. Many assume that testing Iran’s intentions in 2013-2014 is different from past policies toward North Korea and has different implications for future policies. While North Korea continued its clandestine nuclear program, inspections in Iran are set to be so intrusive that its program will be set back, albeit only by a short time. Also, Iran is much more vulnerable to sanctions, and they continue unabated, despite some release of funds; so the pressure is maintained. Moreover, as in the Six-Party Talks, Washington is showing that it is not driven by ideology or regime change, making it easier to keep other states in agreement about sanctions. Thus, the message to North Korea is that there is a way out of the current impasse. This message may be intended for China as well. If its cooperation with economic sanctions against Iran helped to bring that country to the table and keeps the pressure on Iran even as negotiations make progress, then would not the same approach work with North Korea? The most negative arguments against US policy toward North Korea and Iran in Chinese sources may be best refuted in this manner.

What Was the Main Message of Biden’s Visit to Japan on December 3?

The stress on rising tensions and the risk of miscalculation was greater. Affirmation of the alliance with Japan as the cornerstone of security and stability in East Asia left no doubt on the priority of this alliance. Stress on strengthening and modernizing these ties was clearer than ever, as was the emphasis on better relations between Japan and South Korea. Biden made it clear that Japan’s outreach to the region is in the US interest as well as Japan’s, including closer cooperation on maritime security. The response to China’s ADIZ declaration was unambiguous. It is a unilateral attempt to change the status quo, raising regional tensions and increasing the risk of miscalculations. Biden concluded with a call for a crisis management mechanism with China and an appeal for agreement on the TPP to establish new economic rules, despite sacrifices required by all states, including in automobiles and agriculture for Japan. Compared to Susan Rice’s remarks just two weeks earlier, the US tone was more concerned, more focused on resisting China, and standing with Japan. The fact that China had changed the status quo and Biden was standing with Abe no doubt mattered, but these remarks are consistent with the notion that the Obama administration has been cautiously waiting for Xi Jinping to make his intentions clear, and now that they are clearer, it is defining “rebalancing” in a manner China charged was its true intention. China’s behavior is increasingly creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What Was the Main Message of Biden’s Visit to China on December 4-5?

The main message was apparently meant to be US encouragement for constructive steps to prevent the new Chinese ADIZ from increasing the risk of military conflict. Although Biden delivered the same overall message in Japan, he was met with Chinese charges that the United States was on Japan’s side in this struggle over China’s “core interests.” What had been Chinese demonization of Japan as mired in a pre-1945 mindset is turning into a call for a US rollback from the containment posture established by its Cold War mindset. Thus, there was no reason to think that the visit deflected the gathering storm as it shifts from a territorial dispute to a potential military confrontation. On North Korea, there was no sign of progress. Biden’s message at all of his stops was no tolerance for the nuclear program of North Korea, even reverting to the slogan CVID (comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization). This defies China’s approach to restarting the Six-Party Talks, despite agreement on the long-term goal of denuclearizing North Korea. Yet, of all issues on the agenda, none proved more inflammatory than values, as journalists wait for clarity on whether China will massively deny visas to any working for newspapers not considered to be “friendly,” for instance by covering the corruption of China’s leaders. In his most impassioned remarks, Biden called on Chinese to question authority, putting the theme of universal values in the forefront of bilateral relations, in response to challenges.

What Was the Main Message of Biden’s Visit to South Korea on December 6?

Biden reaffirmed the US “rebalancing” as a long-term endeavor. He made it clear that the United States does not accept the Chinese ADIZ, as South Koreans were considering an expansion of their own ADIZ. He urged South Korea and Japan to work more closely together, as democracies and countries facing similar strategic challenges. Welcoming a decision expected soon in Seoul to join the TPP negotiations, Biden offered a vision of Asia on the cusp of reorganization, although one at odds with China’s new assertiveness. As the principal follow-up to the Sunnylands summit, Biden’s visit to China followed by travel to South Korea left the unmistakable message that there is no further momentum in Sino-US relations and South Korea has no room to envision a role as a bridge, let alone a balancer, in this relationship. Almost a year after Park’s election, there was no indication that Xi Jinping is working with her in ways that increase regional stability or that the US leadership sees a way for her to build trust with China or North Korea. Joining the TPP, cooperating more closely with Japan, and joining more actively with the United States in standing for universal values, South Korea is clearly the target of US policy to stand more closely together at a time of deepening trouble in East Asia. If in October, the absence of Obama at regional meetings raised doubt about the seriousness of “rebalancing” and in November Susan Rice’s speech and other developments led some to questions US resolve in facing a more assertive China, Biden’s final stop in South Korea punctuated a string of efforts, including talks in Washington, to show there is both US resolve and US strategy.