Washington Insights: March 2014

The month of February was marked by a Japanese public relations blitz, to which DC audiences often responded, “where is South Korea in this strategy?” There was also a South Korean effort to fine tune and, presumably, rally support for a new strategy, which again drew the question, “how does Japan fit into the picture?” At a time when President Obama is preparing to visit Tokyo and Seoul and US officials are desperately seeking a way to reduce the tensions between them while advancing toward a trilateral alliance, a review of the messages coming from Tokyo and Seoul and the responses to them of the think tank community overshadows other themes we could cover in recent seminars. We assess answers to five questions in reporting on the DC scene.

Is Japan succeeding in convincing Washington to overlook Abe’s historical moves, including his Yasukuni Shrine visit, in crafting a joint Asian policy?

At no point in memory has there been such a concerted effort by Japanese officials and specialists to sound out and transform American thinking on foreign policy. It seems to have three main goals: 1) to refocus US policy on realist thinking, leading it to pressure South Korea not to “politicize” history; 2) to persuade Washington to abandon (“G2”) cooperation with China linked to the slogan of a “new type of great power relations”; and 3) to give Abe carte blanche in reshaping domestic policy in return for unprecedented cooperation on military and strategic policy and, some add, the TPP as the preferred form of economic regionalism.

As spokespersons for the Abe agenda appear before think tank audiences, they face skepticism, but rarely the confrontational atmosphere centered on clashing views of history that would be expected in a university environment. Their reasoning on the urgency of boosting collective self-defense is not only welcomed, it is met with calls for Japan to do rather more to enhance its deterrence capabilities. Their appeal for pragmatism without prioritizing reconciliation over historical memories is largely accepted, but Japan’s path to pragmatism is questioned, given the progress that was being made, albeit quietly, in the fall of 2013 toward new strategic cooperation with South Korea, when Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit left Seoul without a face-saving way to proceed, and, some argue, toward keeping Sino-Japanese tensions under control. While Japan’s recent National Security Strategy listed South Korea first after the United States and ahead of Australia (apparently moving beyond rhetoric by Abe, Aso, and others that tended to omit Japan’s close neighbor), US comments sought a greater commitment to trilateralism, especially in setting Japan’s policies toward North Korea. Deeper differences come to the surface when the nature of Japanese reasoning about security, and even more identity, is more closely scrutinized.

Japanese talk of advancing common values leading to a common strategic vision is hard to reconcile with insistence on taking discussions of history off the table. This ignores the long-held view that the postwar order was premised on certain shared beliefs about history, especially WWII. In pressing this new perspective, Japan is in danger not only of confirming Chinese warnings that it is trying to overturn the postwar order, but also raising suspicions in the United States (newly aroused by statements of Abe’s appointees to the board of NHK) that the ultimate historical target is the United States. Trumpeting common values while questioning the most fundamental assumptions about 20th century Asian history is not a viable approach.

Even as informed US audiences take exception to Japan-passing in South Korea and the one-sided way Japan is treated by its politicians and media, they find it troubling that Japanese spokespersons fail to question South Korea passing in Japan. This is in line with simplistic proposals for what South Korea should do and how US policy may bring about the desired changes. One example is the suggestion that the United States clarify its policy toward China in a manner that would put m ore pressure on South Korea to end its “honeymoon” with China. This idea reflects an exaggerated impression in Japanese newspapers, especially the Yomiuri shimbun, that there is such a “honeymoon” and a failure to understand different strategic circumstances in South Korea, which relies on China in dealing with North Korea, and Japan. Indeed, it is a sign that Japan does not have a North Korean strategy based on its South Korean policy, unlike the United States. Moreover, as Japanese blame South Korea for failing to pursue a united front vs. China, Americans put much of the blame on Japan, e.g. in making it difficult to produce a US-Japan-ROK statement over China’s new ADIZ. At its core, the criticism of Japan is that under the guise of seeking a strong multilateral alliance system, it is actually pursuing an autonomous foreign policy, weakening the triangular ties with South Korea and, by extension, the United States, and, some fear, even raising concern about Japanese entrapment toward China. Japan’s failure to make clear its priorities for North Korea and the importance of South Korea leave its professed seriousness about forging a tighter, expanded alliance system in doubt.

Are Americans responsive to Japanese “realist” arguments about how to proceed in triangular Sino-US-Japanese relations?

These arguments coming in rapid succession before DC audiences have aroused skepticism for the following reasons. First, they are too narrowly focused without consideration of the broader geopolitical context in the Asia-Pacific region. Putting the spotlight on one triangular relationship in one location (the East China Sea), they call for a sharp transformation in Sino-US strategic relations. Should the views of the other US allies and partners from South Korea to Southeast Asian states be relevant? There does not seem to be any multilateral concerns beyond a single triangle. Is it possible that strategic calculations regarding North Korea should be considered too? No, the speakers show no interest in putting their one territorial dispute in context. Second, the obsession with one theme that has become a focus of Japanese national identity suggests that, as in the past quarter century, Japan is making a pretense of greater realism when identity concerns are leading to unbalanced reasoning. This was most conspicuous when in the waning days of the Cold War and the following emergence of the Russian Federation, Japan let the “Northern Territories” become such an obsession that it lost perspective on the broader geopolitical context. In its reasoning about South Korea, often prioritizing the dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima or “comfort women,” observers can detect a similar lack of realist calculations.

Third, the drumbeat of appeals from Japanese speakers is for closer coordination of US and Japanese words and actions regarding China and steps to lead it to change its behavior. Yet, this is accompanied by criticism of US words and deeds against the background of much reduced Japanese interest in accepting US advice and policies, as communicated in meetings such as the 2+2 ministerial talks and Joe Biden’s visit to Japan in late 2013. When pressed, Japanese speakers do not mention finding ways to accommodate US thinking more, but insist that Japan must strive harder to make its case, e.g., for why Abe visits the Yasukuni Shrine and will keep ignoring concerns in South Korea and China, even if Washington thinks that they have strategic effects.

Fourth, Japanese presenters show scant interest in Chinese perceptions or reactions to proposed joint efforts with the United States to up the costs for its aggressive behavior. The assumption is that China will back down. There is no discussion of what incentives would appeal to China. When pressed about this and other skewed reasoning, Japanese respondents distinguish the Senkaku issue from others for China’s coercive policies and the danger of war. In short, China is crossing a red line, which Japan has recognized, while weak US leadership leads mainly to wavering.

The arguments presented by Japanese officials from the defense community and some academics to think tank audiences appear insufficiently strategic and not worthy of academic analysis, which looks at an issue from many sides. If audiences do not generally doubt the wisdom of standing with Japan against Chinese actions to take control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by threat or coercion, they are reluctant to accept the Japanese case for bilateralism at the expense of multilateralism, a red line that could be manipulated by Japan into a hasty and unbalanced response, and a narrow perspective on a complex region with many, interconnected challenges. A better case might be made for more US involvement in the East China Sea disputes, but the tunnel vision being heard from Japanese spokespersons fails to do this.

The shadow of Abe’s nationalism darkens the responses of some Americans to the warnings by Japanese that China is causing a new Cold War. Some are doubtful that China’s behavior constitutes “aggression” and even attribute tensions to “competing nationalisms,” also siding with China’s insistence that Japan recognize the existence of a territorial dispute. When Japanese speakers contrast Abe’s realism with inward-looking US excessive caution (unlike the US response in 2010), they fear entrapment and warn that Japan has severely damaged its respected image as a country striving for peace and serving as a paragon on behalf of universal values. The message they are hearing is not what Japan can do, apart from collective defense, but what the United States should do. But, US academics with this reasoning are outnumbered in Washington by strategists who take more seriously the danger of a new cold war for which China would be responsible and agree that China is undermining the existing international order, which Japan is defending along with the United States. Yet, their attention has turned to what one former official called “semi-troubled” US-Japanese relations. Across the political spectrum, blame is placed primarily on Japan for this state of affairs. Thus, instead of responding to Japanese entreaties for more support, they seek more Japanese realist thinking in coordination with the United States. The main reaction is not that Japan is misunderstanding China, but that it is misjudging the United States in pressing for a policy change at odds with geopolitical judgment.

Are Americans responsive to South Korean “engagement” arguments for how to proceed in triangular Sino-US-ROK relations?

Although South Koreans making the case for their country’s approach to regional security were fewer and more academic in their approach, certain similarities were apparent. Both groups arrived with concerns that US “rebalancing” was uncertain, whether due to resource constraints, insufficient leadership, fragmented attention, or a reduced presence in comparison to China. Both hoped that a new initiative may galvanize US interest, including reconsideration of the triangle comprised of their country, China, and the United States. South Koreans also affirmed the alliance as the core in conceptualizing the triangle. Moreover, they warned of a deteriorating strategic landscape in the region, much as the Japanese spokespersons were doing.

The contrasts between the arguments of South Koreans and Japanese were more obvious than the similarities. Whereas Japan would forge a triangle of two versus one, South Korea would pursue a parallel track of an alliance and a multilateral framework open to stage-by-stage expansion. Japan would take historical issues off the table, as if realism has no place for them, while South Korea holds that history cannot be ignored in the trust-building process it envisions. Positioned between the Japanese stance opposed to a new regional order and that of China in support of a very different order, South Korea accepts the need for steps toward a new order as long as it maintains the foundation of the existing order. Tokyo focuses solely on strengthening its US alliance, while Seoul contemplates adapting the alliance, even as it remains the lynchpin of peace and stability. In reflecting on the Sunnylands US-Chinese summit and its slogan, a “new type of great power relations,” Koreans find promise that is still being pursued, in contrast to Japanese who see US gullibility that has long since been exposed. Yet, Japanese expect to wall off economic relations with China, which they are loathe to jeopardize, and Koreans are cognizant of signs that China is a “pseudo status quo power” with a high possibility of turning into a “revisionist state,” but they distinguish maritime indicators of this from a greater status quo outlook on North Korea. These are among their sharp differences. For the DC audiences, perhaps the greatest contrast is between the open-minded Korean quest for expert feedback on how to proceed with President Park’s Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative and the blunt Japanese insistence on US support for “balancing” China without flexibility in responding to any dissenting opinions.

American audiences are struck by how marginal each country seems to the other’s strategic recalculations. Japanese spokespersons avoid the subject of South Korea to the extent possible and appear to count on the United States to pressure the other US ally to come back into the fold. In turn, Korean strategic thinkers are a little more optimistic that once the United States joins in a broader trust-building process, the current troubles in ROK-Japanese relations would be ameliorated. They contemplate a broad geographical reach and range of issues that can draw Japan into the process since China would not make it adversarial, whereas Japanese foresee a narrow band of danger, which would oblige joining one or another opposing camp. To Americans, neither side’s assumptions about China seem to be supported with strong evidence, nor is the impact of North Korea acknowledged fully. South Koreans perceive it as unpredictable and may be following an approach that is aimed overwhelmingly at securing China’s cooperation on this one overriding issue, while Japanese largely ignore strategic concerns related to North Korea in their arguments. When queries center on why Japan is not following the US example of reinforcing South Korea in its handling of North Korea and why South Korea is not following that example in welcoming Japan’s rising interest in collective defense, skepticism is unmistakable.

Faced with Japanese and South Korean arguments that separate the two US alliances in Northeast Asia, Americans seek linkages between the two. Hearing justifications for one or the other country taking the lead in regional security matters and policy toward China, the DC community is suspicious that the approaches are too narrow (essentially focused on the East China Sea or North Korea) rather than indicative of the wide-ranging security concerns that come within the US purview. Given Abe’s obsession with changing Japan’s national identity and Park’s preoccupation with North Korea (for reasons of national identity as well as security), their approaches cannot be assumed to reflect purely strategic thinking. Both alliances appear shakier than just a half year ago. Meanwhile, each side looks over its shoulder at the other’s alliance with the United States sensitive about not being treated equally. Actually, they are looking even more closely at China, seeking justification for their appeals to the United States. This is an indication that China is in the driver’s seat, capable of making Tokyo’s case that we are approaching a new cold war or Seoul’s case that a multilateral framework is within reach, but many Americans expect a more subtle strategy by Beijing to divide Seoul and Tokyo as much as possible and to capitalize on their declining confidence in US support for their respective, new strategies.

Is there reason to be concerned that the US-ROK alliance is being affected by recent developments?

Unlike concerns about the US-Japan alliance as Abe’s image worsens in Washington and Japanese criticisms of the Obama administration grow bolder, there is no sign of personalized attacks or even declining mutual images in US-ROK relations. Yet, as the focus shifts from bilateral issues, such as the transfer of operational control, which were in the forefront in 2013, there are signs of growing unease. Worsening Sino-US relations and North Korea’s shift away from outright belligerence raise new expectations that one side or the other may not meet. China looms larger in US eyes raising the stakes in the alliance with Japan, the obvious maritime partner. After a period when Japan played a diminished role in regional politics and the ROK seemed to be the number one US ally through personal affinity, the KORUS FTA, and priority for the North Korean threat, South Korea seems to have lost stature recently. Its US alliance appears to have a more limited security role and to be peripheral to rising maritime tensions with China. DC commentators asked how it could gain greater strategic weight in US eyes. Recommendations for refocusing on multilateralism on the basis of non-traditional security lack a rationale that can persuade this audience.

Recognizing that a vision of Northeast Asian peace and cooperation is subsumed by the primary goal of trust-building in order to alter the status quo with North Korea, which, in turn, is perceived as a strategy for increased cooperation with China in the hope that it will be more helpful in convincing or pressuring North Korea, many see this vision through the prism of China’s image. As that image deteriorates, doubts grow that South Korea can achieve its objectives. South Koreans are adamant that the alliance is not weakened by multilateralism and that China cannot use moves in that direction against the United States or even Japan, but respondents lacked such confidence, suspecting that Park’s successes in 2013 in personal diplomacy and in drawing interest in her general vision would not be able to translate in 2014 into concrete agreements. Divisive forces are intensifying, a middle power lacks the clout to shape the behavior of any of the four great powers focused on the peninsula, and hard security concerns (not least because of North Korea) are overwhelming other concerns. South Korean efforts are unlikely to draw criticism, unlike Japan’s more controversial efforts, but they will have trouble arousing enthusiasm, some said.

Three questions aptly summarize the response to efforts to sound out the response to South Korean efforts to find a path forward. First, what is the added value of a new multilateral framework or organization, given the presence of ASEAN as the main basis on which organizations have taken shape and the existence of China-Japan-Korea (CJK) trilateralism, and US-Japan-Korea trilateralism? Given fatigue with the proliferation of “talk-shops” and the failure of the Six-Party Talks, there is unlikely to be much interest unless a high payoff can be shown. Second, why would China be attracted to this framework, particularly if it were to be viewed as a path to serious multilateral efforts on behalf of peace and security? If North Korea is outside the framework, this looks like the 5+1 idea that China has continuously vetoed. If it is inside, then would China not prefer to resume the Six-Party Talks with itself as the host? Finally, what will draw the interest of the United States in such an initiative? If the answer is that US interest in multilateralism to manage China’s rise and elicit a change of course in North Korea remains high, one can agree. Yet, idealism would need to be backed with real evidence that those results are within reach. So many distractions exist in other regions of the world that South Korean appeals as well as Japanese ones for a change of course with few obvious benefits will be sidelined.

What should Obama do in his visits to Tokyo and Seoul to strengthen trilateralism and help the two US allies find common ground?

The answer heard in DC policy debating circles is not to scold either side, but to find a way in advance of his trip to reach a mutual understanding with forward-looking implications. Given new Japanese assertiveness on the “comfort women” issue, there is little reason to expect that historical memory will be kept in the background, as was the case in 1998 and 2008 when bilateral relations improved. That leaves two principal options for US officials keen on a successful pair of summits. One is to find a way to change the subject, e.g., fortifying two bilateral alliances with little mention of a trilateral framework, recommitting to TPP with indications of Korea’s growing interest in joining it and Japan-US progress in resolving differences, and keeping the focus on China and North Korea with new overtures coupled with more warnings. A second option raised in discussions in Washington is to put stress on common aims and values to which Abe and Park could subscribe as well as to shared security steps that might not be conceivable these days in a bilateral context but could be easier if they were considered extensions of each’s alliance with the United States. In early March there is not much optimism about these back-to-back summits; so officials will have a lot of groundwork ahead. The prevailing assumption is that any results will depend more than ever on US leadership with scant hope that the two allies are ready for serious steps at reconciliation or that politicians and the news media are likely to be helpful in preparing the way for even modest progress in their relations.