Washington Insights (Vol. 3, No. 5)

Four events drove discussions in DC in the normally quiet weeks of late summer. First, there was the Abe statement and the implications of historical memories for bilateral relations and US regional policy. Second, there was North Korea’s threat of war followed by direct talks with South Korea with uncertain implications. Third, Xi Jinping’s seventieth anniversary commemoration further showcased history while testing the contours of regionalism. Finally, anticipation of Park Geun-hye’s October visit to Washington was intensifying in the first half of September. The impending visit of Xi Jinping loomed as a marker of the transition to what was expected to be a busy fall of diplomacy, serving as the background to discussions on each of these themes.

What would Abe say and how would it be received in Northeast Asia? Who would be in attendance at Xi’s gala and how would they respond to his main messages? How would North Korea figure into regional diplomacy after its new, belligerent gambit? What would be Park’s agenda in DC and how would it play in the shifting context of Abe-Obama and Xi-Obama relations? A succession of questions shaped debates over international relations in Asia. Most importantly, a rising sense of polarization in the region was changing the calculus about how Washington should treat allies as well as competitors. The preoccupation with history that through mid-August obscured this thinking suddenly gave way to pointed questioning from DC realist audiences.

Even as August discussions centered on Abe’s statement, some asked if the history issue is generally being driven more by Abe or by Xi. The case for Abe is obvious. His every remark is followed with the closest scrutiny, and Chinese and South Korean responses are both quick and of global interest. The news follows him most actively. Yet, the case for Xi is also being aired. Tracing a crescendo of deepening historical gaps, one finds the 2004 Koguryo issue with South Korea came after a brief opening of “New Thinking” on Japanese history and put history in the forefront; the Beijing Olympics showcased a proud, defiant approach to Chinese history, ending a debate in China that now it had arrived the humiliation narrative could be put to rest and a time of warming relations with Japan and South Korea as history was downplayed or even treated as a shared heritage in the exchange of visits to Qufu and Nara; and the Xi “rejuvenation” theme from 2012 followed brief healing moves in 2011 after a devastating downturn in 2010. In each case, China dramatized deep historical gaps.

Reasons for blaming China, above all, extend beyond the timing of China’s moves. History—whether the grievance narrative or the notion that international law does not prevail when an historical case is made, as in the South China Sea—has become the guide justifying China’s international relations behavior. Its prominence in the national identity narrative has kept growing too. Realizing Japan’s vulnerability as a target for Chinese and South Koreans and elsewhere as well, China has refused to search for common ground. Indeed, its best hope for handcuffing Japan’s leaders in responding to a worsening security environment from China’s rise has been to “play the history card.” Analysts who argue that the security dilemma is causing history’s animosities to become more pronounced also could point to China as the driver. At no point, however, did DC discussions about China’s responsibility exonerate Abe.

Seeking to predict the impact of history issues after this evocative year, DC debates explored the causes of recent arousal, none of which is reassuring about prospects in the coming years. If NGOs are the driving forces shaping the discourse, then those in the United States—spurred by Korean and Chinese Americans and reflected in the academic and journalist communities—are unlikely to grow quieter. If Abe’s circle is the driver, it is increasingly emboldened after a string of successes since 2013. If Xi’s circle is the driver, it is likely to consider history an effective wedge, splitting Seoul and Tokyo and even Washington and Tokyo. Each side also welcomes affirmation of its national identity that results. While economic spillover might temporarily lessen use of the “history card,” and Seoul’s fear of losing the “history wars” in Washington may give it pause, the region’s obsession with history is unlikely to abate for long. China is expected to continue to frame the future in terms of losses and grievances from the past and to reject values or regional identity harmful to regime legitimacy.

While critics of Abe frame the history disputes as the revival of militarism and of a state that cannot be trusted to share values, critics of China’s revisionist history see an assault on Western civilization and its humanism, on post Cold War aspirations to forge an international community based on universal values and a shared outlook on much of history, and on a search for truth rather than censorship to conceal it. To pretend that trust can expand without addressing how history is now being invoked is pure folly, audiences were told. It is corrosive, but views are split on the US role.

Many think that the Obama administration handled the run-up to the Abe statement about as well as it could. US pressure appears to have been one of many factors—the need for New Komeito to approve a Cabinet Statement, the input of a committee of experts appointed by Abe, the need to pass new security laws against a backlash of public opinion still under the shadow of pacifism and nervous about Abe’s aims, and prospects for improved diplomacy with Beijing—obliging Abe to accept a less revisionist statement than he sought. The relief expressed in government and also realist circles suggested a sense of some success, even if few imagined that Abe now is interested in putting the history issue to rest. At least, more focus can now be put on strategic interests. Others expressed frustration that the US impact is so limited, to the point they debated whether the role of active mediation or honest broker is more advisable for the success of the “pivot to Asia.” Such proposals faced doubts about the danger of historical resentments toward the United States spilling forth and the rising sensitivity toward “gaiatsu” or US pressure that used to be common. If Seoul and Tokyo have appealed for more US support for their positions, each fears US favoritism for the other and is too one-sided in its thinking to welcome what US involvement might produce. DC discussions tend to be skeptical about a big US role.

Another question raised in history discussions is why Abe seems more eager to find a path forward with Xi than with Park. Does this suggest a gap with Washington? His effort to lessen tension with Xi does not seem so, since the Obama administration has urged less stridency toward Beijing too, but his failure to make much of an effort with Park is a continuous DC concern. Japanese business is more actively lobbying for a better atmosphere with China, and Abe’s expert commission had business representation attuned to this. That partially explains Abe’s preference. A more doubtful view is that Abe’s inattention to US appeals on South Korea is a sign of a more autonomous way of thinking about Asia: writing off the strategic value of Seoul as well as targeting it for its intense rejection of his revisionist agenda, but also pursuing Moscow and highlighting independent moves to India and ASEAN. The Japan-US gap on historical memory is most problematic in regard to Japan-ROK ties.

One theme aired in some of the DC discussions was the limits of coordination in the responses of Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington to developments over this period. Alert to images of Park Geun-hye’s “honeymoon” with Xi Jinping, Abe Shinzo’s “wooing” of Vladimir Putin as well as “antipathy” between Park and Abe, observers questioned the degree of consistency in how allied leaders were responding to the US regional strategy. Abe was much softer on China than on South Korea in his statement. Park decided to go to Beijing on September 3. Washington may not have pressed as hard in 2015 against Japanese going to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and then the Vladivostok gathering as it did in 2014, but there was no doubt that it was concerned about the message that would be sent by business as usual with a state in the midst of blatant aggression. Although it would have been hypocritical to oppose Park or Abe going to meet Xi when Xi was about to visit Obama, the divisive historical message and military parade on September 3 heightened sensitivities. In the background was growing awareness that the historical divide was widening, centered on the axis of China and Russia, leaving Pyongyang’s place uncertain and Tokyo and Seoul striving to head off a northern axis with uncertain US input.

A theme discussed in DC was the decision of Park Geun-hye to attend Xi Jinping’s seventieth anniversary celebration and the military parade. Given the presence in DC of critics who think that she has been too cozy with Xi, questions were raised about what would be the impact on US thinking about her plan to visit DC in October. Given that Xi is coming to Washington in September, criticism of Park going to meet Xi is complicated. Much depends on how the September 3 history themes are raised. After her visit to China and in the midst of intensified Republican campaign charges against Obama for being soft on China, how should Koreans counter doubters that they are leaning too close to China? Quiet assurances that this is necessary due to China’s role in managing North Korea, gaining more urgency after the late August land mine injuries and threats, are received with some understanding, but there are others who are skeptical and even more so after South Korean hopes rose for talks with North Korea in the face of American skepticism that much will come of them.

The 8/25 North-South agreement has widened the wedge between Seoul and Washington in dealing with Pyongyang. Some South Korean speakers argue for a parallel track without waiting for a commitment to denuclearize, urging that, at a minimum, Washington give Seoul space to explore this track. Washington should be careful not to give the impression that it prefers a divided Korea, as some Koreans think—even blaming it for causing the divide. Hearing such arguments, many in DC fear a return to the period (pre-2008) when Seoul and Washington did not speak with one voice on North Korean matters. They express concern too that Pyongyang as well as Beijing and even Moscow is deliberately trying to cause a divide, seeing an opening in Seoul’s overoptimism about what middle power diplomacy can achieve.

The message from Seoul is that South Korea won in the showdown with Pyongyang, which expressed its “regrets” over the land mines and is now turning away from its belligerence with family reunions just the beginning. Moreover, some Koreans are saying that China’s wording showed more toughness toward Pyongyang, calling on the side that was responsible for the troubles to change its behavior, again raising hopes, perhaps in recognition that Park will be coming to Beijing soon. Yet, DC doubt about China’s support for Seoul’s strategy toward North Korea was not allayed. The consensus on how to deal with Pyongyang seemed to be fraying from late August.

DC audiences anticipate actionable North Korean behavior before long—even prior to the Obama-Park summit—that will put pressure on Park to approve THAAD—if China is quite indifferent to a North Korean missile launch in defiance of a Security Council resolution, then engaging in defense against a missile attack with a system paid for and deployed by the United States and in interoperable missile defense would hardly seem to be a provocation against China, as China has insisted.

Another positive result from Park’s more active diplomacy in late August and early September was Xi’s support for a trilateral summit with Abe in Seoul. Thus, her visit to Beijing is depicted as producing a result welcome in Washington—a rationale for a Park-Abe summit on the sidelines. Along with claims that it further tilted Beijing closer to Seoul than to Pyongyang and raised the prospects for Chinese support in the event of a long-range missile or nuclear test, this is presented as in US interest.

Some expect a ROK-Japan summit in the shadows of a China-Japan-South Korea (CJK) summit in mid-fall to be a perfunctory event. When DC audiences asked what agenda would make it far more meaningful with deliverables on both sides, responses pointed to security, values, and specific bilateral concerns, assuming that the long-sought agreement on the “comfort women” issue is not reached. A clear sign that both appreciate the need for closer defense ties and triangularity with their common ally is high on the US wish list. Desired too is revived recognition of shared values, reversing a recent Japanese foreign ministry decision to omit such recognition, which is seen as helping China. A third step would be for Seoul to remove its case before the WTO on banning imports of food from Fukushima and for Tokyo to recognize Seoul’s aspirations in a tangible way, such as lending support to Park’s reunification goals and her NAPCI initiative.

While Koreans take credit for Park convincing Xi Jinping to hold a trilateral summit this fall including Abe Shinzo—a big justification for her visit to Beijing—, US calls for strengthening ROK-Japan relations (after Park’s constructive handling of Abe’s seventieth anniversary statement) persist. Insistence is unmistakable that closer ROK-Japanese ties are critical to US national security as well as to the security of both countries. In not criticizing Park’s visit to Beijing, especially since she stayed clear of any overt sign of joining in criticism of Japan, or the revival of the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral meetings, Washington is keeping the focus on the alliance triangle, which amplifies the voices of each of the three states on key issues. At the same time, it is clear that outreach to Pyongyang is only welcome when denuclearization obligations are met—not on a parallel track—and destabilizing provocations are ended. While the US public may be focusing concern on Park’s China diplomacy, the US government is apparently more focused on her Japan diplomacy. The CJK trilateral is welcomed as a means to hold a more important Japan-ROK bilateral summit, not simply to break the ice after a long delay but to achieve real progress deemed urgent in DC circles.

For Abe, the ideal summit would avoid historical issues, but talks continue to find a minimal agreement on the comfort women issue in accord with Seoul’s insistence that more preparations for the summit are needed. Park may be ready to meet the Sasae formula for managing the comfort women issue broached in 2012 when the Korean side wanted more, but Abe is more adamant about this important issue for his revisionist group and may think that—with US pressure and security concerns more urgent—Park will yield. Indeed, US realists were quick to find Abe’s August statement sufficient and are trumpeting the need to counter Xi Jinping’s concept of Eurasian security and attack on US alliances. They want to dissuade Chinese and others who assert that South Korea is now in play in great power maneuvering, and the best way to do that, listeners are told, is for ROK-Japan relations to be improved. The nature of warfare, they add, has changed; so that rather than think of Japan as the rear and South Korea as the front line, Washington regards the two together as part of an integrated defense system, requiring close intelligence sharing. The Park-Obama summit needs to make clear to Japan and China, both of which seem not to take the message seriously, that the ROK-US alliance is strong. To make that clear, audiences are told, there must also be a message about closer ROK-Japan ties.

The juxtaposition of US alliances with South Korea and Japan drew continued interest. While late August again demonstrated commendable coordination in the US-ROK alliance versus North Korea, early September reignited concern that this alliance was out of sync in facing regional reorganization across the broader Indo-Pacific. As Washington gropes for a grand strategy in this wider area, which Tokyo eagerly awaits, Seoul either ignores this far-reaching transformation or narrowly insists that the North Korean challenge is so dangerous it requires a separate path altogether, even on a matter as vital to Seoul’s interests as freedom of navigation. In Tokyo and, increasingly, Washington’s thinking, the predominant trend in the region is polarization, which is likely to shape the process of responding to Pyongyang too, while in Seoul’s thinking, the search for common ground jointly with Beijing takes priority. This strategic divergence has replaced historical memory in DC seminars.

The consensus in US-South Korean DC exchanges is that strategic cooperation by Seoul and Tokyo is needed in the face of growing threats. If the survival of South Korea depends on the ROK-US alliance and the fate of that alliance cannot fully be separated from that of the US-Japan alliance, then few doubt that ROK-Japan ties must improve. Similarly, it is widely conceded that there must be a regional angle to the ROK-US alliance beyond a tighter, comprehensive strategic bilateral alliance and a growing, shared global agenda. Yet, DC audiences hear many signs of South Korean concerns about Japan’s future, a US tilt toward Japan, an unequal alliance in which US acceptance of Seoul’s diplomatic aims is inadequate, and excessive US suspicion of China that interferes with the pursuit of inclusive multilateral institutions. Many speakers from Seoul offer reassurance about the Korean public’s preference for ties to Washington than Beijing, the limited economic nature of what is seen as a tilt to China, and Korean confidence in Washington as the only partner without hegemonic intentions on the peninsula. They are eager to dispel mounting concerns that Park Geun-hye in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), going to Beijing on September 3, delaying a decision on THAAD, and raising hopes for talks with Pyongyang as well as taking a hard line on Japan, is complicating relations. In advance of Park’s visit to Washington, they are making the case that she will explain her policies to China (not so positive on security) and to Japan (not so negative on security), while striving to get Obama to test the waters with Kim Jong-un after his success in reaching a deal with Iran. Afterall, the cordial personal ties of Obama and Park are seen as a bulwark against a bad summit, as has occurred between ROK and US leaders on various past occasions. These leaders and the two publics are in favor of the liberal international order—a reassuring factor as both seek to shape China’s behavior to support that order.

Whereas South Korea has an extended record of ups and downs in relations with Japan, leading most Koreans to expect another upswing and grudgingly support it as in the national interest, Japan’s slide in public support for improved relations may be more problematic with less chance of a reversal. “Korea passing” is treated as realist by centrists, as if Seoul is already too far gone into China’s camp or too anti-Japan to allow for any other outcome. US attention, some suggest, needs to focus on ways to alter Japanese opinion more than Korean opinion. Yet, as much as the US role in 2014-2015 has positively facilitated ROK-Japan relations, the two have to make the tough decisions themselves. In February-April 2014, Obama helped steer them in this direction, braking the decline in relations. In July 2014, Xi Jinping ironically had the opposite effect he intended when he made Japan-bashing the centerpiece of his visit to Seoul. His pressure on Koreans to take sides jointly against Japan drove them away from China—as they thought further about what its history signifies—and even back toward their past familiar begrudging acceptance of Japan. The shift toward more acquiescence for Japan was building in April 2015 with Abe’s summits with Xi Jinping and then Obama and again in August with US acceptance of the Abe statement and Korea’ resignation that it met the minimal standards of many. Rather isolated in Washington and outflanked by Tokyo in much of Asia, Seoul needed a summit, at least to clear up misperceptions of why it had balked and US concerns.

While US policy concentrates on trilateralism in response to threats in Northeast Asia, others seek some sort of multilateralism. Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar Dialogue overlaps with NAPCI most heavily, although it is broader, including economic ties. China and Russia seek Six-Party Talks or NEAPSM (Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism, as proposed through the fifth working group of the Joint Agreement in 2007), presumably, to weaken the US alliances. Seoul appears to give more hope to these various ideas for multilateralism than DC audiences do.

Sino-Russian relations drew lively interest, including detailed analysis of military ties. It was clearly indicated that China’s naval warfare capabilities have greatly benefited from systems sold by Russia, technology transfers, tacit acceptance by Russia of reverse engineering, as if it were the price of doing business, and no easy answer to presumed Chinese hacking of Russian arms design bureaus. Although the peak volume of arms sales was in 1999-2006, sales rose again in the 2010s reaching about USD 1 billion per year and bringing the total from the 1990s to USD 32 billion. Russia finds it advantageous that China puts increasing pressure on the United States. The expectation is for further arms sales of more advanced weapons with some sales by China too, where it has seized the technological edge and Russia’s need is apparent, e.g., in shipbuilding and engines after Russia lost Ukraine as a supplier. The notion that Sino-Russian ties are only an axis of convenience is rarely heard in DC today.

Recognition is widespread that Moscow and Beijing share the same logic about the world; each has opened a front against the United States at one end of Eurasia as it also prepares for hybrid warfare while trying to stay just short of crossing a red line. As Washington contemplated economic sanctions against China and Russia or both in response to cyber-espionage, DC audiences were asking if there is now a danger of driving these two dissatisfied, authoritarian states together. While reservations can still be heard that on regional issues—Central Asia, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Ocean—the verdict is still out, others see increasing cooperation on such matters. One hears that Beijing and Moscow jointly pressed Central Asian states to reject US bases as the Afghan war was drawing down. Also noted were signs of Russia taking a harder line toward Japan, e.g. flying many more aircraft close to Japanese airspace forcing Japanese planes to scramble. Since China has been challenging Japan in like manner at the other end of the archipelago, speculation that the two may coordinate is beginning. While Russia appears inclined to yield on regional issues, where it had been less cooperative, China is seen as more hesitant, notably on global issues, to boost Sino-Russian relations in ways that would endanger its economic integration with the West. Proposals to challenge China more on regional issues, e.g., missile defense in South Korea or even Southeast Asia, or on bilateral issues, such as the sanctions over cyber-security challenges, reflect frustrations widely heard in DC.

A pause in discussion of TPP left many uncertain when a new push would occur. On pharmaceuticals, the main question was would Obama be able to show flexibility or be so constricted by a few senators that a compromise shorter than protection of patents for 12 years could not be reached. On rules of origin, Mexico and Canada as well as the United States were tested on whether they could be more flexible, which would allow Japan to be satisfied that production chains, e.g., with Thailand, would not be excluded. Dairy remained a challenging issue too. Few doubted that no deal could be reached without US leadership, and that might await diplomatic attention prior to Obama’s November participation in APEC and travel to East Asia.

A panel on South Korea’s relations with India raised some comparisons with Japan’s relationship with India. Washington welcomes both Tokyo and Seoul’s pursuit of New Delhi, transforming what have been parallel universes in Asia into an Indo-Pacific framework conducive to the Obama rebalance. India welcomes these overtures too, seeking to diversity its foreign policy, especially with economically successful states, even if it is slow to shift away from its preference for non-alignment based on geopolitical weakness, a sense of removal from great power intrigues, and continued suspicion of global norms as a weapon of the strong that could weaken state sovereignty cherished as part of its post-colonial legacy. Seoul lacks Tokyo’s priority on India, enthusiasm to make both security and economics the focus of building institutions, and determination to gain an edge over China. Thus, Tokyo has found common cause with Washington in its strategy for New Delhi, while Seoul’s overtures are treated as secondary. While the theme of “Global Korea,” championed by Lee Myung-bak, still serves to broaden US-ROK cooperation, and cybersecurity serves as a focus for both joint global efforts and alliance strengthening in the face of North Korean threats, limited coordination toward India is indicative of the rising disconnect in US and ROK regional strategy. Narrowly centered on Northeast Asia, wary of being seen by China as joining an arrangement China identifies as containment, and perceiving its own middle power status as a rationale for more autonomy in its foreign policy, South Korea is losing ground to Japan as the US ally of choice in Asia. This message was unmistakable in DC events.

The Sino-US-Japanese-ROK quadrangle is viewed from diverse angles. From the point of view of relations between leaders, there is the view that Obama in 2013 focused on Xi Jinping with hopes for improving bilateral relations, leaving Abe on the sidelines at a time of pessimism about Sino-Japanese relations while pleasing Park who was even more eagerly pursuing Xi. While Park continued to enjoy a cordial relationship with Obama and Abe, personal image in Washington was not repaired and the souring of the Obama-Xi relationship resulted in a new understanding in US-Japanese relations that cast Abe’s security policies in a very favorable light. In spite of Park’s effort to sustain a special personal relationship with Obama as well as with Xi, the line-up of Obama and Abe versus Xi left her in an isolated position by 2015. The shadow of a breakthrough Obama-Abe summit in April and a troubled Obama-Xi summit in September darkened prospects for the Obama-Park October meeting.