Washington Insights (Vol. 4, No. 1)

The end of 2015 and start of 2016 brought many surprises in international affairs regarding the Indo-Pacific region. The North Korean nuclear and missile tests, the Japan-South Korea “comfort women” agreement, and the economic shocks coming from China, were not anticipated, prompting new discussions at DC think tanks and elsewhere in the DC region. Japan exhibited long-unseen confidence before news of deepening trouble for “Abenomics” interfered. Sino-US and, even more, Sino-South Korean relations were rockier than they had been in some time. Below, we reflect on some discussions about these themes, as DC audiences exchanged opinions on what they were hearing from speakers and gave their views to those seeking guidance.


Forecast for 2016

The number of dangers cited in East Asia alone gave a sober beginning to the new year to DC audiences. The North Korean nuclear danger had risen to the forefront. The South China Sea was on everyone’s radar. China’s broader military activity with cyber security included was also on many people’s minds. Given the spillover from the prolonged debate at the United Nations Security Council over new sanctions and the unilateral sanctions as well as missile defense measures being implemented against the will of China, prospects for polarization were mounting. Russia’s role was likely to add to that impact, as its posture in Northeast Asia reflected its rupture with the West over Ukraine and Syria. In these circumstances, doubts that Washington would live up to the expectations for the “rebalance” to Asia were fading, while concerns that some sort of military conflict would occur in the region in 2016 were roughly as before. New worries centered on the economic troubles in the region as China’s engine of growth stalled, but there was some hope for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) boosting regionalism apart from China. Strengthening the case for optimism was a widespread sigh of relief over Japan-ROK relations. Thus, it was widely anticipated that 2016, in the shadow of election rhetoric in the United States, would be a year of consolidation of alliances and partnerships and a difficult year for China’s relations with these countries. Chinese preoccupation with domestic matters could help to manage tensions. In DC discussions, there was no sense of urgency, but considerable disquiet over trends.



In early December, a wide-ranging discussion occurred in DC over Japan’s place in the world system after Abe found an equilibrium in 2015 in Japan’s management of international relations, which is likely to hold for the remaining two to four years Abe is likely to serve in the top post. This balance was found in relations with the United States and Asia and in looking to the future and the past, the audience heard. In the Cold War era, no such equilibrium was possible, as Asia was kept at a distance and history was set aside, while Japan concentrated on getting Asian states to waive any reparations. Finally, in the 1980s, historical memory broke free of many restrictions and Japan sought to “re-Asianize,” both made easier through more negative views of the United States amid trade frictions. Yet, Japan found that the recovery of history was a two-way stream as Korean non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seized the opportunity of democratization to make new demands on Japan over history and the Chinese Communist Party after Marxism-Leninism was delegitimized and sought legitimacy from a narrative of its role in “liberating” China from Japan. While for a brief time Japan’s leaders responded by downgrading history, they soon shifted to countering Chinese and Korean charges in support of Japan’s “honor.” If in the period from 1996 to 1999 an equilibrium appeared to emerge in both improving ties with the United States and Asian states simultaneously and striving for resolution of historical tensions, especially with South Korea, and looking to the past with fewer inhibitions, it was lost under Junichirō Koizumi, who found US ties sufficient while giving low priority to Asia and insisted on annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine no matter what the cost to finding a balance on history. While changes occurred from 2006 to 2009, the chaotic domestic scene from 2009 to2012 left Japan further from a balanced approach, audiences were told as the discussion proceeded to the new Abe era. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) left office, despite plans to the contrary, with relations with both Beijing and Seoul in far worse shape than before. Abe had a big challenge in restoring balance.


The claim that Abe has succeeded in forging an equilibrium would have appeared far-fetched in 2013 and even 2014, but it was largely accepted at the end of 2015 after the Abe statement found no state extremely dissatisfied and the Japanese public feeling better about their country. When an agreement was reached between Abe and Park on history that strengthened Japan’s position in Asia after solidifying ties to the United States, remaining doubts were likely to have been put to rest. In DC, the concerns previously voiced about Abe’s foreign policy were now quieted.


The mood that “Japan is back” was strongly conveyed at the end of 2015 and start of 2016. DC audiences were told that 2015 was Japan’s best year in a decade. Whether the unprecedented successes in Japan-US relations, the calmer state of Japan-China relations, or the breakthrough finally reached in Japan-ROK relations, Japanese were proud of their diplomacy as well as Abe’s legislative accomplishments and seventieth-year statement conveying a sense of national strength and firm leadership. This carried over to optimism about 2016, which encountered more skepticism from listeners. The year had started badly—North Korea’s nuclear test, international stock markets falling sharply due primarily to worries about China, and alarm over terrorism— but Japanese focused on the great opportunity for their diplomacy as a member of the UN Security Council dealing with North Korea, the president of the Group of Seven (G7) hosting a May summit in Ise Shima, the convener of an August conference on African development for the first time meeting in Africa, and the host of the now resumed China-Japan-South Korea trilateral (CJK) summit. 


While the impression was conveyed that Abe would build on his successes in 2016, it was unclear how any of these settings would facilitate that. Most attention went to the G7 summit, where Japan envisioned a meeting with like-minded countries and had memories of previous times when it played host—1979, the first time it had held such a big international conference as the world faced an oil crisis; 1986, when there was talk that this would see Japan’s first major leadership initiatives, reflecting its growing economic clout and the new security orientation added to the G7; 1993, when there was discussion of a peace dividend and a new world order in which Japan represented a rising Asia; 2000, when the Okinawa Group of Eight (G8) meeting came as Vladimir Putin was being courted by Japan and he made his debut following a stop in North Korea to great fanfare; and 2008, as the world began to face a financial crisis while NGOs were also becoming active at these summits. Recalling these summits as occasions of more momentous developments than other participants remember, Japanese are anticipating a more consequential meeting, which raises questions for DC audiences.


Eight items arose in the discussion of preparations for the G7 meeting: 1) the world economy in what could be a troubled year with growing danger from protectionism at a time of slowdown in Asia as well as elsewhere, after China’s status has become more comprised; 2) regional security issues from the Middle East to North Korea and the South China Sea with Japan’s apparent wish that Ukraine may be off the list and concern that Japan will be viewed as an outlier on refugees; 3) energy and climate issues as both themes are seen in a new light in 2016; 4) official development assistance (ODA), where Japan can build on its preparation for the African summit and NGO meetings; 5) health, as US-Japan cooperation in facing the overuse of antibiotics is one theme; 6) women’s employment, as Abe insists that he is pushing this despite skepticism about the record of Japan; 7) infrastructure investment, as states prepare for the Group of Twenty (G20) in Guangzhou and the CJK summit; and 8) Putin, who has been identified by Japan’s media as casting a big shadow on the summit. Given the internal orientation of the European powers, the G7 focus will be on Abe and Barack Obama, discussants noted. The possibility that Xi would be invited by Abe to attend was quickly dismissed as to be decided later. More stress was put on bridging with South Korea and states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


Two questions drew close attention in the exchanges about Japan’s plans for the G7 summit: 1) given many other summits in 2016, will this meeting really be special, and will US-Japan coordination be on display in light of different priorities; and 2) will the Putin shadow backfire on Abe if, as Yomiuri Shimbun on January 3 expected, Abe will meet with Putin earlier in a local city of Russia and then will try to bridge the gap between Putin and the other leaders despite recent tensions with Obama over his continued wooing of Putin? Japanese talk of Asia and Europe as separate arenas and that Putin’s role in Asia should be judged separately from his behavior in the Middle East and Ukraine, while Abe casts doubt on whether he will maintain the sanctions regime, raises unanswered questions about US-Japan coordination in May.


Another discussion asked if US-Japan relations are becoming a “soft power alliance.” In the aftermath of the milestones reached in 2015, talk turned to new, deepening cooperation—in health care and humanitarian assistance or in other non-security fields that serve to buttress defense ties. Japanese wondered if Washington is ready to recognize Japan’s importance across Asia beyond security. The new mantra is “all-around relations,” as Americans find benefit in Japan’s success economically, technically, and educationally. Together the two states can shape the environment across East Asia through not only deterrence but also varied stabilization measures. Again, this message drew some skepticism, although cooperation is much desired.



A book launch in DC was devoted to assessing China’s power. While projections of its rise economically pointed to a duopoly with the United States in another decade, analysis of China’s soft power pointed to declining appeal, as it fails to successfully spread its norms and values. One conclusion is that China is a “fragile great power” unprepared for responsibility. Summing up the views in the book was the sense that China is neither poised to be No. 1 nor in danger of some kind of collapse. A likely slowdown economically would delay its projection of power beyond the near seas, but workarounds in nearby maritime areas may compensate for some weaknesses. In response to a query, Russian support for China’s military power, including the new sale of the Su-35 fighter jets, was assessed as significant in radar and jet engines. Yet, skeptical comments: compared China in 2015 to Japan in 1990, stressing the weak political base for adapting to new conditions; pointed to demographic and debt problems that would slow China’s rise; argued that the United States is now heavily engaged and welcomed in the region to preserve the global system; and were attentive to China’s current intentions to be a regional, not a global, power. A diversity of opinion left unclear the balance between alarmists and skeptics.


North Korea

The North Korean nuclear and missile tests prompted intense discussion over what should be done. The impression drawn of US policy is that only tough sanctions will make it credible, while there was widespread agreement that the hopeful talk about Xi Jinping over the past three years taking a tougher line toward North Korea is now revealed to have been misleading. Particularly noteworthy was how China snubbed South Korea, shattering expectations there of China leaning toward it and of closer cooperation on North Korea. Once again, debate centered on China’s motivations: fear of a border crisis with refugees; fear of a unified Korea, expanding the threat from the US-ROK alliance; or fear of a tighter triangular alliance also including Japan. Some called for a more serious Sino-US strategic conversation to clarify each side’s intentions and raise the prospects of renewed coordination. Others concluded that such efforts had failed, and it was time to concentrate on triangular deterrence, as Japanese and, increasingly, South Korean officials were seeking. Given the demise of Japan-North Korea talks on abductees (earlier barely on life support) and of the Kaeseong Industrial Complex as well as“trustpolitik,” along with China’s rejection of five-party talks excluding North Korea, there was strong support for sending a message to China and North Korea through sanctions and a military buildup.


Reviewing the Obama era in terms of “strategic patience,” some declared it a failure because North Korea’s threats keep growing. Yet, few were willing to follow that logic to argue for more active engagement of the North or acceptance of China’s calls for resumption of the Six-Party Talks as a solution. Others saw the Obama approach as the least bad alternative: Xi Jinping had failed to split Washington and Seoul—thus losing his foothold in Seoul; he had failed also to sustain the divide between Seoul and Tokyo, watching as it narrows a lot; and he had made it easier for Washington to rally states around Chinese lack of cooperation in Northeast and Southeast Asia. In the absence of China’s assistance, some held out hope for incremental change in North Korea, either by arousing what are seen as the sprouts of civil society (the new rich) or by holding out olive branches as was done with Vietnam in the 1990s. One subject of controversy was whether Russia is standing with China on North Korea and whether the upshot of the split over sanctions will be more open, joint support for North Korea. Some resisted the idea of a “new Cold War” as a dangerous way for Washington to think rather than a realistic recognition of evolving trends. They insisted that North Korea is a pain for both Beijing and Moscow, excluding the possibility that both consider it a useful partner in managing great power relations.


Discussions about North Korea ranged widely. Would sanctions have little impact or prove useful in changing the North? Is Kim Jong-un ready to change course after May’s 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea to stress the economy, reducing spending on his conventional forces, and showing new interest in diplomacy with the United States, or does he see such talks as useless? Is he adamantly opposed to use of the term “denuclearization” or could he accept it as a goal should Washington end its “hostile” policies such as the joint military exercises with Seoul? To answer these and similar questions, are there adequate channels of bilateral communications with Pyongyang? Given the North’s interest in a “peace treaty” separate from arms control on nuclear weapons, it seems that earlier talk of combining the two objectives is no longer of interest. The upshot of discussions was that 2016 would be a bad year for US-North Korean relations with a string of trigger points from unilateral sanctions to exercises to bombastic rhetoric at the May Congress. That does not rule out informal talks for better mutual understanding, with nonproliferation as one focus, some argue.


In this Northeast Asian context, what should we expect from North-South relations? One discussion concluded that North Korea’s economy has grown so much over the past decade that the South has lost much of its economic clout, and the closing of the Kaeseong complex will cost the North about USD 100 million, a loss it can easily absorb. Yet, if progressives regain control, their priority on stability on the peninsula rather than denuclearization would change things. Already under Park Geun-hye, there was no sign of working with Pyongyang; so she bypassed it, using Beijing as the only venue open until that too closed. Some see that reliance on Beijing and inattention to Pyongyang as a mistake, now compounded by abandoning hope in Beijing, which will lead to a fresh debate in Seoul on how to reset Chinese relations. Now that Kaeseong is lost, the North Korean military will reclaim the area, which it sees as a strategic asset and had been reluctant to transfer. Meanwhile, young South Koreans will further lose interest in unification. Resuming ties will now prove more difficult, it was argued.


Some are looking back to what did not work in Park’s first three years. Rhetoric exceeded resources, it was said, even in the much-touted unification preparation committee. North Korea’s bad behavior limited what Park could do, and problems in South Korea, such as the Sewol tragedy and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak, weakened Park, as did the fragmentation in political parties with clashing views on policies to the United States, North Korea, and China. Generational and regional differences also matter. In this reasoning, Seoul has had it within its means to work with Pyongyang, and after the next president takes office in 2018 it could have success, seen as neglecting any demands for reciprocity and concentrating on stability on the peninsula. Putting aside US-led triangularity as a temporary response and still searching for a way to work with China, progressives may try new engagement. Yet, others fault Park more for her over-optimism about managing China, ignoring China’s own strategy. They draw the lesson that such reliance on China should not be repeated as a way to try to change North Korea. Turning away from China, however, does not mean fully embracing US strategy, since many fear that this will lead South Korea toward a dangerous outcome, entrapping it with its safety at stake much more than US safety should a preemptive strike be launched. US and South Korean views were somewhat at odds in exchanges about how far to go and how lasting to be in bypassing China.


Stability on the Korean Peninsula rested on the Six-Party Talks, but even more on the tacit understanding that neither side will escalate beyond the other’s red lines. In the case of the talks for about five years and their legacy over the following years, the widespread expectation was that they signified that China would use leverage in pursuit of regional stability. After all, its prestige was at stake, and not much was expected of it. In 2009 when China did not pressure the North, again in 2010 when it did not blame the North, and finally in 2016 when it blamed others, hope was lost, in stages, that it would fulfill gradually fading expectations. For some who think that the new missile defense steps in 2016 are about China, it could be seen as a message that since China failed to contain North Korea, China would now be contained. Yet, the mainstream view is that China’s demands will be ignored for a defensive system aimed solely at Pyongyang. Another message heard in DC was that, however fragile, stability would result from clarity that South Korea’s red line is any kind of attack on the Seoul metropolitan area. Even as North Korea resorts to force to show that it has the advantage in a low-level exchange, it knows that in a major confrontation it would be defeated. Working against stability, however, is a lack of clarity about its red lines. After what is seen as North Korea’s defeat in August 2015, given the firm response, it is expected that the North will be cautious about escalation even if no red lines are crossed that trigger a large-scale response with escalation possible.


Southeast Asia

As the time for the Sunnylands US-ASEAN summit approached, discussions related to Southeast Asia drew new attention in DC. Obama had put the region firmly on the US radar, traveling there with regularity after joining the East Asia Summit (EAS) and making ASEAN’s cohesion a priority, while being sensitive to thinking in the region in which strategy is often driven by economic objectives and a desire to achieve a balance of power. In examining Indonesia, awareness was shown to a lack of awareness of direct threats and inertia from its non-aligned legacy, but as the debate there intensifies over how to balance between Washington and Beijing, new US opportunities are emerging. In comparison to Vietnam and Myanmar, it was suggested that there is less suspicion of the United States. While trade with China has jumped, Chinese investment there has been limited. Yet, China’s Maritime Silk Road and launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) promises a huge influx into Indonesia. Discussion centered more on security cooperation, as the aggressive behavior of China appears to be exerting some impact on Jokowi’s views. Even if non-alignment and not choosing sides is the intention, the goal of stopping any one country from gaining dominance has been leading to invigorated US ties.


Other comments on Southeast Asia pointed to China’s distorted view that arousal by the United States is the cause of problems and that China is doing well in the area as seen in its role as the No. 1 trading partner of states. Mistaken risk analysis has left China catching up to grasp changes there as it has driven states to turn more to the United States. Some in Southeast Asia have faulted the US “rebalance” for dwelling too much on the military, but listeners were told that local militaries do not think so. One suggestion was to put the military ties more under the radar, while showcasing economic initiatives, but others think that it is time to formalize a security order to stabilize a region now facing great uncertainty, focusing on the South China Sea as well as counterterrorism. Discussion pivoted on the questions of whether ASEAN is preparing to support a freedom of navigation statement and how US strategy with a broader range can help the region’s countries work more closely together on that.