Washington Insights (Vol. 4, No. 2)

Sino-US Relations

While many are discussing the dominance of competition over cooperation in Sino-US relations, one DC presentation argued that both threads are intensifying under the strong leadership of Xi Jinping. After many years in the 2000s when Washington had urged China to play a more active role in regional and global affairs—becoming a “responsible stakeholder”—rather than a “free rider,” new activism proved to be a double-edged sword. Even in military ties, one sees new elements of cooperation along with much intensified competition. Despite an agreement on sanctions in the Security Council, the impression left is that the main story in 2016 will be sharper competition, as Xi Jinping looks beyond Obama to a new US president. If some view the Obama-Xi summit in September as rather successful, they also see tensions over the South China Sea and North Korea as straining relations more in the next months. The March 30 Obama-Xi meeting did little to change growing pessimism in DC.

The South China Sea disputes are particularly intractable, as China disregards what others recognize as international law and the United States pushes back. Coercion is being confronted with insistence on acceptable methods of dispute resolution with a risk of an accident or a miscalculation. A victory in court by the Philippines in the spring with China rejecting it would result in Washington rallying states to impose costs on China. The battleground is ASEAN, and Obama’s summit with its leaders saw Chinese media declaring victory because the final statement was rather vague, but US officials also saw this as a victory in what is increasingly a zero-sum struggle.

Other disputes over North Korea and Taiwan depend more on actions by others, but they also could spiral into Sino-US confrontations if China is protective of Kim Jong-un despite agreeing to tougher sanctions and pressures Tsai-Ying-wen beyond the cutback in tourists to Taiwan recently observed. Yet, given Xi Jinping’s immediate challenges due to an economic slowdown and his anti-corruption campaign, there is some expectation that he will prioritize stability. This is in line with the conclusion that Xi has not decided to upend the international order even as he challenges it in more areas and defines it not as a US-led order with Western values and alliances, but as a UN-centered order with institutions that need to be reformed, not wrecked. China may keep its focus on its neighborhood in 2016, but a new US president may well be more assertive in facing China in 2017. The label a “new type of major power relations” has been rejected as a facade for China to pursue its “core interests,” and in 2017 we can anticipate that Xi will try to introduce a new label. This may not rule out some new cooperative elements, such as China seeking to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) if that has been finalized, even as it keeps testing the limits of US policy and regional hedging.

China’s foreign policy has suffered more setbacks than many have acknowledged, DC discussions indicated. US clarity and the presence of a capable and firm ally in Japan checked China’s advance in the Senkaku/Diaoyu area more than occurred in the South China Sea, but China continues to test Japan with bigger armed vessels. Sino-Japanese relations are fragile, and China is angry with Japan’s role in the South China Sea. China has spoiled its relationship with South Korea after gutting what the United States and South Korea proposed as sanctions on North Korea in 2013 and in 2016 spending nearly two months resisting serious sanctions and threatening South Korea rather than coordinating with it. While the nadir in early 2016 will pass as the new Chinese posture leads to more cooperation, the damage has been done in Seoul.


Japanese Security

One presentation drew comparisons between the Cold War era and the situation that Japan faces today. Three decades ago, the Sea of Okhotsk was a sanctuary for the Soviet Union in its global struggle against the United States. Today, China is seeking to make the South China Sea a bastion of its control with nuclear-armed submarines protected there. Moscow established defensive lines for control of the sea, and today Beijing is looking to the first and second island chains with similar intentions. While China and the United States are not engaged in a Cold War, audiences heard, lessons from that era can be learned as an arms race is gathering steam. Japan’s main role in the 1980s was to support the US maritime strategy and deter aggression. Today, its navy again is the focus in the regional challenge to forestall adventurism. Similar to the massive Soviet naval build-up of the 1960s to 1980s, China is in the midst of a rapid build-up. Discussion touched on whether one should confer a hostile superpower status on China, given important differences with the Soviet Union; whether Japan’s role has changed significantly, even if one recognizes that in the 1980s it was far from a security free rider; whether Japanese leadership is notably different, with Nakasone Yasuhiro recognized as the first political leader with a strong interest in security; whether the China challenge is more serious since China has easier access to areas around Japan and greater economic clout and ways to make US bases more vulnerable; and whether the Japanese public’s fear of entrapment is now changing. One big difference is the significance of China’s challenge to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, which has led to fear of US abandonment and even US concern that Japan may act in a manner that leads to entrapment. Exchanges revealed clashing views on the aptness of such comparisons, as many argued that China’s provocations are far less serious, but that more open information today leads to more anxiety than had gripped Japan during the heyday of the Soviet challenge to regional order.


Japanese Nationalism

One DC presentation analyzed whether Japanese nationalism is increasing and is noteworthy in comparative perspective. Agreeing that Japanese assertiveness has been increasing, although it remains very low by any international standard, the presentation drew a lively discussion on how to interpret changes in Japan’s sense of national identity, particularly as seen as a continuum with cosmopolitanism at the opposite end. Reasons given for a low level of national identity include: a low degree of patriotism expressed in public opinion polls, a lack of willingness to fight for one’s country, and reluctance to boost the state as a symbol of identity. Signs of a high and growing level of cosmopolitanism include: support for humanitarian assistance and for Japan playing a greater role in the international community. With this and other evidence, the argument was advanced that Japan has a low level of nationalism and a high level of cosmopolitanism. The discussion questioned those conclusions, while accepting the evidence about public attitudes toward nationalist manifestations as well in line with findings reported often over the postwar and post Cold War eras. There was no sympathy for Chinese or South Korean charges of a high degree of nationalism and of rising militarism, but the Abe impact aroused more debate.

One line of inquiry centered on changes over time. Yes, Japan makes no territorial claims except for its low-key quest for the return of the “Northern Territories” from Russia, but if one looks at textbook references to the territorial controversies and at the growing demands on South Korea over Takeshima (Dokdo), then the notion that territorial nationalism has not grown (or that it is only a defensive response to new aggressiveness around Senkaku (Diaoyu)) is not convincing to some. Another issue is what to make of Abe’s revisionist remarks about history over the past three years as well as those of officials close to him. One interpretation is that the more measured wording in the August 2015 statement on the seventieth anniversary of the war’s end is a sign that contrition for the war record has won and Abe has been tamed. This view was challenged by the argument that a temporary and partial retreat in August and in other Abe statements in 2015 needs to be put in the perspective of the build-up of more revisionist rhetoric by politicians and in the media, including the way South Korea is discussed (a kind of litmus test independent of the defensive response to China) and continuing efforts to reconsider historical verdicts such as the Tokyo Tribunal. Thus, some respondents were reluctant to dismiss the misgivings of the Japanese left—apart from their pacifist demands—about the rise of nationalism. In light of the recent self-criticisms in Japan—led by Hosoya Yuichi—about a lack of internationalism, there was also uncertainty about the rise of cosmopolitanism. The value of informed discussions of this sort should be widely appreciated given how controversial the Abe era has been and how important its long-term impact will be.


Russia in the Asia-Pacific

Is Russia a partner cooperating on stability in the region or a provocateur posing a threat to that very stability? A few years ago, the former view prevailed, leading to explorations of how Washington and Moscow could cooperate in the Asia-Pacific, where it has long been assumed that their interests overlap more than in any other region. A presentation asked listeners to consider, despite recent tensions, that this opportunity persists: both are Pacific powers with unmatched militaries and view their own prosperity and security as closely tied to developments in this region. Yet, advice not to let policy disputes elsewhere in the world to spill over into this region is proving difficult to follow, and not to use China in triangular maneuvering against each other is contrary to what has been occurring. The DC exchanges on this theme revealed divergent thinking even as some tried to keep alive hopes for cooperation.

One view holds that Russia did not “turn to the East” due to antagonism toward the West, but for much-delayed geographical logic; that it is using existing institutions such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) and is not challenging the status quo; and even if it is nervous about TPP, it is taking a wait-and-see attitude, which can be influenced by efforts to dispel misinformation. In this perspective, Russia’s objectives are really economic, and its military build-up is meant just to show its presence. Moreover, the notion that the Sino-Russian relationship serves as a substitute for ties to the West should not be taken seriously, as plans for cooperating on the Silk Road Economic Belt are stumbling before divergent blueprints for geo-economic corridors. Given such differences in national interests, it is not surprising that Russia should now be seeking balance from Japan and South Korea, is working with Vietnam without any backing for China’s stance in the South China Sea, and prioritizes a non-nuclear North Korea. These positions mean that it is not directly competing with the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, DC audiences were told in an optimistic overview.

As some Russians convey this message of hope for joint interests, some Americans say that room exists for dialogue at the Track-2 level to build on past explorations of such interests not possible today between government officials. Russia’s behind-the-scenes role in the Six-Party Talks proved insightful about some developments in the North, and, at times, Washington seemed to have more in common with Moscow than with Beijing. After Russia saw the evidence on the Cheonan sinking, its stance against North Korean provocations drew closer to the US stance. Given the history of Russo-US dialogue on freedom of navigation and the operating system for navies at sea, Russia can be helpful in getting China to understand ways to manage tensions in the South China Sea. In this viewpoint, Washington is welcoming progress in Russo-Japanese relations to settle the territorial dispute and realize a “natural partnership” in Asia, but, given global concerns, their strategic interactions should be dependent on circumstances through prudent steps. Compared to rather unbridled optimism, this somewhat cautious approach appeared to be more in keeping with prevailing expectations, but it too was met with skepticism that the situation is not so hopeful.

Exchanges over the state of Sino-Russian relations brought out differences. On one side was the view that China has been driving the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which excludes the United States, and is pushing One Belt, One Road, which is aimed at opening markets for its export of capital (having already opened them for its export of commodities) and labor, but, above all, for utilizing surplus industrial capacity when Russia is eager to boost production in its own factories. Thus, Sino-Russian divisions are serious, and Russia even fears exclusion in China’s pan-Asian ambitions, and an opening exists to find common ground in a trans-Pacific framework, where the United States has a seat. From another angle came the view that China is more welcoming to Russia and recognizes the need to keep good relations with Southeast Asian states in order to implement its maritime silk road; so, tensions will not be serious. This view lowers the need for Russo-US coordination on regional architecture and credits Russia with more options as China prioritizes economic over military goals. It also makes Russia and its Far East appear more attractive—now a market economy and in great need of flexible outlets for its energy rather than becoming locked into China’s market. In a sober perspective, the strength of Sino-Russian relations is stressed, and signs that Putin is seriously exploring alternatives, including cooperation with Washington, are found missing. The economic climate in the Russian Far East is a big obstacle, China’s interest in the “Arctic Silk Road” is likely to be frustrated by the dearth of infrastructure there, and Russians expect little from Putin and Abe’s meetings since each is trying to use this for show without seriousness about real compromises. In these doubts about what can be achieved, there was little of the earlier optimism.

A separate discussion of Russia in Asia was decidedly more optimistic on growing cooperation in Eurasia, including not only China and Russia but also India and Pakistan in South Asia and Iran. Disagreeing with those who expected more tension between Russia and China or India and China, this view foresees a great power concert—the Eurasian Five—with shared influence over the states of Central Asia and South Asia. Somehow multilateralism would cast a positive glow over existing bilateral problemsapart, perhaps, for Indo-Pakistani relations, in this perspective. The assumption is that there is overlapping discourse on the world order, strong agreement on the priority of sovereignty, shared support for a multicentric order in which there is no US hegemony, and joint opposition to Islamic radicalism. It is further assumed that China and Russia will be the two leaders of this new framework, as the former is blocked in East Asia and the latter in Europe. China is not the unrivalled leader, listeners were told, but, as in the rise of regionalism in Europe, the presence of many powers reassures states that their interests are met.

Discussion turned on whether this is the latest Russian illusion about how it can “turn to the East” without becoming China’s “junior partner” and how it emerges as a leader with its own Russocentric architecture. Questions were raised on whether the small countries would be ready to yield their sovereignty to five powers that would steer them, about whether China is not intent on forging a sinocentric order, and on whether Russia has the clout to balance China in such a framework. India drew considerable attention, as it appears to be indispensable to this argument but also the one country in the group whose policies are more aligned with US ones. It is perceived by others as part of a maritime concert at odds with this Eurasian one.

Further discussion of Indo-Russian relations showcased Russian insistence on its entry into the SCO despite some Chinese reluctance. In the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific region, India seems to leave Russia ambivalent, but in the Eurasian region, Russia is keen. Different conceptions of the emerging Asian super-complex are at the root of this contradiction. If the complex comprises East Asia (including Southeast Asia) and South Asia together, then Russians seem to be wary that their country has a marginal presence at best. If it centers on the intersection of Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt, then Russia projects that its place is comparable to China’s and an extension to India is within reach. Focusing on regional construction and wary of an arrangement that leaves Russia either on the periphery or unable to contemplate balancing China, Russia prizes India’s role. The divergence from China’s approach and India’s own priorities is likely to expose how delusional Russian images are, given its fading economic prowess and unattractive model. Claims of shared thinking with India in shaping a new order are misleading. If India stays on the margins, Russia’s fallback position remains a bilateral process with China in the driver’s seat, even if Russians hesitate to acknowledge this fact.


Sino-Russian Relations

A far-reaching exchange on the state of Sino-Russian relations revealed differences of opinion. One possibility is a Eurasian, authoritarian, revisionist bloc linked by close economic cooperation and converging thinking on the emerging global order. Another is a limited partnership with neither state willing to pay a large price for bilateral cooperation. Those taking the latter view saw China as dismissing the role of Russia in balancing the United States and Russia just using China as a bogeyman in its opposition to the West. Moreover, their visions of an alternative world order are misaligned, listeners were told, as in China’s insistence on sovereignty or territorial integrity, standing in the way of approving Russia’s aggressive moves in 2008 and 2014. Whether the focus is Central Asia, the Arctic, the Korean Peninsula, or energy relations, this perspective holds that there are fundamental tensions in the bilateral relationship, which are complicated by low people-to-people ties. Discussion turned to whether this framework of analysis was sufficient and why had it, in one form or another over the past two decades, failed to anticipate ever-closer relations.

One response was that distinguishing short-term versus long-term relations would lead to more emphasis on close relations in the near future even if, eventually, the clashing interests would prevail. Given changes over time and the impact of other actors, a less static perspective is advisable with more differentiation of actors apart from unitary states. Another response is that the arguments need to be pulled together into an overall framework, not ad hoc treatments of separate geographical and thematic matters. Attention to the historical context and how both sides view it is needed, as is analysis of how bilateral relations fit into each side’s grand strategy. Focusing on how publications in Chinese and Russian frame the relationship would be helpful too, listeners were told. If a static overview were replaced by a dynamic assessment of the fluid changes over the past 2-3 years, the analysis would have greater depth, it was argued. A recitation of frictions alone does not suffice to grasp trends in this evolving relationship. Another response was that the relationship is even more fragile than indicated, and the main policy implication is that Washington should not drive Moscow and Beijing together. Russia is viewed in China as having low comprehensive national power; so China’s principal aims are to keep the border calm and to draw some energy imports while regarding Russia’s economy overall as irrelevant. Before long, competition over Central Asia will drive the two states apart; so outsiders have little reason for alarm. This is one view expressed in a DC forum.

A different point of view was also heard, arguing that Sino-Russian relations have a more solid foundation than many recognize. Their divergent interests need to be interpreted through a broader framework, including perceptions of global interests and aspirations for national identity. Both states are preoccupied with opposition to US policies and alliances, including shared views of the threat from missile defenses in Japan and South Korea. Both are hostile to “color revolutions,” regarding their votes at the United Nations that opened the door to regime change in Libya as big mistakes. Although they may not have clearly separated their spheres of interest in Eurasia, both accept the notion that such spheres are necessary. They have not yet recognized each other’s sphere, but there is reason to think that they are getting closer to doing so, as in the way China’s thinking about Ukraine has evolved and Russia’s thinking about the South China Sea seems to be evolving. There have been more signs of quid pro quos, trade-offs that strengthen their relationship. Above all, doubters about the strength of this relationship fall short in explaining how Putin or Xi would replace it with an alternative that meets his ambitions. They may not have a warm relationship, but they admire each other’s leadership style, listeners heard.  

In discussions of Eurasianism, a Japanese viewpoint is that Russia can be lured into thinking of it with a larger Asia-Pacific component. Abe’s diplomatic tour of Central Asia in 2015 and his diplomacy with Putin could serve that end, even making the point that Japan, not Beijing, is the historic endpoint of the silk road and can fill this role again. By activating its regional diplomacy, even agreeing to play a role in One Belt, One Road, Japan could change perceptions of its narrow preoccupation with ties to the West. Other Japanese may agree with the pursuit of Putin, but are less likely to see promise in joining a China-centered project. In contrast, many others doubt that Japan can gain a meaningful place in Eurasianism, given China’s leading role and the growing bipolarity between the Chinese and US regional strategies.