Washington Insights (Vol. 4, No. 3)

In April and May 2016, the extension and reinforcement of the international system drew repeated attention in Washington: bringing the Europeans into Asian security, solidifying cohesion with Japan in facing challenges in both the South China Sea and North Korea, assessing and responding to China and to Sino-Russian relations, and, most of all, strategizing about North Korea and the combined US-South Korean role. Reorienting alliances and partnerships and demonstrating US resolve were central objectives on the minds of DC audiences, but discussions often revealed a lack of consensus with various foreign speakers on some questions about how to proceed.

Europe in Asia

One view on European cooperation in Asia argued that the twentieth century system that had mainly been trans-Atlantic was evolving and being extended to new powers and the Asia-Pacific region, as demonstrated in UK diplomacy. While agreement was not in doubt about complementary efforts for better market access, fewer restrictions on investment, and appeals to China to expand its role in the international system, the gap in thinking over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) exposed a wider divide about how to approach China. On one side were those who consider the UK embrace of the AIIB a success, helping to shape it into a genuinely multinational organization and proving that engagement works. On the other side were some who wondered how Great Britain could reconcile both an increasingly close economic tie to China (especially counting on it for large investments) and standing firmly with the United States on the South China Sea freedom of navigation and over flight. The uncertainty about how it would deal with the influx of Chinese steel at low prices and the demand by China for market economy status cast a shadow on where Great Britain is heading. Had it abrogated its responsibility in Hong Kong and exited from Southeast Asia? Denials expanded to evidence of closer cooperation with India and Japan and insistence that it works closely with the United States in this part of Asia.


Given Japan’s postwar legacy of restraint in the use of force, questions about how much has changed after 1991, when Japan was left flat-footed by the Gulf War; 2001, when its response to the war on terror showed some evolution; and 2015, when Abe pressed for far-reaching transformation, were addressed by a DC audience. Mostly, opinions converged that the end of certain taboos is good for fostering a clear sense of international responsibility. There was some diversity in explaining the reasons for the changes despite agreement that much depends on who is prime minister and whether the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) or its opposition is in power. One suggestion is a more cautions US foreign policy has led to a shift from fear of entrapment to fear of abandonment, to the degree that some warn that without more support for its ally Japan might find the alliance in jeopardy. Another suggestion is that what has fundamentally changed is that, for the first time in the 2010s, Japan finds itself threatened on the frontlines of great power conflict. A third suggestion is that Japan’s aspirations for a leadership role in Asia now can only be met by becoming part of a broader alliance network, as states such as Australia, India, and some in Southeast Asia appeal for Japan—not just the United States—to join in collective action. Others detailed how vulnerable Japanese feel—the militarization of territorial disputes, the uncertainty about the deterrence of North Korea, the sudden doubts about defense of the first island chain as Chinese maritime build-up intensifies. Unmet expectations identified on both the US and Japanese sides drove many of the changes, including in operational planning and intelligence sharing. Yet, the low Japanese defense budget and the persistent limitations on how it can contribute to a security challenge remain concerns about “cheap-riding” if not “free-riding.” A long list of weapons Japan could acquire and more integration of command structures were among the ideas offered in DC.

South Koreans showed awareness of how sharply US interest in history has fallen as the focus on trilateral US-Japan-ROK alliance ties has intensified over North Korea. The December 28 agreement is prized as arriving just in time to avert trouble. While divisions in South Korea on the agreement, compounded by results of the National Assembly elections, mean that there is still a bumpy road ahead, Washington is not paying much attention. The more immediate concern is the China factor: despite the sharp drop in “China fever”—due to China’s approach to North Korea, its diplomatic arrogance to South Korea, and a new sense of economic competition (shipbuilding, electronics, steel, etc.)—, Seoul believes that it needs China to contain provocations by North Korea and for denuclearization. Given China’s broad interpretation of what challenges its interests, this puts some limits on trilateralism. Xi Jinping’s ideas on collective, comprehensive security are not appealing to Japan, but find support from some in Seoul. As Sino-US relations worsen in 2016 with the South China Sea in the forefront and Sino-Japanese relations remain in a rut—despite some optimism in 2015—, differences over how to deal with China are intensifying. Koreans now face a united front of Washington and Tokyo as they grasp for some pivotal regional role.


DC audiences also were treated to analyses of Chinese foreign policy and what has been driving it. One explanation is that it has responded to crises: the Arab Spring, the slowdown in China’s economy, and the leadership drift in China prior to the advent of Xi Jinping. The shift to a more aggressive tone toward the outside world in 2009 reflected the last factor. The other factors came into play later, informed by a debate on why the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the country collapsed. Looking ahead, there was pessimism about where China is heading: using the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to realize the “China Dream,” pressing for a sinocentric Asia using the South China Sea and “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) to consolidate China’s stance, and targeting Japan and the US alliance system while working with those useful in challenging it. Given Xi’s top-down effort to arouse public consciousness of China as a victim, controlling the narrative on national identity while not wanting to arouse the public prematurely when conflict is not yet in sight, the prospect of greater economic uncertainty is likely to bring more mobilization in support of nationalist causes, it was surmised. If in 2014-2015 Sino-US cooperation on climate change served as an anchor for relations, concern arose over what anchor might replace it as narratives in China increasingly suggest a zero-sum great power divide, centered first of all on the South China Sea.

A DC discussion on OBOR credited it as one of the most ambitious economic policy initiatives ever and with addressing the huge need for infrastructure in Asia. Yet, it indicated that the most central problem is not a lack of money, but uncertainty over reliable returns, geographical challenges, technological complexities, and a deficit of competent governance. China would also face questions of debt sustainability in states with low credit ratings and few local resources to input. In contrast to high hopes in some circles, the discussion centered on how to make risk assessments and build capacity. While Sino-US competition has intensified in other spheres, the idea was posed that cooperation on OBOR might improve the atmosphere and increase trust for dealing with other issues. Yet, some doubted the new “going out” strategy of China would succeed and that it was much more than an effort to make use of assets China no longer could apply well at home or a breakout attempt versus what Chinese see as US containment. Efforts to involve the United States based on idealist hopes or on late realization of how valuable US know-how would be raised skepticism.

Another DC exchange centered on evaluating China’s power, avoiding overestimates and underestimates—both of which are rather commonplace. While military power has standardized measures, albeit arousing controversy too, the tradeoff between rising economic power and falling soft power drew the most attention. The inverse relationship was linked to the lack of universality in China’s cultural and political claims, its top-down control of society interfering with the considerable potential for that to serve soft power objectives, and insistence on flexing military muscle in ways that are counterproductive to soft or smart power. Yet, China’s recent stance on climate change shows willingness to contribute to global governance selectively. Confucian Institutes so far have raised the prominence of Chinese culture, although they could have had a far bigger impact if politics were kept further away. Are any countries rallying behind China’s soft power, audiences asked? Russia has been the state drawing closest to China, but soft power has little to do with it. India publicly seems rather friendly to China, but it is driven by economic goals and is little stirred by soft power, while in private there is often less friendliness coupled, one hears, with criticisms of China’s soft power. Economic power does not compensate for this.

The mood in DC about Sino-US relations has clearly hardened of late. Agreement on climate change and on resolution 2270 has not reversed the trend or the sense that a fundamental divide exists in thinking about the regional order. The US status quo outlook with stress on open regionalism, universal values, and US hub and spokes alliances reinforced by multilateralism contrasts with Chinese sinocentric aims on the basis of a different set of values. China has failed in some of its objectives, e.g., blocking improved ROK-Japan relations and preventing North Korea from exposing that China’s stress on diplomatic solutions is not working. Yet, optimism is missing in DC that China will accept South Korea’s shift toward trilateralism with Japan and the United States or that its disappointment with the North will be a game-changer. The Obama-Xi summit at the end of March had a perplexing result: whereas Xi said that China would implement the sanctions in full, he pivoted to insist that China was opposed to any instability in North Korea. It seemed to some that his point is that the sanctions must be limited to teach a lesson but not to apply serious pressure.

Despite rising security challenges, there was some hope that good diplomacy still can work. After all, if China disrupted traffic in the South China Sea, it would be the main victim. From this perspective, there was advice not to raise tension where it is unnecessary, while proceeding Obama’s rather good management of the maritime issues in the East and South China seas, where US credibility is at stake. Unless the Chinese side escalates tension, it is best to oppose zero-sum thinking as dangerous.

China-Russia Relations

One arena where the future of this relationship may be in doubt is Central Asia. The fact that Washington has no compelling security interests there (even if it seeks to support independent, sovereign states free of external intimidation and one power’s domination, and to support stability that denies havens for extremists) raises the question of how much it should invest in a distant region close to China and Russia. States in the area welcome a US role, increasing their multi-vector options, and the very fact that the United States is distant and has no imperial baggage as well as has economic and diplomatic heft means that it is likely to maintain a presence. Yet, in doing so, understanding the dynamics of Sino-Russian relations is important. On the Russian side, imperial nationalism, drawing on the Soviet legacy, is accepting of the migrants from Central Asia and a prominent leadership role; ethnic nationalism is at odds with Central Asian states, hostile to migrants, and inclusive of Russians located in these states. Putin uses both types of nationalism. As long as Central Asia remains stable—but succession crises loom—, Russia does not face a choice between them. If it did, China’s deference to Russia, politically and culturally, in the area would likely be tested. So far, China has won increasing acquiescence to its economic advance.

Russia benefits from China’s investment in transportation infrastructure in Central Asia, but incorporating much of the area into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as a big factor in establishing Russia as a pole in a multipolar world and a great power with its own sphere of influence could be impaired. After all, Russia could not compete in extracting Central Asian energy and, in the face of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), it is no longer able to limit China’s economic penetration more broadly. After Xi’s call for the SREB in the fall of 2013, an understanding was not reached until Xi and Putin met on the sidelines of the Sochi Olympics, which was solidified into an agreement to join the EEU and SREB when they met in May 2014 after the Ukraine crisis began. Yet, tension between Russia’s desire for a closed block and China’s for an open area and corridor is bound to reappear. Also, Russia’s desire for a corridor heading north through its territory conflicts with a more southerly route, i.e., via Iran and Turkey.  Plans are not fixed, and China keeps Russia on board, pledging no interference in the region’s politics, no moves to a leadership role, and no Chinese sphere of influence. As Russia needs China more, making relations more asymmetrical, it is more willing to accept China’s larger economic role in Central Asia. This is likely to be enduring. Yet, some argued that Russia will not accede even to China’s economic dominance, and that China’s refusal to rely on the Trans-Siberian railroad and the Baikal-Amur railroad for its corridor to the west will make Russia feel excluded, damaging ties.

DC audiences heard Russian assertions about regional security as more hardline than those from China. One comment is that any agreement on five-party talks would be the kiss of death for the Six-Party Talks, since North Korea would never return to them. Another assertion is that no level of sanctions will change the North; so the goal should be a freeze, leading to talks based on a bold plan to entice the North. In the Russian view, militarization of the area is bad without distinguishing the rise of a nuclear weapons state from the missile defenses aimed at containing it. The past problem is the inadequacy of the carrots offered to the North. Disappointed that the new sanctions hit Russian projects the most—coal, iron ore, gold, and rare earth minerals as well as use of the Rason port—, a Russian said that the exceptions at the end were not sufficient, that the next time Russia would go it alone without letting China take the lead, and that Russia is tired of South Korea’s approach to the North and disappointed with its abandonment of the joint Khasan-Rason-Busan project.

At its core, the divide over a vision for North Korea is over national identities—of the various countries involved and of North Korea itself.  On one side is the view that the only legitimate outcome of a total collapse (or negotiations) is reunification. On the other is the view that Koguryo obfuscates the historical identity of the North, that its Cold War identity as an ally undercuts claims by Seoul, and that psychology in North Korea treating South Koreans as slaves of the United States interferes with shared identity. Such identity themes cast doubt on serious contingency planning.

North Korea

In the aftermath of Security Council resolution 7720, DC exchanges intensified over Seoul’s concerns, Beijing’s intentions, and Washington’s policies in the midst of the coming political transition. Other voices entered the mix, especially Tokyo’s search for clarity on US intentions and triangularity with the ROK. On all sides, speakers came to DC seeking more clarity or even change in the US position. Clarity was in no short supply, but the lack of consensus abroad on what to do was not reassuring. In one exchange came warnings that Seoul must draw a line with Beijing on matters of its own security and that opposing Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)—a measure serving the defense of US soldiers among other aims—would spur campaign talk of Seoul being a free-rider.

The messages from Koreans to DC audiences were more diverse than the responses. On the one hand, officials and security experts mainly called for commitments—not empty words. This included missile defense, military exercises of increased scale, and US shows of force in response to a qualitatively new level of threat from North Korea. Together Seoul and Washington must lead a ratcheting up of international sanctions—at the Security Council and unilaterally—until they are tightly woven to make clear that regime survival depends on denuclearization. On the other hand, in response to the “return” of geopolitics to Northeast Asia, some of the same people called for a three-track approach: 1) a strengthened ROK-US-Japan military triangle; 2) more ROK-China-Japan regional cooperation; and 3) ROK-US-China cooperation in response to North Korea, linked to realization of Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI). Together they would have a synergy effect with the US rebalancing and would create an environment conducive to North Korean changes. DC comments raised doubts about this approach. Even if China implemented all of the Security Council sanctions, would it agree to the third track as a way to manage North Korea, given its repeated refusal to proceed in this fashion? Many doubted it would, held out little hope for the ROK-China-Japan triangle, and favored the first approach or initiatives by Washington or Seoul premised on the first approach.

One proposal was for the new US administration to try bilateral talks with North Korea, but not soon after a nuclear test nor with the image of yielding to some sort of blackmail and only if dismantling nuclear weapons is on the table. This means not subcontracting the North Korean issue to China, although seeking its help. The idea is to negotiate from strength, in no way allowing US alliances to be weakened. One other proposal was for the three allies to exert maximum pressure without resting their hopes on China. This means, if China balks, applying sanctions in a manner that China will not welcome. Americans were split in how to balance carrots and sticks. It is clear, however, that sanctions are less stringent than desired—import of dual-use items, acquisition of foreign currency, use of a broad “livelihood” exception, and the promise of tighter sanctions ahead—all fell short of what US officials were seeking.

The next stage in the response to North Korea has been a popular theme recently in DC. One position is that the international community is united, recognizing that little time is left and agreed that sanctions must be strong enough to threaten regime survival if it is to decide that no option exists but denuclearization. Dialogue with Pyongyang can wait until sanctions have tightened to the point of recalculation. It follows that even if regime change is not expected, regime transformation is a key prerequisite. A clashing position from the Chinese side holds that sanctions are only a part of the answer and that Washington must now entice Pyongyang with dialogue and carrots in what is called a “comprehensive approach,” reflecting Sino-US shared understanding of how to proceed. The Chinese appeal was for: speedy resumption of the Six-Party Talks in no way conditioned on sanctions threatening the regime; US restraint from actions that could aggravate tensions in the region (whether linked to pressure on the North or deterrence); and the coupling of denuclearization (a vague term linked initially to some sort of freeze) and stability (premised on dialogue primarily in the Six-Party Talks and new carrots for Pyongyang in pursuit of a peace treaty). If North Korea tests another nuclear weapon, will there be more sanctions? The two positions differ, as Chinese refuse to hint at any agreement on this. If the sanctions do increase turmoil in North Korea, will China then agree to contingency planning? This is not indicated. Does China recognize the desirability of unity in facing North Korea as the best way to get to Six-Party Talks? If so, it has to be on Chinese terms, offering economic and strategic rewards rather than expecting sanctions to have real effect. In this exchange, views on the way forward remained diametrically opposed. Trying to find common ground with China is continuing, but simultaneous pursuit of denuclearization and a peace regime is not a US objective. In light of the grave doubts that a freeze would lead to successful talks or that the clashing views of what a peace regime means are reconcilable, pessimism reigns.

Exchanges in DC also highlighted differences between Korean progressives and the think tank community. Whether Seoul can stand up and take a leading role in the new regional architecture or must stick closely to Washington in new conditions was one dividing line. Should it prioritize what is needed to satisfy Beijing on how to achieve reunification or is the main challenge deterrence reliant on US support with reunification not a foreseeable goal? Is it time to pursue a peace treaty agreement, beginning with ROK-US coordination and reaching to five parties preparing to face Pyongyang or is that a smokescreen for accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and agreeing to Sino-Russian designs for undermining the alliance system? In appeals to keep the dialogue track open and plan for a bold offer to Pyongyang with the five other states in agreement, some South Koreans challenged US thinking only to hear pushback that Pyongyang’s rejection of denuclearization and differences in the group of five make such aspirations unrealizable. China’s motives in seeking this approach should be viewed with suspicion, DC voices argued. The argument that Park and Obama have failed in their North Korean policies—assuming a standard of success that many would reject—and should leave a legacy by stressing dialogue even if Pyongyang does not budge on its nuclear weapons was strongly resisted. In this exchange, assumptions that China has turned away from North Korea and now is closer to South Korea were also denied, especially by those who doubt China’s implementation of the March sanctions, given language it inserted that may allow imports of coal and iron ore to continue if the money is deemed by China not to be going to the nuclear weapons and missile programs of North Korea. Charges that the real policy of Park—or Obama—is the collapse of North Korea were rejected as well.

US speakers contradicted various arguments made by South Korean progressives. They clarified US priorities regarding North Korea: 1) protect the United States and its allies and sustain the non-proliferation regime; 2) prevent war; 3) support the peaceful reunification of the peninsula and a better life for North Koreans; 4) work with the parties concerned; and 5) do not make the same mistakes. This last point means not taking North Korean promises at face value, but it does not mean being opposed to engaging North Korea repeatedly with clarity about how US support for North Korea would ensue on the road to denuclearization. The goal is to alter the thinking in North Korea, not to crush the regime, as critics charge. Given no sign of a change in thinking, the response offered is not to panic and desperately seek talks based on flimsy illusions, but to concentrate on deterrence and sanctions to try to change the North’s calculus. The clear divide in these exchanges was between the view that a peace regime needs to be on the table now to entice Pyongyang and the view that sanctions must take full effect since there is no hope for dialogue without pressure. On the US side there was also recognition that South Korean frustration is understandable—the North Korean threat has grown, China is unwilling to do what many South Koreans had expected, the United States is unable to offer any kind of quick fix, and excessive expectations in Seoul in 2014-2015 had led to a sharp letdown. Yet, accusations that “strategic patience” has meant a lack of US priority, that the US approach is abandonment apart from pursuit of narrow US interests centered on proliferation, that Washington misjudged by counting on the North’s collapse, or that Washington had outsourced the problem to China, were also firmly rejected.

Donald Trump has raised the specter of US abandonment, but DC responses stressed no such thing was happening. Rather than Washington concentrating on Iran at the expense of North Korea, it had acted where conditions were more favorable, while it had done what is possible in a more complicated strategic landscape. The formula is the same: sanctions brought Iran to the table (they must be more severe on North Korea and depend more on China’s cooperation); coalition building is essential (the coalition against North Korea has proven more resistant to needed joint action); and Washington has to demonstrate to others that it is very committed to a diplomatic solution (which some have been reluctant to believe despite countless assurances). In order to address Chinese interests and win its support for more sanctions, as may be needed, and a stronger alliance military posture, contingency conversations are a high priority, but China refuses to take part. This dampens US hopes for five versus one and puts more weight on trilateralism, boosted by the December 28 Japan-ROK deal. Quiet conversations over years without leaks led the way to recognition of shared interests over Iran’s nuclear weapons; despite many years of conversations about the North Korean challenge and the increasing danger it poses, the absence of a shared vision of the future is increasingly standing in the way of a joint strategy. The deepening Sino-US divide as well as the Russo-US divide does not bode well for this.

South Korea-US Relations

Against a backdrop of claims that US-ROK relations are the “strongest ever”—equal, symmetric, comprehensive—, warnings came that they cannot be taken for granted and face the “biggest challenges.” Internally, each side poses new risks; progressive-conservative divisions in South Korea are sharpening at a point when fundamental choices about domestic reform, North Korea, and China will be aired in the coming 2017 presidential elections. US policy has been put in doubt by recent primaries. In the DC exchanges, one finds Koreans deeply divided and voices sharpening choices for North Korea on the US side. Clarity about the US strategy in Northeast Asia is greater than at any recent point, and resistance to that strategy—dashing hopes for South Korea to work closely with China and have a large voice in forging a regional framework of trust—has split South Korean society, and that split is likely to widen. The gap is seen in how the Sunshine Policy is evaluated, how regional relations are interpreted, and how the balance between deterrence and engagement is assessed.

Discussion keeps turning back to whether South Korean and the United States have a regional alliance, similar to the US-Japan alliance, or a peninsular and global one with a gap at the regional level. As Sino-US relations grow tenser regionally, is Seoul able to remain rather aloof because of the way its alliance is defined? Does this mean China can more easily drive a wedge in the US-ROK alliance since US pressure will mount for Seoul to support its ally and be more involved regionally, even as the resentment grows in Seoul against since pressure? The court ruling on the South China Sea expected soon could bring this issue to the fore. Some US speakers argued that support for freedom of navigation is a matter of principle and that the leverage Seoul has on Beijing is only the ROK-US alliance; so to let that erode would leave it more vulnerable. Yet, others fretted that pressuring Seoul when public opinion is not prepared will only arouse a backlash more damaging to the alliance. Worry now about the weakness of its manufacturing base and the prospect of Chinese economic retaliation as well as retaliation by means of tilting against sanctions against North Korea appears to add to hesitancy in Seoul about how far to go on regional issues.

Seoul is at a crossroads, fearing a loss of agency and a return to the era of the great powers deciding the fate of the peninsula. The Ukraine crisis has led to a downward spiral in ROK-Russian ties, as Russia grows more assertive on North Korea issues. The South China Sea tensions raise questions about Chinese linkages to peninsular issues, as again North Korea is seen in the context of strategic polarization. China is not only concerned about unification extending the US alliance system, but about the deepening of US-ROK alliance ties in general and trilateral ties with Japan. If in Europe there were many states in the middle during the Cold War, only Korea is in the middle in Northeast Asia. Optimists in Seoul still think that some type of security architecture could both allow Seoul leverage in dealing with both camps and give it a lead role in diplomacy with Pyongyang. Few in Washington expect that its hopes are realizable, given the overall security divide and the way others view the North.