Washington Insights (Vol. 5, No. 2)

This has been a busy time in Washington with little clarity about US policies, as the Trump administration takes shape, Sino-US relations take center stage, and North Korea’s threat to the United States galvanizes responses reflecting views in many countries. In late April—after the Trump-Xi summit, Pence’s trip to the region, and the Tillerson visit to Moscow—views on Northeast Asia changed rapidly. Japan has slipped to the sidelines. Security has overshadowed trade. Triangles have risen in salience. Sino-US relations are now focused on North Korea. Japan-Russia relations seem to be on hold as US policy toward both countries awaits clarification. US maneuvering to influence Sino-Russian relations keeps defying expectations. The Sino-ROK-US triangle is also on hold as observers see what unfolds in the South Korean elections. For the moment, the US-Japan-ROK triangle has been left in the shadows in DC seminars, but this is unlikely to last.

Just a few days and tweets can change the discourse heard in DC. Trump shakes up relations with other countries in unforeseen and inopportune ways. Earlier in the year, it was relations with China that were considered imperiled. By late April, it was relations with South Korea, as Trump abruptly called for it to pay for THAAD and renegotiate KORUS FTA, undermining two pillars of the bilateral relationship. What was assumed in DC seminars and talks just a short time before no longer provides a basis for predictions. Moreover, few have confidence that they can anticipate what is coming next. Yet, keeping our eyes on the dynamics of the triangular frameworks is still the best way to grasp what is transpiring, and this has been happening in DC.

The Sino-North Korea-US Triangle

No triangle has so fully captured the attention of DC audiences in a long time as this one. The Trump administration is obsessed with increasing Chinese cooperation in pressuring North Korea, to the point it has put on the backburner other concerns about China (of which Trump had raised many). Trump has essentially given Xi Jinping veto rights over US dealings with Taiwan as long as cooperation over North Korea is sufficient. Since Washington think tanks have long prioritized the nuclear and missile threat from Pyongyang, this obsession is not considered outlandish; yet, the amateurish way Trump handles it at times—as in the unnecessary references to Taiwan, undercutting US policy, and the shocking warnings to South Korea, adding to the danger that anti-Americanism will figure into the impending ROK presidential elections—adds to his buffoonish image even in his most presidential foreign policy.

Interest in this triangle intensified as Trump drew greater attention to it. In one exchange, three speakers ranged from relative pessimism (suggesting fraught but not dire conditions) to strong pessimism. The most hopeful of the three argued that South Koreans are not exceptionally worried, that Trump’s threats should not be taken seriously, and that Sino-US cooperation on North Korea could be increasing. The speaker was confident that preemption is not an active option at present, not concerned that Chinese objectives make an agreement very difficult, and saw a possibility of a more active Chinese role if the United States and the ROK stop military exercises in return for the suspension of nuclear and missile tests. The least hopeful speaker interpreted Chinese intentions differently, arguing that they are incompatible with US and ROK objectives, not because those two insist on regime change in North Korea but because China requires the ROK to turn away from the United States and be “neutral” or even part of a sinocentric order. These goals have long-thwarted substantial cooperation on sanctions. The third perspective reflected growing pessimism in Japan, as some advocate an offensive capability and preparations to launch a counter-attack. As long as the US approach excludes preemption, Japan would be more amenable to an aggressive approach by the United States while still nervous about South Korea’s steadfastness.

Opinions varied on the implications of the prospects for Sino-US cooperation. One speaker sought a more vigorous effort to win China’s cooperation, while another expressed little hope after many prior efforts and expected—after a short period of testing China again—more pressure on it, as in secondary sanctions. We have entered a period where China unofficially sanctions South Korea for defending itself and the United States against North Korea; the US approach (barring a sharp increase in Chinese cooperation) is likely to involve sanctions against Chinese firms, and the Security Council will be consumed with checking the implementation by all of sanctions on North Korea. As the stakes in this crisis grow, so too does the willingness to use economic pressure to achieve results.

So much oxygen is now taken out of the air over Sino-US cooperation or lack thereof concerning North Korea that there is little room left for other dynamics in East Asia. This is a make or break strategy rarely seen in recent times. Either Washington and Beijing find common ground sufficient to keep cooperating on how to deal with North Korean or their relationship sours, Trump blaming Xi for abetting the growing danger and the dynamics of great power relations and Asian security and trade shifting drastically. Pyongyang can affect the timing of this countdown, testing a nuclear weapon or ICBM that starts the clock ticking to an urgent decision or giving in to Chinese pressure as a more drawn-out scenario unfolds. South Korea is being marginalized by both Xi with his “unofficial boycott” and Trump with his threats of economic pressure over “free-riding” and unfair trade practices. Russia is not taken very seriously as a factor in the North Korean crisis. Japan is seen as fully supportive of Trump’s gambit, even if Japanese as well as South Koreans nervously react to threatened military action. One triangle looms over all the others in 2017.   

The Japan-Russia-US Triangle

Trump’s impact on Japan-Russia relations appeared more uncertain in the first two months of his presidency than in April, when Japanese hopes for positive spillover were dashed. Abe was portrayed in DC as a strategist—comparable to Nakasone—and as flexible and persistent in pursuing his objectives. Looking back over seven decades, listeners were told that Japan had secured the return of Okinawa, forged normalization with South Korea and China, but failed to achieve a breakthrough with either North Korea or Russia. Abe’s obsession has turned to Moscow, and in early 2016, he doubled down on this quest after the momentum from his seemingly successful trip to Moscow in 2013 had been stalled for two years. Why did he move at this time, declaring a new approach? Whereas the main goals with Russia are both the recovery of territory and a geopolitical transformation (both linked to the national identity issue in Japan), optimism centered on economics. Russia was in economic trouble with low oil prices and sanctions, Putin’s plans for the Russian Far East were being frustrated, and Russian hopes for China to come to the rescue were being dashed. If Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had responsibility for any talks on the territorial issue, was seen as dragging its feet, METI was considered a more promising steward for talks with Russia now that economics was in the lead.

The DC exchanges centered on how to evaluate the results of Abe’s overtures. Those who found them unsuccessful focused mostly on misjudgments about Putin. For him, economics takes a back seat to geopolitics and national identity; his encouragement was mostly intended to drive a wedge between Abe and Obama or others in the G7; the degree of Japan’s economic offer was far too low to have an impact; Japanese have underestimated the strength of Sino-Russian relations; and Japanese media oversold the prospects of the December 15-16 summit, leading to a certain letdown. In contrast, the minority found reason to welcome the results of the summit: Putin’s remarks at the joint news conference, which made clear that he had no intention of taking Japan’s economic incentives; the promise of joint economic activities on the disputed islands; the realistic goals of Abe; and the Japanese media coverage, which has been largely restrained in analyzing what is at stake and the history of the dispute in ways that make it easier to persuade the public to welcome a compromise now. DC audiences were mostly averse to the idea that Putin in his current nationalist mood would return even two islands to Japan.

Japanese have been attentive to Russo-US relations, overestimating their impact on Russo-Japanese ties. They have feigned progress in Abe-Putin ties as Russians see Putin winning. They hope that Russia will not insist on applying its own laws to joint economic development on the disputed islands, while Russians see an opening for investment there—such as in fishing rights. The reality is that Japan cannot compete seriously with China for Russia’s attention; it cannot get its companies to invest enough to make its wooing credible, and has little chance with Putin’s cronies, who have forged diverse networks with the Chinese. DC discussions doubted that Trump will be helpful to Abe’s quest and that Japan has a chance in either recovering the islands or weakening Sino-Russian ties.

The Japan-Central Asia-China Triangle

This configuration drew some attention in discussions of Japan’s options in Asia. China’s One Belt, One Road agenda marginalizes Japan, cutting it off from the Silk Road, which some Japanese had romanticized from the late 1980s. Hashimoto’s Eurasian initiative of 1997 had a Central Asian component as well as a Russian one. Archaeological projects with Japanese support could make a Buddhist connection. Exchanges might lead to Japan appearing as a model of development. Strengthening Central Asian regional cohesion could bolster the area’s capacity to keep both Russia and China at bay.

Japan played an active role in organizing assistance to Afghanistan and some saw as an opportunity to join with India in forging a corridor to Central Asia. Yet, US enmity to Iran cut off one route, energy opportunities in China and internal divisiveness left Japan with little clout, and Japan’s lack of organizational focus on Central Asia compounded the difficulties. Still, Abe doubled down on ties to India through Modi, made a strong play for Mongolia, and toured Central Asia stirring hopes in Japan. With China and Russia newly cooperative in this arena, however, Japan was relegated to the margins, especially as OBOR plans advanced. Whether on Central Asia, Mongolia, or North Korea, Japan failed to find a way to establish common cause with Russia. Yet, Abe was determined to keep trying.

The Sino-Russia-US Triangle

This has been shifting abruptly in ways few anticipated. Russo-US relations have deteriorated despite Trump’s refusal to be critical of Putin. Sino-US relations have improved over the unlikely challenge of managing the North Korean threat—after 15 years of mostly fruitless efforts by Washington to win China’s cooperation. Meanwhile, Sino-Russian relations appear to be strong, but Russian distrust of what is happening in Sino-US relations is casting a shadow. Discussions in DC on this triangle, which intensified in the first months of 2017, have quickly been dated by unforeseen developments, especially by the mercurial nature of Trump.

In January, when Michael Flynn was the face of Trump’s policy toward Russia, there was much talk of a major turnabout toward closer Russo-US ties. This was associated with balance of power logic, as Sino-Russian ties were assumed to be tight, but also with Trump’s presumed ideological view downplaying alliances and values in international relations. Yet, DC audiences were skeptical about how far this strategic triangle rebalancing could proceed. Sino-US relations did not appear to be so bad as Trump reconsidered his earlier statements, and Russo-US relations had little support for major concessions in either Washington or Moscow, while Sino-Russian ties did not seem vulnerable to balancing tactics. There would be no Russian pivot to the United States and no room for Trump to work around strategic thinking in Washington, wary of Russia. That was the consensus, as discussants weighed fundamental strategic disagreements and deep-seated psychological factors. The darkening cloud of daily revelations about Russian interference in the US elections and unreported linkages between Trump and his personnel and Russia cast doubt on any breakthrough.

A month later the Washington, coverage of the triangle had shifted somewhat. If the talk earlier had supported using US resources and leverage while reducing Russian will to stick closely with China, there was more talk now of an irreconcilable structural divide between Washington and Moscow and, following Abe’s meeting with Trump, the US-Japan alliance as a bulwark to deal with China. It seemed that polarization in East Asia was unavoidable, as Washington rallied its allies to be more assertive in the face of North Korea and China’s behavior in the South China Sea. Sober thinking about Sino-Russian relations offered little comfort that US policy would be critical.

The case of close and lasting Sino-Russian ties was made at various DC occasions. As neighbors, the two wasted their energies and resources on alarm about each other in the period of the Sino-Soviet split, and for decades now, valued reassuring each other as they have concentrated their military build-ups elsewhere. Why would they risk the costs of changing course? As economically complementary countries, they have drawn much closer—important for Russia’s diversification away from the West and economic revitalization of its East, and for China’s energy security. Given its high dependency on China, why would Russia risk having no comparable markets in sight? Finally, after both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, it is regime type that binds them together most closely. Today, they are heretics in the US-led international community, learning from each other’s resistance. Dissenters who argued that this is not a long-lasting or deep relationship and definitely not a quasi-alliance were marginalized in recent DC examinations of the strength of the Sino-Russian axis.

The counter-argument on Sino-Russian relations has some merit if it is kept in perspective. The cultural divide—as opposed to the national identity affinity—is huge. Vladivostok is a European city, which, over a quarter century since opening to the outside, has made few strides toward cosmopolitanism or acceptance of a multi-ethnic Asian community. Russia’s elite—for reasons of historical affinity but also of Chinese inhospitality—stays focused on Europe. China’s elite—also sensing Russian inhospitality—is not keen on Russia as a destination for personal or company resources. Ukraine in 2014 was an eye-opener for Russia, turning it closer to China, but being shut off from European capital and technology and seeking Chinese replacements neither brought a substantial return nor altered existing cultural proclivities. China has not replaced the West, even if it is investing more, Russian manufacturing and agricultural exports are rising, and the relationship continues to be upbeat. There is reason for Russia to keep seeking diversified markets, but not to loosen ties to China—its major partner.

Skeptics about Sino-Russian closeness cite conflicting regional interests in Asia with five possible arenas. In the case of India, they have their strongest point, but the balance of Russia’s ties to China and India has shifted so decisively—including more active Russian ties to Pakistan and the Taliban—that this position has been fading in DC discussions. The case heard anew in 2016 was Russia’s distinctive ties to ASEAN, including Vietnam, but the area is too remote and trade too meager for Russia to let differences here affect overall relations with China. Agreement to hold joint military exercises with China in the South China Sea were indicative, even if Russia did make sure that these drills stayed close to Hainan Island. Japan lacks the pull to swing Sino-Russian relations significantly, regardless of Abe’s thinking. Also, Park Geun-hye’s Eurasian Economic Initiative came to naught. She had no rapport with Putin, and could not influence his policy toward North Korea. Finally, the approach Russia was taking to Central Asia was a thorn in relations with China, but as China’s clout grew and it pressed for a different role in the sub-region—throwing its economic weight around with the Silk Road Economic Belt—Russia capitulated. This area matters, but it is not of primary importance, and Russia had no credible alternative to offer Central Asia. Isolation beckoned if it challenged China here, as it was forcibly challenging the European powers and the United States elsewhere.  

After Trump and Xi met, the conversation about Sino-US relations grew somewhat more hopeful. China anticipated increasing acceptance as the other superpower, much as Washington had adjusted to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s on the basis of nuclear parity. Instead of Trump unilaterally insisting on US dominance with China pressured to adjust, Trump had shifted to a transactional relationship, willing to make trade-offs in return for China’s help on North Korea. A new comprehensive dialogue, a 100-day action plan on trade, and the impression that North Korea topped the list of US foreign policy challenges (over Russia, Iran, violent extremism, and, naturally, China) fueled optimism that Sino-US ties would remain upbeat for a time. Conversely, if the issue were resolved, there might be no glue left to keep Sino-US ties in a cooperative direction. Yet, few anticipated that the outcome would be a genuine resolution of the nuclear issue, rather than sequence of steps in which the US need for China would scarcely diminish. What would China try to extract in return for cooperation, in stages, was in the minds of some in DC talks.

Trump changed course so abruptly on China that many, including US allies, were left agape. Taiwan might be brushed aside. South Korea could find itself marginalized in dealing with North Korea. Russia’s priority for Trump could be greatly lowered. Talk of a G2 might soon revive. Those, such as Peter Navarro, who prioritize pressuring China could be sidelined in Trump’s entourage. US export controls could be relaxed, as could limitations on Chinese investments in the United States. Talk of a “game-changer” due to North Korea in March had concentrated on pressure on China through coercive measures, but in April, it refocused on coordination with China seeking joint pressure; that meant less salience for allied coordination and a new role for dialogue with the North and for renewal of the Six-Party Talks or smaller grouping. In these fast-moving times, shifts in South Korea after its election or in North Korea in deciding when and whether to test would affect the timetable of Sino-US efforts. In May, the Korean Peninsula is bound to be in the spotlight of East Asian change.