Washington Insights (Vol. 5, No. 3)

In May and June, challenges mounted for observers of foreign relations in the Asia-Pacific region. Donald Trump kept throwing US policy into question. Clashing views of the Belt and Road forum left some anticipating Chinese leadership in regionalism and globalism, while others saw the forum as making little concrete progress. If the options for Japan and Russia appeared to narrow, each remained insistent on its rising role. The Korean Peninsula appeared as at a crossroads, as Kim Jong-un accelerated missile testing and newly-elected Moon Jae-in aimed to assert Seoul’s centrality amid increasing Sino-US competition. The discussions in DC and elsewhere tried to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving changes. The mood was different from previous years: while distrust of Trump and the urgency of the North Korean issue augmented, government officials spoke rarely to DC audiences to inform them about policy changes and options. Nevertheless, exchanges among foreign academics eager to gauge US policy and point bilateral relations on a desired track were similar to prior exchanges, even though those outside Trump’s inner circle were no longer seen as having genuine insight into how policy was being debated and what steps would likely be taken.

Following confusion at the start of the Trump administration, views began to stabilize by late spring. Three clashing frameworks emerged. Many Japanese and US scholars advocated a framework of continuity: to intensify pressure on North Korea by motivating China, to recognize and respond to growing threats from China, and to solidify alliances and US-led regionalism. Occasionally, some Chinese and Russian scholars called for acknowledging a completely different world post-Brexit and Trump’s election, engaging North Korea more and downplaying alliances. Finally, South Korean scholars advocated a third framework of renewing the search for common ground while supporting deterrence. The first stance prevailed even as the others aired.

Japan-US Relations

The Japanese message in DC left no doubt that the security situation in Northeast Asia was the tensest it has been since the Korean War. Accordingly, the Japanese were ready to discuss preparing for potential conflict with North Korea, including authorizing a greater role for its Self-Defense Forces to accompany the US forces. Few expected the US overtures to China for more cooperation in pressuring the North to succeed. The prevailing view was that China has the means to alter North Korea’s behavior, but it does not want to act. Acknowledging this, Japan was prepared to do more for deterrence, protect grey zones, rescue Japanese citizens in a contingency, and strengthen alliance coordination. The response to such Japanese positions was largely supportive.

The Japanese and Americans exchanged views on how the threat from North Korea has been growing. There was consensus on the need for more missile defense as well as a Japanese counterattack strike force. Few had any optimism that diplomacy could stop North Korea, although that was considered one track to keep pursuing.

Challenges facing Japan and the United States in responding to North Korea were a primary concern in such exchanges. First, Trump’s retrenchment from the liberal international order and his demand for Japan to pay its fair share initially cast doubt on the foundations of the US-Japan alliance. Trump’s ideas were not considered to be the traditional Republican foreign policy. Although some doubts were relieved during Trump’s meetings with Abe, which reaffirmed the alliance, and Trump’s personnel choices in national security offered reassurance that “America First” did not signify isolationism, the details of his foreign policy remained unclear. Second, Japan’s strategists and officials realized that they had much to do at home to counter the intensifying geostrategic shocks, especially from China. Whereas Japan saw its role in facing North Korea’s nuclear threat as secondary, its strategic thinking centered more on the threat of China’s rise, as its military budget outpaced Japan’s by ever-larger amounts and the battleground concentrated on maritime and air assets. Third, Japan and the United States had to update their military in line with the technological advances to directly confront China’s latest arms deployments. Fourth, the alliance must coordinate on North Korea (avoiding recognizing it as a nuclear state, for instance through a freeze), on China (avoiding a G2 arrangement bypassing Japan), on expanded alliance and partnership relations in Asia (placing US-Japan alliance as the core of the extended network), and on low-end, grey-zone conflicts, which were expected to continue and become more urgent. In working closely with its ally on these matters, Japan seeks to ensure a strong US presence in the region and capitalize on the US potential to incentivize other states to aid in their capacity-building. US speakers diverged little from these strategic viewpoints.

While in other settings one could hear advocates of a freeze with North Korea, the principal dialogue partners of Japanese strategic thinkers agreed that a freeze would do more harm than good, undermining deterrence and credibility including in US-Japan relations. Pressure must precede diplomacy, given the North’s attitudes, they insisted. They were also eager for a wider defense network, concentrating on India, Australia, and South Korea—each of which poses problems for deeper collective security and makes a NATO of the East unachievable, at least for now. As usual, the specifics for strengthening trilateralism with South Korea were not forthcoming. Meanwhile, concerns exacerbated regarding decoupling, as the North’s threat to the US mainland could incentivize removal of the US nuclear umbrella from its main allies or as increasing US need for China on North Korea could lead to trade-offs harmful to Japan’s interest.

In terms of long-term security, the Japanese impression that US thinking is inconsistent and short-term has been growing. There is fear that Trump will be tempted by a short-term deal, failing to prepare for the long-term strategy on China, as Obama failed to respond in a timely way to its incremental moves in the South China Sea. Some in Washington are skeptical that Japan is so strategic: in its neglect of South Korea, wishful thinking about Russia, uncertain prioritization of North Korea, and inability to act assertively given the public’s attitudes, Japan remains unable to fight under foreseeable circumstances. Yet, the main grievances come from the Japanese side, as they press for urgency in US moves to stop financial flows to North Korea—as though this is the very last of resorts—leaving the region in a mess. As suspicions mounted over why Trump was so slow to impose secondary sanction on Chinese firms, some blamed Trump’s fear of trade losses from Chinese retaliation for inaction, which would be hypocritical as Japan once accepted trade losses from such sanctions on Iran.

While many perceive Japan as the most satisfied of US allies at the troubled start of the Trump era, many Japanese thinkers saw the abandonment of TPP as a shock on a par with Nixon’s 1971 decision on China, transforming the regional order. Some worried about the outbreak of trade wars or the impact on ASEAN, leaving its nations more vulnerable to pressure from China. In response, audiences heard, new efforts by Japan were under way that could lead to TPP-11 with no US participation. One concern was that China would set the rules for trade, favoring its state-owned firms, monopolizing industrial policy, and disrupting the liberal international order. Talk of US-Japan bilateralism or, even worse, US unilateralism, was countered by appeals for Japan to be more active in promoting multilateralism without China.

In April, Japan’s concerns shifted to Washington’s overtures to Beijing in ways that could play the two Asian states against each other. The prospect that Trump was abandoning soft power diplomacy in favor of either military posturing or even G2 diplomacy left Japan wondering how it could fill the leadership vacuum in values as well as trade. Whereas in 1945, Washington focused on incorporating Japan and Germany into the free world, it was ironic that seventy years later, those two states now bore the onus of sustaining that order, having scored a resounding success at the end of the Cold War. In addition to trade policy, some in Japan spoke of finalizing Abe’s push to make it into a national security state, with one target being Taiwan—needing reassurance—and another North Korea. There was even talk of a golden opportunity for Japan to assert its independence from the United States, but not to challenge the alliance or act in a manner incompatible with its long-term interests.


While Trump continued to heighten alarm about discontinuities, DC elites reaffirmed continuities. The alliance was in great shape even after the transition from Obama to Trump, Abe proclaimed. The Trump-Abe February summit was reassuring. The message to the Japanese and to Trump was that bilateral ties are a great force multiplier, in security as well as economy, serving the global and regional order. Yet, some challenges were clear: a bilateral FTA would be harder than TPP negotiations; the realignment of US forces in Okinawa could be derailed by an unforeseen event; the struggle over North Korea could put Japan at a greater risk and result in Sino-US trade-offs troubling to Japan; Sino-Japanese and Sino-US relations over the East and South China seas may not be in sync; and management of ties between Seoul and Tokyo could again become a divisive force in US-Japan relations. On the Japanese side, behind the veneer of a great start to Abe-Trump relations, the concern is unmistakable that more US-Japan coordination is needed, especially over the delicate triangle with China; even as they seek China’s help on North Korea, there should be no trade-offs on trade or maritime issues. However, as US priority for China’s help with North Korea became increasingly manifest, the Japanese felt more uncertain despite reassurances. Such uncertainty continued through to the end of the spring.

Troubling Japanese and DC observers too was uncertainty not only about how far Trump may go to placate China, but also how serious the threat is that he will, after delinking security, trade, and human rights, revive charges against Japan as a freeloader on defense and trade relations with the United States. One upbeat summit cannot remove the shadow cast over their relationship. Yet, in the security arena, satisfaction over growing ties and Japan’s shifting role is palpable. Nowhere in the world is there more dynamism in US alliance ties—missile defense, cyber security, space, force integration, defense industries, and such—than in coordination with Japan. In pursuit of a greater division of labor, there is also discussion of what would be possible, should South Korea agree to greater trilateralism.

Nevertheless, some Japanese realist thinkers raised alarm about worst-case scenarios, centering on the way China may act in grey zones and test hybrid warfare. A swarm of fishing boats could descend on the Senkaku Islands, following what may have been a trial run in August 2016. Lacking coast guard resources, Japan could match this only with MSDF ships, which China would call an escalatory move toward military confrontation. How would the Trump administration respond? Many see Xi Jinping as decidedly assertive and, possibly, in advance of the Party Congress, desirous of a patriotic campaign, while Trump’s attitude in such a circumstance remains uncertain. Alternatively, China could deepen ports along what India calls the “string of pearls” and insist this is for commercial purposes, only later shutting them down for its military use at times, exacting a price especially from Japanese commerce. Japanese scholars continue to voice these views as US strategic thinking on Asia appears increasingly in doubt.

South Korea-China-US Relations

While former US officials who had dealt with Moon Jae-in during the Roh Moo-hyun era were split on whether Moon was a pragmatist (more so than Roh) or an ideologue, there was great concern about scenarios that could cause tensions in US-ROK ties. In one scenario, Washington could agree to a deal with North Korea—a freeze—to delay the existential threat of an ICBM that could hit US mainland, which does not end the existential threats to South Koreans and Japanese and seemingly prioritizes one threat over the others. In another, Trump’s exaggerated hopes for a deal with China over North Korea could wind up shattered, leading to a backlash of saber-rattling that unnerves the US allies. The most worrisome outcome would be that South Koreans optimistically turn to Beijing without realizing its true aims of wrecking the ROK-US alliance and making the entire Korean peninsula a buffer against the United States and Japan. Overall, many scholars voiced doubt that China will go far to resolving the North Korean issue, warned that a freeze would mean little without verification, insisted that self-defense be strengthened rather than traded away for talks and a freeze, and urged that China be given little in return for pressuring the North to talk in light of China’s strategy.


Some divisions were noticeable between those defensive of Moon Jae-in and others. Why should there be hope for a breakthrough with North Korea? Some argued that the US shift in 2001 away from support for the Sunshine Policy blew that opportunity. Is the trade imbalance with South Korea a cause for tougher US response? Some asserted that trade should be linked to security, and an ally should be treated differently. Is China a reliable partner in dealing with North Korea? Again, the troubling message to DC audiences was that China just wants to bring all of the parties together and has been frustrated by Park and others reluctant to talk. Despite idealism that Moon would succeed in balancing alliance and autonomy for South Korea as a middle power, many thought that current circumstances would leave him little room to depart sharply from Park’s alliance-centered foreign policy in 2016. The very fact that South Koreans are prone to exaggerate their ability to maneuver among the great powers and act autonomously is seen as the legacy of past overconfidence.

Belt and Road Initiative and Sino-Russian Relations

China looks in multiple directions around its neighborhood. One DC discussion saw Central Asia as its most successful legacy. It has largely avoided great power rivalry, settled sovereignty disputes, had economic success, achieved security cooperation, and realized its goals of authoritarian information control. Contrasting this to the problems China has faced elsewhere along its rim, the discussion considered why it has been successful. One answer was the great power environment in Central Asia, where Russia struggled to keep its influence as it had no choice but to yield economically, and where the United States pulled back while India and Japan were unable to finance their aspirations. At the same time, there was no North Korea, Taiwan, or South China Sea to complicate China’s policies. Another factor was the complementarity of Central Asia’s energy-exporting states and China’s vast importing needs, giving China chances to build infrastructure and supply consumer goods, while laying a debt trap that leaves these states increasingly dependent. Not only in the new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plans but in the past decade of “going out” to the west, China could forge plans, which even if far from realistic in their timetable, boost its leverage. One speaker indicated that Russia served as a convenient foil for China, as Central Asian countries fear its military and political demands and are growing frightened by possible parallels from its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Thus, Central Asian countries turned to China for balance and recognized the advantages of a new, regional economic platform, which China was offering. The SCO proved its value in lowering Russia’s guard while facilitating China’s inroads. With BRI, many expected closer infrastructure connections, new financial mechanisms, and an increasing sense that China is safeguarding the economic security of states. In addition, there would be a strong cultural commitment, including many scholarships to young people, as China seeks to boost its soft power without supposedly imposing its own values, but through the diffusion of ideas that could lead to a “community of common destiny.” Discussants raised doubt about China’s success, however, noting cases of corruption that have aroused distrust. Yet, Chinese spokespersons tended to discount them as a small minority or a gap in information. DC audiences were skeptical.

One view of BRI was of a vehicle for China to rejuvenate its historical centrality: politically, through what will become essentially tributary states required to do China’s bidding and defer in regional and international politics; economically, as all roads or railroads lead to China and trade dependence is wielded as a tool for economic and other demands; culturally, as China reestablishes itself as the civilizational center, dictating how views of history, East versus West, and values must be expressed; and militarily, with China blocking alliances with the United States and insisting on support for its forces as they venture further from home. The very concept of the “Silk Road” was reminiscent of an era when China was respected and treated as the destination of choice—an Asian phenomenon before the West intruded on a natural sphere. Yet, China must be guarded in officially defining its “Asian Dream” since it currently lacks the military capability and soft power to persuade its neighbors. That leaves economics as its one powerful tool, even more so given the money and engineering assets it can deploy and the needs of its less developed neighbors. At present, BRI is still largely vague and translates to a list of projects, many of which are hardly within reach in the coming period. Connectivity is in the forefront. Although Russia’s notion of Eurasianism is better known and not one that China seeks to contradict openly, this term captures the essence of what China has in mind in connecting the various parts of Asia and beyond. Yet, many wonder if its approach to overcapacity is not putting China and its partners at great risk. Pouring money into colossal projects could haunt them as an economic bubble burst. China’s desire to do this may be rooted as much in geopolitics and geo-cultural thinking as in economics. The May forum gave momentum to BRI, filling the gap left by Trump, but skeptics were not convinced that a winning strategy now exists. Even so, some saw US fears as overdone since economics will determine the outcome, most likely in a manner unwelcome to China, and US cooperation with the AIIB can proceed separately if standards are high. Examples cited suggested that transit routes offer little to local societies, require financing on murky terms, and impose heavy debts.

Sino-US Relations

Looking back to the hectic month in Sino-US relations after the Trump-Xi summit, panelists asked: “Who won?” One response was that nobody won since Xi’s image in China took a hit. Another was that Xi won since Trump’s policy toward China shifted sharply, while Xi’s toward the United States did not, as Xi was seeking calm this year, already inclined to look tougher against Kim Jong-un. Even during the fall campaign, China was leaning toward Trump, disliking Hillary Clinton and welcoming the reduced stress on human rights conditions in China and developments in the South China Sea. In spite of concerns over increased economic tension, the Chinese were hopeful that they could handle a businessman predisposed to cutting deals, patiently responding to Trump’s provocations while forging personal networks and preparing for a summit showcasing good personal chemistry. While the label a “new model of great power relations” is no longer in vogue, China’s aim to get Washington to concede a broad sphere of influence—including acceptance of the BRI—continues as Trump dropped TPP and the US pivot to Asia. While, for now, Trump is preoccupied with North Korea, requiring some concessionary language from the Chinese side, he is seen as lacking a strategy and easy to play for China’s benefit since the summit.

Optimism about Sino-US relations was in short supply. Trump’s wasteful moves and contradictory statements started things off in the wrong way, then his willingness to link nearly all aspects of bilateral relations to China’s posture on North Korea. The process that was supposed to lead to more balanced trade were not predicated on strategy, by a chaotic White House incapable of coordinating diverse US interests. DC audiences were told that China is playing a long game, while Trump is waiting for specific gains slow to come. In the meantime, the image of a G2 grew as Xi welcomed Putin’s calls for a G3 and Abe was left on the sidelines. There was little confidence among analysts that the outcome will be positive, although possible Chinese pressure on North Korea made some agree to testing this approach. As June arrived, skepticism about China kept growing, including doubts about BRI as a source of regionalism.

If Sino-US relations were the natural starting point for analysis of East Asian dynamics, they were treated as a facade of hope as Japan-US and Sino-Russian relations were mostly kept on hold. Observers struggled to grasp how these two core linkages in the region would adjust to the world’s foremost adversarial relationship. If, Sino-US relations would gradually lose their luster as expected, especially over North Korea, many expect the other two links to strengthen. Yet, there was no conclusive outcome as both Washington and Beijing refrained from any criticisms.

Japan-Russia Relations

Although few have retained interest in Japan-Russia relations after the Yamaguchi summit’s disappointment, some exchanges of views continued. One minority view was that Japan missed an opportunity in December by not pressing Putin harder for a compromise, clarifying what Japan would accept, while others doubted that Putin was in a mood to be receptive. The Russian side proved difficult, especially because the foreign ministry and Lavrov have been seen as an obstacle. With Putin appeared more flexible, the challenge was to find officials who would build on his hints rather than disregard them or make a strong offer directly to Putin. Meanwhile, in the absence of an agreement, Japanese officials felt obliged to repeat the mantra that their aim was the recovery of four islands to avoid backlash at home from reversing that position openly. Yet, even when the rhetoric was to settle the fate of all four islands, the Japanese could not expect to regain all of them. Indeed, the Japanese who spoke of 2 + alpha were perpetuating that rhetoric to persuade the public for further talks, even though no + alpha was expected, as Russia pressed for – alpha. Alphas—security arrangements, financial gains, fishing rights, claims of sovereignty, and historical interpretations—are all possible components of a deal. Whatever its contents, talks were stalled when Russia asked for projects to be selected first for joint economic activity whereas Japan insisted to first define the legal framework for its operation.

On June 1, Putin’s press conference was disappointing to the Japanese because it cast the bilateral relationship in the perspective of broad security concerns and the US-Japan alliance. This was not the context Japan considered hopeful for an agreement. Moreover, the two sides have not been able to agree on a special system for joint economic activities; Japan tried to make a proposal, but was rejected by Russia. Moscow was bothered not just by the possibility of a US base on the islands, but the US-Japan security treaty more generally and their missile defense cooperation, seen as part of a global missile program aimed at Russia. Despite exchanges of views on North Korea and the need for Japan’s missile defense, Russians equated the situation with the case of Iran, insisting that there was no need for strong deterrence.

If idealism was rampant in Japanese writings on Japan-Russia relations until December of last year, the operative term now was “realism.” What makes the 2 + 2 talks useful is not that gaps are narrowing or trust is building, but that this is the sole format for US allies facing Russia where honne is aired, as Russians rail against Japan’s missile defense and Japanese against Russia’s sales of missile defense to China. Skeptics wondered if venting such grievances was having any positive effect.

For Japan, the challenge was to calibrate the relative threats of North Korea, China, and Russia in coordinating policy with the United States and keeping a steady course. US thinking has lacked consistency, but Japan’s assessments have also failed to be persuasive. Even as both sides welcome a closer alliance, trouble brew when strategic thinking appeared at odds. At times, this centered on differences over South Korea (US seeking greater Japanese understanding), Russia (Japan seeing it as more positive and through an East Asian lens), and China (Japan assuming long-term threats as more urgent and minimizing China’s cooperative actions). The gap appeared to be sharpest on Russia.

Japan perceived positively that Russia is keeping an interest in security ties with India and hoped tirelessly that Russia will awaken to the threats of China’s rise in Asia. They wanted Russia to be more active in strategizing and balancing in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, beyond focusing on the Silk Road Economic Belt. Yet, after great effort, it was becoming clear that Japan cannot change Russian thinking. Some saw a more realistic goal as stalling for time, keeping Russia talking rather than having it act on the basis of no alternatives to China and then solidifying that bilateral relationship to a new level.


One view of Japan was that it acted from desperation: trying to reach a deal with North Korea using the abductee angle; seeking to build its ties to Mongolia and even Central Asia despite geo-economic realities; striving for ASEAN solidarity when that is elusive; and recently focusing on Russia. In all cases, Japan found that it lacks leverage, but Abe has been reluctant to acknowledge that, as has Japanese media. The Russian case is looking more and more fragile. Abe visits but no longer brings “omiyage” or gifts expected of a visitor. Putin’s language does not even have the semblance of seeking common ground. In this sort of bilateral quest, the very fact that momentum is lost greatly increases the probability that further process will collapse.  

The End of Spring

Clarifications are expected at the end of June when Moon Jae-in met with Trump and had many bilateral summits planned at the sidelines of the G20 summit. Perhaps, a new set of personnel appointments in DC would add clarity. A new provocation by North Korea could force the hand of Washington, Beijing, and Seoul. The 100-day timetable that Trump and Xi set at their April summit would soon expire. The degree of uncertainty was far greater and more extended than in previous US presidential transitions. Russo-US ties in particular have been difficult to predict, but Sino-US and even ROK-US ties also continue to keep many guessing. Despite some efforts to clarify US-Japan and Sino-Russian relations, they too remain somewhat on edge in the absence of Sino-US clarity.