Washington Insights, Vol. 5, No. 4

A relatively quiet summer for think tanks was punctuated by an unusual
degree of trepidation about developments in the Asia-Pacific region and US policy responses. Discussions in early summer, when US-South Korean relations appeared threatened, gave way to warnings in August about US-North Korean tensions that could lead to conflict as well as Sino-US relations, decisive to regional peace. Yet, August 15 passed without North Korea launching missiles toward Guam; US rhetoric grew calmer, too, as South Korea sought to reassert its active role in peninsular affairs rather than acquiesce as a bystander. As Washington obsessed over Trump’s flagrant disregard for domestic standards of moral leadership, the international challenges could be set aside. The basic concerns lingered, however: China’s regional strategy, Sino-US relations, US strategy in the Asia-Pacific, Japan’s moves to reactivate regional diplomacy, and South Korea-US relations under new leadership.

China’s Regionalism

Amid talk of US decline due to Trump’s troubled leadership, some were discussing if China is taking advantage of this opportunity. In particular, they reflected on the May summit, whether using the expression OBOR—as once popularized in China—or the current favorite BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). While there had been dismissive articles from outside of China—arguing inflated expectations, huge potential losses from projects not based on economic criteria, delayed timetables, and a vague vision lacking in specifics, to name a few—these often failed to capture China’s narrative or articulate the real goals of the initiative to serve as a starting point for assessing its prospects. However vague some of the specifics may be, BRI is a grand vision by the leadership to mobilize diverse resources, which encourages actors at many levels of administration and society to advance their own proposals to their own benefit. These include not only infrastructure, but also trade, monetary policy, exchanges, and integration across national boundaries. The range of such ideas suggests a comprehensive outlook aimed at satisfying the economic concerns and interests of many across China as well as transforming the country into the preponderant power in Asia, the influence of which reaches Africa and Europe. The BRI has become the most widely recognized vision of the “China Dream.”

During the Cultural Revolution, China reached an extreme of isolation, whereas the BRI calls for connectivity on a vast scale. Unlike the earlier goal of establishing revolutionary ties to make China the center, BRI strives to connect Asia economically and politically with no positive ideological message, but rather, a strong negative one against liberal values and civil society empowerment. Western goals in the 1990s for connecting Eurasia and affirming US strategic leadership are contradicted by China’s ambitions. While infrastructure is in the forefront, economics is being used for political ends, to the degree that some analysts treat strategic objectives as primary. Economics serve to boost power and influence, when China lacks the military and soft power to boost its standing rapidly. Vague slogans such as a “community of common destiny” and “Silk Road Spirit” hint at ideological goals, while countering liberal ideals and the notion of the “ASEAN Way.” Thus, China obscures its geopolitical and political ambitions. Vagueness combined with investment incentives help to split ASEAN and even the EU. At the same time, the absence of a clear set of programs sets in motion proposals from within and beyond China that can be vetted for their value in meeting multiple goals with little initial commitment.

Sino-US Relations

In one DC exchange on ideas for how Washington and Beijing can avoid becoming adversaries, it was suggested that expanding patterns of cooperation in every area possible would be the answer. This “quantity leads to quality” approach defies doubts that differences are not being addressed. Another appeal was for an honest strategic dialogue that is far-reaching, assuming that clarity is what is missing and that China is ready to be honest despite previously obscuring some differences. This was countered by the argument that differences are structural, historical, and fundamental. When the essence of the division was focused on the future orientation of the Korean Peninsula (rather than the excuses given for China’s objections to US appeals for cooperation on North Korea), China’s control over the first island chain (rather than sovereignty over the South China Sea), and the durability of US alliances (not limited to alliance policies such as military exercises), then it became clear that problems are rooted in contrasting visions and approaches to the future order of East Asia. Being realistic about the true nature of the divisions is the recommended path to strategic dialogue, but some doubted that Chinese commentaries on US policies and intentions are able to transcend the state-sanctioned propaganda.

One stumbling block is China’s refusal to accept US assurances that its participation in a rules-based regional order is welcome. Another is China’s insistence that US alliances in the region are aimed at containing China. A third issue is that US policy toward North Korea is regarded as aimed at regime change rather than preventing the threat of nuclear proliferation, wielded to disguise a belligerent foreign policy. In these Chinese judgments, there is almost never any citation of US policy statements or accurate reporting of the history of diplomacy. In proposals from China, there are often slogans without tangible paths forward. In response to US calls for strategic dialogue on matters such as THAAD, China refuses, repeating many inaccuracies in its reasoning. Realistic exchanges cannot be expected under such circumstances.

Chinese sources repeat threat perceptions of the Cold War era, rather than those reflecting current realities, as hoped by the United States. Chinese deflect assessments of North Korea’s threat, while opposing its nuclear weapons and long-range missile development as a problem but not necessarily as a priority. The absence of a shared sense of threat complicates security cooperation. Indeed, China insists that the US presence in the region is for the purpose of containment, thereby pointing to the United States as the threat. Without consensus on the threats faced—from the split over Al Qaeda and ISIS, the split over Russia in Ukraine, to the divisions over the Indo-Pacific region—strategic dialogue has poor prospects. Indeed, during the Cold War, the United States often enjoyed greater consensus with the Soviet Union over how to manage strategic instability than it does today with China. In the 1950s-70s, spheres of control and interest were well-understood, whereas today, China is less of an established power than was the Soviet Union, although its methods of altering the status quo have been incremental.

One Chinese speaker downplayed the notion that China opposes a hegemonic status of the United States, expects the US position to be imperiled for a considerable time, or anticipates that China’s tianxia traditions can be revived. Rather, educated Chinese are concerned about boosting China’s soft power and not frightening its neighbors with Sinocentrism. Another Chinese speaker sought more dialogue so that the US side would not misunderstand China’s strategic intentions, praising recent increases in mil-mil cooperation. If frictions have increased, these are not surprising between an established and a rising power and can be managed by confidence-building measures. Such remarks reflecting the upbeat mood of the Trump-Xi summit in April—despite signs of rapid downturn since June—lacked the substance on managing specific crises and failed to convince DC audiences to be optimistic.

A US speaker also spoke positively about mil-mil exchanges but saw fresh signs of growing competition, including uncertainties over intentions as each side expands its presence in the region and questions the other’s motivations more directly. Failed dialogue over the summer and intensification of the North Korean issue added to such mutual concerns. The impact of North Korea’s recent provocations was particularly serious, reviving suspicions and confining the extent of UN sanctions, which failed to reduce Sino-North Korean trade or alter the course of the confrontation. China has repeatedly failed to enforce sanctions, tighten border inspections, or even explain its actions. When candid, Chinese acknowledge factors that keep China wed to its long-time ally: history, ideology, security, and emotional connections. While some suggest that these bonds are weakening, DC audiences find no compelling or transparent evidence. Condemning North Korea appears to many on a par with Trump condemning white nationalists and Nazis after the August 12 Charlottesville rally and murder; indeed, China’s response was too little and too late, with limited credibility as to its sincerity. Some argue that China should be given one more chance, and its agreement with new sanctions in early August is a turning point. Others have been through such supposed turning points too many times to rest their hopes on the latest example.

The linkage between the overall state of Sino-US relations and China’s cooperation on North Korea became clearer in 2017 and was acknowledged by both sides. What had been obscured at times over the past 15 years was now in the forefront. A speaker calculated that for China, war would be the worst outcome, followed by a US-North Korean deal (with China on the sidelines), and the best-case scenario would be a pro-China administration in Pyongyang. China seeks a grand bargain, even assessing that the North Korean threat to the United States needs to be intensified for Washington to conclude that it is more dangerous than the Chinese threat. Eventually, US concern over the nuclear threat from the North will lead to concessions aimed at China, both on the future of the peninsula and regional security more generally.

US Policy toward the Asia-Pacific Region

Without the usual cadre of officials to guide policy, there was an exceptional divide between trade and economic policy on the one hand and security policy on the other. This accompanied the frequent gap between Trump’s interventions and what the officials in his administration were trying to accomplish. The think tank exchanges were harsh on Trump’s economic policy (but open to crackdowns on China over unfair trade practices such as coercing foreign companies to turn over intellectual property secrets) and security policy for ignoring the advice of the generals. However, apart from a period of consternation over North Korea policy, there was little sense of panic. Abandonment of allies was not a major concern. Their entrapment was not, either. Policy tweaks were taken with relative equanimity in place of policy reversals, except in the case of TPP.

Renegotiating KORUS FTA was one major concern. Advice to South Korea was to see these talks as an opportunity to update the agreement, namely by including TPP language and e-commerce. Also, NAFTA talks should be followed closely to understand how Washington is thinking. Moreover, Seoul may want to take unilateral moves before Washington acts, for instance on auto safety standards, while fully implementing the spirit of KORUS FTA in regard to issues already raised. One idea is for Seoul to explore talks on TPP-11 as a way to gain more leverage. Finally, with unpredictable Trump, it could be helpful to build support for KORUS FTA in Congress and among major stakeholders. Korean speakers countered oft-heard myths from the US side, such as that KORUS FTA has been the cause of mounting trade deficits for the United States and that the deficit would have been lower without the deal. Also, they saw a need to make clear that Korean FDI in the United States has been rising. A plan to reduce the deficit may prove appealing, for example through shale oil imports, although those would not likely be significant in increasing the number of US jobs. Still, Trump’s desire for managed trade in contradiction to past US support for free markets poses a problem. The suggestion that Seoul and Tokyo should consult in response to Trump and China’s subsidies to gain dominance over high-tech industries proved provocative. Meanwhile, the concern that US automobile companies would try to drive a hard bargain in renegotiations was palpable, although US agricultural interests could be a countervailing force, as they have been in NAFTA talks.

Although prospects for a breakthrough toward negotiations with North Korea or a full-court press from sanctions with China were dim, some DC commentators were discussing what would follow if diplomacy took center stage. North Korea would decide that its gains in nuclear weapons and missiles sufficed to leverage them through talks that would put no pressure on its regime or its human rights stance. China would see an opening for a grand bargain, meeting its geopolitical objectives. South Korea would aim for a leading role in narrowing differences. Reducing sanctions, advancing beyond a freeze, deciding on a sequence of steps to mitigate the crisis and going beyond it would prove difficult. Some saw these diplomatic challenges as more unsettling for the US-ROK alliance than the environment of 2009 to 2017, when deterrence and sanctions were foremost. China had agreed to Security Council sanctions in early August, giving it more credibility for the stage of diplomacy. If Pyongyang chooses that path, Washington’s readiness to find compromises would be seriously tested. Moon Jae-in’s preconditions for talks and view of how to proceed could well be in discord with the Trump administration’s. Trump, however, is prone to claim success from doubtful advances. No optimism about denuclearization or North Korea’s limited objectives in dialogue can last in the face of the skepticism in DC about the likelihood of this process ever unfolding.

Four approaches to North Korea were weighed in DC exchanges. The first was the long-held preference for intensified sanctions against North Korea through China’s acquiescence. Trump doubled down on this approach, threatening bilateral trade as a way to change China’s calculus. The second was imposing secondary sanctions on third parties, mainly Chinese companies, which were tested in June as a shot across the bow. But China’s support for three UN resolutions over 18 months has averted serious application of that approach. The third was a trilateral military build-up amid signs that the threshold for action has been lowered. Trump has tried this approach to some degree without a consistent message and clear South Korean support, although Moon gave his consent to THAAD deployment after some hesitation. The fourth approach was to prepare for negotiations, considering the first three steps as preconditions for Pyongyang and Beijing to accede to them. Talk in Washington has drifted toward defining the “right conditions” for talks, “smart engagement” with North Korea, and the tradeoffs likely to be discussed if negotiations were to begin. Yet, so far this is not the mainstream, when many doubt that North Korea will meet the conditions required by Trump and US allies.

Japan-India Relations

India was scarcely on Washington’s radar in the first half of 2017 until Prime Minister Modi came to meet with Trump at the end of June. There were already signs that the bloom had faded from the Trump-Xi summit in early April, and questions abounded on Trump’s next moves. Although few expected a new regional strategy to replace Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia, Trump’s deep aversion to any type of multilateralism, including in alliances and strategic partnerships, was being countered by strategic thinking in the Defense Department. In this context, talk of a strong bond between India and Japan could be useful in rallying the US leadership to reaffirm US ties to India, the value of US-Japan-India triangularity, and support for both Modi and Prime Minister Abe in their quest for US attentiveness to the Indo-Pacific.

Speakers described Japan-India ties as: the fastest growing strategic relationship in Asia, the most enticing bilateral development in the world today, the only case in which India describes a strategic partnership as “special,” and the extraordinary example of Indians viewing a relationship as “10 out of 10.” Indeed, in the face of uncertainty about polarization in Asia and the binary competition between the United States and China, Japan and India were recognized as the next-order powers capable by working together on regional security. Binding them together has the potential to build on at least four forces. First, they share a geographical vision of the Indo-Pacific inclusive of the United States. India’s “Act East” parallels Japan’s view of its strategic context reaching westward into the Indian Ocean. Although they face opposite ends of China, there is striking similarity in how they perceive its rise and power projection: border disputes along an extended line—in one case on land, and in the other in the East China Sea—with both at some distance watching China’s aggressive advances in the South China Sea. Second, they anticipate close economic complementarity while also overlapping in their concerns about heavy dependence on China economically, which it could exploit to blackmail them. Japan’s FDI and ODA coupled with India’s market, Japan’s eagerness to fund infrastructure combined with India’s growing need for it, Japan’s desire to find alternatives to its factory sites in China together with India’s need for industrial jobs, as well as their common desire not to be swept into the One Belt, One Road circle of China lead to what is expected to be ever closer interest in each other.

Third, speakers in DC suggested that culture is a key element in reinforcing Japan-Indian relations. Confucianism was invoked a quarter century ago to back aspirations to solidify Sino-Japanese relations before China consciously aroused historical memories of a different sort to create an unbridgeable divide. Likewise, today, Japan has found that Buddhism is a valuable backdrop for Abe-Modi meetings, which is reinforced by Indian memories of Japan’s WWII legacy of anti-Western colonial rule in Asia and by a common framework of principles for resolving regional issues—freedom of navigation, peaceful settlement of disputes, and human rights. If Japan has become more assertive about universal values and democracy, the three-layer cultural overlap appears to both sides to be a strong foundation for their relationship, even making it unique as a source of understanding, distinct from China or even from the United States. Abe and Modi value this cultural dimension.

Fourth, military imperatives are driving Tokyo and New Delhi closer, backed by US impetus since about 2000. Japan and India are maritime powers, both of which look anxiously at China’s rapid maritime advances in their direction. Joining with the United States in the Malabar naval exercises puts them on a path to interoperability. India’s Adaman and Nicobar Islands are strategically located close to the Straits of Malacca, which makes Japan’s assistance to improve power generation useful for an Indian base at the point of entry to the Indian Ocean. Other countries are wary of Chinese retaliation if they invest in Northeast India, where territorial claims exist, but Japan does not shy away. Prospects are growing for Japanese arms sales and joint production of new military technology, presumably with a major US role.

While there are high expectations for the impact of Japan-India relations, so far, they remain quite modest in scope. The level of trade is about $70 billion. People-to-people ties are so limited that only 27,000 Indians live in Japan compared to about 4 million in the United States. Japanese migration laws and Indian investment restrictions are big barriers to the synergy some anticipate. Neither side, especially India, is ready to challenge China directly or assertively, given economic dependence. Relations have not progressed far through multilateral arrangements, for instance involving Australia, in light of Indian reservations. Both India and Japan are concerned that Trump is not committed multilateralism, failing to build on Obama’s support for their relations. Thus, the DC audience found reason to be wary of US policy despite great promise.

South Korea-US Relations

Moon Jae-in’s DC speech on June 30 capped a visit that brought a sigh of relief to the US and Korea observers who had nervously anticipated this summit. It appeared that what united the two allies far outweighed what divided them. Yet, taking a close look at Moon’s words and the events in the Sino-US-North Korean triangle revealed a more disturbing picture. Moon spoke of making the alliance greater, as if a new direction befitting our times is within reach. Yet, on the US side, suspicions abounded that the direction he had in mind was one more likely to strain bilateral ties. He hinted that South Korea’s voice would be magnified in a more proactive manner, when many suspected that North Korea would snub Moon’s overtures, the US response to the North would narrow Moon’s options, and China’s role would be a further impediment to Moon’s aspirations. If Seoul in 2016 found that its initiatives of 2014-15 were at an impasse and its voice was not being heard, prospects for the second half of 2017 and beyond seemed even dimmer. The idea that a more perfect democracy would overcome national divisions over foreign policy in these difficult times was also unpersuasive. The idealistic agenda for persuading North Korea by promising no efforts at regime change and other long-considered enticements was not taken seriously. Optimistic assertions about focusing the alliance on bringing stability or peace to Northeast Asia appeared either to misjudge the intensifying polarization and danger in the region or to presage a policy shift by Moon likely to strain the alliance. Such concerns were magnified by developments over the week.

By July 4, the tougher US stance toward North Korea and China announced during Moon’s visit was highlighted by a US freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, a North Korean ICBM test, a phone call between Trump and Xi Jinping as Chinese criticism of US moves intensified, and Xi-Putin summit jointly appealing for a freeze-for-freeze approach to North Korea. In DC exchanges, freezing military exercises for a freeze in missile and nuclear tests drew great skepticism for: rewarding bad behavior by reducing deterrence; having little or no prospect of changing North Korea’s behavior; essentially recognizing it as a nuclear weapons state to the detriment of the non-proliferation regime and US alliances; and opening the door to bypassing sanctions and enabling the North to strengthen its threat capacity with no prospect of verifiable control of its WMD. Likewise, hopes for changing China’s attitude toward THAAD, as if the reason for its hostility is because Seoul did not sufficiently consult it before deciding to deploy, were viewed with further skepticism. The fear was that talks with Beijing aimed at persuading it were more likely to demonstrate its resolve to coerce Seoul, despite its insistence that the deployment was a sovereign decision over which Beijing has no right to apply economic sanctions in order to reverse. The Trump-Abe phone conversation set a high bar for Moon to stand firm as well.

In exchanges between US and South Korean international relations experts and some long-engaged in managing their relationship, consensus was manifest on what is critical for alliance coordination, while differences appeared on how to find the right balance in pursuing them. Focusing on the key terms raised in the exchanges is revealing of the challenges that await the Trump and Moon ties.

One advice is that there should be “no surprises” from either side that could unsettle the relationship. Given Trump’s penchant for tweets and interventions not well-vetted by officials as well as his unsettling statements regarding South Korea, this is no sure bet. Also, given Moon’s campaign rhetoric and declared intentions in regard to China and North Korea, refraining from surprising the United States will not be easy either. The Moon-Trump summit forged a foundation for ties to advance, but discussion raised doubt about whether it is stable enough to withstand uncoordinated moves that violate their implicit expectations.

Seoul is worried about entrapment, while Washington is concerned that its ally may abandon the alliance as the centerpiece of its diplomatic efforts. Bellicose US statements fuel fears of war, while the absence of a US ambassador in Seoul reduces assurances. Even in Washington, Koreans can hear politicians denounce Trump’s tirades and macho unilateralism, calling for bringing the North to its senses not to its knees. Yet, the alternatives offered by critics of Trump are often unconvincing, as if China would do what is needed to reach a satisfactory deal. Moon is wary about Trump and the demands he could make that would alienate Seoul from Beijing: on THAAD, secondary sanctions, fuller trilateralism with Japan, and regionalism. 


Progress from 2014 to 2016 in US-ROK-Japanese trilateralism has not received the attention it deserves, one DC exchange argued. Vice foreign ministers met six times over this period, productively leveraging the collective strength of the three sides. Especially in 2016, there were strong signs of closer coordination, exerting pressure on North Korea and those who abet it around the world. Appeals were made to sever ties to the North and remove “guest workers” from that country. Cooperation extended to: cybersecurity, sharing plans to respond to attacks; space security, dealing with space debris; energy security, exchanging ideas on clean energy; cancer research, sharing information for the “moonshot”; policy on coordinating development assistance; and women’s empowerment.

Some of these areas of cooperation were in doubt in 2017, first due to Trump’s election, and then Moon’s election. Trump does not value many of these issues, and Moon leaves doubt how closely he will work with Abe. In DC, there was talk of continuing trilateralism as a model for international community-building and a way to sustain Japan-South Korean bilateral cooperation, which suffered from its down periods as under Roh Moo-hyun administration and again in 2013. Some on the US side call trilateralism a precondition to compelling China to reconsider its approach to North Korea.

In the summer of 2017, several factors were viewed as threatening this process. First, despite increasingly shared perceptions of the North Korean threat, there is not a shared understanding of the appropriate response. Second, history and territory are again divisive themes, undermining ties, as South Korean nationalist sentiments are again on the rise. Third, while in 2014-16 US low-key intervention to cool tempers was appreciated, it now seems that Washington is being urged to stay aloof and not take sides. Finally, different strategic outlooks toward China and regional alliances and partnerships to manage China’s assertiveness pose a problem, leaving room for China to try to drive a wedge between the two US allies.

The US case for trilateralism is well-understood by the ROK military, but much less by public opinion. Defense of South Korea by US forces cannot be separated from the US presence in Japan and rear support involving the Japanese. The two bilateral alliances are, thus, closely linked. Intelligence sharing has improved a lot lately. Also, South Korean support for a US-centered rule-based order has been clarified, serving the objectives of trilateralism. Yet, Seoul hesitates on the regionalization of this, as well as on various bilateral ties. Fear was voiced in DC about the weakening of US public diplomacy, when more effort is needed in Washington as well as Tokyo to influence South Korean public opinion. Trump’s loss of moral authority weakens the US role in this region as elsewhere. While the focus centers on deterrence against North Korea, inertia is likely to prevail. Nevertheless, some continue to express concern that the ROK-Japan leg of the triangle remains too fragile for optimism, particularly if the emphasis on their common threat were to shift.

  • Rick Bennett

    If and when the US business community (and via them the public) is expected to suffer some from trade disruption there might be some hope that we can get China to enforce meaningful sanctions upon the DPRK. We can vocalize that war comes with a price, and pundits can say that fighting war requires all elements of national power, but we seem to fail at making the connection. Or maybe we are just too wrapped up in the WWE antics of our political parties to get off the sofa and go to work.