Washington Insights Vol. 6, No. 5

The start of the fall brought further confirmation that Trump is driving the agenda, whether by launching trade wars, disheartening allies, or refusing to attend the annual summit in East Asia. DC presentations and discussions proceeded against this unprecedented turmoil. At times, the Trump effect stayed well in the background as currents in the region were intensely explored. On other occasions, responses to Trump were front and center, as in concern that he was feigning success with Kim Jong-un that would lead to troubling consequences, causing Japanese to fear the worst national security environment they have faced since WWII, and starting a trade war with China with no end in sight and untold damage even if a tougher line was well overdue.

While timely presentations scrutinized the latest bombshells, there were also some far-reaching examinations of the challenges remaining with us for a long time to come. One concerned how best to respond to BRI through a US strategy and intensified multilateral coordination. Another asked what to do about Putin’s increasingly aggressive challenge to US leadership in Asia as in other parts of the world. Trump’s decisions to target both great powers as well as to sanction China for purchasing arms from Russia is altering the world strategic order even as he moves to transform the global trading order. While many in DC support tougher policies toward China and Russia for their ongoing behavior, few are not dumbfounded by what Trump is doing without any sign of strategic deliberations and alliance coordination, arousing widespread anxiety. Focus in DC gatherings was split between North Korea, drawing China, Russia, and South Korea into the forefront, and China’s rise, leading to a wider purview with Japan at the center and ASEAN and the rest of Asia’s southern tier involved. US stakes are high on both fronts, and the fact that Trump is not procrastinating drew some praise even if the lack of prioritizing raised big doubts. 

Central Asia

Lost in all the commotion over Northeast Asia and growing concern over Southeast and South Asia, Central Asia was brought to the attention of DC attendees as an object of strategizing in China, Japan, and South Korea. Instead of rehashing debates about the Great Game of countries competing in some sort of zero-sum competition for control over the large hinterland of Asia, the exchanges centered on how the three states conceptualized their place in Asia via narratives on how they could strengthen their position in Central Asia, not necessarily at the expense of others. This brought their evolving national identities since the collapse of the Soviet Union into play. The Silk Road, which is inherently an identity concept, figured into rhetoric on historical and natural ties to an area that had been lost to their country and was poised to be reconnected to it. 

In 1997 Prime Minister Hashimoto announced Japan’s Eurasian Diplomacy and a decade later, Foreign Minister Aso Taro approached Central Asia as part of an “arc of freedom and prosperity” or a “corridor of peace and security.” Following a 1988 Nara exhibition on the Silk Road as Japanese were beginning to see Central Asia through a prism of “reentering Asia” as an emboldened victor in the Cold War and as the Soviet Union was dropping the Iron Curtain, there were long periods of inactivity interrupted by occasional bursts of interest in a region normally marginal to Japan’s interests. Yet, such bursts were impacted by two realities more telling in the evolution of Japanese policy toward Central Asia: the fact that ties were driven primarily by the activities of Japanese corporations in a country hesitant about government interference in their operations, limiting the types of agreements that could be reached in state-to-state meetings; and the consciousness of Central Asian ties to Russia and China, resulting in approaches linked to policies toward those great powers. Thus, Hashimoto in 1997 was mostly concerned about hopes for a breakthrough with Boris Yeltsin in the “countdown to 2000,” and Abe in asserting in 2015 that Japan favors “quality infrastructure” at a time he was also wooing Vladimir Putin was aware of both China and Russia in his overtures to Central Asia. Distant from the area and lacking any obvious lever to boost its role, despite some ODA appeal, Japan faces the challenge of arousing interest in its companies in becoming more active in Central Asia. Otherwise, the hoopla over visits by its leaders to the region quickly fades with scant expectation that there will be follow-up.

South Korea, at times attentive to civilizational ties to Central Asia and to the Korean diaspora left there by Stalin’s forced migration from the Russian Far East, has a stronger case for putting companies in the forefront, since its images of a special relationship were delayed until the time of Lee Myung-bak in 2009, when the country’s horizons were widening beyond Northeast Asia. It also is the most welcoming to workers coming from Central Asia; however, they are shaped by Russian socialization and do not serve as an identity bridge. More effective is Korean culture and products—appealing to Central Asian youth and cheaper than Japanese products. Companies led the way, broadening the range of interactions and building a foundation for South Korean government to play a meaningful role. Yet, in the background are North Korea and Russia, which are bigger concerns for Seoul and for Korean national identity. Shaping the environment for dealing with Pyongyang matters as does boosting ties to Moscow in the context of its North Korean ties. As in the case of Japan, talks on human development, technological innovation, and infrastructure are proceeding, while there are national identity issues at stake as Seoul seeks a wider Asian imprint. The DC audience was told that Seoul has forged a denser road map of cooperation than Japan, drawing on the dynamism of many small Korean enterprises and diversity of bilateral contacts.

For China, the road map for Central Asia is more limited than many may have expected. Given the prominence of its BRI (Silk Road Economic Belt), the national identity theme figures more obviously, but China has made a point of deferring to Russia in Central Asia and is eager to keep its cooperation for security priorities even more than Japan and South Korea are. Yet, it has gradually been emboldened to broaden its ties beyond what Russia countenanced in the SCO. Its massive energy ties are being bolstered by infrastructure plans, while it benefits, in comparison to Japan and South Korea, from border trade. At the same time, China keeps Central Asians at a distance, more so now as rage is rising there over the vast de-Islamization camps in Xinjiang. In this three-way comparison, China stands out for its more extensive ties, including to leaders who have been corrupted by China’s methods of winning contracts and encouraging debt, and for its worsening image, making a mockery of its talk of a “community of common destiny.” China is playing for higher stakes with more geographical and financial advantages and transformative objectives, while Japan and South Korea have much less at stake in security and national identity.

The stimulating comparative approach to road maps for Central Asia sparked audience interest in bringing Russia’s road map into the picture, delving deeper into the national identities at issue, and incorporating bilateral relations of countries outside Central Asia into further analysis at a time when Japan and China are discussing cooperation on BRI, South Korea and Russia are discussing Moon Jae-in’s “New Northern Policy,” China and Russia are trying to connect the Eurasian Economic Community to the Silk Road Economic Belt, and Japan and India along with the United States are talking about linking the Indo-Pacific region to Central Asia. Conspicuously missing is Japan-South Korean cooperation. Behind the appearance of bilateral cooperation in the other cases as well, we have reason to expect sharper conflicts of interest and identity than are usually acknowledged. Complementary road maps in Central Asia face problems in this environment.


Chinese use of sharp power in Australia and its wider significance was the subject of one talk in DC, which pointed to the pioneering and bellweather role of that country in facing this issue, which blurs the line between domestic and international security and puts sovereignty in the forefront. The advice offered was not to capitulate to China but also not to go to the extreme of pressuring other states to treat it as an enemy, while, above all, protecting democratic institutions from outside criminal interference even as normal diplomatic influence is okayed. It is necessary to recognize that national values as well as national interests are at stake. Cited was a December 2017 speech by Prime Minister Turnbull calling for transparency and opposing covert, coercive, and corrupting behavior. In addition to focusing on economic and security issues in bilateral ties, it is important to protect sovereignty in such matters as political donations, misuse of academic linkages, intimidation, and espionage. China has been brazen in its activities in Australia, whose exposure followed by countermeasures serve as an example for other states facing similar moves.

Among the issues discussed at this talk were why did China interfere in Australia so assertively, what myths have been spread in the debate over China’s moves and Australia’s responses, how is Australia responding, and what coordinated response with other states should be contemplated.  As for China’s motives, mention was made of trying to drive a wedge in one of the closest US alliances, seeking to gain access to military intelligence with a country sharing a lot with the United States, setting an example for other countries that could follow Australia’s model if it were to opt to become a more independent power, and shaping the behavior of a large Chinese community to silence dissent and mobilize support. Australia’s dependence on trade, tourism, and education as well as its large Chinese community made it an inviting target. Regarding myths, some suggest that a crude choice is needed between China and the United States, implying that opting for China is inevitable sooner or later, or that opposing China’s action means kowtowing to the United States, that Australia is in danger of a national security takeover, or even that the response is driven by racism. In fact, so far this is a measured, bipartisan response to specific challenges with no such motivations, the DC audience heard. The debate and new laws protect Australia’s interests although more is needed, not only inside the country but, given the fact that its capabilities fall short of its interests, with other countries to reaffirm a rules-based order and regional interests. 

Looking ahead, the DC exchange broadened to consider sharp power more broadly. Exposure of Russian interference in the US elections was a factor intensifying Australian concern over China. If US leadership is faltering, including in Asia, Australia needs to do even more to supplement the alliance with Asian partners to avoid a sinocentric order. Trade is a low percentage of its GDP; so Chinese pressure, such as slowing business approvals, can be weathered. Business is slower to awaken to the challenge, but government has finally done so, realizing that if action is not taken now, the situation will worsen later. While Turnbull in August took a softer tone and Morrison is still only a new prime minister, continuity is expected. Meanwhile, Australia has led in bringing Chinese sharp power to the world’s attention and provides lessons that could lead to more coordination in responding to the danger as well as to facing foreign policy threats together, as in China’s advance into Australia’s backyard in the South Pacific beyond just infrastructure. If some think that the Quad is the answer or that this is no longer a time for dialogue, the response is that democratic solidarity, avoidance of needless confrontation until dialogue is pursued first, and recognition that security triangles (among the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) are more active than the Quad are needed, as Australia still seeks a moderating role of engagement and balance.


A DC panel concentrated on Japan’s outlook on national security. It came at a time of revision in Japanese defense guidelines, uncertainty in Japan-US relations, search for security partners, and alarm over growing security threats, including classic geopolitical threats, new cyberspace and terror threats, and reawakening to natural disasters in recent weeks. As for Japan’s challenges, noted were fiscal constraints at a time of danger from concentrating on a few priorities and not focusing on others, demographic realities that may leave the SDF undermanned (although raising the number of women from the current 6 percent to the US level of 15 percent is one option), and improved coordination among law enforcement agencies. More joint development of weapons and AI use could add to efficiency. Much interest was shown in threats to the alliance, despite the claim that Japan has no closer friend nor ally than the United States. Without dwelling on the spillover of economic strains and alarm over Trump, Japanese insisted that trust in the United States has not been shaken and that at prior times of economic tensions security was insulated through common values and goals. There was uncertainty, however, over how to manage the recently aggravated sense of economic competition to make it normal rather than extreme. After all, the WTO is welcome for enforcing rules in Japan, but not in the Trump administration. Japanese talk of universal values to steer competition rings hollow when one considers Trump’s values.

Two countries other than Japan, the United States, and China figured meaningfully in the exchange. It was recognized, with the biggest threat to Japan coming from North Korea and the perceived danger of a united Korea tilting toward China, that South Korea is most important for Japan’s military policy after the United States. The agreement on JSOMIA intelligence sharing under Park Geun-hye reflected great progress in security ties in recent years as healthy mil-mil talks have proceeded, but nothing was said about what was achieved under Moon Jae-in despite the urgency of boosting military ties much more. Military needs call for resolving history issues soon was the message conveyed. While there has been progress in not upsetting sensitive public opinion with some media cooperation and there is hope that existing hurdles can be overcome, nothing was said about how to do this, which obviously is not a matter for the security experts. The other case that proved puzzling to some was Russia, whose buildup near Japan is attributed to its conflict with the United States with implications for US bases in Japan, even as many in Japan refuse to acknowledge any threat to their country. Mention was made of a struggle over what to do to respond to Russian military activities in conditions where they are treated as not directed against Japan. In both examples, territorial provocations—Medvedev’s visit to the Northern Territories and Lee Myung-bak’s to Takeshima—are prioritized as concerns rather than the geopolitical consequences of Russia’s aggressive moves and still troubled Tokyo-Seoul ties.

Another DC exchange on Japan indicated that a debate is under way in Japan on what will replace the 1953 system put in place by the armistice at the end of the Korean War, which had quieted the region and made possible the economic miracles that ensued. Trump was blamed for unravelling it in Singapore when he met with Kim Jong-un, starting an irreversible process and removing the military option. This means North Korea will not be deterred, the US retreat from Asia is accelerating with decoupling effects, and Japan must now review its national security as a whole. The result is likely to be an upgrading of Japan’s military posture, a rethinking of the “three noes” concerning nuclear weapons, and a new US-Japan division of labor. Defense of US security policy but not trade policy took several forms in response: now the United States has the strategic initiative in Northeast Asia, the focus has correctly turned more to dealing with China’s moves, and US-Japan ties must remain steadfast in the face of uncertainty about South Korea’s actions, while testing North Korea’s declared priorities for regime security and economic opening does not have such a negative effect. Questions were raised not only about Japan’s doubts about US policy and uncertainty whether Trump is an exception or the beginning of sustained US policy, but also about Japan’s policies toward Russia and South Korea in this new environment. Abe’s visit to Vladivostok had just occurred, and Putin’s appeal for a peace treaty by year end with no preconditions seemed to be a slap in Abe’s face. Yet, justifications were offered for Abe still pursuing Putin. Nervousness about the US in Japan, however, is not now echoed in US thinking.

Eastern Economic Forum

Never had the rhetoric in the September gathering in Vladivostok beenas embellished and never had there been so many contradictory strands of hope expressed at a time of such peril. As the US relationships with both Russia and China were reaching their nadir since the end of the Cold War, Vladimir Putin countered with one of his most grandiose mixtures of bellicosity and hype. Among the images were: the Russian Far East becoming the crossroads of the Silk Road; Russia fully establishing itself as an Asian power with a leadership role in the emerging Greater Eurasia; Sino-Russian relations advancing to an entirely new level militarily and economically; Japan in the person of Abe Shinzo boosting hope for resolving the long-time impasse in Japan-Russia ties with a proposal for the joint development of the four disputed islands; South Korea continuing to woo Putin with concrete plans for trilateralism including North Korea and even revival of the Tumen development zone linking Russia, North Korea, and China; and the Russian Far emerging from the doldrums of three decades to lead the resurgence of Russia in economic development and in attractiveness to foreign investments. Nonchalance in DC about what takes place at the Eastern Economic Forum could not easily be perpetuated; yet exaggerated claims led to further discounting of whether Russia at a time of uncertainty has realistic plans to go forward.

What actually made the 2018 version of the forum distinctive? First, Xi Jinping for the first time attended and had reason to align with Putin, as never before, in taking a tough stance toward the United States. Second, the Vostok 2018 military exercises, in which Chinese forces joined what was claimed to be an unprecedented number of Russian troops and armament, served as the backdrop. Third, the Power of Siberia gas pipeline was expected to be completed in 2019, giving a boost to growing bilateral economic ties, as did the joint decision to bypass use of the dollar to an increasing extent. Fourth, North Korea was now deemed ready to prioritize diplomacy and economic development, reinforced by South Korean proposals for projects including Russia. Of relevance too, although not acknowledged in the forefront, was the sense that Trump is alienating so many leaders that this gives Putin an opening to press Russia’s “turn to the East.”

Why should we be skeptical of the bombastic claims of the forum? South Korea has wooed Putin before, but Russians are doubtful that he will defy Washington when sanctions on North Korea remain in place or that there will actually be a deal to remove them. Abe has spoken of joint development before, but he conditions it on a legal framework that fudges the sovereignty issue, which Putin keeps resisting. Finally, the economic troubles of Russia and increasingly China too do not seem amenable to primarily bilateral resolution even if some new momentum is visible. It is unlikely that Vladivostok can become a crossroads in Asia, as has been suggested for thirty years, but we should be attentive to the energy now going into the Eastern Economic Forum and watch closely for more follow-up than has been customary in its previous annual gatherings.

Regional Security

Putting the US presence aside, one paneldiscussed new currents in intra-regional security ties in the shadow of the deepening Sino-US competition to set the terms for this century. One defends the existing order, while the other envisions a hierarchical order conducive to authoritarianism. If only Cambodia has sided with the China-led order so far, a question was raised about what the Sino-Russian relationship, just strengthened with the Vladivostok summit and the Vostok-18 war games, means. The response was that Russia fears becoming a junior partner to China, limiting their relationship, even as it is becoming a spoiler in the region, as in scuttling statements at the ARF meetings in 2018 on the South China Sea. As countries in Southeast Asia and India are boosting their arms purchases, Russian ties to India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are of particular interest, in some cases creating a situation where US sanctions over such purchases put the countries in a difficult bind. While states are not joining China’s camp, they are avoiding confrontation due in part to close economic ties and, perhaps, to concern about US staying power.

Some states are recognizing that they have more to offer each other, leading those like-minded toward China to expand their security cooperation. Japan, Australia, and India are taking the lead, but the US-led Quad is less of a force than various trilaterals. Shared democratic governance is not an organizing principle. Some additional bilaterals are noteworthy, such as Japan-Taiwan and Australia-Indonesia. Just as US-led networks are moving away from the old hub and spokes patterns, despite the fact that if conflict occurred US bilaterals would be in the lead, China is pressing a bilateral approach. The SCO is an apparent exception, but it narrowly focuses on counterterrorism. Washington avoids a zero-sum approach and explicit targeting of China as counterproductive. In the case of the US-Japan-Taiwan triangle, values do play a large role as the three are aligned behind a free and open Indo-Pacific, although defense ties remain unofficial with retired military officers now in the forefront, stressing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). Some upgrading in the focus on Taiwan is apparent.

In discussing intra-regional security cooperation, Southeast Asia seemed marginal—the Quad skips over it—and North Korea’s impact was not showcased. Vietnam is a rarity in taking the perspective of great power competition along with Singapore with its high-end military. The impact of the BRI has bearing, particularly the demonstration effect of Malaysia’s about-face on projects its previous leader had approved. If the aura of the BRI is fading, this has ramifications for managing China’s security impact. For the time being, however, attention is more focused on Trump’s policies—leading to confusion over bifurcated US policy, as the Defense Department stresses continuity. Countries try to compartmentalize their approach to the United States, overblown in some cases about fear of a US pullback. While many are nervous about a US-China trade war spilling over, some US officials offer reassurance that Southeast Asian states will benefit as production moves there. That has not allayed concern, nor has the penchant until recently to badger states over their ties to North Korea and US bilateral trade deficits without presenting an affirmative agenda for Southeast Asia. The upcoming APEC summit in Papua New Guinea, which Trump will miss and Xi Jinping will attend, will test China’s acumen in filling the gap, but more likely, the DC audience was told, it will bring talk of massive deals even if China is hesitant to deliver on these raised expectations. As for Trump’s diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, concern was raised that a declaration of the end of the Korean War could lead to pressure to remove US forces, a worrisome development for Japan and Taiwan as well as many people in South Korea.

One DC exchange explored the response to the BRI, warning that a competition to shape the course of the 21st century is at stake. BRI is depicted as coercive use of economic dependency, pursuit of hegemony and a sphere of influence, propaganda in favor of ascendant authoritarianism, duel use facilities intended to give the PLA a foothold, and a power play against existing international rules. Aware of growing risks, China is now trying to internationalize them, given the fact that 92 states have endorsed BRI and some are eager to capture part of a large infrastructure market. For the US response, there was talk of presenting a positive economic vision, stressing the need for high-quality development distinct from China’s programs, expanding public diplomacy, and offering credible funding. Washington also can capitalize on disillusionment with BRI, make use of the private sector, and recommit to multilateral trade agreements. The agenda is promising, but questions were raised. One, is Japan’s newfound cooperation with China on BRI a blow to this agenda? No, it makes the troubled relationship functional, but Japan is clear-eyed about sticking to a parallel agenda to the US one in favor of offering a high quality, positive alternative. It will not fall under the BRI umbrella, and the United States can benefit from a slightly different approach by Japan backed by more resources. Another query is what are China’s motivations in driving states into debt traps? Some cases, at least, appear intentional to realize strategic goals. A third question asked about the impact of US tariffs on China. The situation is unclear about whether China will be overextended, but it does have resources. Should more effort be put into exposing China’s corruption and playing “info hardball” to warn countries away? Some thought so. Is it advisable to link economics and security, as China is doing, e.g., with development financing that prioritizes security objectives? Some favored this, and human rights priorities drew interest too, but partners differ on that, making flexibility necessary. As for internationalizing the US approach, backing up talk of an Indo-Pacific economic corridor, concern was raised about the disconnect with other US policies, including a trade war targeting desired partners. Now that the great power competition has become explicit and the BRI is a major part of it, the need for policies different from Trump’s—TPP, focusing on trade with China not against everyone, and finding a holistic approach in the US government—while forging an image of a new strategy was stressed.