Washington Insights Vol. 7, No. 1

The first two months of 2019 have been an anxious time in DC, not only because of the suspense over government shutdowns but also because of the uncertainty over major forthcoming events. There is far more alarm being registered in anticipation of the second Trump-Kim summit than in the run-up to the Singapore summit. The trade talks with China could produce a genuine trade war or, more likely, a breakthrough that satisfies Trump but not many others in DC. In one of the biggest setbacks to US-Japan relations in decades, Abe was exposed as a hypocrite, obliged to please Trump in the most craven manner by writing a glowing recommendation for Trump to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The move was seen as a desperate attempt to forestall tariffs on Japanese automobiles in what would become a US-Japan trade showdown, inadvertently supporting the very diplomacy to North Korea that the Japanese government and much of the public fear will sell out Japan’s national interests. On the surface, Trump and Moon appeared to be on the same page in their diplomacy toward the North and Moon only had to settle for an 8 percent increase in the cost for host nation support in the Special Measures Agreement, albeit for only a one-year renewal. Yet, distrust of Moon in DC is widespread, leaving bilateral relations in limbo.

Trump is uncontrollable, defying the norms of US domestic politics by declaring a national emergency to reallocate funds at will. Moreover, he has no compunctions about rattling the very foundations of US foreign policy in Europe and Asia. There is support for him turning to diplomacy with Kim Jong-un and ratcheting up pressure in talks with Xi Jinping, but there are not many in DC think tank circles who have confidence in how Trump is proceeding. Tired of criticizing Trump, many have turned their focus to how, given his methods, diplomatic talks will likely play out. Will Trump claim to be winning on all fronts after his predecessors were all losers—resolving the nuclear crisis, forcing China to yield on trade, and fulfilling promises in support of “America First”—or will he insist that he did all that was possible to make progress but was undercut by enemies at home and abroad?  In the coverage below, we include one gathering where Trump’s policies were strongly defended.

A “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”  

At one DC event, Trump’s policies were put in the best possible light. There was no mention of dysfunction in policymaking, alienation of allies and partners, or lack of clarity as well as follow-through in policy implementation. The emphasis was on Trump and those around him being in the forefront of a conceptual revolution in strategic thinking by embracing the idea of a single Indo-Pacific region and encompassing politics, culture, strategy, and economics in one whole. No hint was given of either the overlap with the strategy under Obama—widening the scope of the Asia-Pacific region—or the link to the various dimensions of policymaking. The two forces driving the reconceptualization—globalization and China’s push for hegemony across the entire Indian Ocean from the South China Sea—are clearly identified, as is the triangular response sought to make it a reality with the United States, Japan, and India drawing closer. The odd omission of Australia was left unexplained, as were possible problems from US policies that have unsettled India and Japan. Yet, the notion that this triangle is now the key framework for conceptualizing global affairs, replacing the 1990s idea of the United States, the EU, and Japan, drew attention.

One presentation regarding the US-Japan-India triangle argued that the three calamities of the twentieth century—world wars, communism capitalizing on inequality and labor oppression, and racism—are behind us, opening the way to creating a liberal world order on a global scale with respect for diversity. Key to the progress achieved was not only the institutional framework forged in the aftermath of WWII, but also the US-led human rights movements of the 1960s. Neglected, however, was recognition of the backtracking on the pillars of this ideal order: control over the nuclear weapons credited with preventing WWIII, rules of the road for the great powers to avoid direct conflict, declining inequality alongside growing upward mobility, and multiculturalism in opposition to xenophobia. There was no questioning the notion that Trump is bringing us closer to the liberal world order. Instead, the Trump administration was credited with a clear understanding of the extraordinary threats facing the US and acting on them systematically. In place of strategic patience, there is urgency in dealing with rogue nuclear threats, as seen in his handling of North Korea as well as Iran. (Yet, emphasis on India as lynchpin was contradicted by a sharp divide over policy toward Iran, while the Japan-US discord on diplomacy with the North was left unmentioned.) As for the second threat, the rise of rival, political powers, consensus on the geopolitical challenge of China was the obvious crux for the triangle, but omitted was talk of the divide with India over Russia as well as the tensions generated by Abe and Trump’s thinking about Putin in contrast to the security establishment in the United States and much of the West. The US list of threats from porous borders and immigration as well as unfair burden sharing left the impression that the Trump’s right-wing agenda is critical to a strong US-Japan-India triangle, rather than a problem troubling India with its many immigrants to the US and Japan in supporting US forces.

The US-Japan-India triangular seminar treated India as a kind of savior of the world order. With the US and China superpowers, India is called the next superpower, whose population will shortly surpass that of China with a much more youthful composition favorable to what is bound to be the next “economic miracle.” Moreover, it is viewed as having the same values as the US and Japan and to be ready to forge a new order with universal values. Thus, only with India will balance with China be achieved in Asia. Assuming polarization with Washington and Beijing on opposite sides, the presentations put New Delhi squarely on one side in a kind of Cold War competition. At its core, this simplifies both values and diplomacy. Trump’s acumen for pursuing India, managing China, and following what is essentially a multilateral strategy through “principled realism” is taken for granted. So too is India’s receptivity to the US security agenda coupled with Japan’s infrastructure agenda, when many of the test cases such as Taiwan and the South China Sea are far from India’s border conflicts with China or its partner Pakistan. The contradiction between India’s priority on China for economic growth, which all see as vital to India’s security, and opposition to China’s maritime advance in the Indian Ocean was left unexplored. Somehow, a division of labor in naval build-ups to address the wide Indo-Pacific area will lead to all supporting each other in their arenas. One theme raised was the danger of the Code of Conduct China is seeking to sign quickly with the ASEAN countries, which would set rules inimical to military movement in the South China Sea by US vessels. While Vietnam is resisting, others may agree, leaving the Southeast Asian countries helpless. The message delivered was that the United States, Japan, and India must stick together in this early test with ASEAN for critical freedom of navigation.

Contrary to the polarization assumed to drive the triangle’s rise, the US approach to China was presented in a manner befitting Trump’s cleverness in warmly working with Xi Jinping. While he has mentioned “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” 56 times, he has spoken by phone to Xi about 30 times, some calls lasting an hour, and held intimate meetings with him. Not demonizing China and holding open the door to cooperation as well as competition, Trump is not presenting FOIP as containment or developing a bureaucracy for it that would be viewed as assertive by China. In this perspective, Trump’s disinterest in multilateralism and in clarification of details is held up as a positive for China and India. How India can be brought into a military partnership to limit China’s naval advance while the US reassures China and India deals with its traditions of strategic autonomy is left unclear. The Trump agenda is praised, not scrutinized.

Another DC gathering treated the Indo-Pacific strategy as more rhetoric than substance, but China’s offensive behavior as failing to take advantage. Japan sees an opening, gaining goodwill with Abe’s positive image in the forefront and the TPP-11 taking effect. In contrast, Chinese sharp power has alienated states, including Australia, where there has been push back. Would there be major security incidents in 2019, people were asked. Despite the intensity of tensions at the start of 2018, there were no such incidents in the region. Two, recent hot spots, the Korean Peninsula and the Sino-Indian border, are calmer now, but the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait have grown tenser. With Abe expecting to host Xi Jinping in 2019, few expect an incident in the East China Sea. Unlike the above-covered gathering, Trump’s handling of issues was not praised, as no real change in security on the Korean Peninsula has yet been manifest. Few anticipate tangible steps toward resolving security challenges, whether denuclearization in North Korea or stabilization in the South China Sea. As for the Code of Conduct sought by China, it was assumed that Vietnam would lead in blocking it, given the poison pills China wishes to put in the text.

Whereas the first seminar sympathetic to Trump suggested a kind of strategic genius at work, other DC gatherings depicted a man going through the motions when it comes to geostrategic matters with an enduring obsession with trade deficits—at odds with expert advice—and with striking a deal with Kim Jong-un, which will be portrayed as a win even if it delays serious reckoning with the North’s threat. If Trump has made bilateral summitry the test of his acumen in dealing with trade (unfairness or deficit?) and tensions with the North (denuclearization or no more testing?), the challenge of FOIP is being largely left to vice president Pence, who not only addresses the threats of China, Russia, and Iran, but has to bring other great powers into the picture. Few in DC see a coherent and overall strategy taking shape.

Japan-Russia relations

Given Abe’s upbeat response to Putin’s September appeal to sign a peace treaty by year-end and Abe’s visit to Russia on January 22, there was curiosity about what has been happening in Japan-Russia relations. A DC exchange asked if Putin’s June visit to Japan for the G20 meetings would achieve some breakthrough. Reviewing what had just transpired, one view held that Putin, impatient with the slow pace of the talks set in motion by Abe’s new approach in 2016, had thrown down the gauntlet to reach an agreement in 2018 or give up. Abe had sent the ball back to Putin’s side of the court by accepting terms that Moscow, including Putin, had earlier demanded for a two-island solution and calling for an expedited timetable aimed at a deal in June, presumably leading to a peace treaty and then to a treaty on how the transfer of the two islands would proceed. This seemingly upbeat process in late 2018 failed, however, to create signs of a positive outcome in January, when a foreign ministers’ meeting was troubled by harsh Russian demands and then the Abe-Putin summit ended in an eerie silence. Where do relations stand now? Attendees were groping to find reasons why a deal looks promising.

One view is that Putin has been stringing Abe along, forcing him to cross a Rubicon of agreeing to the return of only the two small islands and abandoning the other two, even if there is a fig leaf of joint economic development there. Meanwhile, Putin has exposed the Japan-US divide at a critical time of G7 pressure and reinforced his image as a statesman though consequential great power summitry not only with Xi Jinping. The goalposts keep being moved: Japan was not offering the requisite economic investments; Japan is stuck in a four-island approach; US bases and the US-Japan alliance make a deal difficult; Russia’s right to take the islands in 1945 must be acknowledged; and Russian public opinion must be persuaded that the deal is desirable. The impression is fading that Putin, having called in 2012 for “hikiwake” or a win-win outcome suggesting a division of the islands between the two states, wanted a deal rather than pretexts for blaming Japan for not reaching a deal.

Opinions varied on what is holding Putin back. Some consider Chinese pressure against a deal (or fear thereof) as critical for Putin. Others perceive the sharp rise in military and historical victor consciousness as incompatible with a deal. While a few still saw feint hope for a deal or for Abe to accept an interim agreement without the transfer of islands, the prevailing view is that Putin will be responsible for the failure of talks despite Abe’s prolonged efforts since 2013 to find some way to break the logjam. Geopolitics and national identity in Russian thinking overshadow Japanese pragmatism in search of some way forward.

If no breakthrough is reached by June, many are pessimistic that talks will be restarted and that either the Japan-Russia relationship or the territorial issue will see progress for a long time. The message left with Japan will be that the situation is hopeless, similar to the message left in 2001 when Japan pulled back from talks after the Irkutsk summit. The Japanese people care little about the islands; the issue has lost its significance for national identity, although Abe had been hoping to revive that by heralding the return of territory prior to calling a double election for July. Japanese youth have found no reason to be excited about Russia, economically, culturally, or as a geopolitical partner. Japanese companies are not excited either, some still recalling the way they were cheated of rights in Sakhalin, although profits are still being made in the energy deals there that survived the takeover. The Abe-Putin talks have narrowly involved only the top level on both sides, meaning that when working level talks occur there is no sign of progress and when the mass media respond, apart from Abe’s boosters, little rationale can be found. In a way, the situation parallels that of Trump and Kim—little substance behind a lot of hoopla as claims for a breakthrough made at the top ring hollow when others look more closely.  

Whether the focus is economics, geopolitics, or national identities, the outlook for Japan’s ties to Russia is unfavorable. After decades of talk about economic complementarity and Abe’s plan for an economic initiative to lead the way in bilateral relations, the economic cupboard has been found to be bare. It is now an afterthought in discussions of Japan-Russia ties. Moreover, as Russia builds up its armed forces near Japan and Japan boosts its missile defenses, while the two take opposite views of North Korea’s geopolitical future, one can anticipate that following the interlude of Abe-Putin talks, the harsh reality of clashing geopolitical thinking will take over. Finally, more and more, Japanese are faulting Russia for a revival of the Soviet vice of dismissing Japan as weak, not having full sovereignty due to dependence on the US. Attributing such scorn to derzhavnost’ or an outlook centered on state power, some warn that what has appeared as Abe’s groveling to Putin by making repeated concessions and appeals even as Putin’s position has hardened only exacerbates Russian arrogance. The upshot of a deal on Russian terms, they fret, will be a weakening of Japan’s position toward China and South Korea on other territorial disputes. If Russian identity in 1992 appeared to break from Soviet arrogance toward Japan (although the movement against a compromise deal harked back to it), and a decade later there remained identity confusion, today the cult of WWII and of the military blocks a deal. In 1992 and 2001 Japanese national identity was invoked against compromise; the 2019 outcry in Russia against a deal that would tarnish a symbol of victory in 1945 shows identity’s impact.

The Korean Peninsula

If Trump strikes a deal with Kim similar to that reached at the Singapore summit, it is assumed that problems will be pushed down the road, not reduced. Should the talks fail, there is concern that the impact on US-ROK relations would be serious. Resumption of joint military exercises would be one divisive issue. Furthermore, Japan’s comfort in such a failure would be one more problem in relations between Tokyo and Seoul. At this point, only a renewed crisis over North Korea, where Seoul loses hope in reconciliation, would have promise for bringing the South Koreans and Japanese back to the negotiating table. China has tried to keep North Korea a positive theme in Sino-US relations, when few other themes are working, but a breakdown in US-DPRK talks would likely be damaging for Sino-US relations, as China blamed the US side. A lot is at stake in regional relations when Trump and Kim hold their summit in Hanoi.

One theme raised in DC is human rights in North Korea and how they can be addressed in the context of talks that prioritize denuclearization. It was suggested that if the US government is not willing to raise the subject, outside groups should, pressing Congress to be more assertive. On the 5th anniversary of the Commission of Inquiry, which raised the visibility of this affront, the challenge is to keep it in the spotlight. US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council is not helpful. Although the situation in North Korea has not improved, its strong reaction to the commission’s report shows the report’s impact. The recent failure of the Trump administration to respond to China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang can be linked to silence on the North. The case, many agreed, needs to be made to South Korea, where funding to NGOs with this interest has been cut, noting that Congress will need a human rights component to support a treaty, and to North Korea, whose turn to modernization needs to include human rights as well as economic development or it is unlikely to attract investments from international companies. In these circumstances, NGOs must fill the vacuum of government silence, striving to put human rights on the agenda in Washington and Seoul, and to get more information into North Korea.

A seminar in preparation for the Hanoi summit foresaw a triumphant Trump declaring success over a weak deal that would drag out through his election campaign as if he had accomplished the US objectives. Failure would look bad for him in the one area, apart from trade, where he has pursued US diplomacy. Since the Singapore summit achieved little and there was scant follow-up until diplomacy intensified in order to prepare for a new summit, tangible results are needed now. The appearance of success is expected, as Pyongyang gives up what it has stopped already, allows monitoring decommissioned sites, and makes promises about what it will not do. Yet, its tens of missile bases, greater number of nuclear weapons, and WMD threat capacity would not be altered in return for US concessions that could be consequential in at least four ways: 1) losing even more leverage than has been lost already; 2) emboldening other states to normalize relations with Pyongyang; 3) essentially recognizing the North as a nuclear weapons state; and 4) weakening the US alliances in the region. The outcome would be both a freeze and an open door for power rebalancing in Northeast Asia. While bilateral summitry is welcome and flexibility is desirable for parallel and simultaneous moves, the fear is that the US side will agree to too much sanctions relief for symbolic steps, will not address the wide range of dangerous North Korean behavior, and will not put in place a process at the working level with promise to accomplish results. Uninformed in his beliefs, lacking trust and coordination with his staff, and prone to impetuous decisions subject to the whims of a foreign leader, Trump is a wildcard.

A vision is desirable for US-North Korean talks, but it is likely to be vague and not developed in coordination with allies. A process is necessary to realize its objectives. Vagueness leaves an opening for the North to interpret the vision very differently. Oral remarks by Trump can alter its meaning, as in the case of military exercises added at the Singapore summit. What is most worrisome to the DC presenters was what the US would give up in return for limited gains. The advice was to give up little since the gains are not likely to be very substantial. Worrying was the prospect that South Korea would take the results as an open door for inter-Korean ties that would free the North of pressure to do more, that the North will scoff at the idea that Vietnam serves as a model for it, that it will seize on a peace declaration to argue that there is no longer any need for sanctions, and that it will fail to do what those who seek a relaxation of political control and threat potential are seeking. While the outcome of the summit is likely to be heralded as transformative in favor of peace in Northeast Asia, the consequences were seen as complicating what matters most for long-term security.

Whether US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, or allies, the discussions in DC cannot avoid concentrating on Trump. He is little influenced by those working under him, disdainful of experts outside of the government, and unilateral rather than seeking coordination as in past US diplomacy. The prognosis is that he is intent on claiming successes, one after the other, whether others agree or not. North Korea on security and China on trade are the immediate targets, leaving South Korea, Japan, and others striving to manipulate Trump directly. So far, South Korea has been more successful than Japan, but neither has much control over events.