Washington Insights, Vol. 7, No. 6

Against the shadow of impeachment hearings, the DC think tank community waited on three big developments in the Indo-Pacific region. The Sino-US trade talks riveted the international community with an outcome originally expected in November before the APEC summit was cancelled but still looming. The South Korea-Japan breakdown faced a November 22 deadline when Seoul could end participation in GSOMIA, crossing a red line for the US officials intending to boost a trilateral alliance framework in Northeast Asia. Finally, the North Korean end-of-year deadline loomed for an ominous policy shift that could plunge the region back into a dangerous impasse. As those situations remained unsettled, Chinese made the case that they only sought normalization in Sino-US relations, South Koreans appealed for a joint path forward with North Korea, and Japanese explained why they had to stand firm against the South’s challenge to the 1965 normalization agreement. As usual, Washington served as a sounding board for views from various parties.

Personnel changes were on the minds of some experts in DC discussions. Three were particularly attention-grabbing: 1) the rise of Xi Jinping in 2008 backed by Zeng Qinghong, shifting the balance of the Political Standing Committee and leading to a more hardline Chinese posture on national identity and foreign policy—something that was largely overlooked at the time, followed by speculation that the fourth plenum in late October 2019 would lead to major changes, which did not occur; 2) the rise of Imai Takaya as an influential right-wing advisor to Abe Shinzo, outmaneuvering Yachi Shotaro in steering the foreign policy of Japan on China, Russia, and North Korea as well as, perhaps, on South Korea, after Yachi departed in the late summer of 2019; and 3) the rise of Steve Biegun in the State Department, which gives more clout to the man tasked with diplomacy with North Korea but also may put a figure with a strong interest in US policy to the Indo-Pacific in a high position. Given Moon Jae-in’s earnest effort to reboot ties to Japan, as seen in him pulling Abe aside at the EAS summit for a chat, and his strong desire to find a way to keep ROK-US relations on track, some were looking for signs of personnel changes in South Korea as well, perhaps seen in a new line-up of diplomats in DC. In the background, of course, were charges that Mike Pompeo was heavily involved in the Ukraine scandal at the heart of impeachment.

Sino-US relations

Clashing opinions were aired in one DC exchange on whether China and the US have entered an ideological competition. There was no arguing that the two are engaged in a geopolitical rivalry and that it is more severe than a mere competition, but opinions diverged on whether China is defensive in making the world safe for its autocracy or offensive in being driven by ideology to remake the world to put itself at the center not only economically but in terms of moral suasion. Arguing that China is defensive, one side saw it as protecting CCP rule at home without a grand strategy to advance autocracy or weaken democracy around the world. Thus, there is no need to anticipate a new cold war; i.e., there is no Chinese model being exported. Rather, the objective is to prevent democracy being exported and also to make the case that democracy is not essential for modernization. Indeed, listeners were told that showcasing an ideological struggle poses the danger of containment becoming the US strategy. The policy implications of treating China as protective of CCP rule but not aggressive in exporting its model and values are to focus heavily on restoring US democratic institutions as well as the multilateral ones that can stem the erosion of democracy abroad while concentrating on an economic and technological competition without the fear of countries emulating China’s system.

In contrast, the arguments that China is driven by an ideology—leading to confrontation that arouses distrust well beyond China’s military and economic advances—center on Chinese writings and how they guide policy through the legacy of Leninism. This is not just some authoritarian state fending off the challenge of liberal values, but a country guided by anti-imperialism, which is steeped in socialist historiography that blames the West for causing China’s backwardness and prescribes a strong state under CCP control as the only way to save the country, to develop it, and to ensure its superiority at the center of a new world order. Rather than a defensive outlook, this one links national rejuvenation to the domestic and international vitality of socialism. With China rising as the number two in the world under Xi Jinping, he is bolder in asserting its global mandate, and if Xi feigns not to export the China model, he contradicts that message on other occasions. The impression left with many observers is that his long-term strategy is not to incite violence or revolution but to do more than survive by forging a new global order that runs through China at the expense of the West-centric model that continues to prevail today. Advocates of this viewpoint of incompatible ambitions—and views of the individual as either serving the interests of the state or vice versa—cautioned that there is still room to pursue various common interests.

References to Chinese publications, particularly those of the United Front Work Department, were cited in two main respects to bolster the case that China is ideologically driven: the argument that the US is an ideological threat and cannot accept coexistence with China as is; and the real ideological thrust of the case for what China represents. These sources view Sino-US relations through an ideological lens. The United Front serves the CCP as a tool for coopting non-party members at home, the diaspora and Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and potential boosters abroad into support for the CCP’s objectives. It seeks to impose solidarity on a fractious social order at home by restoring ideological discipline while also suppressing criticism abroad by implanting fellow travelers in critical positions. Whereas in the 1990s some in China wrote that the Soviet Union collapsed due to excessive ideological dogma, today’s stance is that more important was weakened party discipline, which opened the door to subversive political infiltration. “Splitism” and westernization can be countered by instilling ideological coherence, resisting complacency, and taking the struggle to the West, where ideological contaminants, which have caused great harm to Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong and Taiwan, are generated. Along with efforts to inoculate Chinese students now abroad, more is being done in the struggle against ideas about democracy, history, and social relations in the West that can spread to China. These writings are indicative of a deep siege mentality and paranoia about ideology found in Chinese narratives, listeners were informed.

In opposition to the case for ideological rivalry intensifying, four arguments were raised before they were refuted. First was the argument that neither China nor the US has the capability to conduct an ideological competition. While Xi can impose strong-armed authoritarianism, he has left his theme of the “China Dream” rudderless and the China model unexportable because it is so vague apart from standard top-down controls. The Chinese people are not mobilized by such ideas as they try to lay low even if they are aroused by nationalist causes, as are other peoples. Second was the argument that ideology is limited to a mechanism for control rather than being a guide to action. This presupposes that China is pragmatic in its strategy, not guided by theory. Third came arguments that bureaucracies follow different agendas with no common blueprint. Where there are elements of ideology they are for specific domestic purposes, not an overall driving force. Finally, there were arguments that China’s bluster is a sign of lack of confidence and of fumbling to stay in power, not of a cohesive undertaking with considerable continuity. Those seeing a defensive China concentrated on its behavior not on its writings, which are aimed at Chinese audiences. The remedy proposed is to give China’s leaders more assurance that regime change is not a US objective and avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy of responding to a misperceived ideological rival.

Chinese have persistently accused the US of conducting an ideological offensive against their country; if the US were to increase criticism with ideological overtones, they would just be saying more of the same. Those who see China on the offensive, call for a more assertive US posture, unlike those who consider China to be on the defensive and prone to be provoked. In contrast to the Trump approach, those who discern incompatible goals persisting over the long-term call for using all elements of national power, including ideology. Unlike the other side, they find internal governance reverberating in external behavior, and they take ideas expressed in Chinese publications seriously, e.g., the contrast between the “harmonious world” of Hu Jintao, implying that there will be no convergence while differences among states can be preserved, and Xi Jinping’s “community with common destiny,” implying the existence of an integrated world for which China can set the standards for other nations.

A question was raised about the evolution of China’s thinking about ideological rivalry. Was it there all along, an outgrowth of the backlash in 1987 or in 1989, a result of a sharp shift in 2008 toward a hardline approach, or Xi’s input? While those who see China as on the defensive had no need to pick a date for something they dismiss, one respondent who sees an ideological China argued that Xi has only added a cult of personality without altering continuity that precedes the reform era. Others trace stages in ideological assertiveness. If the Trump approach to China muddies the waters—viewing China on the offense but not as an ideological challenge while praising Xi in a confusing manner—the debate goes forward.

South Korean-Japanese relations

In one DC exchange the legal aspects of the ROK-Japan history disputes were discussed.  First, the Tokyo Tribunal, unlike the Nuremburg Trials, avoided tackling forced labor issues along with breaking up responsible companies such as the zaibatsu. Then, the San Francisco Peace Treaty failed to resolve key issues such as whether Japan’s annexation of Korea was illegal and thus its laws, such as the mobilization act of 1938, were invalid. Excluding China and the Koreas from the treaty, the US rejected reparations for itself and withdrew from playing a role in them for others. Later the US played a role in Europe but not East Asia in property compensation cases from the war. If some Japanese companies made settlements, the degree of involvement fell short of that for Chinese cases, indicating that the legal foundation was different where Japanese law was seen as not applying and that China is more important. Koreans argue that the 1965 treaty could not trade away the basic human rights of individuals and that Moon cannot interfere in the decision of the Supreme Court, especially after attacking Park Geun-hye for doing precisely that. Others counter that Moon in the 2000s and others chose judges for the more nationalist Supreme Court unlike the Constitutional Court to get this kind of outcome, that politics is intruding in the court system of Korea as elsewhere (look at Trump judges versus Obama ones), and that there has been a pattern of Korean rejection of reconciliation moves such as Japan’s Asian Women’s Fund established in 1994 and the fund created in 2015 to assist the “comfort women.” Attention to this bilateral relationship, however, took a back seat to US relations with both countries.

Japan-US relations

On the minds of many in 2019 is the question: Are the US and Japan now diverging in their view of China, and if so, what does this mean for the strength of the alliance? In one DC exchange on both the risks and opportunities in relations with China, including in responding to BRI, differences were aired. If in 2018 the focus of concern about a Japan-US gap centered on North Korea, it had shifted by the fall of 2019 to China despite a serious possibility that in November there would be a Sino-US trade deal and confidence that Japan would continue to side with the US on security issues. Yet the mood in Washington is in favor of more openly criticizing China, whether on Hong Kong or on reciprocity in the handling of diplomats, while that in Tokyo is to prepare the groundwork for Xi Jinping to make an upbeat visit to Japan in the spring of 2020. In exchanges between Japanese and US China-watchers, the differences in outlook were obvious to listeners. The divergence extends beyond Trump and Abe’s policies.

Japanese spoke of the need to balance cooperation and competition, of recognizing that China is not the Soviet Union, and of taking advantage of the kind of interdependence that did not exist with the Cold War enemy. Whereas Japan is alert to security concerns, it is loath to view China primarily through that lens and to link other perceptions of China to that single prism. In particular, Japanese pointed to the AIIB and BRI as amenable to becoming forces supportive of the regional order by providing public goods, rejecting the notion that China only undermines that order. Worried that the depth of US wariness toward China exceeds that of Japan, some tried to explain why and how this occurred, given the opposite situation in 2013-16. Xi’s shift towards Abe had accompanied the US hardening toward Xi, perhaps an offshoot of that in a triangular framework that DC discussants were keen to consider.

Under Obama Japanese were troubled by a weak response to a more assertive China, whereas under Trump they have switched to concern over an overly aggressive response. Situated near China and most attentive to conditions in Southeast Asia, Japan is viewed as aware of positive effects of China’s BRI in economic development and technology transfer, calculating that to attract states there it is better not to pressure them by alarming them with the China threat. On Taiwan, as the US has grown more assertive in support of Tsai Ing-wen, Japan has been more hesitant to offend China, rejecting a security dialogue with Taiwan. On the WTO and the UN, Japan is defensive of international institutions along with China while Trump denigrates them with his protectionism and “America First.” On the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” theme, the US treats it as a strategy and makes it more confrontational, argue Japanese, when Japan calls it an initiative and is ambivalent on its meaning, hesitant to take an approach that could be seen as containment. Somehow, after first welcoming Trump’s more vigorous response to China and North Korea in 2017, Japan grew concerned that Trump had lost balance in his trade war, his administration’s rhetoric, and his approach on sensitive issues.

What accounts for the reversal in which ally was softer toward China? One explanation is that Trump carried his antagonistic approach too far, while Abe has stayed the course or adjusted to keep from being entrapped in an unsteady and extreme US policy shift. A second explanation is that Japanese companies seeking a share of the big infrastructure projects being discussed in BRI pressed for a more accommodating position toward BRI, backed by an economic backlash to Trump’s economic unilateralism, leading to common ground with China. A third explanation is that Xi has exploited the Trump effect by wooing Abe with long-sought summits and appeals to be in alignment against attacks on economic globalization. Finally, some raise the possibility that the old ideal of a bridging role for Japan has now been revived. Japanese refute this notion, insisting that there is no parallel to what South Korea had been contemplating, but when it comes to certain policies such as BRI and sensitivity to ASEAN Tokyo can help to steer Washington from going too far. Credit is taken for winning China’s cooperation at the Osaka G20 on some principles and also in getting China to take seriously Japan’s four conditions for cooperation on infrastructure funding, including transparency and debt sustainability. Refusing to accept the idea that Abe is now hedging against Trump in his improved ties to Xi, Japanese acknowledged deep concern for the future of US-Japan relations should Trump either pressure Japan excessively on host-nation support and the trade deficit or cut a bad deal with Kim Jong-un, dangerous for Japan’s security. Clarity was provided that the Japanese people are negative on China but positive about Japan-China relations and that Japan is okay with the US withdrawal from the INF agreement, giving the US and Japan more leverage on theater missiles in East Asia, but wary of pressuring states to deploy the missiles or to ban Huawei from 5G, even if Japan is actively protecting its own 5G.

In another DC exchange the Japan-ROK breakdown was seen as unprecedented due to the fact that the politicization of history has for the first time been linked to economic and security ties, and the absence of a common threat perception of North Korea and China as well as the loss of South Korean economic priority for Japan has contributed to the clash. The regional economic hierarchy based on shared faith in trade and globalization has changed, as China replaced Japan at the top, and Seoul and Tokyo now see China differently. Moreover, worry over the US that its attitude toward trade and diplomacy has become more isolationist has opened the door to free-wheeling moves despite the stabilizing appeals of the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Congress. Finally, Abe and Moon are both ready to take economic risks for what they consider to be political gains. All of these factors were cited as deepening the rift. The US response, listeners were told, requires constant tending of this relationship.

On another occasion there was talk of profound regional implications, showing the limits of universal values and boosting the northern triangle of China-Russia-North Korea at the expense of the southern triangle of the US-Japan-South Korea. One factor mentioned was perception gaps between Japan and South Korea, as the former wrongly views Seoul as tilting toward North Korea and China and the latter sees Tokyo as forgetting the past and providing no help on the North. Generational shift in both has exacerbated relations, bringing overconfident activists to the fore. On the Japanese side some see Japan as a greater power than South Korea, which can be bypassed with no further apology, repentance, or compensation. Given the leadership of Moon and Abe, there is no room for pragmatism at lower levels or open channels for new dialogue. The few voices talking about some resolution of the downturn do not see any minor steps as feasible but look to a grand bargain if Seoul would consider an about-face on the question of a final resolution of historical issues and Tokyo on history would revert to modesty—neither of which is in sight. Yet, the last-minute deal brokered on November 22 through intense US diplomacy at least makes dialogue possible in the face of these barriers.

Other views expressed about Japan-ROK relations and the US role blamed Washington for its focus on sovereignty at the expense of traditional diplomacy and for showing the way to walk away from agreements. For it to play a constructive role it needed to tone down nationalism and show political will, putting GSOMIA talks in the context of burden sharing in a pragmatic manner. This means refocusing on the big picture of long-term strategic interests, accepting that Tokyo and Seoul have some clashing interests that require management. If the US does not respect international law as taking precedence over domestic law, it will find it difficult to play a welcome role in Japan. The prevailing view was that Seoul is damaging itself through the court decision, flying in the face of the US precedent in 1961 of waiving all reparations. It is not winning sympathy in Washington while causing Tokyo to be tougher, as the public sees Abe as in the right, and isolating itself while Tokyo is expanding its international position. At a time when Trump is threatening to take actions deeply harmful to South Korean national interests, Seoul should recognize its need for Tokyo. Even if Tokyo is winning in the dispute, the reality is that only Beijing really wins. For example, Samsung and NEC stand little chance on 5G without working together. Tokyo needs Seoul too, but most are too cowardly to say so, listeners were told. Much of the thrust of the critique was directed at US failure to do what it did in 1965 and 2015 in pressing the Japanese right to yield while coordinating with the South Korean side. One possibility now is a business trilateral on export controls. Delay in implementation of the Korean court decision is necessary to buy time, while Washington seeks a gesture of goodwill from Tokyo and a posture in Seoul to assure Japanese that an agreement would be final. These exchanges preceded the truce achieved on November 22.

South Korean-US relations

Concerns about the bilateral relationship mounted with the threat of a GSOMIA pullout, the Special Measures Agreement talks under the shadow of drastic US demands, and unpredictability over Trump’s moves after North Korea’s year-end deadline for diplomatic progress passed. One area where Seoul could demonstrate its cooperation with US appeals to broaden the alliance beyond the North Korean issue is the southern tier of Asia. Moon’s New Southern Policy is eclipsing his New Northern Policy, which is narrowly focused on Russia and an energy triangle with North Korea that appears to be going nowhere. After Japan intensified its coordination with the US on the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” South Korea recognized the importance of not allowing its US alliance to be devalued in comparison and also endorsed the concept with concrete ideas kept clear of hard security matters in order not to arouse China’s wrath. Similarly, Seoul recognized a need to reaffirm some security trilateralism.

Divergent views of how to combine denuclearization and a peace regime were aired in some exchanges between South Korean and US analysts. At issue were such themes as sequencing, numbers of states involved in the process at each stage, and priorities. On the South Korean side, a declaration ending the Korean War, a peace treaty, and a peace regime all appeared to come early in the sequencing with Seoul negotiating with Pyongyang on these matters as the US and the North separately addressed denuclearization. For the US side, clarity on denuclearization must come before hopes for peace are raised, considering that it is assumed that North Korea wants a peace regime without real denuclearization. Since there has been no progress on denuclearization, it is premature to put much stock on meaningful, sustainable peace. US commentators fear that the real purpose of the North’s pursuit of a peace process is to create the impression its threat is no longer serious and to splinter the alliance. Pyongyang is not really interested in peaceful coexistence, in this perspective. If Kim were to feel more secure, South Koreans suggested, he would be supportive of peace, while US respondents feared that he would be even less supportive. Unless Kim Jong-un is willing to discuss conventional arms too, no longer holding Seoul hostage, his intentions are suspect, some said. Others went further to insist that only unification led by the ROK can lead to peace. Opinions clearly diverged. Yet opposition to a “small deal” is rare with many on the US side ready to contemplate one as long as there is assurance that Pyongyang is serious about denuclearization at the outset.

Two ancillary themes could not be divorced from the exchanges on how to proceed with North Korea: the future of the alliance and the role of China in talks with North Korea. If progress is made with the North, both Seoul and Washington may be tempted not only to alter the alliance to give Pyongyang confidence that the threat to it is lowered but to weaken military ties in ways that Pyongyang may exploit and the allies may not be able to overcome for other objectives in East Asia. Washington and Seoul have struggled with the breadth of alliance interests, as the US side has sought to widen the scope in the Asia-Pacific region. More clarity on this matter is sought, many agreed. Also, US-ROK talks on how to balance peace and denuclearization should not ignore the cards that China holds, discussants were reminded. The notion that North Korea is so hostile to China that it is ready to exclude China from the diplomatic process was raised, but some thought that was wishful thinking by South Koreans if not a result of the North’s disinformation. Too often ROK-US coordination on North Korea is discussed without adequate attention to the cards China holds and is ready to use.

China and the Korean Peninsula

Three themes became clear in DC discussions of the Sino-ROK-DPRK triangle. First, ROK views of China have not recovered from the THAAD retaliation by China, which reinforced a downward slide in attitudes from the 2004 Koguryo shock, the late 2000s “culture wars,” the 2010 failure of China to reassure the ROK after it was twice attacked by North Korea, the 2014 “hegemonic” speech at Seoul National University by Xi Jinping, and general diplomatic arrogance. Should Xi decide to follow up the December CJK trilateral summit he will host with a 2020 visit to Seoul, parallel to his expected visit to Japan, and clarify that the remaining unofficial sanctions over THAAD are ending, this would be unlikely to reverse South Korean wariness of China, one speaker suggested, but Trump’s impact may change things.

Second, there are indications that Beijing is now not only prioritizing Tokyo in its foreign policy but also seeking a mediation role in the Japan-ROK split. Recognizing Trump’s impact on allies and the shared interest in strengthening economic globalization against protectionism, Xi may see an opportunity to gain some ground on China-led regionalism. Even if both Seoul and Tokyo are wary of any such Chinese mediation efforts, the advance of RCEP talks could give Xi an opening to use economic levers to gain ground with these two. The upcoming CJK summit in China will test Xi’s leadership, one could expect.

Third, there has been an awakening to improved Sino-North Korean ties following the shift in thinking on the strength of Sino-Russian relations. Related to this is the narrative of what went wrong in political relations from 2012 even as economic ties held up rather well despite some shift toward support for UN sanctions. Apparently, aware of Kim Jong-il’s declining health, the Chinese offered advice for a few years on the advantages of collective leadership rather than familial succession by Kim Jong-un and economic reform. Whereas Beijing sought to stabilize the regime, the Kim leadership took this party-to-party intervention as an affront. While the outcome in 2018 was problematic for China, suggestions that it was tilting toward South Korea were mistaken. Its economic leverage was as clear as ever, growing more in the late 2010s as it could control the amount of smuggling in defiance of the sanctions regime. Seoul grew alarmed that not relaxing its sanctions on Pyongyang would further solidify Beijing’s advantage. Internal change in China such as Xi’s ability to stay in power indefinitely and to reemphasize ideology and a cult of personality also raised concern that Chinese closeness to the North would increase. Instead of ties being boosted by the North becoming more like China, it was China that was becoming more like North Korea. Some worried that if Pyongyang turns to provocations in early 2020 after Kim Jong-un’s deadline for a deal with Trump has passed, Xi will not respond as in 2017, given worse Sino-US relations and improved Sino-North Korean ties. Even if China is aloof to coordination with Trump apart from having brought Kim to the negotiating table with its sanctions and approving Trump’s personal diplomacy, it is inclined to become more actively involved in another stage of crisis management or diplomacy should conditions look propitious.

Comparison of Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic US alliances

What were once seen as separate arenas operating on different timetables and in response to different great power dynamics are now connected, especially in light of Trump’s ongoing provocations under the label “America First.” The shock of the US trade war with China reverberates widely. The abrupt US pullback from Syria raises fear of US abandonment in Asia as well. Concern over the arbitrary decision-making of Trump permeates both sides, as key challenges await in dealing with North Korea/China and Ukraine/Russia. New attention to similarities in trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific arenas aroused discussion in DC, including whether Russia’s moves in one arena parallel China’s in the other and if Trump’s impact is similar in both parts of the world. Alliances are being shaken with fears of abandonment amid unreasonable, unilateral demands, was the cross-regional message.

US allies’ attitudes toward China and Russia, respectively, were one comparative theme. In both arenas, alliances have been fraying, obliging US partners to look more closely at their vulnerabilities. Yet neither China nor Russia is appealing, leaving countries eager for the US to reconfirm its commitment. Questions were raised about how the US could prove it remains engaged. This is not conceivable under Trump, and leading Democratic candidates did not inspire optimism, speakers argued. The starting point was assumed to be reaffirmation of alliances and US-led multilateralism anew. Under Trump, alliances in both regions have been in trouble. Fear of his re-election is palpable among persons from both regions worrying about alliances.