Washington Insights, Vol. 8, No. 5

Leadership change was on peoples’ minds in the late summer and early fall of 2020. What would a Biden administration do differently from Trump in the Indo-Pacific region? How does the departure of Abe Shinzo impact Japan’s foreign policy, given his personalized relations with the leaders in the US, China, Russia, and India as well as his icy relationship with Moon Jae-in? As a possible interim between US administrations loomed, there was talk of an October surprise or a post-election rush to put facts on the ground by Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, or Vladimir Putin. It was a time of unusual uncertainty with high stakes, as all eyes stayed focused on the US.

Sino-US relations were brought to the fore with clashing speeches at the UN General Assembly by Xi Jinping and Trump. The ideological nature of the conflict was only growing more intense, Japan’s handling of this conflict was foremost on people’s minds as Suga Yoshihide was questioned about how he would steer Japanese foreign policy, while some searched in vain for a sign that he and Moon Jae-in could reset Japan-ROK bilateral relations. The rising tension in Sino-Indian relations as both sides fortified their forces near the Himalayan line of control drew much commentary too, Kim Jong-un’s intentions during the US presidential election season were on the minds of some, as was the Putin-Trump bond should Trump gain a second term. As the pandemic lingered, opening the way for China to gain ground, attention was shifting to Biden, whose lead over Trump in the polls kept growing as he eschewed foreign policy issues.


There was talk at one webinar of China becoming more like Russia, not only monitoring the US elections closely but also mobilizing people with fake accounts and weaponizing information for political purposes. Yet, although its misinformation on COVID-19 drew much attention, China was not seen as seeking to exert a political impact by dumping information to sway voters. The main focus in such exchanges turned to Trump’s own misinformation, losing credibility and the capacity to project US values. If an information war is to ensue, the US is poorly positioned.

In one Webinar on Sino-US relations, the causes of the breakdown were discussed. Economic concerns have turned into a national security issue. American economic nationalism followed. Constructive engagement is dead. Decoupling on both sides has advanced, hurting US friends caught in the middle and blame both sides. China sees itself with an edge while it offers more economically as the US slows in providing public goods. The ballast in bilateral relations is at risk, at the same time as security ties are getting ugly. Obama’s pivot and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) are both viewed as hollow, the latter lacking an economic component. Yet states are scared by China, easing the way to a new US strategy. Some in China overestimate the rapidity of the power transition, only growing more optimistic over US dysfunction. The new cold war theory is gaining ground with an ideological component compounded by COVID-19 charges against each other. Yet China is not yet ready to replace the US and is still, to a degree, biding its time. There is no coalition to oppose China, but more pressure could be applied if US policy were more multilateral and found a way to combine security, economy, and ideational issues. Even after Trump doubt will linger about US will and commitments. Hawks in China favor Trump because he accelerates the inevitable clash. The more moderate forces are probably leaning toward Biden. 

Can one imagine China as a resurgent power without an assertive foreign policy? This question drove another Webinar on China, drawing on a wealth of Chinese material on what kind of world is envisioned. A new world order under China’s helm is inspired by tianxia and the tributary system. Leninism predominates over Confucianism. This is not simplistically taking over the world. Are these themes appearing in reality? Yes. Since 2017 China has been asserting that it is setting the agenda. It rejects universal values and dilutes human rights principles. China seeks partial, limited, malleable hegemony. It meshes old and new, focuses on regional hegemony without asserting global domination now. It draws on parts of the existing order, while eroding normative parts of it. The scope extends across the global south beyond East Asia. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) offers a mental map of the space where assertive influence is anticipated. The tributary system was hierarchical, asymmetrical, and loose in its control using economic interdependency. This is envisioned again. The desire to trade with China and get legitimization of power plays a role again. Leninism provides the tactics, as in China’s unique united front diplomacy to extend China’s influence. The official rhetoric pretends to support sovereign equality, but China is intent on hierarchical power with very limited sovereignty in key areas, such as cultural themes important to China. Unlike the Russian perspective on China holding out hope for a return to less aggressiveness toward neighbors, this view sees more trouble.

Sino-Russian relations

One long-time optimist explained that now he is a little less positive, sensing a new stage in the relationship. Convergence of interests, values, and worldviews has been one perspective. It was getting the upper hand, versus the marriage of convenience in response to the US. Interactions have grown, but the peak has passed due to Beijing’s new assertive foreign policy directed at Russia as well to repercussions of the pandemic, in this viewpoint. A high point was reached from 2014 after the crisis in Ukraine. China in 2018-19 sought to tighten relations, calling it a new era. What had changed? Actually, no qualitative shift had occurred. A high level of trust between heads of state was claimed. The new stage marked realization that Russia and China would not be admitted as equals into the international system run by the US. First, Russia and then China awakened with its own watershed moment under Trump, who seeks to destroy China’s economic model. China had assumed that globalism is inevitable and the US would not accept the losses of abandoning it. Then, the situation changed. In 2017-18 Chinese were perplexed, and they concluded that the conflict would be protracted, joining Russia in realizing that Washington would not treat it as an equal partner. Fu Ying in 2016 wrote positively of Sino-Russian relations but rebuked Moscow for its hardline to Washington. Two years later the Chinese view of Russia had changed, adding to Putin’s popularity in China. Even so, it did not take long before the halo of this presumed new and closer stage in relations was put in doubt.  

A new stage existed. Moscow from 2015 gave Chinese companies permission to invest in energy and high technology, leading to several contracts. Energy losses were reduced through China’s investments. Beijing approved of a Greater Eurasian project. Space-based cooperation began. Russia sold the most advanced weapons. Joint exercises intensified as in the South China Sea and Baltic Sea as well as joint patrols in the Sea of Japan. Russia is helping to create a missile attack warning system. Why is Russia doing this? First, there is a need to support stable relations with a powerful neighbor; second, it aids Russian development politically and economically; third, memory of past confrontations will survive; and fourth, Western pressure is also a factor. Beijing is now spurred to deepen ties to Moscow due to new pressure on it. Moscow refuses to get involved in China’s territorial dispute, but it supports China on the South China Sea arbitration decision.

The upbeat mood as recently as 2018, however, has not been fully sustained. The Russian public has mixed feelings about a powerful neighbor. In 2018, 60-70 percent found China friendly, but in October 2019 only 45 percent answered that China is the friendliest to Russia. Many see Chinese culture as differing markedly from Russia’s. People prefer to visit Europe than China. Some wariness is seen toward China at both extremes, small as they are in their adherents. Changes in the style of Chinese foreign policy have an impact. Publications in China call for a show of force by China, contradicting official documents. China is becoming hegemonic, not respecting the interests of other countries and using citizens abroad to interfere in the affairs of other countries. It applies economic sanctions against its neighbors. Chinese writings call for foreign bases, more sanctions to pressure other countries. Diplomats are pushy, which is not criticized by leaders. This is counterproductive for soft power promotion. Pride is growing into haughtiness. This is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution era, listeners were told. Even so, Moscow does not see these shifts as comparable to the behavior of the US and USSR, disagreeing with US allegations against China meant to apply ideological pressure on China. China is less popular in many countries now, as in South Korea, Japan, and Australia. BRI requires winning the cooperation of many states. China should change course.

China’s popularity in Russia was growing, some suggesting being practically an ally. But Beijing’s attitude toward Moscow is developing along the same lines as to other states but at a delay. There is a growing imbalance in bilateral ties, as in tv exchanges, where Russian media are prohibited. Increasingly restrictive rules affect Russian books. Books are translated but not approved.  Monuments to Russian troops, which liberated China in 1945 are relocated to distant sites, hiding the role of foreign forces against the Japanese. Growing numbers of Russian scientists were convicted of spying for China, making such cooperation dangerous. Social science cooperation has been damaged as well by Chinese ways. The July 2020 Vladivostok spat is indicative. Relations are changing. Russian leaders are not unequivocally supportive of China despite concessions to Beijing. Russia’s political system is more similar to China’s now, versus the West. Russia keeps attitudes from being public but they affect Russian actions. The US is more powerful than China, which is needed by Russia for balance. Only if China becomes more powerful than the US could Russia change is the conclusion drawn, as if such timing would not be too late.

China’s political system stands in the way of change is suggested in this line of thinking. It is also implied that China does not need Russia as an ally, which is directly at odds with the prevailing view that the US shift to a cold war against China too makes China more dependent on Russia. Unlike other Russian arguments, this view does not see China deferring to Russia more. Still, when asked if China is a strategic risk or opportunity for Russia, the answer remains, “an opportunity.” Russia is not alone with the US. China still is presumed to open the way to a multipolar world for a weaker power, allowing Russia to join the game, much as China did in the 1970s-80s, joining one side. Moreover, guided by wishful thinking, it is said that a return to Deng Xiaoping’s tendency is still possible and that Chinese tradition is non-imperialist; even if it has learned from the US that any great power is assertive. Maybe China is different is the hope with which listeners are left along with confidence that relations with China will not much decline.

The Korean Peninsula

Expectations for a Trump-Kim Jong-un surprise summit in October had faded, but that did not mean the situation on the peninsula was viewed as stable. Kim had promised to unveil a new weapon, and North Korean leaders had shown previously that they were prone to bold action to “greet” new US presidents. While Kim presumably prefers Trump to be reelected and dies not want to undermine Trump’s claim to credit for handling the North Korean issue, he would not be bound to similar constraint should Biden win or even if Trump had won. Meanwhile, it was no secret that Moon Jae-in is awaiting an opening to defy US pressure against sanctions relief, perhaps under the guise of humanitarian assistance. He too could proceed just after the US elections. A mood of nervous anticipation prevailed regarding the tinderbox in this triangle.

What does China think about North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities, one session asked. This relied on technical analysts from mirroring US official sources to caution due to diplomatic restraint and then finally acknowledging activities through monitoring as part of global studies. The risk of US responses became the focus. There is still skepticism on warhead miniaturization, downplaying the real threat to the US. It could be geopolitical posturing or technical analysis. The sources avoid mention of China’s role as a source of missile transport infrastructure and other references to China’s responsibility raised in the US sources being used for evidence.

One seminar centered on what US policy will be toward North Korea. Despite the turmoil in 2020, there has been little movement in the US-North Korean impasse, a South Korean view held that the North Korean economy has kept worsening due to sanctions, the pandemic, and a shift to self-reliance. A test of a long-range missile or nuclear weapons is likely soon. China’s support for North Korea has intensified with grain provisions. Kim Jong-un is delegating more power. North Korea will proceed at its own pace with the US, knowing the US has to deal with it. The US should not spend much time on a policy review. A freeze on testing must be the first step. Coexistence or denuclearization requires negotiations. No regime change is possible.

North Korea aims not to be trapped by the US but also to use the US as a counterforce to China. For coherence toward North Korea, we must first address US-ROK divisions. Now we are in a waiting period to keep things from getting worse. South Koreans are apprehensive, blaming overzealous enforcement of sanctions. Without a plan B, the US has redoubled its focus on sanctions. A US rethink is needed in 2021. Maximum pressure was tested in 2017, and North Korea withstood the sanctions. 2017 cannot be recreated. To get at least some security gains from interim steps should be the goal. North Korea will try to prevent a policy review; dealing with a divided US policy community, it will be required however. North Korea also has a strategic choice to make to Seoul and Washington. A January 2021 party congress is the focus now. No one-shot deal is possible, but trade-offs are. Low-level provocation can safely be made, driving a wedge between the US and South Korea and inducing appeasement. There may be a crisis-escalation process, crossing a red line, assuming no preemptive strike early in an administration. This too drives a wedge. One idea is to keep denuclearization the first objective. A process toward that end can stabilize matters. A more nuanced use of sanctions is needed. Seoul and Washington are not in sync on the peace process. No clear understanding of the North’s priorities exists. A declaration on the end of the war may be contradicted. Strong signals of two allies working together are needed. There needs to be a multilateral process too, Biden does not mean a return to 2016. Hold a meeting early in 2021; define denuclearization and its scope, Show the alliance is in lock-step and reach out to China and others for a joint approach. These are recommendations widely shared, but Koreans and Americans are split.

One webinar focused on fishing in North Korean waters, drawing on satellite technology. The theme was illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Chinese fishing vessels in violation of Security Council regulations abound in North Korean waters. Vast quantities of squid are caught in North Korean waters by dark vessels unrecorded in global tracking. In turn, North Korean vessels fish illegally in Russian waters, pushed out by Chinese vessels from their own waters. Ghost boats without a crew have washed up on the Japanese coast. Primitive, little wooden boats go into more distant waters to find fish in these circumstances. Selling fishing rights to China is a way to offset a decrease in exports despite violating the UN sanctions. Calls for joint steps to address these problems led to doubts that any path forward can be found.

On another occasion the subject was how Joe Biden would handle the issue of North Korea. Biden would be traditional in foreign policy, more engaged, boosting alliances, and open to engaging with North Korea. Burden-sharing with the ROK would be quickly resolved as the troop presence was assured and trade issues with friends would soon be handled. Alliances would be rejuvenated with a positive view of their role. More substantive thinking on North Korea would follow. Trump would hold a quick summit with Kim, perhaps yielding a lot to get a deal, was the supposition. A South Korean deal with China on a vaccine could enflame ROK-US ties. Moon is stressing multilateralism involving North Korea with uncertain response in the US. He is applauded for trying to take the lead on a joint response to the pandemic. Avoiding extreme individualism helped Asian states not politicize the pandemic. The shooting and burning of a South Korean official sets back Moon’s effort to boost ties with the North. Paranoia toward COVID-19 leading to a shoot-to-kill order is noted. Since Kim wants Trump to win, no provocation in October can be expected.

On North Korean strategic weapons, a webinar explored the possibility of a new weapon being shown in October. In 2016-17 there was an unprecedented level of progress in North Korean strategic weapons. Since 2019 there has been a slow pivot back to testing and confrontation. A 2020 lockdown has not prevented escalated rhetoric and signs of a harder line but one on hold to October. North Korea has doubled down on strategic weapons as key to regime survival. The 75th anniversary parade is coming soon, with a display of new weapons. After the election new testing is anticipated. Multiple outcomes are possible, however. The US was critical to the delay mode in 2018 after threatening in new ways in late 2017. How will US actions impact the North this fall?  North Korea controls the pace of the agenda. We are now at an impasse. The North thinks it has greater leverage with Moon in 2021. The US is a puzzle with little new campaign rhetoric on the North. Frustration with Moon in mid-2020 led to angry signals from the North. Moon was tied to the US, reflecting solidarity despite tensions over divided approaches. The North wants inter-Korean focus on peace on the peninsula, and only US ties on denuclearization issues. The US sequence is from action, trust, to relations. South and North Korea say relationship first, then trust, and last actions. Did Bolton reveal “reckless brinkmanship” or was this process reasonable testing? New capabilities created a red line, an existential threat in 2017. North Korea has pushed the limits repeatedly, and the US has never responded. But in 2017 the US signaled that this had changed. All parties showed restraint. The military created traction for diplomacy as did back-channel communications.

North Korea wants to stay as a center of attention, reminding people by testing missiles after summitry and improving their weapons systems. Also, this strategically kept tensions between allies, which differ on the missiles they view as threats, and cast doubt on US support. In 1994-2016 it was assumed that time is on the side of the US, but from 2017 that assumption changed with wavering in 2018. There are time advantages for each side. Biting sanctions become more difficult to enforce, including ejection of North Korean workers forestalled by changing the status of workers to students, as in Russia. If an ICBM on the trajectory to the US is detected, it has to be intercepted coupled with a planned counterstrike was one point of view introduced. China has atrophied the sanctions badly, but COVID-19 complicated matters. Suspending joint exercises was to get traction for talks, but that did not work. Some degradation followed, but it was not very significant. Exercises are no longer relevant to diplomacy. Illicit transfers of oil and coal continue, and North Korean embassies have resumed finding money. More effort is needed. A split was apparent between optimism on pressure and sanctions and pessimism that only limited management of the North is possible.


On Suga’s policy toward China, one Webinar suggested that Suga would not push revision of the Constitution and would not prioritize foreign policy as much. He is less likely to let these issues interfere with economic priorities. But on defense there is no big change expected. An economic downturn will have some impact. The Suga cabinet indicates continuity in diplomacy except Hong Kong has split the LDP on Xi’s visit. Nikai has prevailed and kept hope alive even if the message is it is now more difficult, A split is evident and will play out ahead.

With Abe’s sudden announcement of his departure as prime minister, interest in Japan peaked. There was no downplaying of his Importance with some calling him the most consequential leader in the postwar era or second only to Yoshida Shigeru. The only other figure appearing on the list of finalists was Nakasone Yasuhiro. On diplomacy and security, Abe scored higher than on domestic policy, but even there he brought stability and a shift away from history as a focus, despite scoring lowest on economic structural reforms. His poorest foreign policy results were with South Korea. Some do not blame Abe, pointing to his compromise in the 2015 agreement.

South Koreans feared Abe’s extremism in his first three years because he had signaled extreme moves such as rescinding the Kono statement. This left a bad taste, which Abe’s compromises on the “comfort women” statement did not fully dispel. The fact that he made the deal with Park Geun-hye just before she became the target of impeachment was not fortuitous, while Abe was seen as having yielded to US pressure despite his true disposition. Given the mutual pain inflicted over the past three years, many are concerned that post-Abe the rut will endure. In the first days after the announcement, however, the Korean side sent positive signals, calling for a fresh start in editorials. Yet, the advice offered was for Seoul to reach out more, perhaps using the 2021 Tokyo Olympics as an opening to show support. The real tests will be revival of economic pragmatism on both sides and coordination on North Korea—both doubtful now. The fact that South Korea had skipped a defense trilateral in late August was seen as a bad sign. More concern was voiced about the challenge of coordinating visions of Asia. One viewpoint is that Seoul and Tokyo are closest in their regional vision and interest, but others feared that in 2021 they will prove to be at odds when the question of an Indo-Pacific vision is prioritized.

Separately, interest was shown in the unwinding of security constraints in Japan including at last overcoming the taboo on building an intelligence community. Abe faced constraints from a lack of centralization in the face of stovepipes (the police, the foreign ministry, and defense) not often in communication with each other. Another restraint was the war legacy, leading to more pressure for oversight. Yet with a growing threat from China and North Korea, the public is more supportive of expanding the intelligence community. No matter how much credit Abe is given for pursuing this goal, concerns remain over what remains to be done. Recently, Japan has been campaigning to join the “five eyes,” the gold standard of intelligence sharing, but this appears to be a long-shot, given shortcomings still apparent in Japan’s protections, such as the absence of a tight classification scheme, and doubts that Japan is gathering intelligence of much value to others. The failure to build area studies, letting the legacy of the South Manchurian Railway Company lapse, contributes to the problem. Compounding the sense that Japan is not on top of regional intelligence is the troubled state of the GSOMIA with South Korea.

History stands in the way of Japanese intelligence gathering, not only on the Korean Peninsula but in China. Also, in the Cold War period there was concern that some in the fragmented forces dealing with intelligence were sympathetic to far-right nationalists ready to break the law. Also, parts of the ruling coalition have at times feared interference in freedom of religion, as in Komeito prior to the terrorism of Aum Shinrikyo in the 1990s. It has taken a long time to build confidence in the US that Japanese counterparts were focused on the same threats as well as competent, listeners surmised. Things have been changing, notably after the North Korean 1998 missile wake-up call, leading to spy satellites, and the revelations several years later of Japanese abducted by North Koreans—years after politicians had hesitated to pursue evidence in hopes of boosting ties to the North. Perhaps more than anything else, leaders are driven by fear of US disengagement from East Asia—whether Bush-43 with his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama with some aversion to being the “world’s policeman,” and Trump with no respect for allies. Aware that Japan cannot balance China without the US, Abe did more both to accommodate the US and to boost Japan’s capacities and strategic partnerships.

Abe was highly evaluated as a unique strategic thinker in one webinar. He had instincts to mobilize a sense of power in the face of surrounding threats, including deterrence as well as dialogue to follow. He had a very good sense of timing, aware that he had to tackle difficult issues one by one. He also had long-term objectives in mind, value-related and unwavering but with a sense of balance and pragmatism. He listened to good advisors to be flexible in implementation and slightly different from original objectives. His policy toward the US was a success, ably combining these elements. He proceeded from positive pacifism to collective defense without constitutional revision but reinterpreting Article 9, sharing greater responsibility and gaining greater autonomy. Abe was able to preempt Trump’s charges that Japan is a free-rider. This was shown in FOIP, autonomy on Iran, and autonomy on Russia without antagonizing the US.

He did everything to improve relations with Russia despite moderately joining G7 sanctions in 2014. China was the second success after the US. Japan must keep ties to China, not an easy balance after the 2012 Chinese decision to flood the Senkaku Islands with ships. Deterrence came first with a new island defense strategy but starting dialogue timidly to preserve the status quo on the Senkakus and Yasukuni issues. In 2017 Abe sent a message of cooperation in BRI economically where common interests exist, soon activating summit diplomacy without antagonizing the US.

He pointed to three regrets on retiring: constitutional revision, abductees, and a peace treaty with Russia. He at least virtually changed Article 9, overcoming pacifist thinking as best as could be done. The international environment must allow a summit with Kim Jong-un, but it did not turn in a favorable manner. On Russia Abe cannot make a mistake with the US, but Japan needs a trustworthy partner in Northeast Asia. There were only two choices. Abe is partly responsible for South Korea policy not going well, but Abe did everything possible to change the paradigm of Russian relations. He made Russia the third country with 2+2 talks. Russia did not accept this Abe approach after 2018 due to worsening US-Russian ties and the territorial issue despite Putin in November 2018 agreeing to use the 1956 joint declaration as the cornerstone of talks. Suga’s cabinet relies on experts and a stable balance of LDP factions. Suga is serious about staying in his post for 4-5 years. Domestic issues take priority, but as a new, powerful prime minister he is determined to be active in foreign policy. The Sino-US relationship will long be tense. Can Abe preserve Abe’s balance? Suga and Putin on September 30 will chat by phone. Will Suga confirm he is prioritizing the relationship and sustaining Abe’s agenda?

Suga has stated that he will do his best to clarify ownership of the islands. Russia agreed in 1956 to transfer the two smaller islands. Japan’s starting point was for four islands, but it has taken 1956 as the only basis. There is a foundation to narrow differences. Russians ask if the Russian response was to add conditions. The hardline Japanese position is expressed in some articles, but it is hard to determine if this has had an impact. The discussion centered on what Japan is willing to do, but it was thin on what Russia is prepared to do. Why cannot Russia be added to the Quad in the FOIP? There is no anti-Russia aspect and not necessarily provoking China while making BRI not incompatible? Will Russia join if Japan leads in inviting it? Do not Russians recognize the need to balance China? Has the momentum been lost without Abe or even before Abe’s departure? A slowdown is needed now for Suga to catch up, while hopes are kept alive. The key assumption is that Japan gains more autonomy by building a stronger alliance with the US.

Southeast Asia

One webinar explored severe polarization’s impact on Southeast Asia. Intense negative mutual worldviews exist now, driving a battle of identities focusing on ethnicity, religion, or ideology. A negative spiral unfolds in a society, destructive of norms, institutions, and democracy. Severe polarization exists in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and others with Indonesia moving in this direction. Democratic openings and economic transformation led people to demand more and aroused a backlash within the old political elite. Eventually, an identity struggle ensued. Violent crackdowns on street demonstrations widened the divide. Suppressed conflict hardened the polarization without resolving differences as in Thailand. Economic grievances due to the impact of the pandemic drive more young people to activism. In Indonesia Islamic parties versus pluralists have lately shown sharp divides, eroding democratic norms. The pandemic has aggravated these trends. More exclusivist appeals were raised in 2019, raising the stakes in the election. Religion-based and cultural identities are driving many. The polarized mood has been sustained, as the center attacks the other side. One needs to choose side, overlooking repressive tactics and putting democracy aside. Where the pandemic is intense, the problems deepen.                                                                                                            

In one webinar on China’s footprint in Southeast Asia it was stressed that China’s experience in the 1970s-80s is relevant. Nixon’s visit to China paved the way for the PRC to open relations. Economic opening in China in the 80s boosted economic ties and for overseas Chinese to gain influence. China began to establish control over the waters and gain access to the Indian Ocean overland. The BRI is a complex, chaotic, and not unified strategy. Many actors pursue diverse agendas. Weak legal frameworks mean environmental degradation and other problems. Debt trap diplomacy often is not designed to impose unpayable debt for strategic objectives, but the evidence does show purposeful traps. When China’s reputation is rosy—2002-10 or so—many were eager to claim ethnic Chinese identity, but this is less so of late. As before 1980, the Chinese government is blurring the line between cultural Chinese and political loyalty to China. This could backfire on the communities, adding to discrimination. As an offshore balancer, the US is seen as too closely involved or pulling out. Trump is seen as only centered on China, not paying attention to views in the region. Ideology is a bigger deal for the US, as if freedom versus authoritarianism is driving things. Power should be balanced without ideological conflict.

Southeast Asia is more central to China’s ambitions, regionally and globally, it was argued. Northeast Asia is usually seen as prior, and BRI is more western in origin, Lack of intentionality of BRI affects lack of effectiveness. With the pandemic, there are calls for debt forgiveness. Even before the pandemic in the second BRI summit there was a big shift to quality. Even more reduction is anticipated. Countries do not want to be forced to choose; what should the US do? Rule-based inclusivity open to China? ASEAN centrality if it is capable? It is not that Southeast Asia is most important, but it is the most vulnerable without a great power and with fragmentation allowing a sphere of influence. It enables access to the seas to reach beyond the first island chain. Going west means going through Southeast Asia.

China’s trajectory has been pretty consistent, building its presence and revealing its ambitions. The heavy hand of China is increasingly apparent, but the region is too economically intertwined with China to comply with US demands, as against Huawei. China will keep gaining power. Is it all over in the South China Sea? If the US had the will, what could it do to counter China in the region? China has an asymmetric advantage in its backyard. China serves as a shield against Western pressure. Failure of TPP meant the US could not set the norms. With the pandemic China’s image has taken a hit, but the US image of competence has been punctured. The focus on rebuilding economies works in China’s favor, as in the desire for Chinese tourists to return. This will be a big opportunity for China. India still punches under its weight, focusing west and north more. Japan is a bigger player, meeting China’s challenge in infrastructure and more trusted, although Abe’s departure may have a negative impact.


With Japan striving to keep some momentum for a summit with Xi Jinping and South Korea wary of increased tensions with China while Moon’s North Korean diplomacy is still on the agenda, Australia has become the poster boy of US allies facing the China threat directly and drawing China’s wrath. Rory Medcalf, John Fitzgerald, and others have recently explained what is taking place, refuting myths about bilateral relations. Australian citizens are detained, the last of its journalists in China have departed with their safety at risk, Chinese reporters in Australia were interviewed in an investigation of foreign interference while Chinese academics had their visas cancelled over similar charges. Such developments have been accompanied by vitriol in Chinese media and by Chinese officials attacking Australia. All of this is emblematic of China’s “wolf warrior” handling of countries that defy its demands. This is more than a war of words, which could be resolved by mutual restraint. Rather, it is one-sided haranguing by China aimed at pressuring Australia to yield to Chinese pressure. It is China on the offense, and Australia playing defense for national interests. The fault is China’s, even if it spreads the myth that it is Australia’s, following the passing in 2018 of foreign interference laws, and it is due to Australia seeking to please the US. A similar pattern is at work in China’s intimidation attempts toward numerous countries. It is time to recognize common interests in responding to China. Such thinking drew considerable praise in the US, putting Australia at the center of talk about forging a more multilateral response to Xi Jinping’s aggressive behavior and Chinese rhetoric.