Washington Insights, Vol. 8, No. 6

The late fall of 2020 saw attention turn to Joe Biden, including his nominees for policy posts in national security and their thinking on the Indo-Pacific region. He prioritizes rebuilding alliances and partnerships, but some asked what would he seek from these countries. If Biden would not follow Trump’s lead in top-down diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, few expected that the staggered pace of engagement, called by critics as “strategic patience,” would suffice. Much of the discussion has centered on North Korea, often as seen in neighboring states but always with an eye to how US policy will address it ahead. ROK-US relations have been a big concern against this backdrop.

Among the liveliest exchanges following Biden’s electoral success were those between ROK and US specialists (able to overcome the time gap in webinars). China was never far from people’s minds, as its “wolf warrior” attitudes grew ever more prominent. Its new target of Australia entered the picture, as did India, which faced pressure on the border. It was not unnoticed that Indo-US relations are advancing and that the Quad is gaining solidity.

As usual, Japan was a popular theme in DC, as Suga’s impact was still being assessed. Russia’s role in Asia was little remarked in the US, but Moscow-based webinars were now appearing. In comparison to most of 2020, the pandemic was receding as a security focus despite its acute presence in the West and elsewhere, while talk of geopolitics was unmistakably reinvigorated. Great power rivalry has returned with a vengeance to debates about political choices ahead.

At one session the focus was on getting US allies in Asia to do more; Trump’s skepticism served as an opportunity to rethink assumptions in this respect. Strategy needs to change a lot as geopolitics change and the liberal order is more intensely challenged. Yet allies and partners are disturbed by the current tone. If the relationship with China is now fundamentally competitive, there is no consensus about what the competition is over. Within the Trump administration language varies a lot, making agreement on strategy very difficult. In fact, competition is over power and the order of the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The alliances need to broaden to cover all elements of national power. Allies need a nuanced strategy, preserving principles. There is concern about the sustainability and reliability of the US versus China. Japan appreciated the clarity and toughness of the Trump administration toward China in 2019-20, but Republicans are increasingly critical of China, which should lead to more support for allies. The US is interested in more naval access, not bases per se. Using coast guards in grey zones is promising. The US needs to grow comfortable with the hedging of allies as natural. The Quad is positive but expectations must be kept in check. It poses a challenge for Korea in the alliance, making Koreans uncomfortable, if less than before. ASEAN needs to play a greater role, not mutually exclusive as the Quad advances. New stress on the non-security sides of the Quad is needed. The starting point is to work with allies to develop a common vision of the FOIP, not trying to impose a US view negative toward China. Trump is an aberration; it will take time to overcome skepticism and regain trust.

By promoting good governance, the US can be more competitive with China. On Vietnam the US can talk about concerns while still building a stronger relationship—countries have other options. The US is expecting Japan to do more: integrating forces; refocusing on trade agreements; taking a new approach to island defense; and being cautious about adding Japan as a “sixth eye” until Japan takes new steps. Moon Jae-in seeks to delink inter-Korean rapprochement and denuclearizing steps, and the alliance has a lot to unpack to deal with this. As China turns up the pressure on Taiwan, the US and Taiwan both can do a lot to strengthen the defense of Taiwan and to expand economic arrangements, and the US can build its capacities without destabilizing the situation by declaring its readiness to defend Taiwan, one speaker advocated. Taiwan now has a greater role to play. These wide-ranging themes at one webinar prior to the refocus on Biden are suggestive of options ahead.

The Korean Peninsula

The dilemma of what to do about North Korea perplexed many webinar presenters in the fall. The momentum is gone. We are at a slow crawl now. Pre-Hanoi the North had a strategy and sought to engage, regarding the Singapore summit as very helpful. The only deal offered prior to and at Singapore was dismantling an undefined part of Yongbyon for removing all of the sanctions. They had unrealistic expectations and were left with no plan. Tightened pressure is the key, while keeping the door open for the US to engage. Kim also understands an ICBM or nuclear test would be bad. The Russians and Chinese would withdraw support. Kim has nobody chosen to talk for him despite a promise at the DMZ. China is key. One needs to gain its buy-in. Pressure is not to bring the North to its knees, but to incentivize entry into talks, slow WMD development, and also frustrate economic plans and new glamour projects. They can be traded for denuclearization steps in a future roadmap. Working group sessions at first monthly and now less often have worked well despite South Korean criticism that they block inter-Korean projects.

Should a deal be made to get Washington’s support on inter-Korean projects in exchange for Seoul’s support on US China policy? Koreans fear the US position leads to a continued stalemate. Coming to the table is the start with an empowered delegation, it was said, but doubts were raised about Kim’s willingness to delegate. No sign of it was seen in Stockholm. Kim’s address at the military parade seemed to suggest concern about trouble at home, making it harder for Kim to make a deal. There has been no travel from North Korea since early February, setting back domestic goals and preventing negotiations. Moon wants an early end-of-war declaration. The US does not see it as a new idea.  It could be a trust-building measure between the US and DPRK, but there are lots of details to consider and a need for a framework to build momentum. It should not be wasted with no effect. Moon’s highlighting of it can be useful. The showing of a new ICBM and other new weapons is a message to the US and others, causing disappointment. Why does he not focus on economic needs, which have deepened? Keep the sanctions, many insisted.

North Korea has become a significant cyber-actor, increasing this source as a percentage of its revenue. The low cost of entry, the high yield, the difficulty of discovery, and the challenge of retaliation are factors. Deterrence does not work in this realm. These are an evasion of sanctions, rendering the asset freezes ineffective. The Security Council is more divided than ever, as some states blockade cyber coverage as not authorized by resolutions.  South Korea as well as the US is fighting back. Cyber warfare has become real in South Korea, with more than one million hacking attacks daily. It has become harder to track the North’s hacking groups scattered around the world. North Koreans sit and gather information, biding their time. This is a concern raised in various webinar exchanges.

North Korea poses a national security challenge due to sanctions evasions, leading to civil forfeiture as in the seizure of a ship and its cargo. Cybercrime is also targeted, including bank robberies and cryptocurrency thefts. Money is spent for nuclear and missile parts. North Korea is very good in cyber with well-trained hackers and a focus on stealing money. China assists in helping it launder money and acquire goods. China’s cyber infrastructure support matters; it protects the North, whose asymmetric strategy has three parts: nuclear, missiles, and cyber. So far cyber is for theft, not to destroy infrastructure. The same bodies of government are active in all three areas. China and Russia are loosening enforcement of sanctions, not wanting the North to fail. The US is the country that prosecutes violations. At times, targets are announced to send a message. Can sanctions on North Korea be expanded is a decision for the State and Treasury departments, not for law enforcement. Before November this was the tone heard in exchanges.

Considering the shifting dynamics in the triangle of China-Russia-US over North Korea, a webinar noted Xi’s embrace of the Korean War as an inspiration for China’s foreign policy and the appearance of North Korea’s largest ICBM missile. Trump downplayed the provocation and took no note of Xi’s thinking on the North, insisting on his good relationship with Kim Jong-un.  Some have criticized Chinese and Russian sanction-busting (and Trump’s failure). Do the three share a common goal despite disparate prisms? Moscow’s thinking is that North Korea is not one of its top three priorities even as it seeks to keep the status quo. Nobody thinks North Korea will denuclearize. Its provocations are unwelcome, but some arms control is viewed as possible. Moscow sees the North as a pretext for US moves to undermine Russia’s military edge, but it is now eying the Sino-US conflict and considering joining China in this. Putin and Kim Jong-un have an amicable relationship with channels to maintain ties but little leverage. Part of the trade goes through China. Russia is the one active great power not seeking regime change or a sphere of influence. It can water down Security Council resolutions but maintain ties with the US on the issue. For Beijing, the bilateral relationship in 2018 improved a lot, but North Korea dropped off China’s radar as tensions with the United States, India, and Taiwan intensified. Maintaining the status quo was seen as sufficient. This may change with the parade of new, more powerful weapons and worry that the US will find it a pretext for new moves. The debate on denuclearization persists, leaving hope for diplomacy, but others doubt it. Ties are still improving with warm messages exchanged. Is China using the North Korean issue as a geopolitical bargaining chip against the US? Yes, this view is growing. North Korea is supporting China on many issues, such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea. China sees opportunities for lessening the US presence in Northeast Asia. The US-North Korean relationship is worse than prior to Trump’s tenure, it was suggested. Trump gave up leverage for little advantage, as he weakened alliances and sanctions enforcement. In each case, official views defy the reality.

Moscow believes that the North develops nuclear weapons as an assurance against regime change. Yet if there is an agreement among the powers, it is possible that the North could retain its internal power. Without Sino-US trust, this is inconceivable. Broader talks about arms control in Northeast Asia have promise for including the North. China’s week-long commemoration of the Korean War shows that China has the resolve to go to extremes to defend its national interests, given that the US is on the offense; and it tells the domestic audience to prepare for sacrifice in pushing back against US aggression. On North Korea, the message now is shared socialist ideology and values. Xi commended North Korea for sticking to socialism. Values have joined interests in drawing the two closer. Does Moscow defer to Beijing? It wants to be at the table, as a great power in a consequential crisis, but China has a much bigger stake. Moscow’s willingness to help Beijing depends on the state of Sino-Russian ties and how much Beijing will offer Moscow for help. In 2017 at the Security Council Moscow was the bad cop doing China’s work as China played the good cop. Sino-Russian ties are improving and they are cooperating even more on the Korean Peninsula, against US missile defenses in Northeast Asia. There is scant long-term thinking on nuclear proliferation; attention narrowly centers on Sino-US troubles. A broader regional discussion on security is needed. Kim Jong-un wanted a second term for Trump, allowing a deal of slight denuclearization for sanctions relief. ICBM flight tests are necessary, and they may follow Biden’s election. Biden’s approach to China will set the terms for ties to Russia and the North. Russia could pull back from entering China’s embrace even more.

The urgent tasks for Biden are to rebuild the alliance system, to find the right balance with South Korea to deal with China as a revisionist of the international order, and to deal with North Korea without postponing it for domestic priorities. To demand that denuclearization be a precondition and stress a bottom-up approach is a problem. These Korean ideas were raised in a joint webinar. Biden will focus on diplomacy as a reliable partner, reengage in international organizations, and prioritize climate change, the US response affirmed. On North Korea, there is fear that Republicans will pounce if a Democrat engages the North. Biden will try for a working relationship with China, but Chinese will be outraged by the Hong Kong and Uyghur issues. Both sides will be cautious. There are unlikely to be defense cuts in the Indo-Pacific but some shift from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia. The norm with North Korea will be step-by-step moves, but Democrats are bruised at home.

Koreans fear pressure to refocus on China as a competitor in technology and the military, above all. What level of engagement will ensue? What will be the US approach to regional security architecture, seeking collective security in place of hub and spokes with what impact on the ROK-US alliance, given Chinese retaliation? There is no shared China policy. How to deal with North Korea is closely related to China policy. Moon is excessively concerned about the North’s reactions, and he fears both entrapment and abandonment as the US refocuses on China. The US did nothing to help South Korea when it was sanctioned by China in 2016-17, causing trauma. If China imposes more sanctions, what can the alliance do? The gap is widening between the Korean public’s views of China and Moon’s view. China uses sanctions to force countries to its side. Will the US do so? Taiwan is likely to be the real focus of Sino-US tensions. Renewing alliances will take priority, not ties to China. Russia is the first threat, while China can be a partner on climate change, global health, and North Korea.

Biden inherits a different relationship with China and will not change more than the tone without cutting deals. China is most concerned about US multilateral coalitions. There is worry about the US-ROK alliance since China sees the ROK as an ally that could be pulled into its sphere of influence, taking pleasure in the Trump impact and Moon’s “naivety.” China’s strategy is driving a wedge. Biden’s China strategy is also discernible, but not his policies. The relationship will be framed as strategic competition—confronting, competing, and cooperating. Shape some choices, deter some behavior, and contain. Security, economics, technology, and ideology will be the arenas.

Two concerns in Seoul are US delay on North Korea due to pressing priorities and a hardline inclination seen in statements on conditions rather than on Democratic diplomacy leanings. Trumpism remains strong, too. There is continuity in worldview and strategic goals in North Korea, driven by regime survival. Kim Jong-un accomplished little diplomatically in four years. China is not a close ally. Ties to the US and South Korea are poor. Kim is an incrementalist, ready to bully South Korea and buy time. The economy is troubled and the Chinese lifeline is even more important, while Kim wants the North to be seen as a responsible nuclear power.

Is time on Kim’s side? A Korean response is that time is not on the ROK-US side. The Singapore agreement is sacrosanct, ruling out lower-level talks and measures toward denuclearization. Trump’s defeat removes limits on restraint. Tensions will rise in 2021, while delaying talks until there is a new government in Seoul or by playing Seoul against the US under Moon. It is wrong to think that the North Korean nuclear problem is somewhat under control. Strategic patience was possible under ROK conservative governments and when the North was under a political transition. However, the term was not used by the Obama administration, and no opportunity was missed due to ROK conservatives. It was Pyongyang that scuttled the Six-Party Talks and left the US with few options.

There are three myths: 1) Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye, and Obama blocked progress; 2) CVID was an obsession that hampered compromise; and 3) Singapore and Hanoi are a foundation than rather proof that top-down diplomacy will not work. Moon must avoid Kim Dae-jung’s condescension to a new president as if the US does not understand the North. Perhaps sustained deteriorating relations with China open the possibility for US pressure actions on Pyongyang that are less restrained by concerns about Beijing’s response. China will do more to separate Seoul and Washington. With the rise of Chin, it has economic leverage and a security guarantee, its weight is greater, lowering Seoul’s economic leverage and the US security role. Urgency is needed to keep its nuclear threat from growing. Pyongyang would not accept Seoul’s economic leverage or US security leverage.

Biden has called for “principled diplomacy” on the Korean Peninsula. Opportunities were squandered in the Trump-Kim summits. Some key messages included: Do not over-rely on personal diplomacy, insisting on progress at the working level; do not over-rely on sanctions pressure, given sanctions evasion and China and Russia’s complicity; assess leverage accurately with realistic goals. The risks have dramatically increased, and time is not on our side. Until about 2015, it appeared that time was on our side, misjudging China’s thinking and Kim’s adaptability. Tremendous progress seen in the North’s 2016-17 tests changed the narrative, but 2018 was an illusion, many declared. The trend from China is worrisome in sanctions evasions, UN obstruction, and foreign assertiveness. Economic problems in North Korea are no source of optimism. If Kim treads carefully, Biden waits. If he provokes, economic pressure will be painful at this time, as China grows angry. The sanctions are working and could work more. The US should signal it is ready for talks and appoint a special envoy soon. Trump’s loss is disappointing to Kim, losing top-down diplomacy. Current silence is a sign that domestic priorities are foremost, as the pandemic’s dire threat endures.

Some in Seoul fear strategic patience 2.0. Others see Clinton-type engagement resuming. Few see the Trump pattern again, but many accept Singapore as the reasonable starting point. The Singapore agreement is the basis for new talks, and Biden needs to affirm it for talks to resume. Goodwill gestures can avoid a poor start. Early negotiations are Seoul’s hope. Blinken favors the Iran model with multilateral talks and a step-by-step approach, but the North’s insistence on no inspectors for its existing nukes are different. Biden will first offer US allies security assurances, risking Kim’s provocations. Yet he could be willing to engage and accept Singapore language. Debates will center on the contents of an interim agreement banning the production of fissile material as well as testing. We need to break the North’s momentum. Better missile defense capabilities could be sought, too. The term interim may be seen in Pyongyang as permanent to keep nukes and get relief. The US needs a big payoff with a halt to all missile tests since no follow-up is assured. The Hanoi offer of Kim was very disproportionate and unacceptable. Will China cooperate? It is not doing so on sanctions now. North Korea’s economy did all right in 2019 in part due to China’s relaxation of sanctions. A South Korean suggested working with China on North Korea before pressuring China.

Sanctions are working well, driving workaround moves. With the self-imposed COVID blockade, little beyond oil and food is entering North Korea. There is an accelerating decline in national income with cascading shortages. Tightened central control in response is self-defeating, while the economic outlook for 2021 is grim. Yet some argued that the period of maximum pressure is over. Sanction evasions were growing in 2019 and can be expected to again after the pandemic winds down. The panel of experts at the UN cannot any longer get support from China and Russia. A continued large excess of imports over exports led to an outflow of dollars, which has been stemmed in 2020. Focusing on Chinese tourism in building infrastructure failed as well. Thus, exports fell sharply from the end of 2017 followed by imports dropping from early 2020, but the coal trade may be reviving of late. In any case, trade data not only miss smuggling but also the steady supply of oil from China. Some see a rise in North Korean firms becoming part of Chinese supply chains.

While Kim has appeared to apologize to the North Korean people for failing to deliver after raising expectations for better living conditions, he is shifting the onus to external forces. For South Koreans who have been hoping for wide access to North Korea through the opening of that country, the message at a webinar was that the North is averse to that prospect. As for those who think China supports “reform and opening” in North Korea, the response was that these terms do not mean the same thing for China, which prioritizes regime support against the danger of South Korean integration or regime-changing projects. Indeed, China’s position is now as likely to lead in 2021 to sanctions against South Korea for defying China’s wishes than to sanctions against the North. Yet China seeks to wield more influence over the North, leading to a policy of survive-but-do-not-thrive for the time being. Prior overtures are viewed in retrospect as failing to have the desired impact. KEDO was costly with no lasting impact. Kaeseong had no spin-off with wages not going to the workers. These were not forces for reform. While many seek to draw the North into the world economy, others think it is more likely the North will be partially integrated into the Chinese economy without compromising critical internal controls.

Looking back on 2018-19, some see the Singapore summit as a foundation, which can be reaffirmed, leading to talks in 2021, even if North Korea is wary due to the pandemic. Others see a false sense of momentum with inevitable loss of momentum, damaging to consensus on sanctions and pressure. For progress to be made, they seek more pressure, especially on China, with South Korea agreeing to it and joining in raising human rights issues. In this viewpoint, China is the problem, sabotaging the path to peace and not really seeking denuclearization.


The Korean War is seen separately in China as the war to resist the US and aid North Korea. That makes October 25 the time of commemoration, not June 25. US aggression is the focus, protecting China and consolidating its status is the theme. To end the Korean War and achieve peace is the objective now, linked to ejection of the US. Withdrawal from North Korea in 1958 was messy and not a source of good memories. Xi’s speech was hawkish and nationalistic. The main message was on Sino-US relations, pointing to deterrence on Taiwan or the South China Sea. Much of the speech was hostile to the US. Winning the Korean War is seen as shielding China from later wars. Russia was ignored, North Korea was secondary. Chinese show less regret for not achieving a better result, recognizing no better outcome was possible. Given that the war has not ended, it remains to be decided who will win. But China won its war to keep the US at a distance and preserved the sovereignty of its Northeast.

China’s goal was not to help the North to take over the South, but to prevent the South from absorbing the North. It permitted the consolidation of China and validation of its power status, despite its meager comprehensive national power. The State Department rebutted Xi that one sovereign nation attacked another, leading to China affirming that this was a civil war. Chinese sources obscure who started the war. Historical memories are subjective, limiting any common ground on any resolution, but national interest could prevail, as in the case of the Vietnam War. Chinese believed the US was ready to cross into China. Mao needed the war to stop other wars. Xi uses this argument for today. Mao was manipulated by Stalin and Kim Il-sung, one analyst argued, but authorities reject it. China’s message in October was not about Korea as much as about the US, negatively correlated to the state of Sino-US relations. War memory is to unify the people and warn the US. A weak China did not lose earlier, and a strong China would not lose now, For Chinese, the message is not to be afraid of standing up to the US.

There is broad support for a tougher line toward China, beyond political posturing. For an enduring China strategy, there must be clarity on public opinion, key constituencies, and allies. In fact, this is now visible: on human rights, defending allies against China, and pressing China on technology. The Moon administration’s strategic ambiguity is not well reflected in strategic thinking in Seoul’s elites. There is agreement about working with allies. Trump is doing that with Japan, not others. To do so, the rhetoric needs to be toned down. Banning Huawei is well supported, but export controls related to Huawei is not, forcing pushback against US pressure. A deal on digital trade with South Korea and Taiwan is more feasible than a big trade deal. Few South Koreans favor prioritizing China over the US or staying neutral. The New Southern Policy serves diversification. Even on Hong Kong and human rights, Koreans are amenable to the US position than advocates of strategic ambiguity presume. Australia is trying to shape China’s choices, but South Korea is narrowly centered on North Korea. Seoul can make a difference is the message. Seoul has been choosing for the past 7-8 years an accommodative policy even as other states are shifting. Leadership is needed by the US in a consensus-building way.


The message from Tokyo is that Abe laid the groundwork for the liberal order in Asia, implying that Trump by default left Abe to fill the vacuum. Abe also has left the door ajar to China, again an implicit criticism of Trump but also a link to praise for Japan’s many decades of engaging the leadership of China, even after 1989. Another message to the US is that only Japan opposes China’s aggressive moves while all of Asia is surrendering to China. If the US and Japan work together well and bring India on board, for which Japan has taken the lead, the advantage can remain on their side. Yet attention must be paid to the priorities in the region, which for ASEAAN states is prosperity and connectivity. If China approaches BRI through only bilateral means, the democratic coalition will have the edge through multilateralism. Its ideas will prevail, but it must control technology and block China’s designs on Taiwan. Suga will sustain the Abe framework. Suga has promised to stick with the FOIP and has followed with a visit to Vietnam and Indonesia as well as hosting the Quad meeting. Biden refers to a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific, not FOIP, raising some concern in Japan since Abe coined the FOIP.

Biden is viewed in Japan as both creating opportunities and posing challenges. Whereas Trump acted unilaterally, Biden could coordinate on strategic shifts in supply chains away from China, but Japan is already shifting and prefers a quieter process. As China has turned to economic coercion, as with Australia of late, a coordinated response is in order, but Japan prefers less robust and overt action, listeners heard.  When Trump did press for a coalition to contain China, as in telecommunications, Japan preferred to proceed on its own. Some say Japan is trying to hug the dragon, not to slay it. Biden’s nominees are known to Japan and recognized as patient listeners working together, different from Trump’s chaotic and unilateral interventions. While China is splitting ASEAN, putting pressure on small, heavily dependent states, Japan is boosting ties with the bigger ASEAN countries. Biden’s push for a regional strategy will give Japan more of a voice on US policy but also press Japan to be less autonomous in its diplomacy toward China.

Russia and the SCO

When Trump took office, Russians were optimistic that Russia could finally become the pivot of the strategic triangle with China. Trump was seen as pursuing Putin and more concerned about China. There is no such optimism today as Biden prepares to take office. Russians may still be seeking recognition of a strategic triangle but without finding common ground with the US.  There is no movement in either Moscow or Washington to make this possible. Pessimism prevails about Russo-US relations, as Biden will expand sanctions and revitalizes alliances.

On the SCO, reservations were raised. A Russian speaker noted that the SCO had been a tool to stabilize relations in eastern Eurasia for its first decade. Other questions then arose. Would it be a traditional international organization with far-reaching scope? Would it become a Eurasian roundtable with no dominating force to impose its will? For that, expansion was necessary. The addition of India and Pakistan was welcomed for that goal, although slowing pursuit of the first option. Russia was okay with that, realizing that there would be no consensus anyway. Now international institutions are facing hard times. Strong leaders pushed earlier arrangements, but now no such leader can exist. The expanded SCO ended the prospect of dual leadership, but that was the right choice for Russia, which views it as a multilateral platform for discussion, giving Russia a voice in Indo-Chinese discussions. The bureaucratic side of the SCO will have to wait, keeping decentralization as a plus.

Are all SCO members now equal? The future of the SCO is uncertain, an Indian analyst stated, stressing making countering terrorism with Pakistan the focus. The financing of such terrorism must also be addressed. Negotiating border agreements is part of the SCO legacy. What about for China and India? Thus, India is interested in transforming the SCO in ways not being discussed by Russia. India requires the SCO to honor sovereign equality and territorial integrity. Russian wanted security first, while China saw the SCO as an economic structure. It is paralyzed after India and Pakistan joined, especially the regional anti-terrorist structure. The recent India-China clashes threaten the SCO too, as India postpones CBMs until the border issue is settled. The SCO can fail or be turned into two bodies, leaving India and Pakistan in the second. Russia can end up interacting with India and China only bilaterally.

Skepticism about the SCO has grown. Points of disjuncture are visible to India: India versus China, India versus Pakistan, and Russia versus China. Terrorism is understood very differently. Russia opposes bilateral issues arising at the SCO. There is little chance of any Sino-Russian alliance, given sharp differences on regionalism, as on economics, a bank, and a development fund. For India connectivity is a plus to Central Asia and Russia. China will keep supporting the SCO, but for India it is uncertain. What about for Russia?  China is central, but how is it balanced to serve other national interests? Will Russia back this? A Russian view is that the importance of the SCO is changing for China. It ensured security and border cooperation. It served to limit the US presence in Central Asia and to resist color revolutions, which Russia also sought. But China failed on economic cooperation and went around the SCO. It grew more pessimistic as the SCO expanded. Tajikistan long blocked cooperation of the SCO with Iran. China has gained greater dominance, is more nationalist, and is putting more pressure on India, a Russian analyst explained. Russia can help to steer China away from military ways as part of a long cold war; it needs to reassure its neighbors. Russia and India can work together here. Left unclear was how India and Russia can discuss a China strategy in the SCO. Much candor is now heard after earlier pretense.

Indo-US relations

There has been a strategic convergence between India and the US, in the bilateral relationship and thinking on the world. The frequency and candor of dialogues keep growing. Both welcome the Indo-Pacific nomenclature, and China’s pressure in the North has accelerated ties. Quad discussions are getting broad and deep. The Quad has really started to shift to concrete cooperation. It is broadening to be a regional entity. A new phase in the relationship has been entered, based on an increase in shared interests and a common vision, as well as common action on behalf of a larger community. Defense is in the forefront. Security ties are prominent. Pandemic ties have been fruitful. There was momentum pre-Trump, good relations at various levels of leadership have expanded, and the two militaries have come to realize the benefits, with the navy in the lead. India is diversifying away from Russia in procurements, as long-term thinking advances. New cooperation in training and exercises with partners in South and Southeast Asia lies ahead.

The vision is focused on a rules-based international order, not democracy as the catchword. Health and educational cooperation have great potential, building on a strong base. In Southeast Asia humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are the start. Maritime domain awareness has great potential. Shared production platforms and interoperability are drawing more attention. There is vast room for improvement in ties, such as in economics. Trade and investment are expanding rapidly. India’s services are a big focus. Defense economics has been slower to mature. Companies need incentive structures, as transparency and predictability are lacking. Regulatory clarity is still missing. How to protect classified information is an issue. High hopes were only slightly clouded by such recognition that economic potential is still unrealized.

Southeast Asia

There are varying degrees of cooperation with China, from opposition to complicity. ASEAN might expel Laos and Cambodia for complicity, exercising a proxy veto in the service of China’s interests, it was suggested. Some are fatalistic, denying efforts at pushback against China. Many refer to hedging as insurance in case ties to another power go wrong, which should be linked to a strategy. Only two countries in Southeast Asia are seen as strategic toward China: Singapore and Vietnam. Laos is investing in a railway built by China with dismal prospects as it faces vast debt and is forced to turn over a company to China and two large swaths of land geared to tourists from China of doubtful benefit to Laos. Myanmar has turned back to China since 2017 but is still pushing back on China’s projects. Vietnam is hard balancing against China but is not purchasing US weapons. It is uninterested in BRI and rejects Huawei while trying not to irritate China. Indonesia is the most fiercely independent country in the region even if it turns to China for infrastructure. China has been fairly successful in mainland Southeast Asia in gaining Xinhua influence over the media. Cambodia has accepted media ties, boosting China’s soft power. One theme is Xinjiang, preventing serious criticism, even in Indonesia. Lately, sharp power has been boosted, following Russian trolling models. China’s approach to Hong Kong is not effective in promoting its image. China has squandered capital from its soft power and COVID control. The upshot heard in such exchanges is widespread caution toward China, but no more than hedging.