Washington Insights, Vol. 9, No. 2

The months of March and April saw a revival of energetic exchanges on international affairs after the dulling effect of the past year of pandemic and the dark shadow of Trumpism. Biden reenergized bilateral and multilateral diplomacy with the Quad as one of the key themes in the quest for understanding new dynamism in the Indo-Pacific. India drew attention as critical to the prospects for the Quad. So too did Japan, as the main US partner in setting a direction for the Indo-Pacific and the first country whose leader went to Washington to meet Biden. While the self-imposed isolation of North Korea lowered interest in it and Moon Jae-in was relegated to waiting for the Biden administration’s policy review for the North, South Korea drew notice as US officials visited and talk swirled about its relationships with Japan, China, and the Quad.

For most American analysts this was an upbeat period of renewed US leadership and principles. Discussions centered on US relationships as most leaders did not travel, and Biden’s officials led in launching new initiatives. Sino-US relations were mostly on hold apart from a meeting held in Alaska that exposed the widened divide and a resumption of cooperation on climate change. If one relationship took center stage, it was US-Japan ties, aimed at setting a course for the Quad.

Trans-Atlantic relations and the Indo-Pacific

Trans-Atlantic relations are being revived in the Indo-Pacific. The EU and Japan have made amazing progress in three years. There is much to be done on the security front, but political willingness exists. Japan is now persuaded of the EU resolve in the region linked to a more assertive view of China. A trans-Atlantic dimension would solidify this direction. Europe can be a bridge to deal with Russia in the Indo-Pacific. Although many are largely focused on China, it starts with Japan and other allies and partners in Asia. The US-Japan alliance is now robust, excluding a G2 with China. Japan has been the driver of regional policy with the US. It is a thought leader, often closer to the Europeans and keeping the door open to China.  There is little talk of de-coupling. Europeans agree on connectivity based on the rule of law as an alternative to BRI. A discussion is under way in Korea on whether to join the Quad, beyond what Europeans are contemplating. From a US view, the EU can be important in solidifying Indo-Pacific ties, beginning with Korea, which is weakly engaged in the region. This matters for Korea-Japan ties, as Japan is a core member of regional organization building. Japan is a shaper, not Korea, listeners heard as EU themes were newly entangled in talk of regional architecture.

The EU can help to shape the region. EU multilateralism is more inclusive of China, less welcoming to the Quad and more cooperative with China. Economic and technological de-coupling is the key test. Hesitating on normative issues discredits some of the credentials Europe claims, yielding to China’s economic lures and threats. Lately, many European countries are less willing to pursue Chinese investments. The EU seeks strategic autonomy but also plans to work more closely with the US in the Indo-Pacific. Great powers link issues. Koreans often look at the US versus China with Japan in the picture, but involvement of Europe, Australia, and Canada puts more pressure on Korea. There are some signs of a thaw. Korea has been invited to join the Quad, an offer Japan had to support, but Korea is now not agreeable. Is the D10 a pathway to overcome the barriers? France opposes joining the Quad despite its deep strategic ties to all four members. It is loosely connected, as is the EU. The Quad is only now becoming institutionalized. India does not want faster methods. China would have a backdoor veto if a larger group were formed. A comeback of the G7 is needed. Yet the D10 would have more clout. Whether the Quad, the G7, or the D10, all exclude China and would be opposed by it.

There is a strong consensus in the US, especially in Congress that there is a hegemonic challenge in the Indo-Pacific. Trump played the US hand very badly. Atlanticists in the Biden administration are turning to Asia. Yet there is frustration over the CAI investment agreement with China, playing into a Chinese narrative of a multipolar global system, suggesting strategic autonomy. Instead, China sees the Asia-Pacific as bipolar. We need to return to the trilateralism of the 1980s, with Europe, Japan, and the US working together, argued speakers. Japan has embraced a dynamic strategic role, and the US has embraced Japan in this role, influencing US strategy on Japan, as in the Quad.  One must compete with China without pursuing complete containment, where Trump was heading. The US is heading where Japan has been. Europe must not accept multipolarity, playing into China’s hands. China’s revisionism in Asia will not stay there. A digital trade agreement is likely to precede US rejoining TPP. There is some convergence between the US and the EU on China, as the US accepts multilateralism and the EU sees more of a China threat. Yet the US sees extreme competition with China and prefers the mini-lateral Quad, while the EU is accepting of China in inclusive multilateralism with less focus on competition. China will benefit from the EU’s multipolarity thinking over a liberal order and democratic governance. Can Japan bridge the US and EU?  Japan has long doubted EU resolve in security in the Indo-Pacific. The EU has shifted to see China as a strategic rival, but the gap persists. In the US-ROK joint statement on March 18 there was no mention of the Quad, the South China Sea, or China. Security issues of concern to China are omitted to avoid blowback, given the fragile détente after their THAAD clash. ROK absence in the Quad only telegraphs weakness toward China over the long term and narrows its strategic scope, listeners heard. Japan rides to the forefront, as South Korea is missing an opportunity. Some in Europe see Korea’s position as more compatible with the EU, making it able to help shape joint policy.

Sino-US ties

At the Alaska meeting there was no restart of the Sino-US relationship and no willingness to set a plan for a second meeting in China. US tariffs are not removed; they are kept as leverage. Strategy is different from Trump’s, but there are many similarities in Biden’s tough overall policy. Differences are structural, making tension points difficult, with Taiwan as the number one flash point. On value issues US and European views have changed more, whileChinais doubling down.  China’s view of ideology is defensive: to prevent any threat to China’s communist rule. Yet ideology matters. Biden will keep raising values, and Americans care about what China is doing. It is good as a tool for appealing abroad and keeping Europe focused on values. China will increasingly claim to have a model and try to spread it. The US has a huge edge in coalition building, varying by issue. This is not primarily a competition about power. Indeed, it is less manageable due to ideational issues. The ideational shift in China occurred in 2008-10, it was suggested.  More power led to more assertiveness. A sharp divide existed but was ignored, as in 2005 US calls for a “responsible stakeholder.” It is hard to imagine peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question. There is leverage over China by threatening to make the US commitment clearer. Outlying islands cannot be in or out of any US commitment for sound policy. Deterrence of China on Taiwan requires more anti-ship capabilities, which are now advancing country by country, not with one joint defense project. Great economic dependencies on China give it leverage. Choose a small number of critical areas and protect them well, as in microchips, where new plans have been announced. China repels countries; so, if the US does not foil its own goals such as by battering allies, it can be hopeful. Disaggregating coalitions works better, as Biden is showing. Both the US and China think time is on their side, reducing risk. If either side grows pessimistic, the danger will grow.


The China angle contributes to the growth of the US-India relationship, and the 2020 border crisis was a seminal event for India. It has lessened its dependence on the Chinese economy and boosted its interest in the Quad. The US responded with expedited winter military gear and intelligence. India has shed some reluctance, forsaking talk on equidistance between China and the US. The progress under Biden is notable, under Kurt Campbell’s influence. Relations were stalled for a third of a century, but over the past two decades ties have developed quickly with bipartisan support. The relationship is special due to shared values even if security, economics, and multilateralism matter in different ways. Lately, the China issue has dominated in India, and the human rights issue has gained greater relevance in the US but not as a primary concern or a diversion from the broader strategic perspective. Without an alliance in sight, ties are likely to grow a lot in the next decade. Twentieth-century alliances lack the agility of our times; so, this partnership could suit the times. Joint planning is missing, limiting the relationship. Digital standards are a big opportunity, but India’s interest is unclear now. The Quad should remain the core, while bringing in other countries on an issue-by-issue basis. It does not displace ASEAN and with the vaccination initiative, ties are clearly complementary. The Quad joint statement references the importance of ASEAN. Much needs to be done bilaterally also, as in defense cooperation. A bilateral investment treaty would be a good start on trade. The Quad Plus could cover supply chain resiliency. Sanctioning India over its purchase of the S400 from Russia is counterproductive. Of concern, trade disputes are first, followed by human rights and defense procurements from Russia, among the challenges to improving bilateral relations.

On Indo-Russian relations, the pillar is the arms trade. There were multiple pillars to 1991, but the economic pillar collapsed as defense ties were salvaged. India learned not to rely on a single partner and keeps searching for multiple partners. Increasingly, the US and China govern ties between India and Russia, leading to distress in the relationship. India is hedging, given hostile ties to China, and the need to win US support for its many challenges. India may be the first country to experience an industrial revolution without reliance on fossil fuels. Russia is moving closer to China, impairing ties to India. India is pursuing the Indo-Pacific with a shared vision, but it is not yet ready to be part of a containment strategy toward China. Uncertainty over the future of Sino-US relations affects countries that view themselves as independent powers in a multipolar war. Russia is hostile to the Quad. Many worry that Russia will join China, but that is not seen in ties to Vietnam and India. Trying to mediate is beyond their hopes. Indian elites have yet to determine where foreign policy should be headed since there is confusion over domestic policy and crony capitalism reform. Hedging with Russia is pursued while Russia has yet to cross a red line in its growing ties with Pakistan. Diversification of arms purchases will continue, reducing Russia’s role to under $1 billion a year. Russia alone helps to build a nuclear submarine. Is Russia still seen as consistent and safe? There is little concern. Russia supports India on lots of issues, such as Kashmir. Yet strains are growing, as both sides shift in ways dubious to the other side. Visiting Islamabad right after Delhi was taken as a bad signal from Lavrov, and he did not meet Modi, while Kerry did get a meeting. So far, Lavrov’s hostility to the Indo-Pacific is not matched by actions. This is not a US construct to contain China, which is gradually being acknowledged. India’s value to the US is only if it is militarily strong. It lacks the funds to reequip its forces with US arms; so, it needs Russian arms versus China. Russia’s image in India is not good, but the arrival of Russian vaccines and plans to export the vaccine from India may help. In Afghanistan, growing turmoil will lead many actors to respond, including Russia and India but not as close partners. Do values matter in Indian views of Russia, as the Russian crackdown on opponents at home intensifies? Worse behavior in India is tolerated so why criticize Russia? Russia has not embraced the BRI, and it is wary, stressing the EEU. India and the US are opponents of BRI. India and Europe are discussing cooperation outside the BRI.

The SCO is understood to help India raise its profile in Central Asia without competing with China, including educational contacts. The SCO seems contradictory to the Quad, but neither is a military organization yet. Democratic backsliding in India has led to slippage in support for Modi in the Indian diaspora in the US and Congress. These were diverse messages conveyed.

The Quad

Building habits of cooperation without premature institutionalization is timely. Major movement may await an in-person summit. India seeks more outright opposition to the BRI and stress on an inclusive Quad with even undemocratic countries, adding “inclusive” to “free and open.” All unilateralism is opposed, now directed at China. There is some contradiction between the Quad’s statement in support of ASEAN centrality and the expectations for a strong and institutionalized Quad. Each bilateral and trilateral relationship in security—emphasized publicly less than other aspects—is at a different level. The US side seeks more coherence on maritime security. Now technological security is being raised to a higher level. Indians see the key message of the summit as collective leadership in contrast to China’s unilateralism.

China’s take on the Quad is that the region was stable until the US acted, including with the Quad. Has China destabilized the region and aroused efforts to counter it? Several states have legitimate concerns about bullying by China. China is winning in economics, but it sees the world in terms of military, diplomatic, soft, and technological power. Thus, countering China means facing it on each dimension. Lately, China has taken seriously multilateralism led by the US, unlike in the Trump period. Institutionalization of the Quad is now in the forefront. China seeks to limit the Quad by weakening Japan and India’s preference for the US over China. It sees way to the limit Quad’s build-up, given many apparent constraints. Yet the Quad is a US conspiracy to establish an Asian NATO, even if it remains constrained, argue Chinese sources.


There is consensus that the March 2+2 meeting was a major success. Japan was reassured of the US priority for the Indo-Pacific region and the alliance. After mixed attitudes in Japan toward first Obama and then Trump, there was unreserved enthusiasm on both sides. Some in Japan were skeptical that Biden would focus on the Indo-Pacific, as if Democrats would revert to a G2 with China, as perceived in Tokyo. Yet, the response to China seems sophisticated, not just confronting it. That Taiwan was mentioned in the joint document was significant. There was no sign of relaxing the goal of denuclearization. The US-ROK 2+2 document was a contrast, omitting much on China. The strong message on China in Alaska was welcome, clarifying a bipartisan stance. Japan’s quiet role in framing the Biden administration’s approach was credited as well. Developing an integrated agenda with allies and partners is reassuring.

We are now thinking about our collective vulnerabilities, as in Chinese pressure on Australia.
China has shifted to more pugilist rhetoric and more accusations that Japan is subservient, in line with clearer ambitions to overtake the US. Surrounding China with desirable norms is the best response. In the anticipated Biden-Suga summit in April, climate change, pandemic responses, and supply chain resilience are likely key themes. Bilateral ties are poised for a big boost. A determined, confident China is testing the resolve of the US and many other states. Trilateralism has better prospects given Blinken’s experience with it, as North Korea is still first on the agenda. There is a broad set of issues and recognition that all are stronger together than apart. It is still difficult to separate the contentious ROK-Japan issues and the gap in thinking about China in South Korea—a big worry for Japan. Seoul is not being asked to join the Quad Plus, but some role is being explored. What if strife erupts over Taiwan, will the US and Japan be on the same wavelength? Diplomacy lies ahead. While Japan is not prepared for a contingency, it is at last ready to talk about it—the 2+2 joint language is a powerful sign.

The joint US-Japan statement at the 2+2 included human rights more than in Japan’s previous willingness. The language of FOIP has pushed Japan to proceed further on values, it was said.

In a webinar on Japan’s relationship with China. Japan’s approach includes tough competition and considerable cooperation. Security concerns became the main driving force of Japanese policy, but economic ties matter and Japan tries to separate the two. So far, this is successful, and Japan should keep this balance. Grass-roots exchanges are worthwhile since Japan uses its soft power advantage. Yet intensifying geopolitical competition, negative public opinion, and deepening ideological differences put this in jeopardy. A new era is starting. Japan’s success has not shaped Chinese behavior much, but CPTPP promotes marketization in China, setting standards that China now seeks to accept, which will lead to political reforms. RCEP talks accelerated due to this as well. Japan is forced, however, to reconsider its deterrence capabilities due to China’s ambitions and capabilities. The asymmetry in long-range strike capabilities gives China confidence, which Japan must address with counterstrike capabilities. Combined operational plans are needed, accelerating defense cooperation across all domains with the US. Is a joint command needed with a big change in the alliance? Many in Japan are cautious, but public opinion is gradually changing as LDP leaders are voicing support. A hardline approach to China, as in decoupling, is counterproductive, given China’s responses. Talk of Japan’s economic pragmatism raises questions about strategy and ideology, which split Japanese, as some stress values more while others insist on China’s key economic importance. Will Japan agree to US calls for moving supply chains out of China and having greater export controls? Japan’s “Plus-one” strategy is slow, and diversification is proving difficult. Japanese business is split on agreeing to US calls for export controls. China is enforcing tough laws. The security community is supportive, but businesses depend on China as a supply base.

Japan’s ideational competition with China differs from the US approach. Many Asian nations accept a Sinocentric regional order, given China’s economic strength. China does not see Japan as a competitor any more, but Japan will not accept Sinocentrism. Abe brought universal values into diplomacy, strengthened in the recent joint statement. FOIP does not exclude China, but it emphasizes freedom and democracy, making it competitive with the BRI. Historical issues are no longer the focus, making Japan just one of many liberal democracies facing China’s challenge and a supporter of multilateral forces for shared values. Trump weakened reasonable forces in China by boosting nationalism and Japan wants to appeal to them. Xi’s China is more ideologically oriented, but mainly on sovereign-linked issues and not on exporting of ideology. Thus, foreign policy is not heavily ideological while it is nationalistic.

In advance of the Suga visit to Washington, a Webinar examined Japan-US ties. The Quad will not showcase security issues for now, but it is working well now due to China’s security threats, Japan and the US are the core of the Quad. The lack of an economic component is a challenge. There is no one voice on human rights and democratic governance, while Japan is wary of this on Southeast Asia and on sanctions against China. The exclusivity of the Quad raises questions about South Korea and the link to trilateralism. A North Korean provocation would put the trilateral grouping to a test. Japan was nervous about Biden, as if Democrats are not reliable on national security, but he is better at avoiding alienating partners and forging a coalition. There is no further nervousness today. The US is preparing for long-term competition with China. US moves with Japan, on Asia policy, and on drawing Europe more into a joint China policy are reassuring. We are present at the creation of a joint strategic map versus China. The US-Japan alliance survived the past four years better than any other US alliance, and the past two months have gone very well.

What is the agenda going forward? This is not easy given domestic diversions, the dubious US economic strategy, and the lack of movement on military cooperation—a decade after Obama announced the pivot to Asia. Without addressing these issues, the great momentum in ties may be lost. The Quad offered a deliverable and momentum. Infrastructure in Southeast Asia could be a new area of focus. Digital trade deals and clean energy are priorities. Japanese fear Biden’s foreign policy for the middle class. Is it another America First policy, rather than leadership in international affairs? If it centers on supply chain reconstruction, it would have more promise for Japan. Japan sees the US as still not committed fully to the world. Defensive economic moves are easier, protecting supply chains and facing China’s economic coercion. A multilateral effort is now needed. A positive message about providing public goods is needed. This is a choice between sovereignty and servitude. Many in the Japanese business community are not yet on board on supply chain security and defending against China, similar to the Wall Street challenge. Joint planning on Taiwan is the No. 1 item for Japan-US security ties, and co-development of missiles is a second target.

The Korean Peninsula

Efforts to understand North Korean objectives were debated in recent webinars. Some favored stability in relations since its aims are limited, but no rush to summits since they will not alter the North’s calculus. Another view is that North Korea would destabilize the situation for other goals. Moon Jae-in is a partner in the first case and a misguided figure in the other, accepting nuclear North Korea and blaming the US hostile policy. He sent the wrong message to Kim Jong-un that economic development can be reached without denuclearization, which is now a taboo in the ROK government. Moon seeks to buy Kim’s goodwill by not offending him and letting him dictate the terms, but that invites open contempt. Moon misled Trump about the North’s willingness to denuclearize—ignoring what Kim means by that and then raising Kim’s expectations about what Trump would accept. The interlocutor led to miscommunications, as in Hanoi. After that, Kim blamed Moon’s wrong advice, as if the Yongbyon complex would be enough to get sanctions relief. Since that time Pyongyang has demanded that Seoul stay out of the process.

There is no hope of aligning US and ROK strategies to North Korea now. Moon wants Kim Jong-un to visit Seoul and will give up a lot. The US should keep engaging the North to deny a pretext for a major provocation. An interim freeze deal is worth pursuing to be followed by small deals, but never give up the goal of complete denuclearization. A roadmap should guide the process. The sequence of what was agreed in Singapore is interpreted differently by the two. This needs to be clarified without accepting the North’s interpretation. Security assurances and a peace regime can be an interim step, but only in stages linked to reductions in the nuclear arsenal. Only if the US gives up its hostile policy first—including deterrence, the alliance, and more—will the North move to denuclearize. This sequence is unacceptable. Keeping the North from boosting its economic development is vital to getting North Korea to change its calculus.

Concern for differences among the five states most involved with North Korea often arose. In terms of their geographical focus, the divisions were pronounced. The United States is narrow in its stress: just reorient North Korea, regardless of the interests of others, even South Korea. South Korea has the second narrowest outlook: forge a process of peninsular reconnection and, if possible, reunification. Japan is in the middle of the group: prevent Korean unification linked to China or emboldening hostility toward Japan. Next is China’s position: ensure that the outcome is a peninsula unwelcoming to the US and leaning to China. Finally, Russia is intent on new regional architecture involving all of these countries and giving Russia a big role in a power balance weakening the US and limiting China’s dominance. These different geographical prisms have made it difficult to reconcile responses to North Korean actions, even provocations.

In one webinar the 2+2 meetings in Seoul and Tokyo were reviewed as alliance rebuilding. It was the first 2+2 with South Korea in five years with a broad agenda. Thorny issues included the Quad, responses to China, and OPCON, while SMA was resolved for five years. Of course, the DPRK is the biggest issue, as the US proceeds with input into its policy review. Efforts to link the South Korean NSP to US Indo-Pacific policy were considerable, although security was little noted. On the thorny issues, alignment is limited: South Korea has an open invitation to join the Quad but it is unable to make decisions, as on technology issues in recent years. What will US policy be if Seoul hedges? The South Korean people need to be concerned about being isolated with China. On North Korea, its refusal to engage at all lessens US-South Korea tensions over what to do. It does not want to repeat Hanoi with talks that go nowhere, Moon has tried everything to engage, but Pyongyang is not interested even in driving a wedge between the allies.

The Suga summit as the first foreign leader to visit Biden will build on Blinken’s many themes in March meetings. Trilateralism will be a theme to face issues of the future. Blinken is unusually experienced in this area, having covered a wide array of issues trilaterally. The US can play a convening role, as Obama did in 2015 and Bush did in 2006, and is deeply committed to it. The US bilateral relationships are linked to this, after four years when the US did not push for it. If Moon sees this as a legacy issue, he made have the will, but this is doubted. Young voters have deserted the progressives, reflecting failure in the pandemic after a year earlier benefiting from this.  A real estate focus—on corruption and high prices—hurt badly, too. Domestic priorities now dominate for a lame duck president. Ad hoc participation in Quad to avoid offending China will continue. Biden said little except favoring a three-way coordinated policy with Seoul and Tokyo. Biden is focusing on the importance of alliances, leading the way. Support for Taiwan in the US also impacts Seoul’s response to China, along with Hong Kong and Xinjiang. It may require a new government in Seoul to launch a policy review and lead a new discussion.

In a webinar on perspectives on Biden’s North Korea policy review, Seoul’s uncertainties were aired. Greater consultation is welcomed, but no common strategy is expected. Talk of human rights clashes with Moon’s efforts to downplay them. Will the Singapore declaration be reaffirmed? Will Japan have more say in the US?  Howcan Japan engagewhen support for nuclear weapons in South Korea grow with frustration at US policy? North Korea has been overshadowed by US-Japan talks on China. Suga emphasized CVID and abductees, while Biden said little except favoring a three-way coordinated policy with Seoul and Tokyo. China is more satisfied with the status quo while preparing to reject some outcomes of the policy review. North Korea is now viewed in the context of US-China competition, and it seeks leverage and bargaining power in Sino-US relations, As Washington has trouble communicating with Pyongyang, China seeks to be the indispensable intermediary. The strategic goals clash but some cooperation is possible in a transactional approach without full denuclearization. China has just named a new special envoy in anticipation of more diplomacy ahead. North Korea has appointed a new ambassador as a signal of seeking closer economic ties. China will intensify its wooing of both Koreas in response to Biden’s intensified diplomacy, expecting little from US-DPRK bilateral talks. Biden will press Moon harder, and China will push back a lot, seizing Seoul’s balancing inclinations. China believes North Korean moratoria in 2018 deserves reciprocity, leading to loosening of sanctions. When North Korea reopens, the China factor will be bigger.