PacNet #64 – The Biden-Xi summit: Not revolutionary, but still necessary

US President Joe Biden’s Nov. 14 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia was never supposed to be a historic breakthrough between the world’s two greatest powers. Too many core issues, from Taiwan and the South China Sea to trade and technology, currently separate the two powers for the exchange to produce major achievements.

US and Chinese officials know this, of course. Neither side works for a dramatic improvement in ties, but rather they search for an opportunity to inject some stability into a relationship in desperate need of it. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said as much when he previewed the sit-down, emphasizing that Biden and Xi will have the chance to be frank and firm about where they disagree, clear up misunderstandings that may exist, and explore how US-China relations can be managed responsibility.

This is what Biden and Xi did during their over three-hour confab. The official US and Chinese readouts of the exchange were notably similar on one key point: the need, if not urgency, to ensure the strategic competition between the two powerhouses does not veer toward a conflict neither country wants. That the session adjourned with a number of working groups established, as well as the resumption of climate talks and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s second face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, about a week later, provided a cautiously hopeful signal that positive momentum remained a possibility.

US-China relations in the era of Biden

If Xi and the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee thought President Biden would be more amenable to China’s rise than his predecessor, they were quickly disabused of that notion. To Donald Trump, China fleeced the United States economically and attempted to exceed it militarily. Yet to Biden, China is a multidimensional problem and the metaphorical tip of an authoritarian spear working to replace the US-dominated order with one run from Beijing. The Biden administration’s policy documents are careful to mention collaboration with China when interests converge, but as the US National Security Strategy states, “Beijing has ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.” The phrase “world’s leading power” is instructive; in Washington’s view, China is not merely content with superiority in its neighborhood but covets the status of global hegemon.

The administration’s assessment of the China challenge, combined with China’s expansive claims in the East and South China Seas, its treatment of minorities in Xinjiang, and active military modernization drive (among other issues) all contribute to US-China ties devolving to their lowest point since the two established formal diplomatic relations in 1979. Interactions between officials early in the Biden administration did not help. While Biden and Xi did not waste any time communicating—their first call occurred on Feb. 10, 2001, about three weeks after Biden’s inauguration—their subordinates spent meetings reciting well-worn talking points. Talks in Alaska in March 2021 degenerated into heated lectures, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken lauding the rules-based order and State Councilor Yang Jiechi chiding the United States for meddling in China’s internal affairs. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was repeatedly prevented from getting through to Gen. Xu Qiliang, vice chair of the Central Military Commission. The United States and China spent 2021 sanctioning one another’s officials and issuing travel restrictions on one another’s diplomats.

The bilateral relationship’s downward trajectory reached new lows in August, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan—the first visit to the self-ruled island by a speaker in a quarter-century—prompted the Chinese government to adopt stern military and diplomatic measures that raised tension in the region. Militarily, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) greeted Pelosi’s travel with cruise missile tests, numerous incursions across the median-line by fighter aircraft, and what can only be described as a dress rehearsal for a hypothetical Taiwan blockade. Diplomatically, China severed contacts with the United States on multiple fronts, suspending talks on climate, defense, crime, counternarcotics, and risk reduction.

Don’t bet on a big improvement 

At its core, the Biden-Xi summit belatedly attempted to bring US-China relations back to where they were prior to August. Relations weren’t stellar before Pelosi landed in Taipei, but the two powers were at least engaging across multiple issue sets. Dialogue between Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan and the Xi-Biden meeting was lackluster. Opportunities for US Ambassador Nicholas Burns to get an audience with key Chinese policymakers is limited, and Qin Gang, China’s ambassador in Washington, reportedly faces his own restrictions on access to US officials. A single phone call in July has been the extent of the contact between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and PLA Chief of the Joint Staff Gen. Li Zuocheng. It took Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin over a year before he spoke with Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s minister of national defense—and only after Austin gave up on reaching Gen Xu Qiliang, the PLA’s highest-ranking officer.

To the strongest hawks in Washington and Beijing, this spotty dialogue isn’t all that worrying and may even have been something to cheer. However, it is one thing for the United States and China to possess starkly different foreign policy strategies, objectives, and perceptions of how the world should operate (one would expect such differences). It is another thing entirely for those differences to fester unmanaged. In situations where competitors or adversaries have strong, conflicting paradigms, clear, durable, and consistent communication—particularly at the senior levels—is an absolute prerequisite to mitigating conflict. Biden and Xi rightly concluded that the lack of communication channels made responsible competition—a goal both leaders profess—virtually impossible.

The question naturally arises: will more communication necessarily result in more rapprochement? The answer varies by issue. For instance, it’s difficult to envision a scenario whereby the United States and China arrive at a general understanding about Taiwan; Xi is as committed to reunifying the island with the mainland as Biden is to ensuring Taiwan can make a PLA invasion contingency prohibitively costly. Biden’s suggestion that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if the PLA launched a military operation, followed with subsequent clarifications by his advisers that US policy toward Taiwan hasn’t changed, just adds to the confusion in Chinese policy circles about whether Washington is still abiding by the “one China” policy. The “one China” policy, which states in part that Washington recognizes the PRC as the sole government of China and acknowledges (but does not recognize) the PRC’s claims to Taiwan and opposes any unilateral moves toward Taiwanese independence, has governed U.S.-Taiwan relations for more than four decades. PLA military exercises around Taiwan and periodic US freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait likely give more ammunition to hardliners in both capitals pining for a full decoupling.

A ceasefire in the technology and trade wars is also unlikely in the short-term. Tariffs remain in effect, with neither side willing to make the first move toward lifting them. Like the Trump administration before it, the Biden administration uses Commerce Department rules to stop advanced semiconductors and chip-making machinery from reaching China, which Beijing detests as a deliberate US attempt to kneecap Chinese technological development. The United States rejects those complaints wholesale, arguing that US technology should in no way bolster the CCP’s internal surveillance and military modernization.

Even if those big agenda items remain unresolved, two superpowers who hold more than 40% of the world’s GDP and account for more than half of the world’s military spending don’t have anything to gain by completely isolating each other. If Biden’s meeting with Xi puts a stop to a deeper deterioration in relations, it will have been worth the effort.

Daniel R. DePetris (dan.depetris@defp.org) is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 4, 2013 by REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool//File Photo

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR7 – Abe Shinzo: In Memoriam

Introduction

Rob York

A Sharp-Elbowed Politician, an Irreplaceable International Statesman  

A famous, albeit fictional, statesman once said “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good.”

As Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Abe Shinzo left a legacy. Fair-minded individuals would be able to find grounds for criticism in that record: Abe climbed to leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party by stoking doubts about his country’s record in World War II, provoking outrage from neighboring countries. He relished sparring with his rivals in Japan’s other political parties and in the press; his country’s press freedom ranking consequently declined under his leadership. His efforts at addressing his country’s stagnant economy and moribund birthrate saw, interpreted charitably, only modest successes.

But Abe Shinzo should be remembered for much more than that. Much as Winston Churchill should be remembered, both for his foresight regarding the rise of the Nazi threat and his record as ruthless defender of Britain’s colonial interests, proponents of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision that Abe championed should remember his record as a partisan, but also as an international institution builder in an age where both “freedom” and “openness” are under attack in the Indo-Pacific. In doing so, he revived Japan as an international player and helped set the stage for multilateral cooperation to preserve existing rules and norms, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Such efforts make him one of the most influential statesmen of this era.

Since Abe’s shocking assassination on July 8, the Pacific Forum has sought to ensure that the fullness of this legacy is remembered, and as such used our PacNet series to explain his impact from a variety of perspectives. In doing so, we reached out to many old friends whose names are familiar to the Pacific Forum’s long-time readers. In PacNet #37, Brad Glosserman, Pacific Forum’s senior advisor and my co-editor at Comparative Connections, identifies the specific attributes of Abe’s—specifically his strongly held opinions and behind-the-scenes advocacy—that made it possible for him to be this institutional builder and to restore Japan’s role on the foreign policy stage. In PacNet #36 Stephen Nagy of the International Christian University in Tokyo provides a comprehensive overview of Abe the diplomat, including his successful managing of relations with the PRC, which were actually at a low point before his lengthy stint as PM. In PacNet #39 Kei Koga of Nanyang Technological University demonstrates how under Abe, Japan countered the PRC’s growing influence in Southeast Asian countries through sustained engagement, winning their trust despite their unwillingness to match his hawkishness toward Beijing. Furthermore, in PacNet #43 Jagannath Panda of ISDP, Sweden explains how Abe’s dealings with India paved the way for the latter’s increased engagement with the outside world, including through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. In PacNet #40, I note that Abe’s tireless engagement with American presidents across changes in parties has made good relations with Tokyo that rarest of things in US politics: an area of bipartisan agreement that looks unlikely to change, regardless of the outcome of the 2024 election.

The Pacific Forum also reached beyond its regular contributors’ list to acquire new perspectives. Shihoko Goto of the Wilson Center details Abe’s prescient vision for the defense of Taiwan, something the US would gradually awaken to. Jada Frasier—an MA student in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service that we believe policy professionals will be hearing from more and more in the future—explains how despite causing tensions in the Japan-South Korea relationship, Abe also deserves credit for increasing the two East Asian democracies’ opportunities for security cooperation through his emphasis on minilateral groupings.

Now that Japan has laid the former prime minister to rest last week, those who remember the darker side of his leadership will find grounds to do so, and some of those criticisms will be warranted. Abe, however, left a legacy far beyond those unpleasantries, especially if, as was the case with Churchill, his country and the international community rise to the challenge they presently face.

Table of Contents

PacNet 35, 07/11/2022. Abe Shinzo and the Japan-South Korea relationship: Near- and long-term legacies by Jada Fraser

PacNet 36, 07/14/2022. Post-Abe Indo-Pacific regional dynamics: A legacy beyond the man by Stephen Nagy

PacNet 37, 07/15/2022. Abe’s death creates a void in Japan by Brad Glosserman

PacNet 39, 07/22/2022. Abe Shinzo’s legacy in Southeast Asia by Kei Koga

PacNet 40, 07/25/2022. Abe Shinzo: How to handle an unpredictable America by Rob York

PacNet 43, 08/05/2022. Post-Abe India-Japan ties: Does Kishida have what it takes? by Jagannath Panda

PacNet 45, 08/10/2022.  The prescience of Abe’s vision for Taiwan by Shihoko Goto

 

Photo: State Funeral of Shinzo Abe by the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

PacNet #45 – The prescience of Abe’s vision for Taiwan

Pursuit of a rules-based order for the Indo-Pacific had been one of Abe Shinzo’s foreign policy hallmarks. In hindsight, it now appears prescient in addressing the shift in the region’s power dynamics.

During the two years since he stepped down as prime minister, Abe had focused increasingly on Taiwan as a geopolitical flashpoint warranting greater Japan-US coordination. The attention Abe paid to Taiwan undoubtedly looks farsighted now, and has established his legacy as a premier that identified many of the systemic challenges facing not just Japan, but the region at large.

When Abe outlined his vision for the Indo-Pacific during his first term (2006-07) in office, few would have expected that his 2007 speech before the Indian parliament about the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans would become the foundation for multilateral cooperation in Asia. Over the past 15 years, however, the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” has not only been adopted by Abe’s successors, but also been embraced by the United States and other nations. Not only was the concept of FOIP adopted by the Trump administration, but the concept has become the foundation for new mechanisms for regional cooperation including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) and AUKUS.

Taiwan had been an integral part of the Abe government’s Indo-Pacific strategy, as the prime minister noted the strategic importance of the island publicly on numerous occasions. Under Abe in 2019 Japan signed onto the US-Taiwan Global Cooperation and Training Framework, which had been established in 2015 to promote Taiwan’s strengths in international cooperation and governance. It was, however, after leaving office in 2020 that Abe stepped up his support for Taiwan, connecting the need to defend Taiwan’s democracy and economy as part of a broader strategy to counterbalance increased threats from China.

China’s increasing militarization and willingness to leverage economic dominance to take punitive actions against governments it opposed had been in effect well before Abe’s resignation. Yet Beijing’s weaponization of its economic presence and aggression on perceived core interests, including Taiwan, only intensified from the outbreak of the global pandemic.

In an exclusive interview with the Wilson Center in March 2022, Abe cautioned that the possibility of China invading Taiwan could not be dismissed.

“China has taken a position that Taiwan is a part of China…at the same time, we are in a situation where Taiwan is not recognized as a nation by most of the countries in the international community. Of course, it is not even a member state of the United Nations,” Abe said, adding that while Beijing has not yet made clear whether it would act to assert its claim over Taiwan, “the fact that they have not done so does not mean that they have decided that they won’t.”

Certainly, Abe’s wariness about Beijing’s moves to intimidate Taiwan was shared by his successors Suga Yoshihide and Kishida Fumio. It was Suga who in April 2021 signed onto the joint statement with the United States which declared the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” the first time since 1969 that Taiwan was mentioned in a bilateral statement. Since then, the G7, NATO, and other groups have followed in highlighting the vulnerability of Taiwan and the need for the international community to come to its defense as part of a broader strategy to push back against Chinese aggressions.

Japan’s reassessment of its policy toward Taiwan since Abe left office has been striking. Having skirted issues related to Taiwan in light of Japan’s own defense strategy—which concentrates on self-defense mechanisms—Tokyo has emerged as a leading champion of greater support for the Taiwanese government amid Beijing’s growing pressure. The support is not merely altruistic, but reflects growing alarm about the spillover effect for Japan. It has led to a review of Japanese policy toward Taiwan in its June 2021 defense white paper, recognizing not only the strategic importance of Taiwan, but also the growing concerted efforts by China to destabilize Taipei.

No longer shying away from expressing support for Taiwan, Tokyo has ramped up efforts to support it more comprehensively, including economically and politically. As the prime minister who signed Japan on to the preceding TPP trade agreement, Abe’s commitment to ensure that Taipei be part of the CPTPP multilateral trade framework has been particularly noteworthy. In a virtual meeting with Tsai Ing-wen in March 2022, Abe told the Taiwanese president that it was in the interest of the international community for Taiwan to join the CPTPP as soon as possible. In addition, Tokyo was at the forefront of providing Taiwan with vaccines in summer 2021, and Japanese consumers quickly mobilized and expressed support for Taiwan by snapping up Taiwanese pineapples boycotted by China.

Abe played no small part in directing the convergence of political and public support for Taiwan, repeatedly arguing that Beijing not only threatened Taiwan and the international order, but directly threatened Japan’s own security and stability as well. In the weeks since his assassination, however, global attention on Taiwan has only increased with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s early August visit. As China stepped up military exercises in the Taiwan Strait in direct response to the House speaker’s tour of Taipei, the immediate concern is whether or not such military actions will continue in the longer term, and the possibility of such conduct leading to direct conflict.

In the longer term, though, Pelosi’s visit is expected to lead to a reassessment of US policy towards Taiwan. While both Washington and Tokyo remain in agreement about the need to continue supporting Taipei and stave off acts of aggression by China, those objectives can be reached more effectively through greater coordination of action by Japan and the United States. Defending Taiwan militarily, economically, and politically will be one of the biggest challenges for the US-Japan alliance, and no doubt would have been the focal point of Abe’s foreign policy agenda ex-officio.

Shihoko Goto (shihoko.goto@wilsoncenter.org) is Director for Geoeconomics and Indo-Pacific Enterprise and Deputy Director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center based in Washington DC.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #44 – “Hybrid multilateralism” and the Yoon pursuit of middle power strategy

Unlike his predecessor, President Biden prefers multilateral mechanisms to promote partnership with allies. In particular, he pursues “constructive recoupling” or “relinking” with China, selectively excluding Beijing from access to high-tech and critical strategic materials, rather than all areas of trade.

This multilateralism has intensified in the Indo-Pacific, especially after the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)—the world’s largest free trade agreement, centered around China—came into force. While visiting Asian allies in May, Biden announced the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), aimed to secure global supply chains and set economic rules and norms for the Indo-Pacific. IPEF serves as a platform for the United States, through cooperation with allies, to contain China’s economic “territorial expansion.” It excludes China from high-tech supply chains and is also a watershed for a potential new global economic order. Implementation of IPEF would assure economic security through a closed supply chain distributing production facilities only among countries sharing American, free-market, values.

Similarly, the strategic objective of the current US-led liberal international order differs from the original liberal order after World War II. The original order sought a multifaceted, extensive international system based on multilateral institutions and free trade among democratic blocs—spreading to non-Western societies post-Cold War. The current order promotes “friend-shoring”—only like-minded countries are grouped in a mini-lateral way.

The new Seoul government’s participation in IPEF suggests the US-Korea alliance will contribute not only to peace on the Korean Peninsula, but also global security and prosperity. Specifically, in transitioning to the so-called “comprehensive strategic alliance,” the two countries have added technology to their existing military/economic agenda. Accordingly, Seoul can stabilize the supply chain, maximize domestic companies’ net profits, and enhance strategic industries’ competitiveness through participation in a comprehensive regional economic cooperation system. In addition, IPEF can allow middle powers like Korea to promote emerging global norms on supply chains, the digital economy, and decarbonization.

Dealing with unlike-minded countries

President Yoon Suk Yeol should consider the following actions, in addition to advancing alliance solidarity.

First, maintain positive relations with China wherever and whenever Korean and Chinese interests align. The two can mutually benefit from stable trade relations, cooperation on environmental issues such as air and marine pollution, and diplomatic collaboration towards North Korea’s denuclearization. Even if Korea is forced to choose between the United States and China, these areas of cooperation can and should be pursued continuously with China. Korean participation in IPEF risks triggering Chinese retribution because Beijing views it as an effort to contain China. Many Korean experts doubt Beijing will engage in outright economic retaliation, however, as was the case after THAAD deployment in 2017, for several reasons. The main ones include President Xi Jinping’s bidding for a third term and the fact that China’s economy has stagnated in the wake of Beijing’s zero-COVID policy, and US-China competition is intensifying. Similarly, Korea’s high dependence on exports to China is a weakness, but Seoul also supplies Beijing with necessary intermediate goods, without which China would not be able to secure supply chain stability. Reminiscent of mutually assured destruction in the Cold War, Korea and China would both suffer from a trade war.

Still, Yoon should take countermeasures to reduce economic dependence. The president should also pursue “values diplomacy” by expanding networks of “friendly countries” and strengthening multilateral partnerships with democratic middle powers to secure strategic leverage against China. Korea, a country that developed and democratized within a quarter century, can advance a rules-based, multilateral approach identifying and addressing global and regional common problems such as climate, energy, public health, and humanitarian aid, where Washington and Beijing need to cooperate. Korea should also facilitate the establishment of a new, more diverse international trade order, incorporating countries with different levels of economic development and diverse political regimes.

Second, Korea should mediate international economic disputes. IPEF’s success depends on reconciling expectations of countries with very different economic development levels. The United States prioritizes export controls in the high-tech sector, while ASEAN and India focus on technological and infrastructure support from advanced countries. Australia and Japan want the United States to participate in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and would like to see IPEF formalized, including the obligations of participant nations. Korea, then, should encourage increased participation to advance IPEF’s legitimacy and representation.

Third, Korea should provide support to “unlike-minded” states in multilateral mechanisms such as RCEP, the ASEAN Regional Forum, G20, and the United Nations. Certainly, the bloc of Western democratic countries reconsolidated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nonetheless, the G20 appeared far more divided in its response to Russia’s invasion than it did to the financial crisis of 2008. Consequently, an international order based solely on values-based, like-minded states may appear threatening to non-democratic, and neutral, countries. As a middle power, Korea can lead in mitigating this problem and characterizing the IPEF as more inviting.

Hybrid multilateralism

Fourth, the South Korean government, in cooperation with like-minded countries, must carefully evaluate strategic options between values and national interests. Other countries do so all the time. President Biden, for instance, has sought cooperation from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—despite concerns over bin Salman’s authoritarianism and the Jamal Khashoggi killing—to counter the global oil shortage. Moreover, Washington considers lifting sanctions against oil-rich Venezuela to respond against Russia’s “weaponization” of energy resources. The United States and its Western allies now view energy from the Middle East and South America (as well as Africa) as an alternative to Russian imports, even though the resulting revenues empower certain authoritarian governments. To resolve the dilemma between resource security and value diplomacy, the US may justify “hybrid multilateralism” by selectively incorporating authoritarian resource-rich countries into existing or evolving multilateral platforms, including IPEF.

On a final note, middle powers have opportunities to facilitate in areas like climate change, pandemic response, vaccine research, and the maintenance of free trade, as the United States’ and China’s focus has shifted more to their own rivalry instead of the provision of global public goods. From the view of the two great powers, it would be advantageous to attract more countries to their own side as the competition intensifies. Therefore, the collective choices and actions of middle powers—armed with numerical superiority and a united voice—could lead to more contention, or cooperation, between multilateral or minilateral networks driven by these great powers. For now, most middle powers, including Korea, tend to lean toward the liberal international order (LIO) because they have achieved stability and development while pursuing democracy, free trade, and multilateralism within the LIO framework. They believe that it is still in their national interest to support and improve LIOs that reflect universal human values. Ultimately, the future of the LIO depends on whether the United States has the ability and resolve to provide global public goods and, at the same time, whether the international community, centered on middle powers, supports US leadership.

Shin-wha Lee (swlee922@gmail.com) is Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Korea University and President of the Korean Academic Council on the UN System (KACUNS). She is also South Korea’s Ambassador-at-Large on International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights. 

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: The 20th President Inauguration Ceremony by Korea.net and Yang Dong Wook

PacNet #40 – Abe Shinzo: How to handle an unpredictable America

Much has been written since former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s death about his status as a “polarizing” figure. This was true in domestic Japanese politics, in China, and in South Korea, where Abe’s views and actions have prompted highly mixed assessments since his passing.

But Abe’s legacy is far from polarizing in other contexts, notably in the US national political scene.

Presidential praise

It came as little surprise that former President Donald Trump was one of the first major figures to respond to the news of Abe’s death. Abe was the first foreign leader to meet Trump following his election in 2016, dropping by Trump Tower on short notice that November. In the months and years to come Abe cultivated a reputation as a “Trump whisperer” for US partners and allies unsure of how the former president would react to his new responsibilities, meeting him at least 10 times, speaking with him at least 30, and twice visiting him at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Regional observers will recall Trump’s sharp turn toward confrontation with North Korea in 2017, including discussion of military options. What may have been forgotten is that, following their first Mar-a-Lago meeting in early 2017—long before “fire and fury” and the “little Rocket Man” speech—Abe called for a strong stance against North Korea over a recent missile test.

Trump responded, at the time, that the United States “stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100%.”

When news of Abe’s death broke, Trump reacted by declaring it, in his typically dramatic fashion, “Really BAD NEWS FOR THE WORLD!” and that Abe was “a unifier like no other, but above all, he was a man who loved and cherished his magnificent country, Japan.”

By the time Joe Biden became president, Abe’s long stint as PM had ended, as Abe had announced his departure for health reasons two months before the November 2020 election. Nonetheless, Biden had a history with Abe in the Obama administration and, as president, was quick to build upon the legacy of closer relations Abe promoted across the Obama and Trump administrations. Abe’s successor and long-time partner Suga Yoshihide was the first foreign leader Biden hosted at the White House in April 2021, where they promised to “[work] together to take on the challenges from China and on issues like the East China Sea, the South China Sea, as well as North Korea, to ensure a future of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Their statement also called for “peace and stability across Taiwan Strait,” an issue Abe had become increasingly strident on in the years leading up to his assassination.

It is thus unsurprising that Biden reacted to the news of Abe’s death by saying he was “stunned, outraged, and deeply saddened by the news that my friend Abe Shinzo…was shot and killed while campaigning. This is a tragedy for Japan and for all who knew him.”

The contender

Abe’s long shadow extends beyond current and former presidents as well. Even though polling and scholarly literature shows that American voters rarely prioritize foreign policy—and, as such, presidential contenders rarely speak out on foreign affairs that did not involve the consequences of American foreign policy decision-making (e.g. the botched Afghanistan withdrawal)—Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis reacted to news of Abe’s death by calling him a “heck of an ally.” DeSantis added: “[Abe] understood freedom. He understood the threat posed by China.”

DeSantis made that statement in the context of upcoming meetings between the state of Florida and the Japan Association designed to boost business/investment ties.

However, there may be another context in which DeSantis’ remarks may be read: Based on recent polls, he is the one American political figure likely to disrupt a Biden-Trump rematch in 2024. Best known in the US political scene as a culture warrior who refused to lock down his state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis has also quietly built up a fundraising war chest far in excess of what he needs to win re-election as governor this fall, as well as close ties to major donors outside of Florida.

DeSantis had near-term reasons for his comments on Abe, but with his polling and fundraising on the rise, it certainly did not hurt for him to show that he has his eye on foreign affairs. Signaling affinity for a faithful US ally like Abe is one way to do so.

Japan and beyond

Some analysis of the Biden administration’s foreign policy has noted the incumbent president’s low approval ratings. What confidence, they ask, should US partners in Asia have in embracing Biden’s agendas for the Indo-Pacific, when he may be ousted in 2024 by another “America first” candidate?

This, however, overstates how radical the change during the first Trump administration actually was, at least on foreign policy. That administration’s departures from the status quo on China, Taiwan, and the use of the “Indo-Pacific terminology” reflected a process quietly at work a few years earlier. No wonder these policy choices have since become bipartisan initiatives that the Biden administration decided to carry forward.

One lesson of Abe’s strong working relationship with Washington across presidential administrations, and the persistence of attitudes toward China, Taiwan, and the Quad since the Trump administration demonstrate that initiatives beginning under one administration may carry over to another, with the differences being mostly stylistic.

Another is that there is little substitute for cultivating personal relationships with the president, however idiosyncratic their leadership style. Abe had his differences with Trump—on bilateral trade, on withdrawal from the TPP, and on easing pressure on North Korea in favor of summitry—but the ongoing alignment between the United States and Japan on formerly controversial issues ranging from China to Taiwan to the Quad indicates the success of his efforts. Remarks from all three leading contenders suggest that his legacy will live on in the form of close US-Japan ties.

Not bad for a “polarizing” leader.

Rob York (rob@pacforum.org) is Director for Regional Affairs at Pacific Forum and editor of Comparative Connections: A Triannual E-journal of Bilateral Relations in the Indo-Pacific.

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: President Trump at the Akasaka Palace Photo by National Archives and Records Administration

PacNet #39 – Abe Shinzo’s legacy in Southeast Asia

The murder of Abe Shinzo on July 8 was a profound political shock to Japan and to the world. He was not the incumbent prime minister, and his death did not directly affect the current decision-making process of the Japanese government. Yet, he was the living legend who significantly shaped Japan’s domestic and foreign policy during the 2010s.

Domestically, he led the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party, and his word influenced Japan’s diplomatic and security discourse, notably his remarks on “nuclear-sharing” and “doubling the defense budget.” Internationally, his diplomatic visibility was also strong, as he was the norm entrepreneur who facilitated the “Indo-Pacific” narrative through Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) concept from 2016.

Located at the center of the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia was a region Abe consistently engaged, considering it vital for Japan’s peace and prosperity.

Japan has engaged with ASEAN and each individual Southeast Asian state continuously since its adoption of the Fukuda Doctrine in 1977. Abe made his mark, however, by increasing Japan’s diplomatic visibility and commitment. Once Abe assumed his second prime ministership at the end of 2012, he enthusiastically conducted comprehensive engagement with Southeast Asia. In 2013, the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation, Abe made visits to all ASEAN member states, hosted summit meetings, and successfully concluded the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit Meeting in Tokyo. In 2014, Abe made a speech at the 13th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue on “Peace and prosperity in Asia, forevermore,” pushing for stronger international maritime stability, particularly in the East and South China Seas, where China’s assertiveness was growing. In 2014 and 2015 he focused on summit diplomacy to reassure Southeast Asian states that Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation of Article 9 (allowing Japan to exercise a right to collective self-defense) would not be a threat or a destabilizing factor to East Asia.

The Abe administration also intensified its economic, strategic, and defense engagement with Southeast Asia. In 2015, Abe launched the “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” to provide financial assistance, mainly to Southeast Asia, for infrastructure development that would fully comply with international standards, while competing with China’s Belt and Road Initiative—which had alternative standards. After Abe announced the FOIP strategy in 2016, Japan has continuously emphasized the importance of ASEAN centrality and unity, culminating in “the ASEAN-Japan Summit on Cooperation on ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” in 2020. In 2016, Japan launched the Vientiane Vision to enhance defense cooperation with ASEAN, which was later upgraded as Vientiane Vision 2.0 in 2019. Also, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force consistently exhibited its defense presence in Southeast Asia, conducting military exercises with regional states through the Indo-Pacific Deployment every year since 2019.

These initiatives were not spawned as ad-hoc or one-shot diplomatic efforts that the then-prime minister created as ceremonial actions. Abe had a clear strategic vision that the future of the balance of power in East Asia, including Southeast Asia, would shift with the rise of an assertive China. Considering China’s growing presence in the East and South China Seas and increasing Chinese economic influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, Abe persistently highlighted the importance of stable maritime security, ensuring the sea lines of communication, the freedom of navigation and overflight, international law, as well as rules-based infrastructure development in line with the highest international standards. Although Japan was in relative decline vis-à-vis China—whose military expenditures surpassed Japan’s in the mid-2000s and whose GDP passed Japan’s in 2010—Abe was not intimidated and facilitated independent strategic thinking to defend his country’s national interests and regional stability. The FOIP was the embodiment of such thinking.

Abe’s diplomatic stance also contributed to promoting Southeast Asian states’ hedging strategy. As strategic rivalry was growing between the United States and China, Southeast Asian states aimed to “hedge”—avoiding taking sides and gaining economic and security benefits from both sides—including even those who tend to lean toward either China (such as Cambodia) or the United States (like Singapore). Japan’s relatively independent stance helped Southeast Asia pursue a hedging behavior by enhancing cooperation with Japan rather than the United States or China. The ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute Survey from 2019 to 2022 suggests as much, indicating that ASEAN considered Japan the best strategic option in 2020 and the second best in 2021 and 2022 after the European Union.

To be sure, Southeast Asian states did not always appreciate Abe’s strategic posture. On the contrary, they frequently expressed concerns about Abe’s strong anti-China attitude, which might destabilize East Asian peace and security. For example, Singapore expressed its regret about Abe’s visit to Yasukuni shrine in 2013, fearing that this would increase tension and ruin trust with regional states. In 2016 and 2017, when Japan launched FOIP and began to hold Quad meetings regularly, several ASEAN member states raised questions about Japan’s stance toward ASEAN and were hesitant to support its strategic initiative. However, Abe did not merely dismiss those criticisms. He incorporated them into his existing strategic thinking and attempted to strike a balance between Japan’s interests and Southeast Asia’s concerns. This is evidence of Abe’s willingness to hear ASEAN’s voice, which made Japan the most trusted major power for Southeast Asia, according to ISEAS Yusof-Ishak surveys from 2019 to 2022.

Unlike a traditional Japanese leader, Abe was not a consensus-builder but a strong believer in his own strategic and political vision, which polarized opinion, particularly in the domestic realm. However, his strategic posture produced positive outcome for Japan—making Japan diplomatically more visible in Southeast Asia and gaining more trust from regional states. He will be remembered as a proactive strategic leader who matched words with deeds, raising Japan’s diplomatic status in Southeast Asia.

Kei Koga (kkei@ntu.edu.sg) is assistant professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and affiliated with S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU.

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #36 – Post-Abe Indo-Pacific regional dynamics: A legacy beyond the man

Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, through his formulation of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (dubbed FOIP), articulated the need for a transparent, rules-based Indo-Pacific. Priorities included development assistance, infrastructure and connectivity, institution-building, maritime security cooperation, and a commitment to rules as the final arbiter for international affairs rather than a Machiavellian, might-is-right approach to foreign policy.

On his visit in 2007 to the Parliament of India he articulated the so-called “Confluence of two seas” connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans as a zone of economic intercourse, institution- and norm-building, and a concrete security agenda to ensure that critical sea lines of communication remain arbitrated by international law.

His passing will have regional consequences for different stakeholders and those who wish to shape his legacy. It will also have domestic consequences for how foreign policy is formulated. For countries with whom Abe had tense relations, those consequences may not be as expected.

Abe’s influence at home

In Japan, Abe was the factional head of the Seiwakai, the largest faction within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) umbrella party. As faction head and former prime minister, Abe could shape discussions on domestic politics and security policy within the LDP and government. Wielding this influence, he committed to revising Article 9 of the Constitution and articulated the importance of Taiwan in Japan security. This has not yet succeeded, but talk of revision persists, especially given his party’s dominant election performance following Abe’s death.

Abe also committed to a multi-layered and multinational cooperation not only to ameliorate Japan’s security’s dilemmas, but also to invest in the security of the broader Indo-Pacific, which has shaped incumbent Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s policies in the region.

Taking a granular look at Kishida’s Shangri-La dialogue speech, the strong influence of Abe’s FOIP vision in “Kishida’s Vision for Peace” is obvious.

Abe’s commitment to enlarging the quality and quantity of security partnerships and cooperation, and how this influenced the current government, are also evidenced in Japan’s joining of the NATO summit in Madrid and the strengthening of its security through Reciprocal Access Agreements with Australia and the United Kingdom, as well as the realization of the Quad summit in Tokyo in May 2022.

Does Abe’s unexpected death give Kishida more political maneuvering room for his own foreign policy—one more autonomous from Seiwakai—or will he have to adopt more of the late prime minister’s positions?

It is too early to tell.

China and Taiwan

With Sino-Japanese relations deteriorating, Abe Shinzo’s death was celebrated by some in China, including by netizens and club-goers. In the Japan-China context, however, Abe’s death should be seen with concern. While bilateral relations were fraught with complexities and security concerns, Abe understood that Japan and China have a mutually beneficial economic relationship and that a zero-sum approach was neither feasible nor desirable.

It was Abe who resurrected Sino-Japanese relations from their 2012 low after the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands by the Democratic Party of Japan’s Noda administration, using backdoor diplomacy and cooperation with astute Japanese diplomats and their Chinese counterparts.

These efforts led to Abe and Xi meeting in the fall of 2019 in Beijing and inking more than 50 third-country infrastructure and connectivity projects and numerous business deals. Both leaders also pushed for completion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Japan-China maritime and aerial communication mechanism aimed at averting unintended clashes between the Japanese and Chinese militaries went into operation in June 2018.

If it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, Abe may have welcomed a state visit by Xi in early 2020 to sign a fifth political document.

Today, Sino-Japanese relations are in a holding state. Japan is concerned about Beijing’s position on Taiwan and whether it will seek reunification by force.

Abe’s explicit comments that a Taiwan contingency would be a direct threat to Japanese security and would require a united response sought to convey clarity to Beijing and Taipei that the status quo across the Taiwan Strait is Japan’s preferred option.

From Japan’s perspective, cross-strait instability is of concern because it would disrupt sea lines of communication and critical technologies produced by the Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. In this case, Abe’s commitment to multilateralism manifested in his calls for Washington to drop its ambiguity on a Taiwan contingency.

Still, the loss of Abe’s pragmatism, nuance, and political acumen in managing Sino-Japan relations will make bilateral relations more complicated as Abe was not only able to negotiate Tokyo-Beijing relations but also an effective communicator to Washington about China and the Indo-Pacific.

Regional relations

Abe’s passing will have ripple effects in the region at large, with Japan’s neighbors and partners looking to build on the progress he started.

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol looks determined to reset the bilateral ROK-Japan relationship and trilateral Japan-US-ROK relations to deal with the challenges of North Korea and China. Paradoxically, Abe’s death has opened the window for Yoon to engage further with Japan while at the same time removing the divisive (especially in South Korea) Abe in the South Korean context to improve relations.

In Southeast Asia and India, Abe championed bilateral relations and the key role of both in the Indo-Pacific. With his absence, Southeast Asian countries will look for continuity in the Kishida administration—and beyond—including in their diplomatic engagement within the region, commitment to connectivity and infrastructure development, and in developing strong bilateral relations with individual ASEAN states. India will look for continuity in bilateral cooperation on economic development, infrastructure, and connectivity, but also in deepening mini-lateral cooperation through enhanced cooperation within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and other emerging mini-lateral organizations such as Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

Finally, the United States views the passing of Abe with concern as he was able to marshal the political forces in Japan to take a more proactive position in securing its own security but also providing security within the US-Japan alliance and for partners. The 2016 Legislation for Peace and Security and the 2013 Specially Designated Secrets Protection Law, were both meant to strengthen cooperation with the United States and like-minded countries, to enable Japan to be a more proactive partner in being a providing security within the region.

Abe’s leadership was central in these legislative achievements.

Fortunately for the United States and Tokyo’s other partners, Abe’s FOIP vision, its commitment to a robust and ever strengthening Japan-US alliance, and to multilayered and multinational security, economic, and diplomatic cooperation to deal with the greatest regional geopolitical challenge—coexistence with China—has been internationalized and institutionalized. This should ensure that regional Indo-Pacific dynamics remain institutionally driven based on shared interests among like-minded countries.

Indo-Pacific stakeholders can contribute to the region’s institutional development by crafting rules-based frameworks that embody the principles laid out in Abe’s FOIP vision including development assistance, infrastructure and connectivity, institution-building, and maritime security cooperation. Finding a role for China as Abe did will be critical to achieving these goals.

Concrete initiatives that would further these objectives include expanding the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, more investment in the Partners in the Blue Pacific and similar initiatives in Southeast and South Asia and enhancing public good provision by minilaterals such as the Quad or a Quad-plus formulation to mitigate non-traditional security challenges such as climate change, piracy, illegal fishing and transnational diseases.

Dr. Stephen Nagy (nagy@icu.ac.jp) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a senior fellow with the MacDonald Laurier Institute (MLI), a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #34 – Why ASEAN should heed the distant tolling of bells

It is hard to know what deft (or otherwise) diplomacy is going on behind the scenes in ASEAN-led architecture in the lead-up to the season of summitry, most importantly the East Asia Summit (EAS). This includes the range of precursor senior officials meetings which often set the conditions for ministerial and leaders-level meetings later in the year. But diplomacy will need to be deft to find a position that at least balances the concerns of all EAS partners with respect to Russia’s participation.

Based on public-facing statements and commentary, right now it appears there is no balance. ASEAN does not seem to have taken action that has imposed costs on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, acknowledged the concerns of other EAS members, or expressed ASEAN condemnation of Russia’s actions.

ASEAN foreign ministers did issue three statements in relation to Ukraine: one calling for restraint and de-escalation on Feb. 26; one calling for a ceasefire on March 3; and one about the killing of civilians and humanitarian access on April 8.

While this was welcome, these statements did not mention Russia. They thus did not challenge Russia’s reprehensible actions.

ASEAN countries also largely supported the UN General Assembly resolution on March 2, which “deplored in the strongest terms” Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and demanded Russia’s immediate, complete, and unconditional withdraw from Ukraine territory (Laos and Vietnam abstained); and on March 24 in relation to the humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine (Brunei, Laos, and Vietnam abstained). But only the Philippines voted in favour of the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution to suspend Russia on April 7.

ASEAN’s statements and each country’s UN voting record indicates the limits of action for individual ASEAN members and ASEAN as a bloc. Singapore, however, has been the most forward-leaning, applying sanctions against Russia).

Cambodia, as the chair of ASEAN, with Indonesia as chair of the G20, and Thailand as chair of APEC, issued a joint statement on May 4 saying: “we are determined to work with all our partners and stakeholders to ensure a spirit of cooperation.”

Russia no doubt was pleased to see this, stating publicly that the statement represented “an important contribution to strengthening multilateralism, building an atmosphere of cooperation and trust, mutual respect and a reciprocal consideration of interests, not only in the region but also globally.”

While it does not make explicit references to Russia, the trilateral statement indicates that the chairs of these three international groupings will not exclude Russian participation.

Make no mistake, despite the waves of mis- and disinformation and fallacious narratives, Russia’s actions are a breach of international law, both in the principle of its invasion as well as in its ongoing execution—particularly as there are multiple reports detailing violations of the laws of war, and crimes against humanity occurring at the hands of Russian officers and soldiers.

But this is not just a breach of international law. It is also a trampling of the principles that ASEAN purports to hold dear—including sovereignty, non-interference, and the rule of law. These are the principles ASEAN has captured in its own Charter, and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia to which, as a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN, Russia is a party.

ASEAN has constantly voiced (almost in desperate, anxious tones) the need to maintain its centrality in the region’s institutional architecture. But centrality requires credibility. ASEAN risks its credibility by not taking stronger action.

ASEAN’s consensus-based and conservative approach means that it proceeds at the pace of the slowest member and lowest level of comfort to take action. ASEAN consensus is also influenced by the longstanding relations that some ASEAN members have with Russia, including on military sales. Through this approach, ASEAN seeks to maintain the status quo, to avoid confrontation with major powers or having to “choose sides.” That approach, however, constrains ASEAN’s ability to respond with agility to the shifting geostrategic reality and overlooks the threats to its longer-term interests.

Many countries in the region want ASEAN to maintain credibility and relevance, and believe it is important for regional stability. If ASEAN is to do so, it must take a stance against breaches of international law and (for the most part) universally accepted principles. Otherwise, those principles are moot.

Failure to take action is to legitimize and normalize Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. It ignores not only Ukraine’s current plight, but also Russia’s threats to other countries in Europe—including Sweden and Finland, who see the writing on the wall and have shifted their long-standing position about NATO membership.

It is important to recognise ASEAN’s rationale for not wanting to take sides. But this is not about taking sides with any one country. This is about taking the side of principle. It is essential to reinforce regional stability, security, and prosperity.

Expelling Russia from international fora where Moscow participate with Southeast Asian countries would be a step too far for ASEAN. But finding a better balance would be in order. A good start would be an explicit acknowledgement that Russia is the aggressor.

It is time ASEAN stepped up to demonstrate why it has become an integral part of the regional political architecture. Doing so will prove its value as a key platform in shaping and reinforcing norms of behavior.

Patrick O’Connor is the pseudonym of a non-American diplomat and former military officer who has worked on and studied Southeast Asia extensively. He has had several diplomatic postings throughout the Indo-Pacific and in Ukraine.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #20 – After Ukraine – Enacting a realistic Japanese diplomatic security policy

 

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun. It has been edited and translated from Japanese.

With Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the world now stands at a crossroads. Will we revert to a pre-World War II order where the weak suffer what they must, and the strong do what they will? Or will we maintain the existing global order under international law? At this crucial moment, Japan must unite with the G7 and continue to impose tough sanctions on Russia to prevent further military challenges and uphold a free and open international order.

Those who suffer most in wars are always civilians. Japan should make every effort to engage with concerned countries to begin ceasefire talks and avoid further casualties. As of April 2, over 4.1 million Ukrainian citizens—nearly a 10th of Ukraine’s population—have been forced to flee to other countries. Although Japan has historically been reluctant to accept refugees, it has announced its intent to accept Ukrainians. Yet, the conditions under which they are accepted should be further relaxed. Meanwhile, the momentum for providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine is growing among Japanese citizens. Rational assessment of the turbulent international situation is essential to achieving balanced diplomacy.

Declining US influence

Because Washington failed to prevent Russia’s invasion, US influence in the world will weaken and we are heading towards a more multipolar world. Certainly, the United States has no obligation to defend a non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member. However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and on certain conditions, Ukraine was promised territorial integrity and security by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia via the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Not standing by this commitment may lead to certain countries in East Asia to take actions similar to Russia’s, while setting a precedent that countries with nuclear weapons cannot be controlled. In particular, the danger of crises emerging in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula are increasing. Given US cautiousness in dealing with nuclear-armed states, Japan will have to engage in diplomacy and dialogue to reassure concerned countries.

Japan should reconsider its reliance on the United States, which has not fulfilled its role as the global policeman. At the same time, without the United States, East Asia will also likely become unstable. So, deepening the Japan-US alliance to keep the United States in Asia is critical. In that sense, Japan has a major role to play. Japan must take drastic measures to strengthen its diplomatic and defense capabilities and build a new international cooperative system centered on peace and stability in Asia. As situations in foreign countries are becoming increasingly tense, Japan is under pressure to rebuild its security strategy from scratch. The time is ripe to promote Japan’s readiness and actions to protect itself.

The role of political parties

A think tank focused on diplomacy and security policy should be established by my party, the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) of Japan, to renew and deepen policies, reduce over-reliance on the bureaucratic nerve center of Kasumigaseki, and amplify Japan’s global reach. There is an urgent need to stabilize relations with the United States and to establish an independent intelligence gathering and dissemination system. The CDP should therefore establish offices in Washington, DC.

While the opposition party should always offer alternatives to the ruling party, there is no need to highlight differences when it comes to diplomacy and security policy. We should leave party interests behind when it comes to issues directly linked to the survival of the nation, and instead unite to protect peace in Japan.

Promoting realistic policies

In the face of the current crisis, Japan must seek comprehensive foreign and security policies based on a realistic view of the international order. According to various polls, over 80% of people worry about Japan’s security in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Protecting the lives of the people and the sovereignty of the nation should be the highest priority for Japan. National defense approaches should be further discussed and deepened and no topic should be taboo.

Gaining trust and reassuring the public are difficult tasks. Politicians should avoid making unrealistic and reckless assertions while also avoiding being overly sanguine about countries that are expanding their military. What Japan’s national defense policy requires today is to thoroughly reconsider Japan’s conventional capabilities while also ensuring the smooth operation of extended deterrence. The will and leadership of our politicians, and our realistic understanding of the geopolitical situation, will be further tested if we are to protect Japan and lead the liberal international order in Asia.

Hideshi Futori (info@futori.net) is a member of the Japanese House of Representatives in the Constitutional Democratic Party.

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PacNet #45 – False Dawn: The Resumption and Re-ending of the Inter-Korean Hotline

This article summarizes the author’s chapter in the new issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety here.

Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the United States. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.

War Games: Shadow-Boxing?

To understand the hotline, first consider the politics behind US-ROK military exercises. Since Donald Trump summarily cancelled upcoming regular US-ROK military exercises at his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un in June 2018, the usual calendar of spring and summer allied drills has been much disrupted. Far from appreciating that olive branch, Kim saw this concession as a chance to press harder.

After several changes of name, these drills have waxed and waned, reflecting the state of relations between North Korea and its foes. Trump, soon followed by COVID-19, ushered in a new era of cancelled or smaller maneuvers. So Kim had less to worry about, but he chose to go for broke, insisting that to hold joint exercises at all, in any form or on any scale, is a hostile act. This has created a new cycle, where every spring and summer the allies must decide what kind of drills, if any, to stage.

With exercises due in August, Minister of Unification Lee In-young on June 6 called for “maximum flexibility,” insisting that joint drills “should never work in a way that causes or further escalates tensions on the Korean Peninsula.” That was tantamount to calling for their cancellation, which Lee could not do directly. This kicked off a fresh round of the perennial argument in Seoul about the right balance of stick and carrot, force readiness versus peace process, and so on. Besides playing out in the media, politically more important was the debate inside the ruling Democratic Party (DP), and above all necessarily hidden discussions within Moon Jae-in’s government.

Arguably, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and the military establishment, not to mention Washington, would not countenance complete cancellation (in 2018 Trump forced their hand). Even as public debate continued, planning and preparations were surely under way. Meanwhile, as we now know, at some point and in some form Moon and Kim began exchanging messages about reactivating inter-Korean hotlines, unused for a year after Pyongyang blew up the Kaesong joint liaison office in June 2020. Ever since then, the South has faithfully called as agreed at 0900 each day, but gotten no reply. (Talk of the lines being “cut” misleads: They still work, but the North chooses not to pick up.)

Lights! Camera! Action! They’re Talking Again!

Then, on July 27 and with much fanfare, the Blue House in Seoul and the official North Korean news agency KCNA in Pyongyang both announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines. In a triumph of hope over expectation all too familiar in inter-Korean relations (but we never learn), hopes ran high that after a two-year hiatus that Pyongyang might finally be ready to engage again. Not only with Seoul, but also the not-so-new Biden administration.

For a week or two, inter-Korean ties seemed to flicker back into life. Beyond the formality of checking the lines daily, there were signs of substance. The two sides used the line to compare tallies and positions of Chinese vessels illegally fishing in the West Sea near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto inter-Korean maritime border, which the DPRK has never formally recognized. Besides sharing notes to repel intruders, such liaison in sensitive and sometimes contested waters would help avoid any risk of accidental clashes.

But it went no further. An eager Seoul broached concrete proposals—virtual talks, family reunions by videolink—but got no immediate reply. Then Kim Yo Jong weighed in. On Aug. 1, four days after the lines were restored, Kim Jong Un’s sister warned against “premature hasty judgment. What I think is that the restoration of the communication liaison lines should not be taken as anything more than just the physical reconnection.” In particular, the “unpleasant story that joint military exercises between the south Korean army and the US forces could go ahead as scheduled” would surely “becloud” inter-Korean prospects.

On Aug. 8 Seoul announced that joint drills would go ahead, albeit computer-based with no field exercises. This predictably prompted an angrier second salvo from Ms. Kim, attacking the “perfidious” South for this “unwelcoming act of self-destruction for which a dear price should be paid.” That was on Aug. 10. In the morning the hotlines still worked, but by 5 pm the North was not picking up. Nor has it done so since.

As You Were

What to make of this episode? The Blue House denied insinuations by Yoon Seok-youl—a contender for the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP)’s presidential nomination next year—that a secret deal lay behind the hotlines restoration. If that is true, then it fell apart in record time. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) claims the initiative came from Kim Jong Un. If that is the case, then one hypothesis is that Kim was testing Moon over the joint drills. Perhaps he thought this sop might tip the balance of the debate in Seoul. It did swell the ranks of those in the ruling party who favored cancellation, but not enough. Once it was clear the exercises would go ahead, Kim duly exacted punishment, reverting to noncommunication and the status quo ante.

Reading Moon’s mind is harder. Though an idealist on inter-Korean ties, he is also a canny politician whose time is running out: his successor will be elected on March 9 next year. He may have felt he had little to lose, and we don’t know what was said in the letters he and Kim exchanged. Unclear too is what input, if any, the foreign ministry or even MOU had in any of this. Reportedly, the Blue House handles dealings with Pyongyang itself, no doubt via the NIS. Did Moon reckon Pyongyang would not really mind the joint exercises, despite Kim Yo Jong’s clarity on the issue?

After Moon: More of the Same?

As a presidency winds down it is natural to try to peer into the future. With ROK presidents constitutionally limited to a single five-year term, less than half a year from now South Korea will have a new president, due to take office May 9.

Six months is a long time in politics, especially in Seoul. As of now, while Moon Jae-in is becoming a lamer duck (albeit with better poll ratings than most of his predecessors at this stage), the DP looks in better shape than the PPP. Within the DP, ongoing primaries have confirmed a front-runner: Lee Jae-myong, governor of Gyeonggi province which surrounds the capital (indeed, it has become a largely urbanized greater Seoul).

Though not personally or factionally close to Moon, ideologically Lee shares his engagement stance. He also favors conditional sanctions relief for the DPRK. So, if he is the next ROK president, expect policy continuity rather than change. The problem is that Moon’s approach has not worked, even if his government appears in denial on that score. At the very least, Lee (if it is he) will have to be more imaginative in finding ways to break the deadlock.

Postscript

The chapter from which this article is excerpted was completed early in September. There have been fresh developments since, notably two—one skeptical, the other more positive—by Kim Yo Jong to President Moon’s suggestion, made (not for the first time) in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, of a formal peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War. We might therefore see a renewed bout of inter-Korean dialogue on Moon’s watch after all. Precedent, not least the episode described above, suggests that hopes of a meaningful breakthrough are not high. But let us not prejudge. Prospects will be clearer when the next issue of Comparative Connections appears in January 2022. Watch this space!

Aidan Foster-Carter (afostercarter@aol.com) is honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, UK. His interest in Korea began in 1968. Since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on North and South Korean affairs: writing, lecturing, and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide. He has written on inter-Korean relations for Comparative Conections ever since 2001.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.