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.

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.

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.

PacNet #40 – Comparative Connections Summary: September 2021

COMPARATIVE CONNECTIONS SUMMARY- SEPTEMBER 2021 ISSUE

 

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
EUROPE “DISCOVERS” ASIA AND WASHINGTON “DISCOVERS” SEA, AMID AFGHAN ANXIETY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Joe Biden pledged that the US would resume its traditional role as leader of US alliances, supporter of multilateralism, and champion of international law and institutions. Throughout its first nine months, his administration has labored to turn those words into reality, and for the first six months the focus was on Asia, at least Northeast Asia. During this reporting period, Biden himself worked on multilateral initiatives and while the primary venues were Atlanticist–the G7 summit, NATO, and the European Union–Asia figured prominently in those discussions. Chinese behavior loomed large in European discussions as NATO allies conducted ship visits and military exercises in the region to underscore these concerns. Meanwhile, a number of senior US foreign policy and security officials visited Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, amidst complaints of neglect from Washington. Concerns about Chinese pressure against Taiwan also grew in the region and beyond. The impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, messy at it appeared to be, has thus far not resulted in a crisis of confidence regarding US commitment to the region.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUMMER TAKES AN UNEXPECTED TURN
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
By the end of spring, the US-Japan relationship was centerstage in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy. From the first Quad (virtual) Summit to the visit of Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide to Washington, DC, relations between Tokyo and Washington could not have been better. A full calendar of follow-up meetings for the fall suggested even further deepening of the partnership. And on Aug. 20, President Joe Biden announced that he intended to nominate Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and chief of staff for President Obama, as ambassador to Japan. Throughout the summer, the US and Japan continued to deepen and expand the global coalition for Indo-Pacific cooperation. The UK, France, and even Germany crafted their own Indo-Pacific visions, as did the EU. Maritime cooperation grew as more navies joined in regional exercises. Taiwan featured prominently in US-Japan diplomacy, and in May the G7 echoed US-Japan concerns about rising tensions across the Taiwan Straits. Japanese political leaders also spoke out on the need for Japan to be ready to support the US in case tensions rose to the level of military conflict.

US-CHINA RELATIONS
THE DESCENT CONTINUES
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US
The downward slide in US-China relations continued as the two countries wrangled over Hong Kong, COVID-19, Taiwan, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, and cyberattacks. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Chinese officials met in Tianjin but appeared to make no progress toward managing intensifying competition between the two countries. The US rolled out a series of measures against alleged Chinese forced labor practices and strengthened the prohibition against US investments in the PRC’s military industrial complex. Deteriorating freedoms in Hong Kong prompted the Biden administration to impose more sanctions on Chinese officials and issue a business advisory warning US companies of growing risks to their activities in Hong Kong.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
STIR NOT MURKY WATERS
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
US relations with both South and North Korea were—with a few notable exceptions—uneventful during the May-August 2021 reporting period. If US-Korea relations displayed some excitement, it was largely along the Washington-Seoul axis. An inaugural leader summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in took place in Washington, producing significant deliverables for the short, medium, and long term. Biden and Moon then participated in the June G7 summit in Great Britain. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August also provided South Korea with challenges and ponderables. Washington-Pyongyang communication was subdued, aside from standard North Korean criticism of US-South Korea joint military exercises. Even when the US and North Korea addressed each other with respect to dialogue, it was usually to underline for the other party how Washington or Pyongyang is willing to talk under the right circumstances, but capable of waiting out the other side. Late August added some spice, however, as the IAEA issued a credible report confirming what many had expected: North Korea has likely re-started fissile material production at the Yongbyon complex. Finally, outside the reporting period, Pyongyang tested a potentially nuclear-capable land-attack cruise missile on Sept. 11. Are these signs that sleeping dogs are stirring?

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
WASHINGTON FINDS ITS FEET IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
In the months immediately following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy, but in May the administration heeded calls for a stronger voice and more active role in the region with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region in her role as vice president. The cumulative impact remains to be seen, but one key “deliverable”—the renewal of the US–Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success. More broadly, the administration responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making considerable strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
PUSHING REGIONAL ADVANTAGES AMID HEIGHTENED US RIVALRY
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
China’s recognition of the strategic challenge posed by close Biden administration relations with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) powers Australia, India, and Japan reinforced Beijing’s strong efforts to preserve and expand its advantageous position in Southeast Asia in the face of rising competition with the United States. Beijing used uniformly critical coverage of US withdrawal from Afghanistan to highlight US unreliability, and attempted to discredit Vice President Kamala Harris’ Aug. 22-26 visit to the region, the highpoint of Biden government engagement with Southeast Asia. It also widely publicized evidence of China’s influence in the competition with the United States in Southeast Asia, even among governments long wary of China, like Vietnam. That effort underlined the lengths Vietnam would go to avoid offending China in reporting that Hanoi allowed the Chinese ambassador to publicly meet the Vietnamese prime minister and donate vaccines, upstaging Vice President Harris, who hours later began her visit and offered vaccines.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
CROSS-STRAIT TENSION INCREASING BENEATH A SURFACE CALM
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Cross-Strait tensions intensified between May and August 2021, despite the superficial calm that generally prevailed after the dramatic confrontations earlier in the year. China again blocked Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA), and Xi Jinping reaffirmed the Communist Party’s commitment to the peaceful reunification of Taiwan at the Party’s 100th anniversary. Chinese military flights into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone were almost routine until China launched 28 sorties in a single day to protest the G7 summit’s endorsement of Taiwan’s participation in the WHA. The Biden administration announced its first arms sales to Taiwan. Several countries, most notably Japan and Australia, made their strongest statements ever in support of Taiwan. Lithuania announced it would permit the opening of an unofficial “Taiwanese” representative office. Beijing withdrew its ambassador from Lithuania and told Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador from Beijing. The US dismissed fears that its withdrawal from Afghanistan might portend abandonment of Taiwan. In coming months, Taiwan faces three potential turning points: Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party will elect a new chair; a referendum could overturn the opening of Taiwan’s market to US pork; and the US has signaled it will invite Taiwan to President Biden’s democracy summit despite threats of military retaliation by China.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
SUMMER FALSE DAWN: ON/OFF COMMUNICATIONS
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
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—aren’t they always?—that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the US. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the US and 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.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
ALLIANCE RESTORATION AND SUMMIT COMMEMORATIONS
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
South Korea President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Joe Biden and his participation in the G7 summit during May and June focused attention on Seoul’s strategy of balancing relations with China and the United States. While Beijing disapproved of the US-ROK joint statement released after the May summit, Chinese state media praised the Moon administration’s relative restraint in joining US-led coalition building against China. Official remarks on core political and security issues, however, raised mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. US-China competition and South Korean domestic political debates amplify Seoul’s dilemma regarding its strategic alignment ahead of the country’s 2022 presidential elections.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
A CHILLY SUMMER
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
China and Japan continued to vie over a wide variety of issues including economic competitiveness, jurisdiction over territorial waters, World War II responsibilities, representation in international organizations, and even Olympic and Paralympic medals. The Japanese government expressed concern with the increasingly obvious presence of Chinese ships and planes in and around areas under its jurisdiction, with Chinese sources accusing Japan of a Cold War mentality. Nothing was heard of Xi Jinping’s long-planned and often postponed official visit to Tokyo. Also, Chinese admonitions that Japan recognize that its best interests lay not with a declining United States but in joining forces with a rising China were conspicuous by their absence.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
UNREALIZED OLYMPIC DIPLOMACY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
In the summer months of 2021, the big question for many observers was whether Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Moon Jae-in would hold their first summit meeting during the Tokyo Olympic Games. Cautious hope was in the air, especially on the South Korean side. However, by the time the Olympics opened in late July, any such hope was dashed amid a series of unhelpful spats. Seoul and Tokyo decided that they would not gain much—at least not what they wanted from the other—by holding a summit this summer. With Suga’s announcement of his resignation as head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the end of September, barring any sudden turn of events, his tenure as Japanese prime minister will be recorded as one that did not have a summit with a South Korean president.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
AFGHAN ENDGAME AND GUNS OF AUGUST
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
The summer of 2021 may be the best and worst time for Russia-China relations. There was much to celebrate as the two powers moved into the third decade of stable and friendly relations, symbolized by the 20th anniversary of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the “friendship treaty” (The Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation). This historical moment, however, paralleled a hasty and chaotic end to the 20-year US interlude in Afghanistan with at least two unpleasant consequences for Beijing and Moscow: a war-torn Afghanistan in their backyard with an uncertain future and worse, a United States now ready to exclusively focus on the two large Eurasian powers 30 years after the end of the Cold War. As the Afghan endgame rapidly unfolded in August, both sides were conducting large exercises across and around Eurasia. While Afgthanistan may not again serve as the “graveyard of empires” in the 21st century, but then end of the US engagement there, however, will usher in an era of competition, if not clashes, between rival empires.

AUSTRALIA-US/EAST ASIA RELATIONS
COVID AND CHINA CHILL, ALLIANCE ANNIVERSARY AND AFGHANISTAN
BY GRAEME DOBELL, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE
Australia closed its borders to confront COVID-19 and rode out recession, while China shut off key markets to punish Australia. The short recession caused by pandemic ended Australia’s record run of nearly three decades of continuous economic growth; Beijing’s coercion crunched the optimism of three decades of economic enmeshment. However, Australia’s economy rebounded while the China crunch continues, causing Australia to question its status as the most China-dependent economy in the developed world. The Canberra–Beijing iciness has built over five years, marking the lowest period since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972. In 2021, the language of “strategic partnership” died and the “strategic economic dialogue” was suspended by China. The Biden administration promised not to abandon Australia, saying that US–China relations would not improve while an ally faced coercion. Australia embraced Washington’s assurance, along with the elevation of the Quad with the US, Japan, and India.

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PacNet #38 – Afghanistan: A Strategic Watershed?

I fear that the fall of Kabul and the return of the Taliban is not just a catastrophe but a strategic watershed as well.

As Singapore was falling during World War II, then-Australian Prime Minister John Curtin made his famous call: “Australia looks to America.” But even though Singapore had been surrendered, at least Britain was continuing to fight.

How much fight is left in Biden’s America? More than currently seems, I suspect and hope; but that’s the question that all US allies must now ponder and adjust accordingly.

My fear is that a COVID-obsessed West might sleep-walk past this new reality: the likelihood of bigger and more sophisticated terror attacks, now that Afghanistan is once more open as a terrorist base; and the near certainty that Russia and China will be even more adventurist now that this American president has declared that a country that had cost so much is no longer worth a single additional American life.

This is not a perception that can be allowed to stand if alliances are to last.

Australia must maintain the US alliance and do more to show our appreciation for it; and to help put even more spine into it—because the freedom and prosperity of the modern world has rested squarely on America’s readiness to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend [and] oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

It’s been a golden moment in world history that we mustn’t let slip away.

Australia must step up, to help avoid an American retreat with calamitous consequences.

Large though our current military build-up is, it’s now too small and too slow.

As well, we can’t keep weakening our country by agonising over issues that never trouble our strategic competitors.

At the very least, this should be a massive wake-up call rather than an inconvenient interruption to politics-as-usual.

Tony Abbott is a former Prime Minister of Australia.

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.

PacNet #36 – 10 Things Every Sailor and Marine Should Know Before Deploying to Southeast Asia: A Regional Primer

An earlier version of this article was published on the US Naval Institute Blog.

With a little bit of advance preparation and intellectual investment, a deployment to Southeast Asia can be a life-changing professional experience for sailors and marines. Here are 10 points, based on several decades of personal experience in Asia, that can help any service member arrive ready to accomplish the mission, represent their service well, and enjoy themselves while doing it.

1. Southeast Asia matters. It is not just a battlefield. 

Those focused on geopolitical dynamics may regard Southeast Asia as strategic territory where the United States must win hearts and minds now and be prepared to sink ships in a future conflict. However, the region’s nations also have unique, vibrant cultures, and strong identities. Southeast Asian states are home to more than 655 million people. Their economies weigh in with a GDP of more than $3 trillion. Ensuring strong bilateral relationships is essential to the well-being of the United States. That is why most of our regional exercises are not about fighting an enemy state but strengthening bilateral relationships.

Prevailing in the strategic competition with China is critical to US security and many Southeast Asians will be ready to discuss shared concerns, but US friendship should primarily be about the bilateral partners’ diverse concerns. We won’t expand the trust and confidence we need by treating Southeast Asian partners like cartological chokepoints or the spoils of a prize fight.

2. Southeast Asia is neither with us nor against us. It is for itself.

Southeast Asians want to benefit from their relationships with the United States and with China but there is little confidence either power would look out for Southeast Asian interests. China is ASEAN’s largest trade partner, and ASEAN became China’s largest trade partner in 2020. To avoid falling into Chinese orbit, Southeast Asians are generally glad for the counterbalance delivered by the US military. Balancing these competing relationships is akin to charting a course between two reefs. To cleave too closely to the United States exposes them to the risks of abandonment and the ire of China.

3. Southeast Asia is incredibly diverse.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous country, largest Muslim-majority nation, and 10th-largest economy. It shares an island with Timor Leste, a predominantly Catholic nation with fewer people than Trinidad and Tobago. The per capita income in the city-state of Singapore is more than $100,000 a year, one and a half times that of the United States. Twenty-six million Indonesians earn less than one dollar a day.

To represent the US Navy well in Southeast Asia, get to know the various countries you visit.

4. Southeast Asian Sailors have plenty to teach you about gray zone operations.

Southeast Asian navies matter. So do their coast guards. In some cases, their ships are older. Some are decommissioned US vessels. Not even the most technologically advanced states possess the combat equivalent of a 96-cell US destroyer. Sensitive communications are often carried by unclassified apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, or Line. This does not mean they are incapable. These maritime forces are engaged, day-in and day-out, in securing their nations’ sovereignty. Dangerous, close encounters with Chinese forces are common. They also regularly face off with neighbors in disputes over maritime boundaries and resources.

You will quickly notice that your Southeast Asian partners will approach problems in ways foreign to you. Pay attention; listen up; absorb the good. Do not lecture.

5. Nontraditional threats are a top regional priority.

In Southeast Asia, coast guards have become more popular in recent years but still commonly share constabulary duties with navies. Naval services across the region regularly face threats of terrorism and insurgency, as well as human and narco-trafficking. Environmental crimes and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing cost billions and imperil livelihoods. These threats to coastal communities demand national security prioritization.

Learn how your fellow sailors in Southeast Asia deal with these issues.

6. History matters.

When the United States arrived in Southeast Asia as the newest colonial power, our counterinsurgency operations were nothing to recall with pride. The US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty is now an important pillar of regional security, but the United States only recently returned war trophies seized from Balangiga in 1901. During the Cold War, the United States was associated with violent coups that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in several nations. Senior Vietnamese leaders have personal memories of the war against the United States. Washington dropped more explosives on Cambodia and Laos than the Allies dropped globally in World War II. Despite this, Vietnam welcomed two US Navy aircraft carriers.

Our past should engender a spirit of understanding and humility from US sailors in Southeast Asia.

7. ASEAN is central and not an “underdeveloped EU.”

The European Union is about governments relaxing sovereign control to pool resources, prevent state-to-state conflict, and facilitate flows of capital and people. Put over-simply, ASEAN is aimed at enabling governments’ efforts to strengthen their own states. ASEAN is built on principles of consensus and non-interference. You may hear the term “ASEAN Centrality”—it is a concept that reinforces ASEAN’s credibility and legitimacy, respecting its role as the driving force behind the region’s collective agenda.

Do not fall for the trap that ASEAN is destined to “mature into” something that exists elsewhere.

8. Southeast Asia does not want an Asian NATO, nor an Asian Combined Maritime Force.

NATO functions on the basis of shared threat perceptions and common interests. Its Cold War counterpart, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, fell apart shortly after the Vietnam War. Southeast Asian states are concerned about China’s behavior, tilting the alignment of some of those states toward the United States, but fears of entrapment and abandonment dictate that no Southeast Asian state is ready to tie itself into a collective defense pact.

Other officers envision opportunities to create a Combined Maritime Force. Attempts to sell the idea in Southeast Asia have fallen flat. If geared toward China, they are non-starters. Efforts geared toward the nontraditional threats at the top of regional states’ maritime priorities gain some traction. However, most of the nontraditional threats operate within domestic waters, so beyond information-sharing and coordination, there is little desire to invite in foreign security operations.

9. Corruption is rampant—do not let it trap you.

According to Transparency International, in ASEAN only Singapore and Malaysia rank among the world’s 80 least corrupt states. Things that might be illegal or unethical in the United States are often the way the system is designed in Southeast Asia.

Understand the relevant regulations and internalize your ethics training. If your command is not giving you training, ask for it before deploying. See the bevy of high-profile cases associated with the Fat Leonard scandal: Some of those Americans were filthy traitors. Others made much smaller mistakes; these individuals are free, but the ethics violations put their careers on ice.

10. Enjoy your liberty.

Done right, a deployment to Southeast Asia will be an experience that will stay with you. These ports offer world-class opportunities for sightseeing, shopping, and the relaxation needed for superior performance at sea.

A typical port visit is four days. Given the limited time and all the opportunities, mission success requires a plan. Planning requires information. Do as much as you can before you deploy. Shelling out a couple of bucks for a guidebook to read underway can save hours. Even if your deployment schedule is not fixed, taking along a library can be a great investment for your liberty crew. The sailor-centric non-profit YCAPS has a great list of suggestions.

A deployment to Southeast Asia is an opportunity to have a unique experience. To represent the US Navy well in Southeast Asia, get to know the countries you have the opportunity to visit. We hope these 10 suggestions will help you do just that.

John Bradford (johnfbradford@gmail.com) is a senior fellow in the maritime security program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Now retired from the US Navy, he spent more than a dozen years as a surface warfare officer in ships forward deployed to the Western Pacific and studied in Indonesia and Singapore as an Olmsted Scholar.  

Blake Herzinger (blake.herzinger@gmail.com) is a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum and US Navy Reserve foreign area officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the US Navy, the Department of Defense, or the US government. @BDHerzinger.

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.

PacNet #33 – Kim Jong Un’s Failures Could be Washington’s Gain

At North Korea’s Eighth Party Congress in January, as state-run media reported ebullience among participants and extolled the virtues of Kim Jong Un’s leadership, external news noted a peculiarity: Kim’s admission that almost all sectors of the DPRK’s economy failed to meet their objectives. That Kim openly acknowledged such shortcomings during such a major gathering should be taken as tacit recognition of the ghastly state of the DPRK economy.

Kim’s resurrection of the phrase “Arduous March” during an April 8 conference also hints at the DPRK’s difficulties. Food security has become increasingly problematic and, with North Korea seeing its worst economic performance in two decades, Kim appears to be rolling back steps toward market liberalization.

North Korea has certainly grappled with events beyond the control of its leadership, including the severe summer floods of 2020 and the devastation wrought by COVID-19. The former exacerbated an already precarious food situation, while the latter reduced trade across its northern border to a soupçon of its usual volume. However, two issues loom for which Kim cannot escape responsibility: those diplomatic and those economic.

Failures of Diplomacy

Kim played a central role in planning the US-DPRK summits of 2018 and 2019, extending a direct invitation to then-President Trump and opting for high-level dialogue. He also placed himself in the limelight during summits with his South Korean counterpart.

Not since the Clinton administration had diplomatic relations offered such horizons. Then it was North Korea obtaining US cooperation in the Agreed Framework in 1994 and the Kim Dae-jung-era Sunshine Policy with South Korea (1998-2003). This time, the presidency of Donald Trump promised to be unlike anything before, while South Korea’s Moon Jae-in made improvement of North-South relations a foundational piece of his platform.

Initially, it appeared both would pay off: Trump’s first summit with Kim in June 2018 ended with the joint signing of a document that contained rhetoric on a desire for peace, denuclearization, and other commitments to cooperation. Southward, Kim made history by becoming the first North Korean leader to cross into ROK territory.

However, dialogue in both realms fell flat. This began with the abrupt breakdown of the second Trump-Kim summit in February 2019, which ended in accusations from both sides that the other was unreasonable. Trump stated that the breakdown was due to DPRK demands that sanctions be lifted in their entirety, while North Korea insisted that the DPRK had merely insisted on a partial lifting.

As for inter-Korean dialogue, both parties agreed to several compromises, including one to restore Inter-Korean economic cooperation in the form of joint ventures such as the Kaesong Industrial Region and the Mount Kumgang tourism project. Nevertheless, such tokenism failed to produce tangible benefits, joint economic projects have yet to resume, and the DPRK’s destruction of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in 2020 literally and symbolically dismantled a platform for improved inter-Korea relations.

A Miscarriage Five Years in the Making

Kim’s nonperformance in the diplomatic arena only compounded the failure of his five-year economic plan—and it was his economic plan, as he emphasized his role in the process in a way his father never had. A moribund economy is nothing new for the North, yet some forecast a sea change upon Kim Jong Un’s ascent. Having inherited a nascent nuclear weapons program, Kim enunciated his byongjin development policy, in which nuclear weapons would provide an environment secure enough to focus on economic development.

Kim crafted a development plan which included a softening of the collectivization of agricultural policies, a shift from heavy to light industry, and the energetic pursuit of special economic zones. The central authority afforded local governments a relatively free hand in their construction, with collaboration among private enterprises encouraged.

However, Pyongyang recently declared that factories will be left to their own devices to secure raw materials. The budget report out of the 2020 Parliamentary session for the first time in DPRK history noted that there had been flaws in the implementation of a national budget. Given the report’s modest growth goals for 2020, the state likely experienced significant hurdles in collecting revenue.

All of this leads back to the Eighth Party Congress. In sharp contrast to his father, Kim Jong Un bears the responsibility for a failure in policy implementation. His admission of failure at the Congress, therefore, speaks volumes.

Kim’s Reckoning

The same is true regarding the foundering of the Trump summits. Perhaps assuming that Trump would be more pliant than then-National Security Advisor John Bolton or then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it appears Kim sought high-level talks to be in the spotlight. Yet, despite both sides’ claims of a personal rapport, Kim could not turn this to his advantage.

Staking so much on Trump’s instincts for deal-making appears an even worse decision following his lost re-election bid. Kim’s strategy with the Biden administration remains a mystery, with Pyongyang seemingly refusing diplomatic contact and welcoming the new US team with a perfunctory missile test in March. In that same month, Biden confirmed his unwillingness to “sit down,” shutting the doors on a repeat of the Trump-Kim summitry. Meetings with the South have also failed to produce results, and Kim’s positioning as architect of the economic plan ensured that self-exculpation would be an impossibility.

Whether the reported malcontent among the DPRK’s elite is significant enough to alter Kim’s behavior is unknown, but as long as he remains unwilling to bargain away nuclear weapons, sanctions will continue to weigh down the North Korean economy.

Amid these failures, the United States may have an opportunity. While the Trump-Kim summits have ended in failure, they exhibited that a break from tradition may open new doors. The Biden administration should begin exploring new paradigms, one being the de facto recognition of the DPRK as a nuclear-armed state. The Administration could negotiate recognition as a jumping-off point to curtailing ballistic adventurism and beginning arms control negotiations. Given the state of its economy and Kim’s leadership, Biden might find Pyongyang receptive to agreements it usually would not entertain.

Daniel Mitchum (daniel@pacforum.org) is a resident Kelly Fellow at the Pacific Forum. He has spent the last 12 years living and working in South Korea. He holds a dual BA in Global Politics and East Asian Studies from State University of New York, Albany and an MA in International Cooperation from Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul.

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.

PacNet #19 – A Moment of Truth (Again) for ASEAN

I understand that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a consensus-based organization that “moves at a pace comfortable to all,” which means at a pace comfortable to its slowest member. I also understand that ASEAN generally adheres to the principle of “noninterference in the internal affairs of one another.” But when one of its members issues orders to “shoot in the head” unarmed peaceful protesters, this goes against everything that ASEAN is supposed to stand for. Its continued inaction in the face of the ruling junta’s assault against the people of Myanmar (Burma) will again raise the question of ASEAN’s viability and utility. Every ASEAN document proclaims the need for ASEAN to remain “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to dealing with security challenges in the region. The time has come for ASEAN to drive.

ASEAN’s Charter cites “(A)dhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms” as a basic precept in its preamble. Member States are supposed to act in accordance with “respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.” As Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a recent tweet, the “principle of noninterference in others’ domestic affairs cannot be used to conceal crimes against humanity; that would be tantamount to ASEAN complicity and consent.” In a separate post, he opined that ASEAN’s noninterference policy “marginalizes ASEAN in the moral esteem of the planet and thereby sidelines it from the centrality it has long sought and attained.”

But what can/should ASEAN do? For starters it can stop issuing anodyne proclamations calling for “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility” and instead address the problem head-on, as did the Philippine Foreign Ministry’s Statement “On the Violence on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day”: “The Philippines is profoundly dismayed at reports of excessive and needless force against unarmed protesters … We reiterate our call for security forces in Myanmar to exercise restraint and desist from resorting to disproportionate force against unarmed citizens. We remain steadfast in supporting Myanmar on its path to a fuller democracy …” Unfortunately, getting a consensus institution like ASEAN to issue such a public statement remains unlikely; it’s not consistent with “the ASEAN way.”

Nonetheless, ASEAN has at least two vehicles for delivering a quieter message to the generals. One is via a visit by the Troika, consisting of the heads of state of the current, immediate past, and next ASEAN Chair. In this case, that would be, respectively, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, and Cambodia—not the largest nor most influential messengers in ASEAN—but could easily be supplemented with others for a more impactful effect. However, both ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF, which includes China, India, Japan, and the US among others) have Expert and Eminent Persons Groups (full disclosure: I am a member of the latter) which could offer ASEAN’s “good offices” in seeking a solution. The ARF, in particular, is supposed to evolve from a confidence-building mechanism to undertake a preventive diplomacy mission; clearly the current situation in Myanmar is one that is ripe for outside mediation.

There are a number of senior ASEAN statesmen who could head such a delegation. My personal choice would be former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who would bring both personal prestige and the clout of ASEAN’s largest and most influential member to the table. Their message should be a simple one: immediately stop the killing of unarmed peaceful protesters or face being expelled from ASEAN. Better yet, ASEAN should inform the junta that it is prepared to recognize the interim unity government being set up by the CRPH—the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the national parliament), comprised mostly by members of parliament who were duly elected in last fall’s national elections. This prospective unity government, which involves a number of ethnic parties as well as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, would no doubt welcome ASEAN’s intervention (which renders the non-interference clause moot); most importantly, ASEAN’s recognition would de-legitimize the junta, a threat they would have to take seriously.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has taken a number of unilateral measures to pressure the junta to respect the people of Myanmar’s wishes. It also needs to pressure ASEAN to do more.  One vehicle for doing so would be through the Quad, whose four members—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – makes up half the non-ASEAN membership in ASEAN’s premier multilateral offering, the “leaders-led” East Asia Summit (EAS). Collectively, they, preferably with like-minded members New Zealand and South Korea, should inform ASEAN that they will not participate in future EAS meetings as long as a junta-led Myanmar remains in the group. This will, of course, require India—the world’s largest democracy—to get off the fence and finally speak out in defense of democracy for its neighbor. The final two EAS members, China and Russia, should, but are not likely to join this effort; both actually sent representatives to the junta’s March 27 Armed Forces Day parade in the midst of the civilian carnage. The people of Myanmar will remember this.

ASEAN was already in the midst of an identity crisis prior to the Myanmar coup, prompted by calls by leading intellectuals like Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan to censure two of its members—Cambodia and Lao—for putting the interests of their patron state—China—ahead of the interests of the group. Moving at a speed comfortable to them has prevented ASEAN from speaking out forcefully against Beijing’s excesses in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Here ASEAN needs to follow the example set by its track two neighbor, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), which adopted an 80% consensus rule which prevents one or two members from preventing the rest from moving forward when necessary. In practice, this rule is seldom applied. Knowing that one does not have a veto usually encourages the finding of a compromise solution.

If ASEAN were prepared to “move at a pace comfortable to none,” i.e., to compromise rather than let a single member (or two) hold the group hostage, then perhaps it could finally put some meaning behind the term “ASEAN centrality.” Right now it just means sitting in the middle of the road and going nowhere.

Postscript: If, as sadly anticipated, ASEAN once again fails to act, it may be time for Indonesia to free itself from its ASEAN shackles and take a unilateral leadership role commensurate with its size and international standing; by sending both a mediator and a message to Naypyitaw, Jokowi would also be sending a powerful message to his erstwhile ASEAN colleagues.  It would be interesting to then see how many, if any, of his fellow ASEAN members would step up along with Jakarta.

Ralph Cossa (ralph@pacforum.org) is WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies and President Emeritus at the Pacific Forum.
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.

PacNet #14 – Biden vs Trump on China Policy: Similar Substance, but Style Matters

The following is the second in a two-part series on the Biden administration’s policy toward the People’s Republic of China. Click here for part one on the expected continuities from the Trump administration.

Having examined several key aspects of the US-China relationship that will likely see more continuity than change under President Joe Biden’s administration, I will now examine some areas of expected divergence.

To begin with the most obvious point, former President Donald Trump and Biden have different profiles and personalities along almost every conceivable dimension. Whereas Trump was inexperienced, Biden has been operating at the top levels of US foreign policy for almost a half-century, including as a leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Whereas Trump preferred to fly by the seat of his pants, Biden prefers meticulous preparation in consultation with experienced advisors. Whereas Trump had a fraught relationship with many US allies and partners, Biden has already demonstrated a core commitment to leading a more consultative strategic policy. And where Trump often relied on superficialities in his personal relationships with foreign leaders—think of the exchanges of letters with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or the attempts at flattery with Russian President Vladimir Putin—Biden actually gets to know them and develops genuine rapport, the importance of which should not be underestimated in the world of diplomacy. This applies not only to Biden’s deep relationships with many US allies and partners, but his long association with more adversarial competitors like Chinese President Xi Jinping as well.

Biden, who has known Xi for almost a decade, had dozens of hours of private meetings with him, traveled thousands of miles with him, and will almost certainly have more cordial and candid personal interactions with the Chinese leader, which may contribute to a better read of his intentions and more effective bilateral communication. Following their first exchange on Feb. 10, Chinese state media said it showed “in-depth communication” and remarked that it was a “very positive” sign that the call lasted for more than two hours.

Another key difference will be greater interagency coordination within the US government, as many inexperienced officials and Trump loyalists have been replaced with policy experts. Longtime State Department official James Dobbins noted that during the Trump administration “many outsiders were recruited, far more than normal, but few had even a modicum of relevant experience. Those who did, for instance the individuals charged with the Iranian and North Korean nuclear portfolios, could never overcome the obstacle posed by flawed presidential policy.”

By contrast, most of Biden’s senior foreign policy officials have deep experience in government, as well as (in Dobbins’ words) a “reputation for competence and collegiality.” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, for example, had earlier served as a top aide to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Secretary of State Antony Blinken first joined the NSC under the Clinton administration in 1994, serving in a succession of senior foreign policy positions ever since. And the officials operating at lower levels of the ladder within the various key bureaucracies—the undersecretaries, deputy secretaries, ambassadors, and so forth—are similarly versed in their areas of responsibility. Expertise on China in particular is impressive, with well-known experts like Rush Doshi, Michael Chase, and Laura Rosenberger given prominent posts at the Defense Department and NSC. All of which should contribute to fewer unforced errors in the new administration; if and when President Biden takes a phone call from the president of Taiwan, for example, as President-elect Trump did in December 2016, few in the China-watching community will be scratching their heads and questioning whether it was a considered decision or one made on the fly.

A final key difference between the old and new administrations will be a greater emphasis by Biden on coalition-building, a necessary element of any China policy yet one that was constantly neglected by virtue of personal style during the Trump years. Given the current size and projected growth trajectory of the Chinese economy, Washington does not have sufficient leverage to compel any changes in Beijing unilaterally; buy-in from our allies and partners will be necessary for there to be any hope on that front. Nevertheless, Trump repeatedly picked unnecessary fights with key Indo-Pacific allies over isolated matters such as South Korean alliance contributions and US-Japanese trade negotiations, stoking resentment and concerns about Washington’s reliability. Having served as a senior Korea analyst for the US military during the first several years of the Trump administration, I can testify to how much hair was pulled out by policymakers during these sorts of diplomatic scuffles, and the costs to our reputation were real and severe.

Given enough time, though, Biden may be able to heal some of this damage and restore at least some confidence in American leadership among our traditional allies. Biden will likely also seek to expand this counter-China effort to newer partners like India, capitalizing on preexisting border tensions between Beijing and New Delhi. There is also increasing US pressure on NATO allies to become more engaged on the China portfolio, as witnessed in recent years as Washington lobbied various European nations to block installation of Huawei communications infrastructure or risk compromising intelligence cooperation. Somewhat surprisingly, Europe has begun to show positive signs in this direction. Earlier this month, France deployed two naval vessels, including a nuclear attack submarine to the South China Sea to show solidarity with the US, Australia, and Japan, and the UK has made similar moves in the recent past. China analysts continue watching to see if these initial moves are followed up over time with a more sustained campaign.

In short, the new Biden administration will offer sharp changes for the US on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, and China will see some changes as well as outlined above. In keeping with the thesis of my earlier article, however, it is important to put these changes in perspective and note how they are generally more stylistic than substantive. In aggregate, our China policy will almost certainly be one of the areas that experiences the least modification in the Biden White House. The former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously called for his nation to “hide its strength and bide its time” rather than make a blatant dash for superpower status. But as Secretary Blinken remarkedduring his confirmation hearings last month,

what we’ve seen in recent years, particularly since the rise of Xi Jinping as the leader, has been that the hiding and biding has gone away. They are much more assertive in making clear that they seek to become in effect the leading country in the world, the country that sets the norms, that sets the standards, and to put forward a model they hope other countries and people will ascribe to.

As this realization has become less and less debatable, it has driven China hands from different ideological persuasions to set aside their disagreements and come together to focus on this emerging and systemic global challenge. Given that US-China relations will arguably be the most important strategic issue of our time, preserving this consensus will be essential, especially in an age where so little else in Washington is bipartisan any longer.

Eric Feinberg (eric.m.feinberg@jhu.edu) is a postgraduate student in the Strategic Studies Department at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington and a Young Leader at Pacific Forum in Honolulu. Prior to SAIS, he was a senior Asia analyst at US Special Operations Command Pacific and a military intelligence analyst at US Army Pacific in Honolulu.

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.

PacNet #11 – The US Indo–Pacific Strategy: Don’t Overlook the Pacific Islands Region

This article summarizes the key recommendations found in his broader study of The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region.

If the past is precedent, as the Biden administration puts the finishing touches on its own Indo-Pacific strategy, one area will be largely overlooked: the Pacific Islands Region (PIR). The region has, in the past, been viewed as a tranquil backwater with little need for attention. Traditionally, the attention Washington did give the region was exclusively focused on Micronesia—a vast region containing both the Freely Associated States (FAS) and US territories such as Guam. The remainder of the PIR was often left in the hands of close US partners such as Australia and New Zealand. Washington’s strategic neglect of the PIR needs to end. While the United States has focused its attention elsewhere, China has established itself as a strong economic partner with a growing diplomatic network. If the Biden administration is serious about addressing China’s growing challenge to US interests across the world, it should not disregard a region where a little bit of attention, coupled with cooperation with like-minded partners, can go a long way.

My recent study on The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region provides an analysis of both US and Chinese influence in the PIR along with the important and growing role of regional friends and allies like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, India, and others. It argues that the PIR is just as crucial to maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) as is the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, or the Indian Ocean. Any continuation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy must not neglect the PIR. The Biden administration must focus on denying the use of the PIR to “unfriendly powers” for military purposes, as well as denying the ability of external powers to interdict vital sea lines of communication from the continental United States to Asia.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Washington must—as part of its broader Indo–Pacific Strategy—embrace the increasing multipolarity of the region and look past the traditional division of labor between just Australia, New Zealand, and itself. The Biden administration must partner with like-minded nations of all sizes such as Australia, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan  to reinforce broadly held international values conducive to a FOIP. To do this, the Biden administration should:

  • Go beyond its focus on the FAS and ensure its diplomatic engagement with the entire PIR is more consistent. An emphasis on the FAS, whilst warranted, has come at the detriment of Washington’s relationships in Melanesia and Polynesia. Raising the US delegation lead to the PIF to Secretary of State level or higher would demonstrate a positive step towards consistency.
  • Better acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR. The 2019 Indo–Pacific Strategy Report did little to acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR within its conceptualisation of a FOIP. Washington’s approaches thus far have given many in the PIR the impression that they are an “afterthought” or simply being “tacked onto the end” of the strategy.
  • Harness its key strengths: soft power and military relationships. The United States’ key strengths in the PIR are rooted in its strong historical, cultural, and linguistic connections to the region, as well as its military relationships. Washington can enhance these strengths through establishing:
  • Labor mobility schemes. Washington should consider expanding its existing arrangements with the FAS—which allows FAS citizens to work in the United States under special visa arrangements—to other PIR states. A similar model, called the Pacific Labor Mobility Scheme, has been employed successfully in Australia.
  • Military training, education, and joint–exercises. The United States should expand the number of joint exercises and training opportunities for PIR militaries. Furthermore, Washington should seek to expand its joint exercises and training opportunities to PIR states with security forces, but no standing militaries, such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
  • Habitual military-to-island relationships. The United States should expand the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program in the PIR. With relationships already established between the Nevada National Guard and Tonga and Fiji, this should be expanded to include partnerships in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
  • Expanding the US Defence Attaché network. The United States currently only has one USDAO for the entire PIR, located in Suva, Fiji. The number of USDAOs in the PIR should be expanded, with a particular focus on PNG and Tonga. An alternative option may be supporting PIR states with militaries to establish Defence Attachés in Washington.
  • Expanding VOA presence into the PIR. The lack of VOA broadcasting in the PIR presents an opportunity for Washington to double-down on its strengths in the information domain. This should be a joint venture with PIR countries to develop local language broadcasting on Pacific-focused issues.
  • Expand its diplomatic footprint. The United States’ six embassies in the PIR—three of which are within the FAS—give an unfortunate impression of the low level of strategic weight Washington places on the region. Washington must expand its diplomatic footprint, especially in Melanesia and Polynesia.
  • Focus heavily on targeted engagement with rising regional powers such as PNG and Fiji. PNG and Fiji have distinguished themselves as emerging activist regional powers in the PIR. Both nations have the highest GDP and populations, and field the region’s two largest militaries. Although PNG and Fiji have certainly explored more independent foreign policies and international activism in recent decades—making them somewhat harder to influence—this also makes them effective vectors of influence in the PIR.
  • Avoid a “False Dichotomy” Trap in the PIR. The PIR has made it clear that the region does not want engagement to be framed within the context of competition with China. Although strategic competition may serve as one rationale for engagement, it should not drive engagement. Rather than focusing on countering China in the PIR, the focus should be on encouraging, facilitating, and cooperating with like–minded partners to engage with the PIR—this serves to reinforce international values, naturally counterbalancing China’s undue influence. Encouraging multi-polarity will help avoid creating a “false dichotomy” in the PIR, whereby PIR countries are seen to be choosing between just the United States or China.
  • Revisit the division of labor in the PIR. The United States can no longer afford to rely on its informal “division of labour” with Australia and New Zealand in the PIR. As a self-declared “Pacific nation,” the US must take up greater responsibility in its own neighbourhood if its “revitalised engagement” is to go beyond maintaining its defence and security arrangements in the FAS. The passing of the BLUE Pacific Act should be a priority for the Biden Administration’s approach to the PIR.
  • Engage like-minded partners.  Encouraging several like-minded—not necessarily strategically aligned—partners to pursue a concerted FOIP strategy will make it more difficult for Pacific Island leaders to play the “China Card” by diluting any perceived China-US strategic dichotomy in the region and crowding Beijing’s engagement. Ultimately, PIR states are sovereign states with their own respective agency; however, harnessing like-minded small and middle powers will help in filling gaps that Washington cannot commit to.
  • Ensure good governance and engaging Taiwan. Unlike many of the aforementioned like-minded powers, Taiwan has been actively courting the PIR for decades in its “checkbook diplomacy” with China. Although much of this activity has subsided, Washington should continue to seek out joint or even multilateral cooperation activities with Taipei in the PIR to ensure good governance principles are being upheld.
  • Better incorporate emerging small and middle external powers into the existing regional architecture. Many of the aforementioned external powers are already increasing their engagement with the PIR under their own regional strategies. Washington must work with like-minded partners to ensure these strategies are not being engaged in competition with each other, but rather, in unison. Existing groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group, and FRANZ provide a strong basis for such coordination.
Patrick Dupont (pdupont.au@gmail.com) is a Non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. He is currently completing a Master of Security and Strategic Studies from Macquarie University.

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