PacNet #61 – The new National Security Strategy in the context of an unstated “cold war”

The Biden administration released America’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) on Oct. 12. For those who read such documents regularly, there were few surprises. Values were mentioned in the context of the United States’ position in the world and vis-a-vis perceived adversaries, such as Russia, Iran, and the People’s Republic of China, while the administration’s lines of effort were laid out in a typical ends, ways, and means format. There were also sections on each region of the world, where the strategies laid out a bit more context.

If one compares the Biden NSS with three other NSS—1994 under President Bill Clinton, 2002 under President George W. Bush, 2017 under President Donald Trump—released early in the president’s term, one can see the evolution of US national strategy over time. By doing a word count of key terms in all four documents—such as “alliance,” “Asia,” “China,” “Russia,” “Europe,” “democracy,” “freedom,” “free trade,” and “terrorism”—it is possible to discern an administration’s priorities by how many mentions a key term gets in each document. Seen across time, it’s interesting to note the variation in use of these terms and indicative of differences and commonalities between different administrations.

For all the differences between the two parties in the US system and the yawning gulf of the culture wars, the four NSS analyzed are fairly similar. Not because they are mundane documents written by bureaucrats—they are usually led by the White House of each administration who work hard to put the president’s stamp on US security posture. Rather, they are similar because the two parties—despite their domestic differences—share a common worldview and a similar conception of the US role within that world.

The four strategies all stress the importance of values and the democratic system to its foreign policy. US policymakers continue to stress the role of US values in achieving its paramount position and making the world a better place, though different strategies vary in how the administration expresses those values. Democratic administrations seem to mention “democracy” more than “freedom,” while the reverse is true for Republican administrations. There are also differences in whether the US is determined to export or defend those values.

The major tension point for the Biden administration is knowing there is going to be a drawn-out ideological struggle with the PRC and Russia, while wanting to avoid the term “cold war” due to its long-term implications. Despite a clear rejection of the concept, the NSS nevertheless heavily from US values language from the 1950s by dividing values into two forms—freedoms of liberalism (voting, political freedoms, free media) and freedoms from coercion and oppression. This approach was prominent in President Truman’s 1947 speech to Congress and makes sense because it widens the US appeal to global partners. While the first form would be attractive to fellow democratic liberal states in Europe, the second is more attractive to small and medium-sized non-democratic states whose sovereignty may be threatened by Moscow or Beijing. If one is to fight a long ideological competition with a powerful authoritarian power, then one must frame that power by its coercive practices while having a broad base of support.

The 2022 NSS asserts that its goal is, at the systemic level, to create an order that is free, open, and prosperous—language echoing that found in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and language developed with allies such as Japan over the past decade to frame Chinese actions in the South China Sea, its Belt and Road Initiative, and Russian efforts to destabilize and dominate Europe.

While previous strategies connect values with the overall international system, the Biden version follows that laid out in the Trump NSS by noting that China is also projecting its (authoritarian) values as it seeks to re-order the system.

Consequently, it lays out an architecture for out-competing the PRC across all domains, and this is the administration’s priority. Despite this, “Russia” still gains 71 mentions compared to “China” and “the PRC,” which had 54 between them. The most likely explanation is Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine, which dominates the section on Europe.

Speaking of Europe, one might expect to see the word “Europe” mentioned more than “Asia” or “Indo-Pacific” in earlier strategies but fade out as the PRC’s rise became a more pressing issue for US strategists, and this is borne out by analysis. Dropping from a high of 48 in the 1994 strategy, “Europe” is only mentioned 35 times in the 2022 NSS, while “Asia” and the “Indo-Pacific” are mentioned 43 times.

It notes that the lines between domestic and foreign policy are blurring in the age of social media, insecure supply chains, and data-related technologies. These, like 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum, and other emerging and critical technologies have grown in importance as Xi Jinping has accelerated the Digital China strategy. “Technology” was mentioned six times in 1994, nine times in 2002, 25 times in 2017, and 41 times in the 2022 NSS. This is a truly impressive marker of the importance of tech to the new era of competition.

The NSS also stresses the importance of allies, fairly common to most American strategic documents. However, the Biden administration’s strategy mentions “alliances” 17 times, only matched by the Bush administration’s, which was waging a global “war on terror” in 2002.

For those who track US trade policy, it will come as no surprise to see that “free trade” has also almost disappeared from the document, garnering only two mentions, a divergence between the United States and its allies. This reflects the United States’ continuing domestic debate over free trade agreements, sparked during the 2016 presidential election, which remains divisive among US policy elites.

Overall, the 2022 NSS is in line with those that came before it, but one can see the evolution towards a United States that must compete long-term with the PRC and Russia in the ideological, technological, military, and economic domains, and one that a United States that needs its allies to succeed. One can also see a glimpse of the values language used by former President Truman—which became the Truman Doctrine and laid the foundations for the generational competition with the Soviet Union. For those in the region who might view the United States as more obsessive about values—freedom and democracy—the document goes out of its way to create a non-liberal definition of freedom—one of freedom from coercion, a sort of support for sovereignty that underpinned US support for Turkey (a non-democracy in 1947). Surely, this is a definition that any regional state should support. If the United States can work with its partners and allies to make clear this is behind the term “free and open” with elements of open maritime access, the United States will begin to soften the resistance from regional friends and partners who do not share our democratic and liberal values. On the other hand, the lack of an economic framework is a key concern, given China’s pivotal role in the global economy and trade system—a very different challenge to that posed by a Cold War-era USSR.

A pragmatic strategy that lays the foundations for a decades-long competition but one that still needs to resolve key issues.

John Hemmings (john@pacforum.org) is Senior Director of the Indo-Pacific Foreign and Security Policy Program at the Pacific Forum.

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

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 #56 – Employing “smart power” to counter PRC efforts in Oceania

Recent developments indicate a cozying-up of Solomon Islands’ leaders to Beijing. This has set off alarm bells in Canberra, Wellington, and Washington, DC. World powers have largely ignored the Solomons and other Pacific Island nations for many years, as they have focused their attention on Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Korea, and (more recently) Ukraine. This is one reason the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) advances have been received favorably by some.

This development calls for a “smart power” approach. Building on the traditional contrast between “hard” (coercive military and economic) power and “soft” (the shaping of preferences via policy, culture, and values), Harvard Professor Joseph Nye and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have described the importance of “smart power,” recognizing that hard power alone cannot solve complex challenges. PRC foreign policy, especially the Belt and Road Initiative, has a patina of soft power, but faces growing resistance due to belatedly recognized adverse conditions of crippling debt, preferential use of Chinese labor, and cultural friction.

Strategically, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States should not ignore the PRC’s penetration of the South Pacific. Despite Beijing’s denials, its opaque agreement with the Solomon Islands government raises concerns that one outcome could be a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy base in the Solomon Islands, threatening all three Western nations.

Australia, New Zealand, and the United States should pay greater attention to Pacific Island nations. The recent visit of the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy is a start, but sustained attention is required. A broad-based smart power initiative is needed that would include more economic aid and cultural and people-to-people interactions that the populations of countries can see, with impacts they can feel. The United States, New Zealand, and Australia, plus Japan have great capacities for “soft power” in the Pacific. Japan, among other countries, have already made some investments, in addition to proposing others to address the forthcoming challenges of climate change.

There are other smart power efforts that would benefit Oceanic nations and counter the expansionist PRC efforts.

The USNS Mercy, a 1,000-bed US Navy hospital ship based in San Diego, has sailed throughout the Pacific offering medical care, including surgeries, to many island populations. A 2022 cruise is underway related to the Pacific Partnership, a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief international exercise. The benefits and goodwill resulting from USNS Mercy medical assistance missions is long-lasting. Nevertheless, the United States only has two such hospital ships; the other, the USNS Comfort, is based in Baltimore and sails in Latin America and Africa.

Why not have more? In the Pacific a fleet of three hospital ships could contribute greatly to US foreign policy objectives. The purchase or leasing and conversion of civilian cruise ships would be relatively quick and less expensive than building new hospital ships. Such a fleet of hospital ships could be a combined international effort involving Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, not only providing medical care but also helping to train indigenous medical personnel and thus leaving a long-lasting impact.

The US Navy also has a tremendous soft power capability with the Seabees—its construction battalions. With the threat of rising sea levels many Indo-Pacific villages and island infrastructures face relocation challenges. The employment of Seabees for high priority remedial construction projects, especially if combined with use of local labor and training, would meet needs that many island nations cannot satisfy themselves.
Off-duty Navy personnel have often volunteered their labor to local US communities. For example, the off-duty Gold Crew of the USS Maryland (SSBN 738) spent a week helping to restore the village hall in Galesville, Maryland. Such efforts earned the Navy great kudos from the local community. Such efforts could be organized in the Indo-Pacific.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has become a major problem worldwide, particularly in the Pacific, notes the US Coast Guard in its 2020 strategic outlook. The Nature Conservancy estimates that many Pacific Island nations will not be able to meet their local food needs in a few years given their population growth and continued IUU fishing. The PRC is the Number 1 IUU fishing offender. The US possesses a new “smart power” beyond those described by Professor Nye. That is “intelligence power” —the ability to collect and analyze data to broadly surveil the oceans and understand where IUU fishing is occurring. Much of this intelligence is now commercially collected and therefore unclassified. This intelligence needs to be shared comprehensively with Indo-Pacific nations to assist their law enforcement efforts.

These initiatives should be but one of many “smart power” outreach efforts from the US that ought to include expanded Peace Corps efforts, USAID-funded climate change mitigation efforts, sponsored cultural visits, and broad-based human capital training of public servants and others. These efforts need to start now. Otherwise, we will witness continued aggressive PRC penetration of the Pacific.

Peter C. Oleson (peter.oleson@yahoo.com) is a member of the executive committee of the International Maritime Security Exchange (IMSE), a former senior US government official, and professor.

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

Photo: Solomon Islands by the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific of the International Labour Organization (ILO)

PacNet #54 – Comparative Connections Summary: September 2022

Comparative Connections Summary:
May-August 2022

REGIONAL OVERVIEW

Washington “Pivots” to Asia

BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC   FORUM

The Biden administration has rediscovered Asia. And, for better or worse, so has the US Congress. While the administration’s national security documents (or at least their unclassified sneak previews) have identified the Indo-Pacific as a priority theater vital to US national security and China as “our most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge,” Europe continues to steal headlines and the lion’s share of the administration’s (and international media’s) attention, thanks to Vladimir Putin and his unwarranted (and so far unsuccessful) invasion of Ukraine. While many eyes remain on Putin’s war (and NATO’s US-led solid support for Kyiv), this reporting period saw President Biden finally make his first trip to Asia to visit longstanding US allies and attend the second in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) Summit. Prior to his trip, Biden hosted his first US-ASEAN Summit in Washington. Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were both in Southeast Asia, respectively for the Shangri-La Dialogue and for various ASEAN-driven ministerials. These administration trips were largely overshadowed, however, by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taiwan, the first by a House Speaker in 25 years, which was sure to—and clearly did—draw Beijing’s ire.

 

US-JAPAN RELATIONS

Abe’s Legacy and the Alliance Agenda

BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, YALE MACMILLAN CENTER

It was a busy summer for the United States and Japan. President Joe Biden visited Asia, stopping first in Seoul to meet new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and then spending two days in Tokyo for a bilateral summit with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and a follow-on meeting with the two other leaders of the Quad, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese. Biden announced his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Tokyo with Kishida by his side. Economic security legislation in both Japan and the United States revealed the unfolding strategic calculations for the alliance. National efforts to enhance economic productivity and resilience included efforts to ensure reliable supply chains for Japanese and US manufacturers as well as the desire for greater cooperation among the advanced industrial economies to dominate the next generation of technological innovation. State investment in attracting semiconductor suppliers to Japan and the United States demonstrate the urgency with which both governments seek to diminish reliance on critical technology imports.

 

US-CHINA RELATIONS

US-China Relations Sink Further Amid Another Taiwan Strait Crisis

BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US

Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan—the first visit by a speaker of the US House of Representatives in 25 years—was met by a strong response from China that included provocative military exercises, punitive economic measures against Taiwan, and the suspension and cancellation of a series of dialogues with the United States. Just prior to Pelosi’s visit, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping held their fifth virtual conversation since Biden’s inauguration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a comprehensive speech on the administration’s China strategy in late May. Biden officials debated whether to lift some of the tariffs imposed on China under the Trump administration, but as of the end of August, there was no decision to do so. Human rights remained on the US agenda, with statements issued on the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre and on the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC, and a ban imposed on imports into the US of products made by forced labor in Xinjiang. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

 

US-KOREA RELATIONS

Split Images

BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM

Lopsided: such was the state of US relations with the two Koreas during May-August 2022. The Washington-Seoul axis mostly flourished on the military/security, diplomatic, economic, and cultural fronts, while Washington and Pyongyang deepened doldrums whose depths had been plumbed in prior reporting periods. For the former, the most significant items included the May inauguration of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and quick follow-on summit with US President Joe Biden, increasing trilateral US-South Korea-Japan cooperation, a raft of announcements on US-South Korea economic and technology cooperation, the resumption of field maneuvers in US-South Korea joint military exercises, and South Korea’s continuing growth as a serious middle power player in foreign policy, including stepped-up engagement with NATO. In US-North Korea relations, a COVID-19 outbreak failed to lead the Kim Jung Un regime to open up to outside humanitarian assistance, as Pyongyang remained content to keep borders mostly closed and allow the virus to course through the population with only basic prophylactic measures. On the positive side, Pyongyang’s hyperactive missile testing in spring slowed during summer, and a feared (yet still expected) seventh nuclear test failed to materialize.

 

US-INDIA RELATIONS

Relations at 75: Hawaii to the Himalayas

BY AKHIL RAMESH, PACIFIC FORUM

Like the saying, “after the storm comes the calm,” US-India relations witnessed four months of productive talks, cooperation, and collaboration. This contrasted with the previous trimester, mired as it was by Cold-War era differences brought about by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. There were thriving Indo-Pacific synergies and the decline of Cold War-era differences. The US and India continued and expanded cooperation on a wide array of regional and global issues, such as climate change, supply chains, and the Sri Lankan crisis. They solidified their defense partnership from Hawaii to the Himalayas through navy and military exercises. The US turned down pressure on India over Russian oil purchases and recalibrated the dialogue to address other pressing challenges. They did not avoid tough conversations, however. India reinforced its view of the US and other Western nations’ role in keeping the Indo-Pacific a safer and more open region.

 

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

Washington Revs Up Diplomacy with Southeast Asia

BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY

The Biden administration’s diplomatic campaign in Southeast Asia kicked into high gear in the late spring and continued through the summer. On May 12-13 President Biden co-hosted, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as the 2022 ASEAN chair, the first-ever US-ASEAN Special Summit to be held in Washington, DC. US relations in the region were also boosted when the Biden administration launched the long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) on May 23; seven Southeast Asian countries indicated interest in joining, although few are likely to accede to all four pillars of the framework in the near-term. Two Cabinet officials made visits to two US treaty allies: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Thailand in June and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to the Philippines in August. Notwithstanding continuing differences over human rights, the visits served to reaffirm the bilateral alliances. However, global and regional tensions remained high, over the persistent crisis in Ukraine; brinksmanship in the Taiwan Straits; and the internal conflict in Myanmar which has only deteriorated further. These pressures only divided ASEAN further as the region looks ahead to a trifecta of international meetings—APEC, East Asia Summit, and the G20—in the fall.

 

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

Countering US Initiatives, Taiwan Crisis Complications

BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE

Chinese enhanced activism in Southeast Asia in this reporting period focused on countering Biden administration efforts to enhance influence in the Indo-Pacific. The Chinese government intensified its depiction of the United States as disrupting regional order and portraying itself as the regional stabilizer. Beijing’s effort faced complications and uncertain prospects as Chinese military forces in August launched large-scale provocative shows of force amid strident media warnings targeting the United States over Taiwan.

 

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS

Pelosi’s “Ironclad Commitment” or “Political Stunt” Leads to Crisis and Promises Instability in the Taiwan Strait

BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

Between May 1 and Sept. 1, tensions between Taiwan and China exploded in ways few anticipated but were in retrospect the culmination of well-established dynamics. The US once again was right in the middle. On Aug. 2, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, which Taiwan’s government celebrated as the most important visit in at least 25 years by a US politician. She promised Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen that US support for Taiwan’s security would remain “ironclad.” On Aug. 4, the day after Pelosi departed Taiwan, China signaled its displeasure by conducting the most extensive military exercises ever conducted near Taiwan, closer to the island than any before, and launching ballistic missiles over Taiwan’s capital to land in waters east of the island. Throughout these exercises, the Chinese, Taiwan, and US militaries avoided any interactions that might have provoked confrontation. On Aug. 10, the Chinese military announced that the exercises had concluded, achieving their objectives, but that the military would continue its activities around Taiwan.

 

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS

An Inauspicious Start

BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK

On May 10 Yoon Suk Yeol took office as ROK president, and rapidly lost popularity. While talking tough on North Korea, he also offered aid to fight COVID-19—but was ignored. His “audacious plan,” wholly unoriginal, to reward Pyongyang materially if it denuclearizes, had very little detail. For months the DPRK did not even mention Yoon. In late July Kim Jong Un sharply warned him against any pre-emptive strike. In August, his sister Kim Yo Jong put the boot in: ludicrously blaming materials sent by ROK activists for bringing COVID-19 into the DPRK, savaging Yoon’s proposal as insulting and unoriginal, and saying the North will never talk to him. At home, meanwhile, the new government chose to reopen two contentious inter-Korean episodes from the recent past, seemingly to punish its predecessor’s policies. It was hard to see how good could come of that, or to hold out hope for any thaw on the peninsula.

 

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS

A Muted 30-Year Anniversary

BY SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

Beijing and Seoul marked 30 years of diplomatic ties on Aug. 24 as South Korea transitioned to a new administration under President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May. Although early high-level exchanges reaffirmed partnership, the two leaderships confront growing pressures from US-China competition, economic uncertainty, and public hostility. Domestic priorities in China in light of the 20th Party Congress and South Korea’s shift to conservative rule amplify these concerns. The impact of US-China rivalry on the China-South Korea relationship extends from security to economic coordination, including approaches to THAAD and global supply chains, and export competition, especially in semiconductors, challenges new Xi Jinping-Yoon economic agreements. Moreover, public hostility is strongest among South Korea’s younger generation, raising pessimistic prospects for future China-South Korea ties. Despite mixed signals, false starts, and the continued absence of leader-level meetings marking the recovery of economic ties between China and North Korea, geopolitical developments have pushed the two countries closer together. Such engagement features mutual reinforcement of each other’s positions on issues of vital interest and solidarity in response to US policies.

 

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS

Few Positive Signs and Much Negativity

BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

The tone of China-Japan relations became more alarmist on both sides with long-anticipated plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations still clouded with uncertainty. Several related events were canceled or postponed sine die. Internationally, Prime Minister Kishida was exceptionally active, attending meetings of the Quad, the G7, NATO, and Shangri-La Dialogue, where he delivered the keynote address. A common theme was attention to a Free and Open Pacific (FOIP) and the need for stability in the region, both of which Beijing sees as intended to constrain China. At NATO, Kishida met with US and South Korean representatives for their first trilateral meeting in nearly five years and suggested the possibility of joint military exercises. Meanwhile, China continued pressure on Taiwan and the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Although Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jieqi were active internationally, Xi Jinping himself has not ventured outside the Chinese mainland since January 2020 save for a brief, tightly controlled visit to Hong Kong, which is unquestionably part of China.

 

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS

The Passing of Abe and Japan-Korea Relations

BY JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY & ANDY LIM, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

How might the passing of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo impact Tokyo’s approach to Seoul? This unexpected turn of events loomed large in the minds of many who have been cautiously optimistic that Japan and South Korea would take steps toward a breakthrough in their stalled relations. In our last issue, we discussed how this summer could provide good timing for Seoul and Tokyo to create momentum in this direction after Yoon Suk Yeol’s inauguration as president in South Korea and the Upper House election in Japan. However, the results from this summer were mixed. Seoul and Tokyo have not yet announced whether Yoon and Kishida will hold a summit any time soon. Both leaders ended the summer juggling domestic politics amid declining approval ratings. However, there were some meaningful exchanges between the two governments, signaling that both sides were interested in improving relations.

 

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Embracing a Longer and/or Wider Conflict?

BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY

Unlike in 1914, the “guns of the August” in 2022 played out at the two ends of the Eurasian continent. In Europe, the war was grinding largely to a stagnant line of active skirmishes in eastern and southern Ukraine. In the east, rising tension in US-China relations regarding Taiwan led to an unprecedented use of force around Taiwan. Alongside Moscow’s quick and strong support of China, Beijing carefully calibrated its strategic partnership with Russia with signals of symbolism and substance. Xi and Putin directly conversed only once (June 15). Bilateral trade and mil-mil ties, however, bounced back quickly thanks to, at least partially, the “Ukraine factor” and their respective delinking from the West. At the end of August, Mikhail Gorbachev’s death meant both much and yet so little for a world moving rapidly toward a “war with both Russia and China,” in the words of Henry Kissinger.

 

AUSTRALIA-US/EAST ASIA RELATIONS

Australia’s New Government: Climate, China and AUKUS

BY GRAEME DOBELL, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE

Australia has changed government and the political war over climate change draws to a close after raging for 15 years. The new Labor government led by Anthony Albanese promises continuity on foreign and defense policy, delivered with a different tone. In the government’s first 100 days, it chipped some ice from the frosty relationship with China. Ending a Beijing ban on meetings with Australian ministers that was in its third year, Chinese ministers had face-to-face talks with Australia’s foreign minister and defense minister. Albanese’s observation that dealing with China will continue to be difficult was demonstrated by a diplomatic duel in the South Pacific, as Canberra pushed back at Beijing’s ambition for a greater security role in islands. Two major defense announcements are due in the first months of 2023: the plan for an Australian nuclear submarine, based on the AUKUS agreement with the US and UK, plus a re-set of Australia’s military and strategic posture because of the toughest security environment in decades. Labor says the alliance with the US should go “beyond interoperability to interchangeability” so the two militaries can “operate seamlessly together at speed.”

 

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors

PacNet #49 – Continued evolutions in the regional architecture of the Indo-Pacific

Policymakers, analysts, and scholars have dedicated prodigious efforts toward fathoming the extreme complexity of the regional architecture—institutions, regimes, alliances, and other forms of multi/mini/bilateral cooperation—in the Indo-Pacific. With constant evolutions in this architecture, wrought by the appearance of new institutions and the gradual passing of others into obscurity, the task continues. One session of the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Study Group meeting of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) convened by Pacific Forum in Ho Chi Minh City in July debated the current state of the region and arrived at some of the following conclusions.

For starters, the nature of the regional architecture is becoming more, not less, complex and expansive, especially as the regional focus broadens and elides toward “Indo-Pacific” institutions. Many epithets have been coined to capture this condition, such as a “complex patchwork” (Victor Cha), or a “tangled web” (William Tow), as part of a “multiplex” order (Kishore Mahbubani). Though observers were often wont to point to the institutional underdevelopment of regional organization in comparison to the Euro-Atlantic security complex, it is not a lack of institutions—they continue to proliferate—but lack of effectiveness that often characterizes the region.

Coming up with some workable schemata to capture the structuring and dynamics of the region’s architecture is no mean feat, and efforts to systematize our understanding are a continuing preoccupation among the strategic community. One way is to categorize the architecture as a whole into three (overlapping and interconnected) “layers.”

The first layer constitutes the most inclusive and pan-regional multilateral institutions, many driven by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Security and economic dialogue forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea), the Regional and Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting+ constitute the organisation’s claim to “centrality.” These are accompanied by more US-orientated organizations such as the venerable Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the substitute for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, championed by Japan and Australia.

Over the past couple of decades, however, China has taken a major role in establishing regional institutions configured to its own taste, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). These are just some of the most prominent among a truly bewildering array of multilateral institutions, and there are many more at a sub-regional level, such as the Pacific Islands Forum.

Most of these multilateral dialogues are relatively inclusive, though some states are notably excluded (e.g., the United States from the SCO), or in some cases have declined membership (e.g., the United States and Japan with the AIIB). Also, since these multilaterals are so inclusive, they suffer from a lack of consensus, inhibiting their efforts to resolve important security and economic questions. They are far from approaching any notion of “collective security,” with the arguable partial exception of ASEAN itself as a self-proclaimed “security community.” Moreover, some of these institutions have become arenas for great power rivalry, as leading states seek to win the allegiance of smaller members and ensure their interests prevail against those of their competitors.

Consequentially, the second layer of regional architecture, pivoting on the US “hub and spokes” system of bilateral alliances, remains highly relevant, not just to Washington and its allies, but to the other states in the region as well. Because these alliances are typically anchored in a binding mutual security treaty (through there are caveats to this), they are the closest we have to any form of “collective defense” mechanism. Even non-allies view the presence of US military power and regional engagement as an essential counterweight to their concerns about China. Significantly, the original hub-and-spokes model has begun to transform itself through a reshuffling of the relative importance and commitment of allies, and the addition of non-alliance forms of security cooperation with regional states known as “strategic partnerships.”

But most recently, a third layer has begun to (re-)emerge, either at the interstices of these two original layers or apart from them. New small-group “minilaterals” such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, dubbed AUKUS, feature most prominently in strategic debates. Yet they join older configurations such as the US-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue and the UK-Australia-New Zealand-Singapore-Malaysia Five Power Defence Arrangement and emerging ones such as the Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral, and a putative US-India-France-Australia quadrilateral, with the scope of the latter two focused primarily on Indian Ocean affairs. This telegraphs a shift towards a more Indo-Pacific, rather than Asia-Pacific architecture in future.

Though minilateral forms of cooperation existed in the past—think of the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and Korean Peninsula Economic Development Organization—the greater proliferation of such minilaterals today is conspicuous. There are many explanations for this.

First, there may be some dissatisfaction with the performance of layer-one multilateral institutions, especially given the dissent between members over contested issues. Select states have turned to “like-minded” countries who share a closer alignment of values and interests to effect practical cooperative activities rather than pure dialogue. Second, many of the minilaterals are in some ways extensions of the layer-two US hub-and-spoke alliance system, bringing together allies and new strategic partners to advance common objectives. Third, some minilaterals, where Washington is absent, for example the Australia-India-Japan trilateral, create scope for cooperation between secondary powers where the United States does not share their interests or cannot allocate the necessary capacity, or, as a “hedge” against possible future US disinvolvement in Indo-Pacific affairs.

In sum, there is a burgeoning regional architecture increasingly extending out from what was once known as the “Asia-Pacific” to the Indian Ocean (the “Indo-Pacific”), with three layers, each holding institutions or configurations that can be functionally differentiated between “hard” or “soft” security foci, or economic imperatives, or come combination of both. Some institutions are inclusive and comprehensive, while others are more exclusive and reflect deeper alignment between their member states.

Distilling the relationship between these layers is a difficult task, but what can be said with a modicum of confidence is that they serve in tandem to contribute to the prevailing regional order by offering checks and balances on the behavior of individual states in some cases, whilst in others, permitting closer cooperation to provide collectively for national security. What they do not amount to is the elusive goal of an Indo-Pacific “community.” This will have to wait, and in the meantime building up the region’s architecture in an increasingly contested environment remains a work in progress.

Thomas Wilkins (thomas.wilkins@sydney.edu.au) is an Adjunct Senior Fellow (non-resident), Pacific Forum, Senior Fellow, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney.

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

Photo: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan with US President Joe Biden by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Government of Japan.

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 #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 #3 Abe was key to the Indo-Pacific’s evolution

This is a transitional moment for the Indo-Pacific. Regional governments are forging new security relationships—the Japan-Australia partnership is the leading edge, as various European governments jostle for inclusion—and new institutions are emerging—from AUKUS to the Quad in the security sphere and at the same time, economic configurations include CPTPP and RCEP.

How did we get here? There are several explanations. Realists insist that rising powers create instability, triggered either by their ambition or the hegemon’s insecurity. For others, the unraveling of the architecture of coexistence, in which China provided markets and the US provided security, was the problem. To my mind, there are still more basic explanations.

First, you need a threat, a source of instability big enough to motivate states to act. With all due respect to John Mearsheimer, China doesn’t fit the bill—at least, not until recently. China has been rising for decades and while that created concern, there wasn’t concerted action to balance against it until Xi Jinping took power. He inherited a powerhouse economy and a modernizing military and married them to ambition and vision—a Belt and Road Initiative that girdled the globe—to pursue the China dream. His ascension and his muscular foreign policy unnerved governments worldwide. If the dream belonged to the nation, it is Xi who acted to make it real: The elimination of rivals, the consolidation of power, and efforts to entrench himself in office make plain that he is a singular world-historical individual who drives decision making in Beijing.

That security threat has been magnified by perceived unreliability on the United States. It’s tempting to blame Donald Trump for this. He created considerable unease with his disdain for alliances, contempt for multilateralism, and narrowly defined view of US national interests, but concern predates his administration. The US refusal to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a strategic agreement masquerading as a trade deal that Washington was instrumental in negotiating, is the most glaring example, and that was President Obama’s fault. The failure to ensure that China honored the purported agreement to withdraw its forces from Scarborough Shoal was another blow to US credibility.

Trump’s mercurial and transactional approach to policy crystalized fears and left allies and partners wondering what might be next. While the worst predictions did not come true, the damage was done. Governments around the region know that even if Trump departed, Trumpism remains, and his foreign policy mindset could reassert itself in Washington even if he did not return to power.

More alarming, though, is a realization that a “mainstream,” traditionally minded president like Joe Biden can still unsettle the status quo. The withdrawal from Afghanistan rattled even those allies who approved of the decision but were alarmed by the incompetence of its execution and the lack of consultation. The persistence of Trump’s thinking about economic security, manifest most plainly in tariffs that remain in place against allies, is another source of concern. Other moves, such as the abrupt cancellation of the France-Australian submarine agreement and the substitution of a UK-US deal, reinforce a belief that Washington’s field of vision is narrowing and that allies and partners play increasingly bit roles.

A third factor that shaped the region’s evolution was the tenure of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. His was one of the most remarkable second acts in world politics. After a brutal failure during his first term as prime minister, he returned to the Kantei for a period of stability, energy, and creativity unrivaled in Japan’s modern history.

The fact that Abe stayed in office as long as he did—he claimed the record for the longest-serving PM in the country’s history—transformed perceptions of Japan. His determination to modernize the country’s national security bureaucracy and subsequent commitment to using that power and purpose to support a wobbling regional order yielded institutions—the CPTPP and the Quad, to name but two—pillars of the emerging architecture.

A fourth and final key factor is a conceptual framework, the Indo-Pacific. Abe championed this concept, but it deserves recognition on its own. While the idea of an Indo-Pacific strategic space had been employed by US Pacific Command combatant commanders from the late 1980s, Abe elevated that idea to a guiding principle in his 2007 speech to the Indian Parliament in which he spoke of “the confluence of two seas.” Obama’s “rebalance” incorporated the concept, but it didn’t assume prominence until the Trump administration adopted the framework in 2017.

The Indo-Pacific is a curious geographical space. China is physically in the middle, but it’s bracketed between two democratic powers. The inclusion of India as a geopolitical counterweight to China is one of the most obvious intentions of its proponents. More important, that Indo-Pacific frame is a predominately maritime domain and links the strategic space to the trade routes that run through its heart. In addition, the inclusion of the Indian Ocean invites European countries with an African presence to be engaged. These considerations expand the number of countries that can claim an interest in events within that region. It is thus an inherently inclusive framework, which allows more countries to participate in regional security affairs.

The key variable appears to have been Abe—which means that our current moment may well result from considerable luck. Abe was a break with history, and Japan appears to be resorting to kind. His successor was in office for just a year. His successor, Kishida Fumio, is popular, but he is a traditional Japanese politician who mediates among factions and plays down his own opinions. There is mounting evidence that the Japanese public is increasingly inward-focused, cautious, and risk-averse. It can be led, but Kishida will have to have vision, charisma, competence, and luck, especially given the challenging circumstances—COVID, China, and a distracted ally.

Still, trajectories have been set, and that will allow bureaucracies to follow through. Headwinds will grow, but there is enough momentum and energy to believe that a genuine regional security architecture will emerge.

Brad Glosserman (brad@pacforum.org) is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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 #49 – Xi Jinping’s top five foreign policy mistakes

Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy is stimulating increased international opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda, undoing years of effort by Chinese officials to assure regional governments that a stronger China will be peaceful and non-domineering. Here are five examples of Xi’s self-defeating decision-making in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) foreign relations.

Wolf Warriorism

Xi has ordered his diplomats to demonstrate “fighting spirit” and to “dare to show their swords.” Accordingly, over the past two years Chinese diplomats have aimed jarring insults and threats at various countries, not just Western democracies, but also Brazil, Kazakhstan, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Thailand, and South Korea. The result is unsurprising. Public opinion surveys by the Pew Research Center and other pollsters show a marked increase in negative feeling toward China since 2019 in Europe, Australia, Japan, the United States, and other countries. Former Singaporean senior foreign ministry official Bilihari Kausikan said “China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ are doing a better job than any American diplomat of arousing anti-Chinese feelings around the world.” Chinese diplomats could defend their country’s actions differently. Instead, Wolf Warriorism acts as an extension of domestic politics, with little regard for harm done to China’s international prestige and relationships.

Galwan Valley skirmish

According to Indian sources, this June 2020 battle on the disputed Sino-Indian border began when Chinese troops ambushed and killed an Indian colonel who had approached the Chinese unarmed and in good faith to negotiate de-escalation. Whether or not Beijing ordered this particular act, a PRC policy of creeping expansionism made an eventual confrontation almost inevitable absent a tacit Indian surrender. For years the Chinese have built infrastructure to facilitate quick military mobilization in disputed areas. The Chinese government found it intolerable when the Indian side started to do the same in response.

The clash caused a long-term hardening of Indian attitudes and policy toward China. The Indian government cancelled several infrastructure construction deals with China, halted the purchase of Huawei information technology equipment, and sought to economically decouple from China in other important sectors. New Delhi re-committed itself to blocking Chinese expansion into disputed areas. India has signaled a deeper commitment to the Quad, was quick to express support for the AUKUS agreement, and now sends warships into the South China Sea—acts that Beijing finds threatening.

South China Sea policy

Having already distinguished itself as the most aggressive of the South China Sea claimants, Beijing started building sizeable artificial islands in 2013. China has now installed military facilities, including runways, docks, barracks, and missile batteries, on at least three reefs in the Spratly group. The PRC’s South China Sea policy highlights Beijing choosing to impose its will upon weaker neighbors rather than seeking a mutually acceptable compromise. It is also another example of the Chinese government disregarding an international agreement to which China was a signatory. Beijing has argued that China’s “historic rights” to the South China Sea take precedence over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and contemptuously rejected the 2016 ruling against China by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The upside of these outposts, located far from mainland China, is uncertain. They might be more liability than asset to the PRC in a time of conflict. As for the downside: more than any other single Chinese policy, the new bases convinced international observers that PRC foreign policy under Xi was taking an aggressive turn, with more emphasis on winning rather than managing strategic disputes, and less effort to avoid alarming other governments in the Indo-Pacific.

Taiwan

Rather than blazing a creative new solution to the cross-Strait dispute, the man celebrated for “Xi Jinping Thought” has simply doubled-down on his predecessors’ demonstrably failed policies. Xi maintains that unification is essential to China’s “rejuvenation,” although the PRC is abundantly prosperous and secure without controlling Taiwan. He has continued to insist that Taiwan’s destiny is “one country, two systems” (1C2S). Taiwan’s people, however, never supported 1C2S, and the destruction of Hong Kong’s liberties has thoroughly discredited the concept. That Xi would still speak of 1C2S in a message to Taiwan as recently as Oct. 9 indicates a stunning intellectual and political sclerosis.

Finally, Xi has increased military pressure on Taiwan. This has deepened resentment on the island toward China and bolsters support for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which now holds both the presidency and a legislative majority. The heightened sense of danger has prodded Taiwan to implement asymmetric defense, which will make it more capable of fighting off an attempted PRC invasion. The Biden administration has reaffirmed US support for Taiwan as “rock solid.” Even Japanese leaders are now openly discussingthe increasing likelihood that Japan would help defend Taiwan.

Xi’s Taiwan policy works to eliminate possible solutions other than a war that, even in the best-case scenario, would be disastrous for China.

Economic coercion against Australia

In April 2020, Canberra displeased Beijing by calling for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. The PRC retaliated by cutting importsof 10 Australian products. As in previous cases, Chinese officials implausibly denied that the restrictions were politically motivated, a gratuitous show of duplicity.

The consequences of this Chinese policy were worse for China than for Australia. Canberra did not accommodate the 14 political demandsmade by the Chinese embassy in November 2020. Australia suffered little from the import bans, finding other buyers for much of the supply turned away by China. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently described the damage done to Australia’s economy as “relatively modest.” In addition to the reputation cost to Beijing, the Chinese government’s campaign against Australia drew greater international attention to the dangers of doing business with China. Power shortages in China during autumn 2021 are partly due to a coal shortage, worsened by the sanction against Australian coal imports. The attempt to punish Australia has increased momentum for addressing China’s systematic violation of both the spirit and the letter of its World Trade Organization obligations. Canberra’s refusal to capitulate may serve as an inspiration for other governments under Chinese economic pressure over a political disagreement, diminishing the usefulness of this tactic.

What drives Xi? First, he has relied heavily on pandering to Chinese nationalism. Appearing to defend China’s interests against challenges by foreigners makes the Xi regime more popular and implicitly makes opposing Xi seem unpatriotic.

Second, Xi rules during a period of Chinese hubris. By 2012, when Xi assumed leadership, China was the world’s second-largest economy and on track to surpass the United States for the top spot. Beijing had hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, China’s coming-out party as a world power, while the financial crisis in 2007-2008 convinced Chinese observers that America was in rapid decline even as China surged ahead.

A third contributing factor is hyper-authoritarianism. Xi has concentrated numerous decision-making powers in himself, built up a personality cult, and prioritized political correctness over pragmatic analysis. The resulting political climate is not conducive to advisors warning Xi that he is making mistakes.

Xi’s goals include increasing China’s international stature and quashing international criticism. He says he wants to cultivate the image of a “credible, loveable and respectable China.” Xi seeks to maximize China’s access to global markets and technology. He wants to hasten the withdrawal of US strategic influence from the region. He wants the world to believe “China will never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence.”

Xi’s major foreign policy errors, however, have undermined these goals. The PRC government under Xi has indulged nationalistic domestic public opinion at the risk of sabotaging the important longer-term national objectives that Xi has specified as central to his “China dream.”

A PRC that other states perceive as aggressive is engendering coordinated strategic opposition. This will make it harder for China to become a regional and global leader. If other governments believe China is expansionist, they will believe every strategic gain by China emboldens Beijing to strive for more. During Xi’s tenure this logic has become commonplace in discussions about Beijing’s designs on Taiwan and the South China Sea. There is also an important economic and technological cost to China, as worried trade partners decouple to reduce their vulnerability to PRC coercion and to avoid selling China the rope that China might hang them with.

Chinese remember Mao’s leadership as 70% good. Xi may have difficulty reaching even that modest standard.

Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

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