PacNet #17 – Ukraine: After invasion, what?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a pressure campaign unprecedented in both speed and severity. Many governments are trying to further pressure Moscow. A few others are discussing off-ramps to deescalate the conflict.

It isn’t clear, however, what this pressure or those off-ramps are meant to achieve because there has been little discussion of goals. This is a problem because without clear and realistic goals, any endeavor risks crumbling under its own weight or having unwanted consequences.

There can be five different goals after an invasion has begun. The first is to limit damage. In its most sweeping form, it means not getting involved, accepting that the invasion will proceed largely unimpeded and that the targeted country’s sovereignty will be sacrificed. The second goal is to stop the aggressor’s advance and reach an agreement that hands over some, but not all, of its anticipated gains. The third goal is to restore the status quo ante. The fourth is to go beyond the status quo and punish the aggressor. Finally, the fifth goal is to destroy–literally or de facto–the aggressor because its very existence has become unacceptable.

Thus far, many governments have suggested that the goal of the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is restoration of the status quo. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, for instance, declared that the United States will “support Ukraine in its talks with Russia to reach a ceasefire and the unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces.”

For several governments, however, restoring the status quo will likely not suffice. Frontline nations believe that Russia must pay a price to make clear to Putin and all would-be aggressors that such actions will not be tolerated. Some go further. No one serious has recommended Russia’s physical destruction, but French Minister of the Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire stated (then walked back) that the goal of the pressure campaign is to “wage all-out economic and financial war on Russia” to “cause the collapse of the Russian economy.”

Others have echoed these themes, suggesting that relations with Moscow cannot return to normal until Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves office and a new regime is in place in the Kremlin. For instance, Ivo Daalder, a former US permanent representative on the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, has argued for a “robust policy of containment” to “counter Russian expansionism, inflict real costs on the Russian regime, and encourage internal change that leads to the ultimate collapse of Putin and Putinism.”

There is a yawning gap, however, between these desired goals and what can be achieved given the limits that the responding powers have set for themselves. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, US President Joe Biden has insisted that the United States will help Ukraine in every way possible, including by providing military assistance, but that “[US] forces are not and will not be engaged in a conflict with Russia in Ukraine.” The United States has resisted establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine because such an arrangement would put NATO into a direct fight with Russia. Support for Ukraine, then, is unconditional only until there is a risk of escalation and military confrontation with Russia.

In these circumstances, it isn’t clear that restoration of the status quo–seemingly the bare minimum acceptable for most governments–is within reach. Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia now professor at Stanford University, confessed as much, calling such an outcome “the most desirable but also the least likely.”

The Russian military operation isn’t proceeding smoothly, and Ukrainian forces are resisting, partly thanks to international assistance, but the power balance is unquestionably in Moscow’s favor and Putin appears determined to continue the invasion, indifferent to the consequences, both human and material. Putin seems willing to destroy Ukraine to possess it, using methods not dissimilar to the ones used by Moscow in Chechnya in the 1990s or, under his leadership, Syria this past decade.

For Putin, withdrawal from Ukraine and recognition of its status as an independent state would mean failure, the denial of his conception of Russian identity and the accompanying dream of rebuilding a modern Russian empire. The humiliation would be greater if the outcome entailed acceptance of Ukraine’s complete territorial integrity, i.e., the return of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass, which Moscow recognized as independent before the invasion, and of Crimea, which it annexed in 2014. Make no mistake: many governments demand no less.

More ambitious goals, such as regime change in Russia, are even more elusive, and a new government in Moscow would also not necessarily be an improvement. Besides, pursuing such a goal would likely lead to military escalation–a development the United States, European powers, and others are trying to avoid. Putin, who has long believed that many are out to get him, could feel vindicated and lash out, either by widening the conflict beyond Ukraine or resorting to the use of nuclear weapons.

Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, recently said that while Putin likely did not anticipate the pushback he is getting in Ukraine and internationally, he “is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and instead may escalate–essentially doubling down.” Assume she’s right: now imagine what Putin could do if eliminating him became the policy of many governments (and if that policy galvanized Russians to support him).

Given the power asymmetry between Russia and Ukraine and the redlines that the governments responding to the invasion have drawn for themselves, the outcome of the conflict is likely to disappoint many. At best, Ukraine’s resistance and the pressure campaign will force Russia into a settlement, with to-be-determined terms, possibly short of restoring the status quo. At worst, Russia might succeed in destroying and/or vassalizing Ukraine.

Analysts will soon begin identifying lessons about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One is already emerging: there are hard limits to how much developments and outcomes can be shaped after a determined major nuclear-armed power has begun invading a weaker nation, especially when the responding powers rule out military engagement.

Admittedly, different situations will present different challenges and opportunities. In response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, building a coalition to pressure Beijing would likely be more difficult because many countries are much more dependent on the Chinese economy than on the Russian economy. Stopping or rolling back such an invasion, however, might be less challenging because the maritime environment in Asia presents Beijing with a natural barrier that would complicate its operations.

More importantly, whereas the United States refuses to go to war with Russia over Ukraine because it never committed to its defense, it has remained “strategically ambiguous” as to whether it would do so over Taiwan. In that case, then, Washington would not rule out military action, regardless of the escalation risks. Meanwhile, a military response would definitely be on the table in the event of an invasion of a NATO or another US treaty ally; Biden has stressed that “We will defend every single inch of NATO territory with the full might of a united and galvanized NATO.”

The key takeaway from the current conflict in Ukraine is that it is best to prevent an invasion from ever taking place. Practically, and especially for the United States, that means adapting its military posture and that of nations most exposed to, or worried about, potential invasion in ways that deny would-be aggressors the ability to proceed. It also means reducing and, if possible, eliminating dependencies and vulnerabilities they have with potential aggressors. Doing so will enhance deterrence and, should invasion happen regardless, allow for more effective resistance and, therefore, more flexibility in shaping developments and outcomes.

Had Ukraine worked harder (and been helped more) to adopt such a “denial strategy” after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin might have refrained from invading. If he had chosen to do so anyway, his forces would have encountered more resistance, increasing the prospects of a settlement favorable to Ukraine.

Looking to Asia where the power balance is shifting fast in China’s favor, this line of thinking should drive actions about Taiwan. No one wants to look back in a few years thinking that more should have been done to prevent or complicate a Chinese invasion. The time to act–and act fast–is now.

David Santoro (david@pacforum.org) is President and CEO of the Pacific Forum. He is the editor of US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles (Lynne Rienner, May 2021). Follow him on Twitter @DavidSantoro1.

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.

Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

PacNet #16 – South Korea’s presidential election aftermath: Ukraine as test for a “global pivotal state”

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

South Korea has watched the tragic development of war in Ukraine and—like much of the rest of the world—come down firmly on the side of Ukrainians. Seoul city authorities have displayed blue and yellow lighting on buildings and monuments to show solidarity. President Moon Jae-in and Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong have condemned Russia’s invasion and voiced support to their Ukrainian counterparts. Nongovernmental and civil society groups have launched emergency charity and humanitarian efforts, and citizens have made donations. Most substantively, South Korea has agreed to support and enforce the sanctions—spearheaded by the United States and the European Union—to impose costs on Russia.

At the same time, South Korea has been focused on its March 9 presidential election, which resulted in victory for conservative opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol. With a new executive team soon to enter the presidential office and ministries, South Korea’s approach toward Russia and the Ukraine war are likely to continue, but the new leadership may set different accents. New issues and challenges may also emerge depending on how the war evolves.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down?

South Korea is a member in good standing of the international community. It is democratic, well-governed, prosperous, and peaceful. It follows international law and supports the rules-based order. Today, it does so regardless of which party is in power, so it was not surprising that Seoul chose to implement the economic sanctions, financial transaction lockout, asset freezes, and export bans against Russia. The Moon administration recognized that Russia’s invasion is not just an attack against another sovereign state, but against sovereignty tout court—a concept a formerly colonized nation appreciates—and against the rules-based order generally.

That said, South Korea’s principles are tempered by pragmatism, and the Moon administration was mindful not to be too forward in responding to Russian aggression. At first, the Blue House offered rhetorical support to Kyiv and called out the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but was slow to condemn Russia by name. South Korea was also a follower—not a leader—in the campaign to sanction Russian entities. Seoul’s primary concern was potential blowback from Moscow, both economically and with respect to Russian support for inter-Korean relations.

South Korea has legitimate concerns, as it both exports and imports products to/from Russia. Nonetheless Seoul eventually acquiesced to the broad sanctions package, although it did negotiate inclusion on a US waiver list for certain export-ban items. Meanwhile, the Moon administration’s worry about alienating Russia as a partner for inter-Korean relations seemed primarily reflexive. Inter-Korean relations have been stagnant for years due to North Korean recalcitrance, and Seoul is a long way from sufficient rapprochement with Pyongyang such that Moscow’s support would be necessary.

For its part, Russia has indeed flashed its anger. South Korea predictably and understandably demurred from sending Ukraine lethal weapons, but that was not sufficient to prevent Moscow from placing Seoul on an “unfriendly list.” Consequently, South Korean firms owed payment in non-Russian currency will have the debt settled in rubles, which have declined drastically in value since the start of the war.

Enter Yoon Suk-yeol

In contrast with Moon’s progressive Democratic Party (DP), which tends to be more parochial and Peninsula-focused on foreign and security policy, Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) privileges more comprehensive and geographically expansive alliance alignment with the United States. Indeed Yoon’s campaign foreign policy statement committed to making South Korea a “global pivotal state.” The Russia-Ukraine war will test that commitment.

First, Yoon will need to maintain current sanctions on Russia, even if they have a negative effect on South Korea’s economy, or if Russia retaliates (including through cyberattacks). That will require crafting a narrative for the public, notably and convincingly underlining Seoul’s global role. Beyond that, the United States and European Union may strengthen sanctions, which South Korea would be expected to endorse. That could include joining a ban on the import of hydrocarbons and petrochemicals (of which South Korea imports a modest amount). There may also be cases in which Washington and/or European capitals increase pressure on China to dissuade it from assisting Russia with sanctions evasion. As a “global pivotal state,” Seoul may feel obliged to support such measures, which would risk South Korea’s economic relations with its number-one trading partner.

Finally, depending on how the war develops, South Korea may need to engage in peacekeeping and post-conflict stabilization. Seoul may be called on to participate in rebuilding efforts in Ukraine, as well as in financial assistance programs. In addition to delivering these contributions, the challenge for Yoon would be to do so in a timely way, with South Korea out front and outspoken in bilateral and multilateral fora. This would signal that South Korea is now a “global, pivotal” leader.

The specter of North Korea

Even a “global, pivotal” South Korea cannot escape the specter of Pyongyang, and the Russia-Ukraine war has provided (at this point provisional) lessons for the Korean Peninsula. Those lessons are a mixed bag.

On the one hand, both South Korea and Kim Jong Un’s leadership circle would very likely have understood how pyrrhic the Russian invasion has been. Swallowing and digesting a country with an appropriately armed and motivated population is a devilishly difficult endeavor. Furthermore, military operations with poorly motivated/trained soldiers and shambolic logistics is a recipe for disaster. Note also that South Korea is well-armed (and allied with the United States) and would be motived to defend itself, while North Korea’s military likely has poorly motivated/trained soldiers and limited logistics capabilities.

Putin’s Ukraine war illustrates why North Korea would be foolhardy to invade South Korea. South Korea is thus perhaps marginally safer from North Korean attack. Nonetheless Yoon will surely want to bolster deterrence by re-starting full-spectrum US-South Korea joint military exercises, which have fallen by the wayside under Moon (and partially due to COVID).

On the other hand, Putin’s signaling of potential nuclear escalation in Europe highlights the nexus of the stability-instability paradox, nuclear coercion, and the escalate-to-de-escalate doctrine. Both South and North Korea will keenly watch to see what kind of effects Putin’s nuclear brinksmanship produces vis-à-vis NATO and Ukraine, and whether Russia is able to meet some of its objectives in Ukraine by overcoming conventional military failure through brandishing nuclear weapons as both sword and shield. Yoon’s national security team will watch this development and perhaps need to adjust South Korea’s defense posture accordingly (in consultation with the United States), including especially extended nuclear deterrence.

Conclusions

The Russia-Ukraine war will likely offer both opportunities and risks to the Yoon administration, and there are steps the administration can take to rise to the challenge. First, Yoon should prepare the ground for South Korea’s enhanced prominence as a “global, pivotal state.” Having greater voice in global and regional affairs increases influence and weight, but also means more responsibilities and costs. The South Korean public needs to be convinced of the value of this path. For example, Yoon has made a commitment to leading more in support of democracy and the rules-based order—this implies calling out the predatory behavior of certain states, which South Korea has not often done forcefully. Doing so can attract unwanted attention, and South Korea must be prepared.

On the conventional deterrence front, in addition to re-starting full US-South Korea joint military exercises, the Yoon administration should review South Korea’s defense procurement to make sure it has the right systems and equipment for national defense, notably for a nation with a dramatically declining population of males eligible for military service. In particular, the Yoon administration will need to take a hard look at the value of big-ticket items such as a planned light aircraft carrier. The efficiency of resources allocated for indigenous missile defense assets will also require close examination.

As for extended nuclear deterrence, Yoon may wish to reiterate his openness to the United States eventually re-stationing tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, although Washington has already rebuffed this request during his campaign. More plausibly, Yoon and his senior security and defense officials should consider working more closely with Washington on nuclear planning for the Korean Peninsula, with the objective of further institutionalizing shared nuclear planning and strategy, akin to NATO.

Mason Richey (mrichey@hufs.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea and Senior Contributor at the Asia Society (Korea).

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.

Photo: Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s president-elect and former top prosecutor, speaks at his campaign office after his election win. Source: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg News

PacNet #14 – What the war in Ukraine means for Taiwan

The war in Ukraine has implications for Taiwan, which similarly fears attempted forced annexation by an authoritarian neighbor. There are different interpretations of those implications. Here are mine.

The war in Ukraine does not mean that a war over Taiwan is imminent. There has been much speculation that Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine makes a Chinese invasion of Taiwan more likely because Beijing could take advantage of US attention being diverted to Europe.

This line of thinking has two major flaws. First, the recent deployment of 14,000 additional US troops and six F-35 aircraft to Europe in response to the Russia invasion does not significantly impair the ability of the US military to fight in the western Pacific. The officers of the US Indo-Pacific Command responsible for preparing and executing war plans and recommending courses of action to the White House are focused on developments in the Indo-Pacific, not Europe. The Biden administration’s attention to the war in Ukraine did not prevent it from thinking to send a delegation of former US defense officials on a reassurance visit to Taiwan.

Second, the idea of coordinated invasions of Ukraine and Taiwan assumes Beijing has already made the decision to use military force to compel cross-Strait unification and is waiting for an opportunity to strike. This outlook does not account for Beijing’s political calculus. China-Taiwan relations operate according to their own logic and timetable, independent of what is happening in Europe or even Hong Kong. Attempting a military conquest of Taiwan has always been a last resort that China would consider only when compelled to by Taipei moving unambiguously to a permanent political separation from China.

Xi Jinping’s first order of business is to stay in power. His immediate need is the secure a third term as Communist Party General Secretary during the 20th Party Congress in October. Absent a dramatic move by Taiwan toward independence, which President Tsai Ing-wen does not intend to make, Xi does not need to settle the Taiwan issue to get a third term. On the other hand, a war against Taiwan, the United States, and probably Japan would force Chinese elites to think that Xi had led China into disaster. Beijing’s recent hostile signaling to Taiwan, in the form of military exercises and warplane fly-bys, are probably less a rehearsal for attack than an attempt by Beijing to halt the trend of closer US relations with the Taipei government.

What the Ukraine war does for Taiwan is to improve Taiwan’s own strategic situation marginally.

The Russian invasion forced Beijing to prioritize among Chinese interests. Beijing wants worldwide recognition as a responsible, law-abiding, and constructive international citizen and it hopes to weaken strategic coordination between the United States and Western Europe. But it also wants to preserve its valuable working relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ March 1 press briefing (the most recent at the time of this writing), spokesman Wang Wenbin dodged a question of why Beijing refused to call the Russian campaign an “invasion” and backed away from his previous already-vague statement that “one country should not flagrantly undermine others’ sovereignty.” Instead, he drew moral equivalency between Russia and Ukraine by calling on “all parties to exercise necessary restraint” and implicitly blamed NATO for causing the war by “strengthening or even expanding military blocs.” Wang’s colleague Hua Chunying has repeatedly called the United States “the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine.”

In choosing to support diplomatically what is almost universally seen as a villainous act of aggression, China’s international standing is reduced. The ceremonial veneer of moral uprightness that Chinese officials work so hard to maintain is tarnished. Consequently, Beijing’s agenda, including its position that it has the right to annex the de facto state of Taiwan, commands less international respect and engenders more suspicion. In general, a weaker rather than a stronger international position is a disincentive for Chinese leaders to make a decision they know will bring much global opprobrium, at least in the short term.

One of the factors that would support a Chinese decision to go to war against Taiwan would be the expectation that economic reliance on China would deter other important countries from levying serious sanctions against Beijing. Putin likely had a similar expectation with regard to Russia. But contrary to expectations, European governments proved willing and able to support quickly and unitedly a surprisingly tough stance against aggression, despite the potential harm to their economic interests.

Particularly significant was the disconnection of major Russian banks from the international SWIFT transaction network, a step Europe considered but was ultimately reluctant to implement following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The developed countries now have a template for future similar scenarios, including a cross-Strait war. Chinese elites might have believed that economics always trumps values. No longer.

The course of the war so far is not encouraging to Chinese military planners. Ukraine has demonstrated how a seemingly overmatched military can prove stubbornly formidable when fighting on its home ground and motivated by the objective of saving loved ones and statehood from an invader. This does not invalidate the China’s large quantitative military advantages, but it illustrates that superior numbers do not automatically guarantee success. The Russians’ problems with logistics and the difficulties they face trying to fight in cities are especially applicable to a would-be invader of Taiwan.

Finally, the war in Ukraine is likely to accelerate changes Taipei must make to improve the island’s chances of fighting off an attempted Chinese invasion. The war should focus minds on at least these three key issues.

First, Taipei must use its limited defense funds to acquire the weapons systems most useful for the all-important job of stopping attacking Chinese ships and aircraft. Second, Taiwanese conscript soldiers require a much more serious training program than they currently get. Third, Taipei should organize reserve soldiers into a territorial defense force, such as is now acquitting itself well in Ukraine. The prospect of contending with an independent guerrilla army that could fight on even after the apparent defeat of the regular Taiwanese armed forces adds to the disincentives against Beijing choosing war.

The ongoing war should serve as a warning to Beijing that its irredentist claims over Taiwan would not shield China from international condemnation as a war-criminal regime, or from economic retribution if it attacked Taiwan. Nor could it expect the people of Taiwan to accept forced annexation supinely. Ukraine’s heroism reverberates around the world, including in the Taiwan Strait.

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.

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 #13 – What the Indo-Pacific sees in Ukraine

The capitals of the Indo-Pacific are closely watching the invasion of Ukraine. From Tokyo to Taipei, Hanoi to Canberra, and Bangkok to Beijing, Russia’s invasion presents a lucid lesson as to the tactics China could use in any forced re-unification of Taiwan, such as gray zone operations, lawfare, fake news, military might, and posturing.

But the Indo-Pacific faces numerous other areas where a Russian-style takeover with Chinese characteristics could happen. In the East China Sea, the Senkaku Islands face nearly daily incursions and challenges to Japanese sovereignty through lawfare tactics such as adoption of a Chinese Coast Guard Law in January 2021.

According to Lyle Goldstein, the Taiwan Strait remains ripe for invasion and in the South China Sea the Philippines has experienced Chinese swarming gray zone operations such as the April 2021 Whitsun Reef incident, as well as Chinaexplicitly rejecting the Permanent Court of Arbitration 2016 decisions against China’s claims. Today, China holds a set of artificial islands it has militarized, supposedly as an outpost for the delivery of emergency aid and humanitarian aid to Southeast Asian friends.

What the Indo-Pacific sees

Three concerns have emerged from Russia’s invasion. The first has to do with US security guarantees at the bilateral level. After the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, concerns have resurfaced as to whether the United States will come to the aid of Japan over the Senkaku Islands or Taiwan in the event Beijing seeks to unify it with the mainland.

Similarly, in the South China Sea critical sea lanes of communication, the major arteries of trade and import/export of energy are potentially at risk if China decides to engage in a forced acquisition of these territories.

Stakeholders in the region worry that a Russian-style contingency in the East China Sea, South China Sea, or Taiwan Strait would fundamentally collapse the regional security architecture, placing invaluable sea lines of communication and the First and Second Island Chain in the hands of authoritarian China, a regime with an established track record of economic coercion and weaponization of supply chains.

The second area of concern for Indo-Pacific stakeholders is the response of the United States and the international community. Stakeholders closely observe the tools that will be applied to penalize, discipline, and push back against Russia’s expansionism.

They should appreciate that the European Union has taken a collective stance including the EU’s first batch of Russia sanctions targeting 351 lawmakers, high-ranking officials, and banks. Germany has taken forceful actions by putting Nord Stream 2 on hold, and the United States has coalesced and strengthened NATO unity in the face of Russia’s belligerence. This includes comprehensive and collective sanctions such as “sweeping financial sanctions and stringent export controls that will have profound impact on Russia’s economy, financial system, and access to cutting-edge technology.”

The question for many Indo-Pacific states is: Will this be sustained? Will it be escalated, and will deterrence capabilities be deployed to prevent further expansion of Russian influence into Eastern Europe? And, perhaps most importantly, will this pay dividends?

This is critical for Tokyo, Taipei, Canberra, and Southeast Asian countries. They view enhanced deterrence capabilities as essential for pushing back against aggressive Chinese behavior in their region. This includes deterrence systems to “prevent low-intensity crisis scenarios like the landing of Chinese fishing crews or maritime law-enforcement officials on the Senkaku Islands,” according to Iwama Yoko and Murano Masashi.

In Japan’s case, Iwama and Murano also stresses the importance of enhancing the “MSDF’s capabilities to swiftly negate any Chinese efforts at escalation, thereby underpinning its national capability to handle situations arising in the gray zone.”

The logic of Indo-Pacific stakeholders is that anything less than substantial investment in deterrence and costly punitive measures against the Putin regime would result in Beijing drawing false conclusions about the resolve of the United States and its allies, and thus an end to the US Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The hope for capitals in the Indo-Pacific is that a robust defence of Ukraine will not distract the United States from sustained engagement at all levels in the region. In addition, they hope that confronting Russia will mean that the United States and its allies can draw lessons from Russia’s invasion, including the need to maximize deterrence capabilities within the Indo-Pacific. Ideally this will be integrated with economic sanctions as well as a blocking of potential aggressors’ ability to use the financial system and sea lanes of communications freely—key elements to maintain China’s economic prosperity.

Third, and relatedly, capitals in this region will watch for a shift of resources away from the Indo-Pacific and towards Ukraine. The Biden administration has been adamant that it will not intervene militarily in the conflict (notwithstanding the at least 7,000 troops that have been sent to “ reassure skittish NATO allies in Eastern Europe”). Capitals within this region will look at the investments NATO and the United States place in Poland, Hungary, and other countries vulnerable to Russian incursions or tactics including the weaponization of refugees.

They will be also look for a concrete example of resources directed at the Indo-Pacific. This includes a United States Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that not only competes with Chinese initiatives but offers new initiatives and frameworks for integrating the region. That includes inculcating a rules-based order, transparency, and good governance in the region to deal with emerging regional challenges.

What to expect

While Indo-Pacific capitals are concerned about the US position in the region, some like Japan will not wait for the United States to respond while others will vacillate in silence. They will likely begin their own bilateral and multilateral initiatives to strengthen deterrence capabilities. This will include more proactive cooperation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) at many of the contested areas within the Indo-Pacific.

This proactive diplomacy will not only translate into Quad partners providing for their own maritime security but also into bringing in other partners into a Quad-plus formation to ensure that the Quad remains a nimble institution that can deal with ad-hoc regional problems.

AUKUS-based deterrence capabilities will likely accelerate within the region. Many Indo-Pacific stakeholders will welcome this. We are also likely to see contingency strategies to deal with challenges across the Taiwan Strait as well as South China Sea and the East China Sea. Tokyo has been at the forefront of this shift, articulating Japan’s security concerns over Taiwan, and with former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stressing that a Taiwan security dilemma is a Japan security dilemma.

Indo-Pacific stakeholders, including China, will look at the failures and successes of Russia, but also the United States and its allies. China will look for cracks in the US-NATO armor, seeking leverage to pursue its geopolitical objectives across the Taiwan Strait and East and South China Seas. They will look for weaknesses in the Biden administration and commitment to sanctions, including removing Russia from the SWIFT system, which will have economic implications for the United States and the partners. One consequence, for instance, could be the acceleration of China’s attempts to adopt a digital currency to deploy throughout the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network of countries and potentially insulate China from future sanctions.

Indo-Pacific stakeholders will also look to the strategies that the European Union and the United States develop to deal with the energy shortages and increases in energy prices as Russia will likely weaponize energy resources to pressure EU countries to step back from sanctions.

Working together, Canada and the United States may provide some energy relief in the short to mid-term, until the European Union further diversifies away from Russia as its primary energy supplier.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the canary in the coal mine for many Indo-Pacific stakeholders. A forceful, collective, and effective response to Russia’s belligerence would do much to accrue the confidence of the United States allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr. Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI); a senior fellow at the MacDonald Laurier Institute (MLI); a senior fellow at the East Asia Security Centre (EASC); 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. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Photo: A Chinese Coast Guard ship seen near the Senkaku Islands in February. Source: Hitoshi Nakaima/Kyodo

PacNet #12 – Ukraine: China’s Latest Strategic Blunder

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

Despite its self-proclaimed status as a defender of state sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others, China has found itself unable to criticize its close strategic partner Russia over its “military operation”—Beijing won’t even refer to it as an invasion—of Ukraine, blaming instead (surprise, surprise) the United States for forcing Moscow to defend itself from the mere prospect of Ukraine possibly one day joining NATO. The best it would do is abstain at the UN Security Council while calling on “all sides” to exercise restraint.

China’s position has some short-term advantages. As the rest of the world refuses to buy Russian oil, gas, or wheat, China will shamelessly step in to keep the Russian economy from collapse by buying these commodities, no doubt at a reduced price. As Moscow becomes more and more dependent on China’s assistance, it’s real status as the junior partner in the Sino-Russian relationship will be further confirmed and solidified. Russia will join the club of third world countries who have become increasingly indebted to Beijing and thus more willing (if not compelled) to do its bidding.

Putin’s recent speeches have made it abundantly clear that his real motivation in invading Ukraine—which he has called a fake country—is the rebuilding of the historic Russian empire. Like Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Stalin (the not-so-great) before him, he sees the Ukrainian breadbasket as rightfully belonging to Russia, and he means to take it back. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping would do well to look at the maps of the former empires. Ukraine was not the only area they had in common; so too is the whole of Central Asia, Russia’s so-called “near abroad.” Like Ukraine, there are many Russian-speaking citizens in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics who could one day be called upon to declare independence within the individual post-Cold War republics and call on Mother Russia for help, as the separatists in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine did to “justify” Putin’s intervention there.

The country with the most to lose in this scenario is China, whose growing influence throughout Central Asia must be seen by Putin as a threat that must be tolerated today but eventually redressed. One can only imagine how much it upsets the Russian leader that the organization through which both Beijing and Moscow extend their influence in Central Asia is named after a city on China—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—rather than a Russian one, given Moscow’s historic reign over this entire region. The “Great Game” of the 21st Century may still end up pitting Moscow against Beijing in a region historically seen as Moscow’s soft underbelly. China’s silence, if not tacit support for Moscow’s effort to reestablish the western boundaries of Russia’s former empire will eventually come back to haunt Beijing when Putin the Great eventually (and I would argue inevitably) turns his attention southward.

Meanwhile, pundits are spilling a lot of ink speculating on how the Russian invasion of Ukraine will lead to or somehow justify or make inevitable a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They overlook the significant differences between the two, including 90 miles of ocean and a “rock solid” US commitment to help Taiwan defend itself in a form and manner yet to be determined. Putin was able to factor out a US/NATO military response in planning his invasion; Xi will need to factor the US (and perhaps its Asian allies) in. While Washington continues to maintain its policy of “strategic ambiguity” as to whether or not it would respond militarily to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, it has become significantly less ambiguous about its support for Taiwan democracy in the wake of China’s heavy-handed pressure tactics toward Taiwan and its blatant violation of the Sino-UK Joint Declaration that was supposed to assure basic freedoms in Hong Kong for 50 years following the 1997 turnover of the former UK colony to the Mainland—two earlier strategic blunders by Xi.

This is not to say that how Washington and the rest of the free world responds to the Ukraine invasion won’t be noticed in Beijing. One of the (should be intended) consequences of the concerted effort to inflict a heavy economic cost on Russia for its adventurism should be a strong message to China that it could expect the same if it were ever to invade Taiwan. Beijing also needs to understand that, if the situation is reversed, Russia is unlikely to be able to return the favor and bail China out.

Putin’s narrative should also be sobering to Beijing. It began with a group of separatists—do we dare call them “splittists”—(this time in Donetsk and Luhansk) declaring independence. A major power (in this case, Russian) then recognized these newly independent states and decided to militarily intervene to defend them. Is this the type of precedent Xi Jinping really wants to support?

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, on February 4, 2022. Source: Sputnik/Aleksey Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters

PacNet #11 – Two tasks for making US-ROK troop burden sharing sustainable

Why have US-South Korean negotiations over a new military cost-sharing deal been so contentious? Yes, the size of the US “ask” is significantly larger than in the past. But negotiations also have been complicated by the fact that South Korea is nearing a legislative election on April 15. The latest meeting between US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and South Korean Minister of Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo at the Pentagon on February 24 failed to yield a breakthrough.

The US position is that the cost of common defense cannot fall disproportionately to US taxpayers. Yet without taking into account the political necessity of persuading the Korean citizenry that any increase is reasonable and justifiable, a hefty increase in South Korea’s contribution risks fraying this crucial alliance.

The Trump administration is aggressively negotiating a new framework for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that governs how the two countries split costs for maintaining 28,500 US soldiers based on the Korean peninsula. Demanding that allies make higher contributions for mutual defense costs has been a priority for the US president since the 2016 campaign trail.

The US “ask” reportedly began at nearly $5 billion annually, a five-fold increase from South Korea’s current contribution of KRW 1.039 trillion ($875 million), a request that shocked both the Korean negotiators and the Korean public. The US seeks to broaden the scope of the agreement to include funds for rotational troops and other military assets—which is far more expansive than the current framework. Enhanced transparency is especially important with an upcoming election so the Korean public can better understand the U.S. position.

Negotiations are now in overtime. The 10th and most recent SMA expired December 31 and the two countries face their seventh round of negotiations with a wide gap remaining. The US has stated that it will start furloughing thousands of Korean workers paid under the SMA if a new agreement is not reached. Never before has the US gone that far.

Often overlooked in discussions about these difficult talks is the need for broad South Korean political buy-in. Notably, a new SMA does not require US congressional approval, but it does require ratification by the democratically elected South Korean National Assembly, the members of which are highly attuned to public sentiment.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is not up for re-election in April (presidents are limited to a single five-year term), but all 300 National Assembly seats are in play.

If the Trump administration wants a deal it faces two tasks. One is political, to win over both South Korean public sentiment and the National Assembly. For that to happen, greater transparency in the American ask is necessary, and greater emphasis in explaining its logic to the South Korean electorate.

The stakes are high. The South Korean press has provided blanket coverage of the SMA negotiations and the US demands. As a result, anti-American protesters have staged rallies and one group even broke into the grounds of the ambassador’s residence.

Recent polls have revealed some incipient fissures in South Korean public opinion. In early December, a Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found an overwhelming majority (92%) of the Korean public supports the US alliance and three-quarters (74%) support the long-term stationing of American soldiers in South Korea. The poll also revealed that “a clear majority (68%) believe South Korea should negotiate a lower cost than America’s new proposal, but most are willing to pay more than the current amount. One-quarter (26%), however, said South Korea should refuse to pay. If the two countries fail to reach a deal, a majority would be willing to see US forces in South Korea reduced, a potentially dangerous development that would be welcomed by China and North Korea.

South Korea can afford to pay more, and it should: more strategic assets are now required to defend South Korea and the East Asia region from North Korea’s increasingly potent missile and nuclear threats. As a share of GDP, Korea pays more than Japan and Germany for its own defense, but a higher price tag for the US military presence may be justified based on these changing conditions.  The task yet to be taken up by US negotiators is to clearly explain the new formula.

The second task is strategic. The Trump administration should agree to allow the SMA to once again become a multiyear agreement and not continue the process of annual renewals that it instituted last year. This would minimize disruption—and tension—in this important alliance. Former US Forces Korea Commander Vincent Brooks has gone on record arguing that one-year renewals cause “structural instability” and should be replaced by three-to-five year deals.

The US-ROK alliance has successfully deterred aggression from North Korea as well as China for nearly seven decades. It has led to a flourishing of economic and cultural exchanges that has significantly benefited both countries. Failure to find common ground is counterproductive to a shared deterrence posture and faith that the US and its ally will credibly deter in crisis. That, in turn, has broader ramifications.

The time is now for the United States and South Korea to come to terms on a deal that works for both sides. The smooth functioning of the alliance should not be impaired by an accounting impasse that loses sight of the incalculable benefits from 70 years of partnership.

Kathleen Stephens (president@keia.org) is the chair of the New York City-based Korea Society, the president of the Korea Economic Institute and a former ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011.

Thomas Byrne (president@koreasociety.org) is the president of the Korea Society and was the Asia-Pacific regional manager for Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group.

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 #8 – Who cares if the US is in a “New Cold War” with China?

Enough already. It is time to stop debating whether the United States stands at the threshold of a “new Cold War” with China. The question has become an obsession among China watchers and foreign policy analysts. But the debate’s poorly defined nature sheds little light on the excruciating choices policymakers face when dealing with Beijing.

Let’s start by examining why the controversy amounts to geopolitical empty calories—energizing but lacking in the substance needed to prescribe policy.

Those who reject the new Cold War framework essentially make the argument that Case A is not Case B. It is literally not the 20th century, China is literally not the Soviet Union. They rightly contend that the world has changed in countless ways since the original Cold War. But the argument falls apart by setting a standard that cannot be met without a time machine. If “Cold War” is a category of one—the twilight struggle between Washington and Moscow in the latter half of the last century—then proclaiming that today’s matchup does not fit into the framework tells us very little about the current state of US-China relations.

Conversely, the proponents of the new Cold War concept tend to make the definition too loose. For them, the contest is a new Cold War because the challenge a muscular China poses goes beyond the tin pot dictators and transnational problems that have occupied American strategists since the Berlin Wall fell. (In fairness, some in this school prefer the term “great power competition” because it is more general.) But the simple fact of big countries competing for influence should not lead policymakers toward an unthinking reversion to the strategies of yesteryear.

Adopting a new Cold War framework might be useful in one critical way: In a democracy, leaders need to explain national security decisions to the public in understandable terms. And Americans commonly understand that a “cold war” means a competition among powerful countries that encompasses the political, technological, military, and values spheres. It is therefore useful, albeit loaded, shorthand, although only when paired with appropriate caveats about what is new this time around.

Paradoxically, despite their differing assessments about the nature of the problem, the two schools largely agree on the major elements for how Washington should deal with Beijing: strengthen US alliances, maintain an effective military deterrent, uphold democratic values, foster domestic renewal, and seek out pragmatic cooperation with China. When it comes to implementing those broad strokes, however, a number of difficult questions arise. How US policymakers answer such questions will shape Sino-American relations much more than generalized observations on Cold Wars or lack thereof.

Here are just a few of those questions.

When it comes to economics and trade, does interdependence make the two countries less likely to fight? Or would some degree of separation between them actually be stabilizing? To the extent that trade helps China grow its economy and fund its military, is there a point where US policy should move beyond trying to control particular technologies and seek to restrain China’s economy generally? Which regional and global trade agreements should Washington pursue in order to shape the terms of international trade?

On technology, can America sustain its advantages through radical openness? Or is it more important to shield US centers of innovation from an onslaught of theft and espionage? Should Washington resurrect some form of industrial policy to cultivate innovation, and if so, what would it look like?

For the military, where should Washington draw a forward defensive line in Asia, if at all, and what costs are Americans willing to bear to uphold it? Should the line stay fixed indefinitely, or be redrawn periodically to accommodate Beijing’s growing power? Would Chinese leaders be reassured or emboldened by any accommodative moves? For example, if Washington allows Beijing to seize Taiwan, will China be satiated, or would it just pick a new target for conquest?

Even if America and China are not locked in a global ideological contest—itself a matter of some debate—Beijing still perceives intense ideological pressure from Washington. Will China feel more room to liberalize with less day-to-day foreign prodding, or will it only open up politically if democracies exert consistent, firm stance on values? How should Washington support human rights in China and counter Beijing’s authoritarian example without convincing Chinese leaders that the United States is an implacable adversary? Or, more provocatively, are expanding freedoms always going to be a mirage under the Communist Party?

Washington and Moscow grudgingly found ways to cooperate during the Cold War, so working together should always be possible. But where, exactly, can the United States cooperate with China today? The list seems to shrink constantly, even as the need for effective transnational cooperation grows. Does it make sense for Washington to accept concessions on some issues in order to garner Beijing’s help on others? Should America try to link different issues together or compartmentalize them? Will China be amenable to either approach?

Crafting responses to these vexing dilemmas will determine where the proverbial rubber hits the road on US-China relations. Notably, most of those tradeoffs are just as agonizing whether or not one believes Washington and Beijing are locked in a new Cold War—which should tell us something about the value of that discussion overall. Let’s put the whole debate to bed and get down to discussing the harder but more consequential tradeoffs that will shape US-China relations in the decades to come.

Jacob Stokes is a senior policy analyst in the China program at the United States Institute of Peace. He previously served on the national security staff for Vice President Joe Biden and as a professional staff member for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He can be reached at jstokes@usip.org.

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.

YL Blog #19 – GSOMIA vs. TISA: What is the Big Deal?

YLBlog_image1.jpg

Introduction

South Korea’s announcement to end the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan on August 22 marks the lowest of bilateral relations. Following the decision, Japan’s removal of South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) from its whitelist of preferred trading partners took effect on August 28, for the first time since 2004. ROK also officially ousted Japan from its whitelist on September 18, signaling unyielding bilateral tensions.

While the United States (U.S.) has been encouraging ROK to reconsider its decision before the GSOMIA formally expires in November, prospects are grim. For instance, after North Korea launched ballistic missiles on September 10, the two countries did not utilize GSOMIA to share military intelligence. International media publicity regarding the potential termination of GSOMIA has also been gaining increasingly less public traction with time (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of Newspaper Articles on GSOMIA (in English, from July 1 – October 16, 2019) 

In weighing the benefits and costs of GSOMIA, many experts and scholars turn to the Trilateral Intelligence Sharing Arrangement (TISA) as its substitute. TISA, signed in late December 2014, enables both Japan and South Korea to access military information on North Korea through the U.S. Meanwhile, GSOMIA—the first military agreement between Japan and ROK since 1945—was signed in November 2016 to allow the two nations to directly exchange military intelligence. Since GSOMIA, “TISA has not been activated very much.”

The question, then, is whether TISA could serve as an adequate alternative for GSOMIA. The next sections provide a brief overview of both Japanese and South Korean perspectives on the issue in reference to the conference proceedings at the U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateral Dialogue in Maui (hosted by Pacific Forum) in September.

Japan’s Perspective:

Operational Significance of GSOMIA: Is Military Intelligence Cooperation with ROK Really Necessary?

The view of GSOMIA’s operational value varies among Japanese intellectuals. Proponents support the extension of GSOMIA pointing the importance of comprehensive intelligence collection. For example, in the case of North Korea’s missile launch, ROK is in a better position to attain more accurate data of the boost phase in addition to detect signs of a launch from suspicious activities of personnel and vehicles. Furthermore, HUMINT collected by ROK claimed to be valuable by some government officials and experts. These types of information combined with U.S. intelligence such as gathered by Early Warning Radar will supplement each other and enable extensive and multifaceted analysis on DPRK’s military activities.

On the other hand, some experts question the value of GSOMIA arguing the alternative use of TISA and the superiority of Japanese intelligence capability. Japan currently has seven ISR satellites in operation, six Aegis BMD-capable vessels and four ground-based radars in addition to maritime patrol aircrafts and Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. Some claim Japan has sufficient intelligence capabilities without relying on information from ROK which possesses much fewer equipment and assets related to intelligence collection activities.  Moreover, some argue Japan could achieve necessary information exchange through TISA instead of GSOMIA.

However, intelligence analysis based on information obtained only by Japan and the U.S. might overlook some important observables and fail to attain comprehensive picture. Also, as discussed in the section above, TISA cannot ensure timely and comprehensive intelligence sharing like GSOMIA. Thus, even though Japan has better ISR capability and TISA will partially facilitate information sharing with ROK, comprehensive intelligence sharing under GSOMIA is an effective countermeasure for Japanese government to address new regional challenges not only limited to the DPRK’s missiles and nuclear programs but also including the threats from China and Russia.

South Korea’s Perspective:

90-Day Window Until the Final Deadline: Time Won, or Time Lost for South Korea?

The domestic political divide is reflected in the way South Korean officials and intellectuals evaluate GSOMIA, its military value and strategic implications. Those who stand in favor of the Moon administration’s decision to end GSOMIA view it as a diplomatic card against Japan amidst continued bilateral trade disputes. They advocate ROK’s maintenance of “strategic ambiguity” throughout the 90-day window between the government’s announcement to end GSOMIA in August and the deadline to renew it in November. By neither confirming nor denying its withdrawal from GSOMIA, proponents believe that ROK can utilize the time to effectively weigh its costs and benefits.

With regard to GSOMIA’s military significance, advocates of the government decision claim that TISA is a valid alternative as an intelligence-sharing mechanism between Japan and ROK. They argue that TISA is reliable since it had been utilized in the past prior to the enactment of GSOMIA, and because “the [same] level of confidential military information” is shared by TISA and GSOMIA. More active supporters consider GSOMIA as a biased agreement since it provides Tokyo easier access to Seoul’s information on early detection of North Korean missile and nuclear threats. By splitting the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance into two individual and competitive hubs-and-spokes, they suggest that Washington’s strong encouragement toward the renewal of GSOMIA may raise Seoul’s suspicion of its impartiality in addressing the two regional allies.

Perhaps the Moon administration’s announcement to withdraw from GSOMIA and its maintenance of “strategic ambiguity” throughout the three-month window following it are more strategically driven than they may seem. According to a survey conducted in late August, 54.9 percent of the South Korean public supported the decision end GSOMIA, showing a 7.9 percent point increase since earlier survey results. From the respondents, only 38.4 percent opposed the government decision. With continued Japanese boycotts in South Korea, public support is increasingly shifting towards GSOMIA’s termination.

However, time itself is a double-edged sword. While the administration has bought time to waver between renewal of and withdrawal from GSOMIA, prospects for reconciliation with Japan have further dimmed. As the deadline to renew the agreement approaches, ROK will have to arrive at a decision that will have lasting consequences on the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance. In addition, time will be paid later if ROK decides not to renew GSOMIA. TISA will slow down the intelligence-sharing process for both Japan and the ROK with the U.S. as an intermediary source of information. Most importantly, once terminated, it may take decades before an agreement such as GSOMIA is re-enacted between the two countries.

Conclusion: GSOMIA vs. TISA

Overall, while TISA may function as a substitute to GSOMIA, it is more likely to hinder swift intelligence exchange and effective coordination for three reasons.

First, unlike GSOMIA, information sharing under TISA is limited to North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. This limited focus weakens both Japan and ROK’s capabilities in addressing new regional challenges, such as North Korea’s SLBM. For instance, on October 2, DPRK launched the Pukguksong-3 into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Secondly, TISA provides lower intelligence confidentiality than GSOMIA. Under GSOMIA, Japan and ROK exchange information that is both confidential and legally binding. In contrast, under TISA, either Japan or ROK can reject the counterpart’s request for military intelligence if it detects the risk of information leakage. The issue of confidentiality, then, inevitably influences the two nations’ willingness to share information and especially valuable information.

Finally, information sharing between Japan and ROK through TISA will be operationally inefficient due to delays in information exchange. GSOMIA reduces this operational cost and facilitates swift coordination in intelligence gathering amongst the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance.

During the U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateral Dialogue in Maui, both South Korean and Japanese representatives—regardless of their respective political standing—either indirectly or directly suggested the need for continued bilateral cooperation. For instance, many South Korean participants inferred that the government would renew GSOMIA in so far as Japan initiates the reconciliation process. Japanese participants also showed willingness to share classified information with ROK through GSOMIA prior to receiving a formal request from Seoul.

Hence, what is necessary for the two parties at this time is mutual dialogue, which has been hindered by respective national pride. Deterrence against regional security threats require a cooperative effort based on a stable U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance; the termination of GSOMIA should be reconsidered before it is too late to nullify the decision.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

PacNet #6 – Three Scenarios for the Quad and for ASEAN

The reunion of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) in 2017 sparked concerns on several grounds, including perceptions that it would be a threat to multilateralism centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as a means to contain China. Originally banded together for aid efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, the group – consisting of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – initially appeared to reflect a renewed convergence of strategic interests between these four major democracies in the region. Over time, however, questions have been raised about the Quad’s viability.

Yet, the fact that the Quad continues to meet – mostly at the senior officials’ level, although its inaugural foreign ministerial meeting was held in September 2019 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York – suggests that despite challenges, the four-member arrangement is likely to become a salient aspect of the regional security architecture. It would thus be worthwhile to consider how it could interact with ASEAN going forward, given that the latter is generally considered the primary multilateral organization in the Indo-Pacific. Here, we discuss three possible scenarios in which the Quad may evolve, and how ASEAN should respond.

Scenario One: Strengthened military cooperation

This scenario suggests the commencement of Quad meetings involving defense ministers or senior officials in the defense ministry, or even the inauguration of military exercises among the four countries. Annual Malabar joint naval exercises are already carried out between the United States, India, and Japan. Including Australia as a permanent participant would be a significant gesture pointing to a more coordinated quadrilateral security arrangement. To be fair, quadrilateral military exercises appear unlikely. For instance, India refused Australian participation to the 2017 and 2018 Malabar exercises despite Canberra’s bids to be part of the major multilateral naval drill. A meeting among defense senior officials, however, may be easier to achieve.

One way for ASEAN to respond to such a scenario would be to reinforce the idea of regional defense cooperation through the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), a platform that involves the 10 ASEAN member states and dialogue partners such as Australia, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States. While the ADMM-Plus is certainly not meant to compete with the Quad, its strength vis-à-vis the latter is its inclusivity. Promoting ADMM-Plus defense cooperation, be it through joint military exercises or other forms of interaction, would thus be useful in underlining the importance of an open and inclusive regional security architecture.

Scenario Two: The Quad falls apart

Quad 1.0 fell apart shortly after it was conceived when Australia walked away in consideration of Chinese sensibilities. While nuanced differences among the Quad countries have narrowed since, the viability of the grouping is uncertain insofar as it lacks a convincingly cohesive vision and an operational agenda. More significantly, the viability of the group remains largely susceptible to each country’s relations with China. In recent months, we have seen a significant warming of ties between Japan and China, with the two countries heralding a “new era” of bilateral relations. Following its non-aligned tradition, India has a conventionally different approach in dealing with China compared to Japan and Australia, which are US allies. On the other hand, Washington has dropped the niceties, suggesting that the Quad could be used to ensure that China “retains only its proper place in the world.” Given these differences, it is difficult to say that the Quad will not fall susceptible to the same reasons that led to its falling apart the first time, especially if the United States envisages the group as taking some sort of coordinated action against Beijing.

Despite debates about the Quad’s challenge to ASEAN centrality, the dissolution of the Quad may not necessarily be beneficial to ASEAN as a second suspension of the Quad could embolden revisionist powers to try to change the regional status quo. If the Quad falls apart again, the best option for ASEAN would be to seize the opportunity and reinforce its central place in the regional security architecture. This means strengthening ASEAN’s capacity as an independent actor and emphasizing the relevance of ASEAN-centric platforms to regional countries.

Scenario Three: The status quo

This is the most likely scenario for the Quad in the foreseeable future, as regular consultations among the four countries continue without significant stepping up of cooperation. For what it is worth, the revival of the Quad provides a useful dialogue mechanism for discussions to be had over shared values and interests in the region. At the same time, it is clear that the Quad countries have varying priorities and perceptions of the region. The fact that the Quad meetings so far have failed to produce a single joint statement signals the struggle within the grouping to reconcile views on critical issues. It is thus realistic to expect that the Quad maintains its status quo for the time being.

Here, ASEAN should work to ensure that even as the Quad continues its consultative dialogue, the “hub” of the broad multilateralism remains through ASEAN. This means, for example, providing a reason for all four Quad members to continue committing to ASEAN-centric platforms. In this sense, ASEAN should consider how it could continue to serve the interests of its dialogue partners. This could involve, as some have advocated, making the leaders-level East Asia Summit the premier regional forum for exchanges and discussions on strategic issues. Ensuring that non-ASEAN countries have a reason to consistently engage with ASEAN would serve the latter’s objectives in the context of ASEAN centrality and relevance. Going forward, the Quad’s value is expected to remain in the potential that it holds more than that of which it demonstrates. It is important for ASEAN to adopt a commensurate approach in response.

Amanda Trea Phua (isamandaphua@ntu.edu.sg) is a Senior Analyst with the United States Programme and Sarah Teo (islsteo@ntu.edu.sg) is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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.