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 #53 – How the United States can build a chip alliance in Northeast Asia without decoupling

A pandemic-induced semiconductor supply chain snarl caused global production jams in a wide array of products used for consumer, industry, and military applications. This, combined with the geopolitical risk created by the industry’s concentration in Northeast Asia, its reliance on China, and predatory Chinese industrial policies, has caused America, its allies, and its partners to brace against future shocks. With the CHIPS and Science Act signed into law, Washington is now moving toward a semiconductor alliance with Tokyo, Taipei, and Seoul. A successful collaboration will address risks to key points of the semiconductor supply chain by adding rigor to the system, ensuring continued access to supply, and maintaining an environment of innovation. It’s a step in the right direction, but much remains to be done. The effort will fall short if the alliance cannot address members’ concerns and respond to the risks posed by the People’s Republic of China without tripping down the slippery slope of technological decoupling. Although the PRC poses a threat that warrants a response, the highly distributed nature of the global supply chain means that decoupling would be inordinately expensive, alienate America’s partners, and inhibit the innovative capacity of America’s firms. Furthermore, the fate of the industry will likely be determined by the innovation race, so the alliance should spend equal time cooperating on that front. The upcoming first meeting of the prospective chip alliance should address these concerns while formulating a framework for enduring cooperation and mutual gain.

The semiconductor industry is highly specialized and concentrated. There are over 50 points in the supply chain where a single country provides over 65% of supply. Last year, pandemic-induced disruptions caused a global supply snag, drawing attention to the world’s fourth-most traded product. The industry is heavily concentrated in Northeast Asia, where geopolitical risks are considerable. Since Taiwan makes over 90% of the world’s most advanced chips, a PRC takeover would cause a “deep and immediate recession” in the United States, according to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. A contingency on the Korean Peninsula would have similar consequences.

The PRC could acquire a monopoly over a supply chain choke point and utilize this as leverage to extract concessions. The PRC already routinely weaponizes its economy with informal sanctions and engages in destabilizing industrial policies like irregular subsidies and forced technology transfers. Chinese firms collude with one another to weaken foreign takeover targets before buying them in a distressed state. Beijing engages in IP theft against South Korean and Taiwanese firms. And the Chinese government’s sprawling chip investment vehicles also creates the risk that a supply chain could “inadvertently support China’s military-civil fusion.”

The alliance should cooperate with the PRC wherever possible and confront it wherever necessary, mirroring US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement that, in all matters related to China, America will “cooperate wherever we can… [and] contest where we must.” The US should press Beijing to report irregular subsidies as required by WTO regulations and cease market-distorting practices and forced technology transfers. Subsidy ceilings should factor into the conversation, including with the PRC, to prevent a never-ending race to the bottom. Alliance cooperation on export controls with the European Union will be an important aspect of this approach. Multilateral export controls on semiconductor equipment is conducted through the Wassenaar Arrangement, a group of 42 countries that collaborate on restrictions of dual use technologies. But industry experts think the institution is inadequate, and have pushed for alternatives. However, while targeted restrictions are effective, “broad unilateral restrictions,” could hurt US firms, raise consumers’ costs, and cause pain to partner countries producing in China.

The best method to strengthen and secure the supply chain is a coordinated approach with allies and partners that avoids completely excluding the PRC, so long as it refrains from destabilizing behaviors such as invading Taiwan. Some have called for technological decoupling and total on-shoring of chip production to cut dependency on the PRC. This is impractical. It would cost over $1 trillion to transition to a system wherein each country is self-sufficient, prompting a rise in costs of 35%-65%. It would cost the United States $4 billion to build just one fab making the relatively low-tech chips needed for automobiles, which would only become profitable after five years. Furthermore, decoupling would alienate America’s allies (who count China as a top customer), decrease US firms’ market share, and insulate US firms from foreign innovation. Decoupling would lead to two separate ecosystems with different standards. Firms from countries like Taiwan and Korea would face a difficult choice: either get cut off from their manufacturing base or get cut off from the US IP that’s core to their products.

America has thus far attracted investments for fab plants from Samsung (a $17 billion fab in Texas) and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (a $12 billion facility in Arizona). The CHIPS Act will provide $52 billion in incentives to support chip manufacturing, research, and workforce development. Companies that receive this support are barred from building new advanced plants in China and from making certain advanced modifications to existing plants, leading some firms to “re-evaluate further Chinese investments.” These policies are just the beginning.

To coordinate on investments, supply chain resilience, and production plans, Washington proposed Chip 4, a group involving the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Taiwan and Japan have committed to joining, with Taiwan calling for greater semiconductor cooperation among democracies. South Korea has taken a more cautious approach, agreeing to attend the first meeting. Korea’s memory chip producers rely on materials from China and chips account for nearly 40% of Korea’s exports to China. A news report claimed that the US Commerce Department has exempted some Korean fabs in China from restrictions banning equipment capable at producing chips below 14 nanometers. The alliance will be more durable if it demonstrates flexibility. Forums of cooperation should not simply be based on a contest of leverage against the PRC.

How has Korea found itself at the center of the dynamic? The PRC interprets the other Chip 4 members as outside its sphere of influence, but losing traction with Korea would signal that the PRC’s regional influence is waning. The Yoon administration and Beijing are off to a rocky start, with tensions simmering over Beijing’s assertion that Seoul is beholden to a supposed agreement by the former administration not to install more US missile defense systems. Beijing’s 2017 economic retaliation cost Korea over $7 billion and pushed the Korean public to turn sharply against the PRC: 80% currently view the PRC negatively, a record high, according to Pew. And three quarters of the public want the government to “actively respond to China’s economic retaliation,” according to a 2021 survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Following a recent meeting between South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the PRC’s foreign ministry asserted that “the two sides need to stay committed to openness…and keep the industrial supply chain stable and unfettered.” In the meeting, Park explained that Korea’s attendance at the Chip 4 meeting is meant to safeguard “national interests,” not to exclude “any specific country.” Korea will make a decision about joining after the meeting, and has taken to referring to Chips 4 as a “consultative body,” rather than an alliance. While certain export restrictions are needed on national security grounds, it will be important to refrain from over-punishment of partners that deviate from export controls. The success of cooperation hinges not on the comprehensiveness of export restrictions but on the ability of the partners to shore up the supply chain while sustaining a high tempo pace of innovation.

The United States should collaborate with Korea, Taiwan, and Japan on a mutually beneficial, values-based vision for semiconductor collaboration that protects national security interests without spoiling supply chain efficiencies. The alliance should create a compensation mechanism to address retaliatory measures its members experience for participating in the alliance, such as assisting affected industries or reciprocal sanctions. To balance resilience and innovation, the alliance should engage with industry stakeholders, including (but not limited to): private sector firms, academia, and industry associations. Joint ventures, joint investments, and joint workforce development programs would benefit all, as would contingency planning and supplier diversification. A priority should be the resolution of a dispute between Japan and South Korea that has impacted the trade of semiconductor-related materials between the two countries. Amid growing tensions, Japan restricted exports of semiconductor materials to South Korea. The move disrupted supply chains between both countries.

The pandemic-induced chip supply chain snarls are not the industry’s last supply chain challenge. Geopolitical risk and Chinese industrial policy pose considerable risks and warrant coordination. But alliance partners’ concerns should be considered and decoupling is not viable. The better option is a partnership that addresses security threats without impairing the global supply chain.

Major Jessica Taylor (jg0787@princeton.edu) is a logistics readiness officer in the United States Air Force Reserve (USAFR) and a Ph.D. student in Security Studies at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, where she focuses on Alliance cooperation on systemic geopolitical risk to supply chains.

Jonathan Corrado (jonathan.corrado@koreasociety.org) is Director of Policy for The Korea Society, where he produces programming and conducts research on a range of security, diplomacy, and socioeconomic issues impacting the US-Korea Alliance and Northeast Asia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the views of their respective institutions.  

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

PacNet #50 – China’s new (old) Taiwan white paper: What’s the point?

In the wake of the People’s Liberation Army exercises in August, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) released a new white paper on its goal of “reunification” with Taiwan. Much of the change in this paper, compared to the most recent white papers (in 1993 and 2000) papers is tonal—Cherry Hitkari of the Lowy Institute notes it is “far more assertive, elaborate and emotionally charged.” There is also an added sense of urgency, as the resolution of the Taiwan question is now seen as a necessary condition for the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” the catch-all term for Xi’s ambition for great-power status. Rhetorical flourishes aside, the 2022 white paper is by no means revolutionary. Mentions of “peaceful reunification,” “one country, two systems,” and “people-to-people exchanges,” continue to litter its pages.

The differences, however, are indicators of Chinese intentions towards Taiwan, and the prospects for preventing further escalation.

The CCP reiterates its stance on pursuing “peaceful reunification,” under the “one country, two systems” (OCTS) policy, parroted by successive Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping. According to the paper, the CCP will pursue “people-to-people” economic and cultural exchanges, leading to “consultation and discussion as equals,” as the process by which unification would be achieved. It continues to discuss OCTS as the “only” and “inevitable” solution for Taiwan.

These calls will likely remain unanswered in Taiwan, which views OCTS as “wishful thinking.” Unification, or moves towards unification, have all-time low levels of support among polls of Taiwanese people. The most recent poll, conducted before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit, found that 6.4% of respondents support either “unification as soon as possible,” or to “maintain status quo, move toward unification.” The experience of Hong Kong under OCTS further diminished the already-bleak outlook for the policy. The steady dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy, starting with the State Council’s 2014 white paper on the region, and now the “overly broad interpretation of and arbitrary application” (per a UN report) of the Beijing-imposed national security law in 2020 showed Taiwanese exactly what to expect under OCTS.

The white paper, despite its talk of “peaceful reunification,” also provides ominous signs for the (im)balance of carrots and sticks the CCP has used and will continue to use against Taiwan. The paper notably removes more conciliatory language present in the 1993 and 2000 white papers, including prior promises of a high degree of autonomy, and to not deploy military and administrative personnel to the island. The noted absence of the latter assurance is especially worrying, as the CCP has declared its intention to prosecute members of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party for “secession,” made a crime under the Anti-Secession Law in 2005. The absence of the military deployment promise also comes alongside worrying calls by Chinese ambassador to France Lu Shaye that Taiwanese people need to be “re-educated” in a unification situation. Thus, the Chinese are doing little to rehabilitate the OCTS plan in Taiwan.

The white paper advocates “peaceful reunification” under a discredited system rejected by the Taiwanese, a majority of whom are now willing to fight to prevent its imposition on the island. The Chinese are apparently aware of this and defend their actions in Hong Kong: according to the 2022 white paper, the CCP “made some appropriate improvements,” which “laid a solid foundation for the law-based governance of Hong Kong.” Thus, the Chinese are aware of the discredited status of OCTS and make no effort to rehabilitate it.

In this light, the question is: what, then, is the purpose of the white paper?

The answer is probably domestic. On the one hand, the paper may be geared towards party cadres ahead of the 20th National Party Congress, slated to occur later this year. Observers have remarked that Xi’s administration relies less on economic growth—as had been the case for the prior three paramount leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao—and more so on nationalist sentiment and delivering on the plan for national rejuvenation to legitimize his rule into an unprecedented third term. On the latter, Xi faces increasing headwinds internationally with (further) growing great-power rivalry with the United States, souring opinions of the Belt and Road Initiative among some partners, and failure to conclude a trade deal with the European Union. The more in-depth discussion of post-unification Taiwan and setting a (rather ambiguous) deadline of not “leaving the Taiwan question to the next generation” could demonstrate the CCP’s intentions to escalate pressure on Taiwan heading into Xi’s third term.

The other answer is that the white paper serves as a nationalist “anti-inflammatory”. The CCP has stoked nationalism as another plank in their domestic legitimacy, and often refers to this sentiment—allowed to flourish on sites like Weibo—to justify their more aggressive moves abroad. Yet, despite creating and stoking these sentiments, it has grown to something beyond Beijing’s control. In the run-up to Speaker Pelosi’s visit, nationalists called for strong action against both the United States and Taiwan, with Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of Global Times calling for the PLA to “forcibly dispel,” and if ineffective, shoot down Pelosi’s plane. Following Pelosi’s visit, censors hurried to delete posts calling Beijing’s response too weak, as some appeared to demand “reunification by force,” or an invasion of Taiwan.

The attempt to dispel nationalist fervor constitutes self-recognition that the PRC is not yet ready to unify Taiwan by force, reinforcing the Pentagon’s assessment that an invasion is unlikely for another two years. To some extent, this involves military capabilities—while China does not have the necessary lift capacity to sustain an invasion the recent exercises have shown that an air and sea blockade of the island is possible. Rather, the CCP Leadership recognizes that the military, economic, and diplomatic costs of such an offensive are too high, especially given the current self-inflicted damage to the domestic economy from the zero-COVID policy, a collapsing housing market as developers like Evergrande default on its debts and foreign debt crisis as partners are forced to default on Chinese loans.

As Beijing continues its naval modernization and escalation around Taiwan, the United States must prepare, striking a balance between support for Taiwan that increases the potential costs of a CCP offensive military action, and overzealous support that Zhongnanhai can contrive as pretext for further escalation. Some aspects of the Taiwan Policy Act currently in the Senate may stray to the latter side of this balance. Following President Biden’s statements of intent to defend Taiwan, Washington should clarify that it considers a military blockade an act of war, as one participant stated at our US-Taiwan Deterrence and Defense Dialogue earlier this month. Though Manilla may be hesitant for fear of retribution by the CCP, stationing a small, mobile naval force in the Philippines would decrease the response time for cross-strait disturbances, forcing further Chinese recalculations. If stationing such a force proves infeasible, the US should increase its military engagement with the Philippines beyond the occasional freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. Last, the United States must finally answer the call of Rep. Elaine Luria, a frequent critic of the deterioration of the United States Navy, who noted in 2021 the Navy wanted to retire fifteen ships while procuring only four. This trend must reverse—Chinese calculations already expect US intervention in a Taiwan contingency, thus empowering our navy helps to prevent the contingency from happening.

Jake Steiner (jake@pacforum.org) is a resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. His research focuses on the intersection between the foreign and domestic policies of the People’s Republic of China, sharp power, and I.R. constructivism. He holds a MA Honours in Economics and International Relations from the University of St Andrews (GBR).

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

PacNet #48 – Are small modular reactors the solution to growing energy and climate problems?

The increasingly dominant view in the energy expert community is that nuclear power has a role to play in achieving the 17 “sustainable development goals” identified by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 (and intended to be reached by 2030). There has thus been rising interest in nuclear power development in several parts of the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific, where growth is the strongest.

This renewed interest comes not long after the failed “nuclear renaissance” of the 2000s. That renaissance never materialized primarily because the devastating accidents at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 led many countries to reconsider their nuclear power ambitions. Now, however, national energy and climate objectives are again driving these same countries to put the nuclear option back on the table. This interest has only grown in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the subsequent efforts to choke off Russian natural gas and oil exports, and the resulting increase in global prices for fossil fuels.

Many believe that “small modular reactors” (SMRs) and their companion “floating nuclear power plants” (FNPPs) hold considerable promise and that they may be “the next big thing” in the nuclear power market, even though they are not new concepts—they date back to the 1950s. To explore this further and, in particular, the implications for the Indo-Pacific, the Pacific Forum recently commissioned three papers: one by Victor Nian that unpacks SMR/FNPP technologies and discusses their applicability in the region; one by Jor-Shan Choi that examines the nuclear safety, security, and safeguards considerations associated with SMRs/FNPPs; and one by Miles Pomper, Ferenc Dalnoki Veress, Dan Zhukov, and Sanjana Gogna that addresses the potential geopolitical implications of SMR/FNPP deployments.

Seven key insights can be teased out from the papers, which are published in a just-released volume on “Small Modular Reactors: The Next Phase for Nuclear Power in the Indo-Pacific.” These insights include the following:

  1. SMR/FNPPs have appealing features

SMRs and FNPPs are popular because they are small, mobile, flexible, have user-centric characteristics, and are empowered by the advanced (and safer) Generation IV technologies. What’s more, the advantage of SMRs and FNPPs is that they have the potential to offer cost-competitive and clean energy without the shortcomings associated with traditional large-scale nuclear power plants. SMRs and FNPPs can be easily integrated into national energy planning, especially for newcomer countries with small grid sizes or off-grid/remote communities or for countries that are dependent heavily on energy imports.

  1. SMR/FNPP technology is not yet ready, and its prospects are unclear

Most SMR and FNPP designs are still in the research phase or under development. Few are deployed. In the Indo-Pacific, the land- or marine-based reactor types of interest are water-cooled, high-temperature gas, molten salt, or aqueous-fueled. Two reactors are currently deployed in the region: the KLT40S, a pressurized water reactor FNPP developed by OKBM (Russia) and commissioned in Pevek in the Russian far east that is designed to generate 70 megawatts of energy; and the HTR-PM, a high-temperature gas reactor developed by the China Nuclear Engineering Corporation and Institute of Nuclear New Energy Technology that is designed to generate 210 megawatts of energy.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), SMR and FNPP technologies are unlikely to contribute significantly to the expansion of nuclear power in the next decade. If adoption of such technologies matches the current level of interest, reactor development and deployment will take time to materialize.

  1. There is a pathway to the successful utilization of SMRs/FNPPs

There are several factors associated with the successful utilization of SMRs and FNPPs. Advancing them as early as possible in the industrial supply chain is important for proper integration into energy production. Developing industry standards, to ensure compatibility and interoperability with other systems, and adopting and scaling up SMR/FNPP technologies adequately to enjoy the economies of the multiples are also essential. Finally, ensuring “green passage” for transportable SMRs/FNPPs is a key factor in facilitating safe and efficient mobilization of these technologies for nearshore, offshore, and maritime applications.

  1. Safety, security, and safeguards considerations are a challenge for SMRs/FNPPs

One problem with SMR/FNPP technologies is that they are not devoid of safety, security, and safeguards challenges. SMRs and FNPPs, notably “first-of-a-kind” reactors, have unique features, specific systems, and novel operating conditions, introducing challenges to the established regulatory bodies, potentially leading to safety concerns. The special features of SMRs and FNPPs, notably their transportability, more flexible siting options to include remote or urban locations, and new fuel designs also present new nuclear security challenges, some possibly more serious than those of large reactors. Moreover, because they use different types of fuel that require new technologies in manufacturing and handling of nuclear materials, some SMRs and FNPPs present unique challenges to IAEA safeguards.

The best way to address these safety, security, and safeguards challenges is to adopt a holistic approach. Such a “3S” approach helps better understand the challenges (and opportunities) associated with SMR and FNPP deployments.

  1. SMR/FNPP deployment will happen in a competitive security environment

Nuclear power development has always been intimately linked to geopolitics. There is no reason to think that it will be different this time around, especially given that the security environment is becoming increasingly competitive.

Because Russia has been relentless in its intended nuclear energy (traditional and SMR/FNPP) exports, notably in the Indo-Pacific, and because China looms large over the horizon as a major nuclear exporter in the context of its Belt-and-Road Initiative, there are fears in Washington that the United States might lag behind (because it has a limited nuclear export industry) and lose potential markets or surrender influence in the region to either Moscow or Beijing, or both. Significantly, a few other regional countries are entering the nuclear export business as well.

  1. It isn’t clear (yet) if SMRs/FNPPs will have far-reaching geopolitical implications

Caution is in order, however. The current renewed interest in nuclear power may, as its predecessors, dissipate. Even if it materializes, it will be a very slow process. The United States, then, should keep an eye on key developments and dynamics but not rush into anything.

If Washington wants to help US manufacturers of SMRs and FNPPs gain new markets in the Indo-Pacific, the priority should be Indonesia given Jakarta’s urgent (and massive) need for new power sources. Doing so in the Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam would only be judicious if these three countries confirm their intentions to pursue nuclear power. Either way, selling (or failing to sell) US manufactured of SMR and FNPP technologies is unlikely to change radically the recipients’ approach to Washington as a trade or security partner.

  1. The United States should ask itself if it benefits from expanding or limiting the nuclear export market

It is an open question whether the United States should focus on competing aggressively to expand the traditional and emerging SMR and FNPP export market (and shape it to its advantage) or if, instead, it should focus on limiting such expansion. Conducting a thorough study on the benefits, costs, and risks of each option would be useful and timely.

This list of key insights is not comprehensive. There is much left to unpack to understand fully the renewed interest in nuclear power and the seemingly high enthusiasm for SMRs and FNPPs, plus the implications for the Indo-Pacific specifically. Our volume’s papers provide preliminary analyses to help jumpstart this research.

David Santoro (david@pacforum.org) and Carl Baker (carl@pacforum.org) are respectively President/CEO and Senior Advisor at the Pacific Forum. Follow David Santoro on Twitter @DavidSantoro1.

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

PacNet #46 – Correcting the Narrative on China’s “New Era-gance”: Taipei, Washington, and many are angry at Beijing’s bullying

Furious China fires missiles near Taiwan in drills after Pelosi visit,” blared a typical headline just after the congressional delegation’s visit on Aug. 2-3. Such parroting of Beijing propaganda wrongly blames a long-standing practice of US official visits to the Island instead of provocations by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Even worse is that this inaccurate, tiresome narrative exacerbates the PRC’s political warfare that attempts to excuse its bullying and potential unjustified, unprovoked use of force against Taiwan and other peaceful neighbors.

Let’s be clear: a visit is not a trigger for conflict. It is Taiwan, the United States, and other freedom-loving countries that are angry at the PRC’s “new era” of arrogance plus encroachment. People should have learned the lesson from the 1995-96 crisis, what I described as the PRC’s test-firing of missiles near Taiwan by blaming Congress and using a visit as pretext to provoke tension and to advance planned military buildups.

American resolve, strength, and leadership

On July 20, President Joe Biden prompted attention—as well as China’s attempts at intimidation—regarding this congressional delegation (CODEL) when he answered a reporter’s question on whether the speaker’s trip to Taiwan would be a good idea. He responded that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” It was surprising for a former senator to say that and attribute it to the neutral military. The Heritage Foundation’s Walter Lohman, a former congressional staffer, noted: “what is a surprise is that the president of the United States would try to dissuade her from doing it.”

Amid China’s inflammatory rhetoric threatening Pelosi and other Americans, on Aug. 1, Biden firmly warned: “The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm. …if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.” Biden is capable of tough strategic messaging, but he directed that strong statement at terrorists in announcing the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri of Al Qaeda.

Pelosi has led three crucial roles that fell on Congress. First, the CODEL showed US strength, resolve, and leadership. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Chairman Gregory Meeks, who joined the trip, summed up why the members were compelled to visit Taiwan, precisely given the PRC’s threats: “we can’t be bullied by anyone.” The delegation’s visit was a relief.

Second, it was Pelosi who eloquently explained policy and interests, not only to the American people but also international audiences. In her commentary in The Washington Post as she arrived on Aug. 2, she wrote: “The Taiwan Relations Act set out America’s commitment to a democratic Taiwan, providing the framework for an economic and diplomatic relationship that would quickly flourish into a key partnership.” She accurately placed the responsibility on Beijing for intensifying tensions with Taipei. She also stated that “America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.” She pointed out that “the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy” as Russia wages war in Ukraine.

In contrast, even though Biden as a senator voted for the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, he has not adequately articulated policy. A day after stating that the United States has a “commitment” to get involved militarily, on May 24, Biden simply said “no” when a reporter asked him to explain why he denied that “strategic ambiguity” is dead.

Third, Pelosi also brought bipartisan unity. For example, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell commended “the Speaker’s display of support for Taiwan’s democracy.” Senators Bob Mendenez (D-New Jersey) and James Risch (R-Idaho), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated: “Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan provides no justification for this sort of measure,” referring to PLA military exercises that essentially represent a blockade.

Manufactured crisis

Pelosi’s delegation was the latest in a decades-long series of visits by members of Congress, administration officials, and military officers as senior as flag/general officers. Even post-1979 visits by cabinet-rank officials started in 1992. It is standard practice for such delegations to fly on military aircraft, including to Taiwan. This CODEL of six members visited Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan, with its stop in Taiwan coming on Aug. 2-3.

The PRC then conducted military exercises on Aug. 4-10, egregiously including dangerous live-fire launches of 11 DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles toward Taiwan that flew into the sea to the northeast, east, and southwest of the island. Her visit is a pretext for the PRC’s provocations in a “manufactured crisis” as condemned by the National Security Council on Aug. 4. The NSC also rebuked the People’s Liberation Army’s actions as an irresponsible, provocative, destabilizing, and aggressive over-reaction.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) described the PLA’s actions as a simulated attack on Taiwan.

China is learning lessons from Russia’s blockade against Ukraine. Just as Russia’s brutal invasion has targeted civilians and military personnel, the PRC fired missiles that threatened civilian centers, aircraft, and shipping.

Biden responded to China’s instigated instability by keeping US naval ships and F-35B fighters to the east of Taiwan for a longer period of time to monitor the situation. The assets included the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and two large amphibious ships, the USS Tripoli and USS America. Previously, US aircraft carriers sailed near Taiwan during the 1995-1996 crisis and Taiwan’s presidential election in 2008. Biden also postponed the test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

China has raised tensions before the crisis

In contrast to US de-escalation, China has raised tension with military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and other maritime areas for decades. For example, the PLA held live-fire exercises in multiple seas in 2020. The PLA held air and naval exercises in August 2021. In May 2022, the PLA held a live-fire exercise in the Bohai Sea, and PRC and Russian air exercise took place during Biden’s visit to Asia and a QUAD meeting.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, officials have voiced tough stances on Taiwan, including to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on March 14, President Biden on March 18, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on April 20.

At the Shangri-la Dialogue in June, Austin criticized the PLA for unprofessional and aggressive intercepts. He said that “in February, a PLA Navy ship directed a laser at an Australian P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, seriously endangering everyone on board.” Another incident occurred between a US C-130 aircraft and a PLA SU-30 fighter.

Just in June and July, the PLA also has protested against a US P-8 flight, freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), Taiwan Strait Transits, and arms sales to Taiwan.  PLA fighters crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait and the PLA held an exercise around the time of Senator Scott’s CODEL on July 8. On July 28, the PLA already announced live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait.

On Aug. 5, China further escalated by announcing cancellations and suspensions of dialogues in eight areas, including military-to-military Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) and meetings under the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA). The PLA did not suspend talks with Secretary Austin or Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. However, their PLA counterparts have refused to communicate during this crisis.

I have expected China to increase tension ahead of Taiwan’s local elections on Nov. 26.

Beijing’s belligerence backfires

The world sees China’s unreasonable, unjustified, and aggressive behavior. Taiwan has received support and sympathy from countries throughout the world. China’s instigation of this latest crisis raises questions about how the United States, Taiwan, and other peaceful and like-minded countries should respond to China’s belligerent and egregious threats to peace and stability. Overall, countries will need to be more proactive and creative, especially in diplomatic initiatives. A coordinated campaign is needed within the US government as well as with allies and partners that increases use of informational, economic, military, and diplomatic tools to deter coercion and conflict as well as to shore up Taiwan’s resilience and legitimacy.

Shirley Kan (skan@globaltaiwan.org) is an independent specialist in Asian security affairs who worked for the US Congress at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and Advisor at the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with unlike-minded countries

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

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

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

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

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

Hybrid multilateralism

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

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

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

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

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

PacNet #42 – Their money our way: Influencing highly capable allies and partners

“Allies and partners”—multiple US strategy documents contain these three words, and senior leaders reinforce the need for their contributions at every opportunity. The US Department of Defense largely builds relationships and capabilities with allies and partners through security cooperation.

A paradigm shift is long-overdue, however. At present, significant resources and detailed processes focus on engagement with developing countries, defined by lower income levels. Countries with high-income levels are assumed to be self-sufficient capability-wise and given less attention. While helping countries in need might seem logical at first, it overlooks our most capable allies and partners in the acquisition of advanced weapons systems critical in a coalition war fight. Left unchecked, a significant acquisition today may be of little coalition value in the future, increasing US burden-sharing commitment. Herein lies the problem explained through a story of two camps.

Type 1: Building-partner-capacity camp

This is the predominant camp within the security cooperation enterprise. Building partner capacity programs encompass security cooperation and security assistance activities funded by US government appropriations. The primary authorization for the US Department of Defense is Title 10 US Code Section 333. The fiscal year 2021 funding amount inclusive of smaller capacity building authorizations was approximately $1 billion. This camp’s members enjoy control over initiative implementation since US government appropriations fund the activities. This drives proactiveness. Countries that desire capability development in areas such as border security or counterterrorism—mainly developing countries like the Philippines or Vietnam—frequently benefit from this authority.

The US Department of Defense takes extraordinary measures to ensure the success of its building-partner-capacity efforts, given the funds are taxpayer dollars. Initiatives must demonstrate that the country cannot achieve the desired capability absent US assistance. Department of Defense Instruction 5132.14, Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation for the Security Cooperation Enterprise establishes the framework for building-partner-capacity programs. Planners spend significant time anticipating partner requirements, developing initiatives, and carefully applying over a multi-year time horizon. Teams of US government contractors work to evaluate progress toward campaign plan objectives. This camp has a large following and many organizational battle rhythms incorporate its planning milestones.

Type 2: Capacity-built partner camp

This is the less popular, independent, and sometimes neglected camp. Highly capable countries generally possess formidable military capabilities given high-income status, self-funding force development, and arms acquisitions. Plainly, they are thought of as capacity-built, requiring little US attention specific to their capability development efforts. Although major US arms transfers to highly capable countries have congressional notification criteria through the foreign military sales process—the US government’s program for transferring defense articles—these are intended as checks allowing congressional objection to the sale, if warranted. Camp members operate reactively, believing that if a country is using sovereign funds, the United States cannot dictate use. Their resulting modus operandi is to receive the purchase request, ensure it meets administrative standards, and action it through a series of procedural and legislative requirements before delivering the capability. Sometimes neglect turns to attention for this camp when a country announces the purchase of the latest fifth-generation aircraft worth billions. However, this attention is fleeting, as once the purchase contract is signed, members revert to transaction mode postured for the next sale. Highly capable countries frequently engaged in foreign military sales transactions with the United States are Australia, Japan, or South Korea.

Although reactive and neglected, camp members administered a foreign military sales portfolio valued at approximately $28 billion in Fiscal Year 2021—nearly 28 times the dollar value handled by building-partner-capacity camp members. With such a sizeable sum alongside the most advanced weapons systems, it is counterintuitive that most of the attention and emphasis resides with the building-partner-capacity camp. While multiple regulations guide how international arms transfers should be processed and exported, no document exists that outlines how the US Department of Defense should influence acquisitions of US-origin equipment by highly capable countries.

The problem with camp politics

The urgency to develop a required capability with a country does not power the building-partner-capacity camp. It is foremost a matter of the fiscal responsibility of US government funds and whether a partner’s return on investment is worthwhile. Despite widespread support and emphasis, countries benefitting from building-partner-capacity programs generally do not possess fifth generation fighters, ballistic missile defense systems, or precision munitions effective against the US pacing threat. If so, they would be considered capacity-built. The lack of consideration within the security cooperation enterprise to influence acquisitions of a highly capable ally or partner is equivalent to waiting to be told what to do.

While pundits may argue that foreign national acquisition decisions are sovereign, foreign military sales are a way to achieve US ends with a partner. Proactivity, to achieve an end is necessary, regardless of the funding source. Building-partner-capacity camp members could have an easier job. Rarely would a partner dismiss no-cost training and equipment provided by the US government; little convincing is needed. However, for members of the capacity-built partner camp, influencing a major acquisition decision toward the foremost interest of a collective coalition requirement, not a country’s unilateral desires, is incredibly challenging.

Operationalizing capability development

A method to influence ally and partner capability development is to operationalize it. Operationalizing within US military decision-making and joint planning processes elevates it to commander’s business, gaining the level of visibility and attention necessary. It also projects future capabilities to inform and perhaps one day be incorporated into US campaign and contingency planning.

Operationalizing capability development would flow as follows. First, understand and agree on the most prevalent threat bilaterally; in some regions, this is clear. Second, understand the enemy force structure and likely courses of action. Third, based on enemy capabilities, examine the partner’s current capabilities; this will require comparing the performance characteristics of weapons systems to determine strengths and weaknesses between the two forces to identify partner capability gaps. Finally, identify the capabilities needed to address the gap.

In some cases, capability gaps can be further scoped to a particular weapon system depending on the scenario. In other cases, a significant acquisition desire by a partner may require discouragement, especially if marginally effective against a threat and risks tying up defense budgets for multiple years. The resulting capabilities and supporting weapons systems become critical enablers to integrated deterrence.

Operationalizing ally and partner capability development in the context of the Ukraine conflict provides good insights. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the regional threat was clear. Reports also indicated that Russian tactics used in Georgia were strikingly similar to those used in Ukraine today. Additional lessons were learned during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The United States thus had 14 years to identify required defense capabilities bilaterally and influence Ukraine to acquire them through foreign military sales in the required quantities. The weapons systems the US government rapidly transferred to Ukraine early in 2022 are not the latest modern arms, minus some tactical drones. Stingers began fielding to the US military in 1978, Javelins in 1996, and M777 Howitzers in 2005. Significantly, the US Army was on a path to retiring Stingers. Although some of these weapons were initially purchased by Ukraine using their national funds, they fell short, given the overwhelming quantities eventually provided by the US government.

A need for evolution

Influencing the capability development and acquisition decisions of highly capable allies and partners is long overdue. In a future where multinational operations and burden sharing will be the norm, the United States cannot do it alone. Washington must pay close attention to, and influence where possible, foreign capability strategies and acquisition roadmaps. Emphasizing allies and partners, particularly the highly capable ones, does little good if the United States has no strategy to shape capability contributions before there is a crisis. Operationalizing ally and partner capability development is the first step in developing such a strategy. Doing so provides the evolutionary leap necessary for the security cooperation enterprise.

Lieutenant Colonel Jason Kim (jak012@ucsd.edu) is a US Army Foreign Area Officer with deep interests in security cooperation. Jason served at various levels to include the service component, combatant command, and US Embassy overseeing security cooperation and assistance programs for the past 10 years with Indo-Pacific countries. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

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

PacNet #41 – Another “hotline” with China isn’t the answer

When US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met his Chinese counterpart, Minister Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue in June, he reportedly urged the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to participate more proactively in crisis communications and crisis management mechanisms.

As the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) enter a period of “strategic competition,” US officials apparently see these lines of communications as “guardrails” to “keep both sides from veering off the road toward escalation.”

While well-intentioned, another hotline isn’t the answer. It would give false hope that the United States and PRC will resolve disputes more rapidly during a crisis. The PRC does not hold the same value and goals for hotlines as the United States: it views them as tools to manipulate rather than to solve crises.

The United States is better off changing its expectations, understanding how the PRC views crisis communications, and shifting the focus to the internal, inter-agency process by which US policymakers would coordinate in a crisis with Beijing.

Incompatible goals

Secretary Austin is one of several senior leaders within the Biden administration calling for more US-PRC hotlines. Current and former US officials believe that US-PRC crisis communication mechanisms are under-developed.

As one article put it: “Their inadequacy constitutes a clear and present danger of potential miscommunication that could fuel a dangerous U.S.-China military confrontation at a time of heightening bilateral tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.”

However, the United States and PRC hold different assumptions and goals about hotlines.

The United States views them as a tool to deconflict and de-escalate and communicate between forces during a crisis. The PLA harbors deep suspicion about crisis communications with the United States, and perceives US proposals for new channels as an excuse to engage in provocative military activities near PRC-claimed waters and territory.

Beijing regards crisis communications as subservient to broader political goals of “crisis management,” which encompass exploiting crises to its advantage and manipulating risk calculations. Hotlines are not meant to resolve the crisis but to empower higher level organs within the PRC to signal resolve, assign blame, and stall until Beijing stakes out a position of maximum pressure and leverage over the United States during negotiations.

This incompatibility has not stopped senior US defense officials from holding out hope that hotlines and personal relationships with PLA leaders might ease tensions. In his recent book, for instance, former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper says he could rapidly contact his “counterpart,” Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe, to clear up misunderstandings.

Such hopes could be misplaced. Not only could hotlines fail to solve crises, but they might also not perform as intended. As Kurt Campbell, the Biden administration’s National Security council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, has said: hotlines tend to “ring endlessly in empty rooms.”

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

The United States has signed two hotline agreements with the PRC. The first, dating back to 1997, is a hotline at the presidential level. During a joint press conference with Jiang Zemin, President Clinton said at the time that it would “make it easier to confer at a moment’s notice.”

However, this hotline was not used during the 2001 EP-3 accident, when a PRC fighter jet crashed into a US aircraft, forcing it to land on Hainan Island with US service members onboard. The PRC did not answer any calls for 24 hours, prompting John Keefe, who then worked in the US Embassy in Beijing, to state it was “the day of phone calls not returned.”

A second hotline, called the Defense Telephone Link (DTL) was established in 2008 at the secretary-of-defense level. The DTL is utilized on a regular basis, but only for routine bilateral communications. During incidents, such as the 2016 PLA seizure of an unmanned underwater vehicle in the South China Sea, it appears the DTL was not utilized.

US desires for a “red-phone hotline” with the PRC may not meet US expectations because senior PLA leaders are not empowered to speak to foreign militaries during crises. Only after civilian Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing have vetted and approved talking points can the PLA communicate. Another red phone is unlikely to accelerate this dynamic on the PLA’s side.

Understanding PRC concepts of crisis communication

The United States should consider broadening its understanding of PRC approaches to “crisis management” as distinct from “crisis communications.” Understanding and accepting the PRC perspective (and not attempting to change its mind) could help US leaders adjust their expectations.

The PLA’s 2020 Science of Military Strategy dedicates a chapter to the “Prevention and Handling of Military Crisis.” It states that “smart crisis management does not lie in the ability to intervene after the crisis has formed and erupted, but whether it can avoid the occurrence of unfavorable crises.” The goal, then, is to avoid the conditions leading to a crisis—what Michael Brecher and Jonathan Wilkenfeld call the “catalysts” to crises. For the PLA, these catalysts are US military actions and posture near the PRC. So, the United States is responsible for eliminating them.

In the section on “handling active crises,” the PLA says that while communication is important, they must:

The handling of military crises should attach great importance to the use of military coercion methods, and appropriately demonstrate strength, determination, and will. In the case that deterrence cannot make the enemy yield, appropriate actual combat methods should be adopted to further deter the enemy, so as to achieve the effect of stopping the war or preventing the escalation of the crisis with a small battle.

Such analysis aligns with strategies that General Secretary Xi Jinping has emphasized to use a “small war to deter a large war” (以武止戈). So, while the United States approaches crisis communication as a means to de-escalate, the PLA views it as part of a broader PRC campaign to stall, manipulate, and possibly use the threat of escalation to coerce Washington to back down.

A new conceptual approach to crisis communications?

The United States should reconceptualize “crisis communications” as a component of a broader concept of “crisis management.” US policymakers should reframe crisis management as a type of deterrence rather than an instrument to de-escalate. Of the four priorities listed in the 2022 National Defense Strategy Fact Sheet, for example, two relate to deterrence. Crisis management should be utilized as a supporting function of US deterrence and coercion strategy, not separate from it. Plainly, rather than conceptualize crisis communications as a way (in the ends-ways-means construct) to an end of de-escalation, crisis communication should be a means to the crisis management ways, supporting the NDS ends of deterrence. Crisis communication mechanisms would thus signal US resolve in the face of PRC pressure or manipulation, instead of trying to resolve the problem.

Second, the United States should streamline internal government bureaucratic processes by which decisions are made during a crisis with the PRC. Joint Publication 3-28, Defense Support of Civil Authoritiesdefines “crisis management” as “measures, normally executed under federal law, to identify, acquire, and plan the use of resources needed to anticipate, prevent, and/or resolve a threat or an act of terrorism.” US national security organs are currently under-equipped to coordinate timely policy responses in a crisis with China. While the National Security Council could be the default coordination hub, manpower limitations may bottleneck efforts to achieve synchronization across the Indo-Pacific Command, Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of State, and the US Embassy in Beijing. Establishing a clearly defined chain of command and points of contact across the various US agencies¾including public messaging courses of action¾that can be rehearsed and stress-tested would enhance US crisis communication capabilities.

Finally, the United States and PRC should discuss definitions of “crisis management.” Words have different meanings to different people, especially across different languages and cultures. The United States and PRC should explore differing ideas and concepts of “crisis” to avoid misperceptions. In October 2020, the Department of Defense (DoD) and PLA held their first Crisis Communications Working Group “to discuss concepts of crisis communications, crisis prevention, and crisis management.” This dialogue should resume, perhaps renamed as the “Crisis Management Working Group.” This group should look beyond the US “ways” of crisis communications, and instead focus on the “ends” of crisis prevention and crisis de-escalation.

Lyle J. Morris is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Colonel Kyle Marcrum is a student at the United States Army War College. The views/statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are strictly our own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, or the US Government. Review of the material does not imply DoD or US Government endorsement of factual accuracy or opinion.

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

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