From the time it took office in January 2009, the Obama Administration adopted a new point of departure for policy in Northeast Asia. It had two important elements: renewed attention to East Asia as a whole, and the placing of North Korean issues within the context of an overall policy toward Northeast Asia rather than treating it as a singularly important focal point.
The East Asia focus derived, on the one hand, from a broad range of long-standing American concerns and interests—economic, political and security. To the experienced Asia specialists who came into office with President Obama, the importance of the region to the United States was self-evident. On the other hand, there was a strong sense that, over the immediately preceding years, the U.S. had been overly focused on issues of counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation to the detriment of other aspects of its interests and relations in the region.
It was not that the Obama team viewed the international terrorist threat as having diminished. It is obvious from President Obama’s commitment to the effort in Afghanistan—and to the related and even more fraught situation in Pakistan—that he shares the previous Administration’s priority on rooting out Al Qaeda, eliminating safe havens in the region for terrorists, and restoring stability.
And policy toward Iran as well as North Korea has made clear that he does not regard nuclear proliferation as any less important than before.
But Mr. Obama and his aides clearly understood that American interests went far beyond these highly focused concerns, and they understood that there was a growing angst among our Asian friends over the seeming lack of U.S. attention, and even lack of interest, in the broader set of issues that concerned them. The charge may have been unfair in some respects, but the perception was deep-seated, and the Obama team determined to alter both the reality and the perception.
Economically, the American stake in East Asia is clear. Almost 30 percent of U.S. global trade in goods is with East Asia, over 23 percent with Northeast Asia alone, including China. Moreover, China accounts for almost 40 percent of the American global merchandise trade deficit and Japan and Korea another 10 percent.
And while East Asia accounts for less than 12 percent of American foreign direct investment around the world, this still amounted to over $369 billion in 2008.
Politically, with international values such as democracy and rule of law spreading to countries not only in Northeast Asia but throughout the region, the Obama team determined that it was very much in the U.S. national interest to work closely with the individual countries in the area as well as with regional organizations to approach international issues in a context of extending those values.
From a strategic perspective, it was clear to President Obama that, beyond the issues of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, there are major new developments in and around the region that make it essential for the United States to engage in a more comprehensive and intensive way than had been true in the recent past. Although it is hardly the only factor, the rise of China is the most obvious and consequential of those new developments, one that will color all aspects of events in East Asia and the direction of U.S. policy as far into the future as the mind’s eye can see.
All of the countries of the region clearly understand the importance of China to their own futures—economic as well as security—and they therefore want good relations with Beijing. But, at the same time, it is increasingly obvious that they do not want to be put in a situation in which there is no counterbalancing force. Their concern is that, left alone, they would inevitably be forced to bend to China’s will and be drawn into the Chinese “sphere of influence.” While these countries do not necessarily harbor hostility toward China, given the nature of the Chinese political and economic system as well as the uncertainty of China’s future course, such a prospect is unwelcome to them. Thus, many of them have rather openly made known their desire for countervailing sources of support and collaboration.
From an American perspective, therefore, the long-existing relationships and interests that underlie ties to the region are now increasingly supplemented by a new awareness of the need for an active presence in order to maintain a sense of “balance” in the region, not against a presumed enemy but, consistent with the traditional American role in Asia, to act as a stabilizing force, so that no country needs to feel threatened by the overwhelming power of another, and so that no power vacuum develops that one country or another might sense an opportunity—or a requirement—to fill.
Thus, over the past twenty-two months we have seen a more dynamic and diversified American approach to the region than in the preceding period. This has included a willingness by the United States to participate actively in regional institutions and regimes, including the East Asia Summit, not in confrontation against any country—including China—but to help create a climate of confidence and stability that can promote peace and prosperity for all concerned.
Looking specifically at Northeast Asia, during the Cold War, of course, there was a focused concern with possible challenges from Soviet power. But since the collapse of the USSR, and in light of the rise of China as well as the problems created by a nuclearizing North Korea, a new context has developed for an active U.S. role.
Immediately upon assuming office, the Obama administration was confronted with a series of challenges from North Korea, including in the form of a ballistic missile launch and a second nuclear test. As I have already said, however, from the outset the Administration adopted a determined view not to allow its Northeast Asia policy to revolve around North Korea, but rather to place the handling of North Korean challenges into a context of a broader regional policy framework. Thus, greater emphasis throughout the government was placed on deepening relations with our alliance partners, the Republic of Korea and Japan, as well as on strengthening cooperative relations with China.
With respect to the ROK, although the strong ties of alliance came under strain with the advent of the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2003, many of those tensions were being eased by end of President Roh’s tenure. Keep in mind that it was in mid-2007, still during Mr. Roh’s presidency, that the KORUS FTA was signed.
In any case, the coming to office of the Lee Myung-bak administration in early 2008 helped to continue the process of improving relations, and since President Obama entered the White House, the enhancement of those ties has been greatly accelerated. This has been aided enormously not just by the importance of the issues the two nations face in common, but also by the obvious mutual respect and striking personal chemistry that quickly grew between the two leaders and the rapid development of a strong desire by both to consult with and accommodate one another across a very broad range of bilateral, regional and global issues.
Among the most striking consequences of these changes was the immediately supportive American response to the sinking of the Cheonan, as well as sustained support for the ROK over the months that have followed. It also, of course, contributed to agreement to postpone OPCON transfer from April 2012 until December 2015. And of fundamental importance to both countries, the renewed sense of closeness spurred President Obama to assign very high priority to moving ahead with KORUS FTA ratification despite the domestic political difficulties this will entail. We will have to see whether, in light of failure to come to closure during the G-20 meeting in Seoul, negotiations on supplemental measures can be successfully concluded in the weeks ahead.
The other major American security ally in the region is, of course, Japan. That alliance has been, and remains, a crucial foundation stone of the American security presence in East and Northeast Asia as well of tremendous importance economically and politically to both countries, the region, and the world.
The Obama Administration had demonstrated early on the importance it attaches to ties with Tokyo, among other things by welcoming Prime Minister Aso as the first foreign leader to visit the Obama White House, and by choosing Japan as the first country visited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That said, no one can deny that U.S.-Japan relations went through significant trials during the first several months of the DPJ administration starting in September 2009.
The problems extended beyond such already existing knotty questions as basing arrangements, though those remained important. The deeper problem was that the new DPJ leadership seemed not to grasp the true value of the allianceâ€•to Japan and to the region, and that it appeared to see Japan’s security couched more than before in terms of closer relations with China, seemingly at the expense of the alliance.
For the United States, the issue was not—and is not—that Washington opposes cordial, close and constructive Sino-Japanese relations. Quite the contrary, the Obama Administration, like its predecessors stretching back over many years, strongly favors positive relations between China and Japan, and it is concerned whenever tensions rise between these two major nations. But what was especially concerning was the impression, as I have said, that the new DPJ government, and specifically Mr. Hatoyama, did not have a realistic grasp of the rapidly changing strategic picture in the region and of the importance, not of confronting China or even North Korea, for that matter, but of having reliable arrangements in place to ensure the maintenance of peace and stability, including a strong American security presence in Japan under reliable basing arrangements.
By mid-2010, toward the end of the Hatoyama administration, a greater sense of realism seemed to permeate the government in Tokyo about the nature of the security environment in which Japan exists. And certainly since the formation of the Kan administration, Tokyo has fully embraced the alliance as a critical underpinning of Japan’s strategic structure. Specific alliance issues are still unresolved, some of which remain quite difficult. But no longer is there any doubt about the commitment of both Tokyo and Washington to sustaining and strengthening the alliance. As a result, an important element of stability has been reintroduced into the overall Northeast Asian security picture that seemed to be in question for several months.
Turning to China, that nation is, of course, of central importance to American interests and the interests of every other country in the region. And just like the others, the United States is seeking to fashion the most positive and productive relationship possible with the PRC.
What is possible, however, depends on much more than goodwill. It depends on how each of us sees our interests and how we behave to protect and promote those interests.
Much has been achieved between the Obama Administration and Beijing. I refer you to the Joint Statement issued at the time of President Obama’s visit to China in November 2009 for a sense of the breadth and richness of Sino-American relations.
While it is obvious to all that there are difficult aspects of U.S.-PRC relations, what is equally obvious is the Obama Administration’s conviction that, while China and the United States cannot by themselves solve looming global issues—and therefore the idea of a “G-2” is misleading and unhelpful—very few if any of these problems can be resolved or even properly managed without Sino-American cooperation.
So, when the Obama Administration advocates a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China, it is not because the words sound good. It is because they reflect a profound reality about the nature of the global, regional and bilateral issues we confront and the requirements for potentially successfully addressing them.
The harsh fact, however, is not only that these issues are inherently difficult, but that many people in both countries perceive the other side as merely paying lip service to cooperation on many of these matters; at heart they believe the other side is seeking, behind the cloak of fine words, to skew approaches to benefit themselves. And they thus tend to think not only about how to resolve problems, but how to avoid being disadvantaged by the other side.
This continuing deep level of mutual strategic suspicion may be unavoidable. But, while the resultant “hedging” by each side against what they see as the uncertainty of the other side’s future strategic intentions may be natural, it complicates the successful management of a whole range of serious issues.
All of that said, the reality, is that U.S. policy is not only not to confront China, it is designed to welcome China’s more active and responsible role as a leading player in the region—and the world—and to cooperate with Beijing to the maximum extent possible to address our common problems. This position has been adopted in the full realization that China will not want to simply play by the rules established by others, but will insist on actively participating in setting those rules.
The Obama approach to North Korea has often been mischaracterized as one of aloofness, sometimes in connection with what Washington officials have called “strategic patience.” However, to the extent that this phrase has been interpreted to suggest that the Administration does not care about the nuclear issue or North Korea’s other activities that threaten regional peace and stability, it is highly misleading. The Administration does care, a great deal.
But in pursuing a strategy that approaches North Korea within the broader concept of the American role in Northeast Asia, the Administration is strongly disinclined to chase after Pyongyang to try to buy it off once more for taking steps that were negotiated and paid for in the past. Moreover, no one has any illusions that elimination of the North’s nuclear program is going to happen any time soon. Given that reality, there is not a great sense of urgency. Thus, rather than trying to force the pace of a process that will inevitably be long and arduous, the focus is on the substantive issues, first, preventing proliferation as well as stopping the program at its current level, and then moving on to eliminate it. And for this, the foremost requirement is to develop common strategies with our allies, the ROK and Japan, as well as with China.
One should note that, in backing Seoul over the Cheonan, the Obama administration has taken the position that not only must North Korea take some significant step in the realm of denuclearization to merit return to the Six-Party negotiating table, it must also take steps to improve relations with the South. It is doubtful that Pyongyang will openly confess its responsibility for sinking the Cheonan and issue an apology. But there is widespread American support for insisting that the North do something to make amends.*
There have been some positive developments in recent weeks between the North and South, but they have not been consistent or without problems. In any event, it is not for me or any American to judge what is sufficient to satisfy the South Korean government and people. It does seem to me, however, that even if there are further concrete steps such as regularization of family reunions or even resumption of tourism to Kumgangsan, it will be a long and slow process.
On the nuclear issue, Pyongyang has, of course, long taken the position that, before serious denuclearization talks can resume, permanent peace arrangements must first be negotiated in order to eliminate what it terms the U.S. “hostile policy” toward the North.
While I believe that, in the right context, it could be useful to pursue peace talks in parallel with nuclear talks, it seems to me both inappropriate and extremely unlikely that they could begin before denuclearization talks have not only resumed but made some headway. Moreover, it makes no sense to think about actually concluding permanent peace arrangements with North Korea while it still possesses nuclear weapons capabilities or potential.
Assuming Six-Party Talks resume, will the United States be willing to take a more flexible position on the issue of supplying Light-Water Reactors (LWRs) to North Korea and on the question of the North pursuing other civilian nuclear programs?
I don’t know. But while it does seems possible to me that the Obama Administration might consider acknowledging in principle that, were North Korea in compliance with its nuclear obligations, it would be entitled to a strictly civilian and fully safeguarded nuclear program for medical research, it is my personal judgment that the U.S. will likely stick to the position that LWRs can be addressed only after the DPRK is back in compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations and is in good standing with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Another critical policy question, of course, is related to what is going on inside the DPRK and how we should all be positioning ourselves for possible contingencies. It is not my role here to analyze domestic events within North Korea. But as a setting for policy choices, it seems reasonable to suggest that, whether the political situation is stable at this moment or not, including whether arrangements for leadership succession are going forward smoothly or not, there are both political and economic reasons to assume, not there will be, but that there could be some disruptions within the next few years.
Therefore, I think it is only prudent that all of us give thought to just such a possibility, to exchange assessments and, to the extent possible, even develop coordinated contingency plans.
Moreover, I believe we need to think through some of these issues together with China. Indeed, in my view it will be vitally important that Washington and Beijing be clear with one another, as well as with Seoul, that, whatever specific actions we might adopt to cope with an emergency situation in North Korea, neither of us seeks to gain strategic advantage. To succeed in such an effort, we need to be reasonably open with one another about how we might act in certain circumstances.
Before last March, the ability to work together on North Korean issues was often cited as a “poster child” or “model” of Sino-American cooperation. Although this cooperation was seriously damaged after the sinking of the Cheonan, to the point that President Obama complained publicly about China’s “willful blindness” regarding DPRK responsibility for the attack, I think there is potential to reestablish a meaningful level of collaboration. Perhaps it will not be restored to the symbolic high point that it once was. But if the PRC is willing to apply friendly persuasion with the North to bring it back to the table based on Washington’s recently reaffirmed willingness to sit down with Pyongyang if the North takes sufficient steps on North-South relations as well as on the nuclear front, that would go a long way not only to achieve greater stabilization of the situation on the Peninsula, but to help enhance trust between China and the United States. Whether that can happen remains to be seen.
To sum up, the Obama Administration attaches great importance to the maintenance of peace and stability in Northeast Asia and to the promotion of prosperity throughout the region. This includes attention to managing the North Korean issue. But in this quest, the Administration has placed renewed priority on relations with its allies, the ROK and Japan, as well as on the promotion of constructive relations with China. None of these efforts is trouble-free, but the importance of pursuing such a course, and of properly exercising American leadership, is deeply understood by the Obama team and I believe it will act with consistency into the future.
* The symposium took place before the November 23, 2010, North Korean attack on South Korea’s Yeongpyeong island, killing four people including two civilians. That attack only underscores the need for a drastic change in DPRK behavior toward the South.