Prior to his departure, the debate about the President’s Asia trip centered on the theme of American credibility: of US commitments in general in the wake of events in the Ukraine; of the rebalance to Asia; and with respect to the three alliance partners to be visited, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. We start with a brief overview of this assurance debate, but argue that the real issues raised by the trip are operational ones. How will the Obama administration and its allies translate the overarching vision of an American rebalance to Asia into a new regional security architecture? And how do the moves made with respect to alliance relationships relate to the “new type of great power relationship” that the US and China are seeking to forge? On these issues, there was more to the trip than meets the eye: on the future of the US-Japan Defense Guidelines, on Northeast Asia-Southeast Asia cooperation; on the further delay of OPCON transfer, on the slow and still rocky Japan-ROK rapprochement; and on the fate of the Six Party Talks.
First, is US commitment to Asia really in doubt? At the more alarmist end of the spectrum, Senator Marco Rubio at Foreign Policy previewed Republican themes in advance of the trip. He started with the premise that US credibility was frayed and argued for a much more forward posture toward the region, including risky steps such as threatening to side with Japan on the sovereignty of the Senkakus/Diaoyus and embracing Taiwan more openly.
Steve Walt– also at Foreign Policy—took a more sanguine realist view. The US commitments to the region are credible because the US has an obvious material stake in the region; to use economists’ language, the alliances are “incentive compatible.” But Walt notes that the US “cannot care more about [the Asian balance of power and its allies’ security] than these countries do themselves”; the Asian capitals have to take responsibility for their own jitters.
Finally, it is worth noting an interesting minority view that does not get enough attention inside the beltway: that it is precisely the militarization of the rebalance/pivot that is contributing to regional tensions. The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies has a Mutually Assured Restraint Position Paper that argues that rather than leaning forward, the US and China should mutually stand down and commit to restraint, a position argued by critics of the pivot like Robert Ross for some time.
During the Northeast Asian leg of the trip, elements of reassurance were on display to be sure; of particular note was the President himself restating in unambiguous language to the Yomiuri Shimbun US policy that “the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.”
Yet for the most part, we side with Walt: the debate about credibility is overblown and the real issues are operational. China is not watching what the US says about the region, but what it does there. A number of important developments emerged from the Northeast Asian leg of the trip that the Chinese leadership will need to absorb:
- The US-Japan Alliance. In the run-up to the trip, US policy showed ample pique at the Abe administration’s tone deaf approach to history issues, including particularly his December 26 visit to Yasakuni, his “offering” (but not visit) to the shrine only four days in advance of the Obama trip and the actual visit by Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo and about 150 legislators at the same time. President Obama also spoke in a moving and blunt way about the comfort woman issue. Nonetheless, the most important message from the Japan leg of the visit is the United States’ embrace of the Abe administration’s effort to either revise or more likely “reinterpret” Article IX of the Constitution. A panel empowered by Abe to study the issue is likely to draw the conclusion that the long-standing limits on collective self-defense should be lifted, subject to a number of stipulations and Diet oversight. Whether actually revised or merely reinterpreted, the removal of constitutional constraints on collective self-defense would constitute a major change in the US-Japan alliance, which is more correctly understood as a unilateral American security guarantee. The change would have implications that range from regional cooperation with respect to missile defense, naval operations, the management of so-called gray zone crises and the “defense” as opposed to merely “policing” of Japan’s broader maritime space. These decisions will play into the revision of the 1997 Guidelines for US-Japan Defense cooperation announced last October and currently under discussion.
- The Northeast Asia-Southeast Asia Connection. The biggest deliverable from the trip—whether actually signed or not—is likely to be an agreement with the Philippines to increase defense cooperation and US rotational presence; Stuart Leavenworth at McClatchy provides immediate background on the contentious politics of the agreement in the Philippines while Sheen Greitens provides the longer back story at Brookings. But a Fact Sheet on US-Japan Global and Regional Cooperation also emphasized US-Japan cooperation with respect to Southeast Asia as well, including common positions in regional forums on the management of shared maritime interests—code words for the South China Sea–and “capacity building” efforts to strengthen Southeast Asian coastal defenses. These are of course not alliance commitments on the part of Japan. But they suggest the subtle erosion of postwar norms on Japan’s military role in the region and the search for common positions among the US, Japan and the Southeast Asian countries on the South China Sea.
- The US-ROK Alliance: OPCON Transfer. The big news coming out of the trip on the US-ROK alliance centers on the on-again, off-again process of OPCON transfer. Initially a sovereignty issue raised by the left-of-center Roh Moo Hyun government, the process was subsequently delayed from April 2012 to December 2015. It was then targeted for movement again under the Strategic Alliance 2015 plan, an outcome of the U.S.-ROK Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting (or “2+2 meeting”) held last July in Seoul. In a single line, President Obama suggested that OPCON transfer could once more be “reconsidered.”
- Japan-ROK Raprochement. Japan-South Korean relations got off to a rocky start at President Park’s inauguration, when a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tara Aso yielded up a lecture on why the history issues between the two countries were inconsequential. Insiders have told me that Park listened but was furious. Within a week, the die was cast and in a stirring speech Park claimed that “the dynamic of (Japan) being the aggressor and (Korea) being the victim will never change, even after the passage of a thousand years.” Given this deep freeze among the two alliance partners in Northeast Asia, the President’s trip to Japan and Korea can be seen as a follow-up on the ice-breaking trilateral meeting in the Hague. This meeting, in turn, provided the foundation for a bilateral dialogue on the comfort women issue and for announcement of progress in the trilateral security dialogue; Park Cheol Hee has a detailed account of the blow-by-blow on trilateral relations since the Hague for the Asan Institute. President Park’s tough comments suggest that this issue is by no means over, however, and given the difficulty Japanese officials have in restraining their actions and comments, any perceived improvement in Japan-ROK relations is probably one of the more fragile accomplishments of the trip.
- Dealing with North Korea. Finally, recent intelligence on developments at Punggye-ri—once again broken by Jack Liu at 38North—raises the issue of whether the North might test again. In their joint press conference, President Park said that ROK intelligence believed the North was capable of testing at any time. But the vehemence of President Park’s remarks were striking. President Obama said that another test would warrant more sanctions. But Park went much farther, and is worth quoting at length:
“Now, if North Korea is actually going to carry out the fourth nuclear test, that is going to change fundamentally the security landscape and I believe that all our efforts to resolve the nuclear issue through the Six-Party Talks is going to be completely dissolved. It’s going to go in the air. We tried to resolve the problem through dialogue, but what North Korea did was to buy time to upgrade its nuclear capability. And now with this upgraded nuclear capability, North Korea is not willing to listen to anyone. If this is going to be the situation there’s no actual meaning in us carrying out Six-Party talks. And to the neighboring countries, there may be a nuclear arms race triggering (sic). So there’s actually no stopping — for other neighboring countries, North Korea is not stopped. And South and North Korea have tried to improve relationship, but I think we’re going to lose the momentum for the South Korean efforts to improve that relationship if the North Korean test is going to take place.”
- President Park’s message is not aimed at North Korea. It is not clear that Pyongyang is interested in serious talks in any case, but even it were the regime has once again completely misread the political consequences of a test. President Park’s message—including the warning about a nuclear arms race–was aimed at Beijing, whose efforts to restart the Six Party Talks got nowhere in bilateral US-China meetings last week before the president’s departure. Strategic patience at least leaves open the prospect of a return to the Six Party Talks; President Park suggested that if the North Koreans test again we should give up on the fiction. US-ROK defense cooperation is currently in pretty good shape, so Washington and Seoul have a tolerable Plan B in the face of a test. How long can Beijing continue to issue statements that “all sides should remain calm” and expect anyone to take their efforts to restart the talks seriously?
Whether the trip should be rated as successful or not successful is a 24-hour news cycle question; there is in fact no simple answer. But more happened than meets the eye and the Chinese leadership in particular clearly has a lot to digest.