My February Diplomat Essay: Sketching a Sinic ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in Asia


The pic is President James Monroe. It comes from the White House website.

The following is a re-up of my monthly column for the Diplomat. Basically, I try to sketch what a Chinese hegemony in east Asia in the coming decades might look like. Increasingly, I think the Monroe Doctrine is a good model. I find it highly unlikely China will occupy or invade anyone, especially in the nuclear age. That strikes me as another hawk fantasy on China, the kind of thing that helps justify huge American defense budgets. But it’s not ridiculous to imagine China trying to carve out a sphere of influence. Indeed, I think it would be surprising if they did not, and that is why everyone is freaking out about the South and East China Seas clashes. Here is that essay:

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Obama’s State of the Union once again Demonstrates that the US doesn’t really Care that much about Asia


This graphic is a word-cloud of the president’s state of the union address last week. I am not even sure the word ‘Asia’ is in there.

The following is a local re-up of a piece I originally wrote for the Lowy Institute, where I now blog twice a month. Basically, I argue a theme regular readers here will have heard before – that the ‘pivot’ to Asia is mostly an elite project in the US and that most Americans don’t really care about Asia that much. If I say ‘China’ to my friends in the US, the first thing they think of is cheap stuff in Walmart. So whenever anyone tells me that Asia ‘needs’ the US, or that we’re ‘ceding’ Asia to China, or even Russia (oh, please), because we missed the ASEAN Regional Forum or whatever, I just roll my eyes. Without the American consumer Asian economies would collapse, and, Red Dawn fantasies aside, no Asian state is a security threat to the US (barring the infinitesimally small likelihood of Chinese nuclear strike on the US homeland).

What that means is that the only Americans who think that the US needs Asia are those who support US global hegemony and therefore cannot differentiate among US core interests – such as basic stability in Canada and the Caribbean basin, or a secure oil flow from the Persian Gulf – and US choices to be involved in places like Iraq or South Korea. The pivot to Asia, much like NATO 20 years after the Cold War, is a choice, not a necessity. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t ‘pivot’ – indeed, I think it is a good idea myself – but it must also be admitted that retrenchment from many of these commitments would not obviously harm US security, even if many allies would not like it. Neocons and think-tanker far too often elide this crucial distinction. Is Asia important? Does it matter? Yes, sure. Does the US need Asia? No – unless you believe the US and its globe-spanning hegemony are identical (hint: they aren’t). US allies interests are not always synonymous with America’s and if we don’t see that, we invite free-riding, chain-ganged conflicts, and a gargantuan national security state.

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My Expanded Lowy Post on Moral Hazard in US Alliances: Explaining Japan-Korea (and Greece-Turkey?)

domhSo this post is a bleg to those of you who know more about alliances than me. I am considering writing up this for an article, so I thought I would ‘crowd-source’ early comments on this. I also wonder if someone elsewhere has already suggested this idea in the vast alliance literature, so please let me know. The motivation is inductive – the deepening tension between Japan and Korea has suggested the addendum to alliance theory I am proposing here. But I wonder if others have said this before.

Put briefly, I don’t think entrapment or abandonment captures the US position between allies in dispute, like Japan and Korea, or Greece and Turkey (perhaps – I know that latter case less well). Instead, each seems to use the US alliance patron to: a) compete with each other, because b) the US alliance relieves external pressures (China and North Korea, and the USSR and chaos in the Balkans and Middle East, respectively) that would otherwise incentivize a rapprochement. These four states are not trying to ‘entrap’ the US so much as leverage it for an intra-alliance squabble, with the shared patron as referee. I’ve not read this theorized elsewhere, so here is an effort to do so.

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My First Post at the Lowy Institute: 3 Non-Predictions for 2014


So this year, I am writing twice a month for the Lowy Institute – a foreign policy and international relations think-tank in Australia. My work will go on their blog-line, called the Interpreter. My author page with them is here. I’ve had Lowy in my own blog-roll (on the right side of this page) for awhile. It is a good site, particularly if you are interested in Australia. Now Lowy is seeking to break out into East Asian politics more generally. I am happy to participate in that, and I would like to thank the Interpreter editor, Sam Roggeveen, for recruiting me. My first post with them, here, was about two weeks ago. Sam had the clever idea to invert the usual ‘predications for the coming year’ pieces that fill January with predictions of things that won’t happen. My own record of predictions on this site (2010, 2010, 2011) are pretty spotty, so this was a nice challenge.

So here are three things that you think might happen in Eat Asia this year, but won’t:

1. There will be no Sino-Japanese war. Any scuffles will be contained.This was would be so destructive, there’s no way the CCP will let the PLA pursue real escalation.

2. North Korea will not change. That might sound like the safest prediction ever, but actually political science and Korea studies have a long history of arguing that NK is about to collapse. But it won’t.

3. ASEAN will stay useless and over-rated. Western liberals and international organization majors really, REALLY need to stop hyping ASEAN. It’s a joke, and it will stay one. The real story in Asia is its refusal to regionalize/organize, not the incipient regionalization westerners are so desperate to find in every meeting of Asian leaders. And don’t even talk to me about ASEM. These are all talk-shops. East Asia is the land of Hegelian nation-state. Get used to it.

Here’s that full essay:

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Book Review: “North Korea in Transition”: Oh Wait, it’s Not in Transition…

51KSPBHlncLIn volume 86/4 of the journal Pacific Affairs, I reviewed an essay compilation on North Korea called North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society. This was published last year by the Council on Foreign Relations, edited by well-known North Korea-watchers Kyung-Ae Park and Scott Snyder. My book review is, unfortunately, not available electronically from the PA website; it’s only in the journal’s print version. So I thought I would put it up here for some wider circulation.

I know book reviews bore everyone, so I tried to make this interesting by focusing on trends in NK, not just summarizing the constituent essays. It’s a great introduction to North Korea with lots of big names. I learned a lot from it. But I had to object to the title, likely chosen by an ill-informed editor looking for something catchy. North Korea is not in transition. If anything, we should be focusing on how remarkably stable it is. No matter what happens to the Kim regime – famine, de-industrialization, ‘factionalism,’ Chinese take-over of the economy, Dennis Rodman and his tats – nothing seems to bring down the clan or even shake it. Its astonishing ability to not change is what we should be our focus.

Here’s that review:

This useful book is a state-of-the-art treatment of North Korea (NK) for non-academics and is likely to be read widely in think-tank and policy circles. Its authors include some of the finest analysts of NK in English. Laymen will find the book appealing, because the essays, while well-informed, do not overwhelm with jargon. There is some heavy going, but one need not be a social scientist to grasp most of it. The book also ranges widely, covering issues like ideology, economic (mal)adaptation, the monarchy, and foreign relations. All these traits make it a solid introduction to the NK tangle.

That said, the book is not light. The essays are rich, and scholars will also find new ideas and themes that merit sustained social scientific analysis. For example, David Kang suggests that status-seeking is a major element of NK foreign policy behavior. This is a clever insight, and one that characterizes South Korean foreign policy too. Other researchers could formally develop and test such ideas. Specifically, academics in East Asian area studies, comparative and international politics, and, perhaps, economics, will find this book an appealing fount of all manner of hypotheses and conjectures deserving full-out research.

The book is structured around four sections: NK domestic politics, economics, culture, and foreign relations. I found the first section the most gripping, because NK’s internal politics are so opaque. These authors take the regime ideology seriously and explain it in detail. Readers accustomed to thinking of NK ideology as just a fig-leaf for a nasty dictatorship (a common response in my own discipline, international relations), will find the elaboration challenging and enlightening. Conversely, I left the section thinking that if NK elites and people really believe their own propaganda, that makes the inter-Korean stand-off that much more ideologically intense and unification that much more psychologically challenging.

In an intriguing suggestion, the book also hints that Kim Jong Un may need his own ideology. Kim Il Sung had juche; Kim Jong Il had songun. Does KJU need his own personal language of power, given that NK is hyperpersonalistic, neopatrimonial monarchy? This too is a rich question deserving research. A few contributors hint that ‘neo-juche’ may be such an effort. It may aim to reduce the wide reach of the KPA, which songun elevated but has also clearly become a massive economic parasite. If KJU is to place NK on a course of long-term sustainability – instead of the current ad hoc lurching from crisis to crisis with reliance on foreign economic hand-outs – then ideally a KJU ideology would thread the needle of some engagement with the global economy and legitimacy for the fait accompli of partial internal marketization, while nonetheless maintaining enough political-ideological distinctiveness to justify NK’s continuing existence as a separate, poorer Korean state. Indeed to my mind, this dilemma is NK’s central, existential problem: how does NK justify its existence despite the Cold War’s conclusion, German unity, a catastrophically failed economic model – especially in comparison to the South, and fifteen years of post-famine information penetration which has given North Koreans knowledge of life on the other side? I think the book would have been enriched by treating this explicitly.

Clearly NK can ruthlessly hang on through calamity; its collapse has been relentlessly over-predicted. And it can hype its nuclear weapons – ‘the life of the nation,’ KJU said in March 2013 – to deter foreign meddling. But that does not mean NK is stable or secure, or has a genuine strategy to become a ‘strong and prosperous nation.’ That SK presents an obvious and alluring alternative right next door, only worsens this dilemma. Should the Chinese ever finally fatigue of bailing out NK and covering for its antics, NK could easily return to the social chaos of the late 1990s. And the section on NK economics makes this clear. The data presented on just how dysfunctional NK’s economy is, are genuinely disturbing. A colleague once called NK ‘Turkmenistan without oil’ at a conference, and the descent into kleptocracy both at home and abroad is frightening. Another frequently undeveloped theme in NK studies is its post-Cold War mutation into a corrupt gangster state.

The cultural section too brings new information and arguments that Pyongyang kremlinologists overfocused on high politics will enjoy. There is much recent speculation that the flood of information about the outside world that partial marketization has brought will change NK hearts and minds. Indeed, it is often suggested this is the only way NK will change – through bottom-up social evolution and changing expectations – because the regime itself seems unusually close-knit in its support for Kim family royalism.

Finally, the discussion NK’s diplomacy tells the familiar but necessary story of the remarkably frustrating effort by outside powers to push NK into international norms. Indeed, NK is case study of how a small power in tough neighborhood can play its hand remarkably well and avoid domination by much larger rivals. KIS was a master of this, as the essays demonstrate. But NK’s continuing provocations, as well as the now-enormous gap between North and South, make it increasingly hard for NK to ‘weave’ among its neighbors. Per Kang, NK simply lacks the credibility that SK has and is increasingly reliant solely on China for diplomatic and economic cover. NK would prefer to play the Six Parties off against each other, but those days are fading. As with economics, NK desperately needs a new diplomatic strategy to flourish going forward. Mudding through with grudging Chinese aid is clearly risky.

And this raises my only serious criticism of the book: it is not actually clear that NK is in transition. Clearly it should be. It is hopelessly isolated internationally and economically an ‘Upper Volta with nuclear weapons.’ But NK is remarkably consistent. The Kims are still with us. The regime shows no genuine interest in unity. Economic reforms have been facile. The tyranny of gulags, repression, and indoctrination are still in place. That NK hangs on without transitioning is in fact its great puzzle to us.”

My January Diplomat Essay: Top 5 Northeast Asian Security Stories in 2013


I know these exercises in end-of-year top 5s or top 10s can be silly or fanciful. But there is some value to trying prioritization. Part of social science is determining causal weights – which causes are most important among many possibilities. And that is the logic implicitly behind these sorts of turn-of-the-year lists. It’s also fun to try after a long year. So here is mine; I imagine these will seem pretty predictable though.

“It’s that time of year when analysts everywhere throw out predictions of the year to come and retrospectives of the past year. It’s practically impossible to build a fair metric for these things, but it is fun to try. Here I define consequentiality as those events likely to shape future events on large geopolitical questions in northeast Asia, specifically commerce and conflict. Here is one such list from the Financial Times on Asia. Here is mine:

1. The expansion of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)

This strikes me as the most important regional geopolitical event of the year, because it effectively ratifies what many analysts have suspected of coming for a long time – a Sino-Japanese competition over Asia, with the US hovering in the background, tilting toward Japan. This will be the defining competition of Asia for the next several decades, and the trend-lines broadly favor China – Japan and the US are in decline relative to China.

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My December Newsweek Japan Essay: Japan as a Unique Bulwark to Chinese Hegemony in Asia


I recently joined Newsweek Japan in a more official capacity as a regular contributor. I am pleased to do so, as I increasingly think that Japan is the primary bulwark to Chinese hegemony in Asia. So more and more, my research interest is drifting toward the Sino-Japanese competition as weightier than the inter-Korean competition.

In that vein, I wrote the following story for the current volume of Newsweek Japan. In brief, I argue that only Japan has the strength to really block China’s rise to hegemony in east Asia. Russia is too weak, especially out here. India just can’t seem to get its act together (I used to push India really hard as an obstacle, but it just doesn’t seem up to it.) I am a skeptic of the US pivot, and sheer distance alone means the US need not confront China unless it wants to. The US will never be under a Chinese ‘Monroe Doctrine’ as Asia might be in the future. That leaves Japan as a unique bulwark – a front-line state with the wealth and state/bureaucratic capacity to give China a real run for its money. Indeed, one way to see the current tension is as another round of Sino-Japanese competition for Asian leadership going back to the mid-19th century. (As always, I’d love to hear from the Japan mil-tech guys on all this.)

Elsewhere I have argued that China’s rise to hegemony is unlikely, in part because I think Japan will vigorously balance China. (Indeed, it probably is already.) So this essay is an expansion of that previous argument. The essay follows the jump.

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