US Election and Northeast Asia: Clinton’s Status Quo vs. the Great Orange Unknown


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This re-posts an essay I published today at the Lowy Institute. I tried to sketch a few possible futures for northeast Asia with these two candidates.

Basically it seems to me that Clinton is offering the status quo, which is intuitively attractive to Asian elites, while Trump offers who-knows-what. It is fairly established then that Asia’s democracies want Clinton to win, while its non-democracies want Trump, although honestly, I wonder if the Chinese might be having second thought given how much Trump seems to be itching for a trade war.

Trump is the interesting variable here, and his trade policies are the big unknown. Unraveling America’s alliances out here would be really hard. I doubt Trump has the stamina, focus, and attention to bureaucratic detail to tackle that. But on trade, he would enjoy a lot more sympathy, and he could really change (ie, wreak havoc) on US trade relations with Asia is he wants.

I’m just scratching the surface in this short essay. If you really want a deep dive, go to the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ blog on North Korea, which has provided a lot of such coverage in greater detail than I provide here. Go to the bottom of this post for extended commentary from Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland.

My essay follow the jump.

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Is Obama’s Second Term the Highlight of the Pivot to Asia?


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The following is a re-up of an essay I published this week with Newsweek Japan. I was thinking about Obama’s attendance at both the G-20 and ASEAN this month. Those trips really do reflect his commitment to the pivot to Asia – probably as much out of conviction as out of a desire to escape the sink-hole of the Middle East.

But as readers of this website know, I am rather skeptical that the pivot actually grips the median American voter. Sure, elites love it, especially realists. It has all the trappings of geopolitical excitement think-tankers and IR types love. But regular Americans care way more about other regions first – when they even consider foreign policy, which the rarely do when they vote. Europe and increasingly Latin America will always have a powerful ethnic pull, because most Americans have roots there, while the Middle East bewitches the American evangelicals who are obsessed with Islam and Israel. China, even though it is vastly more important, isn’t actually as pressing to voters except as a trade issue.

This is not to say that I don’t support the pivot. I do. Very much. But if you look at Trump and Clinton’s foreign policy utterances, they basically cleave to the pre-pivot norm: the obsession with the Middle East, Islam, terrorism, while Asia is basically a trade-cheater. Hillary has turned against her own creation, TPP, while Trump sounds like he’d spark a trade-war with China, and maybe even Japan.

So if you’re an Asia hand, enjoy your moment in Obama’s sun. Next year, we’ll back to warring in the Middle East.

The full essay follows the jump.

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My Take on Trump and Asia for Newsweek Japan: He’s Too Lazy to Push for Real Change, so Don’t Worry


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I write a monthly column for Newsweek Japan, and below is this month’s English original (on pages 36-37 of the edition pictured).

I haven’t written much about Trump, mostly because he says so little of value in my area, nor do I believe that he really means what he says, because he changes so often and puts so little thought into foreign policy.

So my first comment to Asians who ask is: relax, because even if he wins, he isn’t likely to push through some major geopolitical retrenchment, because of the effort that would take in Washington. Nor is he likely to spark a huge trade war with China for the same reason. The bureaucratic resistance would be massive, and I don’t buy it at all that Trump has the tenacity, focus, intelligence, or interest in any policy issue necessary to undo long-standing precedents such as the decades-old US engagement in Asia.

If Obama can’t get us out of the Middle East, do you really believe Trump will take us out of Asia? Forget it. Perhaps it is the teacher in me, but, like Regan, Bush 2, Palin, and Fox before him, Trump’s defining intellectual feature is laziness, and it will take a helluva lot of work to change the US architecture out here. So forget it. Instead, think about what Trump really cares about – his show-boating, made-for-TV image as manly, tough, a winner, and so on.

President Trump will spend all his time and energy chasing whatever the polls say voters want in a desperate effort to stay popular. What he will really use US government power for, where he will show genuine commitment and focus, is in pursuing his media enemies Nixon-style, and enhancing his business interests. In that sense, he will govern like the CPP or Putin – chasing after journalists, feathering his nest, changing laws and regulations that damage his businesses, and so on.

So don’t worry Asia. Trump is too intellectually lazy to learn, too uniformed to understand, and too narcissistic to care. Trump is a threat to the First Amendment and check-and-balances, not the American architecture in Asia.

My essay follows the jump.

My Top 5 List for 2014: 5 Biggest Foreign Policy Events for the US in Asia


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I love these hoky, end-of-the-year lists. But I don’t know much about genuinely interesting or cool stuff, like the top 5 classical music pieces or architectural masterpieces of the year. So before you read another list about the Kardashians’ top 5 lip glosses, or the 5 most repetitive comic movies of the year, here is an uber-wonky one that’s basically about the sustainability of the pivot.

I am constantly wondering whether the US can carry through on the ‘rebalance,’ whether we can actually shift out of the Middle East and Europe and pay more attention to the Asia-Pacific. I am skeptical, in part because I tend to see US commitments as opportunity costs of one another. In other words, if we are tangling with Putin or ISIS, then we don’t have much time for China or Maduro. But if you’re a neocon, then the pivot is no trouble. Getting involved in Asia doesn’t mean lessening commitments elsewhere, because the US should be globocop anyway, and US domestic expenses should be cut to fund to all this intervention.

The following post was originally put up at the Diplomat:

My November Diplomat Essay: If We can’t Stop Fighting in the Middle East, We’ll Never Pivot


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You think that guy to the left cares about China or ASEAN? Gimme a break.

This is a point I have made again and again on this blog: Asia does not activate the racial/cultural/religious paranoias of Americans, especially conservatives, evangelical Christians (who are around 45% of the country), and the GOP. This is why we won’t stop fighting in the Middle East. The ‘America is a Judeo-Christian country’ crowd absolutely wants to stay and fight it out against the jihadis, because it fears/hates them in a visceral way it never will feel about east Asian geopolitics. China may be threatening in a traditional, state-to-state kinda way, but that doesn’t move people’s deep fears/beliefs/angst though. But the idea that Muslims might bring sharia to the West, build a mosque near ground-zero, or see their holidays treated equally by Western public authorities is enough see a lot of Americans into a cultural panic. Hence the huge well of public opinion support to keep fighting and fighting in the Middle East.

This is what Huntington grasped a long time ago with the clash of civilizations, but China is too different for most Americans to get excited about in a personal way. But Islam does provoke Americans like this; just watch Fox. Its focus on Islam is relentless and astonishing. So yes, the long war is still the long war, and the Chinese can sit back and watch the GOP insist that the US fight endlessly in the Gulf.

The original essay is here; reprinted after the jump:

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My Diplomat on Essay on Xi’s Trip to Korea: SK as a Hole in the Pivot in Exchange for Help w/ NK


This is a re-post of an essay I wrote last week at the Diplomat. I guess South Korea-China relations is a hot topic, because I got a bunch of emails over this – note to grad students.

The quick version is that South Korea really needs China now to get any kind of movement on North Korea, so it kinda has to suck up to Xi. I am of the school that says that North Korea is sliding into an economic colony of China, regardless of how they bluster and blow off nukes. In fact, the reason Pyongyang probably has the nuclear and missile programs is not just to deter the US, but to prevent China’s economic domination from turning into political domination too. So Park will be practically begging Xi to rein in Pyongyang. She has to – which sucks, btw, and shows just how cynically China manipulates the human rights catastrophe that is North Korea to its own callous advantage. Awful.

But Park can offer to restrain/impede the US pivot/containment of China as a quid pro quo for North Korea help. China really needs South Korea in order to prevent the US pivot from becoming full-blown encirclement of China. Because South Korea is so virulently anti-Japanese, it is an important hole in the tightening containment line around China that runs from Japan through Southeast Asia to India. The Koreans don’t want to line up against China, and they really don’t want to line up with Japan. If China is smart, they’ll exploit that. So China is unlikely to really bully South Korea as it has in the South China Sea.

Here’s that essay:

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My Diplomat Essay for May: ‘No, Crimea is Not a Model for Aggression in Asia’


The essay below is a local reprint of my essay for the Diplomat magazine this month.

The motivation was a lot of the panicky response in Asia after the Crimea annexation that something like that might happen in East Asia. I don’t really see that at all, to be honest. Sure Asia is dangerous – that China-Vietnam spat right now  is pretty hairy – but remember that East Asian conflicts are mostly over open, unpopulated sea-spaces whose economic value is minor or unproven. China taking the Paracels or Spratlys is not exactly an Anschluss. Is it bad? Of course. Should China be resisted? Absolutely. But China is not nearly as paranoid and thuggish – at least internationally – as Putin. So yes, if we have to contain China we can. I’ve argued that myself – so please don’t tell me I’m some panda-loving hippy. But we don’t need to rush to cast Crimea as some big lesson for Asia. Rising, prestige-accruing China is not declining, angry Russia, and the local circumstances – most obviously the lack of any Chinese irredentist claims – are pretty different.

Here’s that essay:

“Since the invasion of Crimea, there has been a lot of panicked talk that the annexation is re-defining international relations, violating established international law, throwing the post-WWII/post-Cold War order in Europe into chaos, and so on. Putin has been analogized to Hitler by no less than Hillary Clinton, and both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright were quick to bring up the specter of the 1938 Munich conference. There has been a steady drum-beat from US conservatives that Obama is weak, appeasing, lacks resolve, and so on.

Some of this is true. Certainly ethnic irredentism smacks of Hitler’s ploy at Munich, but the implication of the ‘Munich analogy’ is that this is but a first step, unseen by weak, appeasing western statesmen, toward future invasions. This is almost certainly not true for Putin. The US and NATO are vastly more powerful than Russia, and without the rest of the old Soviet empire, there is no possible way Putin could launch a second cold war against an expanded NATO. Putin’s thuggery is more a local challenge to the European order and the European Union, a desperation move from panic and paranoia. We should not lose perspective.

So out of hand did this hawkish exaggeration of Crimea become, that a backlash set-in. Micha Zenko noted the obviously hypocrisy of US officials suddenly praising international rules and sovereign non-interference. Fred Kaplan noted how NATO does in fact retain the ability to defend itself. And Fareed Zakaria usefully reminded everyone that the ‘Long Peace’ and gradual decline in war violence are in fact real secular trends not debunked by one event.

This essay is a part of this response literature, but focused on Asia, where there has been a flurry of similarly exaggerated suggestion that Crimea could be a model of local aggression (here, here, and here – or here for the most egregious on Obama’s ‘capitulation’ in Asia). Unsurprisingly, much of this focuses on China, moving to take either the Senkaku/Diayou Islands or a strip of northern North Korea (the latter has been kicked around in the South Korean press). But much of this is hyperbole, some of it rather irresponsible. And a lot of it feels like US neoconservatives and defense hawks using Crimea as a political cudgel against a president they dislike and defense budget cuts they detest. Crimeas are apparently like Pleiku streetcars – wait long enough and you can always circle back to preferred arguments.

But it is far too early and the Crimean situation probably too unique for these conjectures. By way of illustration, consider this ‘what Crimea means for Asia’ piece by my friend Brad Glosserman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies. Brad argues:

1. Putin took Crimea, ergo realism is the ‘coin of realm in foreign policy’ and liberal theories on the decline of war are wrong. This is too simple. Crimea is one event; it has resulted in few casualties; it seems likely, in spite of the rigged poll, that a majority of Crimeans would prefer to belong to Russia; it is not at all clear that Russia’s army could sustain a serious occupation of even eastern Ukraine; a full-scale invasion would galvanize NATO overnight, and so on. By contrast, liberal theories of international politics continue to explain a lot – most obviously the very large democratic security community that reaches from eastern Europe all the way west and south to parts of east Asia and Australia. One event does not buck this well-documented trend.

2. ‘National identity matters’ in Asia. But few Asianists said it didn’t. It is well-known that Asian regionalism has broadly failed; that Asian elites and populations are statist and nationalist; that Asia is not going to integrate along EU lines, and so on. Realism does indeed have reasonable analytical purchase in Asia, but that does not mean realism can explain the above mentioned security community very well, or that east Asian statism means conflict. East Asia has been at peace since 1979, but realists and hawks have been predicting war there since the end of the Cold War. The Asian peace may be a ‘cold peace’ but has proven surprisingly durable. These inaccurate predictions should be admitted by those who want to ramp up the pivot and expect a major Sino-US competition.

3. China abstained on the UN Security Council Crimea vote; it is balancing the West with Russia. This is also too fast and a little slippery. China’s behavior on Senkaku is not as aggressive as the conventional wisdom suggests. China is extraordinarily dependent on Western export markets. There is little undisputed evidence that China and Russia are meaningfully working together. China probably abstained at the UN for the same reason everyone else is keeping their powder dry on Crimea: no one really knows what Putin is up to; no one knows how far he intends to push. Crimea was a big surprise to everyone, including to the hawks who are now claiming it is the natural outcome of Obama’s weakness.

4. Crimea could be a template for conflict in Asia, because it too has territorial disputes. This massages the regional differences too much. First, to even call Crimea a ‘model’ of conflict is to accord it far too much significance too soon. (To be fair, Brad does not actually use that term, but much of the Crimea-Asia writing in the last two months pushes in this direction.) Second, Asia’s territorial problems are not irredentism which underlay both the Munich and Crimean annexations. I know of no Chinese irredentist claims in East Asia; no one in China speaks of ‘liberating’ ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, for example. (Taiwan might be considered Chinese irredentism if one really stretches the category, but that has long been a well-known issue.) Curiously, the only serious irredentist possibility in east Asia I can think of is Korean claims on northeast China. Korean history books teach that early Korean kingdoms stretched far north of the Yalu, and China and Korea have fallen into historiographic spats on this. But I know of no serious Korean politicians demanding Chinese territorial concessions there.

5. The move into Crimea means the US should re-double the Asian pivot. In fact, it likely says the opposite – that the US might be looking at a sustained stand-off with the Russians that will pull US resources into eastern Europe. Much of the security writing on East Asia assumes that the US is a source of stability and that Chinese power is a rising threat. This may indeed turn out to be the case, but it is also true that Asia has not had a major inter-state conflict since 1979 (China’s brief invasion of Vietnam). An alternative literature notes that Asian military expenditures are not nearly as high as US hawks would have you think and that Asia is much more stable than we realize. It may be that Asia under a bland, developmentalist Chinese oligarchy is more stable than eastern Europe menaced by a clownish, paranoid, prestige-seeking Putin. Again, we should not judge so rapidly. Particularly, we must be careful not cast China too quickly into the role of the regional villain like Germany 1914 or the USSR 1945. That is not clear yet.

The realist-hawk-neocon take on east Asia may indeed turn out to be right (this is probably the best statement of that case). But it is far too early to jump to large conclusions on Crimea’s ‘demonstration effect’ in Asia. China has a very long and well-known record of defending sovereignty. It is likely that the Chinese are upset with Putin’s open violation with this principle. They likely abstained on the Crimea vote to avoid giving the West a ‘win’, but it would be an extraordinary volte-face in Chinese foreign policy if Beijing were to suddenly endorse the rewrite of borders by force. Senkaku and the South China Sea dispute are not strong counter-evidence either. Both are nearly empty maritime spaces. China’s claims on them are indeed capacious and should be resisted, but they are far less threatening than Crimea, which was the annexation of a developed, populated land-space. Again, Asia’s cold-peace, while cold, may be more stable than we usually think.

So if Crimea encourages US allies in Asia to take their own defense a little more seriously, then so much the better. But there is little evidence to date that China (or anyone else in Asia) has picked up a ‘Crimea model.’ Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that US hawks and neoconservatives deeply dislike Obama, remain strongly committed to US hegemony, and will use events to support that. Let’s go a little more slowly…”