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The United States and Asia

The Diplomat spoke recently with Stephen Yates, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and former Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs, and Christian Whiton, a former deputy special envoy to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, about North Korea, China and US relations with Japan.

What would you say was the biggest success and the biggest failure of the Bush administration’s foreign policy in Asia?

Yates: Well, I think one of the big accomplishments that the Bush administration should be proud of is the building of the strategic relationship with India. Really, during the Cold War, US-Indian relations were somewhat difficult. With the putting of the Non-Aligned Movement at the forefront, and with the American struggle in trying to promote freedom and defeat communism – in the Cold War obviously these were not shared interests with India. Yet here is a population that is every bit as plentiful as China’s, with rich traditions every bit as old as China’s. So it seems like with every argument there is as to why you can’t ignore China, there’s one for why you can’t ignore India. And yet we do all the time in Washington.

I think that at the outset of the Bush administration there was a deliberate attempt to include India in discussions of Asia. I don’t know how you define India as outside of Asia, but people tend to think of Asia only as East Asia. In the wake of 9/11, when the American sensitivity to the threat of terrorism rose tremendously, and seeing events take place in India where there are acts of terrorism, there was, I think, a greater seriousness about common threats or common challenges that the US and India faced. The United States needed to navigate that part of the world with a degree of presidential involvement that was unprecedented, and I think really navigating that relationship with India is perhaps the biggest of the Asia accomplishments in the Bush administration.

The change began in the Clinton administration. If you recall at the end of Clinton’s time in office, he took a rather long trip there – one of the biggest differences between President Clinton and President Bush is that when Clinton took an Asia trip, he went for a long time. So that India trip for the Clintons was an important turning point. But if you remember there were sanctions in place after the nuclear test that left a rather frosty atmosphere between the Indians and the United States. That was one of the few ideas where you can go back to the campaign and see people propose ideas that they were serious about that came into the government, and the president and those he appointed carried it forward.

If you look at the biggest failures or disappointments, I think it would be the complete failure of two, two-term presidents to rein in the nuclear development of North Korea. It’s an enormously dangerous proliferation problem and it represents a total failure of global non-proliferation regimes – there’s nothing that the Nonproliferation Treaty-IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] crowds can do about this. And in the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, both teams tried all kinds of inducements, tried to achieve all kinds of deals, and now there’s a two-decade long record based not only false premises, but one that is more dangerous. There’s profound uncertainty there, and the risk as my old boss [Dick Cheney] used to say of the world’s most dangerous weapons falling into the world’s most dangerous hands has increased. To me that’s a great, great disappointment.

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I confess that I think it’s a hard, hard problem and any administration will be vexed with it. The current administration I think is particularly vexed with it because they thought the problem was that George Bush was dumb or crazy. But it turns out Kim Jong-Il and his Hermit Kingdom are acting on their own, in dangerous ways, regardless of the quality of person in the White House.

So what would you like to see the Obama administration doing on North Korea? It has been testing short-range missiles, it has conducted nuclear tests – what can the US realistically do?

Yates: Well, I think there are two areas of measures that seem to be moving forward, one more than the other. But really from the beginning of the latest escalation these should have been pushed with vigor. One is the financial measures – it was an enormous mistake for the Bush administration to move forward with the financial measures against North Korea and then for our negotiator to impose on the rest of the government – without really consultation or consent – that they should be given up before getting a real measurable, verifiable result out of North Korea, other than coming back to talks. But putting those measures in place, and then more, is the right way to go. And the administration has said the right things, and seems to have been rolling out a more expansive set of tools in that regard. But it has not yet really achieved results and we can’t really tell where it’s going yet. That should’ve gone full speed the moment the first missile test happened – and certainly after the nuclear test happened. But it seemed to take a while to get up and going.

The second area, I think, is in the area of containment. Containment of what? Containment of whatever danger there is in North Korea and not giving it an easy time of getting it out to the world, whether it’s missiles, whether it’s technology, whether it’s people with dangerous knowledge – whatever you define the danger to be. If we have proven unable for two decades to alter to nature of the regime and to deter them from taking provocative activities, at a minimum, an initial step ought to be to vigorously improve your ability to contain the threat. And I think you do that by starting with and building upon those who are committed to taking action. And I see the government in Seoul and Tokyo as really the only solid foundation on which to begin rebuilding that kind of capability.

China, I think, has proven unwilling to do what is necessary on North Korea, and so I think it was a fool’s errand to continue to deal bilaterally with them and then expect that they are going to advance something that they seem to have told us by their actions they’re not interested in. So I think we have to look at a form of tailored containment, which is the policy that the Bush administration actually agreed to before the president changed his mind.

Whiton: Two things I would add to that. Of course, a key part of the containment policy is having the nuclear umbrella under which Japan resides be real. The nuclear umbrella was originally devised in the Cold War, but frankly the strategic weapons aimed at Japan were a lot fewer and different in nature. It was a Soviet threat, but it was mainly focused on Western Europe and the United States, and that’s changed dramatically. The China threat is there and growing every year, but also the North Korea one is growing and getting better every time. They’ve had a second nuclear test and a long-range Taepodong test, which they’ve had a successful first stage switch to second stage. Its capabilities get better every time.

So the nature of our strategic defense relationship should be made more explicit and discussed. I think there ought to be something like a nuclear planning board, which was used to assure our allies in Western Europe earlier in the Cold War that the strategic defense was real. And going through the scenarios of how you would respond, how you would deter various North Korean actions or actions by other adversaries – I think it’s important to making containment work and making deterrence work.

And while you engage in these activities, and while you can leave a pathway open to diplomacy, you should be realistic about it. And you should also talk about the things you want to talk about, which in our case isn’t just security, but also governance and human rights – it’s changing to a situation where you have a government that treats its citizens and neighbors in a better form. The North Koreans aren’t going to want to talk about that, but you have to use pressure to make them talk about it. Only when you have a change in the nature of the regime are you going to have a truly better security picture in Northeast Asia.

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Just talking about a change in the regime, what can the US do to bring that about, and how successful have efforts been to encourage some kind of grassroots change?

Whiton: There’ve been some minor efforts – those were also curtailed in large part by Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill when they were focused on this, to the extent that they were. However, you’ve seen independent groups in South Korea, some of whom are North Korean defectors, some of whom are democracy activists, broadcast information into North Korea. And when you talk to people who are in repressive situations, especially earlier on before the government started to loosen up a little bit, getting information from the outside world can be transformational. The government tells them that they live in a socialist paradise, and it takes just a glimpse of the outside world, even if you’re just hearing it over a short wave radio, to know that that’s untrue. And then people start asking questions. And you are seeing that. Certainly this situation doesn’t resemble Poland 1989, where you had imminent liberal democracy. But there are some indications of regime weakening, of orders from the authorities being carried out less consistently.

It’s illegal to own a radio that can be tuned to foreign broadcasts – it’s their mechanism of controlling information along with jamming. But you hear about the ability of people to bribe their way out of having those confiscated – a growing black market which you don’t like in free societies but you do like in repressive societies. It’s been very low key, those efforts were battled back by elements of the Bush administration that wanted at all costs to get to a ‘yes’ to an agreement with North Korea, even if it was unverifiable and even if it was ludicrous and history has actually borne out our belief that six party ties were very unlikely to yield a result that was like that.

And frankly, you also ought to have a secretary of state and a president – and this holds true with senior officials in Japan and Korea – who call for the freedom of the North Korean people. The Lee administration in South Korea as been very good at that and that’s a dramatic change. That sentiment is something that we should build off of, but I’m afraid were not using it to our full advantage.

Just going back to China, when Hillary Clinton was in China in February, she basically said that for the time being at least, rights issues would play second fiddle to dealing with the economic crisis. Do you believe that that could become a more general policy for the US, that this administration won’t press China enough on rights issues?

Yates: Well, I think that it’s not speculative at this point. We have a record of how the administration – not just Secretary Clinton, but the administration – have responded to a number of things. It’s true that Secretary Clinton came to Asia on her first trip as secretary of state, and I think that was welcomed by people who had been following Asia for a long time in both parties who recognize the importance of Asia. But her remarks in China were a bit surprising to me because they seemed out of character for the Hilary Clinton that people had come to know – someone who had actually really spoken up on human rights while first lady and while a senator.

The administration came in with a diagnosis that one of the problems with the Bush administration was that it only focused on hard power and that we needed to look at soft power or something they call smart power. And one of the very smart things was to put climate change as a high priority. And so over the first six months of the administration this dialogue has sort of morphed into climate change being the new human right. And her visit was somewhat in that context, where she was unintentionally downgrading traditional civil rights issues while trying to elevate the strategic importance of climate change. It didn’t come across the right way, and I’m sure the Chinese government heard it the way the rest of us did, that we don’t have to have this dialogue on human rights because the administration has said they weren’t going to let these lesser issues get in the way of really important strategic issues.

Well it turns out that wasn’t the last time this has come up – we watched the developments in Iran and President Obama himself insisted on having a distant position from those who are struggling for freedom, rights. And by the time he spoke out more clearly about the atrocities that people were seeing, the point had already sort of sunk into the world – that the Obama administration isn’t going to inject itself in those areas – that there are more important strategic issues they had their eye on, they’re going to be calm and distant and let things settle.

Well, now we have China on the radar again. The senior and economic dialogue is coming up very soon; two very senior Chinese leaders will visit Washington. And we have the evidence, similar to that in Iran, of some very disturbing video images that cannot be ignored of outright brutality. And it doesn’t matter how much the government says ‘Well, did you see what these guys did to the police?’ or what have you, because the images of the brutality are inescapable. Apparently, President Hu saw something more strategically important than the United States did, because in an unprecedented manner he absented himself from a major global economic summit. He must see something we don’t. So I think we’ll have further evidence of what I consider to be this backslide of the Democratic Party’s traditional support for human rights and democracy when the Chinese strategic and economic dialogue comes to Washington.

Whiton: I’d add to that, that this whole episode both with human rights in China and in Iran demonstrate that the administration doesn’t really have, at least not yet, a capacity for strategic thinking. They say they’re going to be realistic, and realists believe governments only act in their very near term interests. Well, talking about China and climate change, China in the midst of economic turbulence is definitively not going to impair its own economy and manufacturing base to please outsiders on carbon emissions and climate change.

The other big thing on China and the administration is bonds. China doesn’t buy US treasuries because of the charm of our diplomats and they never have. They have done it because it has been in their economic interests and they were accumulating large amounts of dollars and it made the most sense to park them there. And it still does for that matter. So amidst this backdrop of a supposedly realistic policy, you actually have something that’s profoundly unrealistic. And especially on climate change, that is this more or less faith-based hope. So the idea that you curtail human rights for these two more ‘near’ options – well I don’t think the administration has really thought that through. Raising human rights doesn’t mean you can’t raise, or won’t get as far on, other issues. That was proved demonstrably at the end of the Cold War.

We’re here in Tokyo. Obviously there’s a lot of potential change in Japan with an upcoming election. And basically every 12 months of late they’ve been changing prime ministers here. How much does that affect Japan’s ability to be a useful partner to the US – does this kind of constant change undermine its ability to play a strong regional role?

Yates: It has to have an impact – there is a value in continuity and stable government. But, on the other hand, I would say – and this comes from a relatively conservative American point of view – there’s a large amount of what happens in developed democracies in the private sector. A lot of good and powerful things are done in bilateral relations no matter who is at the top of government. One of the big differences between the US-Japan alliance and the reality with China is that in the United States and Japan, the people who have the biggest power in driving the relationship forwards really in some ways are the captains of industry and those who are building and deploying advanced technology, cultural exchanges.

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I think that having governments come and go in Japan certainly does feed into the international public psyche that there’s something wrong or unhappy developing inside Japan, and the relative lack of change in China and the leadership is then by comparison seen as strength, stability, things like that. In Japan, yes, leaders are coming and going and there’s anxiety about the economy. But you’re not worried that you’re going to have some mass group rise up and kill your leaders, or go and destroy a local factory or a local political office or things like that.

There’s also a challenge for the [main opposition] Democratic Party of Japan. If this predicted outcome takes place, you’re going to have more than a hundred freshmen members of that [DPJ-led] coalition in the Diet. They’re not bringing a lot of international government experience into the coalition and we’ll see how that plays out – it could be sort of an engine of ingenuity and entrepreneurial policymaking because you have fresh ideas contending and stuff like that. Or it could be managerial chaos and it’ll fall on the skill of the leaders to determine where that goes.

It’s also not a given that if a DPJ coalition wins, that the man we think will be the next PM will in fact be the PM. So that’s the fun of democracy. I welcome the rough and tumble of it, but I do think it’s important for Japan to play a serious role in the world, to have a self-definition of what that role ought to be – not imposed by us, but reflecting their people’s will and their values. Japan has had a greater impact for the better on the world, on this region and on the United States, than is often recognized. I think they should be proud of that, I think they should continue to move in that direction and we should do more to recognize that.

Whiton: I would say that the rapid turnover of prime ministers does impair, to an extent, the ability to work with Japan. However, it’s not perhaps the biggest issue. In fact in Washington, I think there’s a misappreciation of Japan, and I think that’s an instance where Japan could do better, honestly, in making its case – demonstrating areas where we can work together, the fact that we have shared values, and reminding people across the Pacific and across the Atlantic as well on the significance of Japan. If you ask Americans which economy is bigger, China or Japan, I’d say 9 out of 10 would say China. That’s incorrect now, and even in the future if it changes, people still don’t understand the significance of Japan.

One thing that Steve mentioned was the prospect of entrepreneurial policy. I don’t want to predict the outcome of the election – and I’m not an expert on what’s going to happen next month – but we do have a hope that a period of turbulence could lead to some reticence on both sides of the Pacific on what this relationship means, where it should go. And of course I’d like to see Japan emerge as a more normal nation. When you ask yourself who in the 2010s and the 2020s is going to defend the liberal world order, such as it exists, the only avenue I see is the US cooperating with Japan and other like-minded countries. With Western Europe in sort of a prolonged and decadent decline, I don’t see any other way forward.