Singapore Summit: North East Asia Set for Strategic Realignment
Given that for the last six and half decades, the opposing sides have been technically at war on the Korean Peninsula, besides President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un trading open threats of military confrontation only six months back, the Singapore Summit appears to be a minor miracle. Considering that a dozen odd former US Presidents were unable to break the Korean deadlock, what Trump has been able to pull off is no mean achievement. Whereas the future course will largely depend upon how Kim chooses to play it out, the Singapore Summit marks the beginning of a phenomenon which will go on to reset the existing strategic alignments in the region with far reaching ramifications.
The Score Card
The Singapore Summit materialised after some theatrics, with Trump almost calling it off. Contrary assessments notwithstanding, it certainly stands out as a path breaking initiative to resolve the Korean imbroglio. Trump was rather upbeat after the meeting and went on to comment, “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took over the office”. He followed it up with a tweet: “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea”. Subsequently, he told reporters, “I have solved the problem”. As for Kim, he was lauded back home in North Korea as a hero and the Singapore Summit hailed as the ‘meeting of the century’.
The post- summit joint statement issued by the two leaders was rather brief, vague and generic; more about aspiration than accomplishments. Some of its salient facets were:-
Establishment of new US-DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) relations with commitment to build a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
Trump’s commitment to provide security guarantees to North Korea (implying preserving the Kim regime) and end US-South Korea Joint war games.
Reaffirming the Panmunjom declaration, Chairman Kim committed to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula (without laying down any time frame).
Professor Graham Alison, former Director of Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), offering first hand insight on the Singapore Summit, recalled the Chinese maxim: “Journey of 1000 miles starts with first step”. According to him, Trump has taken one big step down the most promising path available at this point. Later, in an article in the National Interest, he assessed the Summit as “oversold and undervalued”.
According to Ambassador Nicholas Burns, now the Director of the ‘Future of Diplomacy Project’ at HKS, “while the Summit marks a good beginning and powerfully symbolic, the agreement per se is paper thin, without commitment or accountability from Kim.” Burns was also critical about Trump overselling the imminence of peace, considering that the negotiation process is expected to be a long drawn affair requiring strategy and patience. South Korea and Japan not being part of the process was a matter of concern, he added.
“Nuclear weapons are central to the legitimization of the oxymoronic Communist monarchy that rules North Korea”, opined Professor Joseph Nye. His scepticism about Kim’s promise of denuclearisation is evident from the fact that both Kim’s grandfather and father lied to US Administrations about their nuclear programme. Endorsing that prolonged negotiations are much better than war, Nye underscored the danger of the cosmetic ‘breakthrough’ weakening US alliances in the region.
The reactions of Brookings experts to the Trump-Kim Summit were more critical. Dr Jung Pak, Senior Fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies (CEAPS), felt that building upon the diplomatic process started with the Summit will be a tough call for US officials. Besides, Trump’s policy of exerting maximum pressure on North Korea has morphed into maximum manoeuvring space for Kim. In evaluating the outcome of the Summit, Dr Ryan Hass, Fellow at CEAPS, perceived China to be the big winner as a reduction of US military forces stationed in North East Asia and the widening gap between the US and its allies serve Beijing’s interests. Dr Tarun Chhabra, Fellow in the ‘Project-International Order and Strategy’ recounted the US stance – never to accept “freeze for freeze” approach, but in Singapore Trump agreed to freeze joint US-South Korean military exercises in exchange for continued freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile testing, with no concrete commitments on denuclearisation.
It is evident that Trump steered the Summit through personal diplomacy; he claimed to have established ‘a very special bond’ and ‘terrific relationship’ with Kim. While Trump’s intimidating statements and the cajoling words of President Xi Jinping might have resulted in bringing the North Korean regime to the negotiation table, the prospects of leveraging it into a concrete denuclearisation process remains an illusion. The Summit has disrupted the prevailing geopolitical status quo, making a strategic reset inevitable.
Trump’s ‘one on one’ meeting with Kim and offer of concessions to North Korea has created new anxieties amongst America’s Asian allies. It has exacerbated their doubts about US long term commitment to safeguard their security interests. Trump’s surprise declaration during the news conference about the suspension of joint military drills between the US and South Korea, even terming these provocative and his desire to eventually pull out some of the 28,500 US troops off the Peninsula blindsided South Korea and other American allies.
America has always considered itself a Pacific power. Since World War II, it has been the leader and security provider in East Asia. But since assuming office, Trump has raised questions on stationing troops in the region and the heavy expenditure being incurred in sustaining them. He has increasingly shown disregard for traditional allies, the recent G-7 Conference being a case in point. As Michael Green, former Asia adviser to President George Bush, put it: “It suggests that when he is in the mood, the President will cut deals with our adversaries involving the interests of our allies”. Given Trump’s approach of taking on allies on trade issues, in the long run, America’s role as a leader in the region is likely to erode.
While Seoul has not been outrightly critical of Trump’s announcements about the joint wargame, officials in Tokyo have been much more vocal in expressing their views. Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera stated that joint drills with US forces in South Korea play an important role in East Asia security. Japan has been anxious about its alliance with the US ever since Trump’s election. Its biggest fear is that future negotiations with North Korea are unlikely to result in substantial disarmament even as the US gradually withdrew from the region. This implies that Japan will have to review its security options. In fact Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made earnest efforts to bolster Japan’s military capabilities besides being an ardent protagonist of amending the country’s pacifist constitution. In fact, Tokyo is already in the process of developing a new partnership in the Indo-Pacific.
The biggest beneficiary of these developments is China, as Beijing considers the Western Pacific to be its area of influence and seeks a diminution of the American influence in the region. Therefore, the US ending military drills in South Korea and effecting a gradual withdrawal from the region will be a gift for China. With the US now preoccupied with North Korea, China can continue to consolidate its military build-up in the South China Sea without ruffling feathers in the neighbourhood. Contributing to the trust deficit between the US and its allies fits well into the Chinese traditional policy of pitching ‘one barbarian against the other’.
That China holds an upper hand is evident from Xi hosting Kim three times, twice just before the Singapore Summit and once immediately after. No doubt, Beijing is exerting immense influence behind the scenes, reaffirming its centrality in East Asian diplomacy. Xi is expected to make his maiden visit to North Korea soon to maintain the momentum in bilateral relations. Yet, China is taking no chances with North Korea. There is a likelihood of Kim venturing to counter balance China’s influence by embracing USA. Another possibility could be of US, South Korea and North Korea aligning together, thus isolating China. It is no coincidence that Kim, after coming to power in 2011, stayed away from China for six years and did not meet with Xi. Kim would certainly like to reduce Pyongyang’s dependence on Beijing.
According to Professor Allison, when Trump assumed the Presidency, he had three choices with regards to North Korea. First, continue doing what his predecessors had done in the past decades, i.e., seek to stop North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles by either tightening sanctions or promising economic relief. The second option was to attack North Korea before it acquired the capability to launch a nuclear attack against the US homeland. The third course, though bizarre, was for the two sides to engage in finding an alternate course. Call it providence, but it is the highly unorthodox third option that worked out. Even Trump’s most bitter critics have not been able to convincingly challenge the fact that North Korea’s nuclear threat to the US stands diminished.
With Xi playing the role of godfather to Kim, coupled with the past experience, the road to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is going to be long and bumpy. Both Xi and Kim are lifelong heads of their nations with time on their side. Hence it may be decades before the contentious issues get resolved and a formal agreement is inked. Considering China’s ability to play spoiler, Beijing will ensure that the long term outcomes in terms of shaping the architecture of the Korean Peninsula are in its favour.
While the US may be able to ensure the security of its homeland, it is bound to gradually yield strategic space to China in the region. All said, prevailing alignments in the region are in for a definite reset. The emerging geostrategic landscape of North East Asia is bound to have a cascading impact on the entire Asia-Pacific region.