Future of the U.S.-led Alliance System in Northeast Asia

Daniel Russel, ASPI

Daniel Russel, Senior Foreign Service at the U.S. Department of State and Vice President of ASPI

Asia Society Korea held its third Monthly Luncheon of 2018 on April 26th. This month’s luncheon took place on the eve of the inter-Korean summit. As North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in made their final preparations for the historic meeting, a number of distinguished and informed guests attended the luncheon held at the U.S. Ambassador’s official residence.

This month’s speaker, Daniel Russel, is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service at the U.S. Department of State. He most recently served as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Marc Knapper, Chargé d’Affaires for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, introduced the talk, which was titled “The Future of the U.S.-Led Alliance System in Northeast Asia”.

As a former Special Assistant to former U.S. President Barack Obama, Russel opened by looking back at the difficulties faced by the Obama administration when it came to power in 2009. He mentioned issues such as the invasion of Iraq, the global financial crisis, and North Korea as reasons why relations were strained throughout the Asia-Pacific region at that time. He noted, however, that by the time Donald Trump became the American president, America’s relationship with its allies in the region had become as good as ever. Russel added that despite Trump’s often unconventional style of leadership, the American-South Korean relationship remains excellent. This is because the two nations share an alliance based on military, political, and economic aspects, which are mutually beneficial.

Russel went on to state that America’s allies in this region have a number of shared aspects. Examples he listed included strong institutions, open markets, the ability to think and act on a global scale, active diplomacy, a focus on health and education, and human rights policies. Finally and most importantly, he noted that they are all directly threatened by North Korea. This has been the number one reason for the alliance between the countries, the need to work together to counter the shared danger.

Russel noted, however, that going forward the allies need to cope with some significant challenges. He believes we are now operating in a period of strategic uncertainty, which is in some part due to Trump’s approach to the presidency. Trade deficits, disruptive technology, climate change, and migration are all potential causes of friction between nations. 

Nevertheless, the variable that will most positively or negatively threaten the solidarity of Asian alliances is North Korea. Russel claims that alliances, generally, remain strong during times of threat, but as North Korea switches gears and deescalates, it will be interesting to see how different countries react. He went on to hint that North Korea is fully aware of this and is potentially playing games to undermine these alliances.

To wrap up his speech, Russel stated that the critical factor in dealing with North Korea is ensuring relationships remain solid in the Asia-Pacific region. All parties need to reconcile their differences and maintain constructive relationships.

At this point Russel took a number of questions from the audience. The first question related to the downsizing of the USFK in recent years and the likelihood this will continue moving forward. Russel replied that numbers are irrelevant as long as there is a clear commitment from the American government to the security and stability of South Korea. This, he said, was because it’s in American interests to have stability in the region, and a South Korea that is safe for its citizens. 

Another question of interest regarded his thoughts on whether the Obama administration’s policy against North Korea had been a failure. Russel acknowledged that he personally has faced criticism regarding this matter, yet noted that it is unfair to make a final judgment. While in the short term North Korea did continue to develop militarily during that period, there was progress that often went unnoticed. For example, the Obama administration evoked some of the strongest sanctions in history, sustained a solid relationship amongst the allies, and lessened China’s position as a protector of the North. He added that if Trump’s talks with Kim prove fruitful, it will be partly because of the work of his predecessors, including Obama.

In response to another question, Russel shared his concerns that China may become colder again now that Trump and Kim are set to hold a summit. He pointed out that Xi Jingping’s primary objective, in the past, was to avoid war on the peninsula rather than bring down the North’s weapons program. It was only as Kim’s behavior became more aggressive and destabilizing that China begin to take a harsher tone. However, Russel believes the news of planned talks rattled Xi Jingping, and this is why Beijing laid out red carpet treatment for Kim’s visit last month. He pointed out that in Chinese history when a smaller state visited Beijing it would bring a gift, and then leave with one that was 100 times its value. Thus, he believes that Kim’s trip to China was a signal that the equation has changed and we are back to business as usual.

Finally, when asked a question about what he predicts from the Trump-Kim talks, Russel stated that he is looking for action rather than insincere rhetoric that hints at peace. North Korea could use the talks as a stalling process by pandering to Trump and Moon while harboring no meaningful desire to dismantle its weapons program or comply with international law.

With that the talk ended. All eyes are now on Panmunjom where the stage is set for the opening moves to take place in what is sure to be the start of an intriguing few months.

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