Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.
In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.
Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”
That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.
More directly, however, the president seems to be ignoring that young dictator Kim Jong-un appears to be even more unpredictable and uncontrollable than his late father. Kim has purged his father’s officials, executing the former No. 2 official, who also happened to be his uncle. While the president was speaking, Kim was firing off medium-range ballistic missiles. He has already conducted a nuclear test and tested a long-range ballistic missile, in addition to breaking his one agreement with the Obama administration. Pyongyang’s rhetoric is as bellicose as ever, if not more so. I defy the president to find one knowledgeable observer outside his administration who believes America has “changed the game” with North Korea since 2009.
The same can be said for the president’s continued belief that China is somehow a partner of the United States. After meeting with President Xi Jinping of China in Brussels, the president again stated that the two sides are creating a “new model” of relations between Washington and Beijing. The new model increasingly seems to be one where China tries to revise international norms, supports destabilizing actors, and coerces its neighbors, while the United States does its best to ignore such actions. That would include such things as declaring an intrusive air defense identification zone over part of the East China Sea, violating Japan’s territorial waters, preventing the Philippines from resupplying troops on claimed territory in the South China Sea, supporting North Korea, and preventing stronger action on Iran, among others.
Diplomacy often requires saying untrue things in service of a greater cause, but no cause is helped by pretending that things are what they are not. After five years, it would be more reassuring to see the president humbled and frustrated by his lack of progress in dealing with North Korea or in making China a more constructive actor on the world stage. Assertions of a parallel reality either are boilerplate to be ignored or reveal a worrisome lack of understanding of actual trends. In either case, they also abet the continued uncertainty and sense of insecurity that is increasing risk throughout East Asia.