Several Korean friends have asked my advice about what President Park Geun Hye should do for her upcoming visit to the United States this June. From what they say, it seems as if Koreans are assuming that President Park must somehow reaffirm the alliance in light of the overwhelming success of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's recent visit and the "new honeymoon" between Tokyo and Washington that is supposedly in full swing.
Although there is clearly an alignment between certain interest groups in Washington and Tokyo, the pomp accompanying the meetings between Abe and Obama struck most everyone as being rather forced and the results of the discussions was ambiguous.
It is true that Prime Minister Abe addressed both houses of congress and he received much applause. But the congress in the United States is at a historic nadir in terms of the trust that the American people put in it. Most Americans feel that congress is completely out of touch with their needs. So much so that Princeton University issued a report entitled "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens" which suggests that congress rarely represents the concerns and interests of average Americans. .
"President Park should remember that her visit is important not because it comes after Abe's visit, but rather because it comes before President Xi Jinping's visit in October."
Prime Minister Abe was welcomed to the United States by a petition signed by 200 scholars of Japanese studies that calls for "as full and unbiased an accounting of past wrongs as possible." This unambiguous critique of Japanese revisionism was produced by experts including Ezra Vogel, a professor at Harvard University who has worked closely with Japan on economic and security issues for decades.
For that matter, the much ballyhooed Transpacific Trade Partnership promoted by the United States and Japan remains stalled, and unpopular, in both countries.
It is true that the two leaders announced historically significant military guidelines that will allow the Japanese and American military to work in close coordination around the world. But there is far from a consensus in the United States (whatever congress may say) that there is an urgent need for Japan to assume such a role, or that the dismantling of Japan's peace constitution will make Asia safer.
Above all, President Park should remember that her visit is important not because it comes after Abe's visit, but rather because it comes before President Xi Jinping's visit in October.
A comparison between Obama's meeting with Abe last month and his meeting with China's Xi Jinping in November of last year is helpful. A personal rapport between Obama and Xi was palpable and some speculate that Obama found Xi's thinking to be more congenial than that of the anti-science isolationists who now dominate the Republican Party. US-China negotiations were not easy, but they were serious. There was none of the grand spectacles that Prime Minister Abe was treated to, but the two sides produced historic agreements for military-military cooperation and a joint response to climate change that were welcomed by almost every nation in the world.
The best approach for President Park in the build up to her trip, and during her trip, is to subtly shift the nature of the dialog on security for Northeast Asia to issues which appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans--even some of the most vocal members of congress take no interest. Korea has no choice but to promote a different vision for Asia than the wrong-headed, destructive and wasteful drive to militarize Japan and confront China over issues that are not a direct threat to Korea or the United States. And perhaps Korea is the only country that is positioned to make such an argument effectively.
President Park should take with her a plane full of experts in critical fields such as climate change, human trafficking, non-proliferation and cybercrime and the team should engage in low-key discussions with their peers in Washington and elsewhere so as to produce substantial, but not flashy, results. She should not, by any means, try to "out Abe" Abe.
If necessary, she should not hesitate to ask for more time to consider proposals which do enjoy a consensus among experts, regardless of what the U.S. congress may be saying.
"She should not, by any means, try to 'out Abe' Abe."
If the United States suggests that Korea should pursue closer cooperation with Japan and the United States in military affairs, Korea should respond positively, but the nature of that cooperation must be carefully defined and subject to a careful review by experts from multiple disciplines. If we are talking about cooperation concerning piracy and immigration, Korea and Japan should work together, but that work should be carried out in cooperation with Vietnam, China and a host of other countries. If the issue is cybersecurity, that work should involve Japan, China and Korea, but also Russia and Mongolia.
Multilateral treaties on missiles, conventional weapons and emerging technologies such as cyber warfare and drones are far more likely to be successful than blindly increasing military budgets and thereby setting off an arms race that will inevitably spill over into Southeast Asia and Central Asia.
Above all, the Korean president must forcefully and intelligently argue before the American people that in a globalized world, bilateral treaties, or even trilateral alliances, are simply insufficient to address future challenges of climate change and weapons proliferation (of which missiles are but a small part). Such an argument would stand in stark contrast to Prime Minister Abe's speeches stuffed with platitudes but with no reference to the serious issues of our age.
Perhaps Koreans fear that the consequences of bucking the Washington consensus are too grave. But I feel that ultimately Korea will have no choice. If the president does so in an informed and logical manner, the silent majority will be impressed by a Korean focus on substantial issues and that, rather than spectacles, will speak volumes about Korea's reliability as an ally.
President Park should rather lay the foundations for a broad set of initiatives for cooperation on the global response to the pollution of the ocean, the spread of deserts, the contamination of ground water and the increasing fragmentation of our society into rich and poor. These security threats are already far greater than risk of North Korea using nuclear weapons.
Above all, President Park must show global leadership. For Korea to pretend to back an archaic American containment policy towards China while at the same time pursuing closer cooperation at every level with China will, without any doubt, make Korea look duplicitous and craven to both China and the United States. But if Korea proposes a new architecture for US cooperation with Korea, Japan and China, that vision will find its supporters in Washington, it will be perceived as true innovation, and it will serve as a means for President Park's visit to serve as a critical prelude to President Xi's visit, and make her visit a historic moment.
Below is a link to "The Asia Institute" Youtube podcast which further delves into the above issue.