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‘Obama won’t budge unless N.K. acts first’

Expert says Washington has less trust in Pyongyang due to its reneging on past agreements

This is the 10th in a series of articles on the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China and its implications for the two Koreas and East Asia. ― Ed.

The Barack Obama administration during its second term may not make any major shift in its policy toward North Korea unless the communist state “acts first in a positive fashion,” according to foreign policy expert Balbina Hwang.

Pointing to Washington’s dismay over the North breaching the so-called Leap Day deal, Hwang, a professor at Georgetown University and former State Department advisor, said the U.S. has “far less patience” to take any future action based on “good faith.”

She was referring to the Feb. 29 agreement in which the North agreed to put on ice its missile and nuclear tests in return for “nutritional assistance.” The North broke it by conducting what it claimed was a satellite launch in April.

Amid the deepening distrust between Washington and Pyongyang, the North is now preparing for another long-range rocket launch in defiance of international warnings. Pyongyang plans to fire it by Dec. 29.
Twenty-six ships from the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, including USS George Washington (bottom right) steam together in East China Sea after the conclusion of Keen Sword, a biennial naval exercise by the two countries to practice their response to a crisis in the Asia-Pacific region. ( AP-Yonhap News)
Twenty-six ships from the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, including USS George Washington (bottom right) steam together in East China Sea after the conclusion of Keen Sword, a biennial naval exercise by the two countries to practice their response to a crisis in the Asia-Pacific region. ( AP-Yonhap News)
Balbina Hwang, professor at Georgetown University (The Korea Herald)
Balbina Hwang, professor at Georgetown University (The Korea Herald)

Asked about the major domestic variable that could affect America’s external policy, Hwang pointed to the country’s fiscal condition.

The White House and Republicans have been haggling over how to avert the so-called fiscal cliff of tax hikes and steep spending cuts. Security experts said that automatic cuts in defense spending, which are to come into force in January unless parties agree otherwise, could hurt the global power’s military preponderance.

On the issue of challenges facing the new Chinese leadership, she noted the growing potential for social and political unrest that could be accompanied by rapid economic growth. She also said that international threats facing China are “misplaced” government perceptions that the U.S. is trying to thwart the rise of China.

Following are excerpts from an interview with Dr. Hwang.

Korea Herald: There might be domestic and international constraints that could get in the way of America maintaining its global preeminence. Can you briefly explain what they may be and how America may try to tackle them?

Balbina Hwang: The U.S. will remain the preeminent power well into the 21st century, despite the relative rise of China, and other global powers. Nevertheless, the U.S. is facing domestic challenges today that affect U.S. global power in the short term. One challenge, which was uncertainty about U.S. policies for the next four years, has thankfully been resolved with the completion of the presidential election. With President Obama’s re-election, we can expect relative continuity in most foreign policies for the near future. However, an important uncertainty is regarding U.S. fiscal health. It is clear that the U.S. requires fundamental structural changes in the way its government conducts its fiscal business, otherwise the country will face serious economic challenges. These budgetary constraints have the potential to seriously affect the conduct of U.S. policies abroad.

KH: What is your view on domestic challenges facing the new Chinese leadership? Do you think all these including the yawning income gaps and people’s democratic aspirations are manageable or could precipitate an internal crisis?

Hwang: The Chinese leadership is not in an enviable position. Xi Jinping inherits power of a tremendous country with even more tremendous problems that seem almost insurmountable. These challenges will become more profound as China’s economy continues to grow, which is the very source of the dilemma for the leadership. We can only hope that the leadership has learned the lessons of the 1989 Tiananmen uprisings, and that it will not react to future internal unrest in such a brutal fashion.

There is, however, a worrisome trend in the leadership: increased economic power has given the leadership greater confidence, but because it also remains insecure about domestic and international threats, it has increased capacity to utilize its economic power in an increasingly aggressive fashion. Domestic insecurities include the growing potential for social and political unrest fueled by rapid economic growth. International threats are primarily misplaced government perceptions that countries, such as the U.S. and Japan, are trying to thwart China’s “rise.”

KH: Can you comment on what China needs to become a global power? Would its nominal GDP be something to judge its global power by? Would soft power be an important element?

Hwang: China can never be considered a global leader no matter how large its GDP is nor how rich as a country it becomes, unless it fundamentally alters its system of government. Prior to World War II, global power was measured primarily by material means, namely economic and military strength. Today, it is clear that these material measures alone do not make a global power. If China’s economic power continues to grow, the country will clearly be able to wield a great influence but it will largely be coercive in nature due to the illiberal nature of its regime. Ultimately, unless China liberalizes its government and society, it can never gain the respect and admiration of the global community, which are necessary qualities for a powerful country to be a true global leader.

KH: Will China play by the rules as it argues some of the rules are unfair as it did not participate in forging them?

Hwang: The real threat inherent in the continued growth of China’s economic power is the confidence it gives to the Chinese leadership that it can change the existing “rules” in the international system to suit its interests. “Fairness” is a false measure of the efficacy of the international rules and should not be a consideration by states in choosing whether or not to abide by international standards. Nevertheless, because of China’s historic sense of victimhood, it will be difficult for the Chinese leadership to readily abandon its insecurities and not endeavor to change the system. Notably, China has actually participated in the international system largely abiding by its rules, which has benefited China greatly. Continuing to do so would contribute greatly to international stability.

KH: How do you analyze the true intentions behind President Obama’s recent reference to China as an “adversary” as well as a potential partner?

Hwang: Foreigners are often overly suspicious about “true intentions” or motives behind U.S. leaders. There is no hidden intention or meaning, other than exactly what President Obama stated: that on some issues, China is and should be a partner, but on many others, China is an adversary.

KH: What is your opinion on sources of friction between the U.S. and China? And how do you think the two will seek to address them?

Hwang: For all these reasons (as I stated in my responses to questions above), there continues to be friction and strategic mistrust between the two powers. This does not mean that the two countries cannot or will not cooperate. But the two countries have fundamentally different strategic objectives: the U.S. goal is to coax China’s growing power into a positive influence that reinforces the existing international system of cooperation and stability, while China’s goal remains uncertain. However, it seems apparent that currently, China’s goal is likely to alter the international system in its favor and interests.

KH: Do you think America’s rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific will be negatively influenced by its fiscal challenges, the still volatile Middle East and other constraints?

Hwang: No, it will not negatively affect the rebalance. However, fiscal constraints may limit the scope and ability to fully implement the emphasis on Asia, at least in the short term. The Middle East has always been a foreign policy priority for the U.S., and will continue to be so. However, the two regions are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, part of the logic behind the “rebalance” towards Asia is that ideally, it will produce stronger and more vigorous cooperation with both allies and other potential partners in the region (including China) such that these Asian partners can contribute to the resolution of ongoing problems in the Middle East.

KH: Can you tell us what America’s strategy to maintain its preeminence in the Asia-Pacific is? Some say it is a new concept of “institutionalized leadership” strategy in which the U.S. seeks the most cost-effective way to project its power, for example, using multilateral cooperative mechanisms and sharing the burden with key allies such as Japan and South Korea.

Hwang: The U.S. will continue to be the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific because there is simply no other power that can play that role, not even China no matter how much economic power it obtains. The logic behind urging greater institutional participation in the region is not because it is a way for the U.S. to defer the costs of leadership, or to push a greater burden on allies. Rather, it is to urge traditional allies who have for too long been dependent on the U.S. ― a position that in fact the allies have long resented ― to instead become more independent and act as true partners of the U.S. This would benefit not just the U.S. and its allies, but also the region as a whole.

KH: Do you think during President Obama’s second term there will be some change in the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang?

Hwang: Of course, it may depend on how the North behaves.

Any change in the relationship between North Korea and the U.S. is wholly dependent on North Korea. The Obama administration is not likely to make any significant policy shifts toward North Korea. The Obama administration has been remarkably consistent throughout its first term in policy toward North Korea. There is no appetite in the new administration to make any bold moves and take proactive action toward North Korea, for several reasons. One is the February 29, 2012 agreement, which was considered a serious “slap in the face” to Washington, and this administration has learned its lesson and thus has far less patience ― if any at all ― to take any further actions based on “good faith.” This means that the next step forward is squarely in the hands of North Korea, and Washington is unlikely to do anything more to initiate any further development in the U.S.-DPRK (North Korea) relationship until Pyongyang acts first, and in a positive fashion.

KH: What do you think about how the Sino-Japan relations would develop with Xi Jinping taking the helm of China?

Hwang: Much of the direction of Sino-Japanese relations is dependent not only on Xi, but his interaction with the next prime minister of Japan, who is likely to be Shinzo Abe. While China would like to be the pro-active actor in Asian affairs, in fact it will likely be reactive to Japanese actions. As such, the Chinese leadership will be constrained by insecure constituents who may react to Japanese actions in an overly aggressive fashion to compensate for feelings of vulnerability. Thus, the region will have to find ways to work with Japan to ensure that its future actions are not perceived negatively by its neighbors.

KH: Korean scholars and officials appear to be exploring effective, strategic ways of diplomacy amid the rise of China. Some argue that Seoul needs to balance and diversity its diplomacy, which they argue has been focusing too much on the relationship with the U.S. What is your suggestion about Korea’s diplomacy?

Hwang: There is nothing wrong with South Korean diplomacy’s focus on the U.S. The U.S. remains the most important country for South Korea, and the region. However, those who criticize the last five years of South Korean foreign policy as being too focused on the U.S. are incorrect and clearly have not been following recent developments. President Lee Myung Bak’s “Global Korea” strategy has been an incredibly successful strategy to anchor South Korea’s national interests to the foundation of the U.S. alliance, but also expand them beyond the bilateral relationship. Simply turning from a focus on the U.S. to China because China’s power is rising is the wrong choice for South Korea.


● Dr. Balbina Hwang currently serves as a visiting professor at Georgetown University where she teaches courses on East Asian political economy. She is also an adjunct research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy based in Seoul.

● She served as senior special adviser to Christopher Hill, former assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, at the U.S. State Department from 2007 to 2009.

● She taught Northeast Asian security at the National Defense University from 2009 to 2010. Prior to joining the State Department, she was senior policy analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center of the think tank Heritage Foundation.

● Hwang has authored numerous articles and book chapters, and has received several writing awards. A native of Korea, Dr. Hwang was a Fulbright scholar to South Korea from 1998-99 where she conducted doctoral dissertation field research.

● She earned her Ph. D. from Georgetown University in 2000; a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1996; master of business administration from Darden - University of Virginia in 1993 and bachelor’s degree from Smith College in 1989.

By Song Sang-ho (