When Xi Jinping’s strategizing in East Asia is discussed, attention centers on the southern tier, stressing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Policies toward Northeast Asia have been treated mostly as ad hoc responses to specific countries in shifting circumstances. The prospect that Xi has in recent years adjusted his overall approach toward this region has scarcely been explored. Unlike Southeast Asia, however, Northeast Asia is a geopolitical hotbed, with Russia and North Korea as military threats to the international community beyond any threats present to the south. At the same time, Japan and South Korea are U.S. military allies incomparably more significant than U.S. partners in Asia’s south. Given the legacy of the Six-Party Talks, focus on the strategic battleground here would seem desirable in its own right and as a key indicator of Xi’s evolving strategic thinking.
It is the thesis of this chapter that – whether a predictable outcome or an opportunistic revision – Xi Jinping has adjusted course in important respects at the end of the decade of the 2010s. If his approach to Northeast Asia in 2012 to 2016 is labeled Xi 1.0, then the approach he increasingly has taken from 2017 should be treated as Xi 2.0. Shifting direction, Xi has responded to changes in China’s external environment as well as to challenges at home, beginning with new economic pressures. Abroad, he has faced the abrupt transformation in U.S. foreign policy under Donald Trump, the dramatic arrival on the diplomatic stage of Kim Jong-un, the intensified appeals by Vladimir Putin to boost bilateral relations toward an alliance, and the unexpected opportunity to find room to maneuver as Moon Jae-in and Abe Shinzo drove ROK-Japan relations to their nadir. Amending his policies in the face of these developments, Xi has, arguably, settled on a geopolitical framework not at odds with the core of Xi 1.0 or with the thrust of Chinese history from late imperial Sinocentrism to Mao’s anti-imperialism. Doubling down on pressuring Moon at the same time as he is wooing Abe is emblematic of the dual nature of his new orientation. Also dualistic in nature is Xi’s support for Kim Jong-un while claiming to back denuclearization.
In 2019-20, against the backdrop of Sino-U.S. geo-economic and geopolitical polarization, Xi Jinping has refined his approach to Northeast Asia There were many steps along the way, and here I concentrate on those that followed two seminal events by mid-2019: the failure of the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit in Hanoi and the setback to Sino-U.S. trade talks finalized a few months later. By the time Trump and Xi Jinping met at the Osaka G20 at the end of June, Xi could have no doubt that the upbeat mood surrounding Trump the “dealmaker” cozying up to Kim Jong-un and him was a thing of the past. He needed to strategize about a new, adversarial environment. The question to be answered was would Xi be more unfettered without having to look over his shoulder at the U.S. response or would he see an opening to woo countries by taking a softer line when most were trying to avoid the polarization some may blame on Trump. Xi’s summits with Abe and Moon on December 24 delivered a mixed message, while early in 2020 the accelerating impact of the coronavirus epidemic added an unexpected twist for China.
In 2019, Xi Jinping engaged in tests of new strategizing as he met with Vladimir Putin in early June to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment by Moscow of diplomatic relations with the PRC, then with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang at mid-month, and after that, with Abe Shinzo later in the month, in the resumption of normal summitry eschewed by Xi until 2018. Would he double down on relations with Russia, as Putin beckoned to more adamantly fight against the U.S.-led order, and with North Korea, in defiance of U.S. pressure despite Trump’s dalliance with Kim, or would he woo Abe, taking a softer line in the hope of driving a wedge between Japan and the U.S. over economic matters? Could he succeed in doing both, by assuming that China was indispensable to Russia and Japan at the same time that he positioned China to gain from Trump’s failure with Kim Jong-un? Hanging in suspense was how Xi would deal with Moon Jae-in, desperate for Xi’s support in restraining Kim Jong-un but also wary of risking Trump’s ire by either pulling troops if burden-sharing payments were not raised exponentially or reverting to talk of “fire and fury.”