Five University Conference: “Internationalism in Retreat? Future of Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific”

February 10, 2017

Date of activity: December 2, 2016 - December 3, 2016

Photos: Izawa Hiroyuki

The Security Studies Unit (SSU) of the Policy Alternatives Research Institute was delighted to organise and host the annual Five University Conference in collaboration with the International House of Japan. This conference occurs every year under the leadership of one of the five academic institutions involved (The University of Tokyo, Princeton University, Peking University, Korea University, and the National University of Singapore), with this year being UTokyo’s turn. The event was divided into five panels over two days, and also included a final session for graduate students. The main topics discussed concerned the trajectory of international politics in the East Asian region, particularly considering the apparent crisis of the liberal world order, now amplified by Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election.


Day 1 – Friday, December 2, 2016

Kiichi Fujiwara, Professor of International Relations at the University of Tokyo and Director of the SSU, opened the event by thanking all the participants. He recalled that this is the eighth annual meeting of the Five University Conference, and many elements of the international landscape have changed, although in an uncomfortable direction for the most part: there has been little progress in the Six Party Talks over the security of the Korean peninsula, the new US president appears to be a great source of uncertainty, and Korea is heading towards a time of political change. Only Japan seems for the moment relatively stable. Professor Fujiwara expressed the hope that this conference may shed some light and help everyone gain a better understanding of the current transformations, especially by reflecting on the link between domestic and international politics.


Panel 1 – Domestic Politics and International Relations

The session focused on how domestic political changes can influence the foreign policy postures of nations, and thus the overall set of international relations, especially with reference to the current shift in US politics after Trump’s election.

Speakers made the following points:

1) We are witnessing a rise of nationalism, but historically it is worth remembering that nationalism is not necessarily in opposition to internationalism: indeed, nationalism was a necessary step for the development of internationalism in the twentieth century.

2) Why did Trump win? a) He faced a vulnerable political candidate with too much “baggage”, and although she played her best card in turning the election into a context between risk and continuity, that was not enough. b) The FBI investigation probably shifted some votes or prompted Republicans to back Trump. c) Trump was able to capture the votes of the missing white voters who see globalisation and multiculturalism negatively. This election was about change and Trump was better positioned to capture it.


3) Now he will face numerous challenges in delivering what he has promised to his voters. Nobody knows exactly at this moment how he will govern, nor what his foreign policy will actually look like, but he may strive for a great bargain with other powers. Certainly internationalism is in retreat in the US. If one compares the today’s political orientation of the electorate to that of 2008, when Obama was elected, the 2016 elections show that Americans no longer think that internationalism is needed, and that it is economically desirable. This combination of factors will most likely strengthen the surge of the right in Europe. In both Europe and Asia there will be doubts on US credibility, and some countries or political leaders may look more towards Moscow or Beijing. Finally, it is probable that concerns about US abandonment will grow in the next few years in both Asia and Europe, as Trump notoriously thinks that the current alliance system is no longer desirable. China is surprised by the outcome, but not excessively. In China the political divide is mostly between leftists and liberals: leftists understand Trump’s victory as the outcome of the US society’s problems. They compare Trump to Deng Xiaoping, whose slogans were also centred on the idea of national rejuvenation. On the other hand, liberals tend to see this phenomenon as the outcome of self-correcting mechanisms within the American political system. Looking at the implications for international politics, President Xi Jinping has already expressed the view that cooperation with the US government is the only option, and similarly Trump has stated that US-China relations are one of the most important relations globally. He will probably not push for a human rights agenda against Beijing, and that will be welcome. In economic terms, however, there is a relatively negative perception of the election outcome, as trade conflict may be looming. Overall, there is a substantial uncertainty about the future of US-China relations.

4) About Russia, since 2012-2013 Russia’s foreign policy has been driven by domestic politics, as Putin tightens his grip on government in a challenging economic climate. President Putin has continued to appoint people from his own political faction in all parts of the state machinery, with most of them coming from the security services and intelligence. Russia continues to suffer, however, from severe demographic problems which can undermine its future. About Trump’s election, the Russian media and the government had been hoping for Trump’s victory, depicting him as someone who can solve domestic and international problems, and now they will have to face the consequences of this choice. Concerning Korea there may be, with all probability, numerous problems with the upcoming US government, considering the complexity of the situation in the Korean peninsula and the recent political problems in Seoul.


5) The routinely used label “liberal international order” may be misleading, and should perhaps be replaced, as the current international order contains many illiberal elements. And as paradoxical as this may sound, it is possible to imagine that Trump will bring about some real change. About the illiberal dimension of the liberal order, it was stressed that most of world politics is still shaped by the US and Europe for their own sake, rather than for the good of all peoples. This should change, as for instance Asian societies should have a considerably larger role, but the very Western dominance of international affairs prevents that change from occurring. The UN Security Council, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund were cited as typical examples of illiberal institutions at the core of the international liberal system. Ideally instead there should be an authentically liberal international order, based on representation and merit. Another example is the international regime on nuclear weapons and nuclear technologies, which has clear double standards, or the US dollar as the de facto global currency, giving a great advantage to the US economy. Finally, it was added that there is a risk associated with the credibility of America’s global leadership: if the US, as Trump seems to suggest, is going to take care primarily and/or exclusively of its own interests, it can no longer claim a leadership role in world affairs.

6) Liberals are shocked by the results of US elections, and this shock comes mostly from observing the rise of an illiberal democracy. Trump may have a limited understanding of the presidential powers’ limits, something we have seen in other countries, with the rise of Putin, Erdogan, Modi and Duterte. This kind of situation can be reminiscent of the Weimar Republic in terms of institutional crisis, and of the risk of Gleichschaltung taking place even without recourse to violence. In many ways this is a revival of the well-known tension between liberalism and democracy. From an international perspective, it is true that liberal order is based on hegemony and hierarchy, but there is also an aspect of consent. As long as the US exercises its power within the limits of international institutions, its hegemony can be considered as legitimate and Washington can continue to influence world politics.


One of the most serious problems the world will face in the near future will be the reshaping of trade and of the world economy more in general. This entails numerous unknowns and risks. There is a general decline of support for free trade, even among the liberals. Future scenarios may see: a) a return to great power politics; b) less moderation in the use of (military) power from the largest countries: as the US retreats, opportunities will emerge for other players; c) international affairs will become more complicated for small or medium sized powers.

Panel 2 – DPRK and the Future of Regional Security

The topic of North Korea was introduced by recalling that Pyongyang is now in possession of nuclear weapons, and the situation in the peninsula can easily escalate into a large scale international crisis. This panel provided an assessment of the situation, and an analysis of challenges and opportunities ahead. The following points were made:

1) The policies currently pursued by the North Korean government, namely to accelerate the miniaturisation of nuclear warheads and the achievement of strike capabilities against the United States. This strategic threat, in Pyongyang’s mind, should probably force the US to resume direct negotiation. Maybe in the long run North Korea will pretend to be serious about de-nuclearisation. Under these circumstances, South Korea cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Seoul’s policy remains that of regime transformation, if not regime change, while Pyongyang is obsessed with regime security. Seoul intends to continue to work with the UN and other powers in strengthening sanctions. On the other hand, it is strengthening defence and pre-emptive capabilities. More in general, not only South Korea but the whole international community should make plans for any “North Korea contingency”, particularly aimed at avoiding or reducing the chances of total chaos in case of regime collapse.


2) The world’s political landscape is rapidly changing, with significant instability coming from the US (after the elections) and South Korea’s political troubles. North Korea certainly poses a security threat to the US, but the fact that it took quite a long time for the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution on the matter already reveals the existence of deep divergences among major powers. In terms of US policies towards Pyongyang, the view has been expressed that there may not be remarkable differences between Trump and Clinton. The US may contemplate one day the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. China is very worried by Pyongyang’s moves, but also upset by the South Korean and US moves to put in place an anti-missile system. China is not ready to take the lead on this matter, but it could do it at a later stage. It is likely that the US will gradually attach more importance to this issue, and so will South Korea when some of its domestic political problems are solved. Scepticism was expressed concerning the US ability to build a coalition to engage North Korea militarily, considering the massive risks involved. Finally, it was argued that it is important to be patient, which does not amount to doing nothing, but using the time for preparing and exploring options. In the meantime, South Korea and the US should reconsider the deployment of the anti-missile system.

3) The North Korean issue has long been a point of cooperation between Beijing and Seoul, but it has recently turned into a point of contention. If a solution to the North Korean problem is needed then we also need to know more about North Korea; however, this is exceedingly difficult at the moment. For instance, it is quite difficult to assess the situation of the economy in the country, and therefore also how sustainable the nuclear programme (which is very costly) is going to be. On the other hand, if one thinks that the US is going to consider the North Korean threat very seriously, what are the real options on the table here? These are not unlimited. In theory the best outcomes would be denuclearisation, re-unification of the Korean nation and reconstruction. However, there are less reassuring scenarios, such as a military solution (a strike against Pyongyang), an economic boycott through sanctions leading to collapse, and finally – possibly – some kind of conspiracy to overthrow the regime from within.


4) North Korea remains a major issue in the region. In other international conferences where this has been discussed, interestingly the main disagreements occurred between South Koreans and Americans about how to deal with it. It is unlikely the US will have a military initiative against Pyongyang without previously coordinating with China, South Korea and Japan. Secondly, one noticeable element is that the current North Korean leadership and China’s President Xi Jinping have quite a problematic relationship; they have not held meetings with each other for the past two years. In China there is no unified position on North Korea. The country still has some strategic value for Beijing, but the latter lives with the dilemma of having a noisy ally which should however (hopefully) not become too loud. Beijing also is uncertain about whether to prioritise a nuclear-free peninsula over a peaceful peninsula. In the US, the perception is that this is primarily an Asian problem, and the proof of that is the absence of top advisors or policymakers looking at this issue. It is however possible that the Kim Jong-un regime will have to come to their senses in the long run and back down somehow.

5) It is difficult to know what Trump is going to do. The North Korean threat is a very serious one, and the situation appears quite grim. The relations between China and North Korea have impeded serious multilateral talks. More pressure from Beijing on Pyongyang would be needed, as well as assurances from the US that a denuclearised North Korea can survive. It appears that China prefers stability over denuclearisation.


The US has a weak record in terms of being able to live together with regimes they do not like. Under Obama this has somewhat changed (Cuba, Iran deal). We do not know what the Trump administration is going to do. One can expect that the US will take some initiative if North Korea becomes a direct threat to the US. For instance, they may intercept North Korean missile tests, or conduct more intrusive searches of their ships. The idea of targeting US companies trading with North Korea with sanctions enjoys bipartisan backing. Historically the US has managed to prevent nuclear proliferation in East Asia in both Taiwan and South Korea; however, this time it may be different. Finally, it is difficult to guess what Trump will do in relation to the Iran deal, Cuba, how relations with Russia will evolve, and also the US involvement in the Syrian conflict.


Panel 3: Natural Resource Distribution and Territorial Conflict

The session was aimed at mapping and understanding the possible linkages between resources, territorial disputes, international cooperation and conflict. The following points were made:

1) After the recent international arbitration, to which China did not agree and is not bound, there has been a change in the international landscape. The new president of the Philippines, Duterte, has chosen more international cooperation with China, although it is unclear to what extent this can continue in the future. Still, it is good news for Beijing’s foreign policy. While ASEAN countries continue to court both China and the US, the latter has continued with military interference in territories claimed by China. The view was expressed that Japan is exaggerating China’s military threat. Misperceptions may be a big problem in the region. Self-restraint and strengthening governance are the two most important points to look at for the future.

2) There is a real boom in the production of hydrocarbons in the US in the form of tight oil and gas, which can change many aspects of global energy supply. This is particularly true for the East Asian region. The US has now emerged as a competitor of Middle Eastern suppliers and of Russia, thus transforming the global oil market from a market dominated by suppliers to one largely dominated by consumers.  In terms of cooperation, East Asia still sees limited progress in the creation of infrastructure, especially pipelines, but some important projects will be completed soon. If the US is going to be able to export large quantities of LNG, it could become a major factor in the diversification of supply for South Korea and Japan.

3) The question of the international management of fresh and salt water in the East Asian region has been addressed. It appears that the intertwining of territorial conflicts with resource disputes reduces the likelihood of cooperation in shared resource management, as particularly visible in the disputes between China and a number of countries in the East and South China Seas. Progress in the settlement of territorial conflicts cannot be seen as the only pre-condition for joint resource management, but disputes are unlikely to degenerate into a violent conflict if relations are overall cooperative and stable. Such cooperation can be helped by the existence of regional institutions and international organisations. Finally, the remark was made that issue-linkages induce international cooperation.

4) The importance of environmentalist activism was highlighted to point out the problem of resources, and particularly of environmental degradation caused by foreign companies. In the past, Japanese companies were accused by Japanese environmental groups of causing damage in Southeast Asia. Today, however, with the delocalisation and internationalisation of production chains, it is much more difficult to trace specific responsibilities.

5) The perspectives of resource management in the ocean and in space were compared. The ocean has been undergoing a process of territorialisation in which resource management regimes are built. This is particularly visible in the establishment of international norms such as UNCLOS, although the US has not ratified it. In space, however, no analogous process of territorialisation is taking place and it is most unlikely, which leaves space as a relatively unregulated domain but with problems which should urge international actors to agree on shared norms. A number of examples were provided in which international cooperation has become possible despite the existence of territorial disputes, such as in the Strait of Malacca, or fishery agreements, or anti-piracy cooperation.

Panel 4: The Future of Trade Agreements

This session was dedicated to the assessment of global and regional trade regimes in a time of significant change away from the previously common patterns of liberalisation. The following points were made:


1) The world has witnessed incredible prosperity and growth thanks to trade. Undoubtedly, trade has helped economic development. However, it appears that this is changing rapidly and the current global trade system runs the risk of implosion, particularly if protectionist tendencies such as those expressed by Trump and Brexit supporters are going to prevail. These tendencies are underpinned by all those people, particularly in the Western world, who did not profit from globalisation. The system is now threatened, but it is possible to fix it and move forward, particularly by remembering that, paradoxically, trade agreements are not really about trade, but about shared values. Thus, for instance, it is possible to include rules which enhance fairness and protect certain key social values in trade agreements, as the TPP is trying to do.

2) There is difficulty in talking about trade agreements in East Asia, as they tend to be very politicised. This may constitute an obstacle for the construction of regional institutions. The example of the TPP is in this sense remarkable, as it immediately fell prey to politicisation and geopolitical polarisation. It was argued that the de-politicisation of trade should be the privileged path.

3) An overview of recent developments in trade agreements was provided. The Doha Round has substantially stalled, and some important actors, primarily the US, seem oriented towards searching for alternative frameworks of negotiation. Such alternative frameworks are for instance the various regional trade agreements, primarily the TPP and T-TIP, which now appear however to be suffering from a protectionist tide in global affairs, as reflected in Brexit and above all in the election of Trump to the White House.

4) The liberal world order is in trouble, and this is not Trump’s fault, but a process which has deeper roots. There are indeed numerous structural problems. While the world is still not in a Kindleberger’s spiral of contracting trade, we may get there in the not so distant future. The real problem of today’s global economy is that there is no economic growth. As you need to find shelter in a storm, this is not the time for ambitious projects, but for making small gains in order to maintain a modest momentum and avoid significant setbacks, while the domestic storms in the US and elsewhere will play themselves out.


5) The immediate aftermath of the US elections and the implications for Japanese trade policies were analysed. Trump’s victory means that the US will withdraw from the TTP, and that makes the future of this trade agreement quite uncertain, even if it has been ratified by Japan and other countries, which have restated their commitment to free trade. In the long run, Japan has three possibilities: 1) conclude a separate FTA with the US, accepting however, with most probability, quite unfavourable clauses; 2) renegotiate the TPP with the remaining eleven parties; 3) concentrate on other FTAs which are under negotiation, such as the RCEP.

Day 2 – Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Panel 5 – The Future of Alliance in East Asia

The session looked at the development of the US network of alliances in the East Asian region. While in the recent past the US has sought to strengthen its alliance system in the region, the election of Mr. Trump as US president makes the future of alliances more uncertain. The following points were made:

1) In a book by Mr. Trump recently published in the US, the president elect is quite critical of the alliances with South Korea and Japan. However, it is unlikely that the alliances are going to be undermined, especially the US-Japan alliance, which is too important for the US as well. Japan however is facing a number of international difficulties related to the unpredictable North Korean regime, and the rise of geopolitical tensions with China. The real risk is that if Trump does not understand the dynamic of the US-Japan relationship, Washington will lose influence in the region. The regional order is however already in transition, as demonstrated by the Philippines’ geopolitical shift and the difficulties in South Korea. Trump’s victory will likely aggravate the crisis of this order. The best case scenario can probably be that of a grand bargain among great powers. The second best is that Japan can work on the resilience of the alliance until the US administration changes again.

2) The long history of US-China cooperation in regional and global affairs, which started in the 1970s and has since then formed a pillar of global and regional stability, was summarised. The contradiction was highlighted between a smoothly functioning quasi-alliance at the global level, while regionally there are disputes concerning military activities in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

3) In the East Asian region, strategic partnerships are more important than formal alliances with the US. From the perspective of Japan and China, the allegiance of Southeast Asian nations is up for grabs in the sense that countries can shift and are indeed shifting. These shifts are temporary improvisations and depend on domestic politics, economic opportunity, and of the perceived changes in US domestic politics. It is likely that a number of ASEAN nations will pivot in favour of Beijing, particularly as China is becoming the main trade partner. Finally, the uncertainty of the current situation was stressed, as we still do not know whether the US will decide to significantly reduce its presence in the region, thus making Japan’s and South Korea’s security burden significantly heavier.

4) The question of to what extent can a Trump administration alter the international liberal order, given its resilience, was explored. Secondly, the great achievements which were made possible under the liberal order in the past decades after WWII were recalled. The liberal order appears certainly in retreat, and numerous problems have emerged (financial crises, pandemics, climate change) which possess a global dimension. This crisis is also occurring because the order, in the global transition after the end of the Cold War, has lost its social purpose and it is no longer as multi-layered as it used to be for the benefits of the society at large. How can the current crisis be reversed? A number of initiatives were named: countering illiberal narratives coming from nations like Russia, Turkey and so on; reconnecting nationalism and internationalism; friends of liberal internationalism putting pressure on the US to make sure it does not act in illiberal ways; free trade being reconceptualised by taking into account mutual stabilisation networks, labour and environmental goals; and finally, rethinking the foundations of the order and international cooperation, which are not just aligned interests and shared values, but also the recognition of mutual vulnerabilities.

Wrap-Up session


Professor Fujiwara and Professor Ikenberry expressed great satisfaction for the positive outcome of the Five University Conference, and announced that Korea University has agreed to host the next meeting in Seoul on December 8-9, 2017.


Students’ sessions

The Five University Conference also contained two sessions for graduate students coming from all five universities involved in the event. Students presented their ongoing research work in international politics, receiving comments from faculty members and from their peers.

Session one

Audrey Wong (Princeton University) presented her research on the economic statecraft of China and the role of the economic dimension in foreign policy initiatives.

Hyung Joon Byun (Korea University) presented on a model to understand and measure military responses of states facing the rise of great powers.

Xiaoman Dong (Peking University) presented on the problem of international refugees and the insufficiency of current international political and legal arrangements to solve it.

Xiaolin Duan (National University of Singapore) presented on China’s foreign policy with regard to territorial conflicts and the management of risk escalation.

Tomoya Sasaki (The University of Tokyo) presented on China’s economic cooperation patterns with relation to electoral cycles in recipient countries of international aid.

Session two

Minsung Kim (Korea University) presented on the use of sanctions against WMD proliferation challenges, their effectiveness and conditions.

James Lee (Princeton University) presented on the developmental state as a heritage left behind by early Cold War policies of the US in the East Asian region.

Longlin Wang (Peking University) presented on the changing Chinese global strategy and its implication for regional (East Asian) security.

Charles Phua Chao Rong (National University of Singapore) presented on the concept of pragmatism and how this shapes the foreign policy of China.

Keiti Wei (The University of Tokyo) presented on how the inflow of Chinese tourists in Japan can change mutual perceptions and help in the construction of bilateral trust.

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