Victor Cha @ Columbia



Victor Cha

Victor Cha gave a talk at Columbia on the 26th in the President’s Room of Faculty House. His talk was a defense of the Bush administration policy. He was formerly Director of East Asian Affairs at the National Security Council and worked closely with Christopher Hill on North Korean negotiations and other Asian issues. Before this he was a professor at Georgetown. He graduated from Columbia’s Political Science department. My reaction to his speech when written out, was different to that which he presented. I think he is an excellent presenter, very clear and rational explanation of his ideas and he was very honest about his opinions on a variety of issues, but I think the questions to his presentation were not very good, and after reading the text of what he said I wanted to ask him several things: If he thought that the negotiation process with North Korea were going well, or they’d gotten bogged down in committee meetings. I wanted to ask how serious he thought North Korea was about getting rid of its nuclear weapons. I also wanted to ask about the Israeli bombing in Syria recently and if he believed the North had aided the Syrians, and if this neccesitated a change in strategy. I wanted to ask question him more about the change of US strategy on North Korea and the returning of the Banco Delta funds. Also I wanted to ask why he’d left the government, but thought this rude, so I probably wouldn’t have. In fact, because I went for my job I wanted to avoid asking a potentially political question so I avoided any questions at all. The biggest question I had, and I wouldn’t have asked this, was whether these accomplishments in Asian had happened because of Bush administration policy decisions or in spite of them– if these developments would have happened anyway, no matter what president was in power. That is the most relevant question, but it was not asked. I think it will be answered by historians.


The following are paraphrased highlights from the meeting.

After a brief introduction by Prof. Gerald Curtis, Mr. Cha began his remarks.

VICTOR CHA: I not only was a PhD from Columbia, but I grew up on 110th Street, and as a kid I used Columbia as my playground, so I am very happy to be back here. I want to say first, as an academic who made his way into government, that I did this not as a career. I only had a brief stay in government, so I have a perspective on both fields.

It is important when you work in government that you work hard to further the agenda of the president and the administration, but at the same time to retain your objectivity. The second thing is to retain a perspective. Many people in government work on a timeframe based on 24/48 hours. As an academic, you work from a larger, historical perspective, and it is important not to lose a sense of that either.

That said, the things I will say today are not the views of the US government. They are my own because I am now back in academia.

I would like to first talk about the current state of Asia. The conventional wisdom is that there has been a demise of US leadership in Asia, that there is a power transition taking place in Asia from US to Chinese hands. The critics say this is due to rising Asian nationalism and also bad US policy. The harshest criticism is for the Bush administration. They suggest that the president has made bad policy choices on China, counter-terrorism, architecture and alliances in Asia, and they say that Asia is ripe for rivalry.

The conventional wisdom is greatly exaggerated. Asia is at peace, and the US relationship with most Asian countries is pretty good. The US-China relationship is improving, US-Japan relations are deep, the South Korean alliance is improving despite the noise, North Korea has been subject to a multilateral denuclearization process, and South East Asia has received, in spite of the charges, quite a lot more attention than any other administration since perhaps the Vietnam War.


First, on China. Some people say that China is now Asia’s leader and that China is “eating our lunch”. But this is not true. First, being a leader is not just about “market size”. It is about providing for the collective good, and the US provides for collective good in a way that China does not. China is a large market for many countries, but it is not ready to provide for the public good.

The best illustration of this is after the tsunami. Following reports of the tsunami disaster, it was not the UN or ASEAN or China that countries turned to. It was the US, because we had the capacity to do something on the ground. No other organization stood up except for the US. We sent 100 planes, 24 naval vessels, and it was the largest humanitarian mission in history. Whether the US covets or not its position as a leader, it is still seen as one within Asia.

The US-China relationship has changed from an openly confrontational relationship to one based on the “responsible stakeholder” model. This has been a useful template for both sides, because it shows China that the US doesn’t see it in zero-sum terms and China believes that it has a place at the table. From the US perspective, it also gives China a path for becoming a responsible member of the international community.

There have been three major components of this strengthening: senior-level dialogue, Paulson’s SED (Strategic Economic Development), and also the Bush-Hu Jintao relationship. I will only speak about the last one. It is a very interesting relationship.

I think from the beginning there was an understanding that in China, you needed to go right to the top if you wanted to solve problems and make things happen. And the good relationship has paid dividends on North Korea, climate, and the relationship now is to the point that the two leaders can pick up the phone now and frankly discuss issues. I would say that the relationship isn’t based on “trust”, I think that word has been overused in East Asian relations, but I would say that if one side makes a commitment, they make every effort to live up to that commitment.

Just as an example, in April, 2006 Hu Jintao came and visited with President Bush in the White House. It was remembered mostly for what went wrong: the marching band playing the national anthem of Taiwan instead of China, or the Falun Gong protester on the White House lawn, but despite this it was very successful from an insider’s vantage point. It began, as most do, with a big meeting, followed by a smaller Oval Office meeting, and then a lunch meeting. At the lunch meeting Hu Jintao was seated with his wife at a large round table. Next to him was Michelle Kwan, the famous figure skater.

President Bush entered the room, and politely told Ms. Kwan that although she was a good skater, would she kindly mind moving over so that he could talk more with President Hu. And what President Bush wanted to talk about with Hu was North Korea. The US-China relationship has been key on North Korea. Their cooperation was especially important after the October, 2006 test of a nuclear device by North Korea.


The Japan “Global Alliance” is an important one, and it’s more than the sum of Koizumi, Elvis, and Bush. The press has focused on this, but it is more than that. It is true that Koizumi and Bush have an excellent relationship, though I’m not sure why because they talk through a translator. Koizumi speaks little English, and Bush speaks none I can assure you.

I think the White House made a decision very early on to reinvest in the alliance with Japan. It is now a true alliance, because it is based not on what we are against, but what we stand for. The US and Japan share many common values.

On Iraq and Afghanistan, Japan has aided the coalition with military aid and actually sent forces to Iraq. This was historic. In Pakistan, the US and Japan are working on the Strategic Development Alliance, which builds school and hospitals and things like this. In Indonesia, the two countries are working on strengthening the business community.

There is also added stability with a US-Japan-China triangle in Asia. These countries can cooperate to provide peace and security, and a stable foundation on which economic development and regional integration can take place.

This stability has allowed the US military to carryout force realignment in Japan, closing bases and consolidating forces, also moving forces away from large population centers. The alliance now stands for things and this is very positive, and it has largely been enabled by the participation of Japan in the war on terror.

While this was happening, Abe, though he had a short tenure, negotiated secretly for a visit to China, which was then reciprocated by China with a visit by Premier Wen to Japan. This has helped to ease Japan-China tensions.

People say there is a lack of institutions and also the problem of past history in East Asian holding regional development back, but the US-Japan-China triangle is a bulwark for stability and with Fukuda now prime minister in Japan, this is only likely to improve more.


With South Korea, 5 years ago there was open speculation about an end to the alliance. Especially with the “axis of evil” speech, protests by young South Koreans, and polling there that said that many saw the US as more of a security threat than North Korea, people thought that Bush would lose both South Korea and North Korea.

Five years later, we can say that despite a “very noisy” relationship with South Korea, which there is no denying, things are pretty good. It is the outcomes that matter and not the process, and the outcomes have been pretty good.

Arguably more has been accomplished in the last 5 years than at any time in the history of US-South Korean relations. Sixty bases have been returned to South Korea, including the handover of Yongsan, and by 2012 operational control during wartime is expected to be handed over to South Korea, which is a controversial thing in that country. A Free Trade Agreement was also negotiated between the US and South Korea, and I believe this will pass Congress despite Democratic criticisms. I say this because no Congress has ever overturned a FTA that a president has negotiated, and rightly so, because this would impact the American president’s reputation and hurt our free trade credentials.

We also enacted a National Security Council dialogue between our two countries. South Korea also has a National Security Council, with a structure very much like our own. When I entered the government, we did a study of all of our alliances, and we found that the South Korea-US alliance was one of the most under-institutionalized, so this was part of a strategy to correct that. We continued with SCAP (the Strategic Consultation for Allied Participation), which is not the best moniker for a South Korean-US program, but this is an annual dialogue that takes place at the undersecretary level.

South Korea also participated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. It had the third largest number of ground troops in Iraq. They have a high reputation for their professionalism.

North Korea

On North Korea, the 2005 “Joint Statement” was referred to as the “Bible”. It was the agreement we used to move everything forward. The February, 2007 implementation agreement was the first step towards denuclearization and in July of this year, the reactor at Yongbyon was shutdown. Despite this success, criticism on both ends abounds.

Liberals say that the Bush administration used coercion and tried to force regime change and this prompted North Korea to respond with a nuclear test. Conversely, the conservatives say that the Bush administration was right in its “get tough” mindset, but then gave it that up and is now conceding too much in the negotiations.

I think there are three core principles here. First, people make a mistake by assuming that a tactical shift is a change in strategy. The same three principles ruled Bush policy on North Korea: a commitment to peaceful diplomacy, a multilateral framework, and thoroughly testing North Korea’s intentions to denuclearize.

At no point ever in my time in the administration did anyone mention regime change as an option. It was simply never considered by anyone. Also, China and South Korea were indispensable in the process, and their inclusion gave rise to the 6 party talks. China was very important in the process, and especially following North Korea’s detonation of a nuclear weapon. The “Joint Statement” with the DPRK says that it will “abandon existing and all nuclear programs” and this was the first time they had agreed to this.

Many question how far the US will go to get a deal. There was the secret meetings at Berlin and Geneva that helped. But it also helped that the US showed its political will and patience. This was something the Chinese stressed over and over again. The Banco Delta sanctions helped to show how serious we were. We also stayed focused on the end game, and set red lines about what was unacceptable.

In the agreement we agreed to begin to look at a formal peace treaty and a normalization of relations, but this will only happen after North Korea is nuclear-free and it has met certain conditions. We may start this process, but we won’t reach a conclusion until North Korea shows that it is serious.

US Alliances and Architecture

I won’t talk much about this point because it’s hot in this room, and I would rather you talk than I.

The dominant criticism of the US has been that it lacks a coherent policy on architecture in the region, but the US has a position although I don’t think it is necessary articulated formally in any papers.

One thing that remains certain is the importance of APEC. It is the premier institution, and the only one that makes real agreements on the ground, on trade liberalization, development, etc.

There has also been strong engagement with South East Asia, and not just on terrorism. Our strategy relies on networks and patchworks of organizations and multilateralism in 2s, 3s, and 4s, for instance US-Japan-Australia, and others. Also, I would say that I belief Asia is not ripe for rivalry.

Overall, the Asia that is being handed over to the next president is “not that bad” and I objectively tried to think of another time in history that I would trade it with and I couldn’t think of any.

That is a policy trap though, because it can breed complacency and we have got to keep thinking of ways to invigorate regional consolidation. Things are good now, but they may get worse again and we have got to remember this and not lose focus.

In the upcoming elections, Republicans will likely talk about Asia only to focus on China’s military, and they will say how China must become more transparent in its military spending and they will call for a larger US military to counter the threat, etc.

Democrats, for their part, will only discuss Asia in economic terms, and will criticize China for its yuan policy and the trade deficit, and might push for punitive measures.

The danger is that China will look to these domestic political debates and see this as the real essence of American thought on China, and may react to it. This is a scary scenario and one which would be bad for both countries.

Advise for the Future

For the future, I would suggest that the US assert itself as an Asian-Pacific power, encourage China stakeholding, Japan’s global relevance, and also press for free and fair trade. The US should also build a Northeast Asian security institution out of the 6 six party talks, encourage bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral arrangements, and inject values into Asian institutions. We should not be shy about our concern for democracy, and this conversation can include China.


Q: There has been a criticism of a lack of US involvement in Asian groupings like ASEAN. What do you think about this?

A: There has been so much talk of Asia in zero-sum terms, but I do not think this is accurate. I don’t think that it’s a zero-sum thing. The US doesn’t care if Asian countries get together without it and talk. If they can talk that’s great. It shouldn’t be seen as threatening.

Q: I read your opinion article about the Beijing Olympics in the Washington Post. What should be the US strategy on this?

A: My article was published August 8, 2007, and I am very interested in the role of sports in Asia. Some people like Mia Farrow have called the Beijing Olympics the “genocide Olympics” and I think this will put tremendous pressure on China in the areas of human rights and Darfur. I think if you track China, they have a mixed record on human rights and on the African issue. I think how these upcoming Olympics will be remembered is still an open question.

Q: Could you discuss US policy on Taiwanese independence?

A: There has been no change on US-Taiwan policy despite warming of relations with China. The US-China still have a strategy of dual ambiguity, but Washington DC has made it clear that they are not happy about Taiwan’s recent moves because it needlessly raises tensions for domestic political purposes.

Q: I want to ask about Asian regionalism. Do you think that organizations like APEC are too big and need a more narrow focus?

A: It depends on what mission you are talking about. I think APEC has been very effective at striking deals on trade liberalization, development, and counter-terrorism. These are all things that help regional integration, but I’m not so sure that if it were smaller if it could accomplish these things better. I think it is the only organization that has achieved useful, on the ground agreements.

GERALD CURTIS: Do you think that North Korea should be removed from the list of state-sponsors of terror? If we listen to Japan then we run the risk of making the process with North Korea hostage to the hostage issue.

A: Good question. It’s a very timely question. I think the February, 2007 agreement said that the US would “begin to look” at normalization, so there is no promise of a normalization in relations.

There are a few reasons why I think that North Korea will remain on the list of state sponsors of terror: the 1987 Korean Air bombing, the Yodo hijacking, and the abductee issue.

Because the US-Japan alliance is so important, it would be highly unlikely that the US would ever trade Japan for better relations with North Korea. That said, it is true that Abe was very tough on this issue, so with him gone there may be more leeway for forward movement on this issue.

Q: Could you discuss the role of some countries as good cop/bad cop at the 6 party talks? Also, would a change in the elections in South Korea this year lead to a change in the nuclear negotiations with North Korea?

A: I think your characterization of partners in the talks as good cop/bad cop represents a false dichotomy. It was not 2 on 1. It was 5 on 1. There was no disagreement about the disarmament process. Everyone agreed.

Also, a change in South Korean leadership will not mean a wholesale change of policy on North Korea’s nuclear program. The South does not want a nuclear-armed North Korea. It is in no one’s interests.

Q: On Taiwan, since the Shanghai Accord, the issue has been simmering. What is US strategy on Taiwan?

A: As I said before, there is no change. The US remains committed to defend Taiwan, but hopes for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and we support their democracy although we are upset by antagonistic moves.

Q: Is there a divergence of priorities on North Korea between the US and South Korean sides, and is this just pushing South Korea closer to China? It seems South Korea wants reconciliation while the US wants only denuclearization.

A: That’s not accurate. I think that South Korea wants reconciliation, but they need denuclearization first. South Korea is not getting pushed towards China. In fact, of all the parties at the talks, the US and China were closest in our approaches, especially, like I said, after October. After the detonation by North Korea, China made it very clear where it wanted the talks to end up. They did not mince words at all.


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