précis Interview: Eric Heginbotham

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  • Spring 2017
Eric Heginbotham

Eric Heginbotham is a principal research scientist at CIS.

April 27, 2017

Eric Heginbotham PhD '04, a leading political-military analyst of East Asia, is a principal research scientist at CIS. Before joining the Center, he was a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, where he was the lead author of the recent book China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent (2017) and the US-China Military Scorecard (2015).

précis: What are the implications of Trump's election for US-China relations?

EH: It is too early to tell, but there is certainly potential for the relationship to be destabilized in fundamental ways. There has been extreme talk on the trade front—on the campaign trail, Trump called China's trade practices the “greatest theft in the history of the world.” During the transition, Trump accepted a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during his confirmation hearing, said that the US should block China’s access to the islands it has constructed from reclaimed land in the South China Sea.

All this suggests a willingness to discard some US historical positions. However, there is a clear pattern with regard to new US presidents and China: they tend to start off taking a tough line on Beijing, but revert to positions closer to those of their predecessors as the complexity of the China relationship becomes clear to them. Chinese leaders probably expect—or at least hope—that the Trump administration’s policies will evolve quickly. They may also be reassured by Trump’s decision to appoint James Mattis and H.R. McMaster to top positions in national security.

But these are clearly not “normal” times, and Trump’s populism and lack of policy background have no parallels among recent presidents. Peter Navarro, the head of Trump’s National Trade Council, tends to view trade relations in hyper-competitive terms, and he has singled out China for particular criticism. Navarro may confirm some of Trump’s most extreme impulses in dealing with China.

All this said, I imagine there will be a high degree of path dependency in US foreign policy. Presidents can only deal with a certain number of simultaneous crises, and they often look to tamp down or even ignore problems in other areas. Therefore, we need to wait and see where the first major international crises of the Trump administration occur, and where the new administration might become heavily engaged first—it may not be in East Asia.

précis: How will the US's allies in East Asia cope with the Trump administration?

EH: During the campaign, Trump declared that we should not continue to underwrite our alliances to the extent that we have, and that one possible alternative might be for America’s Asian allies to acquire nuclear weapons. But, as we’ve seen, Secretary of Defense Mattis went to Asia and reassured our allies there that the US is still firmly committed to our alliances. He did not use any language suggesting that the US viewed those alliances as contingent upon dramatic change. While this seems to be a bit of a course correction, to put it mildly, we haven’t heard anything on this from Trump himself.

Our Asian allies will first try to ensure that Trump remains committed to their defense. Given Trump’s distrust of governing institutions, they understand that this will be a highly personalized presidency. And they will therefore try to establish personal rapport with Trump or others who have direct access to him. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has already done this very effectively with his early visit to Washington and his golf outing with the president.

South Korea is a much greater concern. With South Korea’s current leadership crisis, no direct connection can be created at the presidential level anytime soon. Korea’s presidential election will be held in May.  Progressive candidate Moon Jae-in is currently leading, and he is pushing a return to the “sunshine policy” of outreach to North Korea and China. Given that Trump has asked our allies to do more, rather than less, in the military realm to strengthen deterrence against potential aggressors, the two leaders might mix badly. Perceived belligerence on the part of Trump might encourage Moon or a similar Korean leader to distance him or herself further from the United States.

There are also questions about how US allies will reposition themselves economically.

Trump's withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) may encourage many in the region to migrate towards the Chinese-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) plan. TPP was one of the few clear political-economic success stories for the United States in Asia in recent years, and I fear the withdrawal from TPP already represents a major reversal for America's regional position.

précis: Given that North Korea may soon acquire the nuclear capabilities that will allow it to strike the US, how would you recommend the new US administration handle the situation?

EH: For two decades, North Korean nuclear developments have presented US policymakers with a set of famously bad policy options—the question being which is less bad than the alternatives.  Despite years of sanctions, Pyongyang has made strikingly rapid gains in its nuclear and missile programs while simultaneously improving its economic position. It is inconceivable to me that North Korea would now negotiate away its strategic programs without being brought under extreme duress.

Ideally, this would come about through sanctions. The United States and others could tighten sanctions further, but China is the only country with sufficient leverage to bring North Korea around. Many China experts say that Beijing will never use its leverage because Beijing fears instability in North Korea, which could bring a flood of refugees to China. A complete regime collapse and reunification with the South could bring US forces to the Chinese border.

But I’m from the “never say never” camp. China has important interests working in the other direction, and we know that there’s no love lost between the Chinese and North Koreans. Kim Jong-un has “cleaned house” internally, getting rid of senior officials who were close to China, and assassinating his older half brother, Kim Jong-nam, who was under Chinese protection at the time of his death.

North Korea has exacerbated China’s security prospects by encouraging South Korea to host Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, more commonly referred to as THAAD.  And it is developing a robust menu of nuclear options that could, in theory, be used against China. China has supported sanctions against North Korea in the UN Security Council. More importantly, it is now actually enforcing sanctions and has cut off imports of North Korean coal—one of Pyongyang’s few major exports.

But China would have to do much more to bring North Korea to heel, and we don’t know if it is (or will become) willing.  Getting China to say “yes” to serious and sustained sanctions would require skillful US diplomacy. It's hard to imagine cooperation on the North Korea issue if the United States is involved in trade wars and other major disputes with China. The United States will have to pick its battles, and hopefully the Trump administration will think carefully before committing itself in one direction.

précis: You did your PhD in political science here at MIT. How did MIT prepare you, and what advice would you give to current students who want the option of working in policy?

EH: I feel incredibly lucky to have graduated from the program. It’s unique in terms of having faculty who are at the top of the field in international relations, comparative politics, and security studies, and who are, at the same time, grounded in “policy realities. They are engaged in real-world issues and care about capabilities and other material realities.

Compared to when I was a student here, there seems to be a greater expectation that students will go on to academic jobs. However, MIT still seems to prepare students well for the opportunity to go into academia while also doing short-term stints in government or policy work in think tanks. While I was at RAND, many academics spent their summers with us. I think it was a good experience for both parties.

Although I strongly recommend getting exposure to the policy world, timing is important.  Policy work during summer breaks can be quite useful and does not necessarily disrupt an academic career. Shortly after graduating, I think the focus should be on one's academic career. The barriers to entry in academia are higher than those in the policy world. You can always go from the academy to a think tank or into government, but it’s much harder to go in the other direction.

précis: What made you decide to come to CIS, and how has your time here been so far?

EH: Coming to CIS offered a great opportunity to apply some of the technical knowledge I picked up at RAND to projects with larger scope. Returning to CIS was an opportunity to dig deeper than I could on a fiscal year schedule working on government-sponsored projects. It is also an opportunity to work within a program that brings together some of the top scholars on Asia—Japan, China, and India in particular—as well as on defense and strategic issues.

In many ways, I never really left MIT. I collaborated with former MIT teachers and classmates while at the Council on Foreign Relations and later RAND. Similarly, I now intend to remain engaged with the policy community and hope to bring former RAND colleagues to MIT for events and/or research projects. I think there is a lot of learning that can happen both ways.

précis: What are you currently working on?

EH: I have a three-part agenda that involves working on regional security dynamics, Japan’s security options, and US military and grand strategy.

The three topics I am working on are inter-related.  The academic debate on US grand strategy has largely revolved around Europe and the Middle East, and the lenses through which most of the participants view the world are taken from the European balance of power system. Asia is often treated as a lesser or exceptional case, even though a majority of the US military budget now goes to capabilities most relevant to Asia.

I would not necessarily argue (as some have done) that the logic of Asian international relations is fundamentally different from that of Europe, but the distribution of power most certainly is—as are the types of governing systems and the historical perspectives of the countries in question. While we might expect similar international outcomes under similar circumstances, the circumstances in Asia are so different that we should treat its prospects and implications independently—and, most likely, as the region that will shape the future international system.

Japanese power and strategy is critical to understanding the US future in Asia.  Japan is our most important ally in Asia. It has gradually modernized its military forces, but improvements have not kept pace with those of China. Clearly, the United States now expects all of its allies to carry their weight militarily, and Japan will need not only to increase its defense budget but also overhaul the administration and strategy of its forces—hopefully without adversely affecting crisis stability.