Ralph A. Cossa
Ralph A. Cossa is President of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, a non-profit, foreign policy research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He is senior editor of the Forum’s quarterly electronic journal, Comparative Connections. Mr. Cossa is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Experts and Eminent Persons Group. He is a founding member of the multinational track two Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). He co-chairs the CSCAP study group aimed at halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Asia Pacific region and also serves as Executive Director of the US Member Committee (USCSCAP). He also serves on the Board of the Council on US-Korean Security Studies and the National Committee on US-China Relations (NY) and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London). He is a frequent contributor to regional newspapers, including the Japan Times, Korea Times, and International Herald Tribune. His most recent works are The United States and the Asia-Pacific Region: Security Strategy for the Obama Administration (Washington DC: Center for a New American Security, 2009); “US-Japan Relations: What Should Washington Do?” in America’s Role in Asia: Recommendations for US Policy from Both Sides of the Pacific (San Francisco: Asia Foundation, 2008), pp. 207-218; and An East Asian Community and the United States, Ralph A. Cossa and Akihiko Tanaka, eds., (Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press, 2007).
Articles by Ralph A. Cossa
While it hasn’t always been pretty or (gasp) consistent, US Asia policy under the Trump administration is, with one major exception, pretty much where the Obama administration left it. America’s Asian alliances remain the foundation of its security strategy and “our one-China policy” has been reaffirmed. Even regarding North Korea, the objective – bringing Kim Jong Un “to his senses” – remains the same, although the approach seems to display less patience. The exception centers on the one promise that Trump (regrettably in our view) has kept: abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). On economic policy more generally, the promised trade war with China has (thus far) failed to materialize since “the Chinese have made some improvements on currency in recent months”; okay, Chinese currency manipulation actually stopped several years ago, but you get the point. While the search for a new buzz word to replace the “pivot” or “rebalance” continues, the vice president and secretaries of State and Defense have been to the region and the White House has confirmed President Trump’s plan to attend a trio of regional summits this fall. Asia remains a high priority region, for better and for worse.
Once every four years, our Regional Overview attempts to reassure our readers that, despite a new US administration and/or new secretary of state, US Asia policy will remain generally consistent. This year we are trying to reassure ourselves. It is, of course, premature to be making firm pronouncements about an incoming administration’s policies, but by now signals are usually becoming pretty clear. It seemed safe to assume (as we did at the time), that the incoming Obama administration would pursue the same general policies and national security objectives in the Asia-Pacific as its predecessor: support for existing alliances as the foundation of regional security policy, constructive engagement with China, support for free trade and promotion of human rights, and a strong deterrence posture regarding North Korea, combined with firm support for nonproliferation regimes. This could yet be the case for the incoming Trump administration, but the signals are, at best, mixed, in part because we find ourselves responding to tweets – which transition team spokesmen caution should be taken “symbolically” not literally – rather than clear policy pronouncements. As a result, regional leaders, while hoping for the best (or at least more of the same) seem to be preparing themselves for a variety of outcomes, even as some try to shape the future environment.
The rule of law took a few huge hits during the year’s second trimester, as Beijing chose to ignore the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling that negated many of its South China Sea claims, while Pyongyang displayed its usual disdain for the latest UN Security Council Resolution 2270 with a series of ballistic missile launches, highlighted by a submarine-launched ballistic missile test. There were also a number of significant multilateral forums addressing regional security and economic issues, or both. Most in some form also touched upon the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula, even as ASEAN danced around the Tribunal’s ruling. Meanwhile in the battle of who gets to make trade rules, the Chinese-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) seemed to fare only slightly better than the US-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the objection to which seems to be the only thing the two US presidential candidates agree upon.
North Korea mixed things up a bit in early 2016, this time starting with a nuclear test – its fourth – and then following up a month later with a missile test/satellite launch; usually the order is reversed. Other than that it was déjà vu all over again, only worse. There were also a number of shorter-range ballistic missile launches and the usual threats (with graphic video), while the prospects for dialogue seemed to dim even further. Meanwhile, Chinese activities in the South China Sea (SCS) are being described by everyone (except Beijing) as further militarization of its artificial islands, as everyone (except Beijing) eagerly awaits the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a case the Philippines has brought against China’s SCS claims – Beijing has already preemptively rejected the Court’s jurisdiction, so no happy ending appears in store for anyone. The G7 also weighed in on the SCS issue, much to China’s dismay. It’s for certain the G20 won’t (since China is host this year). The AIIB is taking shape, with most worries not being realized. Finally, after eight months of listening to pundits predict that the Trump phenomenon was sure to fade, Donald Trump has become the “presumptive” Republican nominee. His opponent seems likely to be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in what is shaping up to be a battle of the known versus the unknown (and largely unpredictable).
While events in Paris and San Bernardino refocused the international community’s attention on terrorism, it was largely business as usual in Asia, with the normal round of multilateral meetings – the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, US-ASEAN Summit, East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) in Kuala Lumpur, plus the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Manila – going largely unnoticed. A few other summits did attract attention, including the first “Plus Three” (Japan-Korea-China) Summit in three years (which included the first direct one-on-one summit between ROK President Park and Japan Prime Minister Abe) in Seoul and the “non-summit” between Mr. Xi Jinping and Mr. Ma Ying-Jeou who just happen to be the presidents, respectively, of the People’s Republic of China and Republic of China, in Singapore. Chinese actions (and US reactions) in the South China Sea continued to dominate the news, while hopes that Kim Jong-Un was on the brink of behaving were quickly dashed as the new year began. All eyes remain on the Chinese economy and the impact the continuing slowdown there may have on global growth, even as the US pushes forward on the finally completed (but not yet Congressionally-approved) Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The big news over the summer is the granting of “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority to President Obama by the US Congress. This keeps hopes alive for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic centerpiece of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia. The political and military legs of this multidimensional strategy got a boost as Secretary of State John Kerry attended the annual ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meeting and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter headlined the show at the Shangri-La Dialogue. China continues to make its presence felt in regional affairs as well; President Xi Jinping attended meetings in Ufa, Russia with other BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders and hosted a Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Special Working Group and Senior Officials Committee Meeting and first CICA Youth Council Conference in Beijing, while continuing to pursue his Silk Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiatives, even as China’s economy took a significant hit. Meanwhile, Pyongyang engaged in another round of Russian roulette but backed down when it became apparent Seoul was prepared to pull the trigger. Finally, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II put history on the front pages.
President Obama initiated his long-awaited (and long overdue) quest for “fast track” or Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) from the US Congress, understanding that final negotiations and eventual passage (or not) of his Asian “rebalance” economic centerpiece, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, rests upon achieving TPA. Without TPP, Obama’s already tarnished leadership image will be severely damaged, his “lame duck” status will be solidified at home and abroad, and his Asian pivot will be seen not as the multidimensional strategy it was intended to be but largely a unidimensional (security) single-focused (China) strategy. Meanwhile, China continued to tarnish US and ASEAN leadership through its accelerated island-building projects in the South China Sea, while Washington’s badly managed response to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative provided another (self-inflicted) wound. Washington’s questions were the right ones, but its seemingly “choose between us and China” approach resulted in most US partners and allies choosing Beijing. Finally, US-DPRK and North-South relations went through cycles of hope and despair with no real progress in sight, as speculation runs rampant as to why Kim Jong-Un decided not to go to Moscow.
A trifecta of international gatherings – the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Beijing, the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Nay Pyi Taw, and the G-20 gathering in Brisbane – had heads of state from around the globe, including US President Barack Obama, flocking to the Asia-Pacific as 2014 was winding to a close. North Korea was not included in these confabs but its leaders (although not the paramount one) were taking their charm offensive almost everywhere else in an (unsuccessful) attempt to block a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Pyongyang’s human rights record. More successful was Pyongyang’s (alleged) attempt to undermine and embarrass Sony Studios to block the release of a Hollywood film featuring the assassination of Kim Jong Un.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry continued their “pivots” to Asia, respectively attending the Shangri-La Dialogue and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), before joining up for a 2+2 with their Aussie counterparts. President Obama’s failure to mention the Asia rebalance during his “major foreign policy address” at West Point raised questions about the US commitment to the region. No wonder no one seemed to have much time to pay attention to Pyongyang as it continued its (idle) threats and insults. Meanwhile, there was little progress reported on the economic centerpiece of the US pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), even as China continued its pursuit of an alternative “Asia for Asians” approach. Two of the world’s largest democracies, India and Indonesia, held landmark elections, in stark contrast to Thailand where the military leadership tried to legitimize its rule.
President Obama’s fifth trip to Asia – his “reassurance” tour – was well-received by all his hosts but drew mixed reviews from pundits and from Beijing. His accomplishments were partly overshadowed by two tragedies – the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the sinking of a South Korean ferry – and by lack of progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership while abroad or on Trade Promotion Authority at home. Obama also tried his hand at peacemaking by bringing Japan’s Prime Minister Abe and South Korean President Park together for their first meeting, on the sidelines of the third Nuclear Security Summit. Secretaries Kerry and Hagel also toured the region to promote the “pivot,” with Hagel stopping in Honolulu to host the first US-ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting. Pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize has yielded little, other than threats of another nuclear test and an incredibly vile (even by North Korean standards) personal attack on Presidents Park and Obama. Australian Prime Minister Abbott made a successful swing through Northeast Asia, while participants at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium agreed to a constructive (but non-binding) set of rules to prevent encounters at sea. Finally, we opine about the implications for Asia of events in the Ukraine.