Regional Overview

More of the same! That appears to be the Asia policy theme for the Bush administration as it begins its second term. During her maiden voyage through Asia, incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reinforced the central themes of her predecessor: the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance relationship and Washington’s support for a more “normal” Japan; a commitment both to the defense of South Korea and to a peaceful settlement, via the six-party process, of the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang; and a continuation of Washington’s “cooperative, constructive, but candid” relationship with the PRC, including a “one China” policy that objects to unilateral changes in the status quo by either Beijing or Taipei. Underlying all this was Washington’s continued commitment to the promotion and expansion of democracy in Asia and around the globe, a central theme in President George W. Bush’s second inauguration address.

Unfortunately, it was more of the same from Pyongyang as well, as it continued to boycott the Six-Party Talks, insisting that Washington, among other preconditions, abandon its “hostile attitude” toward the DPRK and apologize for branding North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny” during Secretary Rice’s confirmation testimony. China and Taiwan also continued their familiar dance: one step forward (direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland during the Chinese New Year period), two steps back (the PRC’s anti-secession law and the massive protests it drew in Taiwan). Further complicating this issue and adding to already rising tensions between Japan and China were reports – largely erroneous – that Japan was now prepared to actively assist the U.S. in maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Surprisingly, Secretary Rice made no mention of regional multilateral organizations during her Asia policy address. Nor did Assistant Secretary of State-designate Christopher Hill during his March 15 confirmation hearings, although he did express a desire to “thicken up” multilateral diplomacy in East Asia during his end of quarter “listening and learning” trip to Southeast Asia.

Finally, in the “more of the same” category, the quarter ended the way it began, with Indonesia responding to its second devastating massive earthquake in three months, thankfully this time without the tsunami and staggering death tolls experienced in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 event. The U.S. and global response to this earlier crisis raised international cooperation (and generosity) in humanitarian/disaster relief to new levels and helped to improve the Bush administration’s battered image in this part of the world.



The North Koreans stayed away from the Six-Party Talks again this quarter, citing “mixed” and “confusing” signals from Washington as their main reason for not resuming the dialogue.  Meanwhile, Washington was sending mixed signals to Asia in general and to China in particular.  Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick had a successful trip through Southeast Asia, reassuring the ASEAN states about Washington’s continued commitment to the region, a message somewhat undercut at quarter’s end when it was revealed that his boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would likely not make her scheduled first appearance at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial meeting in Vientiane in late July. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also sent mixed signals to China during his second appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June, welcoming an emerging China “committed to peaceful solutions” as “an important new reality” while raising questions about the extent of its military build-up, since “no one threatens China.” There were also mixed signals from within ASEAN as to whether or not Burma/Myanmar would forego its chairmanship of ASEAN in mid-2006, amid mixed predictions as to the impact of Rice’s absence on this decision. Preparations also continued for this December’s first East Asian Summit (EAS) with more attention focused on who will attend than on what is to be accomplished.

The quarter was highlighted by the beginning and, after a five-week recess, successful conclusion of the long-delayed fourth round of Six-Party Talks.  While the Joint Statement issued Sept. 19 was far from a breakthrough, leaving many questions unanswered and most contentious issues unsettled, it did provide a framework for future cooperation (and, one hopes, eventual progress) by listing mutually agreed upon objectives, to include “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”

In Southeast Asia, the Indonesia government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) also decided to give peace a chance in the long-troubled and more recently tsunami-devastated Aceh province. Also in Southeast Asia, the annual round of ASEAN ministerial meetings took place in late July with the focus largely centered on which ministers did not attend the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) security dialogue and who would assume the ASEAN chair in mid-2006.  Meanwhile, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) got Washington’s attention when it called for the United States to set a date for the withdrawal of its forces from Central Asia’s “temporary infrastructure,” raising questions about Beijing’s (and Moscow’s) support for the war on terrorism and desire for cooperative, constructive relations with Washington.

Finally, World Health Organization officials continued to warn of a potential pandemic if a new variant of the avian flu virus, which has now killed at least 65 people in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and most recently Indonesia, begins spreading from human to human.

President Bush made his first trip to Asia in two years, attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Busan, South Korea and also visiting Japan, China, and Mongolia. In Japan, he gave a major Asia policy speech which reinforced his “freedom and democracy” theme, but missed the opportunity to shed much additional light on Washington’s future defense transformation plans or to ameliorate growing China-Japanese tensions. Other significant multilateral events this quarter included another (abbreviated) round of Six-Party Talks that made little headway (another missed opportunity); the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha Round session in Hong Kong, which was only slightly more productive; an ASEAN Plus Three (A+3) and various ASEAN Plus One summits that added, at least marginally, to the East Asia community-building process; and the inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS), which did not.  All in all, 2005 was a good (but not great) year, politically and economically, for East Asia and for Washington’s relations with its Asian neighbors. The economic forecast for 2006 looks generally bright; the political forecast perhaps a bit more cloudy.


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By Ralph A. Cossa and

The 2006 National Security Strategy (NSS) was released this quarter. News coverage has focused primarily on one word: preemption. Largely overlooked has been the much greater emphasis on the promotion of freedom and democracy as the primary objective of U.S. foreign policy in the second George W. Bush administration. How far and fast a nation (like China) proceeds down the path toward democracy – or refuses to do so (North Korea and Myanmar) – will have a major bearing on its future relations with a State Department that is being reoriented toward “transformational diplomacy.” Largely overshadowed by the NSS release were two Defense Department documents: the Quadrennial Defense Review and the National Military Strategy to Combat WMD.

While Washington pushes the theory of democracy, its practice has proven difficult for both Manila and Bangkok this quarter, even as the fruits of democracy have added challenges to Washington’s relations with Taipei. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has used the “hostile attitude” reflected in the NSS as yet another excuse for not returning to the stalled Six-Party Talks. One significant gathering of democracies this quarter was the inaugural ministerial-level Australia-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue focused, in part, on supporting the emergence of new democracies. Finally, Washington took a major step forward in advancing its “strategic partnership” with the world’s largest democracy, India, during President Bush’s historic visit to New Delhi in early March.


Several senior administration officials provided insights into the Bush administration’s East Asia and global strategic thinking this quarter. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley explained “three basic insights” that guide East Asia policy, reinforcing the centrality of U.S. alliances (a common theme in Asia policy pronouncements in the past but one that had been strangely absent in major Asia addresses by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice); Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill provided the most comprehensive statement to date regarding administration views of East Asia community building, pointing out Washington’s concern about the “Pan-Asianism vs. Pan-Pacificism” debate; and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made it clear that Washington prefers global, more inclusive, task-oriented multilateralism (“the mission defines the coalition”) over Cold War institutions that will become increasingly irrelevant if and when they fail to adjust to new strategic realities.


One such “coalition of the willing,” the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), celebrated its third anniversary, with Under Secretary of State Robert Joseph calling for more nations to come on board and for those already participating to “think innovatively, enforce aggressively, and engage regularly.” A major PSI air interdiction exercise off Australia drew participants from six countries, with observers from 26 more. Another “PSI-like” exercise would have represented a historic first until China and South Korea became last-minute no-shows. The Chinese did, however, send observers to a major U.S. military exercise held near Guam. Meanwhile, the Six-Party Talks remained a coalition of the unwilling as North Korea continued to boycott the talks amid preparations for a missile test which, on the Fourth of July, may have sounded a death knell for the talks . . . or maybe not!


In Southeast Asia, the nations of ASEAN took a small step closer to multilateral defense cooperation with the convening of the inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in early May. Many reconvened in Singapore during the Shangri-La Dialogue, which involved defense officials from 22 Asia-Pacific nations (including Secretary Rumsfeld). Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia took major steps toward greater actual defense cooperation in patrolling the Malacca Strait, while Malaysia Defense Minister Najib proposed the establishment of a regional relief center to coordinate regional responses to humanitarian disasters. When it came to responding to a neighbor’s call for help, however, ASEAN was conspicuously quiet, with only Malaysia sending assistance to help restore order in Timor-Leste, where the democratic process is struggling to take hold.  Meanwhile, the democratic process is nowhere to be found in Myanmar (Burma), where the ruling junta disappointed its ASEAN colleagues by once again extending Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest for another year.

The last quarter ended with the international community playing “will they, or won’t they” over North Korea’s threatened missile test; they did! This quarter it’s déjà vu all over again, this time concerning a threatened nuclear weapons test. Following the UN Security Council’s surprisingly tough response to the missile tests, efforts were made to jump-start the negotiation process at this summer’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting. This attempt proved fruitless, however, as North Korea’s foreign minister refused to come to an “informal” six-party meeting, despite the opportunity to meet face-to-face with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who, despite genuine crises in the Middle East, made the extra effort to attend this year’s ministerial meeting). Elsewhere in Asia, ASEAN foreign ministers held their 39th annual Ministerial and numerous 10+1 post-ministerial talks (including a productive session with Secretary Rice), along with an ASEAN Plus Three meeting with their counterparts from China, Japan, and the ROK. Meanwhile, the democratic process continued to witness ups and (mostly) downs in Asia, as the military coup in Thailand reminds us of just how fragile the democratic process remains in Asia.

The quarter started with a bang, literally, as North Korea made good on its threat to test a nuclear weapon, resulting in a strongly worded (but not strongly enforceable) UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR 1718) imposing sanctions. To the surprise of some, Pyongyang agreed to return to another round of Six-Party Talks this quarter; to the surprise of virtually no one, the talks went nowhere. The most anticipated multilateral event of the quarter, the second East Asia Summit (EAS), was postponed (ostensibly due to weather), but the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting did take place on schedule, along with a side meeting between President Bush and the “ASEAN Seven.” Democracy took another hit in the region, this time via a military coup in Fiji, even as the road back to democracy in Thailand is proving to be longer than promised. The Asia Pacific economic outlook remains good, with the region continuing to set the pace for the rest of the world. The political outlook is not as sunny.

The Year of the Golden Pig has gotten off to an auspicious beginning. The Six-Party Talks, seemingly left for dead at the end of last quarter, were miraculously revived, resulting in an “action for action” game plan for the phased implementation of the September 2005 joint denuclearization agreement. Neither weather nor terrorism concerns prevented the second East Asia Summit from taking place as rescheduled, with the U.S. nowhere to be found. ASEAN leaders also took a step forward in examining their first formal Charter while agreeing with their Plus Three partners (China, Japan, and South Korea, finally once again on speaking terms) to promote greater regional integration. Tokyo and Canberra took a dramatic step forward in strengthening bilateral security cooperation, while the second “Armitage-Nye Report” was released, laying out a bipartisan vision for “getting Asia right.”

The quarter opened with Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill proclaiming that we were “a few days away” from overcoming the “technical issues” that were holding up the Korean Peninsula denuclearization process. Unfortunately, those few days did not take place until mid-June, postponing the long-awaited 60-day test of the Feb. 13 “action for action” agreement until next quarter. Also pending is a test of the willingness of the nations of Southeast Asia to develop a meaningful Charter in commemoration of ASEAN’s 40th birthday, following this quarter’s review of (and reported revisions to) the groundbreaking draft provided last quarter by its Eminent Persons Group. The commitment of Thailand’s military leaders to restore democracy is also being tested, as is Beijing’s commitment to Hong Kong’s Basic Law on the 10th anniversary of reversion. Meanwhile, new U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and China’s new PLA Deputy Chief of the General Staff Zhang Qinsheng passed their initial diplomatic tests this quarter while making their first appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Finally, East Asia’s economy, 10 years after the Asian financial crisis, appears to have nicely survived the test of time.

Multilateralism was the order of the day in the Asia-Pacific this quarter. Two sessions of the Six-Party Talks and a number of associated bilateral and multilateral working group sessions were held, culminating in a “breakthrough” at quarter’s end, at least in terms of the disablement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and associated 10+X ministerial meetings took place amid reports of steady progress on the development of ASEAN’s first Charter. The annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting resulted in rhetorical commitments to combat global warming and move the Doha round of trade talks forward, while President George W. Bush met for the third time in a summit with assembled ASEAN leaders along the APEC sidelines. The failure of Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice to attend the ARF meeting (her second miss in three attempts) and the cancellation of Bush’s follow-on visit to Singapore (for what would have been his first full summit meeting with ASEAN leaders) renewed concerns about the U.S. commitment to the region, despite the deepening of the U.S.-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership. Multilateral military cooperation included major exercises in the Indian Ocean and Central Asia by what some portray (inaccurately?) as emerging rival blocs. Democracy watchers continued to keep a close eye on Bangkok’s slow return to democracy and election dynamics in Seoul and Taipei, even while expressing revulsion over the latest giant step backward taken by the military junta in Rangoon.

The quarter began with high hopes, following the year’s second Six-Party Talks “breakthrough,” but it was all down hill after that. On Oct. 3, Beijing announced a “second phase” implementation plan that laid out a series of specific Korean Peninsula denuclearization actions to be accomplished by Dec. 31. Unfortunately, the new year tolled with the most critical of these promised actions – a mutually acceptable “complete and correct declaration” of all North Korean nuclear programs, facilities, and activities – nowhere to be found. The much-anticipated ASEAN Charter was also signed this quarter but hopes that Myanmar would somehow be penalized for its brutal suppression of peaceful protests earlier in the fall were dashed as the other members took an ostrich-like approach to the problem. The third East Asia Summit took place as scheduled, with outside observers still not fully clear about the group’s objectives or its place in the greater multilateral mix. The largest multilateral gathering of the quarter took place in Bali, where those worried about global warming expelled a lot of hot air in producing a potentially useful but currently not very specific “Bali Roadmap” on climate change. The democratic process remained alive and well with new governments being elected in Australia, South Korea, and Thailand, even as China was ruling that Hong Kong would not be ready for a more representative government until at least 2017. On the economic front, 2007 proved to be a good year for Asia, with growth consistent with pre-year projections; most forecasters see only a modest slowdown in 2008, despite lingering concerns about over the fallout from the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis.

“It is always darkest just before the dawn of a new day” goes the old saying. Well, it looks pretty dark when it comes to U.S.‑DPRK relations and the prospects for the Six‑Party Talks, with no significant progress reported this quarter in the quest for a “complete and correct declaration” of North Korea’s nuclear programs and activities. Hope springs eternal, however, as both sides continued to work toward a much needed “third breakthrough” in the next quarter.

Meanwhile, with a change of government in Seoul and an impending change in Taipei, an era of improved relations with Washington may be dawning. It’s a new day in Thailand as well, or perhaps more accurately, a return to the (good?) old days when Thaksin ruled. Election results in Malaysia indicate that politics as usual will no longer be the norm in Kuala Lumpur, while in Russia, a change in leadership seems to represent no change at all. No change is also the operative word when it comes to Burma. Unfortunately, it just appears to be getting darker when it comes to Tibet as well. Finally, with the U.S. economy sneezing, how confident are we that Asia will not soon catch cold?

After eight months of inaction, there was a flurry of six-party action at quarter’s end. As Pyongyang produced its long-awaited declaration of its nuclear activities, President Bush announced his intention to remove North Korea from the U.S. listing of state sponsors of terrorism and Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) restrictions. Pyongyang responded with a made-for-TV demolition of the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear facility.  Elsewhere, respective reactions to natural disasters showed how far China has come and Myanmar/Burma still has to go in dealing with the outside world. There was a generally positive reaction to Secretary Gates’ Shangri-La statements on U.S. East Asia policy and toward the two U.S. presidential candidates (or their surrogates) early pronouncements about Asia as well. In contrast, there has been almost no reaction at all to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s call for a more inclusive Asia-Pacific community.

Democracy seemed to be struggling in Thailand and in Mongolia, even as a reshuffling of coalition partners in India promised to resurrect the India-U.S. nuclear deal from the near-dead, just as Indian Prime Minister Singh prepared to meet President Bush along the sidelines of the upcoming G8 meeting in Japan. With this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting scheduled for Peru in November, and with leaders from China, South Korea, and India among the invited guests to the July 6-8 summit at Lake Toyako, the G8 meeting will likely serve as President Bush’s last opportunity for East Asia multilateral summitry. Finally, a word to our readers in Korea: Get the facts! American beef is safe. Period. End of sentence.

Hopes of progress in Six-Party Talks negotiations evident in the closing days of the previous quarter were quickly dashed as anticipated disagreements over verification of North Korea’s nuclear declaration created a stalemate still in evidence at quarter’s end. The only movement was backward, as “action for action” was replaced by inaction and worse.  Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made news by not showing up at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial. This year she went and hardly anyone noticed. The democratic process made for interesting watching this quarter, not only in Thailand and Malaysia, but in East Asia’s most established democracy, as Japan saw its third leader in the 24 months since Prime Minister Koizumi departed the scene. The once presumably left for dead U.S.-India nuclear deal was reincarnated by the Indian Parliament this quarter with the U.S. Congress following suit at quarter’s end and President Bush’s signature in early October.  Finally, the U.S. sneezed this quarter and the rest of the world did catch cold, even as Wall Street struggles with a serious bout of pneumonia. Economic policy also dominated the “foreign policy debate” between Senators Obama and McCain, with no questions and only sparse references to Asia throughout.

Regional Overview

October — December 2008

From Bad to Worse

Things generally went from bad to worse in the Asia-Pacific this past quarter. The Six-Party Talks began on a low note and went steadily downhill from there as Pyongyang stonewalled against even a moderately intrusive verification regime.  Crippling demonstrations in Bangkok not only dealt a severe blow to Thailand’s economy (and image) but forced ASEAN to postpone both its annual round of summitry (including ASEAN Plus Three and the East Asia Summit) and its planned celebration of its Charter ratification. The Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) did manage to hold their first non-ASEAN-affiliated summit and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting did go off without a hitch, but neither had much impact on growing regional (and global) economic woes as economic forecasts kept being revised downward. Many in Asia saw a possible light at the end of one tunnel with the election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president, although elite opinion, especially in Northeast Asia, remained mixed as they kept a watchful eye out for Asia policy pronouncements and the names of those who will be chosen to implement them.

Last quarter we focused on remarks by US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaiming that “America is back in Asia,” an obvious dig at real and perceived neglect of Asia by the previous administration. This quarter, both were forced to postpone planned trips to Asia although, in Secretary Clinton’s case, not before giving a major Asia policy address in Honolulu. This quarter also ended the same as last, amid hints that Pyongyang really would, at some not too distant point (but not this past quarter), return to six-party deliberations.

On a more positive note, it looks like arms control agreements are on the way back, following the announcement that the US and Russia had finally come to terms on a new strategic arms agreement, to be signed by both presidents in April. Speculation about the “changing balance of power” in Asia also continues as a result of China’s economic resilience and apparent newfound confidence, although it still seems premature to announce that the Middle Kingdom is back, given the challenges highlighted at this year’s National Peoples’ Congress. Political normalcy also appears to be a long way from returning to Bangkok where the “red shirts” have once again taken to the street, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.

Hopes for a resumption of Six-Party Talks this past quarter were torpedoed when an international investigation team concluded that the ROK Navy ship Cheonan was deliberately attacked by a North Korean submarine. The Chinese, while scuttling plans for UNSC censure of Pyongyang, fired a warning shot of their own, denying Defense Secretary Gates’ request for a China visit after the Shangri-La Dialogue in June in a sign of continued displeasure over US arms sales to Taiwan. Also once again torpedoed, this time by an oil spill, was President Obama’s twice-delayed “homecoming” visit to Indonesia.

ASEAN defense officials gathered in Singapore in June for the Shangri-La Dialogue but not until after convening their fourth ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) in Hanoi in May where they finalized plans for a broader multilateral ADMM Plus Eight confab to improve regional defense cooperation. If successful, the ADMM+ could render the Shangri-La Dialogue obsolete. Other regional multilateral activity included the third China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Summit and the 10th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, while globally the G8 and G20 met for the first time back-to-back in Canada, with the G20 beginning to outshine its older more exclusive cousin.

The Obama administration published its overdue National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review reports this quarter, outlining its overall strategic priorities and the (diminished) role of nuclear weapons as, together with Moscow, Washington made a New START toward its declared goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. Nuclear safety and security were very much on the president’s mind as he convened the first ever Nuclear Security Summit involving leaders and other senior officials from 49 countries in Washington and applauded the success of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York.

Finally, it’s been a rough quarter politically in East Asia, especially in Thailand where “red shirt” protests and government reactions both turned violent. In Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama chose to walk the plank (and took ruling party Secretary General Ozawa with him) in hopes of salvaging his party’s chances in the upcoming Upper House elections while Prime Minister Rudd was also a victim of a surprise attack, in this case coming from his own party. A peaceful transfer of power did take place in the Philippines, however, and Hong Kong took another baby step toward promised universal suffrage.

The US profile in Asia appears to be on the rise following Secretary of State Clinton’s highly publicized presentation at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial in Hanoi in July and President Obama’s New York meeting with ASEAN leaders at quarter’s end. Meanwhile Beijing’s image took a few hits as it tried to bully Japan (successfully), the US and ROK (unsuccessfully), and ASEAN (TBD) on maritime-related issues, while seemingly having nothing but kind thoughts and gestures for the DPRK, essentially serving as its defense attorney during UN Security Council deliberations regarding the attack on the Cheonan. Prospects for a resumption of Six-Party Talks remained low, despite a professed willingness by Pyongyang to return to the table (albeit as a recognized nuclear weapon state).  New faces appeared in the North’s general officer ranks but the (seemingly nonexistent) prospects for Korean Peninsula denuclearization remained unchanged.


Meanwhile, democracy marches on, one step forward in Japan and two backward in Burma/Myanmar, while Washington seeks greater economic integration in Asia, not just through traditional vehicles such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) “gathering of economies,” but through the “gold standard” Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The US profile is expected to grow further next quarter with President Obama and Secretary Clinton both scheduled for high-profile visits to the region. We’ll see what Beijing does to improve its image; we expect little progress when it comes to Pyongyang.

Last quarter we noted that the US profile in Asia was on the rise and China’s image was falling, while questioning if North Korea was changing, as Beijing, among others, seemed to insist. This quarter has been marked by more of the same, on all three fronts.

President Obama made a high-profile trip to Asia, visiting India, Korea (to attend the first Asia-hosted G20 meeting), Japan (for the APEC Leaders Meeting), and Indonesia. Secretary of State Clinton give a major address in Honolulu (co-hosted by the Pacific Forum CSIS) on US Asia policy, before her sixth trip to Asia, this time traveling to Guam, China, Vietnam (where the US officially joined the East Asia Summit), Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and finally Australia, where she linked up with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Melbourne for a 2+2 meeting with their Aussie counterparts. Gates also visited Hanoi for the first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus gathering in early October and stopped by Malaysia on his way home from Australia, while the USS George Washington paid a return visit to the Yellow Sea before participating in a joint US-Japan military exercise near Okinawa.

Beijing appeared to back off its aggressive stance in the East China Sea and South China Sea and uttered hardly a peep in response to the US aircraft carrier operations off Korea’s west coast. It did, however, continue to protect and essentially enable Pyongyang’s bad behavior by blocking any serious UNSC response to North Korea’s artillery attack on South Korean civilians on Yeonpyeong Island, its recently unveiled uranium enrichment program, or its ongoing efforts to subvert UNSC sanctions. Pyongyang once again offered an “unconditional” return to the Six-Party Talks while reinforcing the preconditions (including a peace treaty with the US and recognition of its nuclear-weapons state status) that stand in the way of actual denuclearization.

2010 proved to be a generally good year, economically speaking, as most economies bounced back from the mauling they received in 2009. It was not that good a year politically for President Obama, as he watched his Democratic Party take a real drubbing in the November mid-term elections. He did, however, exhibit great political courage in pressing the Senate in a lame duck session to vote on the New START Treaty with the Russians, which was ratified at quarter’s end. Rumors of Obama’s political demise are, we suspect, greatly overstated.

The biggest headlines during the first four months of 2011 were generated by the triple tragedy in Japan – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear crisis – which left Tokyo (and much of the rest of the world) shaking, especially over nuclear safety. On the Korean Peninsula, Chinese concerns about the ROK/US “enough is enough” (over?)reaction to North Korean aggressiveness resulted in Beijing’s acknowledgment that the road to a solution must run through Seoul, thus providing a new foundation upon which to build toward a resumption of Six-Party Talks. Meanwhile, elections among the Tibetan diaspora began a long-anticipated political transition in in the exile community, shaking Chinese policy toward the province.  More fighting between Thailand and Cambodia over disputed borders has rattled ASEAN as it challenges the most important of its guiding principles – the peaceful resolution of disputes. Economic developments this trimester all highlighted growing doubts about the global economic order and the US leadership role. It’s easy to predict the biggest headline of the next four month period: “Bin Laden is Dead!” Implications for Asia will be examined in the next issue; initial reactions were predictable.

A few dim rays of light pierced what has been the darkness of the Six-Party Talks since their suspension in December 2008, raising hopes that we would see a resumption of dialogue in the next few months (even though prospects for actual Korean Peninsula denuclearization remain low). US-China relations continued to mend at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) gatherings amid ever-so-slight progress toward the creation of a South China Sea Code of Conduct. Vice President Biden’s first official trip to China added to the light.

Hopes have also been raised that new prime ministers in Thailand and Japan can help end the political quagmires in both countries. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and subsequent meeting with “civilian” government officials also provide a ray of hope that progress might be made in moving Burma/Myanmar toward democracy. Meanwhile, the self-inflicted debt crisis in the US has further dimmed hopes for US leadership in Asia and globally.

Looking forward, there are flickering hopes that this year’s APEC Leaders Meeting in Honolulu will shine a new spotlight on this increasingly overshadowed institution.  Finally, lest we forget, the biggest headline of this four-month period appeared on its first day: “Bin Laden is Dead!” Many hope this signals the beginning of the end for al Qaeda; others hope it will hasten the US exit from Afghanistan as well.

It’s been an Asia-centric four months. The Obama administration proclaimed America’s “pivot” toward Asia, while North Korea faced a pivotal moment following the death of its “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. President Obama conducted a broad swing through the Asia-Pacific region in November, starting in Honolulu where he hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting, before pivoting first to Australia, where he announced a plan to begin rotating US Marines through Darwin, and then on to Indonesia, where he became the first US president to participate in the East Asia Summit. Even more pivotal was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma/Myanmar where she met with its “elected” leadership and also with democracy icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

While geopolitics was at the forefront of US thinking, regional governments were focused on economic developments. A spate of swap agreements underscored the need to inoculate regional governments from global economic woes. The “plus Three” countries – China, Japan, and South Korea – continue their march toward deeper integration, one intriguing counterpoint to the conclusion of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. The Asia-Pacific region should set the pace for global growth, but the many transitions of 2012 will introduce considerable uncertainty.

There was a brief period when a breakthrough seemed possible in the stalemate with North Korea when it pledged to freeze all nuclear and missile tests; then Pyongyang announced a planned satellite launch, pulling the rug out from under Washington (and itself) and business as usual returned to the Peninsula. While hopes for a new round of Six-Party Talks were seemingly dashed, other multilateral initiatives seem alive and well. The BRICS met, mostly to complain, while ASEAN’s leaders gathered in Phnom Penh, mostly to pat themselves on the back. The Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) took a step forward by reaching agreement on a trilateral investment treaty. In elections around the region, continuity prevailed in Taiwan, as it did in Korea (to the surprise of most pundits) and Russia (to no one’s surprise). Meanwhile, Beijing seems to have taken a few steps back as a result of the Bo Xilai and Chen Guancheng affairs.

The only good news to report when it comes to Korean Peninsula denuclearization is the absence of any new really bad news over the past four months. North Korea’s widely predicted (including by us) third nuclear test or follow-on missile launch did not occur. No one anticipated any serious movement toward resumption of the stalled Six-Party Talks, and those expectations were met. The biggest multilateral surprise came from ASEAN, which for the first time in its 45-year history, concluded its annual ministerial meeting without issuing a chairman’s statement or communiqué. The ministers at the follow-on ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) did produce a summary, which once again highlighted the need for broader multilateral cooperation throughout the region, including the South China Sea. Economic ministers were equally productive in meetings in August, when among things they launched the first East Asian Summit Economic Ministers Meeting and the inaugural ASEAN-US Business Summit.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta attended the annual Shangri-La Dialogue (his Chinese counterpart did not) and provided his usual reassurance that the US planned to remain engaged in the region, although this did little to deter others from harping about US “decline.” That was a constant refrain throughout the summer, along with companion attempts to frame every US policy as a response to the rise of China and a shifting balance of power in the region. Sigh! US policy remains driven by longstanding US national interests, as underscored by a recent study of the US military presence in the Asia Pacific. As part of the rebalancing, the US is attempting to broaden the scope of its foreign policy, not narrow it to fit a military lens.

It was deja vu all over again on the Korean Peninsula as the absence of bad news, highlighted during our last reporting period, came to an end when Pyongyang again defied the international community (and UNSC sanctions) by conducting another missile launch, this time successfully, in December. Nonetheless, Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s message was seen by some (but not us) as a harbinger of good news in the year ahead. ASEAN leaders at the yearend round of summits in Phnom Penh (including the East Asia Summit attended by President Obama) managed to demonstrate a greater amount of unity than during their July ministerial, but the lingering South China Sea territorial issue showed no signs of being closer to resolution. Meanwhile, hopes for genuine reform in Burma/Myanmar soared as President Obama made an unprecedented visit following his inaugural visit to Cambodia for the EAS, in the context of his administration’s continuing rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific.

It was out with the new and in with the old in Japan, as the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power amidst a nationalistic campaign that promised to strain relations with the new leadership coming to power in South Korea and China, and perhaps with the new leadership team in Washington as well. President Obama won a second term and Park Geun-hye returned to the Blue House, this time as president. In China, a new leadership took command of the communist party, and they face myriad challenges, many of which are economic in nature. The year closed with a flurry of trade meetings and initiatives designed to capture the energy of the world’s most dynamic economies.

The “unpredictable” North Korean regime acted all too predictably, following through on its threat to conduct a third nuclear test and increasing tensions through fiery rhetoric. Pyongyang also took steps to solidify its claim to be a nuclear weapon state, a status the rest of the world is no more willing to bestow on the Kim Jong Un regime than it was on his father’s. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the US commitment to the rebalance to Asia. While in Japan, he underscored that the so-called “pivot” also has important economic and political dimensions. Fears of “death by sequestration” have also (thus far) proven to be overstated. The jury remains out on what the “real Abe” will look like after Upper House elections but Japanese Prime Minister Abe has demonstrated enough continuity by reinforcing candidate Abe’s nationalist rhetoric to make Japan’s neighbors, not to mention many in Washington, nervous.

It was a rough four months for the US as Washington struggled to convince Asian audiences that the “rebalance” is sustainable given renewed attention to the Middle East, even before the Syrian crises. US engagement in Asia was multidimensional with participation at several ministerial-level meetings, a visit by Vice President Biden, continued pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and a show of military capability in Korea. But, it isn’t clear North Korea got the message. Kim Jong Un seems to have adopted his father’s play book: first create a crisis, make lots of threats, and follow up with a “smile diplomacy” campaign. So far, Washington has stuck to its game plan, insisting on a sign of genuine sincerity before opening a dialogue with Pyongyang. Finally, the US image in the region was damaged by revelations about classified NSA intelligence collection efforts.

Regional Overview

September — December 2013

Self-Inflicted Wounds

2013 ended with a series of self-inflicted wounds. President Obama, with a huge assist from the US Congress, reinforced apprehensions about the US commitment to the region by skipping both the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting. Setting an unreachable yearend goal to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was another in the series. So too was President Xi Jinping’s decision to announce China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. Not to be left out, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo closed out the year by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, further alienating Beijing and Seoul while drawing a rare rebuke from Washington as well. How much this will impact his “go south” policy to build better relations with ASEAN remains unclear. North Korea’s regent Jang Song Thaek saw his career go to the dogs – at least figuratively – due to alleged greed and other criminal acts. Many fear that the prospect for Chinese-style reform in North Korea died with him.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

US Asia Policy, Symbolically Speaking

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 Pivot is Dead, Long Live the Pivot

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.

Daily Digest

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The Strategist: Silence is falling on the South China Sea

An unexpected silence from Manila.

China-US Focus: New Strategic Thinking on Korea

China should take the lead in promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

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PacNet #41 – North Korea: intra-elite conflict and the relevance for global security

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