Volume 13, Issue 2

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May - August 2011 · Published: Sep 2011

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.

Kan Naoto resigned as prime minister on Aug. 26 after promising to step aside almost three months earlier amid dissension within his ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and dwindling public support after a clumsy response to the tragedies of March 11.  He was succeeded by Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko, who prevailed in the DPJ presidential race despite little evidence of support in the polls, but strong backing within the party.  The US and Japan convened the first Security Consultative Committee or “2+2” in four years to outline common strategic objectives and strengthen alliance cooperation in a regional and global setting.  The two governments also consulted on the margins of international events to discuss cooperation on various issues.  Vice President Joseph Biden visited Japan in late August to reiterate US support for the recovery effort and met victims of the disaster in Tohoku.   Public opinion polls in Japan and the United States revealed a solid foundation of support for the US-Japan alliance.

In pursuit of agreements reached between Presidents Hu and Obama in January, the US and China worked to strengthen their relationship, while managing friction on a number of issues. Renewed tensions in the South China Sea put maritime security at the top of the agenda in many bilateral and multilateral interactions, including the inaugural US-China Consultations on Asia-Pacific Affairs, at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Bali, and in a bilateral meeting between Secretary Clinton and State Councilor Dai Bingguo in Shenzhen.  In early May, the third annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) convened in Washington, DC.  Despite protests from Beijing, President Obama met the Dalai Lama.  In May and July, PLA Chief of the General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen exchanged visits.  In August, Joe Biden made his first visit to China as vice president.

The summer months saw a potentially new cycle of US-DPRK dialogue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s invitation to DPRK Vice-Minister Kim Kye Gwan to visit New York for two days of official talks raised the specter that the North may be ready for re-engagement. Meanwhile, South Korea named a new unification minister, which some perceive to be the harbinger of a shift in its North Korea policy. But reliable sources say that President Lee Myung-bak will not cave so easily on his principles. Elsewhere, the Korea-US free trade agreement remains in limbo as it remains caught in partisan strife within the legislatures of both countries and the US received another lesson in Korea’s preferred terminology for Asian geography.

Diplomacy related to the South China Sea disputes dominated US actions at the May ASEAN Summit, the June Shangri-La Dialogue, and the July ARF meeting.  Washington endorsed ASEAN consultations before the Association’s meetings with China on the territorial disputes as well as an independent ASEAN role in the South China Sea negotiations separate from the bilateral negotiations preferred by the PRC.  Related to US support for ASEAN is Washington’s assistance to the Philippines in gradually building its archipelagic security capability by funding Coast Watch South radars and promising more military hardware to the ill-equipped and underfunded Philippine armed forces.  Manila also maintained its efforts to obtain a specific defense commitment from the US in the event of a military conflict with China over South China Sea islands.  The Cambodia-Thai border dispute continues to flare periodically.  ASEAN mediation efforts have established a timetable for military disengagement but, as yet, no implementation.  Washington has endorsed the ASEAN efforts.  In Indonesia, radical Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda-affiliated cleric Abu Bakar Bashir was sentenced to 15 years in jail for aiding the formation of a new terrorist affiliate in Aceh.  As in his previous trials, Bashir blamed his arrest and sentence on US and Jewish machinations.  Although the Obama administration has appointed a new envoy, Derek Mitchell, as special ambassador to coordinate international approaches to Burma, this enhanced engagement runs parallel to increased US economic sanctions, suggesting little has changed with the new “civilianized” government.

The moderation and reassurance seen in the public posture of top-level Chinese civilian leaders in their attentive interaction with Southeast Asian countries in the first third of the year gave way to rising tensions and widely publicized disputes centered on differing claims in the South China Sea. Senior Chinese officials portrayed China as reactive and defensive in the face of increasing encroachment on the part of Vietnam and the Philippines in particular, and what they saw as self-serving meddling by the US. Despite often reassuring words, the pattern of Chinese behavior in disputed areas in recent months undermined regional and broader international sympathy for China’s position. Vietnamese and Philippine oil exploration vessels met with intimidation by Chinese patrol vessels, and in the case of Vietnam, repeated damage to underwater survey gear. Some Vietnamese fishermen were beaten by Chinese authorities, and Philippine fishermen were shot at by Chinese patrol vessels. Based on available reporting, the various incidents followed a common practice of China using superior power and coercion to pressure and force perceived intruders to retreat.

Philippine and Vietnamese leaders were unusually outspoken in disputing Chinese actions and claims. Their efforts to mobilize support for a more unified effort in ASEAN to encourage China to moderate its actions and claims were duly criticized by Chinese official media. Also criticized were efforts to bring the disputes before the United Nations and to seek stronger support from the US and other concerned powers.

Some international media and experts forecast rising tensions leading to military conflict, but all sides strove to balance the public disputes and protests with active diplomacy to avoid conflict. Vietnamese and Philippine leaders, while condemning Chinese policies and practices, stayed in close contact with Chinese officials and engaged in positive negotiations and other interchanges. ASEAN and China reached a largely symbolic but nonetheless important agreement, establishing guidelines for implementing the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The US and China carried out their first official dialogue dealing with Asia-Pacific issues including the South China Sea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed her active participation at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Indonesia during July with a special meeting with State Councilor Dai Bingguo in China. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie paid the first visit by a Chinese official of his rank to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, where he engaged in discussions on the South China Sea and consulted with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. South China Sea issues also were a feature of commentary by US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Chen Bingde, during Mullen’s visit to China in July.

There has been some progress in implementing the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and other existing pacts, but differences continue to prevent finalization of the long-pending investment protection agreement.  Beijing has criticized opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s cross-strait policy platform saying it would lead to a breakdown in dialogue and cooperation. Sea trials of Beijing’s first aircraft carrier were symbolic of the PLA capabilities that increasingly threaten Taiwan. Reports indicate that Taipei and Washington have agreed on the program to upgrade Taiwan’s existing F-16A/B fighters with congressional notification expected in September.

Just for once, Comparative Connections’ deadline chimed neatly with events on the Korean Peninsula. Late on the evening of Aug. 30, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, as part of a mini-reshuffle affecting four Cabinet positions, finally replaced his long-term hard-line unification minister, former academic Hyun In-taek. With Lee’s characteristic cronyism, the man nominated to replace Hyun was another of his close advisers – geography professor Yu Woo-ik, once Lee’s chief of staff in the Blue House and latterly ROK ambassador to China.

Despite the usual pro forma insistence that this does not mean any change of policy – Hyun was retained, notionally, as a special adviser on unification – the Seoul press was unanimous that this appointment signals a shift in strategy or tactics toward the North for the final third of Lee’s term of office. Elected Dec. 19, 2007 and in post since Feb. 25, 2008, Lee is restricted to a single five-year term. That stipulation in the Constitution of the Sixth Republic, promulgated with the restoration of democracy in 1987, was meant to prevent any would-be dictators from prolonging their stay in office ad infinitum, as military strongman Park Chung-hee (1961-79) did with his Yushin Constitution in 1972 (the Fourth Republic). But perhaps the democrats went too far. In some ways South Korea’s presidency remains too strong. Thus it is the president who appoints the Cabinet, and except for the prime minister, the National Assembly’s approval is not required. Yet these imperial powers last a mere five years – or in practice less, since the electoral cycle creates its own structural pressures.

In modern media-driven democracies, political campaigning has become quasi-permanent. Thus ROK presidents must struggle to avoid becoming a lame duck as their five years draw toward a close, and attention increasingly shifts to the race to succeed them. Many in Seoul favor a shift to a US-style system: presidential elections every four years instead of five, but permitting a second term so as to avoid the lame duck effect. An added advantage is that this would align presidential elections with parliamentary ones, which are on a separate four-year cycle. Such a change in theory has wide bipartisan support, and now would have been the ideal time to make the shift since next year the two elections almost coincide with parliamentary in April, followed by presidential in December. But bad blood between the two main parties – Lee’s conservative ruling Grand National Party (GNP), and the liberal opposition Democrats (DP) – means that it is almost certainly too late now for this time around.

High-level exchanges between China and South Korea’s foreign and defense ministries appeared to recover momentum as the two countries marked their 19th anniversary of diplomatic relations on Aug. 24.  The first China-ROK “strategic defense dialogue” was held in Seoul on July 27 following talks between Defense Ministers Liang Guanglie and Kim Kwan-jin in Beijing on July 15 and in Singapore on June 4 on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue. Foreign Ministers Yang Jiechi and Kim Sung-hwan met June 6 ahead of the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers Meeting in Budapest and held another round of talks July 21 in Bali on the sidelines of ASEAN regional meetings.  But efforts to consolidate the China-ROK strategic partnership have exposed policy differences over North Korea and the ROK alliance relationship with the US.

China and North Korea commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in July.  Kim Jong Il visited China on May 20-26, holding talks with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. He returned Aug. 25-27 and met State Councilor Dai Bingguo in Heilongjiang province on his way back from a meeting in Siberia with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  Kim’s May visit was publicly revealed during bilateral talks between Premier Wen and President Lee on the sidelines of the fourth Trilateral China-ROK-Japan Summit in Tokyo.  Communist Party of China (CPC) and DPRK counterparts held an unprecedented “strategic dialogue” ahead of the 90th anniversary of the CPC in June.  China and North Korea also agreed to strengthen military cooperation during a visit by a Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) delegation to China on Aug. 25-26.  China and North Korea’s new joint economic projects have raised debate on the prospects for North Korean reform.  DPRK denuclearization efforts remain stalled despite apparent increases in regional diplomatic efforts toresume the Six-Party Talks.

Japan - China

May — August 2011

Muddling Through

Private-sector contacts kept the bilateral relationship afloat while high-level official contact began to re-engage. Defense ministers met in June in Singapore and foreign ministers met in July in Beijing. In each instance, they agreed on the importance of advancing the strategic and mutually beneficial relationship. In early August, Japan’s Ministry of Defense released its 2011 Defense White Paper, which expressed concerns over China’s military modernization, its increasing activities in waters off Japan, and its “overbearing” conduct in the South China Sea.  Eight days later, the Chinese aircraft carrier Varyag left port for initial sea trails. Meanwhile, activities in the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands area continued to generate political friction in both Tokyo and Beijing.

South Korea and Japan are neighbors that are advanced, technologically sophisticated capitalist economies with capable and well-educated populations, and are fully consolidated liberal democracies. They share an alliance with the US, and generally view themselves as stalwart regional allies. As has been the case for many years, relations between them during the past four months were relatively stable, with increasingly deep economic relations, voluminous cultural flows, and general agreement on a strategy of isolation toward North Korea.  They also share a tendency to provoke each other over their shared history and the ownership of several islets that sit between them. When this happens, the media goes into a frenzy, breathlessly reporting the latest incident. But which is reality? Do the historical disputes meaningfully affect their bilateral relations? On the one hand, yes: they could cooperate more closely on issues such as military coordination and a free-trade agreement. On the other hand, no: it’s not at all clear that historical issues are holding up cooperation and relations are deeper across a range of issues.

Unfortunately, relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) over the summer were portrayed by the media in both countries as punctuated by that familiar spirit of: “give me ______ (insert Dokdo or Takeshima) or give me death!” But, what else was occurring while the media with its steadfast attraction to sensational stories provided immense coverage of South Korea’s denial of entry for the three Japanese lawmakers intent on visiting Ullengdo (near the contested island of Dokdo/Takeshima) at Gimpo airport in early August? Coverage of the political sparring occurred at the expense of shedding light on other issues that deserved as much attention, if not more. Although we have no clear answer as to whether the disputes are real or symbolic, we choose to focus on other events between Korea and Japan that received far less attention, but may be more meaningful in moving the relationship forward.

The summer of 2011 marked two anniversaries for China and Russia. In June, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) celebrated its 10th anniversary at the annual SCO Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan. Over the past 10 years, the regional security group has grown fed by its “twin engines” of Russia and China. Immediately following the SCO Summit, President Hu Jintao traveled to Moscow, marking the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Friendship Treaty between Russia and China.  There was much to celebrate as Moscow, Beijing, and the SCO have achieved stability, security, and sustained economic development in a world riddled with revolutions, chaos, crises, and another major economic downturn. The two anniversaries were also a time to pause and think about “next steps.” While the SCO is having “growing pains,” China and Russia have elevated their “strategic partnership relations” to a “comprehensive strategic cooperation and partnership.”

Australia has a close alliance with the US and deep emotional and cultural ties, but the new reality is that the two economies have decoupled. Twice in the past decade the US has gone into recession, but Australia has kept growing; that is a huge change from the 20th-century experience when Australia’s fortunes were closely tied to the health of the US economy.  Asia now sets Australia’s economic temperature, even as the Australian military draws closer to the US through parallel reviews of the posture of their defense forces.

The great question for the alliance partners is how much they can still align their strategy and interests in what Canberra has started to describe as “the Asian Century.” All these elements could be detected when Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard addressed the US Congress in March and finished her speech of praise for America with a memory of her schooldays in Adelaide. She said that Americans are still, “the same people who amazed me when I was a small girl by landing on the moon. On that great day I believed Americans could do anything. I believe that still. You can do anything today.”

Australia’s first female prime minister comes from the left of the Labor Party. But the tenor of her speech differed little from that of the Australian prime minister who took the same podium in Washington in 2002: Liberal Party leader John Howard. While Howard and Gillard are deeply contrasting personalities from the two poles of Australia party politics, on the US alliance they reflect a commitment and a consensus that has united both sides of Australian politics for decades.  Even former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who is most critical of the workings of the alliance, affirms the importance of the US relationship while lamenting that Australia is “too compliant” and “subservient” in its dealings with Washington.

Gillard was in Washington to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS alliance. The health of the pact is shown by how it is evolving today: Australia’s defense minister says plans for greater US use of Australian military facilities will “be the single biggest change or advancement of alliance relationships” since the 1980s.  The alliance, though, is also being reframed for Australia by the changes throbbing through Asia. These two themes define much of this review of Australia–East Asia/US relations: the continuing vigor of the alliance and the unfolding realization of what the “Asian Century” will mean for Australia.

Daily Digest

Lawfare: In Pakistan’s Financial Crisis, an Opening for Chinese Lawfare

Implications behind Secretary of State Pompeo’s comments about an IMF bailout for Pakistan.

Lawfare – Offensive Cyber Operations and the Interagency Process: What’s at Stake With the New Trump Policy

A primer on “offensive cyber operations” and the implications for foreign relations.

Asia Times: Australia flexes bigger naval muscles at China

Is Australia choosing sides by increasing naval presence in the Indo-Pacific?

Asia Times: Russia expands assets and naval horizons across Indo-Pacific

Expecting increased China-Russia cooperation as Russia seeks to expand its naval presence in the Indo-Pacific.

The Diplomat: How China’s New Aircraft Carriers Will Shape Regional Order

China’s aircraft carrier as conspicuous consumption to bolster prestige.

The Diplomat: China’s Stake in the Myanmar Peace Process

China’s involvement in the Myanmar peace process is tied to its Belt and Road Initiative.

East Asia Foum: China’s response to Trump’s ‘trade war’

Why a US-China trade war will not solve the problem of trade imbalances in Asia.

The Diplomat: What Drives Indonesia’s Pacific Island Strategy?

Indonesia is working to improve relations with the Pacific Island states.

Asia Times: Spending speed bumps hit China’s massive Belt and Road project

Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative losing momentum?

The Strategist: With Trump at large, Australia needs a Plan B for defence

Is Australia getting serious about questioning the sustainability of the US-Australia defense relationship?