Volume 13, Issue 3
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.
Prime Minister Noda accomplished important steps including the selection of the F-35 as Japan’s next-generation fighter, relaxing the three arms export principles, and announcing a decision to join negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – all of which demonstrated the current Japanese government’s readiness to revive the economy and strengthen security ties and capabilities. At the same time, the government’s support rate began to collapse in a pattern eerily similar to Noda’s five predecessors, raising questions about the ability of the government to follow through on the more challenging political commitments related to TPP. President Obama met Noda at the United Nations in New York and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hawaii in an active season of bilateral diplomacy. Public opinion surveys revealed generally positive views of the US-Japan relationship in both countries but the impasse over relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma fueled negative perceptions in Japan.
A spate of measures taken by the Obama administration to bolster US presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific was met with a variety of responses from China. Official reaction was largely muted and restrained; media responses were often strident and accused the US of seeking to contain and encircle China. President Obama met President Hu Jintao on the margins of the APEC meeting in Honolulu and Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. Tension in bilateral economic relations increased as the US stepped up criticism of China’s currency and trade practices, and tit-for-tat trade measures took place with greater frequency. Amid growing bilateral friction and discontent, the 22nd Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) convened in Chengdu, China. An announcement by the US of a major arms sale to Taiwan in September prompted China to postpone a series of planned exchanges, but the Defense Consultative Talks nevertheless proceeded as planned in December.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s state visit to the US was a big event that attested to the strength of the two countries’ relationship and the personal ties between Presidents Obama and Lee. The timely passage of the KORUS FTA in the US was the big deliverable for the summit. Final ratification of the FTA in both countries clears one longstanding issue and lays the foundation for greater economic integration and a stronger alliance. Meanwhile, the most shocking news for the final third of the year was the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in late December. His death disrupted US-DPRK bilateral talks as North Korea observed a mourning period for its late leader. The US and South Korea spent the last two weeks of December quietly watching developments in North Korea as the reclusive country accelerated its succession process to swiftly transfer power to the anointed successor, Kim Jong Un.
With visits to Hawaii, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, and Burma, President Obama and Secretaries Clinton and Panetta demonstrated a renewed US commitment to Southeast Asia despite concern over a projected steep decline in the US defense budget. Southeast Asian reactions to the announcement of an increased rotation of US military assets to Australia range from ambivalence in Indonesia to enthusiastic endorsement in the Philippines and Singapore. Generally, the additional US forces are seen as evidence of Washington’s decision to remain involved in regional security. At the East Asia Summit (EAS), Obama outlined his hope that it could serve as a high-level security conclave whose agreements would be implemented through other multilateral organizations. In visits to the Philippines and Indonesia, Clinton and Obama promised naval and air force upgrades to each, including two squadrons (24 aircraft) of refurbished F-16C/Ds for Jakarta. Hoping for a breakthrough in US-Burma relations, Obama sent Clinton to see whether the situation warranted the easing of US economic sanctions and if Naypyidaw was moving to meet US conditions for the restoration of full diplomatic relations.
China endeavored to win regional influence and goodwill by emphasizing reassurance and mutually beneficial relations with Southeast Asian counterparts. Nevertheless, it failed to keep the issue of the South China Sea off the agenda at the East Asia Summit as Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was placed on the defensive and compelled to defend China’s approach to resolving territorial and maritime security issues related to China’s broad claims and sometimes assertive actions. Official Chinese commentaries reacted to the setback in Bali with criticism directed at the US, but they tended to avoid hyperbole sometimes seen in unofficial Chinese media. Official commentaries were measured as they depicted various economic, political, and security initiatives during President Obama’s trip to the region as challenges to Chinese interests. They also registered opposition to initiatives by Japan and India regarding Southeast Asia and the South China Sea that were seen as at odds with Chinese interests. Myanmar’s decision to stop a major hydroelectric dam project being built by Chinese firms added to China’s challenges and complications as it raised questions about China’s influence in the country while Myanmar’s new civilian government tried to improve relations with the US and other powers.
The campaign leading to the Taiwan’s Jan. 14 presidential election has dominated cross-strait developments. Opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen has continued her rejection of the “1992 consensus” and criticized President Ma Ying-jeou for suggesting he might consider negotiating a peace accord with Beijing. Meanwhile, Beijing has emphasized its wish to further develop relations on the basis of the “1992 consensus,” without which relations will regress. Therefore, the outcome of the upcoming elections will have a decisive impact. Ma’s re-election would permit further gradual progress; Tsai’s election will likely lead Beijing to suspend dialogue and domestic pressures would probably produce a tougher policy toward Tsai’s administration.
No reader of Comparative Connections needs telling that Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader since 1994, died of a heart attack on Dec. 17. (The wider public is something else. The young woman who looks after this writer’s baby had never heard of Korea, much less North Korea, or that anything had happened there. We specialists should never assume too much.)
Kim’s death poses a dilemma. In one sense it changes everything. The DPRK is now sailing into uncharted waters, formally under a greenhorn skipper whose seamanship is untested and unknown – like almost everything else about him, except that during his Swiss schooldays he was a Chicago Bulls fan. To that extent, most of what transpired between the two Koreas during the past four months is already history; it may be no guide to what will unfold now in the era of Kim Jong Un. Yet this is a journal of record as well as analysis, so we shall begin by looking at the way things were, just recently, before focusing on where matters are now.
Beijing underscored maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula following Kim Jong Il’s death. North Korea’s leadership succession raises questions about the future direction of China’s Korea policy, which was most recently reaffirmed during an October visit to the two Koreas by Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the presumed successor of Premier Wen Jiabao. Li met Kim Jong Il, top legislator Kim Yong Nam, and Premier Choe Yong Rim in Pyongyang, and met President Lee Myung-bak, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, and Parliamentary Speaker Park Hee-tae in Seoul.
Prior to Kim Jong Il’s death, China and North Korea maintained regular high-level contacts at the state, party, and military level. DPRK Premier Choe Yong Rim visited China in late September. He met President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing and toured Chinese companies in Shanghai and Jiangsu. A Communist Party of China (CPC) delegation led by Guo Shengkun, alternate member of the CPC Central Committee and secretary of the CPC Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Regional Committee, paid a visit to North Korea in early October and met top legislator Kim Yong Nam. Li Jinai, director of the General Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), led a military delegation to North Korea in mid-November and met senior DPRK officials including Kim Jong Il.
There have also been mutual efforts to stabilize Sino-South Korean relations despite many differences that have risen in the aftermath of North Korea’s 2010 provocations. The fourth China-ROK high-level strategic dialogue was held on Dec. 27 in Seoul, where Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun met ROK counterpart Park Suk-hwan, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, and Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik. Foreign Ministers Yang Jiechi and Kim Sung-hwan met on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly session in New York on Sept. 20. President Lee and Premier Wen attended regional meetings in Bali on Nov. 18-19, including the ASEAN Plus 3 Summit, East Asia Summit, and a China-ROK-Japan trilateral meeting. Special Representatives Wu Dawei and Lim Sung-nam held talks on Korean Peninsula denuclearization in November and December in Beijing.
Noda Yoshiko succeeded Kan Naoto as prime minister of Japan in early September and met President Hu Jintao at the G20 Summit in Cannes and the APEC meeting in Honolulu. On both occasions, they agreed to take steps to strengthen the mutually beneficial strategic relationship. They reiterated that commitment during Noda’s visit to China at the end of December. Meanwhile, maritime safety and security issues in the East China Sea and the South China Sea continued as a source of friction. In both areas, Tokyo worked to create a maritime crisis management mechanism while Chinese ships continued to intrude into the Japan’s EEZ extending from the Senkaku Islands, keeping alive contentious sovereignty issues. Tokyo and Beijing were able to resolve a November incident involving a Chinese fishing boat operating in Japanese waters. Repeated high-level efforts by Tokyo to resume negotiations on joint development in the East China Sea failed to yield any progress.
The last four months of 2011 were dominated by two leadership changes – the mid-December death of Kim Jong Il after 17 years as North Korea’s leader and the election of Noda Yoshihiko in September as Japan’s sixth prime minister in the last five years. Kim’s death is a watershed event that could mean changes in North Korea’s domestic and foreign policies with repercussions around the region. South Korea and Japan reacted cautiously to the news of Kim’s death and the rise of his son, Kim Jong Un, as the “Great Successor” and new leader of North Korea. Beyond this event, however, Korea-Japan relations showed little change. Early indications suggest that Noda will maintain the foreign policy direction of his predecessors. Economic relations between South Korea and Japan – and indeed between Korea, Japan, and China – continue to move slowly forward as they continue to build financial and trade relations and institutions that will facilitate greater openness and interactions. Politically, Seoul and Tokyo remain firmly stuck arguing the same issues that have aggravated relations for decades. North Korea-Japan relations also showed little change in late 2011 as both sides repeated the usual accusations and demanded they make amends, but neither showed any inclination to do so. Meanwhile, there were three main trends in relations. First, external forces drove state behavior as evidenced by the almost domino-like efforts at free trade agreements (FTA) in both South Korea and Japan. Second, there was growing recognition of the high (and seemingly insurmountable) domestic political costs associated with non-pliable issues such as the comfort women/sex slaves. Third, there was a growing realization that change could mean opportunity as embodied in the cautious desire in both Seoul and Tokyo to shape the contours of the post-Kim Jong Il landscape in North Korea.
The last four months of 2011 were both ordinary and extraordinary for Beijing and Moscow. There was certainly business as usual as top leaders and bureaucrats frequented each other’s countries for scheduled meetings. The world around them, however, was riddled with crises and conflicts. Some (Libya and Syria) had seriously undermined their respective interests; others (Iran and North Korea) were potentially more volatile, and even dangerous, for the region and the world. Regardless, 2011 was a year full of anniversaries with symbolic and substantive implications for not only China and Russia, but also much of the rest of the world.
Over a decade into the “normalization” of US-India relations and nearly 20 years into India’s “Look East” policy, the US-India-East Asia nexus is regularly articulated by the US and India, generally accepted in the region, and shows some signs of gaining traction including a regular US-India dialogue on East Asia and the launch of the first-ever US-India-Japan trilateral dialogue. More broadly, US views of India as part of Asia now encompass mental as well as policy maps (though not yet bureaucratic and all geographical ones) and transcend party politics. Meanwhile, US-India bilateral relations move steadily if sometimes frustratingly forward, and India-East Asia ties continue to deepen and widen though to neither side’s full satisfaction. One thing is clear: triangulation depends above all on India’s own commitment and actions to build a closer relationship with the wider Asia-Pacific region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an echo of comments made by regional leaders over the years, told an Indian audience in Chennai in July that “India’s leadership will help to shape positively the future of the Asia Pacific. That’s why … we encourage India not just to look east, but to engage east and act east as well [emphasis added].”