Volume 16, Issue 2

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May - August 2014 · Published: Sep 2014

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.

The Abe government outlined an economic growth strategy and introduced a package of defense policy reforms aimed at enhancing Japan’s leadership role on security.  Bilateral dialogue on security cooperation and military exercises featured prominently, complemented by trilateral coordination with other US allies on the margins of multilateral gatherings in the region.  The two governments conducted several rounds of bilateral trade negotiations related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership but were unable to make progress on sensitive market access issues that threatened to prolong efforts to boost the economic pillar of the alliance.

The US and China held the sixth Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing in July.  None of the myriad of problems in the relationship were solved, but the annual meetings provided an opportunity to take stock of bilateral relations and hold high-level discussions.  Tensions in the South China Sea caused by China’s deployment of an oil rig off the Paracel Islands dominated many bilateral and multilateral meetings.  There were several military exchanges, with a visit to the US by Chief of the General Staff of the PLA Fang Fenghui and a visit to China by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert.  The PLA Navy participated in the US-led RIMPAC military exercises for the first time. In an incident reminiscent of the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US surveillance plane, a Chinese fighter flew dangerously close to a US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft.

The summer months saw steady progress in ROK-US relations, following President Obama’s visit to Seoul where he offered reassurances on the US rebalance toward Asia. Military activity included Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, involving tens of thousands of South Korean and US soldiers. Pyongyang grumbled about the exercises as well as the visit by Pope Francis to Seoul, but contained its anger to diatribes and short-range missile launches. The biggest development for the ROK-US relationship came with the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Seoul for what some viewed as an overly warm summit with President Park Geun-hye.

Senior US officials emphasized the centrality of Southeast Asia in the Obama administration’s rebalance policy at several ASEAN-based venues, where they stressed the roles of these organizations in regional diplomacy for resolving disagreements. At the ARF, Secretary of State Kerry proposed a freeze by South China Sea claimants on activities that would unilaterally change the status quo, which the ASEAN states generally supported. The US is negotiating the implementation of the Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines and there was also talk of a more extensive security relationship with Vietnam.  For some time Hanoi has sought more US intelligence on the South China Sea and Washington would like more access for Seventh Fleet ships to Vietnamese ports. There were also suggestions that the US is reconsidering its ban on weapons sales to Hanoi.

China’s deployment of an oil rig along with a protecting fleet in the Paracel Islands shocked the region and particularly Vietnam, the other main claimant to these islands. Large-scale dredging to create Chinese-controlled islands in the disputed Spratly Islands was also observed. These advances demonstrate how far Beijing is prepared to go in advancing its broad territorial claims in the South China Sea. Mass demonstrations in Vietnam in response to the oil rig deployment turned violent and caused widespread damage. Beijing stood firm in blaming others for negative consequences and dismissed charges that its territorial advances were counterproductive. The removal of the oil rig in mid-July, earlier than expected, was interpreted outside China as designed to reduce tensions. Major foreign policy speeches by senior Chinese leaders emphasized the positive in China’s commitment to development and peaceful coexistence.

In early May, General Secretary Xi Jinping made clear that Beijing would adhere to its peaceful development policy toward Taiwan in the wake of the student-led Sunflower Movement. In June, TAO Minister Zhang Zhijun made a first official visit to Taiwan reaching out to broader segments of Taiwan society and meeting Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu.  DPP obstructionism has continued to prevent the LY from action on cross-strait issues. Tsai Ing-wen was elected Chair of the DPP in July and indicated there will be no change in basic DPP policy toward the mainland.

By one measure, mid-2014 was a period of progress in inter-Korean relations as the tirades and insults hurled from Pyongyang at Seoul and President Park Geun-hye began tapering off in late May. By the end of August, there were hints of hope for improving relations.  First, there was an agreement to have athletes from the North participate in the 17th Asian Games in Incheon in late September, although not without some accusations of bad faith in the process. Further, after several rather clumsy attempts by both sides at outlining a mutually acceptable framework for North-South cooperation, there were initial signals that they may be getting close to finding a way to get past the “May 24 sanctions,” which have been in place since the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010.

Presidents Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye met in Seoul while North Korea conducted a series of short-range missile and artillery tests.  The summit produced a joint statement reaffirming cooperation on Korean denuclearization, but Chinese efforts to form a united front in opposition to Japan on history and collective self-defense issues were rebuffed.  Instead, they agreed to move forward on negotiating a China-ROK free trade agreement. Beyond the summit, China-South Korean exchanges remained focused on the North Korean nuclear issue and reviving the Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang has maintained limited contacts with Beijing while attempting to diversify its contacts with other political and economic partners.

Japan spent the summer months pressing for a summit. In remarks to the Diet, press conferences, and public speeches Prime Minister Abe made clear his quest for a summit with President Xi during the November APEC meeting in Beijing.  A parade of Japanese political figures explored the possibility of a summit during visits to China.  Beijing continued to point to the obstacles – Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s failure to recognize the existence of a dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.  Meanwhile, incursions by China’s Coast Guard into Japan’s territorial waters continued and two mid-air incidents heightened security concerns. Japanese investment in China plunged over 40 percent in the first half of the year, and history remained ever present.

Relations between Japan and the two Koreas were relatively calm. The most significant events centered on domestic issues with Japan’s reconsideration of the Kono Statement being the most notable. In all, relations remained frozen. In particular, ROK-Japan political relations remained “the worst of times.” But, so far these troubles have not had a significant impact on economic relations. Meanwhile, the DPRK and Japan have made tentative moves to repair relations, which could have major consequences for regional security if sustained. While “the best of times” is an exaggeration, it is worth noting that even though there is tension in East Asia, deadly conflict is relatively rare. Disputes between other countries remain confined to the rhetorical and diplomatic spheres, and economic cooperation continues to grow.

Against the backdrop of escalating violence in Ukraine, Sino-Russian relations were on the fast track over the past four months in three broad areas: strategic coordination, economics, and mil-mil relations. This was particularly evident during President Putin’s state visit to China in late May when the two countries inked a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal after 20 years of hard negotiation. Meanwhile, the two navies were drilling off the East China Sea coast and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was being held in Shanghai. Beyond this, Moscow and Beijing were instrumental in pushing the creation of the $50 billion BRICS development bank and a $100 billion reserve fund after years of frustrated waiting for a bigger voice for the developing world in the IMF and World Bank.

On  the first anniversary of its election on Sept. 7, the Australian Coalition government’s foreign policy report card showed excellent relations with the US and Japan, a major diplomatic blow-up with Indonesia, and bumps with China. Tony Abbott’s government is completing the withdrawal of Australian forces from Afghanistan, but the alliance and humanitarian arguments are drawing Australia back toward Iraq. The US rebalance to Asia is seeing more Marines rotate through northern Australia, and the US has similar plans for its ships and planes. The growth of the US-Japan-Australia trilateral relationship has prompted one former prime minister to argue that Australia has more to fear from provocative actions by its trilateral partners than from China. For Australia today, to discuss the alliance is also to talk about China.

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