Volume 3, Issue 3

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July - September 2001 · Published: Oct 2001

The quarter did not begin on Sept. 11, but (at least from an American perspective) most events that came before that date appear to have paled in significance or, at a minimum, require reassessment in light of Washington’s new war on terrorism.  The horrific attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon may help usher in the “post post-Cold War era,” by creating an opportunity for a fundamentally changed relationship between Washington and both Moscow and Beijing.  It may also provide Tokyo with the incentive (and excuse) to take a major step toward becoming a “normal” nation and more equal security partner.  While Washington’s attention is focused largely on the Middle East/Southwest Asia, the implications of the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent war on terrorism will be felt throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

While the attacks may have helped (at least temporarily) to create a spirit of bipartisanship in the United States, they did little to ease the highly partisan domestic political bickering in two of the region’s young democracies.  On the Korean Peninsula, the resumption of North-South high-level dialogue means that Kim Dae-jung’s ruling party now seemingly enjoys greater cooperation with the North than with its Southern counterparts, including (former) members of the ruling coalition.  Meanwhile, opposition parties in Taiwan seem more willing to cooperate with the government in Beijing than with the one in Taipei.

Prior to Sept. 11, U.S. policy toward East Asia seemed to be evolving smoothly, following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s July swing through Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, China, and Australia.  Powell also attended the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial meeting in Hanoi, where he signaled a U.S. commitment to support the Asian multilateral security dialogue process.

One major diplomatic casualty of the emerging war on terrorism was President Bush’s long-anticipated first visit to Tokyo and Seoul to underscore his alliance-based Asia strategy.  While Bush is still slated to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Shanghai, his planned en route visit to Washington’s two Northeast Asia allies was canceled, as was a follow-up trip to Beijing for a summit meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.  This is unlikely to generate serious charges of “Japan passing,” given the understandable circumstances and Bush’s willingness to hold separate side meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and ROK President Kim Dae-jung (plus Jiang) in Shanghai.  Nonetheless, it represents a missed opportunity for President Bush finally to lay out his vision for East Asia to a broader Japanese and Korean audience.

This was supposed to be a triumphant quarter for Japan and its alliance with the United States. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro was going to retake the initiative in Japanese politics, after leading his party to a resounding win in July’s Upper House elections. Then, he would use that mandate to push through an aggressive and ambitious economic reform program, running over the old guard within his own party who pose the chief obstacle to his efforts. Finally, the quarter would close as the United States and Japan joined together Sept. 8 to celebrate a half century of unprecedented cooperation and friendship and embarked on the next phase of their relationship.

Instead, this quarter has witnessed the emergence of what appears to be a troubling – if not dangerous – pattern in Japanese politics. It is still too early to make a definitive diagnosis, but let’s call it the “Koizumi syndrome”: bold announcements that launch high hopes that are then dashed by a combination of a failure to follow-up and the obstacles and inertia that are built into the Japanese political system. Signs of the “Koizumi syndrome” have been visible since the July Upper House election and in the aftermath to the terrorist blasts that occurred in New York City and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11.  This diagnosis could prove premature: the prime minister might yet confound his critics. But the terrorist attacks have altered Japan’s domestic political terrain, forcing Koizumi to restructure his priorities. They put new pressure on the Japanese government to take decisive action to help its ally, but they simultaneously undermine the economic agenda that Koizumi had hoped to champion. If it derails attempts to reform the country’s ailing economy and blocks substantive efforts to assist the United States in the fight against terrorism, the bilateral relationship could become a victim of the “Koizumi syndrome.”

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon provided a new strategic focus for U.S.-China relations.  Chinese President Jiang Zemin immediately condemned the terrorist actions and offered China’s support for the Bush administration’s global counterterrorism effort.  A week following the attacks, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan arrived in Washington to prepare for President Bush’s late October summit with President Jiang that was to be held in Beijing following the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Shanghai.  After the Tang visit, Beijing sent a delegation of counterterrorism experts to share intelligence with U.S. officials that might aid the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.  An important step aimed at avoiding future mid-air collisions was taken when Chinese and American military delegations met on Guam in a special meeting of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA).  Earlier in the quarter, discord over China’s alleged transfer of missile components to Pakistan that resulted in the imposition of sanctions on a Chinese company.  U.S. Secretary of State Powell traveled to Beijing in July for talks with Chinese leaders and reassured the Chinese people that the United States views China as a friend, not as an adversary.

As this quarter drew to a close, South Korea endured a domestic political crisis and faced high economic uncertainty for the immediate future.  Following a no-confidence vote on Unification Minister Lim Dong-won, President Kim Dae-jung replaced his Cabinet and prepared to govern without his party’s control of the National Assembly.  This political crisis brought to the surface deep misgivings in South Korean public opinion and among politicians about the president’s Sunshine Policy toward North Korea. On top of domestic factors, the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington ignited fears about significant international damage to South Korea’s economy, which was already in the midst of a slow-down and facing a possible recession.  Seoul also fears that Washington’s preoccupation with the war on terrorism will further reduce the prospects of a resumption of U.S.-DPRK talks.

Ironically, the South’s internal political problems likely influenced North Korea’s decision to agree to a new round of inter-Korean talks in mid-September, the first such meeting in five months.  While no major progress was reported at that meeting, it appeared to get the inter-Korean peace process back on track, in stark contrast to still-stalled relations between Washington and Pyongyang.

The events of Sept. 11 put the U.S.-Russia relationship in a whole new perspective. Many are asking whether the leading items on the bilateral agenda of yesterday will take a back seat to the pressing issues of today.  Until the terrorist attacks, discussions of missile defense and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which had assumed a position of major importance in defining the bilateral relationship, seemed dead in the water.  The decision to expand NATO to include the Baltic nations in 2002 seemed a foregone conclusion.  Chechnya threatened to become a sore point again in relations, as did the issue of freedom of the press.  But since Sept. 11, things may have changed.  Many analysts are speculating that Russia can use cooperation in the fight against terrorism as a bargaining chip.  The new U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, however, has insisted that the agenda with Russia remains unchanged.  Vershbow declared soon after the attacks that the U.S. will push ahead with national missile defense (NMD), NATO expansion, and will continue opposing Russian actions in Chechnya.  Whatever may be the case, President Vladimir Putin has been unequivocal in his support for the United States, and Washington has much to be thankful for this.  Putin undoubtedly realizes, however, that Russia is walking a tightrope.

For this quarter and far into the future, the benchmark for U.S. relations with countries in Southeast Asia – as elsewhere – will be how they respond to the new level of global terrorism initiated in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, and to Washington’s call for a worldwide coalition to combat terrorism.  Nearly all Southeast Asian governments quickly expressed horror and sympathy.  Practical responses were mixed, ranging from unconditional promises of support for military action to some reluctance to become involved, at least for public consumption. U.S. relations with Indonesia warmed substantially with the inauguration of President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her highly successful visit to Washington barely a week after the attacks.  Megawati’s condemnation of Islamic violence, as spokesperson for the world’s largest Islamic country, was particularly welcome.  A worrisome backlash surfaced in Indonesia, however, from mainstream Islamic groups as well as extremists.

On other fronts, ASEAN’s round of ministerial-level meetings in July produced many words but few concrete results.  They did offer an opportunity for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to make clear that the Bush administration was committed to the region.  The sharpest criticism of ASEAN’s current state came from within, with some leaders calling for efforts to move toward faster integration.  In July, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo announced a shift toward expanded relations, including security relations, with the United States.

During the third quarter, China reaffirmed its support for multilateralism by attending a series of meetings held in conjunction with the annual gathering of ASEAN foreign ministers and by hosting a four-nation ministerial conference on drug control. On the bilateral level, Thailand’s prime minister visited China, while Li Peng, chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, journeyed to Hanoi. China and ASEAN were still unable to reach agreement on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Officials are now studying a compromise formulation drafted by the Philippines.

The stalemate in cross-Strait political dialogue has continued in large part because Beijing has no incentive to make progress with Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian that would benefit the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan’s December elections.  Rather, Beijing has continued to indicate its preference for dealing with the opposition – a tactic that may again prove counterproductive. Taiwan’s economy has slid into recession.  Economic problems and pending World Trade Organization (WTO) accession have focused Taipei’s attention on cross-Strait economic relations. In these circumstances, Chen overcame resistance within his own party to closer economic ties with China. The Economic Development Advisory Conference (EDAC), convened by Chen, produced a new political consensus that should mark a watershed in the development of cross-Strait economic relations.  Separately, the prospect of Sino-U.S. cooperation against international terrorism is creating some anxiety in Taiwan.

Inter-Korean relations during the past quarter were marked by two major events.  True to form, each pointed in opposite directions.  In August, a contentious visit to Pyongyang by a group of Southern unification activists brought tensions within the ROK over Northern policy to boiling point, leading to the forced resignation of the unification minister and the collapse of the ruling coalition.  But in September, doubtless under pressure from Moscow and Beijing, Pyongyang suddenly announced its readiness to resume dialogue with the South, having frozen this for most of the year in reaction to the Bush administration’s initial hostility.  Ministerial talks were duly held in Seoul, and a schedule was set to reopen most of the various tranches of dialogue and cooperation that had been in abeyance – as well as some encouraging new ones.

Our last two articles concentrated on business and civilian links, as an important substratum that has continued – and is probably irreversible – even in the absence of official North-South contacts.  This time the focus reverts to the inter-state level and assesses the prospects for real progress.  Minimally, we are back where we were in February in terms of formally picking up the various strands and projects.  That is positive, but it may not be enough.  The past half-year’s freeze plus Northern provocations did real damage to the incipient peace process: they soured the public mood in South Korea and severely weakened South Korean President Kim Dae-jung politically.

Hence to rebuild the initial post-summit optimism and momentum of a year ago will take more than merely formal meetings.  South Koreans will now demand substantial progress and real reciprocity from the North on concrete issues like reconnecting road and rail links.  Absent that, in little over a year they will vote in – as may happen anyway – a new president who will be less generous than Kim Dae-jung.  The window for North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il is thus closing, with much hinging on whether and when he makes his long delayed visit to Seoul.  And over all this now looms the dark shadow of Sept. 11, although so far the fall-out for Korea looks oddly positive.

After almost one year of intensive expansion in the Sino-South Korean economic and political relationship, this quarter there was a breather and old themes re-emerged. ChinesePresident Jiang Zemin visited Pyongyang for the first time in over a decade to re-consolidate relations with the DPRK and to repay two successive visits by North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-il to Beijing in May of 2000 and to Shanghai in January of this year.  Although Jiang’s trip was overshadowed by Chairman Kim’s anachronistic three-week pilgrimage to Moscow in August, the visit re-solidified the DPRK-PRC relationship and re-confirmed Chinese commitments to assist the DPRK economically. It was also an indirect catalyst for renewed inter-Korean dialogue.

On the Sino-South Korean economic front, this quarter provided an important opportunity to assess the long-term future of the economic relationship. South Korean business redoubled its rush to take advantage of its proximity to the only island of sustained growth in the global economy.  However, this quarter also saw the public emergence of second thoughts among South Korean researchers who began to see clouds on the horizon, mainly in the form of China’s rising competitiveness, which threatens to become a force that could eventually overtake South Korean competitiveness in key sectors of the global market.  The dark side of rapid growth in Sino-South Korean ties was evident in the form of increased drug smuggling from China, illegal entries by an increasing number of ethnic Korean Chinese using fake Korean passports, frustrations over perceived unequal treatment of ethnic Korean Chinese when they returned to Korea, and continuing under-the-surface tensions on how to manage North Korean refugees.

Japan - China

July — September 2001

Spiraling Downward

The summer provided no respite from the controversies troubling Japan’s relations with China. Japan’s internal debate over history, in this instance the adoption of a history textbook for middle schools, continued to buffet bilateral relations with China.  At the same time, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s announced intention to visit the Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, to many the very symbol of Japanese militarism, only further exacerbated relations.  The issue came to dominate bilateral discourse.  As Aug. 15 approached, it was almost all Yasukuni, almost all the time.  In the end, Koizumi yielded to internal and external (read: Chinese) pressures, visiting the shrine on Aug. 13.  Following the visit, Koizumi turned Japanese diplomacy toward a damage limitation strategy.

It was also rough going on the economic front.  The trade dispute over Japan’s imposition of temporary safeguards on Chinese agricultural exports and China’s own retaliation against Japanese automobile and electronic exports remained unresolved. Meanwhile, other Japanese industries were exploring similar relief from Chinese exports.

Security relations continued to be troubled by the appearance of Chinese maritime research vessels in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  Their activity appeared to contravene the protocols of the prior notification agreement negotiated earlier in the year.  At the same time, the release of “Defense of Japan 2001,” Japan’s defense White Paper, gave greater definition to China’s military modernization and the implications for Japanese security.

Japan - Korea

July — September 2001

Quicksand

The quarter’s events were obfuscated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.  Seoul and Tokyo responded to the horrific events with statements of support for America’s anti-terrorism campaign.  On the bilateral fronts, Japan-South Korea relations continued their downward spiral from last quarter because of history-related disputes with little hope of resolution in sight. Japan-North Korea relations remain dead in the water.  Is there any good news?  Not really.  But being the perpetual optimist, this column notes some interesting developments that shed light on an otherwise gloomy quarter.

The third quarter began with the signing of a historic friendship treaty between Russia and China that was inspired, at least partially, because of their difficult relations with Washington in the post-Cold War years. By the quarter’s end, however, both Moscow and Beijing found their foreign policy priorities significantly altered by the tragic terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11. Russia and China are now faced with the possibility of a strategic plunge by the world’s sole superpower into their highly volatile and sensitive “backyard.” Indeed, the Sino-Russian friendship treaty and the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) – the two pillars of Moscow and Beijing’s regional foreign and security policies – are subject to severe test by a fast changing security environment at both the global and regional levels.

While Europe has long been an important economic power in the Asia Pacific, its political profile until recently has been rather weak. In recent months, however, Europe has taken important steps to strengthen its political involvement in the region, notably on the Korean Peninsula. This more active stance reflects progress in efforts to make European foreign policies more coherent and effective through a strengthening of the European Union’s “Common Foreign and Security Policy,” including the appointment of a high representative for foreign relations. Europe’s increasing influence in the Asia Pacific can also be felt economically, as Europe’s negotiations with Beijing over China’s WTO membership have made clear. Still, in keeping with its peculiar characteristics as a “composite” international actor and its rather modest self-defined role in the Asia Pacific, Europe’s political influence in the region remains that of an important subsidiary player, rather than of a great power. On the whole, Europe’s modest but gradually growing involvement has been constructive and welcome.

Daily Digest

The Diplomat: China-Japan Reset Continues With High-Level Economic Talks

China and Japan continue efforts to reset relationship.

Asia Times: US revival of the quad might have died

Are Japan and India having second thoughts about the “Quad” as a means to contain China?

Asia Times: PLA drill in Taiwan Strait turns into a tempest in a teapot

China’s military exercise in the South China Sea: less than portrayed?

The Interpreter: Is Japan’s rare earth discovery fool’s gold?

A skeptical view of Japan’s rare earth discovery.

The Diplomat: Japan’s Multi-Layered, Multilateral Strategy

A summary of Japan’s efforts to counter Chinese influence in Asia.

Asia Times: Japan-China relations strained over rare earths find

New tensions between China and Japan over recent discovery of rare earth deposits in Japan EEZ?

Asia Times: Anti-China sentiment rises from the ashes of Marawi

Resistance builds in Marawi against China-led rehabilitation proposal.

Asia Times: Thai junta deftly rebalances its US-China relations

Thailand seeks a balance in its relations with China and the US.

East Asia Forum: Are military assistance programs important for US–Indonesia ties?

Questioning the impact of international military education and training (IMET) and arms sales on US-Indonesia relations.