Volume 4, Issue 1

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January - March 2002 · Published: Apr 2002

U.S. President George W. Bush’s February visit to Japan, South Korea, and China and Washington’s decision to send over 600 U.S. troops, including Special Forces, to the southern Philippines for a unique training mission aimed at directly supporting Manila’s efforts to combat terrorism provided some long‑awaited administration focus on East Asia this past quarter.  Bush’s visit was, by all accounts, successful.  He reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the U.S.‑Japan alliance as the “bedrock” of peace and stability in East Asia as well as his own faith in Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s economic reform efforts.  His visit to Seoul helped to contain the damage caused in early January by his State of the Union reference to North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil,” a comment that had raised anxiety levels significantly in the South (and elsewhere). His visit to Beijing reaffirmed Washington’s willingness to build a “cooperative, constructive” (albeit “candid”) relationship with China.

Even while continually stressing Asia’s importance, Bush remained very much on message; the war on terrorism took pride of place in his prepared remarks during each leg of the trip. In other terrorism-related activity, the decision to deploy forces on a temporary basis to the Philippines was also generally well received, a few highly publicized but poorly attended protests notwithstanding.  Nonetheless, concerns remain throughout the region about U.S. unilateralist or “cowboy” tendencies, which were reinforced by the leaking of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which allegedly called for contingency planning for the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea, China, Russia, and others.

US - Japan

January — March 2002

Setting New Standards

The love fest continues.  U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit to Tokyo (Feb. 17-19), the first stop on his three-nation Asia tour, underscored the strength of the U.S.-Japan relationship and the strong personal relationship shared by the president and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro.  Throughout the first quarter of 2002, U.S. officials continued to applaud Japan’s contributions to the war against terrorism and encouraged Tokyo to do more.

The honeymoon might not last, however.  While officials on both sides of the Pacific agree that the security pillar of the relationship is the strongest it may have ever been, there are mounting concerns about Japan’s economy.  U.S. policymakers worry that economic weakness could undermine Japan’s long-term role within the alliance and the region and have been prodding Japan to take action.  But the U.S. must tread carefully. Sharp warnings or a hard line could spark a backlash.  Equally worrisome is the prospect of a loss of popular support in Japan for U.S. policies, a shift that could be triggered by the perception of U.S. unilateralism in its foreign policy.  Japanese support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism is broad, but it is not deep.  The anger unleashed by the inadvertent omission of Japan from the list of contributors to the Afghanistan conflict is a warning: alliance management is more important now than it has ever been.

U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit to Beijing, Feb. 21-22, was the highlight of Sino-U.S. relations in the first quarter of 2002. President Bush and PRC President Jiang Zemin held in-depth discussions on a broad range of international and bilateral issues and both reaffirmed their commitment to a “constructive, cooperative” relationship. They agreed to intensify high-level strategic dialogue and expand bilateral exchanges and cooperation in the areas of economy and trade, energy, science, and technology, environmental protection, the prevention of HIV/AIDS, counterterrorism, and law enforcement.  Differences persisted over nonproliferation, Taiwan, human rights, and religious freedom. In March, following talks in Washington between Chinese and U.S. officials in charge of nonproliferation matters, there were signs that modest progress might be forthcoming later this year in the dispute over Chinese export controls and sales of missile technology.  Improvement in the relationship was to some extent set back by Taiwan’s Defense Minister Tang Yiau-ming’s visit to Florida to attend a unofficial conference that included senior Bush administration officials.  In protest, Beijing canceled a Chinese Navy ship visit to the United States planned for the latter half of 2002.

From President George W. Bush’s highly controversial “axis of evil” speech in January to a surprise announcement in late March that a high-level South Korean envoy would visit Pyongyang, this quarter was the most tumultuous in recent history in U.S.-Korean relations.  At the end of the quarter, there is no more assurance of diplomatic progress toward peace and stability in the region than there was at the beginning.  Much depends on North Korea’s intentions, which at this point are still unknown.

US - Russia

January — March 2002

Growing Pains

Half a year into the U.S.-Russian antiterror partnership, it is once again apparent that allies in wartime are not immune to down cycles in their relations.  This is especially true when the partnership is built on shaky foundations and for reasons of expediency rather than strategic necessity.  The United States and the Soviet Union found this out in 1941-45 and it is again the case for Moscow and Washington in 2002.  This is not to suggest that a new Cold War will ensue once antiterror operations in Central and Southwest Asia cease.  In fact, the international situation shows promise of significant U.S.-Russian cooperation in the future.  Nevertheless, as this year’s first quarter indicated, it will take concerted efforts from both sides to make this partnership a long-lasting affair.

In a wide-ranging visit throughout Southeast Asia this March, FBI Director Robert Mueller carried the message that the United States believed al-Qaeda operatives were located in several ASEAN states and that the U.S. government was prepared to assist regional governments in locating and apprehending terrorists.  Mueller’s visit was stimulated by the discovery of a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Singapore, which was thwarted by the arrests of dozens of people in Singapore and Malaysia.  The plot apparently involved terrorist cells in these neighboring states as well as in Indonesia – all with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.  Among the evidence gathered from the arrests in Singapore were surveillance videotapes of the U.S. Embassy and tons of explosives.  In the Philippines, the United States has begun advising and training Philippine forces in the use of modern counterterrorist technology to enhance prospects for capturing the Abu Sayyaf terrorist gang holding two Americans and a Filipina hostage.

ASEAN states have reacted differently to the U.S. war on terrorism.  The Philippines has welcomed U.S. troops for training exercises and solicited military and economic aid.  Singapore conducted extensive arrests of terrorist cell members.  Malaysia is cooperating with Singapore but rejects any suggestion of U.S. military involvement.  Indonesia, home to multiple internal insurgencies, has hesitated to confront terrorist groups.  President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s government may view them as a distraction from its primary goal of holding the country together.

China rounded off an intense series of high-level visits to Southeast Asian capitals that began last year with a visit by PRC President Jiang Zemin to Vietnam.  The relationship is still troubled by border problems, and Jiang’s trip was higher on pomp and atmospherics than actual achievements.  Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri made her first official bilateral visit to China in March.  Economic and trade goals were at the top of the agenda, but she was clearly seeking China’s political support as well at a time when her government faces international criticism on issues ranging from antiterrorism to human rights.  Trade and transnational crime issues along China’s southern borders are increasingly gaining Beijing’s attention, as evidenced by the range of initiatives China is taking to strengthen transportation links on the Mekong River and through its southern neighbors to the sea, and programs to counter the flood of narcotics into its southwestern provinces.

China’s response to U.S. steps in Southeast Asia to counter international terrorism, including sending a force of more than 600 military personnel to the southern Philippines to advise and support the Philippine armed forces in operations against the Abu Sayyaf terrorist/criminal group, has been mixed.  A lengthy analytical article in an official journal in February claimed that the “pretext” of antiterrorism had made it easy for the United States to expand its global military power and “set up bases around the world.”  On the other hand, according to some reports, Chinese sources say that China “recognizes that the U.S. has interests in Asia and does not challenge its presence.”  (If so, however, Vietnam may be an exception – see below.)

China’s efforts to woo Southeast Asian governments, and its proposal for a China-ASEAN Free Trade Area last year, may give ASEAN governments some welcome additional bargaining leverage as their economies struggle to recover.  China’s proposal may lie behind Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s early January swing through five Southeast Asian countries and his own competitive free trade area initiative in Singapore at the end of his trip.  The state of Japan’s economy, however, and the lack of evidence of a real commitment to open Japan’s markets weaken the allure of  Koizumi’s initiative.  Taiwan sent an economic mission to Southeast Asia as well during the quarter.

The effects of Taiwan’s legislative elections and China and Taiwan’s accessions to the World Trade Organization (WTO) rippled through cross-Strait relations this quarter, but did not produce any breakthrough in political dialogue. In January, PRC Vice Premier Qian Qichen made an important statement indicating flexibility in Beijing’s attitude toward Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In Taipei, government leaders further loosened restrictions on cross-Strait trade and investment and emphasized their desire for talks on economic issues, which Beijing continued to rebuff. The strong support for Taiwan, which U.S. President George Bush expressed during his Asia trip, whetted Taipei’s appetite for improvements in U.S.-Taiwan relations.  One result was the visit to the U.S. by Taiwan Defense Minister Tang Yiau-ming that, together with other U.S. actions, has sparked new concerns in Beijing about the direction of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. While Beijing’s handling of President Bush’s visit to China indicated the importance that the PRC leadership places on relations with the U.S., Beijing’s concerns over the Tang visit have raised clouds over the planned visit of PRC Vice President Hu Jintao to the U.S. this spring.

First, a confession.  Because of travel commitments, this article was first drafted in mid-March.  Its tone thus reflects the chill in inter-Korean ties at that time.  But I did note that “surprises can never be ruled out” – and sure enough, on March 25 came the news that senior presidential adviser and ex-unification minister Lim Dong-won, the architect of the Sunshine Policy, will go to Pyongyang in early April as South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s special envoy.  That falls in the next quarter, so it would be wrong to pre-empt it now.  At first glance it looks driven by concerns about the U.S., such as the Pentagon’s leaked Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and U.S. President George Bush’s refusal to certify that North Korea is fully in compliance (except at the Yongbyon site) with the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework. While hope springs eternal even in this jaded breast, we shall see if this visit, unlike its many predecessors, ushers in a new phase and a sustained peace process – or is just the latest stop-go.

Winter is Kim Jong-il’s favorite season; the traits he most hates are compromise and surrender.  The Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo carried these and other insights (favorite color? Red, of course) into the North Korean leader’s tastes, quoting the February issue of the DPRK literary monthly Chosun Munhak.  Kim is also cited as detesting flattery and sycophancy, so his 60th birthday on Feb. 16 must have been misery for him.  Called hwan’gap, this anniversary is traditionally a big one in Korea, and North Korea celebrated it with all its customary pomp and circumstance.  More of the same is due in April for the 90th birthday of his late father Kim Il-sung.  Such grand events tend to render the DPRK even more introverted than usual and thus weigh against hopes that it might emerge from its bunker and seriously re-engage South Korea any time soon.

Maybe the dear leader’s seasonal preferences account for the long chill that has settled on inter-Korean relations.  Someone who equates compromise with surrender would in any case have a problem with the kind of sustained negotiating process, with both sides yielding ground, that the world hoped had finally begun with the June 2000 North-South summit.  Twenty-one months later, this seeming breakthrough must now regretfully be filed away with all the other false dawns: 1972, 1985, and 1990-2.  Each time, it looked as if North Korea was seriously ready to talk; for a few months or years, talk it did.  But every time, although much was said, little was really done.  In all cases, sooner or later Pyongyang pulled out, leaving the Peninsula never quite unchanged, yet far less so than had been hoped.  Witness the fact that each time talks start, it is from scratch.  The 1985 agreement was ignored in 1991, and that in turn was sidelined at the 2000 summit.  Despite an overused Korean proverb – sijaki banida: the first step is half the journey – only the second step, if and when it ever comes, will prove that a real peace process is at last under way.

The dramatic entry of 25 North Korean refugees into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing – an event staged by a network of international North Korean human-rights activists – has highlighted the plight of North Korean refugees, put at risk an informal network of primarily South Korean nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that had assisted North Korean refugees to come to Seoul with tacit approval from the Chinese government, and presented the governments in Beijing and Seoul with a knotty issue they have repeatedly tried to avoid.  Although the trade relationship continues to develop at a breakneck pace with South Korean efforts to crack China’s telecommunications and Internet services sectors, China’s exports to South Korea these days are not so impressive: North Korean refugees, drugs, illegal migrants, and an increasingly serious “yellow dust” of spring, which interrupted Korean daily life due to high levels of poisonous particles from the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia. (No wonder Beijing faces a chronic trade deficit with Seoul!)

Perhaps most striking this quarter is that despite a visit to China by National Assembly Speaker Lee Man-sup in January and a two-day visit to Beijing by ROK Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong to discuss South Korea’s latest diplomacy with the North and to manage growing concerns regarding PRC management of North Korean refugee issues, the real action in the relationship this quarter has been driven by NGOs and business interests.  The two governments are struggling simply to keep up with events on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Sino-ROK normalization.

1972-2002: 30th Anniversary of the Normalization of Japan-China Relations

On Jan. 7, the Asahi Shimbun devoted its editorial to the Japan-China relationship. In a retrospective as well as prospective look at the bilateral relationship, the Asahi observed that relations with China over the past 30 years had endured a number of twists and turns.  But looking back, the Asahi saw that ties have gradually deepened and, in turn, contributed to regional peace and stability.

The original constructs for the relationship, Japan as economic superpower and China as the world’s largest developing country, have experienced a qualitative change as Japan has stagnated for more than a decade while China has attracted foreign investment and become the world’s factory.  In Japan, this has resulted in concerns about a loss of competitiveness and apprehension over the emergence of China as an economic threat.  And, as underscored by last year’s controversy over agricultural safeguards, economic problems have become politicized.

The Asahi’s answer was to quote from a column written in October 1972, a month after normalization, in which China’s economic transformation was envisaged as well as the eventual pressure that low-cost, quality goods from China would put on Japanese industries.  This, the column argued, would only be a natural development.  The answer for Japan would be to devise in both its industrial structure and in its intellectual/manufacturing infrastructure policies that will allow it to compete in the future.  Thirty years later the writer of that column still saw China’s development as a historical necessity and argued that the challenge for Japan, now as then, is to find a path that would allow for co-existence and co-prosperity with a developing China.

Japanese Emperor Akihito will not be attending the opening ceremony of the World Cup soccer games in Seoul on May 31, but this hardly dampened a very strong quarter in Japan-South Korea relations.  A glimmer of light shone on long-frozen normalization dialogue between Japan and North Korea, but Pyongyang’s tactical motives do not raise confidence that a thaw is evident.  Prospects were least bright this quarter in trilateral policy coordination involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

For Moscow and Beijing, the Taliban’s demise was by no means a harmless “regime change” but the beginning of another round of geostrategic posturing with the U.S. in their highly volatile backyard.  Within a month, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) was dead (Dec. 13, 2001), and a new, proactive nuclear strategy (Nuclear Posture Review or NPR, Jan. 8, 2002) was in place.  As critical as they were of the “axis of evil” Bush doctrine (revealed in his Jan. 29 State of the Union speech), Russia and China were to be further bewildered and angered in early March when they learned the NPR treated them as part of a “gang of seven” for possible U.S. nuclear strikes.

Bilateral relations between Russia and China were subject to the ever growing and ubiquitous U.S. shadow.  For these two partners in the U.S. war against terrorism, it seemed that to be the U.S.’ newfound friend (Russia) was as tricky and unpredictable as being its potential foe (China).  This was true despite President George Bush’s two trips to China (October 2001 and February 2002) and his scheduled May visit to Russia.  Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing worked hard to salvage the leftovers from the massive and strategic return of the United States to Central Asia.

Tokyo’s Foreign Policy Activism in Southeast Asia 

Contrary to the stereotypical view that Japanese foreign policy is generally passive, reactive, and driven primarily by economics (and Washington), the reality is that Tokyo has sought to exercise diplomatic initiatives in Southeast Asia especially over the past 25 years.  Ironically, Japan plays a larger political role in Southeast Asia than in its more immediate Northeast Asian neighborhood for at least three reasons.

First, unlike its relations with Beijing, Seoul, and Pyongyang, Tokyo’s ties with Southeast Asian states are very much less bedeviled by unresolved issues of history – including an appropriate apology to the victims of Japanese militarism, the “correct” perspectives that should be adopted in textbooks, and a lack of remorse over the past shown by conservative Japanese politicians.  Moreover, the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia was mercifully short (around three years) compared to Tokyo’s lengthy colonization of Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria.  While imperial Japan’s original intention was to incorporate Southeast Asia into a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, it incidentally aided the independence movements in Indonesia and Burma toward the end of World War II; Tokyo’s initial victories against the white colonial regimes in Southeast Asia also shattered the myth of white invincibility and eventually facilitated decolonization in that region.

Second, unlike Russia, China, and the two Koreas, the Southeast Asian states do not have any territorial disputes with Japan.  Shackled by neither the burden of history nor territorial disputes with Tokyo, Southeast Asian countries welcome Japanese investments and ODA (official development assistance) and are thus more open to Japanese diplomatic initiatives, especially if these are also to their advantage.

Third, Southeast Asia as a region does not have intractable security problems of the same magnitude as Northeast Asia: the heavily militarized and divided Korean Peninsula and the potential flashpoint in the Taiwan Strait.  Besides the perennial suspicions of the Chinese and Koreans toward any hint of a larger Japanese political and military role, the problems in the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait are simply too big for Japan to chew.  In this regard, Southeast Asia is a more conducive environment for Japan to pursue its diplomatic initiatives, especially when the ASEAN states are less hostile toward Tokyo and inter-state relations within the region are less confrontational and warlike.

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