Volume 4, Issue 2

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April - June 2002 · Published: Jul 2002

In June, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the Bush administration’s most comprehensive statement to date on its East Asia policy.  Hardly anyone noticed!  In Asia, everyone was apparently too preoccupied with the World Cup soccer games while the crises in the Middle East and South Asia diverted world attention from Asian politics in general.  Nonetheless, Powell’s speech underscored the importance of America’s regional alliances while reinforcing the administration’s focus on antiterrorism.  It also set a generally positive tone regarding Sino-U.S. relations.  The same cannot be said about North Korea. While expressing hope that a U.S.-DPRK dialogue would soon begin (and we continue to wait), Powell also laid some specific prerequisites for progress that will guarantee arduous negotiations if and when the two sides ever actually sit down and talk.

Also overshadowing Powell’s speech was President George W. Bush’s June 1 commencement address at West Point, which signaled a more proactive (if not pre-emptive) strategy in the war on terrorism.  Meanwhile, multilateralism took on new energy in Asia, highlighted by a de facto defense “summit” and a genuine summit on confidence building involving numerous Asian heads of state (but not the U.S.).  The successful efforts of UN special envoy for Burma Razali Ismail to convince Rangoon’s ruling junta to release Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest also captured the international spotlight.  Malaysia remained a focus as a result of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s tearful resignation (since delayed) from Malaysian politics.

It has been a relatively quiet quarter for United States-Japan relations.  Political, economic, and security relations have continued on a positive course.  The absence of any key event – read “crisis” – has allowed both governments to focus their attentions elsewhere.

Yet if the trajectory is good, there has been a big change in a critical element of the U.S.-Japan relationship: the popularity of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro has suffered a precipitous drop.  Since public support was the prime minister’s only card in his battles with the old guard of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the plunge in public approval ratings threatens to undermine his entire legislative program.  Mr. Koizumi’s weakness will also be felt in relations with the United States.  The failure to pursue aggressive economic reform could damage his credibility in Washington’s eyes.  The prime minister has already been forced to give up on the passage of legislation that would allow the Japanese government to respond to crises – an indicator of Japan’s “new” seriousness in security affairs.

An active agenda of exchanges and consultations took place this quarter, providing Sino-U.S. relations with a modicum of stability as Washington focused on the war on terrorism and other foreign policy priorities.  Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao toured the United States, stopping in Washington for two days of meetings with President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and many Cabinet members. Cooperation between Washington and Beijing in the war on terrorism advanced with the establishment of semi-annual consultations on depriving terrorist networks of their sources of financing.  Broader discussions on combating terrorism were also held in the second round of bi-annual U.S.-Chinese counterterrorism talks.  Sessions were held of the Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation and Trade and the Joint Commission Meeting on Science and Technology, providing a boost to commercial and economic ties.  Beijing remained both suspicious and perplexed by U.S. policy toward Taiwan, and verbal gaffes by President Bush and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz created unease on both sides of the Strait.  Finally, representatives from the U.S. and Chinese militaries explored the possibility of resuming contacts.

This quarter in U.S.-Korea relations opened with a bang and ended with a long pause.  At the outset, South Korea’s Special Presidential Envoy Lim Dong-won undertook a critical mission to North Korea to put the process of inter-Korean reconciliation back on track.  North Korea’s willingness to meet with Lim signaled a desire to improve the atmosphere on the peninsula after more than a year of verbal sparring with the Bush administration.

Lim’s mission was broader than that of previous South Korean envoys. In addition to improving the atmosphere for North-South talks, Lim aimed to persuade Pyongyang to resume bilateral negotiations with Washington.  This was not an easy task in the aftermath of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in late January, which raised the level of animosity between the U.S. and North Korea significantly.

After months of hearing the U.S. say “the ball is in North Korea’s court,” Pyongyang finally agreed with Lim in early April to resume bilateral negotiations with Washington.  North Korea also decided to continue reunions of divided Korean families, organize a new round of South-North economic talks, and continue discussions with South Korea on military confidence building.

Analysts speculated that Lim’s mission was mainly intended to head off a new confrontation with Washington on nuclear-related issues.  President Bush’s earlier refusal to certify North Korea’s compliance with the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework signaled Washington’s official unhappiness with North Korean actions to date. Although Bush indicated that the U.S. would continue supplying North Korea with heavy fuel oil, his action raised the specter of a renewed conflict on nuclear-related issues.

 

Once North Korea decided to resume negotiations with the U.S., a predictable political debate occurred in Washington between moderates and hard-liners over the reason for Lim’s breakthrough.  Conservatives argued that Bush’s new hard-line policy, expressed in his “axis of evil” remarks, had brought Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.  Moderates took the view that Lim’s new effort at reconciliation with the North, a component of President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, was the motivating factor.

 

 

What most influenced North Korea’s decision will probably never be known precisely.  Most likely, fear of Washington’s new aggressiveness in confronting potential enemies in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, was a significant factor. The fact that North Korea faced yet another period of economic and humanitarian crisis also presumably focused Pyongyang’s attention on repairing its domestic problems during the immediate future.

The spring of 2002 showed great promise for the newfound U.S.-Russia partnership.  Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin carried out successful summit meetings in Moscow and St. Petersburg in May and managed to sign a groundbreaking strategic arms reduction agreement.  In addition, Russia was welcomed into NATO and given a seat on a council with a voice in alliance matters that will be most pertinent in the 21st century.  The United States also was behind the pledge by the G-7 nations to contribute $20 billion over 10 years to nonproliferation programs in Russia and the former Soviet republics and to give Russia a permanent seat at future G-8 meetings.  Most important, the United States and Russia have continued their cooperation in the war on terrorism and Russia continues to give the U.S. a free hand in Central Asia.  In return the U.S. leadership remains mum on Chechnya.  Nevertheless, more is expected in Russia in return for unquestioned support of the U.S.  Putin is beginning to feel some domestic opposition to his policy of “appeasing” the U.S., and it is a question how long he can continue this policy if Russia appears to accrue no advantage.

The quarter was marked by continued U.S. efforts to consolidate and clarify its counterterrorism strategy in the region.  In the Philippines, U.S. military training and assistance seemed to produce more energetic and effective operations by the Philippine Army against Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. Politically and operationally, U.S. counterterrorism cooperation with Malaysia strengthened notably while collaboration with Singapore stayed close.  Indonesia remained the primary focus of U.S. concern and even here significant movement toward close working relations became evident.  Terrorism-related issues continued to overshadow more traditional U.S. concerns in the region regarding economic issues, human rights, and an incipient strategic rivalry with China.  U.S.-China relations were relatively quiescent – facilitating a single-minded focus on terrorism in U.S. relations with Southeast Asia.

With the United States preoccupied by the war on international terrorism and Southeast Asians concerned above all with economic recovery, China found new space during the quarter for increasing its presence and influence among its southern neighbors.  Beijing combined diplomacy with promises of expanded trade in an effort to counter Southeast Asian fears that China’s economic acceleration would leave them impoverished – at least by pre-1997 standards – and with few options for regaining rapid growth. The worries remain, but China may be succeeding in pushing them further into the future.

Meanwhile, admiration for China’s attentive cultivation of the region, including  successful visits by PRC Vice President Hu Jintao to Malaysia and Singapore, is widespread.  New Chinese energy investments in Indonesia, and Beijing’s invitation to Singapore to play a role in development of China’s western regions, furthered the impression of growing interdependence, rather than domination by China.

Relief is also widespread in most ASEAN capitals that the United States and China appear to be mending relations.  China’s political support for the war on terrorism, and its acceptance of operations near its borders, in Central Asia and the Philippines, that increase U.S. influence, generate comfort in Southeast Asian capitals.  Regional observers note the change from a year ago, in the aftermath of the EP-3 reconnaissance plane incident. ASEAN capitals are concerned that firmer, less ambiguous U.S. commitments to Taiwan’s security could lead to another, more serious, Taiwan Strait crisis but do not see this happening in the near term.

Despite the absence of formal dialogue, Beijing and Taipei have been signaling interest in achieving direct trade and travel and probing possibilities for new mechanisms for negotiations. Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian took an important step in moving this process forward when he indicated that the private sector could play a role in negotiating the “three links.” Beijing responded saying it was ready to negotiate with business representatives from Taipei. The challenge is whether mutually acceptable roles for the private and government elements in a new negotiating process can be defined to both sides’ satisfaction.  It is not clear whether this can be done. Economic ties continue to expand; the long-awaited oil exploration joint venture deal has been signed. Even while these and other positive developments occur, Beijing and Taipei continue to confront each other internationally and strengthen their military preparations.

For a second successive quarter, what former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once described as his biggest problem – “Events, dear boy. Events” – have conspired to alter at the last moment the inter-Korean prognosis. Last time it was good news, with a renewal of stalled dialogue. But now the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) June 29 sinking of an ROK patrol boat, killing five, may be a final blow to ROK President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy. This wholly unexpected and allegedly unprovoked attack – a spiteful bid to rain on Seoul’s soccer parade? – did not escalate militarily but politically must cast a long shadow. It will weaken those in Seoul or Washington who would give DPRK leader Kim Jong-il the benefit of the doubt, while vindicating the “axis of evil” camp. As such, not for the first time, it is baffling to see what Pyongyang hopes to gain by this own goal; the fuller implications will be clearer next time we report. The bulk of this article was completed before this sad day.

April began promisingly: Kim Dae-jung’s special envoy returned from Pyongyang with commitments to restart stalled dialogue. But only family reunions were held; other meetings did not materialize. Yet in June, de facto official talks on a new topic, telecoms, tentatively agreed that Southern firms will launch mobile service in Pyongyang, perhaps even this year. Unofficial contacts continued, including a boat and two planeloads of civic groups and a tête-à-tête between the offspring of the ROK and DPRK’s erstwhile leaders. Moreover, cooperation is extending into new areas such as teaching, in fields from information technology (IT) to nuclear science. In short, it is a mixed picture: frustrating in many ways, yet not without hope. At the same time, an escalating refugee crisis involving several nations, is a sober reminder of the potential for instability on the peninsula.

The April 15 crash of a China Air flight from Beijing to Pusan in which 129 of 166 passengers died provided a tragic omen for a tumultuous quarter in the relationship between Seoul and Beijing.  World Cup euphoria in Seoul and disappointment for a Chinese team that got shut out in three straight matches during its first World Cup appearance somewhat overshadowed a diplomatic imbroglio in Beijing over a steady flow of North Korean refugees seeking asylum in foreign embassies and consulates.  The diplomatic standoff over the refugees that had arrived in the South Korean compound may mark a turn to a more complex and contentious relationship between Seoul and Beijing as the two countries celebrate the 10th anniversary of diplomatic normalization.

The level of public awareness of both good and bad aspects of the relationship continues to broaden through exports of pop culture, private sector, and citizen-led exchanges and dramatic footage of one North Korean refugee being forcibly dragged from the South Korean compound by Chinese public security officials.  Governments struggle to construct the diplomatic and political infrastructure necessary to bear the weight of increasingly intensive interactions in a wide range of areas: foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the Asian Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) in June to discuss the diplomatic standoff over North Korean refugees in the South Korean compound and coordinated efforts to respond to the spring “yellow dust” syndrome got high-level attention. The two governments continued to support increased economic coordination, including the signing of currency swap agreements worth $2 billion designed to forestall a repeat of the Asian financial crisis.  Despite a more balanced view in recent months of China as a neighbor who may challenge basic South Korean interests, the underlying force in the relationship remains a widespread perception of China as an irresistible business opportunity and of South Korea as an economic model and significant investor in China’s economic growth.

The quarter started well with a series of high-level visits marking the 30th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China relations.  National People’s Congress Chairman Li Peng came to Japan and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro met PRC Premier Zhu Rongji on Hainan Island.

But the ever-present force of history resurfaced April 21 when Prime Minister Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine to pay homage to Japan’s war dead.  Less than a month later, the Shenyang incident, in which Chinese police entered the Japanese consulate and forcibly removed North Korean asylum-seekers, turned into a diplomatic cause célèbre.  And prominent Japanese political leaders again waded into the debate over the constitutionality of Japan possessing nuclear weapons.

Both governments, conscious of their respective investments in the anniversary year, worked to keep relations on track.  Agreement was reached on the raising of the mystery ship sunk by the Japanese Coast Guard in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  And, after holding firmly to its position that the actions of the Chinese police at the Shenyang consulate did not violate the Vienna Convention, Beijing offered Japan face-saving talks aimed at developing guidelines to prevent a similar recurrence.  At the same time, Japan’s growing trade with and investments on the mainland served to cushion relations during the rough patches of the quarter.

The story of the quarter was Japan’s re-engagement with the two Koreas on several levels. For Seoul-Tokyo relations, the World Cup soccer matches overshadowed important, but quiet, efforts at resuming bilateral security dialogue. For Tokyo-Pyongyang relations, baby steps toward resuming long-suspended normalization talks appear to have been made.  Finally, the impact of the World Cup and sports diplomacy on Japan-South Korea relations is not to be underestimated.

Though the 2002 Cup did not mark modernity for either already-modern country, the Cup’s success was in no small part a function of the fact that it was hosted by two of the more advanced, market-savvy, globalized, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, open-society countries in Asia.  This not only gave the games a luster not easily tarnished, but it also is a lasting image for Japan-South Korea cooperation.   Not bad for a null outcome.

The second quarter of 2002 witnessed major changes in world politics as President Vladimir Putin’s Russia took gigantic, and perhaps final, steps into the West (joining NATO and going beyond the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or ABM). Despite the huge impact of Russia’s Westernization, Beijing and Moscow were able to soft-land their cordial, though sensitive, relationship and to institutionalize the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a joint venture that has been under severe constraint following the U.S. strategic return to Central Asia after Sept. 11, 2001. While both Moscow and Beijing improved and/or stabilized their relations with Washington, all three faced a post-deterrence world in which nuclear weapons are no longer viewed as weapons of last resort and in which the incentives for nonnuclear states to obtain those weapons were greater than ever.

Daily Digest

Global Times: Anxiety pushes US to turn hostile to China

An editorial stressing that US-China relations are going to become more competitive

 

The Indian Express: Five months on, understanding Doklam ‘disengagement’, a few other issues

This piece provides an update on the recent Doklam crisis, which remains unresolved

East Asia Forum: Will Trump snap Japan’s tenuous tightrope?

Following the Trump administration’s lead will get more difficult for Japan in 2018.

Will Trump snap Japan’s tenuous tightrope?

Korea JoongAng Daily: Listen to the people

South Koreans say “not so fast” to a combined N-S Olympic team

The Straits Times: Canberra looks for new bridges over troubled waters

Australia hedges against US uncertainty

Canberra looks for new bridges over troubled waters

The Interpreter: Why Australia should consider sharing nuclear weapons

Layton believes that Australia should change its stance on nuclear weapons.

War on the Rocks: Why Americans Aren’t Really Worried About War With North Korea

The article lists five misconceptions among the American public when it comes to a war with North Korea.

Why Americans Aren’t Really Worried About War With North Korea

The Straits Times: Why a trade war looms over US-China relations

An antagonistic rivalry would be far more severe than the Cold War of the last century.

The Cipher Brief: Give Peace, and Sanctions, a Chance

Still time for patience with North Korea