Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Tama University Center for Rule Making Strategies and senior advisor for Pacific Forum, where, among other things, he co-edits Comparative Connections. For 15 years, he was the executive director of Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Grand Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019), and co-author, with Scott Snyder, of The Japan-ROK Identity Clash (Columbia University Press, 2015). He has authored dozens of monographs on topics related to US foreign policy and Asian security. His opinion articles and commentary have appeared in media around the world. Prior to joining Pacific Forum, he was, for 10 years, a member of The Japan Times editorial board, and continues to serve as a contributing editor for the newspaper. Glosserman has a J.D. from George Washington University, an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a B.A. from Reed College.
Articles by Brad Glosserman
As the region (and world) focus on the fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic, the “cold peace” between Washington and Beijing continued to heat up, with implications throughout and beyond the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. US pronouncements during the last four months should dispel any doubt that the US Asia strategy is aimed first and foremost at China, and more specifically at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While critics of the Trump administration’s unilateralist approach continue to argue that “America First means America Alone,” this does not appear to be the case where China is concerned. Not only does the much-maligned (including by us) “Quad”—the loose grouping of the US, Australia, India, and Japan—show signs of coordinated backbone, it seems to be forming the basis for a new “Quad-Plus” that includes other “like-minded states.” The Quad’s focus on the promotion of the rule of law and freedom of navigation has Beijing’s attention, as does Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent comment that “(M)aybe it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations … a new alliance of democracies.”
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hammer regional economies and the recovery, if and when it occurs, is likely to be long and uneven. It looks like there may be a new model that describes its impact, and it doesn’t augur well for those countries. Finally, we offer some framing thoughts for a potential Biden foreign policy as the US presidential campaign enters the homestretch.
This trimester’s regional overview focuses on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on regional security affairs. But as the other chapters attest, international focus on the pandemic should not cause us to overlook other significant events that transpired during this reporting period: increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and vis-a-vis Hong Kong and Taiwan, growing China-Australia tensions, the non-summit between President Trump and the leaders of ASEAN, South Korean elections (with an outcome closely tied to its handling of the pandemic, but with far-reaching implications in other areas), and the dispute over host nation support, which has raised questions about the vitality (indeed, even the survivability) of the ROK-US alliance, to cite just a few. Meanwhile, the (somewhat) unusual but not unprecedented disappearance of Kim Jong Un from the public eye raised questions about how prepared the US (among others) is for dealing with a sudden leadership change on the peninsula.
The final trimester of the year is usually a time for Asian multilateralism to take center stage; this year, not so much. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting, which was supposed to take place in Chile, was cancelled (due to civil disturbances in the host country) while the East Asia Summit (EAS) proceeded without either US President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence (his normal stand-in) in attendance. Regional economic developments (and US trade actions impacting the broader Indo-Asia-Pacific region) grabbed the headlines instead. Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) participants gathered along the EAS sidelines to finalize their trade agreement, sans India, which balked at the last minute. Meanwhile, the White House and US House of Representatives, while locked in a battle over impeachment, nonetheless reached common ground on the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) while the administration announced a “phase one” trade deal with Beijing. There appears to be less than meets the eye in both agreements, but each impacts the region writ large. Finally, not to be overshadowed, the State Department issued its own explanation of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, complementing the Pentagon’s version, which was analyzed in our last issue.
For the past two years, US officials have made reference to a new Indo-Pacific Strategy. The June 1 release of the Defense Department’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report provides some clarification and contains many familiar themes, including the need for a credible forward presence and strengthened alliances and partnerships “to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific where sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity are safeguarded.” The Report further notes “the critical linkages between economics, governance, and security.” Not to be outdone, ASEAN introduced its own Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, with “inclusivity” as the central theme. The G20 meeting in Osaka was probably as successful as was possible, but the group offered little more than rhetorical support for efforts to quell the US-China trade war. Finally, the Japan, South Korea, China trilateral provided some reason for hope –but just a little.
We are focusing on regional trade and economics because it’s important to look at the consequences of the current US administration’s antipathy toward multilateral trade agreements. Beijing has shown no such hesitancy, with President Xi Jinping hosting visitors from more than 100 different countries (including 37 heads of state) at his Second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) International Forum. Ships from 19 different navies (but not the US or France) participated in a naval flotilla commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). One area where Washington might actually embrace a multilateral agreement would be a follow-on to the soon-to-be defunct Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty but only if it involves, among others, China.
Speeches before and during US Vice President Pence’s trip to Asia (substituting for President Trump) for the annual fall round of summitry added flesh to the bones of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy but did little to allay concerns about an impending trade war (or worse) between the US and China. While Pence was not asking anyone to choose between Washington and Beijing, he made it abundantly clear what he thought the best choice would be. While he did not rule out a restoration of good relations with Beijing – once it started behaving itself – most Asians heard his remarks, and those from Trump and other senior officials, as signals that a China-US Cold War had already begun. Meanwhile, the administration’s preference for tariffs as the weapon of choice was seen not as a tool to bring about a “free and open Indo-Pacific” but as a sledgehammer aimed at persuading US firms to return to US protectionist shores. As the president and his team declared their love for bilateral trade deals, Asians pressed ahead with their own multilateral initiatives. Looking ahead, like it or not, the China-US relationship appears to be the dominating feature of the Indo-Pacific economic and security environment.
In last fall’s National Security Strategy (NSS), the Trump administration began using the term Indo-Pacific to describe an expanded Asia-Pacific region. At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in early June, Defense Secretary James Mattis began describing a strategy to fit the region, a “whole-of-government Indo-Pacific strategy that espouses the shared principles that underpin a free-and-open Indo-Pacific.” It differs from, but could encompass the so-called Quad, an informal four-party grouping of regional democracies involving Australia, India, Japan, and the US, which is also based on common values and a common commitment to the rule of law. The strategy accepts and endorses “ASEAN centrality,” a point reinforced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Singapore for the ASEAN Ministerial meetings and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in early August. Prior to departing for Singapore, Pompeo laid out “America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision” in his speech to the US Chamber of Commerce. While the US is envisioning its economic strategy, the so-called TPP-11 is proceeding without Washington, as is Beijing in pursuing its own more expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Since the advent of the Trump administration, US Asia policy has reflected more continuity than change. No more. The one exception has been US security policy, which continued to reflect time-honored principles, including the centrality of US alliances and deterrence. Changes have come at a breathtaking pace in the past few months. Credit (or blame) the emergence of “the real” Donald Trump, who has shrugged off the constraints and conventional wisdom that had kept him largely within the mainstream of US foreign policy practices. His decision to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stunned most observers and led to a series of summits in anticipation of his historic meeting with Kim. The “Disruptor-in-Chief” was also hard at work on economic policy, with the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum exports by US trading partners. Trade tensions between Washington and Beijing grew throughout the first four months of 2018 and there are fears of a trade war in the absence of astute management.
President Donald Trump’s inaugural visit to Asia in November was either “the best presidential trip, anywhere, ever” or “an absolute disaster and embarrassment,” depending on whose comments you read. The truth lies somewhere in-between. Objectively speaking, the trip turned out to be much better than many predicted or feared. The president reaffirmed the US commitment to its two key East Asia allies, Japan and South Korea, rallied international support at every stop for his “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, stayed on message in China, and reaffirmed support for friends and allies in Southeast Asia. For better or for worse, Trump clearly and unambiguously signaled his administration’s preference for “fair and reciprocal” bilateral trade agreements while dismissing the multilateral approach favored by most of his predecessors, thus opening the door for new trade champions – enter Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who will be vying for leadership. The administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) report reinforced the “free and open Indo-Pacific” themes heard during Trump’s trip. The president’s unprecedented personal rollout of the report also underscored the mixed messages coming from Washington when official policy statements and Trump’s personal preferences and viewpoints fail to coincide.
In our last issue we argued that there had been more continuity than change in America’s Asia policy. The Trump administration’s senior national security team has tried to prove us right over the past four months. Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that the Asia Pacific remained “a priority region” for the US. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed the US commitment to democracy and human rights while laying out Washington’s “peaceful pressure” policy against Pyongyang. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said that America’s “active engagement [in Asia] is frankly continuing and is not going to be changing anytime soon.” The major exception was the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the president’s frontal attack on “bad” trade deals. These attacks, against the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have continued, although the US has not (yet) withdrawn from either accord. The final statements from two major economic gatherings in recent months, the G7 and G20 Summits, endorsed the principles of free trade, although this was despite, rather than because of, the US, which used to champion this cause. The absence of US leadership has compelled others to speak up and carry the ball.
While it hasn’t always been pretty or (gasp) consistent, US Asia policy under the Trump administration is, with one major exception, pretty much where the Obama administration left it. America’s Asian alliances remain the foundation of its security strategy and “our one-China policy” has been reaffirmed. Even regarding North Korea, the objective – bringing Kim Jong Un “to his senses” – remains the same, although the approach seems to display less patience. The exception centers on the one promise that Trump (regrettably in our view) has kept: abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). On economic policy more generally, the promised trade war with China has (thus far) failed to materialize since “the Chinese have made some improvements on currency in recent months”; okay, Chinese currency manipulation actually stopped several years ago, but you get the point. While the search for a new buzz word to replace the “pivot” or “rebalance” continues, the vice president and secretaries of State and Defense have been to the region and the White House has confirmed President Trump’s plan to attend a trio of regional summits this fall. Asia remains a high priority region, for better and for worse.
Once every four years, our Regional Overview attempts to reassure our readers that, despite a new US administration and/or new secretary of state, US Asia policy will remain generally consistent. This year we are trying to reassure ourselves. It is, of course, premature to be making firm pronouncements about an incoming administration’s policies, but by now signals are usually becoming pretty clear. It seemed safe to assume (as we did at the time), that the incoming Obama administration would pursue the same general policies and national security objectives in the Asia-Pacific as its predecessor: support for existing alliances as the foundation of regional security policy, constructive engagement with China, support for free trade and promotion of human rights, and a strong deterrence posture regarding North Korea, combined with firm support for nonproliferation regimes. This could yet be the case for the incoming Trump administration, but the signals are, at best, mixed, in part because we find ourselves responding to tweets – which transition team spokesmen caution should be taken “symbolically” not literally – rather than clear policy pronouncements. As a result, regional leaders, while hoping for the best (or at least more of the same) seem to be preparing themselves for a variety of outcomes, even as some try to shape the future environment.
The rule of law took a few huge hits during the year’s second trimester, as Beijing chose to ignore the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling that negated many of its South China Sea claims, while Pyongyang displayed its usual disdain for the latest UN Security Council Resolution 2270 with a series of ballistic missile launches, highlighted by a submarine-launched ballistic missile test. There were also a number of significant multilateral forums addressing regional security and economic issues, or both. Most in some form also touched upon the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula, even as ASEAN danced around the Tribunal’s ruling. Meanwhile in the battle of who gets to make trade rules, the Chinese-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) seemed to fare only slightly better than the US-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the objection to which seems to be the only thing the two US presidential candidates agree upon.
North Korea mixed things up a bit in early 2016, this time starting with a nuclear test – its fourth – and then following up a month later with a missile test/satellite launch; usually the order is reversed. Other than that it was déjà vu all over again, only worse. There were also a number of shorter-range ballistic missile launches and the usual threats (with graphic video), while the prospects for dialogue seemed to dim even further. Meanwhile, Chinese activities in the South China Sea (SCS) are being described by everyone (except Beijing) as further militarization of its artificial islands, as everyone (except Beijing) eagerly awaits the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a case the Philippines has brought against China’s SCS claims – Beijing has already preemptively rejected the Court’s jurisdiction, so no happy ending appears in store for anyone. The G7 also weighed in on the SCS issue, much to China’s dismay. It’s for certain the G20 won’t (since China is host this year). The AIIB is taking shape, with most worries not being realized. Finally, after eight months of listening to pundits predict that the Trump phenomenon was sure to fade, Donald Trump has become the “presumptive” Republican nominee. His opponent seems likely to be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in what is shaping up to be a battle of the known versus the unknown (and largely unpredictable).
While events in Paris and San Bernardino refocused the international community’s attention on terrorism, it was largely business as usual in Asia, with the normal round of multilateral meetings – the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, US-ASEAN Summit, East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) in Kuala Lumpur, plus the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Manila – going largely unnoticed. A few other summits did attract attention, including the first “Plus Three” (Japan-Korea-China) Summit in three years (which included the first direct one-on-one summit between ROK President Park and Japan Prime Minister Abe) in Seoul and the “non-summit” between Mr. Xi Jinping and Mr. Ma Ying-Jeou who just happen to be the presidents, respectively, of the People’s Republic of China and Republic of China, in Singapore. Chinese actions (and US reactions) in the South China Sea continued to dominate the news, while hopes that Kim Jong-Un was on the brink of behaving were quickly dashed as the new year began. All eyes remain on the Chinese economy and the impact the continuing slowdown there may have on global growth, even as the US pushes forward on the finally completed (but not yet Congressionally-approved) Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The big news over the summer is the granting of “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority to President Obama by the US Congress. This keeps hopes alive for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic centerpiece of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia. The political and military legs of this multidimensional strategy got a boost as Secretary of State John Kerry attended the annual ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meeting and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter headlined the show at the Shangri-La Dialogue. China continues to make its presence felt in regional affairs as well; President Xi Jinping attended meetings in Ufa, Russia with other BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders and hosted a Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Special Working Group and Senior Officials Committee Meeting and first CICA Youth Council Conference in Beijing, while continuing to pursue his Silk Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiatives, even as China’s economy took a significant hit. Meanwhile, Pyongyang engaged in another round of Russian roulette but backed down when it became apparent Seoul was prepared to pull the trigger. Finally, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II put history on the front pages.
President Obama initiated his long-awaited (and long overdue) quest for “fast track” or Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) from the US Congress, understanding that final negotiations and eventual passage (or not) of his Asian “rebalance” economic centerpiece, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, rests upon achieving TPA. Without TPP, Obama’s already tarnished leadership image will be severely damaged, his “lame duck” status will be solidified at home and abroad, and his Asian pivot will be seen not as the multidimensional strategy it was intended to be but largely a unidimensional (security) single-focused (China) strategy. Meanwhile, China continued to tarnish US and ASEAN leadership through its accelerated island-building projects in the South China Sea, while Washington’s badly managed response to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative provided another (self-inflicted) wound. Washington’s questions were the right ones, but its seemingly “choose between us and China” approach resulted in most US partners and allies choosing Beijing. Finally, US-DPRK and North-South relations went through cycles of hope and despair with no real progress in sight, as speculation runs rampant as to why Kim Jong-Un decided not to go to Moscow.
A trifecta of international gatherings – the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Beijing, the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Nay Pyi Taw, and the G-20 gathering in Brisbane – had heads of state from around the globe, including US President Barack Obama, flocking to the Asia-Pacific as 2014 was winding to a close. North Korea was not included in these confabs but its leaders (although not the paramount one) were taking their charm offensive almost everywhere else in an (unsuccessful) attempt to block a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Pyongyang’s human rights record. More successful was Pyongyang’s (alleged) attempt to undermine and embarrass Sony Studios to block the release of a Hollywood film featuring the assassination of Kim Jong Un.
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.
President Obama’s fifth trip to Asia – his “reassurance” tour – was well-received by all his hosts but drew mixed reviews from pundits and from Beijing. His accomplishments were partly overshadowed by two tragedies – the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the sinking of a South Korean ferry – and by lack of progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership while abroad or on Trade Promotion Authority at home. Obama also tried his hand at peacemaking by bringing Japan’s Prime Minister Abe and South Korean President Park together for their first meeting, on the sidelines of the third Nuclear Security Summit. Secretaries Kerry and Hagel also toured the region to promote the “pivot,” with Hagel stopping in Honolulu to host the first US-ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting. Pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize has yielded little, other than threats of another nuclear test and an incredibly vile (even by North Korean standards) personal attack on Presidents Park and Obama. Australian Prime Minister Abbott made a successful swing through Northeast Asia, while participants at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium agreed to a constructive (but non-binding) set of rules to prevent encounters at sea. Finally, we opine about the implications for Asia of events in the Ukraine.
2013 ended with a series of self-inflicted wounds. President Obama, with a huge assist from the US Congress, reinforced apprehensions about the US commitment to the region by skipping both the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting. Setting an unreachable yearend goal to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was another in the series. So too was President Xi Jinping’s decision to announce China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. Not to be left out, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo closed out the year by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, further alienating Beijing and Seoul while drawing a rare rebuke from Washington as well. How much this will impact his “go south” policy to build better relations with ASEAN remains unclear. North Korea’s regent Jang Song Thaek saw his career go to the dogs – at least figuratively – due to alleged greed and other criminal acts. Many fear that the prospect for Chinese-style reform in North Korea died with him.
It was a rough four months for the US as Washington struggled to convince Asian audiences that the “rebalance” is sustainable given renewed attention to the Middle East, even before the Syrian crises. US engagement in Asia was multidimensional with participation at several ministerial-level meetings, a visit by Vice President Biden, continued pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and a show of military capability in Korea. But, it isn’t clear North Korea got the message. Kim Jong Un seems to have adopted his father’s play book: first create a crisis, make lots of threats, and follow up with a “smile diplomacy” campaign. So far, Washington has stuck to its game plan, insisting on a sign of genuine sincerity before opening a dialogue with Pyongyang. Finally, the US image in the region was damaged by revelations about classified NSA intelligence collection efforts.
The “unpredictable” North Korean regime acted all too predictably, following through on its threat to conduct a third nuclear test and increasing tensions through fiery rhetoric. Pyongyang also took steps to solidify its claim to be a nuclear weapon state, a status the rest of the world is no more willing to bestow on the Kim Jong Un regime than it was on his father’s. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the US commitment to the rebalance to Asia. While in Japan, he underscored that the so-called “pivot” also has important economic and political dimensions. Fears of “death by sequestration” have also (thus far) proven to be overstated. The jury remains out on what the “real Abe” will look like after Upper House elections but Japanese Prime Minister Abe has demonstrated enough continuity by reinforcing candidate Abe’s nationalist rhetoric to make Japan’s neighbors, not to mention many in Washington, nervous.
It was deja vu all over again on the Korean Peninsula as the absence of bad news, highlighted during our last reporting period, came to an end when Pyongyang again defied the international community (and UNSC sanctions) by conducting another missile launch, this time successfully, in December. Nonetheless, Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s message was seen by some (but not us) as a harbinger of good news in the year ahead. ASEAN leaders at the yearend round of summits in Phnom Penh (including the East Asia Summit attended by President Obama) managed to demonstrate a greater amount of unity than during their July ministerial, but the lingering South China Sea territorial issue showed no signs of being closer to resolution. Meanwhile, hopes for genuine reform in Burma/Myanmar soared as President Obama made an unprecedented visit following his inaugural visit to Cambodia for the EAS, in the context of his administration’s continuing rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific.
It was out with the new and in with the old in Japan, as the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power amidst a nationalistic campaign that promised to strain relations with the new leadership coming to power in South Korea and China, and perhaps with the new leadership team in Washington as well. President Obama won a second term and Park Geun-hye returned to the Blue House, this time as president. In China, a new leadership took command of the communist party, and they face myriad challenges, many of which are economic in nature. The year closed with a flurry of trade meetings and initiatives designed to capture the energy of the world’s most dynamic economies.
The only good news to report when it comes to Korean Peninsula denuclearization is the absence of any new really bad news over the past four months. North Korea’s widely predicted (including by us) third nuclear test or follow-on missile launch did not occur. No one anticipated any serious movement toward resumption of the stalled Six-Party Talks, and those expectations were met. The biggest multilateral surprise came from ASEAN, which for the first time in its 45-year history, concluded its annual ministerial meeting without issuing a chairman’s statement or communiqué. The ministers at the follow-on ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) did produce a summary, which once again highlighted the need for broader multilateral cooperation throughout the region, including the South China Sea. Economic ministers were equally productive in meetings in August, when among things they launched the first East Asian Summit Economic Ministers Meeting and the inaugural ASEAN-US Business Summit.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta attended the annual Shangri-La Dialogue (his Chinese counterpart did not) and provided his usual reassurance that the US planned to remain engaged in the region, although this did little to deter others from harping about US “decline.” That was a constant refrain throughout the summer, along with companion attempts to frame every US policy as a response to the rise of China and a shifting balance of power in the region. Sigh! US policy remains driven by longstanding US national interests, as underscored by a recent study of the US military presence in the Asia Pacific. As part of the rebalancing, the US is attempting to broaden the scope of its foreign policy, not narrow it to fit a military lens.
There was a brief period when a breakthrough seemed possible in the stalemate with North Korea when it pledged to freeze all nuclear and missile tests; then Pyongyang announced a planned satellite launch, pulling the rug out from under Washington (and itself) and business as usual returned to the Peninsula. While hopes for a new round of Six-Party Talks were seemingly dashed, other multilateral initiatives seem alive and well. The BRICS met, mostly to complain, while ASEAN’s leaders gathered in Phnom Penh, mostly to pat themselves on the back. The Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) took a step forward by reaching agreement on a trilateral investment treaty. In elections around the region, continuity prevailed in Taiwan, as it did in Korea (to the surprise of most pundits) and Russia (to no one’s surprise). Meanwhile, Beijing seems to have taken a few steps back as a result of the Bo Xilai and Chen Guancheng affairs.
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.
A few dim rays of light pierced what has been the darkness of the Six-Party Talks since their suspension in December 2008, raising hopes that we would see a resumption of dialogue in the next few months (even though prospects for actual Korean Peninsula denuclearization remain low). US-China relations continued to mend at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) gatherings amid ever-so-slight progress toward the creation of a South China Sea Code of Conduct. Vice President Biden’s first official trip to China added to the light.
Hopes have also been raised that new prime ministers in Thailand and Japan can help end the political quagmires in both countries. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and subsequent meeting with “civilian” government officials also provide a ray of hope that progress might be made in moving Burma/Myanmar toward democracy. Meanwhile, the self-inflicted debt crisis in the US has further dimmed hopes for US leadership in Asia and globally.
Looking forward, there are flickering hopes that this year’s APEC Leaders Meeting in Honolulu will shine a new spotlight on this increasingly overshadowed institution. Finally, lest we forget, the biggest headline of this four-month period appeared on its first day: “Bin Laden is Dead!” Many hope this signals the beginning of the end for al Qaeda; others hope it will hasten the US exit from Afghanistan as well.
The biggest headlines during the first four months of 2011 were generated by the triple tragedy in Japan – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear crisis – which left Tokyo (and much of the rest of the world) shaking, especially over nuclear safety. On the Korean Peninsula, Chinese concerns about the ROK/US “enough is enough” (over?)reaction to North Korean aggressiveness resulted in Beijing’s acknowledgment that the road to a solution must run through Seoul, thus providing a new foundation upon which to build toward a resumption of Six-Party Talks. Meanwhile, elections among the Tibetan diaspora began a long-anticipated political transition in in the exile community, shaking Chinese policy toward the province. More fighting between Thailand and Cambodia over disputed borders has rattled ASEAN as it challenges the most important of its guiding principles – the peaceful resolution of disputes. Economic developments this trimester all highlighted growing doubts about the global economic order and the US leadership role. It’s easy to predict the biggest headline of the next four month period: “Bin Laden is Dead!” Implications for Asia will be examined in the next issue; initial reactions were predictable.
Last quarter we noted that the US profile in Asia was on the rise and China’s image was falling, while questioning if North Korea was changing, as Beijing, among others, seemed to insist. This quarter has been marked by more of the same, on all three fronts.
President Obama made a high-profile trip to Asia, visiting India, Korea (to attend the first Asia-hosted G20 meeting), Japan (for the APEC Leaders Meeting), and Indonesia. Secretary of State Clinton give a major address in Honolulu (co-hosted by the Pacific Forum CSIS) on US Asia policy, before her sixth trip to Asia, this time traveling to Guam, China, Vietnam (where the US officially joined the East Asia Summit), Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and finally Australia, where she linked up with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Melbourne for a 2+2 meeting with their Aussie counterparts. Gates also visited Hanoi for the first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus gathering in early October and stopped by Malaysia on his way home from Australia, while the USS George Washington paid a return visit to the Yellow Sea before participating in a joint US-Japan military exercise near Okinawa.
Beijing appeared to back off its aggressive stance in the East China Sea and South China Sea and uttered hardly a peep in response to the US aircraft carrier operations off Korea’s west coast. It did, however, continue to protect and essentially enable Pyongyang’s bad behavior by blocking any serious UNSC response to North Korea’s artillery attack on South Korean civilians on Yeonpyeong Island, its recently unveiled uranium enrichment program, or its ongoing efforts to subvert UNSC sanctions. Pyongyang once again offered an “unconditional” return to the Six-Party Talks while reinforcing the preconditions (including a peace treaty with the US and recognition of its nuclear-weapons state status) that stand in the way of actual denuclearization.
2010 proved to be a generally good year, economically speaking, as most economies bounced back from the mauling they received in 2009. It was not that good a year politically for President Obama, as he watched his Democratic Party take a real drubbing in the November mid-term elections. He did, however, exhibit great political courage in pressing the Senate in a lame duck session to vote on the New START Treaty with the Russians, which was ratified at quarter’s end. Rumors of Obama’s political demise are, we suspect, greatly overstated.
The US profile in Asia appears to be on the rise following Secretary of State Clinton’s highly publicized presentation at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial in Hanoi in July and President Obama’s New York meeting with ASEAN leaders at quarter’s end. Meanwhile Beijing’s image took a few hits as it tried to bully Japan (successfully), the US and ROK (unsuccessfully), and ASEAN (TBD) on maritime-related issues, while seemingly having nothing but kind thoughts and gestures for the DPRK, essentially serving as its defense attorney during UN Security Council deliberations regarding the attack on the Cheonan. Prospects for a resumption of Six-Party Talks remained low, despite a professed willingness by Pyongyang to return to the table (albeit as a recognized nuclear weapon state). New faces appeared in the North’s general officer ranks but the (seemingly nonexistent) prospects for Korean Peninsula denuclearization remained unchanged.
Meanwhile, democracy marches on, one step forward in Japan and two backward in Burma/Myanmar, while Washington seeks greater economic integration in Asia, not just through traditional vehicles such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) “gathering of economies,” but through the “gold standard” Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The US profile is expected to grow further next quarter with President Obama and Secretary Clinton both scheduled for high-profile visits to the region. We’ll see what Beijing does to improve its image; we expect little progress when it comes to Pyongyang.
Hopes for a resumption of Six-Party Talks this past quarter were torpedoed when an international investigation team concluded that the ROK Navy ship Cheonan was deliberately attacked by a North Korean submarine. The Chinese, while scuttling plans for UNSC censure of Pyongyang, fired a warning shot of their own, denying Defense Secretary Gates’ request for a China visit after the Shangri-La Dialogue in June in a sign of continued displeasure over US arms sales to Taiwan. Also once again torpedoed, this time by an oil spill, was President Obama’s twice-delayed “homecoming” visit to Indonesia.
ASEAN defense officials gathered in Singapore in June for the Shangri-La Dialogue but not until after convening their fourth ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) in Hanoi in May where they finalized plans for a broader multilateral ADMM Plus Eight confab to improve regional defense cooperation. If successful, the ADMM+ could render the Shangri-La Dialogue obsolete. Other regional multilateral activity included the third China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Summit and the 10th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, while globally the G8 and G20 met for the first time back-to-back in Canada, with the G20 beginning to outshine its older more exclusive cousin.
The Obama administration published its overdue National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review reports this quarter, outlining its overall strategic priorities and the (diminished) role of nuclear weapons as, together with Moscow, Washington made a New START toward its declared goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. Nuclear safety and security were very much on the president’s mind as he convened the first ever Nuclear Security Summit involving leaders and other senior officials from 49 countries in Washington and applauded the success of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York.
Finally, it’s been a rough quarter politically in East Asia, especially in Thailand where “red shirt” protests and government reactions both turned violent. In Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama chose to walk the plank (and took ruling party Secretary General Ozawa with him) in hopes of salvaging his party’s chances in the upcoming Upper House elections while Prime Minister Rudd was also a victim of a surprise attack, in this case coming from his own party. A peaceful transfer of power did take place in the Philippines, however, and Hong Kong took another baby step toward promised universal suffrage.
Last quarter we focused on remarks by US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaiming that “America is back in Asia,” an obvious dig at real and perceived neglect of Asia by the previous administration. This quarter, both were forced to postpone planned trips to Asia although, in Secretary Clinton’s case, not before giving a major Asia policy address in Honolulu. This quarter also ended the same as last, amid hints that Pyongyang really would, at some not too distant point (but not this past quarter), return to six-party deliberations.
On a more positive note, it looks like arms control agreements are on the way back, following the announcement that the US and Russia had finally come to terms on a new strategic arms agreement, to be signed by both presidents in April. Speculation about the “changing balance of power” in Asia also continues as a result of China’s economic resilience and apparent newfound confidence, although it still seems premature to announce that the Middle Kingdom is back, given the challenges highlighted at this year’s National Peoples’ Congress. Political normalcy also appears to be a long way from returning to Bangkok where the “red shirts” have once again taken to the street, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.
The US is back in Asia! This was the central theme of President Obama’s major Asia policy speech, delivered in Tokyo on the first leg of a four-country swing through Asia this past quarter. North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il also hinted that Pyongyang might come back to the Six-Party Talks after a visit to the North Korean capital by Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth. Kim did not meet Bosworth but he did meet with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the beginning of the quarter, signaling that he too was back from the death bed many had placed him in. Washington’s commitment to multilateral cooperation was renewed at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting. Obama also followed through on the Bush administration’s earlier unrealized plan to convene the first-ever full ASEAN-US summit. Historic rivalries within Southeast Asia returned to the front-burner as Thailand and Cambodia turned up the heat in a very un-ASEAN way. Asia’s economies also appear to be returning from the dead while Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s proposal for a new Asia-Pacific Community refuses to die, despite an apparent lack of enthusiasm within and beyond ASEAN.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept her promise and showed up at the first ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Ministerial Meeting to take place on her watch and, also as promised, signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) on behalf of the United States. Unfortunately, North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il also kept his promises: to ignore all UN Security Council resolutions, to shoot more missiles, and to never, ever (or at least not this past quarter) return to the Six-Party Talks. In response, Washington pledged to continue its full-court press on enforcing UN-imposed sanctions despite a few “good-will gestures” from Pyongyang. U.S. President Barack Obama also kept his promise to take significant steps toward global disarmament, chairing a UN Security Council session to underscore his commitment to this ideal. Meanwhile signs of the promised recovery of the global economy were in evidence this past quarter, with Asia leading the way.
Pyongyang reverted to form this quarter, reminding the new U.S. administration that old challenges would not be easily or quickly negotiated away. Its attention-getting devices included a failed “satellite launch” and an apparently successful nuclear test, along with a promise to never, ever return to the Six-Party Talks. China and Russia, in each case after much diplomatic gnashing of teeth, joined in strongly condemning these violations of prior United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.
At the annual Shangri-La Security Dialogue, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates showed the Obama administration’s softer, gentler side while the senior Chinese representative demonstrated that the “Cold War mentality” lives on. China did join with its BRIC counterparts – Brazil, Russia, and India – in another new approach to dealing with global challenges, even as the first positive indicators were being touted as signs of life in a moribund global economy.
Politics as unusual was the order of the day, as North Korea apparently grappled with the issue of succession, continued civil (or not so civil) disobedience in Thailand resulted in the embarrassing cancellation of a number of ASEAN-related summits, and the much-beleaguered prime minister in Malaysia stepped down. It was better news for India’s prime minister, who won a resounding victory this quarter, a feat which many expect Indonesia’s president to duplicate next quarter. And, trials and tribulations among its members notwithstanding, there are signs that the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) may actually be coming of age. Finally, President Obama’s Asia team is finally in place.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s choice of Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China for her first official trip overseas helped shine a spotlight on Asia as a high priority region this quarter, as did North Korean Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s announcement that he intended to conduct a satellite launch in early April. The drama surrounding the anticipated launch provided an unfortunate back drop for otherwise very positive pronouncements about intended Obama administration policies in East Asia, even if the quarter closed with only a handful of those eventually to be tasked with implementing these policies at their desks. ASEAN leaders finally held their postponed summit and celebrated the entry into force of their much-maligned Charter. Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visited Washington to underscore that the U.S. and Australia are still “mates,” even as his reluctance to send more combat forces to Afghanistan foreshadowed the difficulty President Obama faces in getting allies to sign up for his “surge” there. Finally, economic forecasts kept being adjusted downward as Asian leaders prepared for the G20 summit in London in hopes that this would bring a turnaround.
Things generally went from bad to worse in the Asia-Pacific this past quarter. The Six-Party Talks began on a low note and went steadily downhill from there as Pyongyang stonewalled against even a moderately intrusive verification regime. Crippling demonstrations in Bangkok not only dealt a severe blow to Thailand’s economy (and image) but forced ASEAN to postpone both its annual round of summitry (including ASEAN Plus Three and the East Asia Summit) and its planned celebration of its Charter ratification. The Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) did manage to hold their first non-ASEAN-affiliated summit and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting did go off without a hitch, but neither had much impact on growing regional (and global) economic woes as economic forecasts kept being revised downward. Many in Asia saw a possible light at the end of one tunnel with the election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president, although elite opinion, especially in Northeast Asia, remained mixed as they kept a watchful eye out for Asia policy pronouncements and the names of those who will be chosen to implement them.
Hopes of progress in Six-Party Talks negotiations evident in the closing days of the previous quarter were quickly dashed as anticipated disagreements over verification of North Korea’s nuclear declaration created a stalemate still in evidence at quarter’s end. The only movement was backward, as “action for action” was replaced by inaction and worse. Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made news by not showing up at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial. This year she went and hardly anyone noticed. The democratic process made for interesting watching this quarter, not only in Thailand and Malaysia, but in East Asia’s most established democracy, as Japan saw its third leader in the 24 months since Prime Minister Koizumi departed the scene. The once presumably left for dead U.S.-India nuclear deal was reincarnated by the Indian Parliament this quarter with the U.S. Congress following suit at quarter’s end and President Bush’s signature in early October. Finally, the U.S. sneezed this quarter and the rest of the world did catch cold, even as Wall Street struggles with a serious bout of pneumonia. Economic policy also dominated the “foreign policy debate” between Senators Obama and McCain, with no questions and only sparse references to Asia throughout.
After eight months of inaction, there was a flurry of six-party action at quarter’s end. As Pyongyang produced its long-awaited declaration of its nuclear activities, President Bush announced his intention to remove North Korea from the U.S. listing of state sponsors of terrorism and Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) restrictions. Pyongyang responded with a made-for-TV demolition of the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. Elsewhere, respective reactions to natural disasters showed how far China has come and Myanmar/Burma still has to go in dealing with the outside world. There was a generally positive reaction to Secretary Gates’ Shangri-La statements on U.S. East Asia policy and toward the two U.S. presidential candidates (or their surrogates) early pronouncements about Asia as well. In contrast, there has been almost no reaction at all to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s call for a more inclusive Asia-Pacific community.
Democracy seemed to be struggling in Thailand and in Mongolia, even as a reshuffling of coalition partners in India promised to resurrect the India-U.S. nuclear deal from the near-dead, just as Indian Prime Minister Singh prepared to meet President Bush along the sidelines of the upcoming G8 meeting in Japan. With this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting scheduled for Peru in November, and with leaders from China, South Korea, and India among the invited guests to the July 6-8 summit at Lake Toyako, the G8 meeting will likely serve as President Bush’s last opportunity for East Asia multilateral summitry. Finally, a word to our readers in Korea: Get the facts! American beef is safe. Period. End of sentence.
“It is always darkest just before the dawn of a new day” goes the old saying. Well, it looks pretty dark when it comes to U.S.‑DPRK relations and the prospects for the Six‑Party Talks, with no significant progress reported this quarter in the quest for a “complete and correct declaration” of North Korea’s nuclear programs and activities. Hope springs eternal, however, as both sides continued to work toward a much needed “third breakthrough” in the next quarter.
Meanwhile, with a change of government in Seoul and an impending change in Taipei, an era of improved relations with Washington may be dawning. It’s a new day in Thailand as well, or perhaps more accurately, a return to the (good?) old days when Thaksin ruled. Election results in Malaysia indicate that politics as usual will no longer be the norm in Kuala Lumpur, while in Russia, a change in leadership seems to represent no change at all. No change is also the operative word when it comes to Burma. Unfortunately, it just appears to be getting darker when it comes to Tibet as well. Finally, with the U.S. economy sneezing, how confident are we that Asia will not soon catch cold?
The quarter began with high hopes, following the year’s second Six-Party Talks “breakthrough,” but it was all down hill after that. On Oct. 3, Beijing announced a “second phase” implementation plan that laid out a series of specific Korean Peninsula denuclearization actions to be accomplished by Dec. 31. Unfortunately, the new year tolled with the most critical of these promised actions – a mutually acceptable “complete and correct declaration” of all North Korean nuclear programs, facilities, and activities – nowhere to be found. The much-anticipated ASEAN Charter was also signed this quarter but hopes that Myanmar would somehow be penalized for its brutal suppression of peaceful protests earlier in the fall were dashed as the other members took an ostrich-like approach to the problem. The third East Asia Summit took place as scheduled, with outside observers still not fully clear about the group’s objectives or its place in the greater multilateral mix. The largest multilateral gathering of the quarter took place in Bali, where those worried about global warming expelled a lot of hot air in producing a potentially useful but currently not very specific “Bali Roadmap” on climate change. The democratic process remained alive and well with new governments being elected in Australia, South Korea, and Thailand, even as China was ruling that Hong Kong would not be ready for a more representative government until at least 2017. On the economic front, 2007 proved to be a good year for Asia, with growth consistent with pre-year projections; most forecasters see only a modest slowdown in 2008, despite lingering concerns about over the fallout from the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis.
Multilateralism was the order of the day in the Asia-Pacific this quarter. Two sessions of the Six-Party Talks and a number of associated bilateral and multilateral working group sessions were held, culminating in a “breakthrough” at quarter’s end, at least in terms of the disablement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and associated 10+X ministerial meetings took place amid reports of steady progress on the development of ASEAN’s first Charter. The annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting resulted in rhetorical commitments to combat global warming and move the Doha round of trade talks forward, while President George W. Bush met for the third time in a summit with assembled ASEAN leaders along the APEC sidelines. The failure of Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice to attend the ARF meeting (her second miss in three attempts) and the cancellation of Bush’s follow-on visit to Singapore (for what would have been his first full summit meeting with ASEAN leaders) renewed concerns about the U.S. commitment to the region, despite the deepening of the U.S.-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership. Multilateral military cooperation included major exercises in the Indian Ocean and Central Asia by what some portray (inaccurately?) as emerging rival blocs. Democracy watchers continued to keep a close eye on Bangkok’s slow return to democracy and election dynamics in Seoul and Taipei, even while expressing revulsion over the latest giant step backward taken by the military junta in Rangoon.
The quarter opened with Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill proclaiming that we were “a few days away” from overcoming the “technical issues” that were holding up the Korean Peninsula denuclearization process. Unfortunately, those few days did not take place until mid-June, postponing the long-awaited 60-day test of the Feb. 13 “action for action” agreement until next quarter. Also pending is a test of the willingness of the nations of Southeast Asia to develop a meaningful Charter in commemoration of ASEAN’s 40th birthday, following this quarter’s review of (and reported revisions to) the groundbreaking draft provided last quarter by its Eminent Persons Group. The commitment of Thailand’s military leaders to restore democracy is also being tested, as is Beijing’s commitment to Hong Kong’s Basic Law on the 10th anniversary of reversion. Meanwhile, new U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and China’s new PLA Deputy Chief of the General Staff Zhang Qinsheng passed their initial diplomatic tests this quarter while making their first appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Finally, East Asia’s economy, 10 years after the Asian financial crisis, appears to have nicely survived the test of time.
The Year of the Golden Pig has gotten off to an auspicious beginning. The Six-Party Talks, seemingly left for dead at the end of last quarter, were miraculously revived, resulting in an “action for action” game plan for the phased implementation of the September 2005 joint denuclearization agreement. Neither weather nor terrorism concerns prevented the second East Asia Summit from taking place as rescheduled, with the U.S. nowhere to be found. ASEAN leaders also took a step forward in examining their first formal Charter while agreeing with their Plus Three partners (China, Japan, and South Korea, finally once again on speaking terms) to promote greater regional integration. Tokyo and Canberra took a dramatic step forward in strengthening bilateral security cooperation, while the second “Armitage-Nye Report” was released, laying out a bipartisan vision for “getting Asia right.”
The quarter started with a bang, literally, as North Korea made good on its threat to test a nuclear weapon, resulting in a strongly worded (but not strongly enforceable) UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR 1718) imposing sanctions. To the surprise of some, Pyongyang agreed to return to another round of Six-Party Talks this quarter; to the surprise of virtually no one, the talks went nowhere. The most anticipated multilateral event of the quarter, the second East Asia Summit (EAS), was postponed (ostensibly due to weather), but the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting did take place on schedule, along with a side meeting between President Bush and the “ASEAN Seven.” Democracy took another hit in the region, this time via a military coup in Fiji, even as the road back to democracy in Thailand is proving to be longer than promised. The Asia Pacific economic outlook remains good, with the region continuing to set the pace for the rest of the world. The political outlook is not as sunny.
The last quarter ended with the international community playing “will they, or won’t they” over North Korea’s threatened missile test; they did! This quarter it’s déjà vu all over again, this time concerning a threatened nuclear weapons test. Following the UN Security Council’s surprisingly tough response to the missile tests, efforts were made to jump-start the negotiation process at this summer’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting. This attempt proved fruitless, however, as North Korea’s foreign minister refused to come to an “informal” six-party meeting, despite the opportunity to meet face-to-face with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who, despite genuine crises in the Middle East, made the extra effort to attend this year’s ministerial meeting). Elsewhere in Asia, ASEAN foreign ministers held their 39th annual Ministerial and numerous 10+1 post-ministerial talks (including a productive session with Secretary Rice), along with an ASEAN Plus Three meeting with their counterparts from China, Japan, and the ROK. Meanwhile, the democratic process continued to witness ups and (mostly) downs in Asia, as the military coup in Thailand reminds us of just how fragile the democratic process remains in Asia.
The second quarter of 2006 went about as well for U.S.-Japan relations as could be imagined. The two governments agreed on a plan to restructure their military alliance; the ban on U.S. beef exports to Japan was lifted (again); the two countries’ diplomacy appears to be well coordinated as they deal with vexing issues (Iran and North Korea); and the “Sayonara Summit” was a PR success (as anticipated). From all appearances, the foundation has been laid for a successful U.S.-Japan partnership that outlives the George Bush-Koizumi Junichiro “special relationship.”
The U.S.-Japan alliance returned to earth this quarter. After a dizzying five-year run during which Japanese actions consistently exceeded U.S. expectations, old habits reasserted themselves in the first quarter of 2006. Unfinished business – base relocations and the reimposition of the Japanese ban on imports of U.S. beef – bedeviled both governments, while coordination on a range of other global issues proved equally frustrating. This is especially troubling as Japan becomes increasingly focused on the transition to the post-Koizumi era, which begins in September when the prime minister steps down. There is a real danger that alliance issues will fester as the Japanese gaze narrows to domestic concerns.
The last quarter of 2005 will be remembered as a historic moment for the U.S.-Japan alliance. In October, the Security Consultative Committee (the “SCC” is the meeting of secretaries/ministers of foreign affairs and defense, sometimes referred to as the “2+2”) ratified an interim report on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan that could usher in a new era in relations between the two countries. If realized, the report will transform the alliance.
That’s a big “if.” This is only an “interim” report and the problems it “solves” have plagued the alliance for a decade. Seeing the agreement implemented will be difficult. Moreover, the weeks before the agreement was reached were marked by rancor and rhetoric that matched that of the dark days of Japan bashing. Petulance and posturing are a poor foundation for a “rejuvenated” alliance.
In a show of political derring-do, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro called a snap election in August after facing resistance to economic reform from his own party. The prime minister read the public mood well: the ballot produced a landslide victory that permitted him to steamroll the opposition both within the Diet and within his party. In theory, Koizumi’s new strength should help the alliance; his new mandate should cover security policies, too. In reality, voters were thinking less expansively, however. And in practical terms, the political landscape has been so transformed that adjusting to it will take time. Important decisions will not be made and patience will be at a premium.
Delays hit two important U.S. concerns: redeploying U.S. forces in Japan and lifting the ban on U.S. beef imports. Failure to resolve these issues is ratcheting up pressure in Washington and may even prompt a public falling out. Congressional hearings that evoke the Japan bashing of old may be a harbinger of things to come in the next quarter.
Two issues dominated U.S.-Japan relations this quarter. The first, Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), is a high-profile diplomatic contest that could strain the alliance even though it is not about the alliance. The second is the continuing effort to transform the U.S. military presence in Asia and how the resulting deployments in Japan will look. There was no resolution to either issue, nor will there be one in the immediate future: the interests and constituencies involved are so large that it will take considerable time to work out a solution acceptable to both countries. Smaller trade issues – beef and apples – were also back on the bilateral agenda. Dealing with all these items will test the alliance management skills of the new team in the State Department, one that is increasingly depleted of senior Japan hands.
The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II poses challenges of its own. Many people, in Japan and elsewhere, see the 60th anniversary as especially significant, signaling the end of an era. Optimists see this as the moment that Japan emerges from its postwar slumber to assume a new role in Asia and the world; pessimists worry that part of the reckoning could focus on the U.S.-Japan alliance, and that the accounting of history that has so roiled Tokyo’s neighbors, will soon engulf the bilateral relationship.
In the first quarter of 2005, the United States and Japan signed a historic declaration that laid a foundation for the future of their bilateral security alliance. The Feb. 19 Security Consultative Committee (SCC) meeting both locked in the impressive progress that has been made in the security dimension of the alliance over the past four years and committed Washington and Tokyo to continuing efforts to modernize their alliance. Yet, as the two governments looked toward a rejuvenated alliance, an increasingly contentious trade spat over beef reminded both countries that bad old habits were ever ready to spoil celebrations over “the best relations ever.”
Both governments will have their hands full. To help reassure Japanese that a new foreign policy team in Washington – or at least the departure of the most prominent Japan hands – does not augur a shift in U.S. priorities, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made Japan her first stop in East Asia during a six-country Asian tour. In Tokyo, she wowed the crowd despite sending a tough message on beef and walking a careful line on North Korea policy.
The final quarter of 2004 was uneventful, at least as far as U.S.-Japan relations were concerned. I don’t dwell on this tranquility to fill space; it’s revealing of the maturity and solidity of the relationship and a welcome change from the turbulence of the 1990s. This period of calm permits the two governments to focus on future planning rather than alliance management. To their credit, they are doing just that.
Highlights of this quarter include a public discussion of the meaning of the “Far East” clause in the U.S.-Japan security treaty, a topic that fits into a broader national security debate that is taking place in Japan, Japan’s hosting of a Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) exercise in Sagami Bay, and approval of the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), which outline Japan’s future security posture. The quarter closed with the terrible earthquake in Indonesia and the tsunami it created; Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro was quick to respond, both to deploy Japan’s formidable assets to help combat the devastation, and to demonstrate his country’s ability to play a vital regional and international role.
It has been another relatively calm quarter for U.S.-Japan relations. There was one potential calamity (the crash of a U.S. helicopter in Okinawa) and a few controversies, but, in the main, the alliance was on cruise control. The issues of note had Japanese domestic political consequences: the Upper House election, comments from U.S. officials about the Japanese constitution and, related to that, the Bush-Koizumi meeting at the United Nations that addressed, among other things, Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
In short, the alliance is functioning well and absorbing rather smoothly whatever complications arise: in addition to the helicopter crash, chessmaster and hatemeister Bobby Fischer’s arrest and subsequent asylum request and the return from North Korea of alleged U.S. Army defector Charles Robert Jenkins are the two most significant this quarter. The best indication of the state of the relationship may be the fact that Japan has not come up in this year’s election campaign. The solidity and stability of the alliance have allowed it to recede into the background.
Relations between the United States and Japan were very good this quarter, even though a number of events threatened to derail the solid ties between the two governments. A hostage crisis in Iraq and the discovery of an alleged al-Qaeda network in Japan brought home to Japanese the reality of the war on terror. No longer could they disassociate themselves from events half a world away. By the end of the quarter, both governments could point to their relationship as an example of how an alliance is supposed to work; Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro could finally make the case that his close relationship with President Bush paid tangible dividends. Not only was his strategy vindicated, but he could point to an outcome on a key policy that a majority of Japanese could support.
It’s only fitting that the United States and Japan marked the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Kanagawa this quarter as they celebrated “the best relations ever” between the two nations. Cynics will note that it’s only downhill from here, so there is every reason to enjoy the blissful state of relations while we can. To the delight of alliance managers on both sides of the Pacific, both governments managed to stay the course. There were no surprises or shocks, despite concerns about the risks in Japan’s deployment of Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq.
That historic event was part of a larger effort to strengthen the framework for intensified collaboration between Washington and Tokyo. That agenda continues to move forward. There were some bumps along the way, but they were minor. All in all, it was a very good quarter.
Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s “victory” in Japan’s Nov. 7 ballot was the big event in U.S.-Japan relations this quarter. The ruling coalition’s win was a stamp of approval for Tokyo’s support of the United States-led invasion of Iraq and the controversial decision to send Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to assist the postwar reconstruction of that country. The Japanese public is less than enthusiastic about U.S. policy in the Middle East, but the election results seemingly validated the prime minister’s support for President George W. Bush and Koizumi’s efforts to keep pushing the envelope on security policy. Thus, this quarter saw the Japanese Cabinet approve the controversial SDF deployment, the departure of the advanced guard of that group, a decision to deploy theater missile defense systems, and agreement to forgo some of Iraq’s debt to Japan.
Astute readers will note the qualifications in this assessment. Still, there are few signs that the cooperation and the partnership will be troubled in the near future. There are indications of potential long-term difficulties, however. Fatalities during the Iraqi deployment could have a powerful effect on public sentiment and erode support for the alliance. Rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula could have a similar effect. In both cases, the United States could be seen as having dragged an overly compliant Japanese government into harm’s way or Koizumi could be charged with sacrificing Japanese national interests to protect the U.S.-Japan alliance. The solution is not to avoid difficult situations; rather Tokyo needs to do a better job of selling its policies to the Japanese public. The government needs to use the language of national interest instead of merely saying that is acting “as a good partner should.” There are signs that Tokyo is learning.
It has been a quiet quarter for the U.S.-Japan relationship. The dispatch of troops to Iraq notwithstanding, there have been no serious, specific bilateral problems for the two governments to address. While they have diverged on some multilateral questions, the goodwill accumulated over the last two years has bridged those differences.
In both countries, domestic politics dominated decision making. Japan Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro focused on re-election as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president; having won that campaign he now turns to the general election expected in early November. U.S. President George W. Bush has begun to concentrate on the 2004 campaign with U.S. voters increasingly concerned about their economic prospects. Fortunately for Japan, in this context, China looms larger in the American mind. Attention will now turn to the Oct. 17 summit between the two men. Both governments will do their best to ensure the meeting goes well. It should: U.S.-Japan relations are one of the few unquestioned successes for both administrations.
I was wrong: U.S.-Japan relations could get better – and this quarter they did. Tokyo continued to provide rock solid support for the U.S. in Iraq and North Korea, even though the Japanese public had doubts about the U.S. war on Baghdad. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro was rewarded for that backing with a summit at President Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch, a privilege reserved for only a very few world leaders. The passage of “emergency legislation” and renewed enthusiasm for missile defense were more proof that Tokyo’s efforts to modernize its national security policies have not slowed. The prospect of U.S. force redeployments worldwide only confirmed the significance of the alliance and its increasingly sturdy foundations: while much of the region worried about a reduced U.S. presence, alliance officials discussed adding to U.S. forces in Japan. Even the fallout from crimes by U.S. servicemen on Okinawa was contained.
Some dark spots became apparent at the end of the quarter, but it would be churlish to focus on them. Economic issues are still a problem, and dollar devaluation adds a new wrinkle. But those misgivings aren’t new and I’m tired of sounding like Cassandra. So this quarter we celebrate without reservation the U.S.-Japan relationship.
It just doesn’t get any better than this. The dream of Japan becoming “the UK of Asia” doesn’t seem so absurd after a quarter in which London and Tokyo proved to be the U.S.’s most reliable allies. Those two governments backed the U.S. attack on Iraq despite considerable opposition at home. In a marked contrast to the past, the government of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro has provided the U.S. with vocal political support, active diplomatic support, and expanding logistical support for the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. New realism in Japanese security thinking has propelled the alliance from one high note to another.
It takes some searching – and some cynicism – to find dark clouds on this ever-expanding horizon. The possibility of the war going wrong is one danger – but in that case, the U.S.-Japan alliance is likely to be the least of the concerns. More realistically, dealing with North Korea is likely to be troublesome. It has been relatively easy for Washington and Tokyo to stay in step when dealing with Pyongyang because policy has been immobilized. When the logjam breaks and serious diplomacy begins, the strains will reveal themselves. And, of course, there is the continuing stagnation in the Japanese economy. The last quarter has proven the poverty of the current government’s economic thinking; as the fiscal year ended, the government resorted to old tricks to inflate the stock market. This situation cannot continue. The U.S. cannot bear the economic and military burdens of war alone; Japan will have to step up.
The alliance optimists should be permitted to gloat. This quarter vindicated their faith in the government of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro. Tokyo continued its support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism and even upped the ante by agreeing to send an Aegis-equipped destroyer to the Indian Ocean after a year of sometimes heated debate on the feasibility and legality of such a move. When news of North Korea’s clandestine nuclear weapons development program broke, concern about a possible split between Washington and Tokyo on dealing with Pyongyang proved unfounded. The U.S. and Japan have worked closely to fashion a solution to the crisis. There has been little daylight between the two governments’ positions.
Recent comments about Japanese participation in the missile defense (MD) program also comfort the alliance hawks, but the reaction they prompted reveals that over-reaching is a danger in Japan. Despite the progress of the last quarter, consensus on security issues is still elusive. A similar caution is necessary on the economic front. Japan’s economy has slid again into recession and that will constrain Tokyo’s efforts to share additional international economic burdens.
It has been another peaceful quarter for U.S.-Japan relations. That the bilateral relationship could be so calm despite the tumult in international diplomacy generally is testimony to the current strength and stability of the alliance. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s surprise visit to Pyongyang and the U.S.’s full court press to get the international community to take action against Iraq have provided ample opportunities for friction in relations between Washington and Tokyo. Although critics see tensions on the rise, the two governments seem to be keeping their differences at a manageable level.
Success could prove temporary. At the best of times, the U.S. and Japan have very different approaches to international problem solving; the Bush administration’s muscular foreign policy – as made evident in the newly published National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS) – may prove to be more than the Japanese public is willing to bear. Washington’s fixation on “regime change” in Iraq threatens to put the alliance under serious strain. Fortunately, in this context, managing relations with Japan demands no more of Washington than that which the U.S. should provide the international community more generally: convincing evidence that underpins U.S. concerns and respect for the views of others.
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.
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.
He did it. Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro confounded the skeptics – this writer among them – and delivered on an unprecedented package of measures to support the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. The results are a victory for supporters of the U.S.-Japan alliance and a validation of their strategy to nudge Japan toward a greater role in regional security. And not only did the Japanese government act in a timely manner, but shrewd diplomacy by the prime minister disarmed critics within the region. This outcome is yet more remarkable given the confusion in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, courtesy of the on-going war between Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko and the bureaucrats under her.
If recent events are reminiscent of the halcyon days of the alliance, the memories may be more bittersweet than some prefer. As in the good old days, the strengthening of security ties poses a sharp contrast to those on the economic front. Trade frictions, in that old favorite, the steel sector, are one irritant. The real problem is the continuing deterioration of the Japanese economy. Tokyo’s failure to take forceful action in dealing with the troubled financial sector has set off alarms in Washington. Officials in both capitals recognize that any solution depends on political courage in Tokyo. Japan’s heartening response to Sept. 11 notwithstanding, few expect similar action on the economic front.
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.”