Volume 10, Issue 1

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January - March 2008 · Published: Apr 2008

“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?

Japanese domestic politics was in turmoil this quarter due to a divided legislature and the opposition’s efforts to block several key pieces of legislation in an attempt to force Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo out of office.  The deadlock centered almost exclusively on economic issues, much to the dismay of U.S. investors who have increasingly begun to question the ability of the political leadership in Japan to manage the economy.  The Fukuda administration signaled Japan’s sustained commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance and a leadership role in international security by passing a bill re-authorizing Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) refueling operations in the Indian Ocean.  But a collision between an MSDF Aegis-equipped destroyer and a fishing boat near Tokyo in February, coupled with continued fallout from a bribery scandal last fall, forced the government to focus more on structural reform at the Defense Ministry at the expense of new policy initiatives.  Rape allegations against a U.S. soldier stationed in Okinawa and the detainment of another as a murder suspect sparked demonstrations against the U.S. military presence in Japan, though the two governments worked closely to prevent a crisis.  Bilateral coordination on the Six-Party Talks continued and there were hints of renewed interest in a trilateral consultation framework with South Korea.  Several events in Washington were dedicated to the U.S.-Japan alliance and brought public attention to pressing issues and ideas that might inform a bilateral agenda going forward.

Developments on China’s domestic front were prominent this quarter with extreme winter weather coinciding with the Spring Festival, the annual convocation of the “two meetings” in Beijing, and protests in Tibet that spread to neighboring provinces with Tibetan populations.  Key events in Sino-U.S. bilateral ties included the fifth Senior Dialogue in Guiyang, a brief visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to kick-start the Six-Party Talks, and a visit by FBI Director Robert Mueller to discuss security for the upcoming August Olympic Games.  In the military sphere, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Timothy Keating traveled to China and the Defense Policy Coordination Talks produced several agreements.  Stable and complicated were watchwords for the Sino-U.S. relationship.

US - Korea

January — March 2008

A New Day

The major event of the first quarter of 2008 was the inauguration of a new government in South Korea.  The Lee Myung-bak government offered some initial signals of the types of policies it intends to pursue both on and off the peninsula.  While there is much that was accomplished under the Roh Moo-hyun government in U.S.-ROK relations, most experts agree that the overall tone between the new Lee government and the Bush administration will improve considerably.  Meanwhile, U.S.-DPRK relations in the context of the Six-Party Talks remain stuck on completing the second phase of the denuclearization agreement, despite some audibles by the U.S. team in conjunction with the Chinese.  While we may be in the first quarter of the year, it may be the last quarter for the six-party process absent any progress.

US - Russia

January — April 2008

Weathering the Storm

As even the most casual of observers knows, the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship has deteriorated steadily over the past five years.  Signs seemed to point to this past quarter as the culmination of the confrontation between Moscow and Washington, with a number of key events scheduled to occur: a Kosovar declaration of independence, further NATO expansion, the Russian presidential election, and a 2+2 meeting focused on the controversial missile defense system in Eastern Europe.  But as the quarter ended with an unexpected, yet cordial summit meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin in Sochi, the relationship seemed to have weathered the cold winter and spring seems to have brought a harbinger of better relations – at least until the U.S. presidential election in November.

On a bilateral level, U.S. relations with Southeast Asia held steady in the face of complicated political transitions in Thailand and Malaysia.  Incremental gains were seen in security ties with U.S. allies and partners in the region – Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore – while two issues remaining from the Vietnam War era complicated relations with Vietnam and Cambodia.  Although the U.S. is no closer to signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, three new initiatives with ASEAN were put onto the table in early 2008, suggesting an alternative path to a stronger regional role for the U.S.  However, Burma’s deteriorating situation casts a long shadow over U.S. bilateral and regional relations with Southeast Asia.  The regime’s determination to go forward with a constitutional referendum in May is creating new fissures within the region and will make it more difficult for Washington to pursue comprehensive plans of any kind to strengthen relations with ASEAN.

Preoccupied this quarter with key decisions on appointments, budgets, and government reorganization in the lead-up to the 11th National People’s Congress while facing serious disruption caused by February snowstorms and instability in Tibet during March, senior Chinese leaders had little time for travel to or substantial interaction with Southeast Asia. Chinese economic relations with the region moved forward, defense relations with Singapore and Indonesia advanced, and China and Vietnam seemed to calm disputes over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In January, Taiwan’s voters delivered a stunning defeat to the Democratic Progressive Party in the Legislative Yuan elections.  These results both foreshadowed and influenced the resounding victory Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou won in the March presidential election.   Most importantly for cross-Strait relations, the UN referendum promoted by Chen Shui-bian failed to pass.  Beijing’s disciplined avoidance of overt interference in this year’s elections paid off.   Beijing and Washington both breathed sighs of relief.   Beijing now faces major challenges.  First, how to avoid short-term actions that would undercut domestic support in Taiwan for Ma’s more positive attitude toward China and, over the longer term, how to seize the opportunity to promote more stable cross-Strait relations.

For almost the whole of the first quarter of 2008, official inter-Korean relations were largely suspended in an uneasy limbo. As of late March, that void was the story. Up to a point this was only to be expected. A new conservative leader in Seoul – albeit a pragmatist, or so he tells us – was bound to arouse suspicion in Pyongyang at first. Also, Lee Myung-bak needed some time to settle into office and find his feet.

Still, it was remarkable that this limbo lasted so long. More than three months after Lee’s landslide victory in the ROK presidential elections on Dec. 19, DPRK media – which in the past had no qualms in dubbing Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) as a bunch of pro-U.S. flunkeys and national traitors – had made no direct comment whatsoever on the man Pyongyang has to deal with in Seoul for the next five years. Almost the sole harbinger of what was to come – a tocsin, in retrospect – was a warning snarl in mid-March against raising North Korean human rights issues. One tried to derive some small comfort from this near-silence; at least the North did not condemn Lee a priori and out of hand.

The South Korean political transition to a new administration under President Lee Myung-bak catalyzed diplomatic contacts designed to size up the new leader and to establish the foundations for a new era in the Sino-South Korean relationship.  Accompanying this transition, Beijing redoubled efforts to manage relations with Pyongyang through high-level party-to-party exchanges with Kim Jong-il.  Chinese food assistance to North Korea and the North Korean commitments in the Six-Party Talks framework to declare nuclear-related programs dominated conversations with the Dear Leader.  The rise in “fly-by-night” departures of South Korean small investors from China resulting from rising Chinese labor costs and changing incentives for investments in China requires diplomatic management between Beijing and Seoul.  Finally, “yellow dust,” Tibet, Taiwan, and quality controls on food exports to Korea are nagging issues that cloud the relationship.

While Japanese and Chinese political leaders and diplomats worked to build the mutually beneficial strategic relationship and to advance the spring visit of China’s President Hu Jintao, both sides found it hard going.  The safety of imported Chinese gyoza (dumplings) became a major issue as reports of food poisoning of Japanese became front-page news in early February.  Responsibility for the poisoning, whether the result of the manufacturing process in China or deliberate action by individuals after the gyoza left the factory, became the center of contention.  Health Ministry and pubic safety officials in both countries pledged cooperation in resolving the issue but failed to identify the cause, while retreating to positions that attributed responsibility to the other side.

At the same time, expectations for a resolution of the East China Sea dispute before the Hu visit, raised during the visit by Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo to China in December, faded.  By mid-March, both sides were taking the position that resolution should not be linked to a previously anticipated April cherry-blossom visit.  Scheduling problems, failure to resolve the East China Sea dispute, and the gyoza controversy, combined to push the visit back to an early May, post-Golden Week time frame.

Japan - Korea

January — March 2008

Inaction for Inaction

Despite the change in Japanese leadership from hard-liner Abe Shintaro to the more dialogue-oriented Fukuda Yasuo, this quarter’s Japan-North Korea relations were largely uneventful and produced little progress. Tokyo criticized Pyongyang for missing the year-end deadline for declaring all its nuclear programs and facilities, urging North Korea to make a “political decision” to fulfill its commitment under the Six-Party Talks agreement. Pyongyang reiterated that Japan should be excluded from the talks, and blamed Japan for the U.S. failure to remove Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terror. North Korea asserted that there would be no improvement in their bilateral relations as long as Japan continues to press resolution of the abduction issue on Pyongyang. By mid-March, Tokyo had decided to extend economic sanctions against Pyongyang for another six months after they expire April 13, if the current situation continues with no breakthroughs. Meanwhile, with the change in South Korean leadership from a liberal-minded Roh Moo-hyun to the more conservative Lee Myung-bak, Tokyo exerted diplomatic efforts to bring South Korea closer to Japan by trying to form a united front between Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. against North Korea.

In both substance and symbolism, the first quarter of 2008 was a transition for Moscow and Beijing in their respective domestic domains. Russia’s Vladimir Putin switched roles with successor Dmitry Medvedev, but did not fade away.  China’s Hu Jintao sailed into his second five-year term as the next generation of China’s leaders emerges. The quarter also witnessed political changes in neighboring countries with strong implications for Russia and China.  South Korea inaugurated a pro-U.S. president (Lee Myung-bak) on Feb. 25.  Pakistani general elections on Feb. 22 led to the victory by the opposition parties. Taiwan voters chose the pro-stability Ma Ying-jeou over pro-independence Frank Hsieh on March 22.

Beyond presidential politicking, Beijing and Moscow were confronted with a “domino” effect for self-rule. On Feb. 17, Kosova declared independence from Serbia. The fate of Taiwan remained uncertain for most of the first quarter as Beijing and Washington worked to rein back efforts by Taiwan’s President Chen and the Democratic Progressive Party to move toward de jure independence. And, riots in Tibet in mid-March cast a long shadow over the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Between domestic preoccupations and external challenges, Sino-Russian bilateral relations switched from hibernation in much of January and February to hyperactivity in March: leaders congratulated each other on elections and reelections; the two defense ministers set up a first-ever military hotline; and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) worked out new areas of cooperation in personnel training and in combating arms smuggling, and stepped up cooperation with Afghanistan while trying to dampen Iran’s bid for SCO membership.

Daily Digest

The Diplomat: How Vietnam Benefits From US Strategy in the South China Sea

While Vietnam can benefit from US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, its current strategy of maintaining an independent security posture also limits bilateral military cooperation with the US.

The Diplomat: Can the New China-India Thaw Last?

An explanation of the delicate balance in the India-China relationship.

Asia Times: What sanctions on Russia and China really mean

Are US sanction regimes on Chinese and Russian companies really about trying to maintain technological advantage and an unfair trade advantage for American companies?

The Diplomat: What Concerns Japan in the Pacific?

Japan’s engagement with the Pacific Island states is being driven by shared interests in rule of law and economic connectivity.

Asia Times: Japan offers ‘quality’ alternative to China’s BRI

How Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure is providing a meaningful alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia.

The Christian Science Monitor: Signs mount of a fundamental shift in US-China ties

Recognizing the growing number of signs that point to a fundamental shift in the US-China relationship.

The Strategist – The US strategic shift: big news for Australia, but are we prepared?

Understanding the implications for Australia if the US continues its efforts to disentangle its economy from China’s.

The Diplomat: Indonesia-Australia Defense Ties in Focus With Ministerial Meeting

Australia and Indonesia see new opportunities for increased security cooperation.

The Diplomat: What’s in China’s Military Exercise with Malaysia and Thailand?

More signs of increased Chinese military engagement with Southeast Asian countries.

The Diplomat: What Does Mattis’ Visit Reveal About US-Vietnam Defense Ties Under Trump?

Some context for Secretary Mattis’ visit to Vietnam.