Volume 12, Issue 2

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April - June 2010 · Published: Jul 2010

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.

US - Japan

April — June 2010

New Realism

The relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa remained the predominant issue in the US-Japan relationship and the two governments issued a joint statement in late May reaffirming a commitment to realize a plan adopted in 2006 with some modifications to be explored.  Prime Minister Hatoyama then resigned as polls revealed frustration with his handling of the Futenma issue and weak leadership overall.  Finance Minister Kan Naoto succeeded Hatoyama as premier and outlined his own policy priorities just weeks before an important parliamentary election.  Kan stressed the centrality of the US-Japan alliance to Japanese diplomacy and reiterated the theme in his first meeting with President Obama at the G8 Summit in late June.  The two leaders’ first meeting was business-like and lacking for drama – exactly as both governments had hoped.  New public opinion polls suggested political turmoil at home has not had a significant impact on Japan’s standing globally or in the US, but some observers continued to suggest the US should lower expectations of Japan as an ally in the debate about the future of the alliance.

Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao met twice this quarter, first on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April and again on the margins of the G20 Summit in Toronto in June.  Nevertheless, tensions lingered over US arms sale to Taiwan and the military relationship remained suspended. The Chinese rejected a request from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to visit China.  The second round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue was held in Beijing in late May, yielding agreements on energy, trade environment, and healthcare.  Many hours were spent during the quarter in discussions between the two countries on an appropriate response to the sinking of the South Korean warship, but the gap was not narrowed.  In June, China finally announced the long-awaited decision to allow its currency to be more flexible, though it remains unclear how fast and to what extent it will permit the yuan to appreciate.

The second quarter saw a series of major events in US-ROK relations.  With the sinking of the Cheonan in late March, the quarter saw the possible return to armed conflict in Korea.  The North Korean torpedo attack on the South Korean warship caused the two Koreas to break ties, intensified the tension along the border, and blasted hopes for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.  Meanwhile, the US-ROK alliance was at its zenith as the US showed solidarity with South Korea on its response to the provocation and put pressure on China to support a strong UN Security Council measure identifying North Korea as being responsible for the attack.  The two presidents announced a delay in transfer of wartime operational control and President Obama, in a surprise announcement on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Toronto, called for ratification of the KORUS FTA.  Though these two developments were not a direct result of the Cheonan sinking, they were influenced by a desire by both allies to show strong, deep partnership in the face of North Korean threats, and perhaps more important, by a personal chemistry between the two leaders that is unique in the history of the alliance.

In mid-May, long-simmering political tension in Thailand between the Bangkok elite establishment and urban lower classes as well as those in northern Thailand who feel ignored by the center erupted in the worst political violence in decades.  Tentative US efforts to mediate were rejected by the Thai government, though the opposition appeared to welcome a US role.  A tense calm has been restored, but the prospect for renewed violence is palpable.  While the Indonesian government expressed understanding for President Obama’s second postponement of a visit to his childhood home because of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, opposition Muslim politicians claimed the real reason for the postponement was the Israeli attack on a Turkish flotilla running Israel’s Gaza blockade.  A number of Muslim leaders stated that Obama wished to avoid encountering Indonesian ire for his country’s pro-Israeli stand.  The election of Benigno Aquino III as the Philippines’ 15th president was greeted by international observers as a generally fair and transparent process.   The president-elect has stated he plans to review the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the US to modify its pro-US bias. Washington continues to criticize Burma’s preparations for elections scheduled for October as marginalizing the political opposition.  The US is also concerned that Burma may be clandestinely importing materials from North Korea for a nascent nuclear weapons program.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao traveled to the remote Myanmar capital during a swing through Asia in May and June, marking the first official visit by a Chinese premier in 16 years. Wen had planned to visit Brunei, Myanmar, and Indonesia in April but was compelled to cancel that trip due to a major earthquake in Qinghai province. Vice President Xi Jinping advanced Chinese relations with a visit to Australia, New Zealand and Laos in mid-June. Chinese officials and authoritative media generally avoided taking sides in the deepening and increasingly violent internal crisis in Thailand. A variety of reporting and private disclosures by Vietnamese officials indicated more serious Sino-Vietnamese frictions over disputed claims in the South China Sea than previously indicated. Maneuvers by Chinese naval forces over disputed territories and related claims caught the attention of regional observers and the US, deepening concerns regarding Chinese objectives.

After six months of arduous negotiations, China and Taiwan signed an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), including an “early harvest” list of tariff reductions.  The agreement, which provides a basis for further integration of the two economies, is a milestone in institutionalizing cross-Strait relations. On Taiwan, opposition politicians continue to criticize the ECFA but months of discussion and debate have led to a gradual increase in public support and acceptance. The issue of US arms sales to Taiwan continues to complicate US-China relations. The Democratic Progressive Party’s consideration of a new 10-year platform has revealed an ongoing internal difference over cross-Strait policy.  The coming quarter will see the Legislative Yuan’s review of the ECFA, Taiwan’s quest for free trade agreements with trade partners and jockeying in the run-up to the November municipal elections on Taiwan.

To state what in my country we call the bleedin’ obvious, this was the worst quarter in inter-Korean relations of the near-decade (starting in 2001) that Comparative Connections has been covering this relationship. On the rare occasions when the peninsula makes global headlines, or even more rarely moves markets, it tends not to be good news. Thus it was on May 24-25, when for the first time in many years the world seriously wondered whether the two Koreas might go to war again – almost 60 years after they fatefully did so the first time. Fortunately both backed away from the brink. On closer inspection there was both more and less to this than at first met the eye. But it was a perilous moment; and though it now seems to have passed, it leaves North-South relations in a pit from which no easy exit is apparent. The cause, of course, is the sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan on March 26. Yet this did not erupt as a crisis until late May. The course of those two months is fascinating in its own right, and has been under-examined in the welter of comment and controversy. It reveals, we suggest, an odd mix of tactical skill and strategic flailing by Seoul. As of early July, with ROK President Lee Myung-bak still smarting from an unexpected rebuff in local elections a month ago, one must conclude that North Korea’s torpedo scored a bulls-eye. Despite delivering a remarkable economic recovery and chairing the G20, “bulldozer” Lee is now on the back foot: just as Kim Jong-il intended. It was nasty and negative, but it worked. In Pyongyang’s eyes, this counts as a win – even though from any sensible perspective it is a loss for both Koreas, and their relations.

The March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in the West Sea that killed 46 soldiers served as the backdrop for a series of high-level exchanges between China and the two Koreas as China came under international pressure to provide a tough response to the incident.  Kim Jong-il paid an “unofficial” visit to China on May 3-7 and met President Hu Jintao in Beijing, days after ROK President Lee Myung-bak’s summit with Hu.  Kim’s delegation included senior officials from the Foreign Ministry, Worker’s Party of Korea, and the DPRK Cabinet. Lee attended the April 30 opening ceremony of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, where President Hu also met the DPRK’s top legislator Kim Yong Nam.  Lee and Hu held another round of bilateral talks on the sidelines of the G20 Summit on June 26 in Toronto, where they pledged to strengthen the China-ROK strategic cooperative partnership despite unresolved tensions over North Korea.  Premier Wen Jiabao paid a three-day visit to South Korea on May 28-30 and met President Lee in Seoul prior to the third China-ROK-Japan trilateral meeting in Jeju.  Foreign Ministers Yu Myung-hwan and Yang Jiechi also held talks on the sidelines of the fourth trilateral foreign ministers meeting with Japan on May 15-16 in Gyeongju.

South Korea formally referred the Cheonan case to the UN Security Council on June 4 after results of an international investigation were released on May 20 indicating that the warship sinking was caused by a North Korean torpedo. Meanwhile, Beijing has repeatedly called for “calm and restraint” in dealing with the crisis.  South Korean media criticized President Hu for remaining “non-committal” toward the sinking of the Cheonan at his summit with President Lee in Toronto, where Hu stated that “China opposes and condemns any act that would undermine stability in the region” but did not make any reference to North Korea.

The quarter began with China’s execution of Japanese nationals convicted of drug smuggling.  This was followed shortly by large scale and unannounced naval exercises in international waters near Japan that involved PLA Navy helicopters buzzing Japanese surveillance destroyers.  This was followed by Chinese pursuit of a Japanese research ship operating within Japan’s claimed EEZ.  Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Okada chided his Chinese counterpart on China being the only nuclear-weapon state not committed to nuclear arms reduction. Nevertheless, high-level meetings continued throughout the quarter:  Hatoyama and Hu in April, Hatoyama and Wen in May, Kan and Hu in June.  At the meetings, China unexpectedly agreed to begin negotiations on the East China Sea at an early date and proposed a defense dialogue and defense exchanges, while both sides reaffirmed commitments to build “win-win” outcomes in the economic relationship and to advance the mutually beneficial strategic relationship.

The sinking of the South Korean warship on March 26 turned the second quarter into a tumultuous time for Northeast Asian diplomacy. A multinational team of investigators concluded that North Korea was responsible, bringing Seoul and Tokyo closer together in a united stand against Pyongyang, while Japan’s relations with North Korea relations declined even more than usual as they continued their “sanctioning and blaming”: Tokyo placed more sanctions on Pyongyang, and Pyongyang blamed Tokyo for being used as a US “servant.”  For its part, the Democratic Party of Japan found a face-saving solution to the problem of the Futenma relocation issue, putting the matter on hold due to the threat from North Korea. At the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, the region appears largely the same as it did in 1950. Both Koreas view each other as the main enemy, US alliances are the cornerstone of Japan and South Korean foreign policies, and China (and to a lesser extent, Russia) is sympathetic to North Korea and faces strong criticism from the US and South Korea.

Unlike the relatively uneventful first quarter in China-Russia relations, the second quarter was full of confusion, crises, and even conflicts along the peripheries of Russia and China and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  Following the sinking of the ROK Navy corvette Cheonan on March 26, the Korean Peninsula experienced significant tension. On April 6, riots and violence broke out in Kyrgyzstan, leading to the ousting of the Bakiyev government two days later. Both Russia and China joined the US-sponsored UNSC sanctions against Iran, although with differing degrees of reluctance. In the midst of this activity, Moscow cautiously and conspicuously orchestrated a “reset” of its foreign policy with a clear tilt toward Europe and the US. Russia’s new round of Zapad-Politik (Westpolitik), eliciting quite a few surprises, if not shocks, for its strategic partner in Beijing.

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.