Volume 12, Issue 4
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.
Prime Minister Kan Naoto opened the quarter with a speech promising a government that would deliver on domestic and foreign policy, but public opinion polls indicated he was failing on both fronts, damaging his own approval rating and that of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The US and Japanese governments continued a pattern of coordination at senior levels and North Korea’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 furthered trilateral diplomacy with South Korea and exchanges among the three militaries. President Obama met with Kan on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leader’s Meeting in Yokohama to take stock of the relationship, though a once-anticipated joint declaration on the alliance did not materialize and the optics of the meeting appeared designed to lower expectations as the Futenma relocation issue remained unresolved. A bilateral public opinion survey on US-Japan relations released at the end of the quarter captured the current dynamic accurately with Futenma contributing to less sanguine views but convergence in threat perception and an appreciation for the role of the alliance in maintaining regional security as encouraging signs for the future.
In the final quarter of 2010, China-US relations were marked by the now familiar pattern of friction and cooperation. Tensions spiked over North Korea, but common ground was eventually reached and a crisis was averted. President Obama’s 10-day Asia tour, Secretary of State Clinton’s two-week Asia trip, and US-ROK military exercises in the Yellow Sea further intensified Chinese concerns that the administration’s “return to Asia” strategy is aimed at least at counterbalancing China, if not containing China’s rise. In preparation for President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the US in January 2011, Secretary Clinton stopped on Hainan Island for consultations with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg visited Beijing. Progress toward resumption of the military-to-military relationship was made with the convening of a plenary session under the US-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) and the 11th meeting of the Defense Consultative Talks. Differences over human rights were accentuated by the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
US-Korea relations in the last quarter of 2010 centered around two major events. On the economic front, even though Presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak failed to seal a deal on the KORUS Free Trade Agreement (FTA) during their meeting on the margins of the G20 in Seoul, the two countries reached final agreement a few weeks later, potentially opening a new era in bilateral relations pending approval in the two legislatures. Meanwhile, North Korea’s revelation of its uranium enrichment facility and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island raised a real possibility of war on the peninsula. South Korea and the US once again demonstrated their strong security alliance and solidarity even at the risk of a military conflict. North Korea’s artillery attack quelled ongoing diplomatic efforts to resume the Six-Party Talks, as the prospect for early resumption vanished.
High-level visits to Southeast Asia this quarter found President Obama in Indonesia to inaugurate a Comprehensive Partnership, Secretary of Defense Gates in Malaysia and Vietnam, and Secretary of State Clinton in several Southeast Asian states, a trip that was highlighted by her acceptance of US membership in the East Asian Summit and attendance at the Lower Mekong Initiative meeting. Obama praised Jakarta’s democratic politics and insisted that the multifaceted relations with Jakarta demonstrate that Washington is concerned with much more than counterterrorism in its relations with the Muslim world. In Vietnam, both Clinton and Gates reiterated the US position from the July ASEAN Regional Forum that the South China Sea disputes be resolved peacefully through multilateral diplomacy led by ASEAN. Clinton expressed Washington’s appreciation that China had entered discussions with ASEAN on formalizing a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. In all her Southeast Asian stops, she emphasized the importance of human rights. While deploring the faulty election in Burma, the US welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and the prospect for more openness in Burmese politics.
Following last quarter’s strong criticisms of US and regional moves seen directed against Chinese policies, Chinese leaders and commentary this quarter reverted to a reassuring message of good neighborliness and cooperation. Senior leaders interacted constructively and official Chinese media gave repeated emphasis to positive and mutually beneficial relations. Wariness of US policies and practices was registered in lower-level commentaries while Chinese officials interacted in business-like ways with US counterparts over regional issues. China consulted with ASEAN representatives seeking to implement a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, and a working group meeting was held in Kunming, China on Dec. 21-23. Handling of issues in the South China Sea was more moderate than the confrontational approach witnessed in Chinese actions and publicity over fishing and other rights in disputed waters in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea. On the other hand, even reassurances underlined a determination to rebuff violations of China’s “core interest” in protecting territorial claims. Some military exercises and enhanced patrols by Chinese ships also were noted in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, China’s positive reaction to the November elections in Myanmar was in line with longstanding Chinese support for the authoritarian military leadership.
The pace of progress in cross-strait relations has slowed as agreement continues to take longer than anticipated. A medical and healthcare agreement was signed in December, but consensus on an investment protection agreement was not reached and establishment of the Cross-strait Economic Cooperation Committee (CECC) has been delayed. The mayoral elections in November saw the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) receiving more votes than the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). Both parties are now gearing up for the presidential election in March 2012. Consequently, campaign politics in Taiwan and jockeying in preparation for the 18th Party Congress in Beijing will dominate the way Beijing, President Ma Ying-jeou, and the opposition in Taiwan approach cross-strait issues in the year ahead.
Ten years have passed since Ralph Cossa first asked me to write for this esteemed journal. Comparative Connections was young then. Launched in mid-1999, then as now its remit was to cover and track East Asia’s key bilateral relationships: with the US and regionally.
At the outset, inter-Korean relations must have seemed too insubstantial to be included. That changed in 2000: the annus mirabilis which saw the South’s then president, Kim Dae-jung, fly to Pyongyang in June and hold the first ever North-South summit meeting with the man who still leads the North, Kim Jong Il. The former, but thankfully not the latter, was awarded the year’s Nobel Peace Prize for this among other achievements.
At the time this seemed, and was, a breakthrough. The summit was not just a one-off photo-op. We did not yet know that money had gone under the table to bring it about. Even so, to write as I did then of “the wholly new phase of regular and substantive inter-Korean dialogue that has ensued – ministerial and defense talks, family reunions, economic deals, transport links, and more” – was not mistaken. Seven years followed in which inter-Korean relations moved forward. Not evenly, not enough, and not reciprocally – but forward, none the less.
Another sentence that I wrote a decade ago, on the broader vista, is painful to reread now:
In a for once happily inapt metaphor, diplomatically speaking the DPRK blazed away on all barrels in all directions during the past year, apparently seeking better ties across the board, both reviving old alliances and embarking on new ones.
And I concluded:
We are in a new phase, which has no pre-written script. The challenge in 2001 will be for the DPRK to show that its change is more than just cosmetic and tactical by imbuing its new formal ties with substantive content, and above all by moving to address at least some of the many real security concerns of its various interlocutors.
North Korea’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 placed the Korean Peninsula at the center of regional attention and intensified diplomatic pressures on China as an indispensable player. Beijing mobilized a remarkably swift diplomatic effort in response, sending State Councilor Dai Bingguo to Seoul to meet President Lee Myung-bak and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, and to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il and Vice Premier Kang Sok Ju. Chinese calls for regional dialogue intensified with South Korean efforts to deter North Korea through joint naval exercises with the US in the Yellow Sea and live-fire artillery drills. Despite urgent Chinese entreaties to convene “emergency consultations” among senior envoys, North Korean provocations appeared to undermine already limited prospects for Six-Party Talks. Beijing’s persistent calls for both Koreas to return to dialogue and Seoul’s apparent support for inter-Korean dialogue and Six-Party Talks, may open the way for a return to negotiations, but South Korea’s position remains conditional upon North Korea acknowledging its responsibility for provocations and taking concrete steps to show its commitment to denuclearization.
Following North Korea’s Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Conference on Sept. 28, China and North Korea took unprecedented steps to consolidate political ties through historic high-level party and military exchanges in October commemorating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the WPK and the 60th anniversary of the entry of the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) into the Korean War. Zhou Yongkang, member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and Secretary of the CPC Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, led a party delegation to North Korea and met Kim Jong Il and Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly. A week later, Kim Jong Il received CPV veterans and a Chinese military delegation to Pyongyang led by Guo Boxiong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, who also held talks with Ri Yong Ho, vice chairman of the WPK Central Military Commission. ROK and Chinese leaders, meanwhile, met on the sidelines of major regional and international summits. Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Hu Jintao met at the G20 Summit in Seoul and Foreign Ministers Kim Sung-hwan and Yang Jiechi met ahead of ASEAN-related summits in Hanoi. President Lee and Premier Wen Jiabao met at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels and held trilateral talks with Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto in Hanoi.
Reactions to the Sept. 7 Senkaku fishing boat incident continued to buffet the relationship. Both the East China Sea and the Senkaku Islands remain flashpoints in both countries. Anti-Japanese protests spread through China in mid-October and were followed by smaller-scale anti-Chinese protests in Japan. Efforts by diplomats to restart the mutually beneficial strategic relationship ran into strong political headwinds, which hit gale force with the public uploading of the Japan Coast Guard’s video of the September collisions on YouTube. Prime Minister Kan did meet China’s political leadership, but the Kan-Wen and the Kan-Hu meetings were hotel lobby or corridor meet-and-greets, with the Chinese taking care to emphasize their informal nature. In Japan, public opinion on relations with China went from bad in October to worse in December.
The year ended with heightened tensions resulting from Pyongyang’s shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 and the subsequent show of force by South Korea, the US, and Japan. Yet, despite dueling artillery barrages and the sinking of a warship, pledges of “enormous retaliation,” in-your-face joint military exercises and urgent calls for talks, the risk of all-out war on the Korean Peninsula is less than it has been at anytime in the past four decades. North Korea didn’t blink because it had no intention of actually starting a major war. Rather than signifying a new round of escalating tension between North and South Korea, the events of the past year point to something else – a potential new cold war. The most notable response to the attack on Yeonpyeong was that a Seoul-Washington-Tokyo coalition came to the fore, standing united to condemn North Korea’s military provocations, while Beijing called for restraint and shrugged away calls to put pressure on North Korea. Within this loose but clear division, Japan-North Korea relations moved backward with Prime Minister Kan Naoto blaming the North for an “impermissible, atrocious act.” On the other hand, Japan-South Korea relations have grown closer through security cooperation in their reaction to North Korea. Tokyo’s new defense strategy places a great emphasis on defense cooperation and perhaps even a military alliance with South Korea and Australia in addition to the US to deal with China’s rising military power and the threat from Pyongyang.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula preoccupied both Russia and China as the two Koreas edged toward war at the end of 2010. Unlike 60 years ago when both Beijing and Moscow backed Pyongyang in the bloody three-year war, their efforts focused on keeping the delicate peace. The worsening security situation in Northeast Asia, however, was not China’s only concern as Russia was dancing closer with NATO while its “reset” with the US appeared to have yielded some substance. Against this backdrop, Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao traveled to Moscow in late November for the 15th Prime Ministers Meeting with his counterpart Vladimir Putin. This was followed by the ninth SCO Prime Ministers Meeting in Dushanbe Tajikistan. By yearend, Russia’s oil finally started flowing to China through the 900-km Daqing-Skovorodino branch pipeline, 15 years after President Yeltsin first raised the idea.
High-profile visits and meetings characterized Indian relations with both the United States and East Asia in 2010. While there were no major “breakthroughs” or departures as a result, the ongoing evolution of both US-India and India-East Asia relations suggests that they are now a fixed part of the US-Asia dynamic. It is worth noting that while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton neither visited India during her first trip to Asia in February 2009 (she did visit India in July 2009) nor made mention of India in her pre-departure address on US Asia policy, in November 2010 President Obama opened his speech to the joint session of India’s Parliament by declaring that “[i]t’s no coincidence that India is my first stop on a visit to Asia…” And the joint statement between the two countries issued during that visit specifically noted a “shared vision for peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific region…[and] agreed “to deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia…” Indeed, including India at all in an Asia itinerary is a recent innovation in US foreign policy and one that speaks to a larger US policy debate about the evolving Asia-Pacific. Whether such an innovation sticks remains to be seen, although many indications suggest that it will; especially as the need to coordinate increases on matters such as the East Asian Summit, maritime cooperation across the “Indo-Pacific,” and wider global issues.