Volume 13, Issue 1
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.
The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that struck Japan on March 11 tested the leadership credentials of the Kan government and the capacity for alliance coordination in response to simultaneous crises. With the exception of disconnects in assessing the nature of the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the March 11 tragedy revealed the strength of the alliance as the Obama administration further demonstrated US solidarity with Japan by announcing a partnership for reconstruction to support Japan’s recovery. Prime Minister Kan reshuffled his Cabinet for the second time and unveiled a policy agenda aimed at “the opening of Japan” but faced scrutiny for failing to usher budget-related legislation through a divided Diet. Bilateral diplomacy proceeded apace and was aimed at advancing economic and security cooperation though a controversy over alleged remarks about Okinawa by a senior US diplomat had the potential to cause another crisis in the alliance.
High-level contacts between the US and Chinese militaries resumed in January with a visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to China. Immediately following his trip, President Hu Jintao traveled to the US for a state visit. The occasion combined informal discussion with all the protocol trappings of a state visit by a leader from an important country. Both countries exerted great efforts to ensure the visit’s success, which put the bilateral relationship on more solid footing after a year that was characterized by increased tensions and discord. At the invitation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, State Councilor Liu Yandong made a week-long visit to the US in mid-April, during which she co-chaired with Clinton the second round of the Consultation on People-to-People Exchange. China held its annual “two meetings” – the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress – and endorsed the 12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development.
The US and South Korea continued strong solidarity and close policy coordination on North Korea in early 2011. The US made repeated calls for North Korea to improve its relations with South Korea and show sincerity about denuclearization before the Six-Party Talks can resume. The Hu Jintao visit to the US in January paved the way for the first inter-Korean talks since the Yeonpyeong shelling, although they collapsed on the second day as the two Koreas could not resolve their dispute over the sinking of the Cheonan. While inter-Korean dialogue stood at a standstill, the US and South Korea agreed to pursue a UNSC Presidential Statement that would denounce North Korea’s uranium enrichment program. Possible resumption of US food aid and Jimmy Carter’s Pyongyang visit were new variables, although neither brought any change. The good news is that the KORUS FTA looks to be near its long-awaited passage in the Congress. With both the Obama and Lee administrations making final efforts to clear all political barriers, it appears that the measure will be passed in both countries in the coming months.
Both the US and ASEAN expressed dismay at border skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia around the Preah Vihear temple and two other ancient temples about 160 km to the west. Artillery exchanges and small arms fire call into question the two countries’ commitment to the ASEAN rule of the peaceful settlement of disputes among its members. Washington has promised to aid Philippine maritime capabilities to patrol both its South China and Sulu Seas’ territorial waters as part of a larger US goal of keeping Asian sea lanes open. New ships and radar installations as well as navy and coast guard training are being provided by the US. In Indonesia, the US embassy inaugurated a new public diplomacy program, @america, an interactive information technology site designed to demonstrate the breadth of American life to Indonesia’s tech-savvy young people. Wikileaks releases of US embassy cables published in the Australian press critical of President Yudhoyono caused some tension between Jakarta and Washington. As the current ASEAN chair, Indonesia seemed to follow Secretary of State Clinton’s call for an ASEAN role in resolving the South China Sea islands dispute. US relations with Vietnam and Cambodia continue to be strained over human rights concerns. While ASEAN has called for the lifting of economic sanctions on Burma since its recent national election and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, Washington seems in no hurry to follow suit, labeling the election as fatally flawed and noting that political prisoners remain in jail. Finally, the US promised high-level participation in ASEAN-led regional organizations, including the ARF, the ADMM+, APEC, and the EAS.
Following last year’s strong Chinese criticisms of US and regional moves seen directed against Chinese policies in Southeast Asia, the reassuring message of good neighborliness and cooperation that Chinese leaders and commentary reverted to at the end of 2010 continued into 2011. The shift was reflected through more positive attention to Southeast Asia and other neighbors, seeking to advance extensive Chinese engagement, especially rapidly growing economic interchange, while endeavoring to play down differences over territorial disputes and other questions. Wariness remained over US policies and practices, but disputes were registered less frequently and in less strident tones than in much of 2010. The treatment was consistent with the improvement in China-US relations registered in Chinese commentary coincident with the prelude and aftermath of President Hu Jintao’s January visit to Washington.
In contrast with the assertiveness and truculence seen in much of the previous year, China’s handling of issues in the South China Sea remained moderate, although it showed few signs of compromise, seeking instead to “shelve” differences or engage in protracted diplomacy. China duly countered actions and positions by other disputants, notably the Philippines and Vietnam. US officials reported that the Chinese Navy had become less assertive in shadowing US Navy ships operating in contested waters along China’s rim. There were few disclosures regarding the results of Chinese consultations with ASEAN representatives seeking to implement a code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea. Meanwhile, China endeavored to solidify relations with neighboring Myanmar by sending a senior Communist Party leader to the country’s capital in April, the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar following the establishment of the newly elected civilian government there.
The Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Committee held its first meeting in February, which represents an important step in implementing the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. Both Beijing and Taipei believe this year will see a steady consolidation of cross-strait relations, with only a few new agreements. The backdrops of this modest prospect are the leadership transitions underway on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Evidence of PLA modernization confirms that military capabilities threatening Taiwan continue to increase, confronting Washington with difficult decisions on future arms sales to Taiwan.
The first four months of 2011 saw no real improvement in relations between the two Koreas. Their sole official contact, military talks in February, broke up in acrimony after two days. A slight easing of South Korea’s aid restrictions in April was in response to dire humanitarian need in the North, and probably does not indicate a wider thaw. As often there was the odd hint of back-channel talks, even about a possible summit – but no suggestion of progress. The obstacles are familiar. Pyongyang’s peace offensive as the year began, with a barrage of offers of seemingly unconditional talks, did not impress Seoul as it failed to deal with what remain two huge stumbling-blocks: the sinking of the corvette Cheonan on March, 26, 2010, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23. The North continues to deny all responsibility for the former, and to insist it was provoked into the latter. In a democracy, and having taken much flak over both incidents, there is no way that ROK President Lee Myung-bak could afford to let either matter go – even if he was so minded, which he manifestly is not. It may be no easier for Kim Jong Il to back down either, in the midst of crafting a delicate succession for his untried third son Kim Jong Un. This appears a recipe for stalemate, perhaps for the rest of Lee’s presidency, which ends in February 2013 – although in Korea surprises are always possible.
In the aftermath of North Korea’s artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, 2010, Chinese officials showed great concern about the possibility of escalation, focusing special concern on the possibility that South Korean military exercises might lead to military escalation. The January summit between Presidents Hu and Obama served to reduce tensions to some degree, especially through a call for resumption of inter-Korean talks in the US-China Joint Statement released at the summit. Following the apparent stabilization of inter-Korean relations, China has stepped up calls for “creating conditions” for the resumption of Six-Party Talks, engaging in diplomatic exchanges with both Koreas, including meetings between Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei and ROK nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac on Feb. 10-11 in Beijing and again on April 26 in Seoul, and through DPRK Vice Minister Kim Kye Gwan’s meetings in Beijing with Wu Dawei, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun respectively in mid-April in China. Although South Korea in April agreed to China’s proposed “three-step” process toward restarting Six Party Talks – (1) Inter-Korean, (2) US-DPRK, and (3) Six-Party Talks – this plan makes the resumption of multilateral talks depend most critically on reaching consensus on the preconditions for inter-Korean talks, which remain stalled since a preparatory meeting for inter-Korean defense ministers’ talks broke down in February.
Despite the regional stalemate on DPRK denuclearization, China and South Korea have attempted to stabilize and consolidate cooperation on other issues. Foreign Minister Yang met President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul on Feb. 23. ROK Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan returned the visit on March 28-30 and met Premier Wen Jiabao and Wang Jiarui, head of the party’s international department. ROK Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik visited China in April, holding talks with President Hu Jintao in Sanya, Hainan Province on April 14, and with Wen Jiabao and China’s top legislator Wu Bangguo in Beijing on April 13. Chinese and ROK leaders also held a series of three-way talks with Japanese counterparts, including a ministerial conference on culture on Jan. 11 in Nara, a foreign ministers meeting on March 19 in Kyoto, trade ministers talks on April 24 in Tokyo, and an environment ministers meeting on April 29 in Busan.
Old problems – the Senkaku fishing boat incident, the East China Sea, and China’s increasing maritime activities in waters off Japan – persisted in early 2011. Efforts by Japan to keep lines of communication open with China’s leadership included a visit to China by members of the Diet and Japan’s senior vice minister for foreign affairs at the end of January – the first high-level bilateral diplomatic engagement since the Senkaku incident. The China-Japan Strategic Dialogue resumed in Tokyo at the end of February. Less than two weeks later, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. China responded by providing emergency assistance and sending a rescue and medical team. Prime Minster Kan personally thanked China’s leadership and, in an article carried by the Chinese media, the Chinese people for their assistance, support, and encouragement. The Asahi Shimbun offered the hope that the crisis could serve as an opportunity for a fresh start in Japan’s relations with its Northeast Asian neighbors.
The triple tragedy in Japan overshadowed all other regional events in the first four months of 2011. The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in March riveted the world and shone a spotlight on a country that had long been seen as an economic powerhouse. The vivid images of the disaster area were a reminder that even the most developed of countries is subject to the random course of nature and caused many to wonder how the events would affect Japan and the region. As its closest neighbors, the tragedy provided opportunities for both Koreas to offer condolences and aid to Japan and led to some hope that a stronger relationship could emerge between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. However, the tragedies did not remove the difficult issues between Japan and its neighbors or fundamentally alter longstanding trends in the region. In fact, quite soon after the earthquake these old issues began reappearing. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the Fukushima earthquake marks a new era in Japan and what effect that might have on Japanese foreign relations, but certainly in the short term the Japanese will be focused more internally than externally as they concentrate on recovery and rebuilding.
China-Russia economic relations were “reset” on New Year’s Day 2011 when the 1,000-km Skovorodino-Daqing branch pipeline was officially opened. The pipeline, which took some 15 years from conception to completion, will transport 15 million tons of crude annually for the next 20 years. The low-key ceremony marking the launch of the pipeline at the Chinese border city of Mohe was followed by several rounds of bilateral consultations on diplomatic and strategic issues in January. In March and April, Moscow and Beijing sought to invigorate their “joint ventures” – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC) forum – at a time when both Moscow and Beijing feel the need for more coordination to address several regional and global challenges and crises.