Volume 14, Issue 2

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May - August 2012 · Published: Sep 2012

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.

Prime Minister Noda advanced a legislative package on tax and social security reform but faced stiff political headwinds in the form of a frustrated public and a jaded opposition steeling for an election.  Japanese concerns over the safety of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft scheduled for deployment in Okinawa dominated the bilateral agenda – at least in the media – and tested the mettle of Japan’s widely-respected new defense minister.  The two governments agreed to continue consultations on Japan’s interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) but political paralysis in Japan and presidential politics in the United States could complicate efforts to make progress in the near term.  Two reports issued over the summer addressing US force posture strategy in the Asia-Pacific and the agenda for US-Japan alliance, respectively, focused on the future trajectory for the bilateral relationship.

In the second trimester of 2012, the US began to flesh out its rebalancing to Asia strategy, prompting Chinese concerns. The fourth round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) was held in Beijing in May amid a kerfuffle over Chinese dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng.  Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao held their 12th and likely final bilateral meeting in June on the margins of the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.  Bilateral friction intensified over developments in the South China Sea.  US-China military interactions stepped up with a visit to the US by Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and a visit to China by Commander of the US Pacific Command Samuel Locklear.  The US-China Human Rights Dialogue was held in Washington in July.

In May, US-Korea relations were marked by nervousness about a potential crisis with North Korea as telltale signs of activity at Punggye suggested preparations for a third nuclear test.  Though a test did not occur, no one is confident that a crisis has been averted. In US-South Korea relations, differences over imports of Iran oil and US beef calmed down without causing a major hiccup. Meanwhile, a number of difficult bilateral negotiations remain unresolved.  While there are signs of progress on the New Missile Guidelines (NMG), the civil nuclear talks remain deadlocked.  Territorial and historical disputes between Japan and Korea have complicated and frustrated US desires to strengthen trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan.

Indonesian efforts to salvage ASEAN unity after the failure to issue a formal communiqué at the end of its 45th Ministerial Meeting were successful.  Stymied by a lack of consensus over the inclusion of Philippine and Vietnamese complaints about Chinese maritime confrontations in the South China Sea (SCS) in the communiqué, Indonesia’s foreign minister presented a minimal SCS code of conduct statement that ASEAN members subsequently accepted.  At the US-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference, Secretary of State Clinton reiterated US support for a peaceful negotiated settlement to SCS disputes and emphasized the importance of ASEAN-based institutions in the resolution process.  Linking enhanced US military aid for the Philippines to President Aquino’s 2013-2017 navy and air force development plan, Washington hopes to help Manila improve its “maritime domain awareness.”  The US also announced during Defense Secretary Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay that it would be adding naval visits to Vietnam. The US suspended many prohibitions against private investment in Myanmar, though human rights-based sanctions remain.  At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Panetta outlined an ambitious plan for enhanced military partnerships with regional friends and allies, though how a reduced US military budget will impact these plans is a growing concern in Southeast Asia.

The primary focus of attention in the relationship over the summer was the ongoing dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea as China set forth implicit choices for the Southeast Asian disputants and others with an interest in the region. Two paths – one focused on a demonstration of China’s growing power and the other on positive aspects of Chinese engagement with Southeast Asia – are emerging as China continues to define its response to the conflict. Meanwhile, ASEAN struggled with finding a sense of unity in the face of disagreement among members regarding the territorial disputes. Elsewhere, China sought to reaffirm its friendly relations with Myanmar while seeking reassurance that the leadership in Naypidaw remained committed to previously agreed-upon projects.

President Ma’s inaugural mentioned no new initiatives, confirming that this would be a year for consolidating relations rather than making breakthroughs in cross-strait relations.  While Beijing understands Ma’s domestic position, it continues nudging Ma and Taiwan to move beyond economic issues. The 8th ARATS-SEF meeting in August finally concluded the long-stalled investment agreement – a significant step – but only by finessing key contentious issues.   Debates within the DPP over its policy toward Beijing continue.  However, initial decisions by new DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang indicate that the party is not yet willing to adjust its policy.   President Ma has taken steps to underline the ROC claims to the Diaoyutai Islands.

There is very little to be said about relations between the two Koreas in the middle four months of 2012. And under a sensible new dispensation granted by this esteemed journal’s editors, I need not pretend otherwise. Usually guilty of over-writing (probably in more senses than one) when there was much to report and comment on, for once this time we shall be brief.

Inter-Korean relations have more than one level. Comparative Connections focuses mainly on “high politics,” i.e., states as actors and their interactions. It is in that sense that this time we have sadly little to report. As regular readers or anyone who follows the peninsula will know, relations between the two Koreas could hardly be worse. In recent months they have hardly interacted at all, though each has engaged in megaphone diplomacy. As always the North’s was shriller and nastier. We analyzed a particularly foul aspect of this in the last issue, and there seems no special merit in dwelling on this again. But there is also “low politics,” meaning interactions by nonstate actors – private citizens, NGOs, traders, and so on – in a range of realms: aid, business, culture, family ties, and more. To a degree, in a situation as tense as Korea, these too are constrained by and take their cue from the state: wholly so in Pyongyang, but not entirely in Seoul. On this level there is more to report, mainly in the chronology. For once it may be advisable to read that before this, to get a sense of the wider picture and detailed fabric of inter-Korean relations at this juncture. Here we pick a few themes. What have the two states been saying to, or at, each other?

Senior-level dialogue between China and North Korea resumed this summer when head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) International Department Wang Jiarui became the first senior foreign visitor to meet Kim Jong Un. Previously, there had been a great deal of speculation regarding the absence of leadership exchanges since Kim Jong Il’s death. Several other high-level exchanges followed. Discussions focused on reconciling priorities and Chinese support for Kim Jung Un’s consolidation of power. Although more subdued, there were also several high-level exchanges between China and South Korea as they celebrated the 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties, initiated talks on establishing a bilateral free trade agreement, held the second round of strategic defense talks, and sparred over South Korean concerns about human rights.

The summer was not all about the Senkakus, but the islands did dominate developments in the bilateral relationship.  The Ishihara Senkaku purchase plan went full speed ahead. By the end of August, Japanese citizens had contributed over 1.4 billion yen toward the purchase and the Tokyo Municipal Government had formally petitioned to conduct a survey of the islands prior to purchase.  Meanwhile, Hong Kong activists landed on the islands, sparking diplomatic protests from Tokyo; Japanese activists followed with their own landing on the islands, sparking diplomatic protests from Beijing and anti-Japanese riots across China.  Japan’s ambassador to China caused his own political storm in Tokyo when he expressed his personal view that the Ishihara plan could lead to a crisis in Japan-China relations.   Relations suffered further as Tokyo hosted the convention of the World Uighur Congress and President Hu Jintao found a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Noda inconvenient during a trilateral China-Japan-ROK meeting in Beijing.  An alleged spy incident involving a Chinese diplomat served to further complicate relations. Japan’s 2012 defense white paper reiterated, longstanding, but growing concerns with China’s lack of transparency and the increasing activities of its navy in waters off Japan. Meanwhile public opinion on mutual perceptions continued a downward trend in both countries.

Diplomatic disputes between Korea and Japan over historical issues and territory flared yet again this summer, being by far the most serious row since the mid-2000s. With both sides focused far more on proving the others’ misdeeds than on finding some stable equilibrium, the disputes threatened to spill over and affect economic relations as well as distract leaders from focusing on a number of pressing domestic and foreign issues. We try to avoid overreactions in this forum, hence the title. Korea-Japan relations are nowhere near falling off a cliff, but without stabilizing relations, there are potential deleterious bilateral and regional effects that could result from the current disputes. There were three underlying themes that characterized and reinforced the general lack of rapport: first, the reverberations from these bilateral disputes onto third parties (US, China, and North Korea); second, the domestic sources of foreign policy (known as the “second-image” in international relations theory); and third, deliberate moves toward negative issue-linkage in stymieing diplomatic relations in the region.

In early June, Russia’s new, and old, President Putin spent three days in Beijing for his first state visit after returning to the Kremlin for his third-term as president; his hosts (Hu and Wen) were in their last few months in office. Some foreign policy issues such as Syria and Iran required immediate attention and coordination between the two large powers. They also tried to make sure that their respective leadership changes in 2012 and beyond would not affect the long-term stability of the bilateral relationship. Putin’s stay in Beijing also coincided with the annual SCO Summit on June 6-7. As the rotating chair, China worked to elevate the level of cooperation in the regional security group, which is faced with both opportunities and challenges in Central Asia, where strategic fluidity and uncertainty are increasingly affecting the organization’s future.

The Obama administration’s military rebalancing to Asia helped reboot the US alliance with Australia. Indeed, the arrival of US Marines in northern Australia put real boots into the reboot. The announcement that the Marines were heading for Darwin was the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s visit to Australia in November.  After the alliance intimacy achieved by two conservative leaders – George W. Bush and John Howard – it seemed unlikely that a Democrat president and a Labor prime minister could tighten the alliance bonds further. Obama and Gillard managed it, proving again the special status of the alliance for both sides of Australian politics. The Marine deployment became an important element in the broader debate in Australia about the emerging power system in Asia and the terms of Australia’s future relationship with its number one economic partner, China. Even in trade, Australia now faces different US and Chinese visions of the institutional framework for Asia’s future.

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.