Volume 18, Issue 1
North Korea mixed things up a bit in early 2016, this time starting with a nuclear test – its fourth – and then following up a month later with a missile test/satellite launch; usually the order is reversed. Other than that it was déjà vu all over again, only worse. There were also a number of shorter-range ballistic missile launches and the usual threats (with graphic video), while the prospects for dialogue seemed to dim even further. Meanwhile, Chinese activities in the South China Sea (SCS) are being described by everyone (except Beijing) as further militarization of its artificial islands, as everyone (except Beijing) eagerly awaits the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a case the Philippines has brought against China’s SCS claims – Beijing has already preemptively rejected the Court’s jurisdiction, so no happy ending appears in store for anyone. The G7 also weighed in on the SCS issue, much to China’s dismay. It’s for certain the G20 won’t (since China is host this year). The AIIB is taking shape, with most worries not being realized. Finally, after eight months of listening to pundits predict that the Trump phenomenon was sure to fade, Donald Trump has become the “presumptive” Republican nominee. His opponent seems likely to be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in what is shaping up to be a battle of the known versus the unknown (and largely unpredictable).
The US-Japan relationship was relatively steady in the early months of 2016 until the US presidential primaries began to stir things up. For the first time in decades, Japan became the focus of debate on the campaign trail when Donald Trump began to single out Japan on trade and on security cooperation. There was also a setback on the Futenma replacement facility when construction was halted following a compromise between the central government and Okinawa that calls for a court decision on how to proceed. Nevertheless, the two governments continued to refine alliance coordination in the face of North Korea’s nuclear test and missile launches and pursued maritime cooperation as Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea continued to roil regional waters. With major elections on the horizon, both countries are likely to be consumed by politics in the coming months.
The South China Sea remained the most contentious issue in the US-China relationship in the early months of 2016. North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and missile launches posed both a challenge and an opportunity. After two months of intense consultations, the US and China struck a deal that led to unprecedentedly tough sanctions on Pyongyang. Xi Jinping attended the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC at the end of March and met President Obama. Their joint statements called for cooperation on nuclear security and climate change. Relations between the militaries hit a snag as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter postponed a planned visit to China and Beijing rejected a request for a US aircraft carrier battle group to visit Hong Kong. Talks continued on a bilateral investment treaty, but China failed to submit a new “negative list,” leaving prospects uncertain for concluding a BIT by the end of Obama’s term.
US and South Korean concerns spiked in early 2016 as North Korea demonstrated worrying advances in nuclear weapon and missile technology. Despite a rather placid New Year address, Kim Jong Un raised international alarm with the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6. A month later, North Korea launched a three-stage rocket, a direct violation of a UN missile ban. The US Congress passed more rigorous sanctions legislation, seeking to stem financial flows and punish second-party facilitators. On March 3, UN Security Council Resolution 2270 calling for tougher sanctions passed unanimously. Seoul added its own unilateral sanctions on March 8. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un’s display of a nuclear device and reentry technology, failed intermediate-range missile tests, and a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile test added to growing concerns. ROK President Park Geun-hye called for additional multilateral efforts. While North Korea is pushing back hard, some suggest its provocations and rhetoric may be for foreign consumption in the lead-up to the highly anticipated Party Congress in May, a first in 36 years.
The mid-February ASEAN-US Summit was the Obama administration’s effort to show ASEAN’s central role in the US rebalance to Asia. It was only partially successful. Several new business initiatives were inaugurated to link US and ASEAN entrepreneurs. However, security cooperation hardly advanced. While maritime security was included in the joint declaration, there was no mention of US freedom of navigation (FON) patrols or the South China Sea disputes. In January, the Philippine Supreme Court cleared the way for the Philippine-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, allowing US forces rotational access to several Philippine military bases and enhancing interoperability. Washington plans to increase the frequency and “complexity” of FON patrols near the artificial islands built by China, and the US has begun joint patrols with Philippine ships. Washington also announced a Southeast Asian Maritime Security Initiative that includes a $425 million multi-year appropriation for regional capacity to improve maritime domain awareness and patrols.
Relations in early 2016 were dominated by China’s unremitting efforts to expand its control in disputed territory in the South China Sea in the face of complaints, maneuvers, and challenges by regional governments and concerned powers. US-led challenges to Chinese expansion included expanded military presence and freedom of navigation operations accompanied by strong rhetoric from US defense leaders warning of Chinese ambitions. The constructive outcome of the US-China meeting on March 31 reinforced indications that neither Washington nor Beijing sought confrontation. Against that background, the responses of Southeast Asian governments remained measured. They followed past patterns of ambiguous hedging against China’s assertiveness, demonstrating some increased criticism of China, and greater willingness to link more closely with the US to dissuade China’s disruptive expansionism.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen was elected president on Jan. 16 by a decisive margin, and for the first time the DPP won a majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY) election. This outcome has set Taiwan on a new course. Since then, Tsai has adhered to her pledge to maintain the status quo and peace in the Taiwan Strait and has taken steps to continue reaching out to Beijing. Beijing reacted calmly to the election and has repeatedly said the election will not change the basic framework of its peaceful development policy toward Taiwan. However, Beijing is waging a focused campaign to press Tsai to accept the 1992 Consensus in her inaugural address on May 20. Even if she does not fully meet Beijing’s demands, as is expected, it will be in the interest of both sides to avoid confrontation after May 20 in what is likely to be a strained relationship.
North Korea’s decision to start the new year with its fourth nuclear test guaranteed a downturn in inter-Korean ties. Its successful satellite launch in early February, which also served as a partial ballistic missile test, was the last straw for South Korea, which appeared to finally run out of patience. On Feb. 10 President Park announced the suspension – but in all probability, permanent closure – of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC): the last surviving North-South joint venture from the “Sunshine” Era of engagement. But, parliamentary elections in April saw a rebuff for Park’s conservative ruling Saenuri Party. This increases the center-left’s chances of regaining the Blue House in late 2017 and a return of some form of outreach to Pyongyang. Right now it is sunset for “Sunshine” on the Peninsula, but the sun may yet rise again. Never say never in Korea.
North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January and long-range rocket launch in February drew global opposition in the form of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2270 and condemnation by regional leaders. Pyongyang, however, promptly dismissed such calls with a series of short- and mid-range missile launches in March and April. Presidents Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye expressed support for full implementation of UN sanctions in bilateral talks at the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington. Foreign Ministers Wang Yi and Yun Byung-se pledged their commitment to denuclearization at the fifth Foreign Ministers Meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Beijing on April 27-28, where Xi declared that China “will absolutely not permit war or chaos on the peninsula.” Despite Beijing’s hardened rhetoric, current tensions on the Korean Peninsula point to enduring differences between Beijing and Seoul’s strategic preferences.
Citing his November meeting with Premier Li as evidence, Prime Minister Abe found relations with China improving in his Diplomatic Report to the Diet. Chinese officials took a more cautious view. While acknowledging progress, China’s ambassador to Japan called attention to unstable elements in the relationship and Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused Japan of “double dealing” in its relations with China. Issues related to the East China Sea and the South China Sea continued to trouble the relationship. Chinese Coast Guard ships made incursions into Japan’s territorial waters in the Senkakus while Japan continued to strengthen its military presence in Okinawa and the southwest islands. The foreign ministers met at the end of April.
The beginning of a new year offers an opportunity to evaluate how circumstances change. While the first few months of 2015 conveyed (cautious) optimism amidst notable celebrations like the anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, there was no focal point in early 2016 to push the momentum toward greater cooperation for Seoul and Tokyo. The main difference to the start of this year was the dominance of the Japan-North Korea dyad. Perhaps the Jan. 6 nuclear test by Pyongyang was a foreshadowing of things to come, as relations with Tokyo remained rather tumultuous: several missile tests by Pyongyang combined with retributive actions on the part of Tokyo made progress on the abduction issue – arguably Japan’s top priority vis-à-vis the North (alongside denuclearization) – extremely unlikely.
The first months of 2016 witnessed a significant escalation of tension in Northeast Asia following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6. The test, coupled with renewed US-ROK interest in deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, presented China and Russia with a “double-layered predicament”: nuclear proliferation on the heavily militarized Korean Peninsula and a direct threat to their nuclear deterrence posture. Meanwhile, talk of a Sino-Russia alliance was back on track in China. In reality, however policies of the two powers seemed to go in different directions. Russia continued to surprise the world, including China, over its involvement in Syria. For China, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative took Xi Jinping to three major Muslim nations (Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) in January. China also dispatched its own Syrian special envoy and initiated a mini-security alliance with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kyrgyzstan to the displeasure of Moscow. By the end of April, the two countries announced they would conduct their first-ever joint anti-missile drills in Russia.
Two objectives drive Japan’s increasing engagement with Southeast Asia: stimulating Japanese economic growth through investment in large-scale infrastructure abroad, and supporting regional maritime domain awareness. While Tokyo officially denies any suggestion of rivaling or checking China with these policies, the timing and nature of Japan’s “pivot” to Southeast Asia would suggest otherwise. The number of “first-ever” Japanese defense initiatives with Southeast Asian countries in the past year, correspond to rising concern in the region over China’s moves in the South China Sea. New developments in regional security relations reflect a revision of Japanese defense guidelines and of the US-Japanese alliance, both of which emphasize greater interaction with regional partners. On the economic side, Japan and China are in direct competition for infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, particularly in Myanmar. This will likely be the case for the next several years as ASEAN seeks to undergird the ASEAN Economic Community with new transportation grids.