Volume 18, Issue 2
The rule of law took a few huge hits during the year’s second trimester, as Beijing chose to ignore the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling that negated many of its South China Sea claims, while Pyongyang displayed its usual disdain for the latest UN Security Council Resolution 2270 with a series of ballistic missile launches, highlighted by a submarine-launched ballistic missile test. There were also a number of significant multilateral forums addressing regional security and economic issues, or both. Most in some form also touched upon the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula, even as ASEAN danced around the Tribunal’s ruling. Meanwhile in the battle of who gets to make trade rules, the Chinese-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) seemed to fare only slightly better than the US-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the objection to which seems to be the only thing the two US presidential candidates agree upon.
President Obama and Prime Minister Abe traveled to Hiroshima, where Obama took the opportunity to speak of the devastating consequences of war in the nuclear era. The summer months that followed were full of politics, with an Upper House election in Japan in July and the Republican and Democratic Party conventions in the US kicking off the general election campaign for president. The Obama administration continued to work toward congressional passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the end of the year. With less political contention but growing skepticism over Washington’s ability to ratify the agreement, the Abe Cabinet decided to postpone Diet discussions on the topic until after its election. Regional relations continue to shape the US-Japan alliance agenda with Chinese maritime activity in the East China Sea and South China Sea and ongoing North Korean provocations garnering the most attention.
Senior US and Chinese officials publicly emphasized positive developments in the bilateral relationship at the eighth US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, while privately raising concerns. The second US-China Cybercrime and Related Issues High-Level Joint Dialogue convened a week later. The South China Sea persisted as a major area of tension as an UNCLOS Tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in its case against China. National Security Adviser Susan Rice traveled to Beijing in late July to prepare for the US participation in the G20 Summit in Hangzhou and what is likely to be the last meeting between Xi Jinping and President Obama. Bilateral military ties maintained an active pace with a visit by the US chief of naval operations to China in July, a port visit by a US guided-missile destroyer to Qingdao in August, and Chinese participation in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises in Hawaii.
The United States and South Korea entered the summer months with growing concern over North Korean missile capabilities. The DPRK Workers’ Party Congress in May signaled solidarity in Kim Jong Un’s reign, replacing the National Defense Commission with a new State Affairs Commission, and appointing Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister. Mid-summer, the US sanctioned Kim Jong Un and 10 other individuals and entities for human rights violations, and the US and ROK agreed to deploy the THAAD system against North Korea. Angered, the DPRK severed the New York channel. The US and South Korea joined together in military exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Pyongyang responded by threatening to turn Seoul and Washington into a “heap of ashes through a Korean-style preemptive nuclear strike.” Finally, South Koreans expressed growing concern over the course of the US presidential campaign.
The Obama administration has achieved only a portion of its Asian rebalance strategy in Southeast Asia. Washington is repositioning elements of the US Navy to the Pacific, engaging in “freedom of navigation patrols,” and providing assistance to Vietnam and the Philippines to monitor and defend their maritime territories. US leaders are regularly attending ASEAN-based meetings to demonstrate US commitment to Asia. President Obama regularly promotes the Tran-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Despite these advances, US presidential electoral politics are presenting new obstacles. Meanwhile, the US has urged caution with respect to the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s decision on the South China Sea. Human rights concerns continue to trouble US relations with Hanoi as well as Bangkok, Nay Pyi Taw, Vientiane, and Phnom Penh.
Tensions over South China Sea territorial disputes dominated relations throughout the summer months of 2016. Fearing that the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal case would go against China, Beijing took remedial steps in the lead-up to the July 12 ruling to show resolve to domestic Chinese constituencies and to counter international pressures. With the Tribunal’s award even more negative for China than most anticipated, Beijing’s attacks on the arbitral panel and warnings to neighbors and the US intensified. They were accompanied by shows of force in the South China Sea. Given the restraint of others, after a few weeks registering intense indignation, Chinese officials and commentary also moderated their rhetoric. Whether the Chinese shift to moderation was tactical or strategic remains to be seen.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated as president on May 20. In her inaugural address, she did not accept “one China” but did reach out further toward Beijing. Beijing gave her address an “incomplete” grade and has continued to press her to accept the 1992 Consensus. Despite this fundamental divide and deep mutual mistrust, the two sides have been able to handle some issues in a pragmatic manner. Although the formal communications channels have been suspended by Beijing, contacts at other levels continue under the network of cross-strait agreements. Many issues will continue to complicate the management of relations. However, Tsai remains committed to maintaining stable relations and Xi Jinping, preoccupied with other challenges, prefers to avoid a confrontation with Taiwan.
The middle four months of 2016 were among the bleakest for inter-Korean relations in the 15 years this writer has been covering that often rebarbative relationship for Comparative Connections. There have been numerous fiery threats from Pyongyang, extreme even by their own standards. An accelerated flurry of ballistic missile launches, followed by North Korea’s second nuclear test this year, raised fears that Kim Jong Un was speeding up development of his strike capacity. As of now the Koreas are not talking to each other, only at each other. North Korea did make a few new proposals for dialogue, though it can hardly have expected them to be taken seriously, given the tone and content of most of its other statements and actions. For South Korea, as for all North Korea’s interlocutors, the Kim Jong Un factor adds an extra layer of anxiety to the already complex and concerning challenges posed by the DPRK. Given the latest Kim’s youth, he could be around for decades, despite wishful thinking to the contrary.
Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee Ri Su Yong visited Beijing at the end of May to deliver a message of friendship from Kim Jong Un and to report on the results of the May 6-9 WPK Congress, which reportedly marked the “official start to Kim Jong-un’s era.” Ri’s visit drew attention to Pyongyang’s nuclear policy as a continued source of friction in relations with Beijing. China-ROK tensions rose with the announcement of a US-ROK agreement to deploy the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea and South Korean protests against illegal Chinese fishing. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) remain another point of China-ROK tension. Although China and South Korea seek to advance trade within various frameworks, such efforts only highlight a widening gap between the economic and political aspects of their relationship. Current security priorities require effective approaches to both immediate differences over THAAD and EEZs and longer-term preferences over how to effectively promote lasting stability on the Korean Peninsula.
There was no lack of high-level bilateral dialogue over the summer months with the foreign ministers meeting three times between late April and the end of August. There were several other exchanges in between including a meeting between Prime Minister Abe and Premier Li in July at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Ulaanbaatar. Despite the dialogue, strong differences continued to mark the relationship, in particular on issues related to the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Tensions heightened in June when a PLA Navy ship entered Japan’s territorial waters off Kagoshima and again in August when Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard ships swarmed into the Senkakus, entering Japan’s contiguous zone and territorial waters despite repeated high-level protests.
The summer months were less tumultuous than usual for Seoul and Tokyo. Aside from the main political issue surrounding the implementation of the “comfort women” deal that was struck back in December 2015, there were many visible instances of cooperation across a range of sectors. To some extent, Seoul was preoccupied with the fallout from its decision to host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system while Japan was focused on its House of Councillors election in July. It was business as usual with North Korea for Japan, with efforts to denounce Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests and the stalemate over the investigation into the abduction of Japanese citizens since the North’s decision to suspend the probe in February 2016.
The China-Russia relationship was both extraordinary and ordinary. On one hand, both sides were visibly, albeit reluctantly, moving toward more security-strategic coordination to offset growing pressure from the US and its allies. On the other hand, they continued to interact with a mix of cooperation, competition, and compromise for interests and influence in a range of areas including trade, investment, and regional development. Neither trend was definitive, given the complex dynamics between the two, as well as their respective relations with others, which are beyond the control of Moscow or Beijing. The asymmetry between “high” and “low” politics in their bilateral ties may be normal, if not necessarily desirable. Nevertheless, the scope, speed, and sustainability of the emerging Sino-Russian strategic alignment deserve careful scrutiny.
While Malcolm Turnbull’s coalition government was narrowly returned to office in Australia’s 2016 election, Australia’s thinking about Asia’s future hinges on another election. Concern about the US presidential race has joined worries about Asia’s “rules-based order” and growing competition between the US and China. Not least of Australia’s fears is what US politics will do to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Meanwhile, there were a few “surprises” between Australia, the US, and Japan that shaped relations over the summer months and will likely continue to influence them in the coming year.
Since relations were reset following President Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, there have been three visits to the US by Prime Minister Modi. The US and India have also conducted two iterations of the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue (S&CD), exchanged multiple Cabinet-level visits, and announced new initiatives to broaden and deepen dialogue and produce outcomes. Over the past year and a half, the absence of drama has allowed for notable progress in the area of defense relations, but just as notably little progress on key trade and investment issues even as bilateral trade and investment grows. After three decades and three US presidents with strong commitments to the bilateral relationship, it remains to be seen whether a new US president will reciprocate Modi’s expressed and demonstrated interest in strong US-India relations.