Volume 5, Issue 1

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January - March 2003 · Published: Apr 2003

Why diplomacy failed in Iraq is subject to intense debate; that it failed is indisputable. What does this mean for U.S. policy in Asia and for multilateral cooperation regionally and globally?  Of more immediate concern, will the UN, having failed once (at least in the Bush administration’s eyes), now step up and deal with the growing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, or will it prove itself irrelevant?  For those focused on Asia, the big question now is, “Is North Korea Next?”  Does the perceived U.S. “impatience” with the UN process vis-a-vis Iraq point to more unilateralism in the future and a greater tendency or preference to employ the military option against Pyongyang?  I think not!  But the perception is growing and how Washington deals with it will impact U.S. credibility and acceptability in Asia and elsewhere long after Saddam is relegated to the dust bin of history.  Iraq and North Korea are not Asia’s only concerns.  An outbreak of deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a viral pneumonia, first detected in south China and now spreading globally, has magnified the anticipated economic consequences of the war in Iraq on Asian economies and, especially, airlines.

US - Japan

January — March 2003

How High is Up?

It just doesn’t get any better than this. The dream of Japan becoming “the UK of Asia” doesn’t seem so absurd after a quarter in which London and Tokyo proved to be the U.S.’s most reliable allies. Those two governments backed the U.S. attack on Iraq despite considerable opposition at home. In a marked contrast to the past, the government of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro has provided the U.S. with vocal political support, active diplomatic support, and expanding logistical support for the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. New realism in Japanese security thinking has propelled the alliance from one high note to another.

It takes some searching – and some cynicism – to find dark clouds on this ever-expanding horizon. The possibility of the war going wrong is one danger – but in that case, the U.S.-Japan alliance is likely to be the least of the concerns. More realistically, dealing with North Korea is likely to be troublesome. It has been relatively easy for Washington and Tokyo to stay in step when dealing with Pyongyang because policy has been immobilized. When the logjam breaks and serious diplomacy begins, the strains will reveal themselves. And, of course, there is the continuing stagnation in the Japanese economy. The last quarter has proven the poverty of the current government’s economic thinking; as the fiscal year ended, the government resorted to old tricks to inflate the stock market. This situation cannot continue. The U.S. cannot bear the economic and military burdens of war alone; Japan will have to step up.

A flurry of diplomatic activity took place this quarter as Chinese and U.S. officials conferred on how to compel Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to relinquish his weapons of mass destruction and manage the emerging crisis over the North Korean nuclear weapons programs. Beijing opposed the U.S. military strike on Iraq, but was cautious to prevent its antiwar position from damaging the bilateral relationship. U.S. and Chinese presidents engaged in telephone diplomacy and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell consulted frequently with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan on the sidelines of meetings at the United Nations in New York. United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick visited China to discuss the repercussions of its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), ongoing Chinese economic reforms, bilateral trade issues, and current global trade negotiations. Cooperation on counterterrorism advanced with the convening of the third U.S.-China antiterrorism consultation and the second meeting on cutting financial fund links to terrorists.

Sharp rhetorical attacks and military friction between the U.S. and North Korea mounted this quarter, reaching the highest level since the 1994 nuclear crisis.  With South Korea insisting that war was not a feasible option, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), restarted a nuclear reactor, tested two surface-to-surface missiles, sent a fighter into South Korean airspace, and shadowed a U.S. reconnaissance plane. For its part, the Bush administration downplayed the provocative North Korean actions and, while hesitating to negotiate bilaterally with Pyongyang, underlined its commitment to peaceful diplomacy. By deploying new military assets to the region and conducting regular military exercises, the administration elevated its deterrent posture on the Peninsula, even as it concentrated its main foreign policy efforts on bringing about “regime change” in Iraq.

Once again the U.S.-Russia strategic partnership is enduring a rocky patch.  The war in Iraq has created serious discord in the bilateral relationship.  The vicissitudes in U.S.-Russian relations have become a recurring pattern for these erstwhile Cold War enemies, who are now seeking to cooperate in the post-Sept. 11 strategic landscape.  The launching of the war against Iraq is seen in the U.S. as part of the global war against terrorism.  Russian leaders have thus far been eager to cooperate with the U.S. in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Central Asia.  Many in Russia, however, see the attack on Iraq as part of an effort by the U.S. to monopolize the world petroleum markets and further its political and economic domination of the globe.

Despite speculation at the beginning of the year by many that Moscow would give tacit consent to U.S. actions in Iraq, the Russian leadership threatened a veto in the UN Security Council and warned against an attack.  Now that the dye has been cast, the Russian leadership is unlikely to do much more than simply state its disagreement with the war.  Nevertheless, many are left wondering whether this will do irreparable damage to a budding strategic partnership that is quite fragile.  In spite of a small, but vocal opposition among conservative groups in Russia, President Vladimir Putin had made an extra effort to back the U.S. since the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks.  This column questioned in April-June 2002 (see “Growing Expectations: How Far Can Rapprochement be Carried Forward?” Comparative Connections, Vol. 4, No. 2, July 2002) how far Putin could go with his rapprochement with Washington before his domestic political standing was endangered.  Given the upcoming Duma elections at the end of this year and the presidential election early next year, it appears that Putin has finally drawn the line at how far he will cooperate with the U.S.

U.S. relations with the Southeast Asian states in the first quarter of 2003 were dominated first by the anticipation and then by the reality of the war on Iraq. Other issues in bilateral and regional relations continued, and the Iraq conflict was not central to U.S. relations with every country of the region during the period, but the conflict was the overriding focus of attention. While there was a range of reactions in the region – from solid support to vocal condemnation – the main response, from governments and peoples, was critical of the U.S. approach. With the outcome – or at least the length and destructiveness – of the war increasingly uncertain as the quarter came to an end, there was at least a danger that this episode would cause lasting damage in terms of how the U.S. and its international role are viewed around the region.

The quarter saw a relative lull in China’s intense Southeast Asian diplomacy.  This was understandable in light of Beijing’s preoccupation with crises in Iraq and North Korea, and the formal transfer of power in March to a new generation of Chinese leaders.  It signaled no decline in China’s keen interest in expanding ties with its southern neighbors. Leaders of the two Southeast Asian countries closest to Beijing, Thailand and Burma, visited China before the leadership transition for talks with Hu Jintao and members of his team as well as Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and other leaders relinquishing senior party and state positions.  Chinese commentary directed toward Southeast Asia strongly backed the anti-Iraq war stance of most ASEAN nations.  China’s observer at the Kuala Lumpur Nonaligned Movement (NAM) summit in February called for opposition to “unipolarity” and unilateralism, i.e., U.S. leadership, in international affairs.  Trade and investment, and the benefits to be gained by China’s neighbors from China’s growing economic power, continued to be major themes in China’s dialogue throughout the region, encountering broad agreement and occasional flashes of dissent and concern.

The first flight of a Taiwan aircraft to China in over 50 years at the time of the Lunar New Year highlighted the growing need for direct travel and the continuing political constraints on accomplishing it. Absorbed in the transition to its fourth generation leadership, Beijing has adhered to the Taiwan policy parameters set forth at the 16th Party Congress, including the active encouragement of closer economic links with Taiwan. Within Chen Shui-bian’s administration, opinion has now shifted noticeably from the slogan “active opening, effective management” adopted in 2001 to a more cautious approach to policy on economic ties and direct travel to the mainland. Economic concerns and electoral positioning have played a role in this shift.  Meanwhile, Taiwan’s delay of major arms purchases from the U.S. is creating strains in U.S.-Taiwan relations, and these strains have become more public this quarter.

Inter-Korean relations in the first quarter of 2003 were a curious mixture. The now familiar forms of interaction, re-established in the preceding quarter after more than a year of on-off hiatus, continued. Ministerial talks, economic dialogue, family reunions, semi-official civic events, and others were all held. On a non-official level, business and aid contacts went ahead as is now normal. If all this suggests marking time, there was at least one breakthrough: the partial opening of two temporary roads across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), breaching the heavily armed border for the first time in half a century. In happier times this would have made headlines and been an occasion for rejoicing as a further step toward reunification.

But these are not happy times in Korea, and rejoicing was muted. The Peninsula has indeed made headlines – for the escalating North Korean nuclear crisis, as Pyongyang unleashed one provocation after another: quitting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), restarting its nuclear reactor (but not yet the reprocessing plant) at Yongbyon, shadowing a U.S. spy plane, test firing two short-range missiles, and more. Most of that is beyond the scope of this article, if only because North Korea insists that the nuclear issue is no business of Seoul’s – despite the December 1991 joint declaration on denuclearization of the Peninsula, which says otherwise.

Inevitably, nuclear concerns formed a somber backdrop to all inter-Korean intercourse this quarter. The South raised them at every opportunity, but made no headway. Nor was this the only dark cloud, as revelations emerged to cast a pall on past inter-Korean progress. During former President Kim Dae-jung’s final weeks in office, it was admitted that the June 2000 summit with Kim Jong-il, for which Kim Dae-jung won that year’s Nobel Peace Prize, had been preceded by a secret payment of at least $500 million by the Hyundai business group to North Korea. The further investigations now under way pose a delicate challenge for South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo-hyun, who comes from Kim’s Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) and is pledged to continue the Sunshine Policy approach, albeit now renamed as “policy for peace and prosperity.”

But it takes two to engage. North Korea marked Roh’s inauguration with a missile test. As always, it objected to annual joint U.S.-ROK war games. When Roh backed the U.S. on Iraq, and after an erroneous report that South Korea had raised its defense alert status, Pyongyang pulled out of talks due in the last week of March; it went on to cancel Cabinet-level talks set for early April. It was not immediately clear if this was a limited protest, or if it presaged a general suspension of official inter-Korean dialogue, as was the case during most of 2001 and 2002. All this points to a bumpy ride for Roh, and, despite those first tiny holes in the border, no obvious roadmap for a broad highway going forward.

“Regime change” has been the order of the day not only in Iraq, but also (in more orderly form) in China and South Korea this quarter.  “Axis of evil” charter member Kim Jong-il appears as intransigent and entrenched as ever, however.  This is the case despite North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and escalation by Pyongyang of an apparent nuclear “breakout” strategy.  The Chinese “fourth generation” leadership under new President Hu Jintao is committed to perpetuating a stable atmosphere for economic development, and should welcome the vision of economic regional cooperation in Northeast Asia espoused by their counterparts in South Korea under newly-elected President Roh Moo-hyun. Burgeoning bilateral trade and investment anchors the China-South Korea economic relationship and underscores mutual interests in a diplomatic approach to North Korea that peacefully bounds North Korean nuclear threats and introduces gradual economic reforms to the North.

North Korea remains an economic and political drag on Beijing, but Pyongyang’s nuclear escalation means that China can no longer afford to ignore this problem.  U.S. President George W. Bush himself has made numerous calls in the past three months to China’s leadership to discuss North Korea’s escalatory maneuvers on the nuclear front.  Dealing with Pyongyang’s rapid steps toward an unambiguous nuclear weapons capacity was one of the first issues that Bush raised in his congratulatory call to China’s new president, Hu Jintao. Those calls are placing pressure on China to use its leverage to bound North Korea’s nuclear efforts, creating an unprecedented new dilemma (and opportunity?) for Beijing: should it lean toward Washington or Seoul in shaping its policies toward Pyongyang?  This quarter we focus primarily on recent developments in the China-North Korea relationship, and whether the People’s Republic of China can use its leverage to effectively check North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Japan - China

January — March 2003

Cross Currents

The new year began with controversy. Territorial issues over the Senkaku/Daoyutai Islands resurfaced at the beginning of January and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine followed in short order. Political reaction in Beijing to the Yasukuni visit again derailed planning for a Koizumi visit to China and also affected Japan’s diplomacy toward North Korea, complicating efforts to secure Beijing’s cooperation in dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Nevertheless, the two governments demonstrated an ability to work through practical problems posed by North Korean refugees in China (some Japanese nationals) seeking asylum in Japan.  At the same time, economic relations continued to broaden and deepen.  For the first time, Japan imported more from China than from the U.S., while Japanese exports to China increased 32 percent in 2002. And, with a new leadership coming to power in Beijing, there were signs of new thinking with respect to Japan and history.

The quarter saw no major bumps in Japan-South Korea relations as the two countries awaited the transition to the new Roh Moo-hyun government in the ROK. North Korean provocations during the quarter had a unifying effect on Seoul-Tokyo ties.  They also raise the question of exactly what Japan would do if the North undertook any of the actions associated with crossing the “red line.” Accordingly, we look at what Japanese sanctions against the North might look like.

For Russia and China, the first quarter of 2003 may well be the last few months before their preferred world – multilateralism for Iraq and bilateralism for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – began to fade into one of unilateralism. Amid unprecedented diplomatic activities regarding Iraq and Korea, relations between Moscow and Beijing were quietly entering a new phase as China’s leadership change was taking definitive shape.

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.