Volume 5, Issue 4

Download Issue as PDF
October - December 2003 · Published: Jan 2004

Someone once said that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”  The same can be said for the Bush administration’s East Asia policy.  Save one, Washington’s relations with its Asia-Pacific neighbors generally ended the year better than they began. Even the North Korea situation, while far from positive, appeared more hopeful than at this time last year, when Washington was struggling to build a consensus while the other members of what is now the six-party talks were debating over who was more unreasonable, George W. Bush or Kim Jong-il.  In South Korea, President Roh Moo-Hyun reaffirmed his support for the U.S.-ROK alliance on its 50th anniversary and agreed to send a second contingent of ROK forces to Iraq.  Japan has also agreed, for the first time since the end of World War II, to put “boots on the ground” overseas,  announcing the deployment of Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq.  U.S.-PRC relations continue to be described as the “best ever” despite apparent efforts by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to stir the pot for domestic political reasons, causing a modest downturn in U.S. relations with Taipei (the “save one”).

Meanwhile, the U.S.-instigated Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) continues to gain steam and support in the region, and U.S.-ASEAN relations, while fragile, were somewhat (albeit unevenly) enhanced by President Bush’s swing through Southeast Asia after the October APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Bangkok. A few hecklers notwithstanding, Bush’s trip “down under” demonstrated the solidarity of the U.S.-Australia alliance despite public opposition there (and almost everywhere else) to his decision to invade Iraq earlier in the year. Washington’s slightly bloodied nose in Iraq also seems to have relived some regional anxieties about further U.S. “adventurism.”

Economically speaking, as the new year began, the economic forecast for East Asia seemed cautiously optimistic.  Economic growth resumed for the U.S. and Asia in the third quarter as the Year of the Goat finally bucked sluggish recoveries caused by SARS and the uncertainty of the Iraq war.  Fourth quarter estimates are also positive, raising hopes further as the Year of the Monkey approaches. Complicating economic forecasting is the possibility of another outbreak of SARS; the first case of the season was confirmed in southern China at year’s end.

US - Japan

October — December 2003

Mr. Koizumi’s Mandate

Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s “victory” in Japan’s Nov. 7 ballot was the big event in U.S.-Japan relations this quarter.  The ruling coalition’s win was a stamp of approval for Tokyo’s support of the United States-led invasion of Iraq and the controversial decision to send Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to assist the postwar reconstruction of that country.  The Japanese public is less than enthusiastic about U.S. policy in the Middle East, but the election results seemingly validated the prime minister’s support for President George W. Bush and Koizumi’s efforts to keep pushing the envelope on security policy.  Thus, this quarter saw the Japanese Cabinet approve the controversial SDF deployment, the departure of the advanced guard of that group, a decision to deploy theater missile defense systems, and agreement to forgo some of Iraq’s debt to Japan.

Astute readers will note the qualifications in this assessment. Still, there are few signs that the cooperation and the partnership will be troubled in the near future.  There are indications of potential long-term difficulties, however. Fatalities during the Iraqi deployment could have a powerful effect on public sentiment and erode support for the alliance. Rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula could have a similar effect.  In both cases, the United States could be seen as having dragged an overly compliant Japanese government into harm’s way or Koizumi could be charged with sacrificing Japanese national interests to protect the U.S.-Japan alliance.  The solution is not to avoid difficult situations; rather Tokyo needs to do a better job of selling its policies to the Japanese public.  The government needs to use the language of national interest instead of merely saying that is acting “as a good partner should.” There are signs that Tokyo is learning.

The year 2003 closed with two high-level visits.  Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured three cities on the U.S. east coast and was received at the White House with a 19-gun salute.  Wen cemented the visit’s success and boosted his position back home when President Bush stood by his side and rebuked Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian for seeking to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.  But there was little progress made on important issues such as China’s burgeoning trade surplus with the U.S. and North Korea’s nuclear weapons.  Chinese Defense Minister and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Cao Gangchuan was hosted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  Presidents Bush and Hu Jintao met early in the quarter on the sidelines of the APEC summit.

Looking toward a second round of six-party talks in mid-December, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan sparred with North Korea this quarter over the content of an agreed joint statement for the negotiations.  Despite President George Bush’s willingness to provide written multilateral security assurances and other unspecified benefits to North Korea in exchange for “coordinated steps” toward nuclear dismantlement, Pyongyang stuck to its familiar approach.  North Korea offered merely to freeze its nuclear program if the U.S. offered security assurances, an end to sanctions, energy assistance, and removal from the U.S. terrorist list at the outset.  After President Bush rejected North Korea’s effort to negotiate a new version of the 1994 Geneva Agreement, the possibility of a December round of the six-party talks evaporated.

At the end of the quarter, the U.S. announced it would send 60,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea as a humanitarian gesture and looked forward to a new round of talks in early 2004.  For its part, North Korea confirmed on Dec. 27 that it would participate in a second round at an early date in 2004 “to continue the process for a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue.” It now falls to China to use its diplomatic leverage to broker a joint statement for the second round of talks that will bridge the difference between the joint U.S.-South Korean-Japanese position and the North Korean position.

In order to strengthen the U.S.-Korea alliance and obtain greater influence over U.S. policy on the North Korean nuclear issue, South Korea agreed this quarter to dispatch 3,000 troops to assist U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.  Although the official purpose of the deployment is to aid in Iraqi reconstruction, 1,400 of the troops will consist of combat forces whose mission is to protect the other members of the South Korean contingent.

In the context of overall U.S. efforts to redeploy the bulk of U.S. troops south of Seoul, the U.S. and South Korea could not agree on a plan to leave a garrison of about 1,000 U.S. troops in Seoul to man the United Nations and Combined Forces Commands.  On the trade front, South Korea welcomed President Bush’s decision to lift steel tariffs even as it appealed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) a decision by the

U.S. International Trade Commission to impose punitive tariffs on Hynix Corporation’s semiconductor chips.

While leaders in the United States and Russia profess a continuing partnership in the war on terrorism and foster a growing energy relationship, strains have become apparent during the past three months.  The first evidence of a rift came with the long-expected arrest in October of Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, seen in both Moscow and Washington as a proponent of improved relations with the U.S.  Another strain appeared after the December parliamentary elections in Russia, in which the pro-Putin United Russia Party gained a major victory. Two nationalist parties also scored big gains, while the two most Western-leaning, reformist parties suffered a crushing blow and failed to even gain the minimum 5 percent level of votes to assure proportional representation in the Duma.  The U.S. government even went so far as to question the fairness of the elections. Other, more usual, complicating factors have caused some friction: Chechnya, Central Asia, and Iraq.  But in three areas Russia and the U.S. continue to cooperate: nonproliferation, energy, and the war on terrorism.  It remains to be seen how long the two nations can continue to smooth over frictions in the quest to cooperate on large-scale strategic issues.

The Bush administration’s most significant achievement following the president’s October attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and visits to Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia has been to broaden APEC’s agenda to incorporate security issues in parallel to trade and investment.  The president praised Thai, Philippine, and Singaporean assistance for the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan and promised additional military and economic aid to Bangkok and Manila. However, Indonesia and Malaysia continue to express concerns about U.S. policy in Iraq and the U.S. war on terror, seeing the latter as anti-Muslim and the former as unilateral, preemptive, and disproportionately military.  Thus, U.S. security policy may be splitting ASEAN with respect to the war on terror.

China’s leaders made the most of the fall summit season in Southeast Asia, playing vigorous roles in the series of “ASEAN-plus” meetings in Bali in early October, and in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok later that month.  China and the 10 ASEAN governments declared a “strategic partnership for peace and prosperity” in Bali, where China formalized its accession to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, renouncing the use of force in the region in favor of negotiation and consultation.  Strategic partnership is to include, among other things, ambitious new goals for increasing trade, and a new security dialogue among the 11 countries.  Reacting to the perception that China is soaking up nearly all the foreign direct investment flowing to Asia, Beijing promised to increase its own investment in Southeast Asia, particularly in the energy and transportation sectors.

Some observers express heightened concern that China is replacing the United States in the region.  This may be Beijing’s ultimate aim, but for now, U.S. trade and security involvement in Southeast Asia, and improved U.S.-China relations overall, are necessary conditions for the climate of confidence in which China has achieved its striking gains in Southeast Asia.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian continued to press his proposals for referenda and plans for a new Taiwan constitution in the campaign for the presidential election next March.   Beijing tried to respond to his moves at a low level, but the prospect of Legislative Yuan (LY) adoption of a law permitting referenda on sovereignty issues forced Beijing to heighten its rhetoric and appeal to Washington to counter Chen’s plans. Chen’s decision not to keep Washington informed in advance of his moves heightened the Bush administration’s concerns about Chen’s long-term intentions. Washington’s quiet diplomatic communications had little effect on Chen.  So, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited, President Bush addressed the issue and made clear his concerns about possible steps by Chen to unilaterally change the cross-Strait status quo.  Nevertheless, Chen announced he would proceed with his plan for a referendum next March. The campaign will continue to determine the temperature of cross-Strait relations and the outcome will have a major impact as the two candidates’ approaches to China differ markedly.

The final quarter of 2003 saw no dramatic developments in inter-Korean ties, either positive or negative. Rather, the picture was one of steady interaction across a now established range of contacts: political, economic, transport, social, cultural, and more. The chronology that accompanies this article tells its own story. There is far more going on now between the two Koreas than when Comparative Connections began to cover this bilateral relationship less than four years ago – let alone in the preceding half-century of hostility and minimal contacts.

Yet this new pattern is itself doubly remarkable. First, it suggests that at long last North-South relations have become institutionalized and firmly rooted. The on-off pattern of the past looks to have been superseded by permanent and continuous interaction, if still somewhat shallow. Secondly, this de facto normalization has occurred during, and despite, the still unresolved nuclear crisis. In the past, one side or the other would have used this as a reason or pretext to curtail or even break off ties. But depending on its outcome, this may yet pose an obstacle to deepening inter-Korean relations beyond the level reached at this relatively early stage.

With APEC and ASEAN Plus Three holding their annual meetings in October or November, the last quarter of the year has become a period when one can expect more intensive high-level exchanges than usual across the region.  Add a boost in diplomatic business surrounding planning for six-party talks, a post-SARS bump, and a 40 percent rise in bilateral ROK-PRC trade and 2003 becomes a banner year for China-ROK high-level exchanges and trade relations. Booming economic growth in the PRC has driven and in some cases overtaken the Korean economy, benefiting South Korean exports in the short run. As a result, China has become the de facto regional hub for Northeast Asian and Korean trade despite Korea’s aspirations to play that role.

The quarter also saw the emergence of a number of areas in which individuals or groups got caught on the wrong side – or the dark side – of the burgeoning trade relationship, or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Many of these incidents raise questions about whether the bureaucrats of the two countries are capable of managing diplomatic hot potatoes and protecting the vulnerable or disadvantaged while going after cheaters and swindlers.  Even history became contested as Beijing began to rewrite history in a bid to challenge Korean historical claims.

Japan - China

October — December 2003

Cross Currents

In October, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro met with China’s Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao.  On each occasion, the leaders renewed commitments to enhance cooperation in the bilateral relationship, and, at the leadership level, cooperation – on North Korea, energy, banking and finance, and conservation – defined the relationship over the final quarter of the year.  China’s leaders, however, made clear that a proper understanding of history is central to the development of bilateral relations.

Economic and financial relations continued to expand and diversify, almost on a daily basis.  But Japan’s rapidly expanding private sector presence on the mainland had to deal with Chinese national sensitivities and the burdens of history.  In one instance, Toyota had to pull an advertisement for its SUV in response to a groundswell of Chinese protests and internet threats of a boycott.

Meanwhile, the repercussions of a Fukuoka murder committed by Chinese students; of the September Zhuhai sex orgy involving a Japanese business tour group; and of a Chinese rampage at Xian’s Northwest China University following a dance performed by Japanese students resurfaced nationalist sentiments in both countries.  At the same time, the August Qiqihar chemical weapons incident and a series of compensation cases brought in Japanese courts by Chinese survivors of wartime forced labor kept history in the forefront of the relationship.

The real action in Japan-South Korea relations this past quarter was not over North Korea but in the realm of economics and culture where a number of positive developments emerged. Meanwhile, the protracted nadir in Japan-North Korea relations has permanent, lasting effects on Japan’s future security profile in the region.

China - Russia

October — December 2003

Living With Normalcy

By any standard, relations between Moscow and Beijing in the last months of 2003 were uneventful and unenthusiastic. This “normalcy” was in sharp contrast to the more memorable events in the first half of the year (Moscow summit, Shanghai Cooperative Organization gathering, and St. Petersburg’s celebration). The world, too, was relatively quiet without Saddam or SARS. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing mentioned Russia only in passing in his year-end review of China’s diplomacy, while relations with India and Pakistan were given more significant space. Even the Korean nuclear crisis became less alarming, as Washington was absorbed by the bloody peace in Iraq and the beginning of the presidential race at home.

Without eye-catching events, attention was given to secondary issues in social, economic, and cultural areas. Meanwhile, top leaders from both countries tried to find ways to inject new momentum into the otherwise normal relationship between the two “strategic partners.”

The past two years have been especially full for India’s diplomacy – both toward the United States and East Asia. Toward the U.S., India, by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of troops along the international border with Pakistan following an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, was engaged in “coercive diplomacy” aimed at getting Washington to pressure Pakistan to halt cross-border infiltration into Kashmir. For much of 2002 and half of 2003, U.S.-India relations were preoccupied with getting Pakistan to carry through on its commitments, preventing further escalation or miscalculation of the crisis, initiating a political process in Jammu and Kashmir, and nudging India-Pakistan relations toward dialogue. Simultaneously, the U.S. and India worked to implement the “big idea” of the Bush administration to transform U.S.-India relations through enhanced defense cooperation, improved trade, and wider political and security consultations. On both these counts, the U.S. and India achieved some progress – though not smoothly.

India in 2003 was also pursuing an improvement in relations with its rapidly growing neighbor, China, while building on the past few years of steady improvement with Southeast Asia, and to a lesser extent Japan. While no dramatic events or breakthroughs have occurred, an incremental but steady focus by India on East Asia has been maintained despite severe India-Pakistan tension during all of 2002 and the first half of 2003.

This article, building on earlier reviews of U.S.-India (see “U.S.-India Relations: Visible to the Naked Eye,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 3, No. 4) and India-East Asia Relations (see “India-East Asia Relations: The Weakest Link, but not Goodbye,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 3, No.1, January 2003), examines U.S.-India and India-East Asia relations in 2002-2003 and 2003 respectively.

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.