Download the Latest Issue

Comparative Connections -

A Triannual E-Journal of Bilateral Relations in the Indo-Pacific
Download Full Issue (Free PDF)

, Vol. 26, No. 1 (print ISSN 1930-5370, online E-ISSN 1930-5389)

Current Issue

Past Issues
Volume 26, Issue 1
The “Year of Elections,” Take Two!

The “Year of Elections” is upon us and, notwithstanding a ripple or two, there have been no upsets. In Taiwan, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate won with roughly 40% of the vote, given the divided opposition. Incoming President William Lai Ching-te is expected to extend olive branches Beijing’s way when inaugurated on May 20 but the odds of Beijing being receptive are depressingly low. In Pakistan, candidates associated with former Prime Minister Imran Khan won the most seats but not enough to form a new government (or get Khan out of jail). In Indonesia, defense minister and retired army Gen. Prabowo Subianto won as expected, the only (minor) surprise being his first-round majority, avoiding a June runoff (and giving him lots of time to prepare for his October inauguration). In Russia, to no one’s surprise, Vladimir Putin emerged victorious, having neutered (if not murdered) any credible opposition. In South Korea, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s People Power Party failed to unseat the opposition in National Assembly elections, causing many to refer to him as a lame duck, despite three years remaining in his term. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also expected to emerge victorious with India’s elections still underway.

Washington Welcomes Prime Minister Kishida

2024 began with a full agenda for the US and Japan. All eyes were on the January presidential election in Taiwan, and China’s reaction to it. The choice of William Lai Ching-te, who is currently vice president, cemented the hold of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on power, with a third term for the party. Lai has close ties with Japan and has made no bones about his expectation that Japan, as well as the US, will figure prominently in his hopes for Taiwan’s future. The invitation to former Kuomintang (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou to visit Beijing on April 10 made it clear that Beijing had a different preference than the people of Taiwan. The uptick in Chinese military pressure across the Strait as well as in the South China Sea also concerned the US and Japan. The People’s Liberation Army’s growing demonstration of pressure on Taiwan’s eastern islands continued in the months after Lai’s victory, as Taiwan prepared to inaugurate him as president on May 20. The US and Japan found common cause also in speaking out against China’s growing aggression against Philippine maritime forces at Second Thomas Shoal.

Ties Stabilize While Negative Undercurrents Deepen

US-China relations were marked by a paradox during the first trimester of 2024. On the one hand, a distinct stabilization was evident in ties. The two sides made concerted efforts to translate their leaders’ ‘San Francisco Vision’ into reality. Cabinet officials exchanged visits across the Pacific, working groups and dialogue mechanisms met in earnest and produced outcomes, functional cooperation was deepened, sensitive issues such as Taiwan were carefully managed, and effort was devoted to improving the relationship’s political optics. On the other hand, the negative tendencies in ties continued to deepen. Both sides introduced additional selective decoupling as well as cybersecurity measures in key information and communications technology and services sectors, with US actions bearing the signs of desinicization—rather than mere decoupling—of relevant supply chains. The chasm in strategic perception remained as wide as before. In sum, the “new normal” in US-China relations continued to take form, one piece at a time.

Right Where We Left It

US - Korea

January — April 2024

Right Where We Left It

The first reporting period of 2024 US-Korea relations was busy, both with managing ongoing issues (good and bad) and adapting to genuinely new evolutionary turns in US-Korea affairs. Concerning the former, US-South Korea relations continued on the same trajectory since President Yoon Suk Yeol assumed office in 2022: deepening bilateral alliance interoperability, enriching trilateral cooperation with Japan, increasing economic security policy convergence with the US. And this despite new foreign, defense, finance, and trade ministers in Seoul. Widely viewed as a referendum on Yoon, April National Assembly elections cast a shadow over much of his foreign and security policy during the reporting period. However, the crushing defeat of Yoon’s conservative People Power Party is unlikely to affect his approach to external affairs, where the president retains significant unilateral power. The “management” bucket also contains more threatening scenarios that have been building for months, years, decades. At the top of the list in importance is North Korea’s build-out of its nuclear and missile program, which continued apace in the January-April 2024 period, also providing more evidence of the essential hopelessness of international sanctions.

Weathering the Crisis

US-India

January — April 2024

Weathering the Crisis

This chapter was made possible through a grant from the Hindu American Foundation.

For the US-India bilateral relationship, the first four months of 2024 was a repeat of the quarters of the last three years Differences in attitudes toward Cold-War era partnerships surfaced and upset the calm in bilateral relations. Still, there were significant strides in the economic and trade front. The dispute over the killing in Canada of a Khalistan separatist designated a terrorist by India marred the security partnership. Still, Washington continued diplomatically to support India vis-à-vis China’s provocations such as bestowing Chinese names on Indian towns. Visits by top American military brass underscored the growing security cooperation between the two democraciesThe nature of electoral democracy, though, created some diplomatic tension. While heated rhetoric and polemical campaign statements in India provided fodder for the Western press to question the supposed values-based partnership with India, President Joe Biden’s suggestion that Japan and India were as xenophobic and anti-immigrant as Russia and China angered many in India.

Small but Telling Shifts

Despite the current calm in broader US-China relations, and likely because of it, Chinese offensive actions around Second Thomas Shoal have kept security in the South China Sea as the organizing principle for Washington’s relations with the maritime Southeast Asian states, most notably the Philippines. In April President Biden hosted the first-ever trilateral summit with Japan, the Philippines, and the United States, on the margins of a major agreement to expand the US-Japan alliance that will reverberate in Southeast Asia. In Myanmar, the United States moved cautiously toward the provision of non-lethal aid to resistance forces as they made headway against the military. This aid will be limited, but it could put Washington in competition with China and Russia, both of which provide arms to the junta. Although Southeast Asian leaders continue to worry about US distraction in the face of wars in other regions and the November elections, Washington continued to act as a fulcrum in major multilateral exercises in the region. In Thailand, Cobra Gold was expanded to include cooperation in space, while the Balikatan exercises in the Philippines expanded to include new participants, most notably the French Navy.

China’s New Foreign Policy Moderation—Mixed Regional Implications

Incorporating major foreign policy initiatives of leader Xi Jinping, Beijing completed its effort from the past two years with instructions in January on China’s new approach to foreign affairs to Chinese foreign policy officials and others concerned. The new approach added authority and momentum to Beijing’s emphasis since Xi’s summit with US President Joe Biden last November on greater Chinese moderation and restraint as a “responsible” great power pursuing peace and development in dealing with Southeast Asian neighbors and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Beijing remains selective in how it applies moderation, and the record of the past two years shows great swings between moderation and truculence in its approach to foreign affairs, depending on circumstances which remain subject to change. The success of China’s regional importance showed in Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies annual survey of regional elites with China viewed as both the leading economic and political-security power, overshadowing the United States, and the judgment that if forced to choose between them, more respondents would select China than the United States.

Taiwan and China—Steady As She Goes

As 2024 dawned, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated in his New Year Address that Taiwan must unify with China. In her New Year Address, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, with the election of her successor only 14 days away, repeated her offer to meet China on the basis of equality, mutual respect, and without preconditions, echoing themes dating back to her first inaugural address in 2016. On Jan. 14, Tsai’s chosen successor, Vice President Lai Ching-te, won an unprecedented third successive term for the Democratic Progressive Party, promising to uphold the independence of the Republic of China, but the party lost its majority in the legislature. A month later, two Chinese fishermen operating illegally near Kinmen Island died when their boat capsized as they were pursued by the Taiwan Coast Guard. Five days later, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel boarded and inspected a Taiwanese tour boat near Kinmen. Tensions grew but they did not boil over.

Mortal Menace, or Mere Mind Games?

Kim Jong Un elaborated his radical new line on South Korea to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in January. It sounded just as nasty as when he first expounded it in December, but no more coherent. Though obscure, this is clearly very important. Hence most of this article is devoted to a detailed reading of what Kim said, in a bid to tease out what this means in practice for South Korea’s security. While awaiting further specification in a promised Constitutional amendment, our provisional assessment is that this is more bark than bite. Buttressing that view, close analysis of the two Koreas’ artillery shelling near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in early January, and the barbs they also traded, highlights an element of performativity—especially from Pyongyang—that is somewhat reassuring. Despite much fiery rhetoric, and while vigilance and deterrence remain crucial, this does not look like a peninsula on the brink of war.

New Chapters, Old Dilemmas

China-ROK relations reached critical junctures across political, security, and economic fields. China-ROK relations had a bad start in 2024 with discord over regional security priorities. The inaugural US-Japan-ROK Indo-Pacific Dialogue in Washington on Jan. 5, a deputy foreign minister-level initiative emerging from the August 2023 Camp David summit, reignited frictions with Beijing. The resulting tensions constrained anticipation about their own trilateral summit with Tokyo. The shifting China-ROK trade structure and Chinese e-commerce practices emerged as central points of economic debate. 

Sullen Stasis

Japan - China

January — May 2024

Sullen Stasis

There were no high-level visits this reporting period with each side continuing to reiterate its stance on key issues—China’s dissatisfaction with Japan’s discharge of allegedly radioactive water into the Pacific, disagreements over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Tokyo’s concern with nationals detained in China on vague spying charges, resentment over China’s ban of marine exports from Japan, and concerns with Chinese cyber hacking. Japanese leaders increased their willingness to acknowledge that China is the principal threat not only to Japan but to the world. Beijing continued to denounce Japan, sometimes as a pawn in US plans to thwart China’s rise, sometimes as motivated by a desire to re-create the militant expansionist empire that led to World War II. Japan became increasingly active in international diplomacy and, while declaring fealty to the one-China policy, moved closer to Taiwan. Public opinion in both countries remained hostile toward the other.

Business As Planned Amid Domestic Challenges

Following major turning points and breakthroughs of 2023, the start of 2024 has been steady, coordinated, and ordinary. In contrast to the highs and lows of the past five years, the rhythm of the relationship between Korea and Japan has settled to a welcome tone of “business as usual,” and business as planned. Both Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and President Yoon Suk Yeol faced serious challenges to their leadership with record low approval ratings and the conservative People Power Party’s defeat in Korea’s parliamentary elections. But for now, Japan-Korea relations are thriving as they follow through on commitments made at the Camp David summit. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo continued to tick off their laundry list of promised deliverables from that summit. While they might no longer be meeting at the breathtaking pace of a trilateral meeting every 3.5 days, the three partners continued to meet almost bi-weekly at all levels, including the Cabinet level.

“March Madness” in Moscow and Beyond…

The concert hall massacre near Moscow on March 22 was a source of shock and awe for Russia and the world. The incident, which resulted in the deaths of 144 people and 551 wounded, was the largest since the 2003 Beslan school siege (where more than 330 hostages died). Its timing cast a long shadow over major developments in the first few months of 2024, particularly the fifth term of President Vladimir Putin, who won 87.28% of the vote just five days prior. It also made any effort to end the two-year Ukraine war more difficult, if not impossible. As a result, much of China’s mediation 2.0 (March 2-12) was in parking mode. The Sino-Russian strategic partnership, too, was tested by two different priorities: Moscow’s need for more security coordination on one hand and China’s interest in stability in the bilateral, regional, and global domains on the other. Whatever the outcome, the stage was set for more dynamic interactions between the two large powers in the months ahead.

Strategic Dynamism: 50th Anniversary of Relations and New Security Ties

Japan-Southeast Asia relations marked two milestones in 2023-24. The first was the 50th anniversary of Japan-ASEAN Relations, during which Japan and ASEAN emphasized an equal partnership by adopting the keyword “co-creation” to promote economic prosperity and security stability in Southeast Asia and beyond. The second is strengthening Japan-Philippines bilateral strategic ties, not only bilaterally, but also trilaterally with the United States and quadrilaterally with Australia. Japan continuously engages with other Southeast Asian states and strengthens ties with ASEAN to reinforce ASEAN Centrality and unity, yet a challenge remains: how Japan can design a regional architecture in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific by clarifying the roles and division of labor among those institutions.

Daily Digest

Reuters – US, Canada, Japan and Philippines conduct exercises in South China Sea

The United States, Canada, Japan, and the Philippines conducted a two-day joint maritime exercise in Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said on its website on Monday.

Yonhap –  NATO chief calls for close ties with Indo-Pacific partners amid Russia’s alignment with N. Korea, China

The chief of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) said Monday that Russia’s growing alignment with North Korea, China and its other “authoritarian” friends makes it “even more important” for the transatlantic alliance to work closely with its Indo-Pacific partners.

Yonhap – Russia unlikely to transfer advanced military technology to N. Korea: minister

The possibility of Russia transferring its most advanced military technology to North Korea is “very low” despite their deepening military cooperation, as Moscow will likely opt to save it as a “last resort,” Seoul’s defense chief said Monday.

Yonhap – S. Korea, China to hold 2+2 diplomatic security talks amid Putin’s visit to N. Korea

South Korea and China were set to hold “two plus two” talks of their senior foreign and defense officials Tuesday, a gathering that coincides with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imminent visit to North Korea.

Associated Press – Chinese premier agrees with Australia to ‘properly manage’ differences

Chinese Premier Li Qiang said he agreed with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Monday to properly manage their nations’ differences as they emerge from a hostile era in which minister-to-minister contacts were banned and trade barriers cost Australian exporters up to 20 billion Australian dollars ($13 billion) a year.

Associated Press – Indian national pleads not guilty in plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader in New York City

An Indian national extradited to the United States pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges arising from an alleged failed plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader in New York.