Regional Overview

The “Year of Elections” is Upon Us!

The major multilateral gatherings of the past year’s final trimester—the East Asia Summit (EAS) and associated ASEAN-arranged summitry in Indonesia in early September, the India-hosted G20 Summit a week later (Sept. 9-10 in Delhi), the ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) in Indonesia, and the concurrent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in San Francisco on Nov. 16-17—were largely overshadowed by events (very) near and far away. The EAS and G20 Summits were most notable for who wasn’t there. Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped both meetings, sparing the hosts of the challenge (or embarrassment) of honoring (or ignoring) the international arrest warrant issued for him stemming from the Kremlin’s invasion and war against Ukraine. Those hoping for a fence-mending summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden at the EAS or G20 were doubly disappointed; Xi skipped both meetings, while Biden only attended the G20, leaving the EAS to Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Regional Overview: Building Partnerships Amidst Major Power Competition

Major power competition was the primary topic du jure at virtually all of this trimester’s major multilateral gatherings, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continuing to serve as a litmus test—a test many participants struggled to avoid taking. It was clear which side of the fence the G7 leaders stood on; Putin’s invasion was soundly condemned and Sino-centric warning bells were again gently sounded. At the BRICS Summit and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (sans the US), those alarms were clearly muted, as they were at the ASEAN Regional Forum, at which foreign ministers from all three were present. Headlines from the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue focused on the meeting that did not occur, as China’s defense minister pointedly refused to meet with his US counterpart. At the ASEAN-ISIS’ Asia-Pacific Roundtable, participants lamented the impact of major power tensions on ASEAN unity, even though ASEAN’s main challenges are internal ones that predate the downturn in China-US relations. Meanwhile, Beijing and Washington both expended considerable effort at these and other events throughout the reporting period fortifying and expanding their partnerships, even as many neighbors struggled not to choose sides or to keep a foot in both camps.

“Like-Minded Minilateralism” Coming of Age

As broad-based multilateral organizations seem to be increasingly unable (or unwilling) to tackle the major security challenges of the day—Russia-Ukraine, China-Taiwan, North Korea, and Myanmar, to list but a few—more focused “minilateral” efforts involving “like-minded” allies and partners are coming to the fore. Foremost among the dysfunctional are the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and broader UN mechanisms, thanks to Russian and Chinese intransigence. Sadly, ASEAN-led mechanisms like the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum, not to mention ASEAN itself, also fall into this category, as does the G20, whose foreign ministers failed to reach any meaningful conclusions at their early March 2023 meeting, their first with India at the helm. Enter the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad,” involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States), AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-US technical cooperation agreement), various minilateral cooperative efforts (including US-Japan-Philippines and US-Japan-Korea), and a resurgent like-minded G7, now that its (failed) experiment of drawing Russia and China into its process has come to an inglorious end. But not all new efforts are succeeding. President Biden hosted his second “Summit of Democracies” which drew little fanfare or attention.

Indo-Pacific as the “Epicenter”

The Biden administration released its long-awaited National Security Strategy (NSS) this reporting period, along with unclassified versions of its National Defense Strategy and Missile Defense and Nuclear Posture Reviews. There were no big surprises. The NSS identified the Indo-Pacific as “the epicenter of 21st century geopolitics” and reaffirmed China as the “pacing challenge,” even while branding Russia as “an immediate threat to the free and open international system” as a result of its invasion of Ukraine. Underscoring the priority attached to the region, President Biden attended the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh and the G20 Summit in Bali, with Vice President Kamala Harris representing the United States at the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Bangkok.  Kim Jong Un was not invited to any of the Asia summits but found other ways to attract attention, including some 70 ballistic missile launches for the year while announcing plans to rapidly produce and potentially use tactical nuclear weapons. Chinese President Xi Jinping, when not busy defending Pyongyang’s bad behavior, was busy orchestrating the 20th National People’s Congress, where he was elected “president for life.”

Washington “Pivots” to Asia

The Biden administration has rediscovered Asia. And, for better or worse, so has the US Congress. While the administration’s national security documents (or at least their unclassified sneak previews) have identified the Indo-Pacific as a priority theater vital to US national security and China as “our most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge,” Europe continues to steal headlines and the lion’s share of the administration’s (and international media’s) attention, thanks to Vladimir Putin and his unwarranted (and so far unsuccessful) invasion of Ukraine.

While many eyes remain on Putin’s war (and NATO’s US-led solid support for Kyiv), this reporting period saw President Biden finally make his first trip to Asia to visit longstanding US allies and attend the second in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) Summit. Prior to his trip, Biden hosted his first US-ASEAN Summit in Washington. Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were both in Southeast Asia, respectively for the Shangri-La Dialogue and for various ASEAN-driven ministerials. These administration trips were largely overshadowed, however, by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taiwan, the first by a House Speaker in 25 years, which was sure to—and clearly did—draw Beijing’s ire.

The US administration also (finally) put some meat on the bones of its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, even though (like Obama’s earlier pivot) the trade and economic dimension of the administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy remains the least developed. The military dimension of the strategy was much more in evidence, highlighted by the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise and a number of other multilateral training events throughout the region. Multilateralism will continue to capture the headlines as we move into the year’s third trimester with the ASEAN-driven East Asia Summit and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting sharing pride of place with the Indonesia-hosted G20 Summit.

Ukraine Seizes the Headlines Amid Mounting Concerns About China

International attention during the first trimester of 2022 quite naturally focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, amid heavy (and often breathless) speculation regarding its political, security, and economic implications for Asia in general and China-Taiwan in particular. Largely overlooked (except by us) has been the release of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and the classified versions of the National Defense Strategy (NDS), Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and Missile Defense Review (MDR). Still missing in the Indo-Pacific Strategy are specifics regarding the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), first unveiled (sans details) by President Biden at last October’s East Asia Summit, which supposedly encompasses the trade and economic dimension of the administration’s Asia policy. Also still missing is the all-encompassing National Security Strategy (NSS), which traditionally precedes these documents. It was reportedly sent back to the drawing board following the Russian attack.

Events in the opening trimester of the year also raised both hopes and concerns regarding the viability of the Quad, the increasingly more formal collaboration among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) enhanced security partnership also made progress, to the delight of its members.

Multilateralism (Still) Matters, as New Indo-Pacific Strategy Emerges

While the Biden administration has yet to produce its own definitional strategy documents—the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Policy Review, or Indo-Pacific Strategy Report—details are emerging that strongly suggest each will be generally consistent with the previous administration’s reports, but with an even heavier stress on alliances and multilateralism. Secretary of State Antony Blinken provided the most detailed description of the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy during his swing through Southeast Asia in December, reaffirming the “cooperate, compete, confront” approach toward China that, with varying degrees of emphasis and intensity, has been consistent for at least the last three administrations. Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put some meat on the bones of his “integrated deterrence” concept, underscored by the first in-person (despite COVID) summit meeting of the four Quad heads of state from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States and the emergence of AUKUS, a technology-oriented defense arrangement involving Canberra, London, and Washington.

President Biden (virtually) attended the ASEAN-driven East Asia Summit and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting while focusing much of his attention on the broader-based Summit for Democracy. While the administration talked in general terms about its Asian economic strategy, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) continued apace, sans Washington, with Beijing knocking on the former’s door and standing to be a prime beneficiary (along with Japan) of the latter. Overshadowing all of this is omicron, the latest and seemingly most contagious and pervasive COVID strain, reminding us all that the pandemic is far from over.

Europe “Discovers” Asia and Washington “Discovers” SEA, Amid Afghan Anxiety

Joe Biden pledged that the US would resume its traditional role as leader of US alliances, supporter of multilateralism, and champion of international law and institutions. Throughout its first nine months, his administration has labored to turn those words into reality, and for the first six months the focus was on Asia, at least Northeast Asia. During this reporting period, Biden himself worked on multilateral initiatives and while the primary venues were Atlanticist–the G7 summit, NATO, and the European Union–Asia figured prominently in those discussions. Chinese behavior loomed large in European discussions as NATO allies conducted ship visits and military exercises in the region to underscore these concerns. Meanwhile, a number of senior US foreign policy and security officials visited Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, amidst complaints of neglect from Washington. Concerns about Chinese pressure against Taiwan also grew in the region and beyond. The impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, messy as it appeared to be, has thus far not resulted in a crisis of confidence regarding US commitment to the region.

Change in Style, Continuity in Asia Policy

Quadrennially, we write to assure readers that there will be more continuity than change as a new foreign policy team takes office. Globally, this would not be the case this year. In its first few months, the Biden administration made 180-degree turns on issues such as climate change, World Health Organization membership, the role of science in the battle against COVID-19, immigration, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In our region, however, there has been more continuity. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focused on the Quad—the informal but increasingly structured grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—and the Biden administration has doubled down on this effort, conducting the first (virtual) Quad summit. It has largely continued the “cooperate when we can but confront when we must” approach toward China. And while Trump appeared to have disdain for US alliances, every national security document from his administration underscored the central role US alliances played in its Asia strategy.

Multilateralism (Still) Matters in/to Asia

The last trimester of the year saw its usual flurry of (albeit virtual) multilateral summitry, with most coming after the US election. While outgoing US President Donald Trump did “attend” the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting (for the first time since 2017), he was, as usual, a no-show at the ASEAN-chaired gatherings, with the US being represented at the US-ASEAN Summit and at the more important (at least to the other participants) East Asia Summit, for the second straight year, by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did attend, in person, the Quad Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Tokyo in October, with the four navies meeting later in the year for their first four-way exercise in India. Pompeo also attended (virtually) the US-ASEAN Ministerial but left the participation in the broader-based ASEAN Regional Forum to Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun.

An “Alliance of Democracies”: Is There Any There There?

As the region (and world) focus on the fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic, the “cold peace” between Washington and Beijing continued to heat up, with implications throughout and beyond the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. US pronouncements during the last four months should dispel any doubt that the US Asia strategy is aimed first and foremost at China, and more specifically at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While critics of the Trump administration’s unilateralist approach continue to argue that “America First means America Alone,” this does not appear to be the case where China is concerned. Not only does the much-maligned (including by us) “Quad”—the loose grouping of the US, Australia, India, and Japan—show signs of coordinated backbone, it seems to be forming the basis for a new “Quad-Plus” that includes other “like-minded states.” The Quad’s focus on the promotion of the rule of law and freedom of navigation has Beijing’s attention, as does Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent comment that “(M)aybe it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations … a new alliance of democracies.”

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hammer regional economies and the recovery, if and when it occurs, is likely to be long and uneven. It looks like there may be a new model that describes its impact, and it doesn’t augur well for those countries. Finally, we offer some framing thoughts for a potential Biden foreign policy as the US presidential campaign enters the homestretch.

The Pandemic Spreads and the World Responds

This trimester’s regional overview focuses on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on regional security affairs. But as the other chapters attest, international focus on the pandemic should not cause us to overlook other significant events that transpired during this reporting period: increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and vis-a-vis Hong Kong and Taiwan, growing China-Australia tensions, the non-summit between President Trump and the leaders of ASEAN, South Korean elections (with an outcome closely tied to its handling of the pandemic, but with far-reaching implications in other areas), and the dispute over host nation support, which has raised questions about the vitality (indeed, even the survivability) of the ROK-US alliance, to cite just a few. Meanwhile, the (somewhat) unusual but not unprecedented disappearance of Kim Jong Un from the public eye raised questions about how prepared the US (among others) is for dealing with a sudden leadership change on the peninsula.

Most Questions Remain Unanswered As 2019 Stutters to a Close

The final trimester of the year is usually a time for Asian multilateralism to take center stage; this year, not so much. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting, which was supposed to take place in Chile, was cancelled (due to civil disturbances in the host country) while the East Asia Summit (EAS) proceeded without either US President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence (his normal stand-in) in attendance. Regional economic developments (and US trade actions impacting the broader Indo-Asia-Pacific region) grabbed the headlines instead. Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) participants gathered along the EAS sidelines to finalize their trade agreement, sans India, which balked at the last minute. Meanwhile, the White House and US House of Representatives, while locked in a battle over impeachment, nonetheless reached common ground on the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) while the administration announced a “phase one” trade deal with Beijing. There appears to be less than meets the eye in both agreements, but each impacts the region writ large. Finally, not to be overshadowed, the State Department issued its own explanation of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, complementing the Pentagon’s version, which was analyzed in our last issue.

Defining and Refining the Indo-Pacific Concept

For the past two years, US officials have made reference to a new Indo-Pacific Strategy. The June 1 release of the Defense Department’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report provides some clarification and contains many familiar themes, including the need for a credible forward presence and strengthened alliances and partnerships “to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific where sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity are safeguarded.” The Report further notes “the critical linkages between economics, governance, and security.” Not to be outdone, ASEAN introduced its own Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, with “inclusivity” as the central theme. The G20 meeting in Osaka was probably as successful as was possible, but the group offered little more than rhetorical support for efforts to quell the US-China trade war. Finally, the Japan, South Korea, China trilateral provided some reason for hope –but just a little.

Free and Open, but not Multilateral

We are focusing on regional trade and economics because it’s important to look at the consequences of the current US administration’s antipathy toward multilateral trade agreements. Beijing has shown no such hesitancy, with President Xi Jinping hosting visitors from more than 100 different countries (including 37 heads of state) at his Second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) International Forum. Ships from 19 different navies (but not the US or France) participated in a naval flotilla commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). One area where Washington might actually embrace a multilateral agreement would be a follow-on to the soon-to-be defunct Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty but only if it involves, among others, China.

Messages Sent Versus Messages Received

Speeches before and during US Vice President Pence’s trip to Asia (substituting for President Trump) for the annual fall round of summitry added flesh to the bones of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy but did little to allay concerns about an impending trade war (or worse) between the US and China. While Pence was not asking anyone to choose between Washington and Beijing, he made it abundantly clear what he thought the best choice would be. While he did not rule out a restoration of good relations with Beijing – once it started behaving itself – most Asians heard his remarks, and those from Trump and other senior officials, as signals that a China-US Cold War had already begun. Meanwhile, the administration’s preference for tariffs as the weapon of choice was seen not as a tool to bring about a “free and open Indo-Pacific” but as a sledgehammer aimed at persuading US firms to return to US protectionist shores. As the president and his team declared their love for bilateral trade deals, Asians pressed ahead with their own multilateral initiatives.  Looking ahead, like it or not, the China-US relationship appears to be the dominating feature of the Indo-Pacific economic and security environment.

The Pivot is Dead, Long Live the (Indo-Asia-Pacific) Pivot

In last fall’s National Security Strategy (NSS), the Trump administration began using the term Indo-Pacific to describe an expanded Asia-Pacific region. At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in early June, Defense Secretary James Mattis began describing a strategy to fit the region, a “whole-of-government Indo-Pacific strategy that espouses the shared principles that underpin a free-and-open Indo-Pacific.” It differs from, but could encompass the so-called Quad, an informal four-party grouping of regional democracies involving Australia, India, Japan, and the US, which is also based on common values and a common commitment to the rule of law. The strategy accepts and endorses “ASEAN centrality,” a point reinforced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Singapore for the ASEAN Ministerial meetings and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in early August. Prior to departing for Singapore, Pompeo laid out “America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision” in his speech to the US Chamber of Commerce. While the US is envisioning its economic strategy, the so-called TPP-11 is proceeding without Washington, as is Beijing in pursuing its own more expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The “Disruptor in Chief” Emerges

Since the advent of the Trump administration, US Asia policy has reflected more continuity than change. No more. The one exception has been US security policy, which continued to reflect time-honored principles, including the centrality of US alliances and deterrence. Changes have come at a breathtaking pace in the past few months. Credit (or blame) the emergence of “the real” Donald Trump, who has shrugged off the constraints and conventional wisdom that had kept him largely within the mainstream of US foreign policy practices. His decision to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stunned most observers and led to a series of summits in anticipation of his historic meeting with Kim. The “Disruptor-in-Chief” was also hard at work on economic policy, with the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum exports by US trading partners. Trade tensions between Washington and Beijing grew throughout the first four months of 2018 and there are fears of a trade war in the absence of astute management.

The Best/Worst Trip Ever!

President Donald Trump’s inaugural visit to Asia in November was either “the best presidential trip, anywhere, ever” or “an absolute disaster and embarrassment,” depending on whose comments you read. The truth lies somewhere in-between. Objectively speaking, the trip turned out to be much better than many predicted or feared. The president reaffirmed the US commitment to its two key East Asia allies, Japan and South Korea, rallied international support at every stop for his “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, stayed on message in China, and reaffirmed support for friends and allies in Southeast Asia. For better or for worse, Trump clearly and unambiguously signaled his administration’s preference for “fair and reciprocal” bilateral trade agreements while dismissing the multilateral approach favored by most of his predecessors, thus opening the door for new trade champions – enter Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who will be vying for leadership. The administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) report reinforced the “free and open Indo-Pacific” themes heard during Trump’s trip. The president’s unprecedented personal rollout of the report also underscored the mixed messages coming from Washington when official policy statements and Trump’s personal preferences and viewpoints fail to coincide.

Continuity (and Anxiety) Continue

In our last issue we argued that there had been more continuity than change in America’s Asia policy. The Trump administration’s senior national security team has tried to prove us right over the past four months. Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that the Asia Pacific remained “a priority region” for the US. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed the US commitment to democracy and human rights while laying out Washington’s “peaceful pressure” policy against Pyongyang. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said that America’s “active engagement [in Asia] is frankly continuing and is not going to be changing anytime soon.”  The major exception was the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the president’s frontal attack on “bad” trade deals. These attacks, against the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have continued, although the US has not (yet) withdrawn from either accord. The final statements from two major economic gatherings in recent months, the G7 and G20 Summits, endorsed the principles of free trade, although this was despite, rather than because of, the US, which used to champion this cause. The absence of US leadership has compelled others to speak up and carry the ball.

The Pivot is Dead, Long Live the Pivot

While it hasn’t always been pretty or (gasp) consistent, US Asia policy under the Trump administration is, with one major exception, pretty much where the Obama administration left it. America’s Asian alliances remain the foundation of its security strategy and “our one-China policy” has been reaffirmed. Even regarding North Korea, the objective – bringing Kim Jong Un “to his senses” – remains the same, although the approach seems to display less patience. The exception centers on the one promise that Trump (regrettably in our view) has kept: abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). On economic policy more generally, the promised trade war with China has (thus far) failed to materialize since “the Chinese have made some improvements on currency in recent months”; okay, Chinese currency manipulation actually stopped several years ago, but you get the point. While the search for a new buzz word to replace the “pivot” or “rebalance” continues, the vice president and secretaries of State and Defense have been to the region and the White House has confirmed President Trump’s plan to attend a trio of regional summits this fall.  Asia remains a high priority region, for better and for worse.

US Asia Policy, Symbolically Speaking

Once every four years, our Regional Overview attempts to reassure our readers that, despite a new US administration and/or new secretary of state, US Asia policy will remain generally consistent. This year we are trying to reassure ourselves. It is, of course, premature to be making firm pronouncements about an incoming administration’s policies, but by now signals are usually becoming pretty clear. It seemed safe to assume (as we did at the time), that the incoming Obama administration would pursue the same general policies and national security objectives in the Asia-Pacific as its predecessor: support for existing alliances as the foundation of regional security policy, constructive engagement with China, support for free trade and promotion of human rights, and a strong deterrence posture regarding North Korea, combined with firm support for nonproliferation regimes. This could yet be the case for the incoming Trump administration, but the signals are, at best, mixed, in part because we find ourselves responding to tweets – which transition team spokesmen caution should be taken “symbolically” not literally – rather than clear policy pronouncements. As a result, regional leaders, while hoping for the best (or at least more of the same) seem to be preparing themselves for a variety of outcomes, even as some try to shape the future environment.

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.

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).

While events in Paris and San Bernardino refocused the international community’s attention on terrorism, it was largely business as usual in Asia, with the normal round of multilateral meetings – the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, US-ASEAN Summit, East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) in Kuala Lumpur, plus the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Manila – going largely unnoticed. A few other summits did attract attention, including the first “Plus Three” (Japan-Korea-China) Summit in three years (which included the first direct one-on-one summit between ROK President Park and Japan Prime Minister Abe) in Seoul and the “non-summit” between Mr. Xi Jinping and Mr. Ma Ying-Jeou who just happen to be the presidents, respectively, of the People’s Republic of China and Republic of China, in Singapore. Chinese actions (and US reactions) in the South China Sea continued to dominate the news, while hopes that Kim Jong-Un was on the brink of behaving were quickly dashed as the new year began. All eyes remain on the Chinese economy and the impact the continuing slowdown there may have on global growth, even as the US pushes forward on the finally completed (but not yet Congressionally-approved) Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The big news over the summer is the granting of “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority to President Obama by the US Congress. This keeps hopes alive for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic centerpiece of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia. The political and military legs of this multidimensional strategy got a boost as Secretary of State John Kerry attended the annual ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meeting and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter headlined the show at the Shangri-La Dialogue. China continues to make its presence felt in regional affairs as well; President Xi Jinping attended meetings in Ufa, Russia with other BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders and hosted a Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Special Working Group and Senior Officials Committee Meeting and first CICA Youth Council Conference in Beijing, while continuing to pursue his Silk Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiatives, even as China’s economy took a significant hit. Meanwhile, Pyongyang engaged in another round of Russian roulette but backed down when it became apparent Seoul was prepared to pull the trigger. Finally, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II put history on the front pages.

President Obama initiated his long-awaited (and long overdue) quest for “fast track” or Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) from the US Congress, understanding that final negotiations and eventual passage (or not) of his Asian “rebalance” economic centerpiece, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, rests upon achieving TPA. Without TPP, Obama’s already tarnished leadership image will be severely damaged, his “lame duck” status will be solidified at home and abroad, and his Asian pivot will be seen not as the multidimensional strategy it was intended to be but largely a unidimensional (security) single-focused (China) strategy. Meanwhile, China continued to tarnish US and ASEAN leadership through its accelerated island-building projects in the South China Sea, while Washington’s badly managed response to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative provided another (self-inflicted) wound. Washington’s questions were the right ones, but its seemingly “choose between us and China” approach resulted in most US partners and allies choosing Beijing. Finally, US-DPRK and North-South relations went through cycles of hope and despair with no real progress in sight, as speculation runs rampant as to why Kim Jong-Un decided not to go to Moscow.

A trifecta of international gatherings – the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Beijing, the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Nay Pyi Taw, and the G-20 gathering in Brisbane – had heads of state from around the globe, including US President Barack Obama, flocking to the Asia-Pacific as 2014 was winding to a close. North Korea was not included in these confabs but its leaders (although not the paramount one) were taking their charm offensive almost everywhere else in an (unsuccessful) attempt to block a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Pyongyang’s human rights record. More successful was Pyongyang’s (alleged) attempt to undermine and embarrass Sony Studios to block the release of a Hollywood film featuring the assassination of Kim Jong Un.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry continued their “pivots” to Asia, respectively attending the Shangri-La Dialogue and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), before joining up for a 2+2 with their Aussie counterparts. President Obama’s failure to mention the Asia rebalance during his “major foreign policy address” at West Point raised questions about the US commitment to the region. No wonder no one seemed to have much time to pay attention to Pyongyang as it continued its (idle) threats and insults.  Meanwhile, there was little progress reported on the economic centerpiece of the US pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), even as China continued its pursuit of an alternative “Asia for Asians” approach. Two of the world’s largest democracies, India and Indonesia, held landmark elections, in stark contrast to Thailand where the military leadership tried to legitimize its rule.

President Obama’s fifth trip to Asia – his “reassurance” tour – was well-received by all his hosts but drew mixed reviews from pundits and from Beijing. His accomplishments were partly overshadowed by two tragedies – the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the sinking of a South Korean ferry – and by lack of progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership while abroad or on Trade Promotion Authority at home. Obama also tried his hand at peacemaking by bringing Japan’s Prime Minister Abe and South Korean President Park together for their first meeting, on the sidelines of the third Nuclear Security Summit. Secretaries Kerry and Hagel also toured the region to promote the “pivot,” with Hagel stopping in Honolulu to host the first US-ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting. Pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize has yielded little, other than threats of another nuclear test and an incredibly vile (even by North Korean standards) personal attack on Presidents Park and Obama. Australian Prime Minister Abbott made a successful swing through Northeast Asia, while participants at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium agreed to a constructive (but non-binding) set of rules to prevent encounters at sea. Finally, we opine about the implications for Asia of events in the Ukraine.

Regional Overview

September — December 2013

Self-Inflicted Wounds

2013 ended with a series of self-inflicted wounds. President Obama, with a huge assist from the US Congress, reinforced apprehensions about the US commitment to the region by skipping both the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting. Setting an unreachable yearend goal to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was another in the series. So too was President Xi Jinping’s decision to announce China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. Not to be left out, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo closed out the year by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, further alienating Beijing and Seoul while drawing a rare rebuke from Washington as well. How much this will impact his “go south” policy to build better relations with ASEAN remains unclear. North Korea’s regent Jang Song Thaek saw his career go to the dogs – at least figuratively – due to alleged greed and other criminal acts. Many fear that the prospect for Chinese-style reform in North Korea died with him.

It was a rough four months for the US as Washington struggled to convince Asian audiences that the “rebalance” is sustainable given renewed attention to the Middle East, even before the Syrian crises. US engagement in Asia was multidimensional with participation at several ministerial-level meetings, a visit by Vice President Biden, continued pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and a show of military capability in Korea. But, it isn’t clear North Korea got the message. Kim Jong Un seems to have adopted his father’s play book: first create a crisis, make lots of threats, and follow up with a “smile diplomacy” campaign. So far, Washington has stuck to its game plan, insisting on a sign of genuine sincerity before opening a dialogue with Pyongyang. Finally, the US image in the region was damaged by revelations about classified NSA intelligence collection efforts.

The “unpredictable” North Korean regime acted all too predictably, following through on its threat to conduct a third nuclear test and increasing tensions through fiery rhetoric. Pyongyang also took steps to solidify its claim to be a nuclear weapon state, a status the rest of the world is no more willing to bestow on the Kim Jong Un regime than it was on his father’s. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the US commitment to the rebalance to Asia. While in Japan, he underscored that the so-called “pivot” also has important economic and political dimensions. Fears of “death by sequestration” have also (thus far) proven to be overstated. The jury remains out on what the “real Abe” will look like after Upper House elections but Japanese Prime Minister Abe has demonstrated enough continuity by reinforcing candidate Abe’s nationalist rhetoric to make Japan’s neighbors, not to mention many in Washington, nervous.

It was deja vu all over again on the Korean Peninsula as the absence of bad news, highlighted during our last reporting period, came to an end when Pyongyang again defied the international community (and UNSC sanctions) by conducting another missile launch, this time successfully, in December. Nonetheless, Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s message was seen by some (but not us) as a harbinger of good news in the year ahead. ASEAN leaders at the yearend round of summits in Phnom Penh (including the East Asia Summit attended by President Obama) managed to demonstrate a greater amount of unity than during their July ministerial, but the lingering South China Sea territorial issue showed no signs of being closer to resolution. Meanwhile, hopes for genuine reform in Burma/Myanmar soared as President Obama made an unprecedented visit following his inaugural visit to Cambodia for the EAS, in the context of his administration’s continuing rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific.

It was out with the new and in with the old in Japan, as the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power amidst a nationalistic campaign that promised to strain relations with the new leadership coming to power in South Korea and China, and perhaps with the new leadership team in Washington as well. President Obama won a second term and Park Geun-hye returned to the Blue House, this time as president. In China, a new leadership took command of the communist party, and they face myriad challenges, many of which are economic in nature. The year closed with a flurry of trade meetings and initiatives designed to capture the energy of the world’s most dynamic economies.

The only good news to report when it comes to Korean Peninsula denuclearization is the absence of any new really bad news over the past four months. North Korea’s widely predicted (including by us) third nuclear test or follow-on missile launch did not occur. No one anticipated any serious movement toward resumption of the stalled Six-Party Talks, and those expectations were met. The biggest multilateral surprise came from ASEAN, which for the first time in its 45-year history, concluded its annual ministerial meeting without issuing a chairman’s statement or communiqué. The ministers at the follow-on ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) did produce a summary, which once again highlighted the need for broader multilateral cooperation throughout the region, including the South China Sea. Economic ministers were equally productive in meetings in August, when among things they launched the first East Asian Summit Economic Ministers Meeting and the inaugural ASEAN-US Business Summit.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta attended the annual Shangri-La Dialogue (his Chinese counterpart did not) and provided his usual reassurance that the US planned to remain engaged in the region, although this did little to deter others from harping about US “decline.” That was a constant refrain throughout the summer, along with companion attempts to frame every US policy as a response to the rise of China and a shifting balance of power in the region. Sigh! US policy remains driven by longstanding US national interests, as underscored by a recent study of the US military presence in the Asia Pacific. As part of the rebalancing, the US is attempting to broaden the scope of its foreign policy, not narrow it to fit a military lens.

There was a brief period when a breakthrough seemed possible in the stalemate with North Korea when it pledged to freeze all nuclear and missile tests; then Pyongyang announced a planned satellite launch, pulling the rug out from under Washington (and itself) and business as usual returned to the Peninsula. While hopes for a new round of Six-Party Talks were seemingly dashed, other multilateral initiatives seem alive and well. The BRICS met, mostly to complain, while ASEAN’s leaders gathered in Phnom Penh, mostly to pat themselves on the back. The Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) took a step forward by reaching agreement on a trilateral investment treaty. In elections around the region, continuity prevailed in Taiwan, as it did in Korea (to the surprise of most pundits) and Russia (to no one’s surprise). Meanwhile, Beijing seems to have taken a few steps back as a result of the Bo Xilai and Chen Guancheng affairs.

It’s been an Asia-centric four months. The Obama administration proclaimed America’s “pivot” toward Asia, while North Korea faced a pivotal moment following the death of its “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. President Obama conducted a broad swing through the Asia-Pacific region in November, starting in Honolulu where he hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting, before pivoting first to Australia, where he announced a plan to begin rotating US Marines through Darwin, and then on to Indonesia, where he became the first US president to participate in the East Asia Summit. Even more pivotal was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma/Myanmar where she met with its “elected” leadership and also with democracy icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

While geopolitics was at the forefront of US thinking, regional governments were focused on economic developments. A spate of swap agreements underscored the need to inoculate regional governments from global economic woes. The “plus Three” countries – China, Japan, and South Korea – continue their march toward deeper integration, one intriguing counterpoint to the conclusion of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. The Asia-Pacific region should set the pace for global growth, but the many transitions of 2012 will introduce considerable uncertainty.

A few dim rays of light pierced what has been the darkness of the Six-Party Talks since their suspension in December 2008, raising hopes that we would see a resumption of dialogue in the next few months (even though prospects for actual Korean Peninsula denuclearization remain low). US-China relations continued to mend at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) gatherings amid ever-so-slight progress toward the creation of a South China Sea Code of Conduct. Vice President Biden’s first official trip to China added to the light.

Hopes have also been raised that new prime ministers in Thailand and Japan can help end the political quagmires in both countries. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and subsequent meeting with “civilian” government officials also provide a ray of hope that progress might be made in moving Burma/Myanmar toward democracy. Meanwhile, the self-inflicted debt crisis in the US has further dimmed hopes for US leadership in Asia and globally.

Looking forward, there are flickering hopes that this year’s APEC Leaders Meeting in Honolulu will shine a new spotlight on this increasingly overshadowed institution.  Finally, lest we forget, the biggest headline of this four-month period appeared on its first day: “Bin Laden is Dead!” Many hope this signals the beginning of the end for al Qaeda; others hope it will hasten the US exit from Afghanistan as well.

The biggest headlines during the first four months of 2011 were generated by the triple tragedy in Japan – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear crisis – which left Tokyo (and much of the rest of the world) shaking, especially over nuclear safety. On the Korean Peninsula, Chinese concerns about the ROK/US “enough is enough” (over?)reaction to North Korean aggressiveness resulted in Beijing’s acknowledgment that the road to a solution must run through Seoul, thus providing a new foundation upon which to build toward a resumption of Six-Party Talks. Meanwhile, elections among the Tibetan diaspora began a long-anticipated political transition in in the exile community, shaking Chinese policy toward the province.  More fighting between Thailand and Cambodia over disputed borders has rattled ASEAN as it challenges the most important of its guiding principles – the peaceful resolution of disputes. Economic developments this trimester all highlighted growing doubts about the global economic order and the US leadership role. It’s easy to predict the biggest headline of the next four month period: “Bin Laden is Dead!” Implications for Asia will be examined in the next issue; initial reactions were predictable.

Last quarter we noted that the US profile in Asia was on the rise and China’s image was falling, while questioning if North Korea was changing, as Beijing, among others, seemed to insist. This quarter has been marked by more of the same, on all three fronts.

President Obama made a high-profile trip to Asia, visiting India, Korea (to attend the first Asia-hosted G20 meeting), Japan (for the APEC Leaders Meeting), and Indonesia. Secretary of State Clinton give a major address in Honolulu (co-hosted by the Pacific Forum CSIS) on US Asia policy, before her sixth trip to Asia, this time traveling to Guam, China, Vietnam (where the US officially joined the East Asia Summit), Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and finally Australia, where she linked up with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Melbourne for a 2+2 meeting with their Aussie counterparts. Gates also visited Hanoi for the first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus gathering in early October and stopped by Malaysia on his way home from Australia, while the USS George Washington paid a return visit to the Yellow Sea before participating in a joint US-Japan military exercise near Okinawa.

Beijing appeared to back off its aggressive stance in the East China Sea and South China Sea and uttered hardly a peep in response to the US aircraft carrier operations off Korea’s west coast. It did, however, continue to protect and essentially enable Pyongyang’s bad behavior by blocking any serious UNSC response to North Korea’s artillery attack on South Korean civilians on Yeonpyeong Island, its recently unveiled uranium enrichment program, or its ongoing efforts to subvert UNSC sanctions. Pyongyang once again offered an “unconditional” return to the Six-Party Talks while reinforcing the preconditions (including a peace treaty with the US and recognition of its nuclear-weapons state status) that stand in the way of actual denuclearization.

2010 proved to be a generally good year, economically speaking, as most economies bounced back from the mauling they received in 2009. It was not that good a year politically for President Obama, as he watched his Democratic Party take a real drubbing in the November mid-term elections. He did, however, exhibit great political courage in pressing the Senate in a lame duck session to vote on the New START Treaty with the Russians, which was ratified at quarter’s end. Rumors of Obama’s political demise are, we suspect, greatly overstated.

The US profile in Asia appears to be on the rise following Secretary of State Clinton’s highly publicized presentation at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial in Hanoi in July and President Obama’s New York meeting with ASEAN leaders at quarter’s end. Meanwhile Beijing’s image took a few hits as it tried to bully Japan (successfully), the US and ROK (unsuccessfully), and ASEAN (TBD) on maritime-related issues, while seemingly having nothing but kind thoughts and gestures for the DPRK, essentially serving as its defense attorney during UN Security Council deliberations regarding the attack on the Cheonan. Prospects for a resumption of Six-Party Talks remained low, despite a professed willingness by Pyongyang to return to the table (albeit as a recognized nuclear weapon state).  New faces appeared in the North’s general officer ranks but the (seemingly nonexistent) prospects for Korean Peninsula denuclearization remained unchanged.


Meanwhile, democracy marches on, one step forward in Japan and two backward in Burma/Myanmar, while Washington seeks greater economic integration in Asia, not just through traditional vehicles such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) “gathering of economies,” but through the “gold standard” Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The US profile is expected to grow further next quarter with President Obama and Secretary Clinton both scheduled for high-profile visits to the region. We’ll see what Beijing does to improve its image; we expect little progress when it comes to Pyongyang.

Hopes for a resumption of Six-Party Talks this past quarter were torpedoed when an international investigation team concluded that the ROK Navy ship Cheonan was deliberately attacked by a North Korean submarine. The Chinese, while scuttling plans for UNSC censure of Pyongyang, fired a warning shot of their own, denying Defense Secretary Gates’ request for a China visit after the Shangri-La Dialogue in June in a sign of continued displeasure over US arms sales to Taiwan. Also once again torpedoed, this time by an oil spill, was President Obama’s twice-delayed “homecoming” visit to Indonesia.

ASEAN defense officials gathered in Singapore in June for the Shangri-La Dialogue but not until after convening their fourth ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) in Hanoi in May where they finalized plans for a broader multilateral ADMM Plus Eight confab to improve regional defense cooperation. If successful, the ADMM+ could render the Shangri-La Dialogue obsolete. Other regional multilateral activity included the third China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Summit and the 10th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, while globally the G8 and G20 met for the first time back-to-back in Canada, with the G20 beginning to outshine its older more exclusive cousin.

The Obama administration published its overdue National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review reports this quarter, outlining its overall strategic priorities and the (diminished) role of nuclear weapons as, together with Moscow, Washington made a New START toward its declared goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. Nuclear safety and security were very much on the president’s mind as he convened the first ever Nuclear Security Summit involving leaders and other senior officials from 49 countries in Washington and applauded the success of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York.

Finally, it’s been a rough quarter politically in East Asia, especially in Thailand where “red shirt” protests and government reactions both turned violent. In Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama chose to walk the plank (and took ruling party Secretary General Ozawa with him) in hopes of salvaging his party’s chances in the upcoming Upper House elections while Prime Minister Rudd was also a victim of a surprise attack, in this case coming from his own party. A peaceful transfer of power did take place in the Philippines, however, and Hong Kong took another baby step toward promised universal suffrage.

Last quarter we focused on remarks by US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaiming that “America is back in Asia,” an obvious dig at real and perceived neglect of Asia by the previous administration. This quarter, both were forced to postpone planned trips to Asia although, in Secretary Clinton’s case, not before giving a major Asia policy address in Honolulu. This quarter also ended the same as last, amid hints that Pyongyang really would, at some not too distant point (but not this past quarter), return to six-party deliberations.

On a more positive note, it looks like arms control agreements are on the way back, following the announcement that the US and Russia had finally come to terms on a new strategic arms agreement, to be signed by both presidents in April. Speculation about the “changing balance of power” in Asia also continues as a result of China’s economic resilience and apparent newfound confidence, although it still seems premature to announce that the Middle Kingdom is back, given the challenges highlighted at this year’s National Peoples’ Congress. Political normalcy also appears to be a long way from returning to Bangkok where the “red shirts” have once again taken to the street, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.

Regional Overview

October — December 2009

They’re Baaaack!

The US is back in Asia! This was the central theme of President Obama’s major Asia policy speech, delivered in Tokyo on the first leg of a four-country swing through Asia this past quarter. North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il also hinted that Pyongyang might come back to the Six-Party Talks after a visit to the North Korean capital by Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth. Kim did not meet Bosworth but he did meet with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the beginning of the quarter, signaling that he too was back from the death bed many had placed him in. Washington’s commitment to multilateral cooperation was renewed at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting. Obama also followed through on the Bush administration’s earlier unrealized plan to convene the first-ever full ASEAN-US summit. Historic rivalries within Southeast Asia returned to the front-burner as Thailand and Cambodia turned up the heat in a very un-ASEAN way. Asia’s economies also appear to be returning from the dead while Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s proposal for a new Asia-Pacific Community refuses to die, despite an apparent lack of enthusiasm within and beyond ASEAN.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept her promise and showed up at the first ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Ministerial Meeting to take place on her watch and, also as promised, signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) on behalf of the United States. Unfortunately, North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il also kept his promises: to ignore all UN Security Council resolutions, to shoot more missiles, and to never, ever (or at least not this past quarter) return to the Six-Party Talks. In response, Washington pledged to continue its full-court press on enforcing UN-imposed sanctions despite a few “good-will gestures” from Pyongyang. U.S. President Barack Obama also kept his promise to take significant steps toward global disarmament, chairing a UN Security Council session to underscore his commitment to this ideal. Meanwhile signs of the promised recovery of the global economy were in evidence this past quarter, with Asia leading the way.

Pyongyang reverted to form this quarter, reminding the new U.S. administration that old challenges would not be easily or quickly negotiated away. Its attention-getting devices included a failed “satellite launch” and an apparently successful nuclear test, along with a promise to never, ever return to the Six-Party Talks. China and Russia, in each case after much diplomatic gnashing of teeth, joined in strongly condemning these violations of prior United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.

At the annual Shangri-La Security Dialogue, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates showed the Obama administration’s softer, gentler side while the senior Chinese representative demonstrated that the “Cold War mentality” lives on. China did join with its BRIC counterparts – Brazil, Russia, and India – in another new approach to dealing with global challenges, even as the first positive indicators were being touted as signs of life in a moribund global economy.

Politics as unusual was the order of the day, as North Korea apparently grappled with the issue of succession, continued civil (or not so civil) disobedience in Thailand resulted in the embarrassing cancellation of a number of ASEAN-related summits, and the much-beleaguered prime minister in Malaysia stepped down. It was better news for India’s prime minister, who won a resounding victory this quarter, a feat which many expect Indonesia’s president to duplicate next quarter. And, trials and tribulations among its members notwithstanding, there are signs that the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) may actually be coming of age. Finally, President Obama’s Asia team is finally in place.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s choice of Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China for her first official trip overseas helped shine a spotlight on Asia as a high priority region this quarter, as did North Korean Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s announcement that he intended to conduct a satellite launch in early April. The drama surrounding the anticipated launch provided an unfortunate back drop for otherwise very positive pronouncements about intended Obama administration policies in East Asia, even if the quarter closed with only a handful of those eventually to be tasked with implementing these policies at their desks. ASEAN leaders finally held their postponed summit and celebrated the entry into force of their much-maligned Charter.  Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visited Washington to underscore that the U.S. and Australia are still “mates,” even as his reluctance to send more combat forces to Afghanistan foreshadowed the difficulty President Obama faces in getting allies to sign up for his “surge” there. Finally, economic forecasts kept being adjusted downward as Asian leaders prepared for the G20 summit in London in hopes that this would bring a turnaround.

Regional Overview

October — December 2008

From Bad to Worse

Things generally went from bad to worse in the Asia-Pacific this past quarter. The Six-Party Talks began on a low note and went steadily downhill from there as Pyongyang stonewalled against even a moderately intrusive verification regime.  Crippling demonstrations in Bangkok not only dealt a severe blow to Thailand’s economy (and image) but forced ASEAN to postpone both its annual round of summitry (including ASEAN Plus Three and the East Asia Summit) and its planned celebration of its Charter ratification. The Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) did manage to hold their first non-ASEAN-affiliated summit and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting did go off without a hitch, but neither had much impact on growing regional (and global) economic woes as economic forecasts kept being revised downward. Many in Asia saw a possible light at the end of one tunnel with the election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president, although elite opinion, especially in Northeast Asia, remained mixed as they kept a watchful eye out for Asia policy pronouncements and the names of those who will be chosen to implement them.

Hopes of progress in Six-Party Talks negotiations evident in the closing days of the previous quarter were quickly dashed as anticipated disagreements over verification of North Korea’s nuclear declaration created a stalemate still in evidence at quarter’s end. The only movement was backward, as “action for action” was replaced by inaction and worse.  Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made news by not showing up at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial. This year she went and hardly anyone noticed. The democratic process made for interesting watching this quarter, not only in Thailand and Malaysia, but in East Asia’s most established democracy, as Japan saw its third leader in the 24 months since Prime Minister Koizumi departed the scene. The once presumably left for dead U.S.-India nuclear deal was reincarnated by the Indian Parliament this quarter with the U.S. Congress following suit at quarter’s end and President Bush’s signature in early October.  Finally, the U.S. sneezed this quarter and the rest of the world did catch cold, even as Wall Street struggles with a serious bout of pneumonia. Economic policy also dominated the “foreign policy debate” between Senators Obama and McCain, with no questions and only sparse references to Asia throughout.

After eight months of inaction, there was a flurry of six-party action at quarter’s end. As Pyongyang produced its long-awaited declaration of its nuclear activities, President Bush announced his intention to remove North Korea from the U.S. listing of state sponsors of terrorism and Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) restrictions. Pyongyang responded with a made-for-TV demolition of the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear facility.  Elsewhere, respective reactions to natural disasters showed how far China has come and Myanmar/Burma still has to go in dealing with the outside world. There was a generally positive reaction to Secretary Gates’ Shangri-La statements on U.S. East Asia policy and toward the two U.S. presidential candidates (or their surrogates) early pronouncements about Asia as well. In contrast, there has been almost no reaction at all to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s call for a more inclusive Asia-Pacific community.

Democracy seemed to be struggling in Thailand and in Mongolia, even as a reshuffling of coalition partners in India promised to resurrect the India-U.S. nuclear deal from the near-dead, just as Indian Prime Minister Singh prepared to meet President Bush along the sidelines of the upcoming G8 meeting in Japan. With this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting scheduled for Peru in November, and with leaders from China, South Korea, and India among the invited guests to the July 6-8 summit at Lake Toyako, the G8 meeting will likely serve as President Bush’s last opportunity for East Asia multilateral summitry. Finally, a word to our readers in Korea: Get the facts! American beef is safe. Period. End of sentence.

“It is always darkest just before the dawn of a new day” goes the old saying. Well, it looks pretty dark when it comes to U.S.‑DPRK relations and the prospects for the Six‑Party Talks, with no significant progress reported this quarter in the quest for a “complete and correct declaration” of North Korea’s nuclear programs and activities. Hope springs eternal, however, as both sides continued to work toward a much needed “third breakthrough” in the next quarter.

Meanwhile, with a change of government in Seoul and an impending change in Taipei, an era of improved relations with Washington may be dawning. It’s a new day in Thailand as well, or perhaps more accurately, a return to the (good?) old days when Thaksin ruled. Election results in Malaysia indicate that politics as usual will no longer be the norm in Kuala Lumpur, while in Russia, a change in leadership seems to represent no change at all. No change is also the operative word when it comes to Burma. Unfortunately, it just appears to be getting darker when it comes to Tibet as well. Finally, with the U.S. economy sneezing, how confident are we that Asia will not soon catch cold?

The quarter began with high hopes, following the year’s second Six-Party Talks “breakthrough,” but it was all down hill after that. On Oct. 3, Beijing announced a “second phase” implementation plan that laid out a series of specific Korean Peninsula denuclearization actions to be accomplished by Dec. 31. Unfortunately, the new year tolled with the most critical of these promised actions – a mutually acceptable “complete and correct declaration” of all North Korean nuclear programs, facilities, and activities – nowhere to be found. The much-anticipated ASEAN Charter was also signed this quarter but hopes that Myanmar would somehow be penalized for its brutal suppression of peaceful protests earlier in the fall were dashed as the other members took an ostrich-like approach to the problem. The third East Asia Summit took place as scheduled, with outside observers still not fully clear about the group’s objectives or its place in the greater multilateral mix. The largest multilateral gathering of the quarter took place in Bali, where those worried about global warming expelled a lot of hot air in producing a potentially useful but currently not very specific “Bali Roadmap” on climate change. The democratic process remained alive and well with new governments being elected in Australia, South Korea, and Thailand, even as China was ruling that Hong Kong would not be ready for a more representative government until at least 2017. On the economic front, 2007 proved to be a good year for Asia, with growth consistent with pre-year projections; most forecasters see only a modest slowdown in 2008, despite lingering concerns about over the fallout from the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis.

Multilateralism was the order of the day in the Asia-Pacific this quarter. Two sessions of the Six-Party Talks and a number of associated bilateral and multilateral working group sessions were held, culminating in a “breakthrough” at quarter’s end, at least in terms of the disablement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and associated 10+X ministerial meetings took place amid reports of steady progress on the development of ASEAN’s first Charter. The annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting resulted in rhetorical commitments to combat global warming and move the Doha round of trade talks forward, while President George W. Bush met for the third time in a summit with assembled ASEAN leaders along the APEC sidelines. The failure of Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice to attend the ARF meeting (her second miss in three attempts) and the cancellation of Bush’s follow-on visit to Singapore (for what would have been his first full summit meeting with ASEAN leaders) renewed concerns about the U.S. commitment to the region, despite the deepening of the U.S.-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership. Multilateral military cooperation included major exercises in the Indian Ocean and Central Asia by what some portray (inaccurately?) as emerging rival blocs. Democracy watchers continued to keep a close eye on Bangkok’s slow return to democracy and election dynamics in Seoul and Taipei, even while expressing revulsion over the latest giant step backward taken by the military junta in Rangoon.

The quarter opened with Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill proclaiming that we were “a few days away” from overcoming the “technical issues” that were holding up the Korean Peninsula denuclearization process. Unfortunately, those few days did not take place until mid-June, postponing the long-awaited 60-day test of the Feb. 13 “action for action” agreement until next quarter. Also pending is a test of the willingness of the nations of Southeast Asia to develop a meaningful Charter in commemoration of ASEAN’s 40th birthday, following this quarter’s review of (and reported revisions to) the groundbreaking draft provided last quarter by its Eminent Persons Group. The commitment of Thailand’s military leaders to restore democracy is also being tested, as is Beijing’s commitment to Hong Kong’s Basic Law on the 10th anniversary of reversion. Meanwhile, new U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and China’s new PLA Deputy Chief of the General Staff Zhang Qinsheng passed their initial diplomatic tests this quarter while making their first appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Finally, East Asia’s economy, 10 years after the Asian financial crisis, appears to have nicely survived the test of time.

The Year of the Golden Pig has gotten off to an auspicious beginning. The Six-Party Talks, seemingly left for dead at the end of last quarter, were miraculously revived, resulting in an “action for action” game plan for the phased implementation of the September 2005 joint denuclearization agreement. Neither weather nor terrorism concerns prevented the second East Asia Summit from taking place as rescheduled, with the U.S. nowhere to be found. ASEAN leaders also took a step forward in examining their first formal Charter while agreeing with their Plus Three partners (China, Japan, and South Korea, finally once again on speaking terms) to promote greater regional integration. Tokyo and Canberra took a dramatic step forward in strengthening bilateral security cooperation, while the second “Armitage-Nye Report” was released, laying out a bipartisan vision for “getting Asia right.”

The quarter started with a bang, literally, as North Korea made good on its threat to test a nuclear weapon, resulting in a strongly worded (but not strongly enforceable) UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR 1718) imposing sanctions. To the surprise of some, Pyongyang agreed to return to another round of Six-Party Talks this quarter; to the surprise of virtually no one, the talks went nowhere. The most anticipated multilateral event of the quarter, the second East Asia Summit (EAS), was postponed (ostensibly due to weather), but the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting did take place on schedule, along with a side meeting between President Bush and the “ASEAN Seven.” Democracy took another hit in the region, this time via a military coup in Fiji, even as the road back to democracy in Thailand is proving to be longer than promised. The Asia Pacific economic outlook remains good, with the region continuing to set the pace for the rest of the world. The political outlook is not as sunny.

The last quarter ended with the international community playing “will they, or won’t they” over North Korea’s threatened missile test; they did! This quarter it’s déjà vu all over again, this time concerning a threatened nuclear weapons test. Following the UN Security Council’s surprisingly tough response to the missile tests, efforts were made to jump-start the negotiation process at this summer’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting. This attempt proved fruitless, however, as North Korea’s foreign minister refused to come to an “informal” six-party meeting, despite the opportunity to meet face-to-face with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who, despite genuine crises in the Middle East, made the extra effort to attend this year’s ministerial meeting). Elsewhere in Asia, ASEAN foreign ministers held their 39th annual Ministerial and numerous 10+1 post-ministerial talks (including a productive session with Secretary Rice), along with an ASEAN Plus Three meeting with their counterparts from China, Japan, and the ROK. Meanwhile, the democratic process continued to witness ups and (mostly) downs in Asia, as the military coup in Thailand reminds us of just how fragile the democratic process remains in Asia.

Several senior administration officials provided insights into the Bush administration’s East Asia and global strategic thinking this quarter. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley explained “three basic insights” that guide East Asia policy, reinforcing the centrality of U.S. alliances (a common theme in Asia policy pronouncements in the past but one that had been strangely absent in major Asia addresses by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice); Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill provided the most comprehensive statement to date regarding administration views of East Asia community building, pointing out Washington’s concern about the “Pan-Asianism vs. Pan-Pacificism” debate; and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made it clear that Washington prefers global, more inclusive, task-oriented multilateralism (“the mission defines the coalition”) over Cold War institutions that will become increasingly irrelevant if and when they fail to adjust to new strategic realities.


One such “coalition of the willing,” the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), celebrated its third anniversary, with Under Secretary of State Robert Joseph calling for more nations to come on board and for those already participating to “think innovatively, enforce aggressively, and engage regularly.” A major PSI air interdiction exercise off Australia drew participants from six countries, with observers from 26 more. Another “PSI-like” exercise would have represented a historic first until China and South Korea became last-minute no-shows. The Chinese did, however, send observers to a major U.S. military exercise held near Guam. Meanwhile, the Six-Party Talks remained a coalition of the unwilling as North Korea continued to boycott the talks amid preparations for a missile test which, on the Fourth of July, may have sounded a death knell for the talks . . . or maybe not!


In Southeast Asia, the nations of ASEAN took a small step closer to multilateral defense cooperation with the convening of the inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in early May. Many reconvened in Singapore during the Shangri-La Dialogue, which involved defense officials from 22 Asia-Pacific nations (including Secretary Rumsfeld). Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia took major steps toward greater actual defense cooperation in patrolling the Malacca Strait, while Malaysia Defense Minister Najib proposed the establishment of a regional relief center to coordinate regional responses to humanitarian disasters. When it came to responding to a neighbor’s call for help, however, ASEAN was conspicuously quiet, with only Malaysia sending assistance to help restore order in Timor-Leste, where the democratic process is struggling to take hold.  Meanwhile, the democratic process is nowhere to be found in Myanmar (Burma), where the ruling junta disappointed its ASEAN colleagues by once again extending Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest for another year.

The 2006 National Security Strategy (NSS) was released this quarter. News coverage has focused primarily on one word: preemption. Largely overlooked has been the much greater emphasis on the promotion of freedom and democracy as the primary objective of U.S. foreign policy in the second George W. Bush administration. How far and fast a nation (like China) proceeds down the path toward democracy – or refuses to do so (North Korea and Myanmar) – will have a major bearing on its future relations with a State Department that is being reoriented toward “transformational diplomacy.” Largely overshadowed by the NSS release were two Defense Department documents: the Quadrennial Defense Review and the National Military Strategy to Combat WMD.

While Washington pushes the theory of democracy, its practice has proven difficult for both Manila and Bangkok this quarter, even as the fruits of democracy have added challenges to Washington’s relations with Taipei. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has used the “hostile attitude” reflected in the NSS as yet another excuse for not returning to the stalled Six-Party Talks. One significant gathering of democracies this quarter was the inaugural ministerial-level Australia-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue focused, in part, on supporting the emergence of new democracies. Finally, Washington took a major step forward in advancing its “strategic partnership” with the world’s largest democracy, India, during President Bush’s historic visit to New Delhi in early March.


President Bush made his first trip to Asia in two years, attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Busan, South Korea and also visiting Japan, China, and Mongolia. In Japan, he gave a major Asia policy speech which reinforced his “freedom and democracy” theme, but missed the opportunity to shed much additional light on Washington’s future defense transformation plans or to ameliorate growing China-Japanese tensions. Other significant multilateral events this quarter included another (abbreviated) round of Six-Party Talks that made little headway (another missed opportunity); the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha Round session in Hong Kong, which was only slightly more productive; an ASEAN Plus Three (A+3) and various ASEAN Plus One summits that added, at least marginally, to the East Asia community-building process; and the inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS), which did not.  All in all, 2005 was a good (but not great) year, politically and economically, for East Asia and for Washington’s relations with its Asian neighbors. The economic forecast for 2006 looks generally bright; the political forecast perhaps a bit more cloudy.


The quarter was highlighted by the beginning and, after a five-week recess, successful conclusion of the long-delayed fourth round of Six-Party Talks.  While the Joint Statement issued Sept. 19 was far from a breakthrough, leaving many questions unanswered and most contentious issues unsettled, it did provide a framework for future cooperation (and, one hopes, eventual progress) by listing mutually agreed upon objectives, to include “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”

In Southeast Asia, the Indonesia government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) also decided to give peace a chance in the long-troubled and more recently tsunami-devastated Aceh province. Also in Southeast Asia, the annual round of ASEAN ministerial meetings took place in late July with the focus largely centered on which ministers did not attend the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) security dialogue and who would assume the ASEAN chair in mid-2006.  Meanwhile, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) got Washington’s attention when it called for the United States to set a date for the withdrawal of its forces from Central Asia’s “temporary infrastructure,” raising questions about Beijing’s (and Moscow’s) support for the war on terrorism and desire for cooperative, constructive relations with Washington.

Finally, World Health Organization officials continued to warn of a potential pandemic if a new variant of the avian flu virus, which has now killed at least 65 people in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and most recently Indonesia, begins spreading from human to human.

The North Koreans stayed away from the Six-Party Talks again this quarter, citing “mixed” and “confusing” signals from Washington as their main reason for not resuming the dialogue.  Meanwhile, Washington was sending mixed signals to Asia in general and to China in particular.  Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick had a successful trip through Southeast Asia, reassuring the ASEAN states about Washington’s continued commitment to the region, a message somewhat undercut at quarter’s end when it was revealed that his boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would likely not make her scheduled first appearance at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial meeting in Vientiane in late July. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also sent mixed signals to China during his second appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June, welcoming an emerging China “committed to peaceful solutions” as “an important new reality” while raising questions about the extent of its military build-up, since “no one threatens China.” There were also mixed signals from within ASEAN as to whether or not Burma/Myanmar would forego its chairmanship of ASEAN in mid-2006, amid mixed predictions as to the impact of Rice’s absence on this decision. Preparations also continued for this December’s first East Asian Summit (EAS) with more attention focused on who will attend than on what is to be accomplished.

More of the same! That appears to be the Asia policy theme for the Bush administration as it begins its second term. During her maiden voyage through Asia, incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reinforced the central themes of her predecessor: the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance relationship and Washington’s support for a more “normal” Japan; a commitment both to the defense of South Korea and to a peaceful settlement, via the six-party process, of the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang; and a continuation of Washington’s “cooperative, constructive, but candid” relationship with the PRC, including a “one China” policy that objects to unilateral changes in the status quo by either Beijing or Taipei. Underlying all this was Washington’s continued commitment to the promotion and expansion of democracy in Asia and around the globe, a central theme in President George W. Bush’s second inauguration address.

Unfortunately, it was more of the same from Pyongyang as well, as it continued to boycott the Six-Party Talks, insisting that Washington, among other preconditions, abandon its “hostile attitude” toward the DPRK and apologize for branding North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny” during Secretary Rice’s confirmation testimony. China and Taiwan also continued their familiar dance: one step forward (direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland during the Chinese New Year period), two steps back (the PRC’s anti-secession law and the massive protests it drew in Taiwan). Further complicating this issue and adding to already rising tensions between Japan and China were reports – largely erroneous – that Japan was now prepared to actively assist the U.S. in maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Surprisingly, Secretary Rice made no mention of regional multilateral organizations during her Asia policy address. Nor did Assistant Secretary of State-designate Christopher Hill during his March 15 confirmation hearings, although he did express a desire to “thicken up” multilateral diplomacy in East Asia during his end of quarter “listening and learning” trip to Southeast Asia.

Finally, in the “more of the same” category, the quarter ended the way it began, with Indonesia responding to its second devastating massive earthquake in three months, thankfully this time without the tsunami and staggering death tolls experienced in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 event. The U.S. and global response to this earlier crisis raised international cooperation (and generosity) in humanitarian/disaster relief to new levels and helped to improve the Bush administration’s battered image in this part of the world.



2004 ended on a tragic note, as the death toll from the Dec. 26 tsunami off Indonesia’s coast approached the 150,000 mark and continued to climb. The level of humanitarian assistance reached unprecedented proportion as nations put political differences aside to help the afflicted. The tsunami made many of the region’s man-made challenges fade (at least temporarily) into the background, even as some argued the relief effort provided the next Bush administration with an opportunity to improve its image in Asia after a rough first four years. In retrospect, 2004 had its ups and downs for Washington, with the derailing of Six-Party Talks and a slight cooling of Sino-U.S. relations being the biggest disappointments. On the positive side, it was a banner year for democracy in Asia; the system worked, time and time again, even if the results were not always predictable.  Multilateral cooperation was also on the rise and economic forecasts, issued before the tsunami struck, were generally positive and were not expected to be too negatively affected by the tragedy.

The quarter began on a high note when along the sidelines of the region’s foremost institutionalized multilateral security dialogue – the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) – a meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and his DPRK counterpart, Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, raised hopes of progress at the region’s most critical ad hoc multilateral gathering, the six-party talks. Alas, the “agreement in principle” reached at last quarter’s end – to engage in serious dialogue – this quarter deteriorated into name calling amid “complicating” revelations about earlier ROK nuclear experimentation, providing Pyongyang with yet another excuse to boycott the talks, presumably (goes the conventional wisdom) in hopes that regime change in Washington will work to its advantage.  The first U.S. presidential debate, while focused on foreign policy (read: Iraq), did little to disabuse Pyongyang of this notion as neither candidate seemed fully conversant with his own policy statements on the Korean nuclear crisis, even while agreeing that the threat posed by nuclear weapons proliferation represented the greatest future threat to U.S. security.

The Korean Peninsula also fits prominently in the Pentagon’s force realignment plans, although the greatest impact will be felt in Europe. President Bush, in a campaign speech before an influential veterans’ group, revealed that, worldwide, some 60-70,000 U.S. forces currently based overseas would be brought home over the next decade as part of his administration’s Global Posture Review (GPR). While few new details were released, it seemed clear that South Korea would bear the brunt of the changes in Asia (with no reduction in capabilities or commitment, the Pentagon was quick to add). Other Asian changes were forecast to be “not very dramatic,” regional headlines (“Marching Out Of Asia”) and Japanese anxieties (and, in some instances, high expectations) notwithstanding.

Elsewhere in Asia, democracy continued to march on, especially in Indonesia where the run-off election between incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri and challenger Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono resulted in another peaceful transition of power in the world’s largest Muslim country.  Meanwhile, the assembled ARF ministers confirmed their intentions to further institutionalize the ARF process, while repeating pledges to fight terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the
economic arena, preparations continued for this November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Santiago, Chile.

Six-party talks about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs dominated the multilateral agenda this quarter. The two working-level and one senior officials meetings in May/June constituted as much movement as had been seen in the entire 21 months since the stand-off began in October 2002.  Whether this movement constituted real progress was still not clear at quarter’s end, however.  Meanwhile, Washington’s efforts to develop a broader global consensus in support of its campaign against weapons of mass destruction (WMD) saw some progress with the passage of a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution and the convening of a first anniversary Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) plenary session, even as the regional implications of its Global Posture Strategy were beginning to be felt.

Elsewhere in Asia, the democratic process moved forward, albeit unevenly. Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s reelection was certified, as was Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s, and a subsequently unimpeached President Roh Moo-hyun saw his preferred Uri Party win a majority of seats in the ROK National Assembly.  A huge upset took place in India and perhaps in Mongolia as well. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s largely peaceful parliamentary elections set the stage for its first direct presidential election in July, demonstrating that democracy is alive and well in Jakarta. Events in Burma were less encouraging.  Despite promises to the contrary, Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest in Rangoon, making Burma’s constitutional convention an even bigger sham than it otherwise promised to be, and China’s leaders took one step backward regarding the introduction of more representational democracy in Hong Kong.

There was a flurry of other multilateral activity, including an ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial at quarter’s end.  Several major track-two events were boycotted by the PRC, demonstrating that its “fourth no” still applies, despite conciliatory gestures from Chen Shui-bian during his May 20 inauguration address.

In economic developments, Asia continues to be the most dynamic area in the world, with a forecast annual growth of 6.8 percent for 2004.  Confidence remains high despite concerns over the regional impact of China’s attempts to curb overheating and the region’s growing thirst for oil.

Finally, in the Middle East, President Bush promised to “stay the course” in Iraq, even as the U.S.-installed governing coalition was replaced at quarter’s end by a UN-arranged new sovereign entity, thus opening the door for broader global participation in the effort to reconstruct and democratize Iraq.  NATO took a small step toward joining the “coalition of the reluctant” but how many, if any, additional Asian nations would be willing to walk through this door remained to be seen.

The six-party coalition of the not-so-willing held its long-awaited second meeting in Beijing in Feb with CVID – the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of all of North Korea’s nuclear programs – becoming the new mantra.  CVID fit snugly into the Bush administration’s broader focus on halting the global spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), underscored in a major address by the president in early February laying out his determination to “close the loopholes” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and rally worldwide (including United Nations) support behind the expanding Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

Meanwhile, in the “be careful what you wish for because you might get it” category, two of Asia’s most vibrant democracies – Taiwan and South Korea – became a bit too vibrant this quarter as the region prepared for a series of presidential and parliamentary elections that could change the political face of East Asia for years to come.  Anxiety levels were also beginning to rise as Asians watched the political process unfold in advance of this November’s U.S. presidential elections.  A question (or accusation) on many minds: “Were Pyongyang and Washington already playing a ‘wait until November’ game?”

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.

The United States turned multilateralist this quarter, sitting down in a six-party setting to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons threats even as a U.S.-instigated 11-nation group was practicing how to prevent Pyongyang (among others) from exporting weapons of mass destruction (WMD) elsewhere.   More quietly, Australia’s “coalition of the willing” seems to be restoring some semblance of order in the Solomon Islands, even as another island’s leader – Taiwan’s Chen Shui-bian – unilaterally stirred up cross-Strait tensions with talk about referendums, constitutional changes, and the irrelevance of “one country, two systems” following the Hong Kong Anti-subversion Bill controversy.  U.S. military restructuring plans in South Korea moved ahead slowly as did any progress in obtaining Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from “protective custody” in Burma.

Meanwhile, a failed military mutiny in the Philippines indicated that serving as a “second front” in the U.S.-led war on terrorism is not the only challenge facing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s beleaguered government.  Speaking of beleaguered, President Bush went back to the United Nations this quarter, not to apologize for bypassing the hamstrung UN Security Council in invading Iraq but to seek greater international help in securing the peace, while still offering the UN only limited involvement in the management of postwar Iraqi affairs.  And, trade negotiators are hoping that next quarter’s premier regional multilateral economic event – the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting – avoids being the disaster that this quarter’s World Trade Organization (WTO) gathering in Cancun proved to be.

Washington’s post-Sept. 11, post-post-Cold War military strategy and force posture realignment plans for East Asia began to take shape this quarter, albeit in bits and pieces. While “everything is going to move everywhere,” first up seems to be the Korean Peninsula, at least in terms of planning. The long-term objective appears to be reducing footprints (and ultimately numbers?) and increasing flexibility without reducing commitment or defense/deterrent capabilities or creating too much regional anxiety (or false expectations).  Meanwhile, bad behavior by the region’s twin despots – North Korea’s Kim Jong-il and Burma’s Than Shwe – resulted in increased promotion of multilateral solutions and a willingness, however tentative, by the nations of Southeast Asia and other members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to interfere, ever so slightly and gently, in one another’s internal affairs.  Ad hoc multilateralism was also the order of the day down under, as Australia worked to put together a coalition of the willing to intervene, by invitation, in the Solomon Islands.

Some unilateralist U.S. tendencies remain, however, especially when it comes to announced missile defense plans (which were hardly noticed) and nuclear force modernization and research efforts (which were).  Meanwhile, in Iraq, winning the war has given way to the more daunting task of winning the peace while, elsewhere, the world holds its collective breath in hopes that the worst of SARS is now behind us.

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.

Is George W. Bush becoming “Mr. Multilateralism”?  Not exactly!  But, even as his administration was releasing another “unilateralist” report on combating weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Australian Prime Minister John Howard was keeping the word “preemption” on everyone’s lips, President Bush continued to work through the UN Security Council to disarm and change the nature (if not the composition) of the government of Iraq while less formally working to build an international consensus to pressure North Korea to come into compliance with its international, and bilateral, nuclear disarmament commitments.  Meanwhile, regional multilateral organizations, both with (APEC) and without (ASEAN Plus Three) the U.S., took interesting twists and turns this quarter, blending economics and politics in some unprecedented ways.  As the new year began, the economic forecast for East Asia seemed generally (albeit cautiously) positive, as long as promised or planned restructuring and reform agendas are followed and the region, not to mention the U.S. economy, can weather a potential Iraqi storm.

Concerns and complaints about Washington’s Iraq policy and its broader approach toward the ongoing war on terrorism, and speculation regarding North Korea’s diplomatic overtures dominated East Asia security dialogue during the last quarter.  This time last year, the world had rallied behind the U.S. in the wake of the horrific Sept. 11 attacks. Much of that support and goodwill has dissipated, however.  The reasons vary and are complex but two words are central to any explanation: Iraq (and more specifically “regime change”) and preemption; the latter being put forth not only in the Iraqi context but as the basis of a new national security strategy.  Their long-term impact on U.S.-East Asia (and broader) relationships remains unclear; China-U.S. relations in particular could be challenged – or strengthened – depending on how the UN Security Council debate over Iraq plays out.  Equally unclear is the impact of the DPRK’s recent “smile diplomacy,” which has seen an unprecedented effort by Pyongyang simultaneously to improve relations with Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington.  Meanwhile, multilateralism seems to be thriving in East Asia, both with the U.S. (ASEAN Regional Forum) and without (ASEAN Plus Three).

In June, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the Bush administration’s most comprehensive statement to date on its East Asia policy.  Hardly anyone noticed!  In Asia, everyone was apparently too preoccupied with the World Cup soccer games while the crises in the Middle East and South Asia diverted world attention from Asian politics in general.  Nonetheless, Powell’s speech underscored the importance of America’s regional alliances while reinforcing the administration’s focus on antiterrorism.  It also set a generally positive tone regarding Sino-U.S. relations.  The same cannot be said about North Korea. While expressing hope that a U.S.-DPRK dialogue would soon begin (and we continue to wait), Powell also laid some specific prerequisites for progress that will guarantee arduous negotiations if and when the two sides ever actually sit down and talk.

Also overshadowing Powell’s speech was President George W. Bush’s June 1 commencement address at West Point, which signaled a more proactive (if not pre-emptive) strategy in the war on terrorism.  Meanwhile, multilateralism took on new energy in Asia, highlighted by a de facto defense “summit” and a genuine summit on confidence building involving numerous Asian heads of state (but not the U.S.).  The successful efforts of UN special envoy for Burma Razali Ismail to convince Rangoon’s ruling junta to release Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest also captured the international spotlight.  Malaysia remained a focus as a result of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s tearful resignation (since delayed) from Malaysian politics.

U.S. President George W. Bush’s February visit to Japan, South Korea, and China and Washington’s decision to send over 600 U.S. troops, including Special Forces, to the southern Philippines for a unique training mission aimed at directly supporting Manila’s efforts to combat terrorism provided some long‑awaited administration focus on East Asia this past quarter.  Bush’s visit was, by all accounts, successful.  He reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the U.S.‑Japan alliance as the “bedrock” of peace and stability in East Asia as well as his own faith in Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s economic reform efforts.  His visit to Seoul helped to contain the damage caused in early January by his State of the Union reference to North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil,” a comment that had raised anxiety levels significantly in the South (and elsewhere). His visit to Beijing reaffirmed Washington’s willingness to build a “cooperative, constructive” (albeit “candid”) relationship with China.

Even while continually stressing Asia’s importance, Bush remained very much on message; the war on terrorism took pride of place in his prepared remarks during each leg of the trip. In other terrorism-related activity, the decision to deploy forces on a temporary basis to the Philippines was also generally well received, a few highly publicized but poorly attended protests notwithstanding.  Nonetheless, concerns remain throughout the region about U.S. unilateralist or “cowboy” tendencies, which were reinforced by the leaking of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which allegedly called for contingency planning for the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea, China, Russia, and others.

As the Year of the Horse comes galloping in, U.S.-Asia relations, when compared to the rocky start experienced in the opening months of the Bush administration, now appear to be on the upswing throughout the region. The one exception is on the Korean Peninsula, where Pyongyang’s refusal to take “yes” for an answer has resulted in a steady decline in U.S.-DPRK relations while adding some level of stress to U.S.-ROK relations as well.   Despite this post 9-11 upswing, some problems remain and may grow, especially if (as seems inevitable) Washington follows through with its Dec. announcement to formally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in six months.  This, plus the Bush administration’s current tendency to view all events through an anti-terrorism lens, has left many in Asia wondering about America’s overall national security strategy and President George W. Bush’s vision for Asia, even though the new U.S. president received generally good reviews for his performance at the annual APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Shanghai in October.  The White House’s effort to closely associate itself with the APEC Shanghai Accord’s blueprint for future regional economic cooperation demonstrates the Bush administration’s interest in breathing new life into this important Asia-Pacific multilateral forum.

The quarter did not begin on Sept. 11, but (at least from an American perspective) most events that came before that date appear to have paled in significance or, at a minimum, require reassessment in light of Washington’s new war on terrorism.  The horrific attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon may help usher in the “post post-Cold War era,” by creating an opportunity for a fundamentally changed relationship between Washington and both Moscow and Beijing.  It may also provide Tokyo with the incentive (and excuse) to take a major step toward becoming a “normal” nation and more equal security partner.  While Washington’s attention is focused largely on the Middle East/Southwest Asia, the implications of the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent war on terrorism will be felt throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

While the attacks may have helped (at least temporarily) to create a spirit of bipartisanship in the United States, they did little to ease the highly partisan domestic political bickering in two of the region’s young democracies.  On the Korean Peninsula, the resumption of North-South high-level dialogue means that Kim Dae-jung’s ruling party now seemingly enjoys greater cooperation with the North than with its Southern counterparts, including (former) members of the ruling coalition.  Meanwhile, opposition parties in Taiwan seem more willing to cooperate with the government in Beijing than with the one in Taipei.

Prior to Sept. 11, U.S. policy toward East Asia seemed to be evolving smoothly, following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s July swing through Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, China, and Australia.  Powell also attended the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial meeting in Hanoi, where he signaled a U.S. commitment to support the Asian multilateral security dialogue process.

One major diplomatic casualty of the emerging war on terrorism was President Bush’s long-anticipated first visit to Tokyo and Seoul to underscore his alliance-based Asia strategy.  While Bush is still slated to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Shanghai, his planned en route visit to Washington’s two Northeast Asia allies was canceled, as was a follow-up trip to Beijing for a summit meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.  This is unlikely to generate serious charges of “Japan passing,” given the understandable circumstances and Bush’s willingness to hold separate side meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and ROK President Kim Dae-jung (plus Jiang) in Shanghai.  Nonetheless, it represents a missed opportunity for President Bush finally to lay out his vision for East Asia to a broader Japanese and Korean audience.

Daily Digest

The Diplomat – The Elephant in the Room: An Imminent Danger to the Japan-US Alliance

On April 11, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio became only the second Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

The Diplomat – Deeper and Wider Defense Integration Tops Japan-US Summit Agenda

After wide-ranging talks on bilateral, regional, and international issues in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio have agreed to deepen and widen defense and security cooperation as “Global Partners for the Future.”

South China Morning Post – South China Sea: Philippines, US, Japan to step up maritime cooperation to deter Beijing’s aggression

The trilateral summit in Washington between the leaders of the Philippines, United States and Japan saw a number of announcements focused on strengthening maritime defence cooperation in the South China Sea to counter Beijing’s increasingly aggressive actions in the disputed waters.

South China Morning Post – How could an Aukus role for Tokyo affect China’s ties with Japan?

With Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington this week, the talk on both sides of the Pacific was of a potential tie-up between Tokyo and Aukus.

Associated Press – US, Japan and South Korea hold drills in disputed sea as Biden hosts leaders of Japan, Philippines

A U.S. carrier strike group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt has held a two-day joint exercise with its allies Japan and South Korea as U.S. President Joe Biden met for talks with leaders from Japan and the Philippines at the White House.

Nikkei Asia – Japan’s Kishida says U.S. not alone in upholding world order

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told U.S. legislators Thursday that Washington does not have to single-handedly shoulder the responsibility of upholding the international order — and that Japan is ready to be a “shipmate” in that endeavor.