Volume 10, Issue 2

Download Issue as PDF
April - June 2008 · Published: Jul 2008

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.

The debate in the Japanese Diet remained contentious this quarter as opposition parties challenged the Fukuda government on several legislative issues including the gasoline tax, a new health insurance program for the elderly, and host nation support for U.S. forces.  Fukuda’s approval rating fell suddenly due to public dissatisfaction with his domestic policy agenda but later rebounded enough to quell rumors of a Cabinet reshuffle prior to the Hokkaido G8 Summit in July.  The arrest in early April of a U.S. serviceman charged with murdering a taxi driver in Yokosuka brought negative publicity for U.S. forces.

Japanese anxieties also continued to mount as the U.S. prepared to lift terrorism-related sanctions on North Korea as part of the Six-Party Talks, despite earlier pledges that this would not be done without progress on the abductee issue.  President Bush did announce his intention to lift those sanctions on June 26, but his strong reaffirmation of support for Japan on the abductee issue helped to assuage some of the concerns in Tokyo.  It also helped that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed during the G8 foreign ministers meeting in Kyoto that the U.S. actions would be reversed if North Korea’s claims could not be verified; a message of reassurance Bush would likely echo and broaden during his visit to Japan in July.  All of this took place as the Japanese public paid close attention to the U.S. presidential race and as the candidates took their debate into the pages of Japanese newspapers.  Speculation also persisted about possible dissolution of the Diet and new elections in Japan sometime in the next year.

Major developments in Sino-U.S. relations took place on the economic, military, and political fronts this quarter.  The fourth U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue was held in Annapolis, Maryland, June 17-18, yielding a 10-year energy and environment cooperation framework.  A telephone link was installed between the U.S. Department of Defense and China’s Ministry of Defense and talks were launched on nuclear policy and strategy.  The U.S. and China held a round of their bilateral dialogue on human rights after a hiatus of six years and vice-foreign minister level talks on security issues were held for the first time in four years.  The U.S. provided assistance to China to ensure the security of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. A massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake rocked China’s southwestern Sichuan Province and the U.S., along with the rest of the international community, provided aid.  Secretary of State Rice visited the quake-hit area and held talks in Beijing focused on North Korea.

The quarter started off well with the first meeting of Presidents George W. Bush and Lee Myung-bak at Camp David in April.   The two leaders emphasized common values and the global scope of the alliance.  They reached an agreement to maintain current U.S. troop levels on the Peninsula, which appeared to be an attempt by conservatives in Seoul to reverse the unfortunate trend they saw during the Roh-Rumsfeld era where each side was perceived as whittling away at the foundations of the alliance for disparate reasons.  An important but understated accomplishment was Bush’s public support of Lee’s request to upgrade the ROK’s foreign military sales status.  Should this request be approved by the Congress, it would amount to a substantial upgrading of the bilateral alliance relationship as it would give Seoul access to a wider range of U.S. military technologies similar to what NATO and other allies like Australia enjoy.  Finally, the two governments inked a memorandum of understanding on security improvements necessary to enable the ROK’s entry to the U.S. visa waiver program.

At the conclusion of the final summit meeting between Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin at the Russian resort of Sochi in early April, relations between Moscow and Washington appeared to have righted themselves.  The cordial meeting between the outgoing presidents left a sense of optimism in both Moscow and in the West that U.S.-Russia relations would improve until at least the fall presidential elections in the United States.  Things have quieted down between the two nations over the last quarter, as the leadership of both countries has gone about business at home and has lessened (though not ceased) the often-negative rhetoric.  But when the summer concludes, Russia will again loom large in U.S. political debates, and the big questions of U.S. foreign policy – whether they revolve around Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Northeast Asia, or even Venezuela – will necessarily include Russia policy.  And as President Dmitry Medvedev unveils his own version of “sovereign democracy,” U.S. foreign policymakers will be forced to address the fundamental question of whether U.S. policy toward Moscow is centered on its strategic interests, or on democratic values.

Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Burma’s Irrawaddy delta in early May killing tens of thousand and leaving 1.5 million homeless, was met with international concern and the offer of large-scale U.S. assistance via navy ships in the vicinity for the annual Cobra Gold exercise.  Burma’s junta, however, obstructed international humanitarian assistance, fearing that Western powers would use the opportunity to overthrow the generals.  So, in contrast to the massive aid effort for Indonesia in the December 2004 tsunami aftermath, assistance has only trickled into Burma, and mostly controlled by the Burmese military.  ASEAN, in collaboration with the UN, appealed to Burmese authorities to open the country to aid providers, but the most it has been able to accomplish is to insert 250 assessment teams into some of the hardest hit areas to survey the population’s needs. U.S. aid has been limited to more than 100 C-130 flights out of Thailand whose cargos are delivered into the hands of the Burmese military.

Cyclone Nargis briefly put China in the international spotlight as Asian and world leaders sought help from Myanmar’s main international backer in order to persuade the junta to be more open in accepting international assistance. The massive Sichuan earthquake of May 12 abruptly shifted international focus to China’s exemplary relief efforts and smooth cooperation with international donors. Chinese leadership attention to Southeast Asia this quarter followed established lines. Consultations with Chinese officials showed some apparent slippage in China’s previous emphasis on ASEAN playing the leading role in Asian multilateral groups.

Events in cross-Strait relations have unfolded rapidly since Ma Ying-jeou’s election in March.  After a nine-year hiatus, formal dialogue between Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) and Taipei’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) resumed on June 12 in Beijing. These two nominally unofficial associations reached agreements on weekend charter flights and Chinese tourism. The atmosphere of cross-Strait relations in this honeymoon period is so relaxed and consultative that it is hard to remember the bitter tensions that poisoned relations just a few months ago.  However, political constraints on Presidents Hu Jintao and Ma Ying-jeou will make progress difficult, particularly on the international relations and security issues that are crucial to a lasting relaxation of tensions.

Rarely does the political weather change so abruptly with the calendar as it has in Korea during the past quarter. As we reported in our last issue, North Korea chose April 1 – April Fools’ day – to finally break its long silence on the South’s new leader Lee Myung-bak, who was elected president last December 19 and took office on February 25. With rare restraint, Pyongyang had kept its counsel for several months since Lee – a former mayor of Seoul, ex-Hyundai CEO and self-described pragmatic conservative – was elected president by a large majority on a platform of mending fences with the U.S. and curbing Seoul’s “sunshine” policy of the past decade. Though ready to expand inter-Korean dealings on his own terms – as in his Vision 3000 program, which offered to triple North Korean national income to US$3,000 per head – Lee insisted on linking any increased cooperation to progress on the North’s nuclear disarmament.

The Lee Myung-bak administration committed to the establishment of a “strategic cooperative partnership” with China during Lee’s inaugural visit to Beijing as the new president of South Korea.  The visit occurred on schedule in late May, coming only weeks after the tragic Sichuan earthquake and in the midst of protests in South Korea over Lee’s decision to allow imports of U.S. beef.  Those events also quickly overshadowed a late April flap during the Olympic torch relay in Seoul over Chinese students who came to cheer the torch but reacted violently to Korean groups protesting Chinese government treatment of refugees and political suppression in Tibet.  PRC Vice President Xi Jinping, China’s designated successor to President Hu Jintao, made his maiden international visit to Pyongyang where he met with North Korea’s top leaders, including Kim Jong-il and affirmed the importance of the Sino-DPRK relationship.  As host of the Six-Party Talks, China received North Korea’s declaration of its nuclear programs on June 26 in what really was a formality given the critical role of U.S.-DPRK talks in paving the way for the declaration. Nevertheless, the submission of the declaration did set the stage for the reactivation of Six-Party Talks in Beijing.  Hyundai-Kia opened a new factory in Beijing and SK Telecom responded to strategic changes in China’s telecommunications market by diversifying its investments in various Chinese multimedia companies in pursuit of a “convergence strategy” for delivery of multimedia, computer, and telecommunications applications to Chinese consumers.

Two events dominated the second quarter of 2008: the visit of President Hu Jintao to Japan and the Sichuan earthquake.  Tibet, poisoned gyoza, and the East China Sea dispute set the pre-summit agenda. Although the summit itself failed to provide solutions, both Hu and Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo renewed commitments to cooperate in resolving the issues, and a month later the two governments announced agreement on a plan for joint development in the East China Sea.  Shortly after Hu’s return to China, a devastating earthquake hit Sichuan Province.  Japan’s response, which included sending emergency rescue and medical teams, tents, and emergency supplies, was well received by the Chinese victims.  Beijing, however, quickly pulled back from an early but unofficial acceptance of Japan’s Air Self- Defense Force participation in relief operations.  By the end of May, Japan’s contributions to relief efforts totaled 1 billion yen.

Japan’s relations with both North and South Korea improved over the past quarter. In conjunction with the North’s June declaration of its nuclear activities, there was renewed momentum in resolving the two biggest pending bilateral issues between Tokyo and Pyongyang – the North’s nuclear development program and the abduction issue. Bilateral talks resumed in mid-June after more than six months of no progress. The second quarter also marked a fresh start for Tokyo and Seoul as President Lee’s Myung-bak’s visit to Japan – the first since December 2004 by a South Korean president – marked the resumption of so-called “shuttle diplomacy.” The summit between Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and President Lee produced agreements on several bilateral issues, including the stalled bilateral FTA negotiations, closer coordination on policy regarding North Korea’s nuclear development program, and youth exchanges.

May 2008 was a hectic month for both Russia and China. The inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president marked the least eventful, albeit the most speculated about, power transition in the history of the Russian Federation. Medvedev’s visit to China in late May, his first foreign visit outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as president, ran into the devastating earthquake (May 12) in China’s Sichuan Province. Medvedev’s appearance in China and the largest international rescue mission in Russian history were both symbolic and substantial for the Russian-China strategic partnership, regardless of who controls the Kremlin.

Daily Digest

Nikkei Asia – Myanmar military chief to be excluded from ASEAN summit

ASEAN Foreign ministers agreed to not invite Myanmar’s military chief to a leaders summit because of slow progress on restoring peace in the country.

Inquirer – Isko Moreno open to oil extraction in WPS with Chinese private groups

Should he become the country’s next president, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno said he is open to a deal with private groups in China for the exploration and possible extraction of oil and natural gas in the West Philippine Sea.

The Japan Times – Kishida and South Korea’s Moon discuss lingering wartime disputes

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida urged South Korean President Moon Jae In to take the initiative to resolve a bilateral spat over wartime compensation.

The Hindu – India-U.S. Financial Dialogue includes new focus on climate change

The eighth Ministerial meeting of the U.S.-India Economic and Financial partnership held a session dedicated to climate finance for the first time.

The Diplomat – AUKUS: A New Justification for Thailand’s Submarine Acquisition Plans?

The new trilateral security partnership could bolster the Thai navy’s long-standing submarine plans, but many obstacles remain.

South China Morning Post – Upgrades for Chinese military airbases facing Taiwan hint at war plans

Satellite images have revealed China is upgrading and reinforcing its airbases closest to Taiwan along its southeastern coast, indicating Beijing may be stepping up its plans to take the island by force.

South China Morning Post — Vladimir Putin breaks Nobel Peace Prize silence to threaten Russian laureate Dmitry Muratov

Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a thinly veiled threat against the journalist Dmitry Muratov, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week for his investigative journalism as editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Reuters — U.S. calls Cambodia opaque over Chinese activity at navy base

The United States accused Cambodia of lacking transparency about Chinese construction activities at its biggest naval base, and urged the government to disclose to its people the full scope of Beijing’s military involvement.

Associated Press — China: Military drills, flights were needed to defend Taiwan

China’s recent increase in military exercises and warplane missions near Taiwan — which have raised concerns around the region — were necessary to defend the nation’s sovereignty and territory, a Chinese official said.

The Japan Times – Flanked by nuclear missiles, North Korean leader says U.S. and South threaten peace

Kim Jong Un says North Korea’s weapons development is necessary in the face of hostile policies from the United States and a military buildup in South Korea, state media reported.