Volume 11, Issue 3

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July - September 2009 · Published: Oct 2009

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.

US - Japan

July — September 2009

Interpreting Change

Hatoyama Yukio led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to a landslide victory in the Aug. 30 Lower House election and was elected prime minister after a spirited campaign for change both in the form and substance of policymaking.  Exit polls showed that the public had grown weary of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) but had not necessarily embraced the agenda of the coalition government Hatoyama would subsequently form with an eye toward consolidating power in an Upper House election next summer.  Though the election centered primarily on domestic policy, Hatoyama began his tenure by outlining foreign policy priorities during visits to the UN in New York and the G20 summit in Pittsburgh less than a week after he took office.

The Obama administration emphasized respect and patience as Japan experienced a transition to a non-LDP government for only the second time since 1955.  Senior U.S. officials visited Tokyo for consultations soon after the election and prepared for the first meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama in New York on Sept. 23.  The leaders reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance and set the stage for a visit to Japan by Obama in November.  The quarter ended with good atmospherics but also questions about the extent to which Hatoyama would try to implement several campaign pledges – such as renegotiating the realignment plan for U.S. forces on Okinawa – with the potential to strain bilateral ties.

The inaugural session of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue was held in Washington in July, combining pomp with substantive discussions on issues of great consequence for the two countries and the world.  High-level exchanges continued with the visit to the U.S. by Wu Bangguo, the head of the National People’s Congress – the first visit by China’s top legislator in two decades.  A special meeting of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement was held in Beijing to discuss the confrontations inside China’s exclusive economic zone between U.S. Navy surveillance ships and Chinese vessels that took place earlier this year.  The U.S. imposed tariffs on tire imports from China, prompting Beijing to file a formal complaint against the U.S. at the WTO and launch an investigation into U.S. exports of chicken meat and auto parts.  Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao met in New York and both attended the G20 in Pittsburgh.  They will meet again in November when Hu hosts Obama for his first visit to China.

The quarter saw a good deal of U.S.-Korea activity, largely the result of several trips by high-level U.S. officials to the region.  While extended deterrence was a major topic of conversation between the allies, Washington and Seoul also coordinated policy on North Korea with some indication that groundwork for reengagement in nuclear negotiations may be in the offing.  Former President Bill Clinton’s surprise visit to the North was successful in achieving the return of detained U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

US - Russia

July — September 2009

Missiles of September

U.S.-Russia relations began the quarter with an informal, yet cordial summit in Moscow in early July.  The two presidents met again in New York and Pittsburgh in late September and agreed to push forward a number of agreements, most notably covering arms control and cooperation in Afghanistan.  The two also appeared to agree that the incipient Iranian nuclear program needs urgent attention.  In what some viewed as a huge concession from Washington, the Obama administration announced prior to the Pittsburgh G20 meeting that it was scrapping a controversial missile defense system that was due to break ground soon in Poland and the Czech Republic.  This move, combined with vague Russian promises of support for sanctions against the newly emboldened Iranian regime, gave observers hope that relations could find a common strategic footing.  Nevertheless, optimism surrounding U.S.-Russia relations is strictly cautious, as major areas of disagreement still remain, including most notably Moscow’s hostile relationship with the governments of Georgia and Ukraine.

Despite the renewed incarceration of Burma’s Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after a July “show trial” as well as renewed economic sanctions against the military junta, in late September Washington announced a change in its Burma policy, agreeing to reengage members of the regime.  The opening to Burma is an acknowledgement that the decades-long isolation policy has failed to change Burma’s politics and that China’s influence has increased significantly.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced an extension of the deployment of U.S. Special Forces in Mindanao to continue assisting the Philippine armed forces’ suppression of the radical Islamist Abu Sayyaf. Gates also announced an expansion of U.S. aid in Mindanao for humanitarian and disaster response, climate change, drug trafficking, and maritime security.  While expressing shock and offering condolences to Indonesia in the wake of the July terrorist bombings of two hotels in Jakarta, Washington praised the Indonesian police in mid-September for tracking down and killing the perpetrator of the attacks, notorious Jemmah Islamiyah leader, Mohammad Noordin Top.  USAID is organizing a new program to assist civic social organizations in the troubled Thai south to promote governance and human rights.  All of these activities indicate that, as Secretary of State Clinton exclaimed in Bangkok: “The United States is back!”

Myanmar’s military offensive against armed militias of minority groups along the border with China disrupted the status quo that had prevailed along the frontier for the past two decades and complicated the extensive Chinese interests that have developed in the border region during this period. Frictions over territorial claims, fishing, and surveillance among China, Southeast Asian countries, and the U.S. over the South China Sea were less prominent than in recent quarters. China signed an investment agreement with ASEAN members marking the completion of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, which is to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2010. Chinese commentary joined other regional media in highlighting, with some reservations, the prominence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the more activist U.S. regional agenda at the ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

Beijing and Taipei made little progress in cross-Strait relations this quarter. Typhoon Morakot and other extraneous factors combined to frustrate progress but did not change the positive momentum. Preparations are underway for talks on an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and the fourth round of SEF-ARATS talks later this year.  Cross-Strait trade is beginning to recover from the precipitous decline caused by the great recession and the first mainland investments in Taiwan, although small, have been approved. There were no significant developments on security issues. Progress in better relations should resume in the months ahead.

Dealing with North Korea resembles the board game Snakes & Ladders (known in the U.S. as Chutes & Ladders). The first half of this year was an especially long snake/chute. Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests, and its general bellicosity, not only undid last year’s slight gains in the Six-Party Talks (6PT), but were a strange way to greet an incoming U.S. president avowedly committed to exploring engagement with Washington’s traditional foes. But what goes down must, eventually, come up, even if each time some may fear it is a case of – to change the spatial metaphor – one step forward, two steps back. As of autumn, things on the peninsula are looking up somewhat – at least relatively, if not in any absolute sense.

North Korea’s missile tests in early July marked an apparent peak in its provocative behavior as Pyongyang shifted to a “charm offensive” strategy toward the international community from August.  Pyongyang’s turn toward diplomacy has shifted attention to a series of meetings between North Korea and the international community, including Kim Jong-il’s talks with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Hyundai Chairperson Hyun Jung-Eun in August, China’s State Councilor Dai Bingguo in September, and finally Premier Wen Jiabao in early October. Kim Jong-il’s encouraging statement regarding prospects for renewed multilateral and bilateral dialogue during Dai’s visit and his further statement during Wen’s visit that “the DPRK is willing to attend multilateral talks, including the Six-Party Talks, based on the progress in the DPRK-U.S. talks” has set the stage for new engagement with North Korea by the U.S. and the international community.  It remains to be seen if this engagement will lead to tangible North Korean actions in the direction of denuclearization.

Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Hu Jintao both traveled to the U.S. in September for the G20 summit in Pittsburgh and UN General Assembly in New York, where they met on the sidelines to discuss North Korea and other issues in their strategic cooperative partnership.  The Lee-Hu summit came days after Lee’s “grand bargain” proposal for dealing with North Korea, which seeks complete and irreversible denuclearization in exchange for a full package of incentives.  While Lee noted China’s recent diplomatic outreach to North Korea, it is unclear whether Beijing is on board with Lee’s plan or has its own plans for dealing with North Korea.

After months of anticipation, Prime Minister Aso Taro dissolved the Diet on July 21 and scheduled elections for the Lower House.  On Aug. 30, Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan and DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio became prime minister on Sept. 16. With Japan focused on the historic shift of power for most of the quarter, politics took primacy over diplomacy.  In this environment, Japan-China relations continued to tread water, waiting for the arrival of a new government in Tokyo. Perhaps the good news is that there were no major dilemmas or disruptions and the new Japanese leadership had early opportunities to establish a relationship with their Chinese counterparts.

The highlight of the third quarter was Japan’s general election on Aug. 30 and the inauguration of the Hatoyama Cabinet on Sept. 16. Despite Prime Minister Aso’s attempt during the campaign to portray the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)’s foreign policy as posing national security threat to Japan, the Lower House election ended a virtual half-century of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule in Japan as the country faces serious economic and security challenges. Considering that Japan’s North Korea policy in the past few years made a clear turn toward pressure with an emphasis on a resolution of the abduction issue, the major question in Japan-North Korea relations is whether this will change under the new administration led by Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio. Pyongyang expressed hopes for a breakthrough in their bilateral relations, but it does not look like we will witness any fundamental change in Japan’s North Korea policy. Japan-South Korea relations during this quarter can be summarized as guarded optimism as both sides look to elevate bilateral ties to another level of cooperation. If there is one sure sign that this shift in Japanese politics might bring positive change, it will be over the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine.

Perhaps more than any time in the past 10 years, the third quarter highlighted both the potential and the problems of this bilateral relationship. On the one hand, the two militaries successfully conducted their joint antiterrorism exercise, Mirnaya Missiya (Peace Mission) 2009, in China’s Jilin Province. On the other hand, the closing of Moscow’s huge Cherkizovsky market on June 29 uprooted tens of thousands of Chinese citizens doing business in Russia, while $2 billion in goods were confiscated as “illegal” and “contraband.” On the eve of the 60th anniversary of bilateral ties, Moscow and Beijing seemed to be stretching both the cooperative and conflictual limits of their strategic partnership.

Australia’s government swung from the right to the left of the political spectrum in 2007. The U.S. did the same in 2008. Yet, not much changed in the fundamentals of the 57-year-old U.S.-Australia alliance. The assertion of alliance continuity, however, comes with a major caveat: the tectonic effects being exerted by China’s rise. As with the rest of the Asia-Pacific, Australia is adjusting significant aspects of its foreign and security policy to the magnetic pull of China, which was dramatized for Canberra through the middle of 2009 by an outburst of Chinese official anger directed at Australia. Other important influences to consider include the so-called “Kevin Rudd” effect, the global economic crisis, and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

Daily Digest

Reuters – Thai court sets June 18 for hearing on PM Srettha dismissal case

Thailand’s Constitutional Court said on Wednesday that it will hear a case on June 18 that could lead to the dismissal of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin related to a cabinet appointment that is alleged to have violated the constitution.

Reuters – China dismisses Taiwan’s concerns after man arrested on river leading to Taipei

China’s government said on Wednesday that a Chinese man arrested near Taipei after crossing the Taiwan Strait on a speedboat was acting on his own and that Taiwan should not be so suspicious, in a case that has alarmed Taiwanese security officials.

Associated Press – A magnitude 4.8 earthquake in southwestern South Korea cracks walls and leaves other minor damage

A magnitude 4.8 earthquake cracked walls, spilled items from store shelves and caused other minor damage in a fishing community in southwestern South Korea on Wednesday, but no injuries have been reported.

Yonhap – S. Korea dismisses Japan’s protest over maritime survey near Dokdo

The foreign ministry on Wednesday dismissed Japan’s renewed protest over Seoul’s routine maritime survey near the East Sea islets of Dokdo, emphasizing a firm stance against “unjust claims.”

Reuters – North Korea’s Kim boasts of ‘invincible’ ties with Russia amid talks of Putin visit

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said his country is an “invincible comrade-in-arms” with Russia in a message to President Vladimir Putin, state media KCNA said on Wednesday, amid speculation over Putin’s impending visit to North Korea.

Reuters – Hong Kong uses new national security law against exiled activists

Hong Kong’s Security Bureau said on Wednesday it would use powers in a new national security law against six self-exiled activists residing in Britain, including cancelling their passports, after they fled the China-ruled city.