Volume 17, Issue 1
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.
Benefiting from a window of political stability, the Abe government continued to focus on the twin pillars of economic strategy and defense policy reform. Bilateral engagement on security, trade, and regional and global issues informed the agenda for the prime minister’s official visit to Washington in late April, the first by a Japanese leader in nine years. Abe also became the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of Congress and relayed the main themes from his summit with President Obama by reflecting on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, celebrating the evolution of the US-Japan alliance, and outlining a strategic vision for the future.
2015 opened with high-level exchanges in preparation for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, scheduled for early summer, and Xi Jinping’s state visit in September. Visits to China were made by Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi met National Security Adviser Susan Rice in New York. Military exchanges included dialogues, ship visits, joint drills, and video calls. The South China Sea remained a source of friction as evidence mounted that China is building military outposts on reefs in the Spratly Islands. In response to the issuance of the revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines, China voiced concerns and called the alliance outdated. Despite US objections, a total of 57 countries signed up to be founding members of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. China held its annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, announcing an economic growth target of around 7 percent and an increase in its defense budget of 10.1 percent in 2015.
The early months of 2015 saw little change in US-DPRK relations while there were several positive developments in US-ROK relations. There were new US sanctions on North Korea over the Sony Pictures cyber-hacking incident and increased concern about North Korean advances in nuclear and missile technology as the US and others continued to criticize the DPRK’s human rights record. Meanwhile, South Korea and the US held their annual military exercises and concluded a new civilian nuclear agreement. Distractions from the positive trajectory in US-ROK relations included the debate over the value of deploying the THAAD system in South Korea and the unfortunate attack on US Ambassador Mark Lippert.
In the first four months of 2015, senior State and Defense Department officials as well as flag-rank military officers visited Southeast Asia, all emphasizing ASEAN’s importance for the Obama administration’s rebalance policy. The US is building a rotational force deployment capacity in the region along with military assistance to allies and partners, especially for increasing their maritime security capabilities. Washington and Manila await a Supreme Court decision regarding the constitutionality of the April 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which will permit better access for US forces. Washington has also emphasized Vietnam’s importance to the rebalance, currently concentrating on improving coast guard relations. However, the US was dismayed that Hanoi permitted Russian tanker aircraft to fly out of Cam Ranh Bay to refuel bombers that flew near US bases in Guam. The Indonesian Navy has shown interest in more naval exercises with the US around the Natuna Islands. Problems persist in US-Thai relations as the military consolidates its rule. Although the annual Cobra Gold exercise took place in February, Washington scaled back US participation and significantly reduced the kinetic component. Planning for next year’s exercise is in limbo. Finally, Japan and India have shown support for maritime security buildups and an enhanced naval presence in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s recent economic initiatives with neighboring countries focus on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Chinese Silk Road Fund. The Boao Forum featured a keynote speech by President Xi Jinping emphasizing the AIIB and Silk Road Fund support for infrastructure connectivity with neighbors to create a “common destiny.” Against that positive background, lower-level Chinese officials, using carefully measured language, rebuffed complaints by the Philippines, Vietnam and the US protesting China’s rapid creation and expansion of islands through massive dredging and follow-up construction of facilities. Senior leaders did respond sharply when Myanmar armed forces killed Chinese civilians in a cross-border air attack in March. In a departure from past practice, ASEAN leaders publicly registered serious concern about the land reclamation in the South China Sea.
Taipei’s relations with Beijing have been adrift with the Ma administration in a reactive mode. The main interactions have been on unexpected issues – China’s M503 air route and Taiwan’s effort to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – and results were mixed. Meanwhile all players are preparing for a different future. The KMT is trying to reform itself; new chairman Eric Chu Li-lun visited China and met General Secretary Xi Jinping in early May. Beijing is focused on working with the new KMT and on deterring the DPP from returning to office in 2016. The DPP and Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen have begun defining its policy toward Beijing before Tsai visits Washington in June.
The first four months of 2015 were neither active nor positive for relations between South and North Korea. Initial hints on both sides of potential readiness for a summit came to naught, being dissipated in recriminations over a drearily familiar list of obstacles. So we shall focus on the main events, such as they were, and try to be forward-looking. Topics covered include the military exercises; a revealing memoir by Lee Myung-bak about his presidency; and a potentially serious row about wages at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), the last inter-Korean joint venture still in operation. We conclude with new hope of a thaw as of early May, which could yet be dashed as so often before.
A theme of South Korean opinion leaders in recent years has been the desire to avoid choosing between Beijing and Washington, but this strategy became more difficult in early 2015, as Seoul had to decide how to deal with issues such as AIIB (Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank) and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) where Beijing and Washington are on opposing sides. As South Korea weighed these choices, there was a series of high-level Chinese visits to South Korea, including Vice Premier Wang Yang’s to discuss furthering China-ROK economic and cultural cooperation on the foundation of closer political ties and State Councilor and Defense Minister Chang Wanquan to reaffirm opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. On the economic front, China and South Korea are pushing to sign their FTA deal this year, holding the latest trade meeting on April 9. Meanwhile, normalization of regional relations in Northeast Asia moved forward with the resumption of trilateral foreign ministerial talks with Japan on March 21 in Seoul.
Despite ongoing discussions of history and present-day issues related to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, there was a general sense in both Tokyo and Beijing that relations were slowly moving in the right direction. Meetings took place between senior diplomats and political leaders. Slowly gaining traction, engagement culminated in the April 22 Xi-Abe meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, featuring smiles, handshakes, and a 25-minute talk – a far different picture of the relationship than that presented at the November meeting in Beijing. However, Xi and other Chinese officials consistently made it clear that progress in restoring relations would depend significantly on Japan’s proper understanding of history, in particular Prime Minster Abe’s much anticipated statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
At the end of 2014, there were both stern warnings but also cautious optimism for what 2015 held in store for Japan and South Korea in anticipation of the 50th anniversary in June of the restoration of diplomatic relations and the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The early months of 2015 did not bring any new explosive point of contention to the surface, but issues such as talks on comfort women/sex slaves and territorial sovereignty over Dokdo/Takeshima remained the focus of relations. The most visible manifestation came with Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the US in late April. Clearly playing to his audience, he reassured Americans but disappointed Koreans. While governments were fine-tuning their art of politics, a group of nongovernmental actors – academics, large corporations, and the art community – got swept away by the politicization of bilateral relations.
China-Russia relations were quite uneventful in the first four months of 2015. Instead, Moscow and Beijing seemed on divergent paths as the former continued to be plagued by geopolitics (Ukraine, Iran, etc.), while the latter was busy with geoeconomics (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Belt and Road Initiative, etc.). Beneath the surface calm, however, preparations were in high gear for the coming months in both symbolic (70th V-Day anniversary) and substantive areas such as strategic consultation, aerospace cooperation, and military sales.
Given the drift and depths to which the US-India relationship has succumbed throughout much of 2013 and the early part of 2014, visits by the two heads of government in the span of a few months constituted something of a return to the same orbit, symbolized by the fact that the two countries’ Mars orbiters (Mangalyaan and Maven) had entered the planet’s orbit within a couple of days of each other. Prime Minister Modi visited Washington in late September 2014, just four months after taking office. President Obama followed up with an important visit to India in January 2015 as the “Chief Guest” for India’s Republic Day, the first US president to be accorded this honor. But as always with US-India relations, positive symbols are suffused with caution. In the event, there were no major run-ins during the period of US-India relations covered by this article. Though, there were few major breakthroughs either.
In the early months of 2015 Tokyo has stepped up its engagement with Southeast Asia. Increasingly concerned with tensions in the South China Sea and the potential for their spillover, Japan has worked with Vietnam and the Philippines to strengthen coast guard and naval capacity. A new defense agreement with Indonesia, and the establishment of a high-level dialogue on maritime security, underscores a broader worry about China. To counter China’s economic reach and political influence in the poor states of mainland Southeast Asia, Tokyo has stepped up with a variety of initiatives, including a strategic partnership with Laos. Although polls indicate very positive views of Japan in Southeast Asia, Tokyo must nevertheless implement new policy initiatives in the region with care, in view of Japan’s own complicated relations with China and a more positive, but no less complicated, relationship with the US.