Volume 10, 2008

The year was dominated by a variety of disasters, some natural, some man-made. Cyclone Nargis, devastated Burma’s Irrawaddy delta killing tens of thousands and leaving 1.5 million people homeless. International assistance was limited as the Burmese government declined aid and attempted to tightly control relief efforts. Specifically, the offer of US assistance via navy ships in the vicinity for the annual Cobra Gold exercise was refused. The massive Sichuan earthquake of May 12 abruptly shifted international focus to China’s exemplary relief efforts and smooth cooperation with international donors. Late in the year, the global financial crisis dominated international attention, as did the election of US President Barack Obama, and to a lesser extent the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda, who was replaced by Taro Aso.

Efforts to improve the bilateral relationship between the US and China continued. Key events included the fifth Senior Dialogue and a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in an effort to kick-start the Six-Party Talks. Additionally, FBI Director Robert Mueller traveled to Beijing to discuss security for the August Olympic Games, and the Commander of US Pacific Command Adm. Timothy Keating traveled to China and the Defense Policy Coordination Talks produced several agreements. The 4th US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue was held in Annapolis, yielding a 10-year energy and environment cooperation framework.  A telephone link was installed between the US Department of Defense and China’s Ministry of Defense and talks were launched on nuclear policy and strategy.  The US 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. In the summer, the success of the August 2008 Beijing Olympics dominated the headlines, despite Russia’s invasion of Georgia. In the midst of these positive developments, Beijing responded to the end-of-the-year announcement of a US arms sale to Taiwan by suspending bilateral military exchanges between the US and China and talks on nonproliferation.

As Lee Myung-bak assumed South Korea’s Presidency in the beginning of 2008, bilateral relations between the North and South declined rapidly. North Korea expelled 11 Southern officials from the Kaesong Industrial Complex as Pyongyang began to criticize Lee’s harder stance. However, after eight months of inaction, there was a flurry of renewed six-party action as Pyongyang produced its declaration of its nuclear activities and President Bush announced his intention to remove North Korea from the US listing of state sponsors of terrorism and restrictions imposed under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Lee Myung-bak continued his tough stance on Pyongyang by signaled that expanded inter-Korean cooperation would depend on progress in denuclearization under the Six-Party Talks.

After years of tension, the relationship between Beijing and Taipei saw a dramatic upswing with the election of Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou in the March presidential election. 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.