Volume 13, 2011

In the beginning of 2011, the event that dominated the news in the Asia-Pacific region was the March 11 disaster in Fukushima, Japan. This earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis caused a huge loss of life, destruction, and grief for Japan and the world. However, out of this great tragedy came a strengthening of Japan’s alliances. Japan’s closest friend, the US, was quick to step up and reassure Japan that it would support them through their recuperation and reconstruction. Before the disaster, Japan and China had already begun opening up cooperative lines of communication with one another. After the March 11 disaster, China extended its help to Japan by sending emergency assistance teams to Fukushima to help in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, prompting new hope that thr China-Japan relationship will continue to move forward. North and South Korea also extended their condolences and aid to Japan. However, aside from these offerings, there has been little progress to the relationship between the countries.

China spent the first part of 2011 building its relationships in Asia and with the US. Washington and Beijing exchanged promising visits of high-level officials including the US defense secretary’s trip to China and the Chinese president’s visit to the US. China also turned its attention to developing stronger ties with Southeast Asian countries by downplaying territorial issues and focusing on improving economic relations. The opening of the Chinese-Russian pipeline on Jan. 1, 2011 helped to solidify the relationship between China and Russia. They also met to discuss diplomatic and strategic issues as well as pursuing economic endeavors, especially through their relationship within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China also showed its concern over the disputes between the ROK and DPRK and encouraged the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. Meanwhile, significant progress was made in reducing tensions between China and Taiwan, although the pace slowed in anticipation of upcoming elections in Taiwan and amid concerns that the “easy issues” have been addressed.

Tensions between some Asian countries with longstanding disputes remained high in the first half of 2011. North and South Korea lingered at a standstill as attempts to talk failed and South Korea’s animosity over the Cheonan sinking and attack on Yeonpyeong countered North Korea’s demand for peace talks even as Pyongyang continued to deny responsibility for either event. In Southeast Asia, skirmishes broke out between Thailand and Cambodia over border disputes, questioning the two countries’ commitment to the rules of ASEAN. While China tried to sidestep the tensions over the Spratly Islands, the US promised to help the Philippines patrol its territorial waters in the South China Sea and keep Asian sea lanes open.

The second half of 2011 saw a lot of promising meetings and exchanges between countries in Asia and the US.

China made the greatest effort over this period to improve relations with other countries. It engaged in numerous exchanges with the US including US-China Consultations on Asia-Pacific Affairs at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, the Third Annual Strategic Economic Dialogue in Washington and a bilateral meeting between Secretary Hillary Clinton and State Councilor Dai Bingguo in Shenzen. The US and China carried out their first official dialogue dealing with Asia-Pacific issues including the South China Sea. China also engaged in more dialogues with ASEAN and agreed to establish guidelines for implementing the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. 2012 also marked the 10th anniversary of China’s Friendship Treaty with Russia and the 50th anniversary of its Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea.

In Southeast Asia, ASEAN was active in dealing with regional conflict. It engaged in mediation efforts in the Cambodia-Thai border dispute and established a timetable for military disengagement. ASEAN also increased its efforts to encourage China to moderate its actions in the South China Sea. While the US, Philippines and Vietnam had promising exchanges with China, tensions remained high over the South China Sea.

Japan struggled with inner turmoil as another prime minister resigned from office in August. Although Japan made a few attempts to work on its relationship with other countries in Asia, it was not able to diminish hostility generated by territorial disputes with China and Korea.

There were some signs of promise in the relationship between the Koreas, with inter-Korean dialogues in Beijing and sideline exchanges between the two countries at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali. Although these meetings produced little, Kim Jong Il did express interest in discussions to build a trans-Korean gas pipeline from Russia. The US has also made an appeal to improve relationships with North Korea through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s invitation to DPRK Vice Minister Kim Kye Gwan to visit New York for two days of official talks. Ultimately, however, all relations with North Korea were put on hold with the death of Kim Jong Il in December and the assumption of power by his son Kim Jong Un. The world waited to see how the transition would be implemented and what changes if any would be realized in North Korea. The transition proved smooth and the signs of change have been fleeting and inconsistent.

In the closing months of 2011, the United States focus shifted toward Asia. President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta spent much of the time travelling throughout Asia. In November, President Obama made a stopover in Hawaii to take part in the APEC Leaders Meeting. He also made a key visit to Australia where he announced his intentions to maintain US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and, in particular, in Australia where US Marines will now be rotating through the city of Darwin. Following that, President Obama went to Indonesia, where he became the first US president to take part in the East Asia Summit. Secretary Clinton also made an important visit to Burma/Myanmar, where she met Burmese leader in Naypyidaw to discuss bilateral relations, including current US economic sanctions on Burma. Increased US presence in the Asia-Pacific was met with building tension from China, who felt that the US actions were designed to contain/isolate China.

The end of 2011 in Asia was also marked by changes in leadership. In Japan, newly elected Prime Minister Noda took some promising steps toward rebuilding the country’s economy and security relations. The cross-strait relationship between Taiwan and China, also found itself affected by the upcoming Taiwanese presidential elections as the winner of this election would play a decisive role in determining how Taiwan and China’s relationship will continue moving forward into 2012. The biggest leadership change in 2011 was the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. His death and the change in power in the DPRK was a potential source of unrest, as no one had a definite answer of where the new country’s leadership would take it.