Volume 14, 2012

The beginning of 2012 saw uncertainty continue to grip the Asia-Pacific, as the region tried to access the new leadership of North Korea. Kim Jong Un began the year by exchanging insults with Seoul and conducting a failed rocket launch that left regional experts with more questions than answers.

Other leaders in the Asia-Pacific region were also active in the first half of 2012. President Ma Ying-jeou was re-elected in Taiwan, and his administration was quick to reiterate its intention to continue peaceful cross-strait relations with China. Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko made his first visit to Washington DC to discuss the US-Japan relationship and established an agreement to begin relocating US Marines from Futenma. Chinese President Hu Jintao made a visit to Cambodia to discuss management of the South China Sea and reemphasize China’s territorial claims over the region. He also met President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit.

In Southeast Asia, tensions continued to rise in the dispute over the South China Sea. Conflict flared up between China and other countries in the region, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, which in turn sparked discussion at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia on developing a Code of Conduct to handle these disagreements. Developments were also made in the US-Philippines relationship due to these rising tensions, which resulted in a US agreement to increase foreign military financing to the Philippines.

On April 1, Myanmar held a pivotal by-election that resulted in an overall victory for the National League for Democracy Party. The success of this election met with a positive response from other democratic countries. The US said it would extend an invitation to Myanmar to become a member of the Lower Mekong Initiative, and they, along with Australia, Canada and the European Union, have agreed to lift many of the sanctions against Myanmar. Also, Japan announced that in addition to expanding commercial activity and economic assistance to the Southeast Asian country, it will forgive Myanmar’s $3 million debt.

The second half of 2012 saw significant leadership changes throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The US presidential election in November resulted in the re-election of President Obama. Also in November, the Communist Party of China announced that Xi Jinping would become the next president of China in early 2013. In Japan, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo of the Liberal Democratic Party was elected as prime minister on December 16. Just a few days later, Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party was elected to become the first female president of South Korea.

China did make an effort to stay on track with its foreign policy agenda in the last few months of 2012, despite a heavy domestic focus on its 2013 leadership change. China continued to develop its relationship with Russia, sending its top leaders to Vladivostok and Moscow for an APEC and a bilateral prime ministerial meeting. Meanwhile, China also made sure to reaffirm its territorial claims in the South China Sea. In November, leaders from the Asia Pacific region gathered in Phnom Penh for the East Asia Summit, where China retained its aggressive stance over it's territorial claims in the region and promoted beneficial relations for any country that supported them.

The US “rebalance” policy toward Asia was in full swing at the end of 2012, with President Obama making visits to countries in the region and attending the East Asia Summit. His visit to Myanmar was especially significant and bolstered hopes for a US-Myanmar partnership and genuine steps toward reformation within the country. The US also made efforts to improve military ties with the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.

North Korea also returned to the center of attention at the end of 2012, this time conducting a successful rocket launch that put an object into orbit for the first time. Meanwhile, the US and South Korea agreed to extend the range of South Korean missiles, but they remained deadlocked on the revision of a bilateral agreement on civilian nuclear energy.

The maritime dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea also returned to headlines in late 2012, after the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from a private owner on September 11. To counter this move, Chinese government ships regularized incursions into Japan’s contiguous zone and territorial waters near the islands. The maritime territory’s future in much of the region remains unclear.