Volume 15, 2013

The Asia-Pacific region was spurred by efforts to increase economic integration but pulled apart by territorial tensions in 2013. These two trends have proceeded on separate paths with only occasional intersection. However, security dynamics are likely to increasingly influence regionalism as China rises and the US attempts to “rebalance” its foreign policy toward Asia. ASEAN managed to maintain its role as a base for regional organizations, but nagging questions about whether it could actually play a role in resolving problems rather than simply absorbing or ignoring them remain unanswered. Meanwhile, relations in Northeast Asia were driven by a recalcitrant North Korea and animosity over territorial claims and interpretations of history.

Early in the year, the “unpredictable” North Korean regime acted all too predictably, following through on its threat to conduct a third nuclear test and increasing tensions through fiery rhetoric. Pyongyang also took steps to solidify its claim to be a nuclear weapon state, a status the rest of the world is unwilling to accept. In April, the DPRK responded to the annual ROK-US military exercise Foal Eagle by threatening the US with retaliatory nuclear strikes as relations between the two Koreas soured to the point of the DPRK withdrawing all the workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex and severing the military hotline between capitals. The Kaesong complex eventually reopened, but several South Korean firms decided to permanently abandon operations there. In mid-December, North Korea startled the world by purging and executing Jang Song Thaek, resulting in a further setback in China-DPRK relations, reinforcing widespread pessimism over the prospect for the renewal of talks on Korean denuclearization.

Tensions between Japan and its neighbors over territorial disputes and history issues dominated the news in Northeast Asia for much of the year. While Tokyo remained firm in its position that there is no territorial issue that needs to be resolved over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute, Beijing remained equally firm in its position that Japan should acknowledge the existence of a dispute as a precondition for talks. Japan’s evolving security policy, China’s announcement of its East China Sea ADIZ, disputes between South Korea and Japan over Tokdo/Takeshima and “comfort women,” and Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine all served as further stimuli for increasingly harsh rhetoric on all sides. Meanwhile, trilateral cooperation on the environment and economic issues continued, albeit at a slower pace, and Japanese companies in China began to recover from the profit doldrums that followed initial Chinese reaction to Japan’s nationalization of three of the Senkaku Islands in late 2012.

With Xi Jinping’s assumption to the presidency at the National People’s Congress, China’s leadership transition concluded in the spring and facilitated high-level US-China contacts and exchanges increased during the year, but not without some bumps along the way. Presidents Obama and Xi met in California for a “no necktie” working meeting to discuss a range bilateral, regional, and global issues. Senior officials including Vice President Biden, Secretary of the Treasury Lew, Secretary of State Kerry, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey, and Deputy Secretary of State Burns traveled to China amid discussion of the need for a “new type of major power relationship” between the US and China. On a less positive note, cybersecurity rose to the top of the bilateral agenda as growing evidence revealed the extent of Chinese state-sponsored hacking into US government agencies and companies and Edward Snowden leaked classified documents regarding US cyber espionage activities. China’s decision to create an ADIZ in the East China Sea led the US to accuse China of attempting to unilaterally change the status quo in the region’s territorial disputes.

The “Rebalance to Asia” strategy remained a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Defense Secretary Hagel announced that in addition to last year’s proposed naval distribution of 60-40 in favor of the Pacific Ocean, the US Air Force would also shift 60 percent of its forces to focus on the Asia Pacific. US officials emphasized the “whole of government” approach to the strategy that involves economics, strengthening regional institutions, and expanding security partnerships. Much of the motivation for the “rebalance,” according to these officials, comes from Southeast Asians pressing for US leadership. Late in the year, the military component continued to receive emphasis with commitments to enhance maritime security, announcements of military sales, and deployments of an additional Littoral Combat Ship to Singapore and an Army Battalion to South Korea. The robust response by the US to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines was portrayed as a concrete example of the US security commitment to its allies and partners. However, the failure to conclude negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and President Obama’s cancellation of a trip to Southeast Asia led detractors to question the strategy as a “whole of government” effort and its overall sustainability.

Southeast Asia received considerable attention throughout the year. Chinese leaders reinforced Beijing’s South China Sea territorial claims while emphasizing China’s broad commitment to a path of peaceful development. In effect, they sustained the pattern of the past year, which established a choice. Those countries that pursue policies and actions at odds with Chinese claims will meet coercive and intimidating measures; those that mute opposition or acquiesce regarding Chinese claims are promised a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with a more powerful China. Few governments are prepared to resist and perhaps for good reason. When the Philippines took its territorial dispute with China to a United Nations Arbitral Tribunal for resolution, China responded by intimidating the Philippines with maritime patrols in several contested regions and by offering an initially meager response to calls for assistance following the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo also had his eye on Southeast Asia. In addition to Japan becoming a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership just in time for the 18th round of negotiations in July, Abe completed a series of visits that took him to each of the 10 ASEAN countries and hosted a Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo. Meanwhile, a visit to Washington by Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang resulted in a US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership. Myanmar’s president also came to Washington, the first visit by the country’s head of state to the US since 1966.

Looking forward to 2014, there are several trends that deserve attention. Most significantly the rhetorical dispute between Japan and its neighbors in Korea and China has escalated significantly with no clear signs of any of the parties showing interest in reducing tensions. With Beijing exploring ways to address cross-strait political issues through a “one China framework,” the first formal exchange of visits by officials is being planned, raising important policy implications for cross-strait reconciliation. China’s continued assertiveness in regional seas has raised concern for a military miscalculation. Despite their largely convergent outlook on many global issues, Russia has shown some concern about China’s new westward drive into Central Asia. Meanwhile, with the US commitment to the “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific, we should anticipate renewed efforts to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and reaffirmation of its commitment to promoting multilateral organizations in the region.