Volume 16, 2014

January – December 2014

After months of political turmoil and protests across the country, Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office by the Constitutional Court on May 7. Soon after, the Royal Thai Army declared martial law and established a military junta under the auspices of the National Council for Order and Peace (NCPO). The junta quickly consolidated power and restricted anti-regime protests through a national curfew, banning political gatherings, detaining opponents, and censoring the internet and media. The NCPO drafted an interim constitution in July, which was signed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The interim constitution’s provisions include the formation of a national legislature and other governmental bodies, but also grant amnesty for all actions taken by the military during the coup and provide the NCPO unchecked legislative and executive power. The coup has been condemned internationally, including a US decision to cancel joint military exercises and suspend military aid.

Tensions rose in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam following the May 2 deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HD-981) oil rig of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands. Vietnamese ships sent to disrupt the rig’s deployment were met with resistance from Chinese escort ships resulting in the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat. Anti-Chinese sentiment led to riots in Vietnam, which killed several Chinese nationals and damaged foreign property. Though the Vietnamese government initially praised the riots as patriotic, it reversed its stance as the violence resulted in destruction of property, murders, and eroded economic confidence in Vietnam. Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi visited Vietnam in mid-June at the height of the political tensions. He warned Hanoi to not take any legal action against China in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese government did not take legal action but the oil rig was removed on July 15, a month ahead of schedule. Though tensions have subsided, Vietnam-China relations remain frayed.

The recent elections in Indonesia further consolidated democracy away from the legacy of Suharto’s Cold War era authoritarian regime. Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta, was elected president. While his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, had deep political ties with Suharto, Widodo was seen as the leader of a new, ethical generation of leaders. Since Suharto took power in 1967, every ruler, including the four presidents following his resignation in 1998 had some sort of political or close personal tie to Suharto. Widodo won 53 percent of the vote and was declared the winner. Though Subianto made claims of electoral fraud in his opponents favor and sought several legal avenues to overturn the election results, Widodo assumed the presidency in October.

Twenty-one years after Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized for the Japanese Imperial Army’s use of “comfort women” in World War II, the apology known as the Kono Statement was reviewed by a government sponsored panel. The review concluded that South Korean officials collaborated in the drafting of the statement and that the testimonies of the 16 former “comfort women,” upon which the statement was based, could not be verified. While Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has pledged to uphold the statement despite these conclusions, the review was condemned by China and Korea as “provocative” and both called for Japan to confront its historical transgressions.

One of Prime Minister Abe’s primary policy goals has been a review of Japan’s self-imposed ban on the right to use armed force, and a July 1 Cabinet decision officially chose to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow Japan the right to collective self-defense. The new interpretation would allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to come to the aid of allies if they are under attack under three conditions: the Japanese state or Japanese people are threatened, there are no other options to repel the attack, and the use of force is kept to a minimum. The reinterpretation was met with mixed reactions. While the US welcomed the new policy, the South Korean government warned the Japanese to not exercise collective self-defense without Korean permission, and the Chinese government condemned the revision as a threat to regional security.

Improving Chinese-South Korean relations have been a top priority for both Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and the closer ties between the two countries was evident in Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul in early July. For the first time since China and South Korea established diplomatic relations in 1992, the Chinese president visited Seoul before Pyongyang. Meanwhile, North Korea launched missiles into the East Sea (Sea of Japan) multiple times leading up to the visit and after the two-day visit concluded. Xi and Park called for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and promoted the signing of a Free Trade Agreement between the two countries.

July 2014 – December 2014

The maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea saw several new developments in the last half of 2014. First, even after the redeployment of China’s oil rig and its protecting fleet in the Paracel Islands, the countries in Southeast Asia remained wary of China’s assertiveness. Meanwhile, large-scale dredging to create Chinese-controlled artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands continued unabated. These advances demonstrate how far Beijing is seemingly prepared to go in advancing its broad territorial claims in the South China Sea. For its part, the US continued to push the idea of a freeze by all South China Sea claimants on activities that would unilaterally change the status quo and published a report that characterized China’s nine-dash line claim as being inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The report was widely seen as providing support for the Philippine position in filing a case earlier this year with the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration disputing Chinese claims. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a position paper detailing its arguments for why the UN arbitral tribunal lacks jurisdiction in the Philippine-initiated case. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman meanwhile rejected China’s South China Sea claims and said that Hanoi has asked the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration to take Vietnam’s legal interests and rights into consideration when evaluating evidence in the Philippines case against China. In its statement, Vietnam countered China by acknowledging that the Permanent Court of Arbitration has jurisdiction over the issues raised in the Philippine case and in rejecting China’s nine-dash line as having no legal basis.

Despite the problems in the South China Sea, major foreign policy speeches by senior Chinese leaders emphasized the positive in China’s avowed commitment to regional development and peaceful coexistence. These promises were backed up with several expansive funding initiatives including the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Maritime Silk Road in Southeast Asia, the New China Silk Road in Central Asia, and the BRICS development bank. China also continued to emphasize the importance of free trade agreements in promoting its economic influence in the region. Accordingly, it reached an agreement in principle with South Korea on a bilateral FTA, concluded an FTA with Australia, and won approval at the APEC meeting to study the idea of pursuing a Free Trade Agreement of the Asia Pacific. China also articulated its view that regional security architecture should be centered on the idea that Asian problems should be solved by Asians, which has been interpreted by the US and others as potentially aimed at excluding them from regional security discourse in the future.

Three international gatherings late in the year – the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders Meeting in Beijing, the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Nay Pyi Taw, and the G-20 Summit in Brisbane – attracted heads of state from around the globe to the Asia Pacific, including US President Barack Obama, and included a series of bilateral meetings on the sidelines. In Beijing, a summit between Obama and Xi Jinping led to numerous agreements including visa extensions, military confidence-building measures, climate change, and information technology. However, tensions over the South China Sea and regional security architecture remain points of contention between the two countries. Also in Beijing, the long-anticipated meeting between Xi and Prime Minister Abe finally happened after months of posturing and a vaguely worded agreement that masked the differences over the East China Sea territorial dispute.

Concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement remained high on the US agenda. Despite several meetings and encouraging words, negotiators continued to struggle with key points of contention. The US and Japan remained stymied over agricultural subsidies and automobiles, disagreement over state-owned enterprises continued to be a major problem for Vietnam, and human rights and intellectual property rights remained contentious among member countries. More encouraging news came from the US as President Obama made his first public push in support of the agreement. Yet, there was no concerted effort to push for trade promotion authority from Congress, something that most analysts recognize as critical to giving the US negotiators credibility in reaching a final agreement. The TPP was highlighted in the concluding statement at the EAS, with the group noting that it, along with the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other free trade initiatives, would “contribute to further increasing regional economic integration.”

Relations on the Korean Peninsula were little changed in the last half of 2014. As China remained aloof in its relations with North Korea, there was significant interaction between China and South Korea with separate summits in Seoul in July and Beijing in December. While everyone continued to talk about the possibility of Six-Party Talks, there was no indication that the forum would be reconvened anytime soon as the stalemate over the North’s nuclear weapons program remained. Despite much talk about inter-Korean dialogue and some indication that both sides were preparing for a new round of conciliatory moves, in the end there was no progress on resolving differences between North and South Korea. For the DPRK, the end of 2014 was marked by a massive cyberattack on the US based Sony Pictures Entertainment. The county’s human rights record was also condemned by the UN General Assembly. The DPRK responded by making appearances at senior-level engagements around the world and releasing three US detainees as part of its diplomatic “charm offensive.”