Volume 17, 2015

The United States’ rebalance to Asia was on display throughout the year in 2015.  Recognizing that passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) rested upon achieving Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) from the US Congress, President Obama initiated a long-awaited push for “fast track” legislation that would allow Congress to approve or disapprove – but not amend – the final trade deal. In June of 2015, Congress granted Obama this authority. Official TPP meetings were held in New York, Hawaii, Maryland, and Guam, leading to reported progress on market access for goods and additional discussion on topics ranging from intellectual property to state owned enterprises and rules of origin. Both bilateral and pluritaleral talks continued with the eventual goal of finalizing treaty text. Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership concluded in October, although the challenge of national ratification remains. There were also several military exercises conducted in Southeast Asia. The US Department of Defense also announced a military aid program for Southeast Asian states and the White House committed to military support for Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Finally, the normal round of multilateral meetings – the ASEAN-related meetings in Kuala Lumpur, plus the APEC Leaders Meeting in Manila – went largely unnoticed. Nevertheless, the US leadership faithfully participated in an effort to demonstrate a commitment to ASEAN centrality and multilateral cooperation.
Meanwhile, China continued efforts to foster support for its own economic initiatives, arguing for the creation of a “common destiny” through infrastructure connectivity supported by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Chinese Silk Road Fund. In spite of unofficial opposition by the United States, governments including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, and South Korea joined as founding members of the AIIB. This was largely seen as a “defeat” for the US, as many Western nations saw the AIIB as a challenge to the post-WII financial system set up by the US and other like-minded governments.
Friction also remained over China’s accelerated island-building projects in the South China Sea. In a departure from past practice, ASEAN leaders issued a public statement opposing Chinese land reclamation at the ASEAN Summit in April. Shortly thereafter, a US Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft flew over disputed territory, prompting China to lodge an official complaint. Although China did state that it was completing is so-called “land reclamation activity,” it also re-deployed its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil drilling rig near the Paracel Islands. Meanwhile, in The Hague, the Philippines presented its argument for ripeness and the court’s jurisdiction before the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Chinese actions (and US reactions) in the South China Sea continued to receive the attention of world media, as China showed continued unwillingness to stop its construction and militarization of terraformed reefs. The USS Lassen, a US Navy guided-missile destroyer, exercised international rights of freedom of navigation by sailing within 12nm of Chinese-occupied Subi Reef, and the US announced the sale of a $1.83 billion arms package to Taiwan, prompting Chinese objections, but no suspension of bilateral military exchanges. The Chinese Navy conducted Peace and Friendship 2015, their first ever joint military exercise with Malaysia, and in November conducted military exercises with Australian Navy ships in Zhangjiang. Chinese and Thai air forces also conducted joint exercises aimed to increase “mutual trust and friendship.”
Beyond the APEC and ASEAN-related multilateral gatherings there were also several other diplomatic exchanges during the year. Following Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington in September 2014, President Obama visited India in January 2015 as the “Chief Guest” for India’s Republic Day. These successive visits within the span of a few months served, perhaps, to indicate a “return to the same orbit” in US-India relations, although sources of caution remained. Meanwhile, in stark contrast to the stilted November 2014 meeting in Beijing, the April 2015 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in Bandung, Indonesia featured smiles, handshakes, and a 25-minute talk. Subsequently, Prime Minister Abe paid an official visit to Washington – the first in nine years by a Japanese leader – where he addressed a joint session of Congress on topics ranging from the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II to a strategic vision for the future of the US-Japan alliance. A few other summits attracted attention, however, including the first “Plus Three” (Japan-Korea-China) Summit in three years in Seoul and the “non-summit” between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou with both sides agreeing to refer to the other as “ Mr” to avoid any political implications associated with cross-strait recognition. The US-ROK presidential summit resulted in a joint statement against North Korean nuclear and missile threats and concern over DPRK human rights violations, and the November Park-Abe summit yielded an accord on “comfort women/sex slaves.” President Xi visited the US in September with stops in Seattle, Washington, DC, and New York, and Presidents Obama and Xi met again briefly on the margins of the Paris climate change conference, helping to conclude an historic global agreement to reduce emissions.
Relations on the Korean Peninsula remained mired in the stalemate over North Korea’s nuclear programs. Despite positive indications from a track-two meeting in early 2015, it became apparent once more that the DPRK would not come to talks unless the US and others treated it as a nuclear weapon state. Kim Jong Un cancelled a planned trip to attend World War II 70th Anniversary celebrations in Moscow, leading to speculation that his grip on power grew increasingly tenuous. The execution of Hyon Yong Chul (the second-most senior military officer in the DPRK) only served to fuel this speculation – or conversely indicated that Kim was showing off his absolute power. In July, North Korea was reported to have informed the US that it was not interested in any deal similar to the one reached with Iran while the US envoy to the Six-Party Talks held out the prospect for some movement in the negotiations by stating that the Iran deal was “an excellent example of US flexibility and willingness to engage with countries with whom we have had longstanding differences,”  and that the “door is open” to North Korea should it choose to break away from its diplomatic and economic isolation.
Despite initial hopes for a joint North and South Korean celebration of the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation on Aug. 15, those hopes were soon dashed when a ROK patrol in the western part of the DMZ set off a landmine blast, resulting in the maiming of two ROK sergeants. Officials in South Korea soon claimed forensic evidence pointing to the DPRK provenance of the mines, leading to sharp reaction from Seoul and denial from Pyongyang. Events came to a head on Aug. 20 when shots were exchanged across the DMZ, leading to a period of escalated tension before high-level negotiations resulted in a six-point accord and the resumption of family reunions, other talks, and NGO contacts. The following four months saw little progress on these points, however, and a North and South Korean vice-ministerial meeting in December ended without any substantive agreement or any plans for subsequent meetings.

In Japan, there were several efforts to move beyond move Japan beyond history and toward a “normal nation.” The Japanese Diet passed legislation in September reinterpreting self-defense and giving government the authority to send its Self-Defense Forces overseas to defend allies, even if Japan itself is not under attack. Prime Minister Abe delivered a speech marking the 70th anniversary of World War II, where he used the sensitive terms “aggression” (shinryaku), “colonial domination” (shokuminchi shihai), “deep remorse” (tsusetsu na handsei) and “apology” (owabi). Meanwhile, tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea continued to define the bilateral relationship and feed the growing concern in Japan over the need to expand maritime defense capabilities.
Elections also played an important role in shaping relations in the region.  In Myanmar, Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide, raising questions about the military and its potential reaction to the actual tangible changes democracy will bring to its relations with China and the US.  In Taiwan, the victory of Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has many worrying about deterioration in China-Taiwan relations.