Clouded Reassurances in Asia

Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made his first official foreign visit as a member of the Trump administration. It was also the first overseas visit by any member of the new cabinet. The new Defense Secretary spent time in both South Korea and Japan, two of America’s most important allies in Asia. The choice of these two countries was deliberate: both countries are needed to help contain the nuclear threat of North Korea, and Japan is facing an encroaching Chinese presence in the East China Sea. Mattis’ goal was to reassure Seoul—which is currently facing a full-blown political crisis—and Tokyo of American commitments to their security.

 

Despite Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign about certain allies not pulling their weight, as president, he must now work with these two countries to keep the region stable. The trip could be described as quite successful. Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), a missile defense system that could protect South Korea from a potential attack by North Korea. His comments about U.S. commitments were clear: “Any attack on the United States or on our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that will be effective and overwhelming.” That’s about as stalwart of a commitment or reassurance as any country can get. The secretary’s visit to Japan struck similar tones. In a joint press conference with Tomomi Inada, the Defense Minister of Japan, Mattis specifically mentioned U.S. policy toward  islands that both Japan and China claim sovereignty over: “I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku Islands stands — the US will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands and as such Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies.” Article 5 “recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes” If the U.S. recognizes Japanese sovereignty over these islands, then the U.S. would have to use force to defend the Japanese territory if the Chinese attacked in some way.

 

While Mattis reaffirmed American commitments to both countries, China expressed concern and outrage over his comments in both South Korea and Japan over THAAD and the Senkaku Islands. In regards to THAAD, China believes its implementation would “undermine the strategic security interests of regional countries including China, disrupt regional strategic balance, and help in no way peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” The Chinese see THAAD as not limited to containing the North Korean threat. THAAD potentially could be used to take out or track Chinese missiles in the region. The United States and South Korea are not likely to heed Chinese complaints. China released a statement challenging Mattis’ remarks about U.S. commitment to Japanese sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands: “Diaoyu [the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands] and its affiliated islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. These are historical facts that cannot be changed. The so-called US-Japan security treaty was a product of the Cold War, and it should not harm China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights.” This statement is nothing new, and the issue will not go away any time soon, so it is important to Japan to receive such unwavering reassurance from the United States.

 

As China continues to contest sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and build artificial islands in the South China Sea, it is necessary not just for Asian nations to receive American reassurances of support, but also for the United States to continually and explicitly express its commitment to maintaining a major role in the region, especially with the transition between administrations. China will likely attempt to take advantage of the Trump administration while it is still getting its feet on the ground and begins to formulate Asia policy. Having Secretary Mattis make a trip to South Korea two weeks into the new administration demonstrates continued understanding of America’s role in keeping the Asia-Pacific region stable. While the Defense Secretary offered firm reassurances to both nations, Mattis also expressed hesitation to escalate beyond the status quo. In Japan, he also noted that the administration does not “see any need for dramatic military moves” and that both the U.S. and China should “exhaust all diplomatic efforts to try and resolve this properly and maintain open lines of communication.”

 

Unfortunately, other cabinet members and advisors have made troubling remarks about the region and U.S.-China relations. Though Mattis made the most recent of statements in regards to U.S. policy towards Asia, in the very recent past, other people in the administration have made remarks that undercut and conflict with what Mattis said. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to. . . .We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed.” Such a policy would be a dramatic change from previous administrations. In December 2016, it was revealed that China had installed anti-aircraft and other weapons systems on its artificial islands in the South China Sea. If the United States were to adopt Tillerson’s policy of denial of entry, then confrontation of some sort will likely erupt since China has a significant military presence on its islands. Is the Trump administration willing to risk war to prevent China from doing what it has already done for years? What positive outcome can the new administration expect by adopting such a policy? It is especially unnerving because a Chinese official at the Central Military Commission noted that “A war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.”

 

Moreover, in March 2016, Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and now a member of the National Security Council, remarked that war between the United States and China in the South China Sea is inevitable: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren’t we? . . . There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.” Although Bannon’s remark predated his joining the Trump campaign in August 2016, it is dangerous for a key member of the Trump administration to have such hawkish views on China. With Bannon in the White House and influencing national security policy, such an opinion could become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Bannon thinks war is inevitable, so he purposefully or accidentally makes it so.

 

Different members of the administration have made conflicting statements about China and the Asia-Pacific region in general. Is diplomacy possible or not? Is war inevitable? Will the United States needlessly antagonize China? What are Japan and South Korea supposed to believe is the prevailing opinion or policy stance of the Trump administration? It appears that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.  As Mattis was visiting Asia, the news broke about Bannon’s previous statements. Can U.S. allies in Asia count on Mattis’ reassurances and commitments? Now that Tillerson has been confirmed as Secretary of State, we must hope that he listens to his diplomats—and Secretary Mattis—and does not advocate for such an aggressive stance in the South China Sea. Branding China as the enemy this early in the administration limits how the United States can cooperate with China on important issues, including the nuclear threat from North Korea. What the United States and its allies can hope for is that Secretary Mattis’ reserved and cautious approach prevails.

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Japan’s Precarious Position in the Asia

Japanese destroyers in column formation

 

Over the last few years, Japan’s foreign policy gained a coherence rarely seen in decades.  No doubt pressure from Japan’s natural rivals in Asia—a rising China and a recalcitrant Russia—have helped to focus the minds of Japanese policymakers.  Certainly those closest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seemed convinced that Japan needed to improve its security situation.  By the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though Japan had done just that.

 

A Firmer Footing

While President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved disappointing, Japanese policymakers saw value in Obama’s support for a “rules-based international order.”  In practical terms, what that meant was that Japan could at least count on the United States to remain engaged in Asia and underpin its security.  For much of 2016, that seemed likely to continue.  After all, Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, led in the U.S. presidential election polls.  Though Clinton had renounced her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that Japan hoped would be the basis of Asia’s future economic architecture, most observers expected her to reverse herself again if she became president.

 

Hence, Abe had every reason to believe that his efforts to improve Japan’s security would be built on a reasonably solid foundation.  He tirelessly traveled throughout Asia cultivating new friendships, especially with the countries in Southeast Asia.  He encouraged Japanese companies to invest in them; he forged security relationships with them; and he even gave some of them Japanese-built patrol boats to monitor their maritime borders.  He also stepped in when Washington stumbled.  After relations between the United States and its long-time allies, Thailand and the Philippines, soured over their internal affairs, Abe quickly moved to strengthen Japan’s bilateral ties with both countries.

 

Japan also took more direct steps to strengthen its defense posture.  It modestly increased its defense budget.  It also laid the groundwork for new military installations in the Ryukyu Islands to watch over its East China Sea claims.  But possibly Japan’s biggest step was its new interpretation of its self-defense law.  Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to aid allies who come under attack.  While that may seem wholly non-controversial in most countries, it was anything but in pacifist Japan.  Some feared that Japan could be more easily drawn into future conflicts.  But the new guidelines would also enable Japan to form stronger security alliances that could prevent such conflicts from happening at all.

 

The string of good news for Japan’s security reached its zenith last July.  Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a boost to the “rules-based international order” when it judged that China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea to be invalid.  With the judgment an international court at its back, a heartened Tokyo even considered filing its own case against China over their competing territorial claims in the East China Sea.

 

Shifting Sands

However, just then the ground beneath Japan’s feet shifted.  Rodrigo Duterte’s election as the president of the Philippines abruptly ended what some saw as Southeast Asia’s growing willingness to back an international order based on rules (or at least on ASEAN’s norms).  Having a personal animosity towards Obama and a general suspicion of American meddling, Duterte steadily moved the Philippines away from the United States.  Instead, he leaned toward China.  Abe’s meeting with Duterte in Tokyo failed to arrest that tilt.  Soon after, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his own reasons, began to lean the same way.  He even agreed to buy Chinese ships for the Malaysian navy.  On the other hand, Japan missed a golden opportunity to solidify its security relationship with Australia when a Japanese consortium lost a bid to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.

 

To top it all off, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.  Throughout his campaign, he bashed not only the TPP, but also Japan for what he viewed as its inadequate support for the U.S. security presence in Asia.  Soon after his election, Trump confirmed that he would shelve the TPP when he became president.  Doubtlessly concerned, Abe hastily flew to New York to impress upon Trump the importance of a strong alliance between Japan and the United States.  But Abe received no public assurances.  The best news that Abe received from Trump probably came a month later when he announced his aim to expand the U.S. Navy.  If fully realized, that would at least put more substance behind America’s commitments to Asia (and to Japan), however strong they may be.

 

Troublesome Neighbors

China quickly capitalized on Japan’s reverses.  Given the likely demise of the TPP, China pushed harder for a Chinese-led free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, at the APEC summit last November.  Many believe the pact, if successful, would draw Asia’s economies closer into China’s orbit.

 

Russia also sensed Japan’s weakened position.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abe a month later, he offered Abe nothing new when they discussed how to settle their dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories in Japan).  Putin simply reiterated Russia’s historic positions and insisted that any joint economic development on the islands must take place under Russian rules, an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands.  Unsurprisingly, the meeting yielded little progress.

 

The Going Remains Tough

To make matters worse, Japan has yet to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.  Unless that changes, Japan will be hard pressed to devote substantially more resources to its security.  Through the TPP, Abe probably hoped to not only give Japan an economic boost, but also bind the United States more closely to Asia.  Unfortunately for Abe, the TPP’s negotiations dragged on for too long.  By the time they ended, it was politically impossible for the U.S. Senate to ratify it.  Even so, Abe has vowed to push TPP legislation through the Japanese Diet.

 

None of this is to say that Japanese policymakers have lost their way.  Abe is still focused on improving Japan’s security situation.  But for the moment, how much more he can do about it is not altogether clear.

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Stopover Hysteria: Understanding Tsai’s Stopover in the United States

Photo credit: The Office of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

On January 7, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan will embark on a trip to the United States—not to visit President Barack Obama or President-elect Donald Trump, but to refuel her plane, rest, and conduct some meetings before moving on to Central America. This type of visit has become routine in U.S.-Taiwan relations and is nothing new or particularly special, so why is this trip so controversial?

 

Tsai is stopping in the U.S. en route to state visits to some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, specifically Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. News outlets have covered this trip not because these countries are four on a list of only twenty-one states with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan or because Sao Tome and Pincipe recently switched its recognition from Taiwan to China (a long and growing list), but because Tsai will stop in Houston and San Francisco briefly during transit. Since 1994, every president of Taiwan has landed in the United States while en route to visit diplomatic allies. These visits have ranged from a few hours to a few days—depending upon the state of U.S.-Taiwan relations.

 

The president of Taiwan must receive special permission from the U.S. government to land or to stay in the country for any amount of time. This rule was established to ease the minds of the Chinese who are suspicious of any interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan that hints of any kind of diplomatic recognition. Since the U.S. severed ties with Taiwan in 1979, no president of Taiwan has participated in an official state visit in the U.S.—only brief stopovers and meetings with U.S. Congressmen and other people of note.

 

In a post-“Trump Call” world, China is on alert for any indications of a major change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. As a result, the Chinese foreign ministry has been unusually quite vocal about the potential of a Tsai stopover in the U.S. When asked about Tsai’s visit, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said,

 

The one-China policy is a consensus shared by the international community, and also a principle of how we handle Taiwan’s engagement with foreign countries. We hope that relevant countries can carefully address Taiwan-related issues. As to the Taiwan leader’s transit in the US, I believe her real intention is clear to all. We hope that the US side can follow the one-China policy and the three joint communiques, disallow the Taiwan leader’s transit in the US, refrain from sending any wrong signal to the pro-independence force in Taiwan, and take concrete steps to uphold the overall interests of China-US relations and maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

 

In early December 2016, another spokesman said that “the so-called transit diplomacy is only a petty trick played by the Taiwan leader, whose hidden political agenda should be clear to all.” Despite these protests, the U.S. granted Tsai approval, and she will be landing in Houston  on January 7 and departing for Honduras on January 8, and then she will land in San Francisco on January 13 and return to Taiwan on January 15. Previous presidents have stopped over in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Miami, Honolulu, and Anchorage—with the final city being the unofficial stopover location when ties between the U.S. and Taiwan are less than stellar.

 

Tsai has a busy schedule for her visit to Central America: she is visiting Honduras after being invited by its president, Juan Orlando Hernandez; she will attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua; and she will visit Antigua in Guatemala to promote tourism between Taiwan and Guatemala. All of these visits and events are important for the continuation of relations between these countries and Taiwan, but the only feature of the trip extensively covered in the news is her stopover in the U.S. and China’s outrage over what had become routine.

 

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) noted to Reuters the routine nature of these visits: “President Tsai’s transit through the United States is based on long-standing U.S. practice and is consistent with the unofficial nature of our relations with Taiwan.” No matter how much the media or China tries to play up the controversy of this stopover, it should not qualify as exceptionally newsworthy. China’s perception of possible changes in U.S. policy and U.S.-Taiwan relations has caused even the smallest bit of information to be blown out of proportion. Did China raise a stink when Secretary of State John Kerry met with James Soong, Taiwan’s representative to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 2016? How about when U.S. Ambassador Matthew J. Matthews, Deputy Assistant Secretary and U.S. Senior Official for APEC, visited Taiwan in early December 2016? No—because these visits are routine, nothing special, just like Tsai’s impending “visit.”

 

The one thing to look out for is who Tsai meets in San Francisco and Houston. During her visit stopover in Miami in June 2016, Tsai met with Senator Marco Rubio. Will anyone tapped to be in the Trump administration meet with her? If so, how senior of an official and from which department? The answers to these questions are important and could give a glimpse into how a Trump administration will handle the “Taiwan question” beyond the infamous phone call. The genuine issues at stake here are not a routine stopover, but the seemingly deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China, the apparent risks to cross-strait relations, and apprehensions about what the impending Trump administration will do come January 20, 2017 in regards to cross-strait relations and China policy. 

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Standing Firm, Mostly: Militarization of the South China Sea

China's Presence in the South China Sea
China’s Presence in the South China Sea

 

Last week, a Chinese naval vessel which had been shadowing the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy oceanographic ship, scooped up one of the ship’s unmanned underwater survey drones about 80 km off the Philippine coast.  Washington demanded the drone’s return.  Over the weekend, China’s Ministry of Defense said that it would transfer the drone back to the United States; and by Tuesday afternoon it was back in American hands.  Though the incident was quickly settled, it could have easily escalated.  Some initially feared a replay of the 2001 crisis in which China impounded a damaged U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft for three months after a Chinese J-8 fighter collided with it over the South China Sea.

 

Lest anyone think that the recent rapprochement between China and the Philippines would restore calm to the South China Sea, the drone incident demonstrated that tensions there remain high.  Even more worrisome in the longer run is the steady militarization of the region’s disputed islands.

 

Vietnam’s Response to China

Considering what Vietnam sees as China’s repeated provocations—from its use of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore oil drilling rig in disputed waters to its construction of military-grade airfields on Chinese-occupied islands—Hanoi has felt justified to respond in kind.  Last year, it extended the runway on Vietnamese-held Spratly Island from under 760 meters to over 1,000 meters, long enough to accommodate maritime surveillance and transport aircraft.  Then in August, Reuters reported that Vietnam had discretely deployed mobile rocket launchers on some of the other islands that it holds.[1]  Once assembled and armed, Vietnam could easily target China’s nearby island airfields and military facilities.

 

China’s Response to Vietnam

Conscious of such dangers, China has taken precautions.  Satellite imagery recently revealed that China has installed large anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems capable of shooting down cruise missiles on each of its islands.[2]  Earlier this year, China deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago.  Perhaps they will also appear on Chinese-occupied islands in the Spratly archipelago, if more foreign aircraft are seen overhead.  No doubt China is preparing itself for an armed challenge, whether from competing South China Sea claimants or the United States.  As China’s Ministry of Defense posted on its microblog last Friday, “Were someone to be threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready with even a slingshot?”[3]

 

The Philippines’ Resignation

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ response to all this went in the opposite direction after the election of Rodrigo Duterte as its president in June.  Duterte’s foreign minister, Perfecto Yasay, signaled the Philippines’ resignation to China’s military construction.  “We cannot stop China at this point in time and say do not put that up,” he said.[4]  Instead, the Philippines would focus on furthering its economic ties with China.  That strategy has paid off so far.  In October, China promised Duterte that it would provide the Philippines with investment and financing worth $24 billion.  The following month, the Chinese coast guard allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the waters near Scarborough Shoal for the first time since the 2012 standoff there between Chinese and Philippine authorities.

 

That the Philippines has gone wobbly on standing up to China probably came as little surprise to Vietnamese leaders, who always doubted Philippine commitment.  For the moment, Vietnam is doing its best to match China’s actions.  And so the militarization of the South China Sea continues.  Hopefully future incidents in its waters will end as peacefully as the most recent one did.

 

[1] Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Vietnam moves new rocket launchers into disputed South China Sea – sources,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2016.

[2] “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Dec. 13, 2016, https://amti.csis.org.

[3] Li Xiaokun, “Island defenses ‘legitimate, legal’,” China Daily, Dec. 16, 2016.

[4] Jeannette I. Andrade, “PH helpless vs China–Yasay,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, Dec. 17, 2016.

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Revival of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

Countries Involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Countries Involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

 

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are both free-trade agreements in Asia that have been under negotiation for a number of years.  Often seen as competitors, however, the former is led by China and the latter by the United States.  By February 2016, the RCEP had fallen behind the TPP, whose negotiators had already signed an agreement and returned it to their twelve member countries for ratification.  Their RCEP counterparts were still mired in talks.

 

Even so, the TPP’s negotiations were by no means a cake walk.  Concerns in Japan over agricultural issues and in Southeast Asia over the TPP’s “deep” standards repeatedly delayed an agreement.  Indeed, there had been too many delays.  By the time a deal was reached, the United States, the pact’s biggest member, had begun what turned out to be a particularly bitter presidential election and one in which the TPP became a lightning-rod issue.  Even the pact’s early advocates, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was one of the presidential candidates, strongly disavowed it.  In such a political climate there was little chance the U.S. Senate would ratify it.

 

The election of Donald Trump as the next American president sealed the fate of the TPP in the United States.  Soon after, President Barack Obama abandoned his efforts to ratify the pact.  Trump himself declared that the United States would withdraw from it after he is sworn in as president.  That threw the future of the TPP into turmoil.  It also breathed new life into the RCEP.  Capitalizing on the TPP’s disarray, Chinese President Xi Jinping reassured participants at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in late November that China would renew its efforts to conclude the RCEP.

 

RCEP vs. TPP

Why does that matter?  What, apart from some of their member countries, is the difference between the two free-trade agreements?  Traditionally, countries conclude free-trade agreements to lower or eliminate tariffs, and thus encourage trade.  While that has generally spurred economic growth in developing countries, it has also tended to hollow out legacy industries in developed countries.

 

Consequently, developed countries, like the United States, have sought a new approach to free trade.  Embodied in the TPP (and its sister free-trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), that approach requires member countries to adopt domestic policies that would “raise labor and environmental standards, impose disciplines on government-owned corporations, strengthen intellectual property rights enforcement, [and] maintain a free and open internet.”[1]  In that way, developed countries argue, trade would be not only freer, but fairer too.  Indeed, some in the Obama administration even saw the TPP as part of a grander vision for a “rules-based international order.”

 

Naturally, developing countries feared what impact such policies would have on their protected companies and industries.  For example, the TPP would require them to end their preferential treatment of state-owned enterprises in government procurement, something they were reluctant to do.  Nevertheless, developing countries were ultimately persuaded to join the pact because of the added benefits they could gain from greater access to the markets of developed countries.

 

On the other hand, the RCEP is a far more traditional free-trade agreement.  It does not share the lofty ambitions of the TPP.  It does not concern itself with “behind the border issues,” like the preferential treatment in government procurement.  Rather, it simply focuses on reducing and eliminating tariffs.  Countries can limit competition wherever they see fit.  On the surface, that sort of pact would appear easier to negotiate.  But developing countries must carefully consider the terms of such a pact, because they can lock countries into being part of regional supply chains whose ultimate benefits accrue elsewhere.  Given that there are thousands of categories and subcategories of goods to consider (not mentioning the fact that many of those are shuttled between countries before they are assembled into a final product), negotiations are bound to be complex.

 

Impact of RCEP

Still, the RCEP is back on center stage.  If successfully concluded, it could change the structure of Asian trade in ways that would put China firmly at the center of commerce in the region.  That, some worry, would accrue even more political as well as economic power to China.  But given the prevailing sluggish global economy, what matters to most developing countries is reaping the immediate benefits from freer trade.  Unsurprisingly, a couple of countries at the APEC summit quickly seconded China’s interest in reviving the RCEP’s negotiations.  It is now up to China to make it happen.

 

[1] John Lyons, Mark Magnier, and William Mauldin, “China Steps In As U.S. Retreats on Trade,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 23, 2016, pp. A1, A6.

 

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