The Asia-Pacific Region’s Flashpoints: An Update

Brad Glosserman Executive Director Pacific Forum, CSIS

Brad Glosserman
Executive Director
Pacific Forum, CSIS

Pacific Forum CSIS’s Executive Director, Brad Glosserman, reviews with David Day the key tense and potentially dangerous security Flashpoints that the Asia-Pacific Region now faces.

 

Asia Pacific Region

Asia Pacific Region

The conversation places these Flashpoints in the context of the rising economic dynamism of the Region, the re-focus of the “whole of government and business” into the Region and its need for stability and security. Potential border spillover Flashpoints are considered with (1)  the ethnic violence in Myanmar,(2) the latest developments in the South China Sea disputes (including the possibility of China now dragging Malaysia into the fray, in addition to the Philippines and Vietnam), (3) China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkakus, and (4) the current situation with the enhanced bellicose rhetoric coming out of North Korea.

 

Hosted by David Day

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Chalk Up Yet Another Successful Round for North Korea

Kim Kyong Hui - The Auntie

Kim Kyong Hui – The Auntie

North Korea has done it again, but this time at the helm of its new, young leader, Kim Jong Un. Meaning what? The current round of enflamed bellicosity has served North Korea well. It has been a 24/7 infomercial for the country’s arms sales client states, including Iran and Syria, as well as other potential rogue countries and terrorist organizations. The infomercial continues to underscore the respect that the most developed nations in the world accord North Korean arms technology and weaponry. It also sends a strong message of encouragement for other would-be nuclear regimes to get into the nuclear club as quickly as possible (i.e. Syria and Iran) as a means of status, and more importantly, regime preservation.

            The nuclear option, North Korea teaches, makes even the most outrageous conduct acceptable and immunizes a regime from attack. It is a powerful message and demonstration by Pyongyang that does not serve the interests of peace and stability well. Secretary Kerry’s entreaty to North Korea that the U.S. is willing now to sit down and talk, provided Pyongyang will agree to give up the nuclear card is somewhere between silly and naive. Perhaps it is a good policy statement for the folks in Foggy Bottom, but it is just not going to happen.

            Despite another successful dictator encouragement/arms sales PR round, Pyongyang still needs the final offramp to get off the current bellicosity highway. The threatened missile test is one option—but a dangerous one. The rhetoric is been cranked up so high that a missile test will have to be executed in a direction certain not to arouse confusion or mistake and a possible retaliatory strike. Even a short range missile test is a risky move for Pyongyang under the current atmosphere that it has created. What then is the offramp option? Prepare for a second nuclear test. This will allow Pyongyang to pull off a move not likely to generate a retaliatory strike– plus it has the added propaganda and PR advantage of North Korea thumbing its nose to the United Nations, China and the U.S. in the face of the recent sanctions imposed on it for the country’s last nuclear test earlier this year.

            So when is such a test likely to occur? The best propaganda move for Pyongyang would be to execute the test on or around April 15, when a large celebration is planned for the country. April 15th is a significant date for North Korea. It is the birthdate of the current leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The deceased grandfather is known as North Korea’s “Eternal President” or “President for life.”

There is greater significance beyond just the office held between the former North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, and their current leader Kim Jong Un. The link between the two comes by a rarely spoken of yet incredibly important female by name of Kim Kyong-hui.

Kim Kyong-hui is one of the last living “old guard” within North Korea’s communist dynasty. She is Kim Jong Un’s aunt and just so happens to be the daughter of North Korea’s “Eternal President.” Many intelligence analysts who focus on Asian affairs believe Kim Kyong-hui is the true leader in North Korea today as she is the one who specifically instructs Kim Jong Un on each decision he makes.

So how does all of this fit together? April 15, and the days around it, is the opportunity for Kim Jong Un to please his most important Aunt and mentor. He can do this with a major display of the country’s military might. A show of strength works wonders to show her that her father’s country is in strong, capable hands.

It all comes together in the coming hours and days. This round has been won and the offramps of a nuclear test and the more risky, missile test are in sight.

 

 

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Myanmar’s Dance

Myanmar sits between India and China, a key strategic position combined with extraordinary natural resources.

Historically, in its post-British colonial era, Myanmar has “danced” in its foreign policy and sought to maintain its neutrality, wary of foreigners. Myanmar’s dance continued throughout the Cold War as a strategy necessary to preserve its own sovereignty. This wariness extended to Western diplomats and China alike. However, as the General Than Shwe/Junta era began to take hold and the resulting U.S. sanctions began to bite, Myanmar “leaned” heavily towards China as its sanctions bypass route.

The new Thein Sein government started to shake the West with its political reforms and the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. These reforms also included legal changes that would now permit Aung San Suu Kyi to run for political office. Indeed, her party, the National League for Democracy, has seized upon this legal change, re-registered under the new law, and Aung San Suu Kyi herself has formally announced that she would run in the next elections.

Then there is the pushback against China commenced with the abrupt decision to suspend the construction of a controversial China-backed hydroelectric dam that would have flooded an area the size of Singapore. Given the magnitude of Chinese investment and influence in Myanmar, this has been a stunning move.

The question then becomes, what is the next step in Myanmar’s dance? That step will be heavily influenced by Myanmar’s bid to assume its leadership bid as ASEAN’s chair in 2014. However, Myanmar’s bid for the 2014 ASEAN chairmanship means that it will have to present itself as an ASEAN member and not China’s little client. In order to accomplish that by 2014, we are going to see a number of previously unthinkable reforms coming out of Naypyidaw. The notion that Suu Kyi will now run for election is but one example of the previously unthinkable.

Indonesia, interestingly, is playing a key role from its ASEAN leadership chair position, steering Myanmar in a reform-minded direction so as to position and prepare Myanmar for its own 2014 ASEAN chair. Coupled with Jakarta’s efforts, the current United States efforts on the” pivoting” front to re-engage with Asia, such as entering the East Asia Summit and cultivating stronger ties with Southeast Asia, also contains a strategy designed to encourage Myanmar into further reforms. To that end, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently dangled the bait that Myanmar would find a partner in the U.S. if further reforms were made. The possibility of removing sanctions and promises of cooperation will assist in expanding U.S. influence with Myanmar,and likely move the country into a more balanced relationship between the U.S. and China.

Myanmar took Clinton’s bait, Suu Kyi and her party are now planning to participate in the next elections, and Clinton herself is now “pivoting” and enroute to Myanmar. The winds are now shifting in the U.S./Myanmar relationship. New partners and new steps are now in play.

The China relationship is still out there. While there is a certain frostiness to the current relations between China and Myanmar, it must be remembered that Myanmar must live with China next door and its dance in the future will always need to maintain considerable weight on that foot.

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The Negotiations Master—Kim Jong Il still has it

The Negotiations Master—Kim Jong Il still has it

By David Day

Over the past year, we have watched the Dear Leader’s private train slide into China on several occasions with educated speculation that he was paving the way for a baton hand-off in Pyongyang to Kim Jong Eun. There was a need, it was argued, for Beijing to bless the heir apparent. Some of these China visits included factory tours, fueling the speculation that the Kim Regime was preparing to “open up” and was ready now for some type of economic liberalization. These visits were followed by, more recently, announcements of large China-fueled infrastructure projects just inside the North Korean border.

Kim Jong Il’s current trip to Russia was not just to provide a change of scenery or demonstrate that there are places he can visit other than the PRC. Despite his age and frail health, the Dear Leader still retains his tactical genius. The Russian trip suggests the timing and the key trump card that Kim Jong Il may soon play—the Trans- Siberia/Korean pipeline.

Russia and South Korea have already entered into a MOU for a huge US$90 billion deal between Russia’s Gazprom and South Korea’s state-owned KoGas. The latter, the world’s largest single buyer of natural gas, will take 10 billion cubic meters annually for 30 years – via a pipeline to be built across North Korea. The sticking point in this enormous energy deal is, of course, North Korea. This week, North Korea also inked the same accord.

The tactical genius of Kim Jong Il is now beginning to surface.  2012 is a Presidential election year in South Korea and President Lee Myung-bak, an uncomfortable hard-liner for the North, is now on his way out. 2012 is also the magical, propagandized, “Mighty and Prosperous Nation” year (the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, the 70th birthday of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, and the 30th birthday (give or take) of the heir apparent, “Brilliant Comrade,” Kim Jong Eun—the 100, 70, 30 numbers are significant in the North Korean culture).

There is one other piece to this puzzle and that is Japan. Fukushima and Japan’s nuclear domino shutdowns/decommissionings have left certain parts the country desperately short of energy. This Summer, Tokyo Electric has been able to manage as a result of drastic austerity measures. In the reasonably short term future, Japan will find it impossible to fill its resulting power gap with renewables. Natural gas and coal are the only practical alternatives, with the cleaner, natural gas being the preferred choice. Russian natural gas piped to Busan, South Korea is going to open up critical and easier access for Japan.

As for the tactical genius, Kim can balance China’s growing influence on North Korea with both Russian and South Korean financial influence in the form of a mixture of pipeline lease rent and energy which the North Korean grid sorely needs. A deal to move forward with a pipeline has the added bonus of fitting squarely with the needs of the Pyongyang “Mighty and Prosperous Nation” propaganda machine to have something significant to announce for 2012.

A key issue which Russia and South Korea will undoubtedly have to be concerned with is the pipeline “valve” question (see, the North Korean shutdown of the Mt. Geumgang resort as an example).

Perhaps the economics will force the valve to remain open, but they need to be prepared that Pyongyang will be maneuvering to retain control. Yet another flash of Kim Jong Il’s tactical genius is in the works.

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Yet Another China Foreign Policy Stumble: The South China Sea

China has had a number of foreign policy gaffes over the past couple of years and its very recent attempt at imposing a fishing ban in the South China Sea (known to the Vietnamese as the “East Sea”) is yet another stumble.  Attempting to protect and encourage the replenishment of fishing stock during the spawning season, China announced on May 11, 2011 a fishing ban to run from May 16 through August 1 over an area hotly contested by several South East Asia countries, most notably by Vietnam.

While replenishing the fishing stock may well be a noble ideal, China’s unilateral action is guaranteed to gin up a firey defiance by the Vietnamese, with fishermen ignoring the ban, boat seizures and violent confrontations– all too predictable.

Vietnam has a 1000 mile coastline to protect and its Eastern Sea is an essential part of its defense perimeter that it has, and will continue to jealously protect. China knows this all too well– given its historical battles and scrapes with Vietnam in these same waters over the millennia.

China’s unilateral muscle-flexing in the South China Sea is hardly simply to protect the  fishing stock which Vietnam’s marine industry depends upon. China had to know full well that its fishing ban would necessarily force a response from Vietnam  and give the PRC an opportunity to reinforce its imprimatur over the disputed waters.

For Vietnam, the Eastern Sea is its “line in the sand.”  Vietnamese public opinion will not stand for any moves by China to nip bites out of Vietnamese waters. China knows this but its policymakers blundered ahead anyway.

Defiance by little colorful Vietnamese fishing boats is one thing. China did not anticipate, however, the announcement by the Vietnamese Navy that it now intends to conduct live firing exercises off of Vietnam’s central coast directly into waters affected by the fishing ban.

Such are the perils of unilateralism–especially when you have a little sleeping tiger to the south.

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Pieces are being put into place for the Transistion of Power in North Korea

Pieces are being put into place for the Transistion of Power in  North Korea

June 29,  2010 by davidfday

Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un

North Korea’s Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law , was recently promoted to vice-chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission. This is significant because the heir-apparent in North Korea, Kim Jong Un, is Jang’s nephew and, as a top North Korean military official, Jang provides a critical KPA military brass support network for Jong Un.  To stabilize the transistion of power from Kim Jong Il to his youngest son, Jong Un, it must be remembered that Jong Un has no military leadership experience; he does not have the “smoke of the revolution” about him, and will need the military support network provided by his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, if he is to carry any credible authority with the KPA.

The regime transistion of power is  extremely delicate for North Korea. The last transition in this feudal, Stalinist regime took place over a period of some 14 years. Kim Jong Il had years to nuture relationships and leadership credibility within Pyongyang circles as the mantle shifted from his father, Kim Il Sung.

As  the grandson of the revolution, Kim Jong Un does not have the luxury of  time given his father’s ailing health. The support of the senior KPA will be critical for him to assume and hold power. Uncle Jang’s appointment, then, is an important step in this transition.

See, also Blog article called, North Korea: “The Cheonan Was Bait for an Internal Propaganda Frenzy “ also located on this website.

 

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China Takes a Swing at Corruption, Executing One of Its Al Capones

China Takes a Swing at Corruption, Executing One of Its Al Capones

July 16, 2010 by davidfday

The senior judicial official for the huge metropolis of Chongqing in Southwestern China was executed by lethal injection during the first week of July, 2010. Wen Qiang’s indictment, arrest, trial, sentencing and now execution this Spring and early Summer exploded into the public consciousness and media, opening up the dirty underbelly of China’s corruption-plagued legal system. Wen was convicted of multiple rapes, protecting underworld gangs & mobsters, bribery and had large unexplained amounts of cash and luxury villas. He was emblematic and symptomatic of big political bosses in the Judiciary and the CCP on the take. His sister-in-law, Xie Caiping, known in Chongqing as “The godmother of organized crime in Chongqing,” was sentenced to 18 years for running illegal casinos.

China’s corruption has become so rampant that the credibility of the CCP has been called into question. One commentator has noted that if China “wants to maintain the pace of rapid development, there needs to a purge to wipe out all the corrupted officials in the Communist Party.”

The Chinese courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and the massive corruption in the judicial system reflects directly upon the Party. With the credibility of the Party at stake, Chongqing’s massive anti-corruption crackdown has been led by an ambitious local party chief, Bo Xilai, who initiated a crackdown in Chongqing, arresting several other top judges for graft, including Huang Songyou, formerly vice president of the country’s highest court, The Supreme People’s Court (earlier this year, Huang received a life sentence for bribery and embezzlement).

The Chongqing anti-corruption crackdown has not only resulted in the execution of Wen Qiang, the former Director of the Chongqing Justice Bureau, but also to the prosecution of 90 other local officials. Of that number, interestingly, 42 were found guilty of sheltering mafia-like criminal gangs just like their big boss, Mr. Wen Qiang.

An intense, sustained anti-corruption effort over a generation or two (perhaps more) will be required for China to significantly curtail its endemic and systemic corruption problems. It remains to be seen whether the Wen Qiang execution will mark the beginning of that quest or whether it is eyewash.

For a short preview of a televised program on this topic, click on this picture. 

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