By Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Benoit Hardy-Chartrand is a research associate at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, where he contributes to a project on Confidence, Trust and Empathy in Asia-Pacific security. The views expressed are his own.
Japan and South Korea’s bilateral relations are their worst in years. Since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Korean President Park Geun-Hye were elected in December 2012, their only encounter was a trilateral meeting hosted and arranged by U.S. President Barack Obama in March 2014, held on the sidelines of a summit in the Netherlands. The meeting provided for an awkward moment and did little to ease the visible chill between the two leaders.
While a territorial dispute concerning a group of uninhabited islands in the Sea of Japan (or what Koreans prefer to call the East Sea) has contributed to the freeze, the crux of the problem remains Japan’s perceived attempts to whitewash certain aspects of its wartime conduct, particularly with regard to the so-called comfort women. The euphemism refers to the thousands of women, the majority of whom were from Korea, forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. South Koreans feel that Japanese leaders have not properly repented for their country’s past, often contrasting Japan’s handling of history to how Germany dealt with the Nazis’ war crimes.
CNN’s Beijing bureau chief and correspondent, Jaime A. FlorCruz, responds to readers’ questions about recent tensions in the South China Sea, China’s relations with its neighbors and what may be behind recent disputes.
What is the dispute between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands about? Is it just about resource claims?
It is about resources. Much of the disputed area is believed to be potentially rich in oil and other natural resources. But it’s more than just a fight over resources – it’s the latest episode of a long-running saga of conflicting territorial claims of the South China Sea. China this time is acting aggressively to assert its claim to most of the oil-rich sea while its neighbors with conflicting territorial claims are angrily pushing back.
It’s also about China’s perception that Asian claimants like Vietnam are nibbling away at islands that China claims is its “indisputable sovereign territories”, as Chinese officials say. China insists it is simply defending its territory, sovereignty and security. It denies that it will impede freedom of navigation, an overriding concern of the U.S. and other third party stakeholders.
It’s a proxy fight, and extension of U.S.-China rivalry, taking place while the United States “rebalances” its defense and foreign policy toward Asia. China thinks some of these claimants, like Vietnam and the Philippines, are colluding with the United States, and are ganging up against China.
The U.S. and China find themselves on the opposite side of the existing political world order. The United States is the established power, the sole superpower, although its ability to enforce its will has been eroded lately. China on the other hand is a rising power – it’s gaining confidence as its economy and military might grow.
By Matt Stumpf, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Matt Stumpf is the Washington director of Asia Society and the Asia Society Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Asia Society or the Asia Society Policy Institute.
As “change” elections and momentous transitions sweep Asia, Thailand has self-selected for stagnation. Tuesday’s action by the Thai military to declare martial law while leaving the government in place continues the perpetual crisis the country has lived with since the coup that ended Thaksin Shinawatra’s government in 2006.
Across Asia, public calls for a sea change in governance have brought to power new leaders with a wide range of views but a common imperative. From Narendra Modi in India to President Thein Sein in Myanmar, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, Indonesian presidential front-runner Joko Widodo, and even President Xi Jinping in China, today’s Asian leaders must promise to install reformed, more accountable, and effective governments in their countries. These leaders face headwinds in challenging political and economic environments, but know that public support is premised on their ability to lead more adept governments to deliver new prosperity.
There is no such voice in Thai politics, and the country is falling behind dramatically. The Wall Street Journal reports that Thai consumers are the most pessimistic about the economy that they have been in 12 years and that Thailand’s economy has shrunk 2.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014, compared to the fourth quarter of 2013. Even before the declaration of martial law, the Thai stock market was down 15 percent over the last year. Fitch Ratings have said that the failure to resolve the impasse by mid-2014 would lead to a downgrade of its sovereign rating. Tourism, a key driver of the Thai economy, is already off 5 percent for the year. This week’s news might even worsen the picture.
By Lord Michael Williams, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Williams is a distinguished visiting fellow at Chatham House and a former senior official in the United Nations. The views expressed are his own.
Five Chinese ships will arrive in Vietnam over the next few days to evacuate thousands of Chinese workers from the country. Hundreds more have fled to Cambodia and many are missing. Another 16 critically injured were evacuated by aircraft. This exodus has followed almost a week of rioting and anti-Chinese demonstrations throughout the country – the most serious such protests in Vietnam for many years, which have also hit Taiwanese as well as mainland companies.
The demonstrations were triggered by an abrupt Chinese move of a giant deep sea oil rig close to the fiercely contested Paracel islands, a move that the United States called “provocative.” For the Vietnamese, the move was a painful reminder of China’s violent seizure of the islands in 1974 in the dying days of the old South Vietnamese government, before the unification of the country. That move, at a time of national weakness, is still remembered forty years on by Vietnamese.
As a result of all this, fears of a clash at sea between Vietnam and China have risen in the increasingly febrile atmosphere evident in the region. Warships from the two countries are reportedly deployed dangerously close to the contested Chinese oil rig. For its part, Vietnam has still not revealed the number of Chinese killed in recent incidents, but it is believed to be as many as twenty.
By Jason Miks
GPS Digital Producer Jason Miks speaks with Robert Kaplan, author of Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, and Geoff Dyer, author of Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China-and How America Can Win, about territorial disputes in Asia, the threat of nationalism, and why the United States should be concerned. Watch both on "Fareed Zakaria GPS," this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.
The Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy has in large part rested on its ability to keep its economy delivering double-digit growth. With signs the economy might be slowing, is the government likely to be more tempted to stoke nationalism there?
Dyer: I think you’ve actually been seeing that since Tiananmen Square in 1989. The party lost legitimacy based on the idea of Marxism, and then particularly after Tiananmen it was facing this huge crisis of legitimacy. So really these were the two things that it had based its credibility on – economic competence and a growing economy, and nationalism.
And for a number of years, the Communist Party has been fostering this kind of victim nationalism narrative, this idea of the Century of Humiliation – foreign powers came in and victimized us for a century, and now we’re standing up for ourselves. That’s been really intensified for the past 20 years, and is really coming to a head now in recent years.
One of the problems is that this has really narrowed the space the government has to maneuver in on these kinds of issues. It’s not necessarily that nationalism is dictating the foreign policy. But it gives them much less room to compromise and to make concessions if they ever did get into negotiations.
Kaplan: I think the biggest global question, in my opinion, is not Iran or Ukraine. It’s the direction of the Chinese economy, and whether China is going to have a soft or hard landing. If it’s a hard landing, then the question is how hard, and will this lead to social and political turmoil? And in such a situation, the easiest thing for a regime to do is to dial up nationalism. And if you dial up nationalism, that translates into a more aggressive policy in the South and East China Seas.
By William Piekos, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: William Piekos is program coordinator for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.
President Barack Obama's trip to Asia this week runs the risk of being just that – another trip to Asia. Recent months have seen a slew of visits to the Asia Pacific – First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have all traveled to the region. Now the president is joining them with a whirlwind trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Like all his cabinet members, President Obama will undoubtedly convey the message that the United States will be a central player in Asia for years to come. But he has the opportunity to do more than simply reiterate U.S. interests, and he should make concrete progress toward furthering U.S. economic and security objectives.
In East Asia, President Obama’s job is two-fold. First, he should rejuvenate Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Unfortunately, his just-completed state visit to Japan was an ominous sign for the future of the TPP – Obama appears to have made little headway in trade negotiations during his stay in Tokyo, with the two sides still apparently unable to reconcile tariff demands in the agricultural and automobile sectors.
During his stop in Seoul, the president should leverage his presence to persuade South Korean President Park Geun-hye to join the negotiations formally and give the trade pact increased clout. Seoul has already held bilateral talks with some of the TPP’s participants and is party to numerous free trade agreements, including one with the United States. The TPP is one of the pillars of the Obama administration’s Asia pivot; after he leaves East Asia, the president must hope that his top-down efforts will bear fruit in the future.
By Fareed Zakaria
After World War II, the United States confronted communism, but it also built a stable world order by creating institutions that set global rules and shared power — including the IMF, United Nations and World Bank. The urgent task is to expand those institutions to include Asia’s rising powers.
If Washington does not do this, it will strengthen the voices, especially in China, who say that Asian countries should not try to integrate into a Western framework of international rules — because they will always be second-class citizens — and instead should bide their time, create their own institutions and play by their own rules. At that point, we will all deeply regret that we did not let these countries into the club when we had a chance.
By Alyssa Ayres, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia during 2010-2013. You can follow her @. The views expressed are her own.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy in Dhaka, in which more than 1,100 workers perished when the concrete building they were working in collapsed on them. The accident – the world’s worst in the garment industry – focused Bangladeshi minds on the urgent need to improve workplace safety. It also compelled governments, especially the United States and EU, as well as international buyers and retailers sourcing from Bangladesh, to address the issue, resulting in several important public-private commitments to support better working conditions in Bangladesh.
But a year later, despite substantial improvement in raising wages and getting factory inspections underway, progress remains patchy. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that unless Bangladesh moves quickly to truly transform safety conditions in the garment industry, buyers will shift their orders elsewhere.
No one who has seen the poignant image of the Rana Plaza couple uncovered from the rubble, embracing in death, can remain unmoved by the tragedy that befell so many workers. But this association of Bangladesh with factory tragedy has overshadowed arguably the most important lesson of its garment industry: despite its clear problems, the ready-made garment (or RMG) sector has contributed handsomely to Bangladesh’s economic growth, and provided livelihoods for some four million Bangladeshis, mainly women.
By Daniel M. Kliman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Daniel M. Kliman is a senior advisor with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. The views expressed are his own.
President Barack Obama’s Asia trip, which has started with a visit to Japan, will send an unmistakable signal: the United States remains committed to a region that has become the world’s economic and military center of gravity.
Yet once the afterglow of the visit fades, U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific are bound once again to question American staying power. True, the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative – the pivot or rebalance to Asia – has achieved many of its initial objectives. Countries in the region recognize this. But they are ultimately more focused on what will come next. And with less than three years of Obama’s presidency remaining, now is the moment to lay out a vision for U.S. Asia policy through 2016.
Two opposing sets of forces have long co-existed in Asia. Deepening economic interdependence, a growing constellation of regional forums, and the spread of democratic values promote peace. At the same time, rising nationalism, territorial disputes, military buildups, and the adverse impact of climate change create an undercurrent of instability.
By Maha Hosain Aziz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Maha Hosain Aziz is a professor of politics (adjunct) in NYU's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, a senior analyst at geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and advisory board chairwoman of Afghanistan’s first university e-mentoring program (New Silk Road Generation). The views expressed are her own.
Asked to name organizations tied to extremism, most people would likely list the usual suspects – Islamist militant groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban. But a spate of recent attacks has highlighted a growing problem that is threatening to destabilize parts of Asia, and it hails from what might seem to many a surprising source – a militant strain of Buddhism.
In Sri Lanka, for example, reports surfaced in January that eight Buddhist monks were involved in an attack on two churches in the southern town of Hikkaduwa. Another group, the Buddhist Power Force, is said to have been targeting Muslim minorities, and has pushed to ban headscarves, halal foods and other Muslim businesses. In July 2013, Buddhist mobs reportedly attacked a mosque in the north-central town of Dambulla; in August that year, a mosque was attacked in Colombo, sparking clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that left at least a dozen people injured. Sadly, the response from the Sri Lankan government, distracted as it is by the ongoing fallout since the end of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, has been muted at best.
By Bonnie Glaser and Ely Ratner, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bonnie Glaser is senior adviser for Asia in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ely Ratner is senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. The views expressed are their own.
With the world watching Ukraine with wary eyes, the U.S. Navy’s lead admiral in the Pacific suggested Asia could face a similar crisis if the continent’s other major power continues on its current path.
Since 2009, China has stepped up what Philippine officials have called a “creeping invasion” in the South China Sea. Although less dramatic than Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Beijing has been bullying its neighbors to assert and advance an expansive set of territorial and maritime claims encompassed by its “nine-dash line,” which skirts the coastlines of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines and gobbles up islands, rocks and resources in the process.
Seeking to make new facts on the ground (or, more literally, on the water), Beijing has permitted and encouraged its paramilitary law enforcement ships and navy to engage in persistent harassment and intimidation of non-Chinese fisherman, military vessels and energy companies seeking to go about their business in the South China Sea. Earlier this month, Chinese coast guard vessels reportedly interfered with the delivery of supplies to Filipino marines stationed on Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef near Reed Bank that is believed to be rich in oil and gas. If such incidents are allowed to continue, armed conflict could be around the corner.
But what distinguishes the contest over sovereignty in the Asia-Pacific from events unfolding more than 5,000 miles away in Eastern Europe is that hope remains for a peaceful solution that eschews coercion and force in exchange for international law and diplomacy.
By Aakanksha Tangri
GPS intern Aakanksha Tangri speaks with Robert Oxnam, President Emeritus of the Asia Society, about the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the United States, and what it could mean for relations with China.
What are the likely short-term and long-term impacts on U.S.-China relations after President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama?
It’s important to note that every U.S. president from Reagan onward has had meetings in the White House with the Dalai Lama. Clinton had four meetings with His Holiness during his presidency. Both Clinton and Bush have had post-presidency meetings as well. Indeed the Dalai Lama recently said “I love George Bush.” So, in 2009, when President Obama did not meet with the Dalai Lama, he was breaking a well-established precedent; and thus his 2014 meeting simply reverted to an older pattern. It’s worth noting that Obama has now had three meetings with the Dalai Lama.
Of course, the Chinese always protest loudly on these occasions because they have a strong interest in asserting Chinese sovereignty over what they call the Tibetan Autonomous Region. But since Obama explicitly said that neither the United States, nor even the Dalai Lama, wants full independence for Tibet, the sovereignty issue was sidestepped.
I think that Obama was quite correct in asserting his support for Tibetan human rights issues and also properly calling the Dalai Lama “an internationally respected religious and cultural leader.” By contrast, the Chinese leadership calls His Holiness a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and head of the “Dalai Clique.”