By Andrew Billo, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Andrew Billo is assistant director Policy Programs at the Asia Society's New York headquarters. The views expressed are his own.
Ten days ago, I travelled to Ly Son Island, a volcanic atoll thirty kilometers off Vietnam’s central coast. I wasn’t there for the island's famous garlic and seafood, but rather as a participant on a Vietnamese government-sponsored trip to see the island from which the country claims Nguyen lords in the late 16th century launched exploratory trips to the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos.
But if I had taken a similar tour to China’s southern Hainan Island, the information I received would have been much different. China claims it took possession of the Paracels as far back as the Han Dynasty in 110 AD. Whether Chinese or Vietnamese ancestors occupied those islands first is now a question at the center of the two countries’ stormy territorial dispute, and shows both the difficulty – and necessity – for both countries to find resolutions grounded in contemporary realities.
Just this week, China promised to look for peaceful solutions to territorial disputes at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but much of the world increasingly views China's efforts to claim the South China Sea as belligerent and bullying. If its neighbors were persuaded by the country's aspirations for “a peaceful rise” in the last decade, their trust is quickly fading.
By Jason Miks
After weeks of escalating rhetoric, tensions between North Korea and the United States appear to be easing. But what prompted Pyongyang’s recent provocative statements? How well did the U.S. handle the threats? And what role has China played? James Schoff (@SchoffJ), a senior associate on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program, answers readers’ questions:
Could Kim Jong Un's recent statements simply be an effort to save face with his own military before entering negotiations, asks “wjm”?
Perhaps to some extent, but there is no reason to think Kim’s idea of “negotiations” are anything close to what would be acceptable to South Korea or the United States. He seems to have gone “all in” with the further pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, which is prompting increased international pressure. So, North Korea's recent threats and military maneuvers are aimed more at bolstering its deterrence and pushing back against this pressure, rather than an opening gambit for talks. If an opportunity for talks emerges, Kim’s goal appears to be gaining some degree of international recognition for North Korea's nuclear status or reducing the bite of current sanctions.
When young Kim took over the leadership role after his father died in late 2011, there was some hope that he might steer the country toward more focus on economic modernization and away from emphasizing the nuclear program. That has proven to be a false hope.
By Gareth Price, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Gareth Price is senior research fellow on the Asia Program at Chatham House. The views expressed are his own.
The EU’s announcement Monday that it is lifting sanctions against Myanmar, following their suspension last year, poses some important questions about the country’s future political and economic development – and the role of the international community.
Discussing the suspension of sanctions, which had been in place since 1990, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said last April that "great progress has been made” in Myanmar, but added that he was "very concerned about conflict and human rights abuses." These concerns justified suspending rather than lifting sanctions. A year on, it is unclear that those concerns have been eased.
In the intervening twelve months, what amounts to a pogrom has been launched against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. The Rohingya are Muslim, are denied citizenship and so are effectively stateless. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, more than 125,000 have been displaced.
By Isabelle Arradon, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Isabelle Arradon is deputy Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International. The views expressed are her own.
From the outside, it looked like just one of the many large traditional houses you find across Aceh, Indonesia. But at the height of the military operations during the Aceh conflict in the 1990s, locals would call it the “torture chamber.”
The house, also known as Rumoh Geudong, was taken over by the Indonesian military’s feared Kopassus special operations command in 1990. Between 1997 and 1998, possibly hundreds of men and women are thought to have been tortured or even killed there, all because they were suspected of ties to the armed pro-independence movement Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM).
A fact-finding team from Indonesia’s national human rights commission arrived in 1998 to investigate the house, and found electric cables and human remains on the floor, and blood stains on the walls. Witnesses reported that the military had ordered them to dig up human bones from the premises before the team’s arrival.
GPS speaks with Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, about the latest developments in North Korea.
The past few weeks have seen North Korean threats of striking the United States, turning a South Korean island into a sea of fire, and “cracking the windpipes” of the country’s enemies. Is this the usual saber rattling that we’ve come to expect of North Korea, or is there something more to this?
It’s usual in the sense that we’ve grown used to North Korea’s blustery rhetoric, threatening others. So that part of it is normal. What is not normal is that the backdrop for this is about a year of very unpredictable behavior by a new leadership, and a sequence of provocations that is more concentrated over a period of time than we have seen in the last 20 years. So in that context, although to the average listener these threats may seem like it’s just the North Koreans firing their mouths off again, for those of us that look at this more closely this is a little bit different – and more concerning.
Is this rhetoric largely for a domestic audience? Is it a sign that Kim Jong Un is struggling to stamp his authority?
Certainly, part of the explanation could be a domestic one, in the sense that he needs to demonstrate his legitimacy as a 28 year-old that is taking over power. But the other thing that I think from a U.S. national security perspective is that this speaks to how unpredictability is really the new normal in dealing with North Korea. North Korea may have seemed unpredictable before. But for policymakers, Pyongyang was actually fairly decipherable. The thing is that now, no one would have predicted that Kim would sit there and spend a whole day with Dennis Rodman, but wouldn’t even meet the chairman of Google. If this guy is really interested in reform, then even just a handshake with the chairman of Google would have signaled that he was somewhat serious. But no, he didn’t do that. So it’s that aspect of it that is concerning and also makes it difficult to say for sure that he is doing this just for domestic legitimacy.
Last week, GPS invited readers to pose questions to the New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent, Evan Osnos. Here's what he had to say:
China’s People's Liberation Army has always defended the party as much as national borders, notes "j. von hettlingen." How much influence does the military have over decision making?
As Mao put it, “Power flows from the barrel of the gun.” By that, he meant that the Party would always require the force of arms as its final defense. But he, and his heirs, also engineered the system to ensure that civilian power would predominate, and we have seen that, for the past 30 years, China’s diplomatic and military posture has been secondary to its development imperative. The military is getting more assertive but, for now, it is not an independent power.
“Hen na gaijin” raises the issue of the South China Sea. How likely is a clash over territorial disputes there or the East China Sea?
The danger is not of a strategic decision but of a mistake – a miscalculation, an error, a clash – and that danger gets larger as more vessels crowd into a confined space. Importantly, it can be said that Chinese leaders, even the more hawkish wing, do not actively seek a conflict simply because the Party’s operating principle is to control – and a conflict, by definition, has too many variables it cannot control. The Party knows that one of the few things more destabilizing than a conflict would be a conflict in which it loses.
By Toby M. Cadman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Toby M. Cadman is a London based international barrister specializing in war crimes, international terrorism, extradition and human rights. He served as legal counsel to the chief prosecutor of the Bosnian war crimes chamber. The views expressed are his own.
Days of bloody riots in Dhaka are spreading throughout the country; scores are dead thousands injured. Bangladesh has a long history of civil unrest but the current situation is approaching historic proportions. In the past, unrest has led to military coup. Six months ago, another coup was unthinkable; now it is a possibility increasingly being discussed.
Yet while some have compared the protests to the Arab spring, nothing could be further from the truth. In Cairo, people ousted a dictator and demanded democratic reform. In Dhaka, the demonstrations are comprised of two camps: the larger is made up of those seeking immediate execution of people convicted of war crimes related to the 1971 war of independence; the other is made up of those who believe the war crimes tribunals are show trials allowing the government to eliminate the leaders of a critical political party that threatens to shift the balance of power in upcoming elections.
By François Godement, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: François Godement is a senior policy fellow and head of the China program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.
This week’s National People's Congress will complete China’s once-in-a decade leadership change, with Xi Jinping becoming the country’s new head of state. China's partners, and above all Americans, want a China that is a predictable and reliable. After all, huge business interests require stable relations with China. And there is no doubt, China is becoming more powerful – it is not only present in most parts of the world, but has also become a determining factor in the international arena. We would all therefore love to see Mr Xi as a Chinese Gorbachev. But getting to know Xi’s real personality, and his likely style of governing, feels like Kremlinology. And what is emerging is worrying.
Xi is reputedly a charmer with an engaging and easygoing style. His wife is a famous singer, his daughter is quietly studying at Harvard. It is reported that he is even reluctant to embrace a luxurious lifestyle (although this does not appear to prevent some of his relatives from doing so). In public, Xi refrains from making controversial statements – an exception of course being the 2009 remark about the "full stomach" and the "constant finger pointing of Westerners" during a trip to Mexico.
By Stephen Yates, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Stephen Yates is former deputy national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and currently CEO of DC International Advisory, a consulting firm. The views expressed are his own.
The U.N. Security Council has unanimously passed a new resolution sanctioning North Korea for its third nuclear test. North Korea's reaction to the announcement of a vote? Threatening to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States.
This latest verbal volley is likely bluster, but there is a troubling quality to what we see in North Korea, and it is strategically significant.
On the surface it appears to be a cyclical melodrama – a spoiled child seeking attention or a cynical rogue extracting rewards for bad behavior. But over the last 20 years we have been through multiple leadership changes, multilateral and bilateral negotiations, humanitarian aid and U.N. sanctions, and the one constant is the steady progress North Korea has made on enrichment and other requirements for nuclear weapons. And that progress appears to have accelerated since Kim Jung Un succeeded his father.
By David Scott Mathieson, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Scott Mathieson is a senior researcher covering Myanmar in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.
Myanmar President Thein Sein has been touring Europe touting his country’s unlikely transformation in the past two years from the archetype of authoritarian repression to a supposedly shining example of peaceful transition towards democracy. But how much of this is real reform and how much is window dressing? How much have human rights genuinely improved on the ground in Myanmar?
To be sure, Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has enacted a series of changes and made further promises to the international community that justify increased engagement. Several hundred political prisoners have been released in a series of amnesties, restrictive laws repealed and new laws on peaceful assembly and association promulgated (though not without flaws), media restrictions largely removed, government and military commitments to end forced labor and child soldier use by 2015, and the government signing ceasefires with ethnic armed groups.
By Fareed Zakaria
Beijing’s response to the Obama administration’s initial diplomacy was cool, sometimes even combative. Meanwhile in Asia, many of the continent’s other powers had begun worrying about a newly assertive China. From Japan to Vietnam to Singapore, governments in Asia signaled that they would welcome a greater American presence in the region, one that would assure them that Asia was not going to become China’s back yard.
The Obama administration shrewdly responded with its “pivot” in 2011, combining economic, political and military measures, all designed to signal that the United States would strengthen its role in Asia, balancing any potential Chinese hegemony.
The result of the pivot, however, was to further strain relations with Beijing. Today China and the United States maintain mechanisms, such as the strategic and economic dialogue between senior officials, but they are formal and ritualistic. No American and Chinese officials have developed genuinely deep mutual trust.
For more on this, read the Washington Post column here.
By Jonah Blank, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jonah Blank is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and a former policy director for South and Southeast Asia on the staff of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The views expressed are his own.
It was the deadliest day in the rebellion’s deadliest decade: On February 12, dozens of gunmen armed with assault rifles and wearing ballistic vests attacked a Thai Marine post in the southern province of Narathiwat. At least 16 of the militants were killed.
The so-called Pattani Insurgency has taken more than 5,000 lives since its embers were rekindled in 2004, but this was reportedly the greatest death toll on a single day in several years. The assault, combined with a recent spate of attacks on school teachers, raises a troubling question throughout Southeast Asia and beyond: Is this long-ignored revolt poised to explode into something even more dangerous?
The battle in question took place in the district of Bacho – a place where, in late January, four assailants on motorcycles had shot a teacher dead while his students were at lunch. He was the 158th teacher killed in the past nine years. These twin assaults – one on hardened Marines, one on an unarmed instructor – are two sides of the same conflict.