09.09.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the Current Political Situation in the Asia-Pacific Region

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The summer of this year has turned out to be a prolific one, especially for historic events that collectively provide an overall picture of the status and trends of the political chess game unfolding in the Asia-Pacific region (or, on a broader basis, including the Indian Ocean region). The NEO has repeatedly commented on the most salient elements of the regional political jigsaw puzzle, the image of which is being changed primarily by key players such as the US, China, Japan, and India.

In analyzing the events in the Asia-Pacific region, and, even more, in predicting its future, we must not lose sight of the transformation of the situation that is occurring within all the major players without exception. This has been most clearly demonstrated in recent months by the main one, that is, the US, where the vibrations of the domestic political pendulum have directly affected the actions of Washington outside the country.

Of the most recent notable developments on the Pacific Rim, the following should be highlighted: the next scheduled meeting of the American-Japanese “Committee 2 + 2”; changes in the leadership of the American Administration and the Government of Japan; the intention of the President of the United States to adopt new anti-Chinese sanctions; the visit to Seoul and Beijing by General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff; the statement made by the Japanese ambassador in India about the China-India conflict in the Himalayas; the beginning of the next large-scale US-South Korean military exercise; joint military exercises of the U.S. Air Force and Japan.

In the NEO, the equally important events of August, notably the signing of a Joint Statement of the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the United States, Japan and Australia on the situation in East Asia as well as the so-called “Code of Conduct for the South China Sea” by the PRC and the ASEAN countries, have already been discussed.

With regard to the loud war of words with the leader of the DPRK in which the president of the leading world power has fallen, the latter’s inexperience in the “Big World Politics” (BWP), in which colorful public rhetoric has no place whatsoever, has been clearly demonstrated.

However, the whole “Korean Topic” is only one element (and far from being the most important one) that is simply a reflection of the very same BWP whose main content increasingly boils down to the global rivalry of two world giants, that is, the US and China.

Thus, on August 16, the next scheduled meeting of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee was held, with the participation of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Ministers of Defense of the two countries. In the U.S. Department of State press release, this forum (in short referred to by journalists as “Committee 2 + 2”) is referred to as “premier”.

This is a suitable description, because this forum addresses the strategy and tactics of the American-Japanese interaction, both in the Asia-Pacific region and in the world at large. These decisions are further reaffirmed at the summits between the leaders of the two countries. From some of the outcomes of the negotiations announced at the joint press conference, attention can be drawn to the following:

– further confirmation by the United States of the extension of Article 5 of the 1960 Bilateral Security Agreement to the entire territory of Japan, including the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are referred to in the PRC as the Diaoyudao Islands;

– the readiness of the United States to hand over to Japan a ground version of the Aegis missile defense system (naturally, “in response to the North Korean threat”), now deployed on warships of both countries;

– the call for China to “take firm decisive measures” against the DPRK with a view to forcing Pyongyang to renounce its missile and nuclear program;

– the accusation by the same China “of the militarization of the South China Sea”, emphasizing the binding “for all parties” last year’s decision of the Hague Court of Arbitration that rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea;

– the readiness of both countries to continue supplying “defensive weapons” to the South China Sea countries, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. In particular, Japan will supply such weapons to the “coastal countries of the Indo-Pacific region” as valued at a total of USD 500 million.

The preliminary and most general conclusion of the results of the scheduled meeting of the “Committee 2 + 2” is as follows: at the expense of the prospect of improving relations with the PRC, Japan has committed to the further all-round strengthening of its alliance with the US. This is the price to pay for Washington’s readiness to support Tokyo in its critical security matters.

It is possible that the shuffling of the foreign affairs and defense ministers conducted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in early August was intended to strengthen precisely this component of the Japanese foreign policy.

However, the sensational resignation of one of the advisers closest to the United States president, Steve Bannon, fits into the overall picture of the restoration of that component in the course of the American foreign policy that presupposes a comprehensive involvement in world affairs and, above all, in the Asia-Pacific region. This stems from the fact that it was with Steve Bannon that attempts were made to scale down such engagement and, in particular, the US withdrawal from the Transpacific Partnership, which was painfully accepted in Japan.

Bannon’s resignation could strengthen the hopes (so far very weak) of Tokyo that the main “promoter” of the TPP will return to the project. And the reality of such a prospect would reduce in the eyes of Tokyo the significance of China’s project to revive the “Great Silk Road”.

Thus, by combining the two major regional integration projects, the only way providing the possibility of improving the Japanese-Chinese political relationship, which is critical for the normalization of the situation on the Pacific Rim, could altogether be nullified.

The above impression of the main outcomes of the “Committee 2 + 2” is reinforced by the comment of the Japanese ambassador in New Delhi on the highly sensitive issue for the PRC of the conflict with India over the high-mountain plateau of Doklam. This is given that the ambassador used the relatively neutral words to express the need to refrain from using force to change the current status quo on the plateau.

However, the fact is that China does not consider India to be a party to its territorial disputes with Bhutan and demands that it simply not intervenes in matters to which it does not, in the view of Beijing, relate. It is no surprise, therefore, that New Delhi took the words of the Japanese ambassador as implying support for its own actions on the Doklam Plateau, while Beijing regarded them as another evidence of Japan’s (quasi) alliance with India.

It is highly unlikely that Tokyo has undertaken the task of burning bridges to the positive development of relations with the PRC. All the more so, judging from the results of the visit of General Joseph Dunford to the PRC on August 16, which were received in Beijing in a more or less positive light, the main ally could not be making this move. Remarkable, in particular, is his catchword on the need for a peaceful solution to the problem of the missile and nuclear program of the DPRK.

But at the same time, Donald Trump demanded the verification of certain products exported by China to the United States for violation by manufacturers of the 1974 US Copyright Act. This law allows for the establishment of bans on goods entering the country that are suspected of being manufactured in violation of copyright.

In China, this mission by Donald Trump was regarded as a “politicization” of trade that threatens the overall bilateral relations.

Finally, we should also draw attention to the fact that American-Japanese, and, especially, American-South Korean military exercises, began in the second half of August. Of these, the former are intended to back up the results of the “Committee 2 + 2” by concrete actions, while the latter may be viewed as a negative response to the Russian-Chinese proposals for a “double freeze”, which entails the simultaneous suspension of North Korean nuclear tests for a stipulated time and the American-South Korean military exercises.

But this is hardly the final American answer. What will happen next year will essentially be determined by the extremely important events of the second half of this year.

Among them are several high-profile forums to be held this autumn, as well as the forthcoming visit of U.S. President Donald Trump to the countries of Southeast Asia and the PRC. The format in which China will hold its 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre will also be very revealing.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”