02.07.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Some comments on recent developments in East Asia

The visits Putin to the Vietnam

In June this year, there were several significant development in the East Asian region, of which the visits by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the DPRK and Vietnam were of particular significance. 

The visits of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the North Korea and Vietnam from June 18 to 20 were a remarkable development not only in relations between the countries, but also in terms of their assessments of how the political situation in East Asian as a whole is developing. As a result of the talks between Vladimir Putin and the North Korean and Vietnamese leaders, an extensive list of measures was drawn up and enshrined in bilateral documents.

Unfortunately, the popular media reports of the summarized results of the Russian president’s visits to Pyongyang and Hanoi were limited largely to the repetition of a few emotive terms, such as “military bases,” “ammunition,” “missiles” and “nuclear weapons.” These reports reveal a significant but nevertheless politically-motivated trend, and the analysis of the meetings had better been left to specialists.

In fact the main focus on Vladimir Putin’s visits was not on “ammunition” but on the practical implementation of the long-heralded “turn to the East” in Russia’s foreign policy. Perhaps more accurately, the talks could be said to have focused on reviving the position once enjoyed by Russia’s predecessor state, the Soviet Union, in these countries.

It is worth noting that that position was lost, not because of any failings on the part of the Soviet leadership (as is often alleged, for example in relation to the naval base in the Vietnamese city of Cam Ranh), but as an inevitable consequence of the USSR’s defeat in the Cold War. The present-day Japanese could just as easily blame the 1945 leadership for “withdrawing” from Manchuria and Korea, or from Taiwan (then known as Formosa), Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

Russia’s recovery of its position in these areas will take place with the support of its key partner, China. That partnership is just one of the ways in which Russia’s current position as it seeks to return to the East Asian region differs from the position of the Soviet Union half a century ago.

In the international arena, both countries occupy a “back-to-back” strategic position, which is optimal in the current conditions and which requires each partner to take the other’s interests into account in its foreign policy dealings. It appears that this focus on China’s interests was a central theme throughout the Russian president’s tour.

2+2 format talks between China and South Korea

The very fact that the 2+2 Format platform was established for talks between South Korea and China, with the first meeting taking place on June 18 in Seoul (i.e. during Vladimir Putin’s visit to Pyongyang), is a remarkable development in the context of the general political situation in East Asia. It is worth adding several remarks on this platform.

In general, such platforms have been used mainly by countries whose relations are characterized by a high degree of mutual trust, and who could best be described as allies or partners. In the past decade, such a platform even existed in relations between Russia and Japan, but, for obvious reasons, it has been dormant for several years now. It is to be hoped that this is just a temporary lapse.

In view of the current drift of South Korean’s government under President Yoon Seok-yeol towards China’s main opponents, the United States and Japan, Beijing’s agreement to create a 2+2 Format for its relations with Seoul seems strange at first glance. However, it is quite consistent with Chinese leadership’s refusal to view the modern world in black and white terms (discussed below).

It should be noted that while all other meetings in this format take place at the ministerial level (between foreign and defense ministers), the participants in the first 2+2 meeting in Seoul were deputy ministers, whose task, it seems, was mainly to mark the creation of this platform. A preliminary agreement on this issue was apparently reached during previous bilateral meetings of the foreign ministers of both countries in Beijing, as well as at the highest level in Seoul, where in late May the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral configuration resumed after a nearly four-year hiatus.

As for the first 2+2 format China-South Korea meeting, a curious incident occurred when, in response to the attempts of the hosts to raise the issue of the arrival of the Russian president in Pyongyang, the guests stated that the issue in question involved relations “between friendly neighbors who have the legal right” to develop such relations further.

Japan’s foreign policy continues to intensify 

NEO continues to report on a more or less continuous basis on the various signals of Japan’s increasing engagement in foreign policy issues. One of the most recent of such signals, the announcement of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s planned trip to Mongolia in August this year, has attracted considerable attention. NEO also regularly publishes articles on the various maneuvers engaged in by the world’s leading players in relation to Japan.

However, as far as the announcement of the visit to Mongolia is concerned, perhaps the most remarkable thing is not so much the choice of country as the fact that ten years ago this country served as a launching pad for Japan to establish contacts with North Korea. But the Big Brother across the Pacific nipped these underhand intrigues in the bud.

But at the end of 2023 Fumio Kishida and the sister of the current North Korean leader, Kim Sol-song, had an off-the-record exchange of remarks about a visit by Kishida to Pyongyang, although this does not appear to have borne any fruit. And now we have the announcement about the trip to Mongolia, which also involves North Korea.

However, it should be noted that there is a risk that Fumio Kishida’s planned visit to Mongolia could be derailed by his early resignation, as his current popularity rating has been fluctuating around 20% in recent months. The need for Kishida’s resignation is being talked about not only in opposition circles, but also within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party itself. However, the vote of no confidence in the current Cabinet, initiated on June 20 in the lower house of parliament by a bloc of opposition parties, failed to gather the necessary number of supporters. So, the current Japanese prime minister’s attempts to probe the current mood in Pyongyang are highly likely to go ahead.

And here we should comment on a common lack of sophistication when it comes to speculations about the unique political phenomenon that is North Korea. Commentators generally fail to distinguish between Pyongyang’s public rhetoric and its actual (very flexible and highly skillful) foreign policy. This policy never excludes the possibility of reaching a compromise with those at whom the formidable verbal tirades are addressed.

Another recent sign of Tokyo’s increasingly ambitious foreign policy was the trip to Japan by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Christopher Luxon on June 19-20 trip, and his meeting with Fumio Kishida. The content of the talks between them has been commented on differently in the media of the two countries. The media in New Zealand focused mainly on the prospects for expanding bilateral trade and economic ties while in Japan, the focus was mainly on security issues, both in relation to ties between Japan and New Zealand, and in relation to the situation in East Asia as a whole.

It appears that the world’s leading powers, and Japan is certainly among them, are stepping up their courtship of a country normally seen as a global backwater that was until recently in a state of (relative) foreign policy “hibernation.” By the look of it, New Zealand cannot avoid being sucked into the vortex of accelerating political processes in East Asia and in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Another event of undoubted interest is the week-long visit to the United Kingdom by the Japanese Imperial couple at the invitation of King Charles III, which began on June 22. However, in the context of the latest review of Tokyo’s European policy, this event deserves separate consideration.

Some thoughts on the transformation of the world order as a whole. 

These, and other recent events in East Asia, provide a good pretext for another discussion on the wider issue of the ongoing transformation of the world order. As noted above, China does not see this process in terms of black and white, and is seeking to develop constructive relations with all participants in the current stage of the “Big World Game.”

But the main issue is not even about the concepts discussed above. It is the fact that this transformation does not correspond to the real processes taking place in the global arena, in which a number of “poles,” completely different in their structure and goals, are emerging in front of our eyes.

The global political puzzle that is taking shape before us is extremely complex. In order not to find oneself in the position of an “innocent abroad,” the Russian Federation needs to take these difficulties into account as it seeks to regain its lost status in East Asia.


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

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