Long before the Obama era “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, Stimson scholars were working on Asian security issues, with a particular focus on northeast Asia. The program has focused for the past fifteen years on areas of possible conflict, their causes and policy solutions. Two such long-standing issues have been cross-Taiwan Strait relations and tension on the Korean Peninsula. We have looked in depth at US relations with China and Japan as they relate to the strategic landscape in East Asia. More recently, a broader look at China’s engagement in other Asian arenas – from Southeast Asia to the maritime domain – has been the focus of new research. Stimson’s Asian work includes an active visiting fellows program from all the key countries in the region, and we are committed to constructive dialogue with people of diverse perspectives, to contribute to peaceful solutions to regional security challenges.
After several years of rising tension in cross-Strait relations over concerns Taiwan would move to de jure independence, the accession of a different administration in 2008 led to much smoother relations and a new focus on reconciliation and mutual benefit, not tussling over sovereignty questions. Nonetheless, there are sharp divisions within Taiwan over the course and pace of this reconciliation, and as presidential elections loom in early 2016, and with the opposition party seemingly in a reasonable position to resume office, we will once again be focusing on the prospects for renewed strains across the Strait and the consequences for the PRC, Taiwan and the United States.
North Korea’s ongoing nuclear weapons program, and Pyongyang’s penchant for provocation, have also received focused attention and will continue to do so. As the DPRK strives for capabilities not only to threaten its near neighbors but even parts of the United States, efforts to coordinate effective approaches to denuclearization among the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia will be important topics for us. At the same time, consideration of the consequences of North Korean provocation will be at the center of much of our thinking.
In the past few years, rising tension between China and Japan, importantly centered on competing claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, has been a major area of concern and will continue to be. Tensions in the South China Sea between China and competing claimants for territory and maritime rights have also grown. The prospects for further confrontation and even conflict will be matters of ongoing concern for our work.
Since the inauguration of President Xi Jinping, China’s foreign policy has demonstrated new trends that significantly affect China’s relations with the world. Internally, as a part of Xi’s domestic reform, China has for the first time in its history set up a National Security Commission to centralize and systemize the decision-making and coordination of its national security affairs. Although available information about the Commission so far suggests a domestic focus on state security, the systematic reform and the broad mandate of the institution inevitably influences China’s external security policy and foreign policy behaviors.
Xi Jinping’s foreign policy has been widely characterized as “increasingly assertive.” This is not only reflected in China’s rising unilateral actions in the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas to assert its claims and administrative control since late 2012, but also is demonstrated in China’s own “westward” rebalancing to expand alternative arenas for strategic influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. Although Xi proposed a “new model of major power relations” with the U.S. to reduce tension and distrust, the reality remains that the conciliatory gesture has not prevented China from pursuing goals that undermine good ties with the U.S. While Xi’s assertive foreign policy is an integral component of his campaign for “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a strong argument can be made that he also needs such foreign policy credits to boost his strong-man image and domestic reform agenda.
One example is China’s relationship with Myanmar, which grows more complex as Myanmar enters a sensitive period before the upcoming 2015 elections. While the democratic liberalization is expected to deepen, progress on key issues such as the military’s role in the parliament and the qualification of Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy seem lacking. Meanwhile, stuck between major powers – including China, the U.S., Japan and India, etc. – Myanmar faces significant challenges in navigating back to its traditional neutralist non-alignment foreign policy.
Japan has searched for its place in the world post its economic miracle for the last 25 years. Once it accomplished its postwar goal of economic prosperity in the 1980s when it became the second largest economy in the world, the nation failed to identify the next national goal. The sense of adrift has turned into a sense of hopelessness after its economy plunged into two decades of economic slowdown, which robbed Japan of the self-confidence it once had. Japan’s loss of self-confidence has been further aggravated as it has witnessed the rapid economic ascent of China and South Korea—the two countries that Japan continues to struggle to overcome the history of its wartime aggression and atrocity.
The pain in Japan’s search for its proper place in the world has been particularly acute in Japan’s struggle to find its post-Cold War security identity. Many in Japan were disappointed when Japan’s financial contribution to the Gulf War was trivialized as “checkbook diplomacy”, but the country has been ever since deeply divided over how robustly its government should engage the Self-Defense Force to the in operations outside Japan. However, the changes in the security environment in East Asia has not allowed Japan to have a luxury of inaction. From the ongoing problems with North Korea to newly heightened tension with China over the Senkaku Islands, external crises have forced Japan to make incremental changes to the way it shapes and implements its security policy. Still, a lack of national consensus on the desired role for Japan in international community remains, inhibiting the government’s ability to introduce fundamental changes to its national security policy.
In the face of ever-increasing uncertainty in the regional and even the global security environment, the instincts of the governing elites in Tokyo pushed Japan into deepening its alliance with the United States and expanding its defense cooperation with other US allies. However, the constraint imposed by Japan’s inability to reconcile with its neighbors over its wartime past remains solidly in place. Furthermore, given the lack of national consensus of Japan’s post-Cold War security identity, it remains to be seen how much of the internal institutional changes and the external overtures made by the incumbent administration will outlive the current leadership. As Japan looks to reconsider some of the fundamental principles of its post-World War II security policy including its constitution, a careful attention needs to be paid to the domestic political dynamics that will shape and inform the debate within Japan. The outcome of the ongoing recalibration of Japan’s security policy could deeply impact the way that Japan will engage not only with the United States and its other friends worldwide, but also manage the relations wtih its immediate neighbors.
Photo: DaveWilsonPhotography via flickr