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China, Miscellaneous, U.S. Policy »

Can the United States Keep China at Bay?

Southeast Asians want the United States active and engaged in the region, and the U.S. is clearly trying to deliver. But Southeast Asian countries cannot hope to receive full U.S. support in the South China Sea until they resolve ongoing disputes among themselves.

This burst of U.S. activity in Southeast Asia is, in part, a response to China’s recent assertiveness, particularly in the maritime space (more on that here). Southeast Asians hope drawing the United States more deeply into the region can help balance China’s heft in multilateral organizations and deter China from using force to resolve territorial disputes, even as Southeast Asians beef up their own defense capabilities.

Map of the South China Sea (1988). (Source: University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection)

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China, Miscellaneous »

Consequences of the Cheonan Attack

U.S. Navy photograph by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Richard J. Brunson

On Friday, the UN Security Council came out with a weak statement that failed to assign blame for the attack and sinking of a South Korean naval ship in March. China and Russia declined to participate in an international inquiry, watered down the Security Council statement, and now willfully look the other way as North Korea continues denying its involvement. The Council’s statement mentioned the results of the internationally-backed inquiry that showed a North Korean torpedo was responsible, but that was all.

Frankly, Korean president Lee Mung-bak failed to take advantage of the considerable leverage he had to press China to take a harder line against North Korean provocations. Lee made the understandable decision to reassure investors by ruling out military retaliation early on. But in doing so, he also took away what appears to be the only thing that would change China’s calculus on North Korea: the possibility of major escalation.

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Miscellaneous, U.S. Policy »

What to Do if North Korea Is to Blame

Coming up with an effective response to the Cheonan incident won't be simple. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Byron C. Linder/Released)

North Korea has a history of aggressive behavior towards the South. So it would not be entirely out of character for it to have ordered an attack on a South Korean ship in retaliation for a naval skirmish last year, as some are alleging (including a North Korean defector).

If it becomes clear that North Korea’s top leaders ordered this attack, with a probable death toll of 46 sailors, the South Korean public will demand a forceful response from President Lee Myung-bak. Since the Cheonan was sunk nearly four weeks ago, the issue has been on the front pages of all the major South Korean papers every day. The population is stirred up.

Waiting to respond was the responsible thing to do; we don’t yet have definitive knowledge that this was a North Korean attack. But waiting is also raising the stakes for Lee’s government.

The dangers of striking back militarily are obvious. The North Korean side, which is denying it had anything to do with the original incident, could retaliate and set off a cascade of events ending in a regional war. North Korea’s conventional weapons and Seoul’s proximity to the North make this a very deadly prospect.

My sense is that the best way to respond would be, in public, to work to catalyze the natural changes resulting from aggressive North Korean behavior. And in private, Seoul and Washington should look at ways to hit back that will send a message to the Kim Jong-il regime without provoking undue pressure from North Korea’s elite to escalate the situation.

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U.S. Policy »

Negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Are We Getting Serious?

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced this week that the United States will negotiate to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which currently includes New Zealand, Chile, Brunei, and Singapore. As more countries join–Australia, Peru, and Vietnam will negotiate to join with us–this could be the start of a more robust U.S. trade agenda in Asia. Kirk even said Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea should join an agreement, too.

But is the United States really ready for an agreement like this? And is the Obama administration really serious about moving forward on trade? Read More »

U.S. Policy »

Regionalism, Trade, and American Engagement

I’ve been working for the past few months on preparing a report, The United States in the New Asia, which was released today by the Council on Foreign Relations. The authors, Evan Feigenbaum and Bob Manning, are veterans of the Bush administration with a deep appreciation for Asian sensibilities.

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Japan, U.S. Policy »

[13 October 2009, Comments Off on Japan’s “East Asian Community” and Its Impact on America’s Interests, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ]

Today’s excellent Foreign Policy article by Dan Sneider and Richard Katz attempts to make sense of Japanese PM Hatoyama’s concept of an “East Asian Community.” This is an article well worth reading. The main argument: just because Japan is looking more towards Asia does not mean that Japan is distancing itself from the United States. Indeed, the U.S. has encouraged Japan to take on a more assertive regional profile in the past. The region is changing, and it is to be expected that the U.S.-Japan alliance will need to change as well.

But Sneider is overly dismissive of some important trends that do materially affect U.S. interests.

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