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Japan, Miscellaneous »

Personal Reflections on a Visit

A room of the Yasukuni Shrine museum featuring photographs of the enshrined (Tokyo, August 2010)

This past Sunday, August 15th, was the 65th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to end World War II, in which tens of millions perished, from Europe and North Africa through Russia to Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and the United States. In a departure from my usual blogging style, I want to share some more personal reflections on one of the historical legacies that continues to haunt Northeast Asia.

On a trip to the region earlier this month, I met with scholars from Japan, China, and Korea, in part to explore the ways the United States and those three countries can overcome the region’s painful history. And I also visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine for the first time.

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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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China, Miscellaneous »

China-Taiwan Trade Agreement Could Help Re-Integrate Taiwan in Asia

Taiwan's president Ma Ying-jeou campaigned on the idea that economic growth depends upon better relations with the mainland (Photo by Daniel Michaeli, Taipei, March 2008)

An Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between China and Taiwan was signed yesterday in Chongqing, promising a substantial boost to Taiwan’s export industry. (A Taiwan government-sponsored study claims the deal will create 260,000 jobs and add 1.7 percentage points to Taiwan’s GDP growth each year over the next seven years.) This agreement has been called a “game changer” by both proponents and opponents, though it still requires the approval of Taiwan’s legislature.

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China, Miscellaneous »

Beijing Bails Out Kim Jong-il, and Earlier Than Usual

With “a battalion of security guards and female dining companions” aboard his train, North Korea’s leader arrived in China today en-route to Beijing. Kim Jong-il finds himself increasingly under pressure for the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan in March, isolated by international sanctions, and still reeling from having angered much of North Korea’s elite with last year’s currency fiasco.

So Kim would probably be grateful for just about anything Beijing will give him. And reports suggest China has lots of goodies to offer, in exchange for access to minerals and ports along the Sea of Japan.

China has attracted well-deserved criticism for ignoring the Cheonan ship incident for nearly a month. Now, after finally meekly expressing sympathy for an event that caught China (and the region) by surprise–an event that suggested North Korean brinkmanship could be getting more serious–why is Beijing going out of its way to help Kim?

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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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Miscellaneous »

In just a few years’ time, Iran’s tally of uranium enrichment centrifuges has grown 35 times from 164 to 6,000. Along the way, the intransigence of Iran’s president–which drew international condemnation, caused western companies to pull out of ventures in Iran, and led the International Atomic Energy Agency to send Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council–has fueled an unprecedented amount of internal instability within the Islamic Republic.

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