Biden’s Upcoming Asia Trip

With US President Joe Biden heading to Asia today, the focus of the US government will pivot away from the war in Ukraine and Europe for the first time in months. Even though the pivot will be temporary, Biden’s trip to Japan and then South Korea will reveal a glimpse or two at future US economic and security policies and postures in the Western Pacific. As expected, even though Biden’s trip will take him to Japan and South Korea, two staunch US allies, this visit is all about North Korea and China.

Tensions in the region are evident at first glance. China is contending with issues close to home stemming from the latest COVID-19 outbreak on the mainland, redoubled efforts to replenish strategic oil reserves and of course, Taiwan. Then there is North Korea, dealing with its first official outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, as well as preparing for either a ballistic missile or underground nuclear test in the near future. Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine and Russia has delayed the Biden administration’s intentions to refocus on Asia this year.

The Ukraine crisis and subsequent war is raising concerns about the ability of the United States to handle simultaneous crises in different parts of the world diplomatically and politically. China’s designs on Taiwan are at the core of these concerns. One of Biden’s primary goals for this trip will be to address the worries of allies and non-aligned regions in the region and demonstrate how solid US security commitments in the region are. The president also needs to address why his administration has failed to apply an economic component to US Indo-Pacific strategy. During this trip, Biden is expected to present the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as an answer to the economic questions.

Realpolitik Dominates Weekend Discussions In Vietnam

Vietnam’s importance to the South China Sea region has never been underestimated by the major players in the region or their allies around the world. This past weekend, Hanoi’s increasing significance was on full display as the government welcomed senior government officials from Japan and China. The purpose behind the visit by a senior Chinese diplomat was to smooth over relations between the two nations and urged Vietnam to resist the intervention of outside players into the disputes between Beijing and Hanoi over claims in the South China Sea. The reason for Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s trip to Vietnam was more practical. On Saturday, the two nations signed a deal enabling the export of Japanese-made weapons and equipment to Vietnam.

Wang Yi, a senior Chinese diplomat stopped in Hanoi during a one-week tour through Southeast Asia. He stated that China and Vietnam should safeguard the peace and stability in the South China Sea and be wary of external players moving to disrupt that. This was obviously a shot at the United States and the less-than successful visit by Vice President Harris to Vietnam last month. China and Vietnam agreed to manage disagreements and avoid complicating situations or expanding disputes. In short, not airing their dirty laundry or looking to external states and supranational bodies to mediate disputes.

Ironically enough, the agreement signed between Japan and Vietnam later on the same weekend was a clear example of Vietnam welcoming the assistance of an extraterritorial nation-state amid concerns about China’s growing military power. Details on the transfer of specific equipment and systems will be worked out in subsequent talks. However, naval vessels will be included in the transfer. Japanese Defense Minister Kishi and his Vietnamese counterpart, Phan Van Giang also agreed on the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region. This was obviously in reference to China’s aggressive maneuvering in the South China Sea.

China and Vietnam are at odds over the Spratly and Paracel Island groups in the region.

Sino-Japanese Tensions Brewing Around The Senkaku Islands

The Senkaku Islands are once again emerging as a hotspot in the Western Pacific region. Indications of new tensions between China and Japan have risen to the surface since the beginning of 2021. In January, the National People’s Congress passed a law allowing Chinese coastguard vessels to use ‘all necessary means’ to stop foreign vessels from illegally entering Chinese waters, including the use of weapons. Since then, China’s coastguard has expanded its presence in the waters around the islands- known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and Diaoyu Islands in China. Last year, Chinese coastguard vessels entered the contested waters an average of twice a month in 2020 to at least twice a week in February, 2021.

The new law, coupled with the rise in activity by Chinese ships, is causing concern in Tokyo. The Japanese government is presently, according to sources, considering a response. Japan is not looking to escalate the situation. The game plan for the moment appears to be to increase the diplomatic pressure on China, however, Japan has made it clear it will protect the islands, as well as Japanese fishing boats in the surrounding waters.

In late February, a pair of Chinese coastguard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters and approached a Japanese fishing boat near the Senkaku chain. A Japanese patrol vessel was called to provide escort for the Japanese boat and warn off the Chinese ships. Japan’s defense ministry also noted that around the same time there were two other Chinese vessels, one apparently armed with an autocannon, cruising nearby, right on the edge of Japan’s territorial waters.

In spite of the Japanese government’s to improve relations with China, public opinion in Japan has turned decidedly against China. The COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese posturing near the Senkaku Islands, and the crackdown on anti-government protesters in Hong Kong have combined to create an anti-China mood in Japan. That could become a factor which influences Tokyo’s future actions if Sino-Japanese tensions escalate in the near future.

Shinzo Abe Steps Down Over Health Concerns

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced he will be stepping down in the near future due to a worsening intestinal condition. Abe, who has held his position since 2012 will stay in office until a successor is chosen. That task will probably be completed in the coming weeks. The Liberal Democratic Party, of which Abe is a member, controls a majority in the Diet and has the power to make the choice.

Abe leaves as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. His resignation will bring about significant ramifications for Japan, East Asia, US foreign policies, and defense strategies in the region. Abe left his stamp on Japan. A conservative nationalist, he came to power promising to kickstart Japan’s near-flatlining economy at the time, and counter China through assertive foreign policy, and strengthened Japanese military. “I’ve realized that Japan is expected to exert leadership not just on the economic front, but also in the field of security in the Asia-Pacific,” he said during an interview in 2013, not long after taking power. “There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law. It shouldn’t take that path, and many nations expect Japan to strongly express that view.”

Abe sought, and cultivated closer ties with the United States during his time as prime minister. He was the first foreign leader to visit President Trump after the 2016 election. Although the two leaders differed on trade issues, and Japan shouldering some of the cost of stationing 50,000 US troops in its country, countering China’s rising power was an area where the two leaders found common ground.

As the news of the prime minister’s resignation spreads around Asia it will be interesting to see how China responds. With Abe now a lame duck for the next few weeks, will Beijing decide the time is right to challenge Japan over the Senkaku Islands perhaps?

Japan-South Korea Relations Simmer

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The relationship between Japan, and South Korea is best described as ‘allies and economic partners by necessity and circumstance.’ Remove nuclear-armed North Korea, and an increasingly powerful China from the equation and it is unlikely Tokyo and Seoul would even be civil enough to give each other the time of day. The geopolitical, and economic realities of the present demand the two states work together on a variety of issues. This does not mean either one has to like it, however.

The two nations share a troubled history. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and ruled the peninsula until its defeat in 1945. During the period of colonial rule, the Japanese mistreated and exploited Korean citizens. The two most notorious examples of this abuse are found in the wartime labor practices, and the use of Korean females as ‘comfort women.’ These practices reveal that Japan seemingly enslaved the Korean populace during World War II to support its war effort.

These points have continued to dog Japanese-South Korean relations for decades, from the end of World War II up to the present day. Even though the two nations normalized relations in 1965, there was always a layer of tension right beneath the surface. Periodically, that tension has boiled over and set back the relationship for a period of months, or even years.

At present, Japan-South Korean relations have deteriorated to their lowest point since the 1960s. Tensions were raised considerably by an incident in December, 2018 when a South Korean destroyer locked its radar onto a Japanese P-1 patrol aircraft. Both sides disagree on the series of events that took place, and the context. Nevertheless, the disagreement has escalated and pushed the historical disputes mentioned earlier to the forefront once more.

With a US-North Korean summit approaching, and China’s economic troubles raising concerns, this is hardly the ideal time for two of the most stable nations in the region to be at odds. Even more so, this is not the time for two of the United States’ closest allies in the Western Pacific to  be distracted. Not surprisingly, some observers, and journalists have laid the blame for the current Japan-South Korea troubles on the White House. While it is true that the Trump administration’s handling of US allies has been very different from his predecessor, blaming the White House is an empty-headed move motivated by politics.

Still, Washington will have to step in sooner or later if relations do not improve. The US needs to play the role of a concerned friend, or  mediator instead of choosing a side. There is simply too much at stake in the region for two of America’s closest allies to be adding to the tension, and instability that’s already present.