CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

Restoring Ties to Kopassus?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Kopassus soldiers sing during a ceremony

Dadang Tri/courtesy Reuters

Reasonable people can disagree, I think, on the value of the White House’s decision, announced this week, to restore U.S. ties with Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces who have been linked to a range of past abuses, including massacres in East Timor. Boosting the U.S.-Indonesia partnership to a higher level is a critical objective of Obama’s Asia policy, and given that the president has canceled trips repeatedly to Jakarta, this is a sign he can offer to the Indonesian government of his seriousness about the relationship. Of course, as groups like Human Rights Watch note, it is unclear whether Kopassus has really reformed itself, and sending this signal could be questionable at a time when many other nations in Southeast Asia are actually  heading backward on democracy. I see the merits to both arguments.

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Indonesia’s War on Terror

by Joshua Kurlantzick Monday, July 26, 2010
Members of the Indonesian police elite anti-terrorist unit take part in a drill at Sukarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta

Dadang Tri/courtesy Reuters

The news coverage this week over the White House’s decision to restore ties to Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces (more on that decision in a later post), has crowded out what should be a point for celebration. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group, widely respected as an authority on terrorism in Indonesia, declared, “The truth is that the jihadi project has failed in Indonesia.”

In other words, the Indonesian authorities have all but won their war on terror. That doesn’t mean there will be no more terrorist attacks – isolated cells and radicalized individuals can still commit acts of deadly violence, and a democratic, relatively poor archipelago with porous borders will always have difficult policing who is coming in and out of the country. But the threat of the early 2000s, of coordinated large-scale attacks like the ones in Bali in 2002 or Jakarta in 2000, and of Islamist recruiting networks dominating the Indonesian school system, seems ever more remote.

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Let’s Put the New Back in Newsworthy

by Elizabeth C. Economy Thursday, July 22, 2010
Dalian Oil Blast

Courtesy Reuters/China Daily

Two things about China I know to be true:

First, the media counts anything—however remotely interesting—as newsworthy if it is about China.

Second, China’s capacity for denial (think the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen for starters) should never be in doubt.

This past week, both truisms were in full bloom:
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America is Being Left Behind in Asia … East Asia Summit Edition

by Evan A. Feigenbaum Thursday, July 22, 2010

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Na Son-Nguyen/Pool

So the U.S. is going to join the East Asia Summit (EAS) … and you can hear the cheers all the way to Hanoi.

But why exactly are they cheering?

Here are a few of the arguments:

(1) The US has been “missing in action” in Asian institution-building; so joining EAS “puts the U.S. firmly into the picture.”

(2) The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the convener of EAS; so joining EAS “signals U.S. support for ASEAN.”

(3) U.S. membership can help counterbalance pan-Asian groups that exclude Washington, such as ASEAN Plus Three.

And (4) U.S. membership in EAS “could help bring Presidential attention to individual Southeast Asian countries that are downplayed in US policy.” It would enable President Obama to “become the first serving President of the United States to visit Cambodia.” And in 2013 we would have “the first-ever visit of a U.S. President to Laos.”

Deep sigh.

Look, I’m not surprised the U.S. is joining EAS; American officials have been signaling as much for a year.

But does joining EAS do anything at all to remedy the most important challenges to American interests in Asia?

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The Return of Asian High Growth?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Searchlights beam off the site of the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort in Singapore

Vivek Prakash/courtesy Reuters

Buried in the business section of the New York Times on Thursday, after pages of encomiums to George Steinbrenner, was a story that should have gotten more attention: Singapore’s economy may expand by as much as fifteen percent this year. Fifteen percent. For those who are counting, that’s about four times the projected growth for the United States, and a rate that Greece’s leaders probably would sell the rights to the Parthenon to attain.

In fact, much of South and East Asia appears to be returning to extraordinary high growth, making it the only engine of the global economy still firing. Indonesia is projected to grow by nearly six percent, while China may grow by 10.5 percent and Taiwan by nearly eight percent, among other examples of the regional trend.

But one must still question whether these growth rates truly show a fundamental shift in Asian economies, a shift informed by the global economic downturn. In many major East and South Asian economies, leaders over the past two years have repeatedly paid lip service to the idea that they must rebalance growth to depend less on exports and more on other drivers, including domestic consumption.

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Thailand’s Creeping Authoritarianism

by Joshua Kurlantzick Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Anti-government red shirt protesters shout slogans holding a  poster with a defaced photo of Thailand's prime minister Abhisit  Vejjajiva during a protest in central Bangkok
Damir Sagolj / courtesy Reuters

As international attention has shifted elsewhere following the dispersal of protests in Bangkok in May, the Thai government has quietly moved toward a kind of creeping authoritarianism – suggesting that, in reality, this is the type of approach to the red shirts Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva wanted to take all along. Though there is limited evidence of any continued unrest, the government recently announced it was renewing the state of emergency, which gives the prime minister wide powers to detain potential opponents without charging them for 30 days, and to all but impose martial law in some provinces, overriding the power of any government agencies.

Meanwhile, Abhisit has publicly announced a plan to foster reconciliation between the bitterly divided sections of Thai society, a plan that is in many respects a façade. To oversee the reconciliation process, Abhisit appointed Anand Panyarachun, a respected former prime minister, who is known as an archroyalist and could not be more of a symbol of the Thai elite, making him suspicious to the red shirt movement. Meanwhile, the armed forces will appoint a new supreme commander in September, and that job is likely to go to Prayuth Chan-ocha, considered far more of a hard-liner than the current commander in chief.

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Incredible India? Complicated India

by Evan A. Feigenbaum Saturday, July 17, 2010

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Rupak de Chowdhuri

India’s tourist promotion slogan is “Incredible India!” And there’s a lot about that country that’s pretty incredible.

But three stories over the past week caught my attention. They show three (very) different sides of India’s incredible, but very complicated, growth story.

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The Real Test for Japan’s Political Leaders Lies Ahead

by Sheila A. Smith Monday, July 12, 2010

Toru Hanai/Courtesy Reuters

Ever since the DPJ swept into power last fall, these Upper House elections have been identified as the moment of popular evaluation for Japan’s new ruling party. But they have also been the focal point for a rebound for Japan’s conservatives. Clearly, Sunday’s election outcome proves Japanese voters have no enthusiasm for the idea of a single party dominating their government—no matter what the political stripe. Read more »

Simmering Technology Tensions

by Adam Segal Monday, July 12, 2010

Photo courtesy of flickr/Chrystian Guy

While much of the sturm and drang of the “big” issues in U.S.-China relations–Tibet, North Korea, Iran, and RMB revaluation among others–seems to have dissipated in the intense summer heat wave we have been enjoying here on the East Coast, a number of conflicts over technology continue to bubble along.

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Where Now for Burma Policy?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Monday, July 12, 2010
Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi meets U.S. Assistant Secretary of State  Campbell and U.S. embassy charge d'affaires Dinger in Yangon

Ho New/courtesy Reuters

Lost amidst the ongoing tension in neighboring Thailand and the Obama administration’s attempts to build a closer partnership with Indonesia, Washington’s Burma policy appears to have reached a standstill – or a turning point. After more than a decade of sanctions on the ruling junta, the Obama administration decided to try engaging Nyipyidaw. Thus far, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has made two trips to Burma over the past year, in an attempt to get the two sides talking and to find out more information about critical issues like the upcoming national elections in Burma and allegations that the junta is pursuinga nuclear weapons program with the assistance of North Korea.

But engagement does not seem to be producing any more results than sanctions did, despite Campbell’s thought-out and good faith efforts. Though I am not privy to classified information, there appears to be no signs that the Burmese regime is backing off of its growing military to military ties with North Korea, or that it is making an effort to reassure its neighbors that it is not building a nuclear program, which would put it in violation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ nuclear weapons free zone. The junta also sent relatively low-ranking officials to meet with Assistant Secretary Campbell during his visit in May, a sign the regime is not taking the dialogue seriously.

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