CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

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

Burma’s Upcoming Elections

by Joshua Kurlantzick Thursday, August 12, 2010

In the new issue of the London Review of Books, I have an article analyzing the prospects for the upcoming national elections in Burma (Myanmar). The elections, which will be the first since 1990, likely will take place this fall, though the ruling junta, which is tightly controlling most aspects of the poll, has not yet announced an actual date, likely as a strategy to make it harder for parties not favored by the military to make any headway with the population before the vote.

The election is highly controversial, both within Burma and among the community of Burma-watchers outside the country. Though the longtime opposition party National League for Democracy, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has officially boycotted the poll, because of all the restrictions on parties imposed by the junta, some Burmese activists have organized their own parties to contest the election, feeling that any poll at all is a step forward they should not ignore. As several Burmese activists noted to me, by participating in a string of highly dubious elections in Zimbabwe, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, though unable to get rid of dictator Robert Mugabe, did manage to establish itself as a viable and popular force, and ultimately, win a power-sharing agreement with Mugabe.

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And the Winner is…Vietnam

by Joshua Kurlantzick Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Vietnamese flag flutters as a motorboat transporting Vietnamese navy personnel passes a construction site of a new pier on Truong Sa islands or Spratly islands

All the finger-pointing and analysis about the Obama administration’s decision to wade more deeply into disputes over the South China Sea seems to have focused on whether Washington or Beijing have gained from this new, harder-edged approach. By taking note of ASEAN nations’ concern that Beijing is potentially expanding its  “core national interests” in this area,  and then having Secretary of State Clinton state that the resolution of competing claims to the Sea is a “national interest” of the United States during the ASEAN Regional Forum, Washington may have shored up its relations with Southeast Asian states, showing them the United States will not back down to China–well, that’s one analysis at least. The other analysis is that by just putting on the table that the Sea is now a “core national interest” of China like Taiwan, Tibet, or Xinjiang, Beijing has set the bar so that it can shoot down any future discussion of its actions in the South China Sea.

But the real winner of this diplomatic saber-rattling? Vietnam. As the United States firmly stands up to China’s claims in the Sea, Hanoi is showing Beijing that the rapidly expanding U.S.-Vietnam relationship has real steel, especially when added to the apparent decision by the White House to expand U.S.-Vietnam nuclear cooperation. Vietnam already has far more installations in the disputed islands than any other country save China and has been the most aggressive in pushing back against Chinese claims in the Sea. Yet, unlike other ASEAN nations whose dependence on the United States for backup clearly infuriates China, and sometimes results in vicious Chinese responses, Vietnam has thus far avoided such a response from Beijing. Sure, Chinese foreign ministry spokespeople publicly affirm China’s sovereignty over disputed areas in the sea, allegedly negating Vietnam’s claims, and Beijing has pressured U.S. oil companies not to partner with Vietnam in exploring oil and gas deposits in the South China Sea. However, Chinese diplomats do not vilify Vietnam the way that they do U.S. actions in the South China Sea, or even the actions of other Sinophobic ASEAN members like the Philippines, Malaysia, or Singapore. Indeed, Vietnam seems to have been able to build much closer ties to the United States without being forced to sacrifice longstanding diplomatic links to China, growing economic ties to Beijing, and close security cooperation between Hanoi and Beijing on a range of issues.

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East Asia Summit, Take Two

by Evan A. Feigenbaum Thursday, August 5, 2010

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Nyein Chan Naing/Pool

A post over at East Asia Forum tweaks my recent blog about America and the East Asia Summit. It argues that I have an “empathy deficit.” Here’s how the post puts it: “Asian partners have good reason for concern” because Americans—on a bipartisan basis—have a tendency to “dismiss proposals for greater engagement with institutions that are not ‘results-focused.’” We “fail to grasp that concerns about regional institution building are based as much upon a preoccupation with the construction of regional identity as they are on economic arrangements or the balance of power.”

Actually, I grasp that pretty well. To a very great extent, Asian institution building has been about identity. Or, more precisely, it’s been about “community building,” not just results.

But for one thing, that’s exactly why Americans shouldn’t balk at every pan-Asian institution that doesn’t include the United States. And for that matter, it’s also why Americans should desist from trying to slam down the door of every single regional institution, often just for the sake of it.

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The Near Future of U.S.-Myanmar Relations

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, August 4, 2010

U.S .State Secretary Clinton and Myanmar's Permanent Representative to ASEAN Lynn pose for a photo before the opening of the ARF in Hanoi

In a new expert brief published today on, I examine the near-term future of U.S.-Myanmar relations. The upcoming year could be decisive for the United States’ relations with the reclusive junta. This year, Myanmar is  likely to hold its first national election in twenty years – a poll that, while extremely flawed, still provides some possibility for slow political change and civilianization of the military regime. At the same time, a looming humanitarian crisis hangs over Myanmar’s ethnic minority regions, where the army may go back to war with heavily armed ethnic minority insurgent groups. And most importantly, serious reports now allege that the Myanmar junta is trying to build a nuclear weapons program, with the help of North Korea – a possibility that, even if remotely true – would be terrifying and highly destabilizing to the region.

(Photo: Nguyen Huy Kham/courtesy Reuters)

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Prime Minister Kan and the New “Twisted Diet”

by Sheila A. Smith Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Extraordinary Session of Japan’s Diet began on Friday—amidst deep anxiety about how the split in the Upper House will impede the government from pushing forward its policy agenda.

For the United States, this legislative session—and the ability of the Kan cabinet to work through these difficult dynamics—will offer much food for thought as to the prospects for cross-party cooperation on policy choices related to the U.S.-Japan alliance. As I noted in my op-ed on July 16 in the Nikkei (published in English in Nikkei Weekly on July 26) and in the longer PacNet essay, our ability to work closely with Japan may depend on the partnerships shaped in this early test of Kan’s ability to navigate and lead policy deliberations in a divided parliament. Read more »

No Winners from the Sinking of the Cheonan

by Scott A. Snyder Monday, August 2, 2010

Two months ago, the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan appeared to mark a turning point in inter-Korean relations. The South Korean interim investigation identified a North Korean torpedo as the cause of the sinking, providing South Korea and the United States with a strong case to take the issue to the UN Security Council and hold North Korea accountable for its actions. But the July 10th UN Presidential Statement failed to explicitly hold North Korea accountable.  Read more »

Do We Need a Khmer Rouge Tribunal?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Monday, August 2, 2010
People watch the court proceedings in the sentencing session of former Khmer Rouge cadre Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, at the ECCC

Chor Sokunthea/courtesy Reuters

The first conviction of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal, of Tuol Sleng prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, only sparked more criticism, and seemed to resolve little for survivors of the genocide. Duch’s relatively light sentence – he was given 19 years in jail, after taking into account time already served – infuriated many survivors. Many average Cambodians did not seem to understand how the tribunal, a mix of foreign and Cambodian judges, had come to this decision about a man who’d overseen a “prison” that was in reality a death camp from which only a handful of people survived.

That incomprehension highlights one of the many failings of the tribunal. In contrast to tribunals held regarding the Balkan wars, the Cambodian tribunal has proven woefully inadequate in educating average Cambodians about its workings, perhaps because Prime Minister Hun Sen has little interest in showing the workings of a fair tribunal to a people accustomed to his compliant courts. The tribunal’s budget for public education most years has been miniscule, and the court facilities themselves, located far from central Phnom Penh, are intimidating to average Cambodians. Worse, the Cambodian members of the tribunal, again possibly with the prodding of the government, have resisted expanding the number of potential defendants, which might have allowed for a slightly broader examination of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes. Again, such broader investigations would have been uncomfortable for Hun Sen, since many of his top associates are former KR cadres themselves.

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2+2 and the U.S.-ROK Joint Vision Statement

by Scott A. Snyder Sunday, August 1, 2010
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hold a joint news conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and Defense Minister Kim Tae-young for their bilateral 2+2 meeting in Seoul July 21, 2010 (Kim Jae-hwan/Courtesy Reuters).

The United States and South Korea held a historic bilateral meeting of ministers of foreign affairs and defense (or “2+2”) for the first time on July 21, 2010, coinciding with the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War. This meeting was followed by a four-day joint show of force that included the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, F-22 Raptors, and a variety of anti-submarine warfare exercises. The 2+2 meeting and naval exercises underscore high levels of U.S. support for the military alliance with South Korea and U.S. commitment to continued deterrence on the Korean Peninsula. The focus on near-term urgent issues such as coordinating an effective response to the March 25, 2010, Cheonan sinking was perhaps inevitable. However, it squeezed out the important strategic task of consolidating the alliance based on the affirmation provided by Presidents Obama and Lee through the June 2009 Joint Vision Statement. Because this task requires cabinet-level attention to guide the bureaucracy, the focus on near-term coordination may have come at a cost to the broader goals of the alliance. Read more »