CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

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

Stonewalling the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia

by Joshua Kurlantzick Thursday, October 28, 2010

U.N. Secretary-General Ban is greeted by museum officials at Tuol Sleng Genocide Musuem in Phnom Penh on the last day of his official visit

With all the tragic news coming out of Indonesia, including both a tsunami and the eruption of Mt Merapi, an important story out of Cambodia has gone mostly unnoticed. Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has asked the United Nations to remove the head of the UN’s human rights office in Cambodia and also has asked the UN not to expand the international tribunal for the former Khmer Rouge to include any more than the five defendants who are in the process of being tried. “We must think of peace in Cambodia,” Hun Sen reportedly told UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon. 

In fact, this stonewalling has been Hun Sen’s de facto policy for some time, but he now has become more explicit about it. And “peace” in Cambodia – by which he presumably means not reopening old wounds – is not exactly the prime minister’s goal. If a tribunal was to expand to include a much broader range of former Khmer Rouge, it might touch upon some of the prime minister’s own associates, since he has not been shy about surrounding himself with men and women with questionable histories. By digging much deeper into the Khmer Rouge era, and potentially meting out serious punishments to a much broader range of former officials, the tribunal would establish a firmer precedent that, in Cambodia, the powerful can be punished. For a prime minister who has become used to utilizing any tools at his disposal to intimidate, threaten, and jail the political opposition, that would not be a welcome development.

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UN Sanctions and their Impact on North Korea

by Scott A. Snyder Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Office of Senator Richard Lugar has released the latest Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, along with a statement that “the findings include a stark reminder that U.S. and China interests regarding North Korea are largely incongruent. While the United States presses for elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, China’s primary focus is on preserving regional stability.” Read more »

Cozying up to Burma

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Thailand's PM Abhisit shakes hand with Myanmar's PM Thein during the 15th ASEAN Summit and related summits in Hua Hin

The decline of democracy in some of Southeast Asia’s most important states does not only affect the citizens of those countries. The decline has a kind of knock-on effect, in which it also undermines the possibility for democratic change in other countries in the region.

Thailand and Burma today provide a clear example of this phenomenon. In the late 1990s, the last time there was a Democrat government in Thailand, the Chuan Leekpai administration pursued some of the most liberal policies toward Burma in Thai history. Thailand at that time did not support Western sanctions on Burma, but Chuan and other members of his government were willing to criticize the junta, to offer moral support for the Burmese democracy movement, and push ASEAN to take a tougher line on the Burmese regime. They could do so in part because of Thailand’s own democratic credentials at the time – it had recently passed a reformist constitution and had entered into probably the freest era in modern Thai history, a time when it seemed unlikely the army would return to power in Bangkok.

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China, U.S., and High-Speed Train Development

by Yanzhong Huang Monday, October 25, 2010

A labourer cleans the floor beside a China Railway High-speed (CRH) train preparing for the operation ceremony from Wuhan to Guangzhou in Wuhan, Hubei province, December 26, 2009. The Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed railway, with the world's fastest train journey at a 350-km-per-hour designed speed, started operation Saturday, Xinhua News Agency reported. REUTERS/China DailyLast week, I took the train from New York City to Stamford, Connecticut to give a talk. The distance between Grand Central Station and Stamford is 33 miles, and it took me 44 minutes to get there. Not bad – at least I got there in time. Two weeks ago, I went to D.C. to participate in a conference, but the train was disabled at Baltimore station (how many times have we heard of a disabled Amtrak train?). I ended up spending six hours on the road. When I was waiting in the silent and dark train, I could not help but comparing the United States and China in high-speed train development. The distance between New York and Washington is about the same as that between Shanghai and Nanjing. The difference is the time it takes to complete the trip: one hour in China and three hours in the United States.
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India-U.S.-China Strategic Triangle

by Adam Segal Monday, October 25, 2010
Statue of Indian Elephant


After a week of meetings with Indian academics, think tank analysts, and government officials, I came away with a clear sense that there is a great deal of concern about China in Delhi these days. There was not a lot of talk about opportunities in the bilateral relationship, and I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase “new aggressiveness”. Other popular expressions included “pushing at our borders” and “spreading influence throughout South Asia.” More people at the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence, I was told, would be spending more time on China issues.

It was also hard to escape geopolitics. Indian interests now extend from Aden to Singapore, from the Straits of Hormuz to Malacca. Delhi will economically integrate with Asia, and work closely with Hanoi and Tokyo. China, in turn, is exploiting the chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan to extend its influence in the region and into Central Asia.
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A New Threshold for Japan’s Diplomacy

by Sheila A. Smith Monday, October 25, 2010

I have just returned from a week in Tokyo, where I attended the annual CSIS-Nikkei conference on U.S.-Japan relations. As I noted in our CFR.org roundup on how Washington should respond to Beijing’s recent assertiveness vis-a-vis its neighbors, I found that many in Tokyo continue to be focused on the after effects of the Senkaku incident.

Last week, I watched Japan’s politicians debate the intricacies of the two-week crisis, and was struck with how little of the debate seemed to be about China. Rather it was focused on Japan itself. Read more »

The Southeast Asian Arms Race

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Malaysia's first submarine, "KD Tunku Abdul Rahman", docks in Port Klang outside Kuala Lumpur

As I will explain in an upcoming Newsweek piece (I will post once it’s out), over the past five years Southeast Asia has been the center of an intense arms race, which has largely gone under the radar of most outside policy-makers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the amount spent on weapons purchases in Southeast Asia nearly doubled between 2005 and 2009 alone, with Vietnam recently paying $2.4 billion for Russian submarines and jetfighters designed for attacking ships. Other recent buyers have included Malaysia, which recently spent nearly $1 billion on new submarines of its own, and Thailand, which has drawn up its own shopping list of submarines and more advanced jet fighters, while Indonesia and Singapore also have announced recent sizable arms purchases.

This arms race has proceeded despite the fact that most Southeast Asian nations have no obvious near enemies and, if they are involved in conflicts, they tend to be local insurgencies like the conflict in Papua, the southern Philippines, or southern Thailand – hardly battles that require the kind of sophisticated air, sea and missile weaponry that states are buying up. To be sure, there are lingering historical tensions between countries like Thailand and Cambodia or Thailand and Burma, which itself has bought a sizable amount of Chinese and Russian weaponry, but these are unlikely to explode into hot war. The real answer, then, is that countries like Vietnam and Malaysia are arming up to send a signal to a rising China that they will continue to protect their strategic interests and their claims to energy resources in areas like the South China Sea, the Mekong basin, and other regions. And though China has not deviated from its increasingly aggressive approach to Southeast Asia, these arms figures should give it pause.

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U.S.-China Trade Conflict is Here to Stay. But …

by Evan A. Feigenbaum Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In my “other” life—as head of the Asia practice group at a political risk consulting firm—I’ve learned that at least some players in the financial markets tend to think vertically about trade conflict. In this view, trade tensions go up. Trade tensions go down. Indeed, trade tensions are pretty cyclical. And electoral cycles have a lot to do with the timing of trade-related tensions.

But a “vertical” paradigm probably won’t apply to U.S.-China trade relations much longer. I think it’s time we shifted to a more “linear” view. In other words, U.S.-China trade conflict isn’t going to go down. It’s going to straightline forward. But U.S.-China trade tensions are, I think, going to be broadly manageable.

I have a new piece over at Foreign Policy that makes this argument. Check it out.

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Apparent Heir: Kim Jong Un’s Ascension and The Challenge to South Korea

by Scott A. Snyder Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Having spent the past week in Seoul in the aftermath of the September 28 Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) conference and on the eve of the unprecedented 65th anniversary celebrations of the WPK’s founding, I was struck by just how few facts South Korean analysts (and the rest of the world!) yet have at their disposal in analyzing the latest North Korean developments.  Read more »