CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

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

Every Time I Think I’m Out…They Pull Me Back In

by Joshua Kurlantzick Monday, November 15, 2010

Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein walks on as other ASEAN and East Asian leaders wait for their group photo session during the 17th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi

Of all the actors implicated in the release this past weekend of Aung San Suu Kyi, surely the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was among those who reaped the least benefit. Since admitting Myanmar in the late 1990s, ASEAN has realized that the decision was an enormous mistake, since the junta’s behavior wound up dominating ASEAN meetings, discussions with the United States and other outside powers, and tarnishing the group’s reputation. By getting the Obama administration to meet with ASEAN leaders even though Myanmar sat at the table, ASEAN thought it had finally extracted itself from being beholden to the junta in Naypyidaw.

But no. With Suu Kyi’s release, which puts pressure on the junta to allow her to travel and re-form her political organization and puts the international spotlight on Myanmar again, ASEAN will again be dominated by the Myanmar issue, which will paralyze meetings of the organization and, potentially (if the junta commits another atrocity against Suu Kyi and her party), will create a new divide between ASEAN and Western partners like the United States and the European Union.

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China’s Money – A Central Asian Tale

by Evan A. Feigenbaum Monday, November 15, 2010

Want to know how much China’s money is changing the balance of forces on its periphery?  Back in January I blogged on “China’s Big Play in Central Asia.”  And by “big play” I meant simply that China’s new assertiveness is changing Central Asia’s energy, economic, and strategic landscape in dramatic ways.

So check out this fascinating interview in The Telegraph with Grigori Marchenko, an architect of Kazakhstan’s economic success in the 1990s and now head of the country’s central bank.

Kazakh firms have become famous in recent years for launching initial public offerings on the London exchange.  But, says Marchenko, the next wave could just as easily be in Hong Kong.  And, as important, Kazakhstan’s economic elite increasingly looks to Beijing (and others in Asia) because, well, “that’s where the money is.”

“Over-relying on London was a mistake,” Marchenko says.  “London was extremely important because that was where the money was.  Increasingly, the money is shifting eastward … People take for granted that most of the Kazakh, Russian and Ukrainian companies are doing their IPOs in London,” he adds. “But, excuse me, that’s been the case just for the last nine years.  My point is that in five years, it could be some place else.”

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Suu Kyi’s Release: What Does it Mean?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses supporters outside the headquarters of her National League for Democracy party in Yangon

The release today of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, probably the world’s most famous political prisoner (Liu Xiaobo now will hold that honor) has been greeted with acclaim and joy in Yangon, where she has been kept under house arrest for most of the past two decades. [The Irrawaddy has all the details.] Many foreign governments, too, have cheered the release, potentially ascribing it as a sign that the junta, whose favored party dominated the recent – and heavily rigged — national elections in Myanmar, might be feeling secure enough to embark upon some opening up of the political system.

But don’t count on it. Though I believe that the election, even with all its outright fraud and rigging, might have some impact by bringing a slightly more educated, civilianized, and worldly government into office, Suu Kyi’s release, for now, does not mean that much. While the junta is often derided by outside observers, reporters, and some diplomats as backwards, xenophobic, superstitious, and plain strange, in reality it has for two decades played the outside world quite well, offering just enough – like a Suu Kyi release – to seem like a political opening is coming, but never really taking any major steps toward change.

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Obama in Seoul: Underscoring the Sino-U.S. Gap on North Korea

by Scott A. Snyder Friday, November 12, 2010

Although the main stories of the Obama visit to Korea revolved around the gap between the United States and China on global rebalancing issues at the G-20 and the failure of Presidents Obama and Lee to tee up the KORUS FTA, a third issue arose that dramatizes Sino-U.S. differences over the Korean peninsula.  Read more »

My Complaints About Obama’s Homecoming

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, November 10, 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama greets members of the audience after delivering a speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta

Overall, I thought that President Obama’s short “homecoming” visit to Indonesia went well. He charmed Indonesians, offered some funny reminisces about his youth, didn’t give his opponents too much more ammunition to claim he’s a Muslim, and set the agenda for the U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive partnership.

But you don’t want to hear that; it’s more interesting to focus on what went wrong, at least in my opinion. I have written this several times before, but I do not understand why the White House insists on highlighting Indonesia as a moderate “Muslim democracy,” as Obama did again Wednesday while in the country. It is certainly true, as anyone who remembers Jakarta in the late 1990s knows, that Indonesia has made impressive democratic strides, even though President Yudhoyono sometimes can be too willing to compromise with anti-reform politicians. And it’s also true that Indonesia has the most Muslims of any country in the world.

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Things to look for in Indonesia

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, November 10, 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama toasts with Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a state dinner in Jakarta

Of course, President Obama’s trip to Indonesia is going to seem like a success. Having canceled two times before, the president built up anticipation in the country, and a large range of celebrations have been organized to mark his “return home.” Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono formally inaugurated the multifaceted “comprehensive partnership” designed to upgrade relations between Jakarta and Washington on a wide range of issues. Obama also gave a well-received speech admitting that the U.S. needs to do much more to improve its ties to the Muslim world.

But as Obama leaves, how can we tell if the visit was more than a high-profile photo op? Here are some ways:

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What to do with a Rigged Election?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Monday, November 8, 2010

A woman casts her ballot at the polling station in Sittwe

This week’s Economist has an excellent overview of the challenges surrounding Myanmar’s national elections, which took place on Sunday. The article mostly takes a similar position as the CFR expert brief I wrote on the election last week.

As seen on Sunday, the election is, of course, not free and fair. Already, there are multiple reports of irregularities in the voting, including fraud, ballot-stuffing, and intimidation at the polling places. Turnout was low in many outlying areas, and banned completely in some ethnic minority regions that are hostile to the ruling junta. (The Irrawaddy has the most extensive election coverage, including an excellent briefing outlining all the apparent voting irregularities that have been leaked to Irrawaddy reporters.) Many Burmese feel utterly apathetic about the election, since the generals’ favored party is almost sure to come out on top, and some opposition candidates, even from another military-aligned party, fear they will be attacked if they actually do win seats.

Still, as The Economist notes, the election could mean that Than Shwe and the current generation of generals may step back somewhat from politics, allowing some degree of space for civilianization of government and slightly more political contestation. Does that mean this election shouldn’t be condemned by the United States and other outside powers? Of course not–the Obama administration has condemned the election and the unfairness of the constitution drawn up by the generals. But does it mean we should write off any chance of opening in Myanmar? No.

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Asian Cyberspace at the Cutting Edge

by Adam Segal Friday, November 5, 2010

Tencent Vs. Qihoo 360

This week just about every angle of political and economic conflict in cyberspace is on display in Asia.

You want digital statecraft, the use of digital and social media to try and shape opinion and structure political narratives? Video of the incident involving a Chinese fishing vessel and the Japanese coast guard has been leaked online, and is now posted on YouTube.  Japanese officials had been reluctant to release the video, and showed a highly edited version to a selected number of Diet members, reportedly because they did not want to stir up emotions as the two sides were working to smooth out the issue.  The leaker clearly has other ideas.

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Who is Sengoku38?

by Sheila A. Smith Friday, November 5, 2010

Yesterday, video of the collisions between a Chinese fishing trawler and the Japanese coast guard appeared on YouTube—sent from an account named Sengoku38. Six separate videos, for a total of 44 minutes of footage, taken apparently from the decks of Japanese coast guard vessels showed the tensions aboard as the Chinese vessel altered course twice to collide with two different Coast Guard patrol ships.

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