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The Top 10 Asia Events of 2010

by Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal
December 30, 2010

 man looks a screen outside a United Overseas Bank branch in Singapore's financial district on October 31, 2008.

A man looks a screen outside a United Overseas Bank branch in Singapore's financial district on October 31, 2008. (Vivek Prakash/Courtesy Reuters)

The Great Foreign Policy Reveal
Chalk up 2010 as the year when Chinese rhetoric met reality. Five years worth of political talk about win-win diplomacy, peaceful rise, and a harmonious society unraveled quickly over the course of the year. China seemed to make all the wrong choices: cybersecurity attacks on multinationals and others, embargoes on rare earths, bullying Southeast Asia, ignoring and then defending North Korean aggression, demanding apologies from Japan and South Korea for Chinese-induced military spats, and the country’s greatest diplomatic embarrassment—attacking (and keeping in prison) Liu Xiaobo, the only Chinese Nobel Prize winner who still wants to live in the country. China’s takeaway from these disastrous diplomatic developments ought to be “actions speak louder than words.”  Indeed, recent reports suggest that China is finally exerting some pressure on North Korea. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend.

We’re Baaaaaaaack…
Chinese missteps (see the Great Foreign Policy Reveal above) paved the way for the United States to reengage more significantly in Asia. Without a clear, overarching strategy of its own, the Obama administration was quick to respond to the region’s growing concern over Chinese military and economic assertiveness, as well as Beijing’s reluctance to acknowledge the clear security threat posed by its erstwhile ally North Korea. President Obama, along with Secretaries Clinton and Gates, crisscrossed East, South and Southeast Asia strengthening old ties and establishing new ones. Many Chinese analysts have accused the United States of undermining China’s relations in the region. They have missed the point: U.S. strategy is not the problem; it is China’s own foreign policy that needs to be rescusitated.

Korea crisis
While outside analysts struggled to figure out what it all meant, the Korean peninsula moved from one crisis to the next. In March, the South Korean Cheonan warship was sunk, apparently by a North Korean torpedo. The North Koreans revealed a new uranium enrichment facility in November.  And later that month, the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island. Was all of this calculated strategy, tied to the ascension of Kim Jong Il’s son Kim Jong Un or another example of DPRK brinksmanship in an attempt to bring the United States back to the negotiating table? The only question more vexing is: what is China, North Korea’s only friend, going to do about its recalcitrant neighbor? Despite some public debates about why China supports the North and Wikileaks cables suggesting Beijing could live with a peninsula reunified under the South’s control, the answer seems to be: not much. Beijing has continued to shield the North and called for all sides to return to negotiations.

India’s Bumpy Road
President Obama arrived in Delhi proclaiming that U.S.-India relations were one of the “defining partnerships of the 21st century.” While the trip may have been short on major deliverables like the ground-breaking nuclear deal, Obama did promise to support India’s bid for a UN Security Council seat and the two countries agreed to cooperate more closely on maritime, new energy, and cyber issues. The biggest stories, however, were domestic. Unrest worsened in Kashmir and the Naxalite insurgency remained strong. Despite continued strong Indian economic growth, shoddy construction threatened to overshadow the Commonwealth Games (though in the end they went relatively smoothly). Looking ahead, the continuing scandal over the sale of airwaves to cellphone operators may yet derail the ruling Congress Party .

Thailand’s Uncertain Future
Red shirt protestors, many from the countryside but also supported by the urban working class, occupied large portions of central Bangkok in opposition to the removal of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and what they saw as the domination of the country by the elites. After several months of negotiations, the government launched a crackdown that resulted in the death of at least 90, the dispersal of the protestors, the arrest of numerous red shirt leaders, and a state of emergency. While the Prime Minister has promised political reconciliation, controls on the press, universities, and opposition politicians continue. As our colleague Joshua Kurlantzik noted in several blog posts throughout the unrest, deep regional and class divides threaten the country’s economy and democracy: “If Bangkokians continue to dominate all elite institutions, and there is not a real federalization of political power, expect the anger to build up again.”

China’s Nobel Dilemma
The brilliant and modest—not to mention imprisoned—Chinese scholar-turned-activist Liu Xiaobo only gained in stature when he declared his newlyawarded Nobel Peace Prize “first and foremost for the Tiananmen martyrs.” Beijing had a clear choice: turn Liu’s win into an opportunity to begin a dialogue on political reform—as Liu himself had suggested —or simply downplay the significance of the award. Yet with a stunning lack of political acumen, Beijing chose a third path, attacking the Nobel Committee as “a bunch of clowns” and proclaiming the award “a western plot.” Efforts to rally other countries behind a boycott of the Nobel ceremony resulted in a coalition of the weak and ugly. It was yet another opportunity lost for Beijing to take the high road; instead China’s leaders managed to exceed everyone’s worst expectations.

First Steps in Burma/Myanmar?
Across the border, China’s neighbor Burma/Myanmar was enduring its own political travails but chose a different course. Long-suffering Burmese Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was released after years of living under house arrest, and the country held its first general election in two decades. While no one believes the elections were the real deal, they may pave the way for improvement the next time around. The country is plagued by militarized ethnic conflict, its GDP per capita is among the lowest in the world, and the political system is rife with corruption. Perhaps the “newly elected” government will try to legitimize itself by tackling these challenges; we’ll have to wait and see.

The battle over the Internet
Google’s January announcement that it had been hacked set the tone for a very contentious year in U.S.-China relations. Soon after the Google bombshell, Secretary Hillary Clinton declared in a widely publicized speech that the United States stood for “a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” The Chinese responded that its citizens had free access to the Internet, and besides, “Though connected, the Internet of various countries belongs to different sovereignties,” —meaning what we do to control the web is our own business. Controlling the web in China, however, continued to be a challenging game of cat and mouse. The popularity of new platforms—the microblog weibo—and netizens forcing the government to address publicly a prominent case of nepotism (“My dad is Li Gang”) and the suspicious death of a local activist (Qian Yunhui) all strained the limits of China’s capacity to restrict the flow of information.

2011: Asia Back on Track
Liz’s prediction for 2011: The United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, and the rest of Asia will work hard to get their collective relationships back on track. No one wants to see the region sink into a perpetually tension-ridden, conflict-prone zone. Yet the “howto” will continue to remain a challenge. For many of the region’s most powerful players, capabilities as well as interests are evolving rapidly, and in some cases with little transparency. They will need to get out ahead of the curve and establish some acceptable rules of the road, not something that has happened easily in the past. Still, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit—a sign noted for being talented, conservative, and wise. Hopefully we have enough rabbits in the region to get relations back on track.

The Game Changer?
Adam’s prediction for 2011: For at least a decade, China’s defense spending has increased by double digits. Yet, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is all coming to fruition this week: Chinese officials suggested that they would launch their first aircraft carrier next year; Admiral Robert Willard, the head of Pacific Command, confirmed that the DF-21D (the world’s first long-range, land-based “carrier killer” ) has reached “initial operational capability”; and pictures of the J-20, a new stealth type fighter, surfaced on the Internet. Much remains unknown about Chinese intentions and the actual capability of these weapons, but Adam is pretty confident about this prediction for the next year: there will be growing worry about Chinese military power in the Western Pacific, making Liz’s prediction all that more important—leaders in the region are going to have to work extra hard to get Asia back on track.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Paul

    This is a good and pragmatic piece of analysis consistent of what’s happening on the ground. It reminds players here the importance of staying smart and skillful.

  • Posted by RousseauC

    China has done everything wrong in 2010. That itself seems to be a biased conclusion. I don’t think even sensational journalism would bash China like this.

  • Posted by Ted Pulling

    At the risk of being pedantic, I would point that in the above essay there are eight events in 2010 and two predictions for 2011. This casualness with numbers leads me to my next point. Reading the above essay, one might conclude that 2010 was a poor year for Asia. In fact, all relevant stock markets bar the mainland were up satisfactorily and some like Korea and Thailand, rose by approximately 20 pc and 50 pc. All relevant Asian currencies strengthened against the dollar. Foreign investors poured money into the region. The two authors highlighted risks in Korea and india. Well, net foreign portfolio investment into those countries was usd 20 billion each in 2010. Every relevant economy in east Asia grew by 5-10 pc. So maybe the 11th (or 9th, but who is counting ?) event in 2010 was, despite the usual problems and some new concerns, Asia notched up another solid year.

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