CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

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

China: Harmony & War

by Elizabeth C. Economy Friday, February 11, 2011
Chinese students walk past a statue of Confucius in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province, on June 7, 2007.

Chinese students walk past a statue of Confucius in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province, on June 7, 2007. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

So I didn’t come up with this clever title myself. Rather Harmony & War is the title of a terrific new book by Yuan-Kang Wang, an assistant professor at Western Michigan University. The book is one of a rare breed of books on China that is both substantively rich and eminently readable. As an added bonus for the author, it is very timely.

The essence of the book is an exploration of the role of Confucian precepts of pacifism in Chinese history. A bit esoteric? In theory maybe. However, Wang’s book may well prove to be the reality check needed by both Chinese leaders and the rest of the world.
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Are Thailand and Cambodia Heading to War?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, February 9, 2011
A Cambodian soldier smokes a cigarette at the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the border between Thailand and Cambodia

A Cambodian soldier smokes a cigarette at the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the border between Thailand and Cambodia February 9, 2011. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past week, fighting between Thailand and Cambodia over the disputed Preah Vihear border temple has left its bloodiest toll in at least a decade. At least seven people have been killed in recent days and dozens of soldiers on both sides wounded, as the Thai and Cambodian militaries trade rifle and artillery fire.

Now, the fact that people are getting killed over a small amount of disputed territory and an (admittedly beautiful) temple does, to many observers, seem absurd. But the conflict also points to a bigger problem: Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva seems to have diminishing control over the Thai military, which is largely responsible for his place in office. On the Thai side, the conflict is being pushed by nationalists linked to the People’s Alliance for Democracy, but the military men taking action along the border often seem to be doing so either without informing Abhisit or informing his office well after the fact.
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Is Egypt the Next Indonesia?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Monday, February 7, 2011
An opposition supporter flashes the victory sign as he holds an Egyptian flag atop a lamp post near a mosque in Tahrir Square in Cairo

An opposition supporter flashes the victory sign as he holds an Egyptian flag atop a lamp post near a mosque in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 7, 2011. (Yannis Behrakis/Courtesy Reuters)

As the chaos in Cairo builds to a climax, some outside observers are comparing a potential transition in Egypt to Indonesia in the late 1990s, after the end of longtime dictator Suharto amid massive street protests in Jakarta and other cities. As Thomas Carothers notes in the New Republic, in Indonesia the Clinton administration stuck with the dictator Suharto until long after his sell-by date, and then seemed confused about how to handle the post-Suharto situation. And as Carothers notes, despite its initial post-Suharto chaos, Indonesia eventually navigated a transition to democracy, and did not cut off its ties with the United States. In fact, today the Obama administration is building a close partnership with Jakarta.

Egypt should be so fortunate as to wind up where Indonesia is today. A little more than a decade after the fall of Suharto, Indonesia no longer looks like a chaotic and ungovernable state, potentially on the verge of disintegration. Instead, it is one of the democratic success stories of the past decade. Decentralization has led to greater local involvement in the political process; greater freedoms have birthed a vibrant media and civil society; the country has held several free and fair elections in a row; and it has resolved many of its outstanding insurgencies and territorial conflicts, such as Aceh. (Though not all – Papua remains a serious conflict.) The Indonesian military has gradually withdrawn from the center of power and from many businesses that it occupied under Suharto. Responsibility for some important tasks, such as counterterrorism, have been turned over to the police.

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China’s Views of the Unrest in the Middle East

by Joshua Kurlantzick Thursday, February 3, 2011
Pro-government demonstrators face-off against anti-Mubarak supporters near Tahrir Square in Cairo

Pro-government demonstrators (front) face-off against anti-Mubarak supporters near Tahrir Square in Cairo February 2, 2011. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters)

As the unrest in the Middle East gets more intense, many Egyptians and people in other Arab nations appear to be looking to the response of the United States to the rising tension and violence in the region. That’s understandable, given the outsized role that Washington historically has played in this region, and the fact that Egypt is currently the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel.

But how, if at all, will China react to instability and to potentially momentous change in the Middle East? Over the past decade, China has built far closer ties to many of the leading Middle Eastern states, largely to feed China’s growing energy appetites but also in the long run to fulfill Beijing’s rising geopolitical ambitions. Besides its increasingly close ties with Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey, and Iran, Beijing has also built closer strategic and trade ties with Egypt, among other pivotal Middle Eastern nations. Beijing also has begun to slowly insert itself into the politics of the region, whether by appointing its own special envoy to Sudan or contributing to anti-piracy patrols in the waters between Yemen and Somalia. On a recent visit to Turkey, China signed a plan to create a “silk railroad” following the rough path of the ancient Silk Road.

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Burma Opens Its New “Parliament”

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, February 2, 2011
A still image taken from video shows the inaugural session of the Myanmar parliament in Naypyitaw

A still image taken from video shows the inaugural session of the Myanmar parliament in Naypyitaw February 1, 2011. (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)

Earlier this week, Burma officially opened its new “parliament,” the result of the highly criticized national elections held last fall. The parliament nominated two senior military men as speakers. General Shwe Mann became speaker of the lower house, in the tightly guarded parliament in the purpose-built military capital of Naypyidaw. The regime also has written an absurd number of regulations that limit what the parliament can do – intricate rules that allow powerful military men to cut off debate or motions, or simply squelch dialogue altogether. The army’s favored party, too, already controls about eighty percent of all seats in the parliament.

The choices of speakers aren’t exactly a good sign. Shwe Mann, the third ranking general in the previous military regime, is known as a close ally of ruling Senior General Than Shwe, and Shwe Mann possibly may be the next head of the Burmese military.

In the run up to the election, some observers, including myself, believed that even some degree of civilianization of Burmese politics would be helpful for the country’s future, though the military obviously would remain in control overall. Civilianization might allow for limited economic reforms, of the type pushed by China on its ally. But increasingly even this limited, very mild reform, is looking unlikely. The opposition politicians who, unlike Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, chose to participate in last fall’s election, are looking more and more isolated, and some of them are regretting their decision. While countries like Egypt seem on the brink of change, Burma remains a stubborn exception.

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Shifting Political Ground in South Korea: Implications for the U.S.-ROK Alliance

by Scott A. Snyder Tuesday, February 1, 2011
U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC during Lee's State Visit June 16, 2009 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC during Lee's State Visit June 16, 2009 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters).

Woo Jung-yeop is a Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

With a presidential election looming next year in Seoul, the South Korean news media has begun to speculate who will be the next president. Most of these stories have focused solely on potential candidates. They have listed names of politicians and tried to analyze their strengths and weaknesses. In most cases, however, little attention has been paid to analysis of issues or trends shaping public opinion. To make any meaningful forecast regarding the December 2012 South Korean election, we must know not only who will run for office but also how the voters see the issues. Read more »