CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

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

The Rise of the Rest—what’s new what’s not?

by Elizabeth C. Economy Wednesday, May 18, 2011
A couple walk at the seafront in Mumbai on May 11, 2009.

A couple walk at the seafront in Mumbai on May 11, 2009. (Punit Paranjpe/Courtesy Reuters)

I’m just back from a conference in Berlin, organized by my colleague Stewart Patrick, where the talk was all about the opportunities and challenges for the United States and European Union posed by the rise of the rest (the highly popular term popularized by Fareed Zakaria to describe the large emerging economies, such as China, India, Brazil, etc.). The conference included scholars and former officials from a number of the emerging economies, as well as the EU and U.S.

It was a fascinating set of discussions, primarily because there was so little agreement, and it seems to me, so little empirical work done on the topic. What constitutes the rest?  Where are the real issues of commonality among the countries?

A few fundamental issues to think about:
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Open, Interoperable, Secure, and Reliable

by Adam Segal Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Howard Schmidt Releases International Strategy for Cyberspace

Cybersecurity Coordinator and Special Assistant to the President Howard Schmidt addresses the White House Launch of the International Strategy for Cyberspace in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, May 16, 2011. (Lawrence Jackson/Courtesy White House)

The White House released its International Strategy for Cyberspace yesterday.  Many of the ideas and objectives have been expressed before by various officials, but newness does not seem to be the point.  Rather, the importance of the document rests in gathering all the United States’ goals for cyber in one place, signaling to both adversaries and friends what Washington is expecting from them and what it will do itself.

The strategy states that the United States will “work to promote an open, interoperable, secure, and reliable information and communications infrastructure.”  As Jason Healey at The Atlantic Council notes, the phrasing of these goals is important.  The strategy does not promise absolute security or reliability, which are unattainable, but says communications systems should be secure and reliable “enough” to ensure that users continue to have trust in them.  Diplomacy, defense, and development are to be the tools through which the United States pursues these four goals, and U.S. officials will be concentrating their efforts in eight areas: international standards and open markets; network defense; law enforcement and extending the reach of the Budapest Convention; military alliance and cooperative security; Internet governance; international development and capacity building; and the support of Internet freedom and privacy.

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Violence Begins in Thailand

by Joshua Kurlantzick Monday, May 16, 2011
Men atop a truck travel past an election campaign poster showing a candidate for the opposition Puea Thai party posing with ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand's Surin province April 26, 2011.

Men atop a truck travel past an election campaign poster showing a candidate for the opposition Puea Thai party posing with ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand's Surin province April 26, 2011. (Sukree Sukplang/Courtesy Reuters)

The shooting last week of a Puea Thai member of parliament was a sign that the election campaign for Thailand’s upcoming national poll is likely to be one of the bloodiest and most dangerous in recent history.  Both major parties appear to be engaging in the most inflammatory rhetoric possible, catering to their bases, with the government and the military also using the lèse majesté law to crack down on opposition activists. Puea Thai, meanwhile, seems to be returning to its roots as a vehicle for exiled former prime minister Thaksin.

With both sides catering to their hardest-core supporters, the divide in Thai politics is only likely to grow before the election, making any reconciliation afterward almost impossible. That is, if the election actually comes off without military intervention. Any scenario that seems plausible–intervention, a brokered election compromise, any opposition victory–is almost guaranteed to spark more violence.

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Will Thailand’s Lèse Majesté Arrests Backfire?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Thursday, May 12, 2011
A Thai national flag flutters in the wind behind a statue of King Rama VII in front of the parliament building in Bangkok, May 10, 2011, ahead of a July 3 election.

A Thai national flag flutters in the wind behind a statue of King Rama VII in front of the parliament building in Bangkok, May 10, 2011, ahead of a July 3 election. (Sukree Sukplang/Courtesy Reuters)

The New York Times today has extensive coverage of the recent police summons of Somsak Jeamteerasakul of Thammasat University for alleged lèse majesté charges. Now, of course, Somsak’s summons is but one of many of a wave of lèse majesté charges aggressively being pursued by the military and other royalists in the run up to the election being held soon. The trend of summons and arrests has grown from concerning to outright catastrophic for Thailand’s open discourse, which is one reason why the country has plummeted on global rankings of press and Internet freedom. (See, for example, the recent Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2011.)

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U.S. Senators Weigh in on Futenma

by Sheila A. Smith Thursday, May 12, 2011
U.S. General David Petraeus and Flournoy speak to Levin and McCain at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

U.S. General David Petraeus and Flournoy speak to Levin and McCain at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)

Senators Carl Levin, John McCain and Jim Webb, all of the Armed Services Committee, have announced that they want a review of the Department of Defense realignment plans in Asia. After a visit to the region, including Okinawa and Guam, the senators declared the “present realignment plans are unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable.” Read more »

The S&ED No-Holds Barred: China’s Deplorable Human Rights and the Simple American People

by Elizabeth C. Economy Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Timothy Geithner gather for a portrait before a banquet for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington on May 9, 2011.

Timothy Geithner gather for a portrait before a banquet for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington on May 9, 2011. (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters)

So, the title of my post is a bit misleading. The Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) was actually pretty much what I thought it was going to be, namely pretty tame stuff. Together, the U.S. and China identified a wide range of issues on which the two sides hope to cooperate. The range of issues, in fact, was breathtaking—or some might call it weird—everything from Sudan and North Korea to smart grid to the China garden project. I would guess that the China garden project will break ground before spring comes to North Korea.

The “no-holds barred” part of the S&ED came not at the S&ED itself, but rather courtesy of the U.S. media. First, there was a well-timed piece in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg, in which he interviewed Secretary of State Clinton. Although the bulk of the interview had nothing to do with China, Secretary Clinton’s remarks about China have gotten all the attention. Both Goldberg and fellow Atlantic writer James Fallows appear rather shocked at the Secretary’s comment that China’s human rights record is “deplorable” and that in holding off reform, the Chinese are on “a fool’s errand,” by “trying to stop history.” Goldberg likens Clinton’s remarks to those of the Cold War Reagan era. Fallows, in turn, implies that Clinton is reinforcing Beijing’s belief that the United States is trying to contain China and, in the process, acting outside the realm of traditional U.S. public diplomacy.

I have to say that I think the Atlantic duo is off-base here. Read more »

The North Korea Food Aid Debate

by Scott A. Snyder Wednesday, May 11, 2011
A Chinese frontier policeman checks sacks of rice from South Korea, which will be sent to North Korea, at Dandong port, Liaoning province October 29, 2010.

A Chinese frontier policeman checks sacks of rice from South Korea, which will be sent to North Korea, at Dandong port, Liaoning province October 29, 2010. (Jacky Chen/Courtesy Reuters)

There has been a protracted debate over whether the United States should give food assistance in response to North Korea’s appeals for assistance from earlier this year, with an exchange between Stephan Haggard and Lee Jong Cheol as the most recent example. Both U.S. Institute of Peace and the Heritage Foundation have also sponsored programs on the subject within the last week. The overall debate is an extension of one that began over fifteen years ago with the initial entry of international organizations in response to North Korea’s famine of the mid-1990s, and it essentially revolves around two characteristics of humanitarian response to North Korea that are distinctive from other complex humanitarian emergencies: 1) most humanitarian interventions occur in the context of a breakdown of political authority, but international aid workers must work with North Korean political authorities to meet humanitarian needs, and 2) North Korea’s need is a function of system failure, but it is also a potential source of revenue that might assist in sustaining that system. Two recent food assessment missions by international and private humanitarian agencies (a rapid food security assessment by U.S. NGOs in February and another by the UN World Food Program in March) have documented the existence of growing humanitarian need in North Korea. How should the United States and the international community respond? Read more »

Thoughts on Singapore’s Election

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Low Thia Khiang, secretary-general of the opposition Workers' Party of Singapore addresses supporters after his team was announced as the official winners for the Aljunied group representative constituency (GRC) in the Singapore general election early May 8, 2011.

Low Thia Khiang, secretary-general of the opposition Workers' Party of Singapore addresses supporters after his team was announced as the official winners for the Aljunied group representative constituency (GRC) in the Singapore general election early May 8, 2011. (Tan Shung Sin/Courtesy Reuters)

The Economist’s Banyan blog has a thoughtful assessment of Singapore’s elections, which returned the PAP with an overwhelming majority of seats but also showed that the opposition had made real inroads for the first time in the city state’s history. The election has been chewed over pretty thoroughly on Singaporean blogs, though it has gotten relatively little coverage in the U.S.

There is one interesting topic that I think is worth discussing. In the run-up to the election, the PAP, like many parties that have been in office for a long time, argued that it alone had the talent and skill to manage Singapore and keep its impressive record of economic growth and social stability on track. But though the PAP certainly has many smart and skillful ministers, much of the strength of Singapore comes from its career civil servants, who rise up through a highly meritocratic system that rewards talent and expertise. Anyone who has worked in Southeast Asia for years, for example, knows that the Singaporean diplomatic corps is by far the savviest, most thoughtful group of analysts in the region – no other country’s diplomats even come close.

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The Continuing Impotence of ASEAN

by Joshua Kurlantzick Tuesday, May 10, 2011
ASEAN leaders walk after they held a retreat at the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta May 8, 2011.

ASEAN leaders walk after they held a retreat at the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta May 8, 2011. (Supri Supri/Courtesy Reuters)

This past week’s ASEAN Summit in Jakarta only further highlighted the organization’s continuing impotence at a time when the United States is reengaging with ASEAN and, Indonesia, returning to its role as regional power, is trying to make ASEAN work more effectively. The first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN has arrived, and Indonesian officials have become more involved in everything from Myanmar to the ongoing border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.

Yet the organization itself still lacks coherence, strong leadership, and speed, and it increasingly appears likely that it will never have these characteristics. Despite Indonesia’s best intentions, ASEAN mediation has produced few results in the Thai-Cambodian dispute, and the organization has not been able to resolve another lingering problem: Myanmar is in line to host the 2014 ASEAN summit, which would almost surely mean the U.S. president will not attend any meetings with ASEAN that year, since he or she will not want to appear to support Myanmar. Some of the more democratic members of ASEAN, including the Philippines and Indonesia, wanted Myanmar to relinquish this right, as it had in the past, but as usual with ASEAN, the organization could reach no consensus–ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan just endorsed Myanmar’s right to host –and so the likely result will be some kind of muddle.

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U.S.-China Talks: What to Look for

by Elizabeth C. Economy Monday, May 9, 2011
China's Vice Premier Wang Qishan delivers a speech as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sit behind during the opening ceremony of the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing in 2010.

China's Vice Premier Wang Qishan delivers a speech as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sit behind during the opening ceremony of the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing in 2010. (Jason Lee/Courtesy Reuters)

Let me share a short piece I wrote for the CFR website on the third round of the Strategic & Economic Dialogue underway during May 8-10. I am a big fan of limited expectations when it comes to relations between China and the United States, and I think the tone of this dialogue reflects such pragmatism. At one briefing I attended down in DC, the thrust was all about how to develop strategic trust. I am not sure how that happens, but I applaud both sides for trying. Read more »