CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

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

Innovation and Leadership in the March 11 Crisis

by Sheila A. Smith Thursday, June 30, 2011
Survivors of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami receive treatment at the Ishinomaki Red Cross hospital in Miyagi prefecture March 12, 2011.

Survivors of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami receive treatment at the Ishinomaki Red Cross hospital in Miyagi prefecture March 12, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters/Ho New)

One of the most impressive accounts of disaster response came from Dr. Tadashi Ishii of Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital. Dr. Ishii—a slender man, with graying hair and glasses dressed in jeans and a t-shirt—provided a concise and matter of fact account of his hospital’s response to the terrifying and chaotic days after the March 11 disaster. Read more »

In Southeast Asia, Big Dams Raise Big Concerns

by Joshua Kurlantzick Thursday, June 30, 2011
A view from upstream of Malaysia's Bakun dam, in the inland of the eastern state of Sarawak on Borneo island, December 11, 2003.

A view from upstream of Malaysia's Bakun dam, in the inland of the eastern state of Sarawak on Borneo island, December 11, 2003. (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Prashanth Parameswaran, a former researcher at the Project 2049 Institute, who is currently conducting research on dam projects in Southeast Asia.

These past few weeks have not been good ones for large dam projects in Southeast Asia. Big hydropower projects have been caught in a web of unsafe corporate practices, fierce political violence and simmering regional tensions.

On June 9, another round of fighting erupted in Burma’s northern Kachin state, where Chinese companies are building a series of dams to power southern China. Dozens were killed, hundreds of Chinese workers were evacuated, and thousands of civilians fled the affected area. The political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic minority armed group in Burma which has clashed repeatedly with the government, has also fiercely opposed the construction of a large dam in Myistone, a culturally and ecologically sensitive area. In fact, the group sent an open letter to the Chinese government in March to stop the dam’s construction, warning of the risk of civil war.

It is not clear what exactly prompted this latest outbreak of fighting. Some claim that the Burmese government wants to ensure that the project is built so it will receive hundreds of millions in annual power sales, while others contend that the military is using it as a pretext to exert control in the northern areas which have resisted its control. What is clear is that the dam projects are exacerbating internal conflict due to concerns regarding the distribution of benefits, damage to the environment and displacement of local populations.

Read more »

Cambodia’s Curse

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, June 29, 2011
UN peacekeepers from Indonesia patrol the streets of Phnom Penh in an armoured personel carrier on August 27, amid the morning rush hour traffic

UN peacekeepers from Indonesia patrol the streets of Phnom Penh in an armoured personel carrier on August 27, 1993, amid the morning rush hour traffic. (STR New/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past two decades, Cambodia has served as a kind of test case of humanitarian intervention. At the end of its civil war in the early 1990s, the United Nations launched its largest ever (to that point) rebuilding effort in Cambodia, which was followed by enormous contributions by other Western donors and aid organizations.

Has it worked? In the new book Cambodia’s Curse, veteran journalist Joel Brinkely gives a decisive answer: No. He also effectively sketches out some of the lessons for any future interventions of such size.

In this month’s issue of the Washington Monthly, I have a long review of the book.

Read more »

Ishinomaki City—Three Months After

by Sheila A. Smith Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In Ishigaki, debris of all types in piles along the roadway, organized by type and size (June 22, 2011).

In Ishinomaki, debris of all types are organized in piles along the roadway by type and size. (Photo by author, taken on June 22, 2011)

So many aspects of Japan’s response to the disasters of March 11 have yet to be fully understood. Many in Japan continue to be critical of their government’s response, and yet so much that happened on that day and in the days that followed demonstrates the strengths of Japanese society—and of the Japanese people. Read more »

Bombshell Report on Thailand May Open Debate on Monarchy

by Joshua Kurlantzick Monday, June 27, 2011
A Thai official dressed in a traditional costume greets Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (R) during an annual royal ploughing ceremony in cental Bangkok on May 13, 2011.

A Thai official dressed in a traditional costume greets Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (R) during an annual royal ploughing ceremony in cental Bangkok on May 13, 2011. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

In perhaps the biggest bombshell of reportage on Thailand in decades, former Reuters journalist Andrew Marshall, who gained access to a vast trove of WikiLeaks cables on the country, has published a four-part opus, running hundreds of pages, that focuses primarily on the country’s monarchy, including the king, the queen, and the crown prince and heir. The first part is available here (pdf).

Marshall’s account is the most thorough, and in many ways damning, assessment of the royal family’s influence over politics in history. His reporting, and the cables they are based upon, leaves no stone unturned – or unblemished: The queen’s influence, often negative, over the tense situation in southern Thailand; the military’s growing use of lese majeste laws to crack down on opposition; the foibles and venality of the crown prince; the vultures circling around the palace as the end of King Bhumibhol’s long reign ends.

Though discussion of the monarchy is essentially criminalized in Thailand, and Marshall certainly won’t be returning to the country any time soon, the reporting will open discussion of the monarchy even more, at a time when the election campaign, the growing crackdown on dissent, and the impending demise of the king all are terrifying Thais and forcing some reevaluation of their country’s political system, perhaps leading to a total meltdown of Thai politics. Read more »

The South China Sea Steams Up

by Elizabeth C. Economy Monday, June 27, 2011
Protesters march with banners and placards during an anti-China demonstration on a street in Hanoi on June 19, 2011. Several dozen Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese embassy and marched through Hanoi for the third Sunday running after Beijing sent one of its biggest maritime patrol ships into the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Protesters march with banners and placards during an anti-China demonstration on a street in Hanoi June 19, 2011. Several dozen Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese embassy and marched through Hanoi for the third Sunday running after Beijing sent one of its biggest maritime patrol ships into the disputed waters of the South China Sea. (John Ruwitch/Courtesy Reuters)

It is summertime, and everyone is out sailing on the South China Sea. Unfortunately, the waters have gotten a bit choppy.  The Philippines and Vietnam, in particular, are riled up over China’s most recent demonstrations of assertiveness: Chinese vessels have reportedly been busy intruding into Philippine waters and cutting the cables of two boats under the flag of PetroVietnam. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have called for assistance from the international community to help rein China in.

At stake, of course, are the potentially vast oil and natural gas resources that many believe the South China Sea possesses. For decades, six claimants—Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, and Brunei—have bickered and skirmished over who is entitled to what. Ancient claims of sovereignty run up against the Law of the Sea and Exclusive Economic Zones. Rhetorical and actual skirmishes have become a way of life. Indeed the situation has been far more dangerous in the past with live fire exchanged and fishermen or sailors killed.

What’s different now, however, is the context in which these conflicts are playing out. And this matters – a lot. Read more »

Are Multilateral Groups Missing the Point?

by Evan A. Feigenbaum Monday, June 27, 2011

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (center, L) and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (center, R) co-host the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto (L, back to camera) and Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa (R, back to camera) at the State Department in Washington, June 21, 2011. Courtesy Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.

At the June 21 meeting of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, Washington and Tokyo jointly agreed to promote trilateral strategic dialogue with India. And that announcement provided a nice opportunity to use my latest “DC Diary” column in India’s financial daily, the Business Standard, to revisit a theme from The United States in the New Asia, the CFR Special Report I wrote with Bob Manning in 2009.

What’s the point of all this geometry, anyway?  Innovation has been sadly lacking in the creation of various new Asian geometries, no matter whether they are large or small, trilateral or multilateral.

Read more »

Japan’s Reconstruction Planning

by Sheila A. Smith Friday, June 24, 2011
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan (2nd R) attends a cabinet meeting on environment and energy in Tokyo June 22, 2011.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan (2nd R) attends a cabinet meeting on environment and energy in Tokyo June 22, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters/Frank Robichon/Pool)

Without a doubt, this is a complex moment for the Japanese people. This is both a country struggling with critical governance challenges, and a society recovering from the shock and devastation of a tremendous set of disasters. As I travel, I have been amazed—both at the scale of Japan’s governance problems, and at the immense effort and creativity that has been ongoing across Japanese society since March 11.   Read more »

Inter-Korean Tensions and the Risks of ‘Friendly Fire’

by Scott A. Snyder Wednesday, June 22, 2011
South Korean marines patrol on Yeonpyeong Island December 21, 2010.

South Korean marines patrol on Yeonpyeong Island December 21, 2010. (Courtesy REUTERS/Newsis/Korea Pool)

Two South Korean marines guarding an island near the West Sea demarcation line that has been the site of several inter-Korean incidents in recent years last Friday mistakenly shot their K-2 rifles at a Korean civilian airliner traveling from Chengdu with 119 passengers on board that was making a final approach for landing at Incheon International Airport. The plane was too far away to be in danger, but the incident drew a public apology from the ROK Ministry of National Defense and a request to South Korean authorities to ensure air safety from the PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Setting aside the mildly unsettling fact that I flew out of Incheon the following day, the incident illustrates the dangers of accidental conflict that accompany heightened tensions following the breakdown of inter-Korean talks following last year’s military incidents between the two Koreas.

Read more »

What will the U.S. Reaction Be to Thailand’s Election?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Tuesday, June 21, 2011
A supporter of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of toppled premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the prime ministerial candidate for the country's biggest opposition Pheu Thai Party, holds her poster in front of a building decorated with banners of the Democrat party in Bangkok's notorious Klong Toey slum June 21, 2011.

A supporter of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of toppled premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the prime ministerial candidate for the country's biggest opposition Pheu Thai Party, holds her poster in front of a building decorated with banners of the Democrat party in Bangkok's notorious Klong Toey slum June 21, 2011. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

In the run up to Thailand’s national elections on July 3, most U.S. officials have said very little about the country and its poll. At recent events, for example, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has tended to brush over discussions of Thailand before going on to emphasize the United States’ other treaty allies and close partners in Southeast Asia, such as Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

That is probably a wise move – for now. As Bangkok Pundit notes, though polls suggest that the opposition Puea Thai party is likely to win, and possibly with a large majority. Thai polls are notoriously unreliable, so the Democrat Party and their smaller party partners could still pull off enough of a victory that would allow the Democrats to put together a ruling coalition in parliament.

Read more »