Ashlyn Anderson, Lauren Dickey, Darcie Draudt, Charles McClean, Will Piekos, and Sharone Tobias look at the top stories in Asia today.
1. Obama on a four-country tour of Asia to reassure allies and reinforce U.S. rebalancing. Obama began his Asia tour in Japan, where he discussed trade negotiations (see story below). He made waves when he reassured Japan that Washington was committed to its defense, including in the East China Sea, where maritime disputes between China and Japan have caused skirmishes and tension. While the United States does not officially take a position on the administration of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Obama said, “historically they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally.” Obama then traveled to South Korea, where he expressed his condolences for the victims of the capsized Sewol ferry. He also said that it may be time for the United States and its allies to consider “further isolation” of North Korea if it continues to conduct nuclear tests. Obama will continue to Malaysia and the Philippines this weekend and early next week.
2. U.S. and Japan progress on TPP talks, but Obama leaves without a deal. President Obama and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe worked around the clock on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement during his recent Tokyo visit, a U.S.-led free trade initiative involving twelve nations. Japanese finance minister Taro Aso complained that “no agreement would ever be reached until the U.S. midterm elections are over.” Congress is unlikely to give Obama the fast-track authority to strike a deal, making the discussions more difficult. On Japan’s side, farmers pushed to keep the steep tariffs on imports of certain agricultural products; though Japan offered reductions on some agricultural items, Prime Minister Abe was not willing to further compromise and risk angering the important constituency.
3. Pacific navies agree to CUES. The Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) was approved by the twenty-one member states of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium this week. The member states include China, the United States, Japan, and the Philippines. The hope is that the code will “reduce interference and uncertainty during unexpected contact between naval vessels or aircraft.” The agreement is nonbinding and voluntary. For its part, China has made it clear that the code will not change the country’s territorial claims.
4. Thirty-seven suspected militants killed in Pakistani airstrikes. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government ended their ceasefire with the Pakistani Taliban on Thursday, launching an operation targeting militant hideouts in the Khyber tribal region bordering Afghanistan. The operation was in response to a wave of militant attacks against police and civilians in Islamabad and Peshawar. The Tehrik-e-Taliban formally ended their ceasefire with the government on April 16, but are still involved in peace talks. The two parties met on Wednesday in an attempt to reinvigorate the negotiations, agreeing to create a subcommittee to handle complaints from both sides.
5. Public outrage mounts against governmental response to capsized South Korean ferry. Response to the Sewol ferry accident off the southwest coast of the country has been met with widespread public censure, ranging from how parents of schoolchildren on the boat were counseled, how public administration and security installed crisis response centers, the sloppiness and lateness of rescue operations, and the absence of communication. The captain and crew have been arrested for alleged negligence and abandonment, which under South Korean law is illegal. President Park Geun-hye, apparently taking cues from the public opinion backlash, declared the actions of the captain and crew of the Sewol as “tantamount to murder;” her comments have been criticized for attempting to deflect blame away from her administration. As of Thursday, the number of confirmed deaths was 171, with an additional 130 people still missing.
Bonus: Justin Bieber visits Japan’s Yasukuni shrine. Justin Beiber stumbled into the geopolitical spotlight this week when he posted two photos to his Instagram and Twitter accounts from his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Known for his chart-topping hits, not his political awareness, Beiber captioned one photo quite simply, “thank you for your blessings.” While the photos have since been deleted, the damage has been done. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said he hopes the “so-called Canadian famous singer” can “learn more about the history of Japanese militarism.” Bieber ultimately issued an apology to those offended by his visit.