As the new United States administration prepares for its’ first Heads of State summit with China it will be very important for America’s close allies in Asia that President Trump addresses territorial, security, and human rights issues in East Asia with President Xi Jinping.
First and foremost is the issue of the administration in North Korea that is deemed to present an existential threat to Tokyo and Seoul. The policy of “strategic patience” appears to have failed, and North Korea has built a missile and nuclear capability that may over time wreak havoc as far away as Seattle and Los Angels, as well as the closer theaters of South Korea and Japan.
Wendy Sherman who helped to negotiate the Iranian Nuclear agreement, and who has negotiated with Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, believes the current US administration may find it extremely challenging to resolve the escalating North Korean crisis on its own. China is uniquely positioned to influence North Korean outcomes being the largest trading partner, and one of only three countries to share a border with North Korea.
The problems on the Korean peninsula have been further complicated by the recent impeachment and arrest of South Korean’s President Park Geun-hye that have precipitated a presidential election in South Korea on May 9th. There are concerns that the repressive regime in North Korea may be influencing this election.
The recent positioning of anti-ballistic missile systems (“THAAD”) in South Korea by the United States has also angered China and precipitated a backlash against South Korean businesses operating in China.
The extraterritorial murder of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half brother, at Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia using banned chemical substances has also greatly concerned many countries across the region as well as the rest of the developed world. There is also the tragic and still unresolved issue of many Japanese citizens taken hostage by North Korea who have been missing for decades.
Secondly the issue of Chinese claims in the South China Sea that could potentially impact freedom of navigation rights in East Asia is an issue that looms very large with several of America’s closest allies in the region most notably the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and further north South Korea, and Japan that rely heavily on the South China Sea route for trade.
In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea where China has built what some military analysts describe as “permanent aircraft carriers” on the Paracel and Spratley Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal. This could potentially disrupt freedom of navigation across the region including the critical north to south routes that link Australia with markets in North Asia, and west to east from the Indian Ocean into the Pacific that are critical for transmitting oil and gas from the Middle East to Asia.
In the East China Sea, China continues to make territorial incursions into Japanese waters close to Sengaku Islands that are administered by Japan. This has the potential to create a risk of conflict between the two neighboring countries that could quickly escalate into warfare, and which may be helping to precipitate an arms race in East Asia.
On the political front concerns continue around the ability of the peoples in Hong Kong and Taiwan to achieve a degree of political self determination that is enshrined in law. Taiwan recently announced a program to construct its own submarine systems in order to enable it to secure its own defense. The recent appointment of a new Chief Executive of Hong Kong was deemed a “selection” rather than an “election” by many Hong Kong residents due to extensive involvement of the authorities in Beijing. There are also concerns around continuing human rights abuses for the peoples of Xinjiang and Tibet.
While we expect trade to dominate the agenda in the discussions in Florida later this week we think it is important that America addresses the territorial, security, and human rights issues in East Asia to avoid the potential for possible catastrophic military escalations, and to secure Asia’s future in the global economy.
Tom O’Sullivan is the founder of Mathyos Japan, is a former investment banker, and is a Civil Engineer and Chartered Accountant