The next 5 months could be one of high drama and tension in East Asia geopolitics due to various leadership transitions and elections. In South Korea we have already seen election year sensitivities coming to have real life policy consequences with the last-minute cancellation of the ACSA/GSOMIA military accords between Japan and the ROK. With the presidential election due to be held in December 2012 this might just be the first in a series of tensions between Japan and South Korea, or even between the ROK and the US. North Korean leaders are also the masters of milking the US presidential season for concessions by simultaneously escalating tensions and negotiating for their deescalation.
The US presidential and congressional elections take place in November this year, which will constrain President Barack Obama on issues such as North Korea, Iran, and the TPP, and will likely push him to take tougher positions on China-related issues such as human rights, currency manipulation and adherence to WTO rules. China will also undergo a leadership change around November this year, and although the top two positions of CCP General Secretary (and eventually PRC president) and Party Secretary (and eventually Premier) of the State Council appear to be relatively safe for Xi Jinping and Le Keqiang, the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee could well change depending on internal CCP politics around internal and external events. It is important to bear in mind that the slowdown in the Chinese economy that is currently taking place could make this a more sensitive time than normal for the PRC. This sensitivity could be exacerbated by Sino-American relations. Every president since Nixon has essentially found it useful to take a tougher line on China in their first term. Some have speculated this is because of the lack of a working relationship and distrust between Chinese leaders and a new US administration, and the general demands of reelection politics. Human rights, trade, and Taiwan/North Korea issues generally tend to pop up as critical issues around US election time and the administration in power cannot be seen to be taking a soft line towards China. Of course this is simply not just about the US. When the PRC undergoes its sensitive 10-yearly leadership transition analysts have pointed out that actors other than the core CCP leadership tend to have their influence augmented and reflected more in PRC foreign policy and diplomacy. The PLA and the SOE sector of the economy for example tend to have greater influence during this period. With these two pivotal events for Sino-American relations taking place in exactly the same month tensions are sure to rise, and the possibility for diplomatic conflict or worse cannot be ruled out. Recent tensions over the South China Sea may well have set the tone for the next 5 months or more.
Then there is Japan. While Japan’s House of Representatives election does not have to be held until the middle of next year there has been some talk about a November date, after the ruling DPJ and the opposition LDP’s internal party elections. Given the various inter- and intra-party interests this seems quite plausible, although far from determined. From the foreign policy view this could add to diplomatic tensions in East Asia. For Noda Yoshihiko the main goal before then will be for him to suck as much oxygen out of his opponents’ likely election platforms by either appealing to his opponents to work together on these platforms in the interim, or taking them on as his own.
Indeed there are signs of such a strategy being implemented. Noda is continuing to support the Osaka-mayor backed development of legislation to turn the Osaka region into a Metropolitan administrative district similar to Tokyo. While Noda is unlikely to decisively agree to Japan’s joining TPP negotiations, he will continue to fly the TPP flag – another policy interest of Mayor Hashimoto Toru and his reformist One Osaka (Ishin no Kai) party. Both the One Osaka party and the LDP have identified in their policy statements a desire to change Japan’s disposition towards defense and collective self-defense in particular – the LDP through the dubious mechanism of “constitutional reinterpretation” and Hashimoto through a constitutional amendment to Article 9. Noda has in the last week identified discussion on the interpretation of collective self-defense as something he wants to push forward in the current parliamentary session, particularly as it pertains to defense of US ships on the high seas and Japan’s use of its BMD system to defend the US from ballistic missile attack. Finally, Noda has also pushed forward on the previously identified proposal of ‘nationalizing’ the Senkaku Islands, where the government takes over ownership from the current private owner. This is clearly focused on taking a little wind out of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro’s sails – something that Ishihara furiously alluded to in public. It is also a reasonably popular policy which will do no harm to Noda assuming he acts in a more decisive way than Kan Naoto’s administration did when faced with Chinese pressure over the islands.
The Noda administration’s other objective will be to relieve itself of as much pressure as possible from external sources as well. US-Japan relations could become a source of tension due to a number of issues. First there is the ongoing issue over the Futenma Replacement Facility. Second there is the continuing controversy and diplomatic friction over the deployment of the unpopular Ospreys to both Okinawa and Japan’s mainland. Third, there is the TPP, where arguments for Japan to enter negotiations have become weaker giving recent US demands. Noda is in an impossible situation in regards to all of these issues, given how politically vulnerable he now is in terms of both the upper and lower house numbers (as any subsequent prime minister will be without a solid majority in the Diet). In the short-term the best that Noda can do is state that he is committed to pushing forward with the policies, and hope that US election politics mercifully distracts Washington DC.
Noda’s plan to discuss collective self-defense may also have an external facing dimension. Given Noda’s political acumen, it would not be a surprise to find out that he is using such discussions as a hedge against Chinese escalation of the Senkaku Islands dispute that is likely to come about should Noda’s “nationalization” plan come to fruition in the next few months. While the CCP can be unpredictable in terms of how they react to certain sensitive diplomatic issues, the party leadership, and likely the PLA, will be united in not wanting to see Japan take on a more proactive military stance. The CCP at least still takes a realist approach to its foreign policy thinking, and the one thing they will not want to see, now that the strategic “distraction” of Taiwan has been somewhat dampened in the interim, is Japan rising to become a full strategic competitor in the East Asia region. A change in Japan’s collective self-defense doctrine would portend such a development for the Chinese leadership. The Chinese will be all the more wary given Japan’s recent activities in strengthening relations with its ASEAN partners. Not wanting to give the Japanese government a good excuse to go forward with changes in Japan’s security doctrine, the CCP may well tone down its ‘outrage’ over the nationalization of the Senkakus, assuming that the more hardline policies such as the stationing of the SDF of the islands, as proposed by Ishihara Shintaro, are not entertained. If more hard-line ‘nationalist’ elements in the CCP, or in the PLA in particular, take advantage of the more permissive pre-leadership transition political environment and move to escalate the issue then Noda possibly figures that he can make some political capital out of that as well, depending on the nature of the escalation.
The above is perhaps a somewhat cynical reading of the current geopolitical environment and internal politics of various regional actors. There are promising developments such as the potential (日) restarting of trade talks between Japan and the ROK, and Japan’s likely participation in three-way talks on a NE Asia trade bloc with China and the ROK. There may even be some coming together over North Korea and a restart of the six-party talks given China’s increasing displeasure with the DPRK. These will all have great long-term significance if they come to fruition. However in the short-term one should expect tension to be the norm rather than the exception. This coming together of domestic politics and external developments in putting pressure on various governments, which will need to be mediated through sensitive East Asian publics, means that avoidance of such tensions will likely require skillful behind-the-scenes diplomacy until at least early 2013.