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2012 – Ripe for a Flashpoint

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New Leaders Forum

2012 – Ripe for a Flashpoint

With a series of elections and other events in Asia-Pacific next year, there’s plenty of room for tensions to boil over.

The announcement that Vladimir Putin is to run for president in Russia is a reminder that the East Asia region is likely to be in the spotlight for much of next year. With many key states – including de facto Pacific power the United States – holding elections next year, expect much speculation about the implications of possible power transfers.

Things kick off in January with the presidential election in Taiwan, followed by the Russian poll in March, then the US election in November and South Korea’s in December. China, meanwhile, will likely see a shift in power from President Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP), sometime in October. In addition, North Korea has already started its power succession process as it looks ahead to 2012 – the year it’s supposed to officially become a ‘Strong and Prosperous’ nation.

So what’s the significance of this unusual convergence of political activity? And does it pose a threat to regional stability?

One key issue will be whether or not incumbent regimes adjust their foreign policy with an eye on domestic audiences. Tied to this is the possibility of countries exploiting nationalist sentiment in an effort to consolidate domestic support. With this in mind, some China watchers believe the country’s more assertive foreign policy since last year is connected to the transfer of power there.

Then, of course, there are the potential hotspots. Taiwan’s presidential election on January 14 deserves particular attention given its implications for the Sino-US relationship. Since declaring a diplomatic truce in 2008, the administration of Ma Ying-jeouhas maintained a relatively stable relationship with Beijing compared with that of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. Ma’s engagement with the mainland has been welcomed by Beijing, and the Chinese leadership has responded positively, including by launching the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). And, although the Chinese leadership is frustrated over the slow progress in talks on unification, Beijing would undoubtedly rather continue dealing with the Ma administration than the more independence minded Democratic Progress Party (DPP).

Either way, both the DPP and Beijing appear to have learnt some useful lessons from the past. The DPP, for example, has so far been careful not to overemphasize the independence issue in its campaigning, while Beijing is unlikely to repeat its past mistake of conducting military exercises with a view to influencing (and intimidating) Taiwan.

More unpredictable is what will happen on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea will hold its general election on April, 2012, an event likely to be overshadowed by the presidential poll on December 19. South Korean general elections usually focus on domestic issues, and so North Korea would not normally feature as a key consideration. And, faced by continuing global economic instability, voters would usually be more worried about issues that affect their wallets. However, in addition to the presidential and general elections, South Korea will also host the 2nd Nuclear Security Summit in March. The Lee Myung-bak administration will be focusing a great deal on preparation for this high-profile international conference, which takes place just a couple of weeks before the general election. Given the nature of the conference, the denuclearization of North Korea will feature strongly, which is bound to affect the terms of discussion in the general election. The Lee administration’s hard-line approach toward North Korea has always been controversial, and the implications of this could be felt as Pyongyang takes the spotlight in the election campaigns. 

The real danger in all this is the unpredictable behaviour of North Korea. On April 15 next year the country will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s founder and father of Kim Jong-il. Interestingly, 2012 also marks the 80th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army, the 15th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s emergence as supreme leader, and the Dear Leader’s 70th birthday.

As North Korea’s economy has continued to deteriorate, Pyongyang has recognized that the country is far from achieving its goal of becoming an economically prosperous nation. But Kim does have the tools to show that North Korea can still be militarily powerful. With this in mind, many analyst fear the Kim regime will conduct another round of provocations, including a third nuclear test, to escalate tensions and distract the country’s attention from internal failures, as well as boost internal unity for the succession to Kim Jong-un.

The worst case scenario next year would be if China and the United States were sucked in by events on the Peninsula into a game of chicken. If another crisis arises, be it another attack like that on the South Korean warship the Cheonan, a missile test or even a nuclear test, China and the United States could get dragged into a standoff involving their respective allies. After the Cheonan incident in 2010, China criticized the United States’ decision to conduct joint military exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea. The exercises were moved following Chinese protests, but what if the US and South Korea felt pressured by North Korean provocations to follow through on such a plan next year? Ahead of its power succession, Beijing couldn’t afford to look weak by allowing the US to demonstrate its power so close to Chinese territory. Instead, China would likely take a tougher line. The same goes for the United States – the Obama administration can’t afford to appear weak, especially in the face of likely attacks over national security from a Republican opponent. Obama will be keen to send a message that the United States ‘kindness’ in relocating the Yellow Sea exercises shouldn’t be taken as weakness.

So, are tensions destined to boil over next year? Ironically, the global financial crisis may prevent a worst case scenario. Then-US President Bill Clinton’s election sound bite ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ remains just as relevant today – for the United States and China. Both countries have significant domestic challenges to face down, and with luck they will be too engaged with managing problems at home to risk discord internationally.

Of course this doesn’t apply to North Korea, where the leadership has little regard for the well-being of a public that anyway doesn’t have a genuine say in elections. With this in mind, the country’s neighbours would do well to plan ahead for potential belligerence from Pyongyang to prevent events spiralling out of control. They’ve got their work cut out for them.

Sungmin Cho is a James Kelly Korean Studies Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. He earned his BA at Korea University and an MA in International Relations at Peking University.