Over at the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman observes the global uncertainties that loom large as the Obama administration entered its last hundred days in office earlier this week. Rachman outlines ongoing risks in the Middle East, Europe, and the South China Sea. As far as the Asia-Pacific is concerned, not only is it likely that the U.S. president will leave the Oval Office to his successor with much unfinished business, but a range of ongoing developments could resolve themselves to leave Obama’s successor with a complicated diplomatic inbox. Below, I run through some of the trends Asia watchers ought to keep their eyes on as the Obama administration winds down and his successor — either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — prepares to enter the presidential transition period after November 8.
TPP’s Lame Duck Fate
I’ll start with TPP since it, surprisingly, seems to be one of the more clear cut questions at this point. I’ve expressed skepticism before in these pages at the idea that TPP could end up being ratified by the U.S. Senate in the lame duck congressional session following the elections, but with trade and globalization having become increasingly toxic issues and senior Republican leadership wholly disinterested in lame duck ratification, odds of TPP ratification under Obama aren’t looking better. That means the next U.S. president is almost guaranteed to inherit the politically touchy trade deal. (As an aside, despite the common perception this election season that trade has grown into a toxic topic, a plurality of Americans simply don’t know what TPP is. Data from a year ago even shows wide support for the pact.)
Duterte’s South China Sea ‘Recalibration’
Rachman touches on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “recalibration” of the U.S.-Philippines alliance, but with his visit to China this week, we’ll find out soon enough if his “colorful” language toward the United States and the West is all talk or can be followed up by real actions. Importantly, between November and January, we’ll potentially see Manila and Beijing put any new agreement over Scarborough Shoal to the test in the South China Sea. Depending on what, if anything, is agreed to, China-Philippines bilateralism could undermine the July 2016 ruling by the five-judge tribunal at the Hague, which, among other things, found China’s capacious nine-dash line claim invalid. On the flip side, if things go poorly in Beijing and Duterte walks away from rapprochement, China could decide to seize on the Obama administration’s final days and begin land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal.
A North Korean Wild Card
Any list discussing risks in Asia necessarily must include North Korea, which has carried out two underground nuclear tests and 18 (and counting) missile launches in the first 10 months of this year. Though it’s hard to predict what Pyongyang has in store next, anything from a sixth nuclear test to another successful test of its Hwasong-10 intermediate-range ballistic missile could complicate matters for the next U.S. president. (The Hwasong-10 is thought to be capable of striking Guam.) Additionally, with continuing rumblings at North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station, Pyongyang could soon attempt another satellite launch.
The aftermath of September’s deadly attack on an Indian Army outpost in Uri, Kashmir, has left ties between South Asia’s two nuclear-armed rivals hanging by a thin thread. Washington maintains an old and difficult partnership with Pakistan and has seen its ties with India accelerate considerably in the first two-and-a-half years of Narendra Modi’s government. Though the odds of conventional war between the two countries remain low despite chest-thumping on both sides after India claimed to have carried out “surgical strikes” across the line demarcating India-occupied and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, this is one flashpoint that could take an unexpected turn during the winter months. Given the influence of public opinion on the Modi government’s approach toward Pakistan, all it might take is one devastating attack on a civilian target by Pakistan-based militants to spark serious escalation.
Thailand After Bhumibol
This one wouldn’t have made the list had it not been for news last week that Thailand’s long-reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, died, setting the country up for an uncertain and potentially volatile period of succession. As I discussed earlier in October, Bhumibol, as a revered and admired king, helped symbolically unite a country that is deeply fragmented along political and urban-rural lines otherwise. The latest news out of Bangkok is that Prem Tinlasunonda will preside as regent as Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who doesn’t inspire the same kind of devotion his father did, mourns and prepares to rule in a year’s time. Thailand additionally has elections under the newly approved constitution next year. The next few months could be a critical indicator of what’s to come in Thailand in 2017 as the country grapples with Bhumibol’s passing.
A Japan-Russia Rapprochement
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet formally in Japan in December 2016, with a potential deal over the long-running Kuril Islands dispute on the table. Though it’s far from certain that the two sides will cinch an agreement on the dispute, which has been running since the end of the Second World War, there have been several signs this year that Abe is interested in pursuing a full-on rapprochement with Russia after initial acquiescing to Western demands for pressure on Moscow following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Though better Russia-Japan ties are far from a direct threat to Washington’s deep and enduring alliance with Japan, the development could bear geopolitical consequences on how Tokyo and Moscow manage their respective bilateral relationships with China.
Simmer to a Boil in the East China Sea
Tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea seemed to pick up this summer after a period of relative calm lasting for nearly a year. Early in the summer, for the first time since 2004, a Chinese naval vessel entered the contiguous zone of the dispute Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. We also saw Chinese scores of fishing trawlers and coast guard vessels enter the territorial sea of these islets, drawing sharp condemnation from Japan. The East China Sea continues to remain a flashpoint and represents the most likely spark for a possible skirmish between East Asia’s two largest powers.
Change in the Air
In May, Tsai Ing-wen emerged as Taiwan’s new president. As a member of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, relations between Beijing and Taipei have chilled considerably over the year. U.S.-Taiwan relations continue to persist, but there’s less clarity on how the cross-strait picture will evolve from here.
Moreover, we have, in Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s ongoing consolidation after Islam Karimov’s surprise death in September.
In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo seems to have energized the country’s security apparatus around the Natunas, seemingly concerned about illegal Chinese fishing and maritime law enforcement activities in the area after multiple incidents this year.
Meanwhile, Australia, an important U.S. ally and one of the few countries to have thrown its support behind the July 2016 South China Sea ruling as final and binding, seems to be pulling back from surface freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
China, meanwhile, is set to convene the sixth plenum of the 18th Party Congress later this month, setting into motion the transition into the 19th Party Congress next year and the set of leadership changes that will come along with it. Moreover, with rumors swirling that Xi Jinping may decide to delay appointing a successor, the possibility of internal Chinese Communist Party power struggles reflecting themselves in China’s foreign policy are a possibility.
Overall, it’s remarkable how much change has emerged across the Asia-Pacific in the Obama administration’s final year in office. As the Obama administration prepares to enter the presidential transition period, Asia remains in flux, offering no shortage of flashpoints to populate the next U.S. president’s inbox. Whoever comes out on top on November 8 will inherit a complicated portfolio for U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific.