Well, good news everyone — we made it through 2016. It’s somewhat cliched at this point to note that the year marked many-a-global-turning-point, especially with the surge of populist politics worldwide, from the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, to the successful referendum in the United Kingdom on the country’s departure from the European Union, to the ascent of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. In the Asia-Pacific, the year neither represented a catastrophic decline into instability, but several trends do presage a difficult 2017 ahead for the region. Without further ado, here’s a brief retrospective at several events that occurred in 2016 and trends that kicked off that will bear heavily on stability and instability in the year ahead.
North Korea tests multiple nuclear devices and 30-some ballistic missiles.
2016 marked the first year to see multiple nuclear tests in North Korea — one in January and one in September (both claimed to be of thermonuclear devices by Pyongyang). Similarly, we saw an unprecedented level of missile testing, particularly of North Korea’s intermediate-range delivery systems, including the Nodong, the KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile, and Hwasong-10 (Musudan) missiles. Furthermore, North Korea tested nose cones for atmospheric reentry, new solid fuel propulsion for its missiles, and launched a satellite launch vehicle in February. The message coming from North Korea all year has been clear: It’s march toward realizing an operational and reliable nuclear deterrent is progressing steadily. With every nuclear and missile test this year, Pyongyang acquired important know-how. Denuclearization, though still the goal of U.S. policy toward North Korea, appears increasingly unrealistic; with a new administration in Washington, the conversation may shift more explicitly toward containment.
Cold winds across the Taiwan Strait
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait picked up attention in recent weeks, given the unprecedented phone call between Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, but 2016 marked an important year of change in the Taiwan Strait. The inauguration of an independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party government in May led to a temporary freeze in cross-strait communications; Beijing suspended cross-strait contact after expressing its dissatisfaction with Tsai’s treatment of the so-called “1992 consensus” between the two Chinas. The Taiwan Strait will be worth watching closely as a potential tinderbox, especially given that the incoming U.S. administration appears to be less inhibited than its predecessors in enthusiastically reaching out to Taiwan.
International law hits China over the South China Sea
On July 12, 2016, a five-judge tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued a long-anticipated verdict in a case filed originally in 2013 by the Philippines against China. The tribunal ruled overwhelmingly in Manila’s favor on nearly all counts, marking the first major defeat before international law for China in the realm of maritime affairs. Most significantly, the tribunal found that China’s nebulous nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea had no basis in international law. Though the ruling bore out no real consequences for Beijing’s activities in the area, it will stand tall as a landmark decision in international law — the first of its kind amid the labyrinthine disputes over islands, rocks, and reefs in the South China Sea
East, South China Seas continue to simmer.
Both the East China Sea and the South China Sea have seen considerable activity this year. China, in particular, has been energetic in testing disputed waters in both areas with its coast guard and navy. In the East China Sea, we witnessed an uptick in activity beginning in the summer, with the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands reemerging as a flashpoint after a relative lull in 2015. In the later months of the year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLAN) conducted drills in the Miyako Strait and Bashi Channel, paving the way for China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to make its first-ever passage into the Western Pacific via these critical waterways along the first island chain. Expect to see China send the Liaoning back to the Western Pacific as its crew acquires important experience and training ahead of Beijing’s launch a second carrier, which may very possibly occur next year.
In the South China Sea, despite the ruling, we witnessed continued tensions between China and Southeast Asian claimant states in the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, and around Scarborough Shoal, which was the original impetus for the Philippines’ 2013 case against China. Indonesia, a non-claimant, upped the ante against the China over disputed waters in the Natuna Sea, kicking off a more energetic approach toward maritime security in the South China Sea from the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Finally, satellite imagery late in 2016 demonstrated that China has started emplacing point defense systems on its seven infamous artificial islands in the Spratly Islands. In 2017, watch for a more assertive China in the South China Sea.
Rodrigo Duterte pivots away from the United States
One of the reasons that the tribunal’s verdict didn’t have staying power is because the plaintiff state saw an important change-in-government. The pro-American, internationalist government of President Benigno Aquino III yielded the Malacañang Palace to the anti-American, populist Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte, who entered office 12 days before the tribunal’s ruling dropped, swiftly signaled an intent to smooth things over with China over the South China Sea. Initially brushed off by some as the fanciful vagaries of an inexperienced populist president, Duterte’s anti-Americanism has shown remarkable staying power, throwing the future of one of the United States’ major treaty alliances into question. Furthermore, Manila chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2017, all but ensuring that Duterte’s whims will continue to bear on regional geopolitics in the year ahead.
Three Sudden Leadership Changes
Though little would normally connect these three countries, 2016 saw sudden changes at the highest levels of the state in South Korea, Uzbekistan, and Thailand. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye was successfully impeached in December following an influence-peddling scandal, weeks of massive public protest, and political turmoil. She awaits the review of a constitutional court before formally departing from the scene; the prime minister governs in the meantime, with elections likely slated for sooner than the original December 2017 timeline.
In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, one of the last remaining Soviet-era strongmen, died on the eve of the country’s celebration of 25 years of independence. Karimov’s succession initially raised questions, but Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s prime minister, rose to the task. Mirziyoyev is expected to continue Karimov’s iron-fisted rule, which was marked by kleptocracy, human rights violations, and a disregard for the rule of law
In Thailand, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, died, passing the throne on to the crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn. Thailand, despite being a constitutional monarchy, will see the crown play an important role in managing civil-military tensions under the current junta-led government that has been in place since a May 2014 coup. In particular, 2017 may see the exacerbation of tensions between ultra-royalists, who have long disliked the flamboyant and ostentatious Maha Vajiralongkorn, preferring Princess Chakri Sirindhorn instead. Though the crown and the ruling junta managed a peaceful royal succession after Bhumibol’s death in October, there are further concerns within the military that the new king could be sympathetic to the exiled former democratically elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
India and Pakistan clash over Kashmir
2016 didn’t kick off well for the two South Asian neighbors, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s late-2015 overture to Pakistan via a surprise visit to his Pakistani counterpart’s hometown quickly scuttled by a terror attack in the first week of January 2016 that India attributed to Pakistan-based militants. Tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors saw an uptick after Pakistan sensed an opportunity following a summer surge of outrage in the Kashmir valley after Hizbul Mujahideen leader Burhan Wani was killed by Indian forces. Finally, a September terror attack — again attributed to militants who had crossed over the Line of Control separating Indian- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir — saw the Indian Army endure its greatest casualty count in a single attack in more than a decade. Heading into the new year, the two countries show little sign of reconciliation, with India actively pursuing a strategy of isolating Pakistan internationally and Islamabad continuing to wrangle with differences in priorities between its democratically elected civilian government and military leadership.
Donald Trump is elected president of the United States.
You saw this one coming. Trump’s election in the United States suggests that Washington’s long-standing role as a guarantor of the regional security architecture and the post-Second World War order is under question. With weeks left in the presidential transition, Trump has shown to prefer a transactional type of bilateral diplomacy that focuses almost entirely on swiftly observable benefits for the United States. U.S. support for normative principles including human rights and the rule of law, in addition to principled support for international law, may recede, presenting an opportunity for regional revisionism by China, the primary great power challenger to the United States in Asia.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership fails.
This one technically hasn’t formally panned out just yet, but Trump has suggested that cancelling U.S. support for the controversial 12-country trade deal will be a day one priority for his administration. TPP’s failure will only serve to put U.S. credibility on the line with Asian partners and allies, reaffirming fears that Washington’s commitment to normative leadership in the region is either waning or gone altogether. In TPP’s absence, competing proposals like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation-led Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific may see more enthusiasm. Though the deals won’t contain TPP’s heavy focus on high standards for intellectual property, labor, and the environment, they will nonetheless enable regional integration and prosperity.
Afghanistan teeters, facing an intensified Taliban challenge.
2016 was not the year that many in Afghanistan’s government would have hoped for. With a second close call in losing the important provincial capital of Kunduz to the Taliban, in addition to a dangerously close skirmish over Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, the Afghan government managed to hold on to major urban hubs, while nonetheless conceding more remote territory to the militant group. The Taliban suffered important blows. In particular, a U.S. drone strike succeeded in killing Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour in Pakistan’s Balochistan province in May 2016, leading to the group’s second leadership transition in two years. Outside of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s economy continues to struggle with unemployment and non-foreign-aid-based growth. A controversial peace deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami armed group has been pitched as a victory for the cause of reconciliation in the country, but its long-term viability remains to be seen.
Myanmar’s Rakhine state burns.
The final months of 2016 may foreshadow a turning point in the situation along the Myanmar-Bangladesh frontier and in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where the state has long persecuted the stateless Rohingya people. State-backed violence in the area has intensified in the final months of 2016, leading to massive internal displacement. Observers have noted that retribution attacks on Myanmar Border Guard Police in Rakhine state suggest that a new insurgency may be taking root, led by overseas-based Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy have enjoyed more than a year in power since the historic 2015 elections, with little sign of interest in a sustainable and serious solution for the challenges in this region that consider the plight of the Rohingya.
Abe and Putin make nice.
In May 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Sochi, Russia, for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That meeting marked the start of a new Japanese approach toward Russia, picking up on momentum that had been lost in early 2014 after Japan had no choice but to participate in Western sanctions against Moscow in the aftermath of its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Abe’s efforts culminated in a major summit between the two leaders just weeks ago. To his disappointment, there were no serious concessions from Russia on the issue of the Kuril Islands — a lingering territorial dispute between the two countries from the end of World War II. Instead, Japan agreed to a range of economic agreements with Moscow. As Putin left, however, there were signs that the Tokyo-Moscow rapprochement kicked off this year was setting the stage for more to come in 2017. Keep an eye on how this relationship will take shape, particularly given the eleventh-hour sanctions announced by the Obama administration against Russia for its hacking of U.S. groups during the election. Abe might find himself either once again boxed in by Japan’s long-standing alliance with the United States, or may see Trump give Japan a free hand to pursue more energetic diplomacy with Russia. (The context underlying the rapprochement includes Japanese fears of an ever-closer Russia-China entente.)
The above list is far from exhaustive, but represents some of the more important events in 2016 that will bear out geopolitical consequences in the year ahead. In addition to the above, the year saw political turbulence and leadership shifts in Nepal, tensions between Mongolia and China as the former’s economy came under pressure, the full-on operationalization of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, democratic backsliding in the Maldives, and much more. As we enter 2017, I recommend that readers take a gander at the January 2017 issue of The Diplomat‘s magazine, which was released earlier this week. In it, we asked a group of our regular contributors to offer their thoughts on the major trends that should be watched closely as we head into the new year. We’re not going anywhere at The Diplomat and will be closely watching, analyzing, and reporting on all of the above issues in the year to come.
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