A Hopeful ‘Turn’ Toward 2012

A series of critical events compelled the US to turn its attention toward the Asia-Pacific region in 2011. Natural disasters, leadership changes, protests, power struggles, China’s rise and American influence led the headlines. This tumultuous year foreshadows an eventful 2012 for those with interests in the region. Looking forward, states and their citizens should be prepared for continued political, economic and environmental disruptions.

Gripping Natural Disasters:

  • Flooding in Australia, Philippines, Thailand
  • Earthquakes in Japan, New Zealand
  • Water shortages in Tokelau and Tuvalu

Top Political Occurrences:

  • Death of Kim Jong Il and uncertainty for the future of the Korean Peninsula
  • Burma’s election of civilian government and promise of future elections with participation by Aung San Suu Kyi
  • China’s Peaceful Development white paper release
  • Disputes in the South China Sea
  • Political standoff in Papua New Guinea

Key US Initiatives:

  • President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s trips to the Asia-Pacific for bilateral and multilateral meetings
  • US ‘turn’ toward Pacific and “forward-deployed diplomacy”
  • Renewing and affirming alliances with Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam

Strides toward bilateral and multilateral cooperation in trade and security have been taken in 2011 in the Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN and APEC are coming into their own, and the ASEAN Community has much to look forward to. Despite Canada leaving Kyoto, there is still hope for international climate agreements with the US, China and India beginning to accept their responsibilities. Furthermore, free trade agreements and regional trade agreements continue to gain momentum; the growing list of countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a signal of the importance of regional trade and plans for continued growth.

International cooperation can appear to be wishful thinking with growing resource insecurity, continued border disputes, periodic political instability, increasing natural disasters and renewed aggressive rhetoric from the US and China. However, economic, political and social progress demands increased cooperation. Hopefully China can use its influence in the region and alliances with countries like Burma and North Korea for good rather than aiding authoritarian leaders in their maintenance of power and in the exploitation of natural and labor resources. Popular movements in the region, spurred on by current injustices, are also providing pressure for change from the bottom up. Together, these events could have a powerful impact on the plans for greater regional integration, security cooperation and economic development. Hopefully 2012 will be a year of cooperation for mutual benefit for the people of the region.

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Biggest Polluters Sign on at Durban Climate Talks

 After nearly two weeks of United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa, a last-minute agreement was reached which proponents deemed an “historic breakthrough to save the planet”. Nonprofit organizations, politicians and others which lobbied for strict emissions cuts with consequences and a clearer roadmap, on the other hand, denied that a real “deal” was reached, claiming the delegates “watered things down so everyone could get on board” and even that it was a “failure”. In the final moments of the meeting, the ‘Durban Platform for Enhanced Action’ was delicately worded so all countries could accept the legal form, however begrudgingly. The big news is that China, India and the US – the three largest greenhouse gas emitters not covered under Kyoto – finally accepted that the rest of the world (including the climate) could not wait any longer for them to act and to be held accountable.

The US has typically been against signing onto any legal framework or targeted emissions cuts unless China and developing nations also take part. China has argued that it is still a developing country and should not be held to the same emissions standards as the US and Europe while it continues industrialization. However, the European Union and smaller countries (particularly those that will be significantly impacted by climate change) grew tired of the lack of participation by the world’s largest emissions emitters, and coerced China, India and the US to agree on language that would give all parties mandates for compliance. The Platform constrains all parties to “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” to be decided in 2015 and that will come into force in 2020. For those countries most impacted by climate change, the long wait for enforcement in 2020 will not be soon enough to mitigate droughts or floods, or to save some small islands states (which are plentiful in the Pacific) from rising sea level.

As the “only binding climate instrument with specific emission targets”, the Kyoto Protocol commits the worst emitters to reduce emissions, with a heavier burden placed on developed countries. As the Kyoto Protocol is due to expire next year, the Durban talks kept the agreement alive, with the EU agreeing on a second commitment from 2013 “so that the world has a legal treaty to cut emissions in place before 2020”. The EU has taken pride in their leadership role in reducing emissions to mitigate climate change, even when Canada, Japan, Russia, and others are not ready. The European Parliament’s environment committee chairman suggested that the US and China have been playing a “ping-pong game” which “hijacked” the past three climate meetings. Nonetheless, the Europeans believe their diplomatic efforts have successfully put China, India and the US on “a roadmap that will secure an overarching deal”.

The ‘roadmap,’ will take time to develop. Between now and 2020, only Europe and a few developed countries “are legally bound to cutting carbon emissions through a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.” Given that the economic crisis has made many Americans feel that climate change is no longer an important issue it is difficult to foresee the US following through and signing onto an eventual legal framework. Meanwhile China, India and the US only have voluntary targets to follow until 2020.

Clinton’s Travel to Myanmar Leaves Little Room for Controversy

Albeit on short public notice, Secretary of State Clinton’s quick trip to Burma/Myanmar was highly anticipated in policy circles. Commentators asked what would she accomplish, why should she go, and what did she achieve? Overall, many of us reached similar conclusions:

• Clinton’s trip was timely given the policy ‘turn’ toward the Asia-Pacific;

• It signified a positive boost for President Thein Sein’s actions toward reforms;

• There is need for greater and unique engagement;

• Three key issues remain unresolved – release of all political prisoners, violence among different ethnic groups, and uncertain relations between Myanmar and North Korea.

More than just to provide counter to China, the US seeks to make a lasting impact in Myanmar’s political situation. In one of her statements, Secretary Clinton said that “the United States wants to be a partner with Burma” and “we want to see this country take its rightful place in the world.” Furthermore, the US wants to assist Myanmar “to build the capacity of the government”.

Officially, the US policy is “principled engagement and direct dialogue as part of” a “dual-track approach”. The call for a “new conditional normalization” by CFR scholar Joshua Kurlantzick is premature. Kurlantzick writes:

Working with other industrialized democracies, the United States should be prepared to provide a large new aid package, upgrade relations, push for Myanmar’s reentry into global organizations, and potentially end sanctions—if, in return, Myanmar continues to move toward holding free elections, ending its insurgencies, and demonstrating real transparency about its weapons programs.

The goal of “conditional normalization” is to “prevent instability…stop Myanmar’s development of nuclear programs; and help promote democratization”. This policy turn would be a stark difference to past public declarations and policies, and however noble it is too early for implementation.

One would like to think that the situation in Myanmar is unique, and with just a bit of prodding the country can turn into a fledgling democracy with a vibrant export-driven economy. For all its intricacies and potential, however, it was not long ago that Buddhist monks were being imprisoned or killed for protesting, Aung San Suu Kyi was under perpetual house arrest, and other severe human rights abuses were going unrecognized by the international community (through lack of official UN resolutions or condemnations). The civil society sectors to which Clinton pledged funding have been few and far between or historically corrupt (due to channeling of money to the government first). A positive pathway for engagement to improve the level of human development is through the Lower Mekong Initiative, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the US; Clinton invited Myanmar to the program, and if nothing else it could enable better coordination for disaster relief and climate-related issues.