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The mimic of Democracy of the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government in Exile

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source: *christopher* — Flickr: HH The Dalai Lama's visit to Boston

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – known also Tibetan Government in Exile – celebrates ‘Democracy Day’ on 2 September every year and has done so since 1960, one year after the Dalai Lama and his entourage escaped from Tibet. It was on September 2, 1960 when the Parliament of the CTA (known originally as the Commission of Tibetan People’s Deputies) began functioning, and since then the CTA it has presented itself as a democratic ‘government’ with a Constitution that protects the inalienable rights and freedom of its people.

As common as the concept of democracy appears to be in a modern and largely liberal world, the term has often been misused. The word is derived from the Greek word, ‘demos’ which means ‘common people’. Accordingly, a democratic society is one in which supreme power belongs to the people and is not vested in the figure of an authoritative leader no matter how popular he may appear. Neither is it a democracy when power over the people is yielded by a single-party regime that is free to bend the rules to keep itself in power because there is no mechanism or infrastructure to prevent it from doing so. In addition, a democracy functions by the principles of ‘majority-rule’ and guards against breaches of the basic rights of the common people. In a true democracy, the authority of the government comes from the people.

The CTA operates under the “Charter of the Tibetans In-Exile”, adopted in 1991 and changed in 2011. Executive authority is vested in the Sikyong (also known as the President or Prime Minister of the CTA) an office currently held by Dr. Lobsang Sangay, a US citizen living in Boston, who was elected in 2011.  The Sikyong was initially directly appointed by the Dalai Lama. The first elected Sikyong was a 62-year-old Buddhist monk, Lobsang Tenzin (better known as Samdhong Rinpoche). On 10 March, 2011, the Dalai Lama proposed changes to the exile charter which would in appearance remove his absolutistic position of authority within the organization.

The democracy that the CTA claims does not in fact fit the most vital characteristics of a democratic system of government, leading critics to suspect that it is nothing more than a new coat of paint over its old feudalistic theocratic self. The CTA democracy claim began in the 1960s when the Dalai Lama promulgated a draft Constitution supposedly upholding and protecting the individual rights and freedom of the Tibetan people. Whilst some Tibetans had initially believed in the Dalai Lama’s stated intentions, it became clear in the ensuing years, as the CTA flouted one Constitutional provision after another, that ‘democracy’ was perhaps just a clever ruse for the Dalai Lama’s government to distant itself from a social and political genealogy that it now wished to hide.

Perhaps the Dalai Lama saw that it would be much easier to garner global support for his struggle if the ‘Tibetan cause’ was presented as a wrestle between the Chinese Communist Party, an oppressive totalitarian regime, and the CTA, a ‘democratic government’ forced into exile. This, as opposed to being a fight between a communist regime and a brutal feudal lordship which the Tibetan leadership in fact was. Up until 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet, the majority of the people in Tibet were serfs and slaves owned by a monastic ruling class and aristocrats. When we lift the veneer of democracy, it becomes clear that much of the CTA’s attitudes in governance today is a reflection of its feudal theocratic roots.

During the recent Berman Lecture at Emory University, the CTA President or Sikyong, Dr. Lobsang Sangay attempted a rather awkward justification of what he referred to as ‘Tibetan democracy’. He presented what he regarded as certain unique features of Tibetan democracy which, when examined more closely, offer unmistakable signs that ‘Tibetan democracy’ is a complete fabrication, pointing out three features of the ‘Tibetan Democracy’.

In an exile government, the emphasis is on one leader

Dr. Lobsang Sangay began by admitting that the principles of democracy are in conflict with the goals of an exile government such as the CTA.

“In an exile administration, the emphasis is usually on unity, a single leader and a single voice. It is understandable because the purpose is to return. Unity is paramount in such exile set-ups. Once it is a democracy, there is a contradiction because in a democracy, instead of unity, you have to support diversity. Instead of a single leader, there are oppositions. Instead of a single voice, you must have freedom of speech”.

It should be highlighted that it is because of this disjunction – whether to afford space for diversity or to continue to enforce a single agenda decided solely and unilaterally by the Dalai Lama – that the decision of the CTA exposes its half-heartedness to operate as a true democracy. Stopping short of spelling it out, Dr. Lobsang Sangay was as good as saying that the CTA does not permit freedom of speech, dissenting opinions to that of the government, or diversity, because its exile agenda (read the Dalai Lama’s agenda) does not allow it to. And yet, the CTA insists it is a democracy.

In other words, the only democratic thing about the CTA is its self-appropriated label.

Sincere Buddhists cannot insist on exercising democratic rights

Dr. Lobsang Sangay claimed that the second feature of ‘Tibetan democracy’ is how the Tibetan people have had to step further away from their spiritual bond with the Dalai Lama. Dr. Lobsang Sangay referred to an old Tibetan lore that “all the Tibetan kings were manifestations of Buddha. Such is double bind of Tibetan politics that as long as the Tibetan people regard themselves as sincere Buddhists they cannot insist on exercising their inalienable human rights under a democracy without alienating themselves from their God.

The Dalai Lama and the CTA know this well and hence it is deceitful to suggest to the people of the world that the authority of the Tibetan leadership comes from the people when in fact it comes from their religion, of which the Dalai Lama is a living embodiment.

A true democracy is defined by rule by the majority, but for the Tibetan community in exile, the term means something quite different. Despite the CTA having an administrative configuration that resembles a democratic system, at the apex of the power structure is the lone figure of the Dalai Lama – both a god and a king who is not elected but rules by what is traditionally believed to be divine birthright. For centuries, the Tibetan people have been told that it is the duty of every Tibetan to obey the diktat of this king. But this King is also regarded as the most important god by the Tibetan people, and there is no aspect of his being which is not divine. Therefore, his secular and political decrees are also immediately taken as spiritual precepts to abide by.

The CTA can assemble their governmental structure in whatever way they like, and yet to defy the Dalai Lama is not only treasonous but also highly sacrilegious. And therefore, whether it is by law, by religion or by custom, the Tibetan people are trained to listen to the Dalai Lama without question. The Dalai Lama knows this well and can therefore toy with the idea of the CTA mimicking a democracy without losing any control over the Tibetan people.

A good case in point is the ban on the religious practice of Dorje Shugden. In spite of having a Tibetan Constitution in which Article 10 guarantees the Freedom of Religion, the Dalai Lama did not hesitate to override this charter to deny the people their right to religious freedom enshrined in the CTA’s highest law. A CTA minister of parliament who questioned the wisdom of the Dalai Lama’s religious ban was stabbed. Time and time again, even at the slightest hint of the Dalai Lama’s dissatisfaction at something or someone, the CTA immediately sets aside its democracy masquerade and becomes the enforcer of the Dalai Lama’s will. The Dalai Lama and all the officers and nominees who act in his name are in fact above the law. No democratic system permits this. On the other hand, it describes a feudal theocracy very well.

In 2011, the Dalai Lama apparently retired from all political activities and is said to have relinquished his authority to what the CTA regarded as a democratically elected Sikyong, or President of the Central Tibetan Administration. It was both an opportunity and a test of the CTA’s will to govern as a democratic administration. It could have abolished the Dalai Lama’s religious prohibition on the Dorje Shugden practice, or it could have chosen not to give additional expression to the Dalai Lama’s opposition of this religious ritual. But in 2014, instead of upholding the ‘Freedom of Religion’ and ‘Equality Before the Law’ provisions of the Tibetan Constitution, the CTA Parliament passed yet another official resolution to criminalize the Dorje Shugden practice. Again, this shows that there is no room for disagreement with the Dalai Lama regardless of the Tibetan exile government’s democratic façade.

Those like Tenzin Tsundue, a prominent advocate of Tibetan independence (called Rangzen) who is familiar with how the Tibetan government works, insists that “HH (Dalai Lama) is still the boss, not Sikyong. Lobsang Sangay’s showing the face in the media, on stage; being the head of CTA is still nominal and has little meaning. HH calls the shots.”  In other words, CTA democracy is just a charade.

The populace agrees 100 percent with what the leadership says

Dr. Lobsang Sangay suggested that “the third unique feature of Tibetan democracy as its ability to exist without a physical border” and that “…when the Tibetan cabinet makes a decision, they send the notice to Tibetans around the world and it is followed by all…You have to realize that we don’t have a police to enforce the decisions, nor do we punish anyone if the decisions are not followed and yet it is followed by all without fail.” This despite the fact that there are no sanctions for those who do not follow.

It is true that once the Tibetan leadership makes a decision, all Tibetans tend to toe the line. Dr. Lobsang Sangay made the statement that there is no need for the leadership’s instructions to be administered by enforcement, to give the impression that the populace agrees 100 percent with what the leadership says. In truth, there is a big difference between submission out of assent and submission due to fear.

Given the political and spiritual centrality of the Dalai Lama in every Tibetan person’s life, the highest transgression that a Tibetan can be accused of is to be ‘anti-Dalai Lama’. And it is this threat that the Tibetan leadership wields as a weapon more powerful than a police force because its use is completely arbitrary and not bound by any rules of engagement.

In the 2016 elections for the post of Sikyong, Lukar Jam was the only candidate that stood for Rangzen (Tibetan independence) and so he was easily demonized by the other candidates as being ‘anti-Dalai Lama’. To vote for Lukar would be to vote against the king of Tibet, to vote against a Buddha. And to make sure that Lukar Jam had no chance of becoming Sikyong, the Election Commission, which takes its cue from the incumbent leadership, even changed its rules to disqualify Lukar’s candidacy in the final round of the Sikyong election, sparking protests from long-term Tibetan supporters to protest which, in the end, fell on deaf ears.

So, whilst Dr. Lobsang Sangay was right to say that the CTA does not have a police force, it is because there is no need for one. As we have seen time and time again, in the Dorje Shugden controversy and elsewhere, to be labelled ‘anti-Dalai Lama’ is a punishment in itself and carries with it the implied duty of every good Tibetan to shun and assault the victim. Lukar Jam, the political candidate, discovered this as did the journalist Milla Rangzen and the CTA Minister of Parliament Sharchock Cookta. All of them challenged the Tibetan leadership’s views at some point, or called out the CTA’s wrongdoing as they would have been entitled to in a democracy, and were punished for their audacity. Isn’t this more the mark of a totalitarian regime?

During his Berman lecture speech, Dr. Lobsang Sangay boasted that voter participation amongst the Tibetans in exile was up by 70%. Dr. Lobsang Sangay offered this as evidence that the exiled Tibetan people were becoming more involved in the democratic process. What Dr. Lobsang Sangay did not mention was that a Tibetan is only entitled to participate in the electoral process if he or she is issued with a Green Book by the CTA and it is here that the CTA holds a sword of Damocles over the head of every Tibetan in exile. The Green Book is in effect the only official documentation that identifies the Tibetan refugee, allowing him or her to claim ‘citizenship’ of a free Tibet once the CTA regains the homeland. Without a Green Book, the Tibetan refugee has no identity, no legitimacy and no entitlements whatsoever, so it is easy for the CTA to bend every Tibetan in exile to their will with the threat of denying him or her the Green Book. This is a mechanism that is subtle and yet supremely effective, hence Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s confidence that instructions emanating from Dharamsala, the CTA’s seat of government, are followed without fail. The Green Book must be renewed every five years which provides the CTA with a series of opportunities to control the Tibetan Diaspora.

For Tibetans who refuse to comply with the Dalai Lama and CTA’s arbitrary terms such as Dorje Shugden practitioners unwilling to denounce their faith, they not only live in fear of their lives, but are also considered persona non-grata, an exile within an exile community. A democratic government does not subject its citizens to such fear and conditions.

Indeed, in the CTA Constitution itself we see the supremacy of the Dalai Lama instead of the supremacy of the rule of law. For instance Article 20, which addresses the CTA Cabinet and the elected CTA Presidency, clearly identifies the Dalai Lama’s leadership even though he is supposed to have devolved himself of all political authority. Similarly, Article 36, which vests the Tibetan Assembly with the powers to create laws, states that such power can only be exercised with the assent of the Dalai Lama. And this submission to the Dalai Lama’s authority runs through the Tibetan Authority, although it need not have. The Dalai Lama’s authority does not come from the letter of the law but from heaven itself, and to every Tibetan person, there is nothing higher than that.

The five most important rights provided to citizens in a democracy

It would have been easy enough for Dr. Lobsang Sangay to prove that Tibetan democracy is real by showing that the CTA upholds the five most important rights provided to citizens in a democratic state:

1. Freedom of speech and expression – The most fundamental right that all citizens are afforded in a democratic state is the right to express oneself and one’s opinion. But this is manifestly absent in the Tibetan community governed by the CTA. In fact, the opposite is true.

For instance, as the Tibetan activist and writer Jamyang Norbu noted in ‘The Sad Painful Joke of Tibetan Democracy’, simply voicing one’s opinion in favor of Rangzen (Tibetan independence, as opposed to the Middle Way promulgated by the Dalai Lama) is enough for the Tibetan parliament in exile to call for one to be banished from the Tibetan exile society. Norbu further noted that such an act was in fact an order for members of the exile community to teach a lesson to the errant member who has the audacity to speak his mind.

If there is any doubt that the CTA employs violence in suppressing dissenting voices, then Tashi Angdu, the President of the Cholsum Organization, confirmed in an interview with Swiss TV that his organization enforces the CTA’s views and insists that no one should do anything that contradicts the views of the Tibetan leadership, and that they will resort to violence if necessary. “Anyone who is against the Dalai Lama must be opposed without hesitation with men, money and possessions, that is to say, all means including violence”.

2.The right to a fair trial and procedural fairness – The independence of the judiciary is not only a cornerstone of a true democracy but also the foundation of the rule of law. The reason the judiciary is protected from tampering by other branches of government in a democratic system is to ensure people’s rights can really be protected.

But in the CTA’s case, the judiciary becomes yet another tool for the ruling elite to oppress the people. When the Dalai Lama banned the Dorje Shugden practice in 1996, Article 63 of the Tibetan Constitution was amended to preclude the appointment of Dorje Shugden believers, who are forbidden from holding office in any branch of the government or judiciary by virtue of their religion. And yet Articles 9 and 10 of the same Constitution guarantee equality before the law and freedom of religion. This by itself irrefutably demonstrates the hollowness of the Tibetan Constitution and the ease with which the CTA bends the law to justify its acts.

It was only after constant ridicule from Tibetan and international observers that Article 63 was again amended to read:

Article 63 (3): A Tibetan who is appointed as the Chief Tibetan Justice Commissioner shall, before assuming office, take and subscribe an oath and affirmation of office in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama according to the form prescribed by law.

This essentially disqualifies any candidate that the Dalai Lama objects to, a subtler and yet no less effective means of denying any judicial fairness to those targeted by the government.

3.The right to a free and unperturbed media – Far from allowing a free press, the only independent Tibetan newspaper Mangtso (Democracy) was forced to close down for daring to publish news items that were not complimentary of the Dalai Lama or the CTA.

Jamyang Norbu who was a key member of the newspaper noted:

At Amnye Machen we published the newspaper Mangtso (Democracy), that attempted to report on Tibetan politics in an open and truthful manner. Our staff members and some young men who sold our paper on the streets were constantly bullied and threatened. The editors received death threats on a regular basis, and gangs and mobs often poured into our office, scaring the girls at the reception desk and harassing everybody else. All these incidents were clearly organized and instigated by the religious-right coalition in order to shut down the paper.

4.The right of every citizen to exercise his/her vote freely in public and open elections – In a true democracy, the highest power is vested in the people who affect how their government is chosen through the power of their vote in an electoral process.

However, as we have seen in the case of Lukar Jam, not only can the ruling class use the Central Election Commission to change its rules and regulations to disqualify candidates – which it does – but no Tibetan in exile can vote unless he or she is in possession of the Green Book, which is only issued at the prerogative of the CTA.

In the case of Dorje Shugden practitioners who refuse to obey the Dalai Lama’s religious ban, they are denied the issuance or renewal of the Green Book which is how the CTA ultimately manipulates and oppress the very people it is supposed to serve as a democratic government.

5.The right to worship religion in a free setting – Perhaps the most glaring example of Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s parody of democracy is the CTA’s ban on the religious practice of Dorje Shugden. This denial of freedom of religion not only breaches the Tibetan Constitution but also the Constitution of India, the host nation of the CTA, as well as a good handful of United Nations Human Rights provisions.

An entire section of the CTA’s official website is dedicated to the persecution of Dorje Shugden practitioners. For good measure, an identical section appears on the Dalai Lama’s official website.

How can Dr. Sangay claim a ‘Tibetan democracy’ when the CTA uses all branches of the government as well as the authority of its highest religious leader to deny the Tibetan people even the most basic rights that their law is supposed to uphold? As a matter of fact, the CTA under Dr. Lobsang Sangay is an affront to democracy, which makes his delivery of the Berman Lecture on democracy at Emory University a complete mockery.

‘Tibetan democracy’ is the Dalai Lama’s sleight of hand at its best. It is a deception and one of the best in modern history. No other authoritarian regime has pulled off this level of artifice. The Central Tibetan Administration is a government without a state to govern and a ‘democracy’ that uses state instruments to enforce a feudal lord’s will, all this while operating outside every single global framework that ensures checks and balances. ‘Tibetan democracy’ is an oxymoron and the CTA should be taken to task over its abuse of the term.

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Kishida and Japan-Indonesia Security Relations: The Prospects

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image source: twitter @kishida230

In October, Japan had inaugurated Fumio Kishida as the new prime minister after winning the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election earlier. Surely this new statesmanship will consequently influence Tokyo’s trajectory in international and regional affairs, including Southeast Asia.

Not only that Japan has much intensive strategic cooperation with Southeast Asians for decades, but the region’s importance has also been increasing under Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Southeast Asia, as a linchpin connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, is key to Japan’s geostrategic interest and vision.

Since the LDP presidential election debate, many have identified Kishida’s policy trajectory, including in the defense and security aspect. Being bold, Kishida reflected its hawkish stance on China, North Korea, and its commitment to strengthening its alliance with Washington. Furthermore, Kishida also aimed to advance the geostrategic and security initiatives with like-minded countries, especially under FOIP.

One of the like-minded countries for Japan is Indonesia, which is key Japan’s key partner in Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific.

This article maps the prospect of Japan’s security cooperation with Indonesia under the new prime minister. It argues that Prime Minister Kishida will continue to grow Japan’s security cooperation with Indonesia to adjust to the changing security environment in Indo-Pacific.

Japan – Indonesia Common Ground

In its basic principle, Japan and Indonesia shared the same values in democracy, rules-based order, and freedom of navigation in developing strategic cooperation, especially in the maritime security aspect. 

In the geostrategic context, Japan and Indonesia also have significant similarities. Both countries are maritime countries and seeking to maximize their maritime power, as well as having formally synchronized geostrategic vision. While Japan has FOIP, Indonesia has Global Maritime Fulcrum (Poros Maritim Dunia) and leading initiator for ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

In capitalizing on this shared vision, since Shinzo Abe and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo era, Japan and Indonesia have initiated much new security cooperation ranging from a high-level framework such as 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting in 2015 and 2021 to capacity building assistances and joint exercises. Furthermore, defense equipment transfers and joint technology development were also kicked off under Abe-Jokowi.

Kishida’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Profile

Compared to his predecessor, Suga Yoshihide, Prime Minister Kishida is more familiar with foreign affairs.

Personally, Kishida comes from a political family and spent several years living in the United States, reflecting his exposure to the international and political environment from an early age. This is significantly different from Suga, who grew up in a strawberry farmer family in a rural area in Akita Prefecture.

Politically, served as foreign minister under Shinzo Abe, Fumio Kishida is the longest-serving foreign minister in Japan’s history. This reflects his extensive understanding of current world affairs, compared to Suga who spent most of his prime political career in the domestic area such as being chief cabinet secretary and minister for internal affairs & communication.

Specifically, in defense and security posture, Prime Minister Kishida is willing to go beyond the status quo and not blocking any key options in order “to protect citizens”. During his policy speeches, he stated that he is not ruling out the option to build attacking capabilities due to the severe security environment surrounding Japan. Also, Kishida will not limit the defense budget under 1% of Japan’s gross domestic product if necessary.

Future Security Cooperation Trajectory with Indonesia 

In short, policy continuity will play a huge role. One of the reasons why Kishida was able to win over more popular Kono was due to his moderate liberalness, demonstrating stability over change. This was more preferred by faction leaders in LDP.

In defense and foreign affairs, the continuity is boldly shown as despite appointing entirely new ministers in his cabinet, the only two ministers retained by Kishida are Foreign Minister Motegi and Defense Minister Kishi. By this, it sent the narrative to the international community that there will not be significant turbulence caused by the changing leadership on Japan’s side.

As a background context on Indonesia, Fumio Kishida was the foreign minister from the Japanese side behind the 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting with Indonesia in 2015. Indonesia is the only country Japan has such a high-level security framework within Southeast Asia. This framework has led Japan and Indonesia to have a second edition of the 2+2 meeting in 2021, resulting in many practical cooperation deals in defense and security.

The other setting supporting Kishida’s policy continuity, especially in the context with Indonesia is that his foreign minister’s counterpart, Retno Marsudi, was still in charge from the last time Kishida left the foreign minister post in 2017, until today. Initiating the 2+2 framework together, it will be easier for Kishida to resume his relationship with both President Jokowi and Foreign Minister Retno in advancing its strategic cooperation with Indonesia, especially in the defense and security area.

The prospect of continuity is also reflected in Kishida’s commitment to continue the geostrategy relay of both his predecessors, Shinzo Abe and Suga Yoshihide, in achieving the FOIP vision.

Not only that Indonesia is having a similar vision of maritime prosperity and values with Japan, but Indonesia is also concerned with South China Sea dynamics as it started to threaten Indonesia’s remote islands, especially Natuna Islands. As this is a crucial cooperation opportunity, Kishida needs to continue assisting Indonesia to improve the security and prosperity of its remote islands. Thus, as Kishida also admitted that Indonesia is a major country in ASEAN, having favorable relations with Indonesia is important for Japan’s geostrategy.

Challenges

To capitalize on the potentials with Indonesia, Kishida needs to support Indonesia’s strategic independence as well as to make the best of his position as one of the United States’ allies in Asia.

Despite his tougher stance on China and Taiwan issues, Kishida cannot fully project Japan’s rivalry with China to Indonesia. In addition to its strategic independence, Indonesia has and needs strong strategic relations with China to support many of the vital development projects surrounding Indonesia. This cannot be touched.

Also, Japan needs to bridge Indonesia, as well as other like-minded Southeast Asian countries, with the Quad and AUKUS proponents. Indonesia is formally stated that it is concerned about the ownership of nuclear-powered weapons by its neighboring countries. On the other side, Japan supported AUKUS and is a close ally of the U.S. Kishida’s ability to grab this opportunity will solidify Japan’s credibility and position among Southeast Asians.

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Will There Be an End to the War in Korea?

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On September 21, 2021, President of South Korea Moon Jae-in addressed the UN General Assembly, calling for a formal end to the Korean War of 1950–1953. “I … propose that the three parties of the two Koreas and the U.S. or the four parties of the two Koreas, the U.S. and China come together and declare that the war on the Korean Peninsula is over,” Moon Jae-in said.

President Moon’s call appeared more relevant than ever before. For decades, the military stand-off on the Korean Peninsula has been haunted by the threat of a “big war” that could involve nuclear weapons. Resolving the issue also presents a crucial political and legal problem, as the UN has from the outset been involved in the conflict. On the one hand, the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement only meant the cessation of military hostilities, not an end to the war as such. On the other hand, the absurd truth is that it is the United Nations, rather than South Korea, that is officially locked in a military stand-off with North Korea—something certainly needs to be done about this. During the war, South Korea received assistance in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 84 passed on July 7, 1950, establishing the UN Command, multinational armed forces of 16 states led by the United States. These forces fought in the Korean War under the UN flag and signed the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement as the adversary of the Korean People’s Army and China’s People’s Volunteer Army. The Command effectively signed the agreement on behalf of the United Nations, meaning that the latter is still formally at war with North Korea, a full-fledged UN member state since 1991.

President Moon has done his outmost best to build bridges between the two Koreas. The inter-Korean summits of 2018 yielded some positive results—in the near future, there will be no war in Korea, whether nuclear or conventional. That said, the two Koreas have recently tested ballistic missiles, thus demonstrating that Pyongyang and Seoul are both ready for dialogue and for confrontation. South Korea has accepted the existence of North Korea to adopt a policy of peaceful co-existence towards its closest neighbor. However, the parties have proved unable to take the most important step, which is to move the inter-Korean relations to a bilateral format. Moreover, Seoul still refuses to recognize the status of North Korea as that of an equal sovereign state, with a legitimate and constitutional leadership.

Some premises for this seem to be there. Nationalism is what brings the two Korean states closer. Even their first joint statement, dating back to July 4, 1972, said that the Korean unification must be achieved independently, without outside interference, which means peacefully and on the basis of “national consolidation.” In December 1991, the heads of government of the two Koreas signed the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea, formally acknowledging the equal co-existence of the two Korean states. Five inter-Korean summits were held between 2000 and 2018, with joint declarations adopted at each of them. These were essentially programmes to cultivate bilateral relations that would see the two countries move away from confrontation towards reconciliation and eventual rapprochement. None of the documents envisioned any participation of third states in the inter-Korean communication. The relations between North and South Korea have always been conceptualized in an exclusively bilateral dimension, a practice that should persist.

President Moon has also proposed to establish some multilateral organization to include North Korea. “I propose today launching a Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health, whereby North Korea participates as a member along with China, Japan, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea.” He emphasized that states can no longer handle their national security issues individually. “A cooperative architecture that guarantees collective protection of life and safety will lay the groundwork for North Korea to have its security guaranteed by engaging with the international community.” The President believes that “the end-of-war declaration will indeed open the door to complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Inter-Korean normalization would be impossible without the sanctions lifted, which requires certain progress towards resolving the nuclear issue. North Korea’s nuclear status is enshrined in its constitution—for today’s Pyongyang, this topic cannot be subject to any discussion. It would be wise to adopt a step-by-step approach here—first limiting North Korea’s nuclear missiles, then reducing their numbers to eliminate them all in the end. Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang should be replaced with the “six-party” talks that sought to resolve the nuclear issue of the Korean peninsula in 2003–2008. For a humble beginning, the parties could discuss the prospects of putting a freeze on missile development, guaranteeing the non-proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies. Pyongyang could cease its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and intermediate- or shorter-range missiles, opening its nuclear facilities for international inspections. In exchange, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul would formally recognize North Korea, establishing diplomatic relations, exchanging diplomatic missions, easing and ultimately lifting sanctions, rather choosing to provide economic and energy assistance to North Korea. A secure and stable North Korea is a far more reliable partner for talks on any subject, including on nuclear issues, than a country cornered by sanctions.

Today’s Northeast Asia is the only region in the world that lacks a multilateral framework to discuss matters of mutual interest or settle conflicts between regional parties. The main obstacle in the way of creating a security system in Northeast Asia is the little trust between the parties. Trust cannot appear without a dialogue on the specific issues of common interest.

In this respect, President Moon’s proposal to establish a multilateral organization that would include North Korea is worthy of note, as it is clearly an attempt to engage with North Korea in international affairs.

As part of its “New Northern Policy”, South Korea could complement President Moon’s current initiative by becoming an intermediary for other Northeast Asian states in assisting in their long-term projects in regional security, energy security, safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy, transportation security and cybersecurity. Setting up legally binding partnerships in the region in these areas, as well as fine-tuning their procedural mechanisms, would allow the parties to build mutual trust to move on to discussions of a broader range of regional issues concerning peace, development and security.

Bringing South Korea’s “New Northern Policy” in line with the existing programmes for international economic integration, which are already “tied-in” to each other (such as the Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative), could bring about positive results. Openness, transparency and respect for each other’s interests could go a long way to establishing an effective framework for dialogue as well as a Eurasian Economic Partnership that would include both Koreas. However, how feasible is such an aligning of South Korea’s policies with more global initiatives given the country’s current alliance with the United States?

President Moon Jae-in proposed his initiative against the background of major malfunctions in international communication. The coronavirus pandemic has uprooted everyday life throughout the world. The entire system of international organizations turned out to be totally ineffective, if not completely paralyzed. At the same time, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has struck quite a heavy blow to the entire system of international relations. And it is not so much the U.S. defeat that matters here. Rather, it is the circumstances under which this defeat took place. In leaving Afghanistan, the Americans effectively presented their Afghan clients and their NATO allies, who had been fighting alongside them for 20 years, with a fait accompli.

The Afghan debacle will certainly have repercussions for the situation on the Korean peninsula. Currently, Washington seems to be incapable of proposing new initiatives on the nuclear issue, especially as it faces a number of far more urgent challenges across a broad geographic perimeter, stretching from China to Afghanistan. Still, no matter how interested Russia or China might be in the Korean sanctions being eased or lifted, this cannot be resolved without the United States.

However, the ancients used to say that a crisis can be both a disaster and an opportunity. Like any global crisis, not only do the pandemic and the U.S. fiasco in Afghanistan generate additional risks and challenges for the international community, but they also come with fresh opportunities, opening up new prospects. This applies to the current initiatives proposed by President Moon Jae-in just as well.

From our partner RIAC

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The United States and Japan in Multilateral Asia: Forging Relations and Binding Ties

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Bilateral relations between the world’s sole superpower, the United States of America (US, USA), and the world’s third-largest economic power, the East Asian powerhouse of Japan, are premised on forging healthy relations and binding with the rest of Asia impeccably. This would involve deepening existing ties and forging new ones with the many notable actors professing to vital stakes and vested interests across the length and breadth of the world’s largest continent, as also the Indo-Pacific region (IPR). As on date, owing to evident differings and conflictual circumstances between countries such as Japan and South Korea, Washington D. C. is compelled to calculate its forays in Asia while aspiring for long-term amicability between belligerent countries. However, this factor has not stopped Washington from establishing, entertaining, and evolving its mini/multi-lateral relationships in Asia, especially in the eastern geography of the continent. The United States has implemented a ‘Hub-and-Spokes’ alliance system in the security environs of the Asia-Pacific, with Japan a critical, if not the most critical, ‘spoke’ in this system (see Figure 1 below).

Fig. 1  The US ‘Hub-and-Spokes’ Arrangement in Asia. Source:  The ASEAN Post

America and Japan are not just involved bilaterally, but have enforced an effective multilateral impression leading to having exercised their geopolitical influence across Asia. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, better known as the QUAD) is an initiative of four democracies, which was the brainchild of Japan in the mid-2000s, with pressing commonalities and engaging objectives in the Indo-Pacific in particular. Its four member democracies are the US, Japan, Australia, and India. It was heralded in 2007 courtesy promptings from Japan about the state of maritime security and apprehensions about the upsetting rise of a determined emerging superpower in the Peoples’ Republic of China, despite having initially focussed on disaster relief in the high seas (The Indian Ocean tsunami, December 2004). Of late, the QUAD has been given a much-needed impetus with the as-yet unstructured grouping having adopted a sole security motive to offset the rise of an increasingly influential, overbearing, and overpowering China. A first-ever in-person meeting was organised between its members in Washington D. C., with the capital of the United States signifying just how far the QUAD has come in terms of sustained minilateral activism. This in-person meeting has followed meetings between senior-level officials such as the respective foreign ministers of the four partner countries.

The US and Japan have also extensively associated with Southeast Asia as far as the political, geopolitical, economic, geoeconomic, security, and geostrategic situations of the region are concerned. The US remains on exceedingly and improvingly good terms with South China Sea countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore – which are the four major countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or the ASEAN. These relationships are centred upon the military, and especially maritime-military, domain given that Southeast Asia largely involves routine and menacing Chinese infringements in the form of the brazen excursions of its many maritime entities such as the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). An interest in Southeast Asia for Tokyo and Washington caters to a diverse array of initiations and involvement ranging from economic and trade relations to investments and financial outlays for very specific purposes. Timely and responsive military assistance in the form of equipment donations and technology transfers have also become a staple of the US and Japan’s association with Southeast Asian countries. A wary approach is pursued in the perplexing domain of the South and East China Seas with freedom of navigation considered to be an imperative of the vast maritime-naval forces deployed by Washington and Tokyo.

The United States was one of the first Dialogue Partners of the ASEAN (since 1977), and this is also when Japan formalised its till-then-informal dialogue partnership with ASEAN. The US has been involved in several ASEAN-driven maritime-allied formal platforms such as the East Asia Summit (2005), the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (since 2012), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (which is held with all of the ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners and first took place in Vietnam in 2010). Japan is involved integrally in all of the above forums and the ASEAN+3, an exclusive between ASEAN and China, the Republic of Korea, plus Japan itself. In the broader respect, American involvement has helped forge a unity among the participants of such pioneering political, economic, and security mechanisms amongst, primarily, Southeast and east Asian nations, ably assisted by Japan wherever feasible. America’s (in)famous 2011 ‘pivot to Asia’, officially named a ‘Rebalance’, was meant to re-tune and re-focus its attention to the world’s largest and most important continent as far as the twenty-first century is concerned. This was due to the twin reasons of dealing with the emerging security imperatives related to erasing the extra-sovereign Chinese strategic footprint and devising new paradigms of mutually-beneficial economic cooperation with like-minded Asian countries. Southeast Asia was deemed to be the geographical launchpad of this strategy which has since evolved under succeeding administrations.

Other multilateral involvements which help address issues bearing a commonality and a convergence of maritime interests include the US-Australia-Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue (TSD). Australia is a country which is increasingly being viewed as an actor with the required level of capacities and capabilities befitting a broader and deeper Indo-Pacific institution of itself, and the recent announcement of an Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) arrangement has just critically elevated its nuclear threshold. Within the ambit of the Indo-Pacific region in which all three profess to geopolitical stakes, both the US and Japan are highly committed friends of Australia. The TSD was founded in the late 2000s and was focussed on elevating cooperation between the three major Indo-Pacific players in the broader domain of security, which also includes the diplomatic, economic, social, and political arenas. A concerted and concentrated focus on China was also one of the themes of the security domain of the TSD. The last meeting of this trilateral took place in August 2019, a few months prior to the onset of the novel Coronavirus pandemic in Japan. A joint ministerial statement issued by the three parties was ASEAN-centric and endorsed the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’. This last meeting had actually co-incided with the circulation of the ‘Outlook’ document by the ASEAN community.

It is certain that the US and Japan have, since time immemorial, indicated a tendency to align key and emerging players in regions of critical geopolitical importance, such as Southeast Asia, and this has considerably vitalised multilateralism. This optimism has been consistently backed by strategies entailing day-to-day participation and the US has emerged as an oddly Asian country in itself through a multitude of ever-growing endeavours. It has expended considerable bandwidth to Asia since the end of the warring years and there is much to both gain and learn from such a grand venture by a foreign superpower. The US remains immensely close to the ASEAN, as does Japan. The extent to which Washington and Tokyo have aided, abetted, assisted, and assured their friends and allies either jointly or individually is worth commendation and furthers a welcome duopoly in the Indo-Pacific region. Most of Southeast Asia remains in an emerging form, with a few prosperous exceptions such as the city-state of Singapore which are responsible for the rise of ASEAN as a worthy participant in the Indo-Pacific’s ‘Great Game’.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of his employers in the National Maritime Foundation or Modern Diplomacy.

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