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Looking to the Orient
  Looking to the Orient. Overview of the Political Relevance in Asian Region during November, 2016

Irmantas Peèiûra, Asia policy expert
2016 12 27

Far East and Southeast Asia

Japan, South Korea, India and other Southeast Asian countries which associate their security and economic well-being with the role of the US in the Asia-Pacific region worry about the isolationist tendencies in the electoral rhetoric of the US president-elect Donald Trump. More than once, Donald Trump had mentioned that Japan and South Korea should put more effort into their own defence and maintaining US troops stationed on their soil, and that if they don’t increase funding, US military outfits could be recalled, giving these countries an opportunity to develop their own nuclear arsenals and counter threats coming from China and North Korea. With the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Japan and South Korea had committed to refrain from buying and manufacturing nuclear weapons. This is one of the reasons why these countries seek US military aid.

Diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea, especially regarding cooperation on security, had never been close. However, on 23 November Japan and South Korea had reached an agreement on direct sharing of military intelligence data. This is no good news to China, which had often relied on exploiting any disputes arising between the two countries in order to counter US influence and become the dominant power in the region.

The Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe had met with Donald Trump in New York on 17 November. The apparent aim of the visit was to “remind” (or diplomatically “enlighten”) Donald Trump of the finer points of Asian politics, which are quite a bit more complicated than a straightforward cost-benefit analysis.

An Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit was held on 19-20 November in Peru, which mostly concerned the future of the forum itself. The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, signed by the US and 11 other countries of the Asia-Pacific Region, was harshly criticised by Donald Trump, who claimed it to be “… a death blow to American workers and manufacturers”. The Prime Minister of Japan said that “without the US, this free trade agreement is meaningless”, and the Australian Minister of Trade Steven Ciobo mentioned his country might start looking for other alternatives.

One of these alternatives is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Project, initiated by China, which would include most of the countries currently under APEC. If China were to implement this project, which would likely be joined by Australia, Japan or the Philippines, it would successfully boost its position in the region.

However, Donald Trump, who had outlined his policy plans for the first 100 days in office on 21 November, claimed withdrawal from APEC to be one of his top priorities. Such rapid changes in the course of US foreign policy can lead to new pockets of geopolitical vacuum, which may soon be filled by China or Russia.

The “16+1” Summit, attended by 16 Central and Eastern European countries and China, was held on 5 November in Latvia. For China the main goal was to broadcast a positive self-image in Central and Eastern European countries and look for common economic grounds for cooperation. Given that these countries can serve as a bridge to Western Europe, China is interested in making use of their infrastructure. The summit culminated in the adoption of the Riga Declaration by which the countries of the region and China declared their intention to intensify cooperation by developing harbours, transport corridors and communication nodes between them, and established a “16+1” investment fund designed to finance joint projects between Central and Eastern European countries and China. Unfortunately, Lithuania has no conceptual vision with regards to the issue. These questions are not addressed in any of Lithuania’s documents on long- or mid-term strategic planning.

Mass demonstrations broke out in South Korea regarding the scandal which arose after the news about President Park Geun-hye’s ties to her old ally Choi Soon-sil. Prosecutors have said they are investigating whether the President’s ally was involved in illegal financial schemes and supplied with classified information by the President. Political parties currently in opposition are now moving to impeach the President on 9 December, while those in power urge her to step down “in honour”.

Central Asia

The former President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov had veered the country into a dictatorship, which is arguably second only to that of North Korea. Vast reserves of natural gas had allowed him to develop a socially-oriented, yet inefficient economy. The new leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is now trying to “open” a “window” for the country onto the outside world.

On 1 November, he had met with Vladimir Putin in Sochi to discuss matters of security and finance. Officially, the country is politically neutral, but its geopolitical status (the country is situated near Russia and China) and mounting challenges posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and threats of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is forcing it to seek out new strategic partners and attendant security guarantees. Relations between Moscow and Ashgabat had been growing increasingly unstable ever since Gazprom discontinued import of gas from Turkmenistan. One possible alternative is the joint pipeline initiative of China and the so-called TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India).

Turkmenistan is facing a difficult economic situation. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow would like to renew cooperation with Gazprom. Although Russia doesn’t need Turkmenistan’s gas, the aim of increasing its influence in the country may lead it to offer cooperation on the principle of “one-for-one”, i.e., to ask Turkmenistan to renounce its military connections with the US (there is some speculation that Ashgabat is considering the possibility of admitting the US into its former Soviet military base “Mary”) and/or the TAPI construction plans.

A new political crisis has developed in Kyrgyzstan – the parliamentary coalition had failed, the government had resigned, and the President is “pushing” a controversial constitutional reform. The essence of the reform is giving more power to the prime minister, a position thought to be held by the current leader Almazbek Atambayev in the future. The opposition’s stance against the reform had resulted in the failure of the coalition, which was abandoned by the Atan-Meken Socialist Party. Given that Almazbek Atambayev has nowhere to retreat to, leading to a build-up of tension, the situation might erupt in upheavals on the streets.

With the death of the long-time leader of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, the entire region has been anxiously awaiting the change in power in a country with many competing interest groups, previously controlled by a single individual. Fortunately, the problem had been solved in a faily simple manner. Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, thought to be backed by Russia, has been nominated a presidential candidate. Vladimir Putin had visited Uzbekistan to honour the deceased and meet with the Prime Minister. The candidate’s programme specifies that the country will not join any military-political blocs and will not host foreign military bases on its territory. It is not clear whether this is actually true as Uzbekistan had changed the course of its foreign policy multiple times in the past, which means there is a distinct possibility that Tashkent will become another Central Asian satellite of Russia.

Kazakhstan had recently seen protests against the government’s plans to legalise long-term leasing of agricultural land. The reform was later revealed to be an artefact of an agreement between Kazakhstan and China regarding the latter’s plans to move its manufacturing to the country. The people of Kazakhstan fear China will not only seize, but also pollute their lands, all to the benefit of Chinese workers and experts.

Tajikistan has expressed worries over Russia’s plans for civil aviation. The Russians had decided to start flying passengers to Dushanbe and Khujand from the newly-built Zhukovsky Airport near Moscow. The locals contend this will breach the parity between the Tajik and Russian airlines. The Kremlin threatened that if its demands are not met, it will discontinue air transport between the two countries altogether, which would be a serious blow to Tajikistan because Russia is home to a massive number of Tajik migrants responsible for creating about half the country’s GDP. Ultimately, Dushanbe gave in, resulting in the first planes of Ural Airlines taking off Zhukovsky Airport towards the aforementioned Tajik cities on 23 November.

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