Three Key Questions in 2011

China's behavior, Burma's political process, and North Korea's nuclear drive will be carefully watched in East Asia this year.
Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Seoul, Nov. 11, 2010.

Will China be less aggressive in the new year?

Foreign policy watchers saw the Asian giant shifting ground from its much-touted soft power diplomacy in 2010.

Their observation was based on Beijing's aggressive approach in pressing territorial claims in the South China Sea, its showdown with the West over the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, and its refusal to condemn North Korea over its attack on the South.

As some of China's neighbors challenged its claims to potentially oil-rich territories in the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, the Chinese military defiantly declared that Beijing had "indisputable sovereignty" over the whole sea.

Backing its words with action, a Chinese submarine erected a Chinese flag on the seabed of the South China Sea, 4,000 meters below the surface.

In another display of its aggressive diplomacy abroad last year, China tried to force other nations into boycotting the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony for jailed recipient Liu.

Adding to the misgivings among nations such as Japan and Vietnam already upset over China’s more forceful assertion of its territorial claims in the East and South China seas was China's reluctance to criticize North Korea for its shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island and its expanding nuclear program.

China seemed isolated as even Russia condemned the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong, which came after the sinking of a South Korean warship apparently by a North Korean torpedo.

As the new year begins, the world will assess whether China moves to amend its foreign policy.

"I would call them policy mistakes they have made, about turning the Liu Xiaobo Nobel Prize into a big international crusade against the West, which obviously has failed internationally, taking North Korea's side in all of these confrontations on the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea," said Susan Shirk, director of the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

"So, let's see if they recalibrate, which is what, of course, I'm hoping for," she said.

What role will Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi play in the evolving political landscape in her currently military-ruled country?

While the world hailed the release of the Nobel laureate from house arrest, her political future appears uncertain.

Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, remains banned. While she is being allowed to move freely and speak to her supporters, analysts are unsure how much leeway Burma's ruling generals will give her.   

Under the constitution, the generals will have to exit from government by around March. Parliament has to be constituted within 90 days after the Nov. 7 election, with a new government to be formed and a president and two vice presidents elected subsequently.

The party that will assume power will be the junta's proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won the election that was heavily criticized by opposition parties, rights groups, and Western governments.

Some expect political fireworks when Aung San Suu Kyi pushes the new government for freedom and transparency as well as greater rights for the ethnic minority
groups, and if the new rulers feel threatened by the opposition leader's demands and growing popularity.

"Suu Kyi and ethnic minority leaders, whether armed or not, are heading on an inevitable collision course with Burma’s military junta," said Zarni, a research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Economics.

"For they have made repeated calls for national and ethnic reconciliation as well as genuine public expressions of inter-ethnic solidarity," he said in an opinion piece in the Irrawaddy, a website run by exiled Burmese journalists.

Will there be a resumption of six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons arsenal?

After North Korea's November artillery attack on the South and subsequent border tensions, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak hinted on New Year's eve that Seoul may agree to the resumption of negotiations pressed for by Pyongyang and its key backer China.

"[We] have no choice but to resolve the problem of dismantling North Korea's nuclear program diplomatically through the six-party talks," Lee said in a surprise announcement on Wednesday.

It is the first time since the North Korean attack that Lee raised the possibility of a resumption of talks, indicating an end to Seoul's hardline policy.

South Korea, the United States, and Japan, key parties to the talks, had been firm in their stand in the past that the discussions cannot resume until Pyongyang gives a firm commitment on nuclear disarmament.

North Korea walked out of the six-party talks in April 2009 following international criticism over its illegal nuclear weapons test.

Although a Seoul official explained that Lee "was merely stating his stance in principle, and the government's position has not changed," it is believed that pressure is increasing on South Korea to ease the border tensions ahead of a January 19 summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

A key question is whether the North is serious about dismantling its nuclear weapons drive.

Last month the North disclosed a uranium enrichment plant to visiting U.S. experts. Pyongyang says its new plant is designed solely to fuel a light-water reactor being built to produce energy.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who recently met with Chinese officials, indicated recently that any return by Pyongyang to the negotiation table may have to be subject to certain conditions: the cessation of all North Korean nuclear activity, including uranium enrichment, allowing the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to the North, and a pledge to abide by the rules of the armistice that halted the 1950-53 Korean War.

According to U.S. special envoy and diplomatic troubleshooter Bill Richardson, who had just visited Pyongyang, the North has offered to permit the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors, something which China says it should do.

"But do the U.S. and China have any plans this time to prevent the North from repeating its past behavior of demanding concessions once the talks resume, with no guarantee of nuclear dismantlement," asked an editorial in the Chosun Ilbo, one of the major newspapers in South Korea.

"The six-party talks got as far as getting North Korea to freeze its nuclear facilities but failed when it came to verification, taking the entire process back to square one. There is no guarantee the same thing will not happen this time."


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