Five Key Questions in 2014

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
North Korean soldiers stand guard on the banks of the Yalu River which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, in a file photo.

1. Will China and Japan go to war?

Tensions between Asia's two biggest economies are rising so rapidly that some worry they will come to blows.

Relations between the two neighbors plunged to a new low after Beijing expanded its flight identification zone to cover islands administered by Japan and claimed by China. Ties worsened further after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo.Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine, seen by critics as a symbol of Tokyo's wartime aggression.

Beijing last month unilaterally established an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea and warned of unspecified "emergency defensive measures" against aircraft which do not notify it before flying into the zone.

Japan has refused to comply.

Instead, it announced a boost to its military spending through purchase of early-warning planes, beach-assault vehicles, and troop-carrying aircraft in what is viewed as the clearest sign since Abe took office a year ago that he wants a bigger military role for Japan.

The territorial dispute has also seen patrol ships from China and Japan shadowing each other near the islets on and off for months, raising fears that a confrontation could develop into a clash. Military aircraft of the two countries have also flown close to each other.

"The real concern in the East China Sea isn't that we're likely to see one side or the other deliberately escalate to the use of military force," said James Lindsay, an expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"The bigger concern is the possibility for accidental or inadvertent escalation. What we have now are the Chinese and Japanese militaries operating in very close proximity," he said.

The East China Sea could be a "flashpoint" in 2014, especially now that China has declared the air defense identification zone over parts of the sea that Japan calls its own, Lindsay said.

"There's the possibility that planes or ships may collide," he said, noting that China and Japan do not have well-developed crisis communications procedures in place.

"[S]o a small spark could become a big fire," Lindsay said, adding that if something bad happens, the leaders of the two countries may not be able to get on the phone to each other quickly and work things out before they escalate.

Bilateral relations worsened further last week after Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honors the souls of Japan’s war dead, including 14 World War II leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals. Japan had colonized Korea and occupied parts of China, often brutally, before and during the war.

Beijing declared that the visit has seriously hurt relations between the countries and has shut the door for dialogue between their leaders.

2. Will Myanmar's ex-generals gang up against the Lady?

The new year will be a critical period for Myanmar as the country's leaders decide which provisions of the constitution should be amended before the 2015 elections, including the one which bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from seeking the presidency.  

The ruling party is banking on a parliamentary committee to evaluate many amendment proposals provided by the public before proceeding with a broader debate, but the opposition wants a more rapid process involving high-level talks while the panel grapples with the issue.

Some Myanmar experts believe that the leadership of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), concerned over the rising popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi National League for Democracy (NLD), may torpedo any plan to amend Article 59 (F) of the military-dictated constitution which prevents her from running for president.   

"I think they are serious about wanting to amend the constitution to some extent, but I don't think they are committed to amending Article 59 (F)," said Aung Din, a former Myanmar political prisoner during the junta era.

He said that the USDP, which now dominates parliament together with the military, would instead give priority to amendments that give ethnic minority states significant autonomy in local political and economic matters in a bid to emphasize its quest for peace after decades of armed conflict.

Aung Din believes former military junta chief Than Shwe, who had placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for nearly two decades for opposing army rule, is still "pulling the strings from behind the scenes" and will not let her achieve her ambition of becoming president.   

Article 59 (F) says that anyone whose spouse or children "owes allegiance to a foreign power" cannot become president or vice president. Suu Kyi was married to the late British scholar Michael Aris, and her two sons are British citizens and both are married to non-Burmese.

"Also, if the amendment is adopted, [the USDP thinks] it will set a precedent and leave the door open for every Burmese with foreign links or those married to foreigners to pursue their political ambitions," Aung Din said.

The USDP this week passed a resolution to amend Article 59 (F), but it remains unclear whether there is political will within the party to go all out for such a change.

Two lawmakers with the USDP told the Mizzima news agency that some members of the party’s central committee remain committed to delaying the amendment process "by looking at other options for the constitution."

In an attempt to hasten the constitution amendment process, Aung San Suu Kyi has suggested that the government hold four-way talks to discuss the issue with Myanmar President Thein Sein, Speaker of Parliament Shwe Mann, head of the military Min Aung Hlaing, and herself, but the proposal was rejected.

Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, top generals in the junta regime, want the parliamentary panel to complete its study first.

If the 68-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, who is simply called "The Lady" by her supporters, is barred from running for the presidency, some commentators warn that Myanmar could face international sanctions again.

3.  Will there be an end to Tibetan self-immolation protests?

Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule and resistance against forced displays of loyalty to the Chinese state are expected to continue in 2014 as Beijing steps up its crackdown in Tibetan-populated areas.

The self-immolation protests have eased since the fiery campaign began in 2009 but are unlikely to stop even as the Chinese authorities tighten controls to check the burnings by cutting communication links with outside areas and jailing Tibetans they believe to be linked to the protests.

So far, 125 Tibetans have burned themselves while calling for Tibetan freedom and for the return of the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in 1959 following a failed national uprising against Chinese rule.

At the end of 2012, the burnings totaled 95up from 14 in 2011.

"It seems likely that there will be more self-immolations, although at a much slower rate than was the case a year ago, because the immolators feel that this is a vital way of defending the Dalai Lama against attacks by the Chinese authorities," said Columbia University Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett.

"Those attacks have lessened slightly but have not stopped, and the Dalai Lama, for his part, has not asked people to stop self-immolations, although he has said that these acts may not be effective," he said.

In addition, Barnett said Tibetans inside Tibet may be unaware that these deaths "are receiving less and less international attention beyond the immediate circle of exiles and supporters."

"I'm not sure if anyone is communicating information to insiders about the status of the international response. So it must be feared that more will take place."

2013 also saw for the first time sustained protests in a county in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) resisting forced displays of loyalty to the Chinese state despite an aggressive crackdown by Beijing which has led to the detention of more than 1,000 Tibetans.

The authorities launched the crackdown in Driru (in Chinese, Biru) county in the TAR’s Nagchu (Naqu) prefecture in September when Beijing began a campaign to force Tibetans to fly the Chinese national flag from their homes.

The Tibetans in Driru launched their resistance by dumping the flags into a river.

In the latest reported protest by Tibetans, two young women and a boy burned the Chinese flag but were promptly detained by the Chinese authorities.

Beijing appears to be making some headway in its suppression of the protests in Driru but it is too early to predict whether it would succeed.

"What we're seeing so far is a containment strategy which appears to have been relatively effective: the Chinese authorities seem to have been able to limit any wider impact of the Driru incidents by isolating the area, the opposite of what has happened with unrest in Lhasa and other places in the past," Barnett said.

"If this strategy succeeds, it would represent a big advance for Chinese tacticians in handling Tibetan unrest," he said.

"But there has been some leakage to areas immediately to the east, and this strategy would probably only work in certain rural areas that are historically and geographically somewhat isolated, so it is too early to assess these issues yet."

4. Will 'People Power' topple Cambodian strongman Hun Sen?

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is facing the biggest challenge to his rule since he came to power nearly three decades ago, as opposition protests calling for his ouster gain momentum.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party  (CNRP) has drawn tens of thousands of supporters to the streets since it launched a daily campaign nearly three weeks ago seeking a re-election and calling on Hun Sen to quit following claims of fraud and other irregularities in the July 28 elections.

Hun Sen has refused to resign, saying his election was in accordance with the constitution, but CNRP leader Sam Rainsy is confident the growing street protests will pressure him to quit or call for new elections.

"I appeal to Hun Sen's conscience," Sam Rainsy said on his Facebook page last week. "Knowing that the Cambodian people don't like him any more and because he is not deprived of courage and a sense of dignity, his conscience would lead him to stand down willingly on his own."

The opposition leader even went to the extent of assuring Hun Sen's safety in the face of any public revolt.

"In that case we would guarantee his safety, his freedom, and his human dignity," Sam Rainsy said.

Xinhua, the state news agency of China, a key ally of Hun Sen, carried an analysis piece this week saying Cambodia should hold a referendum to decide whether the country should call a re-election.

It also quoted Ros Chantrabot, an adviser to Hun Sen, as saying that the current government is legitimate and fully supported by the people, the armed forces, and King Norodom Sihamoni.

"The opposition cannot pull Cambodia into a state of instability," he told Xinhua. "Jasmine revolutions such as in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt will be absolutely impossible in Cambodia," he said, referring to the protests sparked in Tunisia in 2010 that toppled established governments in unrest across the Arab world.

The CNRP's protests are now joined by garment and footwear workers disgruntled by the government's decision on a minimum wage hike, causing a near paralysis in the garment industry, the country’s key foreign exchange earner.

Cambodian teachers and civil servants could also go on strike next week, adding pressure on the Hun Sen government.

The rising public anger may force Hun Sen, who has ruthlessly crushed his political opponents during his 28 years in power, to hold talks with Sam Rainsy to reach a possible compromise.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday as saying Hun Sen was ready to sit down with Sam Rainsy for the first time since September, but only to negotiate on the subject of electoral reform.

“As far as I know, today [Monday] Samdech Prime Minister [Hun Sen] has already agreed to have a meeting on [Jan. 2], but Mr Sam Rainsy wanted him to talk about [workers’] salaries,” Kanharith said.

“Samdech Hun Sen has already said that for the talks, the only issue is the issue of the reform of the National Election Committee and election [reform].”

But the opposition is pushing ahead with protests into the new year.

5. Will Kim Jong Un consolidate power after executing his uncle?

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un's execution of his de facto number two has heightened uncertainty in the nuclear-armed state as the young leader extends a series of purges since his father's death in a bid consolidate power.

The new levels of unpredictability following the execution this month of Kim's uncle Jang Song Thaek dampens any prospect of reform and of restarting international talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid for the impoverished state.

Kim has already angered the international community by defying U.N. Security Council resolutions and conducting nuclear and missile launches.

"The possibility of a far-reaching purge in a nuclear-armed state defined predominantly by hostility to the outside world is deeply disquieting," said Jonathan Pollack, a Northeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Pollack said it is likely that thousands of officials linked to Jang could face either dismissal or death, adding that the prospect of a "reign of terror" within North Korea could trigger unforeseen consequenceseither intimidating elites near the center power or undermining their loyalty to the system.

"If there was any lingering naive doubt that Jong Un would be just as merciless as his father and grandfather, it died along with Jang Song Taek," said Bruce Klingner, a North Korea expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

During his two years in power, the junior Kim has "escalated the subjugation of the populace," Klingner said, citing an increase in the number of public executions, expansion of the gulags for political prisoners, and increased government punishment for anyone caught with information from the outside world.

In the near-term, the purge carried out by Kim will strengthen his power and eliminate thoughts among the highest-level cadres that he is subject to challenge, said Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

But internal challenges cannot be ruled out as he employs brutal tactics to remain in power.

As North Korean society is governed primarily by fear, "the main threats to the viability of an otherwise economically and structurally stable DPRK will come through internal challenges in response to a leadership that either makes questionable choices or is spooked by its own shadow," Snyder said.

Jang's execution also poses a challenge to China, which has long been North Korea's benefactor.

He was a key link between North Korea and China because of his closeness to Kim Jong Il and his support for Beijing-backed reforms to revive the North's moribund economy.

He had also served as a top economic policy official in charge of the push to draw foreign investment, traveling last year to China to discuss the establishment of special economic zones.

"An unmentored Kim presents Chinese President Xi Jinping with unpalatable choices: build a relationship with the North Korean leader in hopes that he will curb his adventurism, risk the costs of turning Kim's ire more in China's direction, or join an effort to pull the plug on his impulsive behavior," Snyder said.


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