Three Key Questions in 2013

China's maritime row with its neighbors, a possible nuclear test by North Korea, and self-immolation protests in Tibet may dominate developments in East Asia.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
This Japan Coast Guard photo shows a Chinese maritime surveillance ship cruising near the disputed islands in the East China Sea, Dec. 17, 2012.

Will the sea dispute between China and its neighbors spiral out of control?

If 2012 witnessed an escalation of tensions in the South China Sea and East China Sea, then 2013 could see the situation worsening.

There has been no respite in China's maritime patrols in the region as it reasserts its sovereignty over an island chain administered by Japan and reinforces its claims over nearly the whole of the South China Sea.

It has also beefed up its sea surveillance capability, transferring two destroyers and nine other ex-navy vessels to its maritime surveillance fleet, which may for the first time be equipped with such powerful vessels.

Beijing is also adopting a more aggressive stance in asserting its claims.

Aside from repeatedly sending its vessels into the waters around the disputed island chain in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, Beijing also breached Japanese airspace by dispatching a surveillance aircraft over the contested territory. Japan scrambled F-15 jets in response.

In the South China Sea, just four days before the end of the year, China announced that it had dispatched a state-of-the-art patrol boat equipped with helipad, the first of its kind in the region, in a bid to assert its claims over territories also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

Defying protests from the Southeast Asian nations and the United States, Beijing is also moving ahead to expand a military garrison set up in July in a remote island in the South China Sea, investing over U.S. $1 billion to build an airport and other infrastructure in the outpost.

Japan, under new prime minister Shinzo Abe, appears to be resisting the Chinese provocations. The hawkish leader with a nationalistic bent has vowed not to yield in the maritime dispute and wants to boost military spending to counter Beijing's growing military clout.

Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines has expressed support for Japan acting as a bulwark against what it also sees as Chinese provocation. Tensions between Manila and Beijing have increased since April following a standoff between ships of the two countries over a South China Sea shoal which both claim as their territory.

Another more strident claimant, Vietnam, has rebuked Beijing after Chinese fishing vessels sabotaged two of state-run energy giant PetroVietnam's ships, triggering protests in the capital  Hanoi.

"I think that we are witnessing in the maritime domain between China and its neighbors in Northeast and Southeast Asia developments that are both deeply worrying and quite stunning," said Jonathan Pollack, an East Asian specialist at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

He said that within a very short period of time since last spring, there has been a near breakdown in bilateral understandings that have been operative in the maritime domain for decades.

"These include, of course, declarations of intent by a variety of the maritime claimants, a test of wills, displays of maritime capacities of different states, and maybe even ultimately and more worrisome, the possibilities of military confrontation or even a military conflict," Pollack warned.


Experts also warn that the China-Japan conflict in particular may deepen amid the security tensions stemming from the Chinese military surveillance aircraft's intrusion into what Tokyo considers its airspace in mid-December.

"I don’t expect that anybody’s going to be trying to shoot somebody down, but there is the possibility," retired American naval commander Michael McDevitt told a recent Brookings forum.

"There is a possibility that if China sends another [unarmed] surveillance aircraft, it will feel compelled to fly PLA [People's Liberation Army] Air Force escorts. So, now you’ve got fighters from China and then you’ve got fighters from Japan out there at the same time and what have you."

"So there’s going to have to be very strong command and control to make sure that one fighter pilot doesn’t think that he’s disadvantaged because the other guy’s got him in his sights or in his missile range in a way that would disadvantage him," said McDevitt, now a Vice-President at CNA, a Washington-based non-profit research and analysis company.

"So there is that possibility. I think it’s low probability, but it needs to be thought about."

Will North Korea fire a nuclear test?

Hot on the heels of a successful long-range missile launch, North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un may test a nuclear device and follow in the footsteps of his father who used the atomic threat to extract concessions from the international community, experts warn.

The impoverished and reclusive nation, which is believed to have enough nuclear material for a handful of crude atomic bombs, has already conducted two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009. The tests came immediately after long-range rocket launches defying international sanctions.

And North Korea's Foreign Ministry hinted on the day of the latest rocket launch on Dec. 12  as to the possibility of a third nuclear test.

It insisted that the three-stage Unha-3 rocket, launched five days before the first anniversary of Kim's father Kim Jong-il’s death, was a purely scientific mission aimed at putting a polar-orbiting satellite in space.

But many viewed the mission as part of Pyongyang's long running effort to master the technology needed to deliver a nuclear warhead on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The rocket launch,  for which the U.S. is pushing for a tough response at the United Nations, shows it has likely developed long suspected technology to fire a warhead more than 10,000 km (6,200 miles), South Korean officials have said, putting the U.S. West Coast in range.


Now North Korea may be laying the groundwork for a third nuclear test, experts said.

It has repaired extensive rain damage at its nuclear test facility and could conduct a detonation on two weeks notice, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said last week on its website, 38 North, citing satellite imagery analysis.

"Satellite photos as recent as December 13 show that Pyongyang is determined to maintain a state of readiness at the area of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site where a third test is expected even in the dead of winter," it said.

However, in order to maintain a high level of readiness, the North Koreans will have to prevent water buildup in a tunnel at the test facility that could possibly damage the nuclear test device and associated sensors designed to gather data on a detonation, the report said.

"Whether this potential problem is under control or has now been solved remains unclear," it pointed out.

Nick Hansen, an American weapons and imagery intelligence expert with more than 40 years of national intelligence experience, said North Korea would push ahead with its third nuclear test.

"I believe they will test regardless of the successful launch," he told Stanford News Service, a publication of Stanford University, basing his forecast on his monitoring of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

"The most significant development is the probable clearing of snow at the entrance to the south tunnel. It also appears that the mine cart tracks are being reinstalled on the spoil pile to carry dirt out from the tunnel, but I can't be sure of that," he said.


It is not known how China, North Korea's closest ally and a veto-wielding permanent U.N. Security Council member, will react if Pyongyang tests another nuclear device.

Beijing is already under pressure from the U.S. and its allies to back tougher sanctions against its renegade neighbor over the latest rocket launch, which flouted Security Council resolutions on using ballistic technology.

But the Chinese foreign ministry has said that any Security Council response had to be "prudent, appropriate and conducive to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and avoid the escalation of the situation."

"The impending U.N. Security Council debate will come as an early test for China’s new leadership under [president-in-waiting] Xi Jinping and as evidence that China’s comprehensive engagement strategy with North Korea has failed to restrain North Korean provocations," said Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea Policy program at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"Since China’s overriding objectives toward North Korea remain stability and crisis avoidance, China will remain the main obstacle to any significantly punitive international response. It is likely only to agree to yet another ineffective UN presidential statement condemning the launch, resisting efforts to expand sanctions against North Korea," he said.

Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s, personally shepherded the latest missile launch plan and had declared his regime's "unshakable stand" that the program will continue, according to state media, even as the country struggles with dire food shortages.

South Korea estimates that the missile program has cost the North U.S. $1.3 billion, enough to feed the country's entire population for years.

China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia have failed in talks with North Korea to end its defiant nuclear program.

How many more Tibetans are going to burn themselves to death?

As Beijing appears unshaken by the 95 Tibetan self-immolations against Chinese rule so far, indications are that there will be no respite in the desperate burning protests aimed at underscoring the need to restore Tibetan rights, experts say.

The bulk of the self-immolations occurred in 2012, when Tibetans also took to the streets to express outrage over the erosion of their rights and the disappearance of hundreds of dissident monks from monasteries, especially from the Kirti monastery in Ngaba province, the epicenter of the burnings.

In November alone, 28 Tibetans burned themselves to death in a dramatic acceleration in frequency as the ruling Chinese Communist Party's top officials met to endorse a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in Beijing.

There were five deaths in December and the latest fatal burning protest was reported on Dec. 9.

There has been a significant lull since then, but experts consider it an uneasy calm as the Chinese authorities have not responded to the key demands of the self-immolators.      

"I think everybody is extremely concerned that there might be more deaths—a possibility because we have not seen any significant adjustment by China on the policy questions that these people have raised," said Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet at Columbia University.

"And until those very significant policy issues are addressed—of course, fundamentally, the question of the return of the Dalai Lama and talks with the Dalai Lama—we have to be very concerned about the possibility of further unrest among Tibetans in some areas," he said.

Most of the self-immolators have questioned Beijing's rule and have called for the return of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India's hill town Dharamsala, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is also based.


The Central Tibetan Administration, as the Tibetan government-in-exile in India is called, said the self-immolations have underscored "political repression, economic marginalization, environmental destruction, and cultural assimilation" in Tibet.

Chinese authorities have tried a combination of strategies to douse the Tibetan campaign—they have beefed up security, clamped down on the Internet and other communications in most of the areas where the self-immolations have occurred, offered cash rewards to Tibetans to tip the police off to potential burnings, and tightened security clampdowns on monasteries.

"The Chinese government has responded to the self-immolations and unrest in Tibet by intensifying the military buildup and strengthening the very policies and approaches that are the root cause of the acts, such as aggressive campaigns against loyalty to the Dalai Lama," said the advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet (ICT).

"The Chinese Communist Party’s feared erosion of authority and criminalization of self-immolation also leads to retributive actions against families, relatives, or monasteries associated with those who have self-immolated, which creates a vicious spiral in which more people are prepared to self-immolate because of the oppressive conditions," the ICT said in a report.

Free Tibet, another advocacy group, also warned, "There are no signs that the current level of protest is about to diminish, and the punitive Chinese response may generate more Tibetan action."

"Tibetans are determined to make their voices heard, and the international community has an obligation to listen and, more importantly, act," it said.

World powers

There have been no effective efforts, however, by world powers to prod Beijing into taking any action to address the Tibetan problem.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have written to President Barack Obama asking that the “United States take a leading role and engage actively with partner nations on measures that could bring near-term improvements in the human rights situation in Tibet.”

The letter, dated Dec. 20, 2012, was co-authored by Democratic Representative Jim McGovern and Republican Frank Wolf and signed by a total of 58 House Members of both parties.

"How many more Tibetans will die before the international community takes action?" asked Kate Woznow, International Director of Students for a Free Tibet.

This month, the governments of the United States, Canada and Britain, and the external affairs chief of the European Union, all issued statements calling for an end to repressive policies in Tibet and for dialogue toward a solution.

Barnett said the Chinese authorities have adopted a much more aggressive approach to contain the self-immolations in probably all Tibetan-populated areas.

"Particularly in parts of Qinghai and Gansu provinces, they have taken a very vigorous approach, treating them [the self-immolators and those close to them] as criminals and effectively [describing their actions as] a form of anti-state activity and espionage," he said.

"There are big campaigns and anti-immolation drives in some of these areas, as the authorities take a more aggressive approach in those areas," he said.


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