The Asia-Pacific region is poised to see major developments in the year 2012, which may likely to reshape foreign and security policies of some countries. The developments in some could be tumultuous and one can expect either turbulence or drastic policy change in many countries, which might lead to rethinking of strategies in other countries in the region as well. There are already hotspots in the region which create situation for uneasy peace. The South China Sea is a theatre for potential flashpoints. Japan-South Korea dispute over Takeshima/Dokdo Islands in the East China Sea is disturbing.
Some of the major countries in the region are likely to see leadership change. Vladimir Putin has already announced to run for the President in 2012. This single announcement could be a major factor to put East Asia in the spotlight. Many key states, including the United States, are going to hold elections in 2012. Possible power transfers could have major implications for the region's future.
The year 2012 will start with presidential election in Taiwan on 14 January. This will be followed by presidential election in Russia in March. This will again be followed by election for the President in the US in November and then that of South Korea in December. China also sees a shift in power from President Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) around October. Power succession process already started in North Korea, with Kim Jong Il anointing his youngest son to take over rein from him and to make North Korea a 'Strong and Prosperous' nation. Presidential elections of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will be held in September 2012 and given the volatility in Japanese politics, if Prime Minister Noda Yasuhiko and head of the DPJ is unable to win, Japanese politics might witness more turbulence.
The significance of these unusual convergences of political activities is pregnant with extreme uncertainties for the future of the Asia-Pacific region. It is difficult to comprehend the depth of the significance in realistic measure. However, some assessment may be attempted for the future direction based on the current trend.
If there is a regime change in one country, adjusting to the foreign policy by the incumbent regime to that of its predecessor government will be a challenge. How the domestic constituency used to a particular stance of foreign policy will adjust to the possible change by the new regime will be interesting to watch. The cases of China and North Korea seem to be predictable somewhat in the near term. While the Chinese leadership has already opted for an assertive foreign policy, in case of power transition it will be easy to take the domestic audience already used to a particular style on board. Same is the case with North Korea. With Kim's grip over the military, one can expect the junior Kim to escape possible domestic turbulence and therefore power transition will be smooth. This means North Korea's nuisance value for peace and stability in the region will continue.
The Taiwan factor will continue to vitiate the thorny Sino-US relationship. The administration of Ma Ying-jeouhas declared a truce with Beijing in 2008 and this helped maintain a relatively stable relationship with Beijing compared with that of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. Ma's policy ensured that Taiwan's relations with China sails smoothly. Beijing's response to Ma's initiative was equally warm. Both launched the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and this helped the economic component of the ties to blossom. Though Beijing still remains frustrated that the unification issue remains unresolved with no solution seen in the near term, the leadership in Beijing still feels more comfortable to deal with the Ma administration rather than with the more independence minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This does not mean to suggest that Beijing has given up conducting military exercises with a view to intimidating Taiwan and announcing in no uncertain terms that if Taiwan shows signs of independence, Beijing will use force to bring Taiwan into its fold.
However, notwithstanding the strong economic linkages between Taiwan and China, the US sales of arms to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act continue to rock Taiwan's ties with Beijing. With the US obsessed with decline, a 2009 Rand study reports that the US will not be able to defend Taiwan from a Chinese air attack even if the US sells and upgrades Taiwan's Lockheed Martin F-16 A/B jets to make them capable as the 66 new F-16 C/D models that Taiwan is seeking. Even if the US' capability to defend Taiwan in case of an attack from China is maintained, the pace in which China is beefing up of its defence capabilities, a possible power transfer in 2012 would be of no consequence to Taiwan's future security.
While events could be near predictable in Taiwan or Russia, no such assessment is easy for the Korean peninsula. South Korea will hold general election in April 2012 but the presidential election on 19 December will be of more policy relevance for South Korea's future. Domestic issues will be the key factor for the general election and North Korean issue would not normally feature as a key consideration. Korean people will be more worried about issues affecting their income and therefore global economic instability may have some influence on the outcome of the general election. On the contrary, a possible power transfer during the presidential election could see some change in South Korea's policy towards North Korea. If President Lee Myung-bak's Grand National Party loses the race, one can expect softening of Lee's hard-line policy towards the North. It is unclear, however, if Pyongyang's aggressive and provocative actions will not be repeated in the coming year.
One of the most important developments in the Asia Pacific region in 2012 would be that South Korea will be hosting the second Nuclear Security Summit in March 2012. President Lee will be spending much of his time in preparing this high-profile conference that will take place couple of weeks before the general election. The denuclearization of North Korea will surely feature in the conference discussion and the terms of discussion will likely to influence the general elections.
Even while South Korea is swarming with high-expectations of expanding its role in the international community, President Lee has vowed to do his best to make the summit a success. He has expressed high hopes to make the summit relevant in terms of ensuring international cooperation towards a nuclear-free world and prevention of nuclear terrorism.
The North Korean issue will be a problematic issue to deal with. President Lee even invited North Korea to attend the nuclear summit on the condition that Pyongyang first says that it will give up its nuclear weapons. North Korea dismissed President Lee's offer to his counterpart Kim Jong Il to attend the summit meeting as amounting to 'a ridiculous attempt to disarm the DPRK. South Korea reacted by saying that Pyongyang's dismissal of invitation to nuclear summit was 'disappointing'. It could have been a good opportunity for the North to sit alongside with leaders from some 50 countries. Can China prevail upon Pyongyang to rethink? There are still five months more for China to persuade Pyongyang. Whether China will be willing to do so is the moot point. This aspect is another uncertainty that the year 2012 will witness in the Asia Pacific context. If Pyongyang's belligerence is allowed unchecked in 2012, the security calculus of most countries in the Asia Pacific region will demand restructuring. A coordinated response by major powers in the region is needed if the events such as that of sinking of Cheonan in March and shelling of the island in November 2010 are not repeated. The year 2012 seems pregnant with host of uncertainties.
This article originally was published in Global Politician, (www.globalpolitician.com)