Tensions with China may increase as the year wears on – while North Korea's missile tests present an urgent challenge.  

USS Antietam and USS Halsey, patrolling in the Indo-Pacific region. Credit: Flickr/us7vthfleet

By Ankit Panda, Senior Editor, The Diplomat

Security trends in Asia in the first six months of 2017 appeared to emphasise that challenges first identified in 2016 would persist and intensify for regional states. However, one important new variable was introduced to the mix. The Trump administration has left Asian countries – US allies, partners and adversaries alike – unsure of what to expect. Indeed, a hallmark of the new president's diplomatic style is embracing unpredictability. In the meantime, threats continue to intensify across the region.

North Korea, which conducted 24 ballistic-missile tests in 2016, had carried out 13 tests by early July 2017. It launched the Hwasong-12 on 14 May, its longest-range ballistic missile tested at that point (excluding satellite-launch vehicles, which are not configured for ballistic flight). The Hwasong-12, with a theoretical range of approximately 4,000 km, would be able to strike US forces on the territory of Guam. More seriously, on 4 July, North Korea carried out its first ever test of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile, launching the new Hwasong-14, following it with a second test under operational conditions demonstrating the missile's range of 9,000 to 10,000km on 28 July. Experts assess that the Hwasong-14 could be capable of striking targets on the US mainland.

Meanwhile, although US–China relations had not experienced the kind of turbulence that many analysts had expected watching the Trump presidential transition, when the United States’ 'One China' policy was openly questioned, problems may arise in the second half of the year. Moments of tension have already presented themselves. Since Trump's inauguration, there have been two aerial encounters with the People's Liberation Army Air Force over the East China Sea, one in February and one in May, after which the US Air Force labelled Chinese conduct unsafe and unprofessional. China continues to flex its muscles within its air-defence identification zone in the area, which it declared in 2013. In June, the Trump administration announced the approval of the first major US arms package for Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated in May 2016 (the first package overall since December 2015).

The Trump administration, seemingly zeroed in on the Korean Peninsula, has linked the full gamut of US–China ties, including economic ties, to Beijing's cooperation on the Korean question. At the same time, Washington has generally avoided stirring tensions in the South China Sea, although on 25 May the USS Dewey conducted the first US freedom-of-navigation operation of 2017 within 12 nautical miles of the disputed, Chinese-held Mischief Reef. A second operation followed in July that was mostly a repeat of an operation conducted in January 2016; USS Stethem sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands.

While the US has left the South China Sea issue on the backburner, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has taken a different approach under the stewardship of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose country chairs the ten-state grouping in 2017. Duterte's rapprochement with Beijing following his inauguration led to the conclusion of a framework South China Sea code of conduct in May. The document has not been made public, but it nevertheless appears that ASEAN and China have not come to a consensus on any serious binding mechanism to manage territorial disputes. Meanwhile, the China Coast Guard continues to exercise jurisdiction at the furthest reaches of Beijing's ‘nine-dash-line’ claim, a claim found to be invalid under international law in a July 2016 award by a five-judge tribunal at The Hague.

At the same time, Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to champion the regional security architecture. In May, Tokyo dispatched the helicopter carrier JS Izumo, its largest post-war Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel, on a multiple month deployment across Southeast Asia. The ship sailed to the South China Sea, making multiple port calls, before heading to the Indian Ocean to join the Indian and US navies in the 2017 iteration of the Malabar exercise. The 2017 iteration of Malabar was the first to include carriers from all three navies.

Australia's interest in restoring the 'quad' strategic grouping between it and India, Japan and the US was met with cold water from New Delhi, which reportedly rejected Canberra’s request to take part in this year's Malabar exercise. Instead, the Australian and Indian navies held their first exercise off Western Australia. Canberra continues to wrangle with an impassioned domestic debate on the future of Asia and Australia's place in that future – be it US- or China-led.

Meanwhile, South Korea concluded a dramatic political scandal with the May election of President Moon Jae-in, who favours engagement with Pyongyang. Indeed, Moon has wasted little time coordinating with China, Japan, Russia and the US on the North Korea problem. However, the new South Korean government’s perception of the controversial deployment of a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, a move Moon had expressed reservations about before announcing his candidacy, remains negative. And THAAD faces sharp opposition from China, which under Moon has explored the prospect of restoring diplomatic ties to their pre-THAAD state.

While the above accounts for mostly expected and ongoing security challenges that had carried over from the Obama administration, the Trump administration has also contended with unexpected challenges. For example, the Islamic State-linked Maute Group plunged the southern Philippine city of Marawi into crisis in the final days of May, triggering a weeks-long siege by the Philippine Armed Forces and US advisers to recapture the city.

Heading into the second half of 2017, all eyes in Asia will return to the US. The Trump administration, impeded by scandal at home, has yet to fill key Asia-related appointments in the US departments of defence and state, giving the appearance that US Asia policy remains rudderless for the moment.

After multiple high-level visits to Asia from senior officials in early 2017, however, US allies and partners appear content, at least for now. Later this year, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and Duterte are expected to visit Washington. Meanwhile, Trump has pledged to attend Asia's traditional autumn summits, with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and ASEAN-related summits, including the East Asia Summit, on his agenda.

However, with the trajectory of the US in Asia more uncertain now than at any point since the end of the Second World War, Asia stands at a crossroads. If the regional security architecture is on the cusp of transformation, 2017 may well be the starting point for that change.

Ankit Panda is a contributor to the IISS Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment 2017


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