The world has entered 2016 with signs of a very exciting year. Although there has been no abrupt change in the overall picture of international relations, and the common trend is to strengthen cooperation or restraint from conflict, the world is witnessing movements with various "rhythm" creating new impetus to relations between countries, between international organizations, whether large or small.
Many economic and security issues need to be addressed
Entering 2016, the world continues facing many problems to be handled, notably declining economic growth, maritime security, nuclear security, complicated fight against terrorism, and more efforts are required in environmental protection.
In January 2016, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasted that this year the world economy would grow at 3.4%, lower than the figure of 3.8% and 3.6% projected in October 2015 in July and January 2015 respectively. In the report on World Economic Prospects published in January 2016, the World Bank (WB) forecasted global growth of 2.9% in 2016. The IMF and the World Bank's forecasts were made when the financial market began with a gloomy start in 2016. The stock index, the world oil prices continue to slump and the tightened monetary policy of the US is likely to restrict investment in risky assets, causing negative impact on the medium- and long-term economic prospects. This year, the world economy will also be affected by the slump of emerging economies, such as China, Brazil, Russia, and this is the main reason leading to global GDP growth below 3% for 5 consecutive years. The WB has lowered China’s economic growth forecast for 2016 from 7% to 6.7%; Brazil's GDP is estimated to grow by 2.5%; the Russian economy is likely to see a negative growth of 0.7%. That of the US is also lowered from 2.8% to 2.7%, as exports will be affected by a strong dollar. In Japan and the Euro currency area, monetary easing policy will continue to be maintained to support economic recovery.
Meanwhile, tensions due to sovereignty disputes over sea and island territory continue to create difficulties to international relations in general and the Asia-Pacific region in particular. In particular, China's growing military buildup (strengthening aircraft carrier systems and long-range missiles), illegal land reclamation, construction, militarization of the islands under Viet Nam’s the sovereignty and the aircraft take off and landing on the islands in recent time have caused concern to many countries. Meanwhile, the cooperation between the ASEAN Community and China to build the Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC) has progressed slowly, and within the Southeast Asian countries, different views and attitudes on handling the East Sea issues in line with the basic principles of international law have existed. This situation makes the East Sea become a worrying “hot spot” of concern and have an increasingly more important role in the exchange portfolio between countries in the region and beyond.
Although the trend of peace and cooperation still prevails, the world continues to face the threat of nuclear issue. Despite more sanctions are imposed due to its nuclear tests conducted in March 2013, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea declared to restart all nuclear reactors at Yongbyon, its main nuclear facilities. Its recently reiterated declaration on the possibility of successful minimization of nuclear warheads mounted on missiles, though questionable, has raised concerns about instability in Northeast Asia. Significant progress has been made on Iranian nuclear issue, but doubts remain on the stability of the commitment not to enrich the weapons or to lift the embargo. On 17-January 2016, the US and Western countries declared to lift a series of international sanctions against Iran, after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had confirmed Iran “has implemented all necessary measures” under the nuclear agreement signed on 14 July 2015.
Since the bloodshed terror attacks in Paris, France in November 2015, the world once again has to review the ability to respond to terrorist activities. The British newspaper The Telegraph said before the terror attacks Western governments were aware that extremists and Muslim fanatics were constantly looking for ways to attack their countries. The recent terror attacks have sparked debate on anti-terrorism and its implications in international relations, including Europe’s controversial divisive issue of migration. Terrorism, poverty and illegal migration are problems which are difficult to resolve immediately and can break out fiercely again, complicating international relations full of contradictions.
One of the events grabbing attention of the international community in recent years is the Agreement on Global Climate Change was officially adopted at the UN Summit (COP-21) in Paris on 12 December 2015. This is a historic agreement because for the first time all 196 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached an agreement to force all countries to reduce carbon emissions. The agreement is partly legally binding, and partly voluntary. The most important objective of the agreement is to keep global average temperature rise below 2°C, and then efforts are to be made to reduce it to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial era (1). The agreement also stipulates that developed countries will contribute US $ 100 billion/year to help developing countries move from using fossil fuels to greener energy sources and respond to climate change. The conclusion of the agreement is a very positive signal, and countries hope that the agreement will be formally signed in April 2016. But the consistent and stable implementation of the commitments as well as actual implementation require close coordination and the involvement of institutions and organizations related to environmental protection in all continents.
The adjustment of policy of some countries
Today, the trend of forming multi-polar world order is becoming more pronounced. Though international and regional institutions have relatively and positively developed, they are not capable of comprehensively and effectively regulating international relations. There are concerns that efforts made by many international institutions are increasingly less than requirement to resolve conflicts and complexities in international and regional relations. International issues increasingly need close cooperation for settlement meanwhile mechanisms to deal effectively with these issues are not in place. Thus, countries has to proactively adjust towards strengthening cooperation to address challenges and to protect national interests. On the other hand, the multi-polar world has enabled nations to be more flexible in the selection of partners to strengthen cooperation.
In reality, in recent period, the US continue to strengthen cooperation, focusing more on multilateral relations, adjusting strong ties with the Asia-Pacific region by increasing strategic interventions in its relations with the region. Notably, though maintaining its principled stance toward sovereignty and territorial disputes in the East Sea, the US has strongly protested the cases such as the absurd claim on “9 dash line” of China, and promote the settlement of disputes by peaceful means, non use of force or threat to use force, and compliance with international law.
Meanwhile, despite its claims to continue to improve and develop relations with developed countries by expanding the areas of cooperation and discussing differences in an appropriate manner, showing attention to improve relations with neighboring countries and developing countries, China has always put pressure in many aspects to the region. China has also focused on promoting “a new type of relations of powers” with the US, security and economic pillars and regional forums (especially cooperation with ASEAN and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - RCEP), propaganda, people-to-people exchange, building of the “Confucius Institutes” in many countries both within and outside the region.
Japan has constantly expanded relations with countries along with the adjustment of national security strategy toward collective self-defense, increasing combat capability of the Japanese army, preparedness in response to security challenges besides showing greater role in matters of security and development, especially those issues relating to sea and island sovereignty in multilateral fora.
India and Russia have given stronger attention to international and regional cooperation, including the development of relations with the powers to create a favorable environment for India's “Look East” policy in the long term and ensure its position as a power in linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as Russia’s struggles to come out of the embargo imposed by the US and the West while increasingly engaging in international issues, such as the fight against terrorism.
While countries, big and small, are strengthening international cooperation in many different fields, economic and development continue to be the most important driving forces for them to cooperate and promote. This is prompted by the following basic reasons:
1. The Cold War’s lesson as well as the history of human development show that economy is a fundamental and decisive factor to the existence, development and strength of countries as well as international relation framework; 2. The world is still facing with many complex economic issues which are difficult to resolve, and continue to threaten the stability and development of regions in the world (including big problems, such as difficulties in restoring aggregate demand sufficient enough to secure full employment, the restructuring of the economy, the financial reform for healthy and safe economic development; 3. Measures taken by international organizations and countries and enhanced cooperation are not strong and effective enough to help the global economy recover in a stable and sustainable manner. Therefore, while the world continues to cope with complex old problems and new issues in all areas, economic issues remain key and lasting concerns of nations. One of the immediate difficulties, according to forecasts by major international organizations, the GDP growth rate of developed countries will increase in 2016, while that of developing and less-developed countries will decline in 2016, exacerbating worries about the growing development gap between developed countries and developing countries.
One notable trend which has been happening in international relations is the strengthening of cooperation by groups. The fundamental reason for this situation in the world today is too complex for any one pair of bilateral relations, how important they are, can be strong enough to comprehensively govern international relations; multilateral cooperation over the years has faced many restrictions (in all aspects from preventing nuclear weapons to economy and trade) due to the complexity of issues as well as difficulties in reaching consensus within the multilateral framework for issues which have major impacts on the existence and development of the world. This is the reason why the Doha negotiations fell into a deadlock, or the promotion of cooperation on nuclear security has made slow progress. Though group cooperation, is not a new concept, many countries have expected to have positive contribution to multilateral and bilateral cooperation framework to address many major issues in international relations.
In reality, initial positive progress has been made in group cooperation; many countries are increasingly giving attention and efforts to promote group collaboration. In the economic field, on the global level, the G20 is an important example showing that countries most relating to production and trade have tried to promote cooperation and development while the world economy is facing many difficulties; on the regional level, negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) concluded and procedures have been carried out for its signing, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the ASEAN Economic Community came into being.
Impacts on Asia-Pacific
To solve global issues, countries are required to continue adjusting policies which pose both opportunities and challenges to Asia-Pacific. This stems from the following factors:
First, the Asia-Pacific region continues to be a dynamically developing region, having many international issues that the world is concern of and is pushing for settlement. This is also the region where the trend of multi-layered linkage has enabled countries in and outside the region to strengthen cooperation. Though there remain many contradictions and competition for influence, basically, countries have advocated for strengthening cooperation in all possible fields and minimizing disagreements. Second, this is an area with a lot of economic linkages which have made positive progress. Besides the cooperation within the framework of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the ASEAN Community, the official signing of TPP has brought about expectation to boost economic growth, create new and maintain jobs, improve productivity, competitiveness, and living standards, reduce poverty, and strengthen transparency, governance and environmental protection in the member states. In parallel with the process of TPP, the possible conclusion of negotiations on RCEP among the 10 countries of ASEAN and Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand will facilitate the formation of the East-Asia Free Trade Agreement (EAFTA) and the start of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership in in East Asia (CEPEA), creating powerful impetus to the process of regional economic and strategy linkage for the long-term future. Third, 2016 is an important year because TPP is to be signed and ratified; negotiations are continued for the signing of RCEP; preparation are to be made for loan from AIIB (starting early 2017); the APEC Summit will be held in Viet Nam (2017) and it is also the first year of implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community.
Besides, the Asia-Pacific region also faces a number of critical challenges which require not only the efforts of the countries in the region but also close coordination with the international community for their settlement.
First, it is difficult to find measures to handling complex security issues, such as the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, the dispute and instability in the East Sea and East China Sea; there exist in the region internal conflicts among nations as well as within countries; there are unstable development through the region has dynamically and strongly striven forward. Second, regional institutions despite their strong growth and diversification, supplementing pretty well for cooperation between the countries in the region are overlapping and complicated, sometimes resulting in inefficiency without focus and waste of resources; moreover, these institutions have not achieved significant progress in dealing with traditional and non-traditional security problems and hence there have not been effective mechanism for settlement of issues, such as territorial disputes, maritime and aviation security. Third, in the long term and in certain situations, the area is always influenced by the strategic competition as well as the agreement between major powers at different levels, more or less affecting trust building and effectiveness in promoting comprehensive cooperation in Asia-Pacific. These are possibilities, challenges that countries in the region should pay attention to in order to ensure national interests, and contribute to maintaining stability, peace, for development and prosperity of the whole region.
This article was published in Communist Review No 881 (March 2016)