Conflict amid continuity in 2012

Ayear ago, when we surveyed the prospects for 2012, the many political transitions that were scheduled to occur throughout our region loomed large. Every country in Northeast Asia and many of our important partners were holding elections or anticipating leadership transitions.

There was fear that elections would bring in new administrations that would upset the modus vivendi that had emerged.

In fact, there was little actual turnover in those elections. In each of the contests we identified, the incumbent or the candidate closest to the current office holder won.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was re-elected, Mr. Vladimir Putin reclaimed the Russian presidency, conservatives emerged victorious in South Korea’s National Assembly elections and a conservative won the presidency, with Ms. Park Geun Hye succeeding Mr. Lee Myung Bak.

China’s transition, while rocky, ultimately purged the radicals and installed a leadership that will continue existing policies.

Also in Japan, the one country that was not scheduled to hold an election, the outcome was a reversion to the old. The Liberal Democratic Party is back and its platform looks awfully familiar.

And yet, while consistency and continuity mostly prevailed, 2012 was still a year of great tension in Northeast Asia.

There are many causes of the frictions that dominated relations among states, some long-standing, some very much a reflection of the particular moment. But there is no mistaking the fact that the many elections contributed to the sparks as the passions that surface during campaigns made pragmatic and levelheaded politicians look out of touch.

The important lesson, then, is that it isn’t election outcomes that create tensions, but the uncertainty created by election campaigns. Politicians jockey for position and will play to emotions, conscious of the fact that election promises are often hard to keep.

That does not prevent those same “empty” promises from inflaming passions elsewhere and elevating tensions. The result has been a downward spiral of relations and new suspicions surrounding new governments that make problem solving even more difficult.

Other problems festered throughout 2012. Europe failed to shake its economic woes; indeed one of the most popular new words during the year was “Grexit,” meaning Greek exit from the eurozone.

Europe’s leaders showed an inability to make the hard choices that would surmount the union’s persistent economic troubles. National leaders in Greece, Italy and Spain were forced to swallow tough austerity measures, but at the regional level, European leaders refused to impose costs on their own banks and shareholders. The result was a piecemeal solution that failed to address the root causes of economic instability, ensuring that Europe ricocheted from summit to summit without ending the speculation that has battered its economies and undermined its credibility.

The civil war in Syria also endures, amid daily reports of additional atrocities. More than 40,000 people have died, and there is no indication that the regime of President Bashir Assad is prepared to sue for peace. This has created a human rights disaster as hundreds of thousands of refugees spill over into neighboring countries and the conflict threatens to spread.

Nearby, Iran still harbors its nuclear ambitions, and while the possibility of a military strike against its nuclear facilities has diminished, that will only be temporary. Tensions throughout the region remain high, not only because of the behavior of the principle belligerents, but because there has been no progress in diplomacy to tackle any of the region’s pressing problems.

Closer to home, North Korea remains as problematic as ever. Hopes that the Kim Jong Un era in North Korea might be more peaceful, less bellicose and focused on remedying that country’s appalling economic situation have gone unrealized.

The government continues to threaten the region, ignoring United Nations Security Council resolutions and launching long-range rockets. It has proved unwilling to adopt the economic reforms that would allow it to feed its people. As a result it remains a source of instability.

More positively, and in something of a break from the dreary continuity that has marked all the other trends of the year, there were big changes in Myanmar.

For reasons that still remain unclear, the government of President Thein Sein decided to break with the past and open his country to the world. While there remain suspicions about the end game in Myanmar — the president’s intentions are unclear as is his ability to successfully confront the vested interests in his country — the decision to turn to the West and to embrace reform has the potential to transform the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.

Myanmar has extraordinary riches and has a decisive geographic position in Southeast Asia. A government there that engages the West rather than resists it presents important opportunities to Japan. We must seize them, but carefully to ensure that the process of reform and opening continues.

The appalling treatment of the Rohingya population is proof of the need for ongoing scrutiny of Myanmar’s government.

The year ended with a flurry of elections that hold out the prospect of change in 2013. In some cases, we hope for a little less continuity and a little more imagination.