All major Northeast Asian countries, as well as the United States, held elections or underwent leadership transitions in 2012 that will not only have an impact on their respective domestic political landscapes but also shape their foreign policy priorities in 2013 and beyond. For the Asia-Pacific as a whole, the leadership transitions of 2012 will have profound geopolitical consequences for years to come.
In the United States, the re-election of President Barack Obama in November indicates that the U.S. policy of strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific will be largely sustained, despite budgetary pressures and domestic political challenges. In China, the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party convened in November and made a once-a-decade announcement of a new cohort of national leaders, with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang being named to the highest positions on the Politburo Standing Committee. Likewise, both Japan and South Korea held major elections in December. Japan returned Shinzo Abe and the previously dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to power following a few short years of rule by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), while in South Korea, Park Guen-hye of the Saenuri Party was elected president, becoming the first woman democratically chosen to lead a Northeast Asian state.
Earlier in 2012, Taiwan and Russia both held national elections. In Taiwan, incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) was re-elected in January, likely indicating his rapprochement with mainland China will continue. In Russia, a controversial election in March returned the presidency to Vladimir Putin, despite large protests in Moscow similar to those following the December 2011 legislative elections. Finally, in the wake of Kim Jong-un's formal assumption of power in late 2011, North Korean politics continued to unfold during 2012 in ways little understood by the outside world.
Recognizing that all these leadership changes were occurring within a relatively short window, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), in partnership with the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, hosted an international conference on "Northeast Asia in Transition: [End Page 46] New Leadership, New Dynamics." The conference, which was held on November 13, 2012, at the University of Washington, featured a select group of experts who examined the political, economic, and social issues affecting Northeast Asia amid these leadership transitions.
The conference was organized by NBR's Kenneth B. and Anne H.H. Pyle Center for Northeast Asian Studies. Named in honor of NBR's founding president and his wife, the Pyle Center conducts research and organizes events on Northeast Asia to advance the study of the complex dynamics and deep forces reshaping the region. The conference was also part of a series of events organized to celebrate the Henry M. Jackson centennial, the hundredth anniversary of Senator Jackson's birth.
This roundtable features essays by three of the presenters, who were asked to examine the leadership transitions in Japan, China, and the Korean Peninsula and the associated implications for Northeast Asia. Yoichiro Sato (Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University) examines the shifting domestic political landscape that led to the LDP's return to power and how the new Abe government will likely address the challenges currently facing Japan. He notes that the new government is likely to adopt a more nationalistic stance, which could lead to escalating regional tensions and difficulties in managing the alliance with the United States. Ren Xiao (Fudan University) provides a lucid rundown of the outcomes of the 18th Party Congress and describes the implications of the new leadership configuration for China's relations with Japan, South Korea, and the United States. He warns leaders in China and the United States not to exaggerate each other's "unfriendly intentions" and recommends that both new governments explore areas for collaboration that will promote peace and benefit both nations. Sung-yoon Lee (Tufts University) gives an authoritative and insightful assessment of the "uniquely unique" North Korean leadership structure, pointing out its many flaws and weaknesses. He argues that Kim Jong-un's youth and inexperience make the regime vulnerable and that President Obama and President Park Geun...