Fortnightly Review & Analysis: ASEAN, Indo-Pacific, East Asia, Japan & China (Vol 2 Issue X)

Oct 16-31, 2017

ASEAN

Myanmar: USDP Objects to amending Verification Process of Rohingyas

Myanmar’s opposition party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said it would monitor the government’s plan to change some of the criteria in the verification process of Rohingya refugees laid down in a 1993 agreement between the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments. The USDP has called on the government to listen to local public opinion before going in for amendment of the agreement as it might be objected to by the Arakanese. The UN on its part has called the campaign by Tatmadaw as ethnic cleansing and there has been mounting international pressure on Myanmar to take back refugees.

In end October, Myanmar’s home affairs minister Lt-Gen Kyaw Swe and his Bangladeshi counterpart Asaduzzaman Khan met in the administrative capital Naypyitaw to discuss the repatriation of refugees to Myanmar. The home affairs ministers during their meeting at Naypyitaw agreed on 10 points concerning border security and cooperation between Myanmar and Bangladesh. They also settled to finalize an agreement on the repatriation of refugees.

Duterte’s Visit to Japan

The Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte visited Japan from October 29-31. Following the first visit in October 2016, it was Duterte’s second visit to Japan as President. Duterte and Prime Minister Abe have had meeting three times before. During his stay in Japan, he held a summit meeting with PM Shinzo Abe. Japan pledged the provision of nearly 130 billion yen loan for the Metro Manila Subway Project, Arterial Road Bypass Project and the Cavite Industrial Area Flood Risk Management Project to Philippines following the Japan-Philippines Summit Meeting in January under which Abe had pledged 1 trillion yen (US$8.8 billion) in aid over five years. Japan has sought to expand infrastructure cooperation with Philippines to increase connectivity between regions by construction of roads and bridges, and river works to manage the risk of flooding. Japan had also sought to discuss regional and global issues with Duterte prior to the ASEAN-related Summit Meetings in November.
Before leaving for Japan, Duterte had expressed hope that the United States, Japan and South Korea would seek dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to dissuade him from pursuing his nuclear ambitions. Duterte also met Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, an itinerary item that had initially raised concerns among some in the Japanese government because of the Philippine president’s past controversial remarks and behavior. Abe has sought to expand greater engagement with Philippines in a bid to ensure Philippines is able to pursue a balanced policy.

Ahead of a Ban, China’s Illegal Ivory Market has moved to Laos

According to a new report from the Kenya-based non-profit ‘Save the Elephants’, efforts in China, the world’s largest ivory consumer, to stop the illicit ivory trade has pushed the industry into the tiny land-locked Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The ivory industry has moved into Laos because of growing regulation in neighboring countries like Thailand and China, which have promised to completely ban the product, a popular status symbol among wealthy Chinese, by the end of this year. Ironically, number of Chinese tourists visiting Laos reached a more than half a million in 2015, equivalent to almost 8 percent of the country’s own population, a fourfold increase in six years. According to Save the Elephants report, most of the ivory shops in Laos are run by Chinese traders with most of the ivory carved or worked in Vietnam before being smuggled into Laos. Most of the raw material still comes from poachers in Africa. As of late last year, the average wholesale price of raw ivory in Laos had dipped to $714 per kilogram, compared to almost $2,000 per kilogram in 2013, due to flooding in market.

The border area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar connect - also known as the golden triangle - is ground zero for illegal wildlife trade that drives wild populations of hundreds of species into endangerment.

Three US Supercarriers in the Asia-Pacific

Three US Nimitz-class supercarriers in the US 7th Fleet’s area of operations—the USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan, and USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike groups—marks a rare convergence of three supercarriers in the Asia-Pacific region, but not entirely unprecedented. Observers suggested that the rare convergence of three carrier strike groups in the region would send a strong message to North Korea, which has launched twenty ballistic missiles to date in 2017 and tested one presumably thermonuclear device. The convergence also comes just days before US President Donald Trump will depart to East and Southeast Asia on his first trip to the region. The convergence of the three carrier strike groups will result in a rare exercise in the Western Pacific far off from Korean peninsula—to avoid sparking any North Korean attempt at a first strike. Publicizing an exercise like this one is to not only underline the US Navy’s presence and capability to operate in the Pacific Ocean and, presumably, off the Korean Peninsula, but also serve to reassure allies.

United States last publicized a major exercise in the 7th Fleet’s area of operations involving three of its carrier groups in 2007, when USS Kitty Hawk (a conventionally powered carrier decommissioned in 2009) joined USS Nimitz and USS John C. Stennis for the ‘Valiant Shield’ exercise. According to a report from the time, a spokesperson for the US Pacific Command’s Joint Task Force 519 said, “We want to show that the Pacific region is important, and make sure we maintain peace and stability in the area.” The exercise also reportedly sought to demonstrate the US military’s “ability to rapidly consolidate joint forces in response to a regional contingency,” according to a spokesperson for Valiant Shield.

Japan

Lower House Elections: Abe wins Majority Again

The Lower House Elections held on October 22 in Japan have given a resounding mandate to Shinzo Abe to remain in office till 2021. The Liberal-Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) won a total of 284 seats in the single seat constituencies and proportional representation blocks. With its coalition partner Komeito, LDP has a total of 313 seats, giving them a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. Abe’s agenda and policy intentions are well known. With his overwhelming priority on security policy, his foremost desire is to revise the Japanese Constitution to seek legitimacy for the Self Defence Forces (SDF). Abe feels an amendment of Article 9 is necessary to rejuvenate Japan on both domestic and international platform and enable it to be a security provider for itself and in the region. Even though LDP and the constitutional revisionists hold two-thirds majority in both the Upper House and Lower House of Diet, Abe has a tough path ahead on the issue.

The October 22 Election analyses indicate that even though LDP won by a majority, Abe received only a quarter (25.2 percent) of the absolute ratio of votes. The voter turnout was at 54 percent, the second lowest post-World War II. Even though the typhoon Lan and torrential rains may have been a strong contributing factor, this election follows the trend of 2014 elections that saw the lowest turnout in the post-war era. Further, statistics indicate that a split opposition fractured the opposition vote that worked to great advantage for LDP. As per Mainichi Shimbun, in 177 single seat constituencies, there was a three way race between the two opposition blocs and ruling party bloc. Thus, if the opposition bloc were to regroup as Japanese newspaper reports indicate, Abe does not have a long time window. The timing for public referendum is most crucial in Abe’s attempt at revision of constitution. Summer of 2019 will see Upper House elections again. Thus the amendment bill will have to enter diet in January 2018 and reach public referendum by December 2018.

Watered down Anti-Nuclear Resolution at UN draws Criticism

A Japanese resolution on October 22 calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons was passed in a United Nations committee but with significantly less support than in years past. Although the Japan-sponsored motion on the issue had over the years enjoyed wider support, signs of apparent backpedalling on nuclear disarmament in the new text prompted many cosponsors to reconsider. Tokyo has penned and put forward a similar resolution for the past 24 years in a row, with the latest version endorsed by 144 countries, including the United States and Britain, which also cosponsored it. Yet, the number of cosponsors plunged to around 70 from last year’s 109. Votes against the resolution came from China, Russia, North Korea and Syria — all of whom opposed it last year. Additionally, there was a marked uptick in abstentions, which jumped to 27 from 17 last year. Despite the decreased support, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tokyo feels “very encouraged” by the motion’s passage with “widespread support” from other countries. “We will continue to make maximum efforts to advance step by step toward creating a world free of nuclear weapons,” he said in a statement.

The Japan-sponsored resolution will be put forward to the General Assembly in December. The resolution makes no mention of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a landmark agreement adopted in July with the support of 122 countries. Nuclear-armed states as well as their allies, including Japan, who receive security guarantees, have not endorsed the treaty. Concerns were also raised by the language in the Japan-sponsored draft, notably the wording related to expressions of deep concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of “nuclear weapons use,” rather than previous language that said “any use of nuclear weapons.” Proponents of the nuclear weapons ban treaty were especially alarmed by the new nuance and suggested the earlier wording had been widely accepted by most member states, whereas the modified draft seemed to backtrack. It also drew criticism from survivors of the 1945 US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

China and Taiwan

Highlights of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

On 18 October 2017, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping delivered a report titled "Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era". The 19th Central Committee has 204 members with full voting rights and 172 alternate members.

The congress has consolidated Xi Jinping’s power. His thoughts are enshrined in the party constitution. He is the only living Chinese leader to be crowned in the constitution. Last year, the party gave him the title of “core” leader, this had already strengthened his position ahead of the Congress. No other leader has had an eponymous ideology included in the document while in office since Mao. Deng Xiaoping’s name was added after his death in 1997. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had the party constitution amended to include their thoughts of “Three Represent” and “Scientific Development” but without their names directly attached.

The new Politburo has many Xi Jinping’s associates. There are as many as 14 of his allies among 25 members of the Politburo. The seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is more balanced. Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have retained their position, among five new members, only Li Zhanshu is seen as a Xi’s protégé, while others have links to his predecessors. Notably, ahead of the Congress, he had changed almost all Provincial Party Secretaries.

In 2012, Xi Jinping had coined the term “Chinese Dream” to outline his vision for China. For the realization of Chinese Dream, China had set the target of “two centennial goals.” The first goal is to build a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the party’s founding. The second, making China into a “fully developed nation” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China. In his speech, Xi for the first time outlined a specific timetable for reaching the second centennial goal. He said the party will first lead China to “basically realize socialist modernization” by 2035, when, among other things, the nation will have narrowed its wealth gap and improved its environment significantly. And the second stage will last from 2035-2050, during which China will become a leading global power and the Chinese people will basically enjoy “common property.” By then, Xi said, “the Chinese nation will stand with a more high-spirited image in the family of nations.”

Xi Jinping also set the goals for Chinese military: by 2020, Chinese military should have basically realized mechanization, made significant progress in information technology, and made a big leap in strategic ability; by 2035, modernized national defense and military should be basically achieved; and by 2050, the Chinese military should be a world-class one.
The Belt and Road Initiative, the key instrument in the grand strategy is now embedded in the party constitution. He said, “We should pursue the Belt and Road Initiative as a priority, give equal emphasis to “bringing in” and “going global,” follow the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration, and increase openness and cooperation in building innovation capacity. With these efforts, we hope to make new ground in opening China further through links eastward and westward, across land and over sea.”

19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China: Implications for India

Yang Jiechi, 67, along with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, 64, were elected to the 204-member central committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Yang Jiechi, a former Chinese foreign minister took part in the India-China border talks with his counterparts. He played a major role in the talks to resolve the 73-day Doklam standoff. Former Chinese Ambassador to India, Le Yucheng was among the 172 alternate members elected to the Central Committee. The elevation of Yang and Le shows President Xi Jinping's plans to give a big diplomatic push for his multibillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative to which India has not given its consent. Consequently, relations with India may be strained.

The section on foreign policy did not name any country. In his report Xi said, “We will fully implement the Party’s policy on religious affairs, uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and adapt to socialist society.” This suggests that China will be hard on the issue of Dalai Lama which might again create frictions in the bilateral relations. In his speech, he talked about China becoming “a global leader of composite national strength and international influence" and moving closer to the center-stage by the mid-century. The articulation of China’s increasingly explicit great power ambitions might have implications for India.

Xi Jinping urges Family to Settle Down in the Border Area

Zhoigar and Yangzom, two girls from the Tibetan herding family residing in the border area of India-China wrote a letter to Xi Jinping while the 19th Nation Congress of the Communist Party of China was in session. In the letter, they mentioned about their experiences in safeguarding the border area and development of their township over the years. Xi Jinping acknowledged the efforts of the family in safeguarding the territory and thanked them for the loyalty and contribution they have made in the border area. He said, “Without the peace in the territory, there will be no peaceful lives for millions of families.”

Notably, China has, in the past, used herders to make territorial claims in disputed areas, both along the border with India and with Bhutan. Beijing has often used herders to claim "traditional rights" over disputed areas, by encouraging them to seek out pastures and settle in border areas. The Lhunze County is located near the eastern section of the border with India. Evidently, it shows that there will be no change in the status quo of the border alignment in the area.

19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China: Implications for Taiwan

While speaking on the section of “Upholding ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and Moving towards National Reunification”, Xi Jinping mentioned about the cross-strait relations. He said, “The One-China principle is the political foundation of cross-Straits relations. The ‘1992 Consensus’ embodies the one-China principle and defines the fundamental nature of cross-Straits relations; it thus holds the key to the peaceful development of relations between the two sided of the Taiwan Straits.” He also stressed that “We will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”

Xi Jinping, in his speech, has once again made it clear that recognising the 1992 Consensus is a precondition for China to resume the dialogue mechanism. In all possibility, China will increase its pressure on Taiwan. It has already tried to stop Taiwan’s participation in the international organisations like the International Civil Aviation Organisation and World Health Assembly. China has pressurized countries like Panama to cut-off its diplomatic ties with Taiwan as a precondition to establishing its ties with China. Besides, limiting Taiwan’s diplomatic space, China is trying to discourage the Chinese tourists from visiting Taiwan. This has resulted in 30 percent decline in Chinese tourist to Taiwan since May 2016. Overall, the recent development indicates that cross-strait relations will be rocky in coming times.