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

Sep 16-30, 2017

ASEAN

ASEAN Endorses South China Sea Code Proposal

ASEAN foreign ministers endorsed a proposal by Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Phạm Bình Minh for the ASEAN-China Summit in November to issue an official statement on the start of negotiations over a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Addressing his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a meeting on the side-lines of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 21, Minh stressed the significance of maintaining stability, over flight and maritime security in the South China Sea for regional peace. He called on concerned parties to adhere to the principles of peaceful settlement of disputes, in line with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. ASEAN and China should make greater efforts to fully implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and build a pragmatic and legally-binding Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC), he added.

The ASEAN ministers expressed deep concern over the complex developments on the Korean Peninsula as well as the escalating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. ASEAN appealed to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to promptly stop its nuclear weapons tests and strictly abide by relevant UN Security Council resolutions, they said. The ministers called on the DPRK to return to the negotiating table in order to seek long-term and inclusive solutions to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers also met with UN Secretary General and the President of the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly Antonio Guterres, with whom they agreed to enhance ASEAN-UN co-operation.

Myanmar: Responding to Rohingya Crisis

Myanmar’s State Councilor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on 19 September said that the national government was making "every effort to restore peace and stability" and is interested in conducting a verification process for the Rohingya Muslims forced to flee by army operations. In a televised speech Suu Kyi said that "We condemn all human rights violation. We are committed to peace and rule of law. The security forces have been advised to adhere to code of conduct; to exercise all measures, to avoid collateral damage. We feel deeply for the suffering of all people who have been caught in the conflict. "

Though Myanmar authorities have announced their intention to take back Rohingya refugees after verification and has nominated land and sea points for the same yet the detailed process for verification has not been made clear. There are doubts in some circles as to the sincerity of this offer especially on how many such refugees sheltered by Bangladesh would be taken back. Meanwhile, while appreciating Suu Kyi’s statement the US embassy spokesperson Aryani Manring said that “We note her reaffirmation that her government will carry out the final recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission as quickly as possible. The United States has offered its support to the government as it works to address the long-term challenges addressed in the Commission’s report”.

Further, according to Myanmar government sources and based on Hindu community leader U Ni Mal’s testimony it was revealed that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had arrested some 100 men and women from several Hindu villages in Kha Maung Seik village tract on August 25 and killed the majority of abductees. ARSA arrested some 100 men and women from several Hindu villages in Kha Maung Seik village tract on Aug. 25 and killed the majority of abductees.

Singapore PM’s Visit to China

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to China from September 19-21 signalled efforts on both sides to bolster relations that have showed strains over the recent past. Singapore is set to be the next ASEAN chair in 2018 making it crucial for both countries to reiterate their ties. Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed ties with Singapore making it the highlight of a three-day visit heavy with political overtones for both sides. PM Lee met four members of the Communist Party’s supreme Politburo Standing Committee –Xi, Premier Li Keqiang, national legislature chief Zhang Dejiang and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection head Wang Qishan. The visit has helped quiet speculation over Lee’s relationship with Beijing after Hong Kong authorities detained a shipment of Singaporean armoured personnel carriers returning from a training exercise with Taiwan in November last year.

Along with frictions on handling of South China Sea tensions, PM Lee also did not attend the high profile Belt & Road Forum in Beijing in May earlier this year. China remains Singapore’s largest trading partner with their bilateral trade amounting to $66 billion in 2016. Singapore is the second-largest investor in China, even as the amount slipped from $6.97 billion in 2015 to $6.18 billion last year, according to official China figures. PM Lee's trip to China also precedes his trip in October to meet President Donald Trump in the US.

Graft Probe seeks Duterte Accounts

An opposition senator pressed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on September 26 to publicly release details of his bank accounts to disprove allegations that he had large sums of undeclared money. Senator Antonio Trillanes IV first alleged Duterte had unexplained wealth during the presidential campaign last year. He told a news conference he was raising the issue again because Duterte has not yet bared details of the more than 2 billion pesos (US$40 million) he allegedly kept in bank accounts as a former city mayor. Duterte responded by angrily lashing out at the Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang who had announced the probe. “I will not submit to the jurisdiction of the ombudsman,” Duterte said in a curse-laden speech to local lawyers on September 28. Duterte’s remarks contradicted his spokesman last week. In a statement, Ernesto Abella said Duterte “respects the internal processes of the Office of the Ombudsman as an independent body and trusts its impartiality in the conduct of its fact-finding duty” and that “the president has nothing to hide”.

Duterte, 72, won last year’s presidential elections on a brutal law-and-order and anti-corruption platform. During the election campaign Duterte had said he came from a poor family and lived a modest lifestyle which boosted his image as an anti-establishment politician representing the common folk.

Indo-Pacific

Japan and South Korea prepare for North Korea’s Anniversary

There is heightened tension in the Korean peninsula and Japan in the context of the anniversary of founding of the ruling party of North Korea (DPRK) on October 10. It is anticipated that DPRK will launch another ballistic missile to commemorate the day.

The Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera inspected the PAC-3 (Patriot Advance Capability) units on 27 Sep 17. DPRK ballistic missiles had earlier flown over Hokkaido prefecture on 29 Aug and 15 Sep 17, consequent to which J-Alert was declared around Hokkaido’s Hakodate area. Local Japanese residents have been especially anxious whether, a missile veering off trajectory or debris falling from the sky can be dealt with by PAC-3 units. Defence Minister Onodera has clarified that in principle, Aegis-equipped destroyers are responsible for ballistic missile defense (BMD) and is the primary layer of defence. The PAC-3units complement BMD in case of an emergency, providing two-tier systemof defence to Japan against ballistic missiles.

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea (ROK) on 28 Sep 17, during the 69th Armed Forces Day ceremony, emphasized that three-axis defense structure would be the core strategy of South Korea’s military capability to meet threats from DPRK. The three-axis defense structurecomprises the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system, the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system, and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) system. The Government of ROK is of the opinion that it would be apt at this stage to regain complete control of the wartime operationsfrom the US. ROK believes that full control of wartime military operations, would not only deter Pyongyang effectively, but also instill confidence in their own citizens about the country’s defence preparedness.

Japan has explained that shooting down a ballistic missile could be construed as a military action and hence, the missile would not be shot down unless it poses a direct threat to its territory. However, some analysts argue that Japan’s missile defense systems does not have the ability to eliminate enemy projectiles at high altitudes, and for an Aegis ship to intercept the missile at sea, it would have to be in exactly the right place at the right time.

The Koreas

North Korea: US on Diplomatic Offensive to Explore Options

US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson during his trip to China from September 28-30 was quoted by AFP as saying "…we are probing if North Korea is interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization. We have lines of communication with Pyongyang". His remarks came shortly after he met Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials in Beijing. "We are not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang", Tillerson added, according to the AFP report. Direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang may help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which have been escalating due to a series of North Korean missile tests and the North's sixth and possibly most powerful nuclear test so far, staged on September 3. The two sides have since been locked in a battle of threats. US President Donald Trump during his maiden address at the United Nations General Assembly on September 18 warned of dire consequences for the North, saying his country will have no choice but to "totally destroy" North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies. Further in his tweet on October 1, Trump stated he wasn’t looking forward to negotiations with ‘Rocket Man’ and asked Tillerson to conserve his energy.

The US military will also send the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to the Korean Peninsula at the end of October for scheduled exercises with the South Korean Navy to counter North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, according to defence officials of the two countries. The deployment of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, along with the earlier show of force involving B-1B Lancer bombers off the North Korean coast, is expected to draw a strong backlash from Pyongyang and provocations in response. It is not known how far the carrier striking group will go northward. On September 23, the US B-1B bombers carried out exercises in international airspace near North Korea, and they flew further north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) than any other American warplanes in the 21st century. According to experts, North Korea could carry out provocative acts in October when the country marks the anniversaries of its party's foundation and Kim Jong Il’s ascent to power, and China opens a key party meeting. North Korea has used important national occasions as pretexts for military provocations and a show of force.

South Korea: Controversy Over US B-1B Bombers Flying over DMZ

President Moon Jae-in gave consent to the US flying B-1B Lancer bombers off the North Korean coast, Blue House said on September 23. The explanation came amid speculation Seoul was unaware of the operation and had been excluded from Washington's show of force against Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threats, although such action could raise military tension that would affect South Korea. A Blue House official said Seoul and Washington had agreed on the show of force involving the B-1B bombers during Moon's stay in New York for the UN General Assembly. Even though Seoul was aware of and consented to the US Air Force show of force against the North, such activities are feared to aggravate military tension on the peninsula, coupled with the bellicose rhetoric of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un toward each other. Some government sources said the radars of the North's SA-5 surface-to-air missiles in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, were operating when the B-1B bombers were flying off the coast. But it seemed the bombers were out of the SA-5's range, they said.

Although Pyongyang did not fire the missiles at the bombers or take other military action, concern is rising that frequent shows of force could cause unexpected and unintentional clashes. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) urged the Moon government to take more active security measures, saying military tension reached a flashpoint with the bombers' flight. "The US unilaterally carried out a military operation by flying B-1B Lancer bombers and F-15C Eagle fighters north of the DMZ, the first of its kind since the 1950-53 Korean War", LKP floor leader Chung Woo-taik said, "The government should give a detailed account to the National Assembly and the people of why such a military operation, which led the country to the brink of war, took place and exactly what agreement was made between South Korea and the US." South Korea has been very cautious of using military policies to resolve tensions with North Korea. President Moon has earlier stated that US will not take any unilateral military action against North Korea without South Korea’s consent.

Japan

Snap Elections, Crumble of Japan Opposition Party and Yuriko Koike

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike launched her new party ‘Kibo no To’ (Party of Hope) on September 25 with a platform of “reform conservatism”, just three and a half hours before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a general election as his approval ratings bounced back after an abysmal summer of scandals this year. The Lower House was effectively dissolved on September 28. Yuriko Koike is now under intense pressure to stand in Japan’s general election on October 22 after her dramatic election launch led to the collapse of Japan’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). That leaves her as the only rival to Abe, but short of resources to topple him. Thus, Koike is left with a painful dilemma: if she stands, she risks sacrificing her executive power as governor of Tokyo only to end up as leader of the opposition. If she does not, Abe will cruise to an easy re-election and she will take the blame. Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, said it would be irresponsible for Koike to stand, abandoning the Tokyo government just a year after her election and irresponsible if she did not, having got rid of the main opposition party. Koike must decide whether to run by October 10.

On September 28, the DPJ said it would give up on the election and free its candidates to seek nominations from the Party of Hope. However, Koike’s launch has also alienated Komeito, a party that attracts Buddhist voters, and was in coalition with her in the Tokyo assembly. Komeito is keeping its national alliance with Abe, closing the most plausible route for Ms Koike to govern in coalition. Koike also has to reckon with left-wingers from the DPJ who reject the Party of Hope. On October 2, they launched a new Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which risks splitting the anti-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) vote. The new Party of Hope will push for greater female empowerment, including moves to legalize the right to use separate surnames after marriage. Other priorities include eliminating nuclear power, preventing second hand smoke and revising the Constitution. A new opinion poll suggests voters are not enthused by any of the options. The poll, for news agency Kyodo, gives the ruling LDP 24 per cent in the proportional representation part of the ballot versus 15 per cent for the Party of Hope and 43 per cent who remain undecided, highlighting both the opportunity for Koike and her failure to seize it so far. Approval ratings for Abe’s government were negative but 46 per cent said they favoured him for prime minister versus 33 per cent for Yuriko Koike.

LDP Election Pledge

The ruling LDP has come up with a six-point campaign platform for the October 22 Lower House election, including a commitment to debate a revision to the Japanese Constitution. Official campaigning for the election, in which the LDP will face a reorganized opposition likely to be dominated by the new Kibo no To (Party of Hope) led by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is set to begin on October 10. Among issues at stake is a potential amendment to the Constitution that would require the support of two-thirds of parliament plus a majority in a nationwide referendum. The election pledge says that the LDP will aim to make the first-ever amendment to the Constitution "on the basis of sufficient debate inside and outside the party" of four specific points. These points include the question of adding a specific mention of the status of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF). The SDF are currently governed by their own law but are absent from the Constitution, Article 9 of which requires Japan to renounce war and the maintenance of "war potential." The other three points are a contentious plan to allow exemptions to parts of the Constitution during a state of emergency, a guarantee of free education and reviewing merged electoral districts in the House of Councillors so as to allow every prefecture to have at least one member for the chamber again.

The LDP's election pledge also covers North Korea policy, the future of the "Abenomics" policy package, productivity, human resources development and regional revitalization. It includes a preface in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his capacity as LDP president describes the threat from North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile development and Japan's shrinking and aging population as the "two national crises" at the heart of the election. The LDP election pledge has also omitted the deadline by which it aims to return to a primary budget surplus and mentions commitment to raise the national sales tax in October 2019 and use part of the revenue for childcare and welfare programmes.

Reprocessed Nuclear Fuel Returned to Japan for Reactor Use

Nuclear fuel reprocessed in France returned to Japan on September 21 for use in a reactor as the country tries to burn more plutonium amid international concerns about its stockpile. Kansai Electric Power Co. said the shipment arrived for use at the No. 4 reactor at its Takahama plant in western Japan. The reactor is one of only five reactors currently operating in Japan. A specialized ship, the Pacific Egret, was seen docked just outside one plant as the heavily protected shipment was brought inside under extremely tight security. The utility said it cannot provide details such as the amount of the fuel. The new fuel is expected to be loaded after the reactor's regular safety check planned next year.

Japan has a stockpile of 47 tons of plutonium –10 tons at home and the rest in Britain and France, which reprocess and store spent fuel for Japan as the country still lacks its own capacity to do so. Experts say the amount could be enough to make thousands of atomic bombs, although utility operators deny such risk, saying the material is stored safely and monitored constantly. Japan plans to start up its Rokkasho reprocessing plant next year, but critics say that would only add to the stockpile problem and nuclear security concerns.

China & Taiwan

Xi Jinping –Donald Trump Phone Call

Last fortnight, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump held their fourth conversation over the phone. According to the White House, “President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Xi Jinping of China to discuss North Korea’s continued defiance of the international community and its efforts to destabilize Northeast Asia. The two leaders committed to maximizing pressure on North Korea through vigorous enforcement of United Nations Security Council resolutions.” Reportedly, the two leaders also discussed Trump's coming China visit. According to Xinhua, "The Chinese leader said he is happy to maintain communications with the U.S. leader on a regular basis over topics of mutual concern."

As the two leaders were having the conversation, the United States military flew advanced bombers and stealth jets over the Korean Peninsula and near Japan in drills with South Korean and Japanese warplanes. The China-US relations have become strained over the North Korean issue. Donald Trump has asked China to pressurize North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme. Earlier, he had tweeted, “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi and China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” Essentially, the call was to brief each other about the latest development in North Korea and to avoid any miscalculations.

United States-China Social and Cultural Dialogue

The United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong co-chaired the first US-China Social and Cultural Dialogue (SCD) on 28 September 2017, in Washington. The dialogue highlighted seven areas of cooperation; education, social development, science and technology, health, subnational, arts and culture, and environment and conservation. It was also decided to add media as an additional cooperative area for the next dialogue. The dialogue resulted in a joint statement and an action plan which included more than 130 outcomes.

The most important development of the dialogue was in the field of health and education. Both Countries agreed to launch cooperative programs to prevent communicable diseases and establish public health system in African countries in the post-Ebola era. In the field of education, it was decided to promote the two-way overseas study and enhance bilateral exchanges. The United States and China announced the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on the “US-China Teachers of Critical Language Program”. China committed to establish a “Short Term Scholarship for outstanding Student” program, in which the Chinese government plans to provide 10,000 credit scholarship to U.S. students in the next four years. China also committed to establish US-China Young Maker Exchange Centers in both countries and to host the US-China Young Maker Competition each year.

The SCD is one of the four dialogue announced at the Mar-a-Lago, Florida meeting between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. The other three dialogues are; diplomatic and security dialogue, comprehensive economic dialogue; law enforcement and cyber dialogue. The aim of the SCD is to advance social and cultural relations consistent with the results-oriented approach of the new comprehensive dialogue mechanism. Amid growing tension between China and the United States over the trade and North Korea issue; the new SCD is a platform for the two countries to continue engaging in positive and open conversation on issues and policies that affect the citizens of both countries. It will enhance people to people diplomacy with regular connections between scholars, scientists, students, journalist, and non-governmental of the two countries.

United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson Visit to China

The United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson paid his second visit to China. During his visit, he met Xi Jinping, Wang Yi, and Yang Jiechi. He discussed a range of issues, including Donald Trump’s planned travel to China, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and trade and investment. According to the white house briefing, his visit to China reaffirms the administration’s commitment to further broaden and enhance United States economic and security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Tillerson told Yang Jiechi that the two leaders had developed a “very regular and close working relationship”.

During his visit, for the first time, he acknowledged that the United States was directly in communication with North Korea on its nuclear and missile program but North Korea has shown no interest in dialogue. He said, “We are probing, so stay tuned”. Further, he elaborated, that communication was happening directly and cited few United States channels open to North Korea. However, he did not give the details of the officials involved in those talks or how frequent or substantive the talks were.

Earlier, Tillerson took his maiden visit to China just before the two leaders were scheduled to visit in April at Mar-a-Lago, Florida. Notably, the recent visit was to assess the progress made between the sides since they met last time, review the situation in North Korea, and prepare for Trump’s visit to China.

Taiwan Education Center Opens its Branch at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay

The Taiwan Education Center (TEC) opened its branch at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay campus. The representative of Taiwan in India, Mr. Chung-Kwang Tien, was the chief guest at the occasion. Prof. Devang V. Khakhar, Director, IIT Bombay, Prof. Prasanna M. Mujumdar, Deputy Director (Finance and External Affairs), Prof. Rajiv Dusane, Dean (International Relations) were present at the occasion. This initiative would enhance the educational collaboration between IIT Bombay and Taiwan. The TEC in Indian Universities provides Chinese courses for senior officials in the Indian army, tourism promoters and Indian employees working in Taiwanese enterprises in India.
The Taiwan Economic and Culture Center (TECC) in New Delhi gives various scholarship and fellowship to Indian students at all levels annually. It has also established Mandarin centers across India. Talent Cultivation is an important component of the New Southbound Policy started by Taiwan, TEC will give a boost to the policy by fostering better linkages.

Taiwanese Premier Asserts Independence for the Island

While answering a question on the cross-strait issue, Taiwanese Premier said, “I am political worker who advocates Taiwan independence, but I am also a pragmatic pro-Taiwan independence theorist.” He is the first Taiwanese premier to openly acknowledge pro–independence status. He also said that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are “independent of each other, with Taiwan being an independent sovereign state carrying the designation the Republic of China”. The spokesperson for the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office said that “the Chinese mainland resolutely opposes ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form and will never allow the past tragedy of national secession to be repeated. Taiwan responded to this comment, the Mainland’s Affairs Council said, “it did not matter what Beijing said, it was an ‘objective reality’ that the Republic of China was a sovereign state,” and that “Taiwan’s future and the development of relations across the Strait will be jointly decided by Taiwan’s 23 million people.”

The cross-strait relations have become strained since the leader of Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai Ing-wen became the President of Taiwan. She does not support the one-China policy and has maintained ambiguity over the 1992 consensus. In her first national day speech she said, “We respect the historical fact that in 1992 the two institutions representing each side across the strait held a meeting.” She did not use the word “1992 consensus” because it refers to the one-China Policy. Consequently, after she became the President of Taiwan, China has suspended a regular dialogue mechanism with Taiwan established under the Kuomintang government in Taiwan.