East Asia Summary: August 11-15, 2021

East Asia’s English-language press has a lot on its mind, including Chinese designs on Okinawa, the US-ROK military drills, the status of Taiwan, Lithuania, human rights, COVID strategies, the South China Sea, Afghanistan, and China’s role in the global order.

China Military explained that China opposes the military drills in South Korea, because they were not being used to make South Korea safer but to drag the South into the Indo-Pacific alliance. The exercises would be “a major obstacle to settlement of the Korean peninsula issue”, and South Korea should pursue an “independent national defense strategy”.

The North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed with China’s take but reversed the causality somewhat, saying that military exercises “would bring a real danger to East Asia and, by extension, to the Indo-Pacific region as a whole”.

The Korea Herald took note of China’s opposition to the exercises: “In a move seen as extending a broader support to the North, a Chinese Communist Party organ Tuesday carried an editorial highlighting the solidarity between Beijing and Pyongyang on its front page.” The paper thought this hypocritical of China, since it was conducting joint exercises with Russia at the time of publication, as The Pyongyang Times reported.

The Japan Times argued that it would be difficult for countries to turn from America to China because China is internally unstable, it is closing its economy off from the rest of the world, and it is undemocratic and unpeaceful.

The Taipei Times and The Korea Times both published a piece by a Chinese scientist in the US that argues China’s belief in its inexorable rise is based largely on flawed demographic data. “The West, too, is buying into this narrative. In underestimating China’s demographic challenges, Western leaders are overestimating its economic and geopolitical prospects. They see a fire-breathing dragon when what stands before them is really a sick lizard. This raises the risk of strategic miscalculation on both sides.”

China Military published pieces blaming the US for the debacle in Afghanistan. Echoing the claims of the collapsing Afghan state, one says that holding peace talks with the Taliban “strengthened the legitimacy of the Taliban both domestically and internationally”, and that civil war would likely spill over into “neighboring countries”. The other said that the Taliban one could “reasonably condemn” the Taliban “for providing a safe haven for terrorists”.

In alignment with some Pakistani expectations about a role for China in Afghanistan, The Taipei Times published a piece argued that “Beijing sees the withdrawal as a strategic opportunity to expand its foothold in South Asia, which could enable Beijing to challenge India’s predominant position in the region.” Another piece there thinks Beijing thinks it has a historical mandate to territories once under the Tang Empire, and that Afghanistan is a “plan B” if China ‘fails’ in Taiwan.

Yet another piece in The Taipei Times argues for a strategic partnership with India based on Taiwan’s expertise in the petroleum sector.

Somewhat closer to home, a piece in The Taipei Times argued for a bolstering of Taiwan’s coast guard capabilities to counter China’s “intelligence gathering under the guise of fishing vessels” conducted “in Taiwan’s territorial waters and air defense identification zone to the east”.

The China Daily reports that China’s Taiwan affairs spokesman “urged the United States to stop sending wrong signals to “Taiwan independence” separatists, after a so-called US-Taiwan coast guard cooperation mechanism held its first meeting.” “[I]f the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces dare to provoke, ‘we have the right to take all necessary measures to stop them,” another Daily piece continued.

The Global Times threatened Taiwan with war over President Tsai Ing-Wen’s possible attendance at the US-sponsored Summit for Democracy to be held virtually in December. If Tsai Ing-Wen attends (e.g., “allowing Tsai to attend a meeting and show on the screen with the heads of various countries and governments”), “Beijing will respond more intensely than it did in 1995” when it fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in response to Lee Deng-hui’s visit to the US. More specifically, “PLA fighter jets will fly over the island…The fighters will declare that the land underneath is Chinese territory…If the Taiwan military dares to open fire on the PLA fighters, the large number of missiles aimed at Taiwan’s military targets from the mainland and our bomber fleets will make a decisive answer and write history.”

The Global Times also threatened Japan over Taiwan again, accusing the former of becoming “the most proactive force on the Taiwan question”. After what seem to have been threats to preemptively strike Japan with nuclear weapons in case it interferes with a Chinese attack on Taiwan in recent days, the Times said “those who play with fire will only burn themselves”. Japan must “fully respect the one-China principle” or else it will be “necessary to discuss” Japan “illegally annexing Ryukyu” (Okinawa). In a piece in China Military, entitled “Japan’s defense minister is dangerously playing with fire”, the author said Japan should continue to implement its post-World War II “geo-economic policy” instead of “remilitarizing”.

The Japan Times published a piece arguing for Japan’s Self-Defense Force to be deployed at Shimoji Island’s airport in the Okinawa Prefecture to the east of Taiwan before China creates “a fait accompli” in the Senkaku Islands. The Asahi Shimbun argued that in light of rising tensions involving Japan, the US, China, and Taiwan, “Tokyo should work out a long-term strategy with an eye toward a comprehensive ‘Northeast Asia nuclear-weapon-free zone,’ the framework of which should also be used to address North Korea’s nuclear development.”

The Global Times called Lithuania a “crazy, tiny country full of geopolitical fears” that “it will be destroyed again”, after the Baltic state opened a Taiwan Representative Office. The paper also recommended that “China and Russia…strike against a country that has lost its mind”. “China will not allow Lithuania to become an example for other countries to follow”. It also argued, under the assumption that Lithuania was acting under the behest of the US, that China was increasingly likely to “solve the Taiwan question for good” before other “US pawns” use “Taiwan as a bargaining chip”.

The Taipei Times, meanwhile, praised Lithuania’s “courageous decision”, saying that the Chinese Communist Party is enraged because Beijing does not know how to react to a small country defying its will.

The Taipei Times also anticipates Germany assuming a more assertive stance towards China after a new government is elected on September 26.

China Military accused the US of provoking a geopolitical crisis by trying to drag ASEAN into a fight with China in the South China Sea. The US “is not a party concerned to the South China Sea issue”, said The People’s Daily. The Global Times accuses both the US and Japan of wanting to “drag ASEAN members in geopolitical conflicts mainly to create trouble for China.”

A developing ideological front in the geopolitical contest between the US and China is an amalgam of accusations about human rights and COVID-19.

Numerous Chinese and North Korean publications argued that they were “prioritizing the right to subsistence” while the US was prioritizing profits. A piece in The People’s Daily said that China’s drive to “all-round moderate prosperity coincided with comprehensive progress in human rights”. The China Daily said this “represents China’s contribution to the world human rights cause”. “China has put life first in fighting COVID-19”, said another article in The People’s Daily.

This is in contrast to “the serious human rights problems” in the US, according to North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It says hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their lives and millions are in danger of losing their homes due to lack of income caused by mismanagement of the COVID crisis.

The Taipei Times ran an article from Bloomberg that argued China’s “COVID zero strategy” risks isolating the country for years. “Chinese authorities are increasingly trumpeting their success in containing the virus as an ideological and moral victory over the US and other nations now treating COVID-19 as endemic…It is nearly taboo in China to even suggest a different approach.” The Global Times dismissed such concerns: “What China will do is to adapt to the world’s new normal due to an increase of global interactions while ensuring its domestic line of defense is robust enough against imported infections.”

Says The People’s Daily: “Every single life is treasured. China has launched a protracted war against the virus. The Chinese approach to taming the virus prioritizes the right to life, the most fundamental human right. For the Chinese policymakers, people’s lives are not a tradable option. They are invaluable.” And in another piece, “When China reaches herd immunity through vaccination and when Chinese society can adapt to occasional cluster infections, China will open to the world gradually, the official said…the US deserves to be labeled the world’s No.1 anti-pandemic failure, in addition to being the No.1 political blaming country, No.1 pandemic spreader country, No.1 political division country, No.1 pandemic period turmoil country, No.1 disinformation country and No.1 origins-tracing terrorism country.”

The China Daily then takes the fight to Washington: “That the Biden administration seems unable to prevent the return of the country’s ‘darkest days’ — despite the US having the most abundant supply of vaccines — can only be attributed to its own inability to make the difficult decision to mandate lockdowns where necessary and insist on the public’s adherence to basic prevention and control measures such as wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing.”

This then bleeds into a claim by People’s Daily that the US is “infecting the whole world” due to its refusal to make those “difficult decisions” and to entertaining “farcical lab leak conspiracies”. In another piece, it says, “According to CNN…U.S. spies have failed to associate the deadly pathogen with the Wuhan virology institute”. Instead, the question is why the US ‘refuses’ to be transparent about “the closure of Fort Detrick” in Maryland.

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