East Asia Summary: August 18-22, 2021

Afghanistan weighs heavy on the minds of East Asian opinion-makers. China sees in the withdrawal signs of the end of American hegemony and the end of Taiwanese dreams of independence, but in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, the message they received seemed to be that, unlike the late Afghanistan government, they would have to be more resilient and reliable allies.

Chinese media is expanding on the significance of the calamitous withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, decrying the US’s “war-oriented policies” around the region, claiming the fall of Kabul is “the death knell of US hegemony”, and urging it to follow a path of “cooperation”, a word used exhaustively in geopolitically-oriented Chinese headlines in recent days. If the US would act with “good faith”, China would be willing to cooperate.

Chinese media also:

    • attacked US VP Harris’s trip to ASEAN allies around the South China Sea: “By roping in non-regional and uniting regional countries, Washington is trying to gain dominance in making rules in the South China Sea region.”
    • attacked the US’s human rights record stretching from the beginning of slavery to the Tulsa riots to Jeffery Epstein: “The United States is the number one target country for sex trafficking in the world”.
    • expressed dismay at the ‘naivete’ of Indian youths after a survey showed that they trusted the US to the same degree that they distrusted China and Pakistan.
    • attacked CNN for questioning the unity of purpose behind the joint Russia-China anti-insurgency drills
    • attacked AP for running a story by a “psycho” about an alleged secret jail for Uighurs China runs in Dubai
    • denounced a VOA interview of the president of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, Yu Shi-kun, in which Yu argued the US was abiding by a “new one-China policy” and urged the US to establish formal relations with Taiwan
    • decried Japanese “provocations on Taiwan” in response to an announcement that the ruling parties of Japan and Taiwan would hold a “security dialogue”
    • claimed that the US will abandon Taiwan the way it abandoned Afghanistan:
      • “The statements of Sullivan and Tsai show the rapid collapse of the US-supported Afghan government has brought a real shock to the island. Both Washington and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities are diffident about this, and they believe it is necessary to calm the doubts.”
      • The lack of a formal defense guarantee could be America’s way of backing about gracefully: “Will the US abandon Taiwan? Fundamentally speaking, this is a matter of time and situation, and it will not be decided by a few elites in the US and Taiwan. We believe that as long as the mainland’s strength continues to grow, and as long as it prepares fully for military struggles and has a firm will to unify, then there is no doubt the US is doomed to eventually abandon Taiwan. First, there is no official document in the US that requires it to send troops to defend Taiwan.”
    • published a handful of pieces by Japanese academics and politicians, including a former prime minister, praising Chinese contributions to global peace
    • attacked the US’s policy on nuclear weapons: “The ‘first use of nuclear weapons’ policy has become part of Washington’s DNA, and the US uses it to maintain its nuclear hegemony. The Biden administration may consider launching a peace offensive, but the US will never stop preparing to fight and win a nuclear war.” No mention is made of China’s policy on a nuclear first strike, but comes in the wake of stories of an expanding nuclear capability in China and veiled threats of a first strike on Japan.
    • published a number of articles on the “70th anniversary of Tibet’s peaceful liberation” and offered Tibet as an example of China’s human rights record:
      • “That liberation, together with the epochal democratic reform in 1959, has helped Tibet cast away its regressive, autocratic, and isolated past to embrace prosperity and an open future. Nearly 3.65 million people live in the region, up 21.52 percent from 2010. Over 86 percent of the population is Tibetan. Tibet’s average life expectancy increased from 35.5 years in 1951 to 71.1 years in 2019. The region has more than 1,700 sites for Tibetan Buddhist activities with 46,000 monks and nuns.”
    • announced further actions to suppress Hong Kong “terrorism” and reported on the introduction of a bill in the HKSAR assembly that “clarifies offenses of desecration” of Chinese state symbols
    • said virtually nothing about the Korean peninsula

President Tsai commented on worries that the US might abandon Taiwan in a conflict with China, saying that “the values of democracy and freedom and the collective security and prosperity of the international community [are]…essential elements related to the meaning of Taiwan and its existence.”

  • This attitude was less evident in the pieces published in Taiwanese English-language media, which emphasized Taiwan’s geopolitical value to the US, Japan, and South Korea.
  • Others began to think ahead as to what a ‘social defense’ might look like: “Taiwan must take precautionary measures. Such measures should include an announcement that no surrender order will ever be given — thus preventing the home populace from falling for such fake news; a warning to be on the lookout for disinformation spread by China on Line, Facebook and other social media platforms; and a ban on any outbound travel in wartime — thus preventing rich or influential people from escaping Taiwan, which would cause resentment and fracture domestic morale if the rich were able to flee while others had to remain and fight.”
  • “Taiwan’s recent diplomatic breakthroughs have not only been a result of its inherent strengths and the efforts of its diplomats, but the conflict between China and the rest of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic has also been an important driver of these changes.”

One piece in The Taipei Times argued that ethnically Chinese populations in some Southeast Asian states could become the spark for a US-China conflagration that would suck in the entire region: “The increased rivalry between the two great powers might first spill over and lead to a rivalry between and within countries in Asia, particularly those with a significant overseas Chinese population….Chinese-Singaporeans, Chinese-Indonesians or Chinese-Malaysians can still wave their national flags, but so, too, do they wave the Chinese national flag, maybe even higher than their own. This is dangerous. Such a split identity only creates the potential for instability and the weakening of political will. As China continues to claim large parts of the South China Sea and expand its presence there, countries affected by these policies might well be pressured by a segment of their own population to let China have its way.”

South Korea
South Koreans appear to be worried about the implications of the US abandonment of Afghanistan, but nearly every piece see this as an opportunity to redouble South Korea’s efforts:

    • One piece in The Korea JoongAng Daily noted that Japan and Taiwan seem to have stiffened their resolve, even in the face of Chinese threats; the only weak link in the chain might be South Korea because of pressure by North Korea to divide domestic opinion in the South on the current joint US-South Korean military exercises.
    • A piece in The Korea Times dismissed claims that South Korea could be the next Afghanistan, arguing that “The Taliban’s return to power offers a valuable lesson to South Korea. Most of all, the country should modernize its own military and strengthen its defense preparedness to fend for itself as the U.S. military cannot stay here forever. It is also necessary to beef up its alliance with the U.S., boost its strategic value and contribute more to regional security, stability and peace.”
    • And The Korea Herald said, “The US alliance is also the pillar of South Korea’s national security. Without it, it is questionable if the South alone can fight off North Korea’s invasion, which will likely be backed up by China. If South Korea becomes more of a burden to its ally rather than being economically or militarily valuable, its alliance can break down anytime. An everlasting alliance does not exist for a country who is neither willing nor trying to defend themselves. From now on, the administration should tighten its security posture and try to further strengthen the US alliance.”
    • More broadly, some expressed hope that South Korea would be able to gain greater freedom to set its destiny as a ‘strong middle power‘: “The Moon Jae-in administration continues to refer to its approach as ‘middle power diplomacy,’ but it has unquestionably carried on the direction of a ‘strong middle power’ strategy. It has produced breakthroughs in terms of peace, and it hasn’t committed the misstep of getting dragged into the turbulence of the US-China rivalry. But it also hasn’t yet produced results. The return of wartime operational control to South Korea, which would serve as a physical cornerstone for the strong middle power identity, looks very likely to remain unfinished.”

North Korea
North Korean media remained true to form, favorably quoting Chinese media on a number of matters: “Chinese Global Times Says China Would Act Immediately If Stationing in Taiwan of American Troops”, “Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Requests Sincere Reflection by U.S. on Its War-Oriented Policies”, “Chinese defence ministry urges Japan to atone for past of aggression”.

North Korea also expressed its strong disapproval of Japan converting the JDS Izumo into an aircraft carrier: “It is Japan’s invariable ambition to launch reinvasion of the Far Eastern region, hold its position as the ‘leader of Asia and thus open a door to the world domination.” North Korea argues that, carriers being offensive weapons, this violates Japan’s defense-oriented constitution.

In line with Chinese media’s line on human rights conditions in the West: “It is well known to the whole world that annually increased procession of refugees is an outcome of social disturbances and bloody disputes of the western manipulation. Despite this fact, refugees are treated like prisoners and detained with parents being separated from children. And it is still connived at and encouraged in the acts of human trafficking, sexual violence, slave labour and excruciating torture, much to the consternation of the world.”

In Japan, PM Suga and his government are under attack for their handling of COVID.

The Mainichi published a piece arguing that although Japan values peace, it has to accept that the country exists “within the larger world” and it has to respond appropriately in order to maintain peace: “The post-war Japanese made it an absolute condition for peace that they would not wage war themselves, but that is not the issue today. What we face today is neighboring countries’ military buildup and their will to expand their areas of control. For the sake of peace, we need a way to prevent them from doing so. How can we build a relationship that is not offensive or defensive? We are in the midst of a turbulent time”. The image that accompanies the text is that of Xi Jinping, although neither he nor China are mentioned.