East Asia Summary: August 22-25, 2021

The implications of Afghanistan are still on the minds of much of Southeast Asia, with China arguing that it signals the decline of American power generally and the unreliability of US alliances more specifically, in Europe, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Writers from Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, however, argue that US relationships with these allies are older, deeper, and rooted in fundamental strategic interests.

The Nikkei Asia argues that “[t]o make the de facto encirclement of China more effective, Washington must gain the cooperation of the ASEAN countries, the geographic center of the Indo-Pacific”, but that the Biden administration’s emphasis on human rights diplomacy unsettles potential allies who are otherwise “concerned about [their] growing dependence on China”. Because of Japan’s close relationship with ASEAN states, it can act as a bridge between the US and Japan to alleviate those fears.

Chinese publications see the situation in Southeast Asia somewhat differently. The ASEAN states do not want to have to choose between China and the US. The Global Times says Vietnam, the second country US VP Kamala Harris visited this week, has bracketed its maritime disputes from “overall Vietnam-China relationship”. Even more important is the position of Singapore, per The China Daily:

Singapore, for example, has solid economic and military ties with the US – in fact, Singapore has given the US military access to its bases and holds joint military drills with it. But Singapore also has strong trade and other relations with China. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told BBC on March 14 that it is impossible for Singapore to choose between the US and China, given the extensive ties the country has with both countries. Lee Hsien Loong knows this dilemma is not faced by Singapore alone…”

The article goes on to mention favorable comments President Duterte of the Philippines, another US ally, has made about being neutral. The article concludes that “This shows that since Southeast Asian countries have their own national interests to protect and diplomatic strategies to promote, they will not choose sides between the US and China”.

Interestingly, although it is true that ASEAN states have very little interest in getting involved in a geopolitical contest and Vietnam does try to bracket off the South China Sea dispute, these states have been fairly consistent about the necessity of abiding by a South China Sea Code of Conduct anchored in UNCLOS 1982. In Vietnam publications, this is a mantra, and in The Philippines, public support for multilateral action is quite strong (>60%), as we saw earlier this week. The debate in the Philippines has mostly been about how hard a line should be taken. As the presidential election approaches there, it might be difficult for candidates to stake out anything other than a strong position.

Let’s jump to Lithuania, which seems to have become the bellwether of China’s diplomatic power. China continues to turn up the rhetorical pressure, at first recruiting the Russians and now the Belarussians into its anti-Lithuanian alliance. Lithuania “is confronting both China and Russia, which have plenty of means including joining with Belarus to impose long-term sanctions on Lithuania and make it pay a heavy cost… China and Russia should unite different forces to humiliate the US over the Lithuania issue and the Taiwan question, generating a new, universally comprehensible ‘Afghan effect’”, The Global Times said.

The Taipei Times points out the jam the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): “The CCP has painted itself into a corner. It is unable to avoid a multinational conflict if it pushes too far on Taiwan, but it is also unable to ease up on Taiwan without appearing weak and losing legitimacy at home.”

But, a piece by a retired PLAN officer in The Global Times insists that it is Taiwan that is in the difficult spot. Washington looks weak after the Afghan debacle, and it has a low estimate of Taiwan’s defense capabilities or willingness to fight. “Some believe Taiwan needs to defend itself in order to inspire the US to commit. This reflects the dilemma of both Taiwan island and the US”. The absence of a clear willingness on either the part of the US or the Taiwanese to defend Taiwan resembles Afghanistan’s situation, the piece suggests. One thing inhibiting the Taiwanese willingness to defend itself is the question, “For whom do they fight?” As he points out, the country’s Constitution makes no provision for secession.

This problem might be most acutely felt in Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which is in the middle of a fight for party chairman. A couple of pieces in The Taipei Times suggest that the party continues to implode. Structurally, it is succumbing to centrifugal forces. Factionalism, gangsterism, local party autonomy, and a growing divide between younger members and the older establishment means that it is ‘impossible’ for the KMT to have a strong chairperson. Perhaps more important, as Taiwan’s clout relative to China grows at home and abroad, the KMT increasingly has to confront its commitment to Chinese nationalism and democracy. It has no plan to establish the “Republic of China” on the “mainland” or to create diplomatic space for the Republic in parallel with the PRC. Is the KMT willing for Taiwan to choose a new national flag?

Turning north, if North Korea has been making itself the center of attention in the region in recent weeks, in the last few days, attention has been turning to Japan. Japan’s The Asahi Shimbun argues that Japanese PM Suga, who is embarking on a leadership contest in his ruling LDP, just as the country approaches a general election, has questionable views on Japan’s role in World War II. One condition of Japan ‘returning to the international community’ was its accepting Japanese responsibility for the Pacific War, but visits by multiple members of Suga’s cabinet to the Yasukuni Shrine “could be seen as tantamount to denial of Japan’s postwar history”.

“All prime ministers since Morihiro Hosokawa in 1993 have made some reference to Japan’s aggression in Asia by citing ‘deep remorse’ or offering ‘condolences’ to Asian countries” during the annual ceremony to commemorate the nation’s war dead on August 15, but since Abe and then Suga came to power, this was no longer mentioned. Nor did he make mention of Japan’s role in World War II at the August 6 peace memorial in Hiroshima.

“Suga needs to realize that he cannot fulfill his duties as the prime minister unless he sincerely faces up to the nation’s past”, the piece concludes.

North Korea latched on to this theme and connected it to Japanese rearmament. “[T]he Korean people are boiling their blood with a resolve to take revenge upon Japan for its trembling atrocities.”

South Korean publications have been slowly chewing over the icy relationship between Seoul and Tokyo, also related to disputes about Japan’s treatment of Koreans during Japan’s rule of the Korean peninsula and compensation it allegedly owes South Korea. The Korea Herald says it will probably be difficult to break out of this rut with President Moon approaching the end of his tenure and PM Suga “struggling to stay in power”.

Turning our attention to South Korea, a piece by Wie Sung-rak in The Korea JoongAng Daily offers another theory about North Korea’s hot and cold behavior in recent weeks: South Korea is diplomatically unreliable. “[E]ven though our economic power can match the advanced ranks, our diplomatic abilities cannot. We should not leave the situation unattended. We must not hand over such shoddy diplomacy to our next generation.” Wie mentions Korean negotiations with China about THAAD, negotiations with Russia on pipeline construction, and South Korea’s intermediary role in Trump-Kim negotiations to back up his assertion. In the current case, Kim Yo-jong complained of “betrayal” by the Moon government, which was followed by silence by the South Korean side, suggesting that Moon may have suggested that suspension of the US-ROK joint military drills were a real possibility.

The pattern is, he seems to say, the South Korean government inflates expectations on the other side, fails to live up to them, gets accused of “betraying” the other party, and then goes “mum”.

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