Asia Pacific Geopolitics – December 14, 2021

Alessandro Ponzetto | December 14th, 2021

Today’s big theme is Omicron reaching China, with the potential of more lockdowns and disruptions (especially with the upcoming Olympics). Other important themes are the current visit by State Secretary Blinken to Indonesia, and the broader confrontation between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific; Taiwan, which again hit the headlines after a report from an assessment of the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defence; and Korea, who is starting to tilt towards the West where it matters out of concerns regarding China.

1.  CHINA

1.1 Coronavirus latest: China confirms 1st omicron case – Nikkei Asia

China confirms its first omicron case on the mainland, in Tianjin. Authorities say the individual, who does not have symptoms, arrived from overseas. Omicron cases have already been confirmed in Hong Kong. China is on high alert for a possible Omicron outbreak ahead of the Beijing Olympics slated for February. 

Comment: There is already a second case confirmed in Guangzhou. City authorities said a 67-year-old man entered China on November 27 and repeatedly tested negative for Covid-19 during his 14 days in quarantine. He flew from Shanghai to Guangzhou on flight CA1837 on December 11.

Given these details, Omicron could prove to be quite problematic for China, as this variant may trigger more lockdowns due to its Zero Covid policy, Omicron’s high transmissibility and the Chinese vaccines’ less than stellar results.

Failure to control Covid in 2022, President’ Xi’s crucial year of the Olympics and his re-selection as President, will not be his best look, undermining some of his “performance legitimacy”.  Given those risks, it seems more likely that Xi will double down on Zero Covid and take his chances on keeping Omicron under control, even at the expense of economic consequences of lockdowns.

1.2 Reshaped in China’s image, Hong Kong set for ‘patriots only’ polls – Nikkei Asia

Adrian Lau has spent every day of the past four weeks handing out flyers encouraging people to vote in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council election this Sunday. Few passersby take the independent candidate’s pamphlets, or even acknowledge his presence.

“It’s a lot quieter [than past elections], but it is still hard work,” Lau said. “The youth don’t engage, although occasionally I’ll be told to ‘add oil’ by the older generation,” he added, referring to a common Hong Kong phrase of encouragement.

The upcoming vote will be the first since Beijing’s top decision-making body in March approved an overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system — in effect barring anyone deemed “unpatriotic” from running. The sweeping changes included cutting the number of directly elected seats and screening candidates to ensure they put national interests first.

Western governments like the U.S. slammed the overhaul as an “assault on democracy” in the former British colony that was promised 50 years of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The electoral reforms were only part of a flurry of developments in 2021 that have blurred the distinction between the city and the mainland, narrowing the space for political pluralism and dissent.

Comment: Effectively removing the opposition is one way employed by China to muzzle Hong Kong, as the public has lost influence with the electoral reforms. This should come as no surprise, especially after Jimmy Lai and two others got convicted for something that according to Beijing never happened. 

2.  ASEAN

2.1 On Myanmar, Japan Alone Must Hold the Line – National Interest

Myanmar stands today on the brink of desolving into a failed state. As mob violence increasingly turns into full-fledged insurgency committing acts of terrorism across the country, the Southeast Asian country finds itself doubly sieged and isolated due to mounting international pressure, culminating in the recent exclusion of its military government chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

While Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has repeatedly reaffirmed its constitutional commitment to the country’s democratization, its countless proclamations have largely fallen on deaf ears at home and abroad, exacerbating the internecine bloodbath in a country critical to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific to the ultimate benefit of China. 

As the Biden administration prepares for its signature Summit for Democracy in earnest, the global response to the Myanmar crisis among democratic countries needs an urgent course correction lest the country falls prey to a catastrophic civil war and the geopolitical machinations of Beijing and other foreign elements. Japan alone must leverage its decades-long special relationship with Myanmar to lead such a change.

Comment: The situation in Myanmar is very delicate, due to the risk of the crisis spiralling out of control. If Tokyo manages to leverage its relationship, not only to avoid violence but also to stave off Beijing’s diplomatic forays, could prove beneficial.

On the one hand, it would stabilise a country and avoid a repeat of what has happened with the Arab Spring (cited in the article and for the most part unsuccessful in its goals). On the other, it would improve Tokyo’s standing in the region, at a time when it is become more and more involved in geopolitics. 

2.2 Blinken takes aim at China’s ‘aggressive actions’, says US protecting all countries’ rights in Indonesia speech – SCMP

China’s “aggressive actions” in the Indo-Pacific have worried governments across the region, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Indonesia on Tuesday, as he denied that Washington was trying to “keep any country down”.

The United States’ top diplomat said his government’s overarching concern was upholding rights and agreements that would ensure the region, and the world, stayed “peaceful and prosperous”.

“The goal of defending the rules-based order is not to keep any country down. Rather, it’s to protect the right of all countries to choose their own path. Free from coercion, free from intimidation. It’s not about a contest between a US-centric region or a China-centric region. The Indo-Pacific is its own region,” Blinken said in a speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.

Comment: Blinken’s words hit good points, as Indonesia and other countries in the region have faced coercion from the Chinese. The issue is that words alone, or even security alone, is not enough. 

2.3 In Asia, China’s Long Game Beats America’s Short Game – Foreign Policy

Submarines are stealthy, but trade is stealthier. Both generate security—the former by deterrence, the latter by interdependence. But the kind of security created by trade lasts longer.

Submarine deals are easy to walk away from. Just ask France, which this year lost a long-standing contract to provide attack submarines to Australia. Economic interdependence created by trade deals is harder to unravel. Just ask Trump, who couldn’t break up the North American Free Trade Agreement and had to settle for a cosmetically renegotiated pact.

This contrast highlights the difference between the short-term game Washington is playing in the Indo-Pacific and the long-term one played by Beijing. The United States is betting on the AUKUS security pact it signed with Australia and the United Kingdom, the main feature of which is a promise to deliver submarines to Australia. China is betting on using trade to win over its neighbors, particularly the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the most successful Asian bloc.

Comment: Trade by itself does not provide security. An example is France: after the Franco-Prussian war, trade between France and the newly formed Germany grew to a point that some people thought that war was a thing of the past. Then the Great War happened, which dramatically shifted the equilibrium. 

Of course, the underlying premise has merits: while ASEAN may be open to pacts like AUKUS, due to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, the US needs to provide other benefits as well. To this end, the CPTPP could be vital, or at least agree a FTA with some of the countries involved who would act as de facto intermediary.

It is however debatable whether the Biden administration would be willing to do this, as it does not seem inclined to consider such options. 

3.  TAIWAN

3.1 The Growing Danger of U.S. Ambiguity on Taiwan – Foreign Affairs

Over the past year, the questions of whether China will forcibly move against Taiwan and how best to deter Chinese aggression have moved to the center of debates about U.S. foreign policy. This is due to a combination of factors. Officials and analysts in Washington increasingly recognize that China now has the capability to fight a war with the United States over Taiwan—a notion that once seemed far-fetched. There is also a growing sense among American observers that Chinese President Xi Jinping, having suffered few consequences for his crackdown in Hong Kong and his aggressive moves in the South China Sea and convinced that the United States is in inexorable decline, feels emboldened to force the pace of unification with Taiwan.

In response to this increasing concern, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has prioritized strengthening relations with Taiwan and signaling that it is taking the threat to Taiwan seriously. The Department of Defense has rightly termed China its “pacing challenge” and has described a potential conflict over Taiwan as its “pacing scenario,” while the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has stated that the greatest danger in the region comes from the threat of China using force against Taiwan. But the administration’s budgetary priorities and global force posture do not reflect a sense of urgency. The administration has also failed to explain to Congress and the American people why Taiwan matters enough to put American lives on the line to come to its defense.

What the Biden administration has done has also been flawed. It has officially embraced the long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity, refraining from stating explicitly that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China were to use force against the island. But this approach is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive, risk-tolerant, and capable China. The playbook that worked when Taiwan and the United States had a military edge over China is unlikely to keep at bay a People’s Liberation Army that has spent the past two and a half decades preparing for a Taiwan conflict. What Washington needs now is a policy of “strategic clarity.” As we argued in Foreign Affairs a year ago, the best way to reduce the risk of war would be to make explicit to China that the United States would respond to an attack against Taiwan with all of the tools at its disposal, including severe economic sanctions and military force. Washington needs to make it clear to Beijing that the cost of aggression would vastly outweigh any potential benefits.

Comment: The Biden administration seems more confused than “strategically ambiguous”, taking into account the several cases of backpedalling (with the latest example in the Democracy Summit).

It would be preferable for the administration to choose a policy and stick with it, instead of having this charade. After all, there is no point in trying not to anger the Chinese (or, more specifically, the CCP apparatus), especially because it provides easy propaganda for them. 

3.2 Chinese invasion of Taiwan ‘not easy’ due to 3 weaknesses – Taiwan News

[…] In the MND’s latest assessment, titled “Strengthening the military’s combat effectiveness in response to an all-out Chinese invasion of Taiwan in 2025,” Deputy Minister of National Defense Wang Hsin-lung (王信龍) on Monday (Dec. 13) pointed out to lawmakers the details of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) plan of attack but also listed its notable weaknesses.

Wang said that the PLA’s Rocket Force and Air Force will fire missiles that target Taiwan’s air defenses, radar stations, and command posts. It will also try to paralyze Taiwan’s main battle forces and key military installations with electromagnetic pulse attacks, send troops to Taiwan’s southeast coast, and deploy ships in the Western Pacific to prevent other countries from intervening.

It will then attempt to execute rapid, joint landing operations across Taiwan proper with the use of amphibious landing ships, transport aircraft, and helicopters, in an attempt to seize the main island before external forces can intervene. However, Wang observed that the PLA has three major vulnerabilities.

First, he said that the PLA lacks sufficient landing equipment to transport enough troops at once to secure territory in Taiwan. Wang said that it will instead have to send the troops in multiple waves, diminishing their numerical advantage and exposing them to counter-attacks.

[…] Second, Wang stated that the PLA’s logistical support capabilities are limited. During landing operations, logistical supplies such as ammunition, food, and medicine will have to be transported across the treacherous Taiwan Strait by sea and air.

[…] Third, the minister argued that the PLA will not be able to bring its full force to bear on Taiwan because it will need to keep troops in reserve, as U.S. and Japanese bases are nearby. It will also need to keep more troops in reserve to prevent interventions of foreign armies in other areas, such as borders with India, Vietnam, and in the South China Sea.

Comment: While I agree with Wang in principle, I would argue somewhat differently about the vulnerabilities. The first major vulnerability of the PLA is geography: not only are the potential avenues of attack limited but they would also have to take into consideration the smaller  islands in the Strait, which are under Taiwanese control. 

In order to overcome this they would need overwhelming force, something they do not have. Even if they had such, it would be impossible to conceal such a force, which would give fair warning to the Taiwanese, the US and the Japanese.

This comes prior to the three points listed at the end of the article, the first two of which are certainly valid, but not so the third. The PLA would have to keep forces in reserves regardless, because they would not be able to logistically deploy and support a sizeable force to begin with (as established by the previous two points).

Finally, there is another vulnerability specifically within China: the Chinese people. As the PLA is mostly made of soldiers from single-child families, and as the Chinese have not fought anyone since their conflict with Vietnam, it is debatable whether they would accept losses. This is especially true for the Red Nobility, as they may prefer to play politics and stop the plan instead of sending their sons to war. 

4.  QUAD

4.1 Korea, Australia adopt joint statement on South China Sea – Korea Herald

In the wake of Monday’s summit between South Korea and Australia, President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Scott Morrison adopted a joint statement on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

“As major maritime trading nations, Australia and South Korea recognize that the stability of the Indo-Pacific depends on adherence to international law in the maritime domain, including in the South China Sea,” said the joint statement signed by the two leaders.

The South China Sea is a marginal sea of the Western Pacific Ocean. China claims most of the sea as its territory and strongly opposes outside intervention, despite objections from its neighbors and a court ruling against it in the Hague.

Tensions between China and the US have recently escalated as the US and the European Union are concerned about China’s violation of international law in the sea through high-level consultations. The US also warned that it could trigger a mutual defense treaty after China used water cannons on two Philippine supply boats heading into the sea.

The joint statement said the two leaders underscored that disputes must be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“They also reaffirmed the importance of upholding freedom of navigation and overflight, and agreed to strengthen coordination to uphold these principles, which must not be undermined in the context of increasing risks of instability in the maritime domain.”

President Moon, who distanced himself from the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Monday, appears to be on the side of Australia when it comes to the issue of the South China Sea.

Comment: This seems more and more part of a response from South Korea to the urea scarcity aftermath, caused by China withholding shipments. 

There is also another piece of evidence to suggest this: at the same time, South Korean Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki met his Vietnamese counterpart Le Minh Khai in Seoul on the occasion of the Vietnamese official’s visit to Korea. In such a meeting, the two sides discussed ways to beef up cooperation for the stable supply of urea solution and other key items and bolster partnerships in the health and vaccine sectors.