Asia Pacific Geopolitics – December 20, 2021

| December 20th, 2021

The main theme is the geopolitical aspect of the relationship between China and Western institutions and, more broadly, system. Regarding the former, there is a positive example of Purdue university taking a stand for a Chinese student who, for the crime of praising the 1989 Tiananmen protests, was harassed and saw his family visited by the Ministry of State Security. Regarding the latter, there is a focus on the dynamics between the Quad and China in the realms of trade, technology and rare earths, which are just as important as the military aspect. On the military aspect, there is also some development, with the LDP starting National Security Strategy review, which could spark radical change in stance from Japan.

CHINA

Purdue Sends a Message to China – WSJ

First the bad news: When a Purdue grad student from China posted a letter online praising the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, other Chinese students harassed him, while in China his family had a visit from the Ministry of State Security.

Now the good news: After learning what happened from a report in ProPublica, Purdue President Mitch Daniels called it out.

He denounced what he called an “atmosphere of intimidation” directed at Zhihao Kong and his family. He affirmed that Purdue is “proud” that mainland Chinese students come to his campus, where they enjoy freedom of inquiry and expression. But he insisted that “those seeking to deny those rights to others, let alone to collude with foreign governments in repressing them, will need to pursue their education elsewhere.”

This is refreshing. It comes not long after the Women’s Tennis Association suspended its tournaments in China until it is satisfied that a complaint of sexual assault by a player, Peng Shuai, against a senior Communist Party leader is fully investigated—and the WTA is sure that Ms. Peng can speak freely.

Comment: It is good on Purdue to go against the practice of harassment but the issue is more widespread. Not only does the CCP have organizations in Western universities to monitor students but they also keep the families at home as hostages, as the visit from the Ministry of State Security clearly indicates. Their ultimate goal is to assert control and ensure “their truth” is preserved. 

On the issue of the families there is little the West can do, at least direcly. On the former, however, Western institutions should ensure that students do not get harassed or intimidated, punishing those who do so. 

The CCP gets religious about Karl Marx  – Unheard

Last week a curious article appeared in the pages of People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. Titled “Seek the Power of Faith in Marx,” the piece is framed as a review of a newly published book, written by a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, on the subject of “Why to Believe in Marxism.”

Oddly, for an article published by the largest officially atheist organisation on the planet, it seems to get rather, well, religious. Bubbling over with enthusiasm for the book’s alleged ability to convey to readers “the significance of belief in Marxism,” it celebrates Marx’s ability to serve as “the fire of the spirit, the fire of hope,” and exults in the apparently self-evident fact that “belief in Marxism indicates that the Chinese nation is destined to a bright and beautiful future.”

Recalling the “warmth” he still feels after finishing this study of Marx, a “warmth [that] comes from spiritual excitement, spiritual joy,” the reviewer concludes with an account of the “deep sense of inner satisfaction and happiness” he has gained, before declaring himself, with the cry of a convert, “a Marxist believer!”

At this point, you might be wondering why Communist Party media apparatchiks now sound a bit like mid-2000s American Evangelicals. But it’s worth knowing that the CCP recently discovered — to its shock and horror — that many of China’s people have been gripped by a deep sense of nihilism about their society rather than by boundless love and appreciation for the Party’s leadership. Among the online youth, for example, “sang culture” (roughly the equivalent of “doomerism” in the West) has proliferated. This has kicked off a scramble, led by top Party political theorist Wang Huning, to “create core values” to fill this uncomfortably God-shaped societal hole with the comforts of a synthetic ideological alternative.

Comment: This is something the Soviet Union also faced, with the following Youtube video showing how they handled this problem (or rather failed to do so)

‘Hit back when criticised on human rights’: Xi to officials – SCMP

Chinese officials should “resolutely hit back” whenever confronted by the West on human rights, President Xi Jinping instructed China’s ruling elite in 2014, a new book has revealed. In a February meeting that year, just 11 months into his first term as state president, Xi told about 170 ministerial-level officials that there were plenty of problems in the West.

“When Western leaders talked to me about human rights, I always said there’s no such a thing as best human rights, only better human rights,” he said.

“By saying that, I mean of course China’s human rights need development but you also have lots of problems on human rights, too.”

Xi said that, regardless of China’s development progress, its human rights conditions only had to meet the country’s own standards, not the West’s.

“We are good as long as we meet China’s own standards, and we don’t need to look to the standards of the West or care about how they judge us. Facing Western countries’ finger-pointing over China’s human rights, [we] must resolutely hit back!”

Comment: The whole point of human rights is that they are not subjective, otherwise it opens the door to the atrocities which have occurred in history (which were usually followed by empty ‘never again’ promises). 

Beijing defends ‘democracy with Hong Kong characteristics’ model as white paper day after Legco election, cites end goal of universal suffrage – SCMP

Beijing has mounted a robust defence of its strategy of developing “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics” for the city, with “patriots” in charge of governance and the ultimate goal of electing its leader and legislature by universal suffrage, in an official white paper released on Monday.

Issued just a day after the city’s first Legislative Council election under a new political system imposed by Beijing, the document, titled “Hong Kong Democratic Progress Under the Framework of One Country, Two Systems”, is the second such white paper on Hong Kong affairs since 2014.

“The improved electoral system … ensures the sound long-term development of democracy in Hong Kong, and fosters favourable conditions necessary for the election by universal suffrage of the chief executive and the Legislative Council,” the paper stated.

Comment: “Democracy with Hong Kong characteristics” is the CCP picking candidates of their own liking and granting less relevance to the ballots, which renders the ex-British colony a de facto oligarchy, with the CCP on top. 

From their point of view, it is a success, since like the Soviets they can pretend to be democratic while ensuring power for Beijing. Proof of this comes from the turnout, which halved from the 2016 elections to 30.2%. Carrie Lam said she was unable to provide a specific reason for this turnout but stating the obvious would look bad. 

Moreover, she touted plans to revive a controversial security law that ignited a political firestorm two decades ago, after completing an election to install a new legislature filled with Beijing loyalists.

The pro-establishment council elected in a muted vote on Sunday (Dec 19) should present “new proposals” by June on how to enact security legislation, Mrs Lam told a news briefing on Monday after the results were announced.

A provision of Hong Kong’s charter drafted before its return to Chinese rule in 1997 requires a law banning “foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities”, as well as, “treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets”. Such legislation has been shelved since huge street protests in 2003.

Vladimir Putin’s attendance at the Winter Olympics may be Xi Jinping’s first in-person meeting in 2 years – SCMP

Vladimir Putin is likely to become the first world leader to meet Xi Jinping in person for almost two years after the Russian president confirmed he would attend the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.

The two held a video call on Wednesday, in which the Chinese leader said he was “looking forward” to meeting Putin at the Games, and afterwards vice-minister for foreign affairs Le Yucheng confirmed it would be a “face-to-face” meeting.

It would make Putin the first foreign leader Xi has received in person since he did so with Khaltmaagiin Battulga, then the Mongolian president, in February 2020 – a month before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic.

Comment: A detail of note is that the meeting will happen in Beijing, which has been closed to foreign dignitaries since the start of the pandemic. Then again, Beijing would have to open for the inauguration of the Olympic Games, although the rules are still unclear. 

Pakistan seeks to calm protesters at Chinese Belt and Road port project – FT

Pakistan’s government has sought to defuse tensions linked to one of China’s showcase Belt and Road investments in the country, striking a deal with protesters who for weeks have demonstrated in the port city of Gwadar.

For the past month, fishermen and other residents of Gwadar, located in the southwestern province of Balochistan, have protested in frustration that promised prosperity from the controversial Chinese-built port and other projects has failed to materialise.

Locals complain that fishing trawlers encroach on their waters and that authorities have facilitated billions of dollars worth of Chinese infrastructure investment while neglecting basic services, such as education and drinking water supply.

The backlash attracted the attention of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who wrote last week that he had “taken notice of the very legitimate demands of the hardworking fishermen of Gwadar” and would clamp down on illegal fishing. Pakistan and China are investing about $500m in the port.

Comment: The Chinese promised several projects for Gwadar since 2015, all either incomplete or without any meaningful benefit for the local populace. The issue was then compounded by the Balochistan separatist movement who could take advantage of the malcontent in the area to further its goals, as shown by the terrorist attacks against the Chinese.

As of now it is hard to say whether or not the Pakistani and Chinese authorities will be able to solve this issue, as both failed to bring meaningful change since 2015 and their promises may fall on deaf ears. 

QUAD

Indo-Pacific allies agree there’s no countering China without America – AFR

The United States and China have oversized impacts on the fortunes and policies of Australia for obvious reasons. The year began with the indecorous exit of Donald Trump and the swearing in of a far more conventional administration led by Joe Biden. Regardless, US-China relations hardly improved, while Beijing’s standing with almost every advanced economy and democracy deteriorated over the past year.

It is evidence that the greater challenge and disruption to Australian foreign policy and the world as we know it in recent years was never the election of Trump but the stridency and menace of Xi Jinping’s China. This reality is what Australian external policy had to respond to and will continue to define what we can expect in 2022.

Australian actions over the past year have been based on two assessments: Beijing will persist with its coercive and expansionary plans in the absence of significant resistance and there can be no effective balance or counter without the US.

China continued its economic and diplomatic offensive against Australia. While Beijing knows Canberra is not for turning, the former is seeking to ward off other countries from pursuing a similarly proactive and defiant mindset. After all, the more countries persuaded to remain strategically neutral or inactive, the easier it is for China to divide, rule and conquer.

Moreover, Beijing is aware of its serious and worsening economic, demographic and social problems that can be delayed but not avoided. Its window of opportunity is over the next decade. It must revise maritime and land boundaries, ease the US out to entrench its material and institutional dominance in east Asia and Eurasia, and tie the future prosperity of other regional nations to the Chinese political economy this decade.

It is why China increased its bluster, bullying and coercion even though it is burning ever more diplomatic bridges. In 2021, it increased the scale and frequency of incursions into Taiwanese, Japanese and south-east Asian air and maritime space. Talks with India over the ongoing border dispute, which turned violent last year, broke down. Attempted meddling in the domestic politics of regional states continues unabashed and unabated.

Comment: It is true that there is no effective countering to the actions of Beijing without the US. This includes not only security, where the US is still very much involved, but also other aspects such as trade. In this, it would be important for the US to re-enter the CPTPP, or alternatively have bilateral FTAs with key countries. That would help counter China’s overtures and use of economic coercions. 

Back in November, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced a new “Indo-Pacific economic framework”, stating it would not be a traditional trade agreement. The details are still scant however, probably because it was a rushed reaction to China’s application to the CPTPP.  Until then, Japan and Australia are the only countries ‘holding the fort’, which makes US support on the matter vital. 

Tech is another area of concern, as shown by the following op-ed which argues for increased cooperation between Japan and the US on the matter.

Japan ruling party kicks off National Security Strategy review – Kyodo News

A joint defense panel of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party started discussing Monday a review of the National Security Strategy for the first time since it was adopted in 2013, including the possibility of introducing enemy base strike capabilities.

Along with the review of the country’s long-term diplomacy and defense strategy, the panel also seeks to discuss and update two other key defense buildup papers — National Defense Program Guidelines and Medium-Term Defense Program — after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a policy speech earlier this month that the government will aim to renew the three policy papers in about a year.

With China’s increasing assertiveness in waters near Japan and North Korea’s resumption of ballistic missile tests, Kishida has said Japan is facing a worrying security situation and vows to consider “every option” to boost the nation’s defense, including acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases in response to an imminent attack.

Comment: It is the first step towards the acquisition of offensive capabilities, which for all intents and purposes would unshackle Japan from its strict constitutional limits and become like any other country. The path is already set however, as this has been long in the making and there has been little pushback against it (both at home and abroad). 

Japan and U.S. need to get serious about tech competition with China – Nikkei Asia

Washington has defined China as its pacing threat, posing challenges to U.S. prestige and security across military, economic, diplomatic and technology dimensions.

Yet as the Biden administration girds for responsible competition with China, no partner is more indispensable, capable, or like-minded than Japan. With Prime Minister Fumio Kishida firmly in charge, now is the right time for the U.S. and Japan to accelerate their teamwork on bolstering national security.

Much of the discussion between Tokyo and Washington in the coming months will focus on military budgets and equipment and shared deterrent strategies. Japan has signaled an increased willingness to invest in its own defense and to focus on advanced over-the-horizon capabilities to act in concert with U.S. assets in fending off belligerent territorial threats from China and North Korea.

An equally important and urgent area of concern for Tokyo and Washington, however, is reinforcing our economic security by crafting policies to maintain secure and resilient supply chains, vibrant economies and a technological lead over China that allows for effective national defense.

Distinct from military planning and acquisition, the 21st-century tools of economic security include high-technology export controls, monitoring of investment to prevent technology leakage, bolstering cybersecurity, preventing intellectual property theft and keeping an eye on emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, advanced telecommunications and digital currencies, which can have a major impact on national security.

Breaking China’s grip on rare earths should be an AUKUS mission – Nikkei Asia

With their unique properties, partly commercial commodity, mostly strategic asset, rare earth elements embody Chinese state capitalism like few other resources.

The merging of China’s three largest rare earth producers into a state-owned mega-enterprise is Beijing’s latest move to tighten its grip on the lever that underpins its dominance of the sector — price. The economics of rare earths means that commercial companies will always be beaten on price by state-backed companies who exist not so much for profit as for the geopolitical gain of monopolizing such a strategic asset.

The U.S. and its allies will always struggle to beat China at this game. But, by working together, a secure vertically-integrated trilaterally-subsidized supply chain is possible.

With rare earth partnerships that optimize the comparative strengths of Australia, U.S. and U.K. already underway, securing these projects through AUKUS, the trilateral security partnership announced in September as a counterweight to China’s burgeoning military expansion, is the next logical step to provide a resilient, alternative supply for the Indo-Pacific.

Our dependence on rare earths will only grow as the technologies they enable become ever more ubiquitous. Beyond smartphones and wind turbines, they power the weapons that determine geopolitical primacy. As the risk of conflict with China increases, the U.S. and its allies cannot afford to ignore this Achilles heel.

Rare earths are not rare but just scattered and, mixed with other elements throughout the Earth’s crust, costly to separate and toxic to refine. And while China might be endowed with a third of the world’s known reserves, historically it was Beijing’s economic statecraft, aided by cheap labor and nonexistent environmental laws, that has allowed China to dominate the rare earths market and 80% of America’s imports.

Comment: Rare earths are the flip side of the coin, as the modern day technologies require a lot of those commodities. As of now, the processing is dominated by China and it would be prudent to reduce this reliance, especially in light of the current disputes with Beijing. 

TAIWAN

Taiwan Voters Back Ruling Party in Referendum, Removing Obstacle to U.S. Trade Deal – WSJ

Taiwan’s ruling party claimed a decisive victory in a closely watched referendum vote, in a setback for Beijing that removes a key obstacle to a U.S. trade deal with the democratically governed island.

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which supports closer ties with Washington at the expense of Beijing, prevailed on all four questions put to voters on Saturday. Perhaps most notably, Taiwan voters rejected a proposal that would have banned imports of pork containing trace amounts of the additive ractopamine—a key obstacle to a free-trade agreement with the U.S.

The outcome of the referendum was a surprise setback to Beijing and Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, which seeks closer ties with China. Beijing claims democratically governed Taiwan as part of its territory.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, speaking Saturday evening after the referendum outcome, hailed the vote as a victory for democracy and the people of Taiwan. “The people of Taiwan hope to walk towards the world and are willing to actively participate in international affairs,” she said at a news conference.

Comment: The turnout was at 41%, which is low compared to the 2020 presidential elections (whose turnout was 74.90%). With this said, it enough to showcase the weakness of the KMT, whose deputy party secretary resigned from the position after leading the campaign to ban pork imports containing ractopamine.

The referenda do not address some problems within the Taiwanese economy. As stated by Christian Whiton, former State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush and Trump administrations, Taiwan’s tax rates for high earners are not particularly attractive, especially when compared to major hubs like Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Even before the pandemic, Taiwan had a reputation for being unaccommodating to businesses that need migrant labor. The UAE offers foreign professionals 10-year visas that renew automatically and do not require a corporate sponsor; such innovations are not even debated in Taiwan.

Other issues mentioned are cheap and reliable electricity, with the turn towards green energy potentially increasing the price of electricity, excessive or inconsistent regulation; market influence exerted by domestic and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the utilities, energy, postal, transportation, financial, and real estate sectors; foreign ownership limits.

Both parties, the DPP and the KMT, do not seem keen in resolving those problems, with the US also uninterested in exerting pressure to this end, as for practical purposes Taiwan has been mostly ignored in this regard. 

SPORTS

WTA ‘not satisfied’ by China tennis star Peng Shuai’s sex claim denial – SCMP

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s appearance at a Shanghai event on Sunday has not satisfied the Women’s Tennis Association, which said its concerns about her well-being had not been addressed.

Agencies reported that the WTA will continue to call for a “full, fair and transparent investigation – without censorship – into her allegation of sexual assault.

Peng, 35, attended a cross-country skiing event on Sunday where she told a Singaporean newspaper she was fine and that her allegations of sexual abuse had been a “misinterpretation” of a private matter.

Comment: It is plausible for Peng to have said so under duress, given all the details of this case. For this reason, it is good to see the WTA stick to its choice, although they will not receive a full, fair and transparent investigation.