Asia Pacific Geopolitics – January 21, 2022

| January 21st, 2022

Tonga is proving to be the next battleground between the West and China, as several countries in the region have been sending aid towards the badly hit nation after its tsnami disaster. This is not the only event to take notice of, as Japan is giving further proof of its more active role in diplomacy with their meetings with France and the US. Meanwhile, South Korean primary candidates for the upcoming March 9 elections have responded to North Korea’s ‘nuclear option’, with once again a fruitless day in the UN Security Council on the matter.

  1. QUAD

1.1 Australia and New Zealand compete with China for Tonga influence – Nikkei Asia

Within a day of the massive volcanic eruption that rocked Tonga and severed the archipelago’s communications with the rest of the world, a handful of countries vying for influence in the region pledged financial aid.

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, 60 km north of the capital Nuku’alofa, blew up on Saturday, sending tsunami waves across the Pacific and shock waves around the world.

The eruption cut the tiny kingdom’s only fiber-optic cable, to Fiji, 800 km to the west, leaving its 110,000 residents without internet or voice connections to the world. A Royal New Zealand Air Force surveillance flight showed that several small islands suffered catastrophic damage, and it is becoming clear there is extensive damage in Nuku’alofa.

New Zealand has sent two naval ships equipped with desalination equipment and aid materials to Tonga, which is COVID-free and has effectively closed its borders. Only fully vaccinated personnel are allowed to enter the country.

Within hours of the eruption, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced an immediate grant of 100,000 New Zealand dollars ($68,000) and mobilized naval and air forces to rush help to Tonga. Australia followed, and a day later China pledged $100,000. The U.S. followed shortly thereafter, with all donors making it clear it was the first round of aid.

Siaosi Sovaleni, Tonga’s newly elected prime minister, knows his islands have little money and a heavy debt to Beijing. After political riots in 2006 that resulted in the destruction of Nuku’alofa’s central business districts, China was the only country willing to help rebuild, but only through a loan, not aid. Tonga still owes $108 million to the Export-Import Bank of China, equivalent to about 25% of its gross domestic product and about $1,000 per Tongan.

The debt at times has threatened to bankrupt Tonga, one of the Pacific’s poorest countries, but China repeatedly declines to write it off. Suspicion around Beijing’s agenda has grown with the construction of a lavish and large embassy in Nuku’alofa. Surveillance pictures suggest it was undamaged by the tsunami.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tweeted that Australia must be first to give Tonga assistance. “Failing that,” he said, “China will be there in spades.” He added that large Australian warships should be sent immediately: “It’s why we built them.”

Comment: This news is rather peculiar, because it seems that the issue here is the Global Times going off the rails. As reported later in the article, in reference to Huawei, GT referred the fact that Tonga’s only internet cable got severed by the eruption, and stating that the Western countries were blocking cooperation.

While it is true that the West has been able to counter China in this field, it has nothing to do with the current issue at hand. Moreover, the acting ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining, has proposed that the two countries cooperate on security in the Pacific, with the current disaster providing the perfect opportunity to show the Chinese genuine intention to do so.

Aside from the countries mentioned, there is also Japan which has promptly responded, leveraging the expertise of the JSDF in these kinds of events. On the night of the eruption, airplanes carrying critical supplies were sent, with a JMSDF transport being dispatched soon after.

Ultimately, this disaster should be used as a way to enhance cooperation between the countries in the region, keeping politics aside for a change. If that were to happen all parties involved would benefit, notwithstanding the possibility of easing tensions. But that would be too simple.

1.2 Japan, U.S. to launch ministerial talks on economy – Kyodo News

Japan and the United States have decided to launch regular ministerial talks on economic and environmental issues in an attempt to boost bilateral cooperation amid China’s rise, government sources said Friday.

The launch of the framework, akin to the so-called two-plus-two security talks involving the countries’ foreign and defense chiefs, is expected to be agreed by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden when they hold a virtual summit later in the day, according to the Japanese government sources.

The four members of the new dialogue framework will be Japan’s foreign and industry ministers and the U.S. state and commerce secretaries, the sources said.

Japan and the United States are promoting a “free and open” Indo-Pacific as China’s growing economic and military clout has raised regional tensions.

The economy-focused two-plus-two framework is expected to take up infrastructure investment, economic security, green energy, trade and other issues, the sources said.

Comment: This shows that Japan has becoming increasingly active when it comes to diplomacy.

Another example of the Japanese efforts is the recent 2+2 with France, which will be beneficial for the region at large given the vast French territories (and the fact that France is currently chairing the EU Council).

2. TAIWAN

2.1 Taiwan war risk highest in past 25 years as US tensions rise, mainland expert warns – SCMP

The risk of war over Taiwan is at its highest since the 1996 cross-strait missile crisis, a mainland foreign relations expert has warned.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, noted how tensions in the Taiwan Strait have steadily escalated amid growing US support for Taiwan. Beijing sees the self-ruled island as a breakaway province and has made reunification a much more pressing goal in recent years.

This goal – which Beijing aims to achieve within a decade – could mean a massive use of force, or the threat of a massive use of force, Shi told an international relations forum in Beijing on Thursday.

Comment: This seems rather exaggerated, especially considering that back in 1996 the mainland fired missiles. While there are still some lingering tensions, the PLA has continued to keep flights in the Taiwanese ADIZ to a handful per day and even the fiery words have mostly gone. Moreover, the previous sabre rattling has caused a response from the US Navy, which can be exemplified by the current deployment of vessels.

Aside from the USS Truman, which will take part in the NATO exercise in the Arctic Circle in March, all major vessels are concentrated in the Pacific. Moreover, most of them were just exercising in the South China Sea, with them somewhere between the Philippines and Taiwan.

As of now, the Chinese have not seriously responded to this show of force, aside from some vague messaging regarding the PLA warning off a US Destroyer, USS Benfold, which sailed close to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea (supposedly, because the US denies this).

Still, one thing is for certain: the US Navy has had enough and has responded accordingly. The same can be said regarding the arms delivery to the island, with reports of the US wanting to accelerate delivery of F-16s (possibly among other weapon systems).

3. KOREA

3.1 Presidential candidates denounce North Korea’s threat of weapons tests – Yonhap News

South Korea’s major presidential candidates slammed North Korea on Thursday after Pyongyang threatened to consider resuming nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party expressed “strong regret” and urged the regime to halt all actions that could make the situation worse.

“I ask our government to be clear and firm so that North Korea does not miscalculate the situation and make the wrong move,” he wrote on Facebook. “At the same time, make continued efforts for dialogue for the easing of tensions and denuclearization.”

[…] Later in the day, main opposition presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol said that the Moon government’s peace process “completely failed” as the “submissive” policy allowed Pyongyang to enhance nuclear and missile capabilities over the past five years.

“(If elected) I will seek extraordinary measures to nullify the threats by North Korea. I will normalize combined military exercises with the U.S. and strengthen a combined readiness posture,” Yoon of the People Power Party said in a Facebook post.

Earlier this week, Yoon vowed to secure a preemptive strike capability in the event Pyongyang appears ready to fire a nuclear-tipped missile at the South.

Comment: The difference between the two reactions is stark and will play a role in the elections, given how close Lee and Yoon are in the polls. At the same time, the South Korean top nuclear envoy had talks with both the US and Chinese counterparts, with the latter being crucial.

Assuming the North Koreans ramp up tests, which is plausible if not likely, the question is what the world will do about it. The most likely answer is, once again, nothing: the US tabled a resolution at the UN Security Council on the matter, which was once again vetoed by China and Russia.

Given the inherent limitations of the Council, the US should be smarter about it and use the issue of North Korea to build bridges with Beijing and Moscow, as both may not be too keen on a North Korea going nuclear (literally). This, however, takes a kind of diplomacy from a bygone era, as shown by the recent piece by Harald Malmgren about his meeting with Putin in the ‘90s.

Also, there is something else to talk about with both Beijing and Moscow: their naval exercise with the Iranian Navy and Revolutionary Guard. This is even more important, in light of the Houthis attack on the UAE (as Iran is their backer).

3.2 Moon, Egyptian leader to make joint efforts for K-9 howitzer deal – Yonhap News

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday he will make joint efforts with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for the conclusion of a deal to sell Seoul’s K-9 self-propelled howitzers to the African state.

Moon made the remarks during a joint announcement of the outcome of his talks with the Egyptian president, raising hopes for another K-9 howitzer export deal, following a 1.9-trillion won contract signed during Moon’s visit to Australia last month.

The two leaders agreed that a deal on K-9 howitzers is “an achievement of defense cooperation based on mutual trust between the two nations and K9 self-propelled artillery greatly contributes to enhancing the Egyptian military’s power,” Moon said.

Moon said he and the Egyptian president agreed to “work together to reach a final conclusion” of the ongoing negotiations on K-9 howitzers.

If the deal is struck, it would mark the first export of the K-9 howitzers to the Middle Eastern and African regions. South Korea has exported the K-9 howitzers to Turkey, Poland, India, Norway, Finland, Estonia and Australia.

Comment: This trip is proving to be a success for Moon and the South Korean industry, as it was also inked a $1 billion infrastructure deal. With this said, it may not help his party for the upcoming elections (especially the concerns much closer to home).

4. ASEAN

4.1 Myanmar military arrests more journalists in media crackdown-editor – Reuters

Myanmar’s military has arrested three people working for the independent news portal Dawei Watch, an editor at the publication said on Thursday, the latest detentions under a media crackdown that has occurred since last year’s coup.

Moe Myint, a 35-year-old journalist and a mother-of-three, was detained on Tuesday in Dawei, a city in southern Myanmar, said the editor, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Another journalist, Ko Zaw, 38, and Thar Gyi, a 21-year-old web designer at the publication, were arrested on Wednesday.

“They are currently being held at a police station in Dawei and the reason for their arrest is still unknown,” said the editor, who called for them to be released immediately.

A spokesman for the ruling military junta did not respond to a request for comment.

The junta has previously said it respected the role of the media but would not allow reporting it deemed false or likely to cause public unrest.

Comment: This is but one of the bad news coming from Myanmar, the other being Iranian planes landing in the country. Their arrival may be an indication of some cooperation between the two pariahs, and possibly some arms sales as well.

Sources monitoring the recent Iranian flights suggest Tehran may be offering to provide Myanmar’s junta with guided missiles, a procurement that would raise eyebrows in neighbouring nations including Thailand and India. The junta has increasingly used aerial bombardments and helicopter-borne gun attacks against resistance forces.

Another cause of concern is the renewed plan to curb on VPNs, which will restrict access to the Internet and expose the opposition to several risks. A revised draft of a cybersecurity law, which the military regime first proposed in February 2021 but subsequently abandoned, stipulates imprisonment of one to three years for the use of a VPN, a technology that allows private and secure internet connections.

The proposed law also stipulates that service providers have to provide the personal information of users — including names, addresses and access history — upon request from the authorities.

In any case, all this will not make the already difficult diplomatic situation within ASEAN any easier.

5. PAKISTAN

5.1 Bomb blast kills 3 people in eastern Pakistan – police – Reuters

A bomb blast ripped through a crowded market in eastern Pakistan on Thursday, killing three people and wounding over 20, police said.

“It was a bomb blast,” a police spokesman Arif Rana told Reuters, saying a time device rigged to a motorcycle exploded outside a shop in the market.

A nine-year-old boy is among the three dead, he said.

A newly formed separatist group based in southwestern Balochistan province claimed responsibility in a text message sent to a Reuters reporter.

It said a bank was the target of the attack. Police said they were investigating, saying it was premature to link this to Pakistan Super League (PSL) Twenty20 cricket tournament scheduled to start in a week or so.

Baloch separatists have been fighting a low-key insurgency against the Pakistani government to demand a greater share in the local mineral rich resources.

They usually attack government interests or Chinese projects in the province bordering Afghanistan and Iran, but an attack in a city like Lahore is rare.

Comment: Balochistan has faced some terrorist attacks, with groups taking advantage of the genuine greivances the local population has over both Islamabad and the Chinese. Still, this is a sign of a potential escalation in the attacks, as it was an indiscriminate attack against civilians.

6. OLYMPICS

6.1 U.S. would work with U.S. Olympic Committee if athlete safety becomes concern -White House – Reuters

The United States would work with the U.S. Olympic Committee to address any concerns about the safety of athletes participating in the Beijing Olympics next month, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told Fox News Channel on Thursday.

Psaki said President Joe Biden’s decision not to send a diplomatic delegation to Beijing was not based on safety concerns but rather human rights and China’s treatment of the Uighur community.

Comment: After the Chinese organisers calling for the abuse of Rule 50, the US (or any other country) should simply assume that their athletes’ safety is a concern. After all, they argued for applying the Chinese law, which epitomises Beria’s saying ‘show me the man and I will show you the crime’, instead of the Olympic Charter.

At the same time, various National Olympic Committees advised to use burner phones for the Olympics, stating that athletes should assume that all their communications are tracked. Still the issue of monitoring remains, coupled with the subsequent risk of some of the communications being deemed against the Chinese law.

Given the premise, such an outcome may happen and it is difficult to predict what would happen next (aside from the obvious diplomatic incident).

7. COVID

7.1 Japan faces putting majority of 47 prefs. under COVID quasi-emergency – Kyodo News

More than half of Japan’s 47 prefectures are set to come under a quasi-state of emergency after 12 more areas including Osaka announced they are seeking, or are moving to seek, restrictions on restaurants and bars to cope with surging coronavirus infections.

Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo in western Japan, as well as Shizuoka in central Japan, requested the measure Friday amidst the country seeing record daily coronavirus cases. On Thursday, the figure topped 46,000, renewing the record for a third straight day.

As the rapid spread of infections raises concern about the strain on the medical system, a quasi-state of emergency was put in place Friday in Tokyo and 12 other prefectures for three weeks, allowing their governors to ask restaurants and bars to close early and stop or limit the serving of alcohol.

Tokyo confirmed 9,699 daily coronavirus cases Friday, eclipsing the previous record high of 8,638 logged the previous day, while the Osaka prefectural government said it also hit a fresh high of 6,254.

In addition to the four prefectures that officially sought quasi-emergencies Friday, eight more prefectures including Hokkaido, as well as Fukuoka, Saga and Oita prefectures in southwestern Japan, are preparing to make similar requests.

The central government is arranging to make a decision as early as next Tuesday on any official requests it receives from prefectures, according to sources close to the matter.

A quasi-state of emergency is now in effect in 16 prefectures after Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Okinawa were placed under the measure from Jan. 9 following a spike in infections that local officials linked to nearby U.S. military bases whose personnel were previously exempt from being tested for the coronavirus before coming to Japan.