Asia Pacific Geopolitics – January 7, 2022

| January 7th, 2022

China and the Quad are once again to the fore, although for slightly different reasons. On the one hand, there is a new propaganda campaign incoming to entrench Xi’s status while Covid may lead to problems for him (which is rather ironic, given that the WHO skipped ‘Xi’). On the other hand, there have been developments regarding today’s 2+2 meeting between Japan and the US, plus commentary involving Australia (which yesterday signed a treaty with Japan).

  1. CHINA

1.1 China’s propaganda machine is embracing a new slogan to entrench Xi Jinping’s status – SCMP

Among the messaging from China’s propaganda machine in 2022, expect to hear a lot more of the ruling Communist Party’s latest slogan – “the two establishments” consolidating Xi Jinping’s powerful leadership status.

That was the call from the party’s ideology chief, Wang Huning, at a meeting of propaganda officials in Beijing on Wednesday.

“To do well in this year’s work on propaganda and thought, [we] must highlight the historical significance of the ‘two establishments’,” Wang was quoted as saying by state news agency Xinhua.

The “two establishments” refers to establishing Xi’s status as China’s “core” leader and establishing his political doctrine, which was enshrined in the country’s constitution in 2018.

The slogan first appeared in a resolution on history that was approved by hundreds of top party officials in November and cemented Xi’s status, putting him on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

It was just the third resolution of its kind since the party was founded 100 years ago, and reviewed its achievements with a heavy focus on those since Xi took power.

The resolution described the “two establishments” as reflecting Xi’s support across the party, the armed forces and the people. It said they were of “decisive significance” for advancing the party’s “core” and China’s rise.

Comment: Rather peculiar to see the propaganda arm push on 2022 something that was enshrined in the CCP constitution in 2018, primarily because of what it represents. The move is clearly aimed towards consolidating Xi’s position for the upcoming Congress, although it is unclear whether it is because of opposing factions’ meddling or because Xi is merely preparing the groundwork for his third term. 

Either way, the reactions to this will allow observers to catch glimpses of how the pieces are moving behind-the-scenes. 

1.2 Chinese vice-premier ‘deeply ashamed’ over woman losing baby after Xian hospital turned her away citing Covid-19 rules – SCMP

Chinese Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan said she felt deeply ashamed that a woman in the northwestern city of Xian lost her unborn baby after a hospital refused to admit her because of an expired Covid-19 test result.

Sun said on Thursday that despite the pandemic, medical institutions should not refuse patients for any reason, and the episode showed that coronavirus containment efforts had been found wanting, state news agency Xinhua reported.

“That this problem arose was very heart-wrenching and I feel deeply ashamed,” she was quoted as saying. “It showed that outbreak prevention work had problems with not being sufficiently strict or down to earth. The lesson learned was deep.”

Several hospital staff members have been sacked or suspended and local health officials have been given warnings over the incident. A video circulated online showed the woman, who was eight months pregnant, sitting outside Xian Gaoxin Hospital with blood running down her legs. Her niece said she was refused entry for having a Covid-19 test result four hours too old.

Comment: What she said is not to be taken lightly, because a week ago she went to Xi’an and ordered local officials to do more to curb the outbreak. At the end of the day, the hospital officials followed the instructions to the letter, with deadly consequences, and firing them is not enough. She was not the only one to comment, as the director of the city’s health commission apologised for what happened. 

With this said, while those apologies are noteworthy there is no indication of a change in policy, although Beijing may try to prevent something like this from happening again.

Meanwhile, instead of paying attention to this, most of the West is too distracted with the case of Novak Djokovic, who supposedly did not provide enough evidence to the Australian authorities for a vaccine exemption and he is currently awaiting deportation. 

Both cases show certain issues present in the respective countries but the former is arguably more important, as a potentially preventable death was caused by blindly following orders, a virtue which could come back to haunt the CCP. This will be even more true as there are reports of cases in key cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, with the latter discouraging people from leaving (a potential prelude to lockdown). 

Assuming the infections pick up, it could have a big impact on the Chinese economy. Below, there is a comparison of previous waves and how they impacted key provinces. If more get impacted, especially Guangdong (the province of Shenzhen), it would be rather dire. 

Case in point, retail sales, which is expected to get a major hit. 

1.3 Chinese man pleads guilty to stealing Monsanto trade secret in the US – SCMP

A Chinese national admitted in United States federal court on Thursday that he stole a trade secret while working for Monsanto and one of its subsidiaries in Missouri, federal prosecutors said.

Haitao Xiang, 44, formerly of Chesterfield, Missouri, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit economic espionage. He was indicted by a grand jury on eight charges in 2019.

Prosecutors said in a news release that Xiang transferred a trade secret to a memory card and then tried to take it to China for the benefit of the Chinese government.

Xiang worked as an imaging scientist for Monsanto and one of its subsidiaries, The Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017.

Court records say Monsanto and The Climate Corporation developed a digital online farming software platform to help farmers collect field data to increase productivity.

Comment: Hardly surprising, given the Chinese track record and their need to boost productivity. After all, being dependent on the outside world for their food supply is one of the key weaknesses of China, as in case of a major crisis hampering trade, they would not be able to reliably feed their people. 

2. QUAD

2.1 Turn defence ties with Japan into bigger regional partnership

Australia has become Japan’s most important security partner after the United States. Japan is the world’s third largest economy and central to outcomes in Australia’s broader neighbourhood and globally.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a virtual leaders’ summit on Thursday to consolidate the deepening bilateral security relationship. The leaders will need to reimagine the relationship to tackle the many shared challenges to regional peace, prosperity and stability they now both face.

The long anticipated Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) signed during the leaders’ meeting will enable both countries’ defence forces smoother and more timely access to operate in the other country. The RAA gives Australia a status shared only by the United States in Japan and comes at a time of increased anxieties about China’s use of its growing military influence and a more complex security environment.

A shared interest in a free, open, inclusive, resilient and prosperous region extends the agenda for Mr Morrison and Mr Kishida well beyond security cooperation to deepening the two countries’ Comprehensive Strategic Partnership which builds on decades of cooperation and regional order building.

The strategic priorities include keeping the United States locked into the Western Pacific militarily and economically, collectively shaping Chinese behaviour and enmeshing both the United States and China in new multilateral rules that secure open and contestable markets.

Buttressing the multilateral economic order to create space for China, the United States and other large rising countries in South and Southeast Asia is a priority for Australia and Japan today. That requires strengthening and building a security architecture around the US alliance framework that embeds mutual assurances about the use of political power across the region.

The US alliance framework is but one important aspect of security in our region. Security pursued without economic integration — which are inseparable in East Asia — is a limited and ephemeral security. For Southeast Asia, economic integration with its powerful neighbours is another important source of security. What is true for Southeast Asia is true for all East Asia, Japan included.

Comment: The point here is quite important, because security alone is not enough. To be fair, Australia and Japan went above and beyond already, as they managed to keep the CPTPP alive, even after Trump pulled out.

The real question is how to better integrate the US, given how the previous and current administrations have been acting. The latest piece of news on this is  White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell saying the United States needs to “step up its game” on economic engagement in Asia.

This follows similar prior remarks from Biden, who told Asian leaders in October Washington would launch talks on creating an Indo-Pacific economic framework, but few details have emerged and the administration has avoided moves towards rejoining trade deals critics say threaten US jobs.

At this point the US administration should just stay silent until concrete evidence of a plan or something more substantial is presented, because talks of stepping up without actually doing it is damaging. 

2.2Australia must be ASEAN’s digital transformation partner – AFR

It is increasingly evident that the regional Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) cannot agree on many significant regional issues, whether it is the South China Sea disputes, Myanmar crisis, or even AUKUS. But if there is one thing that all countries agree on is the recovery from COVID-19.

And the digital economy is seen as an enabler that can propel the region from pandemic-induced stagnation. The ASEAN leaders vowed to work to “propel the region towards a digitally-enabled economy that is secure, sustainable and transformative”.

[…] As a response to the Belt and Road Initiative, the US co-ordinated with the G7 economies to initiate the “Build Back Better World Partnership”, which includes digital technology as one of the four focus areas of the initiative alongside climate, health security, and gender equality.

The leaders of the four Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) countries, of which Australia is a member, also issued a statement saying they planned to announce a new infrastructure funding scheme late last year. Even the EU, particularly with its new Indo-Pacific strategy, is also investing in southeast Asia’s digital capabilities with a focus on improvements in connectivity.

Australia has just elevated the partnership with ASEAN to a comprehensive strategic level. That is one way it can further utilise this avenue and meaningfully contribute to the region’s resilient digital infrastructure. It has deepened co-operation in digital trade and fintech with Singapore, but that’s only the beginning.

The Australian digital economy is also expected to grow as much as $300 billion in the 2020s, but private investment in the region is yet to scale up. The government has ambitions to play a more significant role in cyber and tech in general as the government recently launched Australia’s international cyber and critical tech engagement strategy.

Comment: Ideally, Australia should leverage its prior experience. The latest example is an undersea cable for the Pacific island states of Nauru, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia, developed in conjunction with Japan and the US. 

Such a project would offer something to ASEAN while, at the same time, change the connotations of the Quad. It saw a resurgence because of China but, in order to be meaningful, it should stand on its own. 

2.3 Japan, U.S. concerned over China bid to undermine rules-based order – Kyodo News

Japanese and U.S. foreign and defense chiefs on Friday shared their concerns about China’s attempts to “undermine the rules-based order” and challenges they pose to the region and world, vowing to cooperate in deterring and responding to “destabilizing activities.”

In a joint statement issued after their virtual “two-plus-two” talks, the ministers highlighted the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” while opposing any unilateral actions threatening Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, and their U.S. counterparts Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also expressed “serious and ongoing concerns” about human rights issues in China’s far-western Xinjiang autonomous region and Hong Kong.

[…] On dealing with security threats, the statement said Japan will “examine all options necessary for national defense, including capabilities to counter missile threats.”

Despite Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution, a controversial plan to acquire so-called enemy base strike capabilities has been domestically debated ahead of a review of the country’s long-term guideline, the National Security Strategy, by year-end.

Kishi told a separate news conference after the meeting that Japan needs to “improve the detection, tracking and interception capabilities against all kinds of aerial threats” and “strengthen its comprehensive missile defense capability.”

Comment: The really significant part is the discussion regarding the Japanese acquiring base strike capabilities, as per the Constitution they are not allowed to have offensive weapons. If such a change goes through it would effectively be the final nail on the Article 9 coffin, with a subsequent dramatic shift in the region. 

3. ASEAN

3.1 Philippines Raises Stakes With Purchase of BrahMos Anti-Ship Missile – Maritime Executive

The government of the Philippines is set to become the first foreign buyer of the Indian/Russian BrahMos cruise missile, one of the fastest anti-ship missiles in the world. As tensions rise in the South China Sea, the acquisition gives Philippine forces a new coastal-defense asset in the event of a conflict with a larger navy. 

BrahMos has a top speed in the range of Mach 3, a surface-launch range of about 160 nm and a payload of about 440 pounds of explosives. It is designed with naval warfare in mind, and it can fly just 30 feet off the surface and carry out evasive maneuvers to evade air defenses. It can be launched from shore, surface, submarine and aircraft platforms.

Reporting indicates that the Philippines is primarily interested in the shore-battery version, which would give its forces coverage of the majority of the Spratly Islands from bases on Palawan. Competing maritime claims in the Spratlys are an area of constant friction between China ad Philippines, with defense implications for the Philippine-aligned United States.

Manila has been in talks with New Delhi over the possibility of buying BrahMos for years, but the discussion was put on hold in 2020 due to COVID-driven budgetary limitations. According to the Philippine Inquirer, the money is now available, and the Philippines’ defense department has set aside a total of $55 million to buy missiles and launchers. The funding has not yet been formally announced, but officials confirmed the deal to the Inquirer and the Hindustan Times.

Comment: If this deal actually happens, it will have major repercussions. Not only would BrahMos grant the Philippines strong anti-ship capabilities but it would also create another customer for the Russians. Moreover, it could explain the recently announced new manufacturing facility for this missile, although it could also be a mere coincidence. 

3.2 Cambodia PM’s visit to Myanmar sparks protests from coup opponents – CNA

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will start a visit to Myanmar on Friday (Jan 7) for talks with its military rulers, triggering protests across the conflict-torn nation by coup opponents who fear that his trip will provide more legitimacy to the junta.

His visit will be the first by a head of government to Myanmar since the army overthrew the elected administration of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb 1 last year, sparking months of protests and a bloody crackdown.

Cambodia is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has been leading diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Myanmar and which adopted a five-point “consensus” peace plan last April.

Some other ASEAN countries including Indonesia have expressed frustration at the junta’s failure to implement the peace deal, which has fanned divisions in the 10-member bloc.

In Myanmar, opponents of military rule have said that Hun Sen is backing the junta by making the trip.

In Depayin, about 300km north of the capital Naypyidaw, protesters burned a poster of the Cambodian prime minister and chanted “Hun Sen don’t come to Myanmar. We don’t want dictator Hun Sen”, photographs on social media showed.

Comment: Given the protests and ASEAN countries’ opinions on Myanmar, the visit by Hun Sen may actually worsen the situation, even assuming good intentions on its part. As of now, it is unclear what he wants to achieve with this visit, but for now he is only fuelling the fire instead of bringing the two sides to the table and finding a peaceful solution. 

This also plays into the broader dispute between China and the US, as the two find themselves on opposite sides in Myanmar. The US has been heavily involved in the region since the Cold War Era, with the Vietnam War being but the most famous case, while China has only recently stepped up its efforts, with the latest case being the transfer of a submarine

While it is difficult to say whether a further escalation of violence will take place, it is impossible to exclude it, given that most of the ingredients are already present. 

4. KOREA

4.1 Lee, Yoon reconcile as PPP drops proposal for party chief’s ouster – Yonhap News

Main opposition presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol and the chief of his People Power Party (PPP) reached a surprise agreement Thursday to put their long-running feud behind them and move forward for election victory.

PPP lawmakers also withdrew their push to oust party chairman Lee Jun-seok as the two patched up the row that has been blamed for the recent sharp fall in Yoon’s public support about two months ahead of the March 9 presidential election.

The surprise reconciliation came after Lee said during a general meeting of PPP lawmakers that he truly hopes for Yoon’s victory and his criticism of Yoon’s campaign was meant to draw attention to the urgent need to win support from younger voters.

He also promised to give his best efforts to win the election.

“Although there could be different views on winning the election, please do not question my sincerity,” Lee said. “I will have an honest talk with Yoon today and tommorrow. I hope we can sort out our misunderstanding and have an election that can move the hearts of the people.”

Yoon made a suprise apprearance at the meeting as Lee addressed the lawmakers.

Comment: If this is indeed the end of the disputes within the PPP it may help the opposition revert the Democratic Party gains. With this said, this particular dispute is but one of the many controversies, hitting both primary candidates, and the final outcome hangs in the balance. 

The smaller parties may also play a role, with a potential development in this regard: presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People’s Party said Thursday he “can meet” with Yoon Suk-yeol, the nominee from the main opposition if Yoon made the request, showing a slight change in stance on uniting candidacies to win at the March presidential polls. 

In the latest survey by Gallup Korea, Ahn was third, garnering 15 percent support, trailing the two main contenders: Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the People Power Party’s Yoon. 

If indeed the two unite their candidacies, it would break the balance in favour of the opposition, at a time when Yoon lost his previous advantage: in the same pool, the Democratic Party candidate Lee posted 36 percent support, followed by Yoon who stood at 26 percent.

4.2 N. Korea says it test-fired hypersonic missile to bolster strategic capabilities – Yonhap News

North Korea said Thursday that it has successfully conducted a test-firing of a hypersonic missile a day earlier, three months after it first showcased the new weapons system.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s military said the North fired what appeared to be a ballistic missile toward the East Sea from the northern province of Jagang.

The missile made a “120 km lateral movement” from the initial launch azimuth and “precisely hit a set target 700 km away,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. It did not disclose the speed of the projectile.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not attend the firing.

The flight range of the new missile, however, has yet to be verified. The range detected by the South Korean and U.S. intelligence assets is known to be different from what the North announced.

“The test launch clearly demonstrated the control and stability of the hypersonic gliding warhead which combined the multi-stage gliding jump flight and the strong lateral movement,” the KCNA said.

Comment: Whether or not it was truly a hypersonic weapon is besides the point, as regardless of its actual capabilities the launch signalled that North Korea is not interested in peace talks as of now. Moreover, the fact that Kim Jong Un did not attend shows that there are now much more pressing concerns, which have been highlighted previously.