Wednesday 13 Nov 2019 | 15:27 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The East Asia Program conducts research on the politics and foreign policies of the countries of East Asia, with a focus on how domestic politics in these countries shape external behaviour. Researchers focus on China, Indonesia, and Myanmar, and commission work by other scholars on the broader region. The program also holds a robust series of dialogues and events on the politics of the region, independently and in partnership with other organisations.

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'Harassment' and 'provocation': China's media reacts to the US action in the South China Sea

By Jackson Kwok, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree with specialisations in Chinese language, history, and foreign policy from the University of Sydney

Following the freedom of navigation operation carried out yesterday by the USS Lassen, China's state-owned news outlets have portrayed China as a victim of US aggression. The media has framed Washington's actions as provocative and illegal, constituting a direct challenge to China's national sovereignty and security. But coverage remains fairly measured, with one editorial encouraging the nation to 'remain calm' in the face of deliberate provocation and 'deal with US harassment rationally'. It is possible that Beijing will use this perceived aggression as justification for further construction in the South China Sea.

Xinhua News Agency reported the operation constituted a 'deliberate provocation' and a 'direct challenge to China's sovereignty and security interests'. This continues the official line established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this month that China 'would absolutely not permit any country to infringe on China's territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands'.

An article published in People's Daily Wednesday morning depicts the US as a 'restless' and irrational actor that has ignored China's warnings not to stir up unnecessary trouble and intentionally disrupted regional stability and security. The article argues Washington has used the 'mask of freedom of navigation and overflight' as an excuse to strengthen its military presence in the region, and says Washington aims to actively raise tensions in the South China Sea to justify increased investment in its rebalance to Asia strategy.

An article in the state-aligned tabloid Global Times similarly warned the US would use this opportunity to tighten relations with regional allies and partners. It noted support for the FONOPs in Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, and claimed US discomfort and paranoia about China's growing influence in the region prompted the action.

This theme of containment and disruption was echoed in an interview with Rear Admiral (Ret) Yang Yi: 'The US has sought an excuse to disrupt our progress, but our pace must not stop, and we must not submit ourselves to humiliation.'

Reports portrayed China as a victim of US aggression and provocation that was acting within accepted international law, with 'acceptable actions, correct behaviour, and a clear conscious.' In the face of provocation, China's government was depicted as holding firm on the all-important issue of national sovereignty. An article in Xinhua also emphasised China's magnanimity and implored Washington to keep in mind and 'cherish the momentum of hard-won positive development in US-China relations.'

China's online community was particularly outraged by Washington's actions, with many making their anger known on Weibo. Many netizens felt an assertive US had reneged on its commitment to bilateral cooperation. But behind the anger was also a subtle suggestion that Chinese diplomacy in Washington had failed, an impression that perhaps Xi's state visit to the US last month was not as successful as state-owned media would have them believe.

In a departure from the state-owned media, Global Times published an article Tuesday evening encouraging Beijing to carry out 'anti-harassment operations and track the US warships.' It also noted that it may even be necessary to 'launch electronic interventions...send out warships, lock them [onto US vessels] by fire-control radar and fly over the US vessels'. A similar editorial published this morning channelled Chairman Mao's famous dictum, labeling the Lassen as a 'paper tiger', and concluding Beijing should remain confident.

The editorial also notes that 'China did not elaborate whether it will expand its territorial seas after land construction', ascribing this to 'ambiguity of the international law.' Interestingly, however, the article goes on to discuss China's Spratyls claims with detailed reference to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. According to the editorial, the features under Chinese control in the Spratlys are either reefs that have portions above water at low tide, and are uninhabitable; which have territorial waters but no 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs); or completely submerged 'low tide elevations' (that) have no territorial waters.

The contention that none of the features are capable of generating EEZs is significant, as is the admission that some of the Chinese-occupied features have no territorial sea. Moreover the article ends on a conciliatory note, claiming that it is the 'US that helps us to build and reinforce' the 12 nautical mile concept and that 'we have no intention to accept 13 or more than 13 nautical miles.' This could be interpreted in different ways, and some of the references to UNCLOS are inaccurate, but it nonetheless hints at an attempt to position China's South China Sea claims as consistent with international law. Behind the hard-line messages and countermeasures, this could be viewed as a positive form of signalling to the US.

But China has also made it clear it won't back down easily in the face of US pressure. Articles and official responses from the MFA hinted China may even use perceived US aggression and the threat of future FONOPs to justify further construction in the South China Sea.

In yesterday's press conference, MFA spokesperson Lu Kang said that if tensions continue to rise in the region, China will be forced 'to step up and speed up relevant capacity building'. Lu also commented that China will not change its behaviour, and that any country which seeks to interfere should 'cast aside such an illusion the sooner the better.' While avoiding questions on whether or not China would take direct military action, media reports have also included vague threats of 'serious consequences' should the US continue to interfere.

Beijing will be engaged in a difficult balancing act in the coming weeks and months. It will likely aim to demonstrate commitment to its territorial integrity in order to impress domestic audiences, while seeking to avoid the risk of military confrontation with the US. All of this will only be tested when and if future FONOPs are carried out.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user UNC - CFC - USFK.

Obama should encourage Jokowi to lead in East Asia

Later today, Indonesian President Joko Widodo will become only the latest Asian leader to arrive at the White House for consultations with President Barack Obama. But Obama’s talks with Jokowi, as the president of the world's third largest democracy is known, will be quite different from his talks with other leaders from the region this year.

Jokowi is not a powerful reformer with a strategic vision for his country’s place in the region, like Japan’s Shinzo Abe, India’s Narendra Modi, or China’s Xi Jinping.

Jokowi barely won his country’s presidential election last year, and has struggled to maintain the support of the oligarchs who control the parties in his coalition (including his own party, led by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri). The fractious legislature is controlled by the president’s political opponents, and Jokowi’s own Cabinet has publicly clashed over policy differences on several occasions. Jokowi’s approval rating, at 72% upon taking office, is down to 52% a year later, due to both the president’s reluctance to back anti-corruption officials who had pursued cases against the National Police and members of his coalition, and to higher prices for household goods, driven up by his administration’s protectionist policies.

Though he ran as a results-driven leader who would speed up infrastructure projects that would in turn boost the economy, his record is mixed at best. Halfway through the year, the government had spent only 8% of its infrastructure budget. Economic growth, that Jokowi promised in his campaign would reach 7%, is expected to decline from 5% to 4.7% this year.

The president reshuffled his economic team in August, and argues it turned a corner in recent weeks after announcing a raft of stimulus measures. Karen Brooks lays out the case for hope in this morning's Wall Street Journal. The currency and the stock market have responded favorably, and bond yields have declined. But the measures have been scattershot; the most protectionist laws and regulations remain in place. Jokowi's team has done enough to calm investors' nerves but it has yet to present a real reform agenda.

Perhaps most startling has been the way in which Indonesia has shrunk from the world stage under Jokowi.

Under Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia played a leadership role in the region. Indonesia is the largest country and considered the first among equals by its neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which drives much regional diplomacy in East Asia.

Yudhoyono’s last foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, sought to preserve peace and stability in the region, shuttling between capitals to secure a ceasefire in a Thai-Cambodian border dispute in 2011, and again to preserve ASEAN unity in the face of Chinese pressure on the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea in 2012. Yudhoyono himself hosted two important summits of regional leaders on the resort island of Bali, meetings which took sensitive regional issues head-on.

Jokowi came into office skeptical that all of Yudhoyono’s summitry had amounted to much for the Indonesian people. In his first speech to the Indonesian diplomatic corps, he instructed them to focus on 'down to earth diplomacy': marketing Indonesian products abroad, resolving consular problems overseas, and defending Indonesian sovereignty — not on summitry. Jokowi did host leaders of the non-aligned movement for the 60th anniversary of the Asia Africa Conference, but even here we see domestic politics at work: it was Megawati, whose father Sukarno hosted the first Asia Africa Conference, who prevailed upon Jokowi to host the summit.

Jokowi’s most prominent policies, however, are classically non-aligned; he seems to believe that Indonesia is too often disadvantaged, in terms of economics or dignity, in its engagements with the world around it. For example, he has sought to attract more favorable terms for foreign investment to fund his infrastructure projects, and to end the practice of Indonesians traveling overseas to serve as domestic workers, an occupation he finds degrading. His most popular policy, by far, is a campaign against illegal foreign fishing in Indonesian waters, which has featured the fiery destruction of foreign vessels caught fishing without permission.

Indonesia's retreat into down-to-earth diplomacy and the cynicism of non-alignment is unfortunate, for Indonesian diplomatic leadership has much to offer the region. Though it often frustrates those Americans and others in Southeast Asia who would prefer that Indonesia take a much harder tack against China, Indonesia’s independent foreign policy allows it to play the role of an honest broker in regional disputes; but only if it is allowed to be energetic and fully engaged.

Jokowi’s first visit to Washington as president comes just over a year after his inauguration. In his meetings with President Obama and other Cabinet officials, he is expected to sign several agreements to update the bureaucratic infrastructure of the relationship between the two countries, including a new strategic dialogue between Indonesian and American ministers. These are important steps that will lead to much useful cooperation at the working level, particularly on maritime and defence issues.

President Obama will also likely seek to move Jokowi closer to the United States’ view of regional issues, particularly on the South China Sea dispute. Jokowi is unlikely to go along, as his advisers remain wary of too close an association with either Washington or Beijing. But the most important message that President Obama could deliver to President Jokowi would be to encourage him to give his diplomats a mandate to resume the vital leadership role that Indonesia has earned by virtue of its size, geography, and history.

The US and Indonesia may not always see regional issues the same way, but leadership by both is essential to maintain the liberal international order in the region.

Photo by Feng Li - Pool/Getty Images

The TPP is not a containment strategy

Is the TPP an effort to contain China? If you've been reading the papers or glancing at social media recently, you could be forgiven for thinking so. The New York Times didn't quite use the word containment, but argued that the agreement was a 'win for the United States in its contest with China.'

There is a strategic dimension to the American push to conclude the TPP, but it's not about containing China. Rather, the TPP is part of the Obama Administration's broader Rebalance strategy to update and reinforce the liberal international order in the Asia Pacific. 

On the political side of things, this means the peaceful resolution of disputes, ensuring freedom of navigation, and the freedom to access information. On the economic side, it means, inter alia, updating the trading rules to reflect technological advances that have increased the value of information relative to resources in global trade. These changes have required negotiators to go beyond tariffs and address behind-the-border rules that affect trade.

Those pushing a containment narrative note that the pact excludes China, but ignore the fact that American officials have repeatedly said that they are open to China's eventual accession to the agreement. The President himself made this point last December:

And by the way, there's been some suggestion that by doing TPP we're trying to contain or disadvantage China. We're actually not. What we are trying to do is make sure that rather than a race to the bottom in the region there's a reasonable bar within which we can operate. And we hope that then China actually joins us in not necessarily formally being a member of TPP but in adopting some of the best practices that ensure fairness in operations.

That said, negotiators have had to be realistic, recognising that it would have been very difficult for China to sign up to these standards at the start. Better, then, to create the partnership now with governments that are ready to go, demonstrate the agreement's value, and entice other countries, including China, to sign on to the agreement or adopt some of the standards it sets as their own.

Such hopes are not unreasonable.

There has been persistent speculation that Chinese leaders could use TPP accession to apply external pressure in order to achieve economic reforms that domestic political interests have thus far prevented. Chinese Premier Zhu Rhongji did the same with WTO accession in the late 1990s (and as in that case, China might negotiate slightly different terms in recognition of the size of its economy and how far it would have to come to meet the new standards). Chinese accession would raise environmental and labour standards in China, and would be the best possible result for all concerned, including the US.

So why have institutions like the New York Times and the powerful American trade union federation, the AFL-CIO, bought into the containment narrative? The Obama Administration is at least partly to blame. Since early this year, the Administration has increasingly used the fear of a Chinese-dominated economic and security order as a foil to capture the attention of its domestic political audience, particularly Congress.

In his State of the Union address to Congress in January, President Obama said:

China wants to write the rules for the world's fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.

It's not exactly the stuff of containment — the focus is still on rules — but it does suggest a competition. Administration officials compounded the problem when, in an otherwise strong speech in Arizona in April, Defense Secretary Ash Carter claimed that 'in terms of our Rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier.'

Carter's comments were problematic because while much of what the US seeks to achieve through the Rebalance is unrelated to China, the US is also engaged in an effort to deter China from taking assertive actions that undermine the liberal order in the region. That effort, too, has occasionally been mischaracterised as an attempt to contain China, so mentioning aircraft carriers and the TPP in the same sentence was probably unwise.

Such rhetoric may not play well in China or even Australia, but the Administration seemed to believe it would be effective on Capitol Hill. While members of Congress have been slow to recognise the impact of a stronger commercial relationship with East Asia for American interests, they instinctively understand the impact of an aircraft carrier. While they may not realise that trade with the broader region exceeds American trade with China, fear of Chinese economic power is a common theme in American elections. And at this stage, with Congressional approval of the deal very much an open question, the Administration has sought to put the deal in terms members of Congress can understand.

The problem is thus one of multiple audiences. The same global information environment which the Obama Administration hopes to take advantage of through the TPP also makes it more challenging to sell to Congress without agitating the very region in question. Moreover, during my research on Congressional attitudes toward Asia Pacific policy over the last year for my recent Lowy analysis on the subject, I found that the Administration's attempts to capture the attention of Congress by using China as a foil had limited reach among Republicans and almost none among Democrats.

The Administration would thus be well advised to revert to its earlier language on the TPP, which stressed the way it could draw other countries to adopt higher standards. The TPP is not about containment; the Administration should take care not to speak about it as though it is.

Guangxi bombings: Corruption and power-abuse take their toll

Seventeen parcel bombs exploded in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region last Wednesday, and there was a further explosion on Thursday. There were ten deaths, more than 50 casualties, and photos of a five storey building partly collapsed.

The story did make international news, but only just, and by the weekend it had faded, including from the homepage of China Daily Mandarin edition.

Global reporting was slim; clearly agencies do not have correspondents in South China or much background about Guangxi. The first reports gave the number of bombings, listed targets in Liucheng County (they included a government building, a residence at Liucheng Animal Husbandry Bureau, a hospital, a prison, markets, and a bus stop), and reported that one man, a quarry owner with the surname Wei, had been arrested. Then on Thursday came questions as to whether that arrest had indeed taken place. On Friday, South China Morning Post reported that Wei had been killed in one of the Wednesday blasts (taking the death toll to 11). An article in China Daily's online Mandarin edition reported that local police had confirmed Wei's death through DNA testing, leaving open the question of who perpetrated Thursday's bombing.

There was also the question of motive, with Chinese authorities initially saying that some people have personal grievances against government departments. Some doubted this was a lone perpetrator taking extreme action over an everyday grievance, and hinted at Uyghur militants. American geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, for example, published an article speculating about Uyghurs. Major news outlets in both English and Mandarin avoided this inflammatory line. 

Later, a journalist spoke to Wei's brother, who explained that, after locals marched on Wei's quarry in 2013, rendering its machines inoperable and ruining the business, Wei became upset because 'repeated requests to local government departments to resolve the dispute ended without success.' Luizhou City Police confirmed to journalists that Wei was involved in a quarry dispute with villagers.

Extremism can arise not only from big issues like ethnic conflict but from small ones like financial losses and bureaucratic disputes. Guangxi is certainly not immune from these problems. The region is known to have extremely high levels of government corruption compared to other Chinese provinces. That an abuse of government power could tip someone over the edge is therefore not incredible.

Another factor might be frustration over unequal distribution of economic resources. This could contribute in two ways: either, because it has left government departments in Guangxi under-trained and under-resourced, perhaps causing inept rather than abusive government dealings; or because it provided the spark that ignited the tinderbox of anger of both Wei and the villagers.

Guangxi has long been poorer than its industrialised eastern neighbour, Guangdong Province. Around the turn of the century Guangxi was the region with the highest out-migration as China reorganised its labour force. In recent years, the Chinese Central Government's 'Open Up the West' campaign to spur growth in Western China has also targeted Guangxi, and even more recently Guangxi has been promoted as a bridge in China-ASEAN integration, with the China-ASEAN Expo hosted in Guangxi's capital, Nanning, in May. But some areas of Guangxi, including Liucheng County, remain poor, and institutional measures to regulate economic development have not developed as quickly as economic activity.

So it is also credible that villagers would feel disenfranchised over what they see as unregulated business. Nor is it hard to imagine that a business owner, in debt after two years of no income, unable to start over due to government inaction, and who believes local authorities are corruptly picking which businesses to support, would become cynical about government claims that it is helping spread economic development.

While tough times don't assuage the moral or criminal culpability of the bomber, nor justify smashing up a quarry, recognising the extreme frustration, stress and social unrest that uneven economic and institutional development can provoke is important in understanding politics and security in China. Bombings don't happen every day in China, but there are commonplace civic and worker protests, and occasionally violence, borne of financial pressure and frustrations with government, not over issues that grab international interest such as democracy or human rights, but over mundane bureaucratic interactions that go wrong. The Guangxi attacks are best not glossed over as an isolated incident. Festering and obvious inequality is a cause of unrest similar in strength to ethnic conflict. (And ethnic conflict is often also about material disadvantage and government unresponsiveness.)

It seems the villagers, aggrieved by explosions at Wei's quarry and the alleged failure of the business to gain proper licenses, took matters into their own hands. Then Wei, angry about the destruction of his business and government failures to remedy what he saw as unfair losses, took matters into his own hands and targeted state institutions.

While bombings are an unhinged reaction, local, regional and central governments should nevertheless reflect on how his dispute was mishandled so as to provoke such desperate anger. How did it come to this?

The key questions are about the system: why villagers and the bomber didn't seek non-violent means of dispute resolution, and whether resolution mechanisms are inaccessible, untrustworthy, or simply non- existent. Higher security and high-profile condemnation of the bombings may go some way to prevent further such incidents, but if the violence stemmed from inadequate means to alleviate the burdens of economic development and social re-structuring, then civil institutions in Guangxi need to take note. 

The second half of this analysis will examine ethnic tensions in the Guangxi region.

Ed. note: the headline for this article originally referred to Guangxi as being in western China, which is not correct. The error was made in the editorial process.

Condemned to Crisis?

It is often said that no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. Ken Ward argues that Australian governments and their critics need to be realistic about an Australia–Indonesia relationship that risks always being crisis-prone and volatile.

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