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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 the countries and territories of North and Northeast Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. From 2020, the Institute's extensive research on Southeast Asia - including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Myanmar - is now incorporated in our newly-dedicated Southeast Asia Program. Each Program also commissions work by other scholars on the broader region. To complement their written research, Lowy Instiutute experts hold a robust series of dialogues and events on the politics of the region, independently and in partnership with other organisations.

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Indonesian democracy: Down, but not out

The imprisonment on blasphemy charges of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, has been a blow to hopes that his earlier success in public office represented the emergence of a more pluralist politics in Indonesia. There is little question that the accusation that Ahok had insulted the Koran, for which the evidence was always quite thin, contributed to his defeat in polls last month. Sadly, his defeat and imprisonment may discourage others of Ahok's ethnic and religious background from seeking public office.

Yet some journalists have gone further, arguing that Ahok's defeat and imprisonment are not just a solitary victory for the Islamists who demanded his ouster, but an indication that Indonesian Islam is increasingly intolerant, that its democracy is moving in a fundamentally illiberal direction, and that a well-funded coalition of Islamists and populists will ride the wave of these changes to victory in the next presidential election in 2019.

But there are also reasons to believe that these analysts have overstated the broader implications of the verdict, and that Indonesia will revert to form.

First, Indonesia has never been as tolerant as the clichéd praise of journalists and visiting dignitaries would suggest. Though the constitution allows for freedom of worship, this is in practice a group right rather than an individual right. The state authorises adherence to one of six religions, but citizens are not free to deviate from these six, and can be prosecuted under blasphemy laws for challenging religious authorities. Over 100 people have been charged with blasphemy since 2004. In the case of Ahok, the defendant was unusual, but the charges were not.

Indonesia's system of group rights affects how Muslim leaders and many of their followers think about politics and the role of religious minorities. Social cohesion is often placed ahead of freedom of conscience. For example, surveys conducted by Boston University's Jeremy Menchik in 2010 illustrated that even among the most tolerant Muslim groups in Indonesia, most clerics were opposed to the idea of a Christian serving as a leader of Muslim-majority areas like Jakarta. In other words, Indonesia is tolerant but not liberal.

Second, some research suggests opposition to Ahok may have had more to do with anti-Chinese sentiment than the influence of political Islam. During the Suharto era, even as Islamist organisations were suppressed, Indonesian leaders libelled the ethnic Chinese minority as a foreign business elite of questionable loyalty, curtailed their participation in public life, and stoked popular resentment to deflect criticism of their own cronyism, especially when economic growth faltered.

Under democratic rule, conditions for Chinese Indonesians improved, but indigenous elites have periodically returned to anti-Chinese rhetoric. President Jokowi's opponent in the 2014 presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, frequently used rhetoric that implied Chinese Indonesians were foreigners enriching themselves at the expense of their fellow Indonesians. And few Chinese Indonesians in the democratic era have succeeded in winning executive office. Again, Ahok was the exception, not the rule.

There is, however, a broader constituency for anti-Chinese populism than there is for political Islam, so it would be a mistake to assume that all those who marched or voted against Ahok also support the Islamist agenda. Some Islamist leaders, emboldened by Ahok's fall, say that they plan to tap into resentment against ethnic Chinese to push their agenda further. But without a target as prominent and polarising as Ahok, it will be more difficult to use anti-Chinese populism to mobilise popular resentment to the same degree.

The protests against Ahok last year that appear to have pushed the Attorney General to lodge the blasphemy case were very well-funded – and not for religious reasons. The largest protests since Indonesia's return to democracy received unprecedented financial and logistical support from an ad hoc coalition of political party bosses seeking to defeat a close ally of the president ahead of general elections in 2019 (as Jokowi himself demonstrated in 2014, the Jakarta governorship is the ideal launching pad from which to mount one's own presidential campaign). Free transportation and food for the demonstrators, as well as donations to organising groups, were instrumental in managing the business of bringing hundreds of thousands into Jakarta to demonstrate against Ahok's alleged blasphemy, in demonstrations led by radical organisations that normally play a fringe role in Indonesian society.

Once Ahok was declared a suspect in the blasphemy case, however, the contributions dried up, and radicals' subsequent efforts to convene large demonstrations flopped. Even malcontent elites do not want their hard-line hatchet men given a seat at the table.

Attendees at the rallies were hardly liberals, but nor were they mostly Islamist radicals. Greg Fealy, a leading expert on Islamic activism in Indonesia who attended the largest, ultimately peaceful rally noted that participants explained to him that they were motivated to attend by a desire to take part in what promised to be a monumental gathering of their coreligionists. They agreed that Ahok should be removed from public life, but they stopped short of arguing that religious laws should be superior to the secular laws of the Republic.

The coalition of Islamists and populists that brought down Ahok have now trained their sights on a bigger target: President Jokowi, who is up for re-election in two years. But they will struggle to replicate their success against Jokowi, who has all the financial and political advantages of incumbency and, more importantly, is of Javanese rather than Chinese heritage, and a Muslim rather than a Christian. Smear campaigns suggesting otherwise during the 2014 presidential election were ineffective, and would be even less compelling following five closely watched years as President.

That said, the Jokowi Administration has erred as it has sought to push back against the forces of populism and intolerance by giving in to their demands that Ahok be tried for his remarks, and by adopting some of their illiberal tactics.

Jokowi realised too late that the blasphemy allegations might be successfully used against his erstwhile deputy. He avoided early opportunities to dispel the accusations as a smear campaign, for fear of being seen as too liberal, and his vague pronouncements about allowing the legal process to run its course provided too much room for manoeuvre to those who would exploit that process. Although the President stepped up his outreach to Islamic leaders and other major political figures when the scope of the crisis became clear, it was too little and came too late to turn back the momentum against Ahok. 

By contrast, the day before Ahok was sentenced, the Jokowi Administration announced that it would go to court to seek the dissolution of the Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir, which played a leading role in the protests. Indonesian leaders have long considered banning the organisation because it advocates the establishment of a caliphate in Southeast Asia, but have held off because it rejects violence. The decision seems motivated more by politics than law, and it will require compliance from a court system that just demonstrated its fear of confrontational Islamist groups. Banning the organisation could also drive its followers underground, where security services will have greater difficulty monitoring their activity, and may prompt its followers to reconsider their non-violent approach.

The announcement – couched in the authoritarian language of the Suharto era  legitimises the dissolution of non-violent civil society groups, a practice far more likely to be used against minorities and those advocating for a more pluralist Indonesia than against other, less tolerant groups. As with the government's recent decision to bring treason charges against a motley but largely harmless crew of activists, fringe political figures and disaffected generals who were engaged in last year's protests, its move against Hizbut Tahrir highlights the risk that the government's heavy-handedness will backfire.

Jokowi thus bears some responsibility for the predicament in which he and his compatriots now find themselves. But all is not lost. There has been an outpouring of support for Ahok from supporters of pluralism and moderate civil society since the verdict was announced. Popular support for the forces of intolerance very well may have peaked, and if starved of elite support they are likely to continue foundering.

Jokowi has been damaged by the episode, but remains in a strong position going into Indonesia's long presidential campaign. He should learn from his earlier missteps, and take a strong stand against those actively politicising intolerance now rather than later, in the political arena rather than the courts, from a position of relative strength.

In China, changing online attitudes towards Korea

Additional research by Zixin Wang, an intern in the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program.

Shen Zhihua, a world-renowned Chinese scholar of the Cold War, recently proposed that 'North Korea is China's latent enemy and South Korea could be China's friend'. His comments, made at Dalian University of Foreign Languages in March, made headlines in the Western media. Implicit is the suggestion that the Chinese government should rethink its strategy on the Korean Peninsula.

Shen's remarks were reproduced and circulated on China's micro-blogging platform Weibo, prompting a small-scale discussion. While some users characterised his comments as toxic and provocative pro-US rumours, this was balanced with some who hold him in high esteem. Online opinion seems to have swayed neither for nor against Shen – an interesting shift from the anti-South Korea rhetoric that dominated less than two months ago.

Shen's remarks and the response on Weibo are just one aspect of a broader discussion over China's posture towards the Korean Peninsula. As David Kelly and Joost van Deutekom noted last month, other prominent Chinese analysts have published their thoughts in media outlets. Military commentator Zhao Chu called for a reset of Korea policy, including greater consideration for US cooperation and South-led reunification. Yan Xuetong appealed in the Global Times for China to accept a nuclear North Korea as the new reality, while Korea specialist Cao Shigong strongly disagreed with this proposal.

This diversity is apparent in other online debates on China's approach to the Korean Peninsula. When footage from Kim Jong-nam's murder at Kuala Lumpur Airport was released in late February and caught public attention on Weibo, some responded with disgust, ('the existence of the Kim dynasty is the shame of modern civilised society!') while others reacted with reserve ('if North Korea did it, it's best for China not to intervene').

Unsurprisingly, the US role on the Korean Peninsula has not escaped debate. When news of a US carrier approaching the Korean Peninsula trended on Weibo, some were suspicious of US motives, proposing that China should take an active response rather than dismiss the issue as none of its business. On the other hand, one even suggested the US should bomb North Korea, while others affirmed their hatred for the US, even going as far to suggest a revival of the 'resist America and support Korea' campaign which defined China's Korean War approach in the early 1950s.

Most recently, a flood of Weibo users responded with fervour to North Korean state media's (KCNA) lambasting of China. Under the hashtag 'North Korea criticises China' (#朝鲜批评中国#), some users expressed their wishes for peace, while others called North Korea out for its abnormal foreign relations. North Korea's outburst elicited amazement – if it wasn't for the closeness between North Korea and China, jibed one commenter, North Korea would have already become Syria. Another view framed North Korea as a rebellious child, but one that could eventually be taught a lesson.

Like the response to Shen's comments, the debate surrounding the Korean Peninsula reflects a diversity of opinion, coinciding with piecemeal changes to China's North Korea policy. Since February, China has slowly but 'seriously' implemented the ban on coal imports, turned back cargo ships, allegedly cut vital oil supplies, and perhaps even urged North Korea's nationals to leave.

As North Korea relentlessly signals its readiness to continue testing its nuclear weapons, it's an open question as to whether the Chinese government is sending up trial balloons online to test how the nation might react to policy changes on the Korean Peninsula. Whether public opinion actually factors into foreign policy-making in China is debatable, but public opinion is monitored nonetheless.

However, this debate also shows clear signs of being curated. The recently discussed hashtag 'North Korea criticises China' has now disappeared. In its place, two new hashtags and topics of conversation have emerged: 'North Korea criticises China by name' and 'Ministry of Foreign Affairs responds to KCNA criticism'. Weibo public opinion is routinely whittled into a shape, which serves politics. Such a reframing of the debate suggests that China is well aware that its North Korea policy – and all discussion of it – is closely watched. China has to be seen to be doing something, or at very least, discussing doing something.

Resource nationalism in post-boom Indonesia: The new normal?

Most observers expected resource nationalism in Indonesia to fade once the global commodity boom ended. Yet despite more difficult economic circumstances, Indonesia’s government has stayed on a nationalist economic path. This Analysis examines the factors that sustain resource nationalism in Indonesia and make it more resistant to boom-bust cycles than in the past. Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg

North Korea: ‘A most enterprising country’

A myth told and re-told in the West is that North Korea, a 'hermit kingdom' and 'pariah state', is cut off from the outside world. North Korean people suffer indescribable isolation, socially, politically and geographically. But as Justin Hastings, Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Sydney, argues in his new book, North Koreans at all levels of society, from the top to the very bottom, are less economically isolated and more integrated into the global economy than we might imagine.

A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy is an attempt to explain how North Korea, despite its isolation, stays afloat through trade and integration in the global economy. It is a hard task, not only because the quality and quantity of trade 'would be unrecognizable to many other states in the international system', but also because reliable data is notoriously sparse. But Hastings sets out to detail the extent of North Korea’s international trade networks, and how it produces, distributes and sells goods, labour and information through global networks.

The journey begins in the 1970s, when North Korean embassies became 'revenue centres' and were required to be self-resourcing and funnel money back home. The 1990s brought the end of the Cold War, a deadly famine ('the Arduous March') and the collapse of the formal economy, which served as a catalyst for structural change at all levels. This sets the scene for the story of how North Korean state, private and hybrid trade networks have adapted to a new economic reality in which they can no longer rely on the state for their food and financial needs. Instead, engaging in enterprise through illicit and informal networks between North Korea and China became the norm, enabled by a relatively kind international environment but which later managed to overcome the harsher sanctions levied by the UN in 2006 in response to the North’s first nuclear test.

The book then details how the North Korean state navigated this inhospitable environment and operated globally using state resources to raise money and bring back goods, focusing on the import of nuclear components and dual-use goods, and the export of weapons. From Japan to Germany, through Chinese and Taiwanese brokers and ethnic community links in Japan, North Korean traders fit into and made use of global trade flows. North Korean embassies sold counterfeit cigarettes and hard drugs on a global scale, and traded missile technology for nuclear weapons technology with Pakistan. In all of this, China is the gateway.

The focus then shifts from state to populace in the 'new' North Korea, with its culture of bottom-up entrepreneurialism. The book explores how private traders in small networks duck and dive on the borderlands of North Korea, making use of the ethnic Korean community in northeast China to serve their trading needs. Some 'hybrid' traders assume fluid identities between state and private status, trafficking drugs over the border into China and onwards into the global supply chain. Private traders buy rank in state organisations and officials assume identifies as private traders to navigate the illegal environment. Whatever works.

Hastings then turns his attention to the business environment within North Korea. He asks 'why North Korean trade networks can be so effective while North Korea itself remains so far behind economically'? He attempts to answer this question by investigating the experiences of foreign companies in North Korea. Unsurprisingly, many struggle and those which remain keep their operations lean and take on the characteristics of North Korean traders to survive.

Hastings is careful not to jump to conclusions or make value judgements in response to big questions about economic reform and denuclearisation, but suggests that what we can take away from his research is that North Korean people of all statuses have proved that they can survive separately from the state. He avoids the moralising rhetoric so often seen in books on North Korea and refuses to address polemical questions of whether North Korea is 'capitalist' or really still 'communist'. Rather, he presents the summation of years of detailed research and fieldwork simply, noting that in all he has observed and read, the North Korean economy has survived because of its enmeshment in the global economy, albeit mainly through the Chinese gateway, which remains a vulnerability.

Hastings draws on various secondary sources and makes use of the available data on North Korea, relying mainly on UN Comtrade, but also North Korea's state website and on just one occasion the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. What stands out is the extensive and up-to-date use of interviews conducted with economists and academics, foreign NGO workers, think-tankers, businessmen, and trading company representatives from Seoul to Beijing and throughout the China-North Korea borderlands. A limitation of the book is that the majority of primary source material is regionally focused – future studies on North Korea in the global economy would benefit from fieldwork outside of Asia.

North Korea in the Global Economy is both rigorous and accessible. Stylistically speaking, this is not bedtime reading, but Hastings' work attempts to make sense of this smoke-and-mirrors nation, and is determined to bring rational insight to light for consideration by policymakers, academics, students and anyone with a serious interest in North Korea.

Indonesia di Laut Cina Selatan: Berjalan sendiri

Selagi Indonesia di bawah pimpinan Jokowi dapat diharapkan terus mengambil langkah unilateral untuk memperkuat posisi Indonesia di sekitar Kepulauan Natuna, Jokowi belum memainkan peran diplomasi yang aktif pada isu Laut Cina Selatan yang lebih luas. Untuk jangka panjang, Indonesia akan lebih baik mencurahkan lebih banyak perhatian pada kepemimpinan bidang diplomasinya. Foto: Getty Images/Ulet Ifansasti

Don’t waste time trying to get Trump to Manila

Over the last two months, Australian and Southeast Asian officials have been urging their US counterparts to ensure President Donald Trump shows up at two major summits in Southeast Asia in November. They argue that Trump's presence at the APEC Forum in Danang and the East Asian Summit in Manila will serve as a testament to his administration's commitment to the region, while his absence would be seen as a sign of disengagement.

The argument has its roots in debates dating back to 2004, when the Bush Administration decided not to push for membership in the East Asia Summit, because it doubted whether the meeting was worth the President's time.

The Obama Administration, by contrast, recognised that 'half of diplomacy is showing up'. Under Obama, the US joined the East Asia Summit, which became the only regional forum to include all of the region's key leaders with a remit to discuss a broad range of issues. With the US at the table, the Summit began to take on the region's most vexing challenges, such as the South China Sea, head on.

In ordinary times, it would be important for Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to make the case, as she did earlier this month in Singapore, that a new President should continue to attend the summits. But these are not ordinary times, and Bishop's argument risks doing more damage than good.

First, it is unclear whether Trump will attend the summits. The President is a creature of habit who is not fond of spending more than a couple days on the road. The summits, which are scheduled back-to-back, would require at least six days, including the long flights to and from the region. Moreover, it would be difficult to explain to Trump why he should bother. Though the APEC Forum's economic orientation promises the President the opportunity to take credit for long-planned business deals that are often signed at the summit, the East Asia Summit will cover issues of less interest to him, such as the regional diplomatic architecture and the Chinese challenge to the rules-based order in the region.

Given the risk that Trump will skip the summits, it is unhelpful for Bishop to be setting his attendance up now as an acid test for American engagement in the region. Even if, as seems likely, she received some assurances that Trump would attend the summits during her meetings in February with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, these can hardly be relied upon, given Trump's inconstancy. No one knows what the President will be inclined to do in November, including the President.

Even if Trump were to attend the summits, he could do more harm than good. Last year's plenary session of the East Asia Summit went for four and a half hours. It is difficult to imagine Trump patiently listening to the General Secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party hold forth on sustainable development, or responding in a constructive manner should Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte blast century-old US human rights abuses, as he did last year. Trump could skip much of the plenary (leaders do occasionally duck out to take bathroom breaks or hold the odd bilateral) but not without offending his hosts and indicating the very lack of engagement we'd hoped to avoid.

The plenary sessions of these summits also occasionally tried the patience of President Obama. But he understood the importance of demonstrating to Southeast Asian leaders that he was willing to fly halfway around the world to listen to their concerns. The resulting diplomatic capital helped give ASEAN countries the confidence that the US would back them up as they chart their own course in the world, despite pressure from Beijing. Are the diplomats who are now urging Trump's White House to follow Obama's lead confident Trump could do the same?

If Trump were to skip the summits, some diplomats and analysts would probably conclude that US commitment to the region had diminished, and Trump would miss an opportunity to put a face with a country in a way that might be helpful in a future crisis. But his absence would reduce the chances that an errant early morning tweet by Trump would throw the day's sessions into chaos. If the US were to send Pence or Tillerson, there would be little risk of that (though the last vice president to attend APEC certainly caused a scene).

Moreover, there are other, more reliable ways of signalling US commitment to the region, including through the negotiation of new economic arrangements, the attendance of Cabinet officials at key ministerial meetings in the region, the continued funding of key governance programs through USAID, and an increased naval presence. These are the matters that Foreign Minister Bishop and her colleagues in ASEAN should now be pressing US officials on, not Trump's summit attendance.