Sunday 25 Oct 2020 | 05:49 | 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 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.

Photo: Jung Yeon-Je-Pool/Getty Images

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Who will abandon Taiwan next?

Earlier this month Panama established formal ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC) immediately after severing diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC), as Taiwan is officially known. The question that is now being insistently, even fastidiously, asked is which state will be the next to switch from Taiwan to China?

Some analysts have envisioned a possible diplomatic chain reaction, prompted by Panama's crossing of the Taiwan Strait. According to this domino-effect scenario, after Panama's departure a good number of the 20 allies the ROC is left with (mostly small or minuscule developing states) would be convinced of the inevitability of changing over to China. Thus, they would abandon ship en masse within months.

Such a 'great escape' scenario is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons, its plausibility notwithstanding. First of all, Panama is a case in its own right. The Panama Canal bestows on the Central American state an importance and geopolitical weight transcending its actual size. Beijing can thus be expected to give special attention to Panama, even after the fanfare marking the establishment of relations subsides. By contrast, the other countries recognising Taiwan are not graced with a similarly strategic global trade artery. Nonetheless, in Taipei they are treated like diplomatic aristocracy. For them, Taiwan is a generous aid provider and attentive development partner, which is presumably going to try even harder to keep them from leaving the fold. The fewer allies Taiwan has, the more aid it can allocate to each.

Chinese investment in Panama has also increased sharply in the recent years, and Beijing's ships are the second-most frequent users of the Canal. This represented a strong incentive for Panama, which was reportedly long-ready to take the jump. By contrast, the circumstances of several microstates siding with Taiwan are markedly dissimilar. Their geopolitical and economic marginality makes them relatively indifferent to China's power and sufficiently content with the assistance that Taipei provides in exchange for recognition. Furthermore, the risk of finding themselves third-tier partners and 'diplomatic plebeians' soon after changing recognition to Beijing is substantial. Finally, letting China in could have destabilising consequences, such as increased pressure for Chinese immigration, economic colonialism and resource predation. Tellingly, back in 2010, when asked why his country should stick with the small fish (Taiwan) instead of going for the big one (China), Palau's House Speaker Noah Idechong suggested the big fish 'could sink' Palau's boat.

In addition, while Beijing is confident it can swiftly lure any diplomatic ally away from Taiwan through the promise of aid, loans or trade deals, it might not be anxious to cause an exodus of ambassadors from the other side. China's primary intent is putting heavy pressure and inflicting serious political damage on Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen for her continuing refusal to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, a political formula postulating the existence of only one China, inclusive of the Mainland and Taiwan, with different interpretations. This purpose would be better served by plucking off Taiwan's allies one by one, and using the remaining ones as bargaining chips – a slow 'death by 20 cuts' and international asphyxiation, unless Tsai chooses her predecessor's path and accepts the Consensus.

In fact, there appears to be method and rhythm in China's punitiveness. After Panama's cross-Strait relocation, a pattern can be identified by which on the eve of each round of state visits by Tsai to diplomatic allies in a particular region, Beijing effects the defection of one of Taiwan's friends in another area, and immediately establishes ties with the breakaway country. It occurred in December 2016, when tiny São Tomé and Principe broke ranks and recognised China less than one month before Tsai Ing-wen's second tour of Latin America, and in the aftermath of the famous telephone conversation between Tsai and US President Donald Trump. It has happened again this month, with Panama bidding adiós a few weeks away from Tsai's announced visit to diplomatic allies in the South Pacific.

So, contrary to the opinion of Jorge Guajardo, the former Mexican ambassador to China, there will probably not be a 'cascade' of countries flowing from Taipei to Beijing any time soon. Nonetheless, the question remains on the table – who's next after Panama? In terms of likelihood, another Central American state such as Nicaragua, where China's economic leverage and influence are strong, or Caribbean countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which already have trade representative offices in Beijing and are keenly eyeing Chinese investments.

Guajardo also pointed out that 'the big catch for Beijing would be the Vatican'. For China, repairing relations with the Vatican would undoubtedly be a resounding success delivering a severe diplomatic blow to Taiwan.

The Holy See, the supreme government of the Catholic Church with territorial residence in the Vatican City State, is the only European sovereign entity with diplomatic ties to the ROC. Holy See-ROC relations have been ongoing since 1942. However, recent developments in Vatican Sinopolitik could be read as signs that, for the Seat of Peter, Beijing might be 'well worth a mass'. Even though the two sides have strong incentives for normalising relations, such a historic achievement remained elusive until 2014, when Pope Francis inaugurated an unprecedented charm offensive toward China with the aim of setting the relationship with the Asian giant on a rapprochement course. As noted by Wang Yu-yuan, a former ROC ambassador to the Vatican, relations between the Apostolic See and the China 'have never been better as now'. As a result, discussion of the issue is increasingly tempered with anxiety in Taiwan. Catholics all over the world are also closely watching. While the dialogue is said to be about the appointment of bishops, it might ultimately precipitate diplomatic change. Is the relocation of the Apostolic nunciature to China to Beijing imminent? Is Taiwan ineluctably bound to lose its key Roman ally in the near future?

Not really. The Holy See, and relations with it, are unlike those with other sovereign polities, which are often influenced by realpolitik, geostrategic or trade considerations. The Apostolic Palace is not interested in receiving foreign aid or signing trade agreements, but in securing religious freedom for the Catholic flock and upholding human rights. This can play in Taiwan's favour when it comes to preserving its formal relations with the Holy See. Beijing demands that the Vatican conforms to the One-China policy by severing its diplomatic ties with Taiwan as a precondition for normalising relations. Yet, as long as there is no actual religious freedom for the Catholic Church in China, the Holy See will remain very reluctant to change recognition to the Mainland. Therein lie Taipei's hopes for maintaining its important ally.

Ending diplomatic ties with Taiwan before having secured religious freedom for the Church in China would leave the Holy See in a substantially weaker position. In particular, the Vatican could not continue to offer the severing of relations with Taipei as a bartering tool for the improvement of the condition of Chinese Catholics. Moreover, in the interval between the denouement of diplomatic relations with Taiwan and the exchange of ambassadors with Beijing, the Apostolic See would remain without any nunciature on Chinese (China and Taiwan) soil. This is a scenario that the Holy See cannot even contemplate, especially because negotiations with China might drag on (with few results) for years.

Holy See diplomacy is historically characterised by prudence and patience. The Vatican has most likely given due consideration to the possibility that Beijing might be showing 'flexibility' for the purpose of ensnaring the Holy See into breaking diplomatic ties with the ROC. Once that's accomplished, there is no further Vatican leverage in the talks and no further incentive for said flexibility. The Chinese will pocket the winnings and walk away from the table. The fact that, in 2016, the Apostolic nunciature in Taipei moved to the new elegant quarters it had commissioned to build may speak volumes about Vatican unrivalled perspicacity and assuage the concerns of the Taiwanese. Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin's assessment that normalising relations between the Vatican and Beijing 'is not easy' and 'needs a lot of patience and perseverance' (given at the January 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos) should be of further reassurance to Taipei. The Holy See will not be the next to walk across the Taiwan Strait. Probably, it will be the last to go.

Why altruism is risky in China

Several days ago some very upsetting footage surfaced online of a woman being hit by car in the central Chinese province of Henan. She was ignored by passers-by as she lay injured on the road, and then hit again, this time fatally. The incident - not the first of its kind - has caused a resurgence in the heated debate about values among Chinese people.

The social media reaction has been for the most part angry and upset about the indifference shown to the accident victim by passers-by. Some netizens asked what was wrong with Chinese society. Others, however, raised the issue of ‘scammers’ who fake injury to get compensation.

This morality debate is not new. In 2011, for example, a video was released that showed a two-year old girl, Wang Yue (who came to be known as Little Yue), being hit by a van, and lying injured on the ground. The driver pauses, but does not get out. In a moment he drives on, the rear wheels of the van running over the child. He drives away. The video shows passers-by who first look at the child lying, crying, on the road, and then, giving her a wide berth, walk on. Finally, after seven minutes, a woman stops and takes Little Yue to hospital. The child died from her injuries. The incident, like the more recent event in Henan, triggered soul-searching, shame, and anger among many Chinese.

What these tragic events reflect about Chinese society is not as straightforward as an inhuman lack of empathy or compassion. Rather, they demonstrate a very unfortunate combination of a system of moral obligation in which loyalty is due only to the ‘in-group’ of those closest to you, and a fundamental lack of trust. The result is that altruism has become risky.

The lack of trust has a very real basis. Faking injury for compensation is rare but the existence of even a few cases has had considerable negative impacts on trust, compassion, and moral obligation, as Yan Yunxiang elaborates in his book. While the majority of Weibo users criticised the indifferent bystanders, there is also a small portion of netizens who expressed their worries about "碰瓷" (pèng cí). The phrase 'pèng cí' directly translates as 'touch porcelain' and comes from the antique industry. It originally referred to a practice of some shop-owners who deliberately put porcelain products in the middle of the passageway so that when customers passed, they might accidentally break the goods and the sellers could then claim compensation. In recent years, 'pèng cí' is now commonly used to refer to scammers who fake injury in traffic accidents to get compensation.  

Most Chinese people I have spoken to about the matter cite ‘the Nanjing ruling’ of 2006 in which a passer-by stopped to help an injured person, who then accused the passer-by of causing the accident. When taken to court in Nanjing, the judge is famously said to have ruled in favour of the plaintiff, saying that if the passer-by had not been guilty, he would not have stopped to help. The judge then ordered the plaintiff to pay all costs of the injury and the court case (although these costs were later reduced). In another incident in 2011, an elderly man slipped and died from an easily preventable cause, and when the event was first reported on the internet, 29,892 users of wrote comments in which almost all said they understood why the onlookers did not help the man, and many admitted that they would have done the same if they were there. Not long after the death of Wang Yue in 2011, pictures of a young girl holding an umbrella over a beggar in a rainstorm were released on the internet. Public discussion included accusations that the girl and the photographer deliberately staged the event for personal status.

Then there is the nature of moral obligation in Chinese society. Rather than being horizontal, where an individual’s obligation to all other members of society is (at least theoretically) equal, in China it follows a pattern of concentric circles, with the self in the centre. The idea that an individual’s moral obligation does not extend equally to all members of society is explored by Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong. In his classic text From the Soil, Fei argues that in the 'Chinese system of morality, there is no concept of "love" such as that exists in Christianity – universal love without distinctions', and therefore 'obligation is also differentiated. Fei observes that the path of obligation 'runs from the self to the family, from the family to the state'. Anybody external to an individual’s in-group is considered a stranger, and the behavioural norms and moral values that apply to the in-group are not relevant.

The combination of these two factors is disturbingly influential. After several years of living in Beijing, I found myself in a situation where my reaction shocked me. I was crossing a busy two-lane street, and on the other side an elderly man and woman were arm-in-arm, helping each other to take the step over the gutter and venture onto the street during a gap in the traffic. They made slow progress and, before too long, the woman fell onto the road. Her companion tried to help her up but was not strong enough. Cars were coming around the corner. My first reaction was to run over and help, but I paused, and without consciously realising what I was doing, checked to see if there were witnesses around in case I was accused of causing an accident. It was only a brief moment, but I was amazed at the extent to which I had unwittingly internalised the norms of differentiated obligation and lack of trust.

Morals and values, however, are not fixed. The moral landscape in China, as anywhere, is constantly in flux. What people believe to be acceptable moral behaviour depends on circumstances - what terrorism has done to our concepts of privacy may be one example of moral shift in Western countries. In China, there has been a recent increase in charitable donations and volunteerism, which even five years ago were rare. Where volunteerism did exist, it was often seen as a tool for improving one’s social credibility - it looked good on a CV. This seems to be changing.

Many educated urban Chinese people have said to me that they feel that Chinese society has lost its sense of moral direction. The Chinese Communist Party has tried to fill that void by extending what Fei Xiaotong noted in 1947 as the natural loyalty to the country to include the Party-state. It has, if unevenly and evidently without full consensus among elites, reinserted Confucianism (not considered a religion), after decades of it being anathema to the Party. The placement and then removal of a huge statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square in 2011 illustrates this point. Many young people now talk about Confucianism being at the heart of Chinese values. Religion, however, remains very much frowned upon as a potential threat to the Party’s control over public narratives of morality and obligation.

It remains to be seen where the moral landscape in China might go from here. I certainly hope the direction it takes in the future involves far fewer of these kinds of incidents. Ideally none.

Thanks to Zixin Wang, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program, for research assistance with this post.

‘Maphilindo’ cooperation on the Marawi siege

On Monday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano announced that Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi is planning a trilateral conference with the Philippines and Malaysia to discuss the situation in Marawi City. Several Malaysian and Indonesian terrorists have been killed in the ongoing Marawi City siege. Philippine insurgent and terrorist groups in Mindanao have long provided safe haven to Malaysian and Indonesian terrorists on the lam.

This offer from Indonesia is just the latest example of cooperation between these three Celebes Sea neighbours in relation to the Moro Islamic insurgency in Mindanao. Indonesia was the third-party mediator for the peace talks that led to the 1996 agreement between the Moro National Liberation Front and the Government of the Philippines, while Malaysia was the third-party mediator for the peace talks that led to the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the same parties.

Next week, these three countries are to start regular joint patrols in the Sulu and Celebes Sea to counter a spate of kidnappings by Philippine terrorist groups of Malaysian and Indonesian vessels in the Sulu Sea and the largely unrestricted transit of terrorists between the three countries. The Philippine Department of National Defense estimates that up to 40 foreign terrorists have used the Sulu Sea as their pathway to join the Marawi City siege.

These joint patrols, first agreed to last April, could significantly reduce the maritime surveillance shortcomings of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard in the Sulu Sea (especially if they include President Rodrigo Duterte's suggestion that the right of hot pursuit into territorial waters is incorporated into them). This should help counter piracy from Mindanao and the free flow of terrorists across the Sulu Sea to the benefit of all three countries. These joint patrols also signify a sage decision by Malaysia and the Philippines to not let their long-standing territorial dispute over Sabah preclude much-needed counter-terrorism and counter-piracy cooperation. Other East Asian countries with territorial and maritime rights disputes have shown much less strategic maturity.

Four Corners sees the Party-state in all the shadows

Last night ABC TV aired a Four Corners/Fairfax Media investigation into China’s power and influence in Australia that promised to uncover 'how China's Communist Party is secretly infiltrating Australia'. The program traced the stories of various individuals and their ties to China and concluded we must all be more careful of 'covert Chinese actions taking place on Australian soil'. However the investigation did not convincingly demonstrate that the Chinese Party-state is orchestrating a coherent, strategic effort to infiltrate and influence Australian policy.
To recap, the program examined a number of cases. For example, we heard the story of Tony Chang, a Chinese student in Brisbane whose parents back in China had been ‘taken to tea’ and warned that Tony should end his public pro-democracy activities in Australia. We met Lu Lipin, President of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Canberra, who said the Chinese embassy provided supplies (and legal advice in case of conflicts with the police) for rallies such as when Premier Li Keqiang visited Australia. Ms Lu said that she would feel a responsibility to report any Chinese students organising, for example, a human rights demonstration, 'to keep all the students safe, and for China as well'. We were told the stories of billionaires Dr Chau Chak-wing and Mr Huang Xiangmo, the large sums they had donated to Australian political parties and other organisations, and their high-level Party connections. We heard Mr Huang say it was important for overseas Chinese to support policies that were favourable to China. Mr Huang also asked Labor Senator Sam Dastyari for help with his Australian citizenship application. We heard that Sheri Yan was jailed for corruption - bribing a UN official - and her husband Roger Uren is under investigation for allegedly stealing classified government documents.
These stories, the investigation concluded, demonstrate that China is trying to silence opposition and dissent in Australia, that China is interfering in Australian sovereignty, and that China is trying to change the Australian policy discourse.
What the program perhaps did not have the time or scope to explore was the important fact that the Chinese Party-state is not a single, monolithic, coherent puppet-master. Further, Chinese people - even those with Party connections - are not simply tools of this putative communist behemoth. It is beyond the scope of this post to counter every claim in the Four Corners program, but I would like to sketch out some of the oversights and misperceptions to illustrate the broader point.
It is certainly true that the Chinese government does not like its citizens overseas speaking out against it. Many Chinese individuals, including some with no formal Party connections, also disapprove of such public dissent. This is founded on the combination of two factors: firstly, the implicit social contract in China, which holds that the Chinese public agrees to avoid involvement in politics in exchange for an improved standard of living, and a restoration of their sense of national pride. The second aspect is the broadly shared understanding that once one is Chinese, one is always Chinese. One cannot ever become un-Chinese. Likewise, no non-Chinese can ever really become Chinese. Chinese-ness is viewed as innate, essential, and eternal. And being Chinese means loving China like one would love one’s own father, and not, especially not in public, engaging in criticism despite being very aware of flaws and imperfections. Therefore, the rules that govern acceptable behaviour at home, namely, 'Don’t get involved in political criticism or agitation', apply equally - if not more so - abroad.

It's important to examine Lu Lipin’s views through this prism. Her actions reflect the genuine beliefs of someone who has grown up in the patriotic education campaign of post-1989 China. These beliefs may seem unpalatable to those of us who have grown up in an environment where political engagement is seen as a fundamental right, and one’s freedom to critique and agitate is considered a cornerstone of a free society. However, to most Chinese, this is not how things work, and most Chinese accept that. One could argue that when Chinese are studying and living in this country, they should be aware of and respect our society's tolerance and support political engagement. But even if one accepts that position, it's still a big leap to point to the actions of some Chinese students who are acting as if they were still in China and present this as proof of a concerted and co-ordinated effort by the Party-state to secretly inflitrate Australia.
It is also true that Chinese billionaires like to throw money around, including at Australian politicians. And chances are, many of these billionaires are Party members. In China, that’s how you get ahead. Does this mean these individuals are Communist Party stooges? Perhaps, but not necessarily. As former Ambassador Geoff Raby pointed out in the program, it is fairly standard practice for wealthy Chinese people to use their money for building connections and prestige. In China, the enormously complicated system of networks, obligations and reciprocity is known as guanxi. See this excellent book by Mayfair Yang for an explanation of how guanxi works. Here in Australia, a lot of what goes on as part of guanxi would be considered corruption. Indeed, in President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown, a lot of what has been going on as guanxi is now being (selectively) relabeled as corruption. When I was teaching at a Chinese university at Beijing, I was offered gifts and money in red envelopes by students’ parents at exam time to help me in my grading efforts (and no, I didn’t).
Gift giving with an expectation of some kind of reciprocation is, or at least has been, more or less standard practice in China. It does not automatically follow that the reciprocation expected when political donations are made in Australia is a change in the direction of Australia’s foreign policy. Mr Huang did indeed rescind his offer to donate $400,000 to the ALP after Stephen Conroy said Labor would take a tougher stand on the South China Sea. Did he do that because the Party told him to? Or could it also be because Huang’s own beliefs are in line with the official Chinese position, and he decided not to give his money to an organisation that opposed his beliefs? In general, given the way networks and contacts work in China, Party connections are not necessarily a cause for alarm. However Mr Huang’s high-level connection with the Australian Council for the Peaceful Reunification of China, and his remarks about Chinese politicians in Australia supporting Chinese policy, are worth further exploration.
The observation made in the program that it is unclear where these billionaires got their money, and the implication that they are state-sponsored, also demonstrates a lack of understanding of how China works. Mr Huang was noted to be a rural real estate developer. He is now very rich. The rest is murky. Chances are his wealth is not because of Party sponsorship.
The program was right to alert us to the potential risks of international political donations being tied to expectations of influence. But it did not make any clear links between the actions of the Chinese featured in the program and policy change or influence in Australia. It is the responsibility of the defence and intelligence community to be aware of potential overseas influence in Australia’s politics. It is the responsibility of Australian politicians to be ethical and transparent, and not naive about where their money comes from and what is expected in return. But it is the responsibility of us all to be well-informed, and realistic and moderate about the conclusions we reach.

Mindanao: In the face of a new, united threat, Duterte courts unorthodox alliances

The conflict in the Philippines’ city of Marawi has now claimed the lives of 100 people, and President Rodrigo Duterte is committed to his May 23 imposition of martial law for the entire southern island of Mindanao (in which Marawi is located). In the face of a newly-united radical Islamist opposition, Duterte appears to be trying to build a coalition of his own between government forces and various separatist groups. However, it is unclear if such an alliance will materialise, given these groups’ concerns with Manilla’s declaration of military rule. Moreover, the degree to which the President’s current strategy can effect lasting positive change in Mindanao remains uncertain.

Since last week, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have been fighting an amalgamation of two distinct radical Islamist groups: Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader, pledged his loyalty to the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, while the Maute group explicitly aligned itself with IS somewhat later, in 2016. On May 23, government forces attempted to capture Hapilon in Marawi, but encountered joint resistance from both Hapilon’s forces and members of the Maute group, which sparked the current conflict. In March of this year, Sidney Jones wrote on The Interpreter that the relatively recent alliance-building between Hapilon, the Maute group, and other IS-aligned organisations enables more unified opposition to the government in the southern Philippines. The Marawi crisis would seem to be bearing out this claim. The Philippines’ leaders must accept that they are engaged in conflict with a newly-organised enemy that presents a more focused threat.

Duterte’s recent actions suggest that he believes a good response to united opposition is some unorthodox alliance-building of his own. Over the weekend, Duterte offered an olive branch to the Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the MNLF and MILF, respectively) the largest and most established groups that have fought the government for increased autonomy for the Philippines’ Moro Muslim minority. Unlike Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, neither Moro group has aligned itself with IS. Duterte proposed that fighters from the two groups could receive pay and other rewards for fighting alongside the AFP against Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. The AFP in turn would benefit from the separatists’ battle experience and knowledge of local terrain.  

Duterte claims to have received a pledge of 5000 troops from MNLF leader Nur Misuari, but there have been no corresponding claims from Misuari himself. A May 29 meeting with MILF leaders appears to have been productive; MILF leaders welcomed the idea of their troops being used to support civilians trapped in Marawi, but  did not make explicit troop commitments. Moro group leaders may oppose Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, but they may also be concerned that Duterte will turn on them under the auspices of martial law, perhaps after the threat from IS-aligned groups dissipates.

The President also called for military cooperation from the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which has been leading its own nation-wide, anti-government insurgency  centred in Mindanao. On Monday, one of the group’s key advisers said that the NPA is opposed to Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group’s violence against civilians, and expressed interest in cooperating with the government in the conflict in against Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. However, the Duterte administration recently backed out of the fifth round of ongoing peace talks with the communists after the CPP called on NPA forces to attack government troops imposing martial law in Mindanao. Given these mixed messages, government cooperation with communist militants is far from a sure thing.

The MNLF and the MILF have been engaged in peace talks with the government for decades, though these talks have moved slowly, with intermittent interruptions from outbreaks of violence. Meanwhile, a ceasefire agreed to in July 2016 between the government and the communists collapsed completely in February of this year. As mentioned above, the negotiations that have occurred since have been fitful at best.

Duterte’s new openness to rebel groups may represent a break from these groups’ troubled peace negotiations with the government. However, it would be dangerously naïve to presume that Duterte’s recent actions will bring about a lasting brighter future for Mindanao. Malcolm Cook of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies points out that Duterte already declared a national state of emergency in September after a Maute-linked bombing in Mindanao’s Davao City – and yet this was not sufficient to prevent the Marawi conflict. A recent editorial in Rappler, a Philippines news website, similarly notes that 'It [martial law] plays to our penchant for shortcuts, until it hits home. It makes us forget the real problems that have made terrorists thrive in the region.'

There are many obstacles to Duterte’s ambitious goal of an AFP-NPA-MNLF-MILF coalition. And even if such an alliance comes to fruition, it should not be seen as a means to achieving lasting peace in the southern Philippines.

No honeymoon for South Korea’s post-election security posture

With a left-leaning leader back in command in the Blue House following two consecutive conservative administrations, South Korea's new President is crafting an approach to North Korea that will attempt to reset the antagonistic course of inter-Korean relations during a critical moment of escalating tension on the Peninsula. Even under revitalised leadership, however, there are significant geopolitical and domestic constraints on Seoul's room to manoeuvre with its neighbour to the north.

North Korea has already conducted two ballistic missile tests in the short period since Moon Jae-In's inauguration on 10 May. Coming as they did after a prolonged pause in missile flight testing from October 2016 until February of this year, the latest tests were a clear signal inter alia that there is to be no honeymoon for the new President. There will be more missile tests in the weeks and months ahead, and a very strong likelihood that North Korea will resume nuclear testing sooner or later.

During the campaign Moon talked about regaining ownership of the North Korean nuclear issue. His essential challenge, which confronts all Blue House incumbents, is to avoid lapsing into a reactive posture to North Korea's 'provocations' that stymies Seoul's strategic room for manoeuvre, ceding the initiative to Pyongyang and the external powers active on the Peninsula. Augmenting this challenge, South Korea lacked a presence and a voice on the international stage in the prolonged lead-up to former President Park Geun-hye's impeachment in March. Now, at least, South Korea has an elected leader able to articulate its preferences and concerns at the international level.

Moon's pro-engagement preferences for dealing with North Korea are well known from his time as former President Roh Moo-hyun's (2003-08) Chief of Staff, thus the assumption that he will seek to resume inter-Korean exchanges on a similar scale to the 'Sunshine' policies of his progressive forebears. This potentially puts Seoul at odds with Washington's hard-line approach under US President Donald Trump in the context of international efforts to curb Pyongyang's accelerating advance towards a long-range nuclear missile capability. While Washington and Seoul share the common goal of de-nuclearising North Korea, such variance in their approaches towards North Korea carries the risk of friction within the US-South Korea alliance during Moon and Trump's coincident terms. However, the gulf may not be as wide as feared.

Two key aspects of South Korea's policy approach under Moon have thus far emerged.

1. 'Conditional Dialogue'

Moon's approach to engaging North Korea has been framed as a policy of 'conditional dialogue'. This is consistent with Moon's statements in the presidential campaign. During the debates, Moon stated 'there cannot be a dialogue with Kim Jong-un for the sake of a dialogue', and that he intended to go to Pyongyang only under the right circumstances, once the nuclear issue is in the process of being resolved. Moon's firm responses to North Korea's most recent missile tests have reaffirmed conditionality in his approach to dialogue, and also appear designed to dispel the accusation raised throughout the election campaign that he is 'soft' on Pyongyang.

It is therefore questionable whether the mothballed Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourist zones will be reactivated by Seoul unless Pyongyang gives a clear signal on de-nuclearisation. Moreover, Pyongyang's acquiescence is far from assured, given the overriding priority of nuclear development. If Pyongyang continues to show its teeth, Seoul will have no choice but to prepare its deterrent military capabilities. In the face of renewed North Korean missile launches, Moon has already ordered the speeding up of the mostly indigenous KAMD (Korean Air and Missile Defence) system. One interpretation is that Moon is politically preparing the ground to acknowledge the need for the US-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Moon studiously avoided taking a fixed position on THAAD during the debates, even as the system was hurriedly deployed to South Korea just ahead of the election. Alternatively, by stressing KAMD as Korea's frontline missile defence system, Moon could be leaving his options open on whether to proceed with THAAD, with a view to resetting frayed relations with China. Beijing has conducted a sustained a campaign of informal economic sanctions in protest at THAAD's deployment, alleging that it undermines China's nuclear deterrent. It remains too early to tell which way the Moon Administration will go. President Trump's intervention, late in the campaign, suggesting that Seoul foot a $1 billion bill for THAAD's deployment has unfortunately made it a 'toxic' issue within the alliance.

2. Diplomacy first

The second aspect of Moon's unfolding North Korea policy suggests a greater role for diplomacy may supplement Seoul's traditional reliance on the US alliance and South Korea's own defence capability. Shortly after North Korea launched its first missile, Moon designated a group of special envoys to the US, China, Japan, Russia, Germany and the EU. While it is customary to appoint special envoys to major countries, this was the first time that such a team was assigned to Europe. The envoys, largely consisting of former ambassadors and security specialists, collectively signal an effort to reconnect independent diplomatic ties to the major powers, and to emphasise diplomatic levers as Moon's preferred solution to an impending security crisis.

Moon's senior appointments amplify this focus on diplomacy as means to resolve relations with North Korea. Chung Eui-yong, former ambassador and permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, has been appointed as National Security Adviser, a role typically given to military defence specialists. Kang Kyung-wha, a career diplomat and former assistant secretary-general in the UN, has become South Korea's first female nominee for foreign minister (despite her relative inexperience dealing with regional or nuclear issues). Among Moon's advisers for unification, foreign affairs and national security, Moon Chung-in is a Yonsei University professor intellectually close to Moon's political mentor, the late Roh Moo-hyun.

Another key appointment is that of Suh Hoon, nominated to head the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Suh's specialist North Korea background, including laying the groundwork for the 2007 inter-Korean summit, is a clear indication that Moon intends the new designated NIS director to take a leading role in dealing with Pyongyang. His appointment hearing will be held by the National Assembly on 29 May. Parliamentary approval is not required for the director of NIS (unlike the nominee for foreign minister, who must be confirmed by the National Assembly). This line-up of appointees from non-traditional spheres signals Moon's intention to distance his administration from previous corrupt practices, but it also points in the direction of a negotiated approach towards resolving North Korea's security challenges. Diplomacy over hard-line defence measures will be the ruling principle of Moon's North Korea policy.

Reflecting a somewhat hopeful national mood after impeaching a corrupt administration, public opinion in South Korea is looking favourable for Moon in these early days of his administration. However, his ability to shape events is already being tested by Pyongyang, which can be relied upon to exploit friction points between Seoul, its currently unpredictable ally America, and an increasingly assertive China. Managing these overlapping problems on top of the immediate security challenge posed by North Korea will quickly test the dynamism of Seoul's new President and his administration.

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.


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