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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

Latest publications

China leadership prizes internal security over one-upping the US

Since Donald Trump won the US presidential election last November there has been no shortage of speculation on how China will respond to the new Administration.

Among the wealth of commentary, we have had Professor Xiong Zhiyong from the China Foreign Affairs University saying that China and the US 'may even slide into hostility' if the Chinese side doesn’t deepen reform to reduce domestic pressure, keep a cool head, remain flexible, and make contingency plans for ‘areas of potential conflict’ with the US. Isabel Hilton, editor of, argues that Donald Trump is making China great again, in part because Trump has trashed US soft power assets which makes China’s regime look less objectionable. Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria suggests 'the Trump administration’s vision for disengagement from the world is a godsend for China'. In a similar vein, Douglas Paal, director of the Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is sure that Xi will 'play the role of global leader'.

Richard Gowan, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, has now waded in to the debate with an interesting and useful analysis that considers the possibilities of China shaping, and even leading, the international order.

Drawing on his ECFR's colleague François Godement’s paper on how China sees the global order, Gowan’s assessment seems to assume that a monolithic China under an all-powerful Xi is in a position of choosing what it wants to do without reference to domestic influences such as internal struggles and vulnerabilities, and the intense manoeuvering ahead of the 19th National Congress later this year. 

Also, there is a presumption that there are really only two options for what China may want to be: a ‘status quo power focused on regional security’ or a ‘revisionist power with aspirations to global leadership’. While both are relevant, thinking only of these two possibilities is very limiting. 

China sees the current world order as an ideological package that it had no say in creating, but, as Gowan notes, while China has a strong antipathy to certain elements, there are some aspects of the current order that it would like to continue. While China does want to make some revisions, it is not interested in overthrowing the current order. Its core focus remains its own domestic security (read: CCP legitimacy).

As Xi Xinping's address to Davos demonstrated, China isn’t going to pass up opportunities to press its leadership credentials while the world adjusts to a US president with a very different worldview from that of his immediate predecessors. Such efforts will, however, be carefully concentrated in a few specific areas and there are many others where China does not want to upset the status quo.  One example would be global environmental governance. Right now, China does not want to try to usurp the US role at the apex of this system; it doesn’t have either the interest or the capabilities, and is terrified of what could happen to its central goal of CCP legitimacy in the case of ‘imperial overreach’. 

If China is unwilling and doesn’t really have the capabilities, the next interesting question is: could China find itself in a situation where it feels it can’t not  take on a greater international leadership role, arguably like the US at various points in its history? Some say this is what happened in the South China Sea – that China wasn’t ready to take an assertive role, but domestic and external pressures made that option almost impossible to avoid.

So what might these pressures for unwilling international engagement be? There could be defensive ones, as there has been for the US, or pro-active ones, as has also happened with the US. In my view, the pro-active ones will be very limited. The defensive, however, especially this year with the Congress looming and the necessity for the CCP to demonstrate its legitimacy beyond question, might be a different story. 

It should be stated that conflict is absolutely not in the Party’s best interests: China will only go down that path if its core interests - including territorial integrity/sovereignty, economic wellbeing, and Party rule - are seriously and overtly challenged by an outsider. And the likelihood of anyone choosing to push China that hard is not high. 

Li’s Australia visit: ‘Nothing to be afraid of’

Chinese President Xi Jinping's speech at Davos in January presented China as the natural protector of the global order after the abdication of the US from the position. Premier Li Keqiang's four-day visit to Australia (which starts today) will demonstrate that China is still keen on presenting itself to the world in this light.

According to Chinese media and government officials, the main goal of Li's visit is to reassure Australia that there is 'nothing to be afraid of' and that there are many areas for future cooperation between the two countries. As Li himself outlines in an op-ed for The Australian, his visit comes in uncertain times:

Given the less than desirable global economic recovery, the push-back against globalisation, rising protectionism, heightened geopolitical rivalry and local conflicts, the existing international order and system is being called into question.

At the bilateral level, the focus of the Chinese delegation during the visit will be on economic and trade issues, because, as one official told me, 'these are the foundation for our bilateral relationship'. China wants to emphasise that Australia is an important economic partner, and that improving economic and trade relations is a priority. The Chinese delegation is likely to raise the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) and will want to discuss how OBOR can match Australia's needs.

However, politics will also be on the bilateral agenda. China wants to use the visit to try and clear up a few 'misunderstandings' with Australia. In particular, the Chinese are perplexed as to why Australia is so critical about Chinese investment in Australia, and would like to clarify whether this is because of a concern around China's economic transformation or because we are being pressured by the US to resist Chinese influence. They would also like to better understand why Australia is so active in discussions around the South China Sea, pushing for China to abide by The Hague Tribunal ruling even more than actual claimants, such as the Philippines.

At the regional level, Li will use the visit to communicate that China and Australia share the same goals of a prosperous, peaceful and stable region. China will also want to send the message that it wants to play a more active role in providing public goods. Regional integration is on the agenda too. In particular, the Chinese will be keen to discuss whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) can go ahead without the US, and if so, how China could be involved. They will also discuss other regional frameworks, such as RCEP. In addition to the economic agenda, the South China Sea will also likely be raised, with the primary message that Australia's regular voicing of concerns about the area is, according to Chinese perspectives, overstepping its boundaries. Freedom of Navigation Operations may also be discussed.

At a global level, Li's visit will have a very similar tone to that of Xi's speech in Davos, emphasising the importance of global free trade and open markets. The Chinese say they are concerned that Donald Trump has shown signs of preferring protectionism rather than supporting the open global trade and economic system, and will be looking to find ways that Australia and China can cooperate.

Overall, we can expect to see a reassuring and unthreatening tone throughout Li's Australia visit. As happened after President Xi's speech to Parliament in November 2014, commentators will speculate as to whether this responsible cosmopolitan tone represents fundamental changes in China towards something more familiar to us. There is no doubt that China is changing, but we should not presume that China will evolve along lines readily recognisable to us either in the short or long term – China's future direction will certainly be one 'with Chinese characteristics'.

But it's also important not to immediately leap to alarmism. China evolving along its own path does not mean its growing influence in the world is necessarily revisionist, or desirous of overthrowing the international rules-based order. But we should be clear that China, like Australia, has its own interests at heart.

Understanding China’s Belt and Road Initiative

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is one of President Xi’s most ambitious foreign and economic initiatives. It reflects a combination of economic and strategic drivers, not all of which can be easily reconciled. Photo: Flickr/Johannes Zielcke.


Fairness not the meat in Joko Widodo deal

More than anything, President Joko Widodo's brief recent visit to Australia showcased a warm, personal rapport between him and Malcolm Turnbull, and the Prime Minister is to be commended for his efforts to forge the connection, wrote Matthew Busch in the Australian on 3 March.

De Lima’s arrest will test Duterte’s opposition

The arrest last Friday of Senator Leila de Lima as part of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs is the latest escalation in the decade-old battle of wills between Duterte and de Lima that long pre-dates their respective elections to national office in May 2016.

The arrest, along with Duterte's general conduct in his rancorous battle against de Lima since his inauguration last June, represents the failing of three important political tests, all to do with the Duterte administration, and the straining of a fourth, to do with the Liberal Party. The results of this last test may be the most important for the remaining years of Duterte's single six-year term.

The first failed test is a presidential one. Duterte did not rise above his personal animus towards de Lima and her decision to use her role as chair of the Senate Committee on Justice to investigate the conduct of the his crusade-like war on drugs. Philippine presidents have been frequently criticised for using and misusing the powers of their office to pursue political vendettas against their opponents. The Duterte-de Lima battle since June 2016 may well be the best post-Marcos example of this presidential proclivity. In August 2016, during the campaign to have de Lima removed from the Senate Justice Committee, Duterte publicly recommended that de Lima consider killing herself over her alleged links to the drug trade.

The second failed test is a legislative one. The legislative branch is supposed to be a co-equal branch of government that acts as a check on the misuse of presidential powers. However, both the Senate and the House of Representatives have aided and abetted the President in his personal battle against de Lima. Soon after the Senate Justice Committee began hearings into the conduct of the war on drugs, the Senate voted 16-4 (with four abstentions and absences) in September to remove de Lima (a former Secretary of Justice and head of the Commission on Human Rights) as Chair and replace her with Senator Richard Gordon. Gordon then immediately stopped these hearings. In the same vein, this Monday the Senate voted to demote four senators who had questioned the arrest of de Lima.

In December, the House of Representatives launched an ethics investigation targeting de Lima that featured House Majority Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (who was instrumental in convincing Duterte to run for president) publicly supporting the airing of a 'sex tape' allegedly involving de Lima. This move was strongly and successfully opposed by a cross-party coalition of female politicians.

The third failed test is a ministerial one. The Secretary of Justice Vitaliano Aguirre III is a close friend, law school classmate and fraternity 'brod' of the president. His conduct as secretary in relation to investigation of de Lima's alleged links to the drug trade are coming under growing media and political scrutiny. He was the admitted source of the 'sex tape' that has been widely derided as fake. A leaked Bureau of Corrections memo implicates Aguirre in providing special treatment in prison to criminals who testified against de Lima. Aguirre publicly accused, with no proof provided, one former and one sitting politician of paying witnesses to recant their testimonies implicating de Lima. Senators have criticised Aguirre's speech during a pro-Duterte rally last Saturday when he repeatedly asked the crowd who they wanted jailed after de Lima.

The final test is one for the Liberal Party. Will it now stand up for its elected member behind bars and act as an opposition party? The Liberal Party in Congress and Vice-President Leni Robredo from the Liberal Party chose to try to work with President Duterte, despite his growing attacks on the party and its historical legacy. The Liberal Party, shorn of many of its members who opted after the election to switch to President Duterte's PDP-Laban Party, joined the PDP-Laban-led super majority in the House of Representatives. Liberal Party senators also joined the PDP-Laban-led majority in the Senate. Two senators who had run on the Liberal Party slate even voted in September with the majority to force de Lima to step down as chair of the Justice Committee, while another abstained.

The four senators demoted on Monday (who voted against de Lima's removal as chair in September) now have agreed to form an opposition bloc in the Senate with de Lima and Senator Antonio Trillanes, another harsh critic of the president. Vice-President Robredo, banned via third-party text message from Cabinet meetings in December for disloyalty, is also taking a clearer position in opposition to the Duterte administration. If the Liberal Party can act against the stereotype of Philippine political parties as feckless and empty, then some good could come out of the Duterte-de Lima battle. If the Liberal Party fails this test, then checks on presidential powers will again likely come from outside the political system.

Duterte's wars (Part two)

For part one, which examined President Duterte's war on drugs, click here.

In mid-December, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte argued that the militant left in the Philippines would defend him (a self-proclaimed child of the poor) and his administration to the death and kill those who would remove him from office. On 6 January, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) advised the president of a new campaign plan that would uphold 'the primacy of the peace process' with the Communist insurgents and focus their fighting against Moro terrorist groups. On 19 January, the third round of peace talks between the Duterte administration and the Communists began in Rome, with government negotiators still hopeful of a quick end to negotiations. On 25 January, it was reported that that government's lead negotiator Silvestre Bello III was seeking the delisting of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing the New People's Army (NPA) from the US State Department's list of foreign terrorist organisations.

Two days later, the first recorded armed clash between the AFP and the NPA in five months (in President Duterte's southern Mindanao bailiwick) led to casualties on both sides. On 5 February, President Duterte ended the government's unilateral ceasefire announced in July. The following day he cancelled the peace talks, ordered the arrest of the 19 Communists set free to participate in the peace talks, admitted the Communist insurgency will outlast his presidency, and labelled the NPA a terrorist organisation. On 7 February, Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana declared all-out war against the NPA.

This sharp and sudden reversal in the peace process with the Communists underlines one major problem with the Duterte administration's approach and foreshadows a major political problem for the president. The sequence of restarting peace talks with the Communists with renewed hope, having these quickly fail with no real progress made, and then returning to a military-first approach has befallen each post-Marcos administration. However, the Duterte administration's particular approach has heightened the costs of this inevitable failure. More than his predecessors, Duterte invested a significant amount of his personal political capital in restarting of the peace process. He reached out much further to the Communists, who are led in exile by Duterte's former teacher, than the Communists reached out to the government. His administration broke protocol by restarting the peace process during Duterte's president-elect period. Duterte reserved Cabinet positions for nominees from the militant left. The president announced (to the surprise of the AFP) a unilateral ceasefire in his first State of the Nation address less than a month into his presidency. He released a significant number of Communists from prison to participate in the peace process.

All this, despite the Communists being a much reduced threat with an aged leadership and cadres. Government estimates place the number of active NPA fighters at fewer than 4000. Less than 2% of the country's 42,000 wards are affected by the insurgency. Given the previous failures, and that nobody appears to have any well-formed idea of what a peace deal with the Communists would entail, it stretches the bounds of magnanimity for Duterte to have reached out so much to a weak and weakening belligerent.

One reason for this may be the important place of the broader militant left in Duterte's coalition of support. Some in this group (including some former members of the Communist Party of the Philippines) have been key figures in Duterte's presidential campaign and executive team. This broader movement provided much of the on-the-ground support and mobilisation for Duterte's election campaign. Duterte as a candidate and as a president has proclaimed his political origins in the militant left as a defining component of his populist 'child of the poor' persona.

The unilateral ending of the peace process and return to all-out war against the NPA threatens to turn the militant left from an important base of support and legitimacy for Duterte into one of opposition. Key groups like Makabayan and even the Communist Party itself were already protesting President Duterte's warm embrace of the Marcos dynasty, his war on drugs, and the lack of progress on key economic promises like ending labour contractualisation. Now they have much greater reason to withdraw support from President Rodrigo Duterte.

Why Chinese economic diplomacy is working in Southeast Asia

By Angela Han, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program.

When President Rodrigo Duterte stood in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing this October and announced that 'Duterte of the Philippines is veering towards China', he received thunderous applause.

After going on a tirade against Americans (who he considered to be ‘arrogant’ and ‘rude’), he ended his speech on a gentler note, requesting that China invest in Filipino infrastructure projects, and hoping the country would 'find in its heart to help us in our needs'.

The charm offensive worked. Duterte returned to the Philippines with $24 billion worth of Chinese funding and investment pledges, including $11.2 billion worth of agreements signed between Filipino and Chinese firms on railways, ports, energy, and mining. Although there is no certainty that the agreed investments will all materialise, China is clearly enthusiastic about establishing deeper economic ties with the Philippines.

Throughout Duterte's visit, the thorny issue of the territorial disputes took a backseat. President Duterte even told reporters that he 'didn’t come here to talk about the South China Sea'. In July, the Philippines won a landmark victory when an international tribunal rejected China's claims but President Duterte has shown he is willing to put the dispute on hold in exchange for Chinese funding for the developmental needs of his country. In fact, a Chinese firm that managed to secure Filipino infrastructure deals is reportedly the very same firm that Beijing used for reclamation activities in the disputed Spratly Islands.

President Duterte’s visit to China was undoubtedly influenced by the fear of being left out of China’s economic efforts in Southeast Asia. During the last two years, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand have all scored major infrastructure deals with the economic giant as part of China’s 'One Belt, One Road' Initiative. Last year, total FDI inflows to the Philippines was valued at only $5.2 billion, far lower than Indonesia ($15.5 billion), Vietnam ($11.8 billion) and Malaysia ($11.1 billion).

In the past five years, the China's relationship with ASEAN nations has been largely defined by the zero-sum scenario present in the South China Sea. But now the Philippines, historically China’s strongest adversary in the region, is appearing to pursue economic rapprochement with China, the China-ASEAN relationship is likely to return to the way it has been for the previous 25 years: one based on the practical aim of mutual economic benefits. With every railway, road or port built, China is cementing its ASEAN ties.

There are two additional reasons why Chinese economic diplomacy is likely to continue working in Southeast Asia.

First, the other prominent economic diplomacy tool in the region, the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is dead. White house officials have confirmed that the trade deal will not be pushed through Congress in the next two months and President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to withdraw from the TPP  'from day one' in office. Without US participation (which would represent 62% of total TPP GDP), the TPP cannot come into effect, as it requires that the combined GDP of all countries ratifying the agreement amount to 85%.

This is a major disappointment for all other signatories of the pact and also has huge implications for US standing in Southeast Asia. The four ASEAN members involved in the agreement - Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam - made substantial concessions to be part of the deal that promised improved access to member markets that make up 40% of the global economy. Vietnam’s authoritarian communist government, for example, had to accept freedom of association for its labour unions, even though this posed a threat to regime stability.

The frustration and disappointment among Southeast Asian governments was captured by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who spoke about the impact that a TPP failure would have on US credibility in the region:

Your standing goes down with many countries around the world. Your opponents as well as your friends will say: 'You talked about the strategic rebalance, you talked about developing your relationships. You can move aircraft carriers around. But what are the aircraft carriers in support of?' It has to be deeper economic and broad relationships.

Second, Chinese-style economic diplomacy is focused more on the ‘hardware’ of economic cooperation and less on the ‘software’. This is what differentiates One Belt, One Road from the TPP. The latter not only aims to eliminate at-the-border trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas, but also addresses trade barriers that go beyond the border, such as labour rights, environmental standards, intellectual property rights and the regulation of state-owned enterprises.

These are the ‘soft’ issues that ASEAN has persistently struggled with when pursuing its own integration agenda. While reducing intra-regional tariffs has been relatively successful, the implementation of other trade-facilitating initiatives (such as competition policy and the harmonisation of product standards) has been notoriously slow. Such initiatives usually require changes to domestic legislation that some ASEAN scholars have argued go against ASEAN’s core principles of non-interference in domestic affairs.

By contrast, economic cooperation with China does not involve accepting any single homogenising framework with common rules and values. Instead, the terms of any deal are agreed bilaterally and not enshrined in any legally-binding instrument. This plays to another ASEAN value: the aversion to formality and legalism. In this regard, Chinese initiatives are assuming a form and expression that seem familiar, and thus more attractive, to ASEAN members.

ASEAN and China’s joint focus on the ‘hardware’ of economic development reflects a mutual belief that development may best be pursued through infrastructure projects and regional connectivity. The emphasis on infrastructure that connects and engages peripheral and less-developed regions ensures that the benefits of global trade are available to all, rather than being trapped in urban centres such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta for ASEAN, and the coastal cities for China.

The model thus avoids the ill effects of trade and globalisation now being felt in the developed world where, unlike the win-win scenario promised by economic theory, unequal distribution of benefits has widened the divide between the haves and the have-nots. 

Of course, new problems might arise from waning US influence in the region and increasing economic dependence on China. But faced with a TPP failure and a world where globalisation and trade are under unprecedented attack, ASEAN countries are searching for alternative means to continue their pursuit of regional development and integration. China offers just that: a development model which embodies the ideas that globalisation and trade need to be managed, not abandoned.

Photo: Getty Images/Pool

Indonesia in the South China Sea: Going it alone

While Indonesia under Jokowi can be expected to continue to take unilateral action to reinforce the Indonesian position around the Natuna Islands, Jokowi has not played an active diplomatic role on the broader South China Sea issue. In the longer term, Indonesia is better off investing in diplomatic leadership. Photo: Getty Images