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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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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.

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.

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.



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