Friday 10 Jul 2020 | 04:16 | 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

Latest publications

What's next for Xi Jinping?

There has been considerable speculation about whether Chinese President (and newly annointed 'core' leader) Xi Jinping might be secretly planning to extend his time in power past the standard two five-year terms.

In 2017 the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 19th Congress, where it will decide on the membership for the next Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), traditionally understood to be the indicator of the most likely successor after the leader steps down. This week, the sixth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress is being held, generally when the agenda for the 19th Party Congress is drawn up and where analysts might hope to see some hints of what is to come.

So far, however, Xi has not shown any signs of having chosen his heir. At the same time, there is talk of Xi bending the age-limit rules for Wang Qishan so that he can continue in the PSC as head of the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection, in charge of the anti-corruption crackdown, with some observers suggesting it will set a precedent for Xi to bend rules for himself too.

However, some of the speculation carries the implication that Xi is a relentless megalomaniac who would risk huge political and social upheaval for his own ends. This is misguided. Rather than clarifying what is happening in Chinese politics, it perpetuates the distracting and unhelpful 'Xi is this season’s Mao' discourse.

It is useful to take a moment to understand Xi’s options by looking at his current roles, and what the leadership handover precedents are.

There is no doubt that Xi has agglomerated considerable power. He is concurrently the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, head of state (as president), chairman of the Central Military Commission, head of the recently established Chinese National Security Commission (the state security apparatus) and Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform (CLGCDR, the economic reform institution).

Xi’s role as president runs from 2013 to 2023, and is limited by the constitution to two terms. His position as general secretary of the party runs from 2012 until 2022; this is limited by precedent rather than law, based on an unwritten rule respected since Deng Xiaoping. The time limit for chairing the CMC is also more flexible; for example, Deng and Jiang Zemin both held on to this position for several years after they stepped down from the presidency.

Xi thus has several options for holding on to power, ranging from the highly controversial (either rewriting or disregarding the Constitution) to the positively ho-hum, which wouldn’t break precedent or raise many eyebrows.

While Xi may indeed want to hold on to power, he is too much of a stickler for party legitimacy and stability to do so in a way that would cause political or social convulsions, particularly given there are means to maintain real power without this disruption. So the most controversial option - that Xi will try to retain the presidency beyond 2023, which would be unconstitutional and cause considerable political and social discomfort - is also the least likely.

Less controversial and somewhat more likely is that Xi will attempt to stay on as general secretary of the Communist Party beyond 2022, which would break precedent. A number of analysts believe this is almost 'a given'. Others, like Willy Lam, think the odds are about 60-70%.

I believe the most probable option, given it is the least controversial and also allows Xi to remain extremely powerful, is that he will follow in Deng and Jiang’s footsteps and retain his role as head of the CMC for some years after he steps down from the presidency and as general secretary. If he also stayed on as head of the CNSC and CLGCDR (a viable scenario, given that he established both), the new general secretary and the president would both likely have to defer to him.

We will find out soon enough whether Xi has someone in mind to take over from him as president. In the meantime, while it's challenging to keep track of the complexities of the Chinese political system and frankly impossible to understand or predict Xi, oversimplifying him runs the risk of being taken unawares by something that was on the cards all along.

Photo: Getty Images/Lintao Zhang

Myanmar's road ahead: Growth, peace, and US Sanctions

In this article for Foreign Affairs, Research Fellow Aaron L. Connelly argues that the US should use its remaining sanctions authorities in Myanmar to discourage violence against the Rohingya, and to support the peace process.

Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg

Turning back? Philippine security policy under Duterte

The incoming Duterte administration in the Philippines promises to be very different from the Aquino administration. Security policy will be more inward-looking. Military modernisation and challenging China’s claims in the West Philippine Sea will likely be less important.

Philippines vs China in South China Sea: Tough talking could box China in



The International Court in The Hague is due to soon rule on the case of the Philippines vs the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea. The general sense in Australia is that the ruling is likely to be in favour of the Philippines, and that China will react negatively — perhaps rejecting and ignoring the ruling, or perhaps going so far as to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

In preparation for the anticipated negative reaction from China, Australia and South East Asian countries are making movements and noises to demonstrate to China that ‘bad behaviour’ will not be tolerated. However, by doing so, we run the risk of further entrenching China’s view that global political dynamics are, as always, PRC vs the world, and that the only way to maintain dignity is to make a bold show that it will not tolerate this perceived bullying.

 In early 2013, the Philippines filed a case against China’s claims in the South China Sea in the International Court in The Hague. In this case, the Philippines argues that China’s claims in the South China Sea must align with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), invalidating China’s nine-dash line; classifying features occupied by China not as islands but as rocks, low tide elevations, or submerged banks; and allowing the Philippines to operate freely inside its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) ( a clear timeline of this phase of proceedings can be found here). In November 2015, the court ruled that it had jurisdiction over the case, and would release a finding before June 2016. China has declared that the judgment of jurisdiction in 2015 is null and void, and that future judgments would have no effect. How China will react when the ruling is released is therefore a subject of considerable and heated speculation.

The general sense in Australia is that the ruling will come down against China, and thus preparations are being made to respond to the anticipated negative reaction. Australian policymakers are analysing a broad range of potential scenarios, from China simply ignoring the ruling (which is not so simple at all, really, as UNCLOS is legally binding on all members, and China is a member); to China declaring an ADIZ in the South China Sea. A South China Sea ADIZ has been a vague possibility since China declared one in the East China Sea in 2013, eliciting strong responses from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. China repeatedly states that it reserves the right to do so. In the lead-up to the ruling, Australia and South-East Asian nations are seeking to demonstrate to China their collective determination not to allow China to dominate the region.

This tough talk is all very well, but we must also ask ourselves about what we want to see achieved in the long run. What unintended negative consequences could such behaviour generate, and how can these be ameliorated?

 From the outside, China’s behaviour in the South China Sea in past years looks like a pretty clear-cut case of a rising power seeking to dislocate the status quo power and expand its own influence in the region. This is not untrue, as such. However, particular domestic imperatives are at the heart of Chinese foreign policy and behaviour. How China sees the region and its own role within it, and why it wants to increase its own power, need to be understood in order to better negotiate these geo-political shifts. Indeed, if it’s not too esoteric, the question of what ‘power’ means to China, and what it wants to do with it, is worth a pause for consideration — but perhaps not just now.

 As I have written about in more detail elsewhere, China’s recent actions in the South China Sea and possible future actions reflect a strongly held sense in China that history is destiny. According to this view, Chinese actions in the South China Sea reflect the gradual resumption of its rightful and respected place in the world, or in this case, in the region, after the painfully remembered ‘Century of Humiliation’ beginning with the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s.

China’s attitude towards the other claimants in the South China Sea also reflects a narrative of filial piety and familial obligation. In this view, China’s role in the region is that of a regional father figure and benevolent overseer of a peaceful region, in which its neighbours (should) willingly pay due respect. And, if China’s neighbours do not show the proper deference, this is seen to justify taking stronger measures to ensure that this familial order is respected. This is not to say that China does not have material interests in the South China Sea, but these are not the full picture of China’s motivations. 

In the current environment within China, which we can over-simply characterise as beset with economic challenges, environmental challenges, and political tightening, the Communist Party is leaning heavily on the latter of its two pillars of legitimacy: material wellbeing and national identity. If the social contract between the people and the state wobbles, in which politics can carry on largely unexamined as long as people’s daily life continues to improve, the fires of national identity must be stoked. When material wellbeing is not assured, the Party must be seen to be protecting China’s dignity in the international system, ensuring it gets the respect it deserves. Faced with domestic challenges, the Party absolutely cannot be seen to be weak in dealing with the outside world. 

In this context, tough talk by Australia and other regional actors demonstrating to China that challenges to the current order will not be tolerated could run the risk of narrowing Chinese foreign-policy decision-makers’ options. According to the narrative of humiliation so strong in China, it is almost inevitable that other countries will try to keep China down. It is not logical to expect that a country that sees the situation in this way will accept the remonstrations of its perceived oppressors, see the error of its ways, and toe the line. Even if China appears to pull back and behave according to our standards in the short term, it is likely there will be implications be for its sense of persecution and isolation in the longer term.

Ultimately, tough talk must be complemented with skilful behind-the-scenes diplomacy. We must not only warn China of the consequences of bad behaviour, but also engage with Chinese decision-makers so that their options for responding to The Hague’s findings are not narrowed to declaring an ADIZ by a perceived necessity to prove the Party is up to the challenge of demonstrating China’s greatness to the world.

Joko Widodo's Indonesia: Control and reform

In this paper for The Economist Intelligence Unit's Hopes and doubts: Perspectives on the long road to Indonesia' economic development, Aaron L Connelly examines Indonesian President Joko Widodo's struggles to assert control over his administration and to embrace reformist economic policies.


What the Washington Post gets wrong about Southeast Asia

The Washington Post editorial board, which has long argued for a vocal and uncompromising emphasis on democracy promotion in American foreign policy, has published an editorial criticizing the Obama Administration's decision to host Southeast Asian leaders at Sunnylands in California later this month.

The editorial rightly points out repressive steps recently taken by some Southeast Asian leaders, but in calling for American diplomacy to be more critical and more selective, it also misses two important dynamics in Southeast Asia, one regarding regional diplomacy and the other regarding the character of states in the region.

First, on regional diplomacy. As the editorial acknowledges, most of the heads of state and government coming to California are concerned about rising Chinese influence and power projection capabilities in the region, which they believe could constrain their ability to choose their own course in the world. They have sought to increase their economic, military, and diplomatic engagement with the US in order to avoid the loss of autonomy that would otherwise come with Chinese hegemony.

The Post understands this much, but objects to the invitation list. 'While the purposes are worthy,' the editorial reads, 'the result of Mr. Obama's initiative will be an unseemly parade of dictators at the Sunnylands resort, including a few long treated as too toxic to be granted the recognition that comes with an official visit to the United States.' Here, the Post errs.

President Obama is not inviting individual leaders to the summit in California; he is inviting the collective leadership of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has played a singular role in the development of East Asian diplomatic institutions. Its rotating presidency chairs the East Asia Summit, the first institution to include all of the region's leaders, and one which forces China to consult with smaller neighbors it might otherwise ignore in a bilateral setting. Moreover, ASEAN has fought off successive attempts by China (and in a particularly odd and less threatening episode, Kevin Rudd) to share or steal its leadership role. Were it not for ASEAN, regional institutions might already be dominated by China.

The Post's objection to the inclusion of leaders from undemocratic countries in the region overlooks ASEAN's importance, and by extension, the importance of institutions in American diplomacy. Beijing may see the region's future as merely a contest of economic and military power. Washington, for whom the institutions of the liberal international order are of critical importance, should not. It is not enough to trade, invest, and send military assistance to Southeast Asian countries. It is essential that we also support the institutions that bolster their autonomy, and thus the liberal order.

With regard to the domestic political situation in the region, the Post makes some sound points, particularly with regard to Thailand and Cambodia. But the situation is not as bleak, or as black and white, as the Post would suggest. Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and tiny Brunei are authoritarian countries, and the electoral and judicial systems in Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Singapore remain stacked against the opposition. But each of the latter four has held free elections in the past five years that presented the real possibility of a change in government, a possibility that will become a reality in Myanmar on March 31. (In Malaysia, the government lost the popular vote but won a majority in Parliament due to malapportionment, a problem the Post will be familiar with).

Opposition parties remain strong and competitive in each of these illiberal democracies. Among the four noted above, Malaysia and Cambodia's leaders have become more repressive in the past year; but the military is about to hand over much of its power in Myanmar, and one could hardly call Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong a dictator. Indonesia and the Philippines, as the Post notes, are democracies.

The Post is correct that some of the more autocratic leaders will use the photo opportunities at Sunnylands to bolster their legitimacy back home. That is unfortunate, but it is also an unavoidable consequence of diplomacy.

As part of that diplomacy, the US should address Southeast Asian countries' shortcomings on democracy and human rights in the most effective way possible: privately. Publicly dressing down Southeast Asian leaders who have flown across the Pacific to meet with President Obama, as the Post suggests, would hardly advance the cause. Effectiveness, not volume, is the standard against which the Obama Administration's efforts should be measured.

In inviting the collective leadership of ASEAN to Sunnylands, the US strengthens regional institutions and supports the liberal international order. Quiet but firm conversations at the summit could support liberalisation on the domestic level, too. The Posts' preference for selective engagement and loud criticism would achieve neither.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gemma I Jere