Sunday 25 Oct 2020 | 04:28 | 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

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

Mekong: New photos reveal true scale of dam

Xayaburi Dam under construction, July 2015. (Taken from this PP presentation by Pöyry, posted on a Laos government site.)

In an Interpreter post on 14 December 2015 ('What's Happening on the Lower Reaches of the Mekong River?'), I referred to a YouTube video that gave a rare, relatively up-to-date view of the controversial Xayaburi dam being built on the Mekong by the Lao government. Shortly after the post was published, the video was taken down.

Now, in response to enquiries from a Cambodian NGO, I have made a further search to see what, if any, images are available that provide some sense of just how substantial the Xayaburi dam actually is and what construction has been achieved so far. This search has located a Powerpoint presentation by Poyry, the Finnish engineering firm working on the dam, which provides considerable detail for what had been achieved by July 2015 as well as providing a large amount of engineering detail.

As has been pointed out by various commentators in the past, there appears to be a clear conflict of interest in the fact that Poyry has played two roles in relation to the Xayaburi dam, both as the dam's supervising engineer and in providing a positive assessment of its compliance with calls to rework the dam's structure in the light of criticism from Cambodia, Vietnam and a range of NGOs. Some comment on this issue is usefully summarised on Wikipedia.

Any sense that the Xayaburi dam is a minor construction on the Mekong is eliminated in the Poyry Powerpoint presentation. Substantial in size and with untested measures designed to facilitate fish passing through the dam and to minimise the retention of sediment, there seems every reason for the concerns raised by critics to be taken seriously.

How China's world views are manifested in the South China Sea

With the ongoing controversy over China's activities in the South China Sea. it is timely to explore how Chinese worldviews play out in practice. In particular, how they underpin Chinese foreign policy behaviour,  and may do so in the future; and how our own behaviour  may ultimately be counter-productive if we continue to ignore how Chinese see the world.

The key worldviews in Chinese foreign policy are: the century of humiliation; the view of cultural characteristics as being inherent and unchanging; the idea of history as destiny; and notions of filial piety and familial obligation as they apply both inside China and to China’s neighbours.

Overall, these four worldviews add up to a China that believes it is on course to resume the central role it previously played in regional and global affairs, and that the outside world should recognise this. It feels it has been held back from this central role by the US and some US allies, and that these powers will continue to restrict China’s development where they can. 

China’s recent actions in the South China Sea reflect several of these narratives, especially the narrative of history as destiny. According to this view, Chinese actions in the South China Sea reflect its gradual resumption of its rightful and respected place in the region. 

China’s attitude towards the other claimants in the South China Sea reflects the narrative of filial piety and familial obligation. In this view, China’s role is that of a father figure and benevolent overseer of a peaceful region, in which its neighbours willingly and without coercion pay tribute and homage. By the same token, if China’s neighbours do not willingly pay tribute and homage then this is seen to justify taking stronger measures to ensure that this familial order is respected.

The narratives of the century of humiliation and the unchanging nature of cultural characteristics also inform how China sees the role that the United States is playing in the South China Sea. China interprets US actions like its recent freedom of navigation patrol not as some limited exercise to uphold international maritime norms but as part of a long-standing effort to maintain its hegemony and keep China from resuming its rightful place in the world.

China’s recent actions in the East China Sea also reflect the four narratives noted above. China and Japan have had a long-term dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands which flared up again in 2012. In November 2013, China announced the creation of a new air defence identification zone (ADIZ) around the islands. 

In this situation, the narratives of cultural characteristics as unchanging and the century of humiliation are particularly resonant. The focus is very much on Japan and the danger that it is seen to represent to China. This draws on the strong historical memory in China of Japanese expansionism in World War II, a memory that the Chinese authorities have done much recently to revive. Japan is portrayed as naturally imperialistic, expansionist, and untrustworthy.

The four worldviews are not just relevant to understanding Chinese behaviour when it comes to security issues. Both the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One Belt One Road initiatives (OBOR has a land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and ocean-going Maritime Silk Road, and aims to increase connectivity and cooperation among countries, principally in Eurasia) reflect the century of humiliation narrative and the idea of history as destiny. Both are portrayed within China as evidence that China is finally overcoming its period of weakness and vulnerability. As one Chinese academic said to me, these initiatives represent 'a great shift from the idea of just taking care of ourselves'. Rather, they are seen as a way for China to resume its rightful position as a wealthy, strong, and responsible power, at the centre of a web of regional economic interdependence.

A call to understand these worldviews is not an argument for appeasement. In some cases policymakers will need to respond firmly to Chinese actions, even if this may have longer-term costs. In the East China Sea, the strong reaction of the US and some of its allies to China’s ADIZ may well have reinforced narratives of persecution and humiliation.

However, understanding Chinese worldviews can help policymakers to develop responses that do not reinforce the negative aspects of these narratives in ways that are ultimately counterproductive. For example, in China, Washington’s tough response to the AIIB and its ambivalent attitude to OBOR will have reinforced the idea that despite its calls for China to be a responsible stakeholder, no matter what China does on the world stage, the US will always try to curb China’s emergence as a more central actor in the international system.

Ultimately, choices about how the US and its allies respond to China need to be taken on a case-by-case basis. In some cases US and other Western policymakers may see no option but to take action that reinforces the more negative aspects of the Chinese narratives outlined above. In other cases, however, an understanding of these Chinese worldviews can help policymakers to avoid actions that are needlessly counterproductive.

Dr Merriden Varrall's recent Lowy Institute Analysis: China's WorldViews and China's Foreign Policy can be downloaded here

COP21, China's role and developed nations' obligations as reported in Chinese media

By Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia program

Coverage of the Paris climate conference by China's media has been largely positive, with reports portraying China as a driving force in climate negotiations, willing to work with the international community to reach a consensus. So far, views on China's representation at COP21 under the leadership of Xi Jinping are very different to how China's presence at the Copenhagen talks in 2009 was perceived by Western media. Various reports at that time accused China of undermining the conference. In this week's coverage, China's media has focused on the country's domestic and international efforts to fight climate change and made very few comparisons to Copenhagen.

China's U-turn on climate negotiations can be partly explained by worsening pollution. In an ironic coincidence, on Monday, the day COP21 began, the northern areas of China including Beijing, Tianjin, Xi'an and Jinan were blanketed by heavy haze and pollution with an AQI air quality index of 500 (by way of comparison, the average US city has an AQI of less than 100). As Weibo user @???: asked, 'if Beijing wasn't so heavily polluted would our country care about the environment?' As if in response, an editorial in Global Times declared air pollution has acted as a 'warning bell', prompting China to act on climate change and fulfill its responsibility as the world's largest developing country.

An editorial in People's Daily gave an indication of how seriously China's leadership takes the threat of climate change. It stressed the need for the Paris talks to succeed, observing 'we have no plan B because there is no planet B'. Also emphasising China's commitment was a piece in Xinhua that highlighted the many independent and voluntary actions China has undertaken to address the challenge of a warming planet, including instances of international cooperation.

In Xi Jinping's speech to the summit he warned against a 'zero-sum mentality', and called on all countries, especially developed nations, to assume a 'shared responsibility' for climate change. While Xi stated that China's actions are driven by an international 'sense of responsibility', he reiterated the principle of 'common but different responsibility' in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change must be adhered to. China's view is that its contributions will, and should be, different from developed countries.

The need for a Paris agreement to factor in differences between developed and developing countries was echoed in a Xinhua article, which called for an agreement that would reflect different 'national levels of development.' An opinion piece in Global Times also praised China's efforts for 'taking a lead role among developing countries', citing the establishment of the BASIC alliance and China's 20 billion yuan contribution toward a South-South climate change cooperation fund. An editorial in the English language Global Times took an uncompromising approach to the need for developed countries to take a greater responsibility. It contrasted 'China's generosity and dedication' with the actions of some Western countries who try to 'wriggle out of their due moral obligations', while blaming developing countries for blocking a new international treaty. A readers poll in the People's Daily reflected this hard-line attitude: 56% of respondents believed developed countries should accept more responsibility for fighting climate change. 

Other reports suggested China's contribution in Paris had won international approval. As one article in Global Times stated, the international community views China as an 'important contributor' to international climate change negotiations, and a 'positive driver in the multilateral negotiation process.' To further underline the importance of China at the talks, an article in Global Times used the classic technique of citing foreign media reports to support China's position. The article quoted a French media outlet which stated that 'without China's participation the climate talks would have no hope of succeeding.' And, as a visual reminder of China's pre-eminent role, the front page of Tuesday's edition of People's Daily was filled with images of Xi meeting with Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and Vladamir Putin.

Much of the coverage, along with Xi's speech, included rhetoric that has characterised Xi's rule. His reference to building a 'common destiny for mankind', his referral to a 'future of win-win cooperation', and the reference to a 'global green community of common destiny', were all, for example, echoed in a Xinhua article. This suggests the need to take action on climate change is becoming a part of the wider discourse within China.

In contrast to Copenhagen, Chinese leadership appears to have taken a constructive approach at the Paris climate talks. As China continues to rise, it is keen to be seen as a responsible international player contributing to global governance. Acting in good faith at COP21 is one way to demonstrate this. Media coverage that emphasises China's valuable contribution is making sure this international play is not lost on the domestic audience,

Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images


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