Wednesday 01 Apr 2020 | 07:38 | 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

The TPP is not a containment strategy

Is the TPP an effort to contain China? If you've been reading the papers or glancing at social media recently, you could be forgiven for thinking so. The New York Times didn't quite use the word containment, but argued that the agreement was a 'win for the United States in its contest with China.'

There is a strategic dimension to the American push to conclude the TPP, but it's not about containing China. Rather, the TPP is part of the Obama Administration's broader Rebalance strategy to update and reinforce the liberal international order in the Asia Pacific. 

On the political side of things, this means the peaceful resolution of disputes, ensuring freedom of navigation, and the freedom to access information. On the economic side, it means, inter alia, updating the trading rules to reflect technological advances that have increased the value of information relative to resources in global trade. These changes have required negotiators to go beyond tariffs and address behind-the-border rules that affect trade.

Those pushing a containment narrative note that the pact excludes China, but ignore the fact that American officials have repeatedly said that they are open to China's eventual accession to the agreement. The President himself made this point last December:

And by the way, there's been some suggestion that by doing TPP we're trying to contain or disadvantage China. We're actually not. What we are trying to do is make sure that rather than a race to the bottom in the region there's a reasonable bar within which we can operate. And we hope that then China actually joins us in not necessarily formally being a member of TPP but in adopting some of the best practices that ensure fairness in operations.

That said, negotiators have had to be realistic, recognising that it would have been very difficult for China to sign up to these standards at the start. Better, then, to create the partnership now with governments that are ready to go, demonstrate the agreement's value, and entice other countries, including China, to sign on to the agreement or adopt some of the standards it sets as their own.

Such hopes are not unreasonable.

There has been persistent speculation that Chinese leaders could use TPP accession to apply external pressure in order to achieve economic reforms that domestic political interests have thus far prevented. Chinese Premier Zhu Rhongji did the same with WTO accession in the late 1990s (and as in that case, China might negotiate slightly different terms in recognition of the size of its economy and how far it would have to come to meet the new standards). Chinese accession would raise environmental and labour standards in China, and would be the best possible result for all concerned, including the US.

So why have institutions like the New York Times and the powerful American trade union federation, the AFL-CIO, bought into the containment narrative? The Obama Administration is at least partly to blame. Since early this year, the Administration has increasingly used the fear of a Chinese-dominated economic and security order as a foil to capture the attention of its domestic political audience, particularly Congress.

In his State of the Union address to Congress in January, President Obama said:

China wants to write the rules for the world's fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.

It's not exactly the stuff of containment — the focus is still on rules — but it does suggest a competition. Administration officials compounded the problem when, in an otherwise strong speech in Arizona in April, Defense Secretary Ash Carter claimed that 'in terms of our Rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier.'

Carter's comments were problematic because while much of what the US seeks to achieve through the Rebalance is unrelated to China, the US is also engaged in an effort to deter China from taking assertive actions that undermine the liberal order in the region. That effort, too, has occasionally been mischaracterised as an attempt to contain China, so mentioning aircraft carriers and the TPP in the same sentence was probably unwise.

Such rhetoric may not play well in China or even Australia, but the Administration seemed to believe it would be effective on Capitol Hill. While members of Congress have been slow to recognise the impact of a stronger commercial relationship with East Asia for American interests, they instinctively understand the impact of an aircraft carrier. While they may not realise that trade with the broader region exceeds American trade with China, fear of Chinese economic power is a common theme in American elections. And at this stage, with Congressional approval of the deal very much an open question, the Administration has sought to put the deal in terms members of Congress can understand.

The problem is thus one of multiple audiences. The same global information environment which the Obama Administration hopes to take advantage of through the TPP also makes it more challenging to sell to Congress without agitating the very region in question. Moreover, during my research on Congressional attitudes toward Asia Pacific policy over the last year for my recent Lowy analysis on the subject, I found that the Administration's attempts to capture the attention of Congress by using China as a foil had limited reach among Republicans and almost none among Democrats.

The Administration would thus be well advised to revert to its earlier language on the TPP, which stressed the way it could draw other countries to adopt higher standards. The TPP is not about containment; the Administration should take care not to speak about it as though it is.

Guangxi bombings: Corruption and power-abuse take their toll

Seventeen parcel bombs exploded in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region last Wednesday, and there was a further explosion on Thursday. There were ten deaths, more than 50 casualties, and photos of a five storey building partly collapsed.

The story did make international news, but only just, and by the weekend it had faded, including from the homepage of China Daily Mandarin edition.

Global reporting was slim; clearly agencies do not have correspondents in South China or much background about Guangxi. The first reports gave the number of bombings, listed targets in Liucheng County (they included a government building, a residence at Liucheng Animal Husbandry Bureau, a hospital, a prison, markets, and a bus stop), and reported that one man, a quarry owner with the surname Wei, had been arrested. Then on Thursday came questions as to whether that arrest had indeed taken place. On Friday, South China Morning Post reported that Wei had been killed in one of the Wednesday blasts (taking the death toll to 11). An article in China Daily's online Mandarin edition reported that local police had confirmed Wei's death through DNA testing, leaving open the question of who perpetrated Thursday's bombing.

There was also the question of motive, with Chinese authorities initially saying that some people have personal grievances against government departments. Some doubted this was a lone perpetrator taking extreme action over an everyday grievance, and hinted at Uyghur militants. American geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, for example, published an article speculating about Uyghurs. Major news outlets in both English and Mandarin avoided this inflammatory line. 

Later, a journalist spoke to Wei's brother, who explained that, after locals marched on Wei's quarry in 2013, rendering its machines inoperable and ruining the business, Wei became upset because 'repeated requests to local government departments to resolve the dispute ended without success.' Luizhou City Police confirmed to journalists that Wei was involved in a quarry dispute with villagers.

Extremism can arise not only from big issues like ethnic conflict but from small ones like financial losses and bureaucratic disputes. Guangxi is certainly not immune from these problems. The region is known to have extremely high levels of government corruption compared to other Chinese provinces. That an abuse of government power could tip someone over the edge is therefore not incredible.

Another factor might be frustration over unequal distribution of economic resources. This could contribute in two ways: either, because it has left government departments in Guangxi under-trained and under-resourced, perhaps causing inept rather than abusive government dealings; or because it provided the spark that ignited the tinderbox of anger of both Wei and the villagers.

Guangxi has long been poorer than its industrialised eastern neighbour, Guangdong Province. Around the turn of the century Guangxi was the region with the highest out-migration as China reorganised its labour force. In recent years, the Chinese Central Government's 'Open Up the West' campaign to spur growth in Western China has also targeted Guangxi, and even more recently Guangxi has been promoted as a bridge in China-ASEAN integration, with the China-ASEAN Expo hosted in Guangxi's capital, Nanning, in May. But some areas of Guangxi, including Liucheng County, remain poor, and institutional measures to regulate economic development have not developed as quickly as economic activity.

So it is also credible that villagers would feel disenfranchised over what they see as unregulated business. Nor is it hard to imagine that a business owner, in debt after two years of no income, unable to start over due to government inaction, and who believes local authorities are corruptly picking which businesses to support, would become cynical about government claims that it is helping spread economic development.

While tough times don't assuage the moral or criminal culpability of the bomber, nor justify smashing up a quarry, recognising the extreme frustration, stress and social unrest that uneven economic and institutional development can provoke is important in understanding politics and security in China. Bombings don't happen every day in China, but there are commonplace civic and worker protests, and occasionally violence, borne of financial pressure and frustrations with government, not over issues that grab international interest such as democracy or human rights, but over mundane bureaucratic interactions that go wrong. The Guangxi attacks are best not glossed over as an isolated incident. Festering and obvious inequality is a cause of unrest similar in strength to ethnic conflict. (And ethnic conflict is often also about material disadvantage and government unresponsiveness.)

It seems the villagers, aggrieved by explosions at Wei's quarry and the alleged failure of the business to gain proper licenses, took matters into their own hands. Then Wei, angry about the destruction of his business and government failures to remedy what he saw as unfair losses, took matters into his own hands and targeted state institutions.

While bombings are an unhinged reaction, local, regional and central governments should nevertheless reflect on how his dispute was mishandled so as to provoke such desperate anger. How did it come to this?

The key questions are about the system: why villagers and the bomber didn't seek non-violent means of dispute resolution, and whether resolution mechanisms are inaccessible, untrustworthy, or simply non- existent. Higher security and high-profile condemnation of the bombings may go some way to prevent further such incidents, but if the violence stemmed from inadequate means to alleviate the burdens of economic development and social re-structuring, then civil institutions in Guangxi need to take note. 

The second half of this analysis will examine ethnic tensions in the Guangxi region.

Ed. note: the headline for this article originally referred to Guangxi as being in western China, which is not correct. The error was made in the editorial process.

Condemned to Crisis?

It is often said that no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. Ken Ward argues that Australian governments and their critics need to be realistic about an Australia–Indonesia relationship that risks always being crisis-prone and volatile.

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