The Interpreter - Weblog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy

The Interpreter - Recent Posts (for you. Click here to start your FREE subscription)

The Interpreter - 5 new articles

China changes its Japan stance as pressure tactics fail

by Bonnie S. Glaser

Over the past several months a gradual but significant shift has taken place in China's policy toward Japan. The change is a result of Beijing's recognition that its unrelenting pressure on Tokyo since the Japanese Government purchased several of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from a private owner in September 2012 has produced far greater costs than benefits for China. Chinese President Xi Jinping's meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Asian-African summit in Jakarta last month is the latest proof of the adjustment in Chinese policy.

Last November, when the two leaders first met in Beijing, Xi wanted to be seen as a good host and therefore did not snub Abe. In Jakarta, however, Xi had greater flexibility. Not only did he agree to the meeting, he apparently initiated it. Although China's state-run news agency Xinhua claimed the meeting took place at the request of Japan, senior Japanese officials say Xi asked to meet with Abe on the condition that Japan not disclose that it was arranged at China's behest.

China's routine conduct of patrols inside the 12-mile territorial water boundary around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, over which Japan exercises administrative control, has failed to achieve Beijing's objective of persuading Japan to acknowledge the existence of a sovereignty dispute. Instead, China's patrols, along with the establishment of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone in November 2013 and the imposition of a virtual freeze on high-level political contacts for more than two years, has led to damaging consequences for Chinese security.

Japan's direct investment in China fell by 38.8% year-on-year in 2014 to $4.33 billion. In 2013 it fell about 4%. Japan's defence budget reached $42 billion in 2015 and has increased three years in a row, ending 11 consecutive years of cuts. Japan relaxed the ban on the transfer of defence equipment and broadened the constitutional interpretation of the right of self-defence. Japanese force posture and structure are being reconfigured with a clear priority being assigned to defence of the southwest islands. Capabilities are being bolstered in such areas as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; interoperability; ballistic missile defence; and amphibious landing.

President Obama has stated publicly that the disputed islands are covered under Article V of the US-Japan Security Treaty. The US-Japan alliance has been strengthened with the issuance of updated guidelines for defence cooperation that underscore the 'global' nature of the alliance and enable the Abe Government to pursue 'proactive pacifism' in its security policy, among other things. Heightened concerns about China's policies and intentions was the major impetus for most, if not all, of the above moves.

Recognising that Chinese pressure on Japan was not succeeding, Xi Jinping has changed course. In addition to engaging directly with Prime Minister Abe, China resumed the high-level security dialogue with Japan after a hiatus of almost four years, restarted the Sino-Japanese parliamentary dialogue, and revived the trilateral mechanism among Chinese, Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers.

Abe's decision to forego a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine since he paid his respects there in December 2013 has helped to create a more positive atmosphere. In addition, although Prime Minister Abe did not repeat key phrases from the 1995 Murayama Statement in his speech delivered at the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference in Jakarta, he nevertheless alluded to the topic of 'aggression' in sections citing the ten principles agreed upon at the inaugural Bandung Conference in 1995. Later, speaking to the US Congress, Abe explicitly said that Japan's actions in World War II 'brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries' and pledged he would 'uphold the views expressed by Japan's previous prime ministers in this regard.'

The favorable turn in Chinese policy toward Japan is welcome. The protracted downturn in Sino-Japanese relations has engendered hostility in both countries toward the other and increased the risk of accident and conflict.

More needs to be done to put the Sino-Japanese relationship on an enduring positive trajectory. First, Tokyo and Beijing need to faithfully adhere to the four-point agreement reached last November. Second, the bilateral maritime crisis management mechanism should be established as soon as possible to avert inadvertent clashes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Third, as a gesture of goodwill, China should reduce its patrols inside the territorial waters of disputed islands. Fourth, Beijing should avoid using the upcoming commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, including the ceremony in Beijing planned for 3 September, to inflame anti-Japanese nationalism and inject new tensions in China-Japan relations. Fifth, Prime Minister Abe should use his speech this coming August to make a clearer statement of apology for his country's war crimes so as to achieve reconciliation with China, as well as Korea, Taiwan, and other neighbouring countries that were occupied or attacked during the war.

If the anniversary of the end of the war can be managed well and opportunities are seized to further improve bilateral ties, a summit between Abe and Xi might be put on the calendar for late 2015 or early 2016 that would provide impetus for more progress. Such a scenario would make a significant contribution to security in the entire Asia Pacific.

Photo courtesy of Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet.


Unquestioned beliefs on both sides of US-China divide

by Merriden Varrall

China and the US have both been described as countries that consider themselves to be exceptional. China, so much so, that some analysts argue it sees itself as 'uniquely unique'. What this means in China is that most Chinese understand themselves to be part of a culture that no-one else can truly understand, let alone ever be a part of.

This sense of 'us versus them' is politically expedient, and serves to build and reinforce a powerful sense of national identity. Indeed, so strong is the adherence to an exceptionalist national identity in China that when I was doing my PhD research on Chinese foreign policy, I seriously considered using the methodological approaches offered by the anthropology of religion to analyse and interpret my findings.

Another country which has been the subject of examination through the anthropology of religion is of course the US, for similar reasons.

The sense of national identity in the US is just as powerful and unquestioned as in China. Both 'flag waving' as well as more banal forms of nationalism are ubiquitous. Just as in China, where there exists a powerful logic of Chinese-ness, including the narrative of victimisation and humiliation at the hands of Western powers, in the US the commitment to values like freedom and democracy as being central to how the world should work are apparently largely unquestioned and unwavering.

In my current trip to the US, I started to notice in myself what I presume is the same sense of moral certainty that many Americans feel. I am both by proclivity and training a relativist, and I was surprised to find myself feeling pride and moral confidence as I toured such venerable institutions as the Library of Congress.

Over the course of a number of meetings with US think tanks, government employees and academics, I began to see an acceptance of a certain fundamental bottom line of truth as being the base of many US views about China and its activities in the Asia Pacific. Namely, that China is 'behaving badly' and it is up to the US to stop it. This can be seen in, for example, the recent Washington Post article in which the author casually assumes 'America's job of containing China'.

In Australia, increased Chinese activity in the South China Sea raises questions about what we want as well as how we should go about trying to achieve it. Among many influential China thinkers in the US, it seems to me, the question of 'how' to deal with China largely subsumes the questions of 'what' or 'why'. It is taken for granted that the US is, and should naturally continue to be, the predominant power in the region, simply because it is, unquestionably, better for everyone that way.

China's activities in the region, generally accepted as being 'bad behaviour', bump up against not only US interests such as trade and political influence but also against America's sense of self. 

Australia, on the other hand, is concerned less by anxiety about its national identity and what it considers to be its rightful and appropriate role in the world. It is more concerned about practical exigencies. Australians welcome China as an economic partner, but fear China's geopolitical intentions, particularly regarding possible changes to existing norms and institutions. As the 2014 Lowy poll clearly showed, Australians see China as being equal with Japan as our 'best friend in Asia'; yet at the same time, Australians fear that China could pose a direct military threat to Australia in 20 years. 

I am not arguing that Western liberal values are not worthy, and I am not proposing that Chinese behaviour has only the purest and most benevolent of intentions. The point is that we don't actually know what China is trying to achieve.

I would argue though that at this moment, precisely as China is rapidly increasing its activities and expanding its presence in the region, it would be wise for the US not to respond hastily or in ways that fail to reflect an awareness of both their own views and biases, as well as China's. It would also be valuable for the US to reflect that not everyone, even old allies like Australia, let alone actors like Indonesia, view the region or feel the same concerns about it as they do.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ehpien.


Weekend catch-up: Bali 9 executions, Refugee Convention, Greece-IMF and more

by Brendan Thomas-Noone

Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed in Indonesia this week, along with six others. The Abbott Government responded by recalling Ambassador Paul Grigson on Wednesday. Aaron Connelly wrote on the motivations behind Jokowi's decision to proceed with the executions, despite significant pressure from Australia and the international community:

While SBY appeared to many Indonesians to be peragu, a vacillator, Jokowi has always appeared to be a man of action. He has sped up infrastructure projects, sped up subsidy reform, and – tragically – sped up executions.

While capital punishment is anathema to most Australians, it enjoys broad support in Indonesia, and the decision to carry out death sentences issued over the last decade represents for most Indonesians a return to the regular order under a president who is unafraid to enforce Indonesian laws even when placed under intense pressure to offer foreigners special dispensation. To most Indonesians, this is reform.

There is also a streak of 'victimhood' in Indonesian politics, writes Catriona Croft-Cusworth:

Jokowi called for 'reformasi' of global financial architecture, including institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank. He also called on Asian and African nations to support an overhaul of the UN 'so that it can function as a world organisation that supports justice for all nations'.

So it's no surprise that Jokowi did not respond to an appeal from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the weekend to call off the executions. As elaborated by University of Indonesia International Law professor Hikmahanto Juwana in an interview with local media last week: 'The Indonesian[s] also have a right to ask why there was not a statement from the UN Secretary-General recently when two Indonesian domestic workers were executed in Saudi Arabia'. 

Khalid Koser published a paper with the Lowy Institute this week, Australia and the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as writing on what lessons Europe can learn from Australia's immigration policies:

Second, Australia's quota for resettling refugees should be an embarrassment to the EU. Australia resettles more refugees than the entire EU area of over 500 million people. Resettlement may not satisfy the growing demand for entry into the richer countries, and probably would not reduce the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, but at least it demonstrates solidarity with some of the poorer countries of the world which continue to shoulder the burden of the global refugee crisis.

Jane McAdam from the University of Sydney responded to Khalid's paper:

There is clearly a need for states to take a different approach to the management of asylum movements. But the current Australian response is not it. Indeed, given Australia's disdain for any international criticism of its approach (see, for example, the Prime Minister's recent attack on the Special Rapporteur on Torture) it would be difficult for Australia to take the lead on any multilateral reform of the international protection system. Its credibility on this issue is at an all-time low.

Rodger Shanahan on Tareq Kamleh, the Australian 'medical jihadi' that appeared in an ISIS propaganda video earlier this week:

In one way Tareq Kamleh is different to other Australian jihadis because of his education and academic qualifications. But his actions are the same as all the others. He has made a conscious decision that his religious identity transcends his national identity. We shouldn't be too concerned that he is educated rather than a minor criminal or a teenage delinquent. What should concern us is why he and others can come to believe that their religion justifies participation in the imposition of an intolerant and violent ruling system, and the belief that their own government has no right to stop them from being part of the project. Until we can address that, people like Tareq Kamleh will continue to pop up in strange places.

Did the IMF learn it's lesson with Greece? Stephen Grenville:

Meanwhile, the IMF has acknowledged some of the mistakes made in 2010, but the unhappy legacy remains. Having established the precedent of lending to countries which have an unsustainable debt level, Ukraine has also been given substantial assistance. The broad issue of rescheduling sovereign debt, which the Fund has struggled to resolve for more than a decade, remains. Perhaps most important all, this story is a reminder of why governance reform is so vital for the Fund's credibility. 

Chinese firms will most likely be the biggest benefactors from Beijing's regional development initiatives, argues Julian Snelder:

Informed Chinese experts tell me that Chinese firms expect to scoop 93-94% of the contract value of all projects funded by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) plus the Chinese unilateral initiatives (like Silk Road Fund) combined. By Goldman Sachs' calculation, local expectations for China's newly re-combined train-making monopoly assume a clean sweep at home and an heroic 55% share of all railway rolling stock bought overseas in the next five years. These firms expect a bonanza of construction in which Chinese money, materials, management and manpower can build grand overseas projects. Foreign firms will have to settle for spillover business, in the form of subcontracts.

Samir Saran from the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi reviewed Modi's first year in office:

He is determined at one level, as he stakes his political capital on reforming the land acquisition law, and while pushing forth a slew of new initiatives like replacing the economic planning body (the Planning Commission) with a contemporary organisation. On the other hand, you sense there are some wrinkles that are yet to be ironed out. There are times when you can see him pensively watching parliamentary proceedings as the lack of majority in the upper house impedes him. There is reluctance while communicating his vision and policies, and an inability to deploy the same communication means to reach out to citizens that got him the top job in the first place.

Two presidential aspirants, Aung San Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton, need each other, said Elliot Brennan:

Suu Kyi desperately needs Clinton's support. Suu Kyi's political standing has already diminished. Many of her supporters (both her strong Buddhist conservative backers and the human rights advocates) have criticised her handling of the Rohingya issue. She has wavered and remained mute on other important headline issues. Most problematic is that advocating too hard for the constitutional change that would allow her to run would make Suu Kyi look power hungry and self-interested. Yet if she doesn't advocate for the change, no one will. At some point soon, if the constitutional amendment doesn't go forward, she has to roll the dice and either boycott the elections or back another candidate while she sits on the sidelines.

And Sam Roggeveen on Julie Bishop's speech to the Sydney Institute early this week:

I am not ready to credit Bishop with Churchillian prescience. I think she's wrong about the scale of the ISIS threat. But if she turns out to be right about ISIS in the way Churchill was right about the Soviet Union, it's worth pointing out that Churchill's speech called on the world to act through the United Nations, including by giving it armed forces, initially in the form of air squadrons from each of its member states ('They would not be required to act against their own nation, but in other respects they would be directed by the world organisation').

That's a bold proposal, to say the least, and what's notable about Bishop's speech is that she proposed nothing remotely as radical to meet this allegedly world-historical threat. Australia has sent a handful of fighter aircraft and a few hundred soldiers to Iraq to fight ISIS, a response Bishop calls 'proportionate and appropriate'. That tells a rather different story about how seriously Bishop takes the ISIS threat.

Photo by Flickr user Moe-tography.


The faces of Nepal

by Sam Roggeveen

To end what has been a tragic week in Nepal, a touching video portrait of its people (nb. this was filmed and posted well before the earthquake):


If you would like to help the people of Nepal, there are any number of aid organisations that have launched appeals. But here's aid blogger Chris Blattman's advice on the most effective way to donate.


Digital Asia links: Internet censorship special

by Danielle Cave

The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • China's Cyberspace Administration has announced more explicit rules on internet censorship, with the new directive focused on 'pornographic material, false information or rumours, and maintaining incomplete internet security systems'.
  • Confused by China's ever-changing approach to online censorship? (when did Japanese cartoons become a problem?) This chart explains it all.
  • Crackdowns on freedom of speech by South Korea's government has fueled demand for encrypted online communications with 'secret chat' features now standard for messaging apps.
  • Vietnamese netizens are getting bolder online, despite tough laws.
  • Despite the arrest and continued interrogation of China's most prominent online feminists and widespread censorship, Chinese women are continuing to protest against sexism using the internet.
  • Last month, an editorial in one of Papua New Guinea's largest newspapers, The National, called on the government to push through greater controls on social media use. This week, editor of rival newspaper the Post Courier, Alexander Rheeney, commented on the state of free speech in the country.
  • Freedom House research has found that, as China's internet restrictions increase, some security personnel and censors have grown more sympathetic to victims of political and religious persecution.
  • As already raised on The Interpreter here, North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar and China have been ranked in the top ten media censors largely because of strict internet control and censorship measures.
  • Singer Katy Perry has stirred Cross-Strait tensions by draping herself in a Taiwanese flag at a concert in Taipei this week while both she and backup dancers were wearing sunflower-themed costumes (why is that symbolic?). Chinese censors were quick to delete all evidence of Perry's outfit on Chinese social media and international media is now speculating whether Perry will face a China ban:


More Recent Articles

Click here to safely unsubscribe from The Interpreter. Click here to view mailing archives, here to change your preferences, or here to subscribePrivacy