East Asia

In Seeking Distance from America, Duterte Plays into China's Hands

Ed Bithell

Rodrigo Duterte is no stranger to controversy. Having likened himself to Hitler and called Barack Obama a 'son of a whore', the irrepressible Philippine president has seen his relations with much of the world's media and the Philippines' greatest ally, the US, grow increasingly sour. This comes despite relying on the international community's support for his country's ongoing dispute in the South China Sea over ownership of the Spratly Islands, a case that recently went before the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague.

Duterte sailed closer to the wind again by cancelling joint military exercises with the US scheduled to take place in the South China Sea. The Balikatan exercises, meaning 'shoulder to shoulder' in Tagalog, ran for the 32nd time last year, and despite some protests from Beijing formed part of a 'strong message' that the US was determined to send in the Pacific theatre. The exercises are controversial amongst some in the Philippines, and certainly reflect enormous US influence over the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Instead, Duterte declared that he ‘can always go to China’, seemingly threatening the US with a divorce in favour of his northern neighbour.

It is tempting to think that this could work out in his favour, leading to preferential treatment from the Chinese in appreciation for rare cooperation amongst South East Asian states - as a bloc, ASEAN opposes China’s claims to sovereignty in the region and until now, the Philippines has been no exception. However, Duterte's ditching Obama may easily lead to gains for nobody but China.

While the US does exert military power through joint exercises and hosted bases in the region, any potential hegemonic aims are fundamentally limited, both by a lack of its territorial claims and the impossibility of subjecting China or dismissing its claims completely without direct action. By contrast, the relatively precarious nature of US influence through cooperation with ASEAN means that China, which claims sovereignty over essentially the entire South China Sea, and refuses to acknowledge rival claims, could use Duterte’s essentially tactical friendship and cooperation to start a strategy of playing one nation off against another in order to weaken all their claims, aiming to turn the South China Sea from a multipolar area, with a united ASEAN balanced against China thanks to US support, into a Chinese lake. This would then further push out any chance of favour from Beijing, as China finds it no longer needs particular friends.

While Duterte appears to be able to pick and choose his friends on the international stage, the reality is that this could easily backfire. If he gets his way and US influence in the region - or at least the Philippines - declines, replaced with growing Chinese involvement in infrastructure and natural resources as well as Beijing calling the shots on territorial claims, he may soon realise that the Chinese are interested in being much closer than the Americans ever were - and more demanding too.

Image: President Duterte meeting Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua. By Presidential Communications Operations Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A Split in the Party? Contradictory reports raise questions on China's economic direction

Ed Bithell

When asked to name a country with a lively political debate in its newspapers, few would name China. And so, when even indirectly expressed, political tensions in the leadership may indicate serious fault lines.

An anonymous but "authoritative person" was interviewed on Monday in Communist Party standard bearer the People's Daily, playing down expectations of any imminent economic upswing. The source leaned heavily on "supply-side structural reform" and reduced state intervention in markets, as well as debt-led growth, rather unlike the emphasis from Premier Li Keqiang in March that failing to meet growth targets was "impossible for me to say". 

It is thus easy for the editorial to be interpreted as an attack on Li and the State Council's management of the economy, with inflationary measures in place throughout early 2016 for growth that is now flagging. However, it can also be read as instead supporting the wider message of the key reform meeting of the 3rd Plenum in 2013, with its commitment to market-driven growth. Whichever the true intent (and it may well be a combination of the two, if not more, factors), the article has widely been taken as a move by actors loyal to President Xi Jinping, who has made further moves towards greater overall control of the Party with proposals to abolish the powerful Politburo Standing Committee by 2017.

"You can’t have both 6.5 percent growth and painless reform, even in China" - Michael Every, Rabobank HK

In its phrasing, the article ties in closely to recent policy statements by Xi himself, who the same day hosted a meeting in which he emphasised again "supply-side structural reform", a policy dedicated to state-sponsored improvement of the economy through efficiency, quality and cutting excess capacity - and explicitly not neoliberal in its outlook. Last week, he outlined his vision for improving Chinese economic performance, bemoaning that "the problem in China is not about insufficient demand or lack of demand, in fact, demands in China have changed, but supplies haven’t changed accordingly". In managing private companies and state-owned enterprises to meet the new demand, says Xi, supply-side structural reform will be achieved.

However, commentators both within and without China have been questioning this official narrative, that until now has been consistent from all parties - that the economy will be both radically transformed and also continue to comfortably grow. "We have the promise of a painless reform process with no mass bankruptcies or layoffs, and without radical liberalisation of the services sector to boost growth there," said Michael Every, head of financial markets research at Rabobank Group in Hong Kong, back in March. "You can’t have both 6.5 percent growth and painless reform, even in China." It appears that despite Li's recent promises of a "win-win" growth projection, Xi is determined to make sure his reform agenda remains the top priority.

The State Council, however, issued a rebuttal the same day, asserting that growth remained stable, and Li personally hit back with a statement framing the economic future in terms of necessary evil, declaring that the reforms "must be endured for the country, for the good of the people". While these comments hardly seem to be the inflammatory rhetoric we expect of political rivals in the West, even before the most recent personal politics of the EU referendum and US presidential election, such subtle variations in official policy statements can reflect major differences in viewpoint, especially between the marked ideologue Xi and his reserved and technocratic premier. In a time marked by the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, and state galas hailing Xi as the heir of Mao, such tensions in the Chinese leadership may merely be the beginning of major storms to come. 

Bull in a China Shop: Trump's Frightening Take on Asia

Taylor Yu

Videos like this are why the internet is a great, great thing. For those of you too lazy to click the link, it’s a three-minute clip of Donald Trump - the billionaire/reality TV star/’politician’ whose unbearable personality and equally unbearable hairdo have somehow propelled him into the forefront of the US elections race – just saying the word ‘China’. Over and over again.

I’ve no shame in saying that I found this way funnier than I should’ve, but it did get me thinking: what does this man actually want from China? Beyond all the jokes and the weirdly hilarious video-compilations that currently constitute the only media coverage of Trump that I actually care about, was there much substance or practicality behind Trump’s very much explicit dislike for China? Would China-bashing make America great again?

No, not really. In fact, it’s so unlikely to help the United States that the China Press, a Chinese-language newspaper based in the States, recently referred to Trump as ‘China’s secret agent in America’.

Let’s start with the 45% tariff on exports that Trump has proposed as part of his campaign. In theory, this would protect American jobs and promote American business; in reality, the implementation of such a drastic measure would set in motion an avalanche of global economic consequences. Basic economic intuition suggests that higher import taxes equate to higher prices, especially in a large open economy like that of the United States. Shrinking sales of Chinese products would not only hurt the average American consumer, but also damage American businesses who are actually heavily involved in the production and distribution process of goods that are ‘made in China’. Hufbauer and Lowry at the Peterson Institute for International Economics studied the impact of a 35% tariff imposed on Chinese tire imports by Washington in 2009 and discovered that for American consumers had to spend $900,000 dollars more on tires for every job saved - a trade-off scary enough to keep policymakers up at night.

If Trump’s wish is to strengthen the United States by weakening China, then this policy might work in an alternate universe in which the major economies weren’t connected in any way – one only needs to look at the relationship between the recent performance of the financial markets and China’s declining growth to comprehend the influence that China’s economic downfall may have the global economy. All of this, in addition to the fact that there would be nothing to stop the notoriously impulsive and unpredictable Chinese government to set up tariffs of its own on American goods and services, clearly suggest that Trump’s proposed tariff would only serve to undermine the United States.

What about in the wider context of the Wild Wild East arena? As a recent article in The Diplomat suggested, ‘the United States simply cannot be made great again by defining its closest global relationships purely in transactional terms or by insisting on going it alone while making others pay’. For years, Trump has argued for colder relations with Japan, who currently serves as the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner’, as well as South Korea, claiming that the United States should consider withdrawing its troops if Japan and South Korea don’t pay more for their upkeep. I don’t know what’s more concerning: the fact that the $2 billion Japan pays annually toward the upkeep of U.S. troops isn’t enough, or the fact that Trump cannot see that withdrawing from Asia would only play to China’s favour, giving it more leverage in future negotiations and allowing it to dictate terms in the Asian sphere.

The United States have spent years trying to build up a strong presence in Asia – with Trump at the helm, all of this may potentially vanish for the sake of ‘making America great again’ and at the expense of stability between two of the world’s great powers. It’s a thought that makes the video linked above a little less funny and a lot more frightening.

Photograph: Donald Trump via photopin (license)

A BBC World Service in North Korea: a marriage for better or worse?

Edward Howell

“Where Google's mission is to organise the world's information, ours in a smaller way would be to understand it. We will work with anyone who can help us understand this ever more complex world.” (Tony Hall, BBC Director General)

The launch of the BBC World Service in North Korea is no sudden feat; for several years people (including myself) have been tirelessly trying to convince the organisation to broadcast, via some means, into ‘the nation in the dark’. The label is both figuratively and literally appropriate; the country has won the prize for becoming the world’s worst Internet black hole,  and aerial photographs show its stark lack of lighting compared to its neighbours. The BBC failed to act in the past, despite influential figures such as Lord Alton, Chairman of the British-DPRK All-Party Parliamentary Group, questioning why, ‘if the BBC provided access to truth in Nazi occupied France, the former Soviet bloc, in Burma, and to people subject to other totalitarian regimes, why are we not breaking the information blockade in North Korea?’ With the organization not shifting its stance, time passed, more time passed, and it seemed that a waiting game would be lost, until recently, when the recent decision to launch such a service was made. 

North Korea is indeed a unique and complex country; one that rests in its own time zone – Pyongyang Time – 8 hours and 30 minutes ahead of GMT – recently installed on the 70th anniversary of the country’s liberation from Japan. The nation and its people are governed by legal and socio-cultural values underpinned by the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of juche, an ideology carefully crafted by Kim Il-Sung, the 1st Supreme Leader of North Korea, and, posthumously, the Eternal President of the Republic, a hyperbolic title still bestowed upon him today. With the worst human rights record in the world, defectors have fled, many initially to South Korea, and then to the West. Stories are told and the North Koreans settle into their new ‘democratic’ lives. One defector living in London described his initial surprise at the cut and thrust of debate surrounding PMQs when watching BBC News, a once alien concept that, for him, is now the norm. Yet it is too easy – and perhaps naïve – for us in the West to assume the naivety of the North Korean people with respect to their understanding of the wider world beyond the Powerful and Prosperous Nation surrounding them. Through radios (often solar-powered, owing to the sporadic electricity in the country) sent to the country via defectors, North Koreans have been able to gain some awareness of the outside world. Thanks to their neighbour, China, Internet access has improved, and North Koreans are able to participate in the global culture of ‘binge-TV’. Whilst we are catching up on past episodes of Great British Bake Off on BBC iPlayer, North Koreans, in a similar vein to South Koreans, are binge-watching the latest (South) Korean drama series.

Now the BBC has become involved, or, perhaps, interfered? Only time will tell whether the former or latter most accurately describes the situation. The BBC World Service plans to broadcast a ‘daily radio news program’ to North Korea, which, upon first hearing, sounds a triumph, music to the ears of those who have longed for this to occur….but what ‘daily news?’ Daily news depicting global football results, (North Koreans are avid football fans, with the country’s team notably beating Italy in the 1966 World Cup), or a simple delivery of the latest global affairs? How will the translation process ensue?  A far greater challenge for the BBC rests with the broadcasting of local, national news in the state. The Kim regime goes to great effort in censoring, and filtering, radio and television for the people. Radios are designed to tune to specific state-controlled frequencies, and, as for television news, this is restricted to KCTV, a state-owned broadcaster, filling the houses of Pyongyang with propaganda delivered by melodramatic newsreaders. Interestingly, Ri Chun-Hee, KCTV’s face since 1974 prior to her retirement in 2012, became dubbed as the country’s ‘Heroine of Labour’, and the recipient of a luxurious lifestyle, owing to her ability to transform any news story on KCTV into a histrionic performance. The intervention of the BBC World Service could be interpreted as a projection of British soft power, as the state-owned organisation not only seeks to deliver ‘Britain’s impartial voice for the world’ but strengthen its own global reputation, in a country where any view divergent from that of the Kim regime is frowned upon. Nevertheless, to what does ‘impartial’ refer? Issues of translation should spark concern for the BBC; not only is the North Korean dialect of some contrast to the ‘standard’ Korean language spoken in the South, but more importantly, how will the translation ensure a fair representation of the BBC’s ‘impartial voice’, without posing potential for censorship and erasure by the state?

In the meantime, the decision to launch in the country will indubitably benefit the people. Speaking to North Korean defectors, the launch would be – for those back home – one step towards some form of engagement with the democratic world. Anxiety around radio transmission of the World Service, a common criticism to opponents of the World Service in the country, need not be a concern. For the North Koreans, that was the past, and, now, at least some voice, whether a whisper or a shout, can be given to the people. 

At present, bigger questions remain, including those relating to impartiality. When dealing with nation still entangled within the web of Cold War ideology, how will the BBC remain (truly) impartial in its broadcast? How will the obvious hurdles of government censorship and transmission of the World Service be overcome? Perhaps one day, the loudspeakers of North Korea situated over the DMZ, may sound the dulcet tones of a BBC newsreader, in response to the K-Pop blared across the border by the South. Unlikely, yes. Utopian, perhaps. It is difficult to say whether the marriage of the BBC World Service and North Korea will be for better, or for worse, in sickness, or in health, but this is the start of an obstacle-filled journey, one that will need to be made extremely cautiously. 

The Daodejing, fundamental to Daoism, a philosophy once prevalent in pre-1948 Korea, has given rise to the proverb that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ One step has so far been taken, but the next should be taken without trampling on the nation, such that all can reap the benefits – however large, or small – of the World Service. 

'Marching toward a united, peaceful world' - What Does China's Parade Mean?

Anonymous, Beijing

While in Europe, the migrant crisis may have obscured coverage of wider world affairs, in China there has only been one event this week. For weeks, factories, traffic and even barbecues have been restricted to improve the weather in preparation for a grand parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over Japan in the Second World War. A three-day public holiday has been declared and “frivolous” television such as reality TV and comedy removed from the airwaves to make way for extensive broadcasting of war propaganda-dramas and documentaries. Wider Beijing this morning was near-deserted, with the streets empty and many businesses closed as seemingly everyone watched. However, despite the nation-wide public attention on the anniversary, the parade itself was completely closed off to the public, with even people living on the streets used being told to close their windows and watch it on television. Clearly, no effort was spared to ensure that everything went perfectly (despite a mysterious interruption in the live broadcast).

While it might seem at first glance, with the open cars of veterans in their nineties leading the parade, that World War II is no longer relevant, this parade was about the China of today. Gleaming military hardware, over 80% of which displayed in public for the first time, such as state-of-the-art truck-mounted missiles and drones, was followed by row on row of immaculate soldiers goose-stepping in the 30º heat. Seemingly chosen for their matching heights, the appearance of the soldiers was mirrored by their generals, who reportedly lost an average of 5kg in preparation for the parade. Above them, several extravagant flight shows took place, including giant Chinese flags hanging from helicopters (civil aviation was banned in advance and monkeys trained to clear the area of the nests of any birds that might interfere).

President Xi Jinping, appealing to old-school Communist Party sentiment with his austere Zhongshan suit and references to “Mao Zedong Thought”, addressed both “comrades and friends” in his address, during which he described China’s military as a force for peace, announcing some personnel cuts. All the while, the state cameras pointedly panned around such foreign leaders as Vladimir Putin; this is the first time such guests have attended a public military rally in China, and seems to be part of an effort to portray the country not only as a world power, but as part of a powerful network of allies, as shown by the inclusion of regiments from countries that also fought the Axis Powers, ranging from Serbia to Laos and the Pacific Islands. China has courted controversy with its choice of guests, hosting both South Korean President Park Geun-hye and a top aide to Kim Jong-un, as well as Ban Ki-moon, whose presence was strongly protested by Japan.

Japan’s agitation at Secretary-General Ban’s apparent legitimisation of the parade is not without reason. China is playing into a wider strain of anti-Japanese sentiment, and using twentieth century grievances with their neighbour to justify what could be described as encroachment into the surrounding area. However, for President Xi, the focus of the parade is still firmly on China - and on him, emphasising his role as commander of the armed forces as he scooted around Tiananmen Square in a motorcade hailing various regiments with an expression of vague boredom. While China has been increasingly assertive in recent years, this parade is a new level of public militarism, and keeps public interest in the army over such recent problems as the Tianjin disaster and ongoing market instability. It appears that whatever is going on behind the scenes in Beijing, the new public face of China is unapologetically nationalistic and militaristic - and armed to back up its pretensions to world power.