PacNet #27 – What Yoon Suk Yeol’s election means for minority rights in South Korea

Yoon Suk Yeol’s election generated two different kinds of responses: one marked by self-congratulation and another by resignation. Those who subscribed to the former saw the peaceful transfer of power, evident in Yoon’s opponent Lee Jae-myung’s swift concession, as a sign of the country’s democratic health. Those who fell in the latter category found much to be dismayed by Yoon’s victory and the Trumpian politics he symbolized.

Both views contain truths. South Korea did not suffer the kind of contentious aftermath that one saw, for instance, in the United States following the 2016 election. Yet Yoon’s campaign—though perfectly legal—capitalized on the country’s uglier impulses. If this election suggested resilience of South Korea’s democratic institutions, it also revealed the limitations of its democratic culture.

This “democratic ceiling” has important implications for how the country under Yoon’s leadership might treat its under-represented populations, including women and other social minorities. Yoon’s callousness—even if merely rhetorical at this point—is dangerous, because it can fuel a culture of neglect that undercuts the institutional maturity of South Korea’s nascent anti-discrimination regime.

A democratic ceiling

Discrimination against women in South Korea has continued in spite of institutional protections, which suggests problems of enforcement rather than provision. From the Sexual Equality Employment Act (1987), Women’s Development Act (1995), to the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection of Victim Act (1997), South Korea has advanced legal mechanisms to promote and protect gender equality. Yet, these laws have had limited impact in ensuring equal treatment of women at work, on which South Korea ranks the lowest among OECD countries; closing gender pay gaps, of which South Korea maintains a striking 31.5%; and curtailing gender-based violence, on which South Korean courts have remained notoriously lenient. Cultural barriers—from the victim’s stigma to the double standards of law enforcement—have undermined institutional mechanisms for addressing gender inequity.

Even so, Yoon has repeatedly stated that structural discrimination based on gender does not exist in South Korea. During the campaign, he made a controversial promise to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, tasked with tackling gendered inequities mentioned above; instead, he accused the officials of treating men as “potential sex criminals.” At the same time, Yoon blamed feminism for the country’s low birth rates, claiming that it “prevents healthy relations between men and women.” Such misogynistic narratives bode ill for a much-needed policy reappraisal on the social and economic status of women in South Korean society.

The situation is even more bleak when it comes to members of the LGBTQ community and migrant workers, for whom there are fewer institutional protections. Besides the Military Criminal Act (1962), which outlaws sexual acts among soldiers regardless of consent, Yoon’s stance on LGBTQ rights has been one of willful silence. Meanwhile, despite the provisions of the Multicultural Families Support Act (2008), migrant workers and their families have little to no concrete recourse when faced with discriminatory treatment. Migrant women—especially foreign-born brides who come to South Korea through brokered marriages—have suffered greatly as a result, with limited social networks and access to redress.

In this context, Yoon’s rhetoric may also impede efforts to further institutionalize anti-discrimination initiatives. So far, he has made only ambiguous commitments to recognizing the right to choose sexual orientation, citing the “social impact” of “denying biologically assigned genders.” Tactless comments can be also found about migrant workers; in one social media post, Yoon pledged to “resolve the issue of foreigners laying their spoon on a dinner table set by Koreans.” These queer-intolerant and ethno-nationalist narratives may exacerbate demands for more exclusive policies among his socially conservative constituents.

To be fair, Yoon has not been dismissive of all minority rights issues. He has made a welcome pledge to implement the North Korean Human Rights Act (2016), which would advance the livelihoods of North Korean refugees. The law seeks, among other things, to secure the safety of defectors and support South Korean civil society organizations working to raise awareness of human rights conditions in the North. Both courses of action could have direct and indirect impacts on the welfare of North Korean refugees in their journey to, and resettlement in, South Korea.

Yet, selective efforts to advance defector rights—disconnected from a broader anti-discrimination agenda—may generate charges of hypocrisy. The plight of North Korean refugees has been the subject of growing policy incoherence as it became increasingly politicized of late. Sadly, as long as it remains a tool of partisan politicking, progress on North Korean refugee policy will likely be superficial and transitory.

A policy reversal?

It is unclear to what extent Yoon’s narratives will bind him to exclusionary policies in practice. What appears more certain is that these narratives have awakened and mobilized previously silent forces that do support such policies and will want Yoon to keep his promises. Unless he is willing to make a dramatic policy reversal—apart from his campaign narratives—the future seems inhospitable for the advancement of minority rights in South Korea.

Eun A Jo (ej253@cornell.edu) is Non-resident Korea Foundation Fellow at Pacific Forum and a Ph.D candidate in the Government Department at Cornell University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #22 – Feminist foreign policy and Ukraine: For now, Japan leads the way

A gendered war is taking place in Ukraine, powered by patriarchal authoritarianism that thrives on unencumbered violence. Some women bravely serve in Ukraine’s military, the media, and in support roles on the front lines. Yet stereotypical gendered norms have been reinforced as most refugees are women, while Ukrainian men must stay and fight. Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) principles seem ignored by the security sector, as women are absent in peace talks, and reports of sexual- and gender-based violence abound. By applying a feminist foreign policy (FFP) lens—focused on a re-imagination of conflict resolution and human security—we consider how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has influenced Indo-Pacific foreign policies, particularly aid, defense, diplomacy, trade, and immigration. We find that Japan stands out as demonstrating alignment with some FFP principles, and may be ripe for formal FFP adoption. Given other Asian states’ mixed responses, however, the invasion of Ukraine may split the Indo-Pacific on this framework.

Aid, sanctions, and immigration

First, FFP principles recommend consideration of women, children, and minority communities in aid provision, with emphasis on humanitarian aid over military/defensive responses. Tokyo has provided ¥12 billion ($95 million) in emergency humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and promised more. This aid demonstrates consideration of women by including hygiene products alongside tents, winter clothing, and generators.

Japan is an above average official development assistance (ODA) contributor to gender equality as a member nation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Assistance Committee. To build on this achievement, Japan could stipulate requirements similar to its Jordanian Palestinian Refugees ODA program for its aid to countries accepting Ukrainian refugees. This program included Alleviation of Social Gaps, which prioritized the empowerment of women refugees through vocational training and access to reproductive health education.

A second plank of FFP is prioritization and allocation of resources to peace over state security, including “gender equality [and] … the human rights of all.” As such, arms trade with non-democratic countries that abuse human rights and subjugate women, and Indo-Pacific military build-up would signal anti-feminist responses. Japan has generally set a positive example by supporting Ukraine without inflaming conflict. Its commitment to restricting military equipment exports has led to its supply of bulletproof vests and non-lethal equipment, but no weapons (though it recently announced the shipment of drones). Tokyo, while a recipient of US extended nuclear deterrence, has also warned against any use of nuclear weapons, acknowledging the painful history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Third, emphasizing consultation with and equality of all impacted groups, an FFP perspective opposes neo-colonialism, the forceful control or influence of other states. Meanwhile, sanctions are not the preferred option because they typically hurt those already most vulnerable. Sanctions, however, are less militaristic than lethal support, and therefore more acceptable in FFP terms. Eight years ago, when Russia annexed Crimea, Japan failed to sanction Moscow in a bid to maintain diplomatic talks over islands both Russia and Japan claim as their own. By contrast, Japan has moved more decisively in 2022, following US and EU sanctions early on. To date, Japan has restricted Russian banks, and sanctioned oligarchs, companies, and military entities. While Japan still relies on Russian fuel, seafood, and various goods, it has revoked Russia’s most-favored nation trade status, impacting  ¥1.54 trillion ($12 billion) in imports.

Fourth, a country’s FFP would also need to include a generous immigration policy, in this case focusing on the 4.2 million Ukrainian refugees rather than state security. Japan has considered amending its limited immigration policy and opened its doors to friends and family members of its Ukrainian population. The new policy would allow them to stay longer or work.

It won’t be an easy fix—Japan’s past hesitancy towards refugees will require complete immigration policy transformation to align with FFP principles. In 2020, Japan approved 47 out of 3,936 asylum applications (1.19% of the total). Though an improvement from 2019’s 0.42% acceptance rate, other countries are accepting more Ukrainians in response to the crisis. Still, Tokyo seems determined to lessen restrictions. To demonstrate national support for the consideration of individual refugees, Japanese Foreign Minister Hiyashi Yoshimasa returned to home from Poland personally escorting 20 Ukrainian refugees.

A divided Indo-Pacific?

The provision of military aid is essential for FFP precedent. While Japan is all-but-mandated to follow FFP-aligned guidelines due to Article 9 restrictions, other countries with fewer hurdles can more easily adapt their aid distribution.

What precedent, then, does Japan’s restriction of military aid to Ukraine set for its future responses to a conflict in Asia? Furthermore, in case of a contingency—such as China invading Taiwan—how might the reactions of Indo-Pacific countries to the Ukraine crisis predict alignment with feminist values? There has been debate about whether comparing Taiwan to the invasion of Ukraine makes sense, but in either case we are likely to see both adhesion to and straying from FFP principles.

The Indo-Pacific is split on Ukraine. The only other Indo-Pacific nation to demonstrate a feminist-aligned response to Ukraine is New Zealand, which sanctioned Russia and sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine instead of weapons. Australiadid all that and sent military aid. South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have been moderately aligned in their responses, with offers to support other countries’ refugee intakes financially and cut trade ties with Russia and implement sanctions, but refusing to accept Ukrainian refugees.

Most states, however, have been quiet on Russian sanctions and avoided direct criticism. Vietnam has vaguely condemned Russia, but abstained from voting on the March 2 UN Security Council resolution deploring the invasion. India has worked around Western sanctions, while China has criticized sanctions amid misogynistic remarks about Ukrainian women. Smaller countries like the Federated States of Micronesia have cut diplomatic relations with Russia without imposing sanctions. The Philippines offered military bases to the United States if the war spreads to Asia, but moved ahead with the purchase of Russian defense equipment. Similarly, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Malaysia have chosen to protect Russian arms trade over supporting Ukraine. Given anti-colonialist affinities between Indo-Pacific nations and Ukraine, failing to offer stronger, clearer alignment with the West’s rules-based order and with feminist principles may be a lost opportunity for smaller Indo-Pacific states.

It is unclear if Japan’s response is what Ukrainian feminists want. Japan, however, has taken what might be considered feminist approaches to foreign policy, offering humanitarian aid, resisting calls to provide military support, sanctioning Russia, and even increasing its intake of refugees. In so doing, Japan has modeled a foreign policy that other nations should emulate, especially smaller states, which could face similar threats in the future. Feminist foreign policy advocates hope that it continues to do so, while also addressing domestic gender equality challenges faced by Japanese women and its LGBTQ community. Any attempt at formal adoption of a Japanese FFP should include self-reflection on where Japan stands internationally on domestic gender policies, especially if Tokyo wants to set an example for other Indo-Pacific countries.

Hannah Cole (hannah@pacforum.org) is Program & Publications Manager and Non-resident James A. Kelly Korea Fellow at Pacific Forum. Maryruth Belsey-Priebe (maryruth@pacforum.org) is a Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Fellow at Pacific Forum and Harvard International Relations graduate student. Tevvi Bullock (tevvi@pacforum.org) is a WPS Fellow at Pacific Forum and PhD candidate in Gender, Climate & Humanitarian Action at Monash University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #19 – Myanmar: Words like “genocide” have consequences

On March 21, the US Department of State declared that the actions by the Myanmar government against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in 2017 were genocide. The Myanmar military’s role had been defended in the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 by the then-state counsellor and government leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, now jailed after the February 2021 military coup. If, then, it was genocide the whole power structure in Myanmar must bear responsibility, even if the despicable actions were solely committed by the military.

“Genocide” is an exceedingly strong word, and perhaps no other in the modern era has such a negative connotation. It is inaccurately used simply to evoke the mass horrors of intentional death through wars. But it must be used sparingly, or its emotional influence and accuracy will be diminished. Its meaning importantly includes the systemic intent to eliminate or destroy a people based on their culture, religion, ethnicity, or other bond. Many despicable acts of destruction, murder, rape, arson, pillaging, war crimes, or crimes against humanity horrify us, and there is no doubt that these were committed against the defenseless Rohingya inside Myanmar on the border, forcing many to flee to Bangladesh.

But was the intent of the Myanmar military to wipe out the Rohingya? I think not. It was a brutal, unforgivable assault on a people to drive them across the border to Bangladesh, whatever atrocities individual commanders may have ordered. It is not happenstance that the Myanmar authorities refuse to use the term “Rohingya” and declare that they are not citizens, calling them Bengalis and brutally assaulting them to achieve the authorities’ aim of driving them out of the country. This was a horrendous act of ethnic cleansing and completely unjustified. The anti-Rohingya and, more generally, anti-Muslim riots and prejudice have been fanned throughout the Buddhist population by a virulent right-wing branch of the Buddhist clergy.

The Rohingya and the Muslims of Rakhine State (a province in Myanmar) are not newcomers, although the Burmese blame the British for unrestricted immigration into Burma when it was governed as a province of India until 1937. Muslims lived in the region for centuries, and Arakan (renamed Rakhine by the Burmese) was an independent kingdom until conquered by the Burmese in 1785. A separate, current rebellion by Buddhists in the region, the Arakan Army, operates an administration and aims to restore a significant degree of autonomy to the province, or even independence, while promising rights to the Rohingya, who have been denied basic liberties for many decades.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC that the Myanmar government was committing genocide. But the Holocaust was different from the horrors imposed on the Rohingya—not only in the magnitude of the disaster but also when it comes to intent, for the Holocaust expressly sought as state policy to eliminate the Jews, not only to expel them. This is not apparent in the Myanmar case. The US action may appeal to some members of Congress and place the United States in a morally defensible position. But if the desired effect was also to delegitimize the Myanmar military, it does so at the expense of the previous civilian government, for however much they may rightly complain about the military’s domination, dictatorship, and excesses, and however much they now deplore what has happened, they gave their imprimatur to the tragedy through their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Whatever her personal views may have been, this was a dual political ploy—appealing to the mass prejudice of the Buddhist majority in the country against the Rohingya and Muslims in general, and to placate the military and their strong antipathy to her. She specifically said that she was not a democratic icon, as the international media continuously proclaimed, but a Burmese politician. She effectively illustrated her position.

We may modify the use of the term “genocide” when used to describe, not justify, the elimination of a cultural aspect of a society—cultural genocide. So, Uyghur Muslim culture is under attack in Xinjiang province in China, as China wants compliant farm and factory labor, but only under Chinese cultural domination. That is, the elimination of a culture (and the political opposition it implies) but not its people, who could be useful to the state apparatus.

We should not confuse injustice, murder, and crimes against humanity for genocide, for in doing so we degrade the past and make policy formation to counter atrocities all the more difficult. Myanmar authorities must bear responsibility for their atrocious acts in appropriate international fora and law, and internally as well, but not for genocide.

David I. Steinberg (stonemirror280@gmail.com) is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #39 – How Public-Private Cooperation Helped Unlock US Assistance on Agent Orange

On Aug. 10, 1961, the United States began spraying aerial herbicides over South Vietnam. The spraying continued for 10 years. Agent Orange, as the herbicides became known, is the most intractable legacy of the Vietnam War. While cooperation on identifying American soldiers’ remains and removing unexploded ordnance started before normalization of relations in 1995, only in 2006 did Washington begin acknowledging responsibility for Agent Orange. It was public-private cooperation that helped break the deadlock and unlock US assistance. Addressing the Agent Orange issue can further advance US-Vietnam bilateral relations and should be a priority for Washington.

Public and Private Progress

Following US President George W. Bush’s 2006 visit to Vietnam, the two countries issued a joint statement in which Washington officially recognized the need to address Agent Orange’s consequences. Six months later, the US Congress approved the first annual funding for dioxin remediation in Vietnam. As of 2021, the amount reached $381.4 million, 75% for environmental clean-up and 25% for disability assistance.

The State Department tasked the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with administering the appropriated funds. USAID collaborated with Vietnamese authorities in environmental remediation of dioxin contamination at Da Nang Airport, completed in 2017. Clean-up efforts are underway at the Bien Hoa Air Base, the principal remaining dioxin hotspot.

Separate funds for health and disability programs were appropriated in 2011, starting at $3 million but with increased financial support from Washington in subsequent years. In 2019, USAID and Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense signed a five-year memorandum earmarking $65 million to assist people with disabilities. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provided $14.5 million toward this goal, channeling American assistance to Vietnamese with severe disabilities in 10 heavily sprayed provinces.

A network of transnational actors, led in part by the Ford Foundation, was key to these developments.

In 1994, the Vietnamese government agreed to a Canadian proposal to search for residual dioxin in sprayed areas and assigned the work to the 10-80 Committee in the Ministry of Health. Funded by the Canadian government, the 10-80 Committee and Hatfield Consultants, Ltd. conducted the first comprehensive long-term research on dioxin residues in Vietnam. The study confirmed dioxin remained in the soil at a former American base, finding its way up the food chain and into people who returned to the area—the first empirical evidence of residual dioxin’s continuing threat to public health. These findings gave rise to the “dioxin hotspot hypothesis”; that former American bases were the most likely contaminated sites.

However, the Canadian government declined further funding, and the United States and Vietnam stalled in their attempt at a joint epidemiological study. Instead, in 2002, the Ford Foundation offered the 10-80 Committee a grant to test the dioxin hot spot hypothesis on all 2,735 former American bases in Vietnam. The 10-80 Committee-Hatfield 2006 report demonstrated that dioxin contamination was concentrated at three former bases, in Phu Cat, Da Nang, and Bien Hoa. This identified the scope of the environmental hazards and focused US-Vietnam discussions on remediation.

Hanoi had invited the Ford Foundation to Vietnam a decade earlier, and Ford became a grant-maker in several important fields. Still, Charles Bailey, the Ford Foundation representative in Vietnam (one of this article’s co-authors), soon realized progress on Agent Orange was paramount. From 2000 to 2011, Ford approved nearly a hundred grants worth $17 million to Vietnamese ministries and research centers, UN agencies, and Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, and other American NGOs for pilot programs to develop best practices of direct assistance to Agent Orange victims, locate dioxin hotspots, launch clean-up projects, and continuously raise the issue in the United States. Ford’s initiatives and their partners’ work rekindled interest in some US leaders, encouraging them to channel money to USAID for use in Vietnam.

In 2007, Ford helped establish a track-2 channel, the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. Ford Foundation President Susan Berresford convened the Group, which comprised eminent citizens, scientists, victims’ supporters, and policymakers from both countries. In 2010, the group published its 10-year comprehensive Plan of Action. The plan set goals and detailed the required steps on disability assistance and clean up, calling for $300 million from the United States and other donors. In 2019, US assistance surpassed that benchmark, and many of the goals were being achieved.

This story in Vietnam is told mainly as a government matter, but philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation can play a role in such circumstances. When government-to-government cooperation was at an impasse, Ford acted as a facilitator and trust-builder. It had the freedom, resources, and courage to help solve the problem.

Public-Private Cooperation

Still, support from US leaders was critical. The most prominent advocate is Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who used evidence from the 10-80 Committee-Hatfield dioxin hotspot studies to push for US involvement in environmental remediation and aid to Agent Orange victims. His seniority in the Senate led him to spearhead these initiatives, and in 2015 he said that the United States had “a moral obligation to do something about [the Agent Orange legacy].”

Tim Rieser, Leahy’s foreign policy advisor, and Michael W. Marine, US ambassador to Vietnam from 2004 to 2007, led the effort to arrange funding on the ground. Having witnessed first-hand the damages of Agent Orange in Vietnam and talked to Vietnamese representatives, they were determined to bring about joint US-Vietnam actions in mitigating consequences of dioxin and helping impacted Vietnamese.

Without such leadership, US assistance to Agent Orange victims would not have been possible.

Charles Bailey worked closely with Vice Foreign Minister Le Van Bang and his colleagues, Dr. Le Ke Son (head of the Vietnam government’s coordinating committee on Agent Orange), as well as Rieser, Marine, subsequent US ambassadors, and the Dialogue Group to ensure continuing progress. Last July, at the launch of the Vietnamese Wartime Accounting Initiative, Deputy Minister of Defense and Senior Lt. General Hoang Xuan Chien thanked the Ford Foundation, and President Nguyen Xuan Phuc expressed appreciation for the “practical support from philanthropists at home and abroad” in his letter to Vietnam’s Agent Orange victims on Agent Orange Awareness Day.

What’s Next

Problems remain. USAID-sponsored activities remain limited and do not reach all potential victims inside or outside priority provinces. Many victims and advocates are bitter that the US government recognizes dioxin-related illnesses suffered by American war veterans but not among Vietnamese. A recent lawsuit against former American Agent Orange producers is a reminder that it is critical to pay more attention to victims’ needs and concerns. Also, the Agent Orange legacy in Laos and Cambodia remains unaddressed. The lessons from US-Vietnam cooperation in this regard could inform future US efforts in helping these two countries mitigate dioxin consequences.

Overcoming sensitivities will not be easy, but while the same was true two decades ago, Hanoi and Washington now have even greater incentives to remove barriers to closer bilateral relations. A victim-centered approach requiring US direct assistance to the victims and recognition of their plight will not only address the Agent Orange issue and promote justice for the victims but can also increase confidence and cooperation between Vietnam and the United States.

Phan Xuan Dung (PHAN0057@e.ntu.edu.sg) is a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum. He obtained an MSc degree in Asian Studies from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, and a BA in International Relations from Tokyo International University in Japan.

Charles Bailey (charles.baileyadv@gmail.com) headed the Ford Foundation in Vietnam from 1997 to 2007 and then directed the Agent Orange programs at the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute until 2014. He is the author, with Le Ke Son, of From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the US, and Agent Orange.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #24 – Comparative Connections Summary: May 2021

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
CHANGE IN STYLE, CONTINUITY IN ASIA POLICY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Quadrennially, we write to assure readers that there will be more continuity than change as a new foreign policy team takes office. Globally, this would not be the case this year. In its first few months, the Biden administration made 180-degree turns on issues such as climate change, World Health Organization membership, the role of science in the battle against COVID-19, immigration, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In our region, however, there has been more continuity. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focused on the Quad—the informal but increasingly structured grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—and the Biden administration has doubled down on this effort, conducting the first (virtual) Quad summit. It has largely continued the “cooperate when we can but confront when we must” approach toward China. And while Trump appeared to have disdain for US alliances, every national security document from his administration underscored the central role US alliances played in its Asia strategy.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUGA AND BIDEN OFF TO A GOOD START
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
The early months of 2021 offered a full diplomatic agenda for US-Japan relations as a new US administration took office. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States amid considerable contention. Former President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, and on Jan. 6, a crowd of his supporters stormed the US Capitol where Congressional representatives were certifying the results of the presidential election. The breach of the US Capitol shocked the nation and the world. Yet after his inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden and his foreign policy team soon got to work on implementing policies that emphasized on US allies and sought to restore US engagement in multilateral coalitions around the globe. The day after the inauguration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reached out to his counterpart in Japan, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura Shigeru, to assure him of the importance the new administration placed on its allies. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to focus the attention of leaders in the United States and Japan, however.

US-CHINA RELATIONS 
CONTINUITY PREVAILS IN BIDEN’S FIRST 100 DAYS
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US & HANNAH PRICE, CSIS
In its final days, the Trump administration took more actions to impose costs on China for its objectionable policies and to tie the hands of the incoming Biden team. The first 100 days of President Biden’s administration revealed substantial continuity in policy toward Beijing, with strategic competition remaining the dominant feature of the US-China relationship. Senior Chinese officials delivered speeches that pinned blame entirely on the US for the deterioration in bilateral ties. A round of combative, yet serious, talks took place between senior US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. The US added new sanctions on Beijing for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. In coordination with its allies, Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese individuals deemed responsible for carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Steps were taken by the US to demonstrate “rock-solid” support for Taiwan in the face of stepped-up Chinese coercion. Cooperation on climate change was launched with John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai to meet with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua, and Xi Jinping’s participation in the US-led Leaders Summit on Climate.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
In the first four months of 2021—the first three and a half of a Biden administration focused on domestic progress and COVID-19 vaccinations—US relations with the Korean Peninsula assumed familiar contours after four years of an unorthodox Trump administration. The US and South Korea quickly reached a military burden-sharing agreement and pledged cooperation in a variety of areas, although the regular differences of opinion lurk under the surface regarding how closely Seoul should work with both North Korea and Japan. The US-China rivalry remains a shadow over the Asia-Pacific security and political economy situation, complicating South Korea’s regional hedging strategy. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program advanced apace, US and South Korean attempts to open dialogue were rebuffed, and the Biden team’s North Korea policy review will not endear it to Pyongyang.

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
ASEAN CONFRONTS DUAL CRISES  
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar dealt a serious blow to the ASEAN diplomatic order and presented the incoming Biden administration with its first major policy challenge in Southeast Asia. More profoundly, the coup set into motion a political and humanitarian crisis that has pushed Myanmar into an economic free fall. The imposition of Western sanctions gave China and Russia an opening to strengthen ties with the Tatmadaw. Myanmar was an extreme example of political turmoil, but the instability surrounding Thailand’s anti-regime and anti-monarchy movement persisted into the new year. In January, Vietnam embarked upon a more orderly political transition through the 13th National Party Congress, resulting in a leadership structure focused on ensuring stability, both external and internal.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
BEIJING’S ADVANCES COMPLICATED BY MYANMAR COUP AND US RESOLVE
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
Beijing confidently forecast continued advances in high-priority efforts promoting regional economic integration, ASEAN’s prominence as China’s leading trade partner, as well as strengthening supply chain connections disrupted by the pandemic and US trade and economic restrictions. Ever-closer cooperation to counter COVID-19 saw Chinese pledges add to its leading position providing more than 60% of international vaccines to Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, the unexpected coup and protracted crisis in Myanmar headed the list of important complications. The incoming Biden administration showed no letup in US-led military challenges to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, while strong high-level US government support for the Philippines in the face of China’s latest coercive moves supported Manila’s unusually vocal protests against the Chinese actions. Beijing also had difficulty countering Biden’s strong emphasis on close collaboration with allies and partners, seen notably in the first QUAD summit resulting in a major initiative to provide 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines for Southeast Asia and nearby areas. The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines was now questioned by Chinese as well as foreign specialists and Beijing’s domestic demand was growing strongly, slowing donations and sales abroad.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
TAIWAN PROSPERS, CHINA RATCHETS UP COERCION, AND US SUPPORT REMAINS “ROCK-SOLID”
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
For the leadership of Taiwan, the significance for Taiwan’s relationships with the US and China of the end of the Trump administration and the arrival of the Biden administration formed the defining concern as 2021 began. Taiwan welcomed two steps that the Trump administration took in its waning days: announcing a visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to the UN (even though it was later cancelled) and repudiating the longstanding Taiwan Contact Guidelines, which was widely seen in Taiwan as overly restrictive. Taiwan’s anxieties regarding the Biden administration were quickly allayed, as incoming senior officials repeatedly called US support for Taiwan “rock solid” and issued new far less restrictive Guidelines. Taiwan also benefited from unusually direct expressions of support from Japan and other international partners.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
THE SOUND OF ONE HAND GIVING
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
As in 2019-20, inter-Korean ties remained frozen, other than a rare lawsuit. Revelations that in 2018 Moon Jae-in’s government had pondered building the North a nuclear power plant caused a brief furor. Seoul’s propaganda balloon ban backfired, prompting widespread criticism—but no thanks from Pyongyang, which was also unimpressed by scaled-down US-ROK war games. North Korea tested its first ballistic missile in nearly a year, amid concerns of a new arms race; some analysts deemed the South culpable, too. Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong fired four verbal volleys, mostly insults. Another undetected defector highlighted failings in ROK border security. MOU Lee In-young was ubiquitous and loquacious, but scattergun in the causes he championed. Moon’s government remained reticent, or worse, regarding DPRK human rights abuses. With just a year left in office, and notwithstanding rare criticism of the North by ministers, Moon was expected to double down on engagement despite Pyongyang’s lack of reciprocity.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS POISED FOR RECOVERY DESPITE INTENSIFIED CONFLICT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
China’s relations with North and South Korea gained momentum in the first four months of 2021. China-North Korea relations were propelled by an exchange of messages between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping around North Korea’s successful convening of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s (WPK) Eighth Party Congress, the appointment of former North Korean Trade Minister Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s new ambassador to China, and another round of messages in March that emphasized the importance of close relations. In a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to develop relations with China to new heights, and in a Jan. 26 telephone call with Moon, Xi expressed support for Korean denuclearization and joint development of China-South Korea relations. China and South Korea held consultations on maritime enforcement cooperation, defense lines of communication, health security, and free trade negotiations.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
THE GLOVES COME OFF
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
After several years of seeking to counter each other while insisting that their relations were at a recent best, Tokyo and Beijing became overtly contentious. A major event of the reporting period was China’s passage, and subsequent enforcement, of a law empowering its coast guard to take action, including through the use of force, to defend China’s self-proclaimed sovereignty over the Japanese administered Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Heretofore reluctant to criticize Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu finally did so in April, and pledged to work with the United States to resolve China-Taiwan tensions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that a continuation of such moves would cause Chinese-Japanese ties to hit bottom and threatened retaliation for any interference on Taiwan. No more was heard about a long-postponed Xi Jinping visit to Japan.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
DIFFICULT TO DISENTANGLE: HISTORY AND FOREIGN POLICY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
Unsurprisingly, historical issues proved difficult to disentangle from other foreign policy issues in Japan-South Korea relations, which remained at the “worst level since the normalization” in the first four months of 2021. The Seoul Central District Court’s ruling on Jan. 8 that the Japanese government should pay damages to victims of sexual slavery during World War II set the tone for contentious relations at the beginning of the year. While the Moon Jae-in administration made gestures to mend ties, the Suga administration maintained that South Korea should take concrete measures to roll back the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling on Japanese companies requiring them to compensate wartime forced laborers. Export restrictions levied by Japan against South Korean companies in 2019 remain in place, while the case is with the World Trade Organization after South Korea reopened a complaint in 2020 that was filed and then suspended in 2019.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK AT MOSCOW AND BEIJING
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
For Moscow and Beijing, the changing of the guard in the White House in January 2021 meant no reset of ties with Washington. Instead, the newly inaugurated Biden administration turned the screws on both China and Russia by reinvigorating alliances, firming up sanctions, and prioritizing force deployment, particularly to the Indo-Pacific region. In contrast to Biden’s multifaceted diplomatic offensive, China and Russia seemed passive, if not inactive, both in terms of their bilateral ties and their respective relations with the US. Top Russian and Chinese diplomats met in person just once in the first four months of 2021 in the middle of sharply escalated tensions across the Taiwan Strait and in East Ukraine. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow waited to see if the transition from Trumpism would lead to a brave new world (“new concert of powers”), a grave new world of Kissingerian “great games” in the era of WMD plus AI, or something in between.

JAPAN-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
A DIPLOMATIC “NEW NORMAL” IN THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION?
BY KEI KOGA, NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY
Japan-Southeast Asia relations were relatively stable, despite COVID-19, as summarized by three trends: emphasizing multilateral actors; prioritizing enhancement of bilateral relations with two countries (Indonesia and Vietnam); and the synthesis of Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific “vision” (FOIP) and ASEAN’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Japan and Southeast Asian states managed to achieve tangible cooperation, as illustrated by the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED). Yet, strategic dynamics among Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States are shifting because of changes in Japanese and US political leadership. Japan, the most reliable partner for Southeast Asia in the Trump era, seemingly faced a relative decline in the importance attached by Southeast Asia because of the United States’ renewed commitment to the region. In the context of this new diplomatic reality, the foremost challenges that Japan and Southeast Asia will likely face in 2021-2022 are Myanmar and ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

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PacNet #19 – A Moment of Truth (Again) for ASEAN

I understand that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a consensus-based organization that “moves at a pace comfortable to all,” which means at a pace comfortable to its slowest member. I also understand that ASEAN generally adheres to the principle of “noninterference in the internal affairs of one another.” But when one of its members issues orders to “shoot in the head” unarmed peaceful protesters, this goes against everything that ASEAN is supposed to stand for. Its continued inaction in the face of the ruling junta’s assault against the people of Myanmar (Burma) will again raise the question of ASEAN’s viability and utility. Every ASEAN document proclaims the need for ASEAN to remain “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to dealing with security challenges in the region. The time has come for ASEAN to drive.

ASEAN’s Charter cites “(A)dhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms” as a basic precept in its preamble. Member States are supposed to act in accordance with “respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.” As Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a recent tweet, the “principle of noninterference in others’ domestic affairs cannot be used to conceal crimes against humanity; that would be tantamount to ASEAN complicity and consent.” In a separate post, he opined that ASEAN’s noninterference policy “marginalizes ASEAN in the moral esteem of the planet and thereby sidelines it from the centrality it has long sought and attained.”

But what can/should ASEAN do? For starters it can stop issuing anodyne proclamations calling for “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility” and instead address the problem head-on, as did the Philippine Foreign Ministry’s Statement “On the Violence on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day”: “The Philippines is profoundly dismayed at reports of excessive and needless force against unarmed protesters … We reiterate our call for security forces in Myanmar to exercise restraint and desist from resorting to disproportionate force against unarmed citizens. We remain steadfast in supporting Myanmar on its path to a fuller democracy …” Unfortunately, getting a consensus institution like ASEAN to issue such a public statement remains unlikely; it’s not consistent with “the ASEAN way.”

Nonetheless, ASEAN has at least two vehicles for delivering a quieter message to the generals. One is via a visit by the Troika, consisting of the heads of state of the current, immediate past, and next ASEAN Chair. In this case, that would be, respectively, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, and Cambodia—not the largest nor most influential messengers in ASEAN—but could easily be supplemented with others for a more impactful effect. However, both ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF, which includes China, India, Japan, and the US among others) have Expert and Eminent Persons Groups (full disclosure: I am a member of the latter) which could offer ASEAN’s “good offices” in seeking a solution. The ARF, in particular, is supposed to evolve from a confidence-building mechanism to undertake a preventive diplomacy mission; clearly the current situation in Myanmar is one that is ripe for outside mediation.

There are a number of senior ASEAN statesmen who could head such a delegation. My personal choice would be former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who would bring both personal prestige and the clout of ASEAN’s largest and most influential member to the table. Their message should be a simple one: immediately stop the killing of unarmed peaceful protesters or face being expelled from ASEAN. Better yet, ASEAN should inform the junta that it is prepared to recognize the interim unity government being set up by the CRPH—the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the national parliament), comprised mostly by members of parliament who were duly elected in last fall’s national elections. This prospective unity government, which involves a number of ethnic parties as well as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, would no doubt welcome ASEAN’s intervention (which renders the non-interference clause moot); most importantly, ASEAN’s recognition would de-legitimize the junta, a threat they would have to take seriously.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has taken a number of unilateral measures to pressure the junta to respect the people of Myanmar’s wishes. It also needs to pressure ASEAN to do more.  One vehicle for doing so would be through the Quad, whose four members—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – makes up half the non-ASEAN membership in ASEAN’s premier multilateral offering, the “leaders-led” East Asia Summit (EAS). Collectively, they, preferably with like-minded members New Zealand and South Korea, should inform ASEAN that they will not participate in future EAS meetings as long as a junta-led Myanmar remains in the group. This will, of course, require India—the world’s largest democracy—to get off the fence and finally speak out in defense of democracy for its neighbor. The final two EAS members, China and Russia, should, but are not likely to join this effort; both actually sent representatives to the junta’s March 27 Armed Forces Day parade in the midst of the civilian carnage. The people of Myanmar will remember this.

ASEAN was already in the midst of an identity crisis prior to the Myanmar coup, prompted by calls by leading intellectuals like Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan to censure two of its members—Cambodia and Lao—for putting the interests of their patron state—China—ahead of the interests of the group. Moving at a speed comfortable to them has prevented ASEAN from speaking out forcefully against Beijing’s excesses in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Here ASEAN needs to follow the example set by its track two neighbor, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), which adopted an 80% consensus rule which prevents one or two members from preventing the rest from moving forward when necessary. In practice, this rule is seldom applied. Knowing that one does not have a veto usually encourages the finding of a compromise solution.

If ASEAN were prepared to “move at a pace comfortable to none,” i.e., to compromise rather than let a single member (or two) hold the group hostage, then perhaps it could finally put some meaning behind the term “ASEAN centrality.” Right now it just means sitting in the middle of the road and going nowhere.

Postscript: If, as sadly anticipated, ASEAN once again fails to act, it may be time for Indonesia to free itself from its ASEAN shackles and take a unilateral leadership role commensurate with its size and international standing; by sending both a mediator and a message to Naypyitaw, Jokowi would also be sending a powerful message to his erstwhile ASEAN colleagues.  It would be interesting to then see how many, if any, of his fellow ASEAN members would step up along with Jakarta.

Ralph Cossa (ralph@pacforum.org) is WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies and President Emeritus at the Pacific Forum.
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PacNet #12 – China Policy from Trump to Biden: More Continuity than Change

The following is the first in a two-part series on the Biden administration’s policy toward the People’s Republic of China. Click here for part two on the expected changes from the Trump administration.

Media coverage of President Joe Biden’s first months in office has concentrated on the many areas where he has broken sharply with his predecessor. In the first 72 hours alone, executive orders were signed stopping the American withdrawal from the World Health Organization, rejoining the Paris climate accord, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, reversing the “Muslim ban,” and halting construction on the southern border wall. One area that looks increasingly like it will exhibit greater continuity than change, however, is US policy toward China, which has emerged as a near-peer competitor on the world stage far sooner than most anticipated. In fact, while chasms remain between Democratic and Republican perspectives on many foreign policy issues—Israel, Iran, Russia, etc.—there seems to be uncommon convergence on the challenge posed by China, at least substantively if not stylistically.

The hardened approach among Democratic policymakers has been driven by disillusionment with China from the Obama years. In a recent BBC interview, Evan Medeiros, who served as President Obama’s China director on the National Security Council, conceded that he and other Obama-era China experts had misjudged how adversarial Chinese leader Xi Jinping would be in comparison to his predecessor:

“It’s important to keep in mind that the first Chinese leader that we had to deal with, Hu Jintao, was a very, very different leader than Xi Jinping: he was far less ambitious, he was far less aggressive, and he was far less willing to accept and tolerate risk and friction externally. So, when I look back at our China policy, I wish that we had recognized quicker how different Xi Jinping was from Hu Jintao and recognized how he was going to take China politically, economically, and strategically in a different direction.”

As President Biden continues looking to former Obama officials to fill national security roles in his administration, the China hands will be carrying this realization with them and appear resolved not to underestimate Beijing again. Following his first conversation with Xi since taking office, Biden warned, “if we don’t get moving, [China is] going to eat our lunch.”

This article will examine some expected areas of continuity with President Trump’s China policy, and a subsequent article will look at some other areas of expected divergence.

In reading the tea leaves on areas of expected continuity, a major one will be an enduring recognition within the administration that a coordinated, whole-of-government effort is necessary to effectively counter China. If China is seeking to erode American influence across a variety of domains, then America cannot respond in a disjointed fashion but must ensure that the full array of cabinet departments and the Intelligence Community are all on the same page and are fully leveraging their resources and authorities. To that end, Axios reported last month that “virtually every team in the [Biden] National Security Council, from technology to global health to international economics, will incorporate China into their work,” calling it as “a concrete example of the ‘whole-of-government’ approach toward China that officials from both the Biden and Trump administrations have supported.” Moreover, the Indo-Pacific team led by Biden’s Asia tsar Kurt Campbell, a former senior Obama administration official with deep expertise on East Asia, “will be the largest regional NSC directorate, a sign of how this NSC is prioritizing China and broader Indo-Pacific issues.” In many ways, this incipient US approach mimics the way Beijing approaches foreign policy, coordinating all elements of the country’s “comprehensive national power”—military forces, economic power, natural resources, scientific expertise, and so forth—to obtain maximum leverage over other countries rather than treating each as a separate domain.

Another expected area of continuity will be a readiness—eagerness, even—to publicly criticize the Chinese government, something earlier administrations had often eschewed out of an omnipresent concern that it might damage bilateral relations. There have been several high-profile examples already in the last month or two.

During his confirmation hearings, now-Secretary of State Antony Blinken concurred with the Trump administration’s assessment that China’s ongoing repression of its Muslim Uyghur population constituted a genocide, emboldening other countries such as Canada to follow suit. In a call to China’s top diplomat in early February, Blinken again criticized Beijing for its ongoing human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and for its reluctance to condemn the Feb. 1 coup d’état in Myanmar. Following China’s Feb. 11 banning of the BBC for its critical coverage of COVID-19 and Uyghur concentration camps, the State Department condemned the move as “part of a wider campaign to suppress free media in China.” We can expect such sweeping criticism to continue as the Biden team seeks to fulfill its commitment to hold the line against the Chinese and begin to reinvigorate Washington’s advocacy for democracy and human rights abroad, especially as new polling reveals historic levels of bipartisan unfavorability among the American people for Beijing.

Perhaps the most significant area of continuity will be on military policy. Late last year, the Defense Department’s annual China Military Power Report said Beijing “has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the [People’s Liberation Army] in nearly every respect,” and that “China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas.” The PLA has made dramatic improvements in its ability to conduct joint operations, has substantially expanded its overseas footprint, and has developed a suite of advanced missiles that make it significantly riskier for the US to operate close to China’s shores. The Pentagon report also said the PLA Navy had surpassed the US Navy as the largest in the world, with over 300 ships and submarines in operation and many more in production.

All indications are that the Biden team understands the scale of this military threat in the Indo-Pacific and will prioritize the region accordingly. In early February, two US carrier strike groups held simultaneous drills in Chinese-claimed waters of the South China Sea—the first such major exercise in seven months and the first of the new administration—and a destroyer separately conducted a so-called “freedom of navigation operation,” or FONOP, through the Taiwan Strait. These symbolic moves will be followed up by more concrete measures in the coming months and years, like insulating the US Indo-Pacific Command from expected defense budget cuts; in early March, Politico reported that INDOPACOM had asked Congress for almost $50 billion in additional funding this year and was expected to get a favorable response. Biden will also place substantial emphasis on rehabilitating relationships with key military allies in the region, including Australia, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, and is reportedly already planning a virtual summit with the Quad later this month. It is less clear whether Washington will maintain the same high level of engagement with Taiwan that was seen during the latter Trump years, as that has been particularly inflammatory to Beijing and the strategic benefits to the US have been unclear.

A final example of continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations will probably be on broad economic policy vis-à-vis China. Some of the more contested Trump policies, such as his unpredictable application of trade tariffs, will almost certainly fall by the wayside, but an emphasis on combatting unfair Chinese trade practices and applying sanctions where necessary will remain, as well as an acute awareness of Beijing’s malign cyber activities. Chinese economic and industrial espionage over the past two decades has been responsible for the theft of key strategic technologies with military applications and has cost the US economy hundreds of billions of dollars, according to a 2018 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Once upon a time, American corporations may have been willing to swallow the costs of such activities in the belief that access to Chinese markets would eventually compensate for the losses, but that tradeoff has become less and less tenable as the mirage of eventual full market access has proven elusive.

None of this is to say that Biden’s China policy will be indistinguishable from Trump’s, but for all the reasons outlined above, differences will tend to be more stylistic than substantive. The subsequent article in this series will take a look at some of these areas of expected divergence between the Trump and Biden administrations and their implications for the US-China relationship going forward.

Eric Feinberg (eric.m.feinberg@jhu.edu) is a postgraduate student in the Strategic Studies Department at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington and a Young Leader at Pacific Forum in Honolulu. Prior to SAIS, he was a senior Asia analyst at US Special Operations Command Pacific and a military intelligence analyst at US Army Pacific in Honolulu.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #8 – Rebooting the UN-US Partnership: Global Goals Require Indo-Pacific Focus

The Indo-Pacific region has seen a rise in political instability in recent years. The Trump administration and China have been at loggerheads, through the WHO, in formulating a global approach to slowing the spread of COVID-19. The region has experienced a rise in human rights violations, evidenced by the bitter treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and authoritarian crackdowns in Thailand and Cambodia. The Indo-Pacific has also witnessed China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and along the Indo-China border, eliciting a defensive posture from regional powers such as Australia, Japan, and India.

In full view of political and human rights crises in the Indo-Pacific, the UN has remained silent. It has failed to enact reforms to its major organs, such as the Security Council. It has failed to bring meaningful reform to the Human Rights Council, which remains populated by serial violators, including China and Iran, as well as its inability to find its voice on rights violations against Muslim populations in China, Myanmar, and India. The UN has remained “concerned” over India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act and subsequent Hindu violence toward Muslims, China’s housing of Uyghur Muslims, or the plight of the Rohingya, but has not insisted through Special Procedures that independent investigators gain exclusive access to the most sensitive areas. China, like other autocratic regimes in the region, has repeatedly denied or stalled invitations to UN experts wanting to conduct official visits.

Despite these shortcomings, the incoming Biden administration represents an opportunity to reinvigorate ties between the US and the UN. Doing so could catalyze economic growth and provide stability in the Indo-Pacific. Regionwide, there is no shortage of challenges that need concrete solutions, including institutional reforms—both at the Security Council and the Human Rights Council—and a more robust climate change agenda.

Past and present American administrations have discussed reform at the United Nations, chiefly in the Security Council. Static since 1945, the aging body needs to be made fit for purpose in the modern era. To accomplish this, additional permanent members should be added—with two equally qualified candidates in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have lobbied for years with limited support. India has been an active participant in UN peacekeeping operations around the globe and Japan has been a leading contributor of development assistance (ODA) for decades. Their constant presence on the Security Council, combined with changes to veto powers, would add two vital allies capable of defending the international order and keeping the peace. Adding a third new permanent member from Africa would win concessions from the African continent—which has contributed proposals in the past that have received little recognition in the General Assembly. One of the principle strengths of the United Nations is its commitment to the equality of states, vested in Article 2 of the UN Charter. The Security Council is a forum where Great Powers exert influence on global affairs, yet to maintain that influence, the US needs a proactive Security Council that can both provide support to multilateral initiatives and advance its interests, as well as hold human rights violators and autocratic regimes accountable.

On the human rights front, the UN could facilitate reform proposals for the Human Rights Council. The Trump administration walked away from the Council in 2018, with former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley calling the body a “hypocritical and self-serving organization.” The Secretary-General António Guterres and Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should advocate the reform of the Council by mandating the norm of taking into account the contribution of potential candidates to the Council, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments. While the US is sure to return to the Human Rights Council under a Biden administration, it should back a proposal that would help eliminate states with poor human rights records, such as limiting Council seats to just one term or increasing the threshold to win a seat from a simple plurality to a two-thirds majority. Abandoning the Human Rights Council, rather than advocating for its reform is short-sighted thinking—a decision that left American allies in the Indo-Pacific, like Japan and Australia, in the lurch.

Climate change is another area of cooperation where the United Nations can engage with the Biden administration. Biden has already signaled as much by appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy. While Asia’s economic engine now fuels the global economy, it is responsible for more than 50% of global greenhouse gasses through rapid industrialization. The Indo-Pacific needs to make climate change a higher priority, particularly in light of recent natural disasters. The US should address a number of climate vulnerabilities by dramatically upscaling humanitarian and disaster response exercises, as seen in the Cobra Gold and Tiger Triumph exercises with Thailand and India. Climate change needs to be viewed, including by the US as a security threat. Global temperature changes facilitate seawater rise, create storm surges, and strain fisheries. Climate change pressures put stress on bilateral relations, particularly in ASEAN, which are at risk of violent naval confrontations as a result of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Biden administration would be wise to adopt a coherent national strategy on climate change, a glaring hole in Trump’s anti-science doctrine, which ignored Department of Defense warnings, particularly on the Indo-Pacific in 2019.

A focus on environmental initiatives would not only bolster Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, but other states in the region such as Japan, Australia, and India with Free and Open Indo-Pacific visions and mutual environmental concerns. China need not be excluded from the group; the 2nd Belt Road Forum recently demonstrated Beijing is placing greater emphasis on the environment in BRI projects. Promoting crosswalks through the convening power of the UN can kill two birds with one stone, contributing to climate change cooperation in the Indo-Pacific while moving the China-US rivalry away from a zero-sum approach. The UN should avail itself of this opportunity. The UN could provide cooperation mechanisms to mitigate climate change impacts in the Mekong Delta, the South China Sea and South Asia. Piggybacking on pre-existing initiatives such as the US-Mekong Partnership or Australia’s Partnerships for Recovery in ASEAN and the Southeast Asian region may be a template for expanded multilateral cooperation.

To reinvigorate its partnership, America and the UN must proactively adopt policies that resonate with the Biden administration’s multilateral and internationalist inclinations. Institutional reform, human rights, and climate change cooperation are key areas of synergy in the broader Indo-Pacific.

Mark S. Cogan (mscogan@kansaigaidai.ac.jp) is an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka; and a communications consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Twitter handle:@markscogan.

Dr. Stephen Nagy (nagy@icu.ac.jp) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo; a distinguished fellow with Canada’s Asia Pacific Foundation; a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI); and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #6 – Myanmar’s Military Arrests the Civilian Government—and Democracy

In the early hours of Feb. 1, the day Myanmar’s newly elected parliamentarians were to take their seats, the armed forces arrested senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), including State Counselor and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Win Myint. The military declared a state of emergency, announcing it will govern the country for one year, after which it promises fresh elections. Understanding this political crisis requires unpacking the role of the military in Myanmar’s beleaguered democratization, the calculus of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and a geopolitical context dominated by China.

The military claimed that the Nov. 8, 2020 general election—in which the NLD won 396 of 476 contested seats in the bicameral parliament, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won only 33 seats—should have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Military leaders alleged massive fraud although international and domestic election observers have thus far found no such evidence. Meetings between the military and the NLD collapsed after Suu Kyi reportedly rejected all of the military’s demands, which included postponing parliament, abolishing the election commission, and recounting the votes from the November election with military supervision. While the military’s actions appear indefensible, it also appears that Suu Kyi overestimated her ability to wield another electoral mandate.

The collapse of the power-sharing arrangement between the armed forces and civilian government fits a troubled historical pattern. Myanmar’s military-authored 2008 constitution enshrined provisions that enabled the armed forces to step back from absolute power in 2011 without fear of reprisal but left Myanmar’s civilian government weak and especially vulnerable to a coup d’état. In 2020, the NLD proposed dozens of constitutional amendments aimed at curtailing the military’s influence by reducing its guaranteed allotment of parliamentary seats to below 25%, lowering the over-75% threshold to pass constitutional amendments (which effectively grants the military a veto),  and transferring control of the armed forces from the top general to the president. The military vetoed all amendments that would have reduced its political power and regarded the NLD’s efforts as a direct threat to its privileged position.

Min Aung Hlaing’s political calculus is also important for understanding the takeover. His second five-year term as commander-in-chief was expected to end upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 in July 2021. Had the USDP and its allies won at least a third of the contested parliamentary seats in the November election, they could have elected him president with the aid of the unelected military parliamentarians. This would have enabled him to designate his successor with the approval of the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council, a function he could not constitutionally perform as commander-in-chief. After the NLD’s landslide victory, claiming electoral fraud and seizing power may be what Min Aung Hlaing regarded as his last opportunity to ensure military guidance of Myanmar’s “disciplined” democratization while protecting the economic gains of his cronies and avoiding prosecution. Given Suu Kyi’s age and lack of a political heir apparent, the military may be looking to hold power until it can shape a more compliant civilian government.

International reaction to the military takeover has ranged from measured calls for dialogue and stability from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to protests and condemnation. On Jan. 29, three days after the armed forces publicly refused to rule out a coup, a group of Myanmar-based diplomatic missions representing Western countries issued a rare joint statement opposing any attempt to alter the electoral outcome. After the takeover, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that “[t]he military must reverse these actions immediately.” President Joe Biden threatened new sanctions. The military, not known for its economic competence, must now contend with capital flight from what was Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this will likely set Myanmar’s economy back years.

The military also faces a domestic population that overwhelmingly supports the NLD and is likely furious that hard-won, albeit partial, democratization has been so abruptly halted. Furthermore, the military’s disrespect for domestic institutions has implications for the tortuous peace process with armed ethnic groups in Myanmar’s borderlands. Groups that negotiated ceasefires with the central government may increasingly doubt Naypyidaw’s intentions for peace and inclusive development, raising the danger of further cycles of violence. With less legitimacy and capacity than when they previously ruled the country, military leaders appear to be acting in self-interest rather than the national interest.

Diplomatically, Myanmar has risked returning to pariahdom because of military atrocities against Rohingya Muslim ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Since 2017, over 750,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi’s outspoken defense of the armed forces despite international condemnation and her refusal to disavow anti-Rohingya hate speech severely tarnished her global reputation as a Nobel-winning champion of democracy and alienated international supporters. Suu Kyi may have calculated that doubling down on nationalism would protect her from being outflanked by the military and Buddhist extremists, allowing her to secure a larger electoral victory and ultimately strengthen civilian rule by amending the constitution. That gamble appears to have failed spectacularly.

Unlike many of Myanmar’s diplomatic partners, China has avoided criticizing its “friendly neighbor.” Beijing provided economic and diplomatic lifelines to the previous military regime in exchange for access to natural resources and extensive political influence, generating concerns in Myanmar that the country was becoming dangerously overdependent on China. Political reforms enabled Naypyidaw to reduce that dependence, but as international opprobrium mounted over the Rakhine crisis, China continued to defend Myanmar against human rights criticisms at the United Nations while pouring investment into the country and supporting the peace process with ethnic armed groups. As Myanmar has moved further into Beijing’s orbit, it is again becoming vulnerable to overreliance on China, and Chinese diplomatic leverage. The return to military rule will accelerate this process at a time of heightened tension in both Sino-US and Sino-Indian relations. Yet, Myanmar’s political volatility also threatens China’s interests in a stable environment for its infrastructure projects and strategy for accessing the Indian Ocean. On Jan. 12—less than three weeks before the military takeover—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar to discuss cooperation on a wide range of issues with Suu Kyi, Win Myint, and Min Aung Hlaing. That the takeover happened despite Beijing’s extensive investment suggests that greater stability might have been achieved by collaboratively promoting good governance in Myanmar.

Myanmar has confronted colonialism, intercommunal violence, military dictatorship, and civil war. Securing stability requires tolerance across political fault lines, rule of law, and respect for the expressed will of the people. Myanmar’s military subverting democratic processes bodes ill for human rights and geopolitical stability. The crisis poses an early test of President Biden’s vision for a coalition of democracies, but it also highlights the need for regional powers to rise to the challenge. Both Seoul and Tokyo regard Myanmar and Southeast Asia as important elements of “new southern strategies” to economically diversify away from China. As key US allies and leading Asian democracies, South Korea and Japan should join willing ASEAN partners in issuing a statement demanding the release of civilian leaders, immediate access to Myanmar by international observers, and a commitment from the military to reverse its seizure of power. As China will likely block action by the UN Security Council, coordination among regional stakeholders and global democracies will be critical to an international response that places the people of Myanmar, and their self-determination and prosperity, at its center.

Jonathan Chow (chow_jonathan@wheatoncollege.edu) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts where he teaches international relations and East Asian politics.

Leif-Eric Easley (easley@ewha.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha University in Seoul where he teaches international security and political economics.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #38 – Why America opposes the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?—A second look

As US-China relations decline to their worst state in over 50 years, it’s important that both sides understand fully the importance of their respective differences. US opposition to Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is commonly understood in China and elsewhere as a competition between the two powers for economic advantage and accompanying international influence. This line of assessment is valid as far as it goes but gives little attention to a wide range of factors in the BRI—and related Chinese statecraft employed in support of the initiative—that Americans deem seriously objectionable.

Some of these factors concern newly prominent unconventional Chinese actions and levers of influence abroad that were heretofore disguised, hidden, denied, or otherwise neglected or unappreciated by foreign specialists assessing Chinese foreign relations. The unconventional Chinese actions and levers of influence have been featured in investigations carried out by US and other government agencies and respected US and foreign think tanks. What the investigations show is that the BRI, despite Chinese rhetoric to the contrary, is part of a wide-ranging effort by the Chinese government to undermine the many interests of the United States and its allies and partners who stand in the way of China’s determined international ascendance, under the rubric of the BRI and other means.

Those interests include a) the rule of law; b) the rights of small nations seeking to avoid dominance in contested issues with large nations; c) transparent, free, and fair economic dealings in line with accountable governance; and d) popular political rights, religious freedom, and non-discrimination against minorities.

BRI challenges America

Legitimating China’s growth model, Huawei expansion—Beijing has succeeded in having the BRI widely endorsed by, among others, the UN secretary general, playing a prominent role in the two China-hosted international forums on the BRI in 2017 and 2019, and by Italy becoming the first of the G7 countries to join BRI in 2019. Meanwhile, the most important Chinese company associated with the BRI, Huawei, is advancing from a strong base among developed countries, seeking a leading global position.

Such endorsements of the BRI and advancement of Huawei are major problems for Americans who target China’s unfair economic practices. They aver that Beijing’s surplus capital for financing BRI deals has come as a result of China’s neo-mercantilist practices, marking the latest stage in a three-decade long effort using state-directed development polices which plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors. The profits flow into efforts to achieve dominance in major world industries, build military power, and support the BRI in order to secure China’s dominance in Asia and world leadership. They support companies like Huawei in their attempt to dominate international communications enterprises.

Broader international endorsement of the BRI and the expansion of Huawei would legitimate the longstanding negative Chinese economic practices. They would make it even harder for the United States to counter the many negative features of Chinese practices for US interests in the existing international economic order. That order is viewed as under serious threat coming from determined Chinese efforts to weaken and undermine restrictions on the egregiously mercantilist state-capitalism prevalent in China today.

BRI and corruption—The BRI is not a multilateral organization. Its basis is bilateral agreements between China—and Chinese firms—with various countries and their firms. These agreements are not transparent. Corruption is a serious problem in China, but it’s even worse in many developing countries. Chinese firms and supporting Chinese government representatives repeatedly work effectively with corrupt foreign leaders seeking mutual advantage, which comes at the expense of the country’s broad national interest.

A comprehensive study by the Asia Society of China’s BRI in Southeast Asia recalled the extraordinary scale of corruption in the Razak government in Malaysia making deals with enormous payoffs in very expensive Chinese projects in the country. It said the Malaysian case was an exception only in that corrupt practices were exposed, concluding “the pervasive use of bribery, cost padding, and kickbacks was also indicated in numerous other BRI projects in the region.” Studies by the International Republican Institute, the Center for American Progress, the Center for New American Security, the German Marshall Fund and many others came to the same conclusion in other parts of the world. Such practices undermine the international status quo, which have featured strong US-led efforts to reduce corrupt practices which weaken good governance and disadvantage the public interest.

The BRI supports authoritarian rule—Many corrupt cases in the BRI involve Chinese dealmakers and authoritarian “strong man” leaders seeking to advance authoritarian rule. Examples included Cambodia, Venezuela, many states in Central Asia and the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Montenegro, and arguably Serbia, the Maldives, Ecuador, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Such practices run against US interests in good governance with accountability to the people of the country. They promote an alternative international order that accommodates leaders who suppress the rights of their people for the sake of maintaining their power.

Authoritarian rulers often are keen on Huawei, Chinese communications and surveillance technologies and related equipment for use in controlling their populations. Some also adopt Chinese journalistic practices that serve to influence their people to support authoritarian rule. China in turn benefits from the sales, and Chinese representatives also gain much greater access to and a degree of control over the communications, surveillance, and media of the recipient country. The situation provides opportunities for Chinese espionage.

BRI fosters dependency, leverage and control—Beijing commonly uses BRI agreements to build economic dependence. The Chinese agreements often result in unsustainable borrowing. Debtor countries are more accommodating regarding Chinese demands for equity (e.g., land, ports, and airfields) and/or Chinese requests for access to military facilities or other favors. Salient examples are Cambodia, Djibouti, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Laos, Malaysia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela. The disadvantages for the United States are that Chinese actions foster a world order at odds with prevailing rules, with China free to manipulate vulnerable states for its own advantage, leading to economic stalling of these countries that will require costly intervention by existing international economic institutions.

Other Chinese BRI leverage disadvantageous for the United States comes as BRI participant states often rely heavily on trade with China. They are well-aware they need to defer to China on sensitive issues given Beijing’s long record of putting aside or manipulating WTO norms to use trade dependence as leverage in order to compel the country to meet China’s demands on a variety of policy issues. Meanwhile, Huawei and other firms’ expensive and complicated communications and surveillance systems along with Chinese provided hydro-electric dams and port operations cause recipient countries to rely ever more on Chinese businesses for management and maintenance. Such connections make the Chinese ties difficult and expensive to replace by another provider, adding to reasons for recipient states to defer to China on sensitive issues.

Conclusion

The US opposition to the BRI reflects a substantial set of differences with China, not just an issue of economic competition. Yet, there is no easy answer for the United States in countering the Chinese challenges as Beijing’s BRI advances its sway and finds welcome, notably from many authoritarian and/or corruptible leaders.

Robert Sutter (sutterr@gwu.edu) is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, USA. His most recent book is The United States and Asia: Regional Dynamics and Twenty-First Century Relations: Second Edition (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2020).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.