PacNet #49 – Xi Jinping’s top five foreign policy mistakes

Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy is stimulating increased international opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda, undoing years of effort by Chinese officials to assure regional governments that a stronger China will be peaceful and non-domineering. Here are five examples of Xi’s self-defeating decision-making in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) foreign relations.

Wolf Warriorism

Xi has ordered his diplomats to demonstrate “fighting spirit” and to “dare to show their swords.” Accordingly, over the past two years Chinese diplomats have aimed jarring insults and threats at various countries, not just Western democracies, but also Brazil, Kazakhstan, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Thailand, and South Korea. The result is unsurprising. Public opinion surveys by the Pew Research Center and other pollsters show a marked increase in negative feeling toward China since 2019 in Europe, Australia, Japan, the United States, and other countries. Former Singaporean senior foreign ministry official Bilihari Kausikan said “China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ are doing a better job than any American diplomat of arousing anti-Chinese feelings around the world.” Chinese diplomats could defend their country’s actions differently. Instead, Wolf Warriorism acts as an extension of domestic politics, with little regard for harm done to China’s international prestige and relationships.

Galwan Valley skirmish

According to Indian sources, this June 2020 battle on the disputed Sino-Indian border began when Chinese troops ambushed and killed an Indian colonel who had approached the Chinese unarmed and in good faith to negotiate de-escalation. Whether or not Beijing ordered this particular act, a PRC policy of creeping expansionism made an eventual confrontation almost inevitable absent a tacit Indian surrender. For years the Chinese have built infrastructure to facilitate quick military mobilization in disputed areas. The Chinese government found it intolerable when the Indian side started to do the same in response.

The clash caused a long-term hardening of Indian attitudes and policy toward China. The Indian government cancelled several infrastructure construction deals with China, halted the purchase of Huawei information technology equipment, and sought to economically decouple from China in other important sectors. New Delhi re-committed itself to blocking Chinese expansion into disputed areas. India has signaled a deeper commitment to the Quad, was quick to express support for the AUKUS agreement, and now sends warships into the South China Sea—acts that Beijing finds threatening.

South China Sea policy

Having already distinguished itself as the most aggressive of the South China Sea claimants, Beijing started building sizeable artificial islands in 2013. China has now installed military facilities, including runways, docks, barracks, and missile batteries, on at least three reefs in the Spratly group. The PRC’s South China Sea policy highlights Beijing choosing to impose its will upon weaker neighbors rather than seeking a mutually acceptable compromise. It is also another example of the Chinese government disregarding an international agreement to which China was a signatory. Beijing has argued that China’s “historic rights” to the South China Sea take precedence over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and contemptuously rejected the 2016 ruling against China by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The upside of these outposts, located far from mainland China, is uncertain. They might be more liability than asset to the PRC in a time of conflict. As for the downside: more than any other single Chinese policy, the new bases convinced international observers that PRC foreign policy under Xi was taking an aggressive turn, with more emphasis on winning rather than managing strategic disputes, and less effort to avoid alarming other governments in the Indo-Pacific.

Taiwan

Rather than blazing a creative new solution to the cross-Strait dispute, the man celebrated for “Xi Jinping Thought” has simply doubled-down on his predecessors’ demonstrably failed policies. Xi maintains that unification is essential to China’s “rejuvenation,” although the PRC is abundantly prosperous and secure without controlling Taiwan. He has continued to insist that Taiwan’s destiny is “one country, two systems” (1C2S). Taiwan’s people, however, never supported 1C2S, and the destruction of Hong Kong’s liberties has thoroughly discredited the concept. That Xi would still speak of 1C2S in a message to Taiwan as recently as Oct. 9 indicates a stunning intellectual and political sclerosis.

Finally, Xi has increased military pressure on Taiwan. This has deepened resentment on the island toward China and bolsters support for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which now holds both the presidency and a legislative majority. The heightened sense of danger has prodded Taiwan to implement asymmetric defense, which will make it more capable of fighting off an attempted PRC invasion. The Biden administration has reaffirmed US support for Taiwan as “rock solid.” Even Japanese leaders are now openly discussingthe increasing likelihood that Japan would help defend Taiwan.

Xi’s Taiwan policy works to eliminate possible solutions other than a war that, even in the best-case scenario, would be disastrous for China.

Economic coercion against Australia

In April 2020, Canberra displeased Beijing by calling for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. The PRC retaliated by cutting importsof 10 Australian products. As in previous cases, Chinese officials implausibly denied that the restrictions were politically motivated, a gratuitous show of duplicity.

The consequences of this Chinese policy were worse for China than for Australia. Canberra did not accommodate the 14 political demandsmade by the Chinese embassy in November 2020. Australia suffered little from the import bans, finding other buyers for much of the supply turned away by China. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently described the damage done to Australia’s economy as “relatively modest.” In addition to the reputation cost to Beijing, the Chinese government’s campaign against Australia drew greater international attention to the dangers of doing business with China. Power shortages in China during autumn 2021 are partly due to a coal shortage, worsened by the sanction against Australian coal imports. The attempt to punish Australia has increased momentum for addressing China’s systematic violation of both the spirit and the letter of its World Trade Organization obligations. Canberra’s refusal to capitulate may serve as an inspiration for other governments under Chinese economic pressure over a political disagreement, diminishing the usefulness of this tactic.

What drives Xi? First, he has relied heavily on pandering to Chinese nationalism. Appearing to defend China’s interests against challenges by foreigners makes the Xi regime more popular and implicitly makes opposing Xi seem unpatriotic.

Second, Xi rules during a period of Chinese hubris. By 2012, when Xi assumed leadership, China was the world’s second-largest economy and on track to surpass the United States for the top spot. Beijing had hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, China’s coming-out party as a world power, while the financial crisis in 2007-2008 convinced Chinese observers that America was in rapid decline even as China surged ahead.

A third contributing factor is hyper-authoritarianism. Xi has concentrated numerous decision-making powers in himself, built up a personality cult, and prioritized political correctness over pragmatic analysis. The resulting political climate is not conducive to advisors warning Xi that he is making mistakes.

Xi’s goals include increasing China’s international stature and quashing international criticism. He says he wants to cultivate the image of a “credible, loveable and respectable China.” Xi seeks to maximize China’s access to global markets and technology. He wants to hasten the withdrawal of US strategic influence from the region. He wants the world to believe “China will never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence.”

Xi’s major foreign policy errors, however, have undermined these goals. The PRC government under Xi has indulged nationalistic domestic public opinion at the risk of sabotaging the important longer-term national objectives that Xi has specified as central to his “China dream.”

A PRC that other states perceive as aggressive is engendering coordinated strategic opposition. This will make it harder for China to become a regional and global leader. If other governments believe China is expansionist, they will believe every strategic gain by China emboldens Beijing to strive for more. During Xi’s tenure this logic has become commonplace in discussions about Beijing’s designs on Taiwan and the South China Sea. There is also an important economic and technological cost to China, as worried trade partners decouple to reduce their vulnerability to PRC coercion and to avoid selling China the rope that China might hang them with.

Chinese remember Mao’s leadership as 70% good. Xi may have difficulty reaching even that modest standard.

Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

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 #40 – Comparative Connections Summary: September 2021

COMPARATIVE CONNECTIONS SUMMARY- SEPTEMBER 2021 ISSUE

 

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
EUROPE “DISCOVERS” ASIA AND WASHINGTON “DISCOVERS” SEA, AMID AFGHAN ANXIETY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Joe Biden pledged that the US would resume its traditional role as leader of US alliances, supporter of multilateralism, and champion of international law and institutions. Throughout its first nine months, his administration has labored to turn those words into reality, and for the first six months the focus was on Asia, at least Northeast Asia. During this reporting period, Biden himself worked on multilateral initiatives and while the primary venues were Atlanticist–the G7 summit, NATO, and the European Union–Asia figured prominently in those discussions. Chinese behavior loomed large in European discussions as NATO allies conducted ship visits and military exercises in the region to underscore these concerns. Meanwhile, a number of senior US foreign policy and security officials visited Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, amidst complaints of neglect from Washington. Concerns about Chinese pressure against Taiwan also grew in the region and beyond. The impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, messy at it appeared to be, has thus far not resulted in a crisis of confidence regarding US commitment to the region.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUMMER TAKES AN UNEXPECTED TURN
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
By the end of spring, the US-Japan relationship was centerstage in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy. From the first Quad (virtual) Summit to the visit of Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide to Washington, DC, relations between Tokyo and Washington could not have been better. A full calendar of follow-up meetings for the fall suggested even further deepening of the partnership. And on Aug. 20, President Joe Biden announced that he intended to nominate Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and chief of staff for President Obama, as ambassador to Japan. Throughout the summer, the US and Japan continued to deepen and expand the global coalition for Indo-Pacific cooperation. The UK, France, and even Germany crafted their own Indo-Pacific visions, as did the EU. Maritime cooperation grew as more navies joined in regional exercises. Taiwan featured prominently in US-Japan diplomacy, and in May the G7 echoed US-Japan concerns about rising tensions across the Taiwan Straits. Japanese political leaders also spoke out on the need for Japan to be ready to support the US in case tensions rose to the level of military conflict.

US-CHINA RELATIONS
THE DESCENT CONTINUES
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US
The downward slide in US-China relations continued as the two countries wrangled over Hong Kong, COVID-19, Taiwan, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, and cyberattacks. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Chinese officials met in Tianjin but appeared to make no progress toward managing intensifying competition between the two countries. The US rolled out a series of measures against alleged Chinese forced labor practices and strengthened the prohibition against US investments in the PRC’s military industrial complex. Deteriorating freedoms in Hong Kong prompted the Biden administration to impose more sanctions on Chinese officials and issue a business advisory warning US companies of growing risks to their activities in Hong Kong.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
STIR NOT MURKY WATERS
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
US relations with both South and North Korea were—with a few notable exceptions—uneventful during the May-August 2021 reporting period. If US-Korea relations displayed some excitement, it was largely along the Washington-Seoul axis. An inaugural leader summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in took place in Washington, producing significant deliverables for the short, medium, and long term. Biden and Moon then participated in the June G7 summit in Great Britain. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August also provided South Korea with challenges and ponderables. Washington-Pyongyang communication was subdued, aside from standard North Korean criticism of US-South Korea joint military exercises. Even when the US and North Korea addressed each other with respect to dialogue, it was usually to underline for the other party how Washington or Pyongyang is willing to talk under the right circumstances, but capable of waiting out the other side. Late August added some spice, however, as the IAEA issued a credible report confirming what many had expected: North Korea has likely re-started fissile material production at the Yongbyon complex. Finally, outside the reporting period, Pyongyang tested a potentially nuclear-capable land-attack cruise missile on Sept. 11. Are these signs that sleeping dogs are stirring?

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
WASHINGTON FINDS ITS FEET IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
In the months immediately following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy, but in May the administration heeded calls for a stronger voice and more active role in the region with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region in her role as vice president. The cumulative impact remains to be seen, but one key “deliverable”—the renewal of the US–Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success. More broadly, the administration responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making considerable strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
PUSHING REGIONAL ADVANTAGES AMID HEIGHTENED US RIVALRY
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
China’s recognition of the strategic challenge posed by close Biden administration relations with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) powers Australia, India, and Japan reinforced Beijing’s strong efforts to preserve and expand its advantageous position in Southeast Asia in the face of rising competition with the United States. Beijing used uniformly critical coverage of US withdrawal from Afghanistan to highlight US unreliability, and attempted to discredit Vice President Kamala Harris’ Aug. 22-26 visit to the region, the highpoint of Biden government engagement with Southeast Asia. It also widely publicized evidence of China’s influence in the competition with the United States in Southeast Asia, even among governments long wary of China, like Vietnam. That effort underlined the lengths Vietnam would go to avoid offending China in reporting that Hanoi allowed the Chinese ambassador to publicly meet the Vietnamese prime minister and donate vaccines, upstaging Vice President Harris, who hours later began her visit and offered vaccines.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
CROSS-STRAIT TENSION INCREASING BENEATH A SURFACE CALM
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Cross-Strait tensions intensified between May and August 2021, despite the superficial calm that generally prevailed after the dramatic confrontations earlier in the year. China again blocked Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA), and Xi Jinping reaffirmed the Communist Party’s commitment to the peaceful reunification of Taiwan at the Party’s 100th anniversary. Chinese military flights into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone were almost routine until China launched 28 sorties in a single day to protest the G7 summit’s endorsement of Taiwan’s participation in the WHA. The Biden administration announced its first arms sales to Taiwan. Several countries, most notably Japan and Australia, made their strongest statements ever in support of Taiwan. Lithuania announced it would permit the opening of an unofficial “Taiwanese” representative office. Beijing withdrew its ambassador from Lithuania and told Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador from Beijing. The US dismissed fears that its withdrawal from Afghanistan might portend abandonment of Taiwan. In coming months, Taiwan faces three potential turning points: Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party will elect a new chair; a referendum could overturn the opening of Taiwan’s market to US pork; and the US has signaled it will invite Taiwan to President Biden’s democracy summit despite threats of military retaliation by China.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
SUMMER FALSE DAWN: ON/OFF COMMUNICATIONS
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high—aren’t they always?—that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the US. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the US and ROK began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
ALLIANCE RESTORATION AND SUMMIT COMMEMORATIONS
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
South Korea President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Joe Biden and his participation in the G7 summit during May and June focused attention on Seoul’s strategy of balancing relations with China and the United States. While Beijing disapproved of the US-ROK joint statement released after the May summit, Chinese state media praised the Moon administration’s relative restraint in joining US-led coalition building against China. Official remarks on core political and security issues, however, raised mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. US-China competition and South Korean domestic political debates amplify Seoul’s dilemma regarding its strategic alignment ahead of the country’s 2022 presidential elections.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
A CHILLY SUMMER
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
China and Japan continued to vie over a wide variety of issues including economic competitiveness, jurisdiction over territorial waters, World War II responsibilities, representation in international organizations, and even Olympic and Paralympic medals. The Japanese government expressed concern with the increasingly obvious presence of Chinese ships and planes in and around areas under its jurisdiction, with Chinese sources accusing Japan of a Cold War mentality. Nothing was heard of Xi Jinping’s long-planned and often postponed official visit to Tokyo. Also, Chinese admonitions that Japan recognize that its best interests lay not with a declining United States but in joining forces with a rising China were conspicuous by their absence.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
UNREALIZED OLYMPIC DIPLOMACY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
In the summer months of 2021, the big question for many observers was whether Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Moon Jae-in would hold their first summit meeting during the Tokyo Olympic Games. Cautious hope was in the air, especially on the South Korean side. However, by the time the Olympics opened in late July, any such hope was dashed amid a series of unhelpful spats. Seoul and Tokyo decided that they would not gain much—at least not what they wanted from the other—by holding a summit this summer. With Suga’s announcement of his resignation as head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the end of September, barring any sudden turn of events, his tenure as Japanese prime minister will be recorded as one that did not have a summit with a South Korean president.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
AFGHAN ENDGAME AND GUNS OF AUGUST
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
The summer of 2021 may be the best and worst time for Russia-China relations. There was much to celebrate as the two powers moved into the third decade of stable and friendly relations, symbolized by the 20th anniversary of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the “friendship treaty” (The Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation). This historical moment, however, paralleled a hasty and chaotic end to the 20-year US interlude in Afghanistan with at least two unpleasant consequences for Beijing and Moscow: a war-torn Afghanistan in their backyard with an uncertain future and worse, a United States now ready to exclusively focus on the two large Eurasian powers 30 years after the end of the Cold War. As the Afghan endgame rapidly unfolded in August, both sides were conducting large exercises across and around Eurasia. While Afgthanistan may not again serve as the “graveyard of empires” in the 21st century, but then end of the US engagement there, however, will usher in an era of competition, if not clashes, between rival empires.

AUSTRALIA-US/EAST ASIA RELATIONS
COVID AND CHINA CHILL, ALLIANCE ANNIVERSARY AND AFGHANISTAN
BY GRAEME DOBELL, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE
Australia closed its borders to confront COVID-19 and rode out recession, while China shut off key markets to punish Australia. The short recession caused by pandemic ended Australia’s record run of nearly three decades of continuous economic growth; Beijing’s coercion crunched the optimism of three decades of economic enmeshment. However, Australia’s economy rebounded while the China crunch continues, causing Australia to question its status as the most China-dependent economy in the developed world. The Canberra–Beijing iciness has built over five years, marking the lowest period since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972. In 2021, the language of “strategic partnership” died and the “strategic economic dialogue” was suspended by China. The Biden administration promised not to abandon Australia, saying that US–China relations would not improve while an ally faced coercion. Australia embraced Washington’s assurance, along with the elevation of the Quad with the US, Japan, and India.

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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 #39 – Covid-19 Recovery: Re-energizing Hawaii with Regional Insights

As part of our long-standing Honolulu International Forum, the Pacific Forum launched a special virtual series, “Covid-19 Recovery: Re-energizing Hawaii with Regional Insights,” to provide Hawaii’s policy leaders with insights from the region to inform both its public health and economic responses to Covid-19.

Below is a summary of Covid-19 Recovery highlights with a link to key insights from each talk, which we hope will be valuable to our readers well beyond Hawaii.

  1. Taiwan (April 24, 2020)

Taiwan has been able to avoid wide-spread public shutdowns, containing the spread to relatively low numbers. Much of Taiwan’s success has been due to lessons learned during the SARS and MERS outbreaks, which impressed upon the Taiwanese public the importance of following guidelines from relevant authorities. The talk by Michael Y.K. Tseng, Director General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Honolulu, Hawaii, focused on three main themes: technology and big data, community measures, and organizational structure.

Technology and Big Data: Taiwan officials integrated the national health insurance database with the immigration database to track the 14-day travel histories and symptoms of citizens returning from high-risk countries. Taiwan’s “digital fence” monitoring system allowed it to monitor quarantined individuals in real time.

Community measures: Taiwan has not enacted widespread public shutdowns, adopting effective community measures instead. These included wearing masks in confined areas, granting healthcare access to foreign workers, and adopting social distancing measures in schools.

Organizational structure: Taiwan CDC allocated the key tasks of identification and treatment of new cases to two separate groups. This approach sought to eliminate a potential conflict of interest, giving the “hunting” group a free hand to identify infected individuals without having the responsibility to also treat them.

  1. South Korea (May 6, 2020)

South Korea has been widely praised as a Covid-19 success story, avoiding wide-spread public shutdowns and counting a low number of deaths. Dr. Victor Cha, Professor and Vice-dean at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies described South Korea’s response as centered on four main themes: the importance of early, decisive action; the ability to quickly deploy innovative measures; and resources for contact tracing. He also provided insight into North Korea’s handling of the crisis. 

Early action: Despite a slow start and some initial mistakes, within a month of detecting the first imported case of Covid-19, the government rolled out a robust response and testing regime, elevating the infectious disease alert level to the highest category.

Innovative healthcare facilities and reorganization of existing ones: South Korea developed drive-through testing facilities to meet the high testing demand and avoid widespread infections in hospitals. It also designated some hospitals for Covid-19 patients only.

Contact tracing: Two main mobile apps have been developed to track patients and help the public avoid outbreak areas. They provide information regarding Covid-19 patients’ recent locations and other details without revealing names or identities.

North Korea: North Korea’s response to Covid-19 is consistent with its past behavior during Ebola and MERS: closing its borders and shutting down domestic and international travel, then asking for international assistance a few months later.

  1. Singapore (May 14, 2020)

Despite early virus chains of transmission, Singapore has experienced no exponential rise in new cases for about three months until a recent surge took place, forcing the country to enter a “circuit breaker” period in early April. Benjamin Ang, Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), discussed the “ecosystem” of Covid-19 services and how various tools can assist human tracers and the public at large.

Contact tracing: The Government Technology Agency of Singapore developed the mobile app “TraceTogether” to aid the efforts of the contact tracing teams, thereby reducing the spread of Covid-19. TraceTogether does not track the user’s location but instead uses Bluetooth to determine if the user has been in close proximity with another user of the app.

Technological innovations: New technologies have facilitated business operations in different areas such as e-commerce, delivery services, wet market live streaming, and home-based learning. Robots are being used to encourage social distancing and monitor crowd density in parks.

Travel quarantine: Singapore has striven to simplify its 14-day mandatory quarantine system for travelers by presenting new arrivals with a pre-designated quarantine itinerary and utilizing existing infrastructure like empty hotels.

  1. INDO-PACOM (May 21, 2020)

Dr. John Wood, Director of United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) J9 Pacific Outreach discussed the Department of Defense’s perspectives on responding to the pandemic. His talk focused on INDOPACOM’s readiness to support the State of Hawaii, regional partners, and allies, and how the military will continue to contribute to the state’s economy.

Support for the State of Hawaii: INDOPACOM’s primary focus is to protect the health and safety of servicemembers while maintaining the force’s readiness to respond to challenges in the region and carry out its mission. It is also standing by to help Hawaii as well as Guam, American Samoa, the Compact of Free Association (COFA) states, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Maintaining friends, allies, partners, and readiness during the pandemic: The US Navy will host a modified version of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises this year. USAID, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense are providing financial aid and equipment to countries in INDOPACOM’s area of responsibility.

Building up Hawaii’s non-tourism economy: While Washington has the lion’s share of resources, Hawaii’s strength is that it is home to the region’s leading authorities on Asia-Pacific affairs. Hawaii-based institutions excel in environmental stewardship, sustainable and renewable energy, and Pacific Islands relations.

  1. Japan (May 28, 2020)

Dr. Kazuto Suzuki, Vice Dean and Professor of International Politics at Public Policy School of Hokkaido University discussed Japan’s approach to managing Covid-19. Japan has successfully contained the number of deaths without introducing strict lockdowns and pervasive testing policies. Dr. Suzuki’s talk focused on three main themes: Japan’s overall strategy, testing and contact tracing, and cultural norms.

“Hammer and Dance” strategy: Japan’s strategy does not aim to eliminate the virus but to distribute its spread over a longer period, creating a sustainable balance between public health and the economy. The “hammer” refers to the imposition of draconian measures when there is an exponential increase in new cases, whereas the “dance” refers to the use of containment measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

Limited resources guiding testing and tracing regimes: The role of testing has been limited due to low supplies of testing kits and concerns over the accuracy of results. Local health centers in each community have conducted contact tracing by phone.

Role of culture and social stigma: Certain social norms in Japan support compliance with public health measures, such as good hygiene and high scientific literacy. In addition to low-contact gestures such as bowing, face coverings are widely used in Japan.

  1. New Zealand (June 1, 2020)

New Zealand has been able to contain the spread of Covid-19 imposing strict measures since the very outset of the outbreak. Its strategy has been successful, and Prime Minister Jacinta Arden declared the country “virus-free” in early June. Dr. Jane Rovins, Senior Lecturer and International Coordinator at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research (JCDR) at Massey University described New Zealand’s “go hard, go early” approach to managing the Covid-19 public health crisis and the nation’s emerging path to economic recovery.

Travel: New Zealand suspended domestic travel during its highest level of alert, then gradually eased restrictions on movement as the emergency deescalated. International travel remains limited to specific class visas, and all incoming travelers are placed in managed isolation facilities for 14 days.

Economy: New Zealand has elaborated financial support schemes to help businesses and their employees recover from the effects of Covid-19.

Community & social distancing measures: The measures adopted varied depending on the alert level. Measures included movement restrictions, school closures, and limited-to-no public gatherings. The government has left the choice of using masks up to citizens.

Public messaging, enforcement, and protecting vulnerable communities: Covid-19 multimedia messaging translated into numerous languages allowed the government to be open and transparent and connect with all community groups about the public health crisis.

  1. Australia (June 25, 2020)

Australia has been able to successfully suppress Covid-19, flattening the curve and significantly reducing the rate of transmission. Ambassador Jane Hardy, Australia’s Consul-General in Honolulu, discussed Australia’s strategy for managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Her talk emphasized the country’s highly internationalized nature and its holistic approach to recovery on both the national and regional levels.

Public health measures: Australia adopted a strategy of “suppression” as opposed to one of elimination, which included a complete lockdown followed by a phased opening of society divided in three steps. Contact tracing was supported by the adoption of a mobile app, and testing was expanded to include asymptomatic cases.

Travel and tourism: Domestic travel has increased as many Australians are traveling within the country’s borders. Australia and New Zealand have been discussing the possibility of implementing a “Trans-Tasman Bubble,” i.e., opening travel between Australia and New Zealand without requiring travelers to undergo 14-day quarantines.

Economic assistance measures: Australia’s government passed a suite of economic packages supporting the workforce and healthcare, including aid for aboriginal communities. Australia has also reframed aid and the capabilities of its programs supporting its Pacific Island neighbors and Southeast Asia as Covid-19 resilience and response efforts.

In summary, while there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to managing the virus, these countries took the challenge seriously with timely steps to mitigate the impact. Various factors have contributed to certain Asia-Pacific countries’ success, including definitive government action, experience with epidemics like SARS and MERS, and cultural norms, resulting in better timeliness, preparedness, and ability to adapt as circumstances changed. Asia-Pacific countries deployed efficient testing and contact tracing systems, tailored technological solutions, and community measures. The United States has contributed to the regional pandemic response by providing financial aid and equipment to countries in INDOPACOM’s area of responsibility. Visit our website for other Covid-19 related research and perspectives, such as a living document analyzing successful response measures of regional economies.

Eugenio Benincasa (eugenio@pacforum.org) is a resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum.

Crystal Pryor (crystal@pacforum.org) is Director of Non-proliferation, Technology, and Fellowships at Pacific Forum.

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 #31 – Taiwan’s Covid-19 Diplomacy and WHO Participation: Losing the Battle but Winning the War?

Taiwan’s pragmatic “warm power” diplomacy during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak represents a low-key approach to boosting its international participation while minimizing the burden for its sympathetic international partners and friends. The government of President Tsai Ing-Wen’s successful management of the Covid-19 crisis has also made a strong case for liberal democracies as the superior form of government for public health crisis governance. This, in turn, has translated into more positive international publicity for Taiwan, as well as greater opportunities to network with other states’ relevant agencies and potentials for functional spillover into other forms of cooperation at the governmental level.

China, the alleged origin of the virus, has seemingly kept its official toll relatively low. While officially China has less than 100,000 confirmed cases, several Western liberal democracies—even, some have argued, with more reaction time and insight from the Chinese experience—have suffered greatly, with more than a million confirmed cases in the United States and over a 100,000 each in five populous Western European nations (Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France).

Assuming these official statistics are dependable, this development might have engendered yet another blow to liberal democracies in the ongoing battle over perceived performance legitimacy between authoritarian and liberal democratic regime types, adding fuel to what Larry Diamond has termed the global democratic recession.

It is in this context that Taiwan finds a way into the international collective narrative. Despite Taiwan’s geographic proximity, as well as close economic and demographic linkages with China, it has kept its Covid-19 toll remarkably low—with less than 450 confirmed cases to date and a death toll in the single digits. Together with fellow high performers such as South Korea, Taiwan’s performance provides solid proof that liberal democracies can be just as effective in public health governance as authoritarian polities. In so doing, Taiwan helps prevent the Covid-19 crisis from diminishing the case for democracy in the global marketplace of ideas.

Accordingly, Taiwan’s public diplomacy efforts have focused on presenting itself as a persecuted but nonetheless gracious international good Samaritan. Case in point: in an opinion piece for Time, Tsai says that although Taiwan has been “unfairly excluded” from the World Health Organization (WHO), it remains “willing and able” to contribute to global public health during the crisis using its strength in manufacturing, medicine, and technology.

Taiwan’s “mask diplomacy” represents the first significant initiative in this area. In a campaign titled “Taiwan can help; health for all,” Taipei has so far announced three rounds of international humanitarian assistance in the form of mask donation. These took place on April 1, April 9, and May 5, when it pledged to donate 10 million, 6 million, and 7 million masks to the international community.

The choice of priority recipient countries seems consciously tied-in with Taiwan’s soft power strategy. The aid goes to three broad categories: first, to the so-called “like-minded democracies” in the North Atlantic that share Taiwan’s liberal democratic values—a key theme that Tsai drove home in her June 2018 address at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy; second, to Taiwan’s 15 diplomatic allies that frequently voice support for Taiwan in international forums, as reciprocity for their goodwill; and third, to a select number of worst-hit developing nations, in a show of international good citizenship.

The approach has dove-tailed with both Taiwan’s image projection needs and its coalition-building strategy. First, the initiative instills the image of Taiwan as an altruistic actor that repays slights with kindness. That despite it being it largely shut out of the World Health Organization and the public health expertise and support that participation would have engendered, Taiwan still harbors no grudge, remains gracious and empathetic towards the needs of other societies, and is keen to lend assistance to those in more dire situations.

For its international “good samaritanship,” Taiwan has earned an extraordinary amount of goodwill from numerous Western governments, especially on Twitter, that dual-use messaging platform where official statements come with a cloak of informality and plausible deniability. Often hash-tagged #StrongerTogether, these messages include: from Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s open expression of gratitude and pledge to combat Covid-19 together on Twitter; from Europe, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen became the first EC president to directly address Taiwan in an official communication when she thanked Taiwan for mask donations; from the United States, numerous tweets from the White House National Security Council and various State Department missions’ accounts form an echo chamber that acknowledges the people of Taiwan’s gestures of goodwill, while noting Taiwan’s significance in safeguarding a free and open Indo-Pacific.

On coalition-building, Taiwan is capitalizing on this outpouring of international goodwill to enhance bilateral relations and rally support for regaining participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA). Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not been shy about espousing what it calls “the Taiwan Model for Combating Covid-19,” on which New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the US State Secretary Mike Pompeo had lavished praise and claimed to borrow significantly from for their respective Covid-19 responses. In addition, numerous bilateral functional linkages have sprung up for Taiwan, as Taiwan’s vice president (a renowned epidemiologist), vice premier, and health minister have all joined virtual track 1 or track 1.5 exchanges, often with US cabinet secretary and deputy secretary level dialogue partners—hitherto politically sensitive but now legitimized in the name of global public (health) interests. While these talks may be functional and technical in nature, the establishment of regularized channels of communication at high levels may be expected to have a functional spillover effect facilitating future discussions at more political levels.

By exporting its best practice lessons to the world, Taiwan exploits that intersection where the very interdependence of the global common’s non-traditional security needs (in pandemic mitigation) meets Taiwan’s particularist interests in greater international participation. In the name of enlightened self-interest, where health for one is dependent on health for all, Taiwan has built a multinational coalition to support its bid for meaningful participation in the World Health Assembly (WHA). The Foreign Affairs Committees of both houses of the US Congress wrote a public letter to 55 countries urging them to support Taiwan’s participation at the WHA session and the WHO more broadly. The US State Department’s various missions launched a #TweetForTaiwan initiative over Twitter to marshal media interests. Meanwhile leaders from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and others have openly announced support for Taiwan’s participation as either an observer or a guest.

Ultimately, whether Taiwan’s bid for WHA observer status comes to fruition or not may be secondary. During Covid-19, Taipei has branded itself as a champion of liberal democracies in the ongoing contest of legitimacy between liberal and authoritarian regime types. Moreover, its coalition-building effort over WHA participation has set a politically useful precedent of sympathetic partners’ collective bargaining on behalf of Taiwan, thus further diminishing their cost of supporting Taiwan in the future, especially when they chain-gang. In this sense, even if Taiwan is losing the WHA 2020 battle, it may still be winning the war of greater international space.

Wen-Ti Sung (wentisung@gmail.com) is a visiting fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. His research covers cross-strait relations, Chinese elite politics, and think tank diplomacy in US-China-Taiwan strategic triangle. He tweets at @wentisung.

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 #28 – Taiwan Needs Media Reform to Save Its Democracy

A version of this previously appeared in The Taipei Times and is reprinted with permission.

History shows that the failure of democratic states has typically resulted from a conjunction of powerful external enemies and deep domestic division. As such, Taiwan is vulnerable to Chinese agitation and penetration.

Taiwan is the gleaming beam of democracy in Asia. However, Taiwan is polarized—mildly, but still polarized. Polarization results in the government’s inability to resolve pressing problems due to low public trust, lack of institutional reform, questions about leadership, and inefficiency.

Better governance in Taiwan has been stymied by Taiwan’s political culture. Furthermore, governance is complicated by the polarization within both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT). In the DPP, President Tsai Ing-wen has had difficulty in passing major reforms when a number of DPP members of the legislature did not fully support her. In the KMT, the young want a KMT that is more Taiwan- and reform-focused, versus older members who want more focus on China and tradition.

Taiwan’s political culture is shallow and short-sighted. Democracy in Taiwan has led to unreasonable expectations, creating a spoiled electorate who demand instant results or they meander to another party.

Taiwan’s political polarization and political culture provide grist for Chinese propaganda and influence building. I will direct attention to four institutions that impact everyone’s life: 1) the constitution; 2) the legislature; 3) judicial reform; and 4) the media.

The Taiwan government is based on the Republic of China Constitution of 1947. Written in China during the civil war to fit Chinese circumstances, the constitution is not Taiwan-centric. Those opposing constitutional revision fear it would be the end of the Republic of China and a declaration of Taiwan independence. Those in support contend revision would better serve contemporary Taiwan by diluting the concentration of power in the presidency. Moreover, they argue abolishing the Control Yuan (similar to the US Government Accountability Office) and Examination Yuan (similar to the US government’s Office of Personnel Management) would be cost-effective and streamline government, in that other components of the government already carry out these tasks. Passage of the labor standards and pension reform bills was contentious, divisive, and sparked huge rallies which often became violent. Given political polarization, one can only imagine what constitutional reform would do.

Owing to political polarization, a contentious atmosphere often exists in the legislature, sparking brawls on the legislative floor. A set of rules guiding rational debate and prohibiting the use of profanity and loud language would improve the public’s view of the body. Criticism of the institution often focuses on too much power being concentrated in the hands of the president of the legislature and party caucus leaders. Voting tends to reflect Taiwan’s zero-sum political culture.

Polling consistently shows that Taiwanese have little trust in the justice system. Attorney Jerry Cheng, founder of the Taiwan Jury Association, says people feel that way “because most of them do not believe decisions made by judges are fair and impartial.” Taiwan’s justice system has long suffered from a lack of transparency. Many judges are appointed at an early age, raising charges that they lack real life and legal experience. Judges, once selected, have life-long tenure, and there is no system to assess their performance or remedy wrongful actions. There is also a dispute over whether to employ an independent jury system, or a system that utilizes lay judges to advise professional judges, who then cooperatively determine the verdict and sentencing. Premier Su Tseng-chang sent a bill to the legislature supporting a Japanese-style lay judge system. According to Cheng’s group, 80% of the population supports an independent jury system, like in the US, UK, South Korea, and Hong Kong.

Under martial law from 1949-1987, all forms of media were strictly controlled. After the lifting of martial law, Taiwan went from one extreme to another, becoming a media free for all. “China has penetrated 17 Taiwan media outlets: eight print media, four TV stations, three weekly publications, one publisher, and one technical magazine,” author He Qinglian wrote in in Red Penetration.

Author Jane Rickards argues that broadcast and print media have excess capacity resulting in endless competition. There is a dearth of professionalism, characterized by a lack of objectivity. Taiwan journalists should better verify facts. They self-censor in order to not offend Chinese officials who have placed highly profitable advertisements. In an interview with this author, National Communications Commission (NCC) Commissioner Hung Chen-ling said, “even after 10 years of discussion, Taiwan has yet to come up with a law to prevent concentration of media ownership.” A good example is the Want Want Group, which owns Zhongtian TV, Zhongshi TV, and TheChina Times newspaper. The owner of the Want Want Group is Tsai Eng-meng, one of Taiwan’s wealthiest men, who has large investments in China and is decidedly pro-China and pro-unification. Because of his political orientation, he is dubbed the “Red Media Baron.” Author J. Michael Cole has noted that in 2017-2018 the Want Want Group received T$2.9 billion (more than US$96 million), possibly for advertisements and disinformation benefitting China. In March 2019, Zhongtian TV was fined T$1 million (US$32,000) by the NCC. In the midst of the 2020 presidential elections campaign, 50% of Zhongtian TV headlines featured presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, whom Tsai allegedly supported financially.

While the NCC has oversight authority for TV stations, the Ministry of Culture has oversight authority for the print media. According to Reuters, 10 former and current employees and news managers of five media groups (to protect the identity of sources and organizations, no names were given) provided contracts signed by the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) for articles to promote the image of China in Taiwan. For example, the TAO paid US$4,300 for fake stories promoting Taiwan business in China in order to win the support of Taiwanese for unification.

Taiwan has no regulatory mechanism or laws to govern social media. Facebook and the like are extremely popular, powerful forces of influence that China has used to spread disinformation. Cole says “the use of disinformation and fake news transmitted through social media has resulted in nearly 3,400 Chinese attacks per day (during the 2018 local elections) on social media which are designed to discredit democracy, President Tsai, and the DPP.” In the midst of the coronavirus, China has used social media to create doubt and confusion.

Taiwan should establish a centralized regulatory organization with oversight over broadcast, print, and social media. It must also break up consolidation of media organizations. Finally, it must create an enforceable media ethics code.

Taiwan needs to keep reforming its democracy to consolidate internally, to win the support of other countries, and to play a role in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Bill Sharp (we.sharp@gmail.com) is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History at National Taiwan 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.

Issues & Insights Vol. 20, CR 1 – Deepening Progressive Partnerships: TAYLE & PF Young Leaders

Since beginning our partnership two years ago, the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF) and Pacific Forum have provided meaningful exchanges under our organizations’ youth engagement programs, the Taiwan-Asian Young Leaders Engagement (TAYLE) and the Young Leaders Program respectively.

Seeing the potential behind youth-led initiatives and the value of diverse perspectives on contemporary international issues, the TAEF and Pacific Forum hope to broaden the exposure of young leaders from the Asia-Pacific to pressing matters that affect their respective communities and the region at large. Under the TAEF’s TAYLE program, select Pacific Forum Young Leaders and peers from Southeast and South Asia are invited to Taiwan to participate in the annual Yushan Forum: Asian Dialogue for Innovation and Progress, which takes place in October and coincides with the country’s National Day celebrations. The theme, “Deepening Progressive Partnerships in Asia,” focused on the progressive partnerships and achievements in the areas of economic and technological exchange, talent cultivation, sustainable development, civil society development, think tank collaboration, cultural exchange and youth leadership within the region.

2019 was a very meaningful year for Taiwan and its people. It marked the third Yushan Forum, which has been a successful platform to communicate Taiwan’s commitment to promoting lasting partnerships and cooperation with the 18 New Southbound Policy countries—the 10 ASEAN member states, six South Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand—and other like-minded states.  It also marked the 20th anniversary of the 921 earthquake and the 10th anniversary of Typhoon Morakot, events that heavily impacted the island and other countries in Asia. In commemoration, a special event, “Facilitating Asian Partnership for Disaster Preparedness” was held in conjunction with the 2019 Yushan Forum. It showcased regional efforts in disaster preparedness, management, and relief, and stood as a testament that, in times of disaster, the countries in the region stand as one.

For the 2019 TAYLE-Young Leader cohort, nine promising youths from Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States, were given the opportunity to attend the Yushan Forum’s seven thematic sessions over a span of two days, affording them the opportunity to engage international leaders and subject matter experts, as well experience Taiwan from a different lens. Before returning to their countries, the Young Leaders discussed among themselves their key takeaways from the experience as well as possible areas of cooperation between Taiwan and their countries.

In her speech during the Yushan Forum, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen emphasized the importance of exposing young minds to experiences that will broaden their horizons and allow them to help address regional issues from a regional perspective. Answering this call, the following essays offer rich perspectives and pressing concerns from the region’s emerging leaders.

Under this partnership between the TAEF and Pacific Forum, we hope to continue providing young professionals and scholars the opportunity to better appreciate Taiwan and its growing role in the Asia-Pacific, as well as to help them realize their potential as leaders and build connections with peers early in their careers. In the spirit of the 2019 Yushan Forum, we look forward to seeing their partnerships deepen to ensure continued regional innovation and progress.