Waning support for nuclear power 10 years after Fukushima


Author: Florentine Koppenborg, Technical University of Munich

Ten years after the world watched the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Japan’s pro-nuclear advocates have lost policy implementation power. As part of the three-yearly energy policy review, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government needs to decide on the electricity mix for 2030 this year — including the future of nuclear power. But given the need to maintain safety standards and public opposition to building new reactors, Japan’s nuclear target is realistically constrained to no more than an 8–10 per cent share of its projected power needs.

Members of the media and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) employees wearing protective suits and masks walk down the steps of a fuel-handling machine at the spent fuel pool inside the No.4 reactor building at the tsunami-crippled TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, 7 November, 2013 (Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool via Reuters/File Photo).

In the wake of the 11 March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan abandoned big plans for a ‘nuclear state’ and scrapped its 2010 Strategic Energy Plan goal to increase the share of nuclear power in electricity generation to 53 per cent by 2030.

Yet the Japanese government — under nuclear power advocate and then-prime minister Shinzo Abe — continued to pursue nuclear power as a baseload power source despite significant public opposition. The 2015 Long-Term Supply and Demand Outlook envisioned nuclear power making up 20–22 per cent of overall electricity generation by 2030, cementing Japan’s reliance on this power source. Though nuclear restarts did not progress in line with policy targets, the 2018 SEP rehashed this goal and was seen by many as a sign of political support for the nuclear village.

The signs of waning support for nuclear power have been mounting since 2015.

In January 2016, the Abe government acknowledged that the 40-year limit rule on the lifespan of nuclear reactors —which was newly introduced after the Fukushima accident — posed a hurdle for achieving 2030 targets. Rather than call on the Nuclear Regulation Authority to loosen this rule and extend the lifespan of all nuclear reactors beyond 40 years, Abe stressed that the 2030 goal would not be pursued against safety concerns.

Assuming that Japan will strictly adhere to post-Fukushima safety standards, constructing new nuclear power plants is the only option to achieve the government’s goal of generating 20–22 per cent of electricity through nuclear power by 2030. Both Denjiren — the Federation of Electric Power Companies — and Keidanren — the Japan Business Federation — have repeatedly called for the construction of new nuclear power plants.

The 2014 and 2018 Strategic Energy Plans, however, only provided for the construction of additional reactors through the backdoor as a means to reduce Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions, rather than making a clear commitment. Despite Keidanren’s dissatisfaction over lacklustre support and its call for the government to ‘clarify its commitment to the necessity of nuclear power’, the Abe government didn’t adjust course, probably to avoid public ire.

When Japan adopted its Long-term Strategy under the Paris Agreement in 2019, the government again avoided using global warming countermeasures as a backdoor to construct new nuclear power facilities. Instead, it aims to reduce Japan’s ‘dependency on nuclear energy as much as possible, while giving the top priority to nuclear safety and making efforts to expand renewable energy’.

Currently, energy policy deliberations are taking place against the backdrop of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and to submit a Nationally Determined Contribution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change before the end of 2021. This puts pressure on the government to adopt revised 2030 targets that include a higher share of low-carbon energy sources.

In November 2020, Suga stressed that plans to decarbonise the energy sector were not predicated on the new construction or expansion of nuclear power plants. Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Hiroshi Kajiyama called nuclear power ‘indispensable’ for Japan’s decarbonisation efforts. Recent METI documents contain the usual phrases about nuclear power as a ‘baseload’ power source, restating that remaining nuclear power plants meet new safety standards. But even METI, a long-standing supporter of nuclear power, continues to remain silent on the question of constructing new nuclear power plants and instead repeats its policy line of reducing dependence.

Government calculations on how much this reliance can be reduced follow a subtraction method. First, the share for nuclear power is determined by subtracting a feasible share of other energy technologies from the demand assumed for 2030. Then, the remaining share is declared to come from nuclear power. Following this method, much depends on renewable energy development.

The share of renewable energy in Japan’s electricity mix has grown considerably over the last few years. Standing at 19 per cent in 2019, Japan was very close to reaching the 22–24 per cent share envisioned for 2030 a decade early. In contrast, nuclear power produced only 6 per cent of electricity in 2019. In December 2020, the government announced support for the development of offshore wind electricity generation capacities of up to 45 gigawatts by 2040.

Ongoing energy policy deliberations offer Japan a chance to set a sustainable and feasible energy policy strategy. Given the decarbonisation target, the sluggish implementation of unrealistic nuclear targets, and recent growth in renewable energy, the government needs to face reality and lower the 2030 targets for nuclear power to a more realistic 8–10 per cent share and adopt higher renewable energy targets of about 40–50 per cent for 2030.

Florentine Koppenborg is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Chair for Environmental and Climate Policy, the Bavarian School of Public Policy, the Technical University of Munich.

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Reconciling Indonesia’s view of ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific


Author: David Camroux, Sciences Po

Since independence, Indonesia’s regional role has been characterised in many ways but most notably as that of a middle power. Indonesia has also played a role as a norm entrepreneur, acting on several occasions to give institutional form to Southeast Asian regionalisation. This began with its crucial role in building an institutional framework for Southeast Asia through the founding of ASEAN in 1967.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo delivers a speech during the Inauguration of the new ASEAN Secretariat Building in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8 August 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan).

Fifty years later, Indonesia was a significant promoter of the ASEAN Charter which gave the association a legal foundation. Yet it is unclear why Indonesia has not sought to build an institutional framework around the latest regional construct, the Indo-Pacific.

Since ASEAN’s founding, Indonesia has sought an institutional response when challenged by other regional constructions that threaten ASEAN’s pre-eminence. In the late 1990s, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad sought to promote his idea of an ethnically Asian, East Asian grouping — one which had the potential to diminish ASEAN’s importance.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs mobilised to have Mahathir’s project both co-opted and formalised into the annual East Asia Summit (EAS). Participation was widened beyond East Asia to include Australia, India, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. The EAS has since been a major way for ASEAN to exert influence as the heart of a new regional construct. After the first EAS the term ‘ASEAN centrality’ entered the association’s lexicon.

Since 2013, the Indo-Pacific idea has challenged the place of ASEAN in the regional architecture. As a response, Indonesia drafted the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and had it approved at the June 2019 ASEAN Summit. The AOIP proposes no particular strategy on the Indo-Pacific and avoids the ASEAN jargon of ‘vision’ that is reserved for aspirational goals. It simply suggests a shared view or lens on the status quo. Indonesia did not seek, as it did for the EAS, to formalise an ASEAN-centric institutional framework around the Indo-Pacific.

Four factors explain Indonesia’s unwillingness or inability to formalise an ASEAN-centric institutional framework around the Indo-Pacific idea. First, the concept has largely been promoted by non-East Asian powers, including the four members of the Quad: Australia, India, Japan and the United States. This poses a challenge for ASEAN-centric institutionalisation. Vietnam, for example, is already considered to be an adjunct Quad member by some. Despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-American and pro-Chinese rhetoric, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is pushing the Philippines to follow suit.

Second, the creation of another regional institution may appear redundant at this juncture in international politics. Seen from Jakarta, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) — with its ASEAN-centric basis and de facto Indo-Pacific membership — is adequate to manage shifting conceptions of the region. Indonesia’s Bali Democracy Forum also involves many of the same countries. Only Malaysia shares some marginal interest in an Indo-Pacific reality within ASEAN. Yet it has not expressed any desire to formalise its existence.

The third factor is related to ASEAN practice. To symbolically acknowledge the existence of an Indo-Pacific as beneficial can be likened to ASEAN’s token acknowledgement of the importance of human rights and democracy. No further steps were required after Indonesia approved the Indo-Pacific idea with ASEAN deemed to be at its centre. At the same level of symbolism, prompted by the new Biden administration, on 18 February a rebolstered Quad alluded to ASEAN’s centrality.

A final factor is Indonesia’s ‘introverted regionalism’. From the first use of the term by Indonesia’s former foreign minister Marty Natelegawa in 2013, the Indo-Pacific epithet is about describing Indonesia itself. Its roots lie in the concept of Wawasan Nusantara (Indonesian Archipelagic Vision) first mooted in 1957. In the lead up to the 2014 Indonesian presidential election, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo promoted Indonesia as a Poros Maritim Dunia — translated as a Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF).

The concept was initially announced to a domestic audience as part of Jokowi’s victory speech. He promised that Indonesians would see their maritime homeland entering into a new golden age, evoking memories of the historic maritime Majapahit and Srivijaya empires. Following Jokowi’s presidential inauguration, the GMF morphed into a foreign policy approach. It was dubbed the Jokowi doctrine and based on the five pillars of Pancasila (the official Indonesian state philosophy). Yet it took until January 2021 for an Omnibus Bill on Maritime Security to give the GMF concrete expression in legal terms.

The AOIP discourse today is akin to the GMF rhetoric during Jokowi’s first term in office. The AOIP provides a projection of Indonesia as quintessentially part of the Indo-Pacific. This state of being requires no new institutional form.

David Camroux is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Studies (CERI), Sciences Po, Paris, and a Professorial Fellow at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi. He is a former Dissemination Coordinator for the CRISEA project on Southeast Asian regional integration financed within the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme.

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How Laos is overcoming landlockedness and bolstering growth


Author: Sandra Seno-Alday, University of Sydney

Laos is one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia. From 2010 to 2018, it realised the second highest compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in exports in the region, next only to Vietnam. The country’s rapid growth in exports is more remarkable considering it is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia.

Laos' Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith attends the joint news conference of the Japan-Mekong Summit Meeting at the Akasaka Palace State Guest House in Tokyo, Japan, 9 October, 2018 (Photo: Franck Robichon/Pool via Reuters/File Photo).

Landlocked countries have no direct access to the sea. Exports and imports, therefore, must transit through neighbouring countries to get to-and-from seaports. Given around 80 per cent of world trade is done by sea, landlocked countries’ trade is significantly slower (between 9 and 130 per cent) and more costly (between 8 and 250 per cent).

Laos has proactively established trade and economic networks by participating in regional integration agreements and free trade agreements. Doing so has sent a strong signal to the regional and international community that the country is economically and politically open and committed to domestic reform. In 1991, it signed the Laos–Thailand regional trade agreement (RTA) and upon its 1997 accession to ASEAN it became part of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA).

As a member of ASEAN, Laos is party to a range of RTAs involving China (2007), Japan (2008), South Korea (2008), Australia and New Zealand (2011), and India (2011). The country also independently participated in the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA) with Bangladesh, China, India, South Korea and Sri Lanka in 1975.

Laos has successfully harnessed the trading potential of these agreements. In 2018, its five largest export partners were Thailand, China, Vietnam, Japan and India. Its exports to Thailand grew at an 8-year CAGR of 13 per cent, China at 27 per cent and Vietnam at 28 per cent. These countries are its largest transit neighbours. Export growth in these large, geographically-close markets covered by regional integration or free trade agreements is certainly notable but unsurprising.

But export growth in more geographically distant markets also deserves highlighting. Exports to Japan grew at a CAGR of 16 per cent and India at 156 per cent. While these countries accounted for less than five per cent of Lao exports in 2018, success at growing exports beyond immediate neighbours in the face of its landlockedness is exceptional.

Laos is poised to take advantage of further opportunities for trade growth and trade diversification in an increasingly efficient trading environment. Five of its eight trade agreements cover trade in both goods and services. And it is also in the process of implementing the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement.

Laos has embraced technology in trade facilitation. To increase customs efficiency, Laos has established the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) at 24 of its border posts. This is a critical time and cost saving mechanism for the cross-border movement of products in general, but this is particularly key in light of the importance of the agricultural sector in the country’s international trade.

The country has channelled investments into upgrading infrastructure and improving manufacturing capability. Its manufacturing sector has grown at an 8-year CAGR of 7 per cent, while its services sectors have grown at a CAGR of 12 per cent from 2010 to 2018. It is participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative through the Laos–China Railway project, which will help strengthen the strong export-import cluster it has developed with its largest and most important trading partners: Thailand, China and Vietnam.

Other major infrastructure initiatives include the Vientiane–Vangvieng stretch of the China–Laos highway and the Boten–Vientiane high speed rail that will make the historic Luang Prabang site in central Laos more accessible to regional tourists. These upgrades to physical infrastructure links together with increased manufacturing capability place Laos in a strong position to further increase its economic engagement with the broader region.

Laos has been successful at diversifying its resource-based economy over time. Its Competitive Industrial Performance (CIP) Index score increased at a CAGR of 4 per cent over eight years. Developed by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the CIP Index captures a country’s capability to competitively manufacture and export products.

The country’s performance thus shows indications of disproving the so-called ‘resource curse’: when a country’s dependence on resource exports results in slower growth and the inability to expand its value-added economic sectors.

Of course, opportunities for further growth remain, including increasing the country’s attractiveness to foreign direct investment (FDI). Putting in place measures to protect investor rights and intellectual property will be critical to attracting FDI and decreasing the country’s dependence on debt. Further, there is an important role for policies to support entrepreneurial initiatives to establish digital enterprises. This will require the appropriate regulatory and physical infrastructure to increase the internet and mobile phone penetration rate in the country. There also remains significant scope to diversify its trading partner base and to continue along the trajectory of economic diversification.

These opportunities need to be viewed in light of Laos’ strong track record. Despite the liabilities of landlockedness, it has grown its exports at an 8-year CAGR of 15 per cent, its GDP at 12 per cent and its GNI per capita at 10 per cent. Given the economic foundation and infrastructure it has laid, Laos can certainly be expected to rise to the challenges of future growth. It is a prime example of ‘the little engine that could’.

Sandra Seno-Alday is a Lecturer in International Business at the University of Sydney Business School.

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Inclusivity is key to salvaging the US–Taliban Doha deal


Author: Imtiaz Gul, CRSS Islamabad

The deal struck by the United States with the Afghan Taliban in Doha on 29 February 2020 was de facto recognition of the weight of the fundamentalist militant group. Nearly 10 days later all 15 members of the UN Security Council endorsed the agreement. But challenges plague the deal a year on.

Taliban delegates speak during talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar, 12 September 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Ibraheem al Omari).

Former US acting deputy representative to the United Nations Cherith Norman Chalet had pointed out that the resolution was the culmination of more than a year of unprecedented, painstaking US diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, the Kabul government and almost all key regional actors. Accompanied by verbal demands for a reduction in violence as a pre-condition to intra-Afghan dialogue, the agreement called for the fundamentalists to sever ties with international terrorist groups and to prevent them from using Afghanistan to carry out attacks against the United States.

A year on, the violence is not diminishing nor is the intra-Afghan dialogue making any real progress. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s team is still seeking explanation on the rationale for continuing ‘Taliban jihad’. The United Nations is also yet to take around 100 key Taliban leaders off the list of terrorists.

The deal underlined a realisation among the Taliban for the need to engage in talks for a way out of nearly two decades of conflict. US support for a Taliban Doha office was also a political compulsion for the United States — it had until then treated the Taliban as an Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group and was legally constrained from talking to them. Doha provided a political face to the Taliban and enabled them to engage with the United States and other stakeholders.

But Kabul reneged on the deal in pinning hopes for a review of US Afghan policy under the Biden administration. The move disregarded the critical role and consent of other actors as well as the opinions of key regional power centres such as Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Islamabad.

For the Taliban, the deal with the United States and endorsement by the United Nations had vindicated its position as a legitimate stakeholder, and an expectation that it would be consulted on a possible extension to the pull-out of all US-led troops from Afghanistan. Under the agreement, the United States was to reduce its troops down to 2500 and eventually extract all combat forces from Afghanistan by early May 2021.

The entire process is now facing multiple complications. Many voices inside and outside of Washington are calling for an extension in the deadline for US withdrawal to allow more time for intra-Afghan talks. But the Taliban seem to view this as the United States backtracking on its promise, undermining trust in future arrangements.

Ghani is intent on maintaining his leadership even if the intra-Afghan talks result in an agreement on an interim government. But the Taliban have ruled out a continuation of the current administration and governance system in Kabul as an ‘illegitimate entity and product of US occupation’.

Most officials and analysts still consider Pakistan — which shares a 2560-kilometre border with Afghanistan — as the key to success in the Afghan process. But if the past were any indicator, it would be a mistake to believe the Taliban might give in to any Pakistani demands for a longer term ceasefire or an extension to the May deadline. The onus for success of the process rests more on the ability of Afghan stakeholders to mutually navigate the minefield of political disagreements than on Pakistan.

The Taliban still draws some support from Moscow, Beijing, Ankara and Tehran. They are all urging the Taliban to moderate its position on foreign troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. ‘Responsible withdrawal’ has been the desire of almost all regional players because all neighbours will face blowback if the Afghan security forces fail to fill the vacuum.

Any yearning for peace in Afghanistan must be viewed in the geopolitical context. The current stalemate between New Delhi and Islamabad hardly inspires any prospects for positivity as far as Afghanistan is concerned. Both want to retain their respective influence as much as possible. The last Indo–US 2+2 Dialogue in October 2020 identified China as the ‘common challenge’. Pakistan is the closest partner of China in the region and cannot expect much from either India or the United States.

The best way to salvage the Doha deal lies in an inclusive consultative process embraced both by national stakeholders and external players. Any decision excluding the Taliban, Kabul or regional actors is likely to spell greater trouble for Afghanistan.

Favouring an inclusive approach is the fact that the Biden administration alone may not be able or willing to shoulder the entire process. The COVID-19 pandemic-induced economic crisis has drawn the focus of the United States and other major NATO allies away.

Any major deviation from the basic contours of the existing agreement will only help spoilers of peace and not the millions of Afghans who are desperate for return to normalcy. This could also erode trust in the inviolability of future peace agreements that consume enormous effort and time to mature.

Imtiaz Gul is Executive Director at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

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The ‘Guyana incident’ and lessons for Taiwan’s international space


Author: Zhiqun Zhu, Bucknell University

On 4 February 2021, the Taiwanese government announced the establishment of a ‘Taiwan Office’ in Guyana. Within 24 hours, Guyana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared its continued adherence to the ‘one China’ policy and terminated the agreement with Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration in Taipei reacted angrily, accusing Beijing of bullying and suppressing Taiwan’s international space.

Tri-Service Honour (Honor) Guards raise Taiwan?s national flag in the morning, amidst the spread of the global pandemic disease covid-19, at Liberty Square, in Taipei, Taiwan, on November 15, 2020. With escalated tensions with China and successful containment of the coronavirus, Taiwan?s flag raising ceremony remains unchanged and daily life amongst the general public remains normal (Photo: Reuters/Ceng Shou Yi).


The ‘Guyana incident’ offers some important lessons.

First, it was the DPP government that botched the deal with Guyana. Officials in Guyana thought the Office would be an unofficial institution to promote trade and economic exchange — Guyana’s Foreign Minister Hugh Todd said in an interview that the ‘economic, trade and investment office’ was set up to create space for cooperation between private organisations. He emphasised that Guyana would maintain diplomatic relations with China and not recognise Taiwan as an independent country. Guyana’s Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo stated that the Taiwan Office was never approved by the Cabinet.

Interestingly, Elizabeth Harper, Permanent Secretary of Guyana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview that China actually ‘knew’ about Taiwan’s decision to establish an unofficial trade office in Guyana, but did not mention whether China tried to block it.

Taiwan might have been testing the waters in Guyana to see how far it could go before China reacted. If Taipei were a little more low-key, Beijing might not have intervened. After all, China has not opposed Taiwan’s development of economic, trade and cultural relations with other countries, such as the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s signing of a Taiwan–New Zealand free trade agreement in 2013.

But this time Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly announced that Guyana’s ‘Taiwan Office’ had official functions and was equivalent to a ‘representative office’. Pro-independence media called this a ‘diplomatic breakthrough’. Taiwan’s high-profile self-promotion provoked China and embarrassed Guyana.

Second, this incident reflects the expanding China–US rivalry. The US Department of State and the American Institute in Taiwan immediately issued press releases applauding the establishment of the ‘Taiwan Office’ in Guyana after its announcement and encouraging other countries to develop relations with Taiwan. Regardless of whether the United States played a role in establishing the Office, Beijing was obviously alarmed and felt compelled to fight back.

Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai noted that the Three Joint Communiqués form the cornerstone of China–US relations. But in recent years, the US Congress has passed legislation in support of Taiwan, including the 2019 TAIPEI Act that assists Taiwan in maintaining and expanding its international presence. As China–US tensions intensified, cross-Strait relations plummeted, and the DPP government became a voluntary pawn in the Trump administration’s confrontation with China.

With the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese trade and investment in Latin America and the Caribbean has grown rapidly. The United States, which views the region as its backyard, is becoming worried about China’s increasing influence. In September 2020, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first high-ranking US official to visit Guyana.

There is no doubt that China–US competition in Latin America will continue. This is further complicated by the fact that Taiwan also wishes to consolidate and expand its presence in the region — of the 15 countries that have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, nine are in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Third, cross-Strait relations continue to be stuck in a vicious circle, with no end in sight. When the Kuomintang was in power, Beijing had little issue with Taiwan’s international activities because it had a tacit understanding and mutual trust with Taipei. Now the DPP administration is challenging the ‘one China’ consensus. In Beijing’s view, it must exert pressure on Taipei to maintain the status quo. But the greater the pressure from Beijing, the less willing the DPP is to hold dialogue and compromise. Instead, it is determined to highlight Taiwan’s de facto independence through diplomatic breakthroughs.

Jie Wen-Chieh, former representative of the Republic of China (ROC) in New Zealand, stated that the DPP deliberately created diplomatic setbacks to fan anti-China propaganda in Taiwan. It is unfortunate for Taiwan that diplomacy has become a tool of domestic politics; it is a tragedy for both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The reality is that Taiwan’s foreign relations cannot be decoupled from cross-Strait relations. The expansion of Taiwan’s international space is possible with cross-Strait agreement and understanding, as the Ma administration demonstrated. Therefore, improving cross-Strait relations, which requires effort from both sides, is the key to ending the vicious circle.

Fredrick Chien, former ROC Foreign Minister, stated long ago that for Taiwan cross-Strait relations are more important than foreign relations. But now the ruling party and public opinion in Taiwan have changed, and hostility across the Strait has grown. Unless either Taipei or Beijing changes its mind, the cross-Strait stalemate will not be broken any time soon.

Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University.

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Is Vietnam open to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy?


Author: Nguyen Huu Tuc, Vietnam National University Hanoi

As soon as he took office in 2017, former US president Donald Trump adopted the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy to maintain US influence and presence in the region and restrain China. Trump’s then US secretary of defense James Mattis was instrumental in crafting the strategy.

A Vietnamese naval soldier stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago, 17 January 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Quang Le).

In his remarks at APEC in November 2017, Trump affirmed that Vietnam was ‘in the very heart of the Indo-Pacific’. Although Vietnam is yet to officially announce it part of the US-initiated strategy, Hanoi welcomes Washington’s presence in the region as long as it contributes to regional peace and security. Vietnam hosted two visits by US aircraft carriers during the Trump administration.

The Biden administration is likely to keep the FOIP strategy and there are fewer than 150 days until the administration submits its National Security Strategy to Congress. Washington has clearly identified China as its main strategic competitor and emphasised freedom of navigation. There are soundings about upgrading the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (Quad) — an informal group that consists of Japan, Australia, India and the United States — and expanding its membership.

The key question is how Vietnam can engage with Washington’s regional strategy while maintaining a constructive strategic partnership with China, especially since US–China competition remains tense and complex.

Vietnam has the opportunity to enhance its position by upgrading Vietnam–US relations from a comprehensive partnership to a full strategic partnership. Hanoi could be expected to receive more technical support from the United States to enhance its defence capabilities — especially in defence procurement, intelligence sharing, law enforcement and joint military exercises. Washington has already sold Vietnam two Hamilton-class cutters, the second largest ships in the US Coast Guard, as well as other minor US military equipment and technology.

Contents of the FOIP — such as building a rules-based regional order, promoting freedom of navigation, building open infrastructure, and securing open trade and investment — are all compatible with the strategic interests of Vietnam and other ASEAN member states.

Hanoi is interested in maintaining a rules-based regional order and a regional security architecture free from domination by any single major power. Besides, participating in Washington’s initiative alongside US allies such as Japan, Australia and India will strengthen Vietnam’s negotiating position with China, especially in the South China Sea.

But Vietnam may also face challenges going down this path. The first is the dilemma posed by tense relations between the United States and China. In promoting FOIP, Washington will entice Vietnam into the ranks of its anti-China coalition, forcing Vietnam to risk taking sides. If not handled carefully, this might offend China, a neighbouring power with a long history of relations with Vietnam.

Second, the deployment of US military assets and the increased presence of US military personnel might lead to a new regional arms race. China has already increased its military presence in the disputed waters in the South China Sea, most notably through the militarisation of artificial islands. Beijing recently passed the Coast Guard Law, authorising the use of armed force and the destruction of foreign structures in the South China Sea in waters ‘under China’s jurisdiction’.

Military confrontation between China and the United States presents a critical threat to regional security because, like many other Southeast Asian states, Vietnam is sandwiched between the two competing powers. Neither Vietnam nor its neighbours are interested in taking sides, so Vietnam must be cautious and avoid officially participating in Washington’s FOIP — doing so might violate Hanoi’s core principle of not aligning with one country against the other. But there are four ways Vietnam can still prudently participate in the strategy.

First, Hanoi could proactively engage with Quad members to better understand their intentions and concrete action plans so that Vietnam and other ASEAN member states can carve out their own roles. ASEAN’s own version of the FOIP called the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific‘, delivered in 2019, reinforces its strategic autonomy.

Second, Vietnam could actively take advantage of the FOIP’s economic, commercial and investment interests by participating in infrastructure development projects. The United States, Japan and Australia have already initiated a quality infrastructure strategy, rolling out various projects in the region.

Third, Hanoi could take advantage of capacity building projects in defence-security cooperation. These include defence equipment procurement, intelligence sharing, cyber security cooperation, defence industry collaboration, the exchange of military medicines and the pooling of law enforcement capacity at sea.

Fourth, Vietnam could actively promote the rules-based international order, freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, as well as strengthen multilateral forums to achieve common strategic interests, especially with regard to maintaining good order at sea.

Although Vietnam wants to avoid taking sides in the growing strategic competition between the United States and China, there are prudent ways in which it can engage with Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy without undermining its own geopolitical interests.

Lt Col Nguyen Huu Tuc is a PhD candidate at the University of Social Science and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi, and a researcher at the Institute for Defence International Relations, Ministry of Defence of Vietnam.

All views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of any institution or organisation.

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Indonesian election law revision a win for the ruling elite


Author: Alexander R Arifanto, RSIS

As Indonesia slowly inches toward the 2024 general election, preparations for the legislative framework that will serve as the electoral rules are now underway. Several provisions of the election amendment created strong polemical debate upon their introduction in the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR).

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is congratulated by Prabowo Subianto, who was his former rival in April's election, after his presidential inauguration for the second term at the House of Representatives building in Jakarta, Indonesia, 20 October 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Achmad Ibrahim/Pool).

In response to these polemics, Minister of State Secretariat Pratikno claims that President Joko Widodo is rejecting the revision of the current General Election Law, enacted in 2016. But members of parliament continue to deliberate the revision as the DPR enters spring recess. When exactly the DPR might approve its final passage is still unclear.

The most controversial provision discussed by the DPR is one that would cancel regional elections scheduled for 2022 and 2023. Governors, regents (Bupati) and mayors whose terms expire during this period would be required to relinquish their positions, allowing Widodo’s administration to replace them with acting regional executives to be appointed by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Observers believe the aim of this provision is to undercut the presidential prospects of several high-profile incumbent governors on the eve of the 2024 general election. Widodo is not expected to be a contender given that he will have completed his second five-year term. The Indonesian Constitution prohibits him from running again.

One likely contender who may be affected by the provision is Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, who has clashed publicly with Widodo over key policies, most notably on how to best mitigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil may also be affected. Unlike Baswedan, he has aligned himself politically with Widodo. But Kamil failed to win endorsement from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) during his first gubernatorial run in 2018. Given his personal ambition to eventually run for president, he was not perceived to be a loyal team player.

If this provision is retained in the final bill, it will deny these governors an influential platform when they launch their presidential candidacies. Instead, it would benefit the possible candidacy of elite politicians aligned with Widodo, such as DPR Speaker Puan Maharani, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian.

Karnavian has the authority to appoint acting executives to replace these governors when their term expires. His broad power to appoint acting executives created widespread speculation that he would appoint senior police and army officers to these positions. Karnavian was Chief of the National Police (Polri) prior to his appointment as Home Affairs Minister. During Widodo’s presidency, numerous senior Polri officers have been appointed as heads of powerful government agencies, such as the National Intelligence Agency, National Narcotics Agency and the Corruption Eradication Commission.

Appointing these officers as acting regional executives would help address the backlog of idle senior officers within the Polri and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI). But the plan has created concerns among pro-democracy activists, given the history of senior TNI and Polri officers to ignore, and even violate, human rights norms when they are appointed to public office, dating back to the Suharto period.

Other controversial provisions would increase the electoral threshold to require political parties to secure at least 5 per cent of votes to be seated in the DPR. Meanwhile, it retains the threshold for a party to hold at least 25 per cent of DPR seats, or 20 per cent of the national vote share from the previous general election, to nominate a presidential candidate.

This threshold is likely to eliminate any chances for new political parties that are not currently represented in the DPR to compete in the 2024 general election — like the progressive-leaning Indonesian Solidarity Party and the Islamist-leaning Indonesian People’s Wave Party, which broke away from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

Meanwhile, the current presidential nomination threshold seems to privilege the PDI-P — which currently controls 22 per cent of DPR seats — over other political parties. This gives Widodo and PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri an advantage to pick his future successor without the need to form coalitions with other parties.

Widodo’s ‘rainbow coalition’ currently controls three quarters of all DPR seats. Only two parties — the Democratic Party and PKS — effectively serve as opposition against his administration inside the DPR. This ensures that if Widodo and his allies collaborate they will be able implement changes to the election law.

Should their efforts to enact these amendments be successful, they will ensure that Widodo’s policies, which have undermined political pluralism and freedom of expression and benefited powerful business interests instead of ordinary Indonesians, will be preserved by his successor.

The revision of the election law will likely maintain the status quo that benefits elite politicians and interest groups closely aligned with the president. It would further undermine the quality of Indonesian democracy for the intermediate future.

Alexander R Arifianto is a Research Fellow in the Indonesia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

The post Indonesian election law revision a win for the ruling elite first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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Power rationing in China is unrelated to Australian coal embargo


Author: Huw Slater, ICF

In December and January, at the height of winter, central and eastern China undertook its most extensive power rationing in a decade. This came as a surprise to international observers, as China’s coal-power sector has run over capacity for years. Average utilisation rates have dropped below 50 per cent nationwide and are as low as 20 per cent in some provinces.

A worker stands outside a construction site of the Xinzhuang coal mine that is part of Huaneng Group's integrated coal power project near Qingyang, Ning County, Gansu province, China, 19 September 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter).

Rationing in Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Hunan provinces raised speculation that coal supply may be impacted by the central government blacklisting Australian imports since October. But before the embargo, Australian exports only accounted for under 3 per cent of coal used for power generation in China. While coastal Zhejiang was a key consumer of Australian coal and Jiangxi receives some via river-borne trade, landlocked Hunan is more dependent on domestic coal.

Several factors led to the rationing. First, the rapid recovery of the Chinese economy post-COVID-19. Second, an especially cold winter in central China. Third, insufficient transmission infrastructure. And fourth, strict energy efficiency targets.

While strict COVID-19 lockdowns impacted economic activity in the first quarter of 2020, stimulus measures led a quick recovery, with year-on-year growth reaching 6.5 per cent by the end of 2020. Electricity generation grew by over 9 per cent year-on-year after being around 5 per cent lower year-on-year in the first quarter. The provinces affected by power rationing saw a surge in demand in December due to increased economic activity and cold temperatures.

High winter demand masks the low level of utilisation and the persistence of a development model that favours cheap finance and subsidies to heavy industry and coal power. The model worked in the decade leading up to the global financial crisis as Chinese exports surged — but demand has flatlined and local governments did not adapt.

Prior to the pandemic, China’s coal-power fleet ran at about 50 per cent of capacity, and by late 2020, plants in Zhejiang and Hunan ran at 40 per cent. At these levels, much of the coal-power fleet will only be needed during peak demand. This is set to decline further as renewables continue growing rapidly. China’s electricity pricing mechanism does not provide peak pricing to incentivise operators’ readiness to ramp up if called upon, leading to a supply crunch once the post-COVID-19 industrial surge kicked in.

In December, Hunan saw a peak load of over 33 gigawatts (GW) — over 10 per cent higher than that seen the previous year, and exceeding local dispatchable generation capacity by about 4 GW. On 7 January, Jiangxi saw a peak load of 28 GW — about 16 per cent higher than a year earlier, roughly 6 GW beyond dispatchable capacity. For perspective, Australia’s coal-power fleet capacity is about 25 GW.

At least 4 GW in Hunan were offline due to what was described as technical faults, though speculation is that this was a case of operators refusing to operate at a loss due to high coal prices. Hydro, solar and wind power output were also impacted by the cold weather.

The central grid region, to which Hunan and Jiangxi belong, has 330 GW of thermal and hydropower, and should cope with an overall peak load of 164 GW. But the grid is not as well integrated internally or connected externally as it should be. Plans to increase capacity in coming years should add some stability to the central grid. Improving intra-grid transmission, such as connection to Sichuan and Hubei hydropower resources, would also help.

Hunan said it was entering a ‘war state’ to deal with power issues, requiring industrial and commercial users to avoid consumption during peak hours. Jiangxi also intervened to shave morning and evening peak loads, asking companies to reduce usage, limiting street and other lighting and quoting national policy on the need to limit unreasonable demand for electricity.

In Zhejiang, the heaviest restrictions on power usage were in the city of Yiwu. The provincial government issued special restrictions between 12–31 December, intended to help ‘win the energy battle’ of improving energy efficiency and controlling total energy consumption. It included electricity quotas for everything from government departments to karaoke bars. Some factories were temporarily closed and some essential production had to be run with diesel generators.

A Yiwu city official commented that the measures were due to ‘energy conservation and emission reduction policies’. The Zhejiang government’s 2018 targets aimed to achieve reductions in energy consumption across the economy equal to 2 million tons of standard coal by the end of 2020. Four of Zhejiang’s 11 regional governments failed to meet targets in 2019. While several cities faced rationing of heating supply, Yiwu was hit hardest, asked to limit power consumption by about one third of the normal level during mid–late December.

The arbitrary nature of the year-end targets seems especially harsh given that in February and March, Zhejiang asked companies to run appliances all day, regardless of need, to demonstrate that the local economy was getting back on its feet. A more rational approach would involve incentivising and investing in systemic reform, rather than using such rigid top-down measures.

The first sign of power rationing in many years in China had little to do with Australian coal and a lot to do with reforming China’s energy governance to better respond to market signals, as well as increase its efficiency and reliability. Add to that a particularly severe cold snap and the challenges were significant.

As China works to achieve its pre-2030 peaking and 2060 carbon neutrality goals, investment in grid infrastructure will be required to provide stability as more renewables are brought online. Luckily this is in line with the central government’s agenda for shifting the growth model and is likely to receive much attention in the upcoming 14th Five Year Plan.

Huw Slater is a Senior Consultant (Lead Climate Specialist) at ICF International Inc, Beijing.

The post Power rationing in China is unrelated to Australian coal embargo first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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