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Reversing Cambodia’s democratic drift


Authors: Kimkong Heng, University of Queensland and Veasna Var, UNSW Canberra

Cambodia is drifting towards autocracy with a clear trend. An unprecedented crackdown on independent media, civil society and the country’s major opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), hardly suggest otherwise. Whether Hun Sen’s government likes it or not, similar observations about Cambodia will continue to emerge.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the toppling of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime at the Olympic stadium in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 7 January 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring).Although 19 smaller parties participated in the July 2018 national elections, commentators and observers questioned the credibility of the election. Some called it a sham. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was unchallenged in the election, allowing the CPP to secure a predictable landslide victory. The party won all 125 parliamentary seats.

Hun Sen’s recent political moves have not gone unnoticed. The United States has placed sanctions on high-ranking Cambodian government officials. The European Union has begun a formal procedure to withdraw its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences. And the Australian and Japanese governments have raised concerns over the dissolution of the main opposition party.

Now, as international pressure mounts, Cambodia’s political tensions seem to be easing. In December 2018 the Cambodian National Assembly amended the Law on Political Parties, paving the way for the 118 banned CNRP politicians to return to politics.

It remains to be seen whether all CNRP officials will request political rehabilitation. So far, only two have. If this trend continues, a division within the opposition between supporters of acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy and former CNRP president Kem Sokha, who was arrested in 2017 prior to the party’s dissolution, may become more severe and lead to a split.

Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile, recently announced that he would return to Cambodia this year to fight for change and democracy. He even challenged Hun Sen to a bet over the likelihood of Kem Sokha’s release amid mounting international pressure. He faces imprisonment if he loses, but if he wins Hun Sen has agreed to step down from power.

The high-stakes wager reflects the country’s political dysfunction and could result in a lose-lose situation for both prominent Cambodian political figures. Hun Sen may come under more criticism and Sam Rainsy could further damage his already compromised integrity if they fail to stick to the terms of their political wager. As it stands, it seems likely that Sam Rainsy will try to take advantage of the situation to return to Cambodia, resume his political career and put more pressure on Hun Sen’s government.

The direction of Cambodia’s political development remains unclear amid talk of Sam Rainsy’s return and the possibility of senior CNRP officials returning to politics. Despite this uncertainty, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling elites hold the key to relieving the political deadlock and putting the deteriorating democracy back on track.

As the strongman of Cambodia, Hun Sen has been in power for more than 30 years. His success in ending the country’s four-decade-long civil war is one of his greatest achievements, though criticism of his accomplishments is not uncommon. Cambodia’s remarkable economic growth at about 7 per cent over the last 20 years has also earned him legitimacy. But this legitimacy is now under threat.

National elections in 2013 and local elections in 2017 made it clear that Hun Sen and his party are no longer well received by the majority of Cambodians. Unless he commits to improving human rights and democracy and addressing pressing social issues in the country, his domestic legitimacy will further deteriorate.

At present, Hun Sen’s government appears to face less pressure from within than without. But increasing external pressure could negatively affect Cambodia’s economic growth trajectory and exacerbate internal grievances. If Hun Sen cannot maintain the momentum of development and economic growth — key to the legitimacy of his government — his political dominance will probably be undermined, if not challenged.

Reversing Cambodia’s descent into a one-party state is crucial for both the incumbent government and Cambodia at large. The process has to begin with political willingness, effective mechanisms, and firm internal and external pressure.

External pressure may have some, but likely insignificant, effects on the Cambodian government. China’s support and a fear of losing power has given the ruling elites an obvious choice. They will aim to stay in power and do whatever possible to avoid regime change, or ‘maintain peace and stability’ — a phrase frequently used by CPP elites. Hun Sen and his team will look to China under mounting pressure from the West.

One viable approach to halting the degeneration of Cambodia’s ersatz democracy is to engage in channels of dialogue at both national and international levels. At the national level, it is imperative to resume the culture of dialogue between the ruling CPP and the dissolved CNRP.

Dialogue at the international level requires participation and coordination from key external players that have significant leverage over Cambodia’s political and economic landscape, such as the United States, the European Union and China. Other players like Australia, Japan and ASEAN are also important.

Through these channels of discussion and negotiation the course of Cambodia’s democracy, perceived by many as a drift towards autocratic rule, can be reversed.

Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and an Australia Awards Scholar.

Veasna Var is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra and a Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

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Double dissolution election on the cards in Japan


Author: Rikki Kersten, Murdoch University

In November this year, Shinzo Abe will become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history after being re-elected as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September 2018. With several notable achievements under his belt and an appetite for more, it may seem odd that speculation is rife about the possibility of a mid-year double dissolution election. Ironically, it is blowback against his apparent successes that may force his hand.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers his policy speech at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo, Japan, 28 January 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

Burdened by the demographic double whammy of a negative birth rate and a rapidly ageing society, Abe’s success in raising the consumption tax in measured stages is an important symbolic step towards addressing a declining tax base. The second phase of the consumption tax increase from 8 to 10 per cent, already deferred twice owing to voter and industry concerns over stubborn deflation, is scheduled to occur in October 2019. Having touted the success of Abenomics in his January 2019 policy speech, Abe’s credibility will be dented if he tries to defer this increase again. But the domestic landscape this year may put Abe between a rock and a hard place.

In April 2019, Japan will undertake nation-wide local government elections. This will serve as a barometer for the policy successes that Abe trumpeted in his January policy address. One new policy looms larger than others: the immigration bill that will come into effect in April. Majority public opinion in Japan opposes the arrival of some 345,000 foreign workers over the next five years, even though Japan confronts a dramatic labour shortfall five times larger than the number of planned arrivals. This electoral dissonance points to policy failure rather than triumph: successive Japanese governments have utterly failed to prepare the Japanese electorate for substantial immigration. Abe is now reaping what his predecessors have sown.

There is also tangible resentment in the electorate concerning the hasty manner in which Abe forced the contentious bill through parliament in late 2018. This sentiment reminds many of the suite of security bills that were similarly rammed through parliament in 2015, tainting policy achievement with an unwelcome authoritarian hue in the eyes of some voters. Local branches of the LDP will have their work cut out for them in April as they battle the electorate’s inclination to punish the ruling party when given the opportunity.

A mere three months later in July the electorate will have a second chance to send a message to Abe’s administration, this time in a triennial election for half of the upper house. This one promises to hurt and is the main reason why Abe may resort to a double dissolution election. Much depends on how the LDP fares in the April poll. The rank and file will need to see reward for their efforts in April to re-enter the fray in July with vigour and purpose. A poor result in April may even stir up discontent among Abe’s own governing party, forcing Abe to curb his enthusiasm for more contentious policy change such as amending the pacifist clause of the Constitution.

Abe’s coalition government currently enjoys a supermajority in both houses of parliament, which enables the government to pass most bills (including those related to amending the Constitution). A loss of that majority would thwart Abe’s policy ambitions, elaborated in his January speech.

It could also weaken Abe’s own position within the LDP. In the 2018 LDP presidential poll, only 55 per cent of rank and file members supported Abe to remain as LDP president and prime minister. And in his governing party cohort, former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba had the temerity to stand against Abe. Neither result allows Abe to be complacent as he and his fellow LDP politicians face political reckoning in 2019.

If the April poll goes well for the LDP, Abe could be tempted to go for a double dissolution if external events provide him with an opportunity. In 2017 Abe went to the people a year early for lower house elections to capitalise on two contextual opportunities: opposition disarray and an existential threat to Japan in the form of several North Korean ballistic missile firings. Abe romped home in the election.

There is every chance that North Korea could oblige Abe once again. And South Korea is already providing a platform for Abe to take a stand against what he can characterise as entrenched ‘anti-Japaneseness’. Recent rulings by South Korea’s Supreme Court concerning wartime forced labourers and the collapse of the comfort women agreement between the two nations could help position Abe well in the eyes of voters. Meanwhile Japan’s opposition remains divided and lacks credibility.

By going early in both houses at the same time — for the whole lower house and half of the upper house — Abe can hedge against the unknown. Should the next consumption tax increase cruel consumer sentiment, if Abe is unable to break the spell of deflation or if the opposition gets its act together, Abe’s LDP might lose its treasured supermajority in a future poll. Right now, Abe remains the only credible leader in Japan’s political firmament. Going for the double this year might be Abe’s best bet.

For the time being, Abe is focussed on shaping his political legacy. He has promised to make history by concluding an unconditional peace treaty with Russia and vowed to eradicate the deflationary mindset plaguing Japanese growth prospects. He is forging ahead in the security sphere, embracing a new multi-domain defence force structure in the latest National Defence Program Guidelines. He continues to position Japan as a global rule-maker in the under-governed domains of cyber and space, and as a champion of multilateral, liberal internationalism. But as early as April Abe’s horizon will have to shrink to his own backyard, where mundane events may yet force him to temper his policy ambitions.

Rikki Kersten is Interim Pro Vice Chancellor in the College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Sciences, Murdoch University, Australia.

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US–South Korea military negotiations could cost the alliance


Author: Se Young Jang, MIT

Inter-Korean rapprochement, ushered in by the series of North–South summits and working-level meetings that took place in 2018, is changing the security environment on the Korean Peninsula. While reconciliation between North and South Korea develops, the latter’s relationship with the United States is running into difficulty. Seoul and Washington failed to renegotiate a defence cost-sharing agreement in 2018, which then expired on 31 December.

Outgoing Commander, General Vincent K Brooks walks past Incoming Commander, General Robert B. Abrams after delivering his speech during a change of command ceremony for the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, and United States Forces Korea at the U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, 8 November 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji).

On 10 February 2019, after a month of extended negotiations, Seoul and Washington finally struck a deal on South Korea’s financial contributions to the non-personnel costs for the US Forces Korea (USFK). Under the new agreement, subject to South Korea’s parliamentary approval, Seoul will contribute about 1.04 trillion won (US$923 million). This amount is less than the US$1.2 billion Washington reportedly demanded. But it is an 8.2 per cent increase from 2018 when Seoul paid 960 billion won (US$850 million) for the 28,500 US troops stationed on its soil, which accounted for roughly 41 per cent of the total non-personnel costs.

The negotiations also reduced the original five-year term of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA). The Trump administration insisted upon applying a one-year limit, making it possible for the United States to demand an increase in South Korea’s share again in the near future.

Since contributing US$150 million to the USFK through the first SMA implemented in 1991, South Korea has incrementally increased its share year by year. But in 2018 Washington asked South Korea to drastically increase its contribution by 150 to 200 per cent. This radical shift in the US position was mostly driven by President Trump, who was already criticising US allies for their insufficient contributions to military costs during his presidential campaign. He once claimed Seoul paid ‘peanuts’ for the USFK ‘compared with what the US spends’.

South Korea does not agree with Trump’s claims. Seoul funded over 90 per cent of the US$10.8 billion construction costs for US Camp Humphrey, the largest overseas US military base in the world. And South Korea purchased US$19.8 billion worth of US military equipment from 2012–16, which accounted for nearly 80 per cent of Korea’s total defence imports.

A Korea Institute for Defense Analysis study also notes that the SMA does not include South Korea’s indirect support for the USFK, including ‘tax reductions or exemptions, utilities, support for base relocations and free provision of land’, which amounted to approximately US$5 billion in 2015.

Despite South Korea’s arguments against increasing its share of the USFK costs, the context in which the recent SMA talks took place was unfavourable to Seoul. South Korea is the first US ally to begin military cost negotiations with the Trump administration. Other key US allies such as Japan and NATO will enter similar talks with Washington in the coming years. The Trump administration was less likely to compromise with South Korea because this would weaken its position in future negotiations with other allies.

In a speech at the Pentagon on 17 January 2019, President Trump reiterated his intent to push ‘wealthy’ US allies to pay more. Trump’s strong stance on so-called ‘free-riding’ allies — a position shared with his domestic constituencies — has become a major element of his policy agenda, rendering US negotiators less flexible in their deals with allies.

Wary of creating any discord between the two allies that would risk disrupting the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean government was under more pressure to accept a higher share of the costs than in previous years. Compared to the 5.8 per cent increase agreed in the 2013 SMA negotiations, the 8.2 per cent increase appeared to be hard for South Korea to accept. Still, at least Seoul managed to avoid the 40 to 200 per cent increases Washington suggested at various stages of the negotiations.

More worrisome is the one-year term that will lead the two countries to enter new SMA talks for 2020 soon after they sign the 2019 agreement. If the Trump administration’s excessive demands for defence cost-sharing continue in another round of negotiations later this year, it could erode South Korea’s trust in the United States as a reliable security partner and open the door to persistent instabilities in the bilateral alliance.

For US policymakers, South Korea’s support for US interests in East Asia could prove critical to not only sustaining the United States’ military and economic lead over China but also to pursuing the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. President Trump recently signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, authorising US$1.5 billion for increasing US security, economic interests and values in the Indo-Pacific region. But Trump’s harsh approach towards US allies could give the wrong signal to Seoul and hinder the further development of US strategic and military ties with South Korea, a central component of US policy in the region.

All this comes on the eve of the second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on 27–28 February 2019. South Korea will not immediately disrupt its relationship with the United States because the ruling Moon Jae-in administration regards cooperation between Washington and Seoul as vital to establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula. But eventually, if the United States fails to adequately signal its security commitment to South Korea and links its excessive financial demands to the possibility of a USFK withdrawal, South Korean may question the durability of their alliance.

Despite Trump denying any such withdrawal plan, ‘maybe someday’ Washington and Seoul could start negotiating a reduction or withdrawal of the USFK. Such negotiations should be based on mutual trust between the two and accompanied by a permanent peace-building process on the Korean Peninsula, along with North Korea’s sincere denuclearisation efforts. Any unilateral or abrupt decision by Washington without prior consultations with Seoul could significantly backfire.

Se Young Jang is Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s uneasy relationships


Author: Zhang Xiaoming, Peking University

Until the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s establishment in 2014, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was the only regional organisation initiated by and headquartered in China. Unsurprisingly China has demonstrated an unprecedented interest in and enthusiasm for the organisation. With Russia, most Central Asian countries and now India and Pakistan involved, there are fears that the SCO has the potential to become an ‘anti-NATO alliance’. But there are strategic limits to its agenda.

China's President Xi Jinping and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a signing ceremony during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao, Shandong Province, China, 10 June 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Aly Song).

At China’s initiative the SCO adopted the term ‘three evil forces’ to refer to terrorism, separatism and extremism. Countering these forces has served as the organisation’s foundation since its creation in 2001 as a replacement to the ‘Shanghai Five’ grouping of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 2002 the SCO created the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, a standing organ responsible for security cooperation. China and the other SCO member states have conducted bilateral and multilateral anti-terrorism military drills on a regular basis since.

The SCO is sometimes regarded as an anti-West or anti-US regional collective security organisation. Although the US factor should not be overlooked, it was not critical to the organisation’s origins and development. Nor did the United States pay the SCO much initial attention.

Only from 2005 onwards did the SCO begin to take positions that aroused US anxiety. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, the United States stationed forces in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. After the Taliban regime’s overthrow, the United States continued to use the two bases. The 2005 ‘colour revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan was said to have some connection with US intervention, and Uzbekistan’s repression of the Andijan riot the same year was condemned by the US State Department.

At the 2005 SCO summit the joint declaration suggested that the United States should set a timetable to withdraw its military bases from the two Central Asian nations. The subsequent shut down of the Khanabad base by Uzbekistan caused US uproar. At the same time the SCO invited Iran to participate in summit meetings as an observer. The large-scale ‘Mission of Peace 2005’ military drills conducted jointly by Chinese and Russian forces in the Russian Far East and China’s Shandong Province were also an important development. The United States began to pay more attention to the SCO, and its suspicion, distrust and criticism of the organisation increased.

The ongoing deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West and looming US–China confrontation might provide impetus for deepening cooperation among SCO member states, especially between China and Russia. But it is not in China’s interest to turn the organisation into an anti-West military alliance. Nor is there any evidence that Russia harbours the same intentions. For China, cooperation to combat the ‘three evil forces’ remains the organisation’s primary mission.

Economic cooperation is another important mission of the SCO and one of the organisation’s three pillars. But compared with security cooperation, economic achievements are few.

China is undoubtedly the locomotive for economic cooperation in the organisation, serving as the largest contributor to its administrative budget. China is also actively promoting establishing an SCO development bank and an SCO free trade agreement (FTA). But China’s promotion of regional economic integration within the SCO framework is not receiving a positive response.

In comparison with China, Russia is a relatively passive participant in SCO economic cooperation and attaches greater importance to security cooperation. Moscow is concerned with China’s economic expansion in Central Asia as a challenge to Russia-dominated Eurasian integration. Russia advocates for the expansion of SCO membership and supported India’s joining in 2017, partly to balance China’s power in the organisation. Some even argue that Russia tries to use the SCO to monitor, restrain and control China’s behaviour in Central Asia, traditionally a Russian sphere of influence.

Are Russia and China moving towards competition in Central Asia? The reality is that Russia enjoys much greater influence in Central Asia, and China does not have the will or the capability to drive Russia out. Central Asian states also remain cautious of China’s growing regional presence. Many are afraid of becoming too economically dependent on China as simply a natural-resource supplier to, and consumer market for, China.

The SCO and the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union overlap in membership and functions. While the two institutions might fall into competition, they could also be partners. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 called for cooperation between the SCO and the then Eurasian Economic Community, which could deepen as the BRI develops.

US President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade policies may also provide an opportunity for greater economic cooperation among member states. The organisation is still considering the creation of an SCO Development Bank, as well as a Special Account that would provide financial support for project activities. An SCO FTA is also possible in the long run if approached in a step-by-step manner. Several countries fear that an FTA could lead to an influx of inexpensive Chinese goods, undermining national economies.

The SCO is already the world’s largest regional organisation in terms of population and economic potential. Its recent expansion following the accession of India and Pakistan may strengthen the organisation’s position in world politics. But wider membership could also lead to a loss of efficiency in SCO decision-making if competition between India and Pakistan and India and China hamper its functioning.

Zhang Xiaoming is Professor of International Relations and Associate Editor of The Journal of International Studies at the School of International Studies, Peking University.

A longer version of this article originally appeared here on Global Asia.

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Media ethics betrayed in Japan


Author: Jeff Kingston, Temple University Japan

Imagine that the editorial page of The New York Times suddenly shifted dramatically rightward and columnists critical of US President Donald Trump were ousted and replaced by sycophantic pundits. Then a tape emerges of the editor justifying these changes as intended to counter accusations that the newspaper is anti-American and the sacking of Trump debunkers as designed to boost government ad revenue and snag an interview with Trump. This is essentially what recently happened at The Japan Times.

Evening editions of newspapers are piled up at a kiosk in Tokyo, Japan, 2 May 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Toru Hanai).

In June 2017, public relations firm News2u purchased The Japan Times, Japan’s oldest and most circulated English-language newspaper. The new management jettisoned the newspaper’s previous critical editorial stance in favour of lauding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies. The Japan Times now embraces Abe’s revisionist history, which promotes a vindicating and exonerating narrative of Japan’s wartime past.

Based on information from an insider’s tape, on 25 January 2019 Reuters reported that Executive Editor Hiroyasu Mizuno insinuated during a staff meeting that criticising Abe’s policies and revisionist views on history conveyed an anti-Japanese bias. He said, ‘I want to get rid of criticism that Japan Times is anti-Japanese’ — akin to arguing that criticising Trump makes The New York Times anti-American. According to that logic, much of the Japanese population must be anti-Japanese since polls suggest support for Abe’s signature policies hovers between 25–30 per cent.

At the same meeting, a senior manager clearly stated on tape that termination of my own column (which was often critical of the Abe administration) had already produced an upside, boosting revenues from government-sponsored content and scoring an interview with Abe.

Reuters drew attention to Mizuno’s unsuccessful efforts in mid-2018 to convince his editorial team to soften its criticism of Japan’s wartime misconduct, annotating several articles to make his point. According to copies of his notes, he ‘objected to calling comfort women “victims” or mentioning that they included girls; questioned referring to Japan’s occupation of Korea as “brutal”; and criticized the paper’s reporting and stories by wire services, including Reuters, as generally “pro-Korea” and not adequately reflecting Japan’s view’.

The latter is a misleading claim, as there is no monolithic Japanese view of history as it varies across the political spectrum. The Japan Times has shifted from the Asahi newspaper’s left-of-centre stance to the deep right at the Sankei end of the spectrum.

Having failed to sway his team, Mizuno proceeded to ignore their objections, inserting a note at the end of an article on 30 November 2018 about the Seoul–Tokyo fracas over forced labour. The note announced that The Japan Times would no longer use the terms ‘comfort women’ and ‘forced labour’. In doing so, Mizuno overturned the terminology long used at the newspaper and most English-language media, including The New York Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.

Mizuno’s brief note explains that the newspaper will now refer to comfort women as ‘women who worked in wartime brothels, including those who did so against their will’. And Korean workers will be referred to simply as ‘wartime labourers’, omitting any reference to coercion.

The note angered many Japan Times reporters and staff, forcing Mizuno to hold a meeting to clear the air (at which the tape featuring his controversial remarks was made). After the meeting on, 6 December 2018, Mizuno acknowledged and expressed his regret that the note ‘damaged the relationship of trust that we have developed with our readers, our writers and our staff’.

Mizuno told Reuters that he is not opposed to ‘appropriate’ criticism. But the editorial shift seems to exclude hard-hitting commentary. New columnists act as cheerleaders for Abe, while an acerbic political reporter who asked awkward questions at press conferences was shifted from the Prime Minister’s beat. Blogosphere reactionaries are triumphant, claiming victory now that The Japan Times has capitulated and is endorsing euphemisms about the comfort women system of sexual slavery and forced labour.

The bombshell Mizuno tape has tarnished The Japan Times’ brand. The tape suggests that the newspaper’s editor lacks integrity and journalistic ethics, having traded both for government ad money and access to Abe. The Japanese media has also picked up the story, amplifying the reputational damage. Transactional journalism of this sort overshadows the excellent reporting and features that make The Japan Times so valuable. Whether or not one agrees with the new terminology on comfort women and forced labour, the revelations are devastating public relations for a venerable newspaper now owned by a PR firm.

Although the newspaper’s physical circulation is just 45,000 copies,The Japan Times plays an outsized role in global perceptions of Japan because of the internet. This is precisely why a cabinet minister reportedly asserted at a late-2016 meeting that something had to be done about The Japan Times’ critical coverage, which was undermining the government’s pro-Abe public diplomacy.

After the ownership change, The Japan Times began fawning over Abenomics and the Prime Minister’s right-wing agenda. The evident willingness to kowtow to power, rather than speak to it, highlights the larger problem of self-censorship in Japan and a beholden media reliant on access journalism.

Japan Times staff have been in damage control mode since the Reuters story broke. It appears unlikely that there will be any reversal of the new editorial direction despite internal discord and the embarrassing revelations. Management is likely hoping to brazen out the scandal and continue milking the government for sponsored content and crumbs of access as it rides the lucrative 2020 Olympic wave.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, a former columnist of The Japan Times and author of Japan (Polity 2019).

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Partial victory for China’s detainees


Author: Emile Dirks, University of Toronto

If reports are true, this year China may abolish its system of extrajudicial detention for sex workers and their clients. This is welcome news. China’s sex workers deserve to live and work in safety and eliminating this system would be a major step towards achieving this end. But if this is a victory, it’s a partial one. Though sex worker detention may soon be abolished, similar systems targeting users of drugs and Xinjiang’s Muslims continue to grow.

Ethnic Uighur women leave a centre where political education lessons are held in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 6 September 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter).

The end of sex worker detention marks a turning point in the Chinese government’s approach to the sex trade. In the early years of its rule, the Chinese Communist Party viewed sex work, like foot binding and arranged marriage, as a relic of China’s feudal past. Brothels were closed and sex workers forced into new professions. That some may have wished to continue working in the sex trade was an idea the Party never entertained, and by the early 1950s sex work had disappeared in China.

The hiatus was brief. Post-Mao economic and social reforms led to the re-emergence of sex work and renewed state repression of the trade. Police conducted campaigns against sex workers and their clients, parading them in the streets before passing sentence. Some were detained in the country’s first detention centres for sex workers in Shanghai and Wuhan, opened in 1984.

Six years later there were more than 100 of these ‘custody and education’ centres. By 1999, there were 183. And with the State Council’s promulgation of Methods of Custody and Educationin 1993, police gained expanded powers to detain sex workers and their clients for up to two years.

In these centres, detainees quickly learn that ‘custody’ takes precedence over ‘education’. While lectures on sexual health and the law are provided, along with treatment for sexually transmitted infections, the centres are jails in all but name. Detainees work for meagre wages and are forced to cover their living expenses. Abuse by guards is rife. And despite the state’s pledge to eradicate the sex trade, most sex workers return to their profession upon release, where they continue to face harassment and violence at the hands of both clients and the police.

These centres not only fail to eliminate the sex trade. As Deputy Director of China’s National Lawyers Association Zhu Zhengfu argues, they fail to abide by relevant Chinese laws too. Police routinely detain sex workers and clients in holding cells for up to 15 days before transferring them to custody and education centres, effectively punishing them twice for a single offence.

Custody and education also does not appear in the 2006 Public Security Management Punishment Law. According to Zhu, a long-time opponent of custody and education, this violates China’s Legislative Law‘s stipulation that personal freedom can only be restricted in accordance with national laws

Arguments like Zhu’s have been made for years. Why is custody and education only now poised for abolition? One answer is changes to local police budgets. Under the Public Security Management Punishment Law, local police have the authority to issue fines of up to 5000 RMB (US$741) for prostitution-related offences. During the 1990s, these fines were a coveted source of revenue for cash-strapped police.

But policy changes in 2001 meant local police had to turn fines over to the central government. Lacking a financial incentive to make arrests, prostitution cases dropped precipitously from 239,000 in 2001 to 80,000 in 2017. So too did the detainee population of custody and education centres, which declined from 40,000 in 1999 to 15,000 in 2014

Crediting budgetary concerns alone for the end of custody and education may be too simple. For other systems of detention, there are no shortage of funds. Today more than 320,000 users of drugs are held in 775 drug detention centres, while in the re-education camps of Xinjiang up to 1 million ethnic minority Muslims are detained. Detainees are held for months, even years, without trial. Forced labour is not uncommon. Those released are subjected to continued police surveillance.

If sex workers were viewed as a threat — like users of drugs and Xinjiang’s Muslims are now — funding for custody and education could no doubt be found. While the Chinese Communist Party still opposes sex work, abolishing the sex trade is no longer a domestic security priority. The same cannot be said of unsanctioned religious practices and a growing illicit drug market, both of which the Party views with alarm. As the Party pursues its harsh campaigns against drugs and ‘religious extremism’, the number of detainees grows apace.

What then to make of the end of custody and education? Will it protect human rights and improve the rule of law in China? Some believe it will. But with so many still languishing in drug detention centres and the re-education camps of Xinjiang, this optimism is hard to share.

Emile Dirks is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto.

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Navigating ASEAN’s economic priorities


Author: Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit, RSIS

Southeast Asian economies may face major economic headwinds this year amid US–China trade tensions and US Federal Reserve interest rate increases. To help weather the impact, ASEAN member states should prioritise progress on regional economic initiatives.

ASEAN leaders gather for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the 33rd ASEAN Summit, Singapore, 13 November 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su).

Some observers think that the 90-day truce between Washington and Beijing could beget better relations between the two powers. But they may be overestimating China’s ability to make concessions that fulfil what the Trump administration wants. Buying more American products is easy, but implementing measures to address ‘unfair’ trade practices to a degree that satisfies the United States is more difficult to achieve within 90 days. More rounds of tariff escalations or other trade-restricting measures could be in the offing.

On the financial front, in December 2018 the US Federal Reserve raised interest rates from 2.25 to 2.50 per cent and forecast the possibility of further increases in 2019. The Fed did so to ensure there will be room for it to use monetary policy and decrease interest rates to fight the next US recession.

Additional hikes could trigger capital pull-outs from Southeast Asian countries as investors move funds to seek higher yields in the United States. If not well-managed, such capital outflows may instigate financial instability in the ASEAN region.

Regional economies must brace themselves for future economic and financial turbulence. While they are unlikely to be able to avoid such headwinds, ASEAN member states can nevertheless cushion the impact through regional initiatives: the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) 2025, ASEAN–Hong Kong Free Trade and Investment Agreements (AHKFTA and AHKIA), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM).

Policymakers should prioritise the complete implementation of the AEC 2025. This is a regional economic integration project by the 10 ASEAN member states designed to achieve five objectives: a highly integrated and cohesive economy; a competitive, innovative and dynamic ASEAN; enhanced connectivity and sectoral cooperation; a resilient, inclusive, people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN; and a global ASEAN.

Advancing the AEC 2025 will enable businesses to better tap into the integrated market of over 600 million people, rendering regional economies more resilient to the incoming headwinds.

Southeast Asian governments should also ratify the AHKFTA and AHKIA signed in November 2017 so that these treaties can enter into force in early 2019 as expected. The agreements will enhance cross-border flows of goods, services and investment between ASEAN and Hong Kong.

The agreements will not only allow firms to enjoy greater access to goods and services markets and better investment protection, but also enable ASEAN nations to further tighten trade and investment ties with China. The latter will help Southeast Asian economies to recuperate from any damage that future Washington–Beijing trade spats may inflict on them.

ASEAN authorities should also concentrate on wrapping up RCEP talks. If concluded, this 16-economy free trade bloc will encompass a market of 3.6 billion people that contributes to a third of global GDP. It will cover 29 per cent of global trade and 26 per cent of the world’s foreign direct investment flows.

Concluding the negotiation will create more opportunities for businesses to deepen their supply chains, and provide RCEP economies with another means to diversify their economic relations and cushion against the negative effects of future US–China trade war spats.

Finally, ASEAN nations together with China, Japan and South Korea (ASEAN+3) should advance the CMIM, a regional financial safety net under the ASEAN+3 framework. Launched in 2010, the scheme provides financial support through a network of currency swaps to help ASEAN+3 nations weather their balance-of-payments difficulties.

Because future Fed rate hikes could trigger investor panic leading to financial instability and capital flights in certain regional economies, the CMIM can provide financial assistance to alleviate such problems.

Admittedly, the above initiatives face their own challenges. A major hurdle for implementing the AEC 2025 is a lack of coordination among domestic ministries and agencies. Individual ASEAN countries must sort out how to improve coordination among the involved authorities. Certain domestic hurdles must also be cleared for a successful ratification of the ASEAN–Hong Kong treaties.

Planned elections in Australia, India, Indonesia and Thailand in 2019 may delay the conclusion of RCEP negotiations in the first half of 2019. Politicians in these nations will likely prioritise their electioneering over international matters. And if the momentum of RCEP talks picks up in the second-half of the year, the parties’ different positions and preferences will still need to be reconciled to seal the deal.

Regarding the CMIM, while a laudable agreement was signed in December 2018 to create more favourable conditions that will enable the regional financial safety net to better assist in a crisis, efforts to advance other aspects of the CMIM have been lacklustre in recent years.

For one, its size has remained the same at US$240 billion since 2012. With this amount, the scheme can at best provide simultaneous lending support to a few small- and medium-sized economies should they come under a crisis. The participants must push for an expansion of the CMIM’s size.

US–China trade tensions and Fed rate hikes will likely generate undesired effects for Southeast Asian economies this year. Despite the challenges of the above initiatives, ASEAN countries must collectively pursue them to navigate through the coming economic headwinds. Time is running out and policymakers must act fast.

Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit is Deputy Head and Assistant Professor at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.

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Trump’s foreign policy wreckage in Asia


Author: Editorial Board, ANU

When the Trump administration came to power two years ago, the response by policymakers with a huge stake in the relationship — from the leadership of China to that of rusted on allies like Japan or Australia — was that Trump’s team would settle back after the election and that business would resume with the new administration more or less as usual.

US President Donald Trump waves to the media as he returns to the White House after an annual physical test at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Washington DC, United States, 8 February 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Yuri Gripas).

The United States was the crux of the economic and political security system on which the world has relied for more than three-quarters of a century. The global economic architecture which the United States and its allies put in place after World War II is now absent US leadership and care. Mr Trump and his team have trashed it. Trump’s trade war with China and his trade actions against others, including US allies like Japan, Europe and Canada, show utter disrespect for its core rules. This system is the international system of rules, whatever its weaknesses, on which Asia’s political security also vitally depends.

The wreckage of Mr Trump’s approach to foreign policy continues to pile up across Asia and around the world.

The immediate outlook, over the next year or two, promises rising economic and political uncertainty. The real estate market bargaining style that Mr Trump has brought to dealing with these issues undervalues the complex interdependence between the economic and political security interests that are at stake. It undervalues the damaging multilateral consequences of bilateral dealing. That’s what is so risky about the bilateralisation of the US trade negotiations with China, which as the largest trading nation in the world is wisely bound into the multilateral global trading regime. Japan too is under pressure to do a bilateral trade deal with Mr Trump — a deal that goes beyond the multilateral commitments it has made to members of the so-called TPP-11. On the US trade conflict with China, there’s a deepening perception gap with Washington, and diplomatic realignment despite the deep security undertow in some countries.

Asian policy leaders are still coming to terms with the reality that Mr Trump is different and that the United States which delivered his electoral success is never likely to be quite the same. But there’s a growing understanding in Tokyo, Jakarta and even Canberra of what’s at stake in dealing with Mr Trump’s administration and the more proactive response that will be needed to defend core Asian economic and political interests that transcend the anxieties that exist between a rising China and the rest of Asia.

In this week’s lead essay Sheila Smith argues that based on the past performance of the Trump administration, US policy in Asia will ‘be erratic and self-serving’ in the coming year as the Trump administration continues ‘to work out its issues with countries in the region bilaterally and sporadically’. The ‘more openly pugilistic US relationship with China’, she says, ‘unsettles nerves’ across the region.

But the main problem for US foreign policy makers, Smith reckons, is not the behaviour of other global actors, including those in Asia or elsewhere. The main problem is the ‘crippling divisions within the Trump administration itself, and between the administration and the legislative and judicial branches of the US government, [that] could make any attempt to marshal US resources into foreign relations almost impossible’.

The coming year, as Smith says, will likely be a year of domestic political entanglement for the President and his administration. The effect of the political turbulence surrounding the White House and the extent to which it dominates US foreign policy is one dimension. But the lack of focus and consistency in the direction of foreign policy strategy is an altogether higher order concern. Diminished expertise and experience at all levels of the Trump administration undermine the trust that allies, partners and even adversaries can put in the reliability of US posturing.

In the short term, these worries are focused on Mr Trump and his administration. Some think that Trump will have more freedom to pursue his ambitions for ‘America First’ around the world. The immediate issue is how to respond to the ‘America First’ momentum in all its dimensions. But even if there are fewer experts in the government to challenge Mr Trump’s vision, implementation of his goals remains a challenge, especially against what now appears to be comprehensive pushback by the US security community in almost every theatre.

The turmoil at home, Smith warns, could produce more brittle and reactive decisions. This could bedevil meaningful dealings with others around the globe because of the instinct to seek settlement prematurely, in the trade war with China or denuclearisation in North Korea, for example, instead of pursuing stable, long-lasting agreements that serve the interests of the United States as well as its partners.

The crises Mr Trump proudly proclaims that he alone could have dealt with are largely of his own making. It’s hardly surprising that Asian allies and partners alike should worry about how Mr Trump might deal with a real crisis when there’s a significant move within the US Congress to put limits on the president’s use of nuclear weapons.

The chances that the Trump administration, in this mode, will succeed in mitigating global-system destabilising trade and other tensions with China or, alone, secure an agreement on denuclearisation with North Korea appear remote.

Only multilateral engagement on both these and other issues such as climate change is likely to deliver stable, mutually advantageous outcomes to the United States and all its partners in any of these areas. That’s not on Mr Trump’s agenda.

The real worry is that beyond Trump’s presidency all the signs suggest that both the impulse of the United States to engage multilaterally will be very difficult to repair and that Mr Trump has fractured trust in multilateral endeavours around the world.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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US policy in Asia heads from bad to worse


Author: Sheila A Smith, CFR

If the past year is any indication of the year ahead, US policy in Asia will be erratic and self-serving. The beginnings of an Indo-Pacific strategy notwithstanding, the Trump administration continues to work out its issues with countries in the region bilaterally and sporadically.

US President Donald Trump departs on Marine One for travel to New Orleans from the South Lawn of the White House, Washington DC, United States, 14 January 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Leah Millis).

The Trump administration’s trade confrontation with China is yet to produce a negotiated solution. The challenge is structural and no amount of Chinese promises to ‘buy American’ will fix the underlying problems.

The challenge posed by Chinese companies is felt far beyond the US government. The Department of Justice’s enforcement of US law on companies accused of commercial espionage and cyber theft is only strengthening. Beyond the high-profile detention in Canada and pending extradition of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, numerous indictments of Chinese companies are being pursued.

Without real change in Beijing’s enforcement of intellectual property theft, simply shifting the trade balance toward a more favourable direction for the United States will be insufficient to address the economic strain.

Trump’s approach to China is not only about commerce. Vice President Mike Pence’s speech in October last year made that clear. A wide-ranging critique of China’s behaviour in the United States and efforts to expand its influence abroad, the speech was welcomed by some in Asia as evidence that the United States is ready to stand up to China.

But across the Indo-Pacific a more openly pugilistic US relationship with China unsettles nerves. Is it a ‘new Cold War’? Not yet, but the United States and China are clearly on a deeply contentious path. It is an open question whether Washington is up to the challenge of engaging in sustained, strategic competition with Beijing and whether it can maintain the like-minded regional coalition that will be necessary.

A second challenge for Washington is realising the promise of threat reduction claimed by Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore. The President is fond of declaring his administration’s diplomacy with Kim a success, but his own intelligence agencies disagree that Kim is prepared to denuclearise.

Over the past year, to be sure, there were no missile or nuclear tests. Yet there was also no progress in getting Pyongyang to catalogue its nuclear and missile facilities nor to open its production sites for international inspection. The on-again, off-again diplomacy to set up a second summit suggested a major setback. But Trump and Kim will now meet in Vietnam on 27–28 February.

Perhaps the most pervasive problem for US foreign policymakers is not the behaviour of other global actors, in Asia or elsewhere. Crippling divisions within the Trump administration itself, and between the administration and the legislative and judicial branches of the US government, could make any attempt to marshal US resources into foreign relations almost impossible.

From the government shutdown, to the Mueller investigation and its criminal indictments, to the increased scrutiny of Congress on the administration, it will be a year of domestic entanglement for the President and his White House.

The foreign policy consequences of this domestic turbulence cannot be overlooked. Already, the Trump administration’s decision-making has led to the loss of critical foreign policy expertise, such as former secretary of defense Jim Mattis. There also seems to be much-diminished capacity within the White House for organised intra-agency debate over US strategic priorities.

Some think that the President is now more empowered to act in line with his ambitions, and so foreign policy will become more aligned with his ‘America First’ premise. Perhaps this is true. But even if there are fewer experts in the government to challenge Trump’s vision, he will still have to implement his goals. And this may become far more difficult than ever.

Frustrations at home could just as easily produce even more brittle and reactive decision-making by the President, making it impossible to reach or implement meaningful agreements with others around the globe. Also worrisome is that, with all this domestic contest, the Trump administration will be overly eager to create evidence of foreign policy successes. Prematurely declaring victory in the trade war with China or in negotiations with North Korea could leave the region, and the globe, less stable.

As former deputy secretary of state Anthony Blinken pointed out, for all the Trump administration’s breathless talk of crises, the President has yet to face a real challenge to US interests. A crisis could expose the administration’s haphazard decision-making procedures and its intragovernmental divisions. Congress is growing more active in trying to assert its role in such a possible crisis, with some in Congress proposing limits on the president’s use of nuclear weapons.

US success in mitigating strategic tensions with China is unlikely, and no US president has yet found the magic solution to persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear quest.

Nor does Washington seem well placed to assist its friends and allies with their own problems. Of particular concern is the deteriorating relationship between Japan and South Korea. This is a moment that cries out for diplomatic assistance from countries like the United States, which see what the heightened risk of a military clash could mean for the future of Northeast Asia.

Add to that the alarming signs that Trump really does want to step back from US treaty commitments to allies in NATO, South Korea and perhaps even Japan, and 2019 could end up being a far bigger watershed in US policy towards Asia than anyone cares to imagine.

Sheila A Smith is Senior Fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2018 in review and the year ahead.

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Regional consensus needed for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’


Author: Nazia Hussain, RSIS

The main protagonists behind the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) concept are continuing diplomatic efforts to crystallise a strategy for its realisation. But there is no consensus on what the concept will cover nor is it clear what kind of structures are needed for its implementation. Rather than remain non-committal, ASEAN and other states should engage with the FOIP concept to contribute to its sculpting and achieve a more inclusive regional order.

Sailors on Japanese helicopter carrier Kaga wait as Japanese destroyers Inazuma and Suzutsuki approach during a joint naval drill in the Indian Ocean, Indonesia, 22 September 2018 (Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoon).

India, Japan and the United States held their first trilateral meeting (coined the JAI grouping) on the sidelines of the December 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires. The leaders of the three countries agreed that a ’free, open, inclusive and rules-based’ order is essential for the Indo-Pacific’s peace and prosperity.

The United States emphasises the power dynamics underlying the FOIP while Japan highlights its economic potential. To Japan, the FOIP is open to all countries that observe the rule of law, freedom of navigation and relevant standards of transparency and sustainable development.

While stressing that no one is excluded, the United States aspires to a regional order of independent nations in the Indo-Pacific that defends its populations, respects human dignity, competes fairly in the marketplace and is free from great power domination. Given US criticism or suspicion of China in most of these areas, it may not be easy for China to be part of the FOIP even if Beijing wished to be included.

The JAI grouping is shaping up to play a key role in Indian foreign policy. India proposes the three countries synergise their infrastructure projects and other efforts in the region. Tokyo and New Delhi have already agreed to deepen naval and maritime security cooperation and collaborate on infrastructure projects in third countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, to enhance strategic connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.

Assuring all countries that the FOIP will be open and inclusive, Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulated five areas for greater cooperation and advancement that would serve the common interest of promoting peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific: connectivity, sustainable development, maritime security, disaster relief and freedom of navigation. Modi also underlined the importance of building consensus on a regional architecture based on principles of mutual benefit and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

While stakeholders have a broad agreement on the FOIP’s principles, what needs to be discussed next is their implementation. Without addressing the question of implementation and lacking clarity on the specifics, countries in the region including ASEAN will continue to remain hesitant to embrace the FOIP concept.

ASEAN member states show different levels of scepticism about the FOIP. The Philippines and Cambodia were initially the most reluctant to discuss the initiative within the ASEAN framework, fearing it might hurt ASEAN centrality, while Laos, Brunei and Myanmar were silent. They became more receptive to discussions as more information became available. Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia seem to be supportive of the initiative although each of them would like to shape it according to their respective strategic interests.

Washington and New Delhi frequently reiterate that ASEAN centrality is key to the FOIP as it embodies regional inclusivity and multilateral trade. ASEAN already has a set of interlinking regional mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, designed to engage major powers and neighbouring countries.

The FOIP framework should make use of these existing mechanisms to ensure that the region has complementary rather than competing mechanisms. For instance, ASEAN can engage its ASEAN Maritime Forum to complement efforts by the Indian Ocean RIM Association and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium.

ASEAN can also engage BIMSTEC as an economic sub-grouping in the Bay of Bengal involving Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, especially since two of the BIMSTEC members (Myanmar and Thailand) are also members of ASEAN. BIMSTEC’s connectivity projects in the Bay of Bengal region would greatly benefit from ASEAN’s involvement.

To get ASEAN on board with the FOIP concept, it is essential the grouping plays a role in defining the evolving regional security architecture. Indonesia has been the most active among ASEAN member states in articulating its version of the FOIP and is finalising an ASEAN concept paper on the Indo-Pacific.

Although the concept paper is still being drawn up, ASEAN diplomats have alerted dialogue partners that the ASEAN framework will not toe the line of the US-inspired strategy despite some overlap on key principles. It will be inclusive and not aimed at any particular power. It will also come with practical measures and action plans. ASEAN aims to synergise elements of Washington, Tokyo and New Delhi’s concepts with ASEAN-led projects concerning infrastructure development, governance and maritime cooperation.

As different states have different understandings of the FOIP, it is critical to ensure that the concept does not create misunderstandings. There is a need to continue engagement with ASEAN member states and other regional stakeholders so that all actors are on the same page, particularly with Australia, India and Indonesia heading into electoral campaigning in 2019.

Nazia Hussain is a Research Analyst in the Office of the Executive Deputy Chairman, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.

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