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Avoiding Sri Lanka’s next civil war


Author: Benjamin Schonthal, University of Otago

18 May 2019 was a doubly significant day in Sri Lanka. Not only did it mark the ten-year anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, it was also Vesak, the most significant holiday in the Buddhist liturgical calendar. The coincidence seems appropriate: in Sri Lanka today, politics and religion seem more interlinked than ever.

In the aftermath of the tragic attacks on Easter Sunday, religion has become the concern of the day. The country faces a host of pressing issues including massive economic inequality, failing environmental management, a crushing sovereign debt and China’s looming power. It also faces a dire political situation characterised by chronic in-fighting, corruption and the occasional constitutional crisis. Even so, it is the issue of religion which generates passion and concern at levels similar to those sparked by topics of language, ethnicity and federalism during Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Also similar to the civil war days are the polarising and unproductive ways with which this dominating issue of religion is being dealt. Sri Lanka’s popular media and politicians seem to be presenting religion, especially Islam, as a source of danger, violence and radicalisation. At the same time, through dog-whistle politics, police inaction and presidential pardons, Sri Lanka’s government is giving unprecedented licence to the most aggressive and extreme forms of Sinhalese Buddhism.

This recent politicising of religion — which condemns one form of extremism while quietly sanctioning the other — is having disastrous consequences for social harmony on the island. One can see this in the blaming, in many cases en masse, of Islam and Muslims for the terrorist attacks. This storyline has fuelled numerous acts of vandalism, intimidation and violence against Muslims on the island, including some of the worst anti-Muslim attacks that the island has seen (though coming on the heels of similar violence in 2014 and 2018). The narratives have driven many Sri Lankan Muslims — especially women wearing religious attire — to live in a state of fear and insecurity.

Disaster also portends in the rapidness with which politicians and religious leaders are normalising highly chauvinistic versions of Buddhism. Even if they do not directly endorse these ideas, they often refuse to contest them publicly. Such silence gives the distorted impression that hatred and thuggery, such as that shown in Minuwangoda, are somehow acceptable among the Buddhist mainstream.

Sri Lanka needs to address instances of violence and prejudice that are taking place in the name of religion. Yet, dealing with these matters simply as religion or as instances of religious conflict — rather than as complex problems linked to politics, inequality, criminality and racism — is also misguided. Doing so not only overlooks the broader historical, institutional and sociological dimensions of the violence and conflict, it also unwittingly feeds into an us-versus-them mentality in which religious identities are assumed to be monolithic and naturally antagonistic.

A simplistic focus on religion, Islam or Buddhism in their most pathological and militaristic forms also hides from view the fact that most of the island’s Muslims and Buddhists do not hold the same belligerent views. It was Muslims who nearly three years ago first warned Sri Lankan officials about the alarming teachings of the rogue individuals who carried out the terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday. In the aftermath of the bombings, it was Muslims again who were among the most vociferous in their condemnation and repudiation of the attackers and their beliefs. In the weeks since the attacks, religious leaders from all faiths — including Buddhist monks — have taken up leading roles in condemning anti-Muslim violence and appealing to Sri Lankans to look after each other.

Beneath the political sloganeering and newspaper headlines of a ‘Buddhist–Muslim’ conflict lies also decades, even centuries, of everyday religious cooperation and coexistence that is visible in schools, holy sites, city neighbourhoods and rural villages. Sri Lanka does have chauvinists, ideologues and militant groups that do horrible things in the name of religion. But to concentrate entirely on their story, and ignore these others, is to affirm a grim and partial vision of Sri Lanka’s religious past, present and future.

Ten years after Sri Lanka’s civil war, religion and politics seem more tightly bound than ever.  The question remains: which aspects of religion will the country call into view? Will it be the simplistic but politically expedient stories of them-and-us that led to the outbreak of war forty years ago? Or will it be a more complex story that focusses on the island’s longer history of resilience, its multiplicity of identities and its deep resources of compassion and creativity?

These stories are harder to sell in political campaigns and newspaper headlines. But if deployed with courage, they might help move the country into a new era, rather than returning it to an old one, yet again.

Dr Benjamin Schonthal is an Associate Professor of Religion and the Associate Dean (International) for Humanities at the University of Otago, Dunedin. ‘Avoiding Sri Lanka’s next civil war’ was accepted for EAF publication on 27 May 2019.

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A ‘yellow peril’ revival fuelling Western fears of China’s rise


Author: Kishore Mahbubani, NUS

Do we arrive at geopolitical judgements from only cool, hard-headed, rational analysis? If emotions influence our judgements, are these conscious emotions or do they operate at the level of our subterranean subconscious? Any honest answer to these questions would admit that non-rational factors always play a role. This is why it was wrong for Western media to vilify Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning at the US State Department, for naming racial discomfort as a factor at play in the emerging geopolitical contest between the United States and China.

Chinese and US flags are set up for a meeting in Beijing, China, 27 April 2018 (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee)

Skinner was correct in saying that ‘the Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family’. Referring to the contest with China, she said: ‘it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian’. That China is not Caucasian is a factor in the geopolitical contest and it may also explain strong emotional reactions in Western countries to China’s rise.

Take the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China as an example. Critics of China are rational and correct when they state that China has stolen intellectual property and occasionally bullied US firms into sharing their technology. But a calm, rational description of China’s behaviour would also add that such behaviour is normal for an emerging economy.

The United States also stole intellectual property, especially from the British, at a similar stage of its economic development. Equally important, when the United States agreed to admit China into the WTO as a ‘developing country’, it agreed that ‘under the WTO’s agreements on intellectual property, developed countries are under “the obligation” to provide incentives to their companies to transfer technology to less developed countries’. This is a point that Yukon Huang, a former World Bank economist, has pointed out.

Most Western portrayals of China’s emergence as a great power lack balance. They tend to highlight negative dimensions of China’s rise but omit the positive dimensions. When US Vice President Mike Pence gave a comprehensive speech on China on 4 October 2018, he said: ‘Over the past 17 years, China’s GDP has grown nine-fold; it’s become the second-largest economy in the world. Much of this success was driven by American investment in China’. This is a factually incorrect statement. China’s economic success has been primarily driven by the rejuvenation of the Chinese people, not US investment.

Though Washington prides itself as a centre of calm and rational strategic thinking, such an unbalanced speech was not attacked in the liberal media. Instead, many cheered the US Vice President for attacking China.

This virulent anti-China atmosphere is reminiscent of the mid-1980s when Western media attacked Japan ferociously. The distrust of yellow-skinned people has resurfaced again. As former US ambassador Chas Freeman has observed: ‘In their views of China, many Americans now appear subconsciously to have combined images of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Japan’s unnerving 1980s challenge to US industrial and financial primacy, and a sense of existential threat analogous to the Sinophobia that inspired the Anti-Coolie and Chinese Exclusion Acts’.

The people of the United States need to question how much of their reactions to China’s rise result from hard-headed rational analysis and how much are a result of deep discomforts with a non-Caucasian civilisation. We may never know the real answer as these titanic struggles between reason and emotion are probably playing out in deep subconscious terrains. Still, we should thank Kiron Skinner for alluding to the fact that such subconscious dimensions are at play here. The time has come for an honest discussion of the ‘yellow peril’ dimension in US–China relations. As Freud taught us, the best way to deal with our subconscious fears is to surface them and deal with them.

Kishore Mahbubani is a Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the author of ‘Has the West Lost It?


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Downplaying North Korea’s missile tests risks diplomacy


Author: Naoko Aoki, RAND

North Korea test-fired short-range ballistic missiles in early May 2019, marking the country’s first missile tests in 18 months. US President Donald Trump is downplaying the tests’ importance, refusing to call them a violation of UN Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from taking part in ballistic missile activities.

Missiles are seen launched during a military drill in North Korea, 10 May 2019 (Photo: Korean Central News Agency via Reuters).

This may be intended to indicate US commitment to diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but it carries significant risks by allowing North Korea to achieve strategic and political gains.

The US President said he was not bothered by the missile tests because they did not violate North Korea’s promise to stop testing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles that could reach the US mainland. With this statement, the US President has — intentionally or not — sent a signal to North Korea that it can continue conducting short-range missile tests and keep collecting the data needed to improve such weapons. This is destabilising for the region.

Allowing these tests to continue gives North Korea the opportunity to perfect the new type of missile that it tested for the first time on 4 May. The missile, which resembles the Russian Iskander short-range ballistic missile, can fly at a low trajectory while changing its flight path. That kind of maneuverability could compromise missile defence systems in South Korea, threatening citizens and US troops there.

North Korea, which has already hinted that it may carry out more weapons tests, might also be tempted to see what more it can get away with before the United States reacts. This could complicate diplomacy — if North Korea returns to testing missles with longer ranges, the United States might be less willing to return to the negotiating table.

North Korea also might try to exploit differences between the United States and its ally Japan, which are likely to widen if missile tests continue. Unlike Trump, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insists that these tests were a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. After meeting with Trump in Tokyo in late May, Abe chose to emphasise Japan’s solidarity with the United States and said he supported Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea. But Abe could face pressure to change that position if North Korea continues testing missiles that threaten Japan.

More broadly, the US silence allows Pyongyang’s own narrative about the tests to continue without correction. In state media, North Korea is justifying the missile tests as a defensive drill in response to joint US–South Korea military exercises, as well as a US test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in California in May. Pyongyang is also defending the tests by saying that the UN Security Council resolutions that ban them are unlawful. Not countering such narratives sends the wrong message to North Korea.

The United States may be avoiding an immediate confrontation with North Korea, but this will do nothing to narrow the gap between the two countries’ positions on denuclearisation. At their summit in Hanoi in February, Trump urged Kim to give up all aspects of his country’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Kim refused.

It is unclear how much time remains for diplomacy. North Korea has repeatedly signalled that the United States needs to soften its full-and-immediate denuclearisation stance if talks are to make progress. Kim has set an end-of-year deadline for that to happen. The missile tests were likely intended to pressure the United States to moderate that position ­— and perhaps serve as a warning about how tensions would increase should the deadline lapse without progress. Still, Trump maintains that he is in no rush.

Downplaying the missile tests may be a way for the United States to keep the dialogue going. But for North Korea, it is an opportunity to improve an arsenal that already threatens US troops and allies in the region. If North Korea starts testing missiles with a longer range, it could get harder for the United States to return to talks, risking the end of the diplomacy between the two countries that began in 2018.

Dr Naoko Aoki is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at RAND Corporation and a Research Associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, the University of Maryland.


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Resolving the US–China trade impasse


Author: Yukon Huang, Carnegie Endowment

Just a month ago, an agreement to end the US–China trade war was deemed likely. Then came a flurry of accusations and another round of tariffs that have put negotiations on hold. Why did this process unravel so quickly and what might be the endgame?

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping meet business leaders at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 9 November 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj).

Beijing ostensibly recoiled after senior leadership saw the entire package of demands as an infringement on national sovereignty. Meanwhile, Washington became more unified in its objectives and sensed that politically it was not the right time to strike a deal. Under such conditions, many saw an enduring solution as unlikely given the complexity of the issues. Any agreement would have been more of a negotiated truce, transforming the process from an unruly to a more regulated trade war.

This trade war began with US President Donald Trump’s fixation with bilateral trade deficits and his desire for a headline grabbing package of Chinese purchases. This concern is seen as misguided, as is the proposal to ask China to buy more from the United States and less from others, which would contravene World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations.

The United States business community’s accusations about China’s unfair investment practices and violations of intellectual property rights are more difficult to resolve. The proposed regulations did not guarantee that implementation would be smooth, but a good-faith agreement is preferable to a prolonged trade war.

What eventually undid the negotiation process, however, are the concerns of Washington’s geo-strategists and political community who see the trade war as a clash between two great powers. Their goal of getting China to abandon its innovation ambitions, thereby constraining its ability to challenge America as the dominant economic power, proved to be an outcome that Beijing could not accept.

Levying punitive tariffs is less about curbing trade deficits and more about using tariffs as a tactical weapon to rein in China’s technological ambitions. Security concerns highlighted by Huawei’s expansion into 5G communications and the growing competition in developing artificial intelligence have added a sharper edge to this debate.

The oft-discussed security concerns may be exaggerated but the political reverberations will not go away. The recently imposed curbs on America’s exports of high-tech products may have a devastating impact on Huawei, but it will also damage America’s innovative capacity and disrupt global supply chains. These troublesome developments highlight the need to rethink acceptable norms and regulatory mechanisms for knowledge transfer across nations, while recognising that China’s size and role of the state give it certain advantages.

We now face the textbook ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, which tells us that when trust breaks down between two rational, self-interested actors, agreement is impossible and both sides end up worse off. Can an outsider help break the stalemate?

Europe is too preoccupied with its domestic concerns while Asia, as the most directly affected region, has more at stake. But China’s efforts to strengthen relations with its neighbours have not been helped by its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative despite the reassurances provided at the recent Beijing summit. The stalled Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is yet to provide China with any perceived advantages given the difficulties in forging an agreement among such diverse participants. China is also no longer running such large trade deficits with its Asian partners, so its growth facilitating impact is much less than it was a decade ago.

Within Asia, views differ on the domestic consequences of the trade war. Within ASEAN, countries like Vietnam or Indonesia could benefit from production relocating from China while others will suffer from reduced Chinese demand. A survey by UBS suggests that most of the relocated activity to date has gone to the United States and North Asia (Japan, Korea and Taiwan) instead of South East Asia.

But with rising tariffs, developing Asian economies will benefit more in the future — especially Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Elsewhere, Japan, Australia and India are more concerned about containing China’s foreign policy ambitions than with the consequences of the trade war. In sum, Asia is too splintered to take a unified position favouring either the United States or China.

This has made it easier for the dominant global power to capitalise on its advantages in dealing bilaterally with its major trading partners, be it China, Mexico or Japan. More efficient and equitable outcomes require a rules-based, multilateral approach. The most obvious path to take would require restructuring the WTO. A Trump-led administration would instinctively recoil against such an approach as exemplified by its efforts to undermine the WTO even though the United States has fared well in its rulings.

Any sustainable solution begins with a political consensus. The best option to bring together both developed and developing countries is the G20. None of the major European or Asian powers have thus far been motivated enough to spur this process forward. China has been reluctant to reach out, worried that this would restrict its flexibility.

But Beijing needs to see that its interests would be better served by stressing its commitment to reforms that would entice others to coalesce around a global solution, even if the United States is unwilling.

Dr Yukon Huang is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of ‘Cracking the China Conundrum: Why Conventional Economic Wisdom Is Wrong’.

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Managing Reiwa era expectations


Author: Sourabh Gupta, ICAS

On 1 May 2019, Emperor Naruhito ascended Japan’s Chrysanthemum Throne, heralding the Reiwa era. Three decades earlier, when his father Akihito assumed duties as the Emperor, Tokyo was a picture of optimism and promise.

Well-wishers gather to celebrate during first public greeting of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako at the East Plaza, Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, 4 May 2019 (Photo: Reuters/AFLO/Pasya).

Japan was then among the five richest countries in the world, it was the G7’s most egalitarian society, the economy was 12 times larger than China’s, and the central government’s budget position — a net debt of just 17 per cent of GDP — was the envy of other OECD countries.

Politically, uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule had suffered its first major reverse — to a female-led (Takako Doi) opposition party no less — in the Upper House election. Four years on, Morihiro Hosokawa would form Japan’s first non-LDP led government since the 1955 System’s inception.

In terms of neighbourhood relations, the graceful new emperor was poised to unreservedly express his regret for Imperial Japan’s misdeeds to a visiting South Korean president. In August 1993, prime minister Hosokawa himself candidly — and classily — expressed his government’s apology for Japan’s ‘aggression and colonial rule’ in his maiden policy speech to the National Diet. Internationally, the Cold War was ending and — as one wag put it — with Japan the victor.

In a nutshell, Japan had proven it could be prosperous, its political system multi-party and competitive, and its relations with immediate neighbours reconciled. Under the new Emperor Akihito, Japan would be a first-tier nation in every sense.

Three decades on, as Japan awakens to a new imperial era, it is hard to overstate the extent to which this optimism has been shattered.

Japan has dropped out of the top 20 list in terms of per capita income, it has witnessed the fastest rise in inequality and child poverty among G7 countries, the economy is less than half the size of China’s, and the central government’s budget position — now with a net debt of 120 per cent of GDP — is among the worst in the developed world. The size of the Japanese economy today is roughly the same as in 1997, despite the economy enjoying the two longest post-war expansions during the intervening period.

Electorally, LDP rule (in coalition with Komeito) has never been as dominant. For three consecutive Lower House elections, the LDP has mustered a three-fifth’s majority on its own — partly due to some of the lowest voter turnouts of the post-war era. The healthy tension of a competitive two-party system, last enjoyed during the Taisho era a hundred years ago, remains as distant a goal as ever.

Neighbouring relations-wise, the Diet — the repository of the sovereign power of the Japanese people since May 1947 — could never bring itself to meaningfully atone for Japan’s misdeeds. On the lone occasion in June 1995 when it tendered an adulterated apology, the term ‘war of aggression’ was downgraded to ‘acts of aggression’ and neither its perpetrator (Imperial Japan) or victims (Asian nations) were directly identified. If anything, there has been backsliding as a less-repentant generation of conservative politicians cite apology-fatigue.

Japan’s aspirations to become a United Nations-centred, internationally-minded and popularly-supported ‘normal’ nation have also evaporated. Dictates of realism have instead produced an unpopular re-interpretation of Article 9 that presses Japan’s supreme law, the Pacifist Constitution, into the service of complex self-defence laws, rather than the other way around

This is not to argue that the Heisei era has been bereft of achievement. Its real growth rate per working-age person since 2000 has been higher than the United States’ or Europe’s. Cabinet-centred governments have emasculated faction-based politics and pork-barrel lobbies. In 1998, prime minister Keizo Obuchi unreservedly apologised to visiting South Korean president Kim Dae-jung. And following the 9/11 attacks, Japan went from ‘passing’ to ‘surpassing’ expectations with its forthright international contributions.

But the Heisei era still seems like a dream gone sour. The villain of the piece was Nagatacho’s inability to nurture the tender shoots of liberal–progressive politics and parties for any extended period of time in government. It is telling that no Democratic Party of Japan cabinet minister visited the Yasukuni Shrine during the first three years of its rule, and Japan–Korea relations reached peak blossom with the hand-back of Josean Dynasty records in October 2011.

As conservative rule was perpetuated, reconciliation faltered, the vision of a ‘normal’ nation at ease with its neighbours became harder to sustain, and overdependence on the US alliance and subsidiary western defence partners (Australia, the United Kingdom and France) exacerbated. Japan is once again ‘escaping Asia’ as it were — this time in the Asian Century.

In his classic tome on the material sinews of Great Power-domination, Paul Kennedy argued that a significant correlation exists between a state’s revenue-raising capabilities and its staying power among the first rank of nations. Japan’s central government operates today, incredibly, on general account tax revenues that are smaller than that collected in 1991. With an aging and declining population, Reiwa Japan must adjust its expectations and thread a more level-headed balance between its economic base and its strategic capabilities — and commitments — in Asia and the world.

Japan’s conservative parties have shown that they are not up to the task. Without the healthy tension of a competitive two or multi-party system that arises from periodic bipartite shifts in electoral fortunes, this task will only get harder.

Sourabh Gupta is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies, Washington, DC.

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Asia’s shot at global leadership through RCEP


Author: David Vines, Oxford University

The rapid conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement is vital for the next stage of regional transformation and reform in the Asia Pacific. RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement between the ASEAN nations and six other regional states. It will help to shore up Asia’s collective interests in defending an open and inclusive trade regime worldwide — with potentially global implications.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with China's Premier Li Keqiang next to Indonesia's President Joko Widodo as they gather for a group photo with ASEAN leaders at the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership meeting in Singapore, 14 November 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su).

Where we are in 2019 has parallels with the situation in 1945. Emerging from World War II, the world was then burdened with the memory of the Great Depression with its financial chaos, restrictions on international trade, and widespread unemployment. Many foresaw a return to the closed economies and authoritarianism of the 1930s.

But instead, the world looked back to the openness of the era before World War I. In order to spread growth and development from the United States to Europe and Japan, US leaders — in collaboration with those from Britain and elsewhere — reached out to create a liberal, multilateral and rules-based international order. At Bretton Woods, the International Monetary Fund was established to help countries pursue full employment, unencumbered by balance of payments problems, while the World Bank was established to provide finance for reconstruction and development.

Soon afterwards, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was established to promote the liberalisation of international markets — ultimately leading to the World Trade Organization. The Marshall Plan was also set up to aid European reconstruction, eventually leading to the European Common Market and the European Single Market. The cooperative framework established under the Marshall Plan was gradually transformed into the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with world-wide significance.

This new world order did not just lead to economic reform. It was also designed to constrain the behaviour of the United States as the rising global hegemon. In the 1930s the United States had used the Smoot Hawley Tariff. And at the beginning of World War II the US had imposed Lend Lease Agreements on countries in the British Empire, as a price for US support during the war, requiring promises that they open their markets to American goods. Leaders in Britain, Australia, and elsewhere saw the Bretton Woods institutions, and the GATT, as essential protection from such activities by the United States.

Now, like then, the world is burdened by memory of financial chaos — this time the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. The challenge today is to continue the outward-looking process of development begun in 1945, but without the leadership of the United States and Britain.

With US President Donald Trump taking a zero-sum approach, and Europe looking evermore inward, leadership falls to Asia. As the world’s fastest growing region, Asia offers unique opportunities for pioneering reform.

The objective must be to sustain and develop a regional — and global — order that is liberal, multilateral and rules-based. Trade negotiations within RCEP have been a good start. But RCEP needs to be more than a normal free trade agreement. To be successful RCEP needs to be built on an understanding of the deep links between the international markets for goods, services, investment and finance — these areas must be dealt with together if good outcomes are to be achieved.

As a result, the RCEP process needs to lead — even if gradually — not just to the removal of trade distortions and the construction of regulatory infrastructure for services. It must also help create a better climate for investment and an appropriate regulatory framework for international financial movements. These kinds of regional cooperation go well beyond a single agreement about trade in goods and services. Regional institutions will be a key to ensuring that this cooperative process is well managed.

All of this must be done in a way that constrains China, today’s rising hegemon, in the same way the United States was constrained after 1945. Like the Marshall Plan, the Belt and Road Initiative must enable multilateral cooperation, rather than — as some fear — a development process distorted towards China’s needs. The regional institutions of RCEP will need to manage this process, paying special attention to the role of Chinese state-owned enterprises and to intellectual property issues.

Asia’s experience over the last three decades shows what kind of leadership is necessary. Institutions must be underpinned by trust and voluntary cooperation, rather than conditionality and enforcement. Importantly, the freedom for countries to act according to their own objectives must be preserved. If this is achieved, then it will be possible for domestically-led, behind-the-border reform to go hand-in-hand with international opening and cooperation. For that to happen, institutions created through RCEP need to be platforms where information is exchanged, preferences are articulated and compromises are reached — but countries remain able to act autonomously.

The RCEP process is giving Asia the chance to show how cooperation should be promoted, and the multilateral order developed, at the global level. This might help to prevent conflict between the rising superpower, China, and the previous hegemon, the United States. The aim must be an international coalition that enables countries to communicate, exchange information, and open up their commerce, and to do this even when tensions emerge.

David Vines is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, the University of Oxford. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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Duterte’s mid-term victory and the global shift to the radical right


Author: Editorial Board, ANU

President Rodrigo Duterte emerged from the mid-term elections, two weeks ago, as the dominant force in Philippine politics, wiping out potential opposition in the Senate and emerging triumphant across all levels of government. Right-wing populism has succeeded spectacularly, Duterte-style, in the Philippines. Duterte’s poll support in the public polls is running at over 70 per cent. That’s just the Philippines for you.

But is it?

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holds a Galil rifle next to national police chief turned senator Ronald Bato Dela Rosa (Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao).

In its swing to right-wing populism the Philippines is hardly exceptional. In places as diverse as Europe, India and Australia, electorates have in the past few weeks delivered decisive votes against the centre.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party swept back to power in a landslide, confounding earlier predictions that they would struggle to cobble together a new coalition. In Australia, the conservative Liberal–National Party coalition government held onto power in an election that nobody expected them to win, in part through tactical alignment with the populist right. In the European elections a week ago, the destructionist right surged in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, a victory only slightly qualified by a swing to the Greens elsewhere. In the United States, the odds of President Trump winning re-election in 2020 — once considered a long-shot, given the scandal and chaos that’s engulfed his administration in Washington — have dramatically shortened.

‘Right-wing populism struggles to govern effectively, but it clearly has a durable political appeal’, Ross Douthat suggested in a piece that described a ‘global fade of liberalism.’

There are virtually no analysts that would connect Mr Morrison’s return to government in Australia with Mr Duterte’s recent triumph in the Philippines or that of Mr Farage, Ms Le Pen and others in Europe. But as historian Henry Reynolds suggests, the view from outside helps us see local politics from a global perspective. Deeply rooted institutions, stable party systems and entrenched democratic habits, he says, lull us into thinking that we are immune from what is happening in other parts of the world. That calls for reconsideration. The unexpected Coalition victory in Australia did have similarities with Trump’s triumph and the Brexit result. The signature slogans that won the day in Australia introduced the same fear of aliens as did Farage’s ‘threatening caravan of unwanted refugees’. All three draw on the deep currents of nationalism.

The most telling feature of the political scene in Australia, Reynolds reckons, was the growing influence of the radical right parties and their embrace, albeit furtively, by both the conservative Liberal and National parties. Brought in from the fringe, they were blessed with mainstream recognition and respectability. In the Australian electoral system, the preference deal with radical right minority parties helped return the government with a comfortable majority. Between them, far right parties in the crucial state of Queensland achieved 14 per cent of the total vote and delivered it squarely to the centre-right. This is within reach of the vote across Europe for far right parties but achieved in Australia, as Reynolds notes, with little notice and seemingly less concern.

Many would claim that there’s a great deal separating nationalist rulers like Trump, Duterte and Modi, or Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. But the blood coursing through their political veins may be of a similar type that transfuses readily to its contemporary hosts around the world.

‘The populist art of governance is based on nationalism (often with racist overtones), on hijacking the state for the ends of partisan loyalists and, less obviously, on weaponising the economy to secure political power: a combination of culture war, patronage and mass clientelism’, writes philosopher Jan Werner Müller. And that does sound like the most popular brand of politics we observe in many places around the world today.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, Mr Duterte is set to deepen his grip on all the institutions that shape political power.

Paul Hutchcroft explains in this week’s lead essay: ‘All three branches of government are now controlled by the President. The Philippine House, ever hungry for the patronage dispensed by the executive branch, is almost always controlled by the Palace. The critical development is the evisceration of the Supreme Court’s independence since the 2018 removal of a Chief Justice critical of Duterte (in a manoeuvre widely viewed as extra-constitutional)’.

It was the Senate, seen as the last bastion of independence against Duterte, in which the liberal –centrists (the ‘straight eight’) were so thoroughly routed. The Senate is now dominated by Duterte’s allies. ‘Only four of the ongoing members of the upper house are consistent opponents of the regime — and the senator boldest in her denunciations of the President has been detained since early 2017’.

The 15-member Supreme Court, with chief justice Maria Sereno ousted, has seen nine Duterte appointments so far and, later this year, relatively rare Supreme Court retirements will give Duterte the gift of an additional five appointments. These changes will provide ‘judicial’ backing to Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao, and other controversial Duterte investment projects.

Duterte’s also installed Benjamin Diokno as Governor of Bankgo Sentral ng Pilipinas, the central bank. Previously Duterte’s budget secretary, Diokno unusually leap frogged three central bank deputy governors to get the top bank job. Diokno’s appointment is widely seen as a politically motivated assault on the central bank’s independence.

Duterte’s capture of political power may not be quite as complete as it at first appears. The ‘supermajority of twenty senators’ overstates bedrock support and others are likely to break ranks as the 2022 presidential race begins to loom. Executive power may also wane as the power of the presidency traditionally does, given the single six-year term limit, unless Duterte positions his daughter Sara for succession, or upends the constitution and goes for another term.

But Duterte’s present control over all arms of government, as Hutchcroft says, will certainly make it difficult for him to dodge, artful dodger though he is, responsibility for anything that now goes wrong.

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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Midterm elections deepen Duterte’s domination


Author: Paul D Hutchcroft, ANU

After the 13 May 2019 midterm elections, President Rodrigo Duterte enters the second half of his six-year term with an even stronger grip on power. While the electorate decided on some 18,000 elected posts, major attention was on the Philippine Senate — the last remaining potential bastion against the Duterte juggernaut.

Sara Duterte, Davao City Mayor and daughter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, poses with the Duterte-supporting senatorial line-up in Davao City (Photo: Reuters/Lean Daval Jr).

Half of the Senate’s 24 members are elected every three years, and in each of the previous four midterm elections the opposition managed at least a few victories against the sitting President. In an historic result, opposition candidates failed to win a single seat in the upper house.

How did Duterte manage this?

First, endorsements by the President and his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, delivered for pro-administration politicians throughout the archipelago.  Nothing was more prized than a photo alongside the highly popular Duterte or the first daughter.

Second, governors and mayors were given marching orders to deliver votes. Duterte was especially vocal in support of his two most-favoured senate candidates: his former special assistant and close confidant Christopher ‘Bong’ Go, and Ronald ‘Bato’ dela Rosa, the former head of the national police responsible for prosecuting the first two years of Duterte’s brutal war on small-time drug pushers and users. From modest levels of support in late 2018, Go and dela Rosa were catapulted to the third- and fifth-highest number of votes respectively.

Third, the opposition is frail. Eight explicitly anti-Duterte candidates formed a multi-party coalition dubbed Otso Diretso (Straight Eight), with the Liberal Party at its core. Nominally the party of former president Benigno Aquino, it was never given much attention during his six years in power. Since Duterte’s presidential campaign in 2016, its ’yellow’ adherents have been pilloried with great success by social media trolls. Even their two candidates with prominent political surnames — Aquino and Roxas — failed to make it into the ranks of the ‘magic 12’ senators elected.

Some of those disappointed by the results have blamed the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), whose performance was indeed unsatisfactory. Just ahead of the election, in a decision widely perceived to be partisan, COMELEC downgraded the official status of the Liberal Party. During the elections, automated equipment malfunction increased as compared to 2016. After polls closed, technical glitches led to a confidence-deflating seven hour delay in the submission of unofficial returns. Nevertheless, major election monitoring organisations have spoken to the general fairness of the outcomes.

Excessive attention to the possibility of wholesale electoral fraud, likely misplaced, removes the spotlight from pervasive retail fraud — most of all longstanding practices of vote-buying.  More fundamentally, the current electoral system fuels intra-party competition and thus essentially guarantees the weakness and incoherence of Philippine political parties. This puts the focus of political contention on patronage and pork and personalistic appeals at the expense of policies and programs.

What do the results mean for the coming three years? All three branches of government are now controlled by the President. The Philippine House, ever hungry for the patronage dispensed by the executive branch, is almost always controlled by the Palace. The critical development is the evisceration of the Supreme Court’s independence since the 2018 removal of a Chief Justice critical of Duterte (in a manoeuvre widely viewed as extra-constitutional).

The Senate was thus the last bastion of independence, and it is now dominated by Duterte’s allies. Only four of the on-going members of the upper house are consistent opponents of the regime — and the senator boldest in her denunciations of the President has been detained since early 2017.

Yet this domination is probably not as complete as it appears.  Of the ‘supermajority’ of 20 senators, perhaps six senators, including Go and dela Rosa, can be expected to display unflinching loyalty to Duterte. Many others in the Senate have their own ambitions and relatively independent bases of support. Elected as it is from a single national district, the upper house likely has several members who will emerge as contenders for the presidency in 2022 — willing, as need be, to differentiate themselves from Duterte.

In Philippine politics, the power of the chief executive begins to wane, often quite dramatically, across the second half of a presidential term. Some of Duterte’s avid supporters expect that he can defy this general law, perhaps by ensuring that his daughter takes his place. It is more likely that Duterte will have roughly 18 months to further his personal goals — including, on the legislative front, some sort of constitutional revision as well as the return of the death penalty. By early 2021, the Senate ‘supermajority’ may face major strains as key former allies start positioning themselves for 2022.

This disintegration could be reinforced by the failure of the Duterte administration to settle on a clear political vehicle. Competition is already apparent, for example, between the ‘ruling’ party under which the President was elected in 2016 and a loose national coalition of politicians assembled by Sara Duterte ahead of the 2019 elections.

Finally, Duterte’s victory presents new challenges to the supremo himself. Central to the populist playbook, the strongman will likely continue to manufacture crises. This could entail heightened attacks on the media, the opposition and independent constitutional bodies.

But with his uncontested control over all three branches of government, he will find it harder to blame others for the country’s political and economic challenges. When things go wrong in Duterte’s Philippines, the responsibility will increasingly be borne directly by the President himself.

Dr Paul D Hutchcroft is a Professor in the Department of Political and Social Change of the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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Talking with the Taliban


Author: Nishank Motwani, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit

The Afghan Taliban are clear about their goal in the ongoing 18-year conflict — total power, not shared power. From their first emir, Mullah Mohammad Omar, to current leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s leadership has been transparent about its objectives: monopolising power, expelling international military forces, dissolving Afghanistan’s security apparatus, and implementing their puritanical version of Islamic rule across the country.

Members of a Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C, front), leave after peace talks with Afghan senior politicians in Moscow, Russia 30 May 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina).The Taliban’s end goal is complete state power. There is no room for self-delusion on this matter.

Given the Taliban’s objectives, the question is to what extent humanitarian and development aid can be protected from political and security developments? In the context of ongoing peace talks, is there scope for seeking Taliban approval for existing and future service delivery?

In short, the answer is not much, despite existing hybrid service delivery arrangements involving the Afghan government, aid agencies and their implementing partners that abide by Taliban rules. This hybrid model, although functional in some districts in Helmand, Kunduz, and Logar, comes at the cost of legitimising Taliban rule and sanctioning its creeping invasion into Afghanistan’s political and socio-economic domains.

The hybrid model of service delivery is problematic for three reasons. It requires the Afghan state to cede space to the Taliban, it permits the Taliban to use governance as a tool to exert control over the population, and it consents to Taliban tactics of fear and coercion over Afghans — abdicating responsibilities of the state to a revisionist insurgent group. In this context, cooperation on service delivery is insufficient to engender the talks underway in Qatar, or to function as an entry point for discussing political and security issues.

There is little reason for the Taliban to compromise their goal of reinstating the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban have the upper hand militarily and are confident a fatigued United States seeks to end its involvement in Afghanistan. The Taliban appear to assume that the United States prefers to absorb the cost of a quick exit, rather than stay to broker or enforce a political solution.

The Taliban also seem buoyed by the exclusion of the Afghan government from the Doha peace talks. This direct engagement legitimises the Taliban’s assertion that it and the United States are the only important players. The Taliban claim the Afghan government lacks authority and has no interest in the withdrawal of foreign forces.

Appeasing the Taliban is doomed to fail, as no degree of concessions would succeed in stopping the conflict. If any gain has emerged from the peace talks in Doha, it is that the Taliban have attained considerable political legitimacy. Conversely, the peace talks are undermining the Afghan government’s legitimacy — presenting the government as opposed to peace when in reality it is resisting oppression and the dismantling of the state. The notion of an ‘Afghan-led’ and ‘Afghan-owned’ peace process has no substance so long as the Afghan government is excluded from negotiations.

Hopes for a political solution are based on the premise that Taliban aims are negotiable and the group has softened its ideology. Both presumptions are false. The Taliban have not changed and remain committed to extending their rigid values. A Taliban attack on the USAID-funded NGO, Counterpart International, in Kabul on 8 May 2019 for promoting ‘open inter-mixing’ between men and women underscores that point.

The Taliban want peace, but on their terms. The ongoing peace talks are not denting their objectives, or delivering any meaningful concessions such as a Ramadan ceasefire or barring the targeting of journalists or civilians. Perhaps the most significant danger of rushed peace talks is that they could exacerbate tensions and lead to considerably more violence. The US negotiating team should not be afraid to walk away if the talks reach a stalemate or a bad deal is offered.

Suspending talks has precedent. US President Donald Trump demonstrated he would not sign a bad deal by walking out of talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in February this year. Likewise, the Taliban know when to walk away. The Taliban suspended previous dialogue with the United States in March 2012 over the issue of prisoner releases. Similarly, former UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi suspended discussions with the Taliban when he saw that they were not negotiating in good faith.

Several policy options could curtail rising Taliban influence. A sustained international residual military presence could impose substantial costs on the Taliban, forestall state capture, and enforce any future peace deal. The United States currently commits around 140,000 soldiers to stabilisation in countries like Japan, South Korea, and Germany. Such deployments have endured for decades, suggesting it feasible to maintain a residual force of 15,000 soldiers under the US–Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement.

The United States may be more willing to sustain such a deployment if its NATO and non-NATO allies raise their financial and military contributions. Such a force should be allowed to target the Taliban across Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan. Any agreement struck with the Taliban without the means to impose costs for non-compliance is meaningless.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that inclusive peace talks will require a much longer process and alleviate expectations that the current short-term process can lead to peace. Preserving the existing political order and holding the Afghan presidential elections that have now been delayed until September 2019 is key. Proposals to suspend elections to accommodate the Taliban are dangerous and would only undermine the constitution for no tangible gain. Derailing the elections would signal that if the constitution can be bargained away, there is no end to what can be dismantled.

Finally, Afghanistan must deepen its strategic relationships with its primary regional partners such as India, Iran and Russia. Kabul’s relations with its regional partners should also be utilised to persuade China to pressure Pakistan into reducing its support for the Taliban.

Dr Nishank Motwani is a Senior Research and Communications Manager at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), Kabul. He is also an International Adviser at the National Center for Dialogue and Progress (NCDP), Kabul.

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