Below is the weekly update of political developments across East Asia. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you want to discuss any of the countries mentioned in more detail.
JAPAN/CHINA: Tokyo braces for fishing boat swarm near disputed islands
Chinese Coast Guard vessels have resumed their presence operations around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea after a gap earlier in the month that broke a record 111-day streak of activities in the contiguous zone or territorial waters around the islands. The Japanese government has warned that it views these operations as “extremely serious” – earlier this month, Defense Minister Taro Kono warned that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be mobilized “if necessary” – and officials are bracing for the possibility of a “swarm” of Chinese fishing boats next week. Tokyo has approached Beijing about restraining the fishing fleet, which, during a similar episode in 2016, led to some boats straying into what Japan claims as its territorial waters, and has warned of damage to the bilateral relationship. The presence of large numbers of civilian vessels around the islands would not only raise concerns about another collision between Chinese and Japanese ships (as when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in 2010) but also would heighten Japanese fears that Chinese civilians – or paramilitaries disguised as civilians – could land on the island and force Japan either to escalate and risk confrontation with China or accede to Chinese demands to resolve a standoff.
The risk of a standoff between civilian fishing boats and the Coast Guards of both countries comes as US forces have increased their presence in the South China Sea and as Japan as stepped up criticism of China’s National Security law in Hong Kong. China has reportedly grown concerned about the risk of a serious incident and has instructed troops not to escalate in the event of a standoff.
JAPAN: Opposition merger will proceed but could produce another splinter party
Negotiations between the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) – both splinters for the once-ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) – have reached a messy conclusion after DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki and several other DPP members indicated that, although the bulk of the DPP would be joining with the CDP, they would break away and establish another new opposition party. The main cleavage leading Tamaki to form another breakaway party appears to be fiscal policy. Whereas Tamaki hopes to join up with celebrity-turned-activist and politician Taro Yamamoto, leader of the minor Reiwa Shinsengumi, who has called for eliminating the consumption tax entirely, the Edano group is more inclined towards fiscal orthodoxy.
It is unclear how many DPP members will follow Tamaki, not least because the union federation RENGO, a longtime backer of the DPJ and its successor parties, has said it would withhold its support from a splinter party. The bulk will likely join with the CDP. The new party will likely still be led by current CDP leader Yukio Edano, but its rank may include several former DPJ heavyweights who stayed out of both the CDP and DPP, including former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa (a major backer of a merger), former foreign minister Katsuya Okada, and former prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, which could reproduce some of the personality clashes that once hampered the DPJ. Edano has indicated the new party could be launched in early September. With an early snap election increasingly unlikely, it may have more time to recruit candidates before the next election, increasing its chances of cutting into the ruling coalition’s supermajority, although it is unlikely to be a threat to win a majority of its own.
CHINA: Xi launches campaign against food waste as flood impact hits prices
China’s government has launched a nationwide campaign against wasting food, as the country battles food supply disruptions from recent Yangtze River floods. Pork prices rose 86% year-on-year in July, as flood disruptions combined with the lingering impact on hog stocks of an African Swine Flu outbreak that began in 2018. Beef, lamp, and vegetable prices also rose strongly. In a speech published by official media on 11 August, President Xi Jinping said the amount of food wasted in the country is “shocking and distressing.” A 2015 report from the China Academy of Science found that the country wastes 18mn tons of food per year, enough to feed 30-50mn people. A subsequent report in 2018 estimated that Chinese diners waste 38% of the food they order at restaurants, while students waste 22% of their meals in school cafeterias.
The campaign is also affecting social media, where videos of stunt eating have become a popular trend. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, said it would display prompts when users searched for keywords like “big stomach kings,” reminding users to “reject waste and eat reasonably.” In Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, the local government-controlled restaurant industry association advised members to abide by an “n-1” principle that limits the number of dishes per table to one fewer than the number of guests. State media have dispatched journalists to restaurants to report on food waste. The latest campaign follows earlier food austerity measures, including a “Clean Your Plate” campaign in 2013 and initiative under Xi’s signature anti-corruption campaign that banned use of public funds for elaborate banquets and expensive liquor.
THAILAND: Economic policymaking turf war; no more czar
The cabinet approved the creation of an “economic situation administration center” led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chano-ocha on 13 August. The center will drive the policy response to the economic problems created by the pandemic and supervise recovery efforts. The center is supposed to act as the counterpart of the high-profile Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration, which leads the health policy response and advises Prayuth and the cabinet.
All economic ministers, the Interior and Labor ministries, the Bank of Thailand and three private-sector organizations will be represented on the 22 committees that comprise the new center. Additionally, the cabinet established a committee led by former Deputy Transport Minister Pailin Chuchotthaworn, an adviser to Prayuth, to lead economic management. The new arrangement is a departure from the practice of the last five years, when an acknowledged economic czar – Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, who recently resigned – headed policymaking. Now that power will be dispersed between the new center and Pailin, though the lines of authority are ultimately traceable to Prayuth.
Somkid had complained in recent months about an inability to coordinate policy, reflecting turf battles within the Thai cabinet. By creating the center and elevating Pailin’s role, Prayuth is likely hoping to avoid internal political battles, since the prime minister is supposedly the head of the center and Pailin is an ally. However, if Prayuth is unsuccessful in managing his coalition’s differing priorities for economic policy, then the center could become mired in internal bickering that distracts from policymaking.