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.
US/CHINA: Beijing cautious on acknowledging Biden victory
While major US allies and partners in Europe and Asia have officially congratulated President-Elect Joe Biden on his election victory, the Chinese government has so far refrained from doing so. This decision appears to reflect a desire to avoid election-related controversy, rather than any particular stance towards a Biden presidency. The Twitter account of People’s Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, sarcastically retweeted US President Donald Trump’s claim on 7 November that he had won the election “by a lot,” adding a “HaHa” and a cry-laugh emoji, but the tweet was deleted nine hours later. Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, said that China hasn’t congratulated Biden yet “to avoid getting entangled in its controversy.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “We understand that the U.S. presidential election result will be determined following U.S. law and procedures.”
Beijing is likely also concerned that Trump, if provoked, could create new problems for China in the lame duck period. The firing of Acting US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, along with other personnel shakeup at the Pentagon, further raises the risk of hawkish actions against China or other US adversaries before 20 January. Chinese leaders are likely especially concerned about possible naval incidents in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait.
The first meeting of a new bilateral Crisis Communications Working Group, which occurred just before the US election, somewhat reduces the likelihood of a misunderstanding leading to escalation. During that meeting, Esper denied rumors that had circulated in Chinese media that the US was planning an attack on disputed islands in the South China Sea, according to a Chinese defense ministry statement about the meeting. The Pentagon also publicly denied reports in Taiwanese media that US marines were in Taiwan officially training Taiwanese troops, a move that Beijing would regard as a major provocation.
JAPAN: New outbreak to force difficult decisions about renewed lockdown
Japan recorded 1,660 new Covid-19 cases on 12 November, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began. This total includes large numbers of cases in Hokkaido, which has thus far seen the most significant spike in what appears to be a third wave of the pandemic. Cases also emerged in Tokyo, neighboring Kanagawa prefecture, and Osaka. Tokyo’s caseload grew by more than 300 for the second consecutive day, while seven prefectures including Osaka reported record numbers of new cases. The Suga administration is increasingly alarmed by the rising numbers, particularly the implications about what cold weather could mean for the pandemic as people spend more time indoors in poorly ventilated spaces.
However, the administration has not yet outlined how it intends to respond to the mounting case numbers, beyond reiterating the need for masks or face shields in most public settings. The government also decided to extend restrictions on large public gatherings until February. Advisers are debating whether the government should suspend the “Go To Travel” and “Go To Eat” initiatives that encouraged the public to travel domestically and dine out, but thus far the administration has not hinted at the possibility of a new state of emergency declaration to contain the latest outbreak.
MYANMAR: Aung San Suu Kyi headed for an easy election victory
The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has refused to recognize the outcome of elections held on 8 November. Instead, USDP is asking the government to hold a repeat election that is “free, fair, unbiased and free from unfair campaigning.” The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) is expected to have won another convincing majority in the 665-seat parliament, and the outcome will likely be announced by this weekend. Though the USDP is composed of the former generals who ran the junta, the group lacks enough clout to overturn the outcome. The USDP claims there were problems with ballot boxes and envelopes, irregularities in advance voting, and that government cash handouts were actually bribes. Not only will the NLD’s resounding lead make it politically difficult for the military to back the USDP, but Aung San Suu Kyi also remains popular with the country’s dominant Bamar majority.
PHILIPPINES: Amended water contracts expected soon
The government is expected to offer amended contracts soon to the country’s top two water utilities, Maynilad Water and Manila Water, according to the justice minister. The government launched a review of their contracts last year because of President Rodrigo Duterte’s anger over what he considered to be the contracts’ “onerous” provisions. The two companies provide water and sewerage services to Metro Manila under contracts awarded during the 1990s privatization reforms.
The new deals will reportedly allow the government to intervene in rate setting and remove government guarantees to compensate the two companies if rate increases are not approved. There is also speculation about whether the government intends to shorten the contract term, which was extended several years ago through 2037. Duterte has attacked the owners of the two companies as emblematic of the oligarchs that control the country’s economy, and these attacks helped sustain Duterte’s populist credentials. Though officials at Maynilad Water and Manila Water have signaled their willingness to comply with the government’s review, they could still challenge the outcome if they can succeed in dragging out the process beyond the end of Duterte’s 2022 term.