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.
CHINA/AUSTRALIA: Beijing’s list of grievances shows both sides are dug in
China’s Foreign Ministry shared a list of 14 grievances against Australia with Australian media. Beijing’s complaints include blocking Chinese investment, “disinformation” about China’s response to the coronavirus, “false” accusations that Beijing perpetrated cyberattacks against Australia, banning Huawei from Australia’s 5G network, and “wanton interference” in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang. The grievances follow a raft of trade sanctions that Beijing has imposed on Australian exports in recent months. Unofficial state media also criticized the defense agreement that Australia signed with Japan on 17 November, calling it an effort to “gang up on China.”
As Sino-Australian relations continue to deteriorate, neither side has signaled a willingness to compromise. Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said “the ball is very much in China’s court” to resolve disputes. China’s Foreign Ministry said, “Let him who tied the bell on the tiger take it off.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cast the Chinese list, which also mentioned criticism of China by Australian media and politicians, as an attempt to interfere in Australian civil society. Despite declining relations and the imposition of trade sanctions against various Australian exporters, bilateral trade remains robust. Chinese exports to Australia rose 17% in October from a year earlier, while imports from Australia rose 7%, according to official Chinese data. But November data may tell a different story, as some of China’s trade restrictions have only taken effect over the last several weeks.
JAPAN/AUSTRALIA: Military agreement deepens strategic partnership
On a brief visit to Tokyo on Tuesday, 17 November, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison effectively concluded a landmark defense agreement with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga after six years of negotiations. The reciprocal access agreement (RAA), which will allow Japanese and Australian armed forces to train in each other’s countries, is only the second-such agreement Japan has concluded and the first since a 1960 agreement with the US. Talks had long been held up by a dispute over whether an Australian who committed a serious crime while in Japan could face the death penalty, but it appears the two governments have reached a compromise that would enable them to manage such incidents on a case-by-case basis. The RAA is the latest step in the formation of a quasi-alliance between the two countries; in October, the Suga administration signaled that Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) warships could provide armed escorts for Australian warships in peacetime, a new role made possible only with the passage of new security legislation in 2015. Tokyo and Canberra have increasingly deepened a strategic partnership that includes not only military-military ties but also cooperation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and efforts to promote “quality infrastructure” investment and, most recently, supply chain resilience. Morrison’s visit highlights the extent to which Suga is prepared to build on former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to strengthen ties within the “Quad” of Japan, India, Australia, and the US, and with China’s neighbors more broadly in order to counter China’s growing military power and economic influence in the region.
JAPAN: Government backpedals on subsidies as cases continue to climb
The Japanese government’s expert advisory panel on Covid-19 met on Friday, 20 November as the country set new records for single-day new cases over three consecutive days and the number of severe cases continued to mount. After previously resisting changes, the Suga government signaled Friday that it would consider introducing restrictions to the “Go To Travel” and “Go To Eat” programs at a meeting of its Covid-19 response headquarters on Saturday, 21 November. Medical experts on the advisory panel and a separate Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) urged the Suga administration to consider stricter measures, including adjusting or suspending the “Go To” subsidy programs. The panel has judged that the outbreak is at the third stage – “rapid increase” – of four, and warned that if it reaches the fourth stage (“explosive growth”) a state of emergency declaration could be unavoidable. Nine prefectures have already introduced restrictions on the “Go To Eat” program’s dining-out subsidies, and governors have been asking the Suga government to exclude their prefectures from the travel program.
However, despite the shift on the “Go To” subsidies and warnings from national and local government officials that Japan faces an increasingly severe crisis, the primary response thus far from the Suga administration and prefectural governments has been to urge individuals to exercise greater caution. For example, after Tokyo raised its alert level to the highest level on Thursday, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike announced a new set of guidelines called the “five smalls” – small groups, small time, small voices, small plates, and small risks (i.e. masks and ventilation) – to minimize the risk of infection while dining out.
The Suga administration will continue to seek to avoid a state of emergency and broad shutdowns, but its u-turn on the “Go To” programs suggests that if the third wave continues to swell, the government can and will change direction.
SOUTH KOREA: Authorities begin tightening social distancing as cases creep upward
South Korean authorities raised social distancing guidelines for the greater Seoul region and the southern city of Gwangju to level 1.5 on the 5-point scale on Thursday in response to a marked increase in new cases this month that experts fear could mark the beginning of South Korea’s own third wave. Suncheon, a city on the southern coast near Gwangju, announced it would introduce level 2 social distancing – which bans gatherings larger than 100 people and requires higher-risk businesses to close – on Friday. Daily new cases nationwide have been over 100 since early November, and have been over 300 since Wednesday, 18 November. Medical authorities are preparing guidelines for provincial officials to determine when to introduce stricter social distancing measures. For greater Seoul, if the average number of new cases over a week exceeds 200, authorities will raise social distancing measures to level 2. Under level 1.5 guidelines, higher-risk facilities like bars and clubs can remain open but with restrictions, gatherings are capped at 100, and sporting events and churches must limit attendance to 30% of capacity. Concerned about the risk of a surge of cases due to the emergence of sporadic and hard-to-trace clusters, the national government is urging restraint heading into the end of the year.
MALAYSIA: By-election postponement signals a reprieve for the prime minister
The Malaysian king agreed this week to an emergency declaration that postponed a by-election in the coastal town of Batu Sapi on the northeastern part of Sabah island due to the rising number of Covid-19 cases. Malaysia’s constitution allows the king to issue an emergency proclamation based on the recommendation of the prime minster in case of a grave emergency. The government blames the current spike in Covid-19 cases on the Sabah state elections at the end of September.
Its more consequential effect is that it signals that snap elections are very unlikely to take place until the pandemic is subdued, thereby removing one of several major near-term threats to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. This does not remove the underlying problems of Muhyiddin, who not only holds a razor-thin 113-109 majority in parliament, but whose hold within his own coalition is constantly being undermined by his own partner, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The party has said that the mandate of the government “should be returned to the public as soon as possible,” although this may now have to wait until next year.
INDONESIA: 212 puts reunion on hold, even as Shihab vexes government
Hard-line groups will postpone their planned rally for 2 December after the police refused to issue a permit to the group due to pandemic restrictions. This for now averts any potential confrontation with the Widodo government. The groups belong to the 212 Movement, which had successfully mobilized Indonesia’s largest rally on the same date in 2016 against then Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama. As events of the past week have showed, Riziez Shihab, the leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and arguably the most high-profile member of the FPI, who returned from Saudi Arabia after three years in exile, remains a vexing figure. Last week, he held a gathering in Jakarta to celebrate his daughter’s wedding as well as the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, with 10,000 invited. Another gathering took place in Bogor, West Java.
However, this revealed a split in the administration, with the military advocating a hard line against Shihab and the police supporting greater tolerance – and leading to irritation between their senior leaders. This only fueled speculation about the long relationship between FPI and the police. President Joko Widodo raised Shihab’s gathering with the cabinet this week, which was then followed by the dismissal of two police chiefs, Inspector General Nana Sudjana in Jakarta and Inspector General Rudy Sufahriadi in West Java. Widodo will face future challenges in how to handle Shihab. On the one hand, he does not want to turn him into a symbol of government heavy-handedness. At the same time, however, he will need to contain Shihab’s populist appeal by strictly applying rules against hate speech and countering his messages that promote sectarian divisions.