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: Xi’s coal message signals willingness to make tough choices
Chinese President Xi Jinping said on 22 April that China will “strictly limit” the increase in coal consumption during the 14th Five-Year Plan, which covers 2021-2025, and will “phase down” coal consumption in 2026-2030. Xi’s comments by video at the US-hosted Climate Leaders’ Summit did not include new numerical targets but is nevertheless the strongest statement ever by a senior Chinese leader about the need to reduce coal consumption. It is also the first time that the government has explicitly linked reduced coal consumption to China’s goals on climate change.
As previously discussed, the lack of a clear plan to retire coal-fired power plants, or even to halt approval of new plants, has led to skepticism that China can realize Xi’s pledge in September that China will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2060. Climate advocates were also disappointed by the lack of a clear plan to reduce coal consumption in the 14th Five-Year Plan outline approved last month. Xi’s statement will send a strong signal to national regulators and local governments, after China’s total coal-fired power capacity rose by a net 29.8 gigawatts (GW) in 2020, compared to a net reduction of 17.2 GW in the rest of the world combined.
Also on 22 April, China’s National Energy Administration pledged that China will cut coal’s share in the country’s total energy consumption to below 56% in 2021 from 56.8% in 2020 at 68% in 2010. The agency added that electricity use will account for 28% of total energy use this year, up from 27% in 2020. The electrification effort will focus on replacing coal-fired boilers, stoves, and off-grid coal power plants in rural areas with modern appliances that draw power from the electricity grid, where energy is produced more efficiently.
JAPAN: Suga announces third, more robust state of emergency
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced on 22 April that for the third time since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the Japanese government will introduce a state of emergency that will enable governors of designated prefectures to introduce restrictions in the interest of disease control. The new declaration, which will take effect on 25 April, will initially cover four prefectures – Tokyo, Osaka, and Osaka’s neighbors Hyogo and Kyoto – and will be scheduled to expire on 11 May, meaning it will be in effect for the Golden Week holidays of late April and early May.
The new declaration is essentially an admission that the government mishandled the previous state of emergency. Not only does the new state of emergency come just a month after the previous declaration was lifted for Tokyo (and after weeks of other measures); the government has also indicated that the new declaration will enable stricter regulations, a recognition that the softer restrictions in the previous declaration were inadequate. The administration is still finalizing the details pending a final decision on 23 April, but the new declaration could call for prefectures to request that drinking establishments, restaurants serving alcohol, karaoke parlors, and large entertainment facilities suspend business entirely. Other restaurants will likely be asked to close by 8pm. Schools will remain open, but extracurricular activities could be suspended or restricted; public transit services may alter their schedules, moving up final trains and limiting weekend hours; sporting events and other large public gatherings must either be held without spectators or postponed. Following legal changes that took effect in February, this state of emergency will have more teeth than previous declarations, as governors will be able to offer additional subsidies for compliance and assess fines for non-compliance.
While Suga suggested that the state of emergency would have no impact on the Olympics, the new declaration introduces considerable uncertainty, not least because if the previous two declarations offer a precedent, the government will likely have to delay lifting the declaration and could extend it to other prefectures. To the extent that preparations for the Olympics and Olympic trials are exempt from restrictions, even as residents will face more stringent restrictions than ever, the new declaration could erode public support for the games, which could in turn mean weaker support for Suga himself. Finally, a lengthy state of emergency would all but guarantee that a general election will have to wait until after the Olympics.
MYANMAR: Low expectations for weekend ASEAN meeting
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold a special summit in Jakarta on 24 April to discuss the situation in Myanmar. Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing is expected to attend. Indonesia and Malaysia have led the convening of the summit, and most regional leaders are expected to attend either virtually or in person – except, so far, for President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
It is unclear what the summit can accomplish beyond generic and symbolic statements. The possibility of concerted efforts to address violence in Myanmar seems low, given the diversity of positions on the issue. Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are unlikely to support direct action or sanctions on the generals. Thai companies have business interests in Myanmar, while Duterte disdains virtually all multilateral action. Myanmar will likely hold to its plan to schedule elections within the next 12 to 24 months.
A key question is whether this lack of consensus could cause Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – the three main movers behind the summit – to act independently. Singapore is the source of most foreign investment in Myanmar in recent years, and its cooperation with financial sanctions could be significant, given its role as a major intermediary for capital flows into and out of the country. Also, Singapore would have the most credibility if the generals were eventually to give up power and go into exile.