Briefing MONTHLY #44 | November 2021
Summit season | Japan’s China choices | Political dynasties rule | Pacific aid reviews
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan describes modern diplomacy as more like assembling latticework than building a Parthenon for the ages.
“It's much more flexible, ad hoc, more political than legal, sometimes more temporary than permanent … it's got more of a Frank Gehry character than the formal Greek architecture of the post-war era” he told the Lowy Lecture, contrasting his job to storied predecessors like Dean Acheson.
And this year’s summit season seemed to be a case in point. Leaders meandered from the 16-year-old, 18-member East Asia Summit (EAS) to the 22-year-old Group of 20 (G20) to the 32-year-old, 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group.
But all the time they appeared to really be waiting for the outcome of an online meeting between just two of their brethren to find out what the real state of the geopolitical landscape was.
Even the magnitude of the closing statements (not counting the plentiful appendices!) seemed to fade along the way from 13,000 words at the EAS to 9500 words at the G20 to 2000 words at APEC.
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping opened their much-anticipated meeting (but officially not a “summit”) with a disarmingly casual wave that appears to have laid the groundwork for more personal contact – although perhaps not less competition.
But if that didn’t provide some scope for a sigh of relief in foreign ministries around the world after a year of rising bilateral tension, the other Biden/Xi initiative might have. There was no closing communique but some modest real action including improved travel access for media and business visitors and some form of nuclear arms talks.
Even in Sullivan’s less permanent diplomatic architecture, it seems, a picture is still worth a thousand words.
ASEAN (October 26-8): Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen made some unexpectedly critical comments about Myanmar having lost its right to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit as he took over as the group’s chair.
But he is expected to appoint a Cambodian official as the ASEAN special envoy on Myanmar and pay heed to Chinese views on the country during his year in the chair. This is only likely to reduce the prospect of the ASEAN group collectively taking any significant new action over Myanmar after excluding the country from its summit.
The Summit otherwise focussed on pandemic recovery and paid particular attention to rebuilding the region’s tourism industry with more standardised travel arrangements.
Cancelling Myanmar … the online ASEAN summit.
EAS (October 27): It says a lot about fast changing diplomatic architecture, that the East Asia Summit which Australia still describes as “the Indo-Pacific’s premier forum for strategic dialogue” passed by this year with the least attention of any of the events in a roller coaster leadership meeting season.
Indeed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison virtually made it an afterthought that he would outline “our ideas to foster a peaceful, resilient and secure region” at the virtual EAS, when he announced new aid spending in Southeast Asia earlier the same day. (See: ASIAN NATION)
For the record, the 18-member body adopted three statements on sustainable recovery (notably, given later events, proposed by China and the US); economic growth through tourism recovery (proposed by Russia); and mental health cooperation (proposed by Brunei Darussalam and Australia).
G20 (October 30-31): The gathering of leaders from the Group of 20 leading economic powers in Rome was overshadowed by the looming United Nations climate change conference and was left to largely officially seal the new international tax rules already agreed beforehand.
But while it became the venue for the high-profile row between Scott Morrison and French president Emmanuel Macron, it also provided an opportunity for Macron to reaffirm France’s post-AUKUS options in Asia. (See: DIPLOMATICALLY SPEAKING)
Macron met the leaders of both Indonesia and India on the sidelines of the conference and emphasised France’s long-standing relationships with them. After meeting Joko Widodo, he tweeted: “We will continue to act so that the Indo-Pacific region remains a space for peace and co-operation. In this regard, Indonesia is the main actor, more than just a partner, namely a friend.”
Indeed, as the incoming chair of the G20, Jokowi appeared to shrug off his normal diffidence towards international diplomacy and take a more prominent role on issues including vaccine distribution and technology transfer to developing countries to deal with climate change.
UN COP26 (November 1-13): India’s commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2070 injected some frisson into the first day of the United Nations 26th Conference of the Parties. Initial reaction was negative because it appeared to push back the benchmark 2050 target, although India’s increased carbon reduction commitments by 2030 earned it some grudging credibility.
But India then played the key role in the last-minute watering down of the conference communique by amending an agreement to “phase out” coal use to “phase down”. China was amongst countries lending support to this.
But the Asian approach to coal use reduction was further confused by Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea earlier joining a group of more than 40 countries agreeing to phase out coal for electricity generation. Australia, China and India did not join this group.
In another contradictory move, Indonesia backtracked on its ability to stop deforestation just a day after it joined an agreement to achieve zero net deforestation by 2030.
APEC (November 12): Leaders of the 21 member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group agreed on a series of intentions to promote digital innovation, reduce fossil fuel subsidies and strengthen trade in pandemic health product s in their virtual summit overshadowed by the last days of the UN climate talks.
New Zealand’s key role as host of an entirely virtual summit year was to keep APEC relevant after three troubled previous summits and a clash of meetings. That was largely achieved in July when it used the virtual channel as an opportunity to convene a special early summit to help keep pandemic goods supply chains open.
APEC’s well-established cooperative discussions with no formal implementation powers means it can pave the way for more formal discussions elsewhere.
This year that may have played out over the competition between the United Kingdom, China and Taiwan to join the parallel formal trade group in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. As APEC members China and Taiwan each pushed the cases on the sidelines and New Zealand, the host and CPTPP secretariat, took a noticeably more benign approach to China’s claims than Australia.
G2 (November 16): Joe Biden and Xi Jinping left few issues untouched in their three-hour online meeting in what appeared to be an effort to demonstrate their leadership status after several earlier more combative meetings between their officials.
The key outcomes appear to have been to reopen bilateral media access after expulsion over the past two years and discussions about controlling nuclear missile, possibly initially at the non-official level.
- Asia Society Policy Institute senior fellow Richard Maude says the better atmosphere between the US and China “might be disorienting” for some Australian officials, while research associate, Dominique Fraser suggests some post-ASEAN Summit options for managing the Myanmar crisis.
KISHIDA BETS EACH WAY
Newly re-elected Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida appears to have asserted his control over the country’s foreign policy after a better than expected election result.
During the election campaign Kishida had already demonstrated he was prepared to break with aspects of long-serving leader Shinzo Abe’s more neo-liberal economic policies. This left questions about how much his foreign policy might change given he hails from a more moderate faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic party than the more conservative and nationalist Abe.
But Kishida seems to have kept his options open on the key issue of managing China by appointing a special adviser on human rights to address China’s treatment of Uyghur minorities, but then a foreign minister who has a background in building relations with China.
Human rights adviser and former defence minister Gen Nakatani already heads a cross-party parliamentary group that is drawing up legislation that will allow Japan to impose sanctions on countries over human rights abuses.
However foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi has been described as one of Japan’s best prepared new foreign ministers with experience as a former education, agriculture and defence minister. He is also a Harvard graduate which gave him English language skills; worked for US Congress members, and served as chair of a bipartisan parliamentary group promoting Japan-China relations, which his politician father also once chaired.
While the appointment was reportedly opposed by more anti-China LDP figures including Abe, analysts are divided over whether it suggests Kishida wants to improve relations with China or have someone who has the credibility to deliver difficult messages.
Hayashi has simply declared that it is better to know about China in order to make decisions about it.
- Corey Wallace at East Asia Forum assesses whether Kishida can pull off the goal of boosting economic growth with his new capitalism enough to pay for promised defence spending increases.
Vice-president in waiting – or president – Sara Duterte. Picture: Inquirer.net
In Manila: The Philippines is set to double-down on the enduring power of dynasty in Asian politics by possibly choosing the scions of two political families as its next president and vice-president.
After a flurry of last-minute candidate changing, the son of former 1970s dictator Ferdinand Marcos – also Ferdinand but better known as Bongbong – is the front running presidential candidate after failing to win the vice-presidency five years ago.
And Sara Duterte – the daughter of incumbent president Rodrigo Duterte and mayor of Davao City – is the leading candidate to become the separately elected vice-president, after pulling back from running for the presidency. If she had run, Sara Duterte could have become the third daughter from a prominent political family in the Philippines to rise to the presidency after Corazon Aquino (1986-92) and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-10).
Meanwhile, in an attempt to extend his influence, Duterte senior, is now running as a candidate for the country’s Senate to potentially become its President after being ruled out of standing again as president by a one term limit. And with Duterte senior also apparently breaking with the Marcos clan, some pundits are speculating that his daughter is being set up to eventually gain the presidency in future.
The moves pose yet another challenge to the country’s once politically powerful moderate liberal elite to combine their forces and mount a competitive alternate team, although they proved unable to do this in the 2016 election when Duterte won.
- Richard Heydarian, in The Philippine Daily Inquirer, says Rodrigo Duterte's antics while in office have remarkably opened the way for a return of the once-discredited Marcos dynasty.
In Pyongyang: Kim Jong-un’s sister and adviser, Kim Yo Jong, has been elevated to the country’s top governing body the State Affairs Commission solidifying her position as a potential successor.
As the third generation of North Korea’s ruling Communist dynasty, she had already been emerging as an important figure in meetings with foreigners.
In Bangkok: The youngest daughter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has taken a position in Thailand's largest opposition party, Pheu Thai, which is a successor to Thaksin’s once dominant Thai Rak Thai party. Paetongtarn Shinawatra has been made head of the party's Inclusion and Innovation Advisory Committee prompting speculation she is being groomed for higher office. Thaksin Shinawatra was forced from office by the military and royal establishment in 2006 and exiled. Then his sister Yinkluck was forced out of the prime ministership in 2014. But Pheu Thai has been plagued by divisions prompting speculation that Thaksin would attempt to reassert more family control before the next election.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made his biggest concession to opposition forces in his seven years in power by reversing agriculture reforms that deregulated the sale of crops.
Farmers had been protesting the changes for more than a year with more than 600 deaths raising new questions about Modi’s ability to negotiate significant policy reform after previous mismanagement of a consumption tax and demonetisation of the currency.
The reversal of the farm changes appear to reflect concern in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that it will face difficult elections next year in the states of Utter Pradesh and Punjab where farmer resistance has been most intense.
The new laws were broadly supported by reformers because they aimed to make land use more efficient and allow farmers to sell their crops more independently of government to private companies.
But critics say Modi tried to force them through without consultation or some form of assisted phase in reflecting an increasingly authoritarian approach to running the country as the BJP’s power has grown in the national parliament and at the state level.
- Pratap Bhanu Mehta, from the Indian Express, says the repeal of the laws was necessary to pave the way for a new approach to agricultural reform in India.
The Morrison government has continued its rebalance to Southeast Asia by using the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit for the second year in a row to announce new aid programs.
The latest initiatives include $124 million for projects covering health security, terrorism and transnational crime, energy security, promoting the circular economy and healthy oceans, and support implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).
An additional $30 million is being allocated to 100 scholarships for ASEAN emerging leaders to study in Australia in fields that advance the AOIP and an ASEAN Digital Transformation and Futures Skills initiative to support 350 Vocational Education and Training scholarships, technical assistance partnerships between Australian and ASEAN training institutions, and new skills policy dialogue.
Curiously Prime Minister Scott Morrison described this new spending as the “largest ever increase in Australia’s development cooperation program with ASEAN” when the programs announced last year were larger, although some were not strictly aid.
Meanwhile, Australia has also established a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN group adding to the diverse collection of these sorts of agreements it already has across the individual countries.
It now has comprehensive strategic partnerships with Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia; a strategic partnership with Thailand and Vietnam; and comprehensive partnership with the Philippines, but no such arrangements with the other members of ASEAN.
These measures come after the backlash against the AUKUS submarine deal from some Southeast Asian nations and signs that Australian soft power in this region may be waning despite the pivot back to it in aid spending over the past two years.
CAMBODIA: STILL WAITING
The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and subsequent 1993 election in Cambodia are often described as one of the crowning achievements of Australian diplomacy in Asia. The cooperation with Indonesia to resolve a four-decade old impasse in Indochina where the US, the former Soviet Union and China were fighting proxy wars is held up as a benchmark for modern management of superpower rivalry.
When some of the key figures returned to the fray for a Chatham House international conference on October 28 there was unsurprising celebration of Australian creative shuttle diplomacy and laments that it does not appear possible today.
This pessimistic view was based on a series of interlocking concepts from the “presidentialisation” of foreign policy in Parliament House and away from diplomats, to the way modern social media demands instant answers to complex international issues and provides little space for careful private diplomacy.
But even 30 years on there was a strikingly swift return to old positions between some participants from the original negotiations. The Khmer Rouge, who have had an ironic revival only this year as comparators for the Taliban in Afghanistan, were remembered remarkably differently from “competent diplomats and fighters” to “not all that strong” and just a “glowering presence”.
This led to a doleful broad consensus at the Asialink/Australian Institute of International Affairs event that Cambodia remains a stillborn nation under Prime Minister Hun Sen, who joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970. The real outcome of the celebrated Australian diplomacy won’t really become clear until he has passed from the scene.
- Former Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya says neighbouring countries should press Hun Sen to allow fair local government elections next June to return the country to the Peace Agreement pathway.
As Asian students are set to start returning to Australia after the COVID lockouts, a new study has found they find it harder to make friends with Australian students than they expect.
The study, which surveyed both domestic and international students, also revealed a strong desire by both groups, including Australian students, to make friendships with students from other countries.
It found that Australian students were just as interested in forming friendships with international students as international students were with them.
“That somewhat contradicts the popular narrative that Australian students are not interested in engaging with their international peers. Instead, many local respondents saw connecting with international students as crucial to their intercultural learning and an opportunity to broaden their worldview,” the co-author Brie Willoughby-Knox told The Australian.
The study published in the journal Higher Education Research and Development says both international students and Australians had misconceptions about intercultural communication skills, which needed to go beyond language proficiency.
One aim should be to “introduce a pedagogy that explicitly teaches students in the internationalised classroom how to take the risks necessary to forge and communicate in intercultural friendships”, it says.
The first flight of fully vaccinated international students is due to return to NSW without quarantining on December 6, with 250 students from countries including Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and China.
About 150,000 international tertiary students are estimated to be studying offshore due to the border closures with just over half of them in China. How fast they return will be the next big test for the underlying state of relations with China.
DEALS AND DOLLARS
The federal government has been urged to better audit the results of its growing investment in Pacific infrastructure and to coordinate it with other aid spending, in separate reviews of what is now a key part of both national security and aid policy.
An independent study of the new powers and funding given to Export Finance Australia as part of the government’s Pacific Step-up policy has found that the impact of its investments will take a long time to emerge but should still be properly evaluated.
With an extra A$1 billion in capital and the power to support projects that are in the broader national interest with equity investment, the EFA is now a key part of the government’s economic diplomacy in the Pacific.
The review, headed by former senior bureaucrat Stephen Sedgwick, recommends that the government support a special monitoring regime to demonstrate that the EFA’s new funding is “applied efficiently and effectively for public policy purposes”.
The review, was completed in October, before the government, via the EFA, invested almost A$1.8 billion in Telstra’s bid to buy telecommunications company Digicel Pacific. The investment represents more than Australia spends on Pacific aid in a year and twice the amount it plans to spend on climate change in the Pacific over five years.
Meanwhile a second review, also led by Sedgwick, has called for infrastructure spending in the Pacific to be better coordinated with conventional aid spending to avoid the “build-neglect-rebuild” problem that has arisen from such projects in the past.
SPILT MILK IN CHINA
Managing the troubled diplomatic relationship with China and its changing domestic economy continues to be a prominent theme in company announcements.
At Bega Cheese, chairman Barry Irvin has warned that infant formula markets in China are unlikely to recover to pre-COVID levels. But he told the company’s annual meeting Bega wanted to expand its infant formula business into other markets and was “right-sizing” its manufacturing infrastructure in anticipation of lower demand from China.
He said the absence of daigou traders in Australia buying large quantities of infant formula and vitamins and selling them online in China has had a substantial impact.
But on a happier post-China note, Irwin said the company had got a bargain when it bought the Japanese-owned Lion portfolio of milk and flavoured milk brands last year. That opportunity occurred when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg rejected a higher offer for the Lion businesses from China’s Mengniu Dairy.
Meanwhile, at A2 Milk, shares tumbled despite chief executive David Bortolussi outlining a goal to boost revenue – his company also suffered from a downturn in the once-booming infant formula market. New disclosures about China’s slowing birth rate have also hit the long-term outlook for infant formula companies.
His growth plan is focused on the company doubling its market share in the Chinese-language segment of the infant formula market, growing into other dairy products in China and expanding into new products and regions.
Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Future Industries (FFI) plans to build up to seven hydropower and 11 geothermal energy projects in Papua New Guinea to produce green hydrogen and green ammonia.
Following similar announcements in Queensland and NSW, Forrest said an agreement with the PNG government would help create a new export industry for the country.
He said the identified projects could produce as much as 2.3 million tonnes of green hydrogen a year once completed and “completely transform PNG to become a leader in the world’s renewable energy transition”.
“I think what happened was to use an English phrase … clumsy, it was not done with a lot of grace. I was under the impression that France had been informed long before, that the [French] deal was not going through.”
Joe Biden (October 29)
“The AUKUS deal was very bad news for France - but not just for France, because I think it's a very bad news for credibility of Australia and a very bad news for the trust that great partners can have with the Australians. I think this is detrimental to the reputation of your country and your Prime Minister.”
Emmanuel Macron (October 30)
“The statements that were made questioning Australia’s integrity and the slurs ... have been placed on Australia, not me, I’ve got broad shoulders. I can deal with that.”
Scott Morrison (November 2)
ON THE HORIZON
US President Joe Biden will host the first of two Summits for Democracy on December 10 and 11, implementing a major election campaign pledge to stop democratic backsliding and erosion of rights and freedoms around the world.
The plan is to hold a second summit a year after the first to take stock of the progress made and forge a longer-term path ahead.
But choosing which Asian and other countries get a seat at the table will require interesting choices amid the broader foreign policy debate about how much the US should align its security policies with democracy.
An early invitation list reported by Politico indicated, for example, that Taiwan and Mongolia had made the cut, but not Thailand or Vietnam. Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, PNG, the Philippines, India and Pakistan were all included.
Politico reports that a likely outcome is a US-sponsored program to defend internet freedom in countries where social media was being used to manipulate democracy.
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