This essay, based on the articles included in Asia Maior XXVIII/17 and additional sources, singles out as the most significant developments in Asia during 2017 the havoc caused by the policies launched by the newly elected US president, Donald Trump, and the reaction of the main Asian powers to his policies. In 2017, Trump replaced his predecessor’s well-conceived global policy aimed at containing and «taming» China, with a set of half-baked «America-first» strategies. Their lodestar was the disdain of the role of international organisations, the refusal of the responsibilities inherent in the US position as global hegemon, and the implementation of neo-protectionist policies. This translated into the US’s withdrawal from the TPP, and the attempt at imposing on the US’s trade partners bilateral agreements forcing them to diminish or eliminate their favourable trade balances. The upheaval caused by these policies was further promoted by Trump’s approach to North Korea and Iran. The US President took an uncompromising stand on North Korea and its nuclear ambitions, without, however, individuating any reasonable means to either force or convince Pyongyang to deescalate its aggressive strategy. Even more worrying was the case of Iran. The signing of the pact limiting the Iranian nuclear programme (JCPOA), stabilising one of the more dangerous geopolitical areas in the world, had been one of the successes of the previous administration. Trump, however, announced his decision to disavow the JCPOA. The situation of uncertainty created by the Trumpian strategy could not but create a void of power worldwide. In Asia, it was filled by the activism of the US’s main challenger, China, and two of the US’s closest allies, Japan and India. China presented itself as the new champion of globalization, while, at the same time, claiming a more expansive global security role, commensurate with its growing importance. On their part, Japan and India strived to supply the absence of any meaningful American leadership. They joined hands in launching an Asian-African Growth Corridor, which was technically similar to the China-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and in obvious competition with it. Japan also assumed the initiative in trying to keep afloat the TPP minus the US. India, on its part, openly confronted China along their common Himalayan border, moving into the Doklam Plateau (namely a non-Indian territory, disputed between Bhutan and China), where China was building an all-whether highway. Eventually, after a two-months risky confrontation, the armies of the two countries suddenly vacated the Plateau. It was a strategic victory for India, as China gave up the construction of the disputed road.
Michelguglielmo Torri | University of Turin | email@example.com
After the major crises of 2016, the year 2017 on the Korean peninsula was characterised by an attempt to restore stability, both at the domestic and the international level. The social and political crisis that involved President Park Geun-hye in South Korea, which left the country without a clear political leadership for five months, came to an end with confirmation of the impeachment by the Constitutional Court and the following election of Moon Jae-in to the presidency. The new president committed his administration to reverse the policies of the previous administration, focusing on democracy, transparency, social justice, zero tolerance against corruption, and a more conciliatory approach towards Pyongyang. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un, after the final consolidation of his position and political line, continued to enhance the nuclear and missile programmes. Over the course of 2017, the regime achieved impressive results in both fields and, by the end of the year, proclaimed the final completion of the state nuclear and missile programme. The repeated missile launches had extensive consequences on inter-Korean and international relations. Moon Jae-in’s initiatives, aimed at improving inter-Korean cooperation and dialogue, were frustrated by the repeated provocations from North Korea. As a consequence, Moon reshaped his approach as a dual-track policy of seeking denuclearisation through sanctions while calling for dialogue. The other election that highly influenced the developments on the peninsula was that of Donald Trump in the United States. After his first months in office, during which Trump apparently relied on China to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the new American president adopted a very confrontational approach based on maximum pressure as well as dangerous rhetoric, which included the possibility of a military conflict with North Korea. This approach exacerbated tension in the region and alienated South Korea’s support to his strategy. Trump’s protectionist positions on the KORUS free trade agreement and his unclear support of the US commitment in the East Asian region started also to create frictions in the alliance with South Korea.
Marco Milani | University of Southern California | firstname.lastname@example.org
China 2017: Searching for internal and international consent
Francesca Congiu & Christian Rossi
This article argues that the Chinese party-state’s most pressing question in 2017 continued to be its quest for legitimacy. In the period under review the party-state’s main strategic answer to the legitimacy crisis was its effort to strengthen Chinese nationalism and build an ideology based on Chinese exceptionalism. This was accompanied by concrete political economic measures directed at radically transforming the Chinese economic development model from being export-driven to innovation-driven, in an attempt to rebuild the waning social consensus. In order to proceed with this complex transition, China needed not only to deepen its already profound integration with the global economic and political system but also to regulate it according to its national interests. The Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013, was effectively meant to serve this purpose. At the same time, it was promoted world-wide as an opportunity for the improvement of the social, economic and political conditions of all countries involved, in particular developing countries. In a specular way, China projected itself as a political and economic responsible stakeholder, while, at the same time, trying to demonstrate that its ability to behave as a responsible state in the international arena was due to its adherence to its own system of peculiarly Chinese social and political values.
Francesca Congiu | University of Cagliari | email@example.com
Christian Rossi | University of Cagliari | firstname.lastname@example.org
Japan 2017: Defending the domestic and international status quo
Sebastian Maslow & Giulio Pugliese
The year 2017 proved a transitory testing time for the Abe administration, because the prime minister faced a series of new international and domestic hurdles. While the North Korean crisis dominated Japanese media, China and the US remained Japan’s main strategic concern. Following the US’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, Abe engaged the Trump White House and defused its protectionist and potentially isolationist «America First» doctrine. Trump’s focus on the DPRK missile and nuclear threat translated into a relatively moderate China policy. To hedge against the risks of a transactional US-China détente, Abe made symbolic pledges of cooperation with Beijing. Meanwhile, as US-China rivalry in the economic and military domain resurfaced, the Japanese and US governments pushed for an Indo-Pacific strategy that more confidently balanced China’s regional influence. At the domestic level, Abe confronted a series of political scandals that involved himself and some of his closest political allies. In an attempt to mend public support for his promises to reform Japan’s economy and to revise the post-war state, Abe dissolved the Lower House and, in the ensuing elections, confirmed the supermajority enjoyed by the coalition government. As a result, the LDP has consolidated its one-party dominance, while the opposition remains fragmented and weak. In summary, our review of 2017 suggests that Japan’s overall foreign policy line remained unchanged, while Abe has successfully consolidated the status quo of LDP one-party dominance.
Sebastian Maslow | The University of Tokyo | email@example.com
Giulio Pugliese | King’s College, London | firstname.lastname@example.org
Taiwan 2017: Stalemate on the Strait
After a tumultuous 2016, cross-Strait relations between the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continued to be tense throughout 2017. The increasing divergence over the issue of national unification between Beijing and Taipei, epitomised by President Tsai Ing-wen’s refusal to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, shaped Taiwan’s cross-Strait, regional, and domestic politics. Neither Beijing’s intensive pressure campaign, nor Taipei’s repeated proposals to establish a new model of interaction between the two sides produced tangible results. Within the context of a protracted stalemate with China, the Tsai administration responded by pursuing an ambitiously proactive agenda. Abroad, Taipei adapted to the new, disruptive Trump administration, deepened its relations with a sympathetic Abe administration in Japan, and pushed for a more relevant role in the Indo-Asia-Pacific via its New Southbound Policy. At home, it pushed an aggressively localist agenda, and started implementing an expansive industrial policy. These measures were taken with the aim of reducing the weight of the existent historical, cultural, political, and economic ties with the Mainland. However, Beijing’s growing clutch in the region, widespread uncertainty over the future role of the United States in the region, as well as the structural malaise of the Taiwanese economy, severely constrained the efficacy of the agenda designed by the Tsai administration.
Aurelio Insisa | The University of Hong Kong | email@example.com
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte led a phenomenal campaign to win the 2016 national election. During his first two years in power Duterte has become the protagonist and exemplar of a key new development – the social formation of a regime of authoritarian populism. Based on an analysis of news reports, public debates, survey results, and official policy documents from 2017, the article examines various features of this emergent regime and then illuminates the historical-institutional mechanisms that brought it about. The inquiry is predicated on an understanding that the old EDSA Republic’s liberal-democratic regime has been marked by intractable socio-economic crises since its installation in 1986. This triggered different political tendencies and trajectories that Duterte has been able to mould into a new mode of regulation and governance. The central discussion elucidates some of the significant features that constitute the process through which the new regime of authoritarian populism is taking shape. The conclusion highlights the mutually reinforcing features of the dying EDSA-type liberal democracy and the emerging Duterte-led authoritarian populism. This suggests that the former has been a spawning ground for the latter.
Bonn Juego | University of Jyväskylä, Finland | firstname.lastname@example.org
Indonesia 2017: Towards illiberal democracy
In 2017, in the third year of Joko «Jokowi» Widodo’s presidency, Indonesia was already preparing for the next general elections, scheduled in April 2019. The country’s political arena saw on the one hand the mobilisation of political Islam, which resulted in the arrest and defeat of Jokowi’s ally, Basuki «Ahok» Tjahaja Purnama, and, on the other, the adoption of hyper-nationalist and illiberal tones. Moreover, the contrast between Jokowi’s electoral promises and his action became more apparent, raising doubts about his transformative capability and willingness. This became particularly evident in terms of the fight against corruption and of the Papuan question. No major development characterised Indonesia’s foreign policy as compared to previous years. Yet moderate improvements could be seen in its economic performance, with the growth rate stable at around 5%, but with still-high levels of inequality.
Elena Valdameri | Swiss Federal Institute of Technology – ETH Zurich | email@example.com
In continuity with the previous years, in 2016-2017 the hegemonic crisis of the CPP, the ruling Cambodian party of the authoritarian leader Hun Sen, continued and was epitomised by two main developments: the declining popular consensus, revealed by the June 2017 communal elections, and the government-imposed dissolution of the CNRP, the main opposition party. As a result, the CPP got rid of any significant opposition in parliament. The feeble reaction of the western countries coupled with the strengthening of Cambodia’s relationship with China and Japan contributed to stabilise the internal situation, allowing a continuing economic growth propelled by neoliberal economic policies. However, such growth was coupled with the increase in social disparities, which brought in its wake social conflict and police repression.
Nicola Mocci | University of Sassari | firstname.lastname@example.org
In January 2017 King Maha Vajiralongkorn of the Chakri dynasty, who had ascended the throne only one month earlier, demanded a change to the constitution drafted by the military junta ruling the country since May 2014. This change regarded the expansion of the royal prerogatives, de facto augmenting his power vis-à-vis both the army and the traditional elites. Later in the year the king took new initiatives to tighten his personal control over the palace bureaucracy and the immense economic assets of the monarchy. These moves not only signalled a redefinition of the power equilibrium between the king and the ruling military junta but were also likely to have a lasting impact on the role of the monarchy. While the royal powers were reasserted and increased, the junta largely succeeded in maintaining its own power. Uncertainty remained on the date of the promised political election. But anyway, the new constitution does not allow a genuine return to democracy as it confers direct control over key political and economic leverages to the army. Internationally the junta benefitted from the advent of Donald Trump to the White House. However, the relevance of the political and economic partnership between Bangkok and Beijing appeared to be steadily on the rise.
Pietro Masina | University of Naples «L’Orientale» | email@example.com
2017 was Myanmar’s annus horribilis. This essay revisits the 2017 Rohingya crisis and discusses its immediate triggers and background causes. It contends that the latest outbreak of violence should not be seen as a one-off occurrence, but rather be understood as part of a long history of anti-Rohingya state and community-led violence, which has intensified in recent years, especially since 2012. What emerged, in fact, was a shift in organisation and tactics on the side of some radicalised segments of the Rohingya community as well as the violent impact of the rampant rise in Buddhist nationalism. The crisis sparked an international outcry, but was met with callousness and denial inside the country, where anti-Rohingya sentiments are widespread and the military operations enjoy wide popular support. The Rohingyas are facing an uncertain future and problematic prospects of return. Among the fallouts of the crisis was the abrupt fall from grace of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Showing a total lack of empathy over the human tragedy and, through her silence, condoning anti-Rohingya sentiments and violence, the state counsellor tarnished her international reputation. More than seven years after an unexpected political liberalisation Myanmar’s progress has at best stalled or, quite possibly, shown its true colours: a non-transition in disguise. The Tatmadaw remains firmly in control.
Matteo Fumagalli | University of St Andrews, Scotland | firstname.lastname@example.org
Bangladesh 2017: The Rohingya’s carnage
In 2017 Bangladesh’s political landscape was dominated by the Rohingya crisis, deflagrated at the end of August in Myanmar, causing 600,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. This article provides a short historical background of the Rohingya issue to prove that these people, although of Bengali descent, have been living in Myanmar for centuries. The reasons why, after having been fully integrated in Burma’s pre-colonial society, they are at present being dismissed as «strangers» or «Bengalis» by the Myanmar authorities are analysed. In spite of the economic impact of the Rohingya crisis on a poor country like Bangladesh, in 2017 its economy continued to flourish, the GDP rate of growth being about 7%. This positive result was largely due to the political stability ensured by the administration, although not always with orthodox systems. Also both Chinese and Indian direct investments contributed to Bangladesh’s economic growth. However, in the year under review, Bangladesh appeared to gradually move closer to China, attracted by the possibility of being included in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Marzia Casolari | University of Turin | email@example.com
India 2017: Narendra Modi’s continuing hegemony and his challenge to China
Michelguglielmo Torri & Diego Maiorano
In 2017 the situation of Indian democracy deteriorated, as shown by the continuing attacks against Muslims and Christians, and by the intimidation against the opponents of political Hinduism. This intimidation culminated in the assassination of well-known journalist and BJP critic Gauri Lankesh. Meanwhile Narendra Modi, in spite of the unsatisfactory economic trend and botched economic reforms, continued to be India’s most popular politician. Also, during the period under review, Modi’s party, the BJP, went from one success to another, strengthening its political hold on the country by conquering four Indian states (Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand), and by retaining its hold on two more (Goa and Gujarat). However, the latest of these elections, the one in Gujarat, although confirming the BJP in power, saw an unexpected good result on the part of a resurgent Congress. Some analysts saw this as an indication that the BJP’s tightening hold on the Indian political system was not unbreakable. India’s foreign policy continued to be characterised by the increasingly closer and increasingly militarised connection with the US and by the ever more adversarial relation with China. It was in this field that the Modi government conquered a clear (although possibly temporary) success, by facing down China in the Himalayan Doklam plateau.
Michelguglielmo Torri | University of Turin | firstname.lastname@example.org
Diego Maiorano | University of Nottingham | Diego.Maiorano@nottingham.ac.uk
India 2017: Still no achhe din (good days) for the economy
In 2017 the Indian economy appeared to be on a declining trend up to Quarter 1 (Q1) 2017-18 (April-June 2017). The data for Q2 of 2017-18 (July-September 2018) – the last available at the closing of the present article – were better, but insufficient to conclude that the negative trend had been reversed. In turn, this declining trend was the result of long-term causes, going back at least to Financial Year 2012-13, which are briefly analysed in the present article. However, its main thrust aims at analysing the two main economic reforms implemented by the Modi government - demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. The following analysis shows that, they, far from improving the situation, worsened it, in particular causing the contraction of the informal sector of the economy, without bringing about any development of the formal sector. As shown by a plethora of journalistic enquiries, this adversely impacted the Indian economy although, because of the way in which data on the economy are collected, at the closing of the present article the actual dimension of this negative impact was not yet visible in the official statistics. What was clear was that, in spite of Modi’s promises during the 2014 electoral campaign, job creation was lower than during the UPA governments. At the closing of the period under review, the government started to react to the worsening economic situation not only at the rhetorical level, but by taking some sensible economic decisions such as reviving the Economic Advisory Council and trying to tackle the NPA-induced crisis of the banks.
Michelguglielmo Torri | University of Turin | email@example.com
In 2015 the young Nepalese republic finally approved a new constitution, but before it could be adopted, its institutions found themselves facing the consequences of a series of devastating earthquakes that hit the country and in particular its capital. The tragedy forced the main political parties to reach an agreement in June 2015, and approval of the constitution was granted the following September. The approval and adoption of the new constitution was followed by the election of Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli as Prime Minister and of Bidhya Devi Bhandari as President of Nepal, both of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). The Oli government had to face the long and dramatic blockade of the border with India, which ended a few days after the approval of a first amendment to the constitution. At the same time – under the premiership of Oli – the process of rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China continued and Nepal joined the Belt and Road Initiative. In August 2016, after breaking up with Oli, historic Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as Prachanda, again assumed the premiership of Nepal. He was supported by a coalition primarily made up of his own party and the Nepali Congress. Prachanda has pursued a more balanced foreign policy between New Delhi and Beijing, initially re-approaching India, but later reopening new spaces for Chinese diplomacy. In June 2017, Prachanda ceded the premiership to the Nepali Congress, in the person of Sher Bahadur Deuba. Deuba failed to get that second amendment to the constitution approved that was supposed to protect the Madhesi minority and whose approval had been at the heart of Nepalese internal politics since the return to the government of Prachanda. In October 2017, after the local elections, the CPN-UML and the Maoists allied themselves against the Nepali Congress, while Deuba failed to form an equally strong coalition. The result of the November-December 2017 elections was therefore a severe defeat of the Nepali Congress and a landslide victory of the Left alliance. The latter obtained almost two thirds of the House of Representatives’ seats and the control of six states out of seven. This reopened both the internal issues of the young Nepalese democracy and the geopolitical ones.
Matteo Miele | Kokoro Research Center – Kyoto University | firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2017, the Lankan internal situation was a constant cause of difficulty for President Sirisena and the governing coalition. First, the government was challenged by the unexpected political initiative of former President Rajapaksa’s «Joint Opposition». Second, the Tamil communities in the north and the east of the country expressed their growing frustration and discontent against the government. Finally, the most distressing development was the rise of Buddhist religious extremism and the consequent violent attacks against non-Buddhist individuals and groups. At the economic level, the year under review witnessed a constant improvement of the economy. Economic reforms were implemented to comply with the demands of the financial international institutions. Among these reforms, the long-awaited Inland Revenue Act (IRA) introduced a new tax system characterised by a direct/indirect taxation ratio favouring direct taxation. Moreover the government presented an ambitious long-term economic reform program: «Vision 2025: A Rich Country». Among the main goals of «Vision 2015» were the raising of per capita income; the creation of jobs; the increase of foreign direct investments; the promotion of exports; the creation of a more competitive market; the widening of social justice; the promotion of digitalisation; the implementation of a balance between environmental conservation and economic development. As far as foreign policy is concerned, 2017 saw Sri Lanka acting as a «tightrope walker», striving to keep the balance between India and China, and desperately trying to avoid being crushed between the two Asian giants. In addition the new US presidency caused contrasting effects on Sri Lanka-US relations. On the one hand the existing structures, created to strengthen and deepen the economic and military bilateral ties, remained in place and continued to properly work. On the other, the US-Sri Lanka political relations went through a series of problems, mainly caused by the new US administration’s concerns about Chinese presence in Sri Lanka.
Fabio Leone | Asia Maior – An Italian think tank on Asia | fabioleonefl@libero
In July 2017, following his family’s involvement in the Panama Papers scandal, Nawaz Sharif was disqualified and ousted from the prime ministership by a Supreme Court decision. The ruling party, the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz), appointed the Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, as premier to serve until the elections in 2018. In the year under review, marking 70 years of independence of Pakistan, national economic growth was recorded at 5.3% of GDP. This marked the highest rate in a decade, confirming the positive trend since 2013. Pakistan’s economic performance received plaudits from the international financial organisations and influential rating agencies. However, the International Monetary Fund warned about the re-emersion of macroeconomic vulnerabilities. Also several analysts pointed out that the expected dividends from the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) will accrue less to Pakistan than to China. Bilateral relations of Pakistan with neighbouring Afghanistan deteriorated over reciprocal accusations of state support to infiltrating militants, which triggered a border dispute in April 2017. The fall of Sharif came as the USA was finalising its strategy on Afghanistan which was then presented in August 2017. It marked a new approach on how Washington intends to deal with Pakistan, characterised by zero tolerance for safe havens for militant organisations. Pakistan became a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with beneficial prospects in terms of enhanced access to natural resources and trade opportunities.
Marco Corsi | Asia Maior – An Italian think tank on Asia | email@example.com
The political evolution in Afghanistan in 2017 was dominated by the release of the US president’s new policy towards the region. Although the strategy was characterised by a substantial continuity with the Obama policy, there were some important changes. The most relevant was the revision of US-Pakistan relations, and the redefinition of the role of Islamabad as a key US ally in the region. This essay discusses in detail the possible implications of this change and analyses its historical-political context. The factors behind the complex relationship between Islamabad and Kabul are also discussed, in connection with the political balance in South Asia. The latter part of the essay analyses the domestic political situation, which was characterised by a further deterioration of security, vis-à-vis an increasing offensive by the Taliban and Daesh, and by the political crisis of the National Unity Government (NUG). Despite the reforms carried out in 2016, the Ghani-Abdullah government seemed unable to stabilise the Afghan political system, or to guarantee the normal functioning of the electoral calendar.
Diego Abenante | University of Trieste | firstname.lastname@example.org
The 2017 was a challenging year for the President Hassan Rouhani despite his reelection. The Presidential and Municipal elections in May represented a clear and strong support for his administration and the nuclear deal or famously the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement. But lack of visible improvements at economic levels ended the year with widespread protests in several Iranian cities with 25 deaths and thousands detained. Despite new contracts in infrastructure and transportation sectors signed, anticipated reforms in banking system, the creation of jobs and attracting greater foreign investments are still pending issues at the economic level. At the international level, the new approach coming from the Trump administration has challenged the Iranian commitment with the JCPOA and created frictions within the establishment regarding the US policies. However, there has been no change in the Iranian stance in the nuclear deal. Moreover, the GCC crisis that erupted in May seemed to have benefited Iran leverage itself at the regional level. While its participation in the regional arena has been neglected by mainly the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the year 2017 has proved to be the year in which Iranian position on regional issues such as Syrian conflict, Kurdistan and intra-GCC relations was counted.
Luciano Zaccara | Qatar University | email@example.com
In continuity with previous years, in 2017 Kazakhstan pursued the stabilisation of its political system while still embracing global trends. Domestically, the leadership attempted to consolidate its institutions, possibly in preparation for President Nursultan Nazarbayev´s retirement. A reform of the constitution made over some of the presidential powers to the government and parliament, while leaving the president as the supreme arbiter of the political system. The leadership took significant steps in nation-building, issuing an ambitious plan of «Modernisation of Kazakhstan’s Identity» and announcing the adoption of a Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language. The latter might be a step towards more openly ethnic-based nation-building, although previous policies and Nazarbayev’s track record of caution indicate a slow and limited progress in that direction. At the same time, these proactive measures demonstrate how the political leadership is trying to adapt to the developments present in Kazakh society, preventing possible challenges to its own power. Internationally, Kazakhstan further consolidated its international position as a reliable, proactive partner for its neighbours and the west. In particular, Kazakhstan´s capital Astana hosted the universal exposition (EXPO 2017), whose theme was «Future Energy». It not only showcased the country´s support for innovation and green technologies, but also attempted to «brand» Kazakhstan as a developed country. While this entailed a certain feeling of superiority towards its Central Asian neighbours, a spat with Kyrgyzstan in the autumn of 2017 demonstrated that Kazakhstan is still some steps from taking the coveted position as the economic heart of Eurasia.
Adele Del Sordi | Graduate School for East and South-East European Studies - LMU Munich | firstname.lastname@example.org