Asia Maior. XXIX / 2018. Reacting to Donald Trump’s Challenge

Testata: Asia Maior • Anno di pubblicazione: 2019
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{{|Foreword. Asia Maior in 2018: Caught between Trump’s trade and sanctions war and the internal problems of inequality and exploitation}}
Michelguglielmo Torri & Nicola Mocci

This essay, based on the articles included in Asia Maior XXIX/18 and additional sources, singles out the most significant developments in Asia during 2018. In 2018, the US’s approach to Asia basically continued along the same tracks followed during the previous year, whose leitmotiv was Trump’s «America first», neo-protectionist strategy. In particular, the US’s Asia policy focussed on three countries: China, Iran, and North Korea. The approach to China became openly confrontational, and aimed at forcing the Asian states to make a clear-cut choice between either Washington or Beijing. The approach to Iran saw the US’s official withdrawal from the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme and the imposition of sanctions both on Iran and those private companies and countries willing to maintain their economic connections with Tehran. The approach to North Korea, conversely, in a dramatic change from the previous year, saw the starting of direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, mainly thanks to the South Korean President’s mediating role. However, the negotiations soon reached a stalemate. Possibly North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un considered the preservation of his nuclear arsenal a better guarantee of his own permanence in power and the continuation of his regime than US guarantees, whose flimsiness was shown by Trump’s more or less simultaneous dealings with Iran. While China reacted to the US onslaught by consolidating its international role, Japan and India, both disturbed by Trump’s neo-protectionist strategy, appeared willing to improve their relationship with the People’s Republic. In spite of Trump’s neo-protectionist policy – which adversely effected most Asian countries – in 2018, the Asian economies did well. This remains true even if China’s economy slowed down, while India’s performance was possibly overestimated by the official data. In spite of the generally positive course of the Asian economies, nonetheless, social conditions were not as positive as they should have been. Income inequalities remained pronounced and wealth concentration continued to be high.

Michelguglielmo Torri | University of Turin |

Nicola Mocci | University of Sassari |

{{|China 2018: Bringing the party back into state institutions}}
Francesca Congiu

This article attempts to explain how and why the year 2018 represented a major turning point for Chinese domestic politics, characterized by the transition from a collective authoritarianism to a centralized, repressive and personalistic authoritarian leadership. It analyses the institutionalization and systematic legalization of the centralized Communist party’s authority in the political, economic and social sphere. For this purpose, the article contains a description of the major 2018 institutional reforms, through which the Chinese leadership rebuilt its centralized authoritarianism into state and social institutions. Much attention has been devoted to the establishment of party and state supervisory commissions, the establishment of «super ministers», the reinforcement of political Marxist education, and the subordination of judicial power to the party’s will. Furthermore, the paper argues that one of the main reasons behind the creation of this repressive and authoritarian stance was the emergence of multiple sources of social and political instability. The final part of the article focuses on the beginnings of an embryonic alliance between workers and students and on the increase of nationwide strikes.

Francesca Congiu | University of Cagliari |

{{|China’s Foreign Policy 2018: Implementing the China Dream}}
Barbara Onnis

In 2018, China’s foreign relations were dominated by the centralization of its foreign policy-making, designed to strengthen the hold of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese president himself on the decision-making system. The aim was to create a more efficient system that could better serve the interests of the country, eager to realize its national dream. At the same time, however, China appeared occupied in the exercise of its diplomacy of great power with Chinese characteristics, both at home – hosting three major global events – and internationally – playing a central role in the peace process that took place on the Korean peninsula. In this sphere China’s foreign policy witnessed a quite unexpected, but long awaited success; the North Korean leader’s repeated visits to the country that marked the end of years of speculation concerning the state of their brotherhood alliance and Beijing’s weak grip on its ally. Meanwhile, during the year under review, China had to manage very troubled relations with the US as a direct consequence of the trade war unleashed by the Trump administration, which went far beyond trade imbalances and commercial issues. Interestingly, the tense situation created by the US had some surprising effects: a definitive thawing of relations between China and Japan, one the one hand; and a strengthening of those between China-EU, on the other. At the closing of the period under review, all the pieces of the puzzle appeared to be in the right place, and China was in a position to declare, without hesitation, that no-one could afford to dictate to the Chinese people what should or should not be done, as Xi Jinping opined at the conference celebrating the 40th anniversary of the reform and opening-up, on 18 December.

Barbara Onnis | University of Cagliari |

{{|Korean peninsula 2018: The calm after the storm}}
Marco Milani

The year 2018 represented a real turning point for the Korean peninsula. After years of increasing tension related to the North Korean nuclear and missile programme, the diplomatic process begun after Kim Jong Un’s New Year address marked a clear change from the previous decade, with consequences for both domestic and international politics of the two Koreas. The newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in invested much of his political capital in the rapprochement with North Korea, with successful results in terms of popularity in the first part of the year. When dialogue with Pyongyang started to stagnate, the disappointing economic results became a factor of major concern for the government and affected Moon’s approval rating. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un’s opening towards South Korea and the United States marked also the beginning of a new approach of the regime to economic development, in line with the second pillar of Kim’s byungjin policy line. The new emphasis on economic growth led the North Korean regime to pursue both cooperation with the South and a relaxation of international sanctions. The North Korean «diplomatic offensive» represented a new-start for inter-Korean dialogue. After the participation of North Korea in the Pyeongchang Olympic Games, the two leaders met for the third inter-Korean summit in history, in April, for a meeting full of symbolism and hopes for future cooperation. The joint declaration signed by Moon and Kim in Panmunjom represented a key step for inter-Korean reconciliation. The two leaders met again in May and for a third summit in September, when Moon travelled to Pyongyang. This new series of inter-Korean summits made possible new rounds of inter-Korean cooperation projects in culture and sport, as well as military confidence-building measures. However, the economic sanctions still in place hindered opportunities for substantial advancements in economic cooperation. The opening of North Korea towards the international community dominated also the foreign policy agenda of the two countries. For the first time in history, a North Korean leader met with a sitting American president, when Kim Jong Un met Trump in Singapore on 12 June, thanks mainly to the diplomatic mediation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. After the summit, however, the diplomatic process stalled again over the practical steps towards denuclearisation and the corresponding measures from the US. The «diplomatic offensive» of North Korea was not limited to South Korea and the United States. In fact, Kim met with Chinese president Xi three times over the course of the year, in a successful attempt to revive the crucial alliance between Pyongyang and Beijing.

Marco Milani | University of Sheffield |

{{|Japan 2018: Fleshing out the «Free and Open Indo-Pacific» strategic vision}}
Giulio Pugliese & Sebastian Maslow

This year-in-review essay highlights the Abe administration’s attempts at defining its Free and Open Indo-Pacific grand strategic vision with like-minded parties. It assesses Japan’s engagement with states that have demonstrated active interest in the concept: the United States, Australia, India, France and the United Kingdom. The essay underscores the tension between Trump’s extortionist and transactional instincts and the need for the US to engage multilaterally in the region, but also suggests that China has softened its stance towards Japan in light of a more confrontational US China policy. The essay will open with an assessment of Japanese domestic politics and the Abe administration’s economic agenda, because domestic stability has allowed Abe’s signature foreign policy initiatives. Abe consolidated power as he secured his third term as LDP president, despite a string of political scandals. Along with his aspirations for a powerful and prosperous Japan, he implemented structural reforms of the labour market including new caps on overtime work and a new immigration law that potentially opened Japan’s doors to low- and high-skilled workers. In the year under review, and in line with his administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, Abe issued new defence guidelines that have set Japan further on track towards an active military role. The guidelines outline measures to enhance Japan’s capabilities in «cross-domain operations» in cyber, space and electromagnetic warfare and a comprehensive modernization of conventional defence equipment which includes new missile systems, advanced fighter jets and aircraft carrier capabilities in direct response to China’s military rise. Finally, Abe confirmed his determination to revise Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, however unlikely the attainment of that goal is, at least in the near future and in the face of persistent popular opposition.

Giulio Pugliese | King’s College London |

Sebastian Maslow | The University of Tokyo |

{{|Taiwan 2018: Heavy Setbacks for the Tsai Administration}}
Aurelio Insisa

Relations between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China remained frozen, as President Tsai Ing-wen continued to refuse Beijing’s diktat to accept the 1992 Consensus as a roadmap for national unification. With no breakthrough in sight, both sides across the Strait remained firmly entrenched in their positions, relying on military signalling to communicate their commitment to their respective agendas. The escalation of the Sino-American strategic competition also contributed to shape the course of cross-Strait relations, as Taipei consolidated its security relations with Washington against Beijing’s threat. The support of the Trump administration partially balanced a string of diplomatic defeats that Taiwan suffered throughout the year, as the government of the People’s Republic of China further shrank Taiwan’s international space, poaching diplomatic allies and excluding the self-governed island from international organisations. Despite stronger ties with Washington, Taipei neither avoided the Trump tariffs, nor recommenced negotiations for a free trade agreement with the United States. Similarly, the maintenance of stable and friendly relations with the Abe administration was not sufficient to obtain Japan’s support for access to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. Burdened by the need to implement painful structural reforms to the economy, and unable to guarantee short-term windfalls to an impatient electorate, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a devastating defeat in the November electoral round, which merged local elections with referenda on themes relevant to the long-term success of the Tsai agenda. The elections saw an impressive performance of the Kuomintang but also raised concerns over China’s capability to infiltrate and affect Taiwan’s democratic processes. The magnitude of the DPP’s defeat appeared to have severely hindered Tsai’s prospects for re-election in 2020.

Aurelio Insisa | The University of Hong Kong |

{{|Malaysia 2016-2018: An uncertain and incomplete transformation}}
Scott Edwards

The year 2018 saw a significant transformation in Malaysian domestic politics, with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition winning Malaysia’s 14th general election, and a first time loss for the former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN - National front). Even though the incumbent prime minister, Najib Razak had recently been implicated in a serious corruption scandal involving state investment, it was nonetheless a surprising and stunning victory. Throughout the campaign, Najib attempted to strengthen his rule by leveraging the powers of the state. Not only did he introduce a draconian legal framework constraining the opposition and critics, but he mobilized the Election Commission to gerrymander electoral boundaries, thus creating more safe seats for the ruling BN coalition. Najib also brought about a growing polarization of society in an attempt to demonstrate that the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) was the only party able to represent the interests and privileges of the Malay majority. These strategies, however, were not only insufficient to overcome the problems BN faced, but further undermined the legitimacy of the regime. They were perceived as being too authoritarian. Though PH won convincingly in 2018, the role of prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim, the mixed results in delivering its promises, and division within the coalition have led to much uncertainty. An increasing reliance on identity politics by UMNO has been leading to its revitalization, suggesting it still poses a significant threat to PH despite initial speculation that the loss of the election would lead to the party’s destruction. However, the economy and foreign policy remained relatively stable.

Scott Edwards | University of Birmingham |

{{|Thailand 2018: A country suspended between an illiberal regime and the hope of a democratic transition}}
Pietro Masina

In May 2014 the Thai army seized power from the elected government led by Yingluck Shinawatra. The military coup promised to restore peace and harmony in the country and to allow political elections within one or two years. However, in 2018 Thailand was still under military rule and elections were expected only for early 2019. Before returning the power to a civilian government, the army tried to complete a comprehensive reform of Thai politics and the economy, thus enforcing a new constitution, creating new parties and promoting a long-term economic strategy. These reforms had the objective of allowing pro-junta political forces to win elections or, in any case, to constrain the action of future governments. Two initiatives in the economic sphere were expected to create consensus for the junta-sponsored political party: the launch of the Eastern Economic Corridor, promoting infrastructural development in the national key industrial area to increase FDI attraction; and the adhesion of Thailand to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (the trade agreement that replaced the TPP after the US withdrawal).

Pietro Masina | University of Naples «L’Orientale» |

{{|Vietnam 2017-2018: Strengthening the legitimacy of the VCP}}
Nicola Mocci

The aim of this article is to analyse the main political processes in Vietnam during the two years 2017-2018. After the reshuffle of the leadership following the 12th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), the new party’s elite worked to strengthen the VCP’s legitimacy to achieve two objectives: first, to reverse the progressive decline of the party hegemony, which had been ongoing for ten years; second, to ensure the stability of the country at international level and so assuage the concerns of foreign investors. It was crucial to boost the economic Foreign Direct Investment-export led model. Even though this model has ensured a continued GDP growth, it has not only failed to resolve some social criticalities, but has worsened them. On the international stage, this put the party-state on a knife-edge, spurred on by foreign investor pressure and the need for an adjustment to the counterpoising forces of China’s assertiveness and the US’s unpredictability.

Nicola Mocci | University of Sassari |

{{|Myanmar 2018: Botched transition and repatriation plan}}
Matteo Fumagalli

The year was defined by the Rohingya crisis, which lingers on and remains unresolved. The agreement signed by the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh in November 2017 had several aborted starts in 2018. Both governments came under the pressure of China to deal with the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees bilaterally, without the involvement of other (international) parties. What was evidently a forced repatriation plan was eventually halted in November. The outcry of human rights and refugee organisations continued unabated, as did western outrage against State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, widely seen as callous and complicit in the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya. As ties with the United States worsened, China’s economic clout in Myanmar was consolidated, as evidenced by the expansion of economic projects and Beijing’s leverage on Nay Pyi Taw during the crisis. At home, however, Suu Kyi remained personally popular. Despite some efforts at rebooting, her government’s performance has oscillated between ineptitude and incompetence. Some personnel reshuffles and new strategic plans notwithstanding, its shortcomings remain well-known, being plagued by personalisation, the centralisation of decision-making and over-reliance on loyalty, to the detriment of expertise and professionalism. The NLD’s cohabitation with the military has continued, but no open rifts have thus far surfaced.

Matteo Fumagalli | University of St Andrews, Scotland |

{{|Bangladesh 2018: Sheikh Hasina’s triumph}}
Marzia Casolari

Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections, held on 30 December 2018, saw Sheikh Hasina’s landslide victory. Hasina’s fourth term and third consecutive mandate was a sign of undisputable continuity. Throughout the year the government continued an intensive anticorruption campaign, started when the Awami League came back to power in 2009. As a result, at the beginning of 2018 the Bangladesh National Party’s leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia along with a number of party members were jailed. The main opposition party was facing an unprecedented crisis, which did not necessarily depend on the government’s anticorruption activity. The economy continued to perform well and foreign policy took a more articulated shape, beyond a not always easy balance between India and China. The Rohingya emergency alleviated, as the refugees’ influx to Bangladesh significantly reduced, but hundreds of thousands of refugees were still living in camps and their future looked uncertain.

Marzia Casolari | University of Turin |

{{|India 2018: Political uncertainty and economic difficulties}}
Michelguglielmo Torri & Diego Maiorano

In 2018, India’s internal evolution was characterised, at the political level, by two main developments, both a continuation of trends already visible the previous year. The first was the weakening of Modi’s aura of invincibility, epitomised by a string of defeats suffered by the BJP in that year’s state elections. The second was the alarming continuation in the erosion of democracy, highlighted, among other negative processes, by the attack on the independence of key state institutions, such as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). At the economic level the situation was characterised by the apparent recovery of the economy, after the difficulties experienced in 2017. However doubts emerged that this recovery was more apparent than real, as it was the result of untrustworthy government-released figures. Even accepting at face value these dubious figures, the fact remains that India’s economic growth – whatever its real dimension may have been – appeared unable to resolve a set of major socio-economic problems, in particular the insufficient rate of job-creation and the ongoing agrarian crisis.

Michelguglielmo Torri | University of Turin |

Diego Maiorano | National University of Singapore ISAS (Institute of South Asian Studies) |

{{|India 2018: The resetting of New Delhi’s foreign policy?}}
Michelguglielmo Torri

In 2018, India’s foreign policy was characterised by two opposing trends. The pro-US approach, which had been a distinguishing feature of India’s policy, in particular since the beginning of Narendra Modi’s premiership, continued, at least as far as its military aspect was concerned. However, the growing closeness at the military level badly concealed a host of problems which were adversely affecting the New Delhi-Washington connection, mainly as a consequence of US President Donald Trump’s protectionist policy. The increasing difficulties characterising the India-US connection provide the backdrop to explaining a cautious but visible reorientation of New Delhi’s foreign policy. This was characterised by a readjustment of India’s China policy, which resulted in a distinct thawing in relations between the two Asian giants, and by the promotion of the importance of regional alliances and multilateral ententes, such as SCO and RIC (the Russia-India-China entente) – de facto in competition with the Washington-dominated world order. Once all the above has been pointed out, the fact remains that, at the closing of the year under review there was no assurance that New Delhi’s reorientation of its foreign policy was something permanent. The problems counterpoising India to China remained huge and far from being resolved, the most important among them being China’s will to become the new hegemon in Asia, and India’s determination not to accept a subordinate position vis-à-vis China.

Michelguglielmo Torri | University of Turin |

{{|Nepal 2018: The Communist search for new political and trade routes}}
Matteo Miele

This article traces the main events of the internal situation and foreign policy of Nepal in 2018, after the electoral victory of the far-left parties and the defeat of the Nepali Congress at the end of 2017 and the consequent birth of the Oli government. The unification of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the subsequent birth of the Nepal Communist Party are central to the ongoing and complex readjustment of Nepali politics. In terms of international relations, the Oli government bends the Nepalese axis towards a deeper relationship with China. This position aims to break the risk of geopolitical and economic isolation to which Nepal is exposed. The country has no access to the sea and the Himalayan chain in the north should therefore become, in the following years, the geographic space for new communication routes in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. The final part of the article provides analysis of the Nepalese economic situation. Despite experiencing a period of growth after the earthquake of 2015, the economy of the country continues to suffer.

Matteo Miele | Kokoro Research Center – Kyoto University |

{{|Sri Lanka 2018: The Unfinished Drama of an Island State Democracy}}
Fabio Leone

As in 2017, the political landscape in Sri Lanka in 2018 appeared to be characterised by constant difficulty with democracy. First, through an unexpected landslide electoral victory, the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was back on the political stage and he was able to challenge the governing coalition and its leaders. Second, the outbreak of a deep constitutional crisis caused – albeit for a short time – the break-up of the governing coalition and the appointment of Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister. As far as foreign policy is concerned, 2018 witnessed the continuation of Sri Lanka acting as a «tightrope walker», striving to maintain its metaphorical balance between India and China. Moreover, the year under review saw the government’s efforts to develop new ties with Asian countries such as Japan, Pakistan and Iran. In addition, Sri Lanka developed new links with international economic and security organisations in order to pursue its goal of becoming a significant political and economic hub in the Indian Ocean. At economic level, the year under review saw a further weakening in economic performances. There were also some moderately positive outcomes (the government was able to keep the public finances in order and to increase state revenues, and positive steps in the reform process towards increased revenue-based fiscal consolidation were recorded). However, these positives outcomes were put at risk by the worsening of the economic trends, caused by the uncertainty and instability due to the constitutional crisis of the last months of the year.

Fabio Leone | University of Bologna |

{{|Pakistan 2018: General elections and the government of Imran Khan}}
Marco Corsi

In 2018, for the third time in Pakistan’s 70 year-long history, a parliament completed its five-year term. For the second time in a row, a transfer of power between elected civilian governments eventuated. For the first time since the establishment of the political party in 1988, a PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) administration completed its term in the federal government. Pakistan approached the general elections in an uncertain political climate. According to the pre-election surveys, the two strongest contenders, the PML-N and the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, «Pakistan Movement for Justice»), were sharing the electorate. Overall, the PML-N seemed to be better placed to win the elections despite being weakened by the judicial investigations which first ousted Nawaz Sharif from politics and later led him to jail. Desertions by long-time loyalists and pressure from the judiciary led the party’s supporters to raise the prospect of intentional institutional interference and allege a military-judiciary plan to weaken the ruling party. The PTI increased the number of its electoral supporters dramatically compared with the previous elections thanks also to the political opportunists who joined the party after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif in 2017. Allegations of being backstopped by the military were widespread in the run-up to the elections, yet the PTI emerged victorious at the poll with a narrow majority (less than 32% of voters). After having spent eight years on death row, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman arrested in 2009 on charges of blasphemy, was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for insufficient evidence. Asia’s case showed the unreadiness of the new PTI government - like the previous ones - to challenge the blasphemy laws and to fight the discriminations against religious minorities in Pakistan. In January 2018, in line with the new US policy on Pakistan, Donald Trump’s administration announced that it would suspend part of the military assistance to Pakistan due to the ineffective support provided by the country in combating the militants being confronted by American troops in Afghanistan. The bilateral relations remained tense throughout the reporting period.

Marco Corsi | Asia Maior – An Italian think tank on Asia |

{{|Afghanistan 2018: Parliamentary elections and regional power shifts}}
Filippo Boni

The year 2018 was characterized by parliamentary elections, held on 20 October. While the elections represented an important moment for Afghanistan’s democracy, both the run up and the aftermath were characterized by confusion and insecurity, with the election results still not announced by the end of 2018. The security situation remained volatile hindering not only political processes but also the country’s economic growth. Civilian casualties caused by anti-government forces remained almost at the same levels of 2017. On the external front, the last 12 months saw both a political and military shift in the US’s approach to the country, partly departing from the previously announced South Asia strategy. 2018 also signalled an increase in China’s engagement in Afghanistan, as well as the reiteration of the troubled relationship between Kabul and Islamabad.

Filippo Boni | University of Birmingham |

{{|Iran 2018: The year of living dangerously}}
Luciano Zaccara

Two developments marked the year 2018; the re-imposition of unilateral sanctions by the United States, which under President Donald Trump decided to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); and the protests, strikes and economic grievances that seriously affected Iranian society and economy. Both of these events influenced the conduct of Rouhani’s administration, which has since struggled to regain support from the political establishment and population.

Luciano Zaccara | Qatar University |