Asia Maior. Vol. XXVII / 2016. The End of the Obama Era in Asia

Testata: Asia Maior • Anno di pubblicazione: 2017
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{{|China 2016: Defending the legitimacy of the party-state’s authority}}
Francesca Congiu & Alessandro Uras

The present article focuses on what seemed to be the main issue at stake in China during the year 2016: the legitimacy of the party-state’s domestic authority.1 Party-state’s legitimacy was indeed affected by an enduring and worsening economic slowdown and above all by various forms of protests that were overwhelming the institutional legal channels. The aim of the present article is firstly to assess the main symptoms of the party-state’s legitimacy crisis in the year 2016, and, secondly, to focus on the major strategies adopted by the Chinese Communist Party to deal with its legitimacy crisis. The article deals with the legitimacy crisis in terms of the party’s and its affiliated social organisations’ capacity to politically represent social groups and their interests. In 2016, labour protests in particular (which, however, did not represent the sole form of social protests) effectively suggested that industrial workers were critical of the role of the single trade union and, as a consequence, relayed more and more on alternative labour organisations and on outright illegal forms of collective protests. In that sense, although it would not be correct to claim that labour protests were threatening the stability of the political regime, the party-state’s legitimacy was nevertheless at stake because of the party’s evident inadequacy to represent workers’ interests and to promote the workers’ effective empowerment. The way the party-state was dealing with the malfunction of its corporatist stance was, indeed, in itself a further demonstration of its legitimacy crisis: repression was gradually taking the place of corporatism and one man-authority was trying to replace collective leadership. Significantly, these authoritarian regressions were being ruled and formalised by law. Additionally, the international perspective on some key selected issues, namely the ongoing BRI (Belt and Road Initiative, formerly called OBOR: «One Belt, One Road» initiative) and the arbitration question on South China Sea, showed that Chinese foreign policy too was substantially conditioned by domestic legitimacy issues.

Francesca Congiu | University of Cagliari |

Alessandro Uras | University of Cagliari |

{{|Taiwan 2012-2016: From consolidation to the collapse of cross-strait rapprochement}}
Aurelio Insisa

From 2012 to 2016, the relation between Mainland China and Taiwan saw landmark achievements and underwent profound shockwaves. During the second term of President Ma Ying-jeou, China and Taiwan reached the zenith of a process of cross-Strait rapprochement. This process began in 2008, as Ma and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Xi Jinping met in Singapore on 7 November 2015. This was the first meeting between the leaders of the two Chinas since 1949. The process itself was brought to an abrupt end by elections held in the Republic of China (ROC) on 16 January 2016. In this election, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai Ing-wen, became president and her party obtained for the first time a majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY). Tsai’s refusal to accept the existing «1992 Consensus» between the CCP and the Kuomintang (KMT), which posits the existence of One China, including both the Mainland and Taiwan, led cross-Strait relations towards a phase of renewed tensions, as the PRC froze relations with Taipei’s new administration. On 2 December 2016, the phone conversation between President Tsai and US President-Elect Donald J. Trump certified the fracture between Beijing and Taipei. In Taiwan, unsatisfactory economic performances, social discontent and intra-party fighting marred Ma’s second term, facilitating the DPP’s sweeping victory in the 2016 elections. Long-standing structural imbalances and the freezing of the relations with China, however, complicated Tsai’s plans for reinvigorating Taiwan’s economy during her first months in office. In regional politics, Taiwan attempted to «punch above its weight» in the international sovereignty disputes occurring in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea, which involve areas claimed by the ROC. Although Ma’s «Peace Initiatives» were effectively ignored by the international community, Taiwan was nevertheless able to sign a successful fishery agreement with Japan, which effectively shelved the dispute in the East China Sea. Nonetheless, tensions remained high in the South China Sea up to 2016, as President Tsai pursued a less accommodating and more assertive policy concerning sovereignty disputes.

Aurelio Insisa | Lingnan University of Hong Kong |

{{|Korean Peninsula 2016: The never-ending crisis}}
Marco Milani

The year 2016 was characterized by major crises throughout the entire Korean peninsula. The decline in popularity of South Korean president Park Geun-hye further deteriorated after the election for the National Assembly in April, which gave the majority to the opposition parties. The serious scandal in November that involved Park and one of her closest confidants and friends, Choi Soon-sil, brought her approval rating to a historical low and forced her to withdraw after an impeachment vote in the National Assembly. In North Korea, the most important event in terms of domestic policy was the seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, in May, which can be regarded as the culmination of Kim Jong Un’s consolidation of power. Another major crisis on the peninsula erupted in January, when North Korea tested a nuclear weapon, and worsened in September with an additional nuclear test. For the first time in its history, Pyongyang completed two nuclear tests in the same year. The reaction of the international community has been one of condemnation, with Seoul, Tokyo and Washington asking for a new set of comprehensive sanctions against North Korea. UNSC Resolutions 2270 and 2321 were designed to curb North Korea’s nuclear programme, affecting the influx of hard currency and limiting its export of natural resources. Nevertheless, the ambiguous posture of China in relation to the implementation of the sanctions, and some loopholes, gave Pyongyang the opportunity to continue its exports. In respect of the foreign relations of the two Koreas, the nuclear tests had relevant effects. The first consequence has been that of strengthening the alliance between Seoul and Washington, with the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system on the peninsula. Also, the growing threat from Pyongyang has led to a rapprochement between South Korea and Japan, which culminated with the signing of the agreement on the sharing of intelligence information (GSOMIA). This realignment of Seoul towards the traditional Southern Alliance has undermined its relationship with Beijing, especially as a consequence of the decision to deploy THAAD. In this perspective, the main beneficiary of the new situation has been North Korea, which, despite its isolation, has throughout the year improved its relationship with China. As for the economy, South Korea faced another year of slowing growth, troubled also by a series of crises that involved some of the biggest industrial conglomerates; in North Korea, despite the new sanctions, the economic outlook remained fairly stable.

Marco Milani | University of Southern California |

{{|Japan 2016: Political stability amidst maritime contestation and historical reconciliation}}
Giulio Pugliese

This article assesses the stability of the Abe administration in the face of a rapidly changing international environment. Important displays of historical reconciliation testified to the toning down of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s revisionism, thus feeding into international and domestic stability. At the same time, continued maritime contestation in the South China Sea followed the July 12 award of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’s arbitration tribunal. Moreover, China’s renewed assertiveness around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the election of Donald Trump as US President was a key factor in making stormy the waters where Abe had to navigate. Yet, Japan remained a beacon of political stability amidst the surrounding confusion, as proven by the July 10 Upper House elections. This article provides an account of Japan in 2016 through the prism of the above listed developments. In so doing, it details the Abe administration’s political stability in the context of the Japanese government’s foreign policy initiatives, in particular in the history and maritime domains.

Giulio Pugliese | King’s College London – War Studies | - @PugliesAsia

{{|The Philippines 2016: Democracy in dispute?}}
Carmina Yu Untalan

President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 election was a divisive moment in Philippine poli-tics. The promise to disrupt élite-centric politics and restore national peace and order won him strong popular support throughout the country. His satisfactory track record of turning Davao City from a haven of criminals to the «safest city» in the Philippines raised hopes that he would make every effort to replicate this model nationwide. His supporters celebrated his authoritarian, haphazard leadership style, which, however, also provoked severe criticism at home and abroad. Both local and international media have been keen on condemning his «War on Drugs», which sanctions extra-judicial killings, and his crude approach to foreign relations. The tension between those for and against Duterte’s leadership has caused many to question how it was possible for a nation that successfully toppled a dictatorship through a non-violent revolution to elect someone with strong authoritarian leanings. This article argues that Duterte’s election was an outcome of the diminishing credibility of the 1986 EDSA People Power Revo-lution and the system it created as a model for Philippine democracy. It suggests that the 2016 Philippine national elections provided an opportunity for people to express their dissatisfaction with the country’s democracy, which had come to be seen as a frac-tured system. It adds to the usual, personality-focussed, commentaries on Philippine politics, by also discussing a range of domestic and international issues and the irony of electing a strongman to represent the people’s discontent with Philippine politics.

Carmina Yu Untalan | Osaka University |

{{|Indonesia 2016: A difficult equilibrium amid global anxiety}}
Elena Valdameri

The year 2016 in Indonesia saw President Joko Widodo consolidate his power after last year’s uncertain start. Domestic policy focused on curbing terrorism linked to the Islamic State (IS), especially following a deadly attack in the capital in January. Nevertheless, the rise of religious intolerance and political Islam were not tackled with the same decisiveness. In terms of foreign policy, Indonesia was trying to keep equidistance from the great powers in the Asia-Pacific region, although increasing geopolitical tensions were making it difficult. Indonesia’s economic performance was better than in 2015. Yet, the rate of growth of the gross domestic product, estimated at around 5% for 2016, was still hampered by the low prices of key exports and by the continuing slowdown in global economy.

Elena Valdameri | Asia Maior – An Italian think tank on Asia |

{{|Vietnam 2016: The aftermath of the 12th congress, between continuities and changes}}
Michela Cerimele

In the aftermath of the heated January 2016 12th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), Vietnam seemed face multiple challenges, both at the domestic and at the international level. For what concerns domestic affairs, this paper argues that one major challenge for the newly elected Vietnamese leadership (and one major stake for Vietnam in the coming years) was one of gaining back control over the country’s development pattern – and responding to raising bottom-up discontent and demands. Concerning foreign relations, the paper highlights the growing challenges and sources of uncertainty for Vietnam – and its attempt at balancing between major (and smaller) powers’ foreign strategies – emerging out of the already-fluid and thorny Asia-Pacific geopolitics.

Michela Cerimele | University of Naples «L’Orientale» |

{{|Laos 2016: The 10th congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (Lprp) and its domestic and international aftermath}}
Nicola Mocci

The 10th Congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) concluded in January 2016 with a reshuffle of the Politburo. The new leadership confirmed a «steady-as-you-go» policy continuing to base its political legitimacy both on economic growth cum social equity and the fight against the spread of corruption, and on its strategic ability in the international arena. Laos, as temporary chairman of ASEAN, acted as guardian of its autonomy vis-à-vis Beijing’s undue influence. This latter approach also aimed at ensuring the party-state good relations with the interna-tional community and, consequently, the steady flow of official development assistance (ODA) and foreign direct investments (FDI). Barack Obama’s visit (in September), the first one to Laos of a sitting US President, contributed to highlight the impressive economic growth achieved by the country in the last decade, strengthening the PLRP’s political legitimation.

Nicola Mocci | University of Sassari |

{{|Thailand 2016: The death of King Bhumibol and the deepening of the political crisis}}
Pietro Masina

A military coup in May 2014 was the last turn in a political crisis that has affected the country since the beginning of the century. As the country grew richer and its soci-ety more demanding, a quite liberal constitution had been approved in 1997, leading to a higher degree of democratization. However, the regional economic crisis 1997-98 immediately tested the new political framework as the country become more politically divided and socially polarized. In 2016 the military junta ruling the country suc-ceeded in having a new constitutional project approved by a referendum, paving the way for the return of the country to a system of semi-democracy in which the royalist elites and the army will continue to maintain a fundamental political influence. As in previous occasions, the military coup had been presented as a needed step to pro-tect the monarchy and the country, restoring peace and order. With the health of the old King Bhumibol becoming increasingly frail, however, it was evident that a major concern of the political forces then in power was to govern the royal succession. The death of King Bhumibol on 13 October was a watershed event for Thailand, putting an end to a reign that had lasted over seventy years. The advent to the throne of Maha Vajiralongkorn opened a new era in the country as the new King did not seem to have the same level of people support enjoyed by his father. This being the situation, the role of the monarchy – so far the ultimate arbiter in political life and a major economic player – may eventually change. A series of bombings, including in the royal sea resort of Hua Hin in August, proved that the problems in the three southern provinces with a predominantly Muslim popu-lation have not been solved. The country continues to face regional divides, which also include a strong resentment against the Bangkok elites in the northern and north-eastern regions were the deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra continues to enjoy a solid consensus.

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

{{|Myanmar 2016: From enthusiasm to disillusionment}}
Matteo Fumagalli

2016 was the year when political change finally came to Myanmar. After a five-year transition from military rule to a (semi-)civilian government, the two electoral rounds of November 2015 (parliamentary) and March 2016 (presidential) ushered in a new phase of formally – if substantially constrained – democratic politics. The 2015 (direct) elections were the real watershed between two political eras, with the 2016 (indirect) ones representing the completion of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory. This article reviews the events of 2016, and shows that the year can best be understood as a tale of two contrasting halves. Initially, the government laid out its priorities in domestic, economic and foreign policy. It identified peace-building as the first priority. The first part of the year proceeded relatively smoothly, without major mistakes by the government, whereas the second was marked by increasing tensions and incidents in Rakhine State in the south west. An attack in October by a Rohingya militant organization against border police sparked clashes that led to a crackdown by the army and a renewed flow of refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh. Criticism of the plight of the Rohingya community was growing outside the country. Myanmar’s transition was clearly still very much a work-in-progress.

Matteo Fumagalli | School of International Relations, University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK |

{{|Bangladesh 2016: A laboratory for Islamic radicalism}}
Marzia Casolari

In 2016 political violence continued to upset Bangladesh. Radical Islam contin-ued to rage in the country and to disseminate terror: people belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, along with moderate Muslims were brutally killed. The violence escalated in 2016, reaching its apex with the 1 July attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery, in central Dhaka, a café attended especially by foreigners. In the attack, 22 people were killed, among them 9 Italians and 7 Japanese, mostly gar-ment businessmen. In spite of the alarming political climate, the Bangladeshi economy was prosper-ous, with a GDP growth at about 7%: Chinese and Indian investments played a prominent role in improving Bangladesh’s economy. However, labour conditions and workers’ rights remain critical. The Bangladeshi government enhanced international relations by strengthening ties with the United States and India.

Marzia Casolari | University of Turin |

{{|Sri Lanka 2016: Does the new era continue?}}
Fabio Leone

The year under review witnessed the continuation of the new political phase in Sri Lanka, which began in 2015 with Mahinda Sirisena’s victory at the presidential polls and, later in the year, the electoral victory of the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) led by the United National Party (UNP). The Sirisena administration and the National Unity Government appeared to be engaged in re-establishing of the rule of law and the implementation of reconciliation measures. However, like in 2015, the government’s efforts appeared to often be slow, limited and hesitant. Nevertheless the Unity Government was able to carry out at least some substantial democratic reforms. In foreign policy, Colombo strengthened the relations with the United States and India but, at the same time, revamped those with Beijing – which had appeared to be on the wane during 2015. From an economic point of view, the situation – which at the beginning of the year under review seemed to be positive and promising – later deteriorated, raising doubts about the government’s political will and ability to implement economic reforms. Nev-ertheless, when presenting the new budget in November, the government’s dual goals of addressing the systemic weaknesses of the economy and improving the conditions for the lower social strata were both in evidence.

Fabio Leone | Asia Maior – An Italian think tank on Asia |

{{|India 2016: Reforming the economy and tightening the connection with the US (with an Appendix by Marco Valerio Corvino, A brutal and violent year in the Kashmir Valley)}}
Michelguglielmo Torri & Diego Maiorano

As in 2015, in 2016 India’s political and economic landscape appeared to be domi-nated by Narendra Modi, the incumbent Prime Minister. Differently from what was the case in 2015, behind the pervasive self-praising rhetoric of the Indian govern-ment and the deafening chorus of applause of the bulk of the Indian media for Modi’s work, at least at the economic level some concrete results were reached, and some reforms were implemented. Particularly important was the passing of the Goods and Service Tax (GST), an objective which had been vainly pursued by several previous governments. If the objectives and potential benefits of the GST were clear to all to see, the situation was different in the case of the other major economic reform, abrupt-ly carried out by the Modi government, namely the demonetisation of much of India’s paper currency. This quite unexpected measure was justified by the government in dif-ferent ways at different times. What was clear at the time of the closing of the present article was that demonetisation had badly hurt particularly the poorer strata of the population, but, paradoxically enough, had not had any discernible adverse effect on Modi’s still burgeoning popularity. Also, in the state elections held during the year under review, Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), strengthened its posi-tion and was also able to get a resounding victory in Assam, where, for the first time ever, formed the state government. Strangely enough, in spite of the fact that the Modi government’s economic policy had become more incisive in the year under review than in 2014 and 2015, the at-titude of the US private capital, assiduously courted by Modi, continued to be, as it had become in 2015, one of disillusionment. US entrepreneurs, while convinced of Modi’s desire to open up India’s economy to foreign enterprise and capital, doubted his ability to do so. This, however, did not bring about a slowing down in the process of rapprochement between New Delhi and Washington, but made of the military aspect of such process its «major driver» (as claimed by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter). In turn, the increasing US-India closeness – and the increasing relevance of its military dimension – contributed to the worsening of the relations between New Delhi and Beijing, which appeared more and more involved in a policy of reciprocal containment. This played a role in the evolution of the India-Pakistan and India-Nepal relations. In the year under review, the relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad spectacularly worsened, but the latter was able to withstand the pressure of the former also because of Beijing’s help. On the other hand, India was able to re-establish its paramountcy over Nepal, engineering the fall of the Oli Government, which had challenged New Delhi with the support of Beijing.

Michelguglielmo Torri | University of Turin |

Diego Maiorano | University of Nottingham |

{{|Pakistan 2016: Economic features}}
Marco Corsi

This essay analyses the predominant domestic and foreign policy events that occurred in Pakistan in 2016 through the lens provided by the country’s main economic de-velopments. With the aims of decreasing the fiscal deficit/GDP ratio and following the guidelines of the international financing institutions, Pakistan was implementing structural re-forms aimed at increasing tax revenue, cutting public expenditures, easing the market interest rates through liberalisation measures, and improving the performance of the energy sector. Among these reforms, particularly the one related to the revenue system was highly needed. The description of Pakistan’s overall taxation system and its fea-tures, given in this essay, provides also the background to contextualise the Panama Papers scandal that hit Pakistan and its Prime Minister in the year under review. In 2016, concessional loans, while resulting in steady, but mild growth, did not en-sure a long-term positive trend of sustained growth or of improvement of the economy of the country at large. In the fiscal year 2016-2017, high budgetary allocations were confirmed for the defence sector, whose outlay was raised of about 18%. Over the years, costly military interventions launched to combat internal anti-government armed militancy have had a negative impact on Pakistan’s economic growth in terms of resource reallo-cation, military expenditures, and the contraction of trade, business activities, and investments at large. Yet, military operations brought back under the control of the Security Forces areas which were the most volatile before the Army interventions. In 2016, fewer militants’ attacks than in the previous year were recorded, mostly against soft targets like academic institutions. Foreign relations were characterised by the deterioration of Islamabad’s ties with Washington and New Delhi. At the same time, regional political realignments pro-vided an unprecedented economic opportunity to Pakistan, with China becoming the leading economic partner of Islamabad. However, the relations with China were chal-lenged by armed militancy and unrest, potentially capable to undermine the economic alliance of the two Asian countries.

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

{{|Afghanistan 2016: Military crisis and contested reforms}}
Diego Abenante

Afghanistan’s political and economic scene in 2016 was largely conditioned by the on-going war. The uneasy balance between Afghan National Security Forces and the insurgents has shown a tendency to shift in favour of the latter. US air support has in-creasingly emerged as the government forces’ only element of military superiority over the Taliban. This led to the international coalition postponing the planned withdraw-al of military assistance to 2017. The year 2016 was also marked by the killing of the Taliban amir Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a US drone strike, and by his replacement with Maulvi Hibatullah Akhundzada. At the same time, the year has also confirmed the Taliban’s tendency to evolve their own organization towards greater profession-alization and centralization. Moreover, the Afghan scene has also been marked by indications that the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan – Wilayat Khorasan – is taking firm roots in the country, as it has in Pakistan. Wilayat Khorasan was also increasingly competing with the Taliban, who have tried unsuccessfully to halt its spread. On the other hand, a positive development for Kabul has been the signing of a peace agreement between the government and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, one of the main insurgent groups. In the field of internal politics, the government has struggled to maintain the promises of reform made at the time of the National Unity Govern-ment’s appointment. Only in the second half of the year, did President Ghani obtain approval for a new electoral law, which should open the way to parliamentary and district councils elections in 2017. Economic indicators have shown moderate growth over the preceding year, which was favoured by an unexpectedly good harvest. Other important developments include approval of the International Monetary Fund’s pro-gram of Extended Credit Facility, the opening of a new train connection with China, and the signing of a tripartite agreement with Iran and India for the development of the Iranian port of Chabahar.

Diego Abenante | University of Trieste |

{{|Iran 2016: From the Saudi embassy attack to the demise of Rafsanjani}}
Luciano Zaccara

The year 2016 was an internal and external test for Iranian President Hassan Rou-hani. The February legislative elections represented strong support for both his ad-ministration and the nuclear accord with the P5+1 group of nations. But the lack of visible improvements at the economic level, the increasing internal criticism from the hardliners, and the demise of Hashemi Rafsanjani, the second most powerful man in Iran, made this the most difficult year of Rouhani’s tenure so far. At the international level, the confrontationist policy towards Saudi Arabia and direct military involve-ment in Syria caused a deterioration in the country’s external image, generating an increasing regional isolationism, despite the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal. The implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in January brought to an end the nuclear-related international sanctions and started a slow and gradual process of Iranian normalization within the international commercial and financial markets. However, the election of US President Donald Trump and his impending inauguration in 2017 introduced measures that would potentially endanger the con-tinuity of the US-Iran honeymoon.

Luciano Zaccara | Qatar University |

{{|Kazakhstan 2015-2016: Balancing regime stability amidst local and global challenges}}
Adele Del Sordi

Twenty-five years after independence, Kazakhstan is still under the rule of its first President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The biennium 2015-2016 confirmed the continu-ity of the process of stabilization of the political system started in the previous years. These were also years of challenges to the stability of Nazarbayev’s regime, namely the persistence of the economic crisis, the emergence of visible popular discontent, and events allegedly connected with the much-feared threat of Islamic terrorism. This paper argues that, in this period, the authoritarian leadership of Kazakhstan main-tained a stable grip on power thanks to an increased use of less repressive and more sophisticated authoritarian tools, such as control of new media as well as the use of institutions and official discourse to seek legitimacy. Far from being a novelty in the style of Nazarbayev’s rule, the underplaying of repression in favour of legitimation has intensified in the last two years. This more sophisticated form of authoritarian-ism is analysed both at the national and international level. Internationally, in fact, the regime continued to pursue an active foreign policy in order to portray itself as moderate, stable and effective. It is argued that this strategy was aimed at boosting the legitimacy of the regime at home, while making it recognized as a reliable ally at the international level.

Adele Del Sordi | University of Amsterdam |