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Japan: Shinzo Abe sweeps snap poll, back as PM

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As Japanese voters have given him a fresh endorsement he sought badly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has swept to a comfortable victory in a snap election on October 22 Sunday, handing him a mandate to harden his already hawkish stance on North Korea and re-energies the world’s number-three economy (after USA and China) .

Split opposition vote helped Japanese premier to fifth election victory. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) benefitted from a weak and splintered opposition, with the two main parties facing him created only a matter of weeks ago. 

Abe’s conservative coalition was on track to win 311 seats in the 465-seat parliament, according to a projection published by private broadcaster TBS, putting the nationalist blue blood on course to become Japan’s longest-serving leader.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) coalition with the Komeito party has won 313 of the 465 seats in the lower house of Japan’s parliamentary Diet – which gives them the power to table a revision to the constitution.  Abe had previously announced he wanted to revise a clause which renounces war, known as Article 9, to formally recognize Japan’s military, which is known as the “self-defence forces”. He had set a deadline of 2020 to achieve this highly contentious task. But on Monday he appeared to ditch this target, saying it was “not set in a concrete schedule”. He said he hoped to “form a strong agreement” on the issue among parties in parliament, and “gain trust” from the Japanese public.

The poll, conducted Tuesday through Thursday, finds 207 single-seat districts and 55 proportional-representation seats leaning toward or strongly favoring Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, roughly the same as in an Oct. 10-11 poll conducted as campaigning officially began. The party held 290 seats before Abe dissolved the lower house in September for the snap election.

The poll suggests the coalition may capture 63.9% of the chamber, down from 68.2% before the election. This would leave it just short of the 310 seats — a two-thirds supermajority — needed to advance Abe’s goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution to formally acknowledge the role of the country’s Self-Defense Forces. The coalition would be forced to seek opposition support, and how that proceeds would depend on which party gains the upper hand in the opposition.

Millions of Japanese braved torrential rain and driving winds to vote, as a typhoon bears down on the country with many heeding warnings to cast their ballots early. “I support Abe’s stance not to give in to North Korea’s pressure,” said one voter.

Earlier, PM Abe’s ruling coalition was forecast to win a convincing majority of the seats in Japan’s lower house in Sunday’s election, easily seeing off a challenge from a divided opposition, exit polls by major news organizations show.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition was on track to win around 300 of the 465 seats in the Diet’s lower house, while Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s upstart Party of Hope has lost much of its initial momentum. But The Nikkei Inc. survey indicated that some uncertainty remains on the eve of the Japanese election, with 23% of the 289 single-seat constituencies and 16% of the 176 proportional-representation seats still considered close races.

The Party of Hope, which picked up many candidates from the former Democratic Party in an effective merger, was favored in the earlier poll to lead the opposition, with 69 seats. But the party has failed to gain widespread support, owing partly to Koike’s comments about “excluding” Democratic lawmakers deemed too liberal

The left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party, which includes many of those former Democrats left out by the Party of Hope, is rapidly catching up. The party’s projected seat total has risen from 45 to 54 as it attracts more of the opposition interest away from the Party of Hope. The Constitutional Democrats, headed by Yukio Edano — who served as chief cabinet secretary in a former Democratic Party of Japan government, could become the second-largest party in the lower house.

The Japanese Communist Party looked set to lose three seats, bringing its total to 18, while the Japan Innovation Party would drop from 14 to 10 amid struggles in its main support base of Osaka. Independents are expected to take 30 seats, up from 28 in the earlier poll. The gains likely owe to growing support for former Democrats who chose not to join the Party of Hope.

The new centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party fared slightly better than expected but was still far behind Abe.

It was unclear in the immediate aftermath of the vote whether Abe’s coalition would retain its two-thirds “supermajority.” Such a “supermajority” would allow Abe to propose changes to Japan’s US-imposed constitution that forces it to “renounce” war and effectively limits its military to a self-defence role.

The short 12-day campaign was dominated by the economy and the global crisis over North Korea, which has threatened to “sink” Japan into the sea. Nationalist Abe stuck to a hardline stance throughout, stressing that Japan “would not waver” in the face of an increasingly belligerent regime in Pyongyang.

The exit polls for lower house election put Abe’s ruling coalition far ahead of the Party of Hope, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s new party that was once thought to pose a serious challenge to the status quo. Koike’s decision to bar left-leaning opposition members from joining the party is haunting her: The Constitutional Democratic Party, formed by those very rejects, is polling better than the Party of Hope. Explore the Nikkei Asian Review’s in-depth election coverage here.

Support for the Party of Hope founded by popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike fizzled after an initial blaze of publicity and was on track to win around 50 seats. Speaking from Paris where she was attending an event in her capacity as leader of the world’s biggest city, a sullen-faced Koike told public broadcaster NHK she feared a “very severe result”.

The campaign was marked by a near-constant drizzle in large parts of the country and rallies frequently took place under shelter and a sea of umbrellas. But this did not dampen the enthusiasm of hundreds of doughty, sash-wearing parliamentary hopefuls, who have driven around in minibuses pleading for votes via loudspeaker and bowing deeply to every potential voter.

Although voters turned out in their millions to back Abe, support for the 63-year-old is lukewarm and surveys showed his decision to call a snap election a year earlier than expected was unpopular. Voter Etsuko Nakajima, 84, told AFP: “I totally oppose the current government. Morals collapsed. I’m afraid this country will be broken.” “I think if the LDP takes power, Japan will be in danger”, added the pensioner.

The three-pronged combination of ultra-loose monetary policy, huge government spending and structural reform has catapulted the stock market to a 21-year high but failed to stoke inflation and growth has remained sluggish.

Despite the sabre-rattling from North Korea, many voters said reviving the once-mighty Japanese economy was the top priority, with Abe’s trademark “Abenomics” policy failing to trickle down to the general public.

Observation

The LDP’s victory is simply because the opposition couldn’t form a united front. Abe saw his popularity plummet in recent months while embroiled in political scandals, but enjoyed a sudden recovery after North Korea fired two missiles over the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Abe’s victory is in large part due to the chaos of Japan’s opposition parties. In the lead-up to the snap election, all eyes were on the recently-formed conservative Party of Hope led by the charismatic Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, with some speculating that it would make significant gains. But in the end it was overtaken by the centre-left Constitutional Democratic Party which emerged as the biggest opposition party, and which opposes Abe’s plan to amend Article 9. Ms Koike, who was in Paris for a business trip during the election, told reporters she was personally taking responsibility for the result. Japanese media quoted her as saying her “words and deeds” had caused “displeasure” to voters.

Abe’s election win also raises his chances of securing a third three-year-term as leader of the LDP when the party votes next September. That would give him the opportunity to become Japan’s longest serving prime minister, having been elected in 2012.

The comfortable election win is likely to stiffen Abe’s resolve to tackle North Korea’s nuclear menace, as the key US regional ally seeks to exert maximum pressure on the regime in Pyongyang after it fired two missiles over Japan in the space of a month.

Abe said his coalition’s win was a “vote of confidence” from the public, and based on that “we would dramatically show counter-measures against the North Korea threat”. He said he would discuss these measures with US President Donald Trump, who is visiting Japan next month, as well as with other world powers such as Russia and China. He said they would exert “stronger pressure” on North Korea, adding: “I will make sure the Japanese public is safe, and safeguard our nation.” 

Even if an amendment to the constitution is passed and approved by both houses in the Diet – which Abe’s coalition controls – it still needs to be put to a public vote in a referendum. Abe two years ago successfully managed to push for a re-interpretation of the constitution to allow troops to fight overseas under certain circumstances, which attracted widespread protests.

Abe has promised strong “counter-measures” against North Korea, after winning a decisive victory in Sunday’s election.  Abe had called an early election for a greater mandate to deal with “crises”, including the growing threat from Pyongyang, which has fired missiles over Japan in recent months. His ruling coalition has retained a two-thirds majority in parliament. This paves the way for Abe to amend Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution. The prime minister has previously called for the existence of the country’s armed forces to be formalized; a controversial move which he says is needed to strengthen Japan’s defence but which critics say is a step towards re-militarization.

In the post poll scenario, Japan-US relations would be watched carefully. Though there are no cracks in the bilateral ties, there seems to develop some albeit small distance between Abe and Trump  Abe’s pledge of tough diplomacy with North Korea is rhetoric that would have played well with the Japanese public, but it is unclear what it means in concrete terms. Tokyo has no diplomatic or economic relations with North Korea, and has poor relations with Pyongyang’s closest ally China, so the most Abe can do is strengthen Japan’s defences and stick closely to the USA

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East Asia

China’s soft power and its Lunar New Year’s Culture

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Authors: Liu Hui & Humprey A. Russell*

As a common practice, China has celebrated its annual Lunar new year since 1984 when the leaders of the day decided to open mysterious country in a more confident and transparent way. So far, the lunar new year gala has become a part of Chinese cultural life and beyond. The question then arises why China or its people have been so thrilled to exhibit themselves to the world, as its economy has already impressed the world by its rapid pace and tremendous capacity.

As it is well-known, in international relations, peoples from different cultural and ethnical backgrounds need to enhance their understanding which eventually leads to mutual respect and tolerance as the key to the world peace and stability. China is well-aware of this norm. As a rising power with 1.3 billion people, it is necessary for China to introduce its culture and notion of the peaceful rise to the audiences globally. Joseph Nye, Jr., the founder of the concept of the soft power, has argued: “The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. During the information age, credibility is the scarcest resource.”In light of this, China has been steadily involved in cultural promotions abroad.

China is an ancient civilization but diplomatically it is a new global player in terms of its modern involvement into the world affairs, particularly in terms of reform and openness. Yet, since China has aspired to rejuvenate itself as one of the leading powers globally, it is natural for the world en bloc to assume Beijing’s intention and approach to the power transition between the rising power like itself and the ruling powers such as the United States and the G-7 club. Consider this, China has exerted all efforts to project but not propagate its image to the world. Here culture is bound to play the vital role in convincing the countries concerned that “culturally China has no the gene of being a threat to other peoples,” as Chinese President Xi has assured. The annual lunar gala is evidently a useful instrument to demonstrate Chinese people, culture and policies as well.

Culturally speaking, the Chinese New Year celebrations can be seen as follows. In a general sense, similar themes run through all the galas with the local cultural and ethnical ingredients, for instance, Chinese opera, crosstalk and acrobatics, as well as the lion-dancing or the dragon-dancing from time to time. Yes, the galas play the role of promoting the Chinese communities over the world to identify themselves with the Chinese culture which surely strengthen the cultural bonds among the Chinese, in particular the younger generations. Moreover, the dimension of the Chinese culture can be found beyond the country since its neighbors like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Malaysia, as well as Chinese communities in many other areas also perform those arts at the holiday seasons. The message here is clear that China, although it is a rising great power, has never abandoned its cultural tradition which has emphasized the harmony among the different races and ethnics.

Recently, the lunar new year celebrations across China have invited professional and amateur artists from all over the world. Those foreign guest artists and many overseas students studying in China have been able to offer their talents in either Chinese or their mother tongues. No doubt, this is a two-way to learn from each other because Chinese performers are benefited from the contacts with their counterparts globally. In terms of public diplomacy, Beijing aims to send a powerful and sincere message to the world: China can’t be in isolation from the world because it has aspired to be a great and inclusive country as well. To that end, the rise of China is not going to challenge the status quo, but will act as one of the stakeholders.

As usual, realists have difficulties and even cultural bias to accept the rhetoric from a country like China since it has been regarded by the ruling powers of the world as an ambitious, assertive and communist-ruled country with its unique culture. To that challenge, the Chinese government and the people have done a great deal of works to successfully illustrate Chinese practice of harmony at the societal level idealized by Confucius’ doctrines. This social harmony is made possible only by the realization of the Taoist ideal of harmony with nature – in this case, harmony between humans and nature. This explains why panda and many other rare animals are now viewed as new national symbol of China. Although they are unnecessarily an indispensable part of the lunar new year gala, the viewpoint is that the rise of China would not be completed at the cost of the ecological environment like many other countries did in history.

Practically speaking, the lunar new year celebrations are being conducted in a rich variety of ways such as concerts, cuisines, folk entertainments and even forums and receptions around the world. Major global commercial centers have also served to create a Chinese holiday atmosphere, adapt to the needs of Chinese tourists, attract active participation from local residents, and provide such diversities of cultural and social events. What is worth mentioning is that some Chinese-North American non-profit, non-partisan organizations are beginning to celebrate Chinese lunar gala in partnership with other local counterparts. For instance, the Chinese Inter-cultural Association based in California, recently hosted a Chinese New Year party in a Persian restaurant in partnership with a local non-profit, non-partisan organization called the Orange County Toastmaster Club, part of Toastmaster International. Also, in another Chinese New Year celebration that was open to people of all races in Pasadena, two Americans played the guitar and sang songs in fluent Chinese! Both galas were attended by people of all racial backgrounds around the world. Given this, it is fair to say that China’s soft power supported by its annual lunar new year festival is on the rise globally with a view to promoting mutual respect and friendship among the peoples of various cultural, ethnical and racial origins.

Yet, though the impressive feats are achieved, it has noted that China still has a long way to go in terms of its twin-centennial dreams. First, as a developing country with its unique culture, it is necessary for China to promote its great ancient culture abroad, but it is also imperative to avoid “introducing” China rashly into the globe. Essentially, soft power is more the ability to attract and co-opt than to use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Thereby, it is the very ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. As cross-cultural communication is a long process, Nye admitted a few years ago, in public affairs, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”

This is the key to all the countries. In 2014,President Xi formally stated, “China should increase its soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate its messages to the world.” In light of this, Chinese lunar new year gala surely acts as soft power to project the image of China internationally.

* Humprey A. Russell (Indonesia), PhD candidate in international affairs, SIPA, Jilin University.

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East Asia

China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Middle East has a knack for sucking external powers into its conflicts. China’s ventures into the region have shown how difficult it is to maintain its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

China’s abandonment of non-interference is manifested by its (largely ineffective) efforts to mediate conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is even more evident in China’s trashing of its vow not to establish foreign military bases, which became apparent when it established a naval base in Djibouti and when reports surfaced that it intends to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar as a military facility.

This contradiction between China’s policy on the ground and its long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy principles means that Beijing often struggles to meet the expectations of Middle Eastern states. It also means that China risks tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Middle Eastern autocrats have tried to embrace the Chinese model of economic liberalism coupled with tight political control. They see China’s declared principle of non-interference in the affairs of others for what it is: support for authoritarian rule. The principle of this policy is in effect the same as the decades-old US policy of opting for stability over democracy in the Middle East.

It is now a risky policy for the United States and China to engage in given the region’s post-Arab Spring history with brutal and often violent transitions. If anything, instead of having been ‘stabilised’ by US and Chinese policies, the region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to resolve. There is no guarantee that autocrats will emerge as the winners.

China currently appears to have the upper hand against the United States for influence across the greater Middle East, but Chinese policies threaten to make that advantage short-term at best.

Belt and Road Initiative-related projects funded by China have proven to be a double-edged sword. Concerns are mounting in countries like Pakistan that massive Chinese investment could prove to be a debt trap similar to Sri Lanka’s experience.

Chinese back-peddling on several Pakistani infrastructure projects suggests that China is tweaking its approach to the US$50 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese rethink was sparked by political volatility caused by Pakistan’s self-serving politics and continued political violence — particularly in the Balochistan province, which is at the heart of CPEC.

China decided to redevelop its criteria for the funding of CPEC’s infrastructure projects in November 2017. This move seemingly amounted to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time when they were flexing their muscles in response to political volatility. The decision suggests that China is not averse to shaping the political environment of key countries in its own authoritarian mould.

Similarly, China has been willing to manipulate Pakistan against its adversaries for its own gain. China continues to shield Masoud Azhar (who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and military forces) from UN designation as a global terrorist. China does so while Pakistan cracks down on militants in response to a US suspension of aid and a UN Security Council monitoring visit.

Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves China’s interest in keeping India off balance — a goal which Beijing sees as worthy despite the fact that Chinese personnel and assets have been the targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan. Saudi Arabia is also considering the use of Balochistan as a launching pad to destabilise Iran. By stirring ethnic unrest in Iran, Saudi Arabia will inevitably suck China into the Saudi–Iranian rivalry and sharpen its competition with the United States. Washington backs the Indian-supported port of Chabahar in Iran — a mere 70 kilometres from Gwadar.

China is discovering that it will prove impossible to avoid the pitfalls of the greater Middle East. This is despite the fact that US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seem singularly focussed on countering Iran and Islamic militants.

As it navigates the region’s numerous landmines, China is likely to find itself at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will at least have a common interest in pursuing political stability at the expense of political change — however much this may violate its stated commitment to non-interference.

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East Asia

Chinese extradition request puts crackdown on Uyghurs in the spotlight

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.

The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.

The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.

The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.

Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.

China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.

The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.

Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan

China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets

China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.

To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.

The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends,” according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.

Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies,” in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people,” the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.

The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.

Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.

The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”

A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”

The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.

Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.

The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.

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