The United States and China are playing Eurasia’s 21st century Great Game from different but equally skewed maps. While the US map appears to be outdated, the Chinese map portrays a reality that is imagined.
If the skewed realities of both China and the United States have one thing in common, it is in strategist Parag Khanna’s mind the fact that neither realizes that the Great Game’s prize, a new world order, has already been determined.
“We are living – for the first time ever — in a truly multipolar and multicivilizational order in which North America, Europe and Asia each represents a major share of power,” Mr. Khanna says in his just published book, The Future is Asian.
While the United States sees the Great Game as an as yet open-ended battle for influence in Europe and Asia and looks at Russia as a European rather than a Eurasian power, China overestimates what its future position, aided by its US$1 trillion infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road initiative, is likely to be.
The skewed perceptions of both the United States and China create spaces for multiple other powers like Russia and various Middle Eastern states to carve out positions of their own.
China, nonetheless, alongside Russia has one advantage. In contrast, to the United States, it adopts the notion put forward by former Portuguese Europe minister Bruno Macias that the number of the world’s continents is shrinking from seven to six. Increasingly, Europe and Asia no longer see their common landmass as two separate continents and are gravitating towards what Mr. Macias calls a “supercontinent.”
Mr. Khanna implicitly acknowledges Mr. Macias’ notion by concluding that contrary to perceived Chinese expectations “ultimately, China’s position will be not of an Asian or global hegemon but rather of the eastern anchor of the Asian – and Eurasian – mega-system.”
China’s perceived other advantage, its economic and financial muscle, in the juggling for position on the new supercontinent is also proving to be its Achilles Heel.
The belief that the driver of the Belt and Road is geopolitics rather than economics is bolstered by predictions that none of China’s Indian Ocean port projects have much hope of financial success.
A Financial Times study last year concluded that 78 countries targeted by China for project development are among the world’s most risky economies. On a scale of one to seven, the highest level of country risk, Belt and Road countries ranked 5.2, a significantly higher risk than the 3.5 average for emerging markets. They had a median rating by Moody’s, the credit rating agency, that was the equivalent of non-investment junk investment grade.
The risk was reflected on the balance sheets of major Chinese state-owned companies that build, operate and invest in many Belt and Road projects. The study reported that China’s top internationally active construction and engineering contractors were almost four times more highly leveraged than their non-Chinese competitors.
In a bid to avert a financial crisis, the government has ordered state-owned companies to reduce their debt burden, in part by attributing greater importance to the viability of overseas projects.
The risk to China is not purely economic. It is also geopolitical and reputational. Increasingly, China is forced to focus short term less on the Great Game itself and more on countering the negative effect of a growing perception that China’s projection of the Belt and Road as a mutually beneficial proposition is more fantasy than fact.
A growing number of countries, like Pakistan, Malaysia, Myanmar and Nepal, question the benefits of Belt and Road projects and are resisting China’s often onerous commercial and funding terms.
Ironically, China’s immediate rivals in efforts to maintain its status and ensure that it does not lose hard-won ground are not the United States, India or Japan but its newly assertive, geopolitically ambitious friends in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Iran.
That is nowhere truer than in Pakistan, a Belt and Road crown jewel, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE have exploited to their advantage Chinese irritation with Pakistani demands to shift the emphasis of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from infrastructure and energy to agriculture, job creation and the enabling of third-party investment, primarily from countries in the Gulf.
Chinese chagrin has been evident in China’s hesitancy to respond to Pakistani requests for help in averting a financial crisis.
Filling the gap, massive Saudi and UAE aid and investment to the tune of US$30 billion in balance of payment support, deferred oil import payments and investment in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders Iran has helped the government of Imran Khan avoid asking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cap in hand to bail it out.
China fears that Pakistan’s mounting dependence on Saudi Arabia and the UAE coupled with a US campaign intended to curb Iran’s regional projection potentially complicates the security of its massive US$45 billion plus investment that to a large extent targets Balochistan.
The United States and Saudi Arabia see Balochistan as a possible launching pad for possible efforts to destabilize the Islamic republic by stirring unrest among its Baloch population and other ethnic minorities.
Increased Saudi and UAE influence in Balochistan could, moreover, suck China into the escalating maelstrom of the two countries’ rivalry with Iran.
Ironically, Saudi and UAE investment has at the same time shielded China from potentially embarrassing disclosure of the financial terms of CPEC-related projects that the IMF was demanding as part of any bailout. Media reports said that Pakistan had informally told the IMF that it would be paying China US$40 billion over 20 years for US$26.5 billion in Chinese funding of CPEC-related projects.
The impact of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, like much of the rest of the Middle East, goes far beyond Balochistan. It also puts its mark elsewhere on the Eurasian supercontinent. In the words of analyst Galip Dalay, the Middle East or West Asia will, for better or for worse, shape each other.
“The contemporary Middle East is no longer the geopolitically US-centric space that the Europeans once knew. Europe can respond in several ways: proceed with its largely ad-hoc, incoherent and crisis-driven policies of recent years; continue to be incorporated into someone else’s game plan, as with the French-German involvement in the Russian-led Astana (peace) process for Syria; or craft a more coherent policy towards the region, with a strong emphasis on democratisation, reform, good governance, inclusion and reconciliation… If Europe doesn’t engage and invest in the transformation of the Middle East, regional developments will dramatically transform it, whether through radicalism, refugees, terrorism, xenophobia or populism. Interactions between Europe and the Middle East will be transformative, for better or for worse.,” Mr. Dalay said.
The Middle East is similarly crucial to the success of China’s Belt and Road with Iran and Turkey representing key nodes that further the rise of Eurasia through Chinese-funded rails that link the Atlantic coast of Europe to the People’s Republic.
The Middle East’s impact is one facet of a bigger game in which world and regional powers are competing for position in Mr. Khanna’s multipolar and multicivilizational order.
Robert Malley, a former Obama National Security Council official and head of the International Crisis Group argues that autocratic and authoritarian leaders are testing the limits of the Great Game as the power of Western nations erodes and embattled concepts of multilateralism no longer serve to constrain them.
“As the era of largely uncontested U.S. primacy fades, the international order has been thrown into turmoil. More leaders are tempted more often to test limits, jostle for power, and seek to bolster their influence—or diminish that of their rivals—by meddling in foreign conflicts… Having annexed parts of Georgia and Crimea and stoked separatist violence in Ukraine’s Donbass region, Russia is now throwing its weight around in the Sea of Azov, poisoning dissidents in the United Kingdom, and subverting Western democracies with cyberwarfare. China obstructs freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and arbitrarily detains Canadian citizens… Saudi Arabia has pushed the envelope with the war in Yemen, the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, and the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul. Iran plots attacks against dissidents on European soil. Israel feels emboldened to undermine ever more systematically the foundations of a possible two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Malley said.
By implication, Mr. Malley was suggesting that efforts to push the envelope were enabled by the US’ failure to recognize that Europe and Asia were becoming one supercontinent.
That failure was mirrored in the U.S. National Security Strategy published in 2017 by the White House and a study by Rand Corporation in 2018 designed to conceptualize current geopolitics as an era of intensifying international competition.
Rather than recognizing an increasingly evident divergence of interests between the United States and Europe, the study suggested that the US would continue to have the opportunity, if it chooses, to lead a predominant coalition of value-sharing democracies and other largely status quo states to help preserve stability.”
The study appeared to downplay any divergence by reducing differences to “identity-fuelled nationalism” that aims to recapture (countries’) “rightful place” in world politics,” a reference to Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as well as European nations grappling with the rise of nationalist, populist and far-right forces and a Middle East that is shaping Europe through highly emotive issues such as migration, political violence and religious identity.
The US focus on Russia as a European rather than a regional power with global ambitions also means that it underestimates Moscow’s play in the Middle East despite its military intervention in Syria.
Russia national security scholar Stephen Blank argues that President Vladimir Putin’s strategy in the region is rooted in the thinking of Yevgeny Primakov, a Middle East expert and linguist and former spymaster, foreign minister and deputy prime minister, who like Mr. Khanna envisioned the emergence of a multi-polar, multi-civilizational world with Eurasia at its centre.
Mr. Primakov saw the Middle East as a key arena for countering the United States that would enable Russia, weakened by the demise of the Soviet Union and a subsequent economic crisis, to regain its status as a global and regional power and ensure that it would be one pole in a multi-polar world.
By identifying the region as a preferred battleground, Russia benefitted in the words of historian Niall Ferguson from the fact that its significant oil reserves made it “the only power that has no vested interest in stability in the Middle East.”
Mr. Blank argued that “in order to reassert Russia’s greatness, Primakov and Putin aimed ultimately at strategic denial, denying Washington sole possession of a dominant role in the Middle East from where US influence could expand to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS),” a regional grouping of post-Soviet nations.
They believed that if Russia succeeded it would force the United States to concede multi-polarity and grant Russia the recognition it deserves. That, in turn, would allow Mr. Putin to demonstrate to the Russian elite his ability to restore Russia to great power status.
Syria offered Russia the opportunity to display its military prowess without the United States challenging the move. At the same time, Russia leveraged its political and economic clout to forge an alliance with Turkey and partner with Iran. The approach constituted an effort to defang Turkish and Iranian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Similarly, Russia after brutally repressing religiously inspired Chechen rebels in the 1990s, was proving to be far defter than either China or the United States at promoting politically pacifist or apolitical Islam in a complex game of playing all sides against the middle.
Russian engagement runs the gamut from engaging with militants to cooperating with Muslim autocrats to encouraging condemnation of the kind of Islam adopted by partners such as Saudi Arabia.
Said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former Russian military officer: “Russia is not the Soviet Union. It does not see the Middle East as a region that it can dominate. Displacing the United States from the leading position in the Middle East is way above Russia’s capacity, and keeping the region in its sphere of influence is way above Russia’s resources. Russia has certainly benefited from waning U.S. interest in the Middle East as, absent an active America, Russia can act with more confidence and ease.”
Describing Russia as “a lonely power,” Mr. Trenin went on to say that the difference between Russia and the Soviet Union was that the “Soviet Union was heavily engaged around the Middle East in spending money on an ideological and geopolitical project, the Russian Federation is active in the region trying to make money. The Soviet Union was about an idea. Russia’s idea is about Russia itself.”
In the Great Game’s jostling for position, Mr. Trump’s America First approach mirrors Mr. Trenin’s portrayal of Russian policy. That leaves China tied up in the contradictions of a policy that is packaged in assertions of lofty ideals but like the United States and Russia is in effect first and foremost about the pursuit of Chinese interests.
The Mystery of China’s Internment Camps: Genocide of Uighurs
Human rights abuse is not an alien concept to the world, especially over the ghastly events posted through the two decades into this century. Whether it’s the mutiny in Syria leading to the rise of ISIS; dismembering the regional population, or the massacre of the Rohingya community at the hands of the draconian military of Myanmar; trudging the Muslim minority under the most inhuman conditions known to mankind in the name of ethnic cleansing. Even the lockdown of innocent Kashmiris, under over-the-top scrutiny and extremist mindset of the BJP-championed government of India, has been the highlight in the discussions heated in the Human Rights Councils around the globe. However, none of the human rights violations have been so systematically concealed that the very existence of a genocide is rendered a rumour for years and continues to challenge the authenticity of the news coverage obtained in today’s modernised world. The genocide of the Uighur Muslim Community in China is an accurate example of such a pogrom; the community being deliberated to renounce their faith and being subject to servile conditions, incarcerated in controversial camps under the prevailing communism in China.
Xinjiang is the extreme western region of China and enjoys the entitlement of being the largest autonomous region of the mainland yet still being a notch lesser in degree from Beijing. However, the self-governance status is as superficial and contrasting to the status of Taiwan; little to no discretion awarded to the region yet still hailed as autarchic. The Uighur community decent from the Turkic ethnicity and make up about 50% of the total population of Xinjiang, a tally totalling to about 11 million people. China was accused in the preceding years of intense surveillance of the Uighur Muslims eventually escalating to the point of being taken captive in internment camps; being forced to learn mandarin, pushed to relinquish their religion and even forcing Uighur women to marry non-Uighur men in a systematic attempt to erase the community from the region in a gruesome exercise that could only be described as an ‘extermination’ as per the definitions of The United Nations.
China’s position over the state-run genocide has stayed intricate over the years, since the initial reports of the internment camps breezed to light through international media and local activists. The Chinese officials claim that the world outside doesn’t realise the true essence of the situation in Xinjiang. The Chinese authorities have labelled the genocide as ‘Defence’ and ‘Retaliation’ against the specific groups of Uighur militants operating to bombard China with rampaging violence pivoted on the grounds of ethnic separation in the region; a movement sighted by China Communist Party as an effort to gain independence from China stemming from the brief campaign launched back in the 20th century before the communal population submitted to Communist China in 1949. China has repeatedly denied the accusations of ‘Ethnic cleansing’ and has continued to push the narrative of conducting ‘Vocational Camps’ for willing participants to fight against the militants instead of running internment torture camps to decimate the entire community.
While the world has remained dormant over the excessive brutality within the borders of the People’s Republic, the apparent heat of the genocide is pervading over China under the communist ideology posed by President Xi Jinping. His extremist comments have incited a crunch against not only the Uighur community but the Muslims residing all over China, being forced against fasting in Ramadan and even being mocked in daily prayers and for wearing veils. The recent movement in Xinjiang is projected as a programmed skit to promote the Han Chinese community in the industrial flourish of the region, thereby settling the non-natives and skimming the Uighur population gradually. The United Kingdom has continually threatened sanctions over China and even the rising Biden administration in US has addressed the genocidal tendencies within Xinjiang on the account of utter violence and discrimination. However, no substantial efforts have been taken to even probe into the situation let alone resolve it. As ethnic and religious violence continue to rage under the arching communist regime of China, a little more than critical comments and envisioning threatening policies is required from the global community to relieve Uighur’s from their misery.
Nanjing tragedy – massacre or “incident”?
On December 15, China was marking the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre by Japanese troops.
In Japan, they avoid using the term “massacre,” however, so when covering the tragic event the local media referred to it as the “Nanjing incident.”
In December 1937, at the height of the second Sino-Japanese war, Japanese forces entered the city of Nanjing, then the capital of Nationalist China, which had been used by the Kuomintang government as its headquarters since 1927. The Chiang Kai-shek government had earlier decided to move the bulk of its forces out of the city, leaving behind just a small garrison. All that time, the citizens were kept in the dark about those plans. Moreover, they were prevented from escaping, even though there still was plenty of time to evacuate the civilian population. As to the Japanese, in Nanjing they didn’t encounter the serious resistance they had faced in the battle for Shanghai. And still, in addition to mass-scale looting and torching of houses, they staged a real bloodbath killing thousands of unarmed city residents and POWs. Judging by numerous accounts of that massacre, including by a handful of Europeans who remained in the city and were spared by the Japanese, who agreed to place them in a special “safety zone,” it seems that the city was being overrun not by soldiers but a giant crowd of characters from American movies about sadistic serial killers. The elaborate torture and murder of pregnant Chinese women was especially shocking.
The reasons for such behavior by the Japanese military still defy a clear explanation. One thing is clear, though: Japanese militarism as a phenomenon is characterized by the complete loss by politicians of control over the military and of officials closely associated with it. That being said, senior officers, unlike the “field generals,” were often unable to prevent the atrocities committed by the lower ranks that quickly became widespread. Unlike in the Navy, the system of personnel training in the Imperial Army allowed uneducated conscripts from peasant families to rise to the rank of officers. A chance to feel oneself as part of the “military caste” and traditions of the samurai, which their ancestors could not even dream of, might be a reason why many of those new officers began to “revel” in their own power. At the same time, medieval customs, like testing the sword’s sharpness on unarmed people, and ritual cannibalism were coming back. Japanese newspapers of that period wrote about two officers in Nanjing who competed who of them would chop off more heads, thus executing hundreds of people.
It was not until the close of World War II that the events in Nanjing attracted international attention, as even the Kuomintang propaganda had been keeping mum about it. The Japanese militarists committed countless other crimes, but for them the Nanjing massacre carried a special meaning, not because of the number of victims, but because of the reputational risks it posed for the imperial family, since one of their members (Prince Yasuhiko of the Asaka clan) was the one who personally supervised the capture of Nanjing. After the war he was not put on trial and enjoyed immunity granted to members of the imperial family, with the full consent by the US occupation authorities.
In 1948, the case of the Nanjing massacre was considered by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which handed down two death sentences. The tribunal determined that more than 200,000 people were killed in Nanjing. A year before that a series of “smaller courts” held in China, including in Nanjing, put the death toll at 300,000.
In post-war Japan, the “Nanjing Incident” remains a much-disputed issue giving rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories concerning not only the historical past, but also present-day relations between Japan and China.
These include attempts by the so-called “revisionists” to question both the methods of counting the victims (with just 40,000 mentioned as the lower limit) and the very fact of the Nanjing killings.
Meanwhile, a movement that emerged in Japan during the Cold War period, led by representatives of the country’s academic community, people of the arts and members of the teachers union, challenged the way historical facts, including the Nanjing massacre, were presented in school textbooks. However, their activities started to die out during the 1990s, when the nationalists, opposed to the “masochistic view” of history, began to play a bigger role in Japanese politics.
The famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami took a lot of angry flak from the extreme right-wingers when in one of his books, published in 2017, he had one of the characters reflecting on the question about “the difference between 100,000 and 400,000” of people killed.
Getting back to the present, there is one question that is begging for an answer. Tokyo’s policy towards China was one of the biggest achievements of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stepped down in September 2020. Amid a deep crisis that Japanese-Chinese relations found themselves in in 2012, due to the inability of the Democratic Party, which was in power before him, to stand up to the nationalists’ populist actions, during his eight-year premiership Shinzo Abe managed if not to make them friendly, then at least to restore “normality.” Moreover, in solving this difficult task, he neither made any concessions on key issues for Tokyo, nor irritated Washington, which had its own plans for Beijing. At the same time, Shinzo Abe continues to be viewed in East Asia and also in the West as a “hawk,” whose statements and even some symbolic gestures clearly smack of revisionism. On one occasion, for example, he was photographed at the controls of a Japanese-designed fighter with “731” painted on its fuselage, evoking clear associations with the Japanese Unit 731, which was testing bacteriological weapons on humans in Manchuria. In 2013, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, drawing negative reaction not only from Japan’s regional neighbors, but also from Washington. How come a politician with such views was able to “make friends” with China?
There is a circumstance here that has not been lost on the Japanese media. Since 2018, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has not attended events marking the anniversaries of the Nanjing tragedy, although it was he who in 2014 proposed to mark the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre. This time round he did not show up either for the December 15 event (due to the pandemic, as was officially explained). On December 13, Japan’s state broadcaster NHK reported that amid a further deepening of its confrontation with the United States, China intends to demonstrate its interest in strengthening ties, primarily economic ones, with Japan. Therefore, the mourning ceremony was organized so as not to harm the current status of Sino-Japanese relations.
However, the gradual “unfreezing” of relations between the two countries began long before Donald Trump declared a sanctions war on China. It was Shinzo Abe who, speaking in parliament back in 2014, invited Beijing to resume the dialogue between the two countries’ leaders. In that same year, a group of prominent Japanese politicians, among them the former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, paid a visit to China. When Fukuda’s father, Takeo, was prime minister during the late 1970s, Japan signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with China, and his surname has since been a symbol of a “reset” in bilateral relations. This time the elderly politician was once again used as a “fire engine.” In the same year, Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing, and their meeting in Hangzhou, China, during the September 2016 G20 summit is now seen as the beginning of the active phase of mending fences between the two nations.
During the Trump presidency, this process only accelerated, much to the benefit of both Beijing and Tokyo, each of which had serious problems in relations with Washington. Notably, as the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in 1978, each year ending with “8” could bring new headways in bilateral ties. This tradition is especially important for China, where ceremony plays such a big role in politics. During Shinzo Abe’s first visit to Beijing in October 2018, the sides agreed to launch over 50 infrastructure cooperation projects, which experts were quick to hail as the dawn of a new era in Japanese-Chinese relations. In fact, many of these joint projects later turned out to be just for show, and were subsequently shelved. Still, when Shinzo Abe met his Chinese counterpart at the 2019 G20 summit in Osaka, they agreed that Xi Jinping would pay an official visit to Japan in the spring of 2020, but the visit was postponed due to the pandemic. The epidemic could also have been the reason why Xi Jinping refrained from attending this year’s memorial event in Nanjing.
As for Shinzo Abe’s revisionist views, they are probably seen in Beijing as mainly intended for domestic consumption, in contrast to the pro-American nationalism of another charismatic Japanese politician, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Unlike Koizumi, Shinzo Abe was more of a “nationalist-pragmatist,” focused on solving problems pertaining to the national interests of Japan.
During his first news conference after taking office, Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, said that he would like to build stable relations with neighboring countries, including China and Russia. Still, chances are high that the subject of the Nanjing massacre may return to the bilateral agenda since the age-old traditions of historical memory will not let the onetime foes forget this tragic event.
From our partner International Affairs
South Korea’s Potential for Global Influence is Weakened by its Mistreatment of Women
In recent years, the Republic of Korea has become a pop culture juggernaut.
Eight years after “Gangnam Style” went global, K-Pop still reigns supreme with boy band BTS topping charts and issuing IPOs. Bong Joon-ho’s film “Parasite” swept last year’s Oscars, kimchi now has UNESCO cultural heritage status, while Samsung smartphones are used all over the world, second only to the mighty Apple.
The global appeal of the Korean Wave, known as “Hallyu,” recently attracted the attention of a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which argued that this rising soft power could in turn boost South Korea’s global influence and drive diplomatic leadership on a broad range of transnational issues, from climate change to public health to democracy promotion.
This all sounds great, but there remains a nagging problem. Despite its flourishing culture, there have also been a string of scandals highlighting the plight of women in the country, who facing everything from inequality to workplace discrimination and rampant sexual harassment.
By any measure, the problem is significant and costly to the country’s interests. According to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks 124 out of 149 countries in the world in terms of economic opportunity for women, while another report cites the highest gender pay gap among OECD nations at 35%. This low level of female participation in the economy is not only a drag on future GDP growth, but also coincides with a parallel mental health crisis: suicides among Korean women in their 20s have jumped by more than 40 percent in the last year, at the same time that male deaths are in decline.
Mistreatment of women in Korea may be a feature, not a bug, of the system. A recent string of sexual abuse scandals has reached the highest levels of the country’s political elites.
This past July, the country was shocked to wake up to the news that the popular Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon had committed suicide when accusations of sexual assault against his secretary were made public. Mayor Park had built his image as stalwart champion of women’s rights, and yet, the secretary, who has been threatened and blamed following the suicide, says that she “felt defenseless and weak before the immense power” of the Mayor.
Months later, we are discovering the very people meant to protect the victims instead act to protect the alleged perpetrators. Congresswoman Nam In-soon, one of South Korea’s highest profile women’s rights activists, is being called on to resign after it was revealed that she leaked news of the sexual harassment investigation into Mayor Park. Another member of congress, Yoon Mee-hyang, was forced out of the ruling Democratic Party after facing criminal charges of embezzlement from the “comfort women” charity she used to direct, which raised money for survivors of World War II military brothels.
Before Mayor Park’s suicide and the comfort women scandal, there were many others. Last year, South Chungcheong Province Governor Ahn Hee-jung was convicted on nine counts of rape and sentenced to three and half years in prison. Mayor of Busan Oh Keo-Don was forced to resign following the assault accusation. Ahn Tae-geun, a former senior prosecutor whose case had become symbolic for the #MeToo movement, had his conviction overturned earlier this year.
These patterns stand in stark contrast to the image the government seeks to project.
In public speeches, President Moon Jae-in frequently advocates in defense of women’s rights in speeches and interviews. Speaking at the last UN General Assembly, he declared a commitment to inclusiveness and reducing inequalities. The ruling DPK has long associated itself with rights activists, and has made gestures toward combating misconduct and mistreatment of women – but critics say they aren’t doing enough. A headline on CNN last summer went so far as to call out the hypocrisy: “South Korea’s President says he’s a feminist. Three of his allies have been accused of sex crimes.”
Despite numerous protest movements and well supported marches, Korea has not yet experienced a breakthrough #MeToo moment. According to media testimonials, many women continue to face significant obstacles to advance in their careers. Even after 70,000 women marched last year to protest the prolific abuse of spy cams set up in bathrooms and changing rooms, patriarchal attitudes continue. This month, guidelines published on an official government website advising pregnant women to cook, clean, and to lose weight for their husbands after childbirth caused a social media uproar.
This is a deeply concerning problem. As highlighted by the Carnegie report, Korea’s role as a “middle power” in a such a volatile region would be highly welcome, and not just on things like climate and coronavirus vaccine distribution, but also their crucial role in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and holding firm in the shadow of China’s expanding authoritarian reach.
Some Korean groups have advocated internationally against gender-based violence, which is undoubtedly a very worthy cause. But until the Moon government can get serious about tackling these inequalities and abuses at home, its efforts to project influence abroad will fail to meet potential.
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