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Japan’s quiet geo-economic rise

Masahiro Matsumura

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In the turbulent world politics involving extensive international coverage, stable and humdrum Japan does not have much of a presence. Yet, Japan is the world’s largest creditor nation while continuously playing significant roles in trade, direct investment and economic assistance. Japan in the background has reinforced itself as a leading geo-economic power while having almost thoroughly eliminated its huge non-performing loans in the banking sector and other structural vulnerabilities over the so-called “lost two decades” consequent on its bubble burst in the early 1990s.

Emphasizing Japan’s world-largest public debts that amount to nearly 240% of its GDP is misleading given that its public assets amount to nearly 200% and that the holding of the government bonds by the Bank of Japan, practically, a part of the government, amount to more than 80%. This is consistent with the good stability of a strong yen and very low long-term prime rates.

On the other hand, the U.S. faces deepening structural vulnerabilities in stocks that have resulted from the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the ensuing financial crisis, while experiencing a transitory booming in flows. Also, the E.U. remains mired not only in serious structural vulnerabilities but also in a persistent recession. Consequently, both the U.S. and the E.U. have a significantly less free hand in foreign economic policy, while keeping themselves busy to obtain or retain comparative gains through their strategic interaction, most notably in trade.         

With the quantitative tightening of the U.S., the E.U., and, finally, the Japanese central banks, BRICS and other major developing economies encounter increasing difficulties in financing for investment and growth, compounded by the shrinking of their U.S. and European export outlets.

Particularly, the Chinese yuan is effectively pegged with the U.S. dollar, while China’s money supply in yuan is in fact based on its dollar reserves. Consequently, China is sliding into a serious recession, aggravated by the intense trade war with the U.S. No wonder that, last October, China made an abrupt about-face on its persistent anti-Japan policy, and concluded the currency swap agreement with Japan that would surely furnish China with 3 trillion Japanese yen (or less than 270 billion U.S. dollars) in the event of an acute liquidity crisis.

Looking closely at the recent Japan-China interaction, Japan’s quiet rise is more conspicuous. For several years prior to the official reconciliation of October 2018, the two countries appeared to geo-economically compete head-to-head, centered on aid and development according to China’s “One Belt One Road Strategy” and Japan’s counter-strategy, or “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”.

China is undergoing serious setbacks because many recipient/investee states have cancelled, cut down or postponed China-sponsored development projects. These states have suffered China’s “debt trap”, and many of the projects have turned out be financially, environmentally, and socially unsustainable. China is increasingly constrained to finance development projects due to the hardly discernible yet significant dwindling of its dollar reserves that is statistically covered up by its foreign borrowings.

Certainly, China has succeeded in luring more than ninety developing and developed countries with its huge fabricated foreign reserves as show money to participate in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But, the country has failed to secure the AIIB memberships of Japan and the United States, respectively the world’s largest credit nation and the key currency nation with most developed financial and bonds markets. Without sufficient funds and staffs, the AIIB cannot but co-finance projects with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to obtain a favorable credit rating necessary for financing though international financial markets. 

In contrast, Japan has demanded China to observe international standards in aid and development, and only agreed in October 2018 to selectively coordinate its policy with China only when the country meets these stringent conditions. There has been no major successful coordination case between the two to date. Given that many of traditional Japanese aid recipients are no longer low-income countries, the Japanese approach will necessarily focus more on high quality aid and development in terms of sustainability through the public-private sector cooperation. The approach will be superior to China’s, at least over a medium to long run.

Additionally, Japan plays a leading role to preserve the existing free and open international economic system. Against the tide of populism and protectionism, most notably U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First”, Japan successfully led the formation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership after the U.S. made an abrupt exit from an early TPP in the making, and concluded the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement.

In nutshell, Japan’s geo-economic power and influence will be outstanding, at least for a mid-term. Yet, the country is not free from serious risks and problems. For a short term, Japan’s rise will remain quiet and, perhaps, unnoticeable, especially because its geo-economic power and influence may be reduced by geo-political risks and crises, and because its vested bureaucratic interests hamper consolidation of its huge public debts and assets, which involves the great risk of a liquidity crisis. For a long term, Japan needs to find out a societal equation to cope with an unprecedented low birthrate and a high longevity rate. The world must stay tuned on humdrum Japan.

MD Advisory Board Member Professor of International Politics and National Security Faculty of Law St. Andrew's University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku)

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East Asia

Tension in Hong Kong

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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After about three months of riots, often particularly violent and destructive, on October 23, 2019 the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, aliasChen Yuet-Ngor, withdrew the bill on mandatory extradition to China, which had sparked protests in the former British colony.

 Never evaluate a mass protest on the basis of the reason triggering it, which can often be irrelevant.

 The extradition bill, announced in September, was withdrawn a few days after the resumption of works in Hong Kong’s Parliament.

With a view to partially repressing the insurgency, the now former Chief Executive of the city-state resorted to emergency legislation, by mainly using the colonial law of 1922, which prohibits the use of masks and disguises during public demonstrations.

 The protesters were and still are approximately one million, out of about eight million inhabitants.

 The subsequent riots, designed to last well beyond the bill withdrawal, strained the always tense relations between the former British colony and China, with the result of throwing into crisis also the Chinese governance of the city-State and, in particular, the traditional Chinese model of “One Nation, Two Systems”.

 If this model fails, the formula devised by Deng Xiaoping will not even apply to Taiwan, or possibly to the North Pacific islands, and it will anyway undermine the current Chinese idea of peaceful expansion and win-win collaboration between the Chinese motherland and all the bordering areas both in the Pacific and in Central Asia.

Since 1977 – when the Fragrant Harbour came under Chinese control – all riots in Hong Kong have been triggered by strong dissatisfaction with the Chinese motherland.

The deep economic and social dissatisfaction has always been targeted against China and never towards local power elites. In psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is called transference.

 In 2003 many thousands of people living in the former British colony had protested against a law that, in their opinion, would make it difficult to express opinions and feelings defined as “anti-Chinese” and the law was postponed indefinitely.

Further riots broke out in 2012, when a clearly pro-Chinese school program was proposed and once again the local authorities (upon direct instructions from the national government) avoided implementing that law.

In 2014, there were the sit-in street protests of the Occupy Central movement, the so-called “Umbrella Revolution”, which lasted three months to ask – this time unsuccessfully – for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to be elected by universal suffrage.

Currently, however, the real reason underlying the protests in Hong Kong is not so much the request for implementing – in the former British colony – democratic mechanisms typical of the Western culture, but rather the tension resulting from great economic inequalities.

 Not to mention the broken social elevator, which is  probably the real trigger of the youth rebellion in the Fragrant Harbour.

 People, especially the skilled workers, cannot be ensured acceptable wages and salaries. This is the reason why many inhabitants of the old city-state migrate to Canada or Taiwan. Another blow to China.

Young graduates’ wages and salaries have dropped by at least 10% compared to 25 years ago. There is a very severe housing crisis, but anyway the choice to create a local oligarchy that tries to convince the other inhabitants is an old British idea.

 In Hong Kong an oligarchy of very few families dominates the local economic system, which is worth a GDP of 343.5 billion US dollars.

 The five most powerful families are still those led by Li Ka-shing, Kwong Siu-hing, Lee Shau-kee, Henry Cheng and Joseph Lau.

 These five families alone control 70% of the entire Hong Kong market, including real estate and telecommunications, as well as TV channels.

 The 21 leading families in Hong Kong control a wealth equal to 1,893 billion US dollars.

Obviously in China no family controls such a huge amount of wealth. In the People’s Republic of China the five major real estate operators put together control only 9% of the entire Chinese construction market.

China, however, has tried to gain support in Hong Kong,  especially among entrepreneurs, with the Greater Bay Area plan, i.e. the new megalopolis on the Pearl River Delta between Hong Kong, Guangdong and Macao.

This is, in fact, Hong Kong’s infrastructure aggregation to the  Autonomous Economic Zone of the Pearl River Delta, between Guangzou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Zhongshan amd Jiangmen, which are the most dynamic economic areas in China.

Taxes are very low in Hong Kong, as in all business-friendly countries but, coincidentally, there is no inheritance tax.

 The administrative machinery is therefore very simple: Hong Kong’sgovernment does not gain sufficient revenue from taxation and hence has no funds to invest in schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

 A city like Hong Kong, with over seven million inhabitants, provides for a statutory minimum wage of 4.82 US dollars per hour. Almost all flats are illegal and, considering the cost of rents and properties, they are so small that they are about half of the “tiny apartments” in large U.S. cities, which are already very small.

 The average size of Hong Kong flats per inhabitant is 16 square metres, while in Shanghai the average size per inhabitant is 36 square metres.

 45% of Hong Kong’s inhabitants live in state-owned or subsidised apartments, while 90% of the Chinese people own at least their own houses.

 Hong Kong’s tax reserves are at least 147 billion US dollars, but the local political system is too fragmented – even from the viewpoint of the complex electoral system – to mediate between different interests and to really solve the main problems of the city-state, namely housing, health and education costs.

 Those who are ill must wait an average of 150 weeks before being examined, with 43 public hospitals that, however, employ  40% of the doctors available, since the private sector attracts many of the best professionals.

 The solution of employing doctors from abroad is not very practicable, considering the low attractiveness of Hong Kong’s wages and salaries and the poor quality of health facilities.

 One in six people living in Hong Kong suffers from mental disorders due to social, economic and health conditions.

 The graduates’ average wages and salaries in the former British colony have fallen by over 10% compared to a decade ago. Nowadays graduates are easily paid the best salaries and wages of workers without university qualifications.

As already said, there is no social elevator.

 The cost per square metre is much higher in Hong Kong than the average price in a central neighbourhood of  New York.

 As happens also in the West, the career prospects of young graduates in Hong Kong are very limited. They never have a house of their own and their prospects are much worse than those of their colleagues who lived in Hong Kong a few decades ago.

In Hong Kong the Gini Index, which is used as a gauge of economic inequality, is 5+, one of the highest and most unequal indexes in the world.

 This is the real political core of the issue: for those who protested in Hong Kong – as currently happens everywhere in the world – “democracy” in the Euro-American sense means above all greater social equality, many opportunities and efficient public services.

 This is obviously not true, but it is the model that took to the streets the crowds of the Arab Spring, the Euromaidan citizens in Ukraine and the “colourful” rebellions in Georgia.

 Paradoxically, just when Western democracies are turned into  States based on unearned income and the extent and quality of their Welfare diminish, they are mythicized as efficient and open.

In this case, Vilfredo Pareto would have spoken of “residues”, i.e. memories of a time that no longer exists, but that are still in action in the crowds’ deep psyche.

 In 1997, at the time of unification based on the “One Country, Two Systems” model, Hong Kong’s GDP accounted for 18% of  whole China’s GDP.

Currently, after China’s fast growth, the importance of the Fragrant Harbour is the same as the relevance of Guangdong or Shenzhen.

 The current protests, however, have also put Hong Kong’s business community in severe difficulty.

The majority of Hong Kong’s leading companies do most of their  business with China. It is not by chance that last August the Chinese authorities gathered 500 of the most important businessmen and political leaders in Shenzen to support the Hong Kong government and, possibly, sufficiently improve the social situation of the city-state, which, however, remains explosive.

 Hong Kong’s financial market has suffered the greatest damage.

The Chinese company Alibaba has postponed its listing on the local Stock Exchange until the uprising has finally abated, while Fitch has lowered Hong Kong’s rating.

Pending a systemic integration with the regulatory network of  mainland China.

 Another problem that the riots in the Flagrant Harbour may cause  is migration.

 Last year 24,300 highly-skilled young people left the country and the rate of  migration requests has risen by 15% per year.

Where do they go? To Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan.

 On the other hand, the number of Chinese people migrating to Hong Kong has decreased by 14,000 per year.

Furthermore, this November there will be the Hong Kong District Council elections and it is very likely that youth discontent will find a way to assert itself in the polls.

 A fragmented society under crisis creates many problems for those planning business cycles and Hong Kong is likely to see its growth rate decrease by at least 3%.

Where will capital go? Obviously in the Chinese area bordering on Hong Kong, with an expected investment growth of almost 6.5%, largely consisting of capital outflows from Hong Kong.

 The differences between Hong Kong and China, however, are much wider than those shown with violence during the recent long protests, which often followed the same tactics of the color revolutions organized by the US Services, according to the old model developed by the Einstein Institute.

 For China, Deng Xiaoping’s criterion “One Country, Two Systems” means that China takes over Hong Kong despite the differences in political and economic systems, which will eventually tend to overlap. Conversely, for Hong Kong leaders the “Country” is just lip service paid in view of maintaining the separation from China, both from a cultural as well as an economic and political viewpoint.

 China has so far controlled Hong Kong with the same logic with which it has supervised its “dangerous” territories, namely Tibet, Xinjiang and Manchuria.

 The current Chinese centralization stems from the analysis of the inglorious collapse of the almost federalist Soviet Union. In this regard, suffice to recall the ironic smiles that welcomed Gorbachev on his visit to China, just when the Tiananmen Square protests had reached their climax.

 It does not matter that the right to secession was established in Lenin’s Sacred Texts. The fact is that, for the Chinese leadership, the unity of the Country and the repression of every regionalist secession is fundamental to the permanence of the State – and of  the Party.

 China, however, still depends on the financial hub of Hong Kong, the only one completely open to the world capital flows.

According to 2018 data, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange capitalizes 29.9 trillion local dollars.

 Shenzhen and Shanghai cannot replace Hong Kong in this respect.

 Therefore, China could not intervene in Hong Kong because otherwise it would have destroyed on its own the way connecting China to international capital flows.

 Furthermore, the repression of the Hong Kong movements would have destroyed the model “One Country, Two Systems”, which is exactly the one that will be applied to Taiwan, at the right time.

 Nor should we forget that, pending the New Silk Road promoted by China, the Western Powers are conceiving political mechanisms for disrupting and possibly stopping the “Road”, by organizing rebellions and anti-Chinese parties and movements in the various countries where the passage of the Chinese One Belt One Road (OBOR) is planned.

Obviously China does not stand by and wait to see.

From this viewpoint, the Hong Kong uprising is a model that will soon be imitated and that China will oppose exactly with the same political tactics.

As is recommended in the Thirty-Six Stratagems, “Befriend a distant State and strikes a neighbouring one”.

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East Asia

The final front in the South China Sea: Vietnam against China

Sisir Devkota

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A few years back, political tensions in the South China Sea was rife. China was seen as the main aggressor in trying to claim island areas for resource extraction. Now, the political climate in the rich region is changing at the expense of Vietnam’s interest. More so, in the legitimate interest of Vietnam. In the past few years, Chinese diplomacy has managed to take both Malaysia and the Philippines into its plans. Both the nations are on the verge of sanctioning new energy deals with China. On the other hand, Vietnam is resisting. In the midst of Chinese bullying, it is standing alone.

The South China Sea is making news again for a good reason. In what would best describe an economic proxy tool, foreign companies from the USA and Spain are investing on Vietnam’s share of resources, in the sea. China asserts itself with its self-designed nine-dash line, which separates its sphere of influence along the coastal borders, circling all three nations. Because of foreign interests in the region, it is not nations themselves, indulging into a confrontation. Exxon Mobil, which is the world’s largest energy enterprise, has entered into the picture. While Exxon’s initial plans were backed up by America’s political meddling; now, the multinational is facing a crisis that does not seem to escape from the China-Vietnam row.

Legitimately, the blue whale oil block, is a region inside the Vietnamese jurisdiction. As much as the oceanic geography is tricky to comprehend, China is closely monitoring Vietnam’s deal with Exxon, in order to extract natural gas reserves. Scientifically, the resources belong to Vietnam, but there could be possible twists in the favour of China. For instance, oceanic topographies have a history of breeding territorial tussle between coastal nations. Turkey and Greece are yet to settle their own set of similar crisis. The point of the matter is that Vietnam’s gas rich rocks might emanate inside the seabed leading to or from the Chinese territory. The Chinese government is not protesting the Exxon deal, but there is no prize for an obvious guess. They are saving the topographic argument for and if the need arises.

In fact, China is keeping peace under Exxon’s own credit problems. There are reports of the company facing capital crunches to fund similar projects in South America. A couple of years after it signed a deal with the Vietnamese government, the energy giant is looking to exit the troubled high seas. Exxon will also be looking to avoid the kind of embarrassment that PetroVietnam forced upon RepsolSA, a Spanish energy giant. While the Chinese started cruising their military vessels around the area, Vietnam succumbed to pressure and decided to end their extraction plans. Although the exact trade-offs cannot be accrued, the Spanish company incurred losses of more than $200 million after the exit. These events will be playing on the minds of Exxon hierarchy. A similar fate is possible in the face of Chinese intimidation. Exxon is also not sure if the Trump administration would come for a rescue; if things go horribly wrong.

Nevertheless, Vietnam is resisting. With more than $2.5 trillion at stake, China is succeeding in its pursuit to persuade both Malaysia and the Philippines for joint benefits. The Blue Whale project is important to Vietnam, as it would meet energy demands for the next twenty years. Amid its own financial problems and geopolitical standoff, Exxon will also be considering selling the project. The South China Sea is inviting another international standoff in the coming time. This time, the stakes are high. China is on the verge of controlling the waters, on its will.

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Sanctions against North Korea make no sense in denuclearization of the Peninsula

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Internationally, sanctions are part and parcel of diplomacy which are usually used for coercing target governments into particular avenues of response as required by the sender state or international organization, like former the League of Nations or the United Nations today. In theory and practice, sanctions require the sender state’s willingness to interfere in the decision-making process of another sovereign state, but in a measured way that supplements diplomatic leverage without immediately using force. Even though it is legally accepted by the international society, it must be admitted that sanctions work less effectively in foreign affairs.

So far, the United States is one of few, if not only, countries in the world which is most frequently and even provocatively using the sanctions against one country or another. The reasons are different, but as Gary Hufbauer put it, demonstration of resolve has often been the driving force behind the imposition of sanctions from the United States. As the only superpower of the world today, the United States has consistently aimed to deploy the sanctions to assert its leadership in the world affairs. Equally Washington is willing or compelled to demonstrate moral courage and reassure its alliances that it will stand by its treaties’ commitments.

Yet to that end, the United States has also frequently demonizing the target countries’ misdeed, even when the likelihood of changing their behaviour is remote. In light of this, the article likes to discuss the case study of the U.S. sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) from three aspects as follows.

First, North Korea has steadily worked on its own nuclear plan since 1993 when it withdrew from the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT). Since then, the United Nations has passed several resolutions to impose economic sanctions against the decisions of North Korea. But due to the diverse interests of the major powers on this issue, the sanctions are not effective as expected. China and Russia, while supporting the UN-endorsed resolutions, have stressed that any positive engagement with Pyongyang serves to soften what North Koreans perceive as existential threat to their security and core interests; and in so doing slow down the progress of its nuclear program at its root, like the case of the Iran nuclear deal which was struck in Vienna following two-year intensive talks orchestrated by the Obama administration and finally was signed by Iran and six other nations in 2015. It stipulated that in return for its compliance, all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were lifted in early 2016 with reconnecting the country’s stagnating economy with international markets. Yet, in 2018 President Trump just walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, breaking with allies in Europe and leaving the future of the agreement in doubt. The consequences are self-evident to all the countries, in particular North Korea.

Second, under such circumstances, North Korea has sped up its efforts in enhancing its nuclear capability. From 2016-2018 Pyongyang repeatedly demonstrated its resolve and ability to test more than six nuclear and hydrogen bomb test alongside its projecting technology. Understandably the United States and its allies Japan and Republic of Korea (South Korea) have showed their strong denial to the DPRK’s nuclear tests, as U.S. national security council announced that Washington and its allies would have more military cooperation and deployment in the region because North Korea’s tests were seriously viewed as a provocation which would initiate the next arms race in East Asia. As always, China and Russia called on all sides concerned to preserve the maximum restraint. This call led to the detente between the United States and North Korea, such as the summits between Trump and Kim.

Third, frankly speaking, Pyongyang’ tensions with Washington has escalated sharply since the Trump administration adopted a much sterner policy towards North Korea and his unwise decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal later. Following the exit from the nuclear deal, the U.S. returned the sanctions, mainly on North Korea and Iran’s energy and financial sectors, which had previously been removed under the agreement (JCPOA). As a reaction to Washington’s hostility and in particular its subsequent sanctions, North Korea and Iran have taken the necessary measures to deal with the United States and other major powers, arguing that the U.S. can sanction every man, woman, and child but we will never submit to bullying and threats. Given this, the U.S. should abandon its failed policies and return to negotiations with the two countries involved.

For sure, in the reality of international affairs, sanctions do not often succeed in changing or even coercing the behavior of target countries. First, the sanctions imposed may simply be inadequate for the task to the countries, for example, like DPRK or Iran. The goals may be clear enough, but the means in their use are elusive, such as cooperation from other major powers, though needed badly, are often too tepid. In addition, Iran and North Korea have strong support from one or another or two major powers. And they have had their industrial systems backed up by a relatively strong technology and manufacturing capacities. It tells us that either North Korea or Iran is able to find commercial and industrial alternatives.

Second, China and Russia have supported only the U.N.-endorsed sanctions against North Korea, and thus they have opposed to any attempt on the part of the United States and its allies to change the regime of the target countries regardless of the dire consequences. As the close neighbor of North Korea, China or Russia has vowed their determination not allow the chaos occurred in the Korean peninsula. Given this, Pyongyang has substantially the room to negotiation with the United States and its brotherly counterpart South Korea. In addition, China and Russia have provided North Korea the huge and necessary humanitarian aid. As history reveals that in fact economic sanctions often prompt wealthy and powerful allies or friendly neighbors of the target country to “assume the role of ‘black knights’, whose help can largely offset whatever deprivation results from sanctions themselves.”

Finally, it is true that sometimes the errant aim of the sender countries would have wounded target country and its national feelings and even their own domestic businesses. It means if economic sanctions are existent too long, it is possible to alienate allies abroad and business interests at home as well. In the case of North Korea, South Korea does not support all kinds of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Japan, though they are the allies, on their own brothers and sisters in the north.

In light of what has been discussed above, it is sure that economic sanctions against North Korea are doomed to fail. Actually, since last year when Kim travelled to China in meetings with his Chinese counterpart–President Xi, Pyongyang has dedicated most efforts to economic reconstructions at home and to hold talks with the United States and South Korea, involving all the talks on pulling all guard posts and heavy weapons out of the DMZ, possible denuclearization and all missile programs, and inter-Korean economic cooperation. Despite some obstacles ahead, it is a reasonable requirement to resolve the legitimate security concerns of DPRK. Therefore, it is politically and morally righteous to achieve the final end of the denuclearization through diplomacy rather than any sanctions. That is exactly China’s proposed “dual-track approach”—the realization of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of a peaceful mechanism on the Korean Peninsula.

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