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China’s risky bets

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China’s infrastructure and energy driven US$1 trillion Belt and Road initiative involves risky bets across a swath of land populated by often illiberal or autocratic governments exercising power without independent checks and balances.

Seeking to reduce risk, China is bumping up against the limits of its own long-standing foreign and defence policy principles, foremost among which its insistence on non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, the equivalent of the United States’ preference for stability rather than political change.

If popular revolts in Algeria and Sudan as well as smaller, issues-oriented protests elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa are anything to go by, China appears to be betting against the odds.

Anti-corruption sentiment fuelled the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and are at the root of current anti-government protests across the globe in countries as far flung as Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Russia, Zambia, the Czech Republic, Albania and Romania

China’s risks were evident in the wake of the fall in 2011 of Col. Moammar Gaddafi when the post-revolt Libyan authorities advised China that it would be low on the totem pole as a result of its support of the ancien regime.

The risks are also evident with Baloch militants targeting Chinese assets and personnel in Pakistan.

To minimize the risk and expand its aggressive domestic anti-graft campaign, China’s top anti-corruption body, the Communist party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), is embedding inspectors in Belt and Road projects, who will be based in recipient countries.

The move helps China counter allegations that it exploits corruption in recipient Belt and Road countries to further its objectives.

Anti-corruption is a signature policy of president Xi Jinping and has allowed him to purge senior Chinese leaders as well as tens of thousands of low-level bureaucrats.

The CCDI is building on the success of a pilot project in Laos where it embedded in late 2017 inspectors in a US$6 billion railway project being built by state-owned China Railway Group. The anti-graft officials, working with the Chinese company, established a joint inspection team with their Laotian counterpart.

The question is whether the anti-corruption effort in countries like Laos or Central Asian nations that consistently rank in the bottom half of Transparency International’s corruption index will bump up against China’s non-interference principle.

Or in other words, can China successfully guard against corruption in Belt and Road projects without pressuring recipient countries to adopt broader transparency and anti-corruption measures?

How can you strike hard on corruption here at home and give a free hand to Chinese people and business groups [that are] reckless abroad?” CCDI’s director-general for international co-operation La Yifan asked in a Financial Times interview.

Mr. La said China had organized seminars with more than 30 countries to link up anti-corruption regulators. “That is my dream, that we create a network of law enforcement of all these Belt and Road countries,” he said.

Imposing transparency and anti-corruption in Belt and Road partners would be the equivalent of all kinds of environmental, safety and human rights criteria that the United States haphazardly and opportunistically maintains in dealings with foreign countries that have been severely criticized by China.

China has long prided itself on what it terms win-win economic situations in which it imposes commercial terms that often primarily benefit the People’s Republic.

The terms, coupled with the clampdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s province of Xinjiang, has fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Turkey and Central Asia with their close ethnic and cultural ties to the troubled Chinese region.

Turkish officials highlighted these sensitivities by denying Chinese media reports that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had praised the success of Beijing’s brutal approach in Xinjiang during a recent visit to China.

Muslim nations have largely remained silent about the clampdown that amounts to the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history or in some instances even tacitly endorsed it.

In the absence of democracy, “governments can manage their pro-Beijing stance without informing their public, but a pro-Beijing policy over the Uyghur issue can barely be sustained in Turkey. Turkey is still a functioning democracy and total control of the public is not possible. Besides, there is a very strong Uyghur lobby and public sentiment towards the Uyghurs in Turkey,” said Turkish Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies director Selcuk Colakoglu.

Taking its anti-corruption campaign global, raises the broader question of whether it would threaten a pillar of autocracy that China’s non-interference principle has de facto sought to perpetuate.

Political scientists Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw argue that what they call the instruments of global authoritarianism — an army of largely Western bankers, lawyers, brokers and intermediaries that park illicitly gained monies in off-shore accounts and manage the investment of those funds – help keep autocrats in power.

The success of the globalization of China’s anti-corruption effort as well as its campaign to significantly reduce graft at home, would establish autocrats’ ability to satisfactorily deliver public goods and services alongside brute power as the cornerstone of their sustainability.

In doing so, it would give greater meaning to China’s assertion that it does not want to fundamentally alter the established multi-lateral world order but rather make it more equitable and more a reflection of a world that is multi- not unipolar.

It would also cement China’s model of economic reform and state capitalism without political liberalization as the example autocratic and authoritarian regimes want to emulate even if the jury is out on whether autocrats can remain relatively clean without a system of independent checks and balances.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

East Asia

Beijing pushes Hong Kong towards a drastic fait accompli

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Hong Kong’s liberal democracy faces an existential threat, more visible than any time in the past 23 years, as exemplified by the recent arrests of democratic activists. Beijing seems to be running out of patience and continues to push the city towards a fait accompli of ‘one country, one party, one system’, as in mainland China.

***

When Britain handed over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China after 156 years of rule in 1997, a novel principle of governance known as ‘One Country, Two Systems’ was agreed upon with a validity of 50 years. Today, it is no longer visible in Hong Kong in actual practice, while it still stands in principle.

The agreement was perceived as the basis on which the unique character of the city and its people, rooted in a Western political outlook different from the mainland’s communism-inspired political system, would be preserved for the next five decades, until 2047, after which that arrangement would expire, paving way for transitioning into complete Chinese control.

The arrangement requires another 27 years for its expiry. Notwithstanding this fact, the Communist Party-controlled Beijing seems to be losing patience and not willing to wait for another three decades to legitimately take control of the city.

Today, Beijing is pushing and coercing Hong Kong towards a fait accompli of ‘one country, one party, one system’. This is proved by its tactical and suppressive moves in the recent past.

Protests continue, so do crackdown on dissent

Recent tensions and public unrest in the city have been simmering for the past 18 months, beginning with an extradition law imposed by Beijing in June 2019 targeted at suppressing sedition and rebellion on the citizens of Hong Kong, which allowed handover of convicts from the city to mainland China, triggering public unrest. Mounting protests finally led to the withdrawal of the bill in October.

Before 2019, there were nonviolent protests in the banners of Occupy Central Movement and the Umbrella Movement, both in 2014, demanding transparency in elections and preserving time-held electoral procedures which the Chinese Communist Party attempted to dilute, triggering protests. These were led by students and the youth numbering in tens of thousands, if not millions.

Coming to 2020, the move that triggered protests was a national security law imposed by Beijing on the city in the midnight prior to the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover on July 1. It was aimed at disqualifying legislators in the name of offences such as supporting Hong Kong’s independence, refusing to acknowledge China’s sovereignty, supporting foreign forces to interfere in the city’s affairs, or in any other ways threaten national security.

The new law also allowed Beijing to open an intelligence office in the city soon after, to monitor whether the behaviour of Hong Kong citizens is in line with its expectations, effectively formalizing and legalizing crackdown on dissent. Any act of disrespecting national symbols including Chinese national anthem was also penalised.

Sidelining the Opposition

In another move, earlier this year, a resolution passed by the Chinese legislature allowed the Beijing-backed city government to directly dismiss elected members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council or LegCo without taking the judicial route. This triggered mass resignations by lawmakers as an expression of protest, and effectively leaving the 70-member LegCo with no functioning Opposition. This has further strengthened Beijing’s will to intensify crackdown on anyone opposing its objectives.

With the Opposition tactically removed and a pro-Beijing Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, at helm, Beijing expedited its witch-hunt on Hong Kong’s prominent and outspoken democratic activists and Opposition leaders, including Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam, jailing them for taking part in protests, last year. Most recently, a Hong Kong media tycoon running an anti-government tabloid, Jimmy Lai, was arrested in a fraud case and was denied bail.

International reactions

Following the passing of the new national security law, Britain formally suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, that had been in place for 30 years, for an indefinite period, fearing the possibility that anyone extradited to Hong Kong from the UK might be sent to China to face trials.

Citing China’s open disregard for bilateral agreements, London even promised an alternative route for British citizenship to any Hongkonger holding a British National Overseas passport, inviting a strongly-worded response from Beijing.

Britain, US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, collectively known as the Five Eyes, have also criticized Beijing’s ploy to destroy democratically-elected LegCo, last month. They called the Chinese move a clear breach of its international obligations under the legally-binding and UN-approved Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that paved the way for the territory’s handover in 1997.

Most recently, the British foreign secretary said London is considering a review of the arrangement for appointment of British judges for Hong Kong’s top court, absence of which could act as a severe blow to the city’s judicial reputation. To this, Beijing responded by saying that Britain had no supervisory power or moral responsibility over Hong Kong’s affairs.

The United States responded by sanctioning members of China’s ruling party and by making visa rules stricter for them to enter the US, yet another factor contributing to the retaliatory rants of a new brand of Chinese ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomats.

Disappearing thin line

Deprived of their natural and democratic rights, the sorry plight of the people of Hong Kong remains unchanged for many years now, and the Chinese power and influence continues to expand to newer horizons beyond its neighbourhood and across the globe. As each day passes, the thin line between mainland China and Hong Kong is disappearing, faster than expected.

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East Asia

The complex puzzle of Canberra-Beijing ties, as diplomacy takes a back seat

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Australia and China seems to be engaged in a repulsive tariff war targeting each other’s goods. Canberra is struggling to manage its complex economic relationship with Beijing even as it finds itself in the strategically opposite camp. How did things turn out this way? Here, I analyse.

***

There was a time when Australia under the Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was in office from 2007 to 2013, had the highest level of warmth in relations with China.

The Labour premier saw a promising prospect of economic partnership with a rising China at that point of time, but gravely under-estimated the geopolitical threat that would be soon posed by Beijing, a mistake later governments would realise and is still striving to rectify.

Quad pullout and comeback

Rudd even pulled Australia out of the four-nation Quad grouping in 2008, a year after it was conceived by former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, in a move to appease Beijing with which Canberra’s economic partnership was progressively moving upwards. But, nine years later, Malcolm Turnbull’s premiership brought Canberra back to the Quad as regional and global security dynamics witnessed a paradigm shift.

Strategic shift

A decade later since Rudd took office, despite closer economic ties with Beijing, Canberra pushed for a closer alliance with the United States since 2017, the year Quad Security Dialogue was revived during the ASEAN and Related Summits in Manila.

It was a result of changes in security assessments by Canberra with regard to new threats and challenges from an increasingly assertive Beijing in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

The rift between Australia and China further widened, earlier this year, when the Australian government supported an inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus, annoying China where it originated. Australian politicians also became increasingly divided on hawkish and dovish lines.

Huawei and ZTE ban

Tides were turned in 2018 when Australia became the first country in the world to ban Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE from 5G trials and rollout, citing security concerns, as these companies ‘allegedly’ had links to the Chinese ruling establishment which they deny.

Beijing also reciprocated with tit-for-tat measures from time to time. The latest in line of such measures was the imposition of temporary anti-dumping tariffs up to 212.1 per cent on Australian wine imports with effect from November 28, this year.

Ongoing tariff tensions

2020 saw a foray of imposition of tariffs and reciprocal duties from both sides right from the beginning of the pandemic. Attempted mergers and acquisitions by Chinese companies involving companies in Australia were also blocked by Canberra citing security reasons.

Adding oil to the fire, anti-dumping investigations were initiated by both sides against each other, for using its findings as rationale for imposing more tariffs on different sets of goods such as aluminum, steel, paper, coal, copper, sugar, log timber, and barley.

ChAFTA

What will be the fate of the 2015-signed China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA)?

The worsening ties might take a toll on ChAFTA as it readies for a five-year review next month, notwithstanding the other broad-based trade pacts in which both countries are participants such as the recently-signed, 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

ChAFTA took about a decade to complete and led to zero tariffs on many goods, but RCEP is still in its infancy.The main issue is not whether a review of ChAFTA is possible, but how to prevent the looming prospect of Canberra and Beijing retreating from the current commitments directly or indirectly that would effectively reduce the pact into a state of coma.

As ChAFTA goes for review in December, the most likely outcome could be both countries agreeing to maintain the deal’s status quo. If any of the parties wishes to terminate the pact, there is a six-month notice period after which they can leave, with or without a review.

Still economic partners, but political rivals

Today, China has positioned itself as Australia’s largest trading partner. Moreover, Australia strongly benefits from its close proximity to the vast markets of China and Japan which together represent over 40% of all Australian exports, in which a little over 32% amounting to $89.2 billion, are exclusively to China, as data from 2019 show. Despite this, Canberra and Beijing remain at odds politically.

Exercise Malabar 2020 and beyond

One of the striking questions in the strategic circles of all Quad partner countries is, will Australia continue to take part in the annual Exercise Malabar in the coming years, annoying Beijing further?

While Japan is a strategic partner in the Quad, ties with China are moving on an adversarial path, particularly worsening since Canberra took part in the annual Exercise Malabar in the Indian Ocean this month, after a gap of 13 years since it left the mega naval war games.

The exercise by the four Quad partners of India, United States, Japan, and Australia is apparently a warning to Beijing’s naval ambitions in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.

Supply Chain Resilience Initiative

In fact, all the Quad partners and other democracies in the Indo-Pacific wish to decouple itself from over trade dependency on China. But, domestic economic realities prove otherwise. With a raging pandemic and the unravelling US-China cold war threatening supply chains, Japan has recently put forward an idea – the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative or SCRI.

It is a trilateral approach to trade, with India, Australia, and Japan as the key-partners aimed at diversifying its supply risk across a group of supplying nations instead of being disproportionately dependent on just one, apparently keeping China in mind.

Despite all these measures, the prospect of closing of huge Chinese markets for Australian exports, owing to a disproportionately high level of tariffs is haunting domestic producers in Australia that could potentially make Australian wine largely unmarketable and non-feasible in Chinese markets.

Ineffective diplomatic efforts

Current Australian PM Scott Morrison has been trying to bridge gaps in a reconciliatory tone by stating that his government’s actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the US. But, Beijing doesn’t seem satisfied, as evident in the decision to impose the recent set of disproportionate tariffs on wine.

Loss of businesses for Australian domestic producers is already hurting the Australian economy badly as goods remain stalled at ports. But, the behemoth of Chinese economy appears to be largely resilient to adverse impacts, compared to the Australian economy.

Way ahead

Australia’s producers and farmers are largely unhappy and unsatisfied with the way Canberra is dealing with Beijing as it directly threatens their livelihoods.

As things turn out worse, Canberra will have to strategise newer options to effectively balance geostrategic and economic considerations with regard to Beijing, possibly through the diplomatic route, in a way to immediately diffuse the prevalent confrontational approach to come out of this diplomatic impasse.

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East Asia

Is China on the brink of a food crisis?

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It is not a secret that the current COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting people all around the globe. The virus touched almost all spheres of regular life – i.e. it resulted in temporary or permanent closure of businesses, a rise in the unemployment rate, inability to physically spend time with family and friends. Such drastic changes in times of uncertainty significantly impacted the well-being of the world population. Moreover, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned about the emerging food shortages worldwide. According to FAO statistics, global food prices have been on the rise for four consequent months, hitting their maximum in September 2020. China – the place where the virus originated – is one of the states that have been seriously affected by the disruptions, including production and distribution of food.

In his speech on August, 11 Chinese leader Xi Jinping did not admit any food shortages. However, he promoted food security through the campaign “operation empty plate,” thereby encouraging people to stop wasting food. It is interesting to note that Mao Zedong introduced a similar food campaign before the 1959 Great Chinese Famine. Meanwhile, there has undoubtedly been a significant increase in food prices in China. Many experts claim that China is on the brink of a food crisis that has been manifested as a result of lockdowns, infected livestock, and poor weather conditions. It is difficult to give any predictions or estimations about the future food situation in China because the country does not share enough of its data with the rest of the world, yet it is possible to answer the question why the state faces food difficulties.

Average food prices increase

The National Bureau of Statistics of China reported that, on average, food prices have increased by 11.2% compared to 2019. The price level of vegetables increased by 6.4% in one month; egg prices soared by 11.3% within the same period. Pork prices grew the most, by 52.6% compared to the last year’s statistics. Why is it important?

Firstly, many workers and their families who faced loss or decrease of income or remittances became food insecure. That, in turn, has had social repercussions for the overall level of crime, health concerns among adults and infants, high death rate, different demographic and economic challenges. Furthermore, international trade will also suffer: due to the lack of labor force Chinese imports in foreign countries will seemingly increase in price.

Secondly, China, along with other countries, was in a period of recession earlier this year. Food insecurity will cause difficulties in coming out of this financial downturn.

The impact of lockdowns on food supply chains

One of the main factors contributing to the declining agricultural productivity and spiking food prices in China is the restrictions on personal mobility and transportation of goods. In January Chinese authorities adopted measures to limit mobility within the country; they imposed “city lockdowns, traffic control, and closed management of villages and communities.” Such restrictions impacted food supply chains. For the production part many workers experienced difficulties getting to work that created a shortage of physical labor. That is why some crops were not picked, others were not even planted. As a result, the supply of agricultural goods decreased. On the other hand, at the beginning of the year, the demand for them also fell as restaurants and bars were closed. Thereby, many crops went to waste, while farmers did not make enough profit to purchase the seeds and fertilizers for the next season. It is a problem because businesses continue to open up, raising the demand and prices on crops. Immobility also impacted the distribution of seeds and fertilizers to the farms that disrupted the plantation season. Furthermore, the distribution of agricultural goods to grocery stores became difficult. Particular inconveniences associated with the restrictions on mobility all added up to the spike of prices on crops.

African Swine fever outbreak

Another factor impacting the emerging food crisis in China is the failure to rebuild last year’s loss of pigs due to the infection. Chinese porcine farms were hit by the African swine fever outbreak that infected and killed a large number of pigs (40% of total Chinese pigs’ population), decreasing the supply but increasing the prices on pork in 2019. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, pork prices were 52.6% higher in August this year than the year before, while corn prices – the main porcine fodder – increased by 20% compared to last year. Chinese farmers failed to improve the situation in 2020 due to severe flooding. The increased amount of precipitation caused considerable losses of corn and thus the inability to feed pigs. China began to import crops from abroad – particularly, corn from the US. As the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated, China had been importing 195,000 more tonnes of American corn than the year before.

Shuttered diplomatic relations between China and Western states

Some experts claim that Chinese diplomatic relations with such Western countries as Australia, the US and Canada shattered due to the fire of four ballistic missiles on the Indian border on August, 26. These states are China’s major food exporters. If their diplomatic relations with Beijing worsen, then the trade has a high chance of being negatively affected as well. In other words, Chinese imports of crops have the risk of becoming more expensive, meaning that the prices of pork and other goods might rise even more.

Severe flooding and drought

Finally, worsened weather conditions – some parts of China experienced drought, others were hit by flooding – led to a decrease in crops and a significant increase in food prices. Southern, Central and Eastern China underwent a period of heavy rain and the worst flooding in the last hundred years. Excessively high water levels in major Chinese rivers, including the Yangtze River, resulted in the evacuation of 15 million people in July 2020. Moreover, the flooding destroyed 13 million acres of agricultural land, which is estimated to cost at least $29 billion of economic damage. In the meantime Northern (Xinjiang province) and Southwest (Yunnan province) China have gone through a period of severe drought. In April 2020 nearly 1.5 million people in Yunnan province were caught in an emergency situation: shortages of drinking water, damage of hundreds of hectares of crops and livestock. Consequently, the supply of many agricultural goods and pork decreased, which spiked the prices on these goods.

Chinese long-term prospects toward food security

To conclude, immobility, African swine flu, worsened weather and security conditions led to the growing food shortages and increasing food prices in China. This being said, the Chinese government has been working on that problem. It has taken special measures to ensure sufficience of agricultural goods by investing in various disaster relief funds for different crops, particularly rice and wheat. For example, Chinese authorities allocated 1.4 billion yuan to save the agricultural harvest in Hubei province. Due to the substantial loss of agricultural products, China has also increased its imports. General Administration of Customs reported that China’s grain imports rose by 22.7% in July 2020 compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, the Chinese leader took a gentle approach to solve this problem. He did not announce the issues related to the insufficient number of crops; instead, he adopted a program for encouraging people to be more frugal with their eating habits. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences followed the same path as it denied anticipation of a food crisis in the short-term perspective, yet warned about possible food shortfalls by 2025 if no agricultural reforms take place. As of now, China is not on the break of a food crisis; however, its shuttered prospects for long-term food sustainability are subject to dangerous repercussions.

From our partner RIAC

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