Authors: Alexandre Uehara and Moises de Souza
The quantity and dimensionality of problems inherited by a sober and discrete Yoshihide Suga as the first new Japanese Prime Minister in almost a decade will demand that “Uncle Reiwa,” as the statesman is known, employ the skills that he has so amply demonstrated in the past: the ability to negotiate and find elegant solutions to complex questions. Suga’s competence as a negotiator was recognized as an important factor behind the success of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which entered into force on December 30, 2018. This agreement—considered doomed to failure after US President Donald Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the TPP in January 2017—succeeded largely thanks to the vital leadership and tenacity of Japan, with Suga playing a key role behind the scenes. Suga also took the lead during the EU and Japan’s Economic Partnership Agreement signed in 2019, considered by many as another example of outstanding negotiating performance. With such a resumé, these skills and experience proved critical in Suga’s victory in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership race, enabling him to garner support from a wide array of sources, ranging from LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai to various factions within the Komeito, a partner in the coalition government.
The question now is whether his past performance can be replicated as Suga targets the current challenges that so recently have fallen into his lap. He is taking the helm at a delicate moment for Japan, with uncertainties that will force him to show, domestically and abroad, what kind of leadership Japan will enjoy after a larger-than-life figure like Abe Shinzo steps down. And these challenges are coming from all quarters: the economy, public health, and regional security, just to name a few. Each of them has the potential to shape the future of the nation and the reputation of its prime minister, and certainly Yoshihide Suga is no exception. On top of that, legacy problems remain. On the one hand, the implicit promise of continuity with Shinzo Abe’s policies played a crucial role in winning the LDP the elections: on the other, this very factor is an element of concern, since opinion polls were already detecting signs of decline in the popularity of Abe’s cabinet. If Suga has any political ambition left, he cannot afford to make any mistakes in the short- and medium-term.
On the domestic front, there are two important and interrelated problems: The COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. These coterminous phenomena essentially represent a contradiction between uncertainty and reality. While few in Japan are clear about whether the current pandemic will turn into an ongoing ebb-and-flow in terms of virus contagion rates, the economic impact as a result of the response measures is already real. The profound effects have been translated into a new period of recession this year, an experience with which the Japanese a real ready very familiar, given their recent past. To make matters worse, the medicine intended to heal the wounds of economic recession was neutralized by the virus. Operating under the old adage that you have to spend money to make money, Tokyo expended over US$5 billion, with plans to spend US$2 billion more in 2020,to prepare the city to host the Olympic Games. Prospects showed that these investments would pay off. According to a report published in June 2020, it was projected that the Olympics would impact the Tokyo economy alone to the tune of almost US$190 billion, with a spill over effect on the overall Japanese economy of nearly US$300 billion and a potential impact of 0.2% of its GDP. Based on the same prospects, Japan signed an accord in 2013 with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), assuming total responsibility to bear all the costs alone in the (at that time improbable)event that the games would have to be postponed. Well, in what one might call the Forest Gump Effect, to wit: “life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get,” the games were indeed postponed. Investors, according to reporting by Bridgestone, reported losses of around US$3 billion so far as a result of the postponement. It also affected the IOC, which registered losses of more than US$800 million. For Japan’s economy, Goldman Sachs is calculating losses of about US$5.1 billion in terms of domestic consumption alone. Suga will have to find a solution for this imbroglio, which even Abe could not or did not have time to figure out.
In the international arena, Suga—like all Japanese Prime Ministers before him—will have to walk a tightrope, executing a delicate balancing act between Beijing and Washington. So far, his biggest challenge is to find his place amid the rising tensions between Japan’s two most important trading partners. On paper, the logic is simple: Tokyo has developed initiatives to strengthen its alliance with Washington concerning security, without hurting its bilateral trade with Beijing. In recent decades, the latter has become increasingly economically important to Japan. In practice, this is not an easy job for two reasons: First, the erratic temperament of Donald Trump and the tendency of his administration to play hardball even when negotiating with partners. The trade deal negotiated in 2019 stands as a case in point: Essentially, Japan walked away from the negotiating table with a commitment to give the United States access to its agricultural market in exchange for a vague promise that the Trump administration would not consider Japanese auto imports a “national security threat.” On top of that, Trump made it clear that he still wants Japan to pay for the American military bases on Japanese soil.
The second reason comes from Japan’s powerful neighbour, with an increasingly assertive China under Xi Jinping. In November 2019, after China proudly displayed its new ballistic and hypersonic cruise missile system, Taro Kono (then foreign minister and now the minister for administrative reform and regulatory reform) publicly demanded that Beijing make its military budget and strategic goals transparent, to avoid raising the level of alarm and anxiety in the region. In addition, a few weeks after taking the center seat, Suga had to deal with the presence of two Chinese ships in the disputed waters of the East China Sea—a practice that has been taking place more and more frequently since Xi became chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. It is exactly these episodes of Chinese assertiveness that motivated Yoshihide Suga to choose Vietnam and Indonesia as the destinations for his first official diplomatic trip as prime minister. As much as Abe did, Suga intends to strengthen security ties with both Southeast Asian nations. This, tempered with a degree of restraint in the use of strong anti-Chinese rhetoric, is intended as a clear signal to Beijing: the rules of the game haven’t changed, with or without the presence of Abe Shinzo.
Using the same logic, Suga did not alter the basis of Japan-Taiwan relations that developed so fruitfully on Abe’s watch. In fact, besides working for close relations with Taipei, Abe also developed a friendship with Taiwan’s current President Tsai Ing-wen. Suga’s decision to appoint Abe’s brother, Nobuo Kishi, as defense minister was a clear signal to China that, with regards to Taiwan, it will be business as usual in Tokyo despite the transfer of power. It a secret to no one in Japan (or in China, for that matter) that Kishi enjoys close ties with Taiwan, a place he has visited several times over the years, including meetings with President Tsai, as representative of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The last visit took place on the occasion of the funeral of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in August 2020. Such proximity makes Kishi the most trustworthy channel of communication between conservative Japanese leaders and Tsai, as well as with the Taiwanese elite itself. In response to Nobuo Kishi’s appointment, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a statement that the new minister of defense of Japan must “abide by the one-China principle and refrain from any form of official exchanges with the Taiwan region.”
Few specialists in Japan believe that Yoshihide Suga will have as long a mandate as his predecessor Abe Shinzo. Despite being technically qualified, Suga still lacks enough political juice to retain the position of prime minister beyond the general elections that must take place in one year’s time. The tide may eventually turn in favour of Suga-san, depending on how well he and his new cabinet manage the daunting challenges that they inherited from the previous administration. More than mere negotiation skills are needed, however, and there is no doubt that Suga will have to make some tough decisions that will come to define, in a large measure, his political future post-2021.
Who would bell the China cat?
If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.
China’s tit-for-tat response
The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”
Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20.
Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.
India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.
India’s main problem
Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.
Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.
The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is thrice the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.
Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).
India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”
It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.
History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.
Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell
While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.
In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world. No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development. Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.
Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.
Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’. More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report. It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.
The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.
People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps. Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’: The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful. Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat. Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.
Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates. Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.
Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless. Wake up at 5am. Make bed — it had to be perfect. A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am. Then to the classroom. Back to the canteen for lunch. More classes after. Then dinner. Then more classes before bed. At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted. You never see sunlight while you are there, they said. That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.
The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.
Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China. If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case. Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds. He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president. President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi. His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified.
An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China. Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era.
Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident
Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.
Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020
One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.
It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.
The LAC as an idea
Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.
The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.
In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.
Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.
What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?
One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.
The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.
For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.
Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.
The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.
By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.
Diplomacy is gone with the wind
All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.
The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.
India’s diversification of fronts
Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.
Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.
Economic ties, yearning to decouple
Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.
Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.
But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.
The broader picture
The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.
Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’
The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.
India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.
Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.
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