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East Asia

The Extraordinary President



South Korean President Moon Jae-in’spresidency has been extraordinary on several terms. It did not just mark an electoral win with the largest vote share and the quickest transition period in South Korean political history, the first instance of a Liberal acceding power in a decade  but also a novel experiment with Social democracy in a country with a prolonged history of right wing authoritarian regimes. As Moon prepares to bid adieu to the Blue House forever (as South Korea’s Constitution restricts the Presidency to a single term of five years), it is important to reflect on his stint as the 18th President of South Korea.

The Man

Born to refugee parents who fled from North Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953), Moon’s childhood was stricken with poverty as his parents tried hard to make ends meet. He had to stand in queues for hours to receive rations of corn and milk powder distributed by Catholic Churches. Moon grew up to become a political activist fighting for freedom and justice at a time when the authoritarian regime of Park Chung Hee trampled all democratic values promised in the Constitution to pave his way for a lifelong Presidency. His first protest against the regime was in 1969 when Park tried to amend the Constitution and grant himself a third term.

In 1972, the year Moon entered the College of Law at the Kyung Hee University, Park launched his notorious Yushin Constitution which not only banned all forms of political expression including opposition parties, but also dissolved the Parliament and the Judiciary. Like thousands of young students across South Korea, Moon was at the forefront of pro-democracy protests where he met his college mate and future wife, Kim Jung-sook. He was eventually arrested and expelled from the University.

In 1980, he passed his bar exams and finished second at the Judicial Service and Research Institute. He opened a law firm with his friend and another future President, Roh Moo Hyun, through which they provided legal aid to people who could not afford lawyers, particularly factory workers. The two future Presidents actively participated in the 1987 Pro-democracy protests which brought the epoch changing transition to democracy in South Korea. Roh entered politics while Moon chose to stay back in Busan and continue as a lawyer.

Roh became South Korea’s 9th President in 2003 and Moon joined as his close aide, earning the sobriquet “Shadow of Roh“. Roh’s government fell short of the high expectations of the people and disenchanted Moon from politics as he realised he was not fit for public life. However, it was with Roh Moo Hyun’s suicide in 2009 owing to allegations of corruption against him, which were later unfounded, that Moon decided to hold his mantle. Roh’s death did not just shake Moon to the core but South Korean progressives at large who looked towards an uncertain future as the Grand National Party led by Park Geun-hye (former dictator Park Chung hee’s daughter) gained momentum.

Moon contested the Presidential elections in 2012 and lost by a slim margin to Park. However, he won the seat from Busan and entered the National Assembly.

Park’s regime was outlined with gross corruption and repression; however, the worst was yet to come. As she neared the end of her term in October 2016, it was revealed that she not only  actively let an unelected civilian named Choi Soon-sil intervene in political and security issues but also incorporated his economic benefits in her policies. This enraged the South Koreans and a new popular movement called the Candlelight Movement or Chot bul (촛불) emerged. In a country of fifty million, nearly fifteen million hit the streets in peaceful protests to remove Park from office and install a democratic rule. At the forefront was Moon, who had opposed Park’s father 47 years back in a similar fashion. Park’s impeachment was supported by two-thirds majority in the Parliament, confirmed by the Constitution Court in early 2017.

Elections took place as planned in March 2017 and Moon Jae-in won with a massive 41.1% vote share, the largest ever in South Korean history. He assumed office the very next day, becoming the President with the quickest transition in South Korean history.

Grave Challenges

Moon’s support base was predominantly formed by the country’s disenchanted youth. The term ‘Hell Joseon’ (헬조선), which highlighted the plight of South Korea’s capitalist society marked by high unemployment rates, long working hours, discrimination against non regular workers and massive income inequalities, became increasingly popular during 2015. On the home turf, he was faced with the challenge of curbing unemployment, reviving the stagnating economy, levelling inequalities as well as  restoring democratic ideals.

Internationally, he had to rebalance relations with not just an increasingly hostile North Korea but also China, the United States and Japan.

Domestic policies

On Economy

Moon pledged to create more jobs to counter unemployment. He promised to create 810,000 jobs in the public sector, starting from 12000 jobs in the Civil services in the second half of 2017. He planned to create 174,000 civil service positions in national security and public safety; 340,000 in social services and to convert  300,000 non regular workers into permanent employees. Moon’s first appointment after getting elected was with non regular public sector workers of Incheon International Airport when he promised to grant them permanent appointments.

Moon severely criticised the close State-family owned business conglomerate (called Chaebol (재볼)) nexus which he promised to weed out. He pledged to bring in a cumulative voting system that would make it easier for minor stakeholders to place their preferred candidates on the boardroom if they come together. He promised to keep away the Chaebol from sectors better suited for smaller firms and build a transparent system by reforming the top 10 Chaebols. He planned to revamp the ownership structure of the Chaebols and take firm action in embezzlement cases against businessmen as well as illegal transfer of power within their family.

Corruption was a major issue for Moon not just as a pro-democracy activist and human right lawyer but as a close aide of Roh who had suffered deeply due to false allegations of embezzlement.

Moon promised to clean the deep seated irregularities left by the decade-long conservative and corrupt regimes of Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017). He aimed at setting up a special committee to push for confiscation of illegitimately earned wealth of both Park and Choi. He also promised a probe into the Four River Refurbishment project commissioned during Lee’s regime. Furthermore, he pledged to probe into cases of corruption against high level government officers.

People’s President

In his inaugural speech, Moon pledged to relocate the Presidential office to Gunghwanmun in downtown Seoul and promised to be the President who would be  closely linked to his people and not isolated from them.

Struggling with financial difficulties in his early life, Moon realised the importance of social safety nets and their lack in South Korea. In 2017, OECD ranked South Korea  among the worst performers in terms of expenditure for social welfare.

Flaring income chasm between the rich and the poor has created a Sampo generation (삼포세대) who struggle hard to survive and have to give up on courtship, marriage and children as a result. For the past years, South Korea has been facing a downward trend in both marital and fertility rates. To counter this, Moon promised to provide state accommodation and quality jobs to newlyweds. He also promised to expand state run creches, set up village schools, extend parental leave and double the leave pay.

Moreover, he promised to provide financial subsidies to Koreans of all ages. Parents with children upto 5 years of age were promised monthly subsidies worth ₩100,000. ₩300,000 of monthly subsidies were promised upto 8 months to young unemployment people aged 18-34 years and ₩300,000 were promised to elderly aged 65 and above who form the bottom 70% of the income bracket.

Moon also promised to implement a welfarist approach in medical care and expand medical insurance coverage. A separate facility for elderly patients suffering from dementia was also promised.

Reforms in education have been a top priority for Moon. He promised to expand the existing state supported tuition subsidy to both preschool and highschool. He also planned to diversify the school curriculum by letting students choose the electives of their interest instead of studying compulsory subjects. Moreover, he promised to simplify the university entrance procedure so as to increase the number of students in higher education.

Claiming himself to be a “Feminist President“, Moon recognised the lack of women’s participation in the workforce and the wide pay gap among male and female employees. He promised to not only support women entrepreneurs but also provide them good quality jobs and equal wages. Moon refused to support LGBT rights and openly opposed homosexuality.

Working closely with workers for decades, Moon claimed to represent their demands in his election promises.  In fact, the country’s largest umbrella labour union endorsed his campaign. He promised to create a joint platform for workers, managers and the government to negotiate on labour demands. Moreover, he promised to reduce working hours, raise the minimum wage to ₩10,000 by 2020 and appoint irregular workers as permanent employees.

Moon Jae-in also promised to curb pollution due to minute dust particles and pledged to collaborate with China in this regard. He also planned to halt Lee’s controversial Four Rivers project which is alleged to have led to deteriorating water quality and promised to restore the rivers to their natural state.

On Democracy

Being a leader of the pro-democracy movement that enabled South Korea’s historic democratic transition and continuing democratic consolidation, Moon was viewed as the champion of democratic values by many. He promised to reduce the extensive executive powers of the President, who currently stands as the second most powerful President in all of Asia after the President of Kazakhstan, certainly the most powerful when it comes to functional democracies. 

Apart from promising an internal probe into corruption cases against prosecutors and judges, He promised to scale back the monopolistic authority enjoyed by the state prosecution and hand over their ordinary investigative duties to the police. Moreover, Moon pledged to restrict the National Intelligence Services from collecting domestic personal data.

Foreign relations

Moon’s foreign policy revolved around mending relations with both China and Japan, which deteriorated over the installation of THAAD  and of Comfort Women respectively.

North Korea was accorded a special place in Moon’s diplomacy. Unlike his predecessors, Moon did not just realise the importance of dialogue in achieving denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula but understood cooperative relations between the two nations in a much deeper  way. Hence, he promised to negotiate with Pyongyang on the lines of Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy”.

Dubious Legacy

Moon’s Presidency has received mixed reactions.

In terms of employment, the “Jobs President” has not been able to keep his word. In July 2021, the minimum wage was raised to ₩ 9,160 which ruffled feathers among both labour unions and business circles. While the labour unions wanted the minimum wage to be over ₩ 10,000, the businessmen wanted it to be below ₩ 9000. It has also badly affected small businesses which find it hard to employ part time workers. His critics have also labelled his policies as ‘anti-business’ and hence, detrimental to economic growth. Moon granted regular contracts to 9,785 non regular employees of Incheon International Airport within 7 months. The workers of the Korean Railway Corporation fired in 2003 strikes were also reinstated.

However, his decision to regularise non-regular workers has created fissures within the working class as those who were regularised through long periods of service and examinations saw the easy regularisation of the ones with more than 9 months of service as a form of reverse discrimination.

As promised, Moon brought in reforms to curb the power of the Chaebols. The weight of their vote to elect their auditor has been restricted to 3% which loosens family control over the business. Apart from widening the scope of non-family members entering the business, the new laws also allow an independent probe into unlawful business transactions with Chaebol affiliates. Working conditions still remain poor as demonstrated by the October 2021 protest by workers donning the costumes of the popular Korean drama Squid Game to highlight their precarious situation.

Moon’s government passed several housing laws to bring rising real estate prices in the Seoul metropolitan region under control but it has only created hurdles for those below 40 to purchase houses as the prices continue to skyrocket. The Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice revealed that 42 governing party legislators own two or more houses and earned huge profits as a result of rising real estate prices, bringing the intent behind the laws under question.

The “Feminist President” has performed well but still lags in terms of achieving a 50-50 gender representation in government where South Korea performs better than the United States with women forming  22.2% of the government. A major roadblock to reaching the 50% mark is the lack of qualified women candidates for both higher level government jobs and politicians.

Though Moon quickly formed committees to investigate  embezzlement allegations against Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, his own image has not remained untarnished. In January 2019, his public relations manager was charged with a two and a half years of imprisonment over manipulating social media to build a favourable opinion of Moon. His Justice Minister Cho Kuk has also come under fire for corruption allegations.

The 2021 Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Administration report enlisted the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport as the most corrupt ministry, with the Korean National Police Agency, the National Tax Services and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety performing only marginally better.

Moon’s environmental policies have also remained dubious. In October 2020, South Korea declared to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the realisation of which remains under question provided that 40% of its electricity generation depends on coal with only 6% is  dependent on renewable resources. Seoul’s emission targets remain weak and its Green New Deal is more about economy than the environment.

Moon’s Presidency has also failed to live up to his past record of democratic and human rights defense. His government has been accused of abuse of power on several tangents, including reducing the National Assembly to its ‘law passing agency’ where it dominates all 17 of its standing committees. The Moon administration has also circumvented all subcommittee reviews and other consultative procedures as required under the National Assembly Act.

The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) has also been brought under the government’s complete control. The head of the SPO, Yoon Seok-youl, who prosecuted corruption cases related to the Moon administration, has also been harassed on charges that have been unfounded. Moon and his Party have remained silent on sexual harassment allegations against their local government heads including Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.

On the foreign policy front too, things have not been satisfactory. South Korea’s relations with both China and Japan remain rocky. Moon’s agenda of crafting an independent foreign policy has also failed as it continues to tilt towards the US.

Moon’s policy to negotiate with North Korea too has met a tragic end. Hopes were high when Moon met his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un at Panmunjom in April 2018. Several crucial issues related to cultural and economic cooperation were raised as the two leaders embraced each other and walked hand in hand.

It seemed serious commitments on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula were underway when US President Donald Trump met Kim in June 2019 and became the first US President ever to step foot in North Korea. However, all hopes shattered when the Hanoi Summit between Washington and Pyongyang broke down over the issue of unconditional denuclearisation and lifting of sanctions. Pyongyang bombed the Kaesong joint liaison office it had established with Seoul to further cooperation and severed all communication lines. Relations have been strained since then. Moon however did not leave hope.

At the COP 26 meet in Glasgow, Moon called upon North Korea to join Seoul in a joint reforestation campaign but received no response. A fleeting moment of hope came in December 2021 when both sides agreed to call an end to the Korean War (1950-1953), which without a peace treaty, continues in principle. However, North Korea’s rapid missile launches in January 2022 and its claim to restart ‘all abandoned activities’, which might indicate nuclear tests, have hit the relations to an all time low and Moon has drawn considerable flak for ‘appeasing’ Pyongyang by calling for peace.

Covid 19

Moon’s Presidency also encompassed the extraordinary times of the Coronavirus pandemic, the severity and expanse of which took the whole world by surprise. Up until December 2020, South Korea presented the shining model of pandemic control. It was one of the first high income economies to reach pre-pandemic levels and death rates remained low. The miracle was possible because of its “three-T strategy” i.e. early, frequent and safe testing; effective contact tracing and treating patients by segregating mild cases to government monitored centres. South Koreans were also provided with medical kits including oxygen saturation measurement devices and thermometers. Seoul managed well without a stringent nationwide lockdown.

However, cracks soon began to appear in the healthcare infrastructure with the advent of the highly infectious though less deadly Omicron variant as infection rates reached the million mark in February 2022.

The new “select and focus strategy” has been criticised for abandoning people under 60 who are now expected to obtain medical kits at their cost, creating problems for the poorer citizens.

As noted, Moon leaves behind a dubious trail of legacy. For some, he gave way too much than desired; for others, he didn’t do enough. While his views on homosexuality and silence on harassment charges against his aides are disheartening and disturbing,  it must be pointed out that most of his shortcomings stem from South Korea’s liberal democratic and capitalist economic structure. With decades of authoritarian rule including nearly three decades of quasi military dictatorship, South Korean democracy still lies on the lower end of the continuum of democratic consolidation. Governance remains authoritarian, Parties remain weak and Human rights are frequently flouted as abuse of power continues. The capitalist system structurally favours Chaebols to the extent that any attempts at curtailing their power  ends up destabilising the economy. The fissures between the workers too point to a weak collective consciousness as a result of decades of authoritarian rule which furthered a rigorous agenda of workers’ suppression to achieve economic growth.

This applies to the issue of Gender inequality too. The continuation of a blend of  Confucian codes of chastity and feminine morality along with militarist ethos has restricted progress to a small pool of qualified female leaders. The dominant view against homosexuality can also be located in the militarist ethos.

Toeing the line set for it by the United States since its inception in 1948, choosing a foreign policy completely aloof from Washington is a step too radical for the Republic of Korea to achieve, that too in a single term of five years. Moon’s efforts to negotiate with Pyongyang however, have been the most remarkable. Even in failure, he cannot be blamed for not trying. His legacy would last as not just a  fleeting attempt at crafting out a social democracy on a soil with a long tryst with authoritarian regimes but more so as a reminder of what political and economic flaws South Korea retains and how they must be corrected through structural changes. So how does Moon Jae-in go down in history? Till the historians of tomorrow present a better insight, as an Extraordinary President.

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi, India and a current intern at Modern Diplomacy.

East Asia

On Chinese Democracy



China Beijing

In recent years, China has been following the adage that “he who controls the discourse controls the world” with increasing vigour. That is, the first side to describe a given phenomenon, with a new coinage emerging, determines global attitudes towards it. There are two nations, one on either side of the Pacific, the two main economies of the world. Both declare they have a constitutional republican system and respect for human rights. Yet, one is considered a model of democracy and an example to be followed, while the other is seen as an archaic authoritarian system built upon censorship and repression. We are, of course, talking about the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.

As recently as 15–20 years ago, it was generally accepted that the U.S. version of democracy was the model to aspire to, but this is no longer the case. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis and the various reactions thereto around the world, Western journalists are increasingly giving in to the temptation to characterize this period of world history as a struggle between “democracy” (represented by the West, led by the United States, and “correct” non-Western countries such as Japan and Lithuania) and “authoritarianism” (China, Russia and the “enfants terrible of world politics” that joined them). One of the fallouts, therefore, is that there have been new turns to the discussion about whether China’s socio-political system can be called “democracy”.  

Western observers are unanimous in their appraisal: “there’s no democracy in China.” However, the problem is that the very concept of “democracy” (a certain “power of the people”) is fluid. It is much like a “healthy lifestyle”—it is easy to assume that you are leading a healthy lifestyle, while your rival is not. How can you know for sure, though?

Even political analysis falls short. For instance, any researcher who was brought up in the Western paradigm of political science will argue that if there are no direct democratic elections and a separation of powers, this is no “democracy” but something entirely different. Neither exists in China, yet this does not stop Chinese scholars from proclaiming—with no hint of irony—that their country is indeed democratic, only in a distinctly Chinese way.

It is not only the definition of “democracy” that is fluid, so too is the genesis of democratic traditions. For example, it is generally accepted that the Western neo-liberal model can be traced back to the democratic practices of Ancient Greece and that the subsequent history of humankind is a single process of encouraging and improving such practices. However, what most people do not know is that democracy, even in Athens, was an expression of the oligarchic elite’s power at best, and this was done with the help of populism and appeals to the legitimacy of the “popular opinion.” A similar situation was the case with the Veche in medieval Veliky Novgorod. At the same time, proto-democratic procedures (for example, the election of chiefs among nomads or the self-government of agricultural communities in Ancient China) existed among all the peoples of the world in one form or another, and it is a mystery why some practices led to “good democracy,” while others led to “bad authoritarianism.”

Thus, when the Chinese talk about their own “thousand-year traditions of democracy,” they are not paltering with the truth, but sincerely believe it to be true. They call the political system they now have “democratic,” with China’s Constitution containing a reference to “a socialist state governed by the people’s democratic dictatorship, led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants.” Who said democracy was anything other than that? And who endowed someone with the right to decide what democracy is or is not?

It should be noted here that the term “democracy” has long been absent in the Chinese tradition. In fact, the word “minzhu” (民主, “the power of the people” or “the people are the masters”) was brought by Sun Yat-sen from Japan in the early 20th century. This was merely a re-rendering of the Japanese term “mingshu” (民主), which itself came from the Western notion of “power of the people.” The Hanzi and Kanji (which the Japanese originally adopted from China) are identical, but the wording first came from Japanese for a fact—much as the word “gongchanzhui,” 共产主义, meaning communism, as well as other “-zhui”-words (主义), which is something like the English “-ism”—and never appeared in classical Chinese texts.    

On the one hand, the term “democracy” is borrowed, and so too is its understanding. On the other hand, the term has no historical base and can be filled with any content. Or, rather, its understanding can be corrected for the sake of political expediency or local conditions. And that is exactly what has happened to “democracy.”

In China, the term appeared on the eve of the Xinhai Revolution and the overthrow the Manchu-led Qing imperial dynasty. For Sun Yat-sen and his cohort, it was important that the “power of the people” (“minzhu”) was directly opposed to the “power of the sovereign” (“junzhu”, 君主). That is, any political system where the head of state is not the sole sovereign is seen as a democracy. Incidentally, Sun Yat-sen used the word “minquan” (民主, “sovereignty of the people”) in addition to “minzhu” (民主) to denote democracy, although most people consider these terms to be identical.

In any case, if we proceed from Sun Yat-sen’s understanding of democracy, we can say that a democratic state was founded in China in 1912, since power was seized by the party, and the party consists of the people and reflects the interests of the people. This is fundamentally different to the situation where power belonged to the Son of Heaven (the Emperor’s official title).  

Of course, China’s political system of the 1910s to the 1940s—that is, before the Communist Party ascended to power—was far from the high standards of neoliberal democracy. If we were to put a label on it, we would say that it was a combination of the power of the oligarchy and generals, multiplied by the partocracy (the ruling Kuomintang party) and the cult of its leader Chiang Kai-shek. But this, of course, was also called “democracy.”

When the Communists came to power, Mao Zedong wanted to show that China would be a democracy—not the “bad” kind of democracy that reigned under Chiang Kai-shek, but a different, “new” kind of democracy. This “new democracy” (新民主), as it was called, was seen as a stopgap on the way to building a socialist society. It was still a single-party system (only it was a different party that was in power), and the position of leader (Mao Zedong) looked almost indistinguishable from that of emperor in the end.  

The death of Mao Zedong was followed by a series of reforms that laid the foundation for the modern Chinese political system, where elections do take place, although the Party’s monopoly on power remains very much intact. The Chinese people define this phenomenon as “the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class” (a quote from the preamble to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China). It is essentially a partocratic regime based on the one that once existed in the Soviet Union, only reimagined and improved.

One of the most striking features of China’s political system is the absence of the separation of powers. Officially, the only “state power” is the national people’s congresses—the institution through which the people exercise their power under the Constitution. People’s congresses are a multi-layered pyramid, at the very bottom of which direct and quite democratic elections are indeed held. What is more, the higher people’s congresses are made up of members of the lower ones, meaning that the pyramid works as one big filter. Thus, the people actually play an indirect role in the formation of the highest body of state power – the National People’s Congress (NPC).

It just so happens that most members of the people’s congresses at all levels are communists. While some opposition-minded figures may appear as if out of nowhere at the bottom of the pyramid from time to time, they will not make it past the multi-stage filter, and only proven and reliable people will end up in the NPC. The vast majority of these (although not all) are members of the Communist Party. It is only natural, therefore, that they act within the framework of party discipline and go along with decisions adopted by party congresses in the past.

The workings of this system are quite easy to trace if you look at key personnel decisions. For example, the party leadership for the next five years will be elected this autumn at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The new convocation of the NPC will convene somewhat later in March, where the President of the People’s Republic of China will be elected (or re-elected). Therefore, it would be logical to assume that it will be the General Secretary of the Central Committee elected (or re-elected) at the autumn Congress.

Other key appointments will be made in a similar fashion. For example, the second-highest person in the party hierarchy will become the head of government. Is that democratic? If you were to ask China’s idea-mongers, they would tell you that it most certainly is. The NPC is formed as a result of multi-stage elections. Theoretically, parties other than the CPC can compete for a parliamentary majority. But the main thing is that the Party represents the interests of the people, meaning that the power of the party is the “power of the people.”

Are Chinese people aware that their understanding of “democracy” is different from Western standards? Of course they are. Are they about the abandon their system in order to conform to Western standards? Of course not. What is more, Chinese politicians have been actively using the term “democracy” in their official rhetoric and stressing that democracy exists in China too. They do this in defiance of the West and its “monopoly on deciding where there is democracy and where it is absent.” China realizes that the West uses this monopoly to exert pressure on foreign policies of its opponents and seeks to demonopolize this function and achieve parity in the struggle for control over the information discourse at the very least.

This is most evident not in the concept of “democracy,” but rather in the concept of “human rights.” From a Western point of view, human rights are first and foremost the right of the individual to do or have something contrary to or regardless of the interests of society or the state. The classic liberal understanding of human rights is the triad of fundamental natural rights put forward by the British political philosopher John Locke, namely, the right to “life, liberty, and property” (the understanding is that the state was created to guarantee these rights, even though they may be contrary to the interests of the state).

For China, the very notion that the interests of the individual and the state may not coincide is inconceivable. The Western understanding of human rights thus not have any foundation. The Chinese concept of “human rights” (also absent in the traditional political and legal system) is also different. Human rights, as the Chinese understand the term (at least those I have had the chance to talk to), means, first of all, the right to food and a decent quality of life, and the state exists to ensure this. This implies that the highest interests of the state and the highest interests of the individual are one and the same.

Thus, as long as there is economic growth in the country and people are fed and clothed, the Chinese version of democracy and human rights will be supported by its people. And the idea that all the countries in the world will, as globalization marches forward, eventually adopt the Western socio-political system is no longer popular or seen as a given.

After the West emerged victorious from the Cold War at the turn of the 1990s and everyone wanted to be like the winners, it was the United States who perhaps had the moral right to say which countries were “democratic” and which were not, and everyone listened. What is more, both China and Russia sincerely wanted to become a part of the “global West.” But when it became clear that they would never occupy a place other than the periphery in this pro-Western global model, and that Western society had become a prisoner of its own agenda (poorly understood and not at all appealing for the “non-West”), people started to voice their criticism of the West’s monopoly on the right to play the role of arbiter.   

Nowhere can these voices be heard louder than in Russia and China, and to some it may seem that they are singing this tune in unison. At the same time, the two countries have a number of differences and contradictions, and the Chinese political agenda is even less clear than the Western one. Thus, Russia and China should not be lumped together into some kind of “axis of authoritarianism,” not only because there is no military–political alliance between the two countries (this is just a formality), but also because the terms “democracy” and “authoritarianism” are little more than “labels” that rivals in the current political climate tag each other with in the struggle for control over the information discourse.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

Tension prevails after Pelosi’s Visit



Image tweeted by @SpeakerPelosi

Already tense geopolitics are boiling and making the whole world more nervous. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has damaged International politics and heated the tension around the globe. Her visit was opposed by more than 100 countries and equally criticized domestically. Many scholars, intellects, politicians, and civil society is criticizing her visit.

Looking at her profile and past, she was a rigid, hardliner, and non-flexible personality. Her role in American politics is also the same tough. She is not willing to accept others’ point of view and always insist on her opinion, or precisely described – imposing her ideology on others.

The same happened in the case of her Taiwan visit, although there was opposition from within the US as well as globally, in addition to strong warnings from China, yet, she made her visit. It was her deliberate attempt to offend public opinion and spoil the international political environment. Certainly, it has created a lot of adverse impacts, on the global economy, security, and peace.

One-China policy is well recognized and a pre-condition to establishing diplomatic relations with China. There are only 13 countries, that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It means the rest of the whole world recognizes China only and sticks to the One-China policy. Her visit was totally against the One-China policy.

1.4 Billion People in China are offended and public sentiments were ignored. There is tremendous pressure on the Chinese government from the public to protect its sovereignty. Although, China has made tremendous developments on the economic front, technological advancement, and defense capacities. China possesses the ability to capture Taiwan by force. Yet, Beijing has never used military options. China is a responsible state, and very mature in its international affairs. It always kept on convincing for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan with Main Land through dialogue. China has introduced “One Country, Two Systems” to manage Hong Kong and Taiwan, and is always willing to offer a similar option to Taiwan, even a high degree of autonomy.  If Taiwan thinks smartly, can bargain more concessions and favors from China, but, ultimately have to reunify with the mainland.

The implication of her visit and its consequences must be serious, but, to describe it precisely, may not be possible at this stage, the immediate actions taken by Beijing are as:-

1. Canceling China-U.S. Theater Commanders Talk.

2. Canceling China-U.S. Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT).

3. Canceling China-U.S. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) meetings

4. Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on the repatriation of illegal immigrants.

5. Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on legal assistance in criminal matters.

6. Suspending China-U.S. cooperation against transnational crimes.

7. Suspending China-U.S. counter-narcotics cooperation.

8. Suspending China-U.S. talks on climate change.

The big Military exercise is ongoing in the Strait of Taiwan, where China is using live ammunition and using all three forces, Land, Air, and Navy, very close to Taiwan. In fact, surrounds Taiwan closely.

What other measures or reactions will China take, is not known yet. As China is an inward society and does not reveal what they are planning or thinking, so one may not guess precisely. China believes in doing more but beating the drum less (Less Shouting). It is well understood that Taiwan is a very sensitive issue for the Chinese nation and the reaction must be very serious.

The adverse impact of the Ukraine war is already harming the global economy and if something goes wrong in this region, the price has to be paid by the whole world. China is a World Factory and provides almost 70% of consumer products to the rest of the world. The price offered by China is incompatible and meets the needs of a majority of the middle and lower middle class of the whole world. Only filthy rich people can afford expensive products, but, China caters to the absolute majority.

In case of crisis, the developing and underdeveloped nations will suffer severely. Poverty will jump globally and the masses will be deprived of consumer products. The world will be divided into more blocks. China will be more close to Russia and the cold war may revive once again.

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East Asia

BRICS – How Will the Organisation Get a ‘Second Wind’?



BRICS, which was rapidly gaining momentum in the first decade of its operation, has, expectedly, over the past few years faced a certain crisis in its development (this crisis is understood not as a decline, but as a turning point, a transitional situation). At the level of official discourse, the word “crisis” was never used; the rhetoric continued to be predominantly optimistic, however, the expert community has increasingly called for a rethinking of the role of the association, overcoming the mounting internal contradictions. The very logic of the development of any association implies that periods of growth, expansion of the agenda, the predominance of centripetal forces, and crises will alternate, and that it is necessary to look for new foundations for rapprochement. The reasons for slippage, as is always the case, have been both external and internal. On the one hand, a fundamental transformation of the globalisation process has begun (and this process is only gaining momentum); there are calls for the basic principles and mechanisms which bring the BRICS countries together to undergo reform. This challenge is facing all global multilateral organisations today; BRICS is not unique here: the WTO, the G7, the G20, and even the UN and its structures — all of them are faced with the loss of their status as universal platforms for overseeing the global rules of the game. For BRICS, on the one hand, this is a problem of self-identification, since the countries have advocated the transformation of global mechanisms imposed by developed countries. At the same time, it is also an opportunity to “rebuild” the association, turning it into an alternative, new platform for uniting the entire developing world. The latter scenario inevitably implies the expansion of the union, both by accepting new members (which is already happening), and in the BRICS+ format that has become a permanent issue for the current Chinese presidency in 2022.

The difficulties of the BRICS were also caused by internal reasons. The test for BRICS was 2020, when the association, contrary to expectations, did hardly anything to assist in countering the COVID-19 pandemic. While initially considered a club of the most dynamic economies, the union of five countries has become internally highly heterogeneous. China and India continue to vie with each other as leaders of economic growth, while Brazil, South Africa and Russia have witnessed a systemic crisis since the mid-2010s, when the fall in GDP alternates with stagnant growth. Economic difficulties in Brazil and South Africa have led to a change of elites. The new leaders have sought to critically rethink their goals and priorities in unification. However, today BRICS is no longer a club of growth leaders, and the ability of the candidate countries to effectively participate in solving the most acute current problems facing the developing world — the energy and food crises — is coming to the fore. In many respects, these considerations have dictated China’s desire to include Argentina and Iran in the union, despite all the well-known problems facing the economies of these countries.

The aggravation of contradictions between China and India, and along the China-Brazil line, has also led to a slowdown in active work in the BRICS. The rise of China, securing for it the role of the “main sponsor” of the BRICS (primarily as the main founder of the New Development Bank) presents a kind of challenge for Beijing, since the line between leadership and dominance, as the experience of other associations shows, is usually very thin. The accumulated dissatisfaction with the real results of the decade-long work of the association has also made its contribution: many initiatives, including the task of strengthening the voice of developing countries and reforming the global regulatory institutions, still remain only slogans.

To understand the prospects for BRICS, it makes sense to look at the evolution of approaches to unify the current government in Brazil. The victory of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 was perceived by some experts as a moment of risk for the five, as the new elites in power made no secret of their desire to place their main stake on rapprochement with the United States. The negative scenarios did not materialise. However, Brasilia did significantly rethink its priorities, goals and objectives. Unlike his predecessors from the leftist camp (Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff), Bolsonaro was not close to the idea of uniting the Global South under the banner of reshaping the world order. However, more pragmatic, technocratic areas that are objectively beneficial to the country (technological cooperation, the fight against organised crime, digitalisation and the Development Bank) were chosen as priorities in the year of Brazil’s chairmanship in 2019. Paradoxically, such a narrowing of the agenda played a rather constructive role in the development of BRICS, since the quality of the elaboration of joint decisions was so high that Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, Sherpa of the Russian Federation in the BRICS, even commended the brilliant organisation of the work, saying that there were far more specifics than general declarations. Paraphrasing the famous phrase of Alexander Gorchakov, one can say that the Brazilian presidency allowed BRICS to focus, to replace the extensive growth of the agenda of previous years with intensive progress in really important and compromise-driven areas.

The arrival of the Joe Biden administration in Washington in 2021 has led to a cooling of the enthusiasm among the Brazilian elites regarding the prospects for rapprochement with the United States. In Brasilia the incumbent American President’s threats, made during the election campaign, were well-heard: to impose sanctions against the Tropical Giant if it does not reconsider its policy toward the Amazon River. Bolsonaro is also worried about the inclusion of environmental issues in the NATO agenda. That is, the increased attention of the military alliance in the Amazon region is not ruled out, which is traditionally an extremely sensitive topic for Brazilians. In this context, the Brazilian leader is revisiting his previously restrained approach to the BRICS, recognising its importance and strategic significance for the country as a tool to counter isolation in the event that the risks of worsening relations with the US and the EU materialise. Following this logic, Bolsonaro today advocates expanding the association, including within the framework of BRICS +, and in official speeches he speaks of the need to reform the World Bank, IMF and the UN Security Council, which was difficult to imagine a few years ago.

Geographic expansion

Expansion through the inclusion of new full members has been talked about since the first years of the BRICS. Since the concept of BRICS as an alliance of civilizations initially prevailed, where each macro-region is represented by one leader, the inclusion of a large Islamic country was most likely. Indonesia, as the world’s largest Islamic country in terms of population, and Egypt were usually considered. The recent application for the entry of Shiite Iran alters this logic, since, apparently, when inviting Tehran to the recent 14th Summit, China was guided by the exceptional importance of the country precisely from the point of view of its energy potential as one of the leaders in hydrocarbon reserves.

The possibility of Argentina joining the BRICS was also discussed for a long time, but Brazil was interested in maintaining its role as a regional leader, representing all of Latin America. The possibility of competition from Buenos Aires did not rouse enthusiasm among the authorities of the Tropical Giant, even during the reign of the left, despite the friendly relations between the countries at that time. Argentina then did not yet face the economic problems that it is experiencing today; the country’s economy was one of the most dynamic in the region. At present, the countries are going through a difficult period in the history of their bilateral relations; the leaders have no trusting, friendly contact. In BRICS, any decision on the admission of new members is made by consensus, but how easy it will be to get the support of the Brazilian authorities for the entry of Argentina remains a big question. Argentina’s entry into the association will not only exacerbate political rivalry; the countries are the largest food producers, competing in many markets. The appearance of a second country from one continent in BRICS will finally move the organisation away from its original concept of uniting the political and economic leaders of their continents (or civilizations). However, these challenges also present opportunities. The new global situation requires developing countries to push old grievances to the background, so that they may work on the task of increasing the representative nature of the BRICS, expanding its potential in addressing the food and energy crises.

Without Argentina, achieving this goal will be much more difficult, since together the two Latin American countries are able to provide food for more than 1 billion people. Participation in the BRICS of another state of the region, especially a partner in Mercosur, despite the competition, creates more opportunities to convey the Latin American agenda and priorities.

At the time of writing, Jair Bolsonaro had not officially commented on his decision to support or not support the entry of Argentina, while the statements were limited to the words of the Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes about the possibility of connecting Buenos Aires to the New Development Bank. However, the mere fact of the official application for membership may indicate that there may be some informal arrangements between Brasilia and Buenos Aires.

The inclusion of new full members of the BRICS is a long process, which, even with the consent of all participants, could take several years. The Chinese approach to foreign policy is traditionally characterised by flexibility and action on several tracks at once. It is this “second track” that BRICS+ is intended to become. There are two approaches to the implementation of cooperation within the framework of this format. The approach of Russia is known, which promoted the concept of “integration of integrations”, which implies the cooperation of integration projects, where the participating countries are leaders (EAEU, Mercosur, South African Customs Union). China could participate through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. If to consider the concept of “integration” precisely as a formalized process of trade liberalisation, then at present individual regional integration blocs would really be interested in implementing deep forms of integration, for example, through the signing of free trade agreements (FTAs). Mercosur, having signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the EAEU, consistently offers the Eurasian bloc the opportunity to start trade negotiations. China would also be interested in rapprochement with all associations, but many countries see significant risks from such agreements for their producers. It may seem paradoxical that the “integration of integrations” format was promoted by Moscow, whose foreign trade policy is conservative; the EAEU has only a few FTAs with third countries. Despite the optimism of many experts about the prospects for establishing such a network of trade agreements between integration blocs, the author sees such breakthroughs as unlikely in the medium term. Today, in many countries or associations, there is a growing demand for closeness and the protection of national producers in order to achieve greater industrial and technological independence. The willingness to actively cooperate in creating a common financial or logistics infrastructure does not mean the willingness of Brazil, Russia or perhaps Argentina to open their markets and increase competition with imports from China.

China’s approach to the implementation of the BRICS+ format implies rather a “union of regionalisms”, when not trade blocs, but regional associations (SCO, CELAC, African Union) participate in the dialogue. China has established a dialogue with all these organisations (or being a member); there is a broad agenda of cooperation related to economic, political, scientific and technological areas and other topics. Obviously, the advantage of the Chinese approach is flexibility, as there is no need to talk about trade agreements by imposing rigid standards. The only formal obstacle to the implementation of the model today is the non-participation of Brazil (by Bolsonaro’s decision) in CELAC since 2019, the return of the country to the organisation has not yet been discussed. However, it is possible to expect that the position of the Brazilian leader in a reasonable perspective will change amid disappointment in the stalled rapprochement with the United States. A softening of the position is also noticeable in relations with the left-wing radical governments of Latin America, primarily Venezuela (it was precisely the preservation of this country’s participation in CELAC that became the reason for Brazil’s withdrawal). In any case, the decision on the possible resumption of participation in the regional union, if it is made, looks most likely after the elections in October 2022. If the left-wing politician Lula da Silva wins, the country’s return to CELAC can be considered a foregone conclusion. Therefore, Beijing is ready to bide its time. Chinese approaches to diplomacy and international politics are known for their strategic vision for the long term, the current formal obstacles to the implementation of their plans are perceived as temporary, and simply to be waited out. When communicating with our Chinese colleagues dealing with the topic of BRICS, one can feel a similar conviction in the objective mutual benefit and usefulness of the format for all participants.

New realities — new agenda

In the year of its presidency, China was noted not only for initiatives to expand the BRICS; it also significantly developed the agenda, including 23 priorities in 5 areas. There have not been such a number of initiatives within the BRICS for a long time, although most areas of work continue to develop the previous priorities. However, attention is drawn to the surprising similarity of the agenda of all major international forums in 2022. For example, within the framework of the 9th Summit of the Americas, held in early June under the chairmanship of the United States, Washington promoted an agenda that included the problems of post-pandemic recovery, combating the food and energy crises, cooperation in the field of healthcare, innovation, security, ecology, and trade. The intersections with China’s priorities in BRICS are significant. Washington’s main message during the Summit can be formulated as a desire to limit the presence of external players in the zone of their traditional interests. China, which did not participate in any way at the Summit of the Americas and was not mentioned by US officials in speeches, was in fact invisibly present. During his keynote speech at the opening of the forum on June 6, Joe Biden, after the announcement of new proposals for cooperation, emphasised, clearly in defiance of China, that the Western Hemisphere has enough of its own resources to solve all its main problems. The competition of the main financial development instruments is also obvious. For example, the United States promised to capitalise the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) as it is concerned about the growing presence of the Chinese New Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank, financed mainly by Beijing.

Certain signs of rivalry with China can also be seen on the agenda of the 48th G7 summit at the end of June. Developed countries, largely in opposition to the Chinese Belt and Road project, announced their own infrastructure development project in developing countries. There was also talk about the food crisis and assistance to poor countries in counteracting rising prices, where Argentina was also invited to participate. The Western countries and China are entering into intense competition for the developing world, where aid and development programmes will become the main tool, and the developed world is playing the role of catching up in many respects.

For Russia, such a transformation and expansion (geographical and thematic) of the BRICS is obviously beneficial. The intensification of work on the creation of independent financial mechanisms (a new international currency, a pool of reserve currencies, the BRICS Pay payment system) is of interest not only to Moscow, which seeks to reduce its dependence on the monetary infrastructure of the West. The possible inclusion of new members, like Argentina and Iran, demonstrates the failure of the policy of isolating Russia. The Kremlin is ready to move away from the previous logic of the BRICS, when the association was emphatically positioned neither as an alternative to the West, nor as a coalition against it. Today, such positioning is no longer relevant for Russia and China. The latter confirmed this by inviting Iran to participate in the Summit, a country that is in a long-standing conflict with the US, but at the same time has almost 9% of the world’s oil reserves and 17% of its natural gas.

However, such an anti-Western projection of the BRICS is not beneficial to all its participants. Significantly, India, as well as candidate Argentina, took part in the G7 Summit. Argentina depends on the position of the IMF because of its debt problem; it discusses the possibility of obtaining assistance from developed countries. India seeks to pursue a multi-vector policy by participating with the US, Japan and Australia in the Quadripartite Security Dialogue (QUAD). Its interest in achieving the common goals of improving global regulation and interaction for the sake of development does not mean that all BRICS members are ready to oppose the countries of the West. Realising the positive chances from the emerging new period of growth of the association, all countries need to remain diplomatic in promoting their priorities, and seek a delicate balance that will give the BRICS the required stability in the next development cycle.

from our partner RIAC

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