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About the project

The East Asia Program conducts research on the politics and foreign policies of the countries of East Asia, with a focus on how domestic politics in these countries shape external behaviour. Researchers focus on China, Indonesia, and Myanmar, and commission work by other scholars on the broader region. The program also holds a robust series of dialogues and events on the politics of the region, independently and in partnership with other organisations.

Photo: Jung Yeon-Je-Pool/Getty Images

Latest publications

Joko Widodo's Indonesia: Control and reform

In this paper for The Economist Intelligence Unit's Hopes and doubts: Perspectives on the long road to Indonesia' economic development, Aaron L Connelly examines Indonesian President Joko Widodo's struggles to assert control over his administration and to embrace reformist economic policies.


What the Washington Post gets wrong about Southeast Asia

The Washington Post editorial board, which has long argued for a vocal and uncompromising emphasis on democracy promotion in American foreign policy, has published an editorial criticizing the Obama Administration's decision to host Southeast Asian leaders at Sunnylands in California later this month.

The editorial rightly points out repressive steps recently taken by some Southeast Asian leaders, but in calling for American diplomacy to be more critical and more selective, it also misses two important dynamics in Southeast Asia, one regarding regional diplomacy and the other regarding the character of states in the region.

First, on regional diplomacy. As the editorial acknowledges, most of the heads of state and government coming to California are concerned about rising Chinese influence and power projection capabilities in the region, which they believe could constrain their ability to choose their own course in the world. They have sought to increase their economic, military, and diplomatic engagement with the US in order to avoid the loss of autonomy that would otherwise come with Chinese hegemony.

The Post understands this much, but objects to the invitation list. 'While the purposes are worthy,' the editorial reads, 'the result of Mr. Obama's initiative will be an unseemly parade of dictators at the Sunnylands resort, including a few long treated as too toxic to be granted the recognition that comes with an official visit to the United States.' Here, the Post errs.

President Obama is not inviting individual leaders to the summit in California; he is inviting the collective leadership of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has played a singular role in the development of East Asian diplomatic institutions. Its rotating presidency chairs the East Asia Summit, the first institution to include all of the region's leaders, and one which forces China to consult with smaller neighbors it might otherwise ignore in a bilateral setting. Moreover, ASEAN has fought off successive attempts by China (and in a particularly odd and less threatening episode, Kevin Rudd) to share or steal its leadership role. Were it not for ASEAN, regional institutions might already be dominated by China.

The Post's objection to the inclusion of leaders from undemocratic countries in the region overlooks ASEAN's importance, and by extension, the importance of institutions in American diplomacy. Beijing may see the region's future as merely a contest of economic and military power. Washington, for whom the institutions of the liberal international order are of critical importance, should not. It is not enough to trade, invest, and send military assistance to Southeast Asian countries. It is essential that we also support the institutions that bolster their autonomy, and thus the liberal order.

With regard to the domestic political situation in the region, the Post makes some sound points, particularly with regard to Thailand and Cambodia. But the situation is not as bleak, or as black and white, as the Post would suggest. Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and tiny Brunei are authoritarian countries, and the electoral and judicial systems in Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Singapore remain stacked against the opposition. But each of the latter four has held free elections in the past five years that presented the real possibility of a change in government, a possibility that will become a reality in Myanmar on March 31. (In Malaysia, the government lost the popular vote but won a majority in Parliament due to malapportionment, a problem the Post will be familiar with).

Opposition parties remain strong and competitive in each of these illiberal democracies. Among the four noted above, Malaysia and Cambodia's leaders have become more repressive in the past year; but the military is about to hand over much of its power in Myanmar, and one could hardly call Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong a dictator. Indonesia and the Philippines, as the Post notes, are democracies.

The Post is correct that some of the more autocratic leaders will use the photo opportunities at Sunnylands to bolster their legitimacy back home. That is unfortunate, but it is also an unavoidable consequence of diplomacy.

As part of that diplomacy, the US should address Southeast Asian countries' shortcomings on democracy and human rights in the most effective way possible: privately. Publicly dressing down Southeast Asian leaders who have flown across the Pacific to meet with President Obama, as the Post suggests, would hardly advance the cause. Effectiveness, not volume, is the standard against which the Obama Administration's efforts should be measured.

In inviting the collective leadership of ASEAN to Sunnylands, the US strengthens regional institutions and supports the liberal international order. Quiet but firm conversations at the summit could support liberalisation on the domestic level, too. The Posts' preference for selective engagement and loud criticism would achieve neither.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gemma I Jere

Mekong: New photos reveal true scale of dam

Xayaburi Dam under construction, July 2015. (Taken from this PP presentation by Pöyry, posted on a Laos government site.)

In an Interpreter post on 14 December 2015 ('What's Happening on the Lower Reaches of the Mekong River?'), I referred to a YouTube video that gave a rare, relatively up-to-date view of the controversial Xayaburi dam being built on the Mekong by the Lao government. Shortly after the post was published, the video was taken down.

Now, in response to enquiries from a Cambodian NGO, I have made a further search to see what, if any, images are available that provide some sense of just how substantial the Xayaburi dam actually is and what construction has been achieved so far. This search has located a Powerpoint presentation by Poyry, the Finnish engineering firm working on the dam, which provides considerable detail for what had been achieved by July 2015 as well as providing a large amount of engineering detail.

As has been pointed out by various commentators in the past, there appears to be a clear conflict of interest in the fact that Poyry has played two roles in relation to the Xayaburi dam, both as the dam's supervising engineer and in providing a positive assessment of its compliance with calls to rework the dam's structure in the light of criticism from Cambodia, Vietnam and a range of NGOs. Some comment on this issue is usefully summarised on Wikipedia.

Any sense that the Xayaburi dam is a minor construction on the Mekong is eliminated in the Poyry Powerpoint presentation. Substantial in size and with untested measures designed to facilitate fish passing through the dam and to minimise the retention of sediment, there seems every reason for the concerns raised by critics to be taken seriously.

How China's world views are manifested in the South China Sea

With the ongoing controversy over China's activities in the South China Sea. it is timely to explore how Chinese worldviews play out in practice. In particular, how they underpin Chinese foreign policy behaviour,  and may do so in the future; and how our own behaviour  may ultimately be counter-productive if we continue to ignore how Chinese see the world.

The key worldviews in Chinese foreign policy are: the century of humiliation; the view of cultural characteristics as being inherent and unchanging; the idea of history as destiny; and notions of filial piety and familial obligation as they apply both inside China and to China’s neighbours.

Overall, these four worldviews add up to a China that believes it is on course to resume the central role it previously played in regional and global affairs, and that the outside world should recognise this. It feels it has been held back from this central role by the US and some US allies, and that these powers will continue to restrict China’s development where they can. 

China’s recent actions in the South China Sea reflect several of these narratives, especially the narrative of history as destiny. According to this view, Chinese actions in the South China Sea reflect its gradual resumption of its rightful and respected place in the region. 

China’s attitude towards the other claimants in the South China Sea reflects the narrative of filial piety and familial obligation. In this view, China’s role is that of a father figure and benevolent overseer of a peaceful region, in which its neighbours willingly and without coercion pay tribute and homage. By the same token, if China’s neighbours do not willingly pay tribute and homage then this is seen to justify taking stronger measures to ensure that this familial order is respected.

The narratives of the century of humiliation and the unchanging nature of cultural characteristics also inform how China sees the role that the United States is playing in the South China Sea. China interprets US actions like its recent freedom of navigation patrol not as some limited exercise to uphold international maritime norms but as part of a long-standing effort to maintain its hegemony and keep China from resuming its rightful place in the world.

China’s recent actions in the East China Sea also reflect the four narratives noted above. China and Japan have had a long-term dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands which flared up again in 2012. In November 2013, China announced the creation of a new air defence identification zone (ADIZ) around the islands. 

In this situation, the narratives of cultural characteristics as unchanging and the century of humiliation are particularly resonant. The focus is very much on Japan and the danger that it is seen to represent to China. This draws on the strong historical memory in China of Japanese expansionism in World War II, a memory that the Chinese authorities have done much recently to revive. Japan is portrayed as naturally imperialistic, expansionist, and untrustworthy.

The four worldviews are not just relevant to understanding Chinese behaviour when it comes to security issues. Both the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One Belt One Road initiatives (OBOR has a land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and ocean-going Maritime Silk Road, and aims to increase connectivity and cooperation among countries, principally in Eurasia) reflect the century of humiliation narrative and the idea of history as destiny. Both are portrayed within China as evidence that China is finally overcoming its period of weakness and vulnerability. As one Chinese academic said to me, these initiatives represent 'a great shift from the idea of just taking care of ourselves'. Rather, they are seen as a way for China to resume its rightful position as a wealthy, strong, and responsible power, at the centre of a web of regional economic interdependence.

A call to understand these worldviews is not an argument for appeasement. In some cases policymakers will need to respond firmly to Chinese actions, even if this may have longer-term costs. In the East China Sea, the strong reaction of the US and some of its allies to China’s ADIZ may well have reinforced narratives of persecution and humiliation.

However, understanding Chinese worldviews can help policymakers to develop responses that do not reinforce the negative aspects of these narratives in ways that are ultimately counterproductive. For example, in China, Washington’s tough response to the AIIB and its ambivalent attitude to OBOR will have reinforced the idea that despite its calls for China to be a responsible stakeholder, no matter what China does on the world stage, the US will always try to curb China’s emergence as a more central actor in the international system.

Ultimately, choices about how the US and its allies respond to China need to be taken on a case-by-case basis. In some cases US and other Western policymakers may see no option but to take action that reinforces the more negative aspects of the Chinese narratives outlined above. In other cases, however, an understanding of these Chinese worldviews can help policymakers to avoid actions that are needlessly counterproductive.

Dr Merriden Varrall's recent Lowy Institute Analysis: China's WorldViews and China's Foreign Policy can be downloaded here

COP21, China's role and developed nations' obligations as reported in Chinese media

By Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia program

Coverage of the Paris climate conference by China's media has been largely positive, with reports portraying China as a driving force in climate negotiations, willing to work with the international community to reach a consensus. So far, views on China's representation at COP21 under the leadership of Xi Jinping are very different to how China's presence at the Copenhagen talks in 2009 was perceived by Western media. Various reports at that time accused China of undermining the conference. In this week's coverage, China's media has focused on the country's domestic and international efforts to fight climate change and made very few comparisons to Copenhagen.

China's U-turn on climate negotiations can be partly explained by worsening pollution. In an ironic coincidence, on Monday, the day COP21 began, the northern areas of China including Beijing, Tianjin, Xi'an and Jinan were blanketed by heavy haze and pollution with an AQI air quality index of 500 (by way of comparison, the average US city has an AQI of less than 100). As Weibo user @???: asked, 'if Beijing wasn't so heavily polluted would our country care about the environment?' As if in response, an editorial in Global Times declared air pollution has acted as a 'warning bell', prompting China to act on climate change and fulfill its responsibility as the world's largest developing country.

An editorial in People's Daily gave an indication of how seriously China's leadership takes the threat of climate change. It stressed the need for the Paris talks to succeed, observing 'we have no plan B because there is no planet B'. Also emphasising China's commitment was a piece in Xinhua that highlighted the many independent and voluntary actions China has undertaken to address the challenge of a warming planet, including instances of international cooperation.

In Xi Jinping's speech to the summit he warned against a 'zero-sum mentality', and called on all countries, especially developed nations, to assume a 'shared responsibility' for climate change. While Xi stated that China's actions are driven by an international 'sense of responsibility', he reiterated the principle of 'common but different responsibility' in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change must be adhered to. China's view is that its contributions will, and should be, different from developed countries.

The need for a Paris agreement to factor in differences between developed and developing countries was echoed in a Xinhua article, which called for an agreement that would reflect different 'national levels of development.' An opinion piece in Global Times also praised China's efforts for 'taking a lead role among developing countries', citing the establishment of the BASIC alliance and China's 20 billion yuan contribution toward a South-South climate change cooperation fund. An editorial in the English language Global Times took an uncompromising approach to the need for developed countries to take a greater responsibility. It contrasted 'China's generosity and dedication' with the actions of some Western countries who try to 'wriggle out of their due moral obligations', while blaming developing countries for blocking a new international treaty. A readers poll in the People's Daily reflected this hard-line attitude: 56% of respondents believed developed countries should accept more responsibility for fighting climate change. 

Other reports suggested China's contribution in Paris had won international approval. As one article in Global Times stated, the international community views China as an 'important contributor' to international climate change negotiations, and a 'positive driver in the multilateral negotiation process.' To further underline the importance of China at the talks, an article in Global Times used the classic technique of citing foreign media reports to support China's position. The article quoted a French media outlet which stated that 'without China's participation the climate talks would have no hope of succeeding.' And, as a visual reminder of China's pre-eminent role, the front page of Tuesday's edition of People's Daily was filled with images of Xi meeting with Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and Vladamir Putin.

Much of the coverage, along with Xi's speech, included rhetoric that has characterised Xi's rule. His reference to building a 'common destiny for mankind', his referral to a 'future of win-win cooperation', and the reference to a 'global green community of common destiny', were all, for example, echoed in a Xinhua article. This suggests the need to take action on climate change is becoming a part of the wider discourse within China.

In contrast to Copenhagen, Chinese leadership appears to have taken a constructive approach at the Paris climate talks. As China continues to rise, it is keen to be seen as a responsible international player contributing to global governance. Acting in good faith at COP21 is one way to demonstrate this. Media coverage that emphasises China's valuable contribution is making sure this international play is not lost on the domestic audience,

Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images

Divergent views: How the Taiwanese and China media reacted to the historic leaders meeting

By Jackson Kwok and Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, interns with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program

Comparing cross-strait coverage of the historic meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore on Saturday, you would be forgiven for thinking that they covered different events. Whereas China's state media was uniform in its praise and pro-reunification stance, Taiwan's media was divided, with a number of articles criticising Ma for leaving Taiwanese democracy out of the discussion.

China's Xinhua News Agency praised the meeting as a success and 'an important step towards achieving national reunification'. Reports portrayed the two sides as brothers in the same family and emphasised a common ancestry. Reunification between Taiwan and the mainland was framed as part of Xi's 'chinese dream' and a goal which would inevitably be realised by the 'tide of history'.

The state-aligned tabloid Global Times used the meeting as evidence that China is committed to regional stability and development. Given regional concerns of tensions in the South China Sea, it argued that Beijing has demonstrated its 'willingness to create peace and common prosperity in good faith'.

But Beijing also used this opportunity to send signals to Washington and Taipei.

An article published in People's Daily on Monday reiterated Beijing's stance that 'the Taiwan issue is in essence China's internal affair'. The article went on to argue that the meeting demonstrated that the 'Chinese people have the ability and wisdom to solve their own problems'. Though the US was never directly mentioned, the message was clear: Washington should stop interfering in what Beijing considers to be a domestic issue.

China's media also had messages for Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. An article published in People's Daily stated Beijing would remain committed to the 1992 Consensus, in which the two sides agreed there is only 'one China'. The article insisted that 'any government in Taiwan must adhere to the consensus' which has formed the 'foundation for the most stable and prosperous period in cross-strait relations'.

Similarly, the Xinhua news agency stated any attempts by DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen to depart from the consensus would constitute 'the greatest threat to cross-strait stability'.

To demonstrate Taiwanese support for the meeting, Xinhua interviewed a number of Taiwanese businesspeople and students engaged on the mainland. Responses from participants were uniformly positive and often conveyed a desire for peaceful reunification.

Taiwanese media, however, told a different story.

An editorial in the Apple Daily, one of the few true 'independent' newspapers in Taiwan, was critical of the meeting between Ma and Xi, suggesting it was only a consensus between Ma's KMT and China's CCP, as opposed to an agreement between all of Taiwan and the mainland.

The editorial described several aspects of the meeting as disappointing.

First, Ma didn't discuss the democratic system in Taiwan. Nor did he engage in talks with the opposition party prior to the meeting which could have 'set a precedence for democratic processes' in future cross-strait talks.

Second, the 'one China' principle dominated the talks. While the 'one China' principle underpins the 1992 consensus, according to the editorial, Ma did not emphasise the 'different interpretations' under which both sides agree to disagree. This omission edged Ma closer to the 'one China one interpretation' policy preferred by Beijing.

An article published in the nominally pro-DPP Liberty Times was also critical of Ma for not emphasising Taiwan's democratic nature. The article concluded that by focusing on 'Chinese nationality and Chinese descendants', Ma had 'silenced' and damaged Taiwan's democracy.

These comments echoed those of the DPP presidential candidate Tsai. In a post on her Facebook page following the meeting she stated that 'Taiwan's democracy and … existence' were left out of the meeting. She accused Ma of 'limiting Taiwan's future' to advance his political legacy.

In response to Tsai's comments and reflecting the perspective of pro-KMT media, an editorial in the pro-China newspaper China Daily censured Tsai for her criticisms of the meeting and expressed 'regret' that she was unable to embrace the occasion. Echoing Chinese state media, the editorial warned that if Tsai is elected it will damage cross-strait relations and make it harder to establish peace in the Taiwan straits.

China's online community was generally positive about the meeting, with many netizens commenting they began to weep when the two leaders shook hands. Online support for the meeting was even the subject of a People's Daily article published on Saturday.

Taiwan's online community was less enthusiastic, with many citizens taking to Facebook to express their anger. However, the majority of comments expressed a belief in the robustness of Taiwan's democratic processes. Many users wrote they were looking forward to the presidential and parliamentary elections in January when they will finally be able to express their opinion via ballot paper.

Following state visits to the US and UK, Xi's historic meeting with Ma has been used to cement his domestic image as a great international statesman. More importantly, the meeting has been used as evidence that Xi and the government are making solid progress towards the revitalisation of the Chinese people. This has meant reassuring domestic audiences that the CCP leadership remains steadfast in its goal of reunifying the motherland, especially when faced by the likelihood of a more pro-independence DPP government in Taiwan.

On the other hand, the reaction to the Ma-Xi meeting in Taiwan highlights what the Taiwanese people value most: their democratic system. Ensuring this remains in place regardless of which party is in power is the primary concern of Taiwanese citizens.

It will be interesting to see how these different factors develop and interact in the lead up to Taiwan's elections in January.

Double trouble: China's bid to increase birth rate is no sure thing

By Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program

China's historic policy change to allow all couples to have two children was presented as an economic imperative, but some believe individual choice, increasingly encouraged to drive consumption, will decide family size in years to come.

China's media has generally portrayed the shift in the family planning policy, announced at the fifth plenum of the 18th Party Congress in Beijing a week ago, as needed to reverse a declining birth rate, combat an ageing population, and sustain economic growth in decades to come.

Since the one child policy was introduced in 1980, life expectancy in China has increased. From 69 years in 1989, it's now 75.4 years. In recent years, the working age population (those aged between 15-59) has fallen, down from 919.5 million in 2013 to 915.8 million this year. China's birth rate has declined to 12.49 (per 1000 people per year), ranking China 159th in the world.

The economic motivation was clear in the policy change announcement, which stated that the Party would 'promote balanced development of the population' while 'allowing a couple to have two children, and actively carry out actions to deal with an aging population'. There was also, of course, the context of the announcement: the change came at the fifth plenum, charged with charting China's economic path for the next five years.

More detail concerning the policy change came in a press conference with the National Health and Family Planning Commission Deputy Director Wang Pei-an. In contrast to Western media reports that China would be 'abandoning' its one child policy, Wang Pei-an said a family planning policy remained 'essential'.

He said the decision to change was not intended to diminish the accomplishments of the former policy, which had made 'remarkable achievements' in controlling China's population. Instead, as this Global Times editorial wrote, the decision to relax the restriction was made after 'objective analysis' concluded it would be in the best interest of the Chinese population and China's economic growth. 

Wang told reporters the policy shift was expected to increase the working age population by 30 million by 2050.

Protecting the legacy of the one child policy was also the goal of another Global Times opinion piece. This stated the change in policy was not a 'total negation of the past policy' which had 'history's best intentions' at its heart. The author urged readers to avoid discussing 'ifs' about the past, and instead look towards the future.

This opinion piece published in Global Times on Saturday also made the economic argument while also taking a mercantile view of the consequences. It said a two child birth policy would be beneficial to China's stagnant real estate market.

In a departure from state owned media, a piece published on Xinhua Wang suggested that the shift in policy was a response to the market-orientated reforms that have occurred in China over the last 30 years. Interestingly, the author was also optimistic that this was the beginning of the end of any family planning policy. The author hoped that the Party would instead alloindividual choice to dictate the fertility rate within China.

In contrast to the positive response from state-owned and state-aligned media, China's online community was more critical of the change. Many Weibo users took umbrage that the state will continue to interfere in their fertility choices. User @ ??? wrote:

The state decides if you can give birth or if you can't give birth based on what they want for the future of the country. Have they ever considered the personal choice of the people? I feel used by the country.

Others lamented that, in the future, they would not only have to look after two sets of grandparents, they would also be responsible for two children. Some wrote they would still only have one child as they could not afford a second.

As China's growth slows, perhaps the biggest factor to influence China's birth rate will be economic forces and their impact on individual choices, as the Xinhua Wang article said. Only time will tell whether or not more couples will choose to have two children, thus reversing the declining birth rate.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Chris