Asia in Review Archive 2020 (January – June)

China (People’s Republic)

Date of AiR edition

News summary

18 February 2020

China and USA cut tariffs  

(dql) In line with the “phase one” deal signed in January, the United States last week cut tariffs from 15% to 7.5% on 120 billion USD of Chinese imports in exchange for Beijing’s pledge to purchase U.S. goods and services over the next two years by minimum 200 billion USD. [Kyodo News]

China, meanwhile, announced earlier this month that it will cut its retaliatory tariffs on some U.S. goods worth 75 billion USD by February 14. [AiR No. 6, February/2020, 2

In a latest development, Beijing on this Tuesday announced that it will accept applications for new tariff exemptions for almost 700 products imported from the United States. [South China Morning Post]

18 February 2020

China and USA clash at Munich Security Conference

(dql) At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, both China and the USA appeared eager to sell their respective visions of global order while bashing on each in stark rhetoric. 

Dispersing concerns over cracks in the relationship between the USA and Europe, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected claims about the erosion of the transatlantic alliance as “grossly exaggerated.” He cited NATO’s pressure on Russia, unanimous support for Washington’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on grounds of Russian treaty violations, pressure on China’s aggression in the South China Sea, and sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program as examples of the continued strength of the transatlantic alliance and insisted that the “West will win, and we will together,” adding with regards to China that “Western values would prevail over China’s desire for ‘empire’.” [Voice of America]

Defence Secretary Mark Esper, meanwhile, claimed that “[u]nder President Xi’s rule, the Chinese Communist Party is heading even faster and further in the wrong direction,” citing ‘[m]ore internal repression; more predatory economic practices; more heavy-handedness; and […] a more aggressive military posture.” He urged the international community “to wake up to the challenges presented by Chinese manipulation of the long-standing international rules-based order.” 

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed Washington’s criticism as “lies”, accusing it in return of not willing “to see the rapid development and rejuvenation of China” and “to accept the success of a socialist country.” Claiming that China’s modernization was an unstoppable historical necessity, he demanded the West to “eschew the subconscious belief in the superiority of its civilization and abandon its prejudices and anxieties regarding China.” [CNBC] [China Daily]

In a surprisingly frank way, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticized both the USA and China for “moving further and further away from the goal – international cooperation in order to create a more peaceful world.” Referring to “an increasingly destructive dynamic in international politics” in the wake of “great power competition”, he blamed the USA for “reject[ing] the very concept of an international community” and for pursuing being “’Great again’ – even at the expense of neighbours and partners,” and China for being “selective in accepting international law only where it does not run counter to its own interests.” [bundespraesident.de]

18 February 2020

China: Xi critic detained

(dql) Chinese rights activist Xu Zhiyong, an outspoken critic of the Chinese government who recently accused President Xi Jinping of being incapable of handling crises China’s is facing, including the trade war with the USA, the political crisis in Hong Kong, and the ongoing Covid-19 public health crisis, and demanded that he steps down, [AiR No. 6, February/2020, 2] was detained by authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou. [Radio Free Asia]

Xu has been hiding since December after police in December raided a secret gathering to discuss democratic transition of the country in which he took part. [AiR No. 1, January/2020, 1]

In a related development, a Chinese professor who criticized the Communist Party leaders for failing to control the coronavirus outbreak, was put under house arrest for several days last week. He is currently denied any internet access while his account has been suspended on the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat. [The Guardian

18 February 2020

China/Hong Kong: Xi ally at helm of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office

(dql) Beijing last week appointed Xia Baolong, a vice-chairman and secretary general of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s highest advisory body, as director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. 

Widely regarded as a trusted ally of President Xi, Xia served as deputy party secretary of the province Zhejiang under Xi from 2003-2011 before becoming the province’s party chief in 2012. 

Along with Xia’s appointment, Luo Huining, a cadre credited with having successfully enforced Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in Shanxi province who was appointed as head of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong in January, [AiR No. 1, January/2020, 1] was appointed one of the deputy directors of the office. [Xinhua]

Beijing’s move raised concerns among pan-democrats in Hong Kong’s legislature over the central government’s hardened stance on Hong Kong policy. Commentators and analysts view Xia’s appointment as Beijing’s attempt to strengthen oversight of the Hong Kong and the political crisis there which has been frozen in the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic. [South China Morning Post

11 February 2020

India-USA relations: Tightening relationships to counter China as global power

(tk/jk) President Trump is expected to visit India in late February and sign a limited trade deal with Modi which will be a significant rapprochement after more than a year of escalating tariffs and counter-tariffs. The premise of this relationship is to balance the offensive emergence of China seeking to expand its global reach. 

For President Trump, who has been facing an impeachment trial and is beginning his re-election campaign, even a modest deal with India would allow him to tell voters that his tough talk on trade is working. For Modi, it could help to counter India’s economic slowdown and ease perceptions that his nationalist government is hostile to foreign companies.

Some protestors in India fear an intensification of Modi’s Hindu nationalism as a threat to India’s secular democracy by close relations to President Trump who appeared sympathetic to Modi after he revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and passed a controversial citizenship law that excludes Muslims. At the recent “Howdy Modi” event in the US, Trump said: “India and the United States understand that to keep our communities safe, we must protect our borders.” [The New York Times] [AXIOS]

India already made the first step in this relationship by giving final approval to a $2.6bn deal to buy military helicopters from a United States defense firm. Those helicopters are meant to help the Indian navy track submarines in the Indian Ocean, where China is rapidly expanding its presence. [Al Jazeera]

On a related, yet more domestic note, India has disappointed observers of its defense posturing when India’s finance minister presented the country’s budget earlier in February. The country’s defense budget increased by 5% from last year, but considering inflation observers call this “a cut in real terms” and nowhere near enough to even attempt to address the structural challenges that are there. 

In addition, with an eye on naval competition in the Indian Ocean, the allocations for the various military services remain concerning. The army has received 56, the air force 23, and the navy only 15 percent of the budget. At any rate, at only 1.5 % of GDP overall, India won’t be making any major strides towards modernization of its military any time soon. [Asia Times] [Observer Research Foundation]

11 February 2020

Cross-strait relations: Chinese warplanes cross median line in Taiwan Strait

(dql) Taiwan’s air force scrambled after Chinese warplanes on Monday crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait on their way to the western Pacific. While Taiwan denounced the move as threat to regional peace, reassuring that it will not bow to China’s threats, the People’s Liberation Army announced that its forces carried out the drills “to further refine and test their multi-service joint combat capabilities.”

The incident came as Taiwan’s vice-president-designate William Lai Ching-te concluded his week-long ‘private’ visit to the US. He has been considered the highest-level Taiwanese official to meet with National Security Council officials since the US switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979. [The Diplomat][Aljazeera][South China Morning Post]

11 February 2020

China-USA trade relations: Beijing to cut tariffs on US goods

(dql) Signaling efforts to implement the recently signed ‘Phase One’ trade deal [AiR No. 3, January/2020, 3], China announced last week that it will cut tariffs by February 14. While Beijing will reduce tariffs on 75 billion USD worth of American goods. [Reuters]

11 February 2020

China-USA relations: Chinese military officials charged over massive data hack

(dql) US federal prosecutors announced charges against four Chinese intelligence officers accused of hacking the credit-reporting giant Equifax back in 2017 exposing sensitive financial records of almost 150 million Americans and many other foreigners. [New York Times]

Beijing denies the allegations, insisting that “the Chinese government, military and relevant personnel never engage in cyber theft of trade secrets” while accusing in return Washington of “cyber intrusion, surveillance and monitoring activities on foreign governments, institutions, enterprises, universities and individuals, including on its allies”. [Xinhua]

11 February 2020

China/Hong Kong: Commemoration of death of student ends up in violence between protesters and police

(dql) Protesters and police clashed past Saturday when around 100 protesters gathered to commemorate the death of a university student who died from the injuries after falling at a car park last November while police were carrying out a dispersal operation nearby by firing tear gas. The protesters shouted anti-government slogans including “Five demands, not one less” and “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times.” [South China Morning Post]

11 February 2020

China: President Xi faces demands to step down

(dql) In the wake of the outbreak and spread of the corona virus, China’s leadership including President Xi Jinping has become target of domestic criticism. Chinese scholars blamed the government and even demanded Xi to step down for failing to control the epidemic and for being unable to handle this and other major crises including the trade war with the USA and the Hong Kong protests. [South China Morning Post]

The critics came amid a nationwide outcry on social media against the government for silencing the doctor who in December warned of a deadly virus and last week succumbed to the virus. Instead of following his warning up, he was summoned by the police for spreading rumors and told “stop making false comments”. [BBC]

In his account on Beijing’s management of the public health crisis, focusing on the newly established ‘Central Leading Small Group for Work to Counter the New Coronavirus Infection Pneumonia Epidemic’, John Dotson argues that “CCP central leadership has been caught off-guard by the virus epidemic, and that it has been far more rattled than its confident pronouncements would seem to admit.” [Jamestown Foundation: China Brief

China’s National Health Commission confirmed 42,638 cases and 1,016 deaths in China as of February 10. [National Health Commission, China

4 February 2020

China passes Russia as second largest arms producer and dealer in new study 

(jk) China has overtaken Russia to become the world’s second-largest arms producer, according to revised research for the year 2017 published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) last week. Additionally, China’s four listed defence industry companies exceeded sales of the top ten Russian companies in 2017, making China also the second largest seller of arms. 

The research includes four Chinese companies for which credible financial information is available and with that reveals a new scale of the Chinese arms industry. [SIPRI]

SIPRI had previously excluded Chinese arms companies from its annual ranking over a lack of transparency and arms sales and production figures it did provide used to rank significantly lower. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ China Power Project for instance, Chinese weapons exports  – based on older SIPRI data – pale in comparison to both the US and Russia. [CSIS, China Power Project

Conversely, the new report holds that “overall, the estimates in this paper provide quantitative evidence that the Chinese arms industry is among the largest national arms industries in the world. Based on arms sales, all four companies profiled would be ranked among the 20 largest arms companies globally, with three—AVIC, NORINCO and CETC—in the top 10. The arms sales of just these four Chinese companies indicate that China is the second-largest arms producer in the world, behind the USA and ahead of Russia. However, there remains a need for more detailed research on the remaining six Chinese arms companies to offer a complete estimate of the Chinese arms industry.” [Estimating The Arms Sales Of Chinese Companies]

4 February 2020

China-European Union relations: Brussels refrains from Huawei ban in Europe

(dql) Defying US calls, the European Commission refrained from issuing an outright ban on the Chinese tech giant Huawei in Europe, but instead announced guidelines which leave each of the member states with ultimate responsibility for devising their own specific security measures.

The Commission announced in its guidance on 5G that the member states agreed “to assess the risk profiles of suppliers, to apply relevant restrictions for suppliers considered to be high risk including necessary exclusions for key assets considered as critical and sensitive,  and to have strategies in place to ensure the diversification of vendors.” [CNBC][European Commission]

The EU’s decision came shortly after Britain decided to allow Huawei to build up to 35 per cent of the “non-core” parts while blocking the company from taking part in the sensitive, or “core” infrastructure of the country’s 5G networks. [Wall Street Journal]

4 February 2020

China-USA relations: US House of Representatives passes Tibet bill

(dql) In the latest in a recent string of legislative moves critical of China’s human rights and religious policies, the US House of Representatives approved the Tibet Policy Support Act of 2019. The Act, which is now in the Senate for vote, demands that the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders to be solely in the hands of the Tibetan Buddhist community and free of interference from the Chinese government, and requires the US government to sanction under the Global Magnitsky Act Chinese officials who interfere in the process of recognizing a successor or reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The Act also bans new Chinese consulates in US territory until a US consulate is set up in Lhasa, the Tibet autonomous region’s capital. [South China Morning Post] [congress.gov]

The move was strongly rejected by Beijing which demanded that Washington correct the mistake and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs. [China Daily]

Earlier past November and December, the House had already passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which supports protesters in the special administrative region, and the UIGHUR Act, a legislation condemning Beijing for its mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. [AiR No. 50, December/2019, 2] [AiR No. 48, November/2019, 4]

4 February 2020

Thailand: media is outsourcing much of its coverage to Beijing 

(jk) Thai Channel 3 has announced this week a partnership with Chinese Xinhua News Agency to broadcast Xinhua coverage on the Coronavirus outbreak, leading to concern over fair and balanced reporting on the issue. Many other major Thai news-outlets already share large amounts of Xinhua content, which they get for free, making the deal at least financially attractive for the platforms. As the Thai Enquirer notes, however, the “dominance of Chinese content in Thai news long precedes the Coronavirus outbreak. Since 2019, Chinese media has been making tremendous inroads into Thai-language news and is beginning to make its appearance in English-language Thai newspapers.”

News Media is a struggling industry in Thailand with two of its countrywide English language  newspapers in very deep water – The Nation and the Bangkok Post- and China is increasingly trying to influence the narrative aboard. [Thai Enquirer]

28 January 2020

Thailand benefiting from Chinese investment due to U.S.-China trade war

(ls) Throughout the year 2019, Southeast Asian economies have largely benefited from the U.S.-China trade war as Chinese investors relocated their production bases. As for Thailand, China has become the country’s biggest foreign investor for the first time, replacing Japan. Chinese direct investment in Thailand jumped nearly five times to 262 billion baht ($8.6 billion) in 2019 from the previous year, far exceeding Japan’s 73.1 billion baht. [Nikkei Asian Review]

28 January 2020

China/Hong Kong: Chief Executive says she will not step down

(dql) Embattled Hong Chief Executive Carrie Lam used the international stage of the World Economic Forum in Davos last week to reiterate her refusal to step down over the ongoing unrest and to criticize the West for agenda-driven “disproportionate” coverage of the protests stating that she felt there was “something at work” behind the West’s interest in the Hong Kong protests though she would lack conclusive evidence. [South China Morning Post] [Hong Kong Free Press]

Lam’s resignation is among the demands of the protesters, together with universal suffrage in the upcoming Legislative Council election in September and an independent inquiry into police conduct during the protests. Beijing, however, has repeatedly confirmed its support for her.

28 January 2020

China-USA relations: New special envoy to counter growing Chinese influence at the United Nations appointed

(dql) Mark Lambert, until recently the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, has been appointed a new special envoy tasked with countering China’s growing influence at the United Nations and other international organizations. Lambert’s first major challenge will be to prevent a Chinese candidate from being elected the new Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organization. The election in scheduled for March 5-6, with ten candidates vying for the top post. [Foreign Policy]

The move reflects Washington’s concerns over Beijing’s success in rallying the United Nations behind key foreign-policy initiatives and securing influential positions at the top of international organizations, including the post of the World Bank’s Chief Administrative Officer and Managing Director earlier this month,  and the Chief of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union, and President of the International Organisation of Standardisation in 2019. [Straits Times]

In a related development, the ICAO has been criticized for blocking Twitter accounts criticizing ICAO’s continued exclusion of Taiwan in time s of international public health crises. [Axios] [Focus Taiwan]

28 January 2020

China rejects US call for trilateral arms talks

(dql) Speaking at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva last week, the U.S. disarmament ambassador called on China to join trilateral nuclear arms talks with Russia, saying that Beijing’s secrecy around growing stockpiles was “serious threat to strategic stability”. [Voice of America]

In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected the appeal declaring that “China has no intention of participating in any trilateral arms control talks with the US and Russia,” while Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Russia would partake these talks, but “won’t force China to change” its current position. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China] [Russia Today]

21 January 2020

Chinese President Xi visits Myanmar signing major infrastructure developments

(jk) Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar over the past weekend, marking the first trip by a Chinese President since 2001. In the country’s capital, Xi and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi signed 33 agreements, including some major infrastructure developments. 

One of them is the Kyaukphyu special economic zone (SEZ) and deep-sea port in Rakhine State providing access to the Bay of Bengal, as well as a railway link connecting the port with southern China. [The Diplomat] [Splash 247

The port project in particular worries neighboring countries suspicious of a larger Chinese footprint and a “string of pearls” strategy when seen together with other projects such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Gwadar in Pakistan or Djibouti. For obvious geographical reasons, Myanmar plays an important role in China’s strategic planning and after mounting pressure from many Western countries over the Rohingya crisis, Myanmar as well is looking for support and partners. 

Underscoring the notion that many of the deals struck are not purely economic in nature, after the visit, a joint statement was issued by China and Myanmar “in which Myanmar reaffirmed the so called ‘one-China principle’, naming Taiwan as an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China’s territory” [Focus Taiwan]. The English versions of the statement read slightly different. The MOFA Myanmar Facebook page for instance, referred to a commitment to a One China Policy and to the three regions as “inalienable parts of China”, not using the term “the People’s Republic.”

21 January 2020

Cross-strait relations: Tsai deepens anti-Beijing stance after reelection

(dql) Frosty cross-strait relations aren’t likely to see any improvement in the foreseeable future, following President Tsai Ing-wen’s latest statements on relations between Taiwan and China. 

In her first post-reelection interview, she reiterated her rejection of Beijing’s ‘one country, two systems’ frame for re-unification and said: “We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China, Taiwan, adding: “We have a separate identity and we’re a country of our own. We deserve respect from China.” [Taipei Times]

In prior move last week, Beijing responded to Tsai’s reelection and insisted on adherence to the “1992 consensus” as the pre-condition for cross-strait relations, adding that peaceful reunification and ‘one country, two systems’ were “the fundamental guideline for seeking a solution to the Taiwan question.” [China.rog.cn]

The “1992 consensus” refers to a tacit understanding reached in 1992 between the then Kuomintang (KMT) government and the Chinese government, which the KMT has consistently interpreted as both sides of the Taiwan Strait acknowledging that there is only “one China” while each side is free to interpret what “China” means. However, Beijing has never publicly recognized the second part of the KMT interpretation. 

21 January 2020

China-USA relations: ‘Phase One’ trade deal signed

(dql) China and the USA last week concluded the so-called ‘phase one’ trade deal, under which, according to the White House, China has agreed on “significant structural reforms in a wide range of critical areas” of its economy, including access to its financial-services sector, currency devaluation and forced technology transfer, as well as on increasing its imports of American goods and services by at least 200 billion USD in the next two years. In return, the USA will not impose additional tariffs on 160 billion USD in Chinese imports, and reduce existing tariffs on 110 billion USD in Chinese goods from 15% to 7.5%.

The deal comes after more than two years of tense negotiations between the world’s two largest economies. US President Trump hailed the agreement as “a momentous step […] toward a future of fair and reciprocal trade” between both countries, while his Chinese counterpart Xi said that the deal was “good for China, the US and the whole world.” [The Diplomat][The Hill][CNN]

21 January 2020

China: Former Chinese Interpol chief sentenced lengthy prison term

(dql) In a high-profile corruption case, Meng Hongwei, the former head of Interpol, was sentenced to thirteen and a half years in jail for receiving bribes amounting 2.1 million USD and for abusing his former official positions between 2005 and 2007.

In the frame of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, which is seen by analysts also as a measure to remove political rivals, more than one million officials have been convicted. [Deutsche Welle]

21 January 2020

China: Anti-plastic campaign announced

(dql) China, the world’s largest plastic producer, is taking steps to reduce the country’s consumption of single-use plastic. According to plans of China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Ecology and Environment, plastic bags will be banned in places such as supermarkets and shopping malls in major cities by the end of 2020 and in smaller cities and towns by 2022, while markets selling fresh produce will be exempt from the ban until 2025. Other regulations include the nationwide ban of non-degradable, single-use plastic straws by the end of 2020, as well as the prohibition of the usage of non-degradable packaging for some delivery services in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai by 2022, to be extended to the whole country by 2025. [Bloomberg] [Reuters]

21 January 2020

China: Lowest birth rate in seven decades

(dql) With around 14.65 million newborns in 2019, China’s birth rate dropped last year to its lowest level since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics have fueled concerns over the economic and social impacts of an ageing society and shrinking workforce.  

In 2015, the Chinese government ended its one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children. However, hopes for an increase in the number of newborns has not materialized, as births have now fallen for three consecutive years after a slight increase in 2016. [BBC]

For data and perspectives on the global dimensions of aging populations, see [Visual Capitalist], which presents Japan as one the three countries with the oldest population and South Korea as one of the fasting aging OECD countries.

21 January 2020

China a “Global Threat to Human Rights”, HRW says

(dql) Released last week, Human Rights Watch’s “World Report 2020” has made China the centerpiece of the review of human rights practices and trends in 95 countries, as among those “the Chinese government stands out for the reach and influence of its anti-rights efforts.” China is accused of operating “an Orwellian high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system to monitor and suppress public criticism” within China and of an “global assault on human rights” abroad, involving in its cause “willing accomplices” including “dictators, autocrats, and monarchs”, but also “governments, as well as companies and even academic institutions, that are ostensibly committed to human rights but prioritize access to China’s wealth.” [Human Rights Watch]

In another report, Freedom House has called on democratic governments to impose penalties on Chinese officials and tighten broadcast regulations amid a “dramatic expansion” in Chinese actions taken to exert influence media overseas. [Reuters]

Beijing rejected both reports, saying that they were “invariably filled with distortion of facts,” and insisting that human rights in China were “at its historical best”. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]

21 January 2020

China/Hong Kong: Blueprint for independent inquiry into protests submitted to Lam

(dql) Last week, Hong Kong’s Bar Association provided Executive Chief Carrie Lam with a blueprint for the creation of an independent inquiry into the unrest of the past seven months. The blueprint calls for the inquiry to involve police, activists and members of the public and to cover 15 major protests and review ten specific areas of concern, including the use of force by both police and protesters. [Hong Kong Bar Association] [South China Morning Post]

An independent inquiry into alleged excessive force of the police during the protests is among the core demands of the protesters which Lam has so far refused to meet.   

A rally on Sunday, attended by thousands of people demanding universal suffrage in the Legislative Council election in September and calling for international support for their cause, ended in clashes between protesters and police after. [CNBC]

14 January 2020

China-Indonesia tensions around Natuna Islands eased

(ls/lf) The Chinese vessels that had entered Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone around the Natuna Islands have exited the area, easing the tensions between the two countries. Before, the Indonesian air force had deployed four F-16 fighter jets to monitor the situation. As reported last week, Beijing contends that the waters are part of its “traditional” fishing grounds and that the area is within its “nine-dash line”. Indonesian President Joko Widodo declared that the incident shall not harm the friendly relations between the two countries. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters 1]

China is Indonesia’s biggest trading partner and a major investor. Both countries enjoy broad cooperation, including in infrastructure development such as the high-speed railway project linking Jakarta with Bandung. The US$6 billion project is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond. [Straits Times]

Meanwhile, however, President Widodo asked Japan to step up investment in fisheries and energy in some of its South China Sea islands, in particular also the Natunas. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi declared that the two countries also wanted to strengthen coastguard coordination. Japan last year gave Indonesia 100 billion rupiah ($7.26 million) to build a fish market in Natuna, which will be named Tsukiji after the famous Tokyo market. [Reuters 2]

14 January 2020

Pakistan-China naval exercise in Karachi 

(jk) The sixth instalment of the Pakistan-China joint Naval exercise “Sea Guardians 2020” commenced in Karachi past week. The two navies are working to increase inter-operability and deepen their security cooperation. [The News Pakistan]

Reportedly, India has expressed some concerns over the exercise as they occur in the Arabian Sea region which hosts many important Indian ports as well as Pakistan’s deep water Gwadar port which is being developed on Chinese finance. In what is seen as a direct reaction to the drills, India has deployed its aircraft carrier to the region. [VoA] [The Economic Times

14 January 2020

China-USA relations II: Beijing not anymore considered currency manipulator

(dql) Ahead of the signing of the ‘phase one’ trade deal between China and the USA, expected for this Wednesday, the US Treasury Department has announced to remove China from the list of  countries considered currency manipulators on which it was put in August last year amid heightened trade tensions. [BBC]

14 January 2020

China demand USA to halt sanctions against Chinese companies doing business with Iran 

(dql) Following new US sanctions against Iran in the wake of attacks on US and allied troops in Iraq last week, Beijing urged Washington to stop sanctions on Chinese companies which continue to do business with Iran. Denouncing the sanctions as “wrongful action”, Beijing insisted that cooperation between China and Iran was “legitimate and law-abiding”.  [South China Morning Post

Meanwhile, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that China “has cut off all of the state companies from buying oil” and that the USA and China work together to make sure that China stops “all additional oil activities.” [Fox Business]

14 January 2020

China/Hong Kong: Protesters demand universal suffrage in upcoming LegCo election

(dql) On past Sunday, thousands of people joined a rally in Hong Kong to demand universal suffrage in the Legislative Council election in September and to call on the international community to impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials if the demand would not be met.  The demand of universal suffrage is directed against those 35 of the 70 seats in the city’s legislature which are indirectly elected through interest-group-based functional constituencies with limited electorates.

The sanctions could include freezing their overseas assets or imposing economic sanctions on the city, according to the Hong Kong Civil Assembly Team, the rally organizer. [South China Morning Post 1]

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth was barred from entering Hong Kong after arriving at the city’s airport on Monday. He had planned to release the organization’s World Report 2020 this Wednesday, containing a lead essay on China’s “intensifying assault on the international human rights system”. [Human Rights Watch]

In an assertive response, Beijing justified this move by saying that “abundant facts and evidence have shown that the NGOs concerned have been supporting anti-China rioters in Hong Kong through various means, inciting violence and inflaming separatist activities for ‘Hong Kong independence’. They bear major responsibility for the current chaos in Hong Kong. Sanctions on these organizations are therefore fully justified as they should pay the price for what they’ve done.” [Ministry of Foreign, China

In earlier move last week, pro-democracy political party Demosisto decided to remove the term “self-determination” from its manifesto and to replace it by the phrase “promoting Hong Kong’s democratic and progressive values”. The decision is a concession to political and judicial realities following the disqualification of one of its leader’s candidacy in the city’s district council elections last November. [South China Morning Post 2] [No. 45, November/2019, 1]

7 January 2020

Malaysia Receives First of Four Large Patrol Ships Built in China

(jk) Malaysia’s Navy has received one of four large patrol ships it had ordered from China. The deal, first approved by former Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2017 and then slightly renegotiated under current PM Mahathir, is the first of its kind between the two nations. Malaysia has ordered the ships amidst a naval modernization effort reflecting new realities in its neighbourhood. [Radio Free Asia]

7 January 2020

New momentum in the South China Sea? Criticism mounts as Indonesia rebukes China’s claim 

(jk) Last week, Jakarta had protested to Beijing over the presence of a Chinese coast guard vessel in its territorial waters around the Natuna Islands. The “strong protest” and summoning of the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta was met with a statement from Beijing claiming that China has sovereignty of large parts of the South China Sea and “normal” fishing rights in the concerned area.

In a relatively sharp response, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry asked China to explain the “legal basis and clear borders” regarding its claims based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also mentioning the arbitration ruling in the Hague in 2016. [Jakarta Post 1] [Sydney Morning Herald

Indonesia’s official position is that it is a non-claimant state in the South China Sea having no overlapping claims with China. The Natuna Islands however, in fact outside even of the spurious “nine-dash line”, are just south of the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, and amid increasing presence and scope of China’s claims and actions, Indonesia is concerned about more Chinese vessels illegally entering and fishing in its waters.

Indonesia has stepped up sea and aerial patrols of islands, deploying navy, army and air force personnel to the area, including eight war ships. [South China Morning Post] [Channel News Asia] It has also said it has mobilised over one hundred fishermen to operate in the area, supposedly to reinforce Indonesian presence. [Jakarta Post 2]  

The move that publicly denounces China’s “historic rights” and again redirects some of the attention to the 2016 ruling, comes after the Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs called China’s claims “ridiculous” earlier in December [Asia in Review, No. 52, December/2019, 4] and the country submitted its extended continental shelf claims beyond a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to the United Nations’ Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea, based on a joint  submission made with Vietnam in 2009. [Asia Times] The joint submission did not indicate a division of the claims between the two countries, but it does pose a direct challenge to the Chinese claims. [Asia Sentinel]

With Vietnam as the ASEAN chair for 2020, recent moves in Malaysia, Indonesia and steadily simmering unease about Chinese involvement also in Philippine waters, some observers see a difficult year ahead for Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Whether these actions will result in anything tangible and more than “strong protests” however remains to be seen and is dependent on outside support as well as whether or not Southeast Asian countries can find a common position from which they can challenge Chinese claims. 

7 January 2020

Xinhua begins Urdu service in Pakistan

(jk) Xinhua, the leading state-run press agency of the People’s Republic of China, has launched an Urdu service in Pakistan and signed memoranda of understanding with a dozen local media publishers. It will now provide news services to local news agencies in both English and Urdu. [Nikkei Asian Review]

In Pakistan, a Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information said last week that Xinhua has been portraying a positive image of Pakistan globally and that local news outlets should do similar things with regards to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [Newsweek Pakistan] which has been criticized time and again, in particular in Baluchistan. 

Xinhua plays a crucial role in the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy to influence narratives in media reporting. 

7 January 2020

China-Japan relations: Tensions resurface over El Salvador port development project

(dql) Warming ties between China and Japan has seen a set-back when it was revealed last week that Tokyo pressured El Salvador to scrap plans to hand over operating rights of a port to a Chinese company by threatening to withdraw its funding of 102 million USD for development projects in the Central American country which switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China in 2018.

Tokyo’s move reportedly came after Washington expressed concerns about the Chinese firm’s interest in the project and signals the broader Sino-US tensions over China’s infrastructure expansion plans in the frame of its Belt and Road initiative. [South China Morning Post]

7 January 2020

China joins Russia and Iran in first ever trilateral naval exercise and blames USA for killing of Iranian General 

(dql)  China, Russia and Iran held an unprecedented joint naval exercise outside the Strait of Hormuz from 27 December until 31 December 2019. While the drill focused only on joint rescue and anti-piracy operations, it sends a strong signal to the world at a time of heightened tensions between these countries and the USA. The commander of Iran’s navy is quoted saying: “Today, the era of American free action in the region is over.” [Eurasia Review][Newsweek]

The exercise came shortly before the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani on January 2 which has escalated the tensions between the USA and Iran, with both sides announcing tit-for-tat retaliatory attacks and counterattacks. [Axios] [CNN]

In response, Beijing urged all sides to exercise restraint, while warning that “[t]he dangerous US military operation violates the basic norms of international relations and will aggravate regional tensions and turbulence.” Furthermore, at a meeting with his Iranian counterpart this Tuesday in Beijing Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear pact and the sanctions against Iran “the sources of the current tension arising over the Iranian nuclear issue.” [Xinhua] [South China Morning Post]

For prospects of Iran’s integration into the China-Russia Eurasian architecture see Micha’el Tanchum in [East Asia Forum], who argues that “[a]nything short of a complete security arrangement for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that is guaranteed by US military power will open the door for China and Russia to further reorient Iran and its Arab rivals towards the China-Russia Eurasian framework.”

7 January 2020

China: Pro-democracy activists detained

(dql) Indicating further shrinking space for civil liberties in China, more than a dozen pro-democracy activists, partaking a gathering to discuss democratic transition of the country, went missing or were arrested by authorities during a roundup at the end of the year, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a non-government organization of domestic and overseas Chinese human rights activists and groups, headquartered in Washington DC. [NCHRD][Hong Kong Free Press]

7 January 2020

China/Hong Kong: New Liaison Office Director appointed amid continued protest

(dql) The new year in Hong Kong started like the old year had ended: On New Year’s Day Hong Kong saw an anti-government protest march for which the protest organizer, the Civil Human Rights Front, claimed a turnout higher than the 1.03 million estimate for the first major rally against the extradition bill back in June 2019. Police, however, put the figure at 47,000 during the march while another 13,000 were still at the starting point. The march which began peacefully ended in clashes between protesters and police and around 400 arrests. [South China Morning Post

Meanwhile, Luo Huining, former governor and party secretary of Qinghai and Shanxi provinces, has been appointed new Director of China’s Hong Kong Liaison Office replacing Wang Zhimin widely believed to have been sacked over Beijing’s discontent with his crisis management in the past year. It is the first major leadership reshuffle since the protests started in June. [BBC]

While Luo is credited with having successfully enforced the central government’s anti-corruption campaign in Shanxi to stabilize the province’s economy, his appointment comes as a surprise as he has no direct experience in Hong Kong. It remains to be seen whether the change in personnel will lead to a change in policy.

Luo himself remained silent on this in his maiden speech, in which he only reassured that the “One country, two systems” formula would provide the best advantages for Hong Kong and expressed his confidence that the city will overcome the agony of the past months and “go back to a right path” to achieve long-term stability and prosperity. [Asia Times]