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3 November 2021

With Greg Earl

Japan votes

Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, won a better-than-expected mandate in Sunday’s election. The prime minister’s cabinet was largely appointed by faction leaders, but Kishida may now have more scope to pursue alternatives. His mandate could also allow him to push a reform-oriented agenda.

Although it was the Liberal Democratic Party’s worst electoral performance in twelve years, it won a lower house majority and won’t have to rely on its long-time coalition partner, Komeito, to remain in power.

Opinion polls, revealing voter dissatisfaction with the government’s management of the pandemic and the economy, had suggested the LDP would receive less support. That could have made Kishida, who only became prime minister a month ago, the lame-duck leader of a highly factionalised LDP.

Kishida went to the election promising a new form of capitalism, an implicit rejection of the prevailing neo-liberal approach of former leader Shinzō Abe. But Kishida, once a foreign policy moderate, embraced Abe’s tougher security policies, especially on China.

Kishida said the election result “will have an impact on the steering of the government” and had given him “a lot to think about”.

The LDP’s success may reflect the growing fragmentation of opposition parties in Japan. This trend was consolidated on Sunday, with the Osaka-based Japan Innovation Party, representing a more libertarian platform than its competitors, becoming the third-largest national party.

Australia, which has become more reliant on Japan for regional security and economic cooperation in recent years, will benefit from the LDP remaining in firm control. But now that “Abenomics” seems to have lost momentum, Japan’s reliability as an ally will depend on whether Kishida’s new capitalism can successfully address the country’s long-term challenges.

Pivot to South-East Asia

Australia has elevated its relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, announcing a new comprehensive strategic partnership and a A$154 million investment in cooperation with the group.

Scott Morrison made the announcement at ASEAN’s summit last week, saying that Australia would back the group’s role in regional diplomacy “with our words and our actions”.

It is unclear how the new partnership will work in practice, as Australia now has a potpourri of partnerships with some of ASEAN’s ten members – including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – but no arrangements with others.

Only last April, former DFAT secretary Frances Adamson said that Australia’s effort to build relations with individual ASEAN countries had not received enough attention. But for now, Australia seems focused on the group as a whole.

Concerns about how the rise of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the AUKUS partnership will affect regional security and the role of ASEAN appear to be driving greater acknowledgement of ASEAN’s importance.

Last week, Australia and China were engaged in a tussle over which country would be the first to seal a comprehensive strategic partnership with the group.

Former ASEAN official Kavi Chongkittavorn says China privately proposed a partnership in March 2020 to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its dialogue with the group, which was established in 1991. Australia, which became the group’s first dialogue partner in 1974, soon made its own proposal.

It appears that when Australia announced its new partnership with ASEAN last Wednesday, China quickly announced plans for its own partnership with the group. It seems China had originally intended to release this news at a special summit with ASEAN later this month.

Considered as a bloc, ASEAN member countries are now China’s largest two-way trading partner, while they are Australia’s second-largest after China.

Following a period of aid cutting, uncertainty about how to balance bilateral and regional relations, and distractions such as Australia’s relationship with post-Brexit Britain, the Morrison government’s renewed attention to South-East Asia is overdue.

But the substance of new aid spending and careful attention to the diversity of regional views is more important than reshuffling the diplomatic architecture.

AUKUS ructions

Scott Morrison has played down Joe Biden’s and Emmanuel Macron’s criticisms of his government’s diplomatic management of its cancelled submarine deal with France. He says that his government kept both France and the United States well informed on the situation.

According to some reports, the government privately claims that Biden and Macron have misrepresented Australia’s actions in the matter.

Morrison and Australian defence minister Peter Dutton have also suggested that Macron is using the AUKUS row to appeal to nationalist French voters ahead of an election next April.

In fact, France, Australia and the United States will all hold elections next year, and opinion polls suggest that the leaders of all three will lose at least some electoral support. The Australian election could be first.

As voters’ concerns about the waning of the nation state grow, there has been a tendency for diplomatic issues to become talking points in election campaigns. Australia–China relations are already part of the Morrison government’s pre-election manoeuvring.

If Morrison objects to Macron using the AUKUS submarine deal for electioneering purposes, perhaps, for the sake of consistency, he could refrain from celebrating the deal in his own election campaign.


A free extract from “TikTok Wars” by Snigdha Poonam

“On 19 June 2020, an Indian man dressed as Xi Jinping walked a busy Kolkata street ahead of a mob carrying a wooden gallows. He wore a black suit, a red tie and a solemn expression. The stage makeup and bouffant hair made him look more like a vintage Hollywood star than the Chinese president, but that did not deter his angry audience. For his finale, at a fixed point the performer stepped into the gallows, slid the thick rope around his neck and tilted it to the left, sticking out his tongue to complete the effect.”CONTINUE READING


Weekly round-up

Just how serious is Xi about climate change?

“For all the prospects and pledges of China’s green dream, China is presently a carbon nightmare … Detoxing, if possible, will require taking on some of China’s most powerful and deeply entrenched political and economic institutions.” Elliott Zaagman, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

Delivering a stronger navy, faster

“We simply should not accept that the navy can’t acquire major new combat capabilities over this next ten years … Delivering actual capability in strategically relevant time frames will address risk as well as rebuild public confidence in the shipbuilding enterprise.” Marcus Hellyer, The Strategist (ASPI)

AUKUS is awkward, but not abnormal

“The bungled diplomacy surrounding these events is disheartening, but is it surprising? Not for us. Our recent research shows that for the people who make and influence US foreign policy, treaty allies are not always as significant a factor as we expect them to be.” Dina Smeltz, Sibel Oktay, Paul Poast & Craig Kafura, War on the Rocks


Is there a method behind China’s tech crackdown madness?

“The Chinese government has been preparing for action in the tech sector for quite some time. But knowing that these regulatory shocks would have economic repercussions, particularly in the stock market, Beijing needed an opportunity.” Ruihan Huang & Joshua Henderson, Macro Polo (Paulson Institute)

Military unity under unprecedented pressure in Myanmar

“The [military] is unlikely to disintegrate anytime soon, but threats to its strength and unity are growing and look likely to continue to intensify.” Nyi Nyi Kyaw, East Asia Forum

We, Hominids, out now.


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