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20 October 2021

With Greg Earl

Myanmar sanctions

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has excluded Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from its leaders’ summit this month, marking its first substantive action against the leaders of the military coup.

ASEAN announced the surprise decision last Friday night after a meeting of the group’s foreign ministers, saying that Myanmar had made “insufficient progress” on “establishing constructive dialogue” with opposition groups.

Earlier that day, Australia had joined eight other countries in expressing concern about the deteriorating Myanmar situation.

Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi later tweeted that Myanmar should not be represented at summits on a “political level” until it “restores its democracy through an inclusive process”.

The junta has since announced the release of thousands of political prisoners in its first significant concession to international pressure.

Under Brunei’s leadership, ASEAN has made little progress on imposing its much-hyped “five-point consensus” on Myanmar, which was agreed upon at a leaders’ meeting in April, attended by Min Aung Hlaing.

The five-point consensus calls for “an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar”, a “constructive dialogue among all parties”, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to “facilitate mediation of the dialogue process”, the provision of humanitarian assistance and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.

Since April, Myanmar has edged towards civil war, with newly armed democracy supporters aligning with established ethnic-minority armies, not necessarily under the control of the National Unity Government associated with former leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

ASEAN’s lack of action on Myanmar has cast a cloud over its claims to regional leadership on issues such as the US–China rivalry. It reflects the group’s historical reluctance to interfere in the internal affairs of member countries, but also its lack of leadership, resulting from the various governmental transitions and challenges of the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Democracy activists have criticised the Morrison government for aligning itself with ASEAN on Myanmar rather than with the United States and European countries, which have imposed tougher sanctions on the military. But ASEAN’s decision to snub the junta provides some justification for Australia’s continuing support of ASEAN’s lumbering progress on the issue.


Korea–Japan ties

Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has urged South Korean president Moon Jae-in to try to resolve a wartime dispute that is affecting the countries’ trade relationship.

In a telephone conversation with Moon last Friday, Kishida reportedly told the leader to take “appropriate action” to fix the bilateral relationship, which is in an “extremely difficult situation”.

Moon said it was necessary to “look for diplomatic solutions” as the countries try to work out their different interpretations of the 1965 reparations agreement, which South Korea says does not adequately compensate victims of Japan’s colonial and wartime actions.

Left-leaning Moon’s term expires next March, and there has been speculation that a new conservative president might be better placed to resolve tensions with Kishida, who took a relatively conciliatory approach to Korea when he was Japan’s foreign minister.

But ahead of Japan’s 31 October election, and under the influence of former Liberal Democratic Party prime minister Shinzō Abe, Kishida now appears to be favouring a more hawkish position on foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Moon’s Democratic Party last week chose populist former mayor and provincial governor Lee Jae-myung to run as its presidential candidate, and he has shot to the lead in opinion polls. Like Moon, Lee supports engagement with North Korea and takes the standard Korean nationalist position that Japan should do more to atone for its past actions.

Former Australian ambassador to South Korea Bill Paterson recently called on Australian officials to engage more with emerging political leaders in South Korea to better understand the country and build a stronger relationship with it, more akin to the Australia–Japan relationship.

In addition, the Morrison government should be looking at how it can encourage the countries to resolve their historical differences in the interest of regional stability.


Chinese power

China’s government has ordered an expansion of coal production to head off an electricity shortfall, just as it was expected to play a key role in cutting global carbon emissions at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow next month.

While China’s emissions will increase in the short term, it has moved to liberalise electricity prices in an apparent attempt to use market forces to meet its net-zero ambitions before 2060.

As a result of the electricity crisis, some long-delayed shipments of Australian coal were allowed into Chinese ports last week, signalling that trade tensions between the two countries may finally be easing.

However, the resumption of the coal trade could be a special case: China did not formally place any restrictions on importing Australian coal as it did on other Australian resources and agricultural products.

Chinese manufacturing shutdowns, caused by blackouts, and confusion about electricity pricing have contributed to a slump in China’s economic growth, announced on Monday, which has heightened concerns about the country’s economic health.

Meanwhile, there have been reports that President Xi Jinping won’t attend November’s UN conference in person, raising questions about whether the world’s biggest carbon emitter will play a significant role in the negotiations.

And last week, when China chaired the parallel UN negotiations on biodiversity, it was criticised for not leading a sufficiently ambitious agenda.

These developments throw into doubt China’s willingness and ability to be a leader in multilateral diplomacy – a role it claims to want – while managing complex domestic issues.

The Glasgow talks could become even more complicated for recalcitrant participants like the Morrison government if China is inclined to lead developing countries in seeking larger emissions cuts and financial concessions from wealthier countries.



Weekly round-up

Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines should be built in America

“Building the submarines in the United States won’t just save a prodigious sum of money and take precious years off the schedule. It will also dramatically improve Australia’s defence capabilities, aid the AUKUS alliance and foster a domestic supply chain for the next generation of defence equipment.” James Kell, The Strategist (ASPI)

Why Indonesia should embrace AUKUS

“Indonesia’s fear is legitimate. South-East Asia is on [the] immediate frontline of AUKUS’s geopolitical impact. Any conflict with China will put Indonesia in the middle. Even worse, regional tensions risk leaving Indonesia as a ‘strategic spectator’.” Arrizal Jaknanihan, East Asia Forum

Would a war over Taiwan be legal?

“Other countries cannot have cake and eat it too: deny Taiwan is a state, but defend it as if it were. In a world with a plurality of different political systems, states are not permitted to use force simply to protect democracy or ‘freedom’ abroad.” Ben Saul, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

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Getting from here to net zero

“The IEA’s pathway to net zero specifies no new coal-fired power stations, anywhere in the world. Those already under way (mostly in China) should be abandoned where possible. And – in sharp contrast to the Australian government’s policy – the world should open no new coal mines or extensions thereof.” Tim Colebatch, Inside Story

Fake families and neighbourhood spies – China’s twenty-four-hour repression of Uighurs

“The research, funded by the British Foreign Office, shows how Chinese authorities have mobilised a campaign of grassroots governance as it moves from using police crackdowns to suppress the threat of terrorism to transforming entire neighbourhoods into Chinese Communist Party–abiding citizens.” Eryk Bagshaw, The Sydney Morning Herald

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