This Month in Asia: January 2023
Regional tensions cast spotlight on security concerns for major powers.
As international ties among the Asia-Pacific nations are subjected to continuing pressure relating to military, economic and political matters, January saw foreign affairs among nations in the region take both optimistic and less-than-optimistic turns. Meanwhile, China confronts the issue of population decline while North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang was discretely placed under a five-day lockdown.
Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr Visits China
President Marcos’ first overseas trip of 2023 - and his first to China since assuming office in June of last year - consisted of a three day (January 3 - January 6) itinerary in Beijing which included meetings with Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and outgoing Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Li Zhanshu.
Key to many observers throughout the first year of Marcos’ presidency has been the Philippines’ orientation toward China. Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, worked to strengthen relations with China and Russia during the early years of his presidency, while ties with the United States and Europe fell under strain. To this point, the Marcos administration has, to date, seen an attempt to bring US-Philippines relations to a healthier state, with the President stating that US-Philippines relations are “beyond politics.”
During the visit Xi and Marcos signed multiple cooperation documents pertaining to issues including but not limited to the Belt and Road Initiative, tourism, fishery, finance and customs.
A report on the visit published by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs further stated that “The Philippines is ready to work with China to unlock potentials, further enrich the bilateral relationship, and deepen cooperation in agriculture, infrastructure, energy, people-to-people exchanges, trade, investment, science and technology, and digital economy, among others.”
The Ministry’s report also affirmed that “China is the strongest partner of the Philippines, and nothing can hold back the continuation and development of the Philippines-China friendship. The Philippines adheres to the one-China policy. It is willing to continue to properly handle maritime issues through friendly consultation, and resume negotiations on oil and gas exploration.”
Reuters reported that upon arriving in Manila at the conclusion of the trip, Marcos stated that he had stressed to Xi the Philippines’ desire for an “independent foreign policy,” a term that appeared sporadically throughout the years of the Duterte administration, often regarding the country’s foreign policy trajectory moving away from the United States.
Marcos’ next overseas trip will be to Japan in February, where he is expected to meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Japanese Defense Posture Highlights Tense State of Affairs in the Region
In December of 2022, news broke that Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s cabinet approved a massive increase in defense spending over the course of the coming five years. The $51.4 billion (6.82 trillion yen) budget for defense expenditures for the 2023 fiscal year marks a 26.3% ($11 billion/1.42 trillion yen) increase over the current fiscal year’s defense budget. Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS), published in December of 2022, makes explicit mention of security concerns relating to China.
A section titled China’s Activities in the Area of Security on page eight of the document reads the following: “China does not participate in international frameworks in which other major official creditor nations take part in together, and its development finance and other related activities lack adequate transparency. In addition, China is redoubling its strategic efforts to establish its security in the economic field, and there have been instances of China taking advantage of other countries' dependence on China to exert economic pressure on other countries.”
Further, the same passage later states that “China's current external stance, military activities, and other activities have become a matter of serious concern for Japan and the international community, and present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan and the peace and stability of the international community, as well as in strengthening the international order based on the rule of law, to which Japan should respond with its comprehensive national power and in cooperation with its ally, like-minded countries and others.”
The 2023 NSS conclusion comments that “Japan is finding itself in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII. In no way can we be optimistic about what the future of the international community will bring.”
Against a backdrop of escalating defense spending and heightened tension regarding Chinese activity and influence in the region, Prime Minister Kishida visited American President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday, January 13. In a joint statement published on the 13th, President Biden affirmed American commitment to Japan’s national defense, citing Article V of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc Resgins Amid Anti-Corruption Frenzy
Vietnamese President and former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc resigned from office on January 17, a move that is widely expected to signal his general retirement from political life.
Nguyen had been President of Vietnam since April of 2021, and had previously served as Prime Minister from 2016 to 2021. Nguyen found himself under intense scrutiny for offenses committed by some 500+ of his subordinates during his tenure as Prime Minister, a development that elicited little surprise among observers after the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) anti-corruption drive - likened to a “blazing furnace” - caught two deputy prime ministers, Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam, last week, leading to both officials being removed from their offices with no official reason given for their dismissal according to Reuters.
Both DW and BBC have reported that Nguyen’s resignation looks to be somewhat forced if not only motivated by internal politics. Johnathan Head, South East Asia correspondent at BBC has suggested that Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s resignation suggests that CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong is working to centralize power toward himself by “ousting senior officials seen as more pro-Western and pro-business.”
Many analysts agree that the anti-corruption campaign in China, which has become symbolic to the Xi Jinping era, is also motivated in part by corruption concerns and in part by a desire for Xi to centralize power in his own hands. Like Xi, Nguyen Phung was elected to an unusual third term in office at the CPV’s most recent National Congress.
Potential successors for the presidency include: Nguyen Phu Trong, who previously served as both CPV General Secretary and President simultaneously from 2018 to 2021; Minister of National Defense Phan Van Giang and Minister of Public Security To Lam.
China’s Population Declines for the First Time Since the Great Leap Forward
Chinese officials announced that 9.5 million babies were born in china in 2022 while 10.4 people died. It’s the first time deaths outnumbered births since the Great Leap Forward. China has tried various ways to reverse its declining birth rate such as rescinding the one-child policy. However, Beijing’s initiatives such as cash payments and tax cuts, have not altered the stubborn reality that many Chinese youths have little desire to have children.
Gender discrimination in the workplace, women valuing their careers, and a hyper-competitive education system have led many to rethink having children. University of Michigan Assistant Professor of Sociology Yun Zhou late last year published research on the second demographic transition in China and its effects. Conducting interviews with young educated urbanites, she finds that women value their careers and independence. Having children doesn’t exactly align with those values, especially given that recently scholars have noticed a resurgence of traditional gender norms (Male breadwinner/Female caregiver). Given this, it is unlikely this trend will change anytime soon, and with that arrives a difficult situation.
First, China has to address the problems a rapidly aging population poses. China’s retirement age is currently 55 for women and 60 for men. With fewer workers moving into the workforce, the ratio of workers to pensioners will decrease, putting pressure on the pension system. The current stance of the Chinese government is to raise the retirement age sometime before 2025, but it has also acknowledged that raising the retirement age “would keep relatively few older people in work.”
Secondly, Beijing must create policies that deal with its demographic shortcomings. Elsewhere in Asia, migrant workers have filled the gaps in industries such as construction and eldercare. With negligible labor movement into China, migrant workers are unlikely to solve the problem. Historically, China has relied on domestic rural migrant workers to fuel growth for decades, but these flows are plateauing. Migrant worker populations fell in Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei off the back of evictions.
North Korean Capital Placed Under Five-Day Lockdown
North Korea’s capital city of Pyongyang was, according to a memo shared by the Russian Embassy there on Facebook, placed under a five-day “special anti-epidemic period” in response to what the memo describes as “recurrent flu and other respiratory diseases.”
At time of writing, no explicit mention of the COVID-19 virus has appeared in relation to the situation on readily accessible North Korean state media. Kim Jong-un declared in August that the country had taken victory over COVID-19, a claim widely disputed by the international community.
The memo further stated that individuals stationed with diplomatic missions in Pyongyang should limit movement outside of embassies and places of residence to the best of their ability. Further, diplomatic workers were informed that they would be required to self-measure and report their bodily temperature four times a day during the five-day period.
On Monday, January 30, the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang again took to Facebook, this time sharing another memo which stated that the special anti-epidemic period had been completed.
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