In Asia Media this week: China’s official media calls for Australia and China to re-balance, Japan’s papers stress peace

May 28, 2022
QUAD leaders wave for the camera in Tokyo, May 2022

In Asia Media this week: China mulls its Australian links; Beijing explains its Pacific Islands courtship; ASEAN people look to China; Bangkok finally holds an election for governor; Biden’s new group only at talks stage; Japanese paper stresses peace; rainbow flag stirs up a reaction.

China’s official media is usually predictable and in recent times belligerent in tone but China Daily produced a small surprise in its post-Australian election commentary: a long analytical piece under a neutral headline saying, “Time for Australia, China to rebalance.” The surprise continued when the author suggested China might lift its sanctions against Australia.

The article said Australia was likely to cease the politicisation of national security issues. “Australia-China relations have deteriorated in recent years with actions from both sides contributing to the situation,” it said. “Both can now reset”.

“China should lift its economic sanctions, as Australia ceases the provocative language of the previous government. If China’s economic measures were in response to hyperbolic claims by the Scott Morrison government … the rationale for those measures has now been removed.”

The article was contributed – by consultant and former diplomat David Morris – and it ends with the standard disclaimer that the views don’t necessarily reflect those of China Daily. But presumably the editors would not have run the piece if it went seriously beyond the current extend-the-olive-branch position of Premier Li Keqiang.

The paper’s views were expressed in an editorial, Canberra’s chance to jump-start frosty ties. “[C]hina-Australia ties have been at a low ebb for some time, something that seems set to continue, despite a new government taking office in Australia…Yet relations don’t have to continue being strained.”

But Global Times, Beijing’s other main English-language outlet, provides the balance. A commentary on this website says: “To break the ice in trade tensions between China and Australia, the ball is in Australia’s court.” Global Times is well-known for its wolf-warrior journalism and in this long editorial its language is calmer than usual. But its stern message is familiar. “[W]hile it remains to be seen whether Albanese and his team will restore rationality to their China policy,” the editorial says, “the new government at least provides an opportunity for the China-Australia relationship to see some improvement…Canberra needs to value this hard-won opportunity.”

China spells out its South Pacific courtship

As new Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi engage in duelling diplomacy, Global Times website has laid out their case for closer engagement with the South Pacific nations. China, it says, it is giving the island nations what the US and Australia failed to offer.

Wang’s current trip to the South Pacific will offer co-operation in many fields, the website says, including economics, infrastructure, climate change, public health, policy and security. “The reason why China’s presence has been welcomed by the regional countries,” it says, “is that China could promote the livelihood of the locals and activate the economic potentials of those islands. “However, some Western media have focused only on the co-operation about security and have tried to exaggerate that the co-operation could spark [a] ‘new Cold War’ between China and the West in the region.” It quotes Chen Hong, president of the Chinese Association of Australian Studies, as saying the US and Australia had been hyping the “China threat” mythology with fabrications about a Chinese military base in the region. “The security co-operation between China and the Pacific Island countries aims to maintain social order as a way to guarantee a stable business environment, to prevent riots and violent disturbance from taking place again,” Chen said.

ASEAN’s future partners

China has overtaken Japan as ASEAN’s most important future partner, in the view of people in Southeast Asia. The website Kyodo News+ reported on a regular Japanese government opinion poll. It showed China’s standing among people in the ASEAN region remained stable at 48 per cent but Japan’s had dropped by eight points to 43 per cent. The US followed closely on 41 per cent. “It marked the first time that Beijing has ranked first since the Foreign Ministry started the survey in the current format in fiscal 2015,” Kyodo said.

Bangkok election points to easing of divisions

The people of Bangkok elected a new governor on Sunday, the eighth anniversary of the military coup that eliminated the Yingluck Shinawatra government – and the first such poll since then. The winner, Bangkok Post reported, was Chadchart Sittipunt, who stood as an Independent. He won in a landslide. Chadchart gained 1,386,215 votes. Next came Suchatvee Suwansawat, of the Democrat Party, with 254,341 votes. The outgoing governor, Police General Aswin Kwanmaugn, got 214,459.

Chadchart had been a minister in the Yingluck government and a member of the Shinawatra clan’s Pheu Thai Party. But his status as an Independent in the Bangkok governor election has sparked hopes that the red-yellow colour-coded divisions in the Thai polity may be coming to an end. Bangkok Post said in an editorial: “The result serves as a huge victory for people of a moderate political stance.” The idea that the country’s political polarisation is easing was explored in a long analysis by the paper’s senior political team.

But Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the vote was limited to just one of the country’s many provinces and did not reflect on his administration. The paper reported former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as saying Chadchart’s victory was the result of strategic voting by pro-democracy supporters and this would be repeated at the next general election.

Biden announces agreement for more talking

US President Joe Biden has added even more letters to the alphabet soup of regional politico-economic organisations – IPEF, for Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The regional media’s response has been tepid. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said the agreement covered supply chains, digital trade, clean energy and anti-corruption efforts.

Countries that had signed up to the new framework, announced in Tokyo on Monday ahead of the Quad meeting there, account for 40 per cent of international GDP. The signatories are: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the US. The paper reported they said in a statement the pact would help them prepare our economies for the future.

SCMP noted China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged, also on Monday, to facilitate development in the Asia-Pacific.

The Japan Times said IPEF was an attempt by the US to reassert its economic leadership after having withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in 2017. “But IPEF faces tough questions over just how effective it will be in practice,” the paper said.

Singapore’s The Straits Times carried a long analytical piece saying the US was playing catch-up with China. “The United States and China are locked in a battle for influence in South-east Asia,” the paper said. “[W]hen it comes to economics and trade, America has some catching up to do. Over the years, China has cultivated considerable economic links with ASEAN – which sits on its doorstep and covers key trade routes – and has leapfrogged the Americans’ economic dominance.”

Bangkok Post’s ASEAN expert, Kavi Chongkittavorn, said Thailand’s decision to be named as a signatory was a big surprise . But Cabinet ministers were told the IPEF statement only expressed the country’s desire to join talks on the proposal. “In a nutshell, the IPEF is still a work in progress,” Kavi wrote.

An opinion piece in The Hindu echoed Kavi’s analysis. It said India’s decision to sign up was sudden. “There are many aspects to the IPEF that bear further scrutiny,” the article said. “Monday’s launch only signals the willingness of the 13 countries to begin discussions on the contours.”

Paper talks up the Quad’s peaceful aims

The Quad – the security grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia – met in Tokyo during the week and The Asahi Shimbun stressed in three editorials its more pacific aims. The first editorial said Japan should strive to keep dialogue with China open. “As two leading Asian nations, Japan and China should talk to each other more frequently,” it said. The editorial noted 2022 marked 50 years of normalised diplomatic relations between the two countries. It added, sadly: “However, there is no strong interest in the anniversary on either side. “But this occasion and all other opportunities should be used by the two governments to raise public awareness of the importance for the two nations to consistently pursue a relationship focused on the mutual benefits.”

The second editorial argued that Japan should persuade the US to smooth over ties with China. “China’s aggressive and largely secretive military buildup and its foreign policy agenda aimed at challenging the existing order are generating a lot of tensions in the region,” it said. “But simply taking a confrontational approach in countering China’s expansion and seeking economic decoupling under the pretext of economic security cannot help maintain peace and security.

“Japan should try to persuade the United States to rein in its increasingly competitive stance toward China while exploring ways to ensure peaceful coexistence based on dialogue and efforts to build mutual trust.”

The third editorial said the Quad should build an inclusive regional order. “People around Asia are living in dire conditions because of the climate crisis and armed conflicts,” it said. “As a premise for instilling values such as democracy and the rule of law, providing humanitarian aid and working to eradicate poverty is a wise approach.”

Rainbow flag provokes disapproval

The British Embassy in Jakarta raised a rainbow flag last week – and earned a rebuke from Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry. The embassy flew the flag to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT). The Jakarta Post reported a picture of the flag was posted on the embassy’s Instagram page and drew almost 10,000 comments – mainly of disapproval. “The government appears to have caved in to public pressure,” the paper said. “The Foreign Ministry summon [the] British Ambassador … to express its disapproval of the embassy’s decision to fly the flag.” The paper noted some experts said the embassy had not broken any regulations.

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