Geopolitics will shape polls in China's neighbours

They have long-standing security alliances with the US and also count China as their largest trading partner.


By Ravi Shankar Buddhavarapu

Published: Tue 18 Jan 2022, 11:45 PM

If you’ve been watching the US-China arm-wrestle for dominance in the Indo-Pacific, you’ll have a lot to focus on this year.

National leadership elections will be held in at least three countries neighbouring China: South Korea, the Philippines and Australia. There will also be important Upper House elections in Japan.

All four countries have long-standing security alliances with the US and count China as their largest trading partner. They also happen to have voters who are turning decidedly sour on China.

The first to hold elections on March 9 is South Korea, which allows its presidents only a single six-year term in office. Frontrunner to succeed President Moon Jae-in as the country’s 20th president is Lee Jae-myung, a former provincial governor from President Moon’s own centre-left Democratic Party.

Lee currently enjoys a decent lead over conservative opposition candidate and former chief prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol from the People Power Party. The ruling party’s candidate is helped by the public perception that Moon handled Covid-19 well.

His big plank is unabashedly populist: He wants to guarantee a universal basic income programme to help level the country’s highly unequal economy and help tackle the acute housing crisis.

He has some help in defining the issue from popular culture: a portrayal of this issue won popular film Parasite an Oscar in 2020.

Both candidates share a distrust of China, mirroring the heightened anti-China sentiments of the electorate. Opinion polls in December showed that seven in 10 South Koreans see China as the biggest threat to the nation.

In the Philippines, a high-stakes contest on May 9 will decide who will succeed the controversial yet popular President Rodrigo Dutere who is barred by the constitution from running again. His six years in office have been criticised for a violent war against drugs and a pronounced pro-Beijing foreign policy, a startling departure for a traditional Washington ally.

Rights activists are unlikely to be cheered by the frontrunner status of social media-savvy Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of the former president. Marcos Sr ruled for about 20 years beginning 1965. He imposed martial law and was toppled by a grassroots people’s power revolution in 1986.

Marcos Jr is running with outgoing President Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio, 43, as his vice-presidential candidate. His main rival is Vice-President Leni Robredo, who has slammed President Duterte’s pro-China policies and is running on a promise to undo the excesses of the Duterte years.

Marcos wants close relations with China. Robredo, on the other hand, says she will come down harder on China, including in their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Most Filipinos are more positive on the US than China but that is unlikely to impact Marcos’s chances. Star boxer Manny Pacquiao is also in the ring, trailing in the third position. Popular and admired across the country for his performances in the boxing ring, Pacquiao has not caught fire in politics.

Australia, which must hold a federal election by May 21, may throw up a surprise win for incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison. His Liberal-National coalition is not topping the polls for now but he could repeat his 2019 showing, when he won despite being the underdog.

Most Australians appear satisfied with his strong anti-China stance despite the economy taking a hit from Beijing’s retaliatory decision to slow down imports of coal, pork and wine from Down Under.

Morrison has brought Australia closer to the US by joining the Quad, a security grouping with the US, India and Japan. He also signed the trilateral Aukus pact with Washington and London for the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines.

More than his China posture, Morrison’s Covid-19 lockdowns, which sealed Australia off for months, the initial fumbling with vaccination efforts and his struggle to cope with the Omicron onslaught may weigh with voters.

The current opinion poll leader, challenger Anthony Albanese of the Labour party, has criticised Morrison for being arrogant and dismissive. Albanese sounds distinctly less harsh on China.

In Japan, an election for the Upper House will serve as a referendum on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s first year in office. If the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito retain a majority in the poll expected on July 10, he may be able to shrug off the influence wielded by hawkish former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Thus far, Kishida is toeing the line. He has adhered to the Indo-Pacific vision set out by Abe, hiked Japan’s military budget and labelled tensions in the Taiwan Straits as Japan’s key security issue. All this went down badly in Beijing.

Though known as a dove, an election victory may tempt Kishida to accomplish what Abe could not: amend the Constitution to make Japan a “normal” country.

Whether policies in the Indo Pacific soften or harden this year - the latter forcing reluctant countries in the region to choose sides - 2022 will be remembered as the year in which ordinary voters spoke up on weighty issues such as geopolitics and big power rivalry.

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