East Asia Digest | June 2019



• China hosts Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations
• President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia
• Protests in Hong Kong
• PM Modi and President Xi meet in Bishkek


• US President Trump visits Japan
• PM Abe visits Iran

The US – China Trade War

Developments in China 

China hosts Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations

In the backdrop of the US-China trade and technology conflict, with a view to negating the Huntington theory of a ‘clash of civilizations’, China hosted a Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing on 15 May 2019. Its objective was to show Asia and the world that different civilizations could live harmoniously together. The event was considered important enough for General Secretary Xi Jinping to deliver the keynote address with the Chinese perspective. Xi elaborated on the need for openness, mutual respect, inclusiveness and appreciation of diversity among different Asian civilizations. Representatives of 47 countries attended the Conference. Such events are typical of China’s propaganda efforts and too much should not be made of them. 

President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russia 5 – 7 June 2019 to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The visit further strengthened the close and special partnership between the two nations even as they both deal with fraught relations with the United States. Many commentators argue that the West is driving Russia into a closer embrace with China as a result of sanctions. With bilateral trade in 2018 reaching a new high of US $ 108 billion, the two Presidents signed a Joint Statement on elevating ties to a new level. China has also presented a pair of giant pandas to Russia, the two sides will mark 2020 as the year of scientific and technological innovation, agreeing to expand their bilateral cooperation in the nuclear as well as the space field. Xi also participated in the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), while the two leaders announced that Huawei would assist develop 5G telecom systems in Russia, an obvious poke in the eye at the US. Relations between the two countries are obviously getting stronger by the day, and the China – Russia pole in global politics and economics is gaining considerable weight. 

Protests in Hong Kong

Over 1 million people participated in popular protests in Hong Kong on 9 June 2019 over a controversial proposal of the HK Government to amend its extradition laws to permit the extraditions to other countries including mainland China. The protestors were against this change which in their opinion will fundamentally alter Hong Kong’s status as well as freedoms. Later in the week there were violent clashes between the protestors and police in downtown HK. Finally, HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on 15 June that the proposed alterations would be kept on hold at least until views of all sections of HK society were taken on board. 

PM Modi and President Xi meet in Bishkek

The leaders of India and China had a short bilateral meeting at Bishkek on 13 June 2019, on the sidelines of the Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). While the meeting was characterized as being very warm and cordial, discussions on major issues seems to have been pushed back to the next Informal Summit between the two leaders, likely to take place in October 2019, for which PM Modi invited Xi Jinping. Apparently, it was agreed that both sides should raise their expectations from the bilateral relationship. Marking the 70th anniversary of establishment of India – China relations was also touched upon. 

Developments in Japan


US President Trump visits Japan

President Trump accompanied by the First Lady Melania Trump visited Japan 25-27 May 2019 as the first foreign leader to make a State Visit in the new Reiwa Era of just enthroned Emperor Naruhito. The visit symbolized the strong alliance between the two nations as well as Japan’s geo-strategic priorities. PM Abe and President Trump held discussions in which the Japanese leader described the alliance as “unshakeable” while Trump spoke of it as being “steadfast and ironclad”, discussed the situation in North Korea with Abe-san announcing that he would soon meet with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un, welcomed progress in making the Indo-Pacific free and open particularly in the areas of energy, infrastructure and the digital world. PM Abe highlighted new Japanese investment in the United States of US $ 24 billion creating 45,000 new jobs. Trump focused attention on the sale of large amounts of defense equipment by the US to Japan including F-35 stealth aircraft, his goal of reducing America’s trade deficit by removing all kinds of trade barriers. US beef has gained full access to the Japanese market and the two nations agreed to dramatically increase their cooperation in space. President Trump was ceremonially received at the Palace by the new Japanese Emperor and Empress including a state banquet. Trump and Abe played a round of golf together, attended a Sumo wrestling tournament, and jointly visited a Japan Maritime Self Defense Force ship as well as a US Navy vessel to further highlight their close defense and political alliance. Trump also visited a group of Japanese people whose relatives had been abducted by the North Koreans, a sensitive subject for PM Abe. Since this essentially was a feel good visit, both sides were on their best behavior since a successful visit implied a great start to the Reiwa Era. To reporters, Trump did refer to trade issues between the two countries. It will be recollected that he has threatened to levy heavy tariffs on automobiles and auto parts made in Japan.

PM Abe visits Iran

Japan PM Shinzo Abe visited Iran on 12 June 2019, the first visit to that country by a Japanese Prime Minister in 41 years, in an effort to play mediator between the United States and that nation. Abe warned of an accidental conflict between the two, while Iranian President Rouhani assured that Iran would not initiate a conflict, and that pressures stemmed from US sanctions against his country. Abe also called on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini on 13 June. However, his visit was marred by the attack on a Japan managed vessel in the Persian Gulf, with US authorities clearly pointing the finger at Iran. Moreover, Khameini too came out with a statement, very soon after meeting Abe, that there is no point in having any discussion with Trump, thus indicating that Iran would not come to the talks table. 

The US - China Trade War

The US – China trade war continues without resolution, since the negotiations between the two sides broke down in acrimony in mid-May 2019. That it is not merely a trade war, but also a technology war spilling into the realm of 5G development was clear earlier too. Now it appears that the United States Government has begun to restrict the number of Chinese students being permitted to study at US Universities and in retaliation the PRC may be reducing the number of Chinese tourists visiting the US. Focus is now on a possible leadership level meeting at Osaka between Trump and Xi on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit end June. The United States is also threatening further hikes in tariffs on Chinese exports. The saga continues with an uncertain ending. 




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About the Author

Ambassador Gautam Bambawale

Former Ambassador of India to China and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre Former Ambassador to Bhutan, China and High Commissioner to Pakistan

Ambassador (Retd) Gautam Bambawale was a member of the Indian Foreign Service from 1984 to 2018. He was India’s Ambassador to Bhutan, Pakistan and China.

Bambawale was stationed in Washington DC in 2004-07 during the Indo-US nuclear deal which transformed ties between the two countries. He has been India’s first Consul General in Guangzhou (China) 2007-09. He was Director of the Indian Cultural Centre, Berlin 1994-98.

Ambassador Bambawale worked in the Prime Minister’s Office 2002-04. At the Ministry of External Affairs he was Joint Secretary for East Asia from 2009-2014. Bambawale has dealt with China for 15 years of his 34 year diplomatic career. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and German.

Ambassador Bambawale is currently Distinguished Professor, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Symbiosis International University, Pune and teaches a course on Diplomacy and International Governance at the Symbiosis School of International Studies. He has an M.Phil. in Economics from the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune.