East Asia in 2017: On land and sea, a year of building power bases

Seen as China's most powerful leader in decades, President Xi could secure his hold for years to come at the next Party Congress. In the South China Sea, a potential flashpoint, Beijing has already signaled its dominance.

Chinatopix via AP
In this July 14, 2016 file photo, a woman walks past a billboard featuring an image of an island in South China Sea on display with Chinese words that read: "South China Sea, our beautiful motherland, we won't let go an inch" in Weifang in east China's Shandong province. A US think tank says recent satellite images appear to show that China has installed anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons on its man-made islands in the South China Sea.

In East Asia, anxiety about what 2017 holds in store is running as high as anywhere in the world. Here’s a look at some of the stories to keep an eye on as the year unfolds:

Q. What will happen at the 19th National Party Congress in China?

Every five years, the ruling Communist Party holds the most important meeting in its official calendar, to stamp its approval on top leaders and their policies. Next autumn, it will be time for another one. While such gatherings are notoriously opaque, it appears certain that the congress will confirm President Xi Jinping as national leader for five more years.

Mr. Xi is expected to staff the party's top bodies, including the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, with trusted lieutenants. Under informal retirement rules that set an age ceiling of 65, five of the seven committee members are due to step down. Only Xi and Premier Li Keqiang will be left.

Yet despite the rules, Xi may push to have ally Wang Qishan, who has led his draconian anti-corruption drive, remain on the Standing Committee. Some observers say such a move could open the door for Xi to seek a third term in 2022. If the retirement rule is waived for Mr. Wang, the thinking goes, it could be waived for Xi as well. (He will be 69 at the end of his second term.)

Xi is widely regarded as China's most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, 30 years ago. How he chooses to wield his power at the upcoming congress could set his course well into the future.

“This will pave the road for Xi for the 20th Party Congress,” in 2022, says Zhang Lifan, an independent historian in Beijing. “By then, it will be natural for him to stay despite the age limit.”

Q. What about the South China Sea?

If the last few weeks are any indication, tensions in the South China Sea are likely to escalate in 2017. First came reports that China had installed weapons along a string of disputed islands. Then, a day later, a Chinese naval vessel seized a US underwater drone near the Philippines.

The incident sparked one of the tensest standoffs between Beijing and Washington in more than a decade and ignited a volley of criticism from President-elect Donald Trump. China returned the drone on Dec. 20, but it had signaled its dominance in the South China Sea, a strategically vital area through which about $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.

Whether the drone seizure was a one-off, or a sign of what’s to come from an increasingly assertive Beijing, remains to be seen. But the release of satellite images that show weapons on disputed islands confirms its hardening military grip on the region.

Mr. Trump told Fox News last month that China was “building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which it shouldn’t be doing.” If and how he decides to push back could become a source of serious tensions, even military strife, between the United States and China in 2017.

“The waters will remain choppy,” says Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. “The mood on both sides is getting worse.”

Q. What’s next for South Korea?

The political scandal that erupted in late October, bringing millions of protesters into the streets, is likely to come to an end in early 2017. South Korea’s opposition-controlled parliament voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye on Dec. 9, leaving her fate in the hands of the Constitutional Court.

On Dec. 22, the court confirmed it will hear allegations that Ms. Park colluded with a longtime confidante to extort money and favors from major South Korean companies and allowed her to secretly interfere in government affairs. The court has up to six months to decide whether Park should permanently step down or be reinstated.

Given the scale of the scandal and Park’s unprecedentedly low approval rating, most analysts predict the court will uphold parliament’s decision. If that happens, South Korea will have 60 days to elect a successor. Current frontrunners in the polls include Moon Jae-in, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party; and Ban Ki-moon, the departing Secretary General of the United Nations, who appears least inclined to swerve from Park’s policies.

Whoever takes Park’s place in the presidential Blue House will immediately face a spate of foreign policy challenges, including Trump’s mercurial proposals about military defense and an increasingly belligerent North Korea. How Korea’s new leader responds to them will have far-reaching consequences in an already tense region.

Q. Could Taiwan become the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage?

Indeed, the political climate in Taiwan has never been more favorable. Support for marriage equality has gained momentum since President Tsai, who has spoken out in favor of it, came to power in May.

On Dec. 26, a parliamentary committee approved four amendments to the Civil Code in a critical second review; they will now go to the full parliament for debate. Lawmakers could vote as early as February, when the next legislative session begins, but the outcome is far from certain.

While support for same-sex marriage in Taiwan has increased considerably in recent years, many Taiwanese are still strongly against it. Fifty-six percent of respondents to a recent poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation said they opposed it, and emotions are running high. Rallies organized by activists on both sides have attracted tens of thousands of protesters over the past month.

Same-sex marriage advocates in Taiwan have a steep road ahead. But if they succeed, Taiwan would join the US and 18 other countries that have legalized same-sex marriage in the last 15 years.

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