Our Brave New Nuclear World

So now we have a North Korea armed with long-range missiles and thermonuclear weapons. Make no mistake. This is the new normal. Pyongyang will never give them up, and no one can make them do so. 

The follow-on effects of this development will transform global politics and security policy. A wave of nuclear proliferation and military buildup is definitely to be expected. So one must ask: given our knowledge of what was going on in North Korea, how did we ever let this happen? Also we must ask, what realistically can be done to lower the threat of war?

In 1994, when President Bill Clinton announced the “agreed framework” with Pyongyang that he claimed to believe would solve the problem, I found myself in guest quarters at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. with my wife (from China) of just six years. President Clinton said, “North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our other allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.”

The American president also stressed that security would be maintained and that United States determination was firm.

Puzzled, my wife asked me, “What is this man saying.” I responded, “This, my darling, is what in America we call an ‘empty threat’”  . . . and indeed it proved to be just that. Within six years, the CIA had detected North Korea’s clandestine program. In 2006, Pyongyang carried out her first nuclear test. “Experts” stated that alone North Korea was incapable of developing delivery systems or increasing the size of her arsenal. 2020 was given as the then conveniently remote date when Pyongyang might pose some rudimentary threat.

What went wrong? Intelligence failure of course. Inability to imagine what was going to happen as well. A failure of policy which sought to use negotiations and incentives (the provision of light water reactors) to bring Pyongyang around. Most important was a failure to take seriously the lessons of history.

Think of WWII. In Hitler’s time, the highest ranks of the military and security apparatus contained many opposed to war. They planned to carry out a coup if the Führer invaded Czechoslovakia. Those involved included Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath; Head of Intelligence Colonel Hans Osler; Head of Counter- Intelligence Admiral William Canaris; Chief of Staff of the Army Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, and  the opposition contained many others—less well organized, from political parties as well as Protestant and Catholic Christians.  When the Czech plans became known by the army, General Beck and others sent envoys to London and Paris who were rebuffed. Not, that is, until British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier came to terms with Hitler at Munich, in September 1938, sacrificing Czechoslovakia, thus inadvertently destroying the whole plan. Other plans were also made, but this one was perhaps the best chance. Reaching Czechoslovakia required passing through fortified mountain passes, and with the famous Škoda Works munitions factory supplying them, the efficient Czech army might well have broken Hitler’s momentum with a stalemate on difficult ground. It was, in other words, worth a try. The French and British governments should have reacted positively. Terrified, however, Chamberlain and others became intoxicated by a delusional vision of peace through sincere negotiation with Hitler and appeasement—i.e. letting him invade other countries, but not yours. The might-have-beens continue to add literature to an already substantial mountain of speculation.[1]

The historical lesson here is that often prairie fires are started by discarded matches showing almost no flame. Douse the match somehow and all will be well: otherwise, hundreds of thousands of acres may go up in a firestorm.

In geopolitical language, this means force or the credible threat of force are best used the instant a threat is detected. Civilized people, however, tend to place actual force far down the list—after engagement, negotiations, incentives, embargoes, etc. which do not work when a country is genuinely on the warpath.

Possibly, World War II could have been averted as late as 1938, but by 1939, Germany learned that the allies would not resist, so the war could only be fought to the bloody finish.[2]

Likewise, North Korea could have been stopped in 1994 by military threats or even strike operations against their nuclear facilities. Instead, we wasted time heedlessly and profligately. We weren’t even serious. No one had a gut sense of how bad things could really get. Yet, ask our people about how appeasement strengthened Hitler, and many could have given intelligent answers. But to them, this was history; it resided in their brains, but not their bones; they would never have made nor make such mistakes. 

At that time, we also still harbored grave delusions with respect to Beijing’s interest in cooperation on the issue. In fact, one year after Clinton’s speech, China’s government made her first tentative move toward what is now territorial expansion greater in size than even that of the Third Reich at its largest—with the annexation of Mischief Reef from the Philippines.

Had we or the Philippines sent forces simply to demolish this minor maritime feature, China might well have desisted. Likewise, had the allies prepared for war or actually fought over Czechoslovakia, Hitler would never have acquired the aura of invincibility that so benefited his campaigns.

Now, the new situation has ratcheted into place. South Korea and Japan will likely become full nuclear powers. The existing East Asian arms race will pass through India to the western borders of Russia, thus menacing Europe. No solution exists any more, except a balance of terror. Sad nay tragic, but SO human. Welcome to the pre-war period.


[1] See among many others, Peter Hoffmann, The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945 (Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1997))

[2] See Williamson Murray, The Change in the Balance of Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984)

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Selling Out the Rohingyas

In the past several weeks, much attention has been devoted to the abject plight of the minority, predominantly Muslim, Rohingya community in Burma’s (Myanmar’s) Rakhine state. They have long been mistreated in the country and are denied citizenship rights despite a claim to have inhabited the Rakhine region since the sixteenth century; their situation has recently taken a particularly adverse turn. On August 25, it is reported that an emergent Rohingya guerrilla group had launched an attack on some Myanmarese army units. The military retaliated with considerable force and massacred substantial numbers of villagers at Tula Toli near the Bangladeshi border. In its wake, thousands of the hapless villagers trekked to nearby Bangladesh swelling an already turgid refugee population.

The harshness with which the Burmese military has responded to the guerrilla attack has generated understandable condemnation in the global community. Some groups have even organized to try to strip the Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, of her Nobel Prize. A fellow Nobel Laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has sharply criticized her deafening silence about the situation of the Rohingyas. Another Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousufzai, has also criticized her silence.

Bangladesh and India’s Response

The focus on the global community’s response to these most tragic developments in Myanmar is entirely warranted and appropriate. Lost in much of the reportage on these events, however, are the reactions of two key regional countries, Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh, which has grudgingly sheltered Rohingya refugees for years, has allowed more of them to enter the country, albeit with much reluctance. The conditions that prevail in the Bangladeshi refugee camps can only be described as being downright squalid. Yet, such dire conditions do not deter the wretched Rohingyas from fleeing the depredations of the Myanmar army. Of course, Bangladesh has little or no incentive and has limited resources to improve the existing state of the camps. Making them more livable is likely to make them a magnet for further refugee inflows. Furthermore, despite much economic progress over the past few decades, it remains a desperately poor country and can ill-afford to provide succor to increasing numbers of refugees even if they happen to be fellow Muslims. Even if substantial inflows of international assistance were available to Bangladesh, it is most unlikely that its regime would alleviate the milieu of these camps for fear that the refugees would seek more permanent residence in the country.

Bangladesh’s response to the emergent refugee crisis, while less than laudable, is at least somewhat understandable. What then has been India’s reaction to the unfolding crisis? The country has a long and storied tradition of not merely accepting refugees, but actually providing them solace. For example, in the wake of the Khampa rebellion in Tibet in 1959, it provided comfort to thousands of Tibetans. It has also sheltered the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the global Tibetan community, for decades since his flight to India. More recently, in 1971, it opened its borders to nearly ten million Bengalis who fled East Pakistan following a military crackdown during the crisis that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Why then has the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime adopted a mostly uncaring stance? The reasons stem from the imperatives of both regional and domestic politics.

In his visit to Myanmar last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at least in the public domain, scrupulously avoided bringing up the issue of the Rohingyas. Worse still, he concurred with Suu Kyi that Myanmar was confronted with and needed to address a “terrorist problem.” According to reliable Indian newspaper sources, he was able, however, to persuade her that it was necessary to provide substantial economic assistance to the strife-torn region. Whether or not such aid ever materializes and reaches the unfortunate population remains an open question.

What explains Modi’s reticence to criticize the country’s role in precipitating this humanitarian crisis? In considerable part, it stems from a careful calculation of India’s perceived national security interests. Given that the country has long faced and continues to confront a range of insurgencies in its northeastern region abutting Myanmar, it needs to elicit Suu Kyi’s cooperation to prevent them from using bases and sanctuaries in her country.

Additionally, it can also be traced to India’s interest in limiting the influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In earlier decades, Myanmar’s fledgling democracy movement was battling a vicious military dictatorship, and India had been at the forefront of supporting it. However, after watching the PRC make steady inroads into Myanmar in the early 1990s, India started to move away from its unstinted support for democratic reforms. Modi’s muted reaction to the ongoing crisis amounts to a logical culmination of that strategy.

Beyond regional concerns, what are the domestic determinants of this policy? The BJP regime, as is well known, has little or no regard for India’s vast Muslim minority. In fact, elements within the party are known for their active hostility toward India’s Muslim citizenry. Consequently, it should come as little surprise that the regime has no particular regard for the Rohingyas who have sought refuge within India. With complete disregard for customary international law, which calls on states not to deport refugees to countries where they face a reasonable prospect of persecution, Kiren Rijiju, the junior minister for Home Affairs, has threatened to deport the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Without adducing any evidence, he has argued that the refugees pose a potential terrorist threat and thereby should be deported. It is uncertain that the stinging rebukes that he has received from both Indian civil society as well as human rights groups will lead to a suspension of this stated policy.

At a juncture when multiple global crises command the attention of national leaders, there is a strong likelihood that the stance of the two most important regional actors— Bangladesh and India—to this humanitarian crisis will be mostly overlooked. Under those circumstances, the predicament of the Rohingyas will simply be written off as yet another footnote to the many humanitarian tragedies of the new century.


Sumit Ganguly is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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The Mystery of China’s Naval Strategy

Almost daily, we have news of Chinese military preparations or activities: her new second aircraft carrier, her quantum communications, her ever-increasing power. Serious analysts, however, usually pose a simple question when considering such developments: what is their purpose? What is the geopolitical end-state that the country in question envisions after her operations are completed? After all, no one is going to invade China, so defenses need not be on this scale. Is she seriously thinking of invading someone else? Her most important land neighbors are Russia, Kazakhstan, and India. Most would say that it would not only be pointless for China to attack any of these, but also self-destructive. Consider the bloody defeat inflicted on China in 1979 by little Vietnam (128,000 square miles; Germany is 138,000) in a conflict that still smolders. In the language of strategy: What is China’s policy? Where does she want to get?

Under my maddening, stupid, repetitive questioning, not unlike the below, I finally received the exasperated answer: “No matter what, we will be a great country” (無論如何我們是一個大國家). I had not the energy nor my poor victim any desire to discuss what “great” meant: Coming at the top of Freedom House’s list of countries rated by freedom and democracy? Having the lowest infant death rate? Or the highest literacy and numeracy level? Or most equal Gini coefficient? Cleanest and most beautiful natural environment? Number of Nobel Prizes or Olympic medals per capita? Largest number of people who say they are happy? Largest number of H-Bombs? You can choose lots of metrics, but no matter who you are, you will come out badly on some (e.g. U.S. Gini coefficient, literacy, etc.). To be tops in everything is what the Chinese wish for their country and their children—but it is impossible, and it is childish. 

To the best of my knowledge, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s (1840-1914) works were not translated into Chinese the first time around, in the nineteenth century, when they went into Japanese and many other languages, and are thought by many to have influenced national policies. 1954 appears to be the first Chinese edition of The Influence of Sea Power on History which appeared in the West in 1890. Now, in print in China in better annotated editions than we have, clearly Mahan has influenced the Chinese who are now pouring vast sums into something no Chinese state has ever possessed before: namely, a high seas fleet. I suspect they are attracted not so much by the specifics of Mahan’s theory as by certain stirring generalities, for example:

“It was not by attempting great military operations on land, but by controlling the sea, and through the sea the world outside Europe, that England ensured the triumph of their country.”[1]

A phrase like “by controlling the sea, and through the sea the world outside Europe” may sound like a policy or desired end-state an ambitious country such as China, that feels status deprived. But it is not.

Mahan is not about how to use sea power to conquer the world, but only in how to use it to conquer a specific adversary. He got the ideas that made him famous during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) when he stayed at the Phoenix Club in Lima (still there) and started reading about how Hannibal attacked Rome—crossing the Alps—and reflected on how easier a time he would have had if, like Scipio, he had been able to use ships to land on the coast and win quickly as Scipio did in 202 BC having crossed the sea easily to Zama near Carthage (and also by buying off Hannibal’s chief ally). This led Mahan to coin the phrase “sea power:” something long extant, but never named and examined before.

In both the Napoleonic War and the Second Punic War, maritime operations were direct contributors to the loss of what were essentially land wars. I believe the Chinese now consider sea control to be an element, if not the key element, in her future ill-defined greatness.

One suspects that some top leaders, having a superficial acquaintance with Mahan, think they can realize what was not even Mahan’s topic: control of much in global affairs with sea power. Such a concept is absent from Mahan. He believed that local sea control was necessary against an adversary in order to enforce a blockade that would bring it down. How exactly this would happen Mahan never says. His argument contains no real “theory of victory,” rather it assumes that most states are vulnerable to blockade (he was on service blockading the Confederacy during the Civil War). That may be true for small states, but it makes no sense for large land powers such as China, Russia, India, the United States, etc.

Not fleets, but alliances backed by military power, allow the extension of influence. Truth be told, China has no allies. How can one exercise unilateral hegemony over Asia from the sea as the Chinese are warning their neighbors? It is impossible. The United States aircraft carrier Reagan will visit Camh Ranh Bay in Vietnam next year not by shooting her way in but because the Vietnamese will welcome her. One can begin the conquest of a country with sea power and air power, but how does one get enough troops there by ship to fight on land? Can one rule from horseback, a Chinese general asked two thousand years ago—or rather, from the fleet? No. According to another story, the Germans were asked before World War I what they would do if the British landed on the Baltic Coast. They answered, “Send the gendarmerie and arrest them.”

More than anything else, Mahan emphasized, “never divide the fleet.” His theory of a “fleet in being,” essentially deterrence in nineteenth century diction, states that if a country maintains a fleet certain of victory, that fact will cause other powers not to attack, even though owing to sailing times, it might be two months before their fleet was destroyed. The Chinese seem not to have read this part. For with her numerous acquisitions of naval bases e.g. in Pakistan and coral atolls in the South China Sea, defense will require dividing the fleet. If submarines menace access to one of China’s “coaling stations” or South Sea rocks, several ships will have to be peeled off to deal with the contingency—which will not be easy to do, given the remoteness of these places from China and their proximity to land that can support, among other things, much more air power than they can bring to the theatre. Think how American submarines paralyzed the Japanese in the South Pacific by simply isolating islands holding immense garrisons, and thus taking them out of the war.

Such islets and harbors, however, are unlikely to be the focus of conflict. Russia, a naval power of some magnitude, will never tolerate Chinese dominance of the seas around Vladivostok and Kamchatka. A war started at sea would become a land war China could not win. The Korean peninsula flanks the Bohai Gulf which is the only sea lane into north China; Shanghai faces Kyushu, so it is strategically untenable; only Hainan island has some open water, but it is all either cupped like the island itself by Vietnam, or flanked by the long Vietnamese coast. Finally, let us not forget India which, one suspects, is capable of closing the Strait of Malacca from the Andaman and Nicobar islands: lining up ships, and pulling out those headed for China.

Is China in fact she neglecting land power? For some time before World War I, the Germans spent more on their failed “risk fleet” designed to keep Britain out by menacing her navy, key to the island’s survival. Had they spent that money on their army, they would probably have won the war.

I would count every one of China’s fourteen land neighbors—Pakistan included—as either potentially hostile or hostile. This number does not include offshore powers like Japan, which has immense resources with which to help. So suppose a war began, and as Chinese General Liu Yazhou (劉亞洲), a fervent anti-Japanese nationalist, who also knows his trade, has predicted, the Japanese stealthy submarines sank the eastern fleet in four hours? China would be humiliated and exposed. We lack the space to consider domestic political consequences.

I know a bit about the excellent Singapore navy which controls the Philip Channel, the narrowest part of the Strait of Malacca (1.5 miles). Suppose China, necessarily dividing the fleet, sent a taskforce to subdue Singapore (278 square miles). I have no doubt that Singapore would sink the Chinese. Multiply this scenario by all the contingencies China is creating, and one has an impossible strategic problem.

When it comes to strategic destinations, I use the following image. China is a bus, the biggest in world history. It is carrying more people than any bus has ever before. It is going faster than any bus in history. In what direction? Straight ahead. One steps up and asks the driver, “Where are we going?” The driver responds, “I’m not sure exactly, but as we get closer, I’ll be able to tell you more.” This is a terrible approach to strategy and policy, but it seems to be China’s right now.


[1] Mahan, Alfred T., The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire 1793-1812 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1895). Volume 2, p. 402 quoted in https://severalfourmany.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/mahan-corbett-douhet-and-mitchell.pdf

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What North Korea’s Statement against Trump Really Means

It would be hard to deny that rhetoric on and around the Korean peninsula is at a high mark. United States President Donald Trump’s words about “fire and fury” aimed at North Korea sounded almost like the typical rhetoric coming from North Korea. North Korea’s response, seemingly implying a threat of bombing Guam, was unusually direct and concrete.

Still, it is important to remember one key fact that has gotten lost in the bluster and chatter: Neither Trump’s statement, nor North Korea’s response, imply any change of the status quo.

Trump’s words were dangerously crude, and struck a tone that previous American presidents have not taken toward North Korea. At the end of the day, however, striking North Korea has never not been an option for the Unites States. Within the strategic confines of the North Korean nuclear issue, it has always been implied that the U.S. would consider striking North Korea should it sense serious, imminent and tangible threats against itself or its allies. That is what overflights of bombers over the Korean peninsula—which the U.S. has often conducted after North Korean provocations and did only a few days ago—intends to signal. Trump’s statement was reportedly spontaneous, rather than a result of newly calculated U.S. language or new red lines. In other words, it was not intended to signal a change of policy. 

Similarly, North Korea’s threat against Guam was not a shift of position. The whole point of North Korea demonstrating its ICBM-capacities is to show the U.S. that it has the capacity to strike its mainland, or islands such as Guam. It is worth re-reading the central passages in full:

The KPA Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in order to contain the U.S. major military bases on Guam including the Anderson Air Force Base in which the U.S. strategic bombers, which get on the nerves of the DPRK and threaten and blackmail it through their frequent visits to the sky above south Korea, are stationed and to send a serious warning signal to the U.S.

The plan is to be soon reported to the Supreme Command soon after going through full examination and completion and will be put into practice in a multi-concurrent and consecutive way any moment once Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the nuclear force of the DPRK, makes a decision.

The execution of this plan will offer an occasion for the Yankees to be the first to experience the might of the strategic weapons of the DPRK closest.[1]

Note the following:

  1. The KPA (Korea People’s Army, North Korea’s military) is, according to KCNA, “carefully examining the operational plan” for striking Guam. That’s not exactly a threat of imminent bombing. Rather, it is simply stating that North Korea has plans readily available for how it would attack Guam, should it choose to do so. Anything else would be surprising given North Korea’s tense relationship with the United States, and its heavy emphasis on missiles in its strategic doctrine.
  2. That the plan is to be reported to Kim Jong-un, and will be put into practice if Kim Jong-un decides it should be, is also not a change of policy. Remember: Kim Jong-un is the supreme commander of the North Korean military. He could order any attack he wants at any time. This fact was true yesterday, and will likely be true tomorrow as well. Of course, the wording of the statement makes it sound as if though North Korea might launch an attack in the near future. But North Korea threatens its neighbors and adversaries in regular intervals. Consider the following paragraph from a news report in the spring of 2013, another time when tensions ran high between North Korea and the U.S., citing a North Korean statement:

“We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK and that the merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified,” it said. “The U.S. had better ponder over the prevailing grave situation.”

In other words, North Korea regularly makes it a point to remind its adversaries of its capabilities. In terms of pure language, this time appears to be no different.

None of this is to say that the current tensions are not dangerous. Words eventually need to be backed up by action for them to carry any meaning. In situations like this one, the danger of escalation beyond the point of no return, and of miscalculation, is grave and serious. That is precisely why words and rhetoric must not be overblown, and understood in their proper context. 


[1] Source: Korean Central News Agency, “U.S. Should Be Prudent under Present Acute Situation: Spokesman for KPA Strategic Force,” August 9, 2017. North Korean outlets always write Kim Jong Un’s name in bold, and in a larger font.

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After North Korean Missile Test, South Korean President Takes a Stance  

North Korea’s latest ICBM test—conducted on July 28—was not as big of a shock as the one preceding it. The message North Korea sent with its initial test on July 4 was loud and clear: the country can hit the United States mainland with its missiles, and perhaps soon with nuclear weapons. The second missile launch primarily served to drive home that point, and to do it with a vengeance. The missile North Korea launched in the late evening hours of Friday, July 28 reached an altitude of 3.7 kilometers and flew 998 kilometers, metrics that Pyongyang claims shows its ability to hit the entire territory of the United States. On Tuesday, August 1, evidence surfaced that North Korea may have carried out another test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during the preceding weekend, proving the mobility of its missile-launching capabilities.

North Korea’s ICBM capacities means that when it threatens to annihilate its enemies for various reasons (as Pyongyang does from time to time), these words carry force. But overall, it does not change the strategic environment very much. It has long been known that North Korea’s ICBM- and nuclear-capacities are advanced, and as U.S. officials have pointed out, for the past few years, it has only been a matter of time before North Korea displays these capacities in a credible way.

In fact, one of the most important implications from the ICBM-test came from South Korea. When South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed in the day after the test to deploy more interceptor missile launchers for the country’s controversial anti-missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, more commonly known by its acronym, THAAD, it was a radical turnaround from his previous positions. North Korea had probably hoped to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea through its missile tests and other provocations in the months following the election of a left-leaning government in South Korea. As of now, it looks like those ambitions have failed.

Only a few weeks ago, this outcome seemed far from certain. Moon is a leftist politician, and his skepticism of THAAD’s deployment is well known. Donald Trump calling on South Korea to pay hefty amounts for the system earlier this year also did not help. The South Korean left has historically been wary of too much U.S. influence and presence in the country, and the left in South Korea has long favored cooperation, exchange, and negotiation with North Korea over sanctions.

A sign at Dorasan station pointing toward the crossing into Kaesong, North Korea. (Source: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, July 2017)

At times, divergent attitudes on the North Korea question has caused significant strain between the two countries. For example, in the early 2000s, when South Korea was governed by the liberal Roh Moo-hyun and the U.S. by George W. Bush, the two often differed in their approaches to North Korea. While Bush had branded North Korea part of the “Axis of Evil,” Roh was an avid proponent of the “Sunshine Policy” of cultural and economic collaboration with North Korea, with the long-term goal of peaceful unification of the two countries.

To put it very mildly, Trump and Moon also differ in their approaches to North Korea. Trump has often vowed to pressure North Korea into making concessions on its nuclear and missiles programs, while Moon is a known advocate of talks and exchange with North Korea. Just to name a few examples, Moon Jae-in has pledged to re-open the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, where South Korean firms operate factories with North Korean employees, which was closed under the Park Geun-hye administration in February 2016 in response to North Korea’s nuclear test and satellite launch in the preceding weeks. The administration has a long and ambitious wish list for economic cooperation projects with North Korea. Moon’s administration has repeatedly asked North Korea for military talks, only to be met with silence. Moreover, accusations surfaced in the run-up to the elections that Moon, as chief presidential secretary for Roh Moo-hyun, accepted the suggestion that South Korea ask North Korea for its opinion before abstaining from a vote on a UN resolution condemning human rights violations in North Korea.

Moreover, one should not underestimate the desire among significant portions of the South Korean governmental bureaucracy and other institutions for closer ties with North Korea. Within the Ministry of Unification in Seoul, which is a ministry dedicated wholly to matters related to North Korea, there seems to have been cautious hope that finally, those programs of cooperation with North Korea that died under the two preceding conservative presidents would once again be started under President Moon. Though often seen as a long-term, distant goal, the very idea of unification with North Korea is rarely questioned in the general political debate in South Korea.

Customs clearance form for travelers coming back to South Korea from North Korea, waiting to be filled out. (Source: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, July 2017)

Near the North Korean border in South Korea, symbols abound of the currently broken dreams of inter-Korean exchange. At the Dorasan train station and inter-Korean transit center near the border, for example, where South Koreans working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex would pass through on their way to North Korea, all is set up for traffic to resume. When I visited the Dorasan transit center a few weeks ago, the customs transit forms were neatly piled up, and metal detectors and immigration inspection desks were all in place. There was only one thing missing: people in inter-Korean transit.

In other words, ambitions and hopes for closer relations with North Korea have long been present in South Korea, and the newly elected president carries them as well. North Korean strategists had likely hoped that their missile tests this spring and summer—one only a few days after Moon Jae-in’s election in May—would force Moon to eventually indicate through his response (or perhaps lack thereof) that better relations with North Korea are more important than the alliance with the U.S. Moon’s response to the latest ICBM-test went the opposite direction, with the decision to employ more THAAD units. Not only that—Moon’s administration has requested talks with the U.S. about allowing South Korea to boost its own arsenal of missiles, which it is currently barred from doing under a bilateral treaty. Perhaps President Trump will pronounce this a victory for his own policy of pressuring allies with U.S. troops stationed in their countries to pay for larger shares of their own defense costs.

Empty immigration counters ready for inspections of travelers going to the Kaesong Industrial Complex from South Korea. (Source: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, July 2017)

It may not have been North Korea’s intention, but its ICBM-tests have helped Moon Jae-in clarify where South Korea stands. This clarification may not change anything regarding North Korea’s nuclear and missiles programs in the immediate term. But for those who worried that the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. would suffer with presidents of diametrically opposed political camps, it is a welcome development.

 

 

 

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Why We Must Recognize North Korea

The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.

This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a state, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.

On June 21. 2017  United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to “a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.” [1] Two weeks later, on July 7, 2017 it was reported that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had also agreed on such“ a complete and irreversible denuclearization.”[2] South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.

But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up. Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.

No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.

Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal  a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.

Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author’s estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China’s perhaps 1,000 (author’s estimate), India’s 130, Pakistan’s 140, Israel’s 80, France’s 300, Britain’s 215, and the United State’s 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.[3]

At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.

No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China’s illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.

This fact of Chinese aggression means that the U.S. and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defenses of our Asian allies.  My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.

Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate. lest she cause nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with  rogue nations.  She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.

These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.

Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.


[1] http://www.teletrader.com/news/details/39290551?ts=1499882856534

[2] https://koreas.liveuamap.com/en/2017/7-july-tillerson-says-trump–and–putin-had-a-pretty-good

[3] https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat  This is the source for all figures save those labeled “author’s estimate”.

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Israel and India: From a Chill to an Embrace?

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India concluded a three-day visit to Israel. His visit was genuinely historic as he was the first Indian prime minister to ever undertake such a trip. Indeed, the visit may well signify an entirely new phase in the Indo-Israeli relationship. Though India had recognized the state of Israel in 1950, it was only in 1992 that it had finally accorded the country full diplomatic status. Why has it taken the two states decades to finally arrive at a stage where they can enjoy a cordial and indeed close relationship? The answer to this question is complex and has complex historical and ideological roots.

India had formally voted against the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947. In considerable part, its opposition had stemmed from India’s anti-colonial history and the sympathies that its principal nationalist leaders had for the Palestinian cause. Even a letter from Albert Einstein pleading the Israeli cause had left the most prominent exponent of Indian nationalism, Mahatma Gandhi, India’s most noted nationalist leader, unmoved. Not surprisingly, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, chose to maintain a studious diplomatic distance from the nascent state. His successors, while accepting clandestine military support from Israel during India’s wars with Pakistan in both 1965 and 1971, nevertheless did little to enhance ties with the country.

Their decision to maintain the diplomatic reserve stemmed from three sources. First, it emanated from what institutional economists refer to as “path dependence.” Once organizations embark upon a certain policy direction only significant shocks, from within or without, lead them to fundamentally change course. India’s foreign policy establishment proved to be no exception to this principle. Second, India’s policymakers convinced themselves that India’s substantial Muslim population would take umbrage with an open embrace of Israel. Even though there was no clear evidence to this end, the belief alone was so strong that none within the political leadership dare chose to challenge its veracity. Ironically, at the end of the Cold War, when India chose to finally extend full diplomatic recognition to Israel, there was barely a whimper of protest from India’s vast Muslim community. Third, it had also shied away from closer ties with Israel for fear of a backlash from the Arab world. However, at the Cold War’s end, with a general re-appraisal of India’s foreign policy orientation, it became easier for the political establishment to accord Israel full diplomatic recognition.

Since then, the relationship has undergone a fitful, but dramatic transformation.  Previous governments under the tutelage of the Indian National Congress (INC), because of their inheritance of the legacy of the nationalist movement, had been somewhat circumspect about openly embracing the Indo-Israeli relationship.  Nevertheless, they had gradually expanded the scope and dimensions of existing ties. As a consequence, there had been considerable growth in diverse areas ranging from trade to military cooperation. Much of this expansion, however, was carried out without any great fanfare because the INC remained wary about alienating a key domestic electoral constituency and was also concerned about not troubling India’s Arab partners.

Similar misgivings do not appear to concern the current, right-of-center, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime of Prime Minister Modi. It has concluded that it can cede much of the Muslim vote to the INC and still achieve electoral success both in national and most state level elections. No doubt, it has also concluded that the divisions in the Arab world as well as India’s enhanced global stature ensures that improvements in relations with Israel will not lead to any significant diplomatic costs being imposed on India.  More specifically, it needs to be borne in mind that long before assuming the premiership, Modi had successfully sought to attract investment to his home state of Gujarat from Israel. Consequently, he could draw on his prior ties to the country as he planned this path-breaking visit.

Apart from the obvious symbolic significance of this visit, what exactly was accomplished during it? Even prior to the visit, Israel had emerged as a significant defense partner for India. For example, in April of this year, India had placed an order amounting to $2 billion to acquire various forms of high-technology weaponry, including drones, from Israel. There is every reason to believe that in the wake of this visit defense cooperation will only be enhanced further. Also, as of 2016, bilateral trade, which had once been of trivial importance, was approaching nearly $5 billion.

More specifically, during the visit, the two sides signed seven different agreements that will lead to greater cooperation in such areas as space, water management, energy, and agriculture. They also agreed to set up a five-year joint technology fund. Beyond these particular accords, they affirmed their existing commitment to counterterrorism cooperation—a matter of no trivial significance to either country.

Since by all accounts the trip was both a substantive as well as a symbolic success, what could possibly trouble the relationship in the likely future? The issue that the two leaderships seem to have deftly avoided is India’s robust diplomatic relationship with Iran. Despite public professions about long-standing civilizational links, the bilateral diplomatic warmth is based upon cold, hard calculations. India needs Iran for access to hydrocarbons especially natural gas, for an alternative route to Afghanistan (given the state of the India-Pakistan rivalry), and to ensure the political quiescence of its very substantial Shia minority. Consequently, it can ill-afford to distance itself from Iran. Israel, for various national security concerns, on the other hand, remains deeply wary about the country, its causes, and its goals.  

This is an arena where the budding Indo-Israeli relationship will no doubt diverge. The task for policymakers in both Tel Aviv and New Delhi will be to build upon the significant convergence of interests and not allow this issue to disrupt an emerging partnership that could prove beneficial to both states, especially since it has taken so very long to come to fruition.

Sumit Ganguly, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is a professor of political science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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Of Modi and Trump: A Case of Continuity?

Indo-U.S. relations, despite some inevitable vicissitudes, had been mostly on an upswing since the second Clinton administration. After dramatic progress on multiple fronts during the two terms of George W. Bush, it had briefly appeared to be in the doldrums during the first Obama administration. Two issues in particular had vexed New Delhi. The administration had been overly solicitous of India’s long-standing and long-term adversary, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and had sought to link the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan with the U.S. role in Afghanistan. India had responded coolly toward the first overture and had expressed outright hostility toward the second. The administration, after its initial flirtation with the PRC did not play out well, changed tack. Also, faced with a blunt and unyielding stance from India on the other matter, it backtracked from linking the two issues.

Indeed following Obama’s visit to India in October 2010, the relationship had undergone a significant course correction. Among other matters, Obama was the first U.S. president to publicly, if in a qualified fashion, endorse India’s quest to join the United Nations as a Permanent Member. This gesture, though hedged with suitable qualifications, was of extraordinary significance to the Indian foreign policy elite, for whom the goal is of talismanic dimensions.

President Trump’s assumption of office came as a surprise to India’s policymakers. To compound matters, Trump had railed against the India’s use of the H-1B visas during the campaign—an issue of no trivial significance to India’s multi-billion dollar information technology industry. Apart from this populist rant, he had expressed scant interest in India and shortly after getting elected had lauded the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in a phone call. Subsequently, earlier this year, Trump had publicly accused India of seeking billions of dollars from advanced industrial countries in exchange for its support for the Paris climate change accords.

All these statements had been of cold comfort to India’s foreign policy establishment. Nor had the administration sought to reassure India that it would pursue policy continuity in other areas such as defense cooperation or regional security through high-level diplomatic contacts. In fact, the only official of any consequence who visited India was the National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster. Based upon press reports, much of his time in New Delhi had been devoted to discussions about the future of Afghanistan.

Consequently, as Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, D.C. loomed, many within India’s foreign policy circles fretted about how Modi’s first state visit to the United States following Trump’s election would play out. Fortunately, for the most part, press reports and the detailed joint communiqué suggest that the Indo-U.S. relationship is in no imminent danger of being derailed. What are the indicators that the visit was at least a modest success and that it presages continuity in American policy toward India? Also, might there be any possible pitfalls that still lurk over the horizon? Are there issues that were left unaddressed that could come back to disturb the seeming bonhomie that the two leaders have established?

At the outset, it might be desirable to highlight what most Indian foreign policy commentators deem to be the achievements of the trip. Virtually all of them have taken note of the decision of the Trump administration to declare well-known terrorist, Syed Salauddin, the leader of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” Under the terms of this label, any of his financial assets in the United States will be subject to seizure, and no U.S. citizen can have contact with the individual. The practical consequences of this listing may be limited as Salauddin is unlikely to possess significant financial resources in the United States, and few Americans would be desirous of establishing contact with him anyway. That said, the designation is nevertheless important as it helps India put pressure on Pakistan, his base of operations.

Barring this decision, even a casual glance at the joint communiqué reveals that a number of subjects that had been under consideration under the Obama administration will still be pursued. In the defense arena, the previous administration had granted India the status of a Major Defense Partner. Under its aegis, India was granted access to a range of dual-use technologies. The joint statement affirmed India’s status and revealed that the U.S. has now offered India new drone technology. It has also emphasized the significance of on-going bilateral naval cooperation and an interest in its deepening and expansion.

Also, in a striking departure from past precedent, India affirmed American efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile pursuits. Previous Indian regimes had shied away from taking such bold and unequivocal stances on matters that did not directly impinge on India’s national security concerns. Similarly, without explicitly alluding to the PRC, the statement underscored the importance of the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. In many ways, these are important signs that India now envisages a wider role for itself on matters of regional security across Asia.

Some potentially contentious issues, however, seem to have been set aside. There is no mention of the nettlesome issue of H-1B visas; the matter of divergent views on climate change seem to have been mostly papered over; and there is no reference to Iran’s role in the Gulf. The final issue deserves a bit of discussion. India, for a variety of compelling reasons seeks to preserve a cordial relationship with Iran. Among other matters, it has a very substantial Shia population in northern India and values their political quiescence. It is also dependent on Iran for access to natural gas. Finally, it has invested much in the development of a port facility at Chabahar in Iran to counter the PRC’s growing presence in Pakistan and to obtain land access to Afghanistan. Consequently, it would be loath to dilute this critical relationship.

The Trump administration with its fixation on Iran is no doubt aware of India’s ties to Iran. The fact that this issue in a concluding public statement has been neatly sidestepped suggests that it is not an area where there is mutual understanding. Nevertheless, it is not a matter that can be swept under a rug. At some point, the two sides will be compelled to grasp this particular nettle and not allow it to damage the overall fabric of the relationship.

A few analysts in India have suggested that the visit did not yield significant new achievements barring the U.S. decision to isolate Syed Salauddin and to nudge forward the process of defense cooperation. Such a characterization, though seemingly accurate, misses a critical point. Modi’s visit and Trump’s affirmation of a range of past policies suggests that there is no rupture in the relationship. With the significant ballast that it has acquired over the past decade and a half, the absence of any dramatic turns under the Trump administration demonstrates that it can withstand a significant shift in the overarching orientation of U.S. foreign policy.


Sumit Ganguly is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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Russia’s Existential Threat to NATO in the Baltics

NATO seems more united today than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War. An aggressive Russia, unbowed by Western economic sanctions after its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, has driven NATO member countries closer together. However, if given the opportunity, an aggressive Russia could also put NATO in a position that could strain its cohesion and ultimately undermine its existence. One place where that could happen is in the Baltics states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Bigger, Not Necessarily Stronger

As part of NATO’s eastward expansion after the Cold War, the Baltic countries joined the Alliance in 2004. But geographically separated from nearly all of NATO and having small militaries, the Baltics have always been vulnerable. From the start, military planners understood that NATO would have to commit substantial resources to properly defend the region from a Russian invasion.

At the time, NATO’s European governments were unconcerned. Russia, they believed, no longer posed a real threat. So, rather than make the costly outlays needed to protect the Baltic states, they cut their defense budgets. It was little surprise, then, that Europe’s conventional military forces saw their numbers and combat readiness fall. Today, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom would each be hard pressed to rapidly deploy a single combat-ready armored brigade. NATO’s reduced fighting capacity was also evident in its air campaign over Libya in 2011. After less than a month of combat, European air forces ran short of precision-guided munitions.

Moreover, given how easily Russia could sever the land and air routes into the Baltics, one might have expected NATO to have boosted its amphibious capacity in case it needed to send reinforcements across the Baltic Sea. Instead, NATO’s combined sealift capacity, excluding U.S. amphibious forces, has fallen to such a low level that it can ferry little more than two infantry brigades. Even worse, almost all of that capacity is based far from the Baltic Sea. And even if NATO could transport those brigades to the Baltics (through what might be a gauntlet of Russian air and missile strikes from Kaliningrad) it is doubtful whether they would be enough to stop a mechanized Russian invasion.

Peril of the Interregnum

Should NATO prove too unprepared to help the Baltics, Russia could achieve a quick victory. That would mean that NATO would have to mount a counteroffensive to liberate the region in order to fulfill its treaty obligations. But before it could do so, the Alliance would need time to fully mobilize its armed forces. During that interregnum, between Russia’s victory and NATO’s counteroffensive, NATO leaders would have time to contemplate what was to come.

They would have a lot to consider. Since the only land route into the Baltics runs through the 100-km wide Suwalki Gap, a narrow corridor between Lithuania and Poland, NATO ground forces would have little choice but to mount a frontal attack. Massed Russian artillery could turn the gap into a killing zone. Meanwhile, Russia’s coastal defense batteries and attack helicopter battalions could inflict heavy losses on any amphibious assault.

The conflict could also escalate beyond the Baltics. As a prelude to any counteroffensive, NATO commanders would naturally want to use their air power to attrit Russian forces and logistical capacity as well as suppress Russia’s supporting artillery, air defense, and coastal defense batteries. That would require strikes against targets on not only Baltic soil, but also possibly Russian soil. Moscow could seek reciprocity. It could launch air or missile strikes on similar targets in Western Europe and the United States. Russia could even escalate to a nuclear confrontation. In effect, it could thrust upon NATO leaders the decision: “Is Tallinn worth Berlin?”

Ultimately, the near certainty of high casualties, the uncertainty of battlefield success, and the possibility of a wider war might cause NATO leaders to think twice about liberating the Baltics. Russian information operations would likely exacerbate those concerns to sow doubt and division within NATO countries. If NATO leaders were to hesitate during the interregnum and agree to a settlement that left any part of the Baltics in Russian hands, then no NATO member could fully trust NATO’s security guarantee again. The rationale for NATO would be lost and its future existence put at risk.

The Tripwire Fix

NATO faced a similar danger during the Cold War. At that time, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had amassed such enormous conventional forces that they threatened to overwhelm those of the Alliance. Observers wondered whether the United States would risk a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union if it quickly occupied Western Europe. The question put to American leaders was: “Is Bonn worth Washington?” NATO responded by stationing large U.S. military forces close to the frontline, in part, to act as a tripwire. They would incur the first casualties of any Soviet invasion. Those losses would bind the United States and its nuclear arsenal to the defense of Western Europe, and thus deter the Soviet Union from invading it in the first place.

NATO appears to be trying a similar tactic in the Baltics states. For years, NATO has rotated tiny military contingents through the region. But over the last year, their sizes have grown. Currently, a German-led battle group of 1,000 soldiers is in Lithuania. Later this year, a Canadian-led battle group will be in Latvia and a British-led one will visit Estonia. Though still too small to stop a Russian invasion, they could serve as a tripwire to bind the rest of Europe to the defense of the Baltics. However, that only works if NATO can prevent Russia from achieving a quick victory, since the prospect of a costly counteroffensive could still render NATO’s tripwire ineffective.

Conclusion

To reliably avoid Russia’s existential threat, NATO must ensure that Russia is unable to score a quick victory in the Baltics. That requires NATO members to pledge more than words of resolve. That requires more resources for more troops, better equipment, and, above all, higher combat readiness.

Most exposed to the Russian threat, NATO’s Eastern European members are leading the way. Poland created a new Territorial Defense Force of reservists who will number 53,000 in two years. It also ordered 128 upgraded Leopard 2PL main battle tanks.[1] All three Baltic countries have acquired new light armored vehicles. Better yet, they are beginning to acquire the firepower needed to slow a Russian advance. Lithuania recently bought PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers, and Estonia is in discussions to purchase K9 long-range artillery.[2]

The rest of NATO needs to do the same. After all, one of the key reasons why NATO was so important in the most successful unfought war of the last century, the Cold War, was because its member countries were conscious to brook no ambiguity about the Alliance’s combat readiness to take on its main adversary.


[1] Remigiusz Wilk, “Polish Territorial Defence Force expanded to 53,000 personnel,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 17, 2016; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland orders 128 upgraded Leopard 2PL main battle tanks,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jan. 4, 2016.

[2] Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Estonia begins K9 artillery negotiations with South Korea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 7, 2017; Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Lithuania receives first PzH 2000 howitzers,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jun. 28, 2016.

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Taiwan Loses Another Ally

In another blow to Taiwan’s ever-shrinking list of diplomatic allies comes the news that Panama has severed ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing a relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Panama’s announcement comes only months after Sao Tome and Principe cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China. With these two nations switching recognition, Taiwan has only 20 official diplomatic allies. As China continues to exert pressure on President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that holds a majority in the country’s legislature, China will attempt to poach more of Taiwan’s allies in an attempt to further isolate Taiwan from the international space.

The Office of the President released a statement addressing the switch in recognition: “We express our deep regret and disappointment at the Republic of Panama’s decision to renounce our long-standing friendship and establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.”

The End of the Diplomatic Truce

Though people unfamiliar with Taiwan are not likely to see the importance of the end of this relationship, it is important to understand how China acted during the tenure of former President Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s other major political party that has a more a pro-China view than the DPP. At the beginning of his presidency in 2008, Ma announced that he was pursuing a policy that he called a “diplomatic truce,” in which Taiwan and China tacitly agreed to stop poaching each other’s allies. In 2008, Ma said during the planning stages, “If the diplomatic truce turns out to be a successful strategy, it might be possible that we won’t gain any more allies, but we won’t lose any either.”

Ma’s prediction almost proved true. During his two terms in office, Taiwan only lost one ally, Gambia, in 2013. However, China did not establish official relations with Gambia until 2016, only a few months before Ma left office and Tsai took his place. The delay in establishing relations could be seen as a sign of deference for the diplomatic truce under Ma’s presidency.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, the diplomatic truce has ended with China poaching two countries— Sao Tome and Principe and Panama—from Taiwan since Tsai took office in May 2016. Panama’s move has particularly angered Taiwan. In the summer of 2016, Tsai visited the country for the opening ceremony of the newly expanded Panama Canal. Panama and Taiwan had good relations and exchanges before this announcement.

The canal is most likely the primary reason for Panama’s sudden decision since China is its “second most important customer.” China now has no incentive to stop using the canal, and it cannot dangle its high level of usage over Panama as a veiled threat. The move now also calls into question the China-backed Nicaragua Canal as Nicaragua still recognizes Taiwan, not China. The project’s viability had already been hotly debated, and perhaps Panama hopes that China will focus less on the Nicaragua Canal as a result of its decision.

Tsai released a statement criticizing China’s role in the Panama switch as well as its recent actions in trying to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world:

Although we have lost a diplomatic ally, our refusal to engage in a diplomatic bidding war will not change. The fact that the Republic of China exists will not change. And Taiwan’s value and standing in the international community will not change.

We are a sovereign country. This sovereignty cannot be challenged nor traded. China has continued to manipulate the “one China” principle and pressure Taiwan’s international space, threatening the rights of the Taiwanese people. But it remains undeniable that the Republic of China is a sovereign country. This is a fact China will never be able to deny.

What Next?

The question, now, for Taiwan is what will happen next. Sao Tome and Principe’s decision to switch to China did not cause much angst in Taiwan since the small island nation apparently asked for $200 million before its switch in recognition. The country was essentially demanding a handout for the continuation of relations, but the Panama case appears different and unexpected. China’s poaching of these nations is exactly what the diplomatic truce under the Ma years stopped, but with Tsai in office, China has decided to alter its course.

Now, if China is truly opening its wallet to Taiwan’s other 20 allies, can Taiwan—or any nation—blame them for accepting a switch in recognition for the prospect or promise of millions of dollars in aid and/or investment? There is not much that Taiwan can do since the Tsai administration has stated that it will not engage in this practice for the sake of stability across the Taiwan Strait. As pressure continues to mount on Taiwan and as its list of allies grows thin, Taiwan may need to rethink its strategy for keeping or finding allies in light of China’s recent actions.

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