China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know

The need to understand this global giant has never been more pressing: China is constantly in the news, yet conflicting impressions abound. Within one generation, China has transformed from an impoverished, repressive state into an economic and political powerhouse. In the fully revised and updated second edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, China expert Jeffrey Wasserstrom provides cogent answers to the most urgent questions regarding the newest superpower, and offers a framework for understanding its meteoric rise.

Focusing his answers through the historical legacies–Western and Japanese imperialism, the Mao era, and the massacre near Tiananmen Square–that largely define China’s present-day trajectory, Wasserstrom introduces readers to the Chinese Communist Party, the building boom in Shanghai, and the environmental fall-out of rapid Chinese industrialization. He also explains unique aspects of Chinese culture such as the one-child policy, and provides insight into how Chinese view Americans.

Wasserstrom reveals that China today shares many traits with other industrialized nations during their periods of development, in particular the United States during its rapid industrialization in the 19th century. He provides guidance on the ways we can expect China to act in the future vis-à-vis the United States, Russia, India, and its East Asian neighbors. The second edition has also been updated to take into account changes China has seen in just the past two years, from the global economic shifts to the recent removal of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai from power. 

Concise and insightful, China in the 21st Century provides an excellent introduction to this significant global power.


Books are available for purchase on Amazon.

What Will Kim and Trump Actually Talk About?

The news that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has invited Donald Trump for talks, and that Trump has accepted, is surely a breakthrough given the past months of sky-high tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program. The two are tentatively set to meet in May of this year, but there is still a long way to go: talks could falter at the planning stage over issues such as what should be on the table, or where the parties should meet (or who should represent the countries). But for now, this is at least a step back from the brink that the world looked to be standing at only a few weeks or months ago.

Still – and I hate to rain on the negotiation parade – it remains unclear precisely what the two are likely to talk about, or what the possibilities and limits are to any progress. A meeting resolves nothing in its own right, and neither the US nor North Korea has changed its most fundamental stances: the US still sees North Korean denuclearization as the ultimate goal of talks, while North Korea still seems unlikely to abolish its nuclear weapons.

Both North Korea and the US appear to be flexible enough in their positions to think it worthwhile to meet. That is a good thing. After the past months of war bluster, much of the world is probably already breathing a collective sigh of relief.

When Kim Jong-un met with a South Korean delegation in Pyongyang a few days ago, he stated that North Korea would hold back on any nuclear or missile tests while engaged in talks with the US, even if the US and South Korea go through with military exercises that North Korea sees as provocations and rehearsals for war on the peninsula. Perhaps, most importantly, South Korean President Moon’s envoy who met with Kim Jong-un, Chung Eui-yong, said Kim had stated that North Korea was prepared to denuclearize in exchange for “security guarantees.”

At the face of it, that all sounds very promising. The problem is, however, that it has never been fully clear what the US and North Korea, respectively, really expect and hope for through talks. For North Korea, “security guarantees” could mean a whole range of things. Withdrawal of US troops from South Korea may just be the beginning. After all, the US does not need to have ground troops present in South Korea to be able to target North Korea militarily should it wish to do so. What if North Korea’s demands turn out to be much more ambitious – such as US withdrawal from the region entirely, or even reciprocal curtailments of the US’s own nuclear arsenal?

In short, North Korea may come to make demands that the US would be highly unlikely to meet. For now, no one knows for sure exactly what North Korea wants in terms of security guarantees, and having seen what happened to dictators such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to put his faith in a peace treaty or the like.

Moreover, Kim Jong-un’s initiative for negotiations should not be seen merely as a sign that sanctions and “maximum pressure” are taking such a toll on the regime that it has no choice but to negotiate. Rather, it may be because Kim feels so confident in the credibility of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent that he is willing to sit down and talk. Kim’s action is likely the result of a mix of factors, from the pinch of outside pressure to confidence in North Korea’s position. After all, Kim Jong-un’s strategic situation is much stronger than that of his father was during the Six Party Talks, North Korea now having conducted successful tests of ballistic missiles that many observers believe demonstrate a capacity to strike at the US mainland. No matter what North Korea’s reasoning behind the overture may be, it would be a mistake to see it merely as a sign of weakness. For the past few months, ever since Kim Jong-un reached out to Moon Jae-in over the Olympics, developments on the Korean peninsula have been driven by North Korean actions. Moon Jae-in has proved himself a highly skilled diplomat in getting the US and North Korea to a position where both are willing to talk, but it’s important to remember that for most of the developments throughout this current crisis, North Korea has held the initiative.

The news of an upcoming meeting is progress – for now. The hardest part – actual negotiations – still lies ahead.  

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North Korea’s Olympics Balance Sheet: Promising Symbolism, but Conflict Positions Remain the Same

The recently finished 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea took place amidst some of the highest tensions in years around North Korea’s nuclear program. It comes as no surprise that the games would be—and were—about far more than sports, particularly after North Korea’s participation went from lofty goal to reality. The two Korea’s may have marched in under a unified flag at the opening ceremony, but with the Olympics finally over, it’s important to bear in mind that whatever progress the games may have spurred, the real test begins now: will the contacts that the games facilitated actually lead anywhere?

Only time will tell. On the one hand, the U.S. announcement of additional sanctions against individuals and entities said to be aiding North Korea in evading sanctions on February 23 was a reminder that in many ways, the status quo remains. The U.S. sees North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as unacceptable, and at the time of writing, sticks to its line that any negotiations must ultimately involve North Korea disbanding the program.

On the other hand, North Korean officials signaled after meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in before the Olympics closing ceremony on February 25 that it is willing to talk to the U.S. This message contradicted much of what North Korean media and officials have been saying for the past few months, both in words and in action: North Korea cancelled a planned meeting between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and the North Korean delegation to the opening ceremony, led by Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, at the last minute. It is difficult to escape the impression that, for now, North Korea holds the initiative over both South Korea and the U.S.

On the whole, how did the Olympics pan out politically for North Korea? Some feared it would be a propaganda coup, while others were hopeful of diplomatic progress. Below is an attempt at a balance sheet:

North Korea succeeded in making the so-called “wedge” between South Korea and the U.S. visible, but it shouldn’t be credited with creating it in the first place. What this “wedge” means is often not spelled out by those who talk about it. In practice, the idea of North Korea driving a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea refers to North Korea taking actions that force either the U.S. or South Korea to make choices that one of the allies disagrees with.

Mike Pence refused to stand up in the VIP box when the inter-Korean Olympic troop marched in during the opening ceremony, while South Korea’s President Moon met and posed for photographs with Kim Yo-jong. Such occurrences may have been symbolically important, but they only reveal an already-established fact: South Korea and the U.S. have policy differences on how to approach the North Korean nuclear issue. North Korea did not create this difference, but its participation in the Olympics made the difference between the aforementioned allies all the more apparent.

North Korea may have won a PR-victory of sorts through the Olympics, but it might not matter that much. Much has been made of the way that international media reported on Kim Yo-jong, for example, sometimes treating her more like a visiting member of a foreign royal family rather than a representative of a repressive dictatorship.

Some of the criticism has been overblown, but it’s hard to deny that Kim Yo-jong gave a different face to a regime that most are used to seeing represented by its oft-ridiculed leader or goose-stepping soldiers in military parades. Still, everything is relative. Even a slight improvement in North Korea’s global image won’t necessarily translate into a strategic victory of any sort, given the low baseline. And sending a military apparatchik like Kim Yong-chol to the closing ceremony—the man allegedly in charge of North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan in 2010—may have compensated in negative publicity for whatever gains were made by Kim Yo-jong.

Even if relations between South and North Korea have warmed up somewhat during the Olympics, the basic facts of the conflict around North Korea’s nuclear program remain. Again, from the beginning, the Olympics could at best serve as an arena for contact, but they would never change the underlying conflict: North Korea sees its nuclear program as fundamentally necessary to the state’s survival, while the U.S. sees it as unacceptable. Any talks with North Korea, the White House says, must lead to North Korean denuclearization. As long as these positions remain locked, so will the conflict, and at the time of writing, both North Korea and the U.S. appear unwilling to back down even the slightest. During closing ceremony weekend, Reuters reported that the U.S. is considering deploying Coast Guard forces to the Asia-Pacific region to prevent North Korea from evading sanctions by intercepting and inspecting ships they suspect of breaching UN sanctions.

In sum, North Korea certainly scored some diplomatic points through the Olympics, but only time will tell whether the meetings between the Koreas will lead to tangible progress. The underlying conflict dynamics, after all, remain the same.

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Déjà Vu All Over Again: China Re-Opens Flight Route M503

On January 4, the People’s Republic of China announced the opening of four new flight routes over the Taiwan Strait. Instead of giving the region some time to process the announcement, planes began using these routes the same day. Due to the location of the routes and the unilateral nature of the announcement, Taiwan has protested the opening of the routes.

The new paths consist of one northbound route (M503) and three east-west extension routes (W121, W122, W123) that link to the main one. Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) has estimated that over 20 flights have used these routes daily since their opening.

In the announcement, China noted that opening up these additional routes would help with delays in an already congested flight area. To the casual observer, such an announcement makes sense: if there are too many flights on a specific route, it would make sense to open new ones to prevent flight delays. Who likes when their flight is delayed?

Behind these new flight routes, however, is the poor state of cross-Strait relations. Since May 2016, China has cut official communication with Taiwan due to the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen and her refusal to acquiesce in Beijing’s demand that she accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” and the related “one China Principle.” China has also recently increased the number of “island encirclement” missions, whereby Chinese bombers and surveillance planes fly around Taiwan and occasionally breach its Air Defense Zone. Talk of a Chinese invasion—although the possibility of invasion remains remote—has been a topic of much discussion since December 2017, particularly after a Chinese diplomat threatened invasion if a U.S. ship ever makes a port call in Taiwan. When compared to these other issues, a commercial flight route could be seen as innocuous.

But the new flight route is all a part of China’s strategy—ratchet up pressure on Taiwan in both large and small ways—especially while the world is focused on the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. If China continues to increase measures to force Tsai’s hand, which of the many threats would she ask China to limit or remove first?

In response to the announcement, Tsai tweeted: “Cross-strait stability is [important] to regional stability. Recent unilateral actions by #China – including M503 flight route & increased military exercises – are destabilizing & should be avoided. #Taiwan will continue to safeguard the status quo. We call on all parties to do the same.”

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reiterated Tsai’s point in a statement saying, “We believe . . . this is purposefully using civil aviation as a cover for improper intentions regarding Taiwan politics and even military affairs.”

China opened a similar route in January 2015, and Taiwan protested due to aviation safety concerns—the flights then (and now) were 7.8km away from Taiwanese airspace and cross paths with some domestic Taiwanese flights. By March 2015, Taiwan and China reached an agreement that one southbound flight route would remain open but the route was moved further west and that before China would open new routes, it would do so after consultation with Taiwan.

There is one slight, yet extremely important, difference between the 2015 spat and now. In 2015, the president of Taiwan was Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang, the party that advocates for closer ties with China. Now, in 2018, Tsai Ing-wen is president, and she is a member of the Democratic Progress Party, the party with a less favorable view of China. That’s the only change in the situation and thus the reason that the routes were opened again and the reason that China won’t be as amenable to compromise this time.

Taiwan under Tsai has limited leverage to push back against a more recalcitrant China, but it has done several things to make its stance known to China and the world. To try to press China into some sort of dialogue, Tsai’s government has called on the United States, Canada, and other countries to support Taiwan in this endeavor and for their planes to avoid using the new route. On January 18, the Taiwan CAA confirmed that it “has provisionally delayed approval of applications by two China-based airlines to operate additional cross-strait flights during the Lunar New Year holiday in protest at China’s unilateral decision to launch a northbound M503 route.” This postponement will affect nearly 200 flights and about 50,000 passengers.

Tsai has also made Taiwan’s stance known to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN organization that deals with global aviation issues. Unfortunately, since Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it is also not a member ICAO and cannot broach the topic directly. It must work through other indirect channels, specifically its formal and informal allies in ICAO. ICAO is not likely to do anything with Taiwan’s complaint because Taiwan is not allowed to be a member of the organization. Moreover, the Secretary General of the organization is a Chinese citizen, and Taiwan was excluded from the 39th Assembly in Montreal in 2016 after attending at China’s request in 2013.

For these reasons, it is unlikely that ICAO will work in favor of Taiwan even though according to ICAO guidelines, before a country makes a change to a flight route, it must work with “all parties concerned.” And China did not do that. In fact, China only notified Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration two hours before it sent out the official notification. At of the time of writing, ICAO has not formally responded to Taiwan’s complaint.

For its part, the United States has encouraged “authorities in Beijing and Taipei to engage in constructive dialogue, on the basis of dignity and respect,” but has not done much else. The United States should be more forceful in its rebuke of China’s unilateral action because since Tsai’s inauguration, China has shown it is not willing to have any dialogue with Taiwan. For now, to quote the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again” for cross-Strait relations.

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Sexual Violence: It’s Everybody’s Problem

Whether you get your news online, on the radio, on television, or in print, there is no way to escape the recent spate of revelations of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault that have taken place in every industry and at every echelon. Powerful politician, billionaire media mogul, tenured professor, it makes no difference; the Harvey Weinstein scandal (rather than the countless sexual disgraces associated with our Commander-in-Chief) provided the watershed moment that now has our country engaged, at least for the time being, in this important, albeit uncomfortable, conversation.

One can easily feel saturated by the flood of news and opinions on this topic. And one might ask why two foreign policy scholars at a think tank dedicated to international affairs feel the need to write this blog post. There are two answers to that question: First, everyone has a responsibility to speak up about this issue. Second, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) approach toward global affairs is actually quite useful when discussing this issue as well. The FPRI outlook, as we understand it, tends to take a realistic (some might say pessimistic) view of the world and human nature. We are not afraid to expose our own or anyone else’s warts. But we believe that only after taking in the world as it is can we begin to ask what is to be done. This approach is as necessary as it is lacking in foreign policy analysis… as well as in much of the current dialog on sexual assault and sexual harassment.  

Sexual assault was, and still is in many cases, synonymous with war—both as a tool wielded by the strong against the weak and as a spoil of war. There is a reason that the terms “rape and pillage” are habitually used in tandem. One can find instances of rape in almost every war in human history. The handful of examples provided by Anna Louie Sussman in her piece “Is Rape Inevitable in War?” from the Rape of Nanking to the rape camps of Bosnia and Herzegovina illustrate this gruesome reality.

Similarly, forced marriages and concubinage have existed from antiquity (including in the Bible) up through the modern era. The shocking tales of sex slavery practiced by ISIS are but the most recent manifestation of this age-old practice. The sad truth is that women have found themselves at the mercy of male sexual aggression for most of human history. Often, that situation was considered normal and accepted.

Workplace sexual assault and sexual harassment cannot be divorced from this history. Nevertheless, much of the discussion of sexual assault portrays it as an aberration, while at the same time portraying women’s rights as inherent in the state of nature. This is simply not true. Humanity has its darker sides. There is no tabula rasa. The idea that we have to be taught to hate, to discriminate, and to be violent has long been debunked. Human minds work to separate themselves from the other at an impossibly young age, as so much research has shown.[1] If anyone is looking for examples, Chapter Three of Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book NurtureShock, titled “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” contains a number that are particularly poignant. Conversely, acceptance, tolerance, and equality for the other must be taught. And because we have failed to acknowledge the prominent place of sexual assault in human history, that simply hasn’t happened. So here we are.

Sexual innuendo and coercion in the modern workplace (be it Hollywood, the government, or think tanks) has its roots in this ugly past. Although the power dynamic inherent in the war context is much more extreme than in the workplace, the two are not unrelated. Those in power, and let’s be honest, there is overwhelming evidence that we are primarily talking about men here, have used sexual harassment and sexual assault to assert themselves over their subordinates. Psychotherapist Lyn Yonack explains, “Although the touch may be sexual, the words seductive or intimidating, and the violation physical, when someone rapes, assaults, or harasses, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control. In heterosexual and same-sex encounters, sex is the tool used to gain power over another person.”  Being in a position that determines the professional fate of others, where “no” is not an acceptable response, where growth and reward come from being close to those who possess power, is a heady position to be in and is often abused. And people seem to know that it is going on.

A new NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll shows that while “more than four of every five Americans believe that sexual harassment is taking place in the workplace,” “just 9 percent of those employed — believe that sexual harassment is a problem in their own office.” Well how can that be? One reason is that sexual harassment is largely under-reported. As Jane Coaston recounts, “though up to 75 percent of women surveyed in one study had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, just 29 percent reported it.” Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev link low reporting levels to fear of retribution. They report that “among people who file harassment complaints with the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], at least one-third say that after complaining to the company they were demoted, moved to lousy jobs or shifts, fired, raped, or further harassed.” Dobbin and Kalev point to several large-scale surveys that show, “people who file harassment complaints are much more likely to lose their jobs than those who experience similar levels of harassment and say nothing.”

There is a toll that these experiences exact on women’s careers as more and more of them simply opt out or change lanes. As Rosa Brooks wrote, in this case about the national security landscape, “at every point along that spectrum from merely offensive to actually criminal, crappy male behavior is part of what pushes women out of the national security workplace.” Brooks invoked what Dan Drezner’s called the hidden “tax” on women, which amounts to “an extra burden that makes it that much tougher for women to advance or even stay in the workplace at all.” Male-dominated industries like national security and foreign policy are rife with sexual harassment not only because of their sheer numbers or boy’s club culture, but also because of hierarchy and authority. Dobbin and Kalev point to a host of studies that show harassment “flourishes in workplaces where men dominate in management and women have little power,” and “in organizations where few women hold the ‘core’ jobs.” Similarly, Lyn Yonack notes that sexual assaults and sexual violence “typically arise within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator occupies a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the victim.” This dearth of women at the top, more than sensitivity training or any of the other myriad of Band-Aids that have come into vogue over the years, is where the work needs to start.

If we accept that sexual assault and harassment are endemic in human history, and probably in human nature, we must also accept that they cannot be treated passively. Providing a sugar-coated rendition of human interactions that treat perpetrators of sexual assault as deviant misses the point. From a historical perspective, those of us who wish to ban sexual assault from human interactions are the outliers. If we truly wish to address this issue, we need to be proactive.

Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do, beginning with ensuring that more women are in leadership positions and occupying “core jobs.” This also has a strong bearing on the need to first acknowledge and then resolve gender wage inequality in the workplace—a touchy issue that is intimately tied to promotion. Another takeaway is that this is not something that should come only from women. Men need to step up. It’s time for a change—a meaningful cultural shift that begins at infancy and is reinforced until retirement by men and women alike, but particularly by men. That change can start now, while this issue still has our attention. It needs to happen on a national level, but it also needs to happen in every one of our workplaces by anyone and everyone who has the ability, the clout, or the platform to do so.

[1] Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children (New York: Twelve, 2009), Chapter 3: Why White Parents don’t Talk about Race, pp. 45-70.

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What’s in a Name?: Strategy Behind the “Indo-Pacific”

Throughout his tour of Asia in November 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the region through which he travelled not as the “Asia-Pacific,” but rather as the “Indo-Pacific.”  While other American presidents have spoken of the “Indo Pacific” before, they did so infrequently. Trump’s continuous use of the term prompted some to speculate whether it offered a clue to the future of American strategy in the region.

Only a week later, Australia released a new white paper that embedded the term “Indo-Pacific” into its broad foreign policy objectives. The white paper made mention of the “Indo-Pacific” 74 times and the “Asia-Pacific” only four times. In contrast, Australia’s prior foreign-policy white paper, published in 2003, mentioned the “Asia-Pacific” 26 times and the “Indo-Pacific” not at all. Clearly, policymakers have intended the term to hold some deeper meaning.[1]

You Say “Asia-Pacific,” I Say “Indo-Pacific”

What does the term “Indo-Pacific” convey that the term “Asia-Pacific” does not? It conveys a wider view of the region to include the Indian subcontinent and, specifically, India. Why include India? Most likely it is because incorporating a country of India’s size and significance into the traditional conception of the Asia-Pacific region would help to balance the growing economic and military heft of China in it.

That makes sense, given that Australia, Japan, and the United States have already brought India into their Asian security discussions. Back in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe first suggested formalizing such a multilateral collaboration through what he called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. He hoped to bring together Asia’s four liberal democracies to promote their shared security goals. At the time, the concept fizzled for fear of alienating China. But that apparently is less of a concern today. With the rise of Chinese assertiveness, the four countries have begun to participate in joint military exercises all along Asia’s periphery. Since 2014, India, Japan, and the United States have conducted annual naval exercises from the Bay of Bengal to the Western Pacific. And, since 2015, Japan has joined the biennial Australia-U.S. military exercise called Talisman Saber.

Indo-Pacific Security Relationships

Still, for the moment the Indo-Pacific region’s only formal security alliances are the bilateral ones that link the United States with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea in what some have described as a “hub-and-spokes” arrangement. The United States also has long-standing security relationships with Singapore, Taiwan, and until recently, Thailand. All other regional security ties are fairly nascent, including the one between Australia and Japan. Though both countries seem drawn to one another, their bond is not yet strong. Seen in that light, Australia’s recent decision to abandon a Japanese design for its future submarine fleet was probably a missed opportunity to reinforce that bond.

Meanwhile, India, which leaned towards the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War, has a relatively new security relationship with the United States. It was not until President George W. Bush orchestrated a civil nuclear deal with India, which implicitly recognized its nuclear weapons status in 2005, did that relationship really start. And even then, it did not grow quickly. Many Indians, including former National Security Council military advisor Prakash Menon and the former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, had reservations. In 2012, they, along with some notable Indian security experts, penned a strategy paper entitled Nonalignment 2.0 that downplayed the importance of stronger ties with the United States.[2]

Since then, however, China’s growing pressure on India’s borders and influence among India’s neighbors have made Indian leaders less concerned about India’s distance from the United States and more interested in finding common cause. As a reflection of that, India—once an exclusive Russian arms importer—has begun to acquire American military equipment and to consider Japanese ones, too. Australia specifically cited its interest in “much closer” ties with India in its recent foreign policy white paper.[3]

Indo-Pacific Encirclement of China?

For years, Chinese strategists have chafed at what they regarded as the geopolitical encirclement of China. But the number of such commentaries seems to have fallen over the last year or so. Perhaps that is because China has strengthened its relationship with Russia and made diplomatic headway in Southeast Asia. Or perhaps that is simply because China feels more powerful than it was. Ironically, China would have more reason to feel encircled today, if the other major Indo-Pacific powers choose to revive something akin to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

What’s in the name “Indo-Pacific?” The answer, in this case, might be a strategy for balancing Chinese power in the region.

[1] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017; and Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, 2003.

[2] Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran, and Siddharth Varadarajan, Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century (New Delhi: Centre for Policy Research, 2012).

[3] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017, p. 42.

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Spared a War: Abe’s Victory and Japan’s Rearmament

I made my genuine Thanksgiving on October 27. The occasion was Mr. Abe’s crushing victory in the Japanese election; the reason was a genuine, though perhaps erroneous, sense that we had been spared a potentially ghastly war in Asia, by the rebalancing of regional power that victory brought.

Japan will now start deliberately rearming and aiding her neighbors, with the pace determined by China’s aggressiveness. If China does not abandon her current expansionist territorial policy, but rather attempts nuclear blackmail against her neighbors, at the end of the day, Japan will match that too, with her own nuclear force, checkmating China. This will bring an armed peace.

Since at least 1995 when she occupied the Philippine Mischief Reef, China has been attempting to expand her territory to include Arunachal Pradesh (“South Tibet” in Beijing’s terminology) in India and islands held by South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and others, as well as to take control of the entire South China Sea, half again bigger than the Mediterranean.

China calculated that no one would react seriously. She was emerging as the hegemon of Asia; others would recognize this fact (which may not be one) and doff their caps, no more. Certainly, the United States would continue to do nothing. The Obama administration had done effectively nothing while this attempt to transform the Indo-Pacific region was being carried out.

China is also actively seeking bases in Africa and elsewhere, with a view to controlling the key choke points in the international maritime transport network. This is Griff nach der Weltmacht, with Chinese characteristics. A continuation of such aggressive behavior will almost certainly lead to conflict, escalation, and perhaps general war.

In 2010, sparks flew at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, as Hillary Clinton delivered a strong verbal condemnation. Then, in 2014, the Philippines filed suit in The Hague, under The Law of the Sea, the authority of which China has ratified and accepted. In 2016, the International Court of Arbitration found that all of China’s actions were illegal. China, however, ignored the decision completely, continuing her expansive policy, assuming that she could divide her opponents, intimidating them above all with her immense military and nuclear capabilities.

This seemed to work. Rodrigo Duterte, an erratic man, became president of the Philippines, and he began to come to terms with China. It became bad form to mention The Hague’s decision. Having torn up the international court’s decision, China looked set to create a fait accompli by flouting the law to use military intimidation instead.

The United States began to take serious action with the new administration in office. When President Trump made his highly successful visit to Asia, he did not need to mention security, as an almost unprecedented three Carrier Strike Groups were exercising in the seas nearby, message enough.

The United States is far away, though, and not trusted by anyone to use nuclear weapons to defend them. That is why the United Kingdom and France, both allies, maintain at great expense their own independent nuclear deterrents. But Japan? She foreswore war in her Constitution. Not only that, the United States presented herself as the “cork in the bottle” that would prevent Japanese armament. The drastic changes that China started unilaterally, assuming Japan would dither, in fact focused that country’s attention.

With Abe’s victory, we may expect Japan to become normal, which is to say possess a self-sufficient military capability including, if so pressed, nuclear weapons that will deter China and freeze her current policy. A democracy, Japan can move only with the support of her people. China’s threats to her territory, as well as the firing of two North Korean ballistic missiles over the islands, contributed to Abe’s victory. Now, we can expect a carefully calibrated Japanese response that will match China at every stage.

What does Japan have now? Her self-defense force numbers at about 250,000. At present, she lacks any but defensive armaments. Even so, her advanced technological capabilities mean that she can develop herself any weapon she needs, as good or better as the American systems on which she now largely relies. Japan does not steal technologies. She already has her technologies.

The jewel in her crown is her small (19) submarine force. The Sōryū is a conventional submarine so stealthy that the highly skilled Japanese anti-submarine forces can find only 5% of them when under way. They regularly sink American carrier escorts (using lasers) in war games. More importantly, as retired Chinese General Liu Yazhou 劉亞洲, an adamant Japanophobe, has warned, in case of naval conflict today, the Japanese submarines could sink the entire Chinese East Sea fleet in four or so hours.[1] (Liu is also an outspoken advocate of democracy). As the Japanese ambassador remarked to this author, “We are a shadow nuclear power.” In other words, it might take them a week to create an arsenal.

Otherwise, Japan has a slightly obsolescent air force to which U.S. F-35s are being added. More importantly, she has a prototype sixth generation stealth fighter the X-2 “Shinshin.” Cynics say she is building this to force American prices down. That may have been correct in the past, but today she is building it so as to be self-sufficient in aircraft. I believe this will be a superb jet: remember, not until 1943 did the United States field a fighter that could down the Japanese Zero.

Japan has also been launching “Information Gathering Satellites” since 2003. The most recent, launched earlier this year, is thought to have resolving power far superior to any other nation’s. Japan has enlarged her intelligence service. Particularly in cooperation with Taiwan (below), Japan will achieve intelligence dominance in the region.

What is missing?

Japan has only very short-range missiles. Now, however, she has undertaken a program to build a maneuverable missile having sufficient range and payload to pose a severe problem to any adversary, and a 1,000 mile-range missile nicknamed the “Japanese Tomahawk” about which in fact we know very little.

The Japanese speak of these as counter-strike missiles: in other words, to be used only after being attacked. Nothing, however, prevents their pre-emptive use. Likewise, they are intended to be conventional. Nothing, however, prevents the Japanese from unscrewing a conventional warhead and replacing it with a nuclear weapon.

In other words, Japan is now on the threshold of becoming a regional great power, not capable of attacking or invading her adversaries, but of paralyzing them by means of her advanced military capabilities. This fact transforms the Asian strategic situation. No longer will China be able to intimidate without fearing retaliation. The Hague decision will be proclaimed as justification, and who can gainsay the legitimacy of that?

Japan will become an Asian alliance focus in the emerging alliance—“The Quad”—of Australia, the United States, India, and Japan—hammered out, significantly, on the sidelines of this year’s ASEAN conference in Manila, so far China’s chief target. Also, she will become a non-U.S. source of advanced weaponry.

This last point—weapons supply—is particularly significant with respect to Taiwan. United States policy has always been to keep Taiwan weak enough that China can imagine conquest, yet fulfill the letter of the Taiwan Relations Act which requires us to supply defensive armament, by selling mostly obsolete or unwanted systems at great profit to our defense contractors. In fact, the loss of Taiwan, while it would be a crime against humanity, would not affect American security.

It would, however, mortally threaten Japan, whose main islands are 800 miles away, while her closest small island, Yonaguni, is less than 70 miles from the east coast of Taiwan. Japan and Taiwan are part of the same mostly submerged ocean mountain range. So we may expect Japan and Taiwan to cooperate in whatever ways are necessary to keep China at bay. If we continue to seek to please China even as we supply Taiwan with inadequate equipment, we may expect Japanese systems to fill the gap—submarines, naval vessels, state of the art aircraft. Not to mention close intelligence cooperation. Taiwan is often thought of as an American issue. Look at the map, though. It is a Japanese issue.

Finally, we must speak of diplomacy. Japan is widely distrusted, though this is perhaps a myth. Even South Korea, which was tortured brutally by Japan during the period she was a colony (1910-1945), maintains a high level of day to day security interaction with Tokyo. Japan’s diplomatic prowess is often underestimated, in part because she conceals it. But, particularly if aided by the United States and other “Quad” powers, she will show great effectiveness. “The Quad,” which China never imagined but was instrumental in creating as a counterbalance to her aggression, is more than a sufficient counterweight.

Note that China has created this situation for herself. She has no real allies: does anyone expect Russia or Pakistan to go to war on her behalf? Rather, by making such vast territorial claims from India to Japan (with the Russian Primorskii Krai, which controls the Pacific coast of Eurasia from Korea north on deck as the next), she has alienated, effectively, all her neighbors—here I include unstable Pakistan and opportunistic Russia—creating what political scientists would call a “countervailing coalition.”

Our greatest 19th century general, Winfield Scott, might have called it “an anaconda” that China has created, but in the toils of which she now finds herself. This entanglement will render impossible China’s miscalculated policies.

Note too that without China’s aid or at least acquiescence, North Korea would not be able to command the attention or elicit the fear that she does now. She is a dependent variable in this larger change, which will undermine and weaken her. South Korea is furthermore high on the list of nuclear capable states.

Actions elicit equal and opposite reactions, so Newton states. Clausewitz notes that unlike physical reactions, those in conflict, being the product of the human mind, are entirely unpredictable. When she set out on her ill-conceived expansion program, China wrote off both Japan and the United States. Now, they are at the heart of the game.

Of course, all of this could go wrong. The possibility of a war worse than any in history erupting in Asia remains with us. The developments outlined here, however, render that less and less likely, while a cold and peaceful standoff looks more realistic.

If such should turn out to be the case, we may date its onset from the Japanese election that has brought Abe to complete power. Now, our task is to create an alliance with Japan such as the late Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki always advocated—as close as ours with the United Kingdom.

So let us celebrate a war that I believe has been averted!

[1] 流亞洲 ”日本4 小時內 ‘清空’中國東海艦隊” in當代世界 October 2015,, p. 1.

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Conflict Escalation: China and India’s Territorial Dispute in the Himalayas

During the summer of 2017, an unusually volatile territorial spat between China and India erupted in the Himalayan Mountains. For over two months, hundreds of Chinese and Indian troops were locked in an escalating standoff on the Doklam Plateau, a region disputed by China and Bhutan near the Indian border. (See map.)

The fact that there was a standoff came as little surprise to most observers of China and India’s long-running territorial dispute. Other standoffs have periodically occurred along the two countries’ 4,057-km mostly disputed border—called the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—from the rocky peaks of Aksai Chin in the west to forested mountains of Arunachal Pradesh in the east. But this latest case was different in three respects: the parties involved, the strategic location, and the length and level of escalation.

Parties Involved

In the past, whenever such incidents took place, they occurred on parts of the LAC that China and India shared. This one did not; it transpired on land claimed by a third country, Bhutan. The incident began in June 2017 when Chinese troops and bulldozers moved onto the Doklam Plateau to build an all-weather road. With no ability to stop them, Bhutan appealed to India for assistance. Obligingly, New Delhi dispatched a military detachment to confront the Chinese, prompting the standoff.

Of course, China saw things differently. It accused India of sending troops into its territory and obstructing its road construction. China also intimated that India had exercised its historic influence over Bhutan’s foreign affairs to manufacture the Bhutanese request for help. But while one can debate the propriety of India’s intervention, what prompted China to attempt to build a road on land that it disputes with Bhutan in the first place remains unclear. Some speculated that Beijing may have been trying to gain a bargaining chip with which it could pry Bhutan away from India’s influence. If true, that would have been a long shot, given Bhutan’s economic dependence on India.

Strategic Location

While standoffs have developed in sensitive areas before, the most recent one occurred near a particularly strategic location for India. The Doklam Plateau sits near a part of India where its territory is squeezed between Bhutan, China, and Nepal to the north and Bangladesh to the south. That location, known as the Siliguri Corridor, is strategic because it connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. The Indian military has long worried about a possible Chinese thrust through Sikkim that could sever the corridor and cut India in two.

China’s rapid infrastructure development and military modernization over the last two decades have only heightened those concerns. Indian strategists fear that China could use its new all-weather roads, high-speed railways, and airfields to quickly mass its military might on the border. Chinese military doctrine and exercises suggest that China is preparing to do just that. During its Stride 2009 exercise, the Chinese military mobilized and transported four divisions across China in record time. Meanwhile, the Chinese military has been steadily acquiring new combat platforms suited for mountain warfare, from helicopters to light tanks able to operate at high altitudes. It also recently completed a major reorganization of its command structure to boost its joint war-fighting capability.

On the other side of the Himalayas, India has struggled to keep up with China. Already five years behind schedule, India has competed only 27 out of 73 roads that it had wanted built to improve its access to the LAC.[1] To compensate for that weakness, the Indian military has stationed sizable forces near the LAC so that it can quickly respond to any crisis there. But as the gap between Chinese and Indian military capabilities continues to widen, India has felt more pressure to strengthen its border defenses. In 2013, it began to raise a new two-division formation, the 17th Mountain Strike Corps, to be better prepared to repel a serious Chinese incursion. The Indian army is now outfitting the corps with some of its newest arms, including U.S.-designed M777 howitzers.

Length and Level of Escalation

Historically, when a standoff on the LAC has arisen, it is settled in a few weeks through a diplomatic resolution whereby both sides agree to a mutual and simultaneous withdrawal. Most observers expected that to happen in this latest case. Instead, whether by coincidence or design, China conducted a series of live-fire drills in nearby Tibet after the standoff began. Then, when India’s national security advisor travelled to Beijing in July, China rebuffed him. Rather than negotiating a resolution, China issued a lengthy position paper accusing India of wrongdoing and insisted on a unilateral Indian withdrawal.

In August, India upped the ante. It increased the combat readiness of its 50,000 troops along the eastern portion of the LAC, advancing the timetable for its annual exercise in the region and deploying its forces to their wartime positions. China’s state-owned Global Times warned that “China is more than capable of defeating India in potential military conflict” and had already mused that “perhaps it is time that [India] be taught a second lesson,” a reference to the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

The Next Standoff

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed by late August, and the two countries reached a settlement. India withdrew its troops, and China removed its road-construction equipment from the disputed region. Eventually, what drove the easing of tensions may have been Beijing’s desire for stability ahead of a Chinese-hosted BRICs summit (to which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited) in September and China’s Communist Party Congress in October.

In any case, how Beijing handled the standoff on the Doklam Plateau seems to have marked an incremental shift in Chinese behavior. It demonstrated that China has become more willing to directly challenge the strategic interests of a large neighboring power and is less concerned over conflict escalation than it once was. If there is a lesson for India to learn from all that, it is to be better prepared for the next border standoff.

[1] Rahul Bedi, “Deadline for construction of India–China border roads extended to 2022,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 3, 2017.

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Trump’s Seoul Speech: All the Right Points, Still No Way Forward

President Trump’s speech in South Korea’s National Assembly on Wednesday, November 8, 2017 was likely the best foreign policy speech he has ever given. And that is not only because expectations were low. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to say that fears were high. After months of unpredictable diplomacy-by-Twitter—calling Kim Jong-un names, making seemingly off-the-cuff-threats, undermining diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—many feared that Trump’s speech would be yet another moment of this sort.

But rhetorical strength is no replacement for policy. Even though Trump’s speech largely checked all the necessary boxes for what a U.S. president should say during a state visit in South Korea, a fundamental divide remains between him and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in over how to deal with North Korea, and whether military strikes should really be on the table. Trump expressed a will to talk, but also continued to push North Korean denuclearization as a precondition for improved relations. North Korea has repeated time and time again that its nuclear weapons are non-negotiable. President Moon, on the other hand, has expressed several times a will to engage with North Korea despite (or perhaps because) of its nuclear progress. This is a policy difference about as big as they get and though symbolically important, Trump’s speech did little to change matters.

First, let us look at some of the good parts of the speech, of which there were many. Some have criticized Trump’s speech for being akin to a Wikipedia page on South Korean history. Such criticisms miss the genre, context, and point of speeches such as this one. Trump did not go to Seoul to lay out new, ground-breaking policy lines. This state visit was highly symbolic, especially after all the ups and downs of U.S.-Korea relations over the past few months. By speaking on South Korea’s history, and the history of U.S.-Korean relations, Trump tried, and succeeded, in affirming American respect and recognition of both.

By anchoring the U.S.-Korea alliance in the Korean War (1950–1953), the speech signaled that the countries’ relationship is about more than strategy and geopolitics. Take, for example, the following lines, almost right at the beginning (my emphasis):

“Almost 67 years ago, in the spring of 1951, they recaptured what remained of this city, where we are gathered so proudly today. It was the second time in a year that our combined forces took on steep casualties to retake this capital from the Communists. Over the next weeks and months, the men soldiered through steep mountains and bloody, bloody battles. Driven back at times, they willed their way north to form the line that today divides the oppressed and the free. And there, American and South Korean troops have remained together holding that line for nearly seven decades.”

In other words, the alliance is steeped in shared sacrifices on the battlefield. South Korea’s war—for the Korean War was never formally ended, fighting only stopped following an armistice—remains America’s, too.

Trump also dedicated significant time to extolling South Korea’s economic and political development. This part of his speech served an important purpose: it gave recognition to a national narrative of modern South Korea that is an important source of pride for many. This narrative obscures a great deal of suffering and oppression at the hands of the country’s military dictators, but you can’t demand full and perfect academic nuance from a presidential speech during a foreign visit. The success story, next to the failed, oppressive and poor hermit kingdom, is a powerful story.

But Trump repeated the same policy the U.S. has held onto for decades, and in very clear terms. Complete and verifiable denuclearization is the beginning of better relations, and not even a guarantee (my emphasis):

“And to those nations that choose to ignore this threat—or worse still, to enable it—the weight of this crisis is on your conscience. I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship. The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face. North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves. Yet despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer—and we will do that—we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization.”

The leadership in Pyongyang sees things differently, to put it mildly. They see the nuclear weapons as the reason they haven’t met the same destiny as leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Moreover, while Trump’s “message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship” was at least in part meant to reassure South Korea that the U.S. stands behind it, South Koreans know full well that they, and not the U.S. president or population, are the ones in greatest risk should tensions escalate into armed clashes or nuclear war. This difference underlies the basic but crucial tension between the U.S. and South Korean administrations, where there has been little visible coordination of statements and measures during the last months’ tensions around North Korea’s nuclear program.

Of course, there is probably more flexibility in reality than can be gleaned from major speeches. Secretary of State Tillerson, when talking to reporters in Vietnam on Friday, seemed to imply that the U.S. is open to talks with relatively few preconditions. He would look for a “relative period of quiet and an indication from Kim Jong Un himself that they would like to have some type of a meeting,” reported Bloomberg. Trump’s emphasis on the U.S. being open to talking to North Korea, under the right conditions, was also a change of nuance, if not of words, from his usual tone against the North Korean regime. Perhaps more is going on under the surface. But as of now, the deadlock remains.

For other articles related to the Korean Peninsula, see Russia-North Korea Economic Ties: Is There More Than Meets the Eye? and Time for Decisions on North Korea.

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What a 1991 CIA Assessment on North Korea Tells Us about the Current Crisis

The current situation is no ordinary escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Those happen with regular frequency, but tend to fizzle out after a few days or weeks. Not so this time. Rhetoric is certainly more extreme than it has been in the past. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s declaration on September 25th that North Korea reserves the right to (note: not that it “will”) shoot down American bombers even in international airspace is an eerily concrete threat. Its logic is easy to understand: in a situation as tense as this one, North Korea cannot be sure whether approaching bombers are merely intended to signal U.S. resolve in its defense of South Korea, or if they are out on a mission. When tensions run as high as they do right now, the potential for misunderstandings between the two parties poses enormous risks.

The tone and context of the statement matters. North Korea has accused other countries of making “declarations of war” against it on numerous occasions, just like its foreign minister did in New York on September 25. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, for example, claimed in 2016 that a U.S. State Department report release on human rights in North Korea constituted a declaration of war. But with the overall bluster, it is harder for the parties to read each other’s true intentions through the chatter.

In many ways, however, not much has changed on the Korean peninsula for the past few decades. North Korea’s rapid development of its nuclear weapons and missiles (including ICBMs) has certainly been a game changer, but many of the basic dynamics have remained the same since the fall of the Soviet Union, throughout North Korea’s nuclear crises. A look back into the archives provides a fascinating reminder that situations and dynamics that we explain and analyze time and time again often haven’t changed for several decades.

By the end of the 1980s, the U.S. first saw, on satellite images, what looked like the construction of a nuclear reactor near the North Korean town of Yongbyon. Together, with the international community, it began to demand that North Korea allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which North Korea was still a party to at the time.

What tools did the U.S. consider using to pressure North Korea into compliance? One that should be familiar to basically every human being on the planet within listening range to TV news by now: economic sanctions.       

A look in the archives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reveals some assessments that the agency made about how well sanctions could function. And here is where things get very familiar. One memo drafted by the National Intelligence Council in December 1991 shows that much of the reasoning of the time around North Korea’s reactions to sanctions, as well as those of its neighbors, have remained very similar till this day. Let us look at some of the key analyses of the memo, one by one (some are shortened for simplicity):

  • “. . . economic sanctions per se would not cause North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.”

This, U.S. intelligence assessed 26 years ago. North Korea has been under various UN sanctions since 2006, which did little or nothing to prevent them from acquiring a nuclear deterrent. The ambitions for a nuclear deterrent have always been stronger than Pyongyang’s fear of sanctions, especially when these largely lack impact because of China’s unwillingness to enforce them. And now, here we are.

  • “Foreign trade plays an important role in key sectors of North Korea’s economy. P’yongyang imports all of its crude oil, coking coal, and advanced technology, and 25 percent of its needed food grains.”

North Korea today exports far more coal than it imports (before the latest rounds of sanctions, that is). Though the data is uncertain, it is likely far less dependent on outside imports of food than it was in 1991. Still, the basic tenets hold. North Korea depends on the outside world for crucial resources, most notably crude oil.

The memo notes further that: 

  • “A trade embargo – if fully respected and enforced – would cause a significant falloff in production and impose severe hardships on the North Korean populace. A curtailment of crude oil shipments would be particularly troublesome and would lead to industrial shutdowns, restricted transportation, and reduced agriculture and fishing.

And, further down in the document:

  • “The cutoff of oil deliveries would probably cause the regime to accelerate the shutdown of even essential industries and move to inefficient alternative forms of transportation – ox carts, bicycles, and charcoal-burning vehicles . . .”

There is currently no full trade embargo on North Korea. But under the current sanctions, and mainly due to China’s enforcement of them, a number of the results above are creeping into the economy. The fishing industry is suffering under the ban on seafood exports, and likely due to increased fuel prices as well. Should China continue to restrict its exports of oil, the transportation sector that supports the private market economy will also suffer. Agriculture, however, remains poorly mechanized—it largely reverted to manual methods after the famine in the mid-1990s when fuel became extremely scarce, so the predictions of the memo largely came true there as well, only through a different process.

But then, as today, the “if” on full respect and enforcement of a trade embargo was a big one:

  • “Most of the North’s trading partners would be reluctant to impose, much less to enforce, economic sanctions. China’s role would be key, and we believe Beijing would strenuously oppose – and assist P’yongyang in evading – an embargo.”

And, further down:

  • “We believe China – which has publicly opposed pressure tactics against the North – would not support trade sanctions and would veto UN action either to impose or militarily enforce an embargo. At a minimum, we believe Beijing would break the embargo by expanding trade with North Korea in an effort to preserve the P’yongyang regime. In particular, China would probably provide needed food and medical supplies, and could also increase oil deliveries . . .”

Again, no embargo is in place against North Korea, but current sanctions largely fill a similar function in blocking or severely restricting North Korea’s external trade in a wide range of goods. And as of now, China appears to be implementing many of the trade restrictions with force—at least enough for the North Korean economy to feel it. But in the grand scheme of things, Beijing’s sanctions enforcement remains an anomaly. China usually enforces sanctions only for temporary periods of time, when global attention is focused on North Korea, and reverts to normal trade with the country when tensions have blown over. It remains China’s primary objective in this that the status-quo be preserved, and part of that is to ensure the survival of North Korea in the long run. This was true in 1991, and it remains true in 2017.

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