Recent news reports from Thailand revealed that Royal Princess Ubolratana—a sister of King Vajiralongkorn—had accepted the nomination of a political party to be its candidate for Prime Minister in upcoming elections. A few hours later, the candidacy was terminated when the King announced that his sister’s proposed foray into electoral politics was “highly inappropriate.” For most Americans, this bit of news sounded like a bit of exotic trivia. Exotic, yes—but not trivial. The story provides a window into the complex political and cultural dynamics of another country—one where the U.S. has significant strategic equities.
Today, the storied bipartisan research and advocacy organization Freedom House releases its annual global survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World, and the news is not good. For the 13th year in a row, more countries experienced overall declines in democratic performance than improvements during calendar year 2018.
With remarkably little fuss, the Japanese Diet approved the latest iteration of Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines in December 2018. The new guidelines pave the way for the conversion of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s two largest warships, the Izumo and Kaga, into aircraft carriers. Though officially classified as helicopter destroyers, the two ships already resemble light aircraft carriers and embark several anti-submarine warfare helicopters. What will ultimately complete their transformation into true aircraft carriers is Japan’s expected acquisition of up to 40 American F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STVOL) fighters, as the Yomiuri Shimbun reported in early 2018.
The Trump administration has decided it needs a win and thinks it can achieve one most easily via the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. According to President Donald Trump, he has already simplified the conflict by taking “Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table,” referring to the official U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and subsequent relocation of its embassy from Tel Aviv in 2018. Of course, the conflict that has confounded consecutive U.S. presidents and countless other world leaders must be simply waiting for a new American plan.
Kim Jong-un offered few surprises in his annual New Year’s address. As is the wont of North Korean leaders, he characterized the past year as “historic” and touted the successes and progress of the Party and state. In Pyongyang, on the evening of the 31st, crowds filled Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, welcoming the New Year with a concert, many seemingly filming with their smartphones. Kim does have quite a lot to be proud of. In 2018, he held summits with two of the world’s most powerful leaders—Donald Trump and Xi Jinping—and crafted a remarkably positive image of himself among parts of the South Korean public. (For an illustrative example, look no further than this Kim Jong-un face mask manufactured by a South Korean company.)
There are many candidates for examining the most salient changes in the emerging strategic environment. Many perceive the emerging era of great power competition as a mandate to prepare for large-scale, conventional wars. Others will examine smaller changes in context like urban warfare, the influence of social media or its weaponization, or potentially disruptive new technologies.
China has long occupied a unique place in America’s relations with the world. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, China was a commercial magnet. Chinese products—tea, porcelains, silks—were in high demand and drew American merchants to Cathay. The clipper ships that plied the Pacific tea trade became as much a part of American lore as the Pony Express. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a potent new actor entered the scene: Christian missionaries. For many American denominations, the prospect that China might be converted to Christianity became a lure more powerful than money. By the 1930s, Christian missionaries funded by American congregations had established an impressive network of schools, hospitals, and universities—along with churches—across much of China. Moreover, China’s political leaders at the time, Chiang Kai-shek and his redoubtable wife, were baptized Christians. Americans envisioned a China that would soon become an Asian version of the U.S.
Donald Trump is the only President of the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union who has been unable to “reset” the U.S. relationship with Russia. While the Clinton, Bush, and Obama resets didn’t last, they provided periods of respite in the historically tense ties and allowed both sides to achieve important policy goals. Ironically, Trump’s affinity for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, is the main reason for his inability to put the relationship on a more stable footing. Suspicious of his motivations and put off by his chaotic leadership style, Trump’s own administration and the U.S. Congress are essentially running U.S. policy on Russia themselves, with the president’s role reduced to endorsing their decisions. Despite being endowed with the bully pulpit of the presidency and an itchy Twitter finger, Trump is a loud but often inconsequential bystander to the process of managing the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Xinjiang, in northwest China, seems in many ways like the far edge of the modern world. Spanning a vast desert ringed by high mountains, the region was remote enough to have been chosen as the site of China’s nuclear testing in the 1960s. But in ancient times, Xinjiang marked a key stage of the overland trade routes linking the Eastern and Western worlds, and the contemporary visitor will find giant superhighways snaking across the steppe—one of the more dramatic symbols of China’s intention to resurrect the ancient Silk Road.