Comrade Kim Goes to China, but What Does That Really Mean?

At a time when “ordinary” doesn’t seem to exist in Korean affairs, Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to China affirmed that for all the change, some fundamentals remain the same on the Korean peninsula. Not that the trip was clearly or easily foreseen. The visit was Kim’s first public one to a foreign country since he came to power in late 2011. The first concrete signs that a high official was travelling from North Korea to China came in the shape of added security along the railway route from Pyongyang to Beijing, at Dandong station in China, across from the North Korean border town of Sinuiju. Both North Korean and Chinese authorities kept the visit secret, and it was only confirmed when the countries’ media outlets reported it after it happened.

On March 26, a source described to Daily NK how local police rehearsed rapid deployment of protective metal road barriers the day before. Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un, was known for taking his train rather than flying, over fears of safety. The mode of transportation was only one of several continuities in tradition. With two summits planned with national leaders—one on April 27 with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, and a slightly more spectacular (and uncertain) one with U.S. President Donald Trump set for late May—it would have been a notable break of tradition had Kim Jong-un met with either of these two leaders before North Korea’s only nominal ally, China.

As leader, Kim Jong-il’s first two foreign visits went to China, where he met with then-President Jiang Zemin. For his third visit, Kim the elder went to Moscow where he met President Vladimir Putin. The relationship between North Korea and China may be more fraught than in the past several decades, with China enforcing international sanctions on North Korea with greater force than it has ever has before. But some traditions are heavier than others. Kim Jong-il, too, only ventured abroad after he had consolidated his power internally.

Reports from the meetings between the two leaders also carried few surprises. The mandatory and regular talk of their historical friendship, sealed in blood and forged through ideological union, has been as present as tradition commands in both Chinese and North Korean state media reports of the visit. Given the current tensions and uncertainties surrounding the Korean peninsula, emphasizing that continuity is an important message in its own right.

The diplomatic developments of late have taken place largely without much of a clear part for China, at least not what the outside world has been able to see. As the Chinese government news agency Xinhua emphasized, Kim’s visit was a way to loop in China and give the country its due recognition as a key player in the process:

At present, the Korean Peninsula situation is developing rapidly and many important changes have taken place, Kim said, adding that he felt he should come in time to inform Comrade General Secretary Xi Jinping in person the situation out of comradeship and moral responsibility.

Xinhua also reported that Kim mentioned denuclearization several times, but none of what he said gave evidence of a change of policy or even a new North Korean attitude to the nuclear issue. To grasp the full context of these citations, they are worth quoting in full (my own emphasis):

Kim said that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is starting to get better, as the DPRK has taken the initiative to ease tensions and put forward proposals for peace talks.

It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” he said.

Kim said that the DPRK is determined to transform the inter-Korean ties into a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation and hold summit between the heads of the two sides.

The DPRK is willing to have dialogue with the United States and hold a summit of the two countries, he said.

The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if south Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” said Kim.

This is not the first time over the past few weeks that other outlets or channels than North Korean ones claim that Kim has made statements positive to denuclearization. When North Korea communicated to the United States that it wanted to meet, a South Korean envoy relayed the message that Kim wanted to talk denuclearization. North Korean media is yet to acknowledge or even mention this or even that Kim is scheduled to meet with Trump. The same is true for Kim’s comments in Beijing: North Korean reports of what was said there do not mention denuclearization.

Even if they had, “denuclearization” can mean a whole number of things to North Korea, and it almost certainly does not entail a one-sided capitulation of its nukes to the United States. Take the following piece from the excerpt above of Kim’s statements: “It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il.”

Note: consistent stand. In other words, nothing has really changed in North Korea’s line on the nukes. Despite what some media outlets have speculated, this was not a promise by Kim to give up his nuclear weapons in future negotiations. North Korea is still prepared to denuclearize—as long as the U.S., South Korea, and maybe the rest of the world takes steps that are still yet to be defined. We don’t actually know what North Korea demands in exchange for denuclearization, and North Korea’s definition of “denuclearization” may be so wide as to be meaningless because what it will demand in return are things that its negotiating partners cannot or will not give.

Despite their tense relationship, North Korea and China need each other for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with strategic conditions in the region. These have not changed. The visit was a way for China and North Korea to close ranks before North Korea’s upcoming negotiations, and they’ve shown that for all the bad blood between them, they remain allies, albeit uncomfortable ones.

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Compete and Cooperate to Make U.S. National Security Strategies Great Again

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government. This article is written in response to History Begins (Again) for the Pentagon by John R. Deni, R. Evan Ellis, Nathan P. Freier, and Sumit Ganguly published on February 22, 2018.

Colleagues at the U.S. Army War College recently published a piece making important arguments that largely echo the competitive approach emphasized in the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy (NDS). They correctly argue that U.S. strategy since 9/11 has been obsessively focused on counterterrorism and that U.S. military power has been drained by exhausting and largely unproductive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their conclusion, however, that this has left the United States at a distinct disadvantage with respect to the revisionist powers of Russia and China, is exaggerated. Moreover, an imbalanced U.S. strategy that is excessively reliant on military force fails to capitalize on America’s significant advantages in the non-military instruments of power. Furthermore, an overemphasis on building ever more offensive military capacity risks provoking even more aggressive counterbalancing by adversaries that will ultimately lead to a self-fulfilling and dangerous security dilemma, in which the international system and the United States will actually be less secure. Finally, a more muscular military strategy will do little to address the central challenges posed by Russia and China as they expressly avoid directly confronting U.S. military strengths and instead seek asymmetric advantages in the “gray zone” below the threshold of open military conflict.

America’s comparative advantage since World War II has been, and continues to be, in the realm of values, enduring beliefs, and the perception that the United States is the key to a more cooperative and peaceful world. In erecting this institutional and intellectual framework, the United States committed itself to underwriting and supporting a rules-based international system and providing the global public goods that were necessary to promote greater prosperity, cooperation, and peace. This edifice was built upon and effectively reinforced and extended U.S. dominance in diplomatic and informational power, economic strength and vitality, and military might. Indeed, the U.S. today retains the most lethal and globally deployable military force on the planet. Even before the Trump administration’s call for a larger defense budget, the U.S. spent more on defense than the next eight countries combined. Economically, the U.S. still accounts for nearly 25% of global economic output with less than 5% of the global population. Moreover, it boasted the fastest recovering economy in the wake of 2008 global financial collapse and maintains significant advantages in technological developments and innovation. Finally, the United States enjoys the advantages of an unparalleled network of political and military alliances and extensive economic partnerships spanning the globe.

How to Address the Challenges Posed by Russia and China

First, U.S. policymakers should be careful not to exaggerate the hard power or global influence of Russia or China. The NDS correctly observes that both countries are revisionist powers intent on undermining U.S. dominance in Europe and the Pacific regions, respectively. Yet, both states confront external and internal challenges that will place practical limits on their ability to exert decisive influence beyond their immediate vicinities. Russia is a much diminished political, economic, and military power when compared to the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin resides over a shrinking Russian population and oil-dominated economy that is suffering under low oil prices at a time when the U.S. will surpass both Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one producer of oil. Meanwhile, even as President Xi Jinping consolidates his power in Beijing, China faces serious environmental degradation, and satiating China’s growing middle class will pose enormous economic and political challenges to his leadership abroad and at home. Moreover, the U.S. already enjoys strong and enduring political, economic, and security alliances with regional powers including Japan, South Korea, and India who will serve as natural checks to Chinese power and influence in the Pacific. This is not to say that Russian or Chinese goals and ambitions do not represent challenges to the U.S., but rather to remind policymakers that Moscow and Beijing—like all actors—will face important constraints and limitations on their ability to extend their influence to far-flung regions of the globe.

Second, U.S. policymakers must be sensitive to the risks of an overly ambitious strategy that is principally dependent on military superiority. There is little doubt in Moscow or Beijing that the U.S. would be the ultimate victor in any military confrontation. This is precisely why they pursue strategic advantages through asymmetric competition with the United States in their respective regions. The risks of U.S. military overreach are particularly acute with Russia. In Syria, the prospect of direct U.S.-Russian military confrontation—something that was avoided during the entirety of the Cold War—is a concrete reality as U.S. military strikes recently killed dozens of Russian military contractors. But recent suggestions to arm Ukraine with more lethal weapons, in a geographical area where Moscow enjoys escalation dominance, only feeds Russia’s paranoia and fears of NATO encroachment, increasing prospects for retaliation that risks direct U.S.-Russian conflict. Similarly, in addition to the perennial risks of conflict with China over American military support to Taiwan, regional analysts have warned of a growing risk of military confrontation in the East China Sea as the U.S. and its allies move to contest Chinese construction of artificial islands intended to solidify Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in these resource-rich waters.

Third, the primary gap in U.S. strategy is not a deficiency in military capability, but rather, it is the need to re-build the diplomatic, economic, and informational tools that have atrophied in the glow of U.S. military primacy. Certainly, there is a role for U.S. military actions designed to contain and restrain Russian and Chinese activities that genuinely endanger vital U.S. national interests. For instance, the United States and NATO have smartly bolstered military deployments and exercises in Europe in order to underscore America’s commitment to the defense of NATO allies. It has similarly increased so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to demonstrate America’s willingness to guarantee access to the global commons.

However, the challenge for U.S. policymakers will be to place these military activities within a broader strategy that maximizes the contributions of diplomacy, economics, and informational measures. With Russia, this should include enforcing the punishing set of sanctions that have already been imposed by the U.S. Congress in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its destabilizing activities in Ukraine. Additionally, the United States can simply not tolerate Russian efforts to undermine its democratic process and exacerbate existing societal and political divides in the country. This will certainly require defensive measures to protect electoral systems and minimize the ability of any foreign power to infiltrate and manipulate U.S. social networks and information sharing platforms. Additionally, U.S. policymakers must also consider offensive cyber actions to punish and cripple the foreign officials, institutions, and individuals that participate in these malicious activities.

With respect to China, U.S. policymakers should focus efforts on building diplomatic support for regional institutions that will foster economic and commercial growth consistent within existing international trading norms and rules. For instance, the U.S. should support the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (formed after U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership), which builds a multilateral framework supporting and amplifying existing economic and security cooperation efforts in Asia.

Moreover, U.S. policymakers should be confident in the moral case for U.S. global leadership. The U.S. Information Agency once played a vital role in articulating American values, trumpeting the benefits of American political and economic models, and promoting cultural and educational exchanges. Those capabilities need to be restored and programs robustly funded. Francis Fukuyama was certainly overly optimistic when he assessed that America’s victory at the end of the Cold War represented the end of history. But neither Russia nor Moscow has offered a better political, economic, or ideological alternative to the unmatched successes of the American story.

Finally, U.S. policy should not be wholly confrontational. It is also important for U.S. policymakers to recognize that cooperation with both Moscow and China will be essential to achieving American security objectives in battling terrorism; rolling back nuclear and missile programs in North Korea and Iran that threaten regional and global stability; adhering to arms control agreements that reduce the risk of nuclear confrontation; and facilitating a political resolution to the civil wars plaguing the Middle East. Moreover, the United States need not necessarily fear Chinese investment in Africa, Latin America, or the Middle East as these regions are in desperate need of developmental assistance that the United States is both unwilling and unable to provide on its own. Rising to the challenge of better integrating both carrot and stick into a coherent U.S. national security strategy will require a much deeper investment in the non-military instruments of power. Prioritizing the filling of key senior diplomatic posts such as U.S. ambassadors to South Korea and Saudi Arabia is a minimal prerequisite. In a complex and increasingly integrated world, U.S. policymakers should be seeking to bolster investment in American diplomacy and foreign aid programs quite in contrast to the budget reductions proposed by the Trump administration.

While the United States must be cognizant of the competition posed by Russia and China, it should also be careful not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict with those countries if it wishes to promote international stability and maintain its comparative advantage as the largely benign leader of the liberal international order.

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History Begins (Again) for the Pentagon

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.

Thanks to a near-myopic obsession with eradicating transnational Islamic terrorism, costly invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a zero-risk approach to homeland security, America’s competitive edge has eroded over the last 16 years relative to China and Russia. That’s the conclusion of the recently released National Defense Strategy (NDS), which recognizes—correctly, in our view—that the United States finds itself behind the curve today when it comes to this inter-state strategic competition and the threats it poses. However, the NDS falls short in identifying how America should best respond to it.

Specifically, the NDS outlines three “lines of effort”—increasing readiness and lethality, strengthening alliances, and modernizing the Department of Defense. Make no mistake, these steps are necessary, but together they are still insufficient to ensure durable advantage in the strategic competition now underway, one that threatens to undermine the U.S.-led international order.

At one time, the international order seemed destined to last well into the 21st century. The period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union led historian Francis Fukuyama to declare an “end of history,” in which liberal internationalism, market capitalism, and representative forms of government had become inevitable end states the world over. Simultaneously, existential competition among the great powers had ceased—or so we thought.

When 19 hijackers murdered 2,977 people on September 11, 2001, they hijacked not simply four airliners, but America’s strategic focus as well. Since then, Washington has maintained a relentless drive to eliminate terrorism, first in Afghanistan, but then also in Iraq, the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, the Trans-Sahara region of Africa, and most recently, Syria.

The diversion of U.S. attention has brought about a decline in the United States’ long-term strategic position. Today, Chinese and Russian efforts now threaten to disrupt or dislodge American power and influence from the most consequential geographic theaters and functional domains.

Challenges Posed by China and Russia

The character, quality, and durability of the specific China and Russia challenges differ. China is a rising, focused revisionist power, adept at so-called “gray zone” approaches—designed to avoid triggering a full-scale military conflict. Russia, on the other hand, is arguably a declining power, but also a reckless revisionist state with a greater predisposition for overt risk-taking than China.

The Pentagon’s new strategy rightly argues China and Russia present significantly different qualitative challenges to American interests than do any other consequential threats. Furthermore, we believe the new defense strategy correctly identifies the array of modalities employed by Beijing and Moscow, including hybrid warfare, military technological advancements, corruption, information operations, the erosion and violation of international norms, and predatory economic policies.

China and Russia have employed these methodologies to great success in a variety of geographic and functional contexts over the last decade or more. While the United States focused elsewhere, it also naively pursued cooperation with these zero-sum competitors.

For example, in Europe, the United States held onto the fantasy of a Westernized Russia long after Moscow itself had rejected such a vision. This led to a mistaken notion that security and stability in Europe had become over-determined. As a result, U.S. force structure in Europe was cut dramatically and precipitously since 2001, and the residual American forces stationed there focused almost exclusively on preparing themselves and willing partners for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, many other U.S. and allied military capabilities—from large-scale mechanized maneuver warfare through Russian-focused intelligence analysis and equally vital military information support operations—atrophied. As a result, the West is now scrambling to augment force structure in Europe, increase readiness, counter disinformation, and modernize equipment and technology.

In the Indo-Pacific, there have been at least two attempts to rebalance or pivot to that region and reverse these trends over the last 20 years. The Bush administration’s inaugural Quadrennial Defense Review—written prior to 9/11 and published just after—argued that the Indo-Pacific was an area “gradually emerging as a region susceptible to large-scale military competition.” However, policies designed to meet emerging Indo-Pacific competition never received the necessary focus or resourcing they deserved. They were lost in a fevered rush to eliminate Islamic terrorism and its sanctuaries. In 2012, the Obama administration attempted another Indo-Pacific rebalance, including the repositioning of military assets to the U.S. Pacific Command and non-military initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, the Obama rebalance lacked a comprehensive strategic design and sufficient understanding of the gray zone character of China’s challenge.

Meanwhile, the United States has done little to curb the growing influence of both China and Russia across South Asia. It has watched with equanimity as China has acquired a port facility at Gwadar in Pakistan and embarked on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Despite designating India as a “major defense partner” in the waning days of the Obama administration, Washington has yet to devise a strategy to wean India off its dependence on Russian military supplies.

In Latin America, where geographic proximity to the United States strongly binds the condition of the region to U.S. security through flows of people, money, and goods, both China and Russia have made important advances at Washington’s expense. Since 2001, China has become the leading trade partner and an important investor in virtually all of the region, particularly from Costa Rica south. While China has been careful to avoid Cold War-style military alliances that could alarm Washington, its loans, investments, and purchases of exports from the region have helped maintain the viability of regimes like Ecuador and Bolivia, which actively work against the United States. At the same time, Russia has shown itself more willing to leverage a coalition of anti-U.S. states, particularly Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, to act aggressively toward the United States.

Reversing U.S. Disadvantages

So how can the United States achieve durable advantage in this strategic competition? “Winning” in this context won’t look like winning a conventional war—there will be no ticker-tape parades in the end. Instead, the best the United States can probably hope for is more tactical victories than losses in a relentless competition for a preponderance of international influence relative to Moscow and Beijing. Despite widespread disapproval around the globe of the current administration, the United States retains a great deal of worldwide support and admiration. This residual soft power advantage will help the Pentagon vis-à-vis China and Russia. However, staying ahead of these strategic competitors will require unrelenting focus.

In the face of the expanding global challenge from China and Russia, there are a number of steps that the Pentagon can take to most effectively respond to the erosion of America’s strategic position. In Europe, the United States has taken a step in the right direction by finally authorizing the sale of lethal defensive arms to Ukraine. Additional investments are necessary though, including the forward stationing of U.S. forces in Poland, the renewal of occasional large-scale deployment readiness exercises along the lines of the Cold War-era REFORGER series, an increase in intelligence collection and analysis directed at Russia and its affiliates, and augmented military information support and electronic warfare assets and capabilities.

In the Indo-Pacific, the United States requires a comprehensive strategy focused on three key objectives. First, the United States, in coordination with allies, ought to push back harder against spurious Chinese territorial claims or irredentist Chinese activities. Second, an American-led regional coalition should initiate a gray zone campaign of its own to defend assertively the global commons, allied territorial possessions, and clearly enunciated red lines across vulnerable and highly contested functional domains, especially, cyber, space, the electro-magnetic spectrum, and strategic influence. Finally, when appropriate, Washington and its allies should channel Chinese military escalation toward face-saving “off-ramps.”

In South Asia, the United States needs to follow through on the apparent policy shift that the Trump National Security Strategy has spelled out toward Pakistan, which has played both sides of the counter-terrorism fight. Failure to rein in Pakistan will not only prevent the United States from stabilizing Afghanistan, it will also undercut attempts to forge a wider strategic partnership with India. Regarding the latter, the United States should find ways to amplify arms transfers to India and help New Delhi counter China’s expanding reach in South Asia.

In Latin America, the United States should expand military-to-military engagement activities, while working to improve the agility of foreign military sales and foreign military finance programs to strengthen the position of the United States as the partner of choice. It must also ensure that it has contingency plans against Chinese and Russian activities in the hemisphere during times of crisis, anticipating that either or both may seek to use their military relationships and commercial presence to disrupt U.S. deployment and sustainment flows, create crises, or operate against the U.S. homeland from the hemisphere in times of military conflict.

Unfortunately, Russian and Chinese competition aren’t confined to these important regions and contexts. How the United States postures for and undertakes meaningful action in response will in large measure determine its future as the world’s only global power—if flawed, the new defense strategy is at least a step in the right direction.


John R. Deni, R. Evan Ellis, and Nathan Freier are research professors at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), where Sumit Ganguly, a Senior Fellow at FPRI, is a Visiting Professor.

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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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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, http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MzA3NzY1ODg0Mg==&mid=2649667933&idx=5&sn=e8e3d08c32f890c2401ef7baf99dac58&chksm=8754b6e8b0233ffeb7a6e6f4bd865546855b51407bfc05a2fe6f95c7a7936e560888742dbf58&mpshare=1&scene=5&srcid=1016RLOGG4OLHCUBEgPeO034#rd, 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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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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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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China’s Nuclear Interest in the South China Sea

Economic and sovereignty interests are commonly cited as the reasons for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The security of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent could be added to that list of reasons.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has worried about external threats—and justifiably so. During the Cold War, it faced down both the world’s superpowers, first the United States and then the Soviet Union. Both were armed with nuclear weapons at a time when China was still developing its own arsenal. But even after it successfully produced nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, China could not rest easy. It still had to ensure their survivability to create a credible nuclear deterrent.

China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent

Early on, China understood that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to preemptive attack than those based under the sea.  And the longer they could stay under the sea, the safer they would be.  Thus, in the late 1950s, China began to acquire the technology needed for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which can operate underwater for long periods, and for their associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).[1]

By the 1980s, China built its first SSBN, the Type 092 (or Xia-class), along with its first SLBM, the JL-1. Though only one Xia-class submarine ever became fully operational, China went to great lengths to protect it. Chinese engineers tunneled under a rocky promontory at Jianggezhuang, adjacent to the Yellow Sea, to provide the submarine with a hardened shelter. As it turned out, the Xia rarely went to sea during its service life.[2] But if it sailed into the Yellow Sea today, China might have some cause for concern, given the proximity of capable naval forces from Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the sea’s eastern edge.

China’s Southern Strategy

After the Cold War, China continued to improve its sea-based nuclear deterrent. About a decade ago, China began serial production of its second SSBN, the Type 094 (or Jin-class). So far, the Chinese navy has commissioned four Jin-class submarines; the completion of the JL-2 SLBM followed.[3] But years before the submarines entered service, China had already started construction on a new naval base for them that runs along Yalong Bay, near the South China Sea. With satellite imagery, one can see the grand scale of the new base.  (See image below.) It even features a submarine tunnel, like the one at Jianggezhuang, but with enough room for loading facilities and multiple submarines.[4]

Yalong Bay Naval Base

 

China’s Jin-class SSBNs are now regularly seen at the base.  (See image below.)  South of it is the South China Sea—a region increasingly dotted with Chinese military outposts and airfields. It is also a region with no navies capable of directly challenging China’s. Indeed, Chinese strategists may have envisioned the South China Sea to be a naval bastion, a partially enclosed area where China’s SSBNs could safely operate under the protection of friendly air and naval forces. The Soviet navy operated in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in much the same way during the Cold War.

Jin-class Submarines
Source: Jamestown Foundation

To be sure, the South China Sea carries drawbacks as a naval bastion. The biggest is probably the fact that operating there would put China’s SSBNs further from potential targets in the Western Hemisphere, though future SLBMs may have longer ranges. Still, the South China Sea does enable China to disperse more widely its undersea nuclear forces, and thereby improve their survivability. If China has come to see the South China Sea as important to the security of its sea-based nuclear deterrent, then those who hope that patient economic and diplomatic engagement will persuade China to change its behavior in the region are very likely to be disappointed, as they have been to date.


[1] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 23–125, 129–205.

[2] Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships 2014-2015 (London: Jane’s Information Group, 2014), p. 128.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, Apr. 2016), p. 26.

[4] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Secret Sanya: China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008, pp. 50–53.

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