PacNet #63 – An AUKUS-Japan-ROK framework for the Indo-Pacific

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August 17, 2023

This PacNet was developed as a part of the United States-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Next-Generation Leaders Dialogue to encourage creative thinking about how this vital partnership can be fostered. For previous entries please click here and here.

The AUKUS security agreement, cemented between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom in September 2021, enhances regional partnership in the Indo-Pacific by facilitating technology sharing, strengthened supply chains, and the acquisition of nuclear powered, conventionally armed submarines for Australia. The pact also creates a pathway to establish engagements focused on renewing, strengthening, and expanding military cooperation between AUKUS, South Korea, and Japan.

For the region’s security, stability, and protection, American practitioners should seek to expand Japan, South Korea, and AUKUS relationships by developing a framework engaged in combined defense efforts that build interoperability and trust in environments where China’s assertiveness remains ever-present. AUKUS-Japan-ROK engagement would allow stakeholders to work towards shared goals against threats in the region by providing opportunities to use technology as a deterrent to aggressors.

To streamline defense frameworks currently in the region, this new engagement would create an opportunity to develop an integrated deterrence posture that changes the security landscape of the Indo-Pacific. In doing so, the framework could also develop the Indo-Pacific’s premier advanced technology incubator. Like US Central Command’s Task Force 59, US Indo-Pacific Command can work with the ROK, Japan, and other AUKUS members to establish multilateral exercises that allow nations to test, develop, and iterate upon technologies that support a more robust maritime partnership—a key tenet of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness.

There is an interest from all parties to increase the use of advanced technologies in the region. First, the AUKUS pact includes projects on undersea autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence systems, and the rapid integration of commercial technologies. Moreover, both the ROK and Japan have expressed interest in AI and autonomous projects and could help test and develop these platforms to solve warfighting needs. Further, these efforts directly tie into parallel objectives outlined by the Phnom Penh statement on the US-Japan-ROK trilateral partnership. The November 2022 statement emphasized the importance of technology leadership, security, and regional partnership. With Japan presiding over the G7 this year, the country could likely seek to tie in efforts from several of their priorities: resistance to economic coercion, the promotion and protection of emerging technologies, and the increased cooperation between like-minded countries.

Regional defense efforts under this framework could improve maritime domain awareness and facilitate closer postures that reiterate Japan and the ROK’s place as leaders at the forefront of a harmonized Indo-Pacific strategy. The integration and placement of these tech platforms in the region could accomplish two tasks: develop new defense capabilities for the ROK, Japan, and AUKUS, while also testing and embedding technologies that rely on rapid data transfer and information sharing. Both outcomes work towards a shared goal of deterring aggressive actors in the region and allow like-minded nations to develop technologies without the concern of malicious proliferation. This joint framework would reinforce confidence-building measures at a time when discussions of weapons and warfare tend to threaten stability.

AUKUS members, however, should remain cognizant of the implications their security pact may have on perceptions of security in the region. At its inception, the AUKUS security pact brought together three nations looking to build new opportunities to support and champion a free and open Indo-Pacific. Now, the pact must acknowledge sentiments that key Asian allies like the ROK and Japan may harbor. During Japan’s 2021 Liberal Democratic Party leadership contest, current prime minister Fumio Kishida expressed skepticism with the AUKUS deal. Likewise, many in the ROK are concerned with China’s views of the AUKUS deal. South Koreans want to avoid another ream of punishment from China, like the sanctions dealt after the 2017 installation of the THAAD missile defense system. Another round of cyber attacks or missiles are also options China and the DPRK can choose to illicit a swift and painful response to deeper collaboration with the Americans.

Negative sentiments alongside potential retaliation could make the case for either country’s disinterest in a tech-heavy force laydown with AUKUS. For Japan and the ROK, participation further feeds into the narrative that US-led defense postures aren’t inclusive of all Asian nations, regardless of democratic status or wealth. With such a large presence in the region, it is natural for Japan and the ROK to ask themselves where they fit into the security aperture as treaty allies and how their capabilities integrate with the pact’s. Employing these technologies is not just signaling- it’s a dangerous reality to many that stronger, more powerful militaries intend to change the way they engage in global relationships, markets, multilateral institutions, and more. The AUKUS pact should be fully ready to come across a similar or commensurate response from any actor in the Indo-Pacific.

However, a closer examination would reveal what both nations truly seek from alliances and defense posturing. First, the ROK wishes to protect its interests and sovereignty in a changing security environment. In the past, this sentiment was lost on many Western policymakers, but it seems that the latest trilateral ballistic missile exercise held on Feb. 22 between the ROK, US, and Japan is working to mitigate many of the ROK’s security concerns. Second, Japan’s recently released National Defense Strategy makes clear that Japan seeks to develop counter-strike capabilities and heavily participate in the initial phases of the kill chain. In conjunction with the 2015 legislation, meant to expand the mission sets of the Self-Defense Forces, Japan is clearly serious about transforming their defense posture. Lastly, both countries also seek greater assurances or information regarding the commitment of America’s extended deterrent. As evident by the establishment of the trilateral US-Japan-ROK Extended Deterrence Dialogue this June, both allies see conversations regarding integrated deterrence and their place under America’s “nuclear umbrella” as the priority. At the root of this relationship, stakeholders must remember that this framework would be focused on deterring threats through tech-centric defense efforts—not at power balancing amongst themselves.

American defense strategy should capitalize on the growing desire within Japan and South Korea to pursue more advanced warfighting techniques, increased defense spending, and an ameliorated posture in the region in tandem with regional allies and partners. Though many partnerships and information sharing agreements of some form already exist bilaterally between these nations, such as GSOMIA, none currently integrate and streamline many of the existing efforts surrounding defense and security. The AUKUS-Japan-ROK connection could be a natural extension of these relationships.

To be clear, AUKUS-Japan-ROK is a framework for engagement with Japan and the ROK that does not rely on nuclear technology sharing. Instead, the AUKUS-Japan-ROK relationship could build a broader, more cohesive engagement of actors united in deterring regional threats by using advanced emerging technologies, like those previously mentioned. Engagements of this nature could also supplement AUKUS’ military aperture and provide a shared framework that uses soft power tools to project stability in the region. An AUKUS-Japan-ROK relationship will become ever more important as China continues to threaten rules-based norms out to sea. Capitalizing on the momentum between warming Japan-Korea relations, AUKUS’ progress, and an increased appetite in tech needs to be a priority of the Biden administration. Although AUKUS is still years away from this kind of development, early dialogue on the future of the region is of the utmost importance. Other regional allies and partners will be watching closely to see how the US and Asian allies cooperate in the coming years as tensions rise in the Indo-Pacific. Alliance projection, though largely overlooked during peacetime, is a tool of benefit, not of burden. As the regional demand for multilateral leadership grows, acknowledging the defensive, diplomatic, and capacity concerns of such an alliance will be key to the success of an AUKUS+2 relationship.

Jasmin Alsaied ([email protected]) is a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer and a 2023 YPFP Security and Defense Rising Expert. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the U.S. Government.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

PacNet #62 – Four key questions for US China Policy

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August 16, 2023

Harvard University Professor Stephen M. Walt asserts in a recent article in Foreign Policy that five key questions should guide US policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Walt’s key questions involve China’s future economic strength; the impact of US attempts to deny China access to advanced technologies; Xi Jinping’s leadership competence; the “effectiveness” of balancing against China by other countries; and the outcome of the Sino-US contest to attract coalition members.

I am inspired by Walt’s basic idea, but I would phrase those key questions differently. Therefore I offer my own (shorter) list.

  1. Is there room for a demarcation of regional influence and commitments that both Beijing and Washington could accept? By “accept,” I mean there is no longer a significant danger of war breaking out. China and the United States have conflicting agendas for the region, including demands for freedom of maneuver, special relationships, and preferences for how specific strategic questions are resolved.

It is possible that the US and PRC governments’ respective vital interests, those they would go to war over, are actually limited enough that Beijing and Washington could agree to stay out of each other’s way and make the agreement work—something like the 1814-1914 Concert of Europe.

Conversely, the clashing US and PRC agendas might be overlapping and irreconcilable, with too many issues on which neither country would accept a compromise and both are willing to fight over.

One example would be Chinese inability to tolerate the United States being the strongest strategic actor in the region, combined with the US government being determined to hang onto this role. Another example would be Beijing deciding that a war to immediately enforce claimed PRC sovereignty over Taiwan or the South China Sea is better than tolerating perceived US obstruction.

The answer to this question determines whether the US government should focus its effort on reaching a lasting détente with China or on preparing for an expected war.

  1. How likely is a Chinese hegemony over the Indo-Pacific region? This incorporates Walt’s question about China’s future economic strength into a bigger question. Xi’s assertive foreign policy has been built on expectations of China surpassing the United States as the world’s pre-eminent power. China’s military power and global political influence rest on continued high economic growth and escape from the “middle-income trap.” If, however, China cannot maintain the extraordinarily rapid economic growth it has enjoyed for four decades, Beijing must adjust its regional and global aspirations downward.

There are increasing indications that the PRC economy is hitting a wall. In addition to long-anticipated structural problems such as a decrease in the cohort of factory working-age people relative to retirees and over-reliance on exports and building infrastructure versus domestic consumption for growth, more issues have emerged recently: the Xi regime’s prioritization of political correctness over economic vitality, local government debt, a faltering property marketyouth unemployment, and diminishing foreign investment.

There is, however, at least one other major variable besides China’s economic strength that bears on the prospect of China establishing regional dominance: pushback from the region (similar to Walt’s question of whether balancing would be effective). Even if China surpassed the United States to become the world’s top economy, the United States would remain a close second. If the United States cooperated with a few equally determined regional states, this coalition might successfully oppose PRC expansionism and bullying and preclude a Chinese hegemony. A more interesting question, and one that goes beyond Walt’s analysis, is whether enough regional states might band together in the absence of continued US leadership to prevent China from dominating the region. This possibility isn’t tested while the US remains forward deployed in strength because regional states have an incentive to let Washington take the lead in confronting aggressive PRC behavior. Rather than accommodating China, these states might be willing to devote more resources to their own defense and incur more risk if left on the front lines by a retrenching United States.

Asking this question, then, leads to the conclusion that with little or no additional US effort, China faces two very large obstacles to achieving regional hegemony. Its own economy may weaken to the point where it cannot support a push for domination. Or regional resistance, with or without the United States, may be robust enough to block China from dictating regional affairs.

Whether the United States and regional countries determine it is worthwhile to resist Chinese domination depends on their answer to the third key question.

  1. How would your national interests fare under a PRC hegemony? If it could, China would replace the system of rules and norms supported by Washington with a different system. Support for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” would be out, replaced by respect for PRC “core interests.”

For Americans, the issue is as follows. A regionally dominant China—facilitated by a withdrawal of forward-deployed US military forces and abrogation of US alliances—might cause a net increase in American security and a reduction of US defense costs (by practically eliminating the risk of a US-PRC war, and by China taking over the responsibility of policing transnational threats such as terrorist activity), while generally not obstructing US businesses from continued access to the region. The benefits might be sufficient to assuage US guilt over abandoning regional allies to life in a Sino-centric order. Having allies, after all, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Alternatively, however, Americans might expect that a Chinese hegemony would be intolerable because China-US tensions would remain high over other strategic issues, and because China would seek changes to global arrangements that would make the United States less safe and prosperous, including Beijing using its influence to greatly constrain US trade and investment opportunities in the region.

  1. Is a gentler Chinese foreign policy possible in the foreseeable future? Xi Jinping has pursued a foreign policy that features more intimidation and less cooperation. But is this a permanent end-state for China, establishing an endlessly antagonistic relationship between China and the US bloc? Xi Jinping has made a lot of mistakes and enemies during his rule. The current lack of dissent in China does not mean there is not a large wellspring of desire for a less oppressive government, one that might implement a more Deng Xiaoping-like foreign policy. Or perhaps Xi himself may decide to moderate his own foreign policy, either because of international blowback or because China gets through what turns out to be a temporary phase of great power immaturity.

If the character of China’s external posture is changeable, and important foreign relationships might be at least a factor in that change, Washington should consider whether policies crafted to meet the immediate perceived challenges posed by a hostile China support or unintentionally work against the realization of what Americans would consider positive changes in future Chinese foreign policy.

These four questions invite a re-examination of the foundational assumptions of policy-making. The importance of the US-China relationship, the global ramifications of the current bilateral crisis, and the fact that there are plausible competing answers to each of these questions all demonstrate the need for our best collective intellectual effort to avoid the bad outcomes that are all too possible.

Denny Roy ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit: FLORENCE LO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

PacNet #61 – Arms control with North Korea? Opportunities and challenges

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August 14, 2023

This PacNet was developed as a part of the United States-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Next-Generation Leaders Dialogue to encourage creative thinking about how this vital partnership can be fostered. For the previous entry please click here.

In recent years, North Korea’s development of nuclear missile capabilities has led to a growing discussion on nuclear risk reduction and potential arms control with Pyongyang.

Such opinions stem from the realization that the US longstanding approach to North Korea toward denuclearization has not worked as intended; despite Washington’s heavy sanctions and demands for the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, Pyongyang has not halted—even advanced—its nuclear and missile development.

As an alternative, initiating risk reduction and arms control dialogues with North Korea could provide an opportunity to prevent a nuclear war and deescalate regional arms racing, while that would also pose significant challenges for US alliance relationships.

Heightening nuclear escalation risks

Over the past few years, North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests. In doing so, Pyongyang is believed to be rapidly advancing its tactical nuclear and ICBM capabilities.

With these advanced forms of hardware, North Korea appears to envision a war plan that may include a nuclear first strike to repel an enemy’s invasion. As a possible scenario, Pyongyang could use its theater nuclear missiles at an early stage to destroy enemy forces and installations in South Korea and Japan, while also attempting to deter the United States from entering an all-out retaliation by threatening the use of ICBMs against the US homeland.

More worrying is how this plan could interact with US-ROK military strategy, which reportedly includes potential strikes against North Korean missile units and possibly its leadership if an imminent nuclear attack is detected. This would give Pyongyang an incentive to launch nuclear strikes before its nuclear system or regime is devasted. Its nuclear policy law permits a nuclear attack if the country’s leadership or command and control were threatened. This dynamic would create more room for an inadvertent nuclear escalation during a crisis or in a conventional conflict with North Korea.

Such nuclear risks are not irrelevant for Tokyo as well—if North Korea were to decide to escalate into a nuclear conflict, its nuclear missiles would likely hit not just South Korea but also Japanese territory.

Given such nuclear risks, pursuing risk reduction measures is worth considering. For example, the United States and South Korea can modify their war plan that forsakes disarming strikes against the North Korea’s command and control and/or the decapitation of its leadership. In return, they can demand that Pyongyang promise not to delegate authority to use nuclear weapons to field commanders, and launch bilateral strategic dialogue. Such reciprocity also might pave a path toward potential arms control with North Korea to limit its nuclear and missile development and capabilities. This would benefit all the parties in preventing escalating tensions and a costly arms race.

Two decoupling and reassurance of US allies

While there could be benefits in engaging North Korea to advance nuclear risk reduction and arms control measures, the United States would also need to keep reassuring its regional allies of its defense commitment if it were to pursue this course of action.

As is often discussed, North Korea’s development of ICBMs has raised a “decoupling” concern for South Korea—if a Korean contingency occurred, the United States might not deliver on its commitment to defend South Korea, fearing North Korea’s nuclear ICBM attacks against the homeland. In such a scenario, Washington would have to reckon whether it would sacrifice, for example, San Francisco to defend Seoul. More worrisome in North Korea’s case is that the United States would face this difficult question even if it were to retaliate with conventional forces, as Pyongyang reserves—and even increasingly relies on—a nuclear first use option in response to conventional attacks. This fear of decoupling might be augmented as North Korea modernizes and expands its ICBM capabilities, making the missiles more likely to penetrate US missile defense systems. The United States would therefore need to continue to reassure South Korea as long as North Korea retains ICBM capabilities.

In addition to South Korea, the United States would also need to provide reassurance to Japan that its commitment to extended nuclear deterrence is credible. Japanese security experts worry that, in the event of another Korean war, North Korea could threaten the use of nuclear MRBMs to compel Japan to prohibit the United States from using its military bases located in Japan—another decoupling that can fracture the US-Japan alliance. This would significantly constrain the US ability to effectively counter North Korea’s military action on the Korean Peninsula. Thus Japan would need to be reassured if North Korea’s MRBMs were left unchecked in an agreement between Washington and Pyongyang.

The need to reassure South Korea and Japan might also be significant if the United States were to attempt to limit North Korea’s ICBMs in the early stage of negotiation. Although curtailing ICBM threat to the US homeland would make decoupling less likely in theory, Seoul and Tokyo might feel that a deal that allows Pyongyang to retain theater-range nuclear missiles sidelines their security interests, casting doubt on how much Washington cares about allies’ security.

In terms of reassuring allies, the United States should also carefully consider the provision of negative security assurance—an assurance not to use nor threaten to use nuclear weapons—to North Korea. Despite its potential benefits, US allies might perceive it as undermining the US commitment to extended nuclear deterrence.

In these cases, the United States must find a way to simultaneously reassure South Korea and Japan, while pursuing nuclear risk reduction and arms control. These reassurance challenges, in short, boil down to addressing a question of what constitutes credible deterrence vis-à-vis North Korea for all the three parties. Reaching a trilateral agreement on this issue, at least adequately if not perfectly, is crucial on the way that Washington initiates nuclear risk reduction and arms control measures with Pyongyang. Otherwise, risk reduction and arms control efforts would simply fail or result in sacrificing the security of one or both allies. Thus alliance coordination would be critical before entering into and during negotiation with North Korea.

The case for upgrading extended deterrence talks

Therefore, seizing opportunities for nuclear risk reduction and arms control would require extensive US-Japan-ROK dialogues. The three countries should examine both the potential benefits and security concerns of negotiating with North Korea. To this end, the United States and Japan, as well as the United States and South Korea, should consider including nuclear risk reduction and arms control in an agenda of their respective extended deterrence talks (Extended Deterrence Dialogue for the US-Japan and the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group Meeting for the US-ROK). Such conversation could be expanded to hold a track 1.5 trilateral dialogue by inviting Korean or Japanese scholars as part of respective dialogues. This might eventually open up a possible US-Japan-ROK trilateral dialogue on these issues. In such a way, the three countries should explore the possibility of advancing nuclear risk reduction and arms control measures with North Korea, while continuing to discuss how to maintain credible extended deterrence.

Some would argue that initiating risk reduction and arms control measures with North Korea would have negative consequences for global nuclear nonproliferation. This might be true; however, these measures can be placed as interim steps toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In this regard, the three governments would need to find a balanced, contemplated political rhetoric that satisfies North Korea as well as international and domestic audiences. The denuclearization process would indeed have to proceed step by step, gradually reducing hostilities and nurturing trust and confidence between the parties. Thus the three states can flexibly combine various options, including not only limiting North Korean nuclear missiles, but also taking posture-level measures, freezing nuclear tests and development, curbing fissile material production, and many others.

Having meaningful dialogues with North Korea may sound overly ambitious and unrealistic, given geopolitical tensions on the Korean Peninsula in recent years. At the same time, such tensions and regional arms racing have considerably heightened nuclear risks today. And that is exactly the reason why the trilateral dialogue toward nuclear risk reduction and arms control should be taken seriously.

Hideo Asano ([email protected]) is a Fulbright Scholar pursuing an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit: KCNA via Reuters

PacNet #60 – Can NAFO’s Ukraine success be extended to Taiwan?

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August 10, 2023

The North Atlantic Fella Organization (NAFO) is a decentralized online volunteer movement with no central command structure that focuses on combatting Russian propaganda and disinformation surrounding Russia’s war in Ukraine. Most famous for its social media accounts featuring Shiba Inu avatars, NAFO volunteers use memes to mock, troll, and discredit Russian propaganda and its war effort. Considered a form of information warfare, NAFO has harnessed the power of memes and social media platforms, to impact the information battlefield.

NAFO has lays out a potentially replicable blueprint for future conflicts. As digital information warfare, the NAFO experience—Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense singled it out for combatting Russia in the information space—could be instrumental in a future fight for Taiwan, which finds itself on the frontlines of similar disinformation wars. NAFO and its potential successors represent a new age of digital activism, and will continue to have an influence, no matter how small, within informational warfare in the future.

In a notable early victory, NAFO’s decentralized Twitter group successfully exposed and discredited Russia’s top diplomat in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, for spreading disinformation. Ulyanov’s response to a NAFO tweet with the infamous phrase “You pronounced this nonsense, not me” further backfired, transforming him into an internet joke and propelling NAFO’s slogan to viral fame.

Russia has employed a variety of tactics to undermine support for Ukraine, including dissemination of false stories, manipulation of social media platforms, and the utilization of state-controlled media outlets such as RT to spread their propaganda. As research conducted by MIT reveals that fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than the truth, it must be assumed that the impact of this dissemination has been significant.

The NAFO alliance

NAFO emerged, Shiba Inu avatar and all, in May 2022 when an online artist created it. He later incorporated the idea into efforts to raise funds for the Georgian Legion fighting against the Russian invaders in Ukraine, and by September of last year the meme reportedly had “tens of thousands” of associates. Unlike Russia’s reliance on paid troll factories, NAFO relies on global volunteers who have the freedom to respond creatively. The low barrier to entry ensures anyone can join and its decentralized structure enables quick adaptation in the ever-evolving landscape of information warfare.

NAFO’s success has been so significant that RT, the Russian state media outlet formerly known as Russia Today, attempted to undermine NAFO by labeling it a pro-Ukrainian “bot army.” In July 2023, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman even took the time to make a post attacking NAFO, showing how much mental real estate NAFO occupies in the minds of Kremlin propagandists.

NAFO is making an impact on the battlefield as well. The NAFO fellas helped raise over $250,000 to help fund naval drones through United24 in 2022. The NAFO Squad drone fundraiser has also gathered over $420,000 to help purchase 240 attack drones to strike Russia. This fundraising helps the larger effort. Ukraine has been using aerial and sea drones to constantly attack Russian positions in Crimea and in the Black Sea.

In an era when authoritarian regimes like China and Russia heavily invest in manipulating the narratives absorbed by their citizens and the global audience—especially during instances of social upheaval like wars, protests, and revolutions—the lessons gleaned from NAFO’s successes in Ukraine’s information warfare provide valuable insights into how to navigate this battlefield of disinformation going forward.

The success of NAFO’s approach prompts us to question its viability in different geopolitical contexts. Specifically, could this model be instrumental in tackling Chinese disinformation campaigns that will continue to increasingly target Taiwan more aggressively in the future? It might be, or it might very well morph into something else to address the future need. But we expect more decentralized communities to engage in digital warfare in the future.

NAFO vs The Wolf Warriors?

Taiwan shares a commonality with Ukraine as a democracy constantly menaced by a neighboring authoritarian regime—in Taiwan’s case, the People’s Republic of China. Despite the scant geographical, cultural, or historical ties between Taiwan and Ukraine, the parallels in their experiences suggest that lessons from Ukraine’s resistance could be adapted to Taiwan’s situation today.

China’s disinformation strategies bear a striking resemblance to Russia’s, incorporating “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, historical revisionism, cyberattacks, and a brigade of state-backed online trolls known as the “50 Cent Army.” Unlike conventional trolls, these state actors promote a positive narrative rather than engaging in contentious discussions, strategically escalating their activities during prominent patriotic events or to eclipse unfavorable state news.

Backed by the Chinese state, these internet commenters, numbering from 500,000 to 2 million, inundate the web with positive posts while avoiding debates. Their goal is to create an illusion of widespread support through deceptive writings.

Unlike typical trolls, they refrain from engaging in debates on topics like jailed dissidents or territorial disputes. Instead, they saturate the internet with unremarkable positive content. A Harvard study revealed that hardly any of the Chinese government’s “50 Cent Army” posts involve debate or argument. There have long been suspicions that the Chinese government hires as many as 2 million individuals to anonymously insert deceptive writings, masquerading as the genuine opinions of ordinary people, into real social media discussions.

This air of positivity is not used across the board, however. When Tsai Ing-wen was elected Taiwan’s first female president in 2016, a campaign on the Chinese search engine forum, Baidu, aimed to flood her social media accounts with anti-Taiwan comments. Within just 12 hours, her Facebook page received 40,000 negative comments.

50 Cent actively participates in online discussions and shares a substantial number of supportive posts that express positive sentiments towards the PRC government and its policies. In the Indo-Pacific region, there may arise a need for a potential NAFO variant or a decentralized community to address the issue of China’s “50 Cent Army” trolls.

Whenever there arises a post lauding China’s effort to integrate Taiwan or a Chinese official disseminating misinformation on Western media, the community should counteract swiftly. The response could involve circulating satirical memes and humorously challenging such statements.

Just as NAFO’s modus operandi, future decentralized communities could harness their collective power to recognize, expose, and debunk such misinformation. The strength of this crowdsourcing approach lies in the sheer number of individuals capable of detecting and denouncing misinformation instantaneously. The group would also be able to serve as a sort of counter-intelligence, helping educate others to spot and report members of China’s info warriors across various platforms.

Moreover, it would be beneficial to conduct campaigns that directly counter disinformation and simultaneously educate Western audiences about the fallacious narratives promoted by the Chinese state. However, it’s crucial to comprehend that while such a movement can make a significant difference, it is unlikely to be a comprehensive solution against state-backed disinformation on its own. Instead, it should serve as one integral component of a broader, multi-pronged strategy to combat Chinese disinformation effectively.

As China’s preparations for a potential operation in the strait become more apparent, with China aiming to have the capability to take Taiwan by 2027 adds to the escalating concerns. Consequently, it is expected that Chinese online information warriors will intensify their efforts to aggressively target Taiwan, seeking to undermine its independence through social media and influence Western perceptions. This emerging battleground will be the primary focus of their online endeavors.

Presently, China is actively attempting to subdue Taiwanese media and tighten its grip on Taiwan’s information channels. However, this trend is likely to extend beyond Taiwan’s borders, with China seeking to exert control over Western media spaces concerning Taiwan. Online information warriors on Taiwan’s behalf will need to be prepared to fight a more well-resourced and determined troll Chinese state machine. It will need to carry out efforts to consistently debunk propaganda and refute attempts to undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty.

With its emergence as an important vector in the fight against disinformation, NAFO serves as a potential blueprint for future conflicts such as China’s increasing aggression towards Taiwan. Perhaps NAFO was just the start in the evolutionary process of how decentralized communities in the democratic world will fight against authoritarian disinformation in the complexities of digital information warfare.

David Kirichenko ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist and an editor at Euromaidan Press. He tweets @DVKirichenko.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit: NAFO Logo and a “Fella” (@NafoFella) –

PacNet #59 – South Korea’s role in Indo-Pacific maritime domain awareness

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August 8, 2023

This PacNet was developed as a part of the United States-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Next-Generation Leaders Dialogue to encourage creative thinking about how this vital partnership can be fostered. 

In December 2022, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration released its “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region” in which ROK will take a leading role as a “Global Pivotal State” to promote the freedom, peace, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific. To implement the strategy, the next step for the Republic of Korea would be joining the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IP MDA), an initiative that was announced in Quad Leaders’ Tokyo Summit in May 2022.

As an Indo-Pacific nation, South Korea is at a critical juncture where Seoul is required have a delicate balance between addressing the increasing multifaceted challenges in the Indo-Pacific region while also countering threats from DPRK on the Korean peninsula. Fortunately, since South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol took office in May 2022, South Korea, the United States and Japan have conducted trilateral Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and anti-submarine exercises in the East Sea to strengthen deterrence against North Korea’s increased missile threats and agreed to regularize the trilateral exercises during the Defense Trilateral Talks in June 2023.

Nevertheless, Seoul should pay more attention to increasing traditional and transnational security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. Tensions have been rising in the South China Sea as well as the Taiwan Strait which threaten the free and open sea lanes of communication (SLOC) while non-traditional and transnational security challenges at sea including the piracy and armed robbery at sea, trafficking of humans and illicit goods, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and climate change are also on rise.

The United States has been leading in promoting the free and open Indo-Pacific through its annual Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations in the South China Sea to demonstrate that no coastal state can unlawfully restrict navigation and overflight rights and freedoms guaranteed in international law. Japan, on the other hand, has advanced maritime surveillance system that is being synchronized and integrated between the coast guard and self-defense force. Whether it is greater naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region or improved maritime surveillance, Seoul has lessons what it means to be a real maritime nation.

While maritime issues were not the main focus of ROK’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it included that Seoul would deepen maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region while adhering to the maritime order based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as participation in the establishment of a maritime domain awareness (MDA) system. Against this backdrop, Seoul should join the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IP MDA) to implement its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Joining IP MDA would help South Korea to enhance its maritime security capabilities by sharing information and collaborating on maritime domain awareness, including monitoring, identifying, and responding to maritime security threats. By joining the IP MDA, Seoul would have access to valuable information and resources to better monitor its maritime domain and protect its interests without having to shift all of its assets originally missioned to countering DPRK threats.

Furthermore, joining IP MDA would also help ROK Navy and Coast Guard to strengthen its regional partnerships and cooperation. By working closely with other countries in the Indo-Pacific region such as Southeast Asian nations, Seoul would be better positioned to address such issues. This could help ROK to build stronger ties with its neighbors and establish its role as a responsible stakeholder demonstrating its commitment to maintaining a rules-based international order and promoting regional stability.

Nevertheless, there are also challenges. One would be the potential impact on South Korea’s relationship with China. China is a major power in the region, and its territorial claims in the South China Sea have been a source of tension with other countries in the region. By joining IP MDA, Seoul may be seen as aligning itself with the US-led efforts to contain China’s influence, which could negatively impact its relationship with Beijing.

To address concerns about its relationship with China, South Korea should emphasize that its partnership with the IP MDA is based on the three principles of cooperation—inclusiveness, trust, and reciprocity. Seoul neither targets nor excludes any specific nation, but rather has made it clear that the Republic of Korea is committed to partnering with like-minded countries that share the universal values of freedom, rule of law, and human rights. To avoid the economic coercion from China as shown by the THAAD deployment in 2017, South Korea can contribute toward “collective resilience” against China’s economic statecraft, by partnering with like-minded countries, and leverage its position as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of advanced semiconductors to complicate China’s calculus.

Another challenge would be the costs of integration of technology. As countries have their own information platforms, as shown by India’s own information center IFC-IOR, standardizing a common operating information with often classified information is not an easy task. However, it is important to note that the MDA is an information sharing platform which deals primarily with maritime surveillance to ensure that maritime activities abide by international law such as UNCLOS, as opposed to the sharing classified military intelligence. Once the information sharing process is standardized, which Seoul should participate in, different agencies will be able to utilize information in a more cost-effective way.

In return, South Korea should also make more investments into commercially available data and existing technologies such as satellites to contribute to make the IP MDA more useful by providing real-time data. Seoul certainly has the capacity to do so, as South Korea ranked eighth among 63 countries in the 2022 IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking. The good news is that the Korean Coast Guard has recently announced its plans to allocate its budget to establish the Korean MDA system which would increase the area of surveillance of its territorial sea area by more than four times through introduction of medium-altitude UAVs, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and AI maritime security support system.

In conclusion, it is time for the Republic of Korea to step up as a “Global Pivotal State” to implement its “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region” by joining the IP MDA. Joining IP MDA would enable ROK to enhance its maritime security capabilities, strengthen regional partnerships and cooperation, and promote a rules-based international order and ultimately, become the Global Pivotal State it aspires to be.

Jeung Seung Lee ([email protected]) is a research associate at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy (KIMS) in Seoul, South Korea.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit: Zhang Long/For China Daily

PacNet #58 – Two impediments to US-India ties and how to overcome them

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August 4, 2023

Many analysts and commentators called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States late last month a historic and defining moment in the India-US relationship. That’s because the agreements unveiled by Prime Minister Modi and US President Joe Biden are, by all accounts, unprecedented in both depth and breadth. They include commitments to strengthening advanced technology cooperation, enhancing the bilateral defense partnership, promoting shared prosperity and people-to-people connections, and showing joint leadership to address key challenges in the Indo-Pacific and on the global stage.

A convergence of interests on various fronts is behind these developments. For starters, the United States and India share numerous similarities. That’s why, in an address to the Asiatic Society back in 2000, former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had described this relationship as that of “natural allies.” To be sure, the two countries have never been formal allies. But the operative word in Vajpayee’s statement was “natural,” highlighting the centuries-old tradition of freedom, democracy, openness, pluralism, inclusivity, and liberal political ideas that both countries, on two different continents, steadfastly upheld.

A hegemonic, as opposed to a peaceful, rise of China has also been a cause for concern for both the United States and India. Both appreciate the necessity and opportunity of working together to confront this challenge and build a more inclusive and peaceful multipolar Indo-Pacific. This is also a key driver of stronger US-India cooperation in multilateral forums, notably in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia and Japan.

Beyond counterbalancing China, the United States and India are interested in leveraging their comparative advantages to stand as responsible stakeholders of the changed and changing Indo-Pacific order. They want to expand their joint role as net exporters of public goods both through enhanced cooperation in several functional areas and through closer geographical rapprochement. Traditionally focused on the Pacific side, the United States is now emphasizing the importance of the “Indo” side; it has, in that spirit, renamed the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command the US Indo-Pacific Command. And India is expanding its role beyond South Asia and the Indian Ocean and into ASEAN and the Pacific, having transformed its “Look East” policy into an “Act East” policy, wherein it invests more in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Although based on mutual goodwill and commitment, operationalizing US-India cooperation may be challenging, however, due to at least two potential impediments.

The first is differences between the two countries’ preferred approach to partnership. The United States has long felt more comfortable partnering with countries committed to following its leadership, or countries it has power to shape the thinking and actions. Absent that, it has felt frustrated.

Consider US-France relations; the United States places much value in its alliance relationship with France but also often deems it difficult, in part because Paris is determined to maintain a degree of strategic autonomy. So is New Delhi. Unlike France, India not is a treaty ally of the United States; India never joined military alliances. But, like France, India is a powerful country with an approach to partnership that preserves independence in its strategic thinking and decisions. These fundamental differences in approach could thus complicate implementation of the US-India agenda of work.

The second potential impediment in taking the US-India relationship to the next level is the difficulty of adapting the US and Indian bureaucratic and political systems to permit bilateral cooperation to blossom. High-level attempts to advance a more cooperative relationship, after all, are not new, and history has shown that they have had limited success or failed primarily because of hurdles in the US and Indian internal systems. In each country, bureaucratic hurdles can be maddening, and political hurdles stand as major obstacles, too. For instance, while India’s continued relationship with countries like Russia are viewed negatively by the US establishment, the United States’ support to Pakistan or its unilateral actions in India’s neighbourhood attract the hackles in New Delhi.

What, then, should the United States and India do in the face of these potential impediments?

For starters, both should refine and redefine their traditional approach to partnership. The United States should embrace the idea that partnering with India means working with India, not rallying India behind its leadership. Doing so means accepting that India will remain strategically autonomous and, therefore, that New Delhi will not always see eye-to-eye and could even have deep disagreements with Washington, and that such circumstances should not prevent or jeopardize cooperation so long as the overall benefits outweigh the costs and risks.

Similarly, India should acknowledge that increased cooperation with the world’s preeminent power involves certain give and take, especially at a time of intense strategic competition. Plainly, even as it remains master of its own destiny, India should be clear-eyed that its convergence with the United States is growing and that, as a result, it will have to adapt to this new reality to maintain, let alone further deepen, that relationship.

The United States and India should also work their internal systems relentlessly to remove actual and potential barriers to cooperation. In the immediate term, they should focus on cooperation in geo-economics because there is fertile ground for joint work in this space, while not losing sight of the imperative of working together in geo-strategic areas in the long term.

There has never been a time to be more enthusiastic about the future of the US-India relationship. Potential impediments notwithstanding, this new-found bonhomie is bound to rise to phenomenal heights if the two countries can finetune their objectives in the framework of larger global good than their own strategic interests.

David Santoro is President and CEO of Pacific Forum. Follow him on X @DavidSantoro1 

Ram Madhav is President of the India Foundation. Follow him on X @rammadhav

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

PacNet #57 – The Biden administration’s pursuit of “collective strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan

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July 27, 2023

An earlier version of this article in The Lowy Institute.

Since the United States terminated its formal alliance with Taiwan in 1979, Washington has adhered to a strategy known as “strategic ambiguity.” The Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed in that same year, declares that the United States will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means…is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” It additionally specifies that “the President and the Congress shall determine the appropriate action in response to any such danger.” This language resembles the United States’ formal alliance treaties with its Indo-Pacific allies, but falls short of an explicit defense commitment. In order to communicate to Beijing that Washington might defend the self-governing island, US presidents and officials have routinely referred to the US policy towards Taiwan as being rooted in the Taiwan Relations Act and made general references to its interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. In the last few years, however, President Biden has explicitly declared on four occasions that the United States would defend Taiwan. That said, the White House walked back Biden’s remarks each time saying that there had been no change in US policy, adding more ambiguity to “strategic ambiguity.”

On top of this shift, the Biden administration has pursued a new strategy that could be termed “collective strategic ambiguity.” Part of Washington’s effort to bolster deterrence across the Taiwan Strait has involved signaling to China that there could be a combined allied effort to defend the status quo. Since Biden entered office, Washington has released joint statements with 9 of its formal treaty allies—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and the United Kingdom—that include a line in the vein of “we emphasize/underscore/reaffirm the importance of preserving peace and stability in/across the Taiwan Strait.” In June 2021, Kurt Campbell, the White House Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, indicated the Biden administration’s intent with these statements. Discussing the references to Taiwan in the US-Japan and the US-South Korea joint statements issued earlier that year, he declared that “we are seeking to take these concerted actions to send a clear message of resolve that we are determined to maintain that peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait.

These joint statements have resulted from various types of diplomatic engagements at different levels of seniority, including bilateral leadership-level summits, bilateral 2+2 ministerial dialogues, trilateral ministerial meetings, and a G7 summit. Notably, some of these joint statements mentioned Taiwan for the first time ever or in decades. For instance, in April 2021, when Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide made an official visit to Washington, the leaders released a joint statement that referenced their shared interest in the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” marking the first time since 1969 that Taiwan was mentioned in a joint statement by the two countries. Next month in June, the G7 (made up of 6 NATO members and Japan) published a joint statement in which they referenced Taiwan for the very first time, declaring that they “underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” More recently, when Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. made an official visit to Washington in May, a US-Philippines joint statement declared that “they affirm the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Even outside of joint statements with the United States, leaders and senior officials of US allies have made comments suggesting that their countries would get involved in a Taiwan contingency. For instance, in July 2021, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro declared that “if a major incident occurs in Taiwan, it’s not at all unusual to consider it an existential threat…In such a case, Japan and the United States will have to work together to defend Taiwan.” In November 2021, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton stated that it would be “inconceivable” for Australia not to join a US defense of Taiwan. In February this year, President Marcos Jr. stated that given “our geographical location,” it is “very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved” in a Taiwan conflict.

In addition to these messages, US allies in the Indo-Pacific are seeking to bolster their military capabilities in ways that could be used to help protect Taiwan. US defense cooperation is key to these efforts. For instance, through the AUKUS partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that was formed in 2021, the United States will sell Australia three to five nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), as well as share its nuclear propulsion technology to help Australia develop its own SSN. This will enable Australia to reach the waters around Taiwan to conduct operations such as anti-submarine warfare against China’s subsurface fleet, which poses a threat to US carrier groups that would be key to defending Taiwan. Similarly, Japan announced plans this year to acquire counter-strike capabilities, which will include purchasing 400 intermediate-range Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States. These would allow Japan to target China’s missile launchers and command-and-control sites which would be key to an invasion of Taiwan. Moreover, the United States has engaged in planning with its allies over potential joint responses to a Taiwan contingency. For instance, the interim US Ambassador to Australia Michael Goldman claimed in April 2021 that the United States and Australia are engaged in “strategic planning” for a “range of contingencies” of which Taiwan is an “important component.” Similarly, it was reported in December 2021 that the United States and Japan have drawn up a plan for a joint operation in response to a Taiwan contingency.

Speaking at the G7 summit in May this year, President Biden communicated a message of confidence that the United States and its allies are united in their willingness to defend the status quo. He declared that “there is clear understanding among most of our allies that, in fact, if China were to act unilaterally, there would be a response.” At the time of this remark, the United States had 34 formal treaty allies; 29 in NATO and five in the Indo-Pacific.

Despite this signaling, uncertainty remains over not just the type of support allies would provide, but over whether they would even provide support. Regarding potential contributions from NATO allies, for example, some analysts are deeply skeptical as to whether they could and would make consequential military contributions. There is even uncertainty among analysts as to whether US allies in the Indo-Pacific would provide any substantial military support. A recent report by the RAND Corporation assessed that just two US allies in the Indo-Pacific, Australia and Japan, could be expected to help the United States. Moreover, the authors conclude that this support would likely just lie in the realm of “limited support,” rather than “operations support,” which would entail providing the “full range of its capabilities.” As such, it is perhaps more realistic to assume that allied assistance would largely consist of a sanctions regime similar to that which Washington and its allies imposed on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. However, the threat of sanctions may do little to deter China given that it likely expects sanctions and would have incorporated these expected costs into its calculus. Moreover, the costly worldwide economic fallout that would result from a conflict could render sanctions moot, meaning that US allies may see little point in sanctioning China.

To strengthen this collective signaling to China that there could be a combined effort to defend Taiwan, the United States should take the following actions. First, the United States should formulate comprehensive plans with its allies that outline specific roles, whether that be logistical, reconnaissance, or combat, for how they might aid US forces in a contingency. Second, Washington and its allies should inform Beijing privately about the existence of some type of contingency planning, so as to mitigate China’s propensity to retaliate against “provocations” to satisfy public nationalist sensitivities. Third, depending on the willingness of certain US allies to endure potential pushback from China, the United States and its allies could eventually begin to conduct joint exercises drilling these plans. Together, these actions could help convince China’s leadership that US allies are serious about participating in a US defense of Taiwan, which could bolster deterrence against potential aggression. Moreover, in the event of a deterrence failure, coordinated planning could result in a more effective response that has a greater prospect of denying China its objective. That way, the United States and its allies can better ensure the continuation of peace across the Taiwan Strait.

Rupert Schulenburg ([email protected]) is an analyst focusing on Indo-Pacific security, US alliances and force posture, as well as US-China competition. He holds an MPhil in International Security Studies from the University of St Andrews and a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He can be found on Twitter at @R_Schulenburg.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit: Taiwan’s armed forces hold two days of routine drills to show combat readiness ahead of Lunar New Year holidays at a military base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Ann Wang

PacNet #56 – Western policy and the Aung San Suu Kyi dilemma

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July 26, 2023

Aung San Suu Kyi for some two decades made Western policy toward Myanmar. Her supposed views, even those attributed to her when she was under house arrest and could not communicate, have more than influenced policy—they have determined it. She rejected the military-imposed name of the country, “Myanmar,” and even today the United States officially, and virtually alone, avoids the military designation, preferring “Burma.” In influential opposition policy circles, and in the media and popular opinion—strongly supported by her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991—she was pictured as the brave, stalwart icon of truth and justice opposed to a murderous, corrupt military.

Ironically, this image was shattered at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 by her defense of the brutal military criminal and ethnic cleansing actions against the Rohingya Muslim minority. But even as it reverberated against her internationally, it increased her support amongst the Bamah (Burman) Buddhist ethnic majority— as she no doubt intended—who are deeply prejudiced against the Muslim minority. There seemed little doubt about the high level of support for her, despite the failings of the regime she, even unconstitutionally, “headed.”

The Myanmar situation, always complicated however, has become even more complex since the Feb. 1 coup of 2021. Previously, multiple splits among ethnic minorities and with the central, ethnic Burman controlled government, together with conflicts between the National League for Democracy (NLD)—reformed since the coup into the National Unity Government (NUG)—and the military has metastasized. A seeming myriad of anti-military, mostly uncoordinated, local defense forces have sprung up against the Tatmadaw (military). Each of these groups have divergent views of the degree of power to be shared, and at what level, if and when the military ceases to be in control.

The country is now more chaotic and has collapsed into what has been called a civil war. But the term and its use dangerously oversimplify something far more complex. Each local group and ethnic minority has distinct, conflicting views on their desired level of local authority and autonomy. The NUG, the nexus of the former NLD, has changed. Aung San Suu Kyi once led that government. Previously, she advocated and led the opposition in a non-violent political and moral campaign against the military.  Now, it espouses targeted assassinations and violence in its self-declared “war” against the military. It has abdicated the high moral ground even if its authorized and performed violent incidents dwarf extensive military atrocities.

The NUG is engaged in a full-court press in international circles to attempt to get diplomatic recognition of its authority. It has established an office in Washington DC. Its lobbying forces have extensive access and support there. The military, instead, has turned to Russia, and a degree to China as well, for support. ASEAN has proven to be both inept and inconsequential in dealing with Myanmar in spite of the latter’s membership. India and Japan have their own national interests in Myanmar that are at least in part at variance with those of the European Union and the United States.

For US policymakers, the dilemmas are even more profound. Following the chaos of the failed people’s revolution of 1988, the Republicans strongly backed Aung San Suu Kyi (she was mentioned in the Congressional Record about double the times of Democrats just by Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, and a chair was established and funded in her honor at the University of Louisville). Even in the late 2000s, when the Obama administration slowly shifted its policies, it did not want to use its limited political ammunition directly confronting Republicans on Myanmar, which was known as a “boutique issue” in the policy community. That pattern seems to have occurred again, with Myanmar now overshadowed by other international flashpoints like Ukraine, North Korea, Taiwan and others.

A great deal of bipartisan support still exists in the United States for Aung San Suu Kyi and in enforcing the sanctions she endorsed and it reimposed on the military regime after the coup.  The complexity of the political issues internally in the U.S. are magnified by any administration’s political and diplomatic needs: to avoid insulting Muslims anywhere in the world (the Rohingya, for example, by Aung San Suu Kyi), and upholding democracy, which it interprets as supporting Aung San Suu Kyi as well. These positions are incompatible.

US policies are in favor of the NUG, and it will provide humanitarian assistance to the opposition. Some prominent observers in Washington are calling for political recognition and arming of the NUG. Any such move would exacerbate tensions with China, as one of its prime foci is the restriction of US power and influence on its southern periphery. Improvement in the economic conditions in one of China’s poorest provinces, Yunnan, is largely dependent on tranquility and trade with Myanmar.

As in the past, any major policy shift in US circles accepting some negotiated, modified military role in Myanmar will depend in part on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from prison or house arrest. But the military leadership has clearly indicated their abhorrence of Aung San Suu Kyi ever assuming any degree of political power, a goal she seems to desire based on her father’s pivotal role in independence and her own extensive sacrifices. They have demonstrated that they believe the lengthy (and political) jail sentences imposed on her, together with her age, will effectively eliminate her from authority. In each case of military rule (Ne Win’s coup in 1962, the SLORC/SPDC rule from 1988 until 2012, and now) the military has thought it had devised a system of perpetual military rule or control. They are likely thinking of that again. Their inept previous attempts failed. The present efforts are likely to follow in some inscrutable manner.

But there is no indication that the United States or the European Union has interest in dialogue with the military, or indeed the reverse, nor has it devised policies to mitigate future, but even now evident, problems. New approaches are badly needed and require serious exploration. Neither the military nor the NUG can effectively rule with any degree of equity in those multiple societies.

But the West seems locked into past policies that badly need reconsideration and should now be transformed as more blood flows throughout that poor society. Alternative approaches are badly needed and require serious exploration. Any amelioration or solution must be Burmese engineered. But the West has potential roles in helping to suggest and evaluate alternatives.

David I. Steinberg ([email protected]) is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit: Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested as the generals launched their coup in February 2021 [File: Stringer/Reuters]

PacNet #55 – France as an “enhancer of sovereignty” in the Pacific Islands

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July 25, 2023

Emmanuel Macron is gearing up for an unprecedented journey to the Indo-Pacific, making it the first visit by a French president to Pacific Island states. This upcoming visit to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, following a second visit to New Caledonia since his election in 2017, addresses the inconsistency between France’s growing engagement in the region and the lack of a high-level visit until now.

Above all, President Macron should seize this opportunity to enhance communication by evolving certain criticized terms such as “balancing power.” In this regard, France must better conceptualize its engagement in the region and its willingness to assume a unique role, presenting itself as a proactive power, a provider of solutions, and an enhancer of sovereignty.

According to France’s maximalist conception, the Indo-Pacific region comprises 52 states, spanning from Djibouti to Papeete, and from Pretoria to Tokyo. As a sovereign country, France boasts a significant presence in the region, with seven of its thirteen overseas territories situated there. Among them, three are in the Indian Ocean, and four are in the Pacific: New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and Clipperton. These territories represent over 90% of France’s exclusive economic zone, giving the country the second-largest maritime domain in the world.

Over 1.6 million French citizens reside in the French territories, and in 2021, 190,000 expatriates were officially registered in countries within the region, with sizable communities in the United Arab Emirates, China, Australia, and Madagascar. Last year, the Indo-Pacific region accounted for over 35% of France’s foreign trade, excluding trade with European Union countries. France has its largest trade deficit with China and its largest trade surplus with Singapore. Additionally, the region attracts over 120 billion euros ($133 billion) of French investments.

France has built a dense and diverse network in the Indo-Pacific region. Diplomatically, 36 embassies, some with extensive geographical coverage, cover all countries in the region. In Oceania, there are no fewer than five embassies, situated in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea. For example, the embassy in Port-Vila, Vanuatu, serves as the only embassy of an EU member state in the country and also covers the Solomon Islands.

Furthermore, over 7,000 military personnel are stationed in the region, with three sovereign forces in the French territories and two presence forces in Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates. The armed forces of New Caledonia regularly participate in fisheries surveillance in the South Pacific on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency. Force projection exercises are now a regular occurrence, with the ongoing unprecedented deployment of a dozen Rafales as part of the Pégase 2023 mission, which will visit several countries.

Culturally, 34 French institutes organize events, festivals, and support artist residencies. Cooperation in education is strengthening, with direct support for the development of the University of Vanuatu, for instance. In the Indo-Pacific, there are also 169 French Alliances that promote the French language, including in Vanuatu, where French is one of the official languages and the country is a member of the International Organization of the Francophonie.

Furthermore, France plays an active role in development aid. The French Development Agency (AFD) allocated 25% of its resources for 2022 to projects in the Indo-Pacific. The AFD’s mandate in the South Pacific has gradually expanded to include regional initiatives on climate change adaptation and mitigation, and biodiversity. One flagship project in collaboration with partners, including Australia, is the Kiwa initiative, which aims to help 19 Pacific countries adapt to climate change and preserve their biodiversity through nature-based solutions.

This French contribution is reflected in the involvement of state agencies such as Expertise France, which provides detached experts to national authorities, and France Volontaires. Over 200 young people have already benefited from the Oceanian Volunteer Service Program. France has also demonstrated its commitment to humanitarian aid in the face of natural disasters, as illustrated by the FRANZ mechanism with Australia and New Zealand, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. This mechanism recently facilitated assistance to the populations of Vanuatu in 2023, Tonga in 2022, and Papua New Guinea in 2021.

As the intensification of the Sino-American rivalry in the Indo-Pacific is felt worldwide, France intends to offer additional options to the region’s states. However, it is fundamental for the country to position itself appropriately and communicate effectively. The term “balancing power,” in particular, is poorly defined, misunderstood, and even counterproductive. It creates unnecessary doubts among partners and fuels the stereotype of an arrogant country with ambitions disconnected from its actual capabilities. Two concepts could be used to better explain France’s actions in the region.

Firstly, as a proactive power and provider of solutions, France aims to be a responsible country with a unique capacity for mobilization and impetus in the multilateral framework. This international activism translates into the implementation of projects that contribute to solving global problems for the benefit of populations and the mitigation of global imbalances.

Secondly, France also seeks to be an enhancer of sovereignty. Through its actions and cooperation, it facilitates the expression of its partners’ sovereignty by presenting a distinct French and European offering that aims to enable decision-making without constraints. This approach, which involves strengthening capacities and forming coalitions, empowers partners to fully defend their interests.

As proposed in a recent paper for the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), to materialize these two concepts better, France should propose the creation of a “Pacific Islands Security Forum.” This forum would bring together citizens, experts, and officials from the region, mainly addressing environmental and human security issues, a priority clearly identified for the Pacific Island states.

This cooperation mechanism would add real value by positioning itself at the nexus of defense, diplomacy, and development, complementing existing forums such as the SPDMM and the IPESF. It would focus on the needs of the actors involved and explicitly aim to identify the levers to activate to assist them in meeting those needs. Far from being a simple forum for dialogue, this would be an action-oriented mechanism.

An annual summit could be first held in New Caledonia in 2024, then alternately in Nouméa and in one of the Pacific Island states’ capitals, starting with Port-Vila in 2025. It would bring together regional players around unifying themes, while identifying and then implementing concrete projects on the appropriate scale. Amid other initiatives, this forum would serve as a symbol of France’s dedication and resolve to collaborate with its regional partners.

Antoine Bondaz ([email protected]) is the director of the Observatory of Multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS). He teaches at Sciences Po Paris.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo credit:  Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Image

Issues & Insights Vol. 23, WP4 – US-ASEAN Digital Economy Cooperation

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Executive Summary

Long criticized for its lackluster record in economic engagement with Southeast Asia, the US is now looking to bolster digital economy cooperation with the region as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Both sides have already engaged in several cooperation initiatives to strengthen Southeast Asia’s digital capacities. These actions/engagements aim to help the region capture the immense benefit and respond to potential socioeconomic disruptions brought by the digital economic boom. However, US-ASEAN cooperation will have to deal with two challenges. First, China has already established a comprehensive and prevalent presence in the region’s digital economy, from hard infrastructure and customer-facing businesses to developing digital standards. Second, Southeast Asia’s diversity in economic development leads to varied capacities among its members. These attributes carry certain security complications for Southeast Asia and the US in the long run. Addressing them will require both sides to further boost cooperation, particularly in shaping regional digital standards.

Download the full volume here.

Table of Contents


U.S.-ASEAN Cooperation on the Digital Economy

China’s Prevalent Presence in Southeast Asia’s Digital Economy

Southeast Asia’s Varied Digital Capacities



About the Author

Hanh Nguyen was a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at Pacific Forum. She received her MA degree in International Relations at International Christian University, Tokyo. She was a research fellow under the Project for Human Resource Development by Japanese Grant Aid. Her research interests include Southeast Asia’s relations with great powers, Vietnam’s foreign policy and Indo-Pacific affairs. Hanh is the author of US-Vietnam Partnership in the post-COVID era: A recalibration towards intra-ASEAN integration (Pacific Forum, 2021) and Maritime capacity-building cooperation between Japan and Vietnam: A confluence of strategic interest (ISEAS Perspective, 2021). She is also the coauthor of Asymmetric interdependence and the selective diversification of supply chains (Journal of Contemporary Eastern Asia, 2022), Canada’s Indo-Pacific priorities: Investing in a free and open digital economy and Digital connectivity in the Indo-Pacific: The potential for middle power cooperation on 5G technology (MacDonald-Laurier Institute, 2021) with Stephen Nagy. Her analysis also appeared in The Diplomat, Geopolitical Monitor, Lowly Institute and other platforms. She is also a Pacific Forum Young Leader.