PacNet #60 – The Myth of Taiwan as a Pacific Nation

“The US has begun to reimagine itself as a Pacific nation. Taiwan would be wise to explore the merits of following suit. This could unlock benefits that entail from a shared identity.”

– Michael Walsh and John Hemmings, Taipei Times, Oct. 7, 2022

The Taiwan government must find a way to deter and derail the existential threat posed by the People’s Republic of China. To achieve these outcomes, Taipei will need to maintain a strong and enduring partnership with the United States. At present, this strategic bond is reinforced by a number of shared identities. As pointed out by Walsh and Hemmings, the myth of being a Pacific nation is not one of them. Per their suggestion, Taipei should explore the merits of reimagining itself as a Pacific nation too.

The United States has long toyed with the idea of being a Pacific nation. President Barack Obama inflected a major shift toward that identity when he declared, “the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” Framing his assertion as a “fundamental truth,” President Obama set into motion the reimagination of America as a Pacific nation through a combination of rhetoric and narrative. On the backs of Asian immigration and fallen soldiers, the Obama Administration constructed a persuasive story about how a “complex and intricate mix of history, ideas, and interests” had transformed into a Pacific nation long ago. In this way, a mental image was formed that eventually rooted in the collective consciousness of American thought leaders. Now, many American policymakers accept the claim that America is a Pacific nation as a statement of fact. It has started to become a Thorsonian myth.

Throughout the world, few places have struggled with the concept of collective identity like Taiwan. For decades, the question of what demonym to use for the people of Taiwan has been at the forefront of national debates and the cause of international concern. After a multi-decade struggle for the preservation of autonomy from the People’s Republic of China, attitudes have somewhat shifted on the idea of being Taiwanese. Many still cling onto the identity of being Chinese. There remains no consensus on what should be the Taiwanese identity. A strong affinity has been forged around several other identities, however. These include the ideas of being a democratic state and East Asian state. While being a democratic state is an identify shared with the United States, being an East Asian state is not. If there was another regional identity jointly held by both partners, then this gap would lose much of its significance. It is therefore somewhat surprising that Taipei has not explored further whether becoming a Pacific nation could bridge that divide.

If the Taiwan government took a closer look at the merits, then Taiwan policymakers would find that it is not difficult to craft a persuasive story about Taiwan being a Pacific nation.

Their first glance should be geography. As Walter Lippman once said “the world that we have to deal with politically…is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined.” That is why “cognitive frameworks” drawn from “geographic considerations” have such a profound role to play in domestic and foreign affairs. Fortunately, Taiwan is gifted with the “blessing of geography.” Composed of a set of islands in the Western Pacific that are situated at approximately the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands, Taiwan lies proximate to what is commonly referred to as the Pacific Islands Region. Taipei is a full ~1,000 miles closer to Koror than Los Angeles is to Honolulu. If American policymakers can draw a mental map around Pacific nations that is inclusive of the United States, then surely Taiwan can do the same.

Their second glance should history, culture, and language. The connections between Taiwan and the Pacific nations extend far beyond geographic happenstance. The historical ties between the Taiwanese aborigines and other Pacific Islanders are well documented. Although the history of the Austronesian and Lapita cultures remains the subject of debate, there is evidence that the Neolithic period expansion of Austronesian-speaking peoples can be traced back to an Austronesian homeland in Taiwan. Either way, the Austronesian family of languages continues to provide a linguistic bridge between the indigenous communities of Taiwan and their Pacific Islander cousins.

Taipei has been taking steps to protect that connection. In 2017, the Indigenous Languages Development Act was promulgated to “achieve historical justice, further preserve and promote the indigenous languages, and guarantee that the languages are used and passed down.” But language is only part of the story. The revival of Taiwanese indigenous culture has become a touchstone topic among the majority Han Taiwanese population. This has created additional space to emphasize Taiwan’s Austronesian roots on the national stage. Although often overlooked, Taiwan’s experiences with colonization and conflict provide another common ground with the Pacific nations. At various times, the territory of Taiwan has been possessed by the Netherlands, Spain, and Japan. This mirrors the colonial experiences of many Pacific Island countries. Moreover, Taipei was heavily bombed by foreign militaries during WWII, although that story is not widely acknowledged in contemporary discourses. These experiences provide a shared platform on which to construct the story of Taiwan as a Pacific nation.

The third glance should be common security and political interests. Taiwan and the Pacific nations share traditional security concerns. In close partnership with the United States, Taiwan seeks to deter invasion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has not renounced the use of force in its pursuit to reunify Taiwan with the Chinese mainland. While Pacific Island countries may not fear imminent invasion by the PLA, they wish to avoid getting caught in the middle of US-China competition.

The outbreak of open hostilities between these superpowers would endanger not only the core interests of Taiwan, but those of Pacific Island Countries as well. Consider the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) states. Under the terms of those agreements, the United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense. Such conflict would involve the distributed network of military bases currently under construction across the COFA states. It could also draw in other military bases located in other Pacific Island Countries. Then, there is the issue of the citizens of Pacific Island Countries who are part of the United States Armed Forces. In any US-China conflict, these Pacific Islander servicemen and servicewomen would be expected to join the fight. Pacific Island Countries therefore share a compelling interest in deterring major power combat.

While traditional security interests often get top billing, Taiwan and Pacific nations also share a myriad of non-traditional security concerns. This includes the existential threat posed by climate change. Pacific Islands Countries have made clear that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.” They are not alone. Taiwan is facing significant problems posed by climate change impacts. In 2021, Taiwan experienced its most severe drought period in 56 years. This was due to the unusual lack of typhoons passing over the main island. These typhoons play a critical role in recharging reservoirs and the economic outcomes of their absence were significant. The drought negatively impacted Taiwan’s production of semiconductor chips among other painful impacts including lost agricultural yields and water rationing for households and businesses.

Of course, not all natural disasters arise from climate change and not all non-traditional security concerns involve natural disasters. On a perennial basis, Taiwan faces the risk posed by earthquakes, volcanic activity, and tsunamis. It also has to contend with threats posed by infectious diseases, drug trafficking, organized crime, transnational migration, supply chain insecurity, or cyber threats. Many Pacific Island Countries face similar concerns as evidenced by the natural disasters that recently struck Tonga and the cyberattack that recently disrupted internet services in the Marshall Islands.

Beyond security concerns, Taiwan and many Pacific nations also share a desire to preserve the rules-based international order and a preference for democratic political systems. At the Indo-Pacific Leaders Dialogue, President Tsai Ing-wen declared that Taiwan shares a commitment “to upholding the rules-based international order,” “employing transparency and accountability as the basis for cooperation,” and promoting the “values of democracy and freedom” with Australia. Similarly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently affirmed that “United States, Taiwan, and Palau share a strong commitment to democracy, to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to advancing the peace and prosperity of the region.” In the Blue Pacific Strategy, the member states of the Pacific Islands Forum not only warned that the “established rules-based order for peace and security as set out in the Boe Declaration faces increasing pressure, and the Pacific region is not immune.” They also proclaimed that “the Blue Pacific Continent remains committed to principles of democracy.” While the declarations of countries and actions of their leaders sometimes pull in different directions, there is significant common ground to be found between Taiwan and Pacific nations on these political matters.

When Washington took a closer look at the merits of reimagining the United States as a Pacific nation, American policymakers found that it was possible to craft a story through a “complex and intricate mix of history, ideas, and interests.” While there are significant differences in the history, ideas, and interests of Taiwan and the United States, Taiwan policymakers could use a similar narrative framework to craft their own story about Taiwan as a Pacific nation. Such an approach begs several follow-on questions. The most immediate are: who needs to be persuaded? How difficult would it be to conduct outreach? What are the potential benefits, costs, and risks? Taipei should start exploring these questions to better understand the merits of reimagining Taiwan as a Pacific nation. And it should make that a priority.

Michael Walsh (mw1305@georgetown.edu) is a Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum.

Wen-Chi Yang (wyang@nccu.edu.tw) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Diplomacy at National Chengchi University.

Adam Morrow (adam@pacforum.org) is the Director of the Young Leaders Program at Pacific Forum.

The views expressed are their own.

Note: The authors would like to acknowledge the inspiration for this article: Satu Limaye, “The US as a Pacific Nation.” Education About Asia. Volume 17, No. 3 (Winter 2012): 4-7.

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

Photo: President Tsai visits Tuvalu (2017/11/01) by The Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan).

PacNet #30 – Australia’s election: Quad continuity and climate alignment, with nuclear disagreements

Sworn-in as Australia’s new prime minister, within hours Anthony Albanese was flying to Japan for the summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”).

An accident of timing—the May 24 summit following Australia’s May 21 election—offered the leader of the Australian Labor Party plenty of flying-start symbolism.

Departing Canberra for Tokyo, Albanese said the “message to the world” was that Australia had a new government that would lift policy on climate change, while emphasizing foreign policy continuity and the value of “friendships and long-time alliances.”

The Quad

Labor’s attitude to the Quad today (version 2.0) differs markedly from its rejection of the first version of the Quad.

Back in 2008, the Rudd Labor government walked away from Quad 1.0 because ties with Japan or India could endanger its relationship with China, as Kevin Rudd argued: “Australia would run the risk of being left high and dry as a result of future foreign policy departures in Tokyo or Delhi.”

Labor has gone from negative to positive about the Quad, reflecting the shift from positive to negative in Australia’s view of China. When Quad 2.0 was created in 2017, Labor matched the Liberal-National Coalition government’s enthusiasm for the reborn grouping.

Albanese, a minister in the government that sank Quad 1.0, told the Tokyo summit that his government’s priorities aligned with the Quad agenda: “I acknowledge all that the Quad has achieved. Standing together for a free, open, and resilient Indo-Pacific region. And working together to tackle the biggest challenges of our time, including climate change and the security of our region. My government is committed to working with your countries and we are committed to the Quad.”

AUKUS

Labor’s policy states that it will aim at “maximi[zing] the potential of the important, bipartisan AUKUS agreement.” The language is a nod to the greatest defence achievement of the outgoing prime minister, Scott Morrison—the deal with the US and UK to build an Australian nuclear-powered submarine.

A Canberra jest is that while China was stunned by AUKUS, the most amazed people were in the US Navy. The US Navy line had always been that Australia should not bother asking for a nuclear sub, because the answer would be an emphatic refusal. As China sparked the rebirth of the Quad, so Beijing helped Washington change its mind about sharing submarine technology.

The Biden administration insisted it would go ahead with AUKUS only if Labor gave it solid backing. But Morrison waited four-and-a-half months before informing Labor. During the campaign, Albanese condemned Morrison for seeking political advantage by telling Labor about AUKUS the day before it was announced.

“It is extraordinary that the prime minister broke that faith and trust with our most important ally by not briefing Australian Labor on these issues,” Albanese said.

Morrison replied that he’d maintained full secrecy and did not want to give Labor the chance to leak details of the negotiations.

Now, Labor’s job is to make AUKUS work.

Changed China

Changes in China, and in Australian views toward China, have done their part to ensure bipartisan continuity on the Quad and AUKUS. A shared Labor-Liberal line throughout the campaign, with a three-word expression, was to blame Beijing for the problems in the bilateral relationship: “China has changed.”

The diplomatic icy age is five years old. China has been doing the trade squeeze on Australia for two years. China’s ministers will not take phone calls from Australian ministers, nor respond to ministerial letters.

As he headed for Tokyo, Albanese commented: “The relationship with China will remain a difficult one. … It is China that has changed, not Australia. And Australia should always stand up for our values. And we will in a government that I lead.”

Beijing could use the new government in Canberra as the opportunity for a reset, linking it to the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in December. First, though, China must reverse the billions of dollars of thinly disguised political trade bans imposed on Australian exports, or as Labor’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong puts it: “Desist from its coercive economic positions.”

The first step from Beijing was a message of congratulations to Albanese from Premier Li Keqiang saying, “The Chinese side is ready to work with the Australian side to review the past, look into the future and uphold the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit, so as to promote the sound and steady growth of their comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Australia chooses the United States

A Canberra refrain of earlier decades was that Australia didn’t have to choose between China and the US.

No longer. Australia has chosen because of what China has become.

In the election foreign policy debate at the National Press Club, Wong said the no-choice duality was the way John Howard’s government (1996-2007) could balance the principal strategic relationship with the US and the principal economic relationship with China. That no-choice balance was gone, Wong stated: “Clearly, the way in which economic power is being utilized for strategic purposes means that duality, as a model of engagement, is no longer the case. I would make this point, though—we have actually already chosen. We have an alliance that’s over 70 years old, between us and the US, an alliance with deep bipartisan support. So we have already chosen.”

Wong used Madeleine Albright’s phrase, saying the US remained the “indispensible partner” in the reshaping of the region, while Australia must do much more with partners in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

The “we’ve chosen” message from Wong is an echo and an answer to a set of question that nagged at Washington in the first decade of this century: How far would Australia lean towards China?

The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, says Australia’s response to China’s coercion had resolved US doubts about Canberra: “Frankly, if you’d asked me 10 years ago what country was most likely to start thinking about ‘we have to have a different kind of relationship with China and maybe think differently about the United States,’ it might have been Australia. I think that is completely gone now.”

Banning nuclear weapons

Labor has promised to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. For Albanese, this is both policy commitment and personal belief. At Labor’s national conference in 2018, Albanese moved the motion to make the treaty party policy.

He recounted how one of his mentors on Labor’s left wing, Tom Uren, had been a prisoner of war on an island close to Nagasaki, and “saw there the second atomic bomb with his own eyes. He came back, having fought for Australia, a fighter for peace and disarmament.”

Albanese said the nuclear ban should be core business for Labor, and is following Labor tradition, campaigning against nuclear weapons while holding tight to the extended deterrence offered by the US alliance, as outlined by the Keating Labor government’s 1994 Defence White Paper:

“The Government does not accept nuclear deterrence as a permanent condition. It is an interim measure until a total ban on nuclear weapons, accompanied by substantial verification provisions, can be achieved. In this interim period, although it is hard to envisage the circumstances in which Australia could be threatened by nuclear weapons, we cannot rule out that possibility. We will continue to rely on the extended deterrence of the US nuclear capability to deter any nuclear threat or attack on Australia. Consequently, we will continue to support the maintenance by the United States of a nuclear capability adequate to ensure that it can deter nuclear threats against allies like Australia.”

In his talks with US President Joe Biden, Albanese can promise that a Labor government will be much closer to the US position on climate change than the previous Liberal-National coalition government.

Instead, the new difference between the two allies will be over nuclear weapon­s.­

Bridging this difference looks an impossible quest. Managing it will involve Australia talking more openly about the extended deterrence bargain. Such a debate will build on what has been a long discussion of Australia’s calculations and commitments in hosting the key US signals intelligence base at Pine Gap.

In adopting the UN treaty, the Albanese government will draw on the alliance approaches used in earlier eras to deal with the United States’ neither-conform-nor-deny nuclear policy; the creation of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone treaty; and the lessons Canberra took when New Zealand crashed out of ANZUS alliance 36 years ago because of its anti-nuclear policy.

The 70-year history of the alliance gives plenty of guidance on using broad agreement to balance individual policy differences.

Graeme Dobell (graemedobell@aspi.org.au) is Journalist Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He has been reporting on Australian and international politics, foreign affairs and defense, and the Asia-Pacific since 1975.

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

PacNet #52 – The Growing Crisis of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

A recent conference, in which Pacific Forum joined the Navy League’s Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange (IMSE), the East-West Center, and the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, focused on the problems of IUU fishing and potential solutions to counter its recent dramatic growth. The author was one of the organizers of the conference, whose proceedings and session videos can be found at https://imsehawaii.org.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has become a major problem worldwide and particularly in the Pacific. According to the US Coast Guard, “IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect deterioration of fragile coastal States and increased tension among foreign-fishing Nations, threatening geo-political stability around the world.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that approximately 60% of fish caught worldwide come from the Pacific Ocean. Over half are species that are unsustainable if fishing at current rates and methods continue. As fishing fleets have grown they have outstripped the oceans abilities to replenish stocks. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is estimated to catch approximately 35% of fish, according to NOAA statistics. Dr. Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales stated in his address to the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange’s recent conference on the subject that the PRC is also the no. 1 nation for IUU fishing. Others have been complicit in IUU fishing, including Taiwan and Vietnam. Vietnam, after receiving a warning from the European Union that its fish exports would be barred from its market formulated a high-level task force to work against such practices. Taiwan for diplomatic reasons has done the same. But IUU fishing tends to be a low-risk/high-value activity as penalties for IUU fishers consist mostly of modest fines.

There are many aspects to the problem.

  • Illegal fishing is conducted in waters under the jurisdiction of a state but without the permission of that state.
  • Unreported fishing involves a catch that has not been reported, as required.
  • Unregulated fishing occurs where there are no management measures and is conducted in a manner inconsistent with treaty responsibilities.

Besides over-harvesting of species, IUU fishing takes money from legal fishers and out of local economies. Fisheries are the primary source of income for many Pacific and Oceanic states. It is projected by the Nature Conservancy that many Pacific Island nations will not be able to meet their local food needs in a few years given their population growth and continued IUU fishing. The Nature Conservancy also estimates that over 95% of IUU fishing activities by the Pacific Tuna Fleet involve legally licensed boats that misreport their catch, not by so-called unregistered dark boats.”

IUU fishing also destroys habitat. Bottom trawling damages corals and sea grasses. The losses of sea grasses are important regarding COand climate change. It is estimated the loss of grasses has a greater effect than the CO2 emissions from Germany or the international aviation industry.

Other crimes are associated with IUU fishing, including forgery of records and fraud, corruption, false vessel identity and flagging, licensing avoidance and deception, human rights abuses (e.g., forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor), illegal transshipments of catch and fuel, smuggling of drugs and protected species, black marketeering and money laundering, and the evasion of penalties.

Finding potential solutions to counter IUU fishing was the principal focus of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange conference in early September.

Heretofore surveillance of territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones relied on a nation’s patrol ships and aircraft and active transmissions, such as from the Advanced Identification System (AIS) and vessel monitoring system (VMS), mandated by nations to monitor ships in their areas of responsibility. But IUU fishers often turn off these transmitters—and increasingly spoof their signals—to hide illegal activities.

Sea-based aerial drones are proving to be a valuable adjunct to ships and aircraft for covert surveillance, according to the US Coast Guard, which employs the ScanEagle drone from its newer cutters. Satellite electro-optical imagery has been available commercially for years, but is limited by field of view, resolution, and weather. When cued by other sources, however, it can help identify suspicious vessels.

Newer forms of imagery include the Visible and Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, from NOAA’s Joint Polar-orbiting Satellite System, which detects the bright nighttime lights used by many purse seiner and ring net fishing boats to attract squid and other species. Another is synthetic aperture radar (SAR). It allows surveillance in all-weather conditions as it penetrates clouds and darkness. Many nations have orbited SAR satellites, and commercial companies have recently entered the marketplace for SAR imagery.

The collection of radio frequency emissions by commercial satellites is a new capability. Several US and European firms have entered this market and can pick up navigation radar and other radio emissions from boats at sea even if the boats turn off their required AIS or VMS broadcasts.

In development are unmanned vessels that tow underwater hydrophones that can detect, classify, and report via satellite vessels by type and activity through analysis of sonograms.

While there are many sensor sources, they can produce an overwhelming amount of data and any one source is rarely sufficient to determine many kinds of IUU fishing. The integration of data from disparate sources and the analysis of those data is therefore critical. The data glut is a challenge requiring various advanced analytical techniques, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Several organizations analyze data related to IUU fishing. Best known is Global Fishing Watch, a nongovernmental organization that tracks in near-real time fishing around the globe. Australia’s Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is the responsible overseer of fishing in the broad Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent. The Pacific Islands Fishing Forum Agency, the International Maritime Control and Surveillance network, and several universities and commercial firms are also involved in aspects of analyzing IUU fishing to provide scientific insight, risk management judgments to companies, or assist in investigations of organizations and individuals behind such illegal activities.

IUU fishing knows no national boundaries. It is a growing global problem. No one nation is capable of enforcing fishing laws and regulations. Countering IUU fishing will require multi-state collaboration, information sharing, and multilateral agreements between regional fishing management organizations, of which there are a plethora. To date, however, information sharing has not always gone well.

There are approaches to IUU fishing beyond law enforcement that organizations are pursuing. These include eliminating national subsidies for fishing. The PRCs subsidies, the most generous of any nation by far, estimated at approximately $7.2 billion in 2018, make otherwise unprofitable fishing profitable, according to Prof. Tabitha Mallory of the China Ocean Institute and the University of Washington. Certification of catches assures buyers of fish that they were caught legally. Publicity about IUU fishing and the deceptive practices associated with it is seen as an important step in depressing market attractiveness of illegally caught fish. Finally, the promotion of aquaculture—farm-raised fish, in which the PRC is deeply invested, is seen as a potential solution for future food needs.

Peter Oleson (peter.oleson@yahoo.com) is a former senior defense official and professor.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #8 – Rebooting the UN-US Partnership: Global Goals Require Indo-Pacific Focus

The Indo-Pacific region has seen a rise in political instability in recent years. The Trump administration and China have been at loggerheads, through the WHO, in formulating a global approach to slowing the spread of COVID-19. The region has experienced a rise in human rights violations, evidenced by the bitter treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and authoritarian crackdowns in Thailand and Cambodia. The Indo-Pacific has also witnessed China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and along the Indo-China border, eliciting a defensive posture from regional powers such as Australia, Japan, and India.

In full view of political and human rights crises in the Indo-Pacific, the UN has remained silent. It has failed to enact reforms to its major organs, such as the Security Council. It has failed to bring meaningful reform to the Human Rights Council, which remains populated by serial violators, including China and Iran, as well as its inability to find its voice on rights violations against Muslim populations in China, Myanmar, and India. The UN has remained “concerned” over India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act and subsequent Hindu violence toward Muslims, China’s housing of Uyghur Muslims, or the plight of the Rohingya, but has not insisted through Special Procedures that independent investigators gain exclusive access to the most sensitive areas. China, like other autocratic regimes in the region, has repeatedly denied or stalled invitations to UN experts wanting to conduct official visits.

Despite these shortcomings, the incoming Biden administration represents an opportunity to reinvigorate ties between the US and the UN. Doing so could catalyze economic growth and provide stability in the Indo-Pacific. Regionwide, there is no shortage of challenges that need concrete solutions, including institutional reforms—both at the Security Council and the Human Rights Council—and a more robust climate change agenda.

Past and present American administrations have discussed reform at the United Nations, chiefly in the Security Council. Static since 1945, the aging body needs to be made fit for purpose in the modern era. To accomplish this, additional permanent members should be added—with two equally qualified candidates in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have lobbied for years with limited support. India has been an active participant in UN peacekeeping operations around the globe and Japan has been a leading contributor of development assistance (ODA) for decades. Their constant presence on the Security Council, combined with changes to veto powers, would add two vital allies capable of defending the international order and keeping the peace. Adding a third new permanent member from Africa would win concessions from the African continent—which has contributed proposals in the past that have received little recognition in the General Assembly. One of the principle strengths of the United Nations is its commitment to the equality of states, vested in Article 2 of the UN Charter. The Security Council is a forum where Great Powers exert influence on global affairs, yet to maintain that influence, the US needs a proactive Security Council that can both provide support to multilateral initiatives and advance its interests, as well as hold human rights violators and autocratic regimes accountable.

On the human rights front, the UN could facilitate reform proposals for the Human Rights Council. The Trump administration walked away from the Council in 2018, with former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley calling the body a “hypocritical and self-serving organization.” The Secretary-General António Guterres and Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should advocate the reform of the Council by mandating the norm of taking into account the contribution of potential candidates to the Council, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments. While the US is sure to return to the Human Rights Council under a Biden administration, it should back a proposal that would help eliminate states with poor human rights records, such as limiting Council seats to just one term or increasing the threshold to win a seat from a simple plurality to a two-thirds majority. Abandoning the Human Rights Council, rather than advocating for its reform is short-sighted thinking—a decision that left American allies in the Indo-Pacific, like Japan and Australia, in the lurch.

Climate change is another area of cooperation where the United Nations can engage with the Biden administration. Biden has already signaled as much by appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy. While Asia’s economic engine now fuels the global economy, it is responsible for more than 50% of global greenhouse gasses through rapid industrialization. The Indo-Pacific needs to make climate change a higher priority, particularly in light of recent natural disasters. The US should address a number of climate vulnerabilities by dramatically upscaling humanitarian and disaster response exercises, as seen in the Cobra Gold and Tiger Triumph exercises with Thailand and India. Climate change needs to be viewed, including by the US as a security threat. Global temperature changes facilitate seawater rise, create storm surges, and strain fisheries. Climate change pressures put stress on bilateral relations, particularly in ASEAN, which are at risk of violent naval confrontations as a result of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Biden administration would be wise to adopt a coherent national strategy on climate change, a glaring hole in Trump’s anti-science doctrine, which ignored Department of Defense warnings, particularly on the Indo-Pacific in 2019.

A focus on environmental initiatives would not only bolster Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, but other states in the region such as Japan, Australia, and India with Free and Open Indo-Pacific visions and mutual environmental concerns. China need not be excluded from the group; the 2nd Belt Road Forum recently demonstrated Beijing is placing greater emphasis on the environment in BRI projects. Promoting crosswalks through the convening power of the UN can kill two birds with one stone, contributing to climate change cooperation in the Indo-Pacific while moving the China-US rivalry away from a zero-sum approach. The UN should avail itself of this opportunity. The UN could provide cooperation mechanisms to mitigate climate change impacts in the Mekong Delta, the South China Sea and South Asia. Piggybacking on pre-existing initiatives such as the US-Mekong Partnership or Australia’s Partnerships for Recovery in ASEAN and the Southeast Asian region may be a template for expanded multilateral cooperation.

To reinvigorate its partnership, America and the UN must proactively adopt policies that resonate with the Biden administration’s multilateral and internationalist inclinations. Institutional reform, human rights, and climate change cooperation are key areas of synergy in the broader Indo-Pacific.

Mark S. Cogan (mscogan@kansaigaidai.ac.jp) is an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka; and a communications consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Twitter handle:@markscogan.

Dr. Stephen Nagy (nagy@icu.ac.jp) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo; a distinguished fellow with Canada’s Asia Pacific Foundation; a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI); and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

YL Blog #22: Managing US-China Strategic Competition by Overcoming the Perception Gap

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In recent years, the U.S.-China relationship has been undermined by their increasing bilateral economic disputes, the strategic and economic tensions between U.S. and China are escalating, which has caused much concerns across the world. In the United States, many political elites share a narrative of disillusionment with China, which believes that the U.S.’s longstanding policy of “engagement” has failed. Meanwhile in China, interpreting bilateral tensions as containment from the United States is a considerable tendency. From 2017, Trump administration has published National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review, collectively articulated China as a strategic competitor, claims the great power competition is return. Since then, the world has witnessed more confrontational interacts between China and the United States. To many observers, whether the United States and China are in competition is no longer a topic to discuss, and the concern that current competition between the two major powers could escalate into a comprehensive confrontation seems not impossible.

Under such circumstance, it is crucial to develop preventive measures to make sure that U.S.-China relationship will not fall into a comprehensive confrontation. How can both sides cooperate to manage this competition and prevent it from escalating into a more adversarial relationship or conflict? Closing the perception gap between China and the United States could be a fruitful approach.

Establish a meaningful intergovernmental dialogue between China and the United States to address strategic issues should be a priority. Although the United States has long sought such dialogue, Chinese officials are always express it is not the right time (“the conditions are not ripe”), refuse to conduct any official strategic dialogue regardless it is bilateral or multilateral. As many Chinese participants pointed out, the refusal is largely because China processes a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States and Russia, and given China’s no-first-use policy and it’s thinking that nuclear weapon is only for prevent nuclear coercion, opaqueness on nuclear policy has special value in China’s deterrence. There also many different perceptions between China and the United States: while China claims it’s already possesses credible and secure second-strike capability, calls for mutual no first use or mutual no targeting commitment between China and the United States, the United States asks for better understanding on Chinese nuclear thinking and developments, calls for transparency. Consider the lack of mutual trust and understanding between China and the United States, official strategic dialogue could be possible only if compromise made from both sides: Chinese official would need to consider engage to more meaningful, transparent strategic dialogue, while Washington would need to acknowledge that the United States and China are in mutually vulnerable strategic relationship, recognize this premise of strategic stability.

Despite of whether China and the United States could conduct official strategic dialogue, both parties should immediately seek to establish crisis management mechanisms. As a matter of fact, some military to military mechanisms have been established between China and the United States, and achievements have been made: in 2014, China and the United States have signed memorandums of understanding of notice on major military operations as well as codes on unplanned encounters at sea. These documents provide channel for communication during conflicts or crisis, also indicated that despite the tension and dispute, China and the United States could conduct pragmatic cooperation in certain areas. Such mechanisms should be well maintained and fully utilized. But existing mechanisms are far from enough, more such mechanism are needed. Consider China has maritime dispute with many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and the United States has security commitment with its allies in this region, mechanisms on preventing conflict triggered by third party are in special need.

In recent years, deep distrust and suspicion increasingly plague the bilateral relationship, the worrisome trend of “prepare for the worst scenario” is emerging in both China and the United States. Such distrust has been amplified by information asymmetry, and the two major power is falling into a dangerous action-misinterpret

 -reaction loop. As an outcome of China’s rise, China is increasingly aggressive on preserve its rights, while the United States views any revise of current international system as challenge to its supremacy, and its current policies seems focus on slowing down China’s development and trying to decoupling China from international market. But is this the only way? Find common interest and work together could be an alternative approach. Since China says it’s not interested in pursue supremacy, claims its seek for peaceful development is not a trick, but a matter of strategy, it may need to adopt a more transparent, fair approach to implement its geo-economic initiatives, and the United States may need to resist its instinctual respond, try to shape China’s behavior by cooperate in certain areas such as climate change and global trade reform. Indeed, China’s rise poses challenge to the current U.S led system, but it should be viewed as an opportunity for global governance rather than nightmare.

I’m truly grateful to Pacific Forum for offer me this opportunity to engage this strategic dialogue. From the dialogue, my personal takeaway is both satisfactory and frustrating. The satisfaction is because I noticed participants from both sides are genuinely willing to address the issue on bilateral strategic relationship, the frustration is from a glimpse of how huge the perception gap between China and U.S, and this truly worries me. I do believe that by working together China and the United States could build a just, harmonic, sustainable international system, but the path to it is bound to fitful.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.