How China approaches military crises and the implications for crisis management

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Chapter from China’s Military Decision-making in Times of Crisis and Conflict

This chapter examines China’s views of and approach to military crises and discusses the implications for crisis avoidance and management options, especially for the U.S.

The following text is excerpted from our partner’s website, where you can read the full report that we collaborated on. 




China’s Military Decision-making in Times of Crisis and Conflict features papers from the 2022 People’s Liberation Army Conference convened by the National Bureau of Asian Research, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s China Strategic Focus Group, and the Department of Foreign Languages at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China intensifies and unplanned encounters between their militaries become more frequent, what impact has Xi Jinping had on China’s crisis decision-making and behavior? In what domains and against which actors may China be inclined to escalate or de-escalate a crisis? Leading experts address these questions and more in this volume and find that fundamentally different understandings and approaches to crisis management and response could make it more difficult to swiftly resolve crises.

About the Author

David Santoro Co-Chair, US-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue President and CEO, Pacific Forum

YL Blog #43 – Strategic Ambiguity Remains in South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Survival Strategy

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Breaking the long-standing diplomatic practice of strategic ambiguity between two major powers, South Korea took a step towards clarity concerning strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. The timing and context surrounding the release of the first Indo-Pacific strategy are noteworthy, but how are national interests and values pursued?

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy, “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region”, released in December 2022, presents President Yoon’s vision of making South Korea a “global pivotal State” and developing corresponding diplomatic strategy with like-minded countries. Recently, in order to cope with various strategic and geopolitical challenges, Indo-Pacific strategies and new policies have been developed and advocated for by many countries around the world, including the Quad, the EU, and ASEAN.

In March 2021, Japan released the document Japan’s Efforts for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” based on former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and concept. The US announced its new Indo-Pacific strategy in February 2022, and subsequently launched the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity” later in May of that same year. Finally, shortly after trilateral talks in Phnom Penh and the adoption of a joint statement on US-Japan-ROK trilateral partnership in November 2022, where the leaders resolved with an “unprecedented level of trilateral coordination” to conduct an inclusive, resilient, and secure Indo-Pacific, South Korea finalized its first Indo-Pacific strategy document.

Despite the recently increasing importance of the concept of Indo-Pacific regional strategy, the term itself is not new. Countries such as Japan and Australia have officially used the idea for more than a decade. South Korea, by contrast, was defensive about publicly acknowledging its Indo-Pacific related stance, notwithstanding extensive cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries. The term ‘Asia-Pacific’ was more commonly used than ‘Indo-Pacific,’ and the previous administration’s foreign policy strengthened relationships with ASEAN and India, but was limited to cooperation for economic prosperity, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and non-traditional security. With its New Southern Policy and New Northern Policy, South Korea has kept a distance from both the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Strategic ambiguity was, and still is, a longstanding diplomatic strategy of South Korea seeking security with the US and trade with China since the formal establishment of diplomatic relations with China in 1992. For South Korea, it seems to be against its national interest to side explicitly with either its security ally or its major trading partner. In 2016 when South Korea agreed to deploy a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, China imposed a wide range of coercive measures which resulted in a significant economic impact on tourism, cosmetics and retail operation. Accordingly, a worsening relationship and confrontation with either country is what South Korea wants to avoid. While Australia also faced retaliation for raising security concerns about Huawei and demanding investigation into the origins of COVID-19, China’s economic coercion practices on the country were not nearly as dramatic or effective as the ones South Korea had experienced. However, due to the lack of diversification of export markets as well as South Korea’s and China’s proximity and economic ties, South Korean industries are highly dependent on China for semiconductors, raw material, intermediate goods, and batteries — hence the greater importance of South Korea’s relationship with China.

South Korea’s first Indo-Pacific strategy contains implications for the US and China and strategic concerns about emerging geopolitical challenges. In 2022, the Korean Peninsula witnessed a new round of tension escalation as the leaders of both the US and China secured their positions. Two trilateral dialogues were held in five years in Madrid and Phnom Penh. In order to enhance economic security and strengthen deterrence, and also to align with the global framework of the Indo-Pacific region, the release of its Indo-Pacific strategy was timely and significant for South Korea.

The strategy seems to synchronize with that of the US and Japan in terms of pursuing a free and open Indo-Pacific in accordance with the rules-based international order and universal values, but there is a fundamental difference when it comes to curbing China’s growing assertiveness and influence over the Indo-Pacific region. In its strategy document, the US harshly criticized China for “combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might,” seeking “to become the world’s most influential power,” and “undermining human rights and international law.” Japan did not specifically mention China in its strategy released in 2021, but the 2022 National Security Strategy identifies China’s recent activities as “a matter of serious concern” and “an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge,” and clearly states that “Japan will strongly oppose China’s growing attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force.” In contrast, South Korea is more cautious and conciliatory, leaving room to cooperate with China. The strategy emphasizes inclusiveness as one of the three principles of the strategy, defining China as a “key partner for achieving prosperity and peace in the Indo-Pacific.”

Continuous strategic ambiguity is also found in South Korea’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Compared to the previous administration, President Yoon supports a stronger South Korea-US alliance and deepening of ties to NATO. Nevertheless, South Korea is still criticized for its lukewarm attitude. Despite increasing pressure from NATO and appeals from Ukraine, South Korea maintains its policy not to directly supply weapons to Ukraine but to only provide humanitarian aid. Interestingly, South Korea sold arms or related material to Poland and ammunition to the US which was then used to provide military aid to Ukraine. This indirect supply was never acknowledged by South Korea.

The Yoon administration sends a clear message that South Korea will cooperate with all countries sharing its vision and principles and complying with international norms and universal values, strengthen a rules-based regional order, and embrace the institutional framework built among like-minded countries. This strategic intention undoubtedly demonstrates more clarity than the previous Moon administration’s strategic ambiguity, but a certain ambiguity remains as the main principle of inclusiveness. Ultimately, the Indo-Pacific strategy was pursued in order to respond more actively to newly-raised strategic and geopolitical challenges, rather than to convey a mere strategy of containment against China.

For now, the new strategy has been endorsed by the US and taken less aggressively by China, but as US-China rivalry intensifies, diplomatic pressure from both sides will get stronger, and a carefully balanced approach even with some clarity might not be enough. As the Koreas are in the geopolitical center of US-China rivalry, China demands that South Korea should be neutral with regard to the US, and the US wants South Korea to become an assertive ally and help to pressure China.

Regardless of strategic ambiguity or strategic clarity, South Korea should understand that the current priorities are to achieve stability and prosperity and to defend the country against North Korea’s threats. Overarching importance lies in promoting solidarity with like-minded countries and expanding trilateral cooperation. South Korea’s release of the strategy should be followed by reinforcing its own clear and independent vision on Indo-Pacific issues and demonstrating its willingness to implement them.

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

Yerim Seo ([email protected]) is a researcher with a background in economics, European politics, Indo-Pacific strategies, DPRK sanctions and nonproliferation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Ewha Womans University in Seoul, and a master’s degree in European studies from the University of Groningen and Palacký University Olomouc. She gained practical experience as a research consultant at the Open Nuclear Network, where she worked on the DPRK sanctions project.

Collective deterrence and the prospect of major conflict

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The US-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue, which convened more than 40 American and Australian practitioners and experts, recently yielded a comprehensive report. Co-authored by David Santoro, President of Pacific Forum, in collaboration with the US Studies Centre (USSC) National Resilience Foundation’s Ashley Townshend and Toby Warden, the latest report offers valuable insights into how quickly Washington & Canberra are embracing a collective deterrence approach. This dialogue focused on generating practical insights and recommendations for the US-Australia alliance’s strategy, covering aspects such as collective deterrence, force posture integration, extended nuclear deterrence, and strategic interaction with China.

The following text is excerpted from our partner’s website, where you can read the full report that we collaborated on. 



Amid rising concern about the United States’ ability to deter Chinese aggression and uphold a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, Washington and Canberra are working to accelerate a strategy of collective deterrence. At its core, this strategy requires a major transformation in the character and purpose of the US-Australia alliance — one that will see Australia play an increasingly central role in bolstering the United States’ forward military presence and, if necessary, supporting high-end US military operations.

This bilateral agenda forms part of a wider regional push to modernise and network US alliances and partnerships as a deterrent vis-à-vis China. Yet, the scale and pace of change in the US-Australia alliance sets it apart from parallel efforts by Canberra and Washington with security partners such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and India. This is a relatively new development.

Just five years ago, the bilateral policy conversation on collective deterrence and defence was embryonic, particularly in Australia where thinking about deterrence and major conflict had steadily atrophied since the end of the Cold War. Despite the 2018 US National Defense Strategy’s refocus on China, significant disagreement continued in the US national security establishment over the extent to which Washington needed to rely more heavily on its allies to fulfil key deterrence and war-fighting roles in the Indo-Pacific; and there was no consensus in Canberra around reorienting Australia’s defence policy and alliance settings to pursue a strategy of collective deterrence.

Strengthening independent and collective efforts to deter Chinese aggression is now the organising principle of strategic policy in both Canberra and Washington.

In the past few years, however, alarm over China’s fast-growing military heft and coercive efforts to remake the Indo-Pacific order in its image has set the US-Australia alliance on an unprecedented trajectory. Strengthening independent and collective efforts to deter Chinese aggression is now the organising principle of strategic policy in both Canberra and Washington. Developments since mid-2022 illustrate just how quickly Washington and Canberra are embracing a collective deterrence approach.

The Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy depicts allies and partners as “the center of gravity” in US strategy, vowing to “incorporate [them] at every stage of defence planning.” The 2022 US Nuclear Posture Review mentions Australia for the very first time in the context of a need to “leverage ally and partner non-nuclear capabilities that can support the nuclear deterrence mission.”

Meanwhile, the Albanese government’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review puts “collective security” at the heart of Australia’s regional defence strategy and calls for greater focus on “deterrence by denial” in Australia’s immediate region. Australian, British and American leaders unveiled the optimal pathway for the AUKUS submarine partnership in March 2023, which included an ambitious combined forces construct, Submarine Rotational Forces-West, that will see attack submarines from all three countries operate from HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. Crucially, the Albanese government also formalised a new suite of bilateral force posture initiatives that will pave the way for larger numbers of US forces to be deployed to Australia as a regional hub for operations, logistics and maintenance.

Developments since mid-2022 illustrate just how quickly Washington and Canberra are embracing a collective deterrence approach.

There is nonetheless still a lot to do to prepare the alliance for a strategy of collective deterrence. Though Canberra and Washington have closely aligned national strategies, they have yet to develop the institutions, processes and alliance management mechanisms that characterize tightly integrated alliances like NATO or the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances. Nor have the two countries sufficiently addressed how they will navigate the thorny requirements and risks of greater strategic and operational integration, such as escalation management, rules of engagement, the growing integration between conventional and nuclear forces, and the delineation of alliance roles and missions.

Faced with a great power threat that Canberra and Washington have concluded will leave them with no strategic warning time ahead of a major conflict, these alliance challenges must be prioritised today. To advance policy debate on these critical issues, the United States Studies Centre and Pacific Forum hosted the fourth Annual Track 1.5 US-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue in Washington in June 2023. As in past years, the dialogue convened over 40 American and Australian practitioners and experts from a range of government and research organisations for a frank conversation held under the Chatham House rule.

This year’s theme was “Collective deterrence and the prospect of major conflict,” with a focus on generating practical insights on, and recommendations for, the alliance’s approach to collective deterrence, force posture integration, extended nuclear deterrence and strategic interaction with China. Both institutions would like to thank the Australian Department of Defence Strategic Policy Grants Program and US grant-making foundations for their generous support of this activity.

This outcomes report reflects the authors’ account of the dialogue’s proceedings. It does not necessarily represent their personal views or the views of their home organisations. It seeks to capture the key themes, perspectives and debates from the discussions; it does not purport to offer a comprehensive record.

Nothing in the following pages represents the views of the Australian Department of Defence, the US Department of Defense or any of the officials or organisations that took part in the dialogue. We hope you find this a constructive summary of some of the most pressing deterrence and defence challenges facing the US-Australia alliance.


About the Authors

David Santoro Co-Chair, US-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue President and CEO, Pacific Forum

Ashley Townshend Co-Chair, US-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue Non-Resident Senior Fellow, United States Studies Centre Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Issues & Insights Vol. 23, WP5 – Understanding Alignment Decisions in Southeast Asia: A Review of U.S.-China Competition in the Philippines

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Executive Summary

The United States and China are engaged in an ongoing struggle for the alignment commitments of Southeast Asian governments, employing a variety of measures to entice, cajole, and threaten states to alter their policy behavior. Caught between this competition, countries in Southeast Asia weigh their alignment options in search of the strategy viewed by the ruling regime as most likely to ameliorate risk and increase its prospects for survival. While nonalignment through hedging is a sought-after option, most often smaller states align with the major power that offers inducements (over coercion), as the material and diplomatic benefits bolster regimes’ claim to performance-based legitimacy and its domestic stability and security.

A review of the Philippines’ geopolitical positioning during the Benigno Aquino III (2010–2016) and Rodrigo Duterte (2016–2022) administrations reveals that inducements and coercion have played a significant role in the country’s alignment decisions. During the Aquino administration, coercive measures taken by China in the South China Sea and continued security and diplomatic inducements from the United States underscore the respective approaches of Beijing and Washington. The candidacy and election of Duterte, however, switched this dynamic, and the new president courted and received promises of Chinese economic assistance to support his domestic growth strategy and downplayed U.S. ties in pursuit of a more independent foreign policy. In the end, continued Chinese provocations in the South China Sea and domestic security challenges led Duterte to call upon U.S. assistance once again, and Duterte was unable to initiate a full reconsideration of Manila’s position. Still, his strategic flirtation with China underscores the importance of performance-based legitimacy and the impact of inducements and coercion in shaping the foreign policy choices of smaller states.

The findings of this study suggest that Washington’s focus on great power competition and sanctions handicaps U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia and beyond. The Philippines’ leaders focused on securing their domestic political prospects and legitimacy; criticism and coercive measures were largely ineffective for the United States or China in gaining influence over policy decisions. Washington should more often consider the promise and provision of inducements—while remaining sensitive to human rights concerns, governance issues, and liberal norms—to support the needs of Southeast Asian states, incentivize more transparent behavior, and increase the likelihood that these states will support U.S. interests in the future.

Download the full volume here.

Table of Contents


Alignment and Hedging: A Brief Introduction

Great Power Competition in Southeast Asia

Inducements and Coercion as Important Factors in Alignment Decisions

The Philippines’ Alignment: From Aquino through Duterte (2010-2022)

Considerations for U.S.-China Competition

Policy Implications for the United States

Final Thoughts

About the Author

William Piekos is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania, where his research focused on alignment decisions in Southeast Asia, U.S.-China relations, and East Asian security issues. He was previously a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum.

PacNet #49 – China’s military engagements with Cuba: Implications of a strategic advance in Latin America

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In June 2023, The Wall Street Journal reported that the People’s Republic of China has heavily invested in a cash-strapped Cuba in exchange for access to an electronic intelligence collection (ELINT) facility, and negotiated an agreement to train Chinese soldiers on the north side of the island. These developments have been met with great concern in Washington, particularly due to the strategic threat that the PRC’s presence in the region poses.

China’s history of US intelligence collection through Cuba can be traced back to 1999 when Cuba granted the PRC access to facilities at Bejucal, a city just south of the capital, previously operated by the Soviet Union, to collect intelligence on the United States. More recently, the Biden administration’s response to the WSJ’s report confirmed that the Chinese had indeed been operating an intelligence facility in Cuba for some time, and had only upgraded it in 2019. This runs counter to presidential spokesman John Kirby’s characterization of the reports of China’s “building” of the base, and is marked as “not entirely accurate.” However, the dialogue left unclear exactly how much money the PRC has invested towards the 2019 upgrade and whether or not it was included as part of the debt restructure and investment credits awarded by the PRC to Cuba this past November. By contrast, the possible rotation of Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) military personnel through the island for training crosses a small, if important threshold with respect to an enduring Chinese military presence close to the US mainland.

Regardless of the minutia involved, both developments showcase an increased disposition by both Cuba and the PRC to take risks through explicitly US-focused military initiatives, in ways that suggests its willingness to take similar risks in other areas as well. This has significant implications for the United States, necessitating an appropriate, and carefully crafted response from Washington to both current and future events involving both parties.

In the case of Cuba, the government’s willingness to host military threats to the United States has remained consistent since the 1962 missile crisis. That being said, the regime’s willingness to permit PRC military operations on the island, with the added risk that they be discovered by US counterintelligence, more greatly highlights the regime’s desperation for resources amid increasingly severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine, which have prompted a growing exodus of refugees from the island and scattered protests that led the government to temporarily shut down the internet. Such desperation is consistent with Cuban government behavior surrounding shortages, such as offering Russian investors notable tax breaks, long-term land leases, and options to repatriate profits, in exchange for investments aimed at addressing deficiencies in the country’s petroleum supply, rum and food production.

As for the PRC, the willingness to host anti-US-focused military capabilities for both intelligence collection and training in proximity to the continental United States is a stark departure from the PRC’s otherwise restrained military engagements in the region. Previous PRC military engagements in the region consistently focused on hospital ship visits, participation in the United Nations Peacekeeping force in Haiti (MINUSTAH), training and professional military exchanges and institutional visits. Even if the PLA ELINT presence in Cuba is not new, the 2019 upgrade suggests a decreased concern over alarming or upsetting the United States, which may be, in part, a move emboldened by Xi Jinping’s government’s growing military power, confidence, and tensions with the United States. It suggests a growing PLA willingness to construct military operations against the United States in the Western Hemisphere, that will surely fuel a reassessment of the interpretation of its security, people-to-people, and commercial activities in the region.

The presence the PLA is ever-expanding. The intelligence operations at Bejucal are probably not a game-changer in terms of capabilities. However, it poses a dangerous complement to the expanding array of other PRC operations to act on and use against the United States in both peace and wartime. These include numerous Chinese commercial facilities close to US shores, from Hutchinson-operated ports in Mexico, the Bahamas and Panama, to hundreds of PRC-owned business facilities in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, which could be used to “host” PRC Ministry of State Security personnel.

PRC options to use against the United States also include the numerous Latin American military, police and other and government officials who regularly travel  to mainland China for “people-to-people diplomacy,” some of whom may be used to provide insights to the Chinese and labeled by them as friends or “paid consultants.” As seen by the practices of PRC “police stations,” other options include ethnic Chinese in the region who may be induced by the PRC to cooperate in the interest of familial ties. In addition, the PRC capabilities may also be supplemented by those of Cuban intelligence and that of other anti-US regimes, with personnel in both the United States and throughout the region.

Beyond its facilities and human intelligence capabilities and options, the PRC also has the ability to capture data relevant to US security in the region through its vast and expanding digital footprint there. This is because any Chinese company operating within the United States, under the 2017 PRC National Intelligence Law, is required to turn over any data that may be relevant to security to the PRC. Some of these architectures, like Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, Oppo and others in the region’s telecommunications infrastructure can utilize exploitable sensitive data against Latin American government officials and political entities. For example, Huawei uses cloud computing, along with “Smart” and “Safe Cities,” which utilize surveillance technology, and companies like Didi Chuxing, a ride hailing application, have been known to collect trip data on its users. These are but a few examples of Chinese companies operating within the region that deal with sensitive data that can be subject to exploitation.

In the event of war between the United States and China over Taiwan, anti-US countries close to the United States like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua would likely be too vulnerable for the PLA to base traditional forces such as aircraft and ships for attacks against the United States. Still Cuba and other such countries could serve as key staging areas from which the Chinese could observe and disrupt US deployment and sustainment flows, along with other war-critical operations, which would put the United States and its allies at risk. Both the presence of the Chinese operated ELINT facility, and development of a PLA training operation on the island will certainly help the PRC to create favorable conditions to counter the United States.

While it is true that the United States and other democratic states conduct international waters and airspace operations under the freedom of navigation principle (FONOPs), the United States cannot simply tolerate an intelligence collection facility 100 miles from its shore operated by its principal geopolitical rival, nor the rotations of PLA military personnel through the island. Such acts of espionage go beyond the simple characterization of “what rivals do” and should be met with a response.

Besides military strikes or other extreme measures that would ultimately be counterproductive for the relationship with the region, the United States most likely cannot persuade nor coerce Cuba and the PRC into abandoning their US-focused military cooperation. However, this should not prevent the United States from exploiting all other available means to maintain pressure on, and isolate the Cuban regime and China. Doing so helps limit the ability of both extending anti-US intelligence collection and other capabilities elsewhere. It also strongly signals to others that the United States draws the line, and will extract a high price, for explicitly collaborating with extra-hemispheric rivals in ways that threaten US security.

Evan Ellis ([email protected]) is Latin America Research Professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

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

Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022 by Ding Lin/Xinhua via AP Photo.

PacNet #36 – How Biden can make the most of his Pacific Islands trip

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An earlier version of this article was published in The Pacific Island Times.

Later this month, President Biden is scheduled to make an official visit to Papua New Guinea while en route to the Quad Leaders’ Summit from the G7 Leaders’ Summit. The visit is being hailed as the first time that a sitting American president has ever visited a Pacific island country. It also builds on three prior events attended by senior leadership figures.

In 2018, former Vice President Mike Pence visited Papua New Guinea to attend the APEC CEO Summit. At that event, he highlighted the value of multi-billion dollar investments made in Papua New Guinea by ExxonMobil. He declared that the United States would partner with Australia and Papua New Guinea on Lombrum Naval Base. And he promised that the US government would protect the sovereignty and maritime rights of Pacific island countries.

Last July, incumbent Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the 51st Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting. In her remarks, she acknowledged that the Pacific Island Countries have not received the diplomatic spotlight that they deserve from the US government. She also delivered a commitment to strengthen the partnership between the United States and the Pacific island countries.

Last September, Biden hosted the US-Pacific Island Country Summit, where participants jointly issued a Declaration on the US-Pacific Partnership. Separately, the Biden administration published a formal roadmap for how to implement the commitments made on the American side. This coincided with the release of a Pacific Partnership Strategy as an addendum to the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States.

During the upcoming visit, the Biden administration will seek to further strengthen the partnership between the United States and the Pacific island countries. This will start by putting Papua New Guinea on the list of Presidential Travels Abroad. But, it will not end there. This trip will need to be about much more than a touch and go on a runway in Port Moresby.

The Biden administration will need to make this trip worth the risks. That will require President Biden to deliver on multiple commitments in the space of only a few hours. That will present its own challenges.

There are a lot of upstream dependencies and downstream uncertainties. The Biden administration will therefore need to be prudent in their selection of deliverables.

Here are four options they are likely to consider:

First, Biden should have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Marape of Papua New Guinea. Assuming the negotiations will be concluded, that meeting would provide an opportunity to sign new defense and surveillance cooperation agreements between the United States and Papua New Guinea. That would mark an important bilateral win.

Second, Biden should have a joint meeting with Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr, Marshall Islands President David Kabua, and Micronesian President David Panuelo. Assuming the negotiations will be concluded, that meeting would provide an opportunity to announce the Compact of Free Association agreements between the United States and the freely associated states. That would enable the next phase in the renewal process to kick-off prior to the debt limit X-date and the summer recess for the United States Congress.

Third, Biden should have a multilateral meeting with the member states of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). That meeting would not only provide an opportunity for all parties to attest to the broadening and deepening of regional cooperation on priority issues such as climate change, economic recovery, maritime security, environmental protection, and international security. It also would present a platform for the PIF member states to independently observe that the US government is making progress against the Roadmap for a 21st-Century US-Pacific Island Partnership.

Of course, not all commitments can be fulfilled through bilateral and multilateral meetings. The American public tends to exhibit limited knowledge about geography, foreign policy, and the world. It also appears to be uncertain about the economy and impatient with the ongoing war in Ukraine. There is a risk that such sentiments could endanger the billions of dollars that the United States government intends to spend on a revised diplomatic and military posture in the Pacific islands region. The Biden administration will need to mitigate that risk.

This presents the fourth option. The Biden administration should try to use the setting to their advantage. The American public may have severe gaps in their knowledge about Papua New Guinea, but many Americans know about the region through war stories about places like Bismarck Sea and Guadalcanal.

Some even have personal memories involving family members. President Biden is one of them. He reportedly had two uncles who were based in Papua New Guinea during World War II. The Biden administration could try to leverage these historic battles and personal memories to persuade a wider audience of the myth that America is a Pacific nation.

Michael Walsh ([email protected]) is a senior adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum. He also is an affiliate of the Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Islands Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.

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

Photo: Flags of countries in the Pacific Islands Forum as featured in an article by The Fiji Times. 

PacNet #35 – Mekong water usage tests China’s claimed good-neighborliness

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China claims to be a uniquely benevolent international actor—a great power that, unlike other great powers past and present, does not practice “power politics” (self-interested bullying of smaller states) and is not “selfish” or warlike. The PRC government styles itself as the custodian of principles that, if implemented, would excise international relations of conflict and injustice.

Smaller neighbors to China’s south particularly fear domination by a strong China. To assuage their concerns, Beijing proclaims that it “opposes the strong bullying the weak” and supports “building a world of shared prosperity and promoting common development of all countries through every country’s development.”

The issue of managing fresh water resources provides a rigorous practical test of these sweet-sounding PRC assurances. Three major Southeast Asian rivers—the Mekong, the Salween, and the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy)—originate in the PRC-controlled Tibetan plateau. Even with this geographic advantage, China has insufficient water. Chinese make up 20% of the world’s population, but their country contains only 6 or 7% of the world’s fresh water supply. The good-neighborliness promised by Beijing’s official diplomatic rhetoric collides with the permanent scarcity of a vital resource. Not surprisingly, the latter wins out in actual PRC policy practice. But while unswervingly serving its own self-interest, Beijing also employs familiar methods to limit damage to the PRC’s desired international image.

Underneath the ceremonial public statements, the actual Chinese belief is that China owns the Lancang and that Chinese people have the right to take or use the water as they wish. They don’t think of it as a regional resource to be shared equitably with their neighbors.

China’s official position, repeated by PRC officials such as Ke Yousheng, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, is that “we should also respect the legitimate rights and interests of riparian countries in the rational development and utilization of water resources, and take care of each others’ interests and concerns.” The reality is that Beijing prioritizes taking care of Beijing’s interests, with little “respect” for the interests and concerns of downstream neighbors.

Before arriving in Southeast Asia as the Mekong, the river flows through PRC territory as the Lancang. China operates 11 hydropower dams along the Lancang, with another 95 dams on tributaries that feed into the river. The Chinese dams harm the livelihoods of millions of people in the downstream Southeast Asian countries in two ways. First, the dams remove sediment, which includes nutrients that helps plants grow, from the waters flowing through them. As a consequence, rice fields that use Mekong water for irrigation are becoming less productive. Second, by impounding or releasing large amounts of water, the dams can cause or worsen droughts or floods downstream. In 2019, Chinese dams held back such an immense amount of water that downstream countries suffered a severe drought while the Lancang section of the river enjoyed unusually large water levels. Conversely, the Chinese dam operators sometimes open the floodgates during dry seasons without warning, making the river level downstream rise by several meters overnight and causing massively damaging floods. China is also compounding these negative effects by building dams in the downstream countries that will supply electricity to China.

Chulalongkorn University Prof. Thitinan Pongsudhirak argued in 2021 that Chinese officials adjust the flow of water into the Mekong as a diplomatic tactic—for example, releasing more water as a gift before an important meeting between Chinese and Southeast Asian officials. “It’s very clear that the Chinese are using the dams for political leverage,” he said.

Reminiscent of its engagement with ASEAN to advance Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing uses its influence over a regional organization to manage the political problem of Chinese dams disrupting the Mekong.

In 1995, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos signed an Agreement on the Cooperation and Sustainable Development of the Mekong River and founded the Mekong River Commission (MRC). China declined to join, thus avoiding the agreement’s obligations. Since then the MRC has criticized Chinese dam-building and demanded more information about the operations of dams in China that affect the flow of the river.

Beijing countered by establishing an alternative organization, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) forum, in 2016. As Hoang Thi Ha, an analyst at Singapore’s ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, notes, “The LMC is a prime example of Sino-centric multilateralism, in which China is the one who sets the rules and frameworks.” For instance, the LMC sponsors research projects that highlight the negative impacts of climate change, but not the problems caused by dams, helping Beijing divert criticism away from its own behavior.

The other important aspect of PRC damage control is the creation of alternative narratives that fight back against accusations that the PRC has acted dishonorably. The issue of the Lancang dams has given rise to several examples.

Beijing offers up the typical colonialist argument that its increased influence and economic penetration result in blessings for the region rather than exploitation: “China is solidly promoting Chinese-style modernization, which will bring new benefits to the development of the countries along Mekong River.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, China faced outside criticism for its reluctance to share key data, presumably out of fear it would make the PRC government look bad. Beijing has responded by insisting that China has been extraordinarily transparent. Similarly, answering complaints that China does not publicize information about Lancang River water storage and release by Chinese dams (which the Chinese government considers a national security secret), government functionaries have retorted that China “provided hydrological data of Lancang River free of charge during flood season to MRC for 15 consecutive years [since 2002].” That data was wholly inadequate; it included only rainfall and water level information from two Chinese-operated hydrological stations, and only for part of the year. China agreed to release additional information starting in 2020 only under outside pressure. PRC media opportunistically called it “a major step taken by China that fully demonstrates the country’s goodwill and sincerity as a responsible upstream neighbor.” Outside analysts continue to question the accuracy and timeliness of the data provided by the PRC government.

The “major step” of releasing additional data resulted from an April 2020 report in which a US-based environmental watchdog organization used satellite data to expose the extent of downstream damage caused by China’s dams.

The PRC government responded to this embarrassing revelation with a three-headed alternative narrative. The first point of this narrative was that the study defaming Chinese dams was scientifically flawed. Secondly, PRC commentators argued that Chinese dams actually help the downstream countries by evening out the flow of water. In particular, these commentators said, the dams made the drought of 2018-2019 less severe for Southeast Asia. Finally, Chinese media and officials attributed criticism of the dams to a US anti-China agenda. A PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson called the 2020 report a “malicious move to drive a wedge between” China and its neighbors. Chinese vice foreign minister Luo Zhaohui claimed that “For political purposes, some countries outside the region have repeatedly used the Mekong water resources issue to spread rumors and stir up trouble, alienating all parties and undermining sub-regional cooperation.”

This allegation is consistent with PRC strategic communication about the South China Sea dispute. In that case, Beijing argues there would be no disharmony between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors if the United States was not “stirring up trouble.”

Beijing might be able to have it both ways with the Chinese domestic audience, persuading them that their government can provide water and electricity while simultaneously being a “good neighbor.” But for China’s actual neighbors, this is increasingly non-credible, as is the notion of PRC exceptionalism. 

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.

PacNet #27 – Why China’s Middle East diplomacy doesn’t herald a new world order

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An earlier version of this article appeared in The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

March 10’s agreement to reestablish diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh was a no “peace deal,” but the rivals did decide to cool tensions and reopen embassies after a seven-year lapse. China’s role in facilitating the deal raised the most consternation in Washington, leading some to declare that “a new era of geopolitics” had begun and assert that the agreement topped “anything the US has been able to achieve in the region since Biden came to office.”

Yet there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the notion that the deal signals a newfound Chinese diplomatic prowess or a shifting regional order. For one, Beijing has been wading into Middle East diplomacy for years—most recently via President Xi Jinping’s December trip to chair regional summits in Saudi Arabia—but with little to show for its efforts. (For a detailed look at China’s past diplomatic activities in the region, see Carol Silber’s “China’s Track Record on Middle East Diplomacy.”)

Further, it remains unclear how crucial Beijing was to the Iran-Saudi negotiations. The two parties had been conducting backchannel talks for years in the hopes of de-escalating tensions, with previous rounds sponsored by Iraq and Oman. Those talks were sidelined with the change in government in Iraq and the spread of protests in Iran last year.

Reports on the new agreement suggest that both sides were readily able to reach consensus on important issues, at least on paper. Riyadh apparently agreed to soften coverage on Iran International, the London-based media outlet funded by Saudis, which Tehran has depicted as the leading anti-regime instigator throughout the recent protest movement. In return, Iran reportedly agreed to encourage its Houthi allies in Yemen to maintain the current year-long truce. Since that war began in 2015, Saudi Arabia has spent millions of dollars defending its territory against Houthi missile and drone attacks, which have often targeted major civilian sites. In short, Riyadh and Tehran already had strong incentives to take at least a few initial diplomatic steps to bolster their internal stability, so forging this deal is hardly a masterstroke for Beijing.

Another open question is whether the deal will be implemented in full, and whether Beijing intends to hold each side accountable. According to the trilateral statement issued on March 10, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to “resume diplomatic relations” and reopen their embassies within two months. They also affirmed their “respect for the sovereignty of states and…non-interference in internal affairs,” as well as their intention to implement their 2001 security cooperation agreement and their 1998 deal covering economic, cultural, and scientific cooperation.

Yet the 2001 security cooperation agreement is vague—although it includes generic language encouraging information sharing and joint training to counter organized crime, terrorism, and drug trafficking, it does not provide a specific path toward initiating such cooperation. Moreover, the trilateral statement makes painstakingly clear that China’s role was “hosting and sponsoring talks,” and it may host another regional summit later this year. It has given no signal that it intends to be the agreement’s guarantor or keep it on track.

Indeed, the risks of derailment are high given the lack of trust between Riyadh and Tehran. Renewed protests in Iran could trigger another surge of regime anger toward Saudi Arabia, whether or not Riyadh and its allies are involved in fomenting the unrest. And although the Houthis are closely aligned with Tehran and depend on its weapons, cash, and training, they might still launch further strikes on Saudi Arabia for their own reasons, thereby threatening the fragile ceasefire. Similarly, Iran’s network of proxies in Iraq and Syria could decide to attack Saudi partners or the kingdom itself, undermining Riyadh’s internal support for compromise.

The deal may even exacerbate the broader geopolitical tensions Beijing likely aims to calm. Iran may perceive the agreement as a tacit endorsement of its current nuclear policy, matching diplomatic intransigence with unprecedented technical advances. If Tehran decides to double down on its nuclear strategy as a result, it will further alarm Western, Arab, and Israeli officials. In other words, while the deal might de-escalate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it could simultaneously exacerbate Tehran’s tensions with other actors, potentially raising the possibility of military escalation.

Washington should therefore be clear-eyed about what Beijing’s mediation means—and what it doesn’t. China’s investment in the Middle East will likely continue growing; after all, it is the region’s dominant economic force and has long sought to match its diplomatic standing with its sizable economic footprint. Until now, its diplomatic reputation in the region has not been challenged by realities on the ground. Getting Iran and Saudi Arabia to publicly agree on a de-escalation accord is a win to be sure. But actually holding them to the agreement over the long term is an entirely different challenge—one that will reveal a great deal about China’s true influence.

Henry Rome is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Grant Rumley is the Institute for Near East Policy’s Goldberger Fellow and author of its 2022 study “China’s Security Presence in the Middle East: Redlines and Guidelines for the United States.”

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

Photo: A photograph released by Chinese state media showing officials Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, with Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s security council, and Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state, in Beijing by China Daily via Reuters

PacNet #25 – Bangladesh’s remarkable journey and challenges ahead

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A country’s nationalism lives through its shared vision from generation to generation. In the early post-colonial era, the early dreamers of Bangladesh shared a vision of independence, economic development, and an equal society. As it celebrates 52 years of independence on March 26, Bangladesh cherishes the same vision and has achieved remarkable successes. However, many short and long-term challenges have also emerged, especially in the last two years.

Bangladesh’s economic success

During the last half-century, Bangladesh has had remarkable economic success. The country followed the “fast-growth” model, and the world community has dubbed Bangladesh a “Tiger Economy” and a “Frontier Five” economy.

Bangladesh also successfully manages its “demographic dividend” as it has built its economy on remittance and ready-made garments. It is the world’s sixth-largest human resources exporter, earning $22 billion in remittance in 2021, eighth among top remittance earners worldwide. The country’s export-oriented economy is also growing fast, at $44.39 billion in 2021, a 13.68% increase from the last year.

The country’s GDP has also reached $443 billion, the 35th-largest in the world. Bangladesh is currently undergoing its Least Developed Country graduation, projected to be completed by 2026, at which point Bangladesh would emerge as a Developing Country.

Bangladesh’s social safety net has also expanded remarkably. Bangladesh announced praiseworthy stimulus packages during the pandemic to protect its economy. The government had also widened the net. The Asrayan Initiative by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina—a house-building project for the homeless and displaced—also demonstrates the effort to broaden the net.

However, the pandemic and Ukraine war have brought new short-term challenges. The country has suffered from energy and food crises alongside declining reserves and soaring inflation. But efforts are made to address these challenges as the country is already practicing austerity and exploring alternative energy import destinations, such as Brunei.

Bangladesh has also sought to ensure its infrastructural development in the last decade, which currently dominates the country’s development narrative. Over the last decade, Bangladesh has undertaken many mega projects to improve the country’s existing infrastructure. Bangladesh has already inaugurated Padma Bridge and Metro-Rail project. The public enjoys the benefits as the projects reduce time, provide better security, and introduce smoothness to daily life.

Bangladesh is also taking part in regional connectivity projects. The country has improved its connectivity with India, is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and has a share in Trans-Asian highways.

Bangladesh in international politics

Bangladesh is a firm believer and promoter of multilateralism and its role is increasing in world politics.

In the last 50 years, Bangladesh has achieved success and displayed its commitment to global peace. The country participates in UN Peacekeeping Operations. At the UN level, Bangladesh has participated in 54 peacekeeping missions in 40 different countries over five continents with more than 175,000 uniformed personnel, including over 1,800 female peacekeepers. Bangladesh’s “ambassadors of peace” have also given their lives to uphold global peace: according to Bangladesh Army, till May 2019, a total of 117 Bangladesh Army personnel have made the supreme sacrifice, and 209 more were injured.

For the Rohingya Muslims, perhaps the most persecuted community of our time, Bangladesh provides temporary shelter and security to 1.2 million in Cox’s Bazaar—the largest refugee camp in the world. Bangladesh also advocates ensuring their safe and dignified repatriation to their ancestral home. Bangladesh is also a frontrunner in climate change, and has a vocal role in mitigating the adverse impact of climate change and served as the chair of the UN Climate Vulnerability Forum.

Bangladesh has sound participation in many other multilateral institutions. Bangladesh is an active member of the Organization of Islamic Countries, Developing 8, and many more organizations. Bangladesh currently serves as the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Organization and acts as an observer at ASEAN.

Bangladesh has shared its economic success with the world, as a donor state from a through currency swap loans to debt-ridden Sri Lanka and Sudan. Bangladesh has also brought a share in the New Development Bank, through which Dkaha has entered into the development finance market. 

Bangladesh has a strong diaspora community in several Middle Eastern countries, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Bangladeshi diaspora communities are one of the major sources of the country’s soft power and contribute to their host country’s economy.

Bangladesh’s soft power also reaches beyond the region. Through its participation in peacekeeping, Bangladesh has found friends in many African nations. Sierra Leone has given Bangladesh a special place in its heart by announcing Bangla as its second language. Gambia also helped the country by lodging a case against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice on Rohingya ethnic cleansing. Japan, meanwhile, has deepened relations with Bangladesh over the decades with the country emerging as the largest recipient of Japan’s Official Development Assistance and flourishing political-cultural relations between the countries.

Challenges overcome, challenges ahead

Immediately after independence in 1971, Bangladesh was a war-torn country with millions of hungry people. Recurring calamities such as floods, cyclones, and drought have repeatedly ravaged Bangladesh’s food security. Yet Bangladesh became self-sufficient in rice production. The country also ensured 100% electricity for all citizens by 2022. Bangladesh also curbed militancy and tackled the menace of terrorism. Throughout the journey, Bangladesh also removed illiteracy and early marriage to a great extent. The human rights narrative also changed gradually as the country achieved mentionable success in women’s rights, children’s rights, and transgender rights.

Yet, Bangladesh still faces many challenges. The pandemic and Ukraine war have both brought economic turmoil to Bangladesh. Soaring inflation, declining forex reserves, a dollar crunch, and food and energy crisis are hurting the country’s development.

The economic setbacks have increased poverty and squeezed efforts to ensure decent work. 24% of the population (40 million people) remain under the poverty line as of 2022. The number of people living slightly above the line is also very high. Government must tackle skyrocketing imports and forex fluctuation, and widen the social safety net to protect the commoners.

Apart from the economic challenges, Bangladesh also has many political challenges. Political violence remains a recurring event in the country. Weak institutions, distrust among major political parties, rampant corruption, nepotism, and complicated bureaucracy hurt Bangladesh’s journey toward a sound political system. All political parties, civil societies, and stakeholders must work together to create a sustainable and violence-free political system.

Despite several achievements in human rights, the country still has a long way to go. Even though Bangladesh has achieved significant economic success, human development still needs to catch up with economic development. Besides domestic issues, the brewing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific and great power rivalry in the region poses challenge to Bangladesh. For a while now, Bangladesh has maintained a deft balance between the great powers.

Bangladesh has achieved praiseworthy success since independence. It had also overcome many challenges. The journey continues, however, and many obstacles lie ahead.

MD Mufassir Rashid ([email protected]) is a Research Associate at The Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs.

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

Issues & Insights Vol. 23, SR3 – Strategic Competition and Security Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

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There is a growing acceptance among countries in the Indo-Pacific region that strategic competition between the United States and China is changing perceptions about security and the adequacy of the existing security architecture. While some have characterized the competition between the two as a new Cold War, it is clear that what is happening in the region is far more complex than the competition that characterized the original Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. First, the economic integration that has taken place since the early 1990s makes it much more difficult to draw bright ideological lines between the two sides. Further, the Asian context of the emerging competition is one where the two competitors have grown to share power. As the dominant military power, the United States has been the primary security guarantor in Asia and beyond. China, on the other hand, has emerged over the past decades as the primary economic catalyst in Asia and beyond. Currently, each side seems increasingly unwilling to accept that arrangement.

Download the full volume here.

Table of Contents


Carl Baker

Chapter 1 | Southeast Asia Faces Its Boogeyman – Great Power Competition Returns to Southeast Asia in the 21st Century

Drew Thompson

Chapter 2 | Geoeconomics and Geopolitics in Southeast Asia

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Chapter 3 | Economic Aspects of National Security

Brad Glosserman

Chapter 4 | China as a technological power: Chinese perspectives and the quantum case

Hoo Tiang Boon

Chapter 5 | Minilateral groupings as an alternative to multilateralism in an era of strategic competition

Thomas Wilkins

Chapter 6 | The Role of Indo-Pacific Economic Institutions in Shaping Security Competition

Prashanth Parameswaran

Chapter 7 | Economic Development Cooperation amid Indo-Pacific Strategic Competition

Gong Xue

Chapter 8 | Regional Security Cooperation in the US-China Strategic Competition

Kei Koga

Chapter 9 | Strategic Competition and Security Cooperation

Raymund Jose Quilop