PacNet #44 – How AUKUS Advances Australia’s Commitment to Collective Defense

An earlier version of this article was published at The Strategist.

Canberra’s announcement that it will acquire nuclear-powered submarines through its new defense pact with London and Washington, AUKUS, has generated considerable scrutiny. The decision to expand the basing and rotational presence of US forces in Australia has added to the heat. But in the breathless commentary on these moves, what they tell us about Australia’s foreign and defense policy has been largely misunderstood.

These announcements don’t signal a new direction in Australian strategic policy or a reorientation of our alignment preferences away from the region.

To the contrary, they mark an acceleration of Australia’s push to assume a larger and more active geostrategic role in upholding a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific—both by acquiring advanced military and defense industrial capabilities and by supporting the strongest possible US security presence in our region, including through longstanding efforts to deepen high-end military integration between Australia and the United States.

The strategy behind these announcements isn’t new either. It’s articulated in Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper and 2020 defense strategic update. Underscored by deep anxieties over China’s growing power and assertiveness, and a clear-eyed assessment of America’s eroding regional military position, these documents recognize that Washington can no longer defend the Indo-Pacific strategic order by itself. Together, they lay out the case for a stronger Australia and our pursuit of a collective regional strategy to supplement America’s position and constrain Chinese power.

Look at the language. The white paper talks about “building a more capable, agile and potent Australian Defence Force” and working collectively with the United States and like-minded partners to “limit the exercise of coercive power” and to “support a balance in the region [favorable] to our interests.” The defense update says that “Australia [will] take greater responsibility for our own security” by growing our “self-reliant ability to deliver deterrence effects,” enhancing “the lethality of the ADF for … high-intensity operations,” and being more capable of “support[ing] the United States and other partners” in our region “if deterrence measures fail” and “Australia’s national interests are engaged.”

Both documents call for broadening and deepening Australia’s cooperation with the US, including by enhancing force posture initiatives and military interoperability and by “selectively increasing interdependence with the US and other partners” to assure our shared defense industrial, munitions and logistics supply chains.

Those surprised by Australia’s decisions haven’t been paying attention.

Of course, there is—or should be—much more to Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy than this high-end alliance integration agenda. Shaping our strategic environment, deepening our regional partnerships and building our influence by supporting regional countries’ own priorities are critical. Some of these elements are progressing well, like our security networking with Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore. Others are worryingly underdone, such as our investment in diplomacy, economic engagement, and development assistance in Southeast Asia.

But just because these issues and partnerships weren’t at the center of last week’s announcements doesn’t mean AUKUS or the US alliance are displacing the other elements of our strategy.

Indeed, it’s worth remembering that the only revolution last week was Washington’s once-a-century decision to share its submarine nuclear-propulsion technology with an ally—something Canberra has quietly wanted for years, and a decisive capability upgrade, but not a sea-change in the trajectory of Australian strategy.

So why the hype about a purported Anglospheric pivot and new dependency on the alliance?

One explanation lies in the confusing pomp and ceremony that accompanied the made-for-television AUKUS announcement. Amid the flags and mawkish talk of a “forever partnership,” it looked very much like a new alliance and conjured unhelpful images of English-speaking nations throwing their weight around the Indo-Pacific.

But AUKUS is neither an alliance nor a vehicle for strategic policy coordination. It’s basically a memorandum of understanding for sharing advanced technology, defense industrial capabilities, and technical know-how—one that will hopefully build on the expanded US national technology and industrial base that has struggled to break down export controls between the US and Australia. If effective, it should provide two-way benefits akin to a defense free-trade zone, empowering Australia’s pursuit of cutting-edge capabilities and filtering Australian innovation into US (and UK) defense projects—the kind of defense industrial integration Canberra has wanted for some time.

This raises a second reason for heightened concern: the risk that we will become gravely reliant on US technology by buying nuclear-powered submarines and other new kit. It’s true that co-developing a boat with the US and UK will require their support to design, build, and service it. But this was also true of the French submarine, which was to be outfitted with US weapons and sensors.

More to the point, the ADF is already irreversibly dependent on American technology. The engines on our P-8A anti-submarine warfare aircraft (and most others) are maintained in the US, our F-35s and EA-18G Growlers rely on sensitive US data, most of our munitions are made in America, and our entire military depends on US satellites and other systems to talk to itself. An AUKUS-built submarine hardly poses a new problem.

Nor is it the case that buying US technology will necessarily leave us vulnerable to abandonment or entrapment. The suggestion that America must be prepared to fight for primacy in Asia to keep servicing our submarines is far-fetched to say the least. On the flipside, those who argue Australia’s pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines will bind us to US war plans over Taiwan fail to appreciate how hard that would be in practice. We’re not doing freedom-of-navigation patrols now, despite persistent US requests.

Indeed, one reason Washington has been reluctant to share nuclear-propulsion and other exquisite technology with allies is precisely because such capabilities provide independent options, making allies potentially less pliant. Australia currently enjoys, and must protect, a high degree of self-reliance within the alliance. Rather than jeopardizing that, AUKUS could support the establishment of deep maintenance and sustainment facilities for the new submarines in Australia, along with a “sovereign guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise” so that we can build high-end munitions, thereby increasing our sovereign industrial capabilities. This may not be a given, and Canberra must push for it. But it’s simply not true that AUKUS is categorically riskier or all one-way in a dependency sense.

A final cause of concern relates to the Australia-US decision to advance new air, land and sea force-posture initiatives on Australian soil, which many worry will turn us into a US military outpost. In addition to increasing the already high number of US warplanes rotating through Australia, the real significance of this decision will be the establishment of a combined maritime logistics, sustainment, and maintenance facility. This will enable Australian, US, and other allied warships and submarines to rotate through Western Australia on a more regular basis, and undertake deeper refurbishment work there, allowing for expanded operations and more time spent in the Indo-Pacific—which is particularly important given that American dry-dock and maintenance facilities are strained and distant.

These decisions aren’t to be taken lightly and do position Australia to be a staging post for US power projection and military operations. But they are not new choices. They represent sovereign decisions expanded by Canberra with bipartisan support ever since Prime Minister Julia Gillard launched the 2011 Australia-US force posture initiatives. And they get us back to the core purpose of Australia’s increasingly active defense strategy: sustaining the strongest possible US military presence in the region and playing a more significant collective defense role ourselves.

Critics of AUKUS and the alliance need to be more responsible. Australia is about to acquire one of the world’s most potent military capabilities because of the alliance and Washington’s readiness to empower our armed forces. The capability itself is a big deal—lethal and high-endurance submarines are the best way to deter Chinese aggression. But in form the AUKUS deal is little different from the way we’ve got US defense technology in the past, save for the fact that we now have an opportunity for more transfers of technology and technical know-how to Australia. Negotiating appropriate terms and conditions for this pact is crucial. But we must remember that AUKUS and the new force posture initiatives aren’t a break with the past—they’re part of our ongoing push to accelerate Australia’s contribution to collective defense in the region.

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 #41 – After the Shock: France, America, and the Indo-Pacific

An earlier version of this article was published for L’Institut Montaigne. It has been edited and translated from French.

It felt like an earthquake. This isn’t too strong a word to describe the French feeling last week, when the rumor began spreading that the United States and Australia were about to announce a new strategic partnership to replace the cooperation that Paris and Canberra had worked hard to build over the past 10 years.

The French submarine contract was in trouble, but no one seemed to know that the United States had been cooking up an alternative option with the Australian government, and that negotiations had begun months ago. There is no hint of that in the Joint Communiqué issued by Paris and Canberra on the occasion of the first foreign affairs-defense ministerial meeting, which took place Aug. 30 and celebrated the strength of France-Australia cooperation. US strategists like to talk about the “shock and awe” strategy. Typically, though, this is to bomb an adversary.

To be sure, the announcement of the new trilateral Indo-Pacific security partnership is the result of both well-calculated strategic considerations, and US and UK political expediency. Beneath the crude new acronym “AUKUS” (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) lies a desire to up the ante in military and technological cooperation between the three countries to counter Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

A Strong Signal from the Anglosphere

AUKUS signals the rise of the Anglosphere, which in France is often, and wrongly, referred to as “Anglo-Saxon.” Its centrality is well-known, particularly in the discreet framework of intelligence exchanges within the Five Eyes Club (with Canada and New Zealand). AUKUS hurts the French, but there is a logic to it and it makes sense for a senior US official to claim that the United States has “no better allies than the United Kingdom and Australia.” Just a few days ago, Canberra, Wellington, and Washington commemorated the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) treaty with great enthusiasm. As for London, its participation in AUKUS is in line with its new post-Brexit Global Britain strategy.

Make no mistake, however: There will be a price to pay. How can France now take seriously the Biden administration’s desire for greater European involvement in the Indo-Pacific, and for more consultation and coordination among allies over China? French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defense Minister Florence Parly are right to talk about a “lack of consistency.” Note that the US announcement was made on the same day that the European Union published its strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Talk about good timing!

For France, the shock is similar to the one it felt after the US abandonment of August 2013, when President Obama reversed its decision to conduct a strike on Syria. The United States may have felt the same 10 years earlier, when in 2003 Paris decided not to support Washington at the United Nations Security Council over its planned intervention in Iraq.

Context matters. The AUKUS announcement comes only weeks after another crisis of confidence, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which proceeded with poor coordination with allies. French President Emmanuel Macron now feels vindicated, having argued for months that NATO is in a critical state. The traditional French narrative about America’s unreliability, then, is validated. In any case, these are Paris’ lines. Per Le Drian and Parly, Thursday’s event “only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy.” This is the French mindset as Paris is getting ready to assume the presidency of the European Union.

A Crushing Blow for France-Australia Cooperation

The “contract of the century” for 12 Shortfin Barracuda submarines—an adaptation to Australian needs of the French Barracuda—was worth 35 billion euros ($41 billion), of which 8 to 9 billion would have gone to the Naval Group (whose largest shareholder is the government, at 60%). The contract, signed in 2016, was already well underway and several hundred people were working on it, including many Australians in Cherbourg.

Implementation was difficult, but no one in France thought that Washington would offer Canberra an alternative, first because the major US defense contractor Lockheed Martin was involved and second because the United States does not traditionally sell nuclear-powered submarines.

Yet the American offer goes beyond this. Not only does the offer include submarines, but these submarines will also be armed with Tomahawk missiles, and the deal will proceed within the framework of a major trilateral cooperation on defense and security technologies. It is an attractive offer, especially given the regional security environment, which has worsened since the early 2010s. That’s why, for example, the Labor Party can now accept nuclear propulsion technology, which provides a real military advantage both in terms of durability and patrol discretion.

For France, the submarine contract was part of a broader logic: It was about building a long-term strategic relationship, a marriage for 50 years, as the French used to call it. Many had worked hard to lay the groundwork for this, including through informal dialogue between government officials and experts.

This union, however, was cancelled before it was consummated, hence the harsh official reaction, describing Canberra’s decision as being “contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia.” This relationship was meant to be one of the pillars of France’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which was walking on two legs, one Australian, and the other Indian (notably via the Rafale contract). The only advantage for Paris now is that its strategy for the region will be no longer be perceived as simply following the United States’ lead (which was never the case).

Nonproliferation Undermined

Nuclear propulsion has advantages, but it is a sensitive technology. That’s why, until now, no nuclear-armed state has sold it to a non-nuclear-armed state. Only six countries possess such technology, the five nuclear-armed states “recognized” by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), plus India. France has never sold such technology, despite requests (from Brazil, for instance) and significantly, back in the early 2010s, Australia did not ask for it. The United States has now broken this taboo. Imagine Washington’s reaction had it been France!

Even with access to this technology, Australia will likely not able to reproduce it. There will be a “black box,” which will remain closed to Canberra.

There is also no risk of nuclear proliferation. Still, the reactors will probably use highly enriched uranium (HEU), a technology used by the Americans (and the British), unlike the French, who have chosen the more proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium (LEU) option. Moreover, this technology could revive the debate in Australia about the need for a civilian or even dual (civilian and military) nuclear program.

The timing is also bad because of the next review conference of the NPT, scheduled for January 2022. HEU escapes international controls when it is used for propulsion alone; for practical reasons, because it is difficult to imagine foreign inspectors checking the rear part of national submarines. It is therefore possible, in theory, to remove HEU from controlled facilities to officially use it for nuclear propulsion. Iran could do this, for example. Moreover, other states could now sell similar propulsion reactors to non-nuclear-armed states, arguing that there is now a precedent.

The Way Forward

France should look forward. It should quickly settle the trade dispute and separate it from the unavoidable overhaul of its strategy for the Indo-Pacific. France is and will remain an important player in the region. Australia, for its part, will still need its “Pacific neighbor.” More importantly, no one wants China to exploit and sharpen the differences between Western countries. Hence the importance, for example, to continue not only official but also “track 2” (experts) and “track 1.5” (officials and experts) France-Australia conversations.

Over the next 18 months, the three AUKUS countries will have to answer important questions. Will France be allowed to join AUKUS periodically, for some projects or operations? Or will France be forced to seek greater alignment with Germany (in Europe) and Japan (in Asia), ironically its two competitors for the submarine contract with Australia?

France, too, will need to reflect on this experience, which will have major implications for its industrial and strategic interests. Was Paris just too trustful of its allies? Was it naïve? For now, however, Paris should steer clear of drawing hasty conclusions. The Biden administration is not the Trump administration. The latter did not care much for its allies. The former does, though not for all of them.

Bruno Tertrais (b.tertrais@frstrategie.org) is Deputy Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, the leading French think tank on international security issues. He is also a Senior Fellow for Strategic Affairs at the Institut Montaigne.

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 #24 – Comparative Connections Summary: May 2021

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
CHANGE IN STYLE, CONTINUITY IN ASIA POLICY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Quadrennially, we write to assure readers that there will be more continuity than change as a new foreign policy team takes office. Globally, this would not be the case this year. In its first few months, the Biden administration made 180-degree turns on issues such as climate change, World Health Organization membership, the role of science in the battle against COVID-19, immigration, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In our region, however, there has been more continuity. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focused on the Quad—the informal but increasingly structured grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—and the Biden administration has doubled down on this effort, conducting the first (virtual) Quad summit. It has largely continued the “cooperate when we can but confront when we must” approach toward China. And while Trump appeared to have disdain for US alliances, every national security document from his administration underscored the central role US alliances played in its Asia strategy.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUGA AND BIDEN OFF TO A GOOD START
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
The early months of 2021 offered a full diplomatic agenda for US-Japan relations as a new US administration took office. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States amid considerable contention. Former President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, and on Jan. 6, a crowd of his supporters stormed the US Capitol where Congressional representatives were certifying the results of the presidential election. The breach of the US Capitol shocked the nation and the world. Yet after his inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden and his foreign policy team soon got to work on implementing policies that emphasized on US allies and sought to restore US engagement in multilateral coalitions around the globe. The day after the inauguration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reached out to his counterpart in Japan, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura Shigeru, to assure him of the importance the new administration placed on its allies. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to focus the attention of leaders in the United States and Japan, however.

US-CHINA RELATIONS 
CONTINUITY PREVAILS IN BIDEN’S FIRST 100 DAYS
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US & HANNAH PRICE, CSIS
In its final days, the Trump administration took more actions to impose costs on China for its objectionable policies and to tie the hands of the incoming Biden team. The first 100 days of President Biden’s administration revealed substantial continuity in policy toward Beijing, with strategic competition remaining the dominant feature of the US-China relationship. Senior Chinese officials delivered speeches that pinned blame entirely on the US for the deterioration in bilateral ties. A round of combative, yet serious, talks took place between senior US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. The US added new sanctions on Beijing for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. In coordination with its allies, Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese individuals deemed responsible for carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Steps were taken by the US to demonstrate “rock-solid” support for Taiwan in the face of stepped-up Chinese coercion. Cooperation on climate change was launched with John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai to meet with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua, and Xi Jinping’s participation in the US-led Leaders Summit on Climate.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
In the first four months of 2021—the first three and a half of a Biden administration focused on domestic progress and COVID-19 vaccinations—US relations with the Korean Peninsula assumed familiar contours after four years of an unorthodox Trump administration. The US and South Korea quickly reached a military burden-sharing agreement and pledged cooperation in a variety of areas, although the regular differences of opinion lurk under the surface regarding how closely Seoul should work with both North Korea and Japan. The US-China rivalry remains a shadow over the Asia-Pacific security and political economy situation, complicating South Korea’s regional hedging strategy. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program advanced apace, US and South Korean attempts to open dialogue were rebuffed, and the Biden team’s North Korea policy review will not endear it to Pyongyang.

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
ASEAN CONFRONTS DUAL CRISES  
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar dealt a serious blow to the ASEAN diplomatic order and presented the incoming Biden administration with its first major policy challenge in Southeast Asia. More profoundly, the coup set into motion a political and humanitarian crisis that has pushed Myanmar into an economic free fall. The imposition of Western sanctions gave China and Russia an opening to strengthen ties with the Tatmadaw. Myanmar was an extreme example of political turmoil, but the instability surrounding Thailand’s anti-regime and anti-monarchy movement persisted into the new year. In January, Vietnam embarked upon a more orderly political transition through the 13th National Party Congress, resulting in a leadership structure focused on ensuring stability, both external and internal.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
BEIJING’S ADVANCES COMPLICATED BY MYANMAR COUP AND US RESOLVE
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
Beijing confidently forecast continued advances in high-priority efforts promoting regional economic integration, ASEAN’s prominence as China’s leading trade partner, as well as strengthening supply chain connections disrupted by the pandemic and US trade and economic restrictions. Ever-closer cooperation to counter COVID-19 saw Chinese pledges add to its leading position providing more than 60% of international vaccines to Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, the unexpected coup and protracted crisis in Myanmar headed the list of important complications. The incoming Biden administration showed no letup in US-led military challenges to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, while strong high-level US government support for the Philippines in the face of China’s latest coercive moves supported Manila’s unusually vocal protests against the Chinese actions. Beijing also had difficulty countering Biden’s strong emphasis on close collaboration with allies and partners, seen notably in the first QUAD summit resulting in a major initiative to provide 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines for Southeast Asia and nearby areas. The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines was now questioned by Chinese as well as foreign specialists and Beijing’s domestic demand was growing strongly, slowing donations and sales abroad.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
TAIWAN PROSPERS, CHINA RATCHETS UP COERCION, AND US SUPPORT REMAINS “ROCK-SOLID”
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
For the leadership of Taiwan, the significance for Taiwan’s relationships with the US and China of the end of the Trump administration and the arrival of the Biden administration formed the defining concern as 2021 began. Taiwan welcomed two steps that the Trump administration took in its waning days: announcing a visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to the UN (even though it was later cancelled) and repudiating the longstanding Taiwan Contact Guidelines, which was widely seen in Taiwan as overly restrictive. Taiwan’s anxieties regarding the Biden administration were quickly allayed, as incoming senior officials repeatedly called US support for Taiwan “rock solid” and issued new far less restrictive Guidelines. Taiwan also benefited from unusually direct expressions of support from Japan and other international partners.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
THE SOUND OF ONE HAND GIVING
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
As in 2019-20, inter-Korean ties remained frozen, other than a rare lawsuit. Revelations that in 2018 Moon Jae-in’s government had pondered building the North a nuclear power plant caused a brief furor. Seoul’s propaganda balloon ban backfired, prompting widespread criticism—but no thanks from Pyongyang, which was also unimpressed by scaled-down US-ROK war games. North Korea tested its first ballistic missile in nearly a year, amid concerns of a new arms race; some analysts deemed the South culpable, too. Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong fired four verbal volleys, mostly insults. Another undetected defector highlighted failings in ROK border security. MOU Lee In-young was ubiquitous and loquacious, but scattergun in the causes he championed. Moon’s government remained reticent, or worse, regarding DPRK human rights abuses. With just a year left in office, and notwithstanding rare criticism of the North by ministers, Moon was expected to double down on engagement despite Pyongyang’s lack of reciprocity.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS POISED FOR RECOVERY DESPITE INTENSIFIED CONFLICT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
China’s relations with North and South Korea gained momentum in the first four months of 2021. China-North Korea relations were propelled by an exchange of messages between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping around North Korea’s successful convening of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s (WPK) Eighth Party Congress, the appointment of former North Korean Trade Minister Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s new ambassador to China, and another round of messages in March that emphasized the importance of close relations. In a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to develop relations with China to new heights, and in a Jan. 26 telephone call with Moon, Xi expressed support for Korean denuclearization and joint development of China-South Korea relations. China and South Korea held consultations on maritime enforcement cooperation, defense lines of communication, health security, and free trade negotiations.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
THE GLOVES COME OFF
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
After several years of seeking to counter each other while insisting that their relations were at a recent best, Tokyo and Beijing became overtly contentious. A major event of the reporting period was China’s passage, and subsequent enforcement, of a law empowering its coast guard to take action, including through the use of force, to defend China’s self-proclaimed sovereignty over the Japanese administered Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Heretofore reluctant to criticize Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu finally did so in April, and pledged to work with the United States to resolve China-Taiwan tensions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that a continuation of such moves would cause Chinese-Japanese ties to hit bottom and threatened retaliation for any interference on Taiwan. No more was heard about a long-postponed Xi Jinping visit to Japan.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
DIFFICULT TO DISENTANGLE: HISTORY AND FOREIGN POLICY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
Unsurprisingly, historical issues proved difficult to disentangle from other foreign policy issues in Japan-South Korea relations, which remained at the “worst level since the normalization” in the first four months of 2021. The Seoul Central District Court’s ruling on Jan. 8 that the Japanese government should pay damages to victims of sexual slavery during World War II set the tone for contentious relations at the beginning of the year. While the Moon Jae-in administration made gestures to mend ties, the Suga administration maintained that South Korea should take concrete measures to roll back the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling on Japanese companies requiring them to compensate wartime forced laborers. Export restrictions levied by Japan against South Korean companies in 2019 remain in place, while the case is with the World Trade Organization after South Korea reopened a complaint in 2020 that was filed and then suspended in 2019.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK AT MOSCOW AND BEIJING
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
For Moscow and Beijing, the changing of the guard in the White House in January 2021 meant no reset of ties with Washington. Instead, the newly inaugurated Biden administration turned the screws on both China and Russia by reinvigorating alliances, firming up sanctions, and prioritizing force deployment, particularly to the Indo-Pacific region. In contrast to Biden’s multifaceted diplomatic offensive, China and Russia seemed passive, if not inactive, both in terms of their bilateral ties and their respective relations with the US. Top Russian and Chinese diplomats met in person just once in the first four months of 2021 in the middle of sharply escalated tensions across the Taiwan Strait and in East Ukraine. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow waited to see if the transition from Trumpism would lead to a brave new world (“new concert of powers”), a grave new world of Kissingerian “great games” in the era of WMD plus AI, or something in between.

JAPAN-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
A DIPLOMATIC “NEW NORMAL” IN THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION?
BY KEI KOGA, NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY
Japan-Southeast Asia relations were relatively stable, despite COVID-19, as summarized by three trends: emphasizing multilateral actors; prioritizing enhancement of bilateral relations with two countries (Indonesia and Vietnam); and the synthesis of Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific “vision” (FOIP) and ASEAN’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Japan and Southeast Asian states managed to achieve tangible cooperation, as illustrated by the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED). Yet, strategic dynamics among Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States are shifting because of changes in Japanese and US political leadership. Japan, the most reliable partner for Southeast Asia in the Trump era, seemingly faced a relative decline in the importance attached by Southeast Asia because of the United States’ renewed commitment to the region. In the context of this new diplomatic reality, the foremost challenges that Japan and Southeast Asia will likely face in 2021-2022 are Myanmar and ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

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PacNet #22 – Russia and Myanmar: Moscow’s Expanding Influence?

An earlier version of this article was published at RSIS

In recent years, Russia’s relations with Myanmar have strengthened, particularly in the defense sector. Russia is the second largest source of weapons for Myanmar, slightly behind China, according to a March 18 analysis by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute; between 2000 and 2019, Myanmar purchased $1.7 billion worth of arms from China and $1.44 billion from Russia.

Not surprisingly, links between both countries’ military establishments are openly warm. In November 2020, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held talks via video link with the Myanmar military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. It was stated that Russia was ready to expand cooperation with Myanmar, including joint work in the framework of the “ADMM-Plus” expert working group on countering terrorism.

Supplying Myanmar with Missiles

Shoigu was quoted as saying that despite the pandemic, “we continue to implement military delegation exchange events, including with your personal participation.” Shoigu also congratulated General Min on being awarded an honorary doctorate from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

He was given the title of “Honorary Professor of the Military University” of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, as well as the medal “for distinction.” In turn, General Min noted that despite the geographical distance, “we keep in touch, and you support us in difficult moments.”

Regular visits by high-level Russian defense officials as well as Myanmar military officers to each other’s countries have unsurprisingly taken place. The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar publication reported on Jan. 25 that Shoigu’s January visit to Myanmar illustrated that both sides planned to expand military cooperation.

Russia agreed to supply Myanmar with Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems, Orlan-10E surveillance drones, and radar equipment, the publication added. Noteworthy is the publication’s quoting General Min as saying that “just like a loyal friend, Russia has always supported Myanmar in difficult moments, especially in the last four years.”

Mutual Political Support? 

General Min reportedly has visited Russia six times, the last having taken place in May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany—a very important and symbolic holiday in Russia.

Myanmar sends its officers to Russian military academies for training, as well as to China, India, Japan, and Israel. Its military also participated in some Russian military exercises.

Political support from Russia has not been found wanting. Russia, with China, ensured that the UN Security Council could not issue a statement condemning the military’s assumption of power in Myanmar in February. However, as the situation deteriorated, both countries supported a UNSC resolution in March which condemned the use of force, inter alia.

Nevertheless, the presence of Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin at the March 27 Army Day in Naypyidaw was a clear signal of Moscow’s determination to pursue its interests there. Fomin was quoted as saying that Russia “adheres to a strategic line to intensify relations between the two countries.”

He added that Myanmar was considered a reliable ally and strategic partner in Southeast Asia and the larger Asia-Pacific region. Fomin received a medal from General Min during his visit which he stressed was to reciprocate the Myanmar general’s visit to Moscow in May 2020. Myanmar also coincidentally approved Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in early February.

Russian Motivations

Russia’s most immediate consideration is obviously commercial. Myanmar is a good and welcome customer of Russian weapons. At this point in time, Russian weapons sales constitute the bulk of its economic interaction with Myanmar.

Second, Russia also seeks to raise its geopolitical profile in the region, and to signal to Myanmar (and its ASEAN neighbors) and the world at large, that Russia would not allow Western pressure on Myanmar to guide, let alone dictate its policy on the country.

In doing so, Russia is fully aware that in the face of Western sanctions and severe criticism of Myanmar’s military leadership, its support for Myanmar could become an additional apple of discord between Russia and the West.

Third, Russia wants to add weight to its long-stated stance that there should be no interference into the internal affairs of a sovereign state and in the process, indirectly cock another snook at the West. Syria was the first case in which Russia challenged Western attempts to change the status quo.

Fourth, its strong support for Myanmar also indirectly complements China’s backing of that country while ensuring that should Chinese influence wane, Russia’s might increase. Having the overall support of at least one of two UN Security Council Permanent Members is important to Myanmar.

Of late, China has become a target of Myanmar’s opposition forces. Some of its businesses were subjected to physical attacks in March. Moreover, Myanmar’s military itself is reportedly ambivalent about China’s growing influence in the country. China is a major investor and trade partner of Myanmar, unlike Russia.

Russia’s Southeast Asia Foothold Through Myanmar?

Russia’s actions have naturally been welcomed by Myanmar. There must be no doubt that it will remain a leading supplier of weapons as well as a reliable political supporter.

Overall, however, having a foothold in Myanmar does not automatically lead to Russia becoming a major player in the region, until and unless its economic interactions with the rest of ASEAN, including Myanmar itself, rises considerably and outside the military/defense sector.

At the same time, Russia must tread carefully in Myanmar, lest China become alarmed at any rapid and considerable increase in its influence, while China’s is lessened, for one reason or another.

Moreover, unlike China, Russia’s relatively exiguous resources are concentrated in its relations with the former Soviet republics and the West.

Ultimately, whether Russia becomes a major player in Myanmar and Southeast Asia is also dependent on whether it has the will and inclination to move away from its current and entrenched China-centric policy (towards the East) and devotes the necessary resources and energy to that end. As of now, that remains much in doubt.

Chris Cheang (iscacheang@ntu.edu.sg) is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

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PacNet #10 – The New US Diplomacy with China: ‘Keep Your Promises’

“If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression, and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

So said Deng Xiaoping in a speech to the United Nations in 1974. As if responding to Deng’s call, there has been discussion about the feasibility of an American strategy to create distance between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people. No wonder Beijing has responded furiously to this idea, including by criticizing the “longer telegram.” In fact, the author of the “longer telegram” claims that “it would be extremely hazardous for US strategies … to make the ‘overthrow of the Communist Party’ the nation’s declared objective.” The Trump administration’s document on the US strategic approach toward China also states that “US policies are not premised on an attempt to change the PRC’s domestic governance model.” Nevertheless, the idea that the US should urge the Chinese people to overthrow the CCP continues to attract attention.

The idea of creating political division within China deserves further scrutiny, given its potential impacts on the US-China relationship. What is the logic behind this idea? What are the problems? A critical review of the strategy suggests a different approach: Washington should instead focus on pressing China to live up to its own promises and obligations.

There are at least two arguments in support of “creating division” within China. First, China experts have found that Beijing has compromised in international disputes when the CCP faced internal threats, including crises in legitimacy. Therefore, hawks would argue that division within China is beneficial for US national security. But CCP failure to maintain political stability is one thing; the US attempting to engineer a political division is quite another. Chinese people will more likely link a US effort to the memory of national humiliation, when Western powers carved their own spheres of influence into the country in the late 19th century. They will also readily agree to the CCP’s narrative that the US seeks to divide China to contain the rise of a peer competitor.

Second, liberals would argue that the US should support the Chinese people precisely because the US respects their democratic aspirations. However, several surveys conducted by American scholars in China have consistently found that Chinese citizens are highly satisfied with their government’s performance. More importantly, Chinese people think that China has been “democratized” over time: the 2020 annual survey of Democracy Perception Index found that 73% of Chinese respondents consider China democratic—just 49% of Americans believe the same about the US. By contrast, given the widespread perception of rising racism and McCarthyism targeting Chinese scholars and students in the US, efforts to inspire the Chinese people to challenge the CCP would only stimulate anti-American nationalism; the more the US tries to create division within China, the more Chinese people will unite against the US.

However, the assessment that the CCP is already significantly divided over Xi’s leadership remains valid. As the author of the “longer telegram” rightly observes, Xi Jinping’s abrasive foreign policy, over-centralization of power, and illiberal policies have generated widespread frustration among Chinese elites. According to a former Central Party School professor’s testimony, published by Foreign Affairs in 2020, there was hope for the expansion of political reform when Xi took power in 2013. Indeed, during his final press briefing in 2012, former premier Wen Jiabao insisted that China “must press ahead with both economic reform and political structural reform, especially reform in the leadership system of our party and country.” Xi was expected to further open up China’s political system, but instead shattered such expectations; Xi even removed presidential term limits from the constitution in 2018. There are unfulfilled promises by previous leaders Xi has failed to carry out.

The US should ask the Xi regime to live up to China’s promises and obligations. US officials can collect all the statements by Chinese leaders before Xi about the autonomy of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang and the exact wording on civil rights and liberty, as codified in the Chinese constitution. As Ralph Cossa has summarized: “It’s unreasonable to ask them to be like us; it’s not unreasonable to ask them to follow their own promises.” This approach would be effective because there is a human psychology that people feel most pressed when demanded to honor their own words. Likewise, international relations scholars have found that political rhetoric and commitments, if repeatedly made, carry a coercive power over national leaders.

By extension, US officials should be familiar with words of wisdom from Chinese intellectuals and great thinkers officially acknowledged by the Chinese state. A good example is the speech by Matthew Pottinger, the former deputy national security advisor, in May 2020. Speaking in fluent Mandarin Chinese, Pottinger quoted Lu Xun, China’s most celebrated modern writer, to make his point on the problems of censorship in China. He also drew on the iconic student protests on May 4, 1919 to argue that China did its best when it listened to the diverse opinions of average citizens. In another speech, also in Chinese, he even cited Confucius to make his point about the need for candid conversation between the US and China. Chinese officials and scholars criticized Pottinger’s speeches, but the unusually severe censorship that followed also reflects how Xi did not want  Chinese citizens to discuss what the Chinese philosophers and intellectuals have said about open society and free thinking in China.

No doubt Chinese officials will continue to be creative in rebuttal. They may make the usual case that Americans do not understand the unique history or culture of China. They may be more candid, arguing that past promises are irrelevant because situations have changed. But it would not be difficult for Washington to retort that the US is not imposing its own values or visions, but simply asking China to keep its word. For example, Deng Xiaoping once said “after China resumes the exercise of its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong’s current social and economic systems will remain unchanged, its legal system will remain basically unchanged, its way of life … will remain unchanged. … Beijing will not assign officials to the government of the Hong Kong … Our policies with regard to Hong Kong will remain unchanged for 50 years, and we mean this.” These promises were imbedded in a legally binding treaty between China and the UK registered with the United Nations. Washington can present the evidence of all the changes made in defiance of Hong Kong’s autonomy, including the national security law.

The CCP would likely criticize the US with the rhetoric of “what about all those problems in the US?” or “mind your own failure to keep promises.” If China presses the US to live up to its own words, US officials should welcome the suggestion. The need for domestic renewal is something American citizens can agree on. If the standard of competition is about who fulfills their promises faster and more faithfully carries out all the positive promises their leaders have made for their people and the world, there would be no better form of great power competition.

Sungmin Cho (chos@dkiapcss.net) is Professor of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS), a US Department of Defense academic institute based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of DKI APCSS, the US Department of Defense or the US government.

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PacNet #32 – China’s Post-Covid Geopolitical “Either/Or”

An earlier version of this article was published in the Nikkei Asian Review.

As the coronavirus crisis continues to reshape geopolitical contours and dynamics, the rivalry between China and the United States has deteriorated markedly. Divisions over China’s re-emergence as the first-in and first-out of the Covid-19 ward have thereby deepened. At issue is whether China’s virus-fighting assistance and its post-Covid position in the world is accepted or resisted. The either/or proposition of whether “you are with us or against us,” not long ago admonished by Washington, is increasingly coming from Beijing.

Three distinct phases have characterized the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The first was whether other countries suffered “with” or “against” China. As the world watched with shock and awe in January and February, and while the Chinese government boldly locked down swathes of its vast territory like a turnkey operation, some governments imposed early travel restrictions on China, led by Australia and the US. For Southeast Asia, a critical battleground in the China-US faceoff, Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam tightened travel rules quickly, whereas Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand maintained road and air transport routes with China well into March. These four countries in mainland Southeast Asia have depended on China for tourism, trade, investment, and superpower support in the face of Western criticisms against human rights and authoritarian proclivities.

A similar pro- and anti-China wedge has been evident in the West. As China exerted and stabilized virus control from mid-March, the pandemic went on a rampage in Europe and the US. Global coronavirus tallies became a league table of sorts, not only for public health management but also the ability of each afflicted country to overcome an external enemy. China began at top spot but soon gave way to the US and European countries.

This second stage was about whether other pandemic-ravaged countries accepted China’s assistance and advice through its so-called “coronavirus diplomacy,” as Beijing began to export its medical equipment, expertise, experience, and largesse. To date, more than a hundred countries around the world have received China’s anti-virus overtures with varying degrees of enthusiasm. European countries that are participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, such as Italy, took in Chinese aid. Southeast Asian governments have broadly welcomed Chinese medical gear and advice but more so among the mainland countries, especially Cambodia and Laos.

But some countries have pushed back hard. Spain and the Netherlands, for example, declined what they deemed “defective” Chinese test kits and face masks. Sweden, with its own approach of building “herd immunity,” closed the last of China’s Confucius Institutes. On the other hand, President Trump labeled Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” questioned Beijing over virus misinformation, and suspended the US budget contribution to the World Health Organization, which is accused of conniving with Chinese authorities. Australia went a step further and called for an independent investigation into China’s virus mismanagement and the WHO’s role in it.

As partial re-openings take place in various countries from May, the third phase comes into play. The sharp economic contraction around the world will bite all economies hard but China’s centralized rule and large domestic market may give the country some additional room to maneuver. If the weaknesses of the US and Europe in the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis enabled China’s launch to superpower status, the 2020-21 period could lead to solidification should China’s economy rebound quickly. Even though its growth this year will be much lower than forecast, China may come out of Covid-19 more intact than the other established major powers because it has suffered earlier and recovered faster.

China’s new phase of ascendancy will line up the international community between those nations that recognize China’s pre-eminence and others that resist it. In an ideal world, the coronavirus crisis would have galvanized international cooperation, led by China and the US, to fight against a common enemy. But instead, the virus has worsened pre-existing geopolitical tensions.

As the coronavirus blame game between the US and China intensifies, an open conflict between the two superpowers is more plausible than at any time in recent decades. China, for example, has expanded its claims in the South China Sea by setting up administrative regions in the face of Vietnam’s opposition, while the US and others are preoccupied by the pandemic. Nine plaintiffs so far in the US, including the state of Missouri, have filed lawsuits against China for its role in not preventing the spread of the coronavirus, and the Trump administration is alarmingly fingering China as the culprit for America’s woes, charges that can degenerate into a “casus belli” if conditions take turn for the worst.

Naturally, China is defensive regarding what it sees as a global scapegoating and a concerted drag on its geopolitical position. Moreover, China’s economic slowdown also will put President Xi Jinping under pressure at home ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial anniversary next year, while Trump faces election-year challenges. Both leaders will have incentives to boost nationalist inclinations and domestic popularity by finding outsiders to blame for internal problems.

Profound crises, such as imposed by the coronavirus, often lead to cathartic changes. Instead of more tension and potential conflict, Covid-19 may also force structural reforms and adjustments at home in both the US and China in a way that realigns their interests abroad. For example, Trump could lose the election this year, while Xi could be forced out or pressured by CCP cadres to take a different tack, resulting in changes away from confrontation towards peaceful co-existence and a revamped international order that satisfies both, with a bigger space for China and enough of a role for the US. While such a scenario and others based on shifting domestic dynamics that lead to more international cooperation may seem farfetched, the alternatives of untenable tension and geopolitical showdown are infinitely more detrimental to all parties involved.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak (Thitinan.P@chula.ac.th) teaches at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok and directs its Institute of Security and International Studies.

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PacNet #26 – Interpreting China’s “Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy”

DiRecently the Chinese foreign ministry has taken an increasingly strident tone against the United States, Australia, and other countries. Dubbed “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” this new approach seems popular inside China and reinforces a presumed transition of Chinese diplomacy from conservative, passive, and low-key to assertive, proactive, and high-profile.

Wolf Warrior and Wolf Warrior II are Chinese action blockbusters that highlight agents of Chinese special operation forces. They have boosted national pride and patriotism among Chinese viewers.

“Wolf-warrior diplomacy,” named after these movies, describes Chinese diplomats’ offensive to defend China’s national interests, often in confrontational way. China’s foreign ministry spokespersons Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian have taken to Twitter to hit back against external criticisms of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the poor quality of exported Chinese medical equipment. Zhao said in a tweet on March 20 that “if someone claims that China’s exports are toxic, then stop wearing China-made masks and protective gowns.” He suggested in another tweet on March 12 that “It might be (the) US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”

Why is China resorting to “wolf-warrior diplomacy?” Has this aggressive style become the new norm?

Soaring Nationalism

First, this change did not occur suddenly. Since 2010, when China’s GDP overtook Japan’s as the world’s second largest, the Chinese have become more confident and China’s foreign policy has become more assertive, gradually departing from Deng Xiaoping’s taoguang yanghui dictum. As the Communist Party continues to promote “four confidences”—in our chosen path, in our political system, in our guiding theories, and in our culture—nationalism has been on the rise. “Wolf-warrior diplomacy” is an extension of soaring nationalism at home.

In recent years, President Xi Jinping has advocated “a fighting spirit” on several occasions, whether speaking to soldiers or party officials. This has apparently raised the morale of Chinese officials and diplomats, and encouraged a more assertive style.

“Wolf-warrior diplomacy” is evidenced not only in combative words but aggressive actions. For example, in early April, a Chinese coastguard ship allegedly sank a Vietnamese fishing trawler near the Paracel Islands. When Vietnam protested, the Chinese foreign ministry responded by saying Vietnam’s claims to the area are “illegal.” Then on April 19, the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Civil Affairs jointly announced the naming of 80 islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals, and ridges in the South China Sea, triggering angry protests from other claimants. The last time China named islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea was in 1983.

Telling the China Story

Second, as China becomes more powerful, some other countries increasingly view its development as a threat to their national interests. These countries are generally unprepared or unwilling to accept China’s rise. Many Chinese believe the Western media portrayal of China is highly biased, often with ideological and racist tinges. Wolf-warrior diplomacy is part of the Chinese government’s endeavor to “tell the China story.” The latest diplomatic offensive is also part of the official effort to project China as a great power leading the global fight against the Covid-19.

China’s image suffered during the crisis due to its bungled handling of the outbreak at the early stage. Many blame China for initially covering up the human-to-human transmission of the virus and not sharing complete information with the international community.

From China’s perspective, wolf-warrior diplomacy is a direct response to “unfair” approaches by other countries, especially the US, toward China and the Chinese people. For example, earlier this year, the United States and China were engaged in a race to expel journalists, starting after the publication of an op-ed entitled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” in The Wall Street Journal. When the WSJ refused to apologize, China expelled three of its journalists. Shortly afterwards, the US State Department declared five Chinese media outlets “foreign missions,” requiring them to register personnel and property with the US government and cut the number of Chinese nationals working there. In retaliation, China expelled more American journalists.

Zhao’s claim that the coronavirus might have been brought to Wuhan by the US military was a response to US politicians’ calling it “Chinese virus.” Hawks in the Trump administration, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, continue to use the term “Wuhan virus,” in defiance of the World Health Organization guidelines, to shift all responsibility to China.

Fizzling Out?

Third, just as Chinese society has become more diverse, Chinese diplomats are not monolithic. There is no consensus within the Chinese foreign policy establishment on whether confrontational diplomacy is desirable, and not all Chinese diplomats are wolf-warriors.

Traditionally minded Chinese diplomats, including the long-serving ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai, have sought to tamp down the combative impulse and dismissed Zhao’s theory about the US military as “crazy.” Another veteran diplomat, Fu Ying, said Chinese diplomats should uphold “the spirit of humility and tolerance, and adhere to communication, learning, and openness.”

It is too early to tell whether “wolf-warrior diplomacy” represents the culmination of Chinese diplomacy’s transition. As China faces growing external criticisms and demands for reparations over the coronavirus, it is not inconceivable that Chinese leaders may rein in confrontational diplomacy to create an environment conducive to domestic reconstruction.

In fact, wolf-warrior diplomacy is already hurting China’s foreign policy, since it has generated pushback, such as Australia’s calls for an independent probe into the coronavirus’ origins. China’s soft power is weak globally; a belligerent approach will further damage China’s global image. According Pew polls released on April 21, 66% of Americans say they have an unfavorable view of China, its most negative rating since Pew began asking the question in 2005.

As the American public opinion of China and Xi turns more negative, so does Chinese public opinion on America. Professor Wang Jisi of Peking University noted in a recent speech that attitudes in the Chinese government, think tanks, media, and public opinion toward the US have greatly changed during the Covid-19 period. Yet, one sees no end in the information war and diplomatic battle. America’s naming and shaming of China, and China’s tit-for-tat response have made much-needed cooperation in combating the coronavirus very difficult.

Balancing National Interests and Soft Power

It is truly unfortunate that China and the United States are engaged in a diplomatic tussle and blame each other when they should work together. It’s imperative that they play down their differences and focus on containing the coronavirus.

As a nation proud of its glorious ancient civilization, China should remain humble, benevolent, and magnanimous. It should also admit its botched handling of the coronavirus at the outset and hold relevant officials accountable. The Chinese government should improve the mechanism that encourages, not impedes, local officials to report such public health alerts.

Due to political, ideological, and cultural differences, Western suspicions about the Chinese government and anxiety about China’s rise will not disappear anytime soon, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated such distrust and apprehension. A more powerful China should be more confident and receptive to constructive criticism. Striking a balance between firmly defending national interests and enhancing soft power is a great challenge in Chinese diplomacy today.

Zhiqun Zhu, PhD, (zz004@bucknell.edu)  is professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University. He has written extensively on Chinese foreign policy and US-China relations. 

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PacNet #24R – Response to PacNet #24, “The destruction of North Korean agriculture: We need to rethink UN sanctions”

James A. Kelly replies:

Professor Hazel Smith has long been respected for her economic analysis of North Korea. Her recent PacNet 24 shows the possibility of serious outcomes but is incomplete in both economic and geopolitical terms.

The United Nations Security Council of 2017 and 2018 imposed sanctions after serious deliberation amid a climate of frustration. North Korea had tested nuclear weapons even more destructive than the devices leading to earlier sanctions. Many of those previous sanctions were aimed—with scant visible success—at North Korean elites. Major new, long-range missiles were introduced and tested, making targets of millions more people, theoretically including all of the United States. The Security Council—correctly believing that war is not the answer and must not be fought—hammered out new sanctions with the participation of China and Russia. The offense was great, and the sanctions were intended to be harsh. But would they motivate Kim Jong-un and his prosperous acolytes?

Prof. Smith, using published sources, notes possible serious effects on North Korea’s agriculture. She notes the primary responsibility—of North Korea’s government—even though that government only exists under the tolerance of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, its leader, his relatives, and their chosen elites.

Those elites are, even now, making choices that make agricultural failure even more likely. They ignore primary—or any—responsibility. The coronavirus pandemic has caused North Korea to take action—action taken often before and for many reasons—to close off the country. There are credible reports of thousands of tons of cargo sitting in Chinese depots, not moving, perhaps because of North Korea’s border closings. Various Western NGOs have offered to help and are being rejected or ignored. And South Korea’s newly re-empowered President Moon Jae-in—who has gone far beyond any other South Korean leader to help North Korea—has tried and tried and received rebuff after rebuff.

Furthermore, if a new crisis of mass hunger begins, the effects are likely to be less serious than the terrible days of the 1990s. The total failure of the collective farms and the food distribution system of that period has empowered—despite party efforts—hundreds of vibrant local markets to take root and for thousands of small private agricultural plots to emerge and endure. These efforts rarely appear in statistics—such as they are from Pyongyang—but are substantial.

Prof. Smith notes twice that North Korea is a poor country—even very poor—and contrasts it with countries with broad poverty. There is an important difference. North Korea has education and technology far greater than countries such as Nepal or many of the African states with large populations that have always been poor. No country with North Korea’s levels of development has ever experienced the kind of famine that took place in the 1990s. The starvation was because of the choices made by the leadership, whose ruthless suppression restrains outside help and prohibits prosperity among those deemed politically unreliable.

The Security Council should—each year—review its sanctions. It should seek to avoid punishing those who have done no wrong. But these sanctions were imposed for valid reasons and—as we have seen in recent weeks—North Korea does not want tensions to ease. So, it closes its borders to the pandemic but tests new missiles.

Hazel Smith responds to James A. Kelly:

I start by welcoming Assistant Secretary of State Kelly’s response to my recent PacNet commentary that called for a re-think on UN energy sanctions on North Korea. I have enormous respect for Secretary Kelly’s considerable achievements in public service and as a distinguished representative of his country. I admire particularly his diplomatic leadership in negotiations with the DPRK in the face of what was at the time an extraordinarily difficult negotiating environment. Given the space available, my comments necessarily focus on the differences between us; that should not be taken to imply disagreement on more fundamental goals which I take to be of supporting the goal of material prosperity and political freedoms for the North Korean population and a peaceful, stable, denuclearized peninsula.

On the specifics, it might be useful if I first correct a factual misunderstanding in Secretary Kelly’s piece; secondly, if I restate my core ethical question, which remains unanswered; and, thirdly, summarize the outstanding policy dilemma.

There are two aspects to food security: food availability and food accessibility. In any country, food availability comes from only two sources; domestic production and food imports. Markets do not increase food availability; they provide food accessibility through their function as allocators and distributors of what food is available. Nor has total food availability in North Korea been greatly enhanced by production on private plots and unregulated expansion into mountain and forest lands. In agricultural marketing year 2016-17, prior to the implementation of recent sanctions, garden and slope production was estimated at about 300,000 tons, compared to about 5 million tons produced on the big farms, mostly in the breadbasket plains of the country, in the same year. Those proportions would be about the same even were North Korea to change its economic system. As in the US and all agriculturally productive countries, small farms can provide added value in niche sectors, but it is the large agro-industrial farms that today provide for mass populations.

Reorganized systems likely would improve productivity but only if they can first access the imported oil-based inputs essential for the production of fertilizer and pesticides, the operation of farm equipment, including irrigation facilities and threshing machines, and the transport of equipment, crops and labor. No matter whether agriculture is organized around efficient capitalist methods or inefficient command economy mechanisms, crop production everywhere in the world is dependent on to oil-based inputs, which increase yields and therefore output. Given the DPRK has no indigenous oil and natural gas, that means North Korean farmers are wholly dependent on imports. These essential imports are, however, banned or severely curtailed by the 2017 sanctions.

Secretary Kelly is quite right that markets are the primary source of food for North Koreans. Providing one has money to sell and buy, markets have provided nimble distribution networks that the government could not and did not provide in the famine years of the 1990s. Market distribution still requires, however, food to distribute.

Then there is the ethical question. There is a global consensus that North Korea’s government, which, as Secretary Kelly is again correct to emphasize, primarily represents the families that constitute the political elite, violates numerous international laws and represses its population. Irrespective of the wrongdoing of a government, however, it remains unethical and illegal (the UN has the legal “responsibility to protect”) to impose sanctions that disproportionately harm innocents. This is where the analogy to the Geneva Conventions is useful. The targeting of food production and food supply to a population in enemy territory is specifically forbidden. It seems perverse to think that such activities in peacetime should be permitted.

And, finally, the policy issue.

So far there is no road map, no impact study and no study of the potential impact of UN sanctions on the population of the DPRK. This is perhaps because we are constantly told, by commentary that is often itself speculative, ill-informed, or amounts to not much more than personal opinion, that there is no reliable factual basis to assess this country. True, we don’t know much about, for example, internal Kim family dynamics, but we do know a lot about the energy, agricultural, and nutrition sectors. On the former we have robust data and sophisticated analysis from, among others, Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute and, on the latter, substantive, data-rich studies from the Korea Development Institute, the Rural Development Commission in South Korea, and several UN agencies—including the Food and Agricultural Organization, World Food Program, UNICEF, United Nations Development Program, World Health Organization, United Nations Population Fund, and UN Environment Program—that have operated inside North Korea for now over two decades.

It’s difficult for honorable people who are justifiably angry with a government that represses its people and refuses to adhere to international law, to acknowledge that not all actions against such a bad actor are ethically justified. My view is that it’s necessary to distinguish between the government and the population. Drawing from my time working and living in North Korea, in nurseries, schools, orphanages, flood rehabilitation works, farms, hospitals, and local communities, I saw many, many unselfish and compassionate actions by North Koreans just trying to do their best for the communities they served in the face of an out of touch and unaccountable government. These people don’t deserve to be punished twice; once from their government and again by the outside world.

In democracies, unlike in North Korea, we have the privilege of and therefore the responsibility to hold our governments to account for actions they take in our name. Given the impact on food security, we need to know how precisely do UN policymakers envisage that sanctions on the civilian economy will lead to the desired political outcome of denuclearization? And, if UN energy sanctions are to continue, the UN and the member states need to own the policy and be up-front about its consequences for millions of innocents.

NB: For those interested in the data and analysis underpinning my observations in these PacNet commentaries, please see Hazel Smith, ‘The ethics of United Nations sanctions on North Korea: Effectiveness, necessity and proportionality’, Critical Asian Studies, forthcoming 2020.

James A. Kelly (kellypacf@aol.com) is chairman of the Pacific Forum Board of Directors, and the former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Hazel Smith (hs50@soas.ac.uk) PhD FRSA is Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Professor Emerita of International Security, Cranfield University, UK; Member Global Futures Council on Korea World Economic Forum and Fellow, Wilson Center, Washington DC.

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 #25 – China’s Eight Arguments Against Western ‘Hubris’ and Why They Fail

The poor performance of Western Europe and the United States during the pandemic has revived Western declinism. A recent example is an essay by Zhou Bo of the Center of China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Zhou’s assertions are important, but also mainly wrong, and therefore call for a critique. Below I will summarize Zhou’s arguments before refuting them.

1) The West is “falling apart,” and in a “nadir of its self-confidence,” based on the observation that Europe does not have a coordinated response to the pandemic.

Europe is a collection of sovereign governments with very limited merged sovereignty. Each still has its own policies in most areas, including pandemic response. Similarly, China and its Northeast Asian neighbors Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, and Taiwan each had separate national policy responses to the pandemic. That does not indicate that any of the states in Northeast Asia is suffering a crisis of confidence in its own political system.

2) China successfully implemented emergency counter-measures now “being emulated around the world.”

The Chinese government did relatively quickly take the drastic measures that are relatively easy for an authoritarian state with untrammeled police powers. But the West will not seek to “emulate” other aspects of China’s performance that Zhou does not mention: the Chinese government treated initial reports of the disease as criminal rumor-mongering, suppressed information about the outbreak in the crucial early days, hoarded supplies of medical equipment purchased by importers abroad while China had shortages, demanded that other countries lift their restrictions against Chinese travelers while itself excluding and scapegoating foreigners, attempted to re-write the story of China’s role in the pandemic, and concealed the actual numbers of China’s sick and dead.

3) The pandemic suggests the United States will lose its declared strategic competition with China and Russia because the United States needs medical equipment from China and, aside from the pandemic, relies on China for drugs.

The US need for imported medical equipment is temporary and rectifiable; it will not limit US ability to strategically compete with China. The pandemic is, however, accelerating the trend of American diversification away from China for vital supplies, even if China is the cheapest producer. Chinese commentators such as Zhou who crow about this US over-dependence on China are unintentionally doing Americans a favor.

4) “China and Europe will inevitably get closer” because “a divided Europe will naturally look east” and because Europe, like China, wants “multilateralism” in “global trade,” climate change, and “the role of international institutions” while the United States is opposed.

First, it does not logically follow that less commitment to European integration among individual Western European countries causes them to “naturally” move to China. Zhou would have to make the case that individual European countries want to trade more or align themselves more tightly with China but have been prevented by their membership in the EU or by now-absent US leadership. But Zhou doesn’t go there.

Secondly, it is over-simplistic and misleading for Zhou to say that China and Europe see eye-to-eye on “multilateralism” in a way that leaves America out. In keeping with decades of previous US policy, Washington continues to support NATO, advocates for human rights and democracy worldwide, and is the EU’s top trading partner.

Beijing, on the other hand, routinely violates or disavows international law when it clashes with Chinese self-interests, often sides with outlaw states, and opposes attempts by international organizations to champion liberal principles. China’s idea of multilateral trade is other countries being open to Chinese imports and technology extraction while China maintains protectionism and predatory policies against Western direct investment in China. European political leaders have been much like Trump administration officials in their recent criticism of China over various issues.

It’s questionable that the desire of European states for a relationship with China extends beyond wanting their share of the possible economic benefits.

5) Americans want the EU to view China as an enemy, but will fail because “the creation of the EU is meant, in part, to avoid great power competition.”

This seems to be a reference to US attempts to discourage security partners from contracting Chinese corporation Huawei to build their advanced data network infrastructure. The EU was founded on what began as Western Europe’s common interest not in “avoiding great power competition,” but rather protecting themselves by banding together against a threatening great power. China is a long way from being their new Soviet Union, but is getting some negative attention, which is why some European governments have reservations about using Huawei systems.

6) As the US economically decouples from China, Europe will gain “a greater flow of goods, capital, personnel and technology from China.”

Are Chinese exports to Europe currently limited by China choosing to sell to the US rather than Europe? In any case, the US interest in decoupling is driven by American concerns about economic dependence on China. Western Europeans share those concerns, which means they may not want everything China offers.

7) The pandemic “can become a turning point for the country to provide more public goods to the world,” as shown by China providing medical supplies to many virus-hit countries.

Selling previously hoarded medical supplies is not providing public goods. Zhou is correct that China has the capacity to be a global “Good Samaritan” by quickly producing a large amount of certain items for which there might be a desperate foreign demand during a humanitarian crisis. China fulfilling such a role would be welcome. This, however, is a relatively low level of providing public goods. A higher level is something like intervening in a failed state to deliver food and other aid while under hostile fire, as the US and other countries did in Somalia in 1993-94. Beijing avoids operations such as this because they are difficult and controversial, but meaningful international leadership is inherently difficult and controversial.

8) What matters is not whether states are democratic or authoritarian, but the government’s performance. China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore proved during the pandemic that a “strong and decisive” state is necessary and that the Western model of limited government cannot cope with crises.

By admitting that multiparty democracies like Japan and South Korea handled the pandemic well, Zhou fatally undercuts his implied argument that the lack of civil and political liberties in China is justified by superior government performance. Politically, Japan and South Korea are more similar to Western Europe than to China. Furthermore, Zhou neglects to mention the two countries most praised for their pandemic responses: New Zealand, a transplanted Western European country; and Taiwan, another liberal democracy. By ignoring Taiwan, Zhou silently reminds us that the China Model overly empowers a regime to prioritize its own survival, leading to unconstrained ruthlessness and vindictiveness even at the expense of its own and international society.

Europeans want to profit from China, but will not see the China Model as politically or culturally inspirational or attractive as long as China is ruled by a regime with objectives and policies so deeply at odds with Western Europe’s liberal traditions.

Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu.  He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

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