PacNet #55 – What’s in a word? Calling it “containment” makes a huge difference

Any discussion of US-China relations will, without fail, include Chinese denunciations of America’s mistaken efforts to wage “a new Cold War” against China to check its rise and contain the spread of its influence. The US reply that heightened competition is not containment and attempts to show differences between the two policies are dismissed as empty rhetoric or outright deceptions.

It’s a frustrating conversation because the US policy is to compete with China, not to contain it, and there is a real and important distinction between those two approaches. The problem is that when I began to explore what a real containment strategy would look like—thinking, “that’ll show ‘em!”—it was quickly clear that it’s easy to confuse the two. Even rollback, an aggressive Cold War policy that sought to reverse Soviet influence, can be espied in elements of Western policy toward China.

But it’s critically important to differentiate between clear-eyed competition and blunt-force containment. Competition holds out hope for cooperation and a constructive relationship; containment does not. That hope could make all the difference.

When China looks at the United States, it sees a country increasingly subject to the growing influence of hostile forces. Following the Biden-Xi summit last month, Xinhua noted the Biden administration’s vow “that it does not intend to have a new Cold War with China.” But that grudging concession followed a long complaint about those in Washington who are “still latching onto looking at the world through a zero-sum lens and creating ‘imaginary enemies.’” Those “die-hard zero-summers” “resurrect Cold War metaphors” and reflect “Washington’s deeply ingrained Cold War paranoia.” This “obsolete thinking and entrenched ideological bigotry” is “exactly the way in which the United States once reacted to the Soviet Union’s achievements in the Cold War years.”

The commentary then provided a list of US actions that it says confirm the United States’ hostility to China’s rise. They include formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue “to counter China.” Conducting Freedom of Navigation operations and regional war games “to flex its muscles.” Playing the Taiwan card—selling weapons, sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, and strengthening ties—“to disrupt China’s drive for national reunification and development.”

China’s ambassador to the United States Qin Gang added more items to the indictment in recent remarks to the Brookings Institution’s Board of Governors. He denounced plans “to host a Leaders’ Summit for Democracy to throw ideological labels on others, attack those different from them, and refuse to respect and recognize other countries’ development paths.” He rejected attempts to “abuse and overstretch the concept of national security, set up the so-called ‘Clean Network’ and ‘democratic technology alliance,’ and suppress foreign companies without any justifiable grounds.” And he dismissed US efforts to “politicize” the COVID-19 outbreak, contrasting the response to the pandemic—arguing over its origins—with the joint effort by the two countries to halt the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa.

It’s easy to lengthen the list of charges: establishing the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) trilateral security partnership; strengthening US alliances around the region; the campaign to deny Huawei markets around the world; promoting diplomatic campaigns to secure international condemnation of Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang; and encouraging a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics that China will host.

Each of those US actions makes sense to me, either as a reaction to Chinese behaviors that threaten US interests or those of its neighbors. From my perspective (and that of many others), US responses are defensive and designed to protect the status quo.

But as Qin countered in his remarks, “what are the rules? Who made these rules? Who are the traffic police?” Beijing looks to the United Nations for authorization for such actions and it has been silent. (A Chinese veto at the Security Council—actual or potential—could have something to do with that.) In that vacuum, US action looks capricious and unilateral.

What is troubling is my effort to contemplate a real containment strategy produced something that looked awfully similar to existing policy. It included the strengthening of security relationships throughout the region, with particular attention to China’s neighbors. The United States would engage in frequent exercises and shows of force to keep China off balance and force it to direct resources to the military. It featured diplomatic campaigns to spotlight Chinese transgressions and vigorous efforts to isolate the country. On the economic front, countries are discouraged from accepting Chinese aid, provided alternatives to those funds, and compelled to deny Chinese companies, its new technology competitors in particular, access to their markets. US companies are also discouraged from investing in or doing business with Chinese counterparts. All were designed to halt the spread of Chinese influence and isolate the country within the international order—to contain it.

The biggest difference would be this strategy’s efforts to undermine stability within China. These initiatives would identify sources of tension and friction in Chinese society and actively work to widen and magnify them. This would be the most aggressive expression of containment and is quite dangerous since it’s hard to mistake it for anything other than what it is: an attempt to destabilize the Chinese Communist Party and promote regime change.

My attempt to differentiate between competition and containment failed. That is frustrating because I genuinely believe—as do virtually all US policymakers and analysts—that US policy is designed to compete, not contain. Even hardline critics of US policy accept that conclusion since they complain that the United States isn’t doing enough to challenge China.

Does it matter? Is it significant that the United States is containing China but doesn’t use that word to describe its policy?

Absolutely. Containment asserts that the Chinese government is fundamentally illegitimate and cannot be given space in the international system. Competition, by contrast, bounds that enmity. By insisting that the United States “will cooperate when it can, compete when it should and confront when it must,” opportunities to work with the world’s second-largest economy and a formidable power are not dismissed out of hand. (The United States occasionally cooperated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War across a narrow range of issues, all directly related to security. There are more issues with which the West can work with China because of entrenched interconnections that never existed in Western-Soviet relations.)

Containment draws sharper, thicker lines between China and the West. It legitimates a wider range of actions, including offensive ones. Those then justify China’s pursuit of its own narrowly framed interests and validates responses that the West has already dismissed and condemned. It reinforces a downward spiral in relations. And since the goal is to contain China, there is little reward for Beijing to moderate its behavior—cooperation is no longer on the table.

Most significantly, containment and its dismissal of cooperation threatens to alienate US allies and partners. Those governments are concerned by Chinese behavior but they are not all in on the hard line. The European Union strategy toward China echoes the current tripartite US approach identifying China as “simultaneously (in different policy areas) a cooperation partner, a negotiation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.” Japan aligns closely with the United States but it too worries about closing the door on relations with China. A shift from competition to containment could fracture the broader coalition of forces that is essential if there is to be any hope of changing the Chinese government’s behavior.

It isn’t clear if China cares one way or another. In one moment, Chinese interlocutors call for changes in US declaratory policy—such as accepting “mutual vulnerability” or adopting a no-first use policy. In the next, they dismiss US rhetoric as empty talk, highlighting gaps in words and its actions. Ironically, in the next breath, they ask—in some cases demand—that those countries accept its own assertions of benign intent, and ignore all material changes in Chinese capabilities, as well as any steps that it has taken that undercut its professions of goodwill and desire for peaceful coexistence.

The Chinese are right about one thing: trust is in short supply. While there is blame enough to go around, the failure to recognize their part in that downward spiral guarantees continued deterioration.

Brad Glosserman (brad@pacforum.org) is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

PacNet #53 – What should Washington expect from US-China strategic stability talks?

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that US President Joe Biden proposed strategic stability talks to Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping during their virtual meeting on Nov. 15 and that “the two leaders agreed that we would look to begin to carry forward discussions on strategic stability.”

The United States has long sought such discussions with China, but Beijing has invariably declined, arguing that “conditions are not ripe” because the US nuclear arsenal is much larger than China’s. Yet while promising that it would stick to “minimum deterrence” (codewords for a small nuclear force), Beijing has been growing its arsenal and, per recent evidence, this growth is advancing much faster than anticipated, with no end in sight.

If strategic stability talks take place, what should Washington expect?

The findings of unofficial US-China meetings offer insights. In the absence of official strategic stability talks, these meetings were, for a long time, the only game in town. They stopped as the broader US-China relationship deteriorated, but some have resumed recently, and they provide important lessons for Washington. I offer five here.

Lesson #1: Expect to be blamed

Beijing will air grievances and appear largely dismissive to US (and allied) concerns. Beijing justifies its military build-up by pointing to “US aggressive moves,” including efforts to build a coalition of democracies against China. Washington will hear criticisms of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) pact, Beijing’s new bête noire. US explanations that Beijing’s actions have triggered those developments will fall on deaf ears, and Washington will be told to be “more rational” and to abandon its “Cold-War mentality” and its quest for “absolute security.”

Of course, Beijing will also accuse Washington of changing its policy vis-à-vis Taiwan, notably by deploying troops there and by suggesting that the United States has defense commitments with Taipei.

As a result, while Beijing will say that it wants to improve the bilateral relationship, it will not articulate specific actions China should take to that end. For Beijing, the United States has destabilized the relationship and therefore the responsibility for stabilizing it rests on Washington.

Lesson #2: Expect challenges to insulate the nuclear dimension from broader competition

Beijing will express rhetorical support for attempts to insulate the nuclear dimension of the relationship from competitive dynamics in broader US-China relations, but it will also stress that such dynamics make it difficult for China not to compete in the nuclear domain.

Beijing will insist that it is not a “revisionist state,” unlike the United States, which has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Open Skies treaties, is developing low-yield nuclear weapons, and is refusing to cooperate on peaceful nuclear uses. For Beijing, these actions “prove” that the United States is not sincere about strategic stability and, after AUKUS, nonproliferation.

Still, Beijing will stress that China and the United States should commit to never fighting a war, especially a nuclear war. Expect reference to the Reagan-Gorbachev 1985 statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and a push for China and the United States to issue a similar statement.

Beijing, however, will go on to say that the chances of war will decrease if the United States refrains from deploying missile defenses or INF-range missiles in the Indo-Pacific. Read: Problems will go away if the United States lets China dominate the region. When Washington refuses and cites alliance commitments (which allies want strengthened because they fear China), Beijing will use this as evidence of US “nuclear aggressiveness.”

Lesson #3: Expect major disagreements over nuclear plans and strategies

Beijing will be angered that China is—will be—a major focus of the key US strategic reviews, notably the Nuclear Posture Review.

Beijing will dismiss US claims that China is now a US “nuclear near-peer” due to qualitative and quantitative force improvements, and possible posture change (to launch-under-attack). It will object that Chinese modernization complicates US-Russia nuclear reductions. It will reject arguments that the United States might consider building its arsenal back up (because it now has two major nuclear-armed adversaries, Russia and China) and that in response to requests from US allies, it might focus extended deterrence on China, not just North Korea.

Beijing will also reject the idea that it is politically impossible for Washington to acknowledge US-China mutual vulnerability—a goal that China has long sought. It will dismiss the charge that the apparent scope and scale of the Chinese build-up (and its open-endedness) suggests that China has given up on nuclear stability with the United States.

Instead, Beijing will maintain that Chinese nuclear strategy remains consistent and continues to be based on the same principles it laid out after it exploded its first nuclear device in 1964. These include the development of a small nuclear force and its use strictly for deterrence purposes, not warfighting. Beijing will stress that Chinese modernization aims solely to ensure that its forces remain survivable, and it will point to its no-first-use policy as the best example of China’s restraint. Beijing will dismiss “US media and think-tank speculations” about Chinese nuclear activities but insist that modernization is essential because China faces a “grave threat” from the United States.

Beijing will express skepticism over US claims that Washington has maintained a restrained posture in the Indo-Pacific, and that US missile defenses are limited. It will point to the US intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies, arguing that China does not worry just about US firepower, but is also concerned by the US ability to search, locate, and neutralize Chinese forces.

Lessons #4: Expect crisis management to have potential

Beijing will reject limits on, let alone reduction of, its strategic weapons, but support efforts to avoid or manage crises and escalation. In other words, arms control is out, and crisis management is in.

Beijing may agree to a “multi-tiered crisis management dialogue” where the two countries define “basic principles” and explain perspectives on issues that concern the other. For instance, that could translate into the United States providing information about its damage-limitation and left-of-launch strategies in exchange for China explaining its co-location of nuclear and conventional systems.

Beijing may also agree to improve implementation of existing crisis management mechanisms, strengthen them, and develop new ones, especially those that address risks in the space and cyber domains, and with artificial intelligence. Beijing may support establishment of an emergency management office. Of course, also expect Beijing to say that a US-China no-first-use policy would reduce the odds of a crisis and, in the event of a crisis, decrease the risks of nuclear escalation.

Cooperation will not be smooth, however. Beijing will warn that a “lack of trust” between the two countries is an impediment to progress and charge Washington with creating “the conditions of cooperation.” Consistent with Lesson #1—that problems in the relationship are the fault of the United States—it will call out Washington for “creating crises with China or near Chinese territory” and demanding that Beijing manage them. Beijing may also make “issue linkages,” saying Chinese cooperation on crisis management will be difficult without US “flexibility” on trade, technology, or another issue.

Lesson #5: Expect cooperation on some non-bilateral nuclear issues

Beijing will show interest in joint work on nuclear security. It will want to engage with Washington to advance the multilateral arms control and nonproliferation regimes, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, International Atomic Energy Agency, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Beijing will also voice support for US-China efforts to address proliferation crises, but cooperation will remain limited. For instance, while recognizing that North Korea is a problem, Beijing will assert that it can be solved if the United States offered “reasonable security guarantees” to Pyongyang, granted sanctions relief, and normalized US-North Korea relations. Short of that, Beijing will continue to argue that the United States is the problem and confirm the suspicion that it is “using North Korea to justify its regional alliances.”

Bottom line: Keep expectations low and get ready for the long haul

Washington, then, should have low expectations for US-China strategic stability talks. Profound differences and disagreements mean that discussions will be difficult and frustrating, and it will take time to produce deliverables.

Focusing on crisis management shows some promise, however, and joint work on non-bilateral issues may help build a framework for cooperation. In any case, broad “strategic nuclear” engagement has stronger odds of success than narrow nuclear work. Talks should include nuclear weapons, conventional weapons, missile defense, and emerging technologies and domains that have or could have an impact on bilateral strategic stability.

Finally, to perform well, Washington should ramp up expertise in this area, both inside and outside the US government. It needs more experts who understand both China and strategic stability. This should receive its full attention.

David Santoro (david@pacforum.org) is President and CEO of the Pacific Forum. He is the editor of US-China Nuclear Relations: The Impact of Strategic Triangles (Lynne Rienner, May 2021). Follow him on Twitter @DavidSantoro1

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 #51 – What AUKUS means for European security

The Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security pact is a European—not just French—issue. While the canceled contract with Australia was not about European submarines, and the strategic partnership with Australia was not with the European Union, EU leaders and heads of European states did more than sympathize with the French. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borellstated that EU member states consider AUKUS as “affecting the European Union as a whole.” Michael Roth, the German Secretary of State for European affairs, called it a “wake-up call for everyone in the EU” and German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass states the manner in which it was established was “irritating and disappointing, not only for France.”

Why are Europeans worried?

First, the way AUKUS was negotiated and announced led to a crisis of confidence across the Atlantic because it suggests that Europe is no longer the US priority. For Europeans the problem is less the loss of a contract than the way France was treated. If this is how the United States acts with France, which has the strongest military in the European Union and its second-largest economy, what would keep Washington from doing the same with any other European country? Furthermore, if AUKUS confirms that the Indo-Pacific is now the priority for the United States, it implies Europe is no longer the strategic partner it once was. Not only did it sideline France—which is at the forefront of Europe’s growing Indo-Pacific engagement—but it also did so on the very day the European Union released its own Indo-Pacific strategy.

Second, AUKUS directly impacts the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific, where the European Union has strategic interests and its own approach, as developed in its strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS might complicate Europe’s deepening cooperation with Australia, and European countries could be tempted to limit engagement with the Indo-Pacific more generally. The timing is especially poor now: New Caledonia’s independence referendum is set for December and China favors independence to extend its influence in the South Pacific (a New Caledonia under Chinese influence could break the encirclement of China by isolating Australia, as demonstrated by Paul Charon and Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer).

One reason for the crisis might be the absence of political appointees in the Biden administration—no ambassadors in Europe, and Karen Donfried was only confirmed as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in late September—while the White House Indo-Pacific team is much more robust. The first tour of the secretaries of state and defense was in that region, the DoD’s priority is China, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) in the Indo-Pacific has been revived. Even Biden’s tour in Europe in June was remarkable in the way the communiqués of the G7, NATO, and EU-US Summit all mentioned China, paving the way for more awareness in Europe over this challenge.

Furthermore, Ukraine (a European, though not an EU, state) claimed to be “surprised” when the United States decided to permit the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was not a collective decision; the G7, EU, UN, and NATO secretary general called on the Americans to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to end evacuations, but the US response did not meet their expectations. Finally, the lifting of the travel ban (expected in November) was not announced until Sept. 20, despite high vaccination rates in Europe (while other countries with lower vaccination rates have not been subject to such a ban).

AUKUS is the last straw. It is a wake-up call for Europeans, a clear sign that they must do more to safeguard their strategic interests. The US commitment to Article 5 remains iron-clad, but Europeans might wonder what the US stance would be if a crisis emerged in Europe’s neighborhood, especially one that impacts Europe but not the United States. If the United States were to leave Iraq, what would the Europeans do, as the American armed forces ensure force protection? It is not surprising, then that there are debates over strategic autonomy.

What is the way forward?

First, Europe does not have a shared strategic vision. To form one will require some collective imagination: as Carnegie Europe’s Judy Dempsey put it, “strategic autonomy is meaningless” if Europe does not “collectively suppose strategically.” The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was a significant step in enhancing a shared vision, and it will inform the future strategic compass (to be released in March 2022 under the French EU presidency). The European Union should agree on the key challenges ahead, and new EU special envoy to the Indo-Pacific Gabriele Visentin will be essential to foster consensus.

European states differ in their views of China, which the European Union has labelled a “systemic rival,” “economic competitor,” but also a “negotiating partner.” It will not be easy to adopt a new EU strategy on China, but the recent report from the European parliament is a first contribution. It calls for engaging Beijing on matters of global concern—climate, health, and nuclear disarmament—but also defending core European values and interests, including engaging China in a human rights dialogue. It says no comprehensive agreement on investment can be reached while China sanctions European members of parliament and institutions—themselves a response to EU sanctions on individuals believed to be responsible for repression in Xinjiang—and even suggests an EU investment agreement with Taiwan.

Second, Europe must demonstrate that it is ready to be the global actor the European Union wants to be. This comes with a price, financial (increasing investments in defense spending or developing critical capabilities) and political. The endorsement of the EU strategy on the Indo-Pacific by the heads of states in October is significant in this regard. Implementing the strategy, including its security item (increasing naval deployments and port calls, for instance) will demonstrate to regional actors and the United States that Europe is a key Indo-Pacific actor, offering a unique approach it can implement.

Third, the European Union must engage in an open-eyed discussion with the United States on European security (not limited to European territory). Organizing the focused dialogue on security and defense (with an agenda item on the Indo-Pacific) as promised during the EU-US summit last June would be a welcome initiative. High-level consultations on the Indo-Pacific later this year, which were announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and HRVP Borell, would also give the United States an opportunity to encourage Europeans to step up. NATO will remain the cornerstone of European collective defense, but the United States has much to gain from a more credible, stronger European defense, as acknowledged by Biden in the joint communiqué with French President Emmanuel Macron. Significantly, the communique states that the United States “recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.”

Fourth, regaining trust with Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States is vital for further cooperation. How it happens will be critical. Opening avenues for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, between the European Union and the Quad (as considered in the EU strategy) would be a positive step. The fruitful meeting on Oct. 29 paves the way for France and the United States to restore this trust. This positive dynamic is yet to be found with Australia and the United Kingdom.

AUKUS will have lasting effects on European security. It revealed how much the strategic environment had changed and how the European Union’s critical security partners intend to play in it. Europeans must step up, not only to secure its own strategic interests, but also to participate in renewing a more balanced and more effective transatlantic relationship, including in the Indo-Pacific.

Marie Jourdain (MJourdain@AtlanticCouncil.org) is a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. She worked for the Ministry of Defense’s Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy in Paris.

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 #47 – China’s Challenges and Effective Defense: America’s Conundrum

This assessment draws from the major revision of his assessment of United States-China relations in the forthcoming volume US-China Relations: Perilous Past, Uncertain Future: Fourth Edition (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2022).

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

This writer’s forthcoming book underscores the breadth and depth of challenges to the US-supported open economic and political order posed by the headlong drive of the authoritarian Chinese party-state for ever greater wealth and power at the expense of others. China is determined to have its way in leveraging impressive economic and military power and using many controlling features of the Chinese party-state to carry out intimidating, coercive, and predatory measures at the expense of other countries. Beijing effectively exploits and manipulates the openness of international markets and the social and political order of developed and other countries in seeking regional dominance and ever greater global influence.

The challenges can be grouped in three categories.

First is the challenge posed by over three decades of rapid development of Chinese modern military power tipping the balance in the Indo-Pacific, supporting Chinese territorial expansionism and undermining US alliances and partnerships in seeking dominance in the region.

Second is the challenge posed by China’s similarly longstanding efforts using state-directed development policies to plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors having increasingly profound negative impacts on US and Western interests. Beijing does so with state-directed economic coercion, egregious government subsidies, import protection, and export promotion using highly protected and state-supported products to weaken and often destroy foreign competition in key industries. In this way, it recently seeks dominance in major world high-technology industries and related military power.

Third is China’s challenge to global governance. More than any other major power, Beijing leverages economic dependence, influence operations including elite capture, and control of important infrastructure to compel deference to its preferences. In the Indo-Pacific, these practices are backed by intimidating Chinese military power. China’s preferences include legitimating the predatory Chinese economic practices and territorial expansionism, opposition to efforts promoting accountable governance, human rights, and democracy, opposition to US alliances seen as impeding China’s rise, and support for the forceful foreign advances of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the rule of other authoritarian and often corrupt world leaders unaccountable to their citizens.

America’s defense

Over the past five years, US government decisionmakers with full support from bipartisan majorities in Congress have shown ever clearer awareness of the challenges that China poses to the interests of the United States and the open world order it supports. A variety of approaches have been tried, but coming up with an effective strategy to protect America and its partners with a stake in the existing order remains a work in progress.

Perhaps the largest impediment to effective US defense against China’s challenges is an unanticipated result of US policy of engagement begun actively in the 1990s. The Clinton administration endeavored to reduce tensions in US-China relations—no longer bound by common opposition to the Soviet Union and divided by the Tiananmen crackdown and, most notably, by the acute tensions of the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-1996. In particular, US proposed engagement—often seen as a type of enmeshment—served to build interdependence that made China less likely to undertake disruptive measures against the United States. As the United States pursued this engagement, Chinese leaders saw a similar advantage in enmeshing the United States, thereby reducing the likelihood that the United States would take actions provoking China. In general, the results seemed to meet these expectations.

US officials also had expectations that the engagement would lead to moderation and greater conformity by China to US values and goals, which turned out to misjudge Chinese intentions to avoid such changes. For their part, Chinese officials steadily advanced and repeatedly exploited enmeshment of US businesses, universities, and other groups more closely interacting with China. These entities’ dependence on China added to the impressive support China received from developed countries and the international financial institutions directed by leaders from developed countries. The support for China involved economic assistance, financing, technology, and market access. Business and other US organizations dependent on China also guarded against the United States taking stronger actions targeting often illegal and exploitative ways China acquired technology and other intellectual property as well as China’s state-directed international economic practices, protectionist measures, industrial policies, and trade practices out of line with China’s commitments to its agreement in joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. They also guarded against the United States taking stronger actions as Beijing, in the past decade, became more assertive with expansionist ambitions in Asia.

The symbiosis between US and international businesses, universities and others dependent on China and Chinese businesses and specialists has had a bearing on recent US curbs on Chinese access to US high technology. Chinese entities and specialists were often so enmeshed with US enterprises that it was hard to guarantee that breakthroughs achieved as a result of US government billions of dollars of expenditure on high technology innovation would not easily become known by Chinese authorities.

Today, US businesses dependent on China remain influential in US policymaking and argue for greater moderation in dealing with China; they seek exemptions from various administration and legislative restrictions designed to counter Chinese challenges. Many US universities with involvement in China and other American groups and experts with involvement with China also argue for greater moderation. The Council on Foreign Relations is leading efforts by influential foreign policy specialists seeking greater moderation and warning of the dangers of growing tensions in US-China relations.  A common thread in these arguments is that the China threat is exaggerated and that the negatives for the United States flowing from Chinese behavior can be better dealt with through more nuanced approaches featuring negotiations and dialogue.

How US policymakers can create a strategy that counters Chinese challenges and also takes account of significant domestic opposition to such tough measures remains to be seen. Adding to the conundrum facing the Biden administration, its purported strategy of close collaboration with allies and partners to deal with China’s challenges from a position of collective strength faces countervailing pressures. One reason is that most of these countries have similar business and other interests that oppose measures to counter China. Many also do not share the sense of danger and urgency about China’s challenges now seen in Washington.

Robert Sutter (sutterr@gwu.edu) is Professor Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, USA.

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 #45 – False Dawn: The Resumption and Re-ending of the Inter-Korean Hotline

This article summarizes the author’s chapter in the new issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety here.

Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the United States. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.

War Games: Shadow-Boxing?

To understand the hotline, first consider the politics behind US-ROK military exercises. Since Donald Trump summarily cancelled upcoming regular US-ROK military exercises at his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un in June 2018, the usual calendar of spring and summer allied drills has been much disrupted. Far from appreciating that olive branch, Kim saw this concession as a chance to press harder.

After several changes of name, these drills have waxed and waned, reflecting the state of relations between North Korea and its foes. Trump, soon followed by COVID-19, ushered in a new era of cancelled or smaller maneuvers. So Kim had less to worry about, but he chose to go for broke, insisting that to hold joint exercises at all, in any form or on any scale, is a hostile act. This has created a new cycle, where every spring and summer the allies must decide what kind of drills, if any, to stage.

With exercises due in August, Minister of Unification Lee In-young on June 6 called for “maximum flexibility,” insisting that joint drills “should never work in a way that causes or further escalates tensions on the Korean Peninsula.” That was tantamount to calling for their cancellation, which Lee could not do directly. This kicked off a fresh round of the perennial argument in Seoul about the right balance of stick and carrot, force readiness versus peace process, and so on. Besides playing out in the media, politically more important was the debate inside the ruling Democratic Party (DP), and above all necessarily hidden discussions within Moon Jae-in’s government.

Arguably, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and the military establishment, not to mention Washington, would not countenance complete cancellation (in 2018 Trump forced their hand). Even as public debate continued, planning and preparations were surely under way. Meanwhile, as we now know, at some point and in some form Moon and Kim began exchanging messages about reactivating inter-Korean hotlines, unused for a year after Pyongyang blew up the Kaesong joint liaison office in June 2020. Ever since then, the South has faithfully called as agreed at 0900 each day, but gotten no reply. (Talk of the lines being “cut” misleads: They still work, but the North chooses not to pick up.)

Lights! Camera! Action! They’re Talking Again!

Then, on July 27 and with much fanfare, the Blue House in Seoul and the official North Korean news agency KCNA in Pyongyang both announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines. In a triumph of hope over expectation all too familiar in inter-Korean relations (but we never learn), hopes ran high that after a two-year hiatus that Pyongyang might finally be ready to engage again. Not only with Seoul, but also the not-so-new Biden administration.

For a week or two, inter-Korean ties seemed to flicker back into life. Beyond the formality of checking the lines daily, there were signs of substance. The two sides used the line to compare tallies and positions of Chinese vessels illegally fishing in the West Sea near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto inter-Korean maritime border, which the DPRK has never formally recognized. Besides sharing notes to repel intruders, such liaison in sensitive and sometimes contested waters would help avoid any risk of accidental clashes.

But it went no further. An eager Seoul broached concrete proposals—virtual talks, family reunions by videolink—but got no immediate reply. Then Kim Yo Jong weighed in. On Aug. 1, four days after the lines were restored, Kim Jong Un’s sister warned against “premature hasty judgment. What I think is that the restoration of the communication liaison lines should not be taken as anything more than just the physical reconnection.” In particular, the “unpleasant story that joint military exercises between the south Korean army and the US forces could go ahead as scheduled” would surely “becloud” inter-Korean prospects.

On Aug. 8 Seoul announced that joint drills would go ahead, albeit computer-based with no field exercises. This predictably prompted an angrier second salvo from Ms. Kim, attacking the “perfidious” South for this “unwelcoming act of self-destruction for which a dear price should be paid.” That was on Aug. 10. In the morning the hotlines still worked, but by 5 pm the North was not picking up. Nor has it done so since.

As You Were

What to make of this episode? The Blue House denied insinuations by Yoon Seok-youl—a contender for the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP)’s presidential nomination next year—that a secret deal lay behind the hotlines restoration. If that is true, then it fell apart in record time. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) claims the initiative came from Kim Jong Un. If that is the case, then one hypothesis is that Kim was testing Moon over the joint drills. Perhaps he thought this sop might tip the balance of the debate in Seoul. It did swell the ranks of those in the ruling party who favored cancellation, but not enough. Once it was clear the exercises would go ahead, Kim duly exacted punishment, reverting to noncommunication and the status quo ante.

Reading Moon’s mind is harder. Though an idealist on inter-Korean ties, he is also a canny politician whose time is running out: his successor will be elected on March 9 next year. He may have felt he had little to lose, and we don’t know what was said in the letters he and Kim exchanged. Unclear too is what input, if any, the foreign ministry or even MOU had in any of this. Reportedly, the Blue House handles dealings with Pyongyang itself, no doubt via the NIS. Did Moon reckon Pyongyang would not really mind the joint exercises, despite Kim Yo Jong’s clarity on the issue?

After Moon: More of the Same?

As a presidency winds down it is natural to try to peer into the future. With ROK presidents constitutionally limited to a single five-year term, less than half a year from now South Korea will have a new president, due to take office May 9.

Six months is a long time in politics, especially in Seoul. As of now, while Moon Jae-in is becoming a lamer duck (albeit with better poll ratings than most of his predecessors at this stage), the DP looks in better shape than the PPP. Within the DP, ongoing primaries have confirmed a front-runner: Lee Jae-myong, governor of Gyeonggi province which surrounds the capital (indeed, it has become a largely urbanized greater Seoul).

Though not personally or factionally close to Moon, ideologically Lee shares his engagement stance. He also favors conditional sanctions relief for the DPRK. So, if he is the next ROK president, expect policy continuity rather than change. The problem is that Moon’s approach has not worked, even if his government appears in denial on that score. At the very least, Lee (if it is he) will have to be more imaginative in finding ways to break the deadlock.

Postscript

The chapter from which this article is excerpted was completed early in September. There have been fresh developments since, notably two—one skeptical, the other more positive—by Kim Yo Jong to President Moon’s suggestion, made (not for the first time) in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, of a formal peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War. We might therefore see a renewed bout of inter-Korean dialogue on Moon’s watch after all. Precedent, not least the episode described above, suggests that hopes of a meaningful breakthrough are not high. But let us not prejudge. Prospects will be clearer when the next issue of Comparative Connections appears in January 2022. Watch this space!

Aidan Foster-Carter (afostercarter@aol.com) is honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, UK. His interest in Korea began in 1968. Since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on North and South Korean affairs: writing, lecturing, and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide. He has written on inter-Korean relations for Comparative Conections ever since 2001.

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 #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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