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.

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 #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.

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 #19 – Five Reasons Why Xi’s ‘Peking Model’ Will Struggle Post-Covid-19

Xi Jinping’s model of governance—from an economically prosperous “Chinese dream” for its people to a “Community of Shared Future for Humanity” with China leading the way—has provided the reference points for Beijing’s diplomacy. That the Chinese political system can help build an equitable order favoring the developing world has been central to Xi’s international outreach.

The objective of such an order is to position China at the helm of a “Sino-centric” global order—a “Peking model.” The model not only promotes Xi as “globalizer in chief,” but also creates a wall of regulations between China and the world by controlling the flow of capital, ideas, and culture, ensuring regime sustainability for the Communist Party of China domestically. In the post Covid-19 order  this will not be easy for China, and Xi’s Peking model will come under serious challenges.

If Chairman Mao Zedong is credited with the establishment of the contemporary Chinese party-state, and Deng Xiaoping with bringing China onto the global map with economic reforms and an open-door foreign policy, then Xi has sought a “new era” foreign policy focused on promoting the “China brand” internationally. The Xi model of governance, known as the “modernisation of national governance,” was the fifth modernisation program, following Deng’s four-modernization policy introduced in 1979. While Deng’s program focused on agriculture, industry, technology, and the military, with the aim of building a stronger China “nationally,” Xi’s “modernization of national governance” was more internationally oriented, exemplifying the Communist Party’s global image as a new political model—a “Peking model” to be promoted abroad.

This model is now facing adversity, ironically, of Chinese origin: the Covid-19. As a global pandemic, the novel coronavirus has shaken the world, with tens of thousands of deaths and more than a million positive cases, prompting the question: is this the “Community of Shared Future for Humanity” Xi promised? Donald Trump calling the Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” will dent China’s image internationally. China will find it hard to dismiss the notion that the Covid-19 has revealed a poor governance structure that puts the entire world in danger, especially given the suppression of Dr. Li Wenliang’s early warning in Wuhan.

In a way, the Covid-19 has shown the international community how the trade, people-to-people contact, and connectivity China’s Belt and Road Initiative boasted of can export not only goods, but the dangers of a communist and authoritarian model based on suppression of news, information, and speech. The Wuhan episode exhibits how Xi’s model of centralized power slowed the decision-making process in the Chinese political system, leading to the paralysis of local governance. If anything, the pandemic reinforced the demand that China must promote freedom of speech and transparency, creating the following challenges.

First is a loss of confidence in the Chinese-sponsored schemes. An anti-Chinese crusade may emerge in Europe and the US in which the Communist Party’s model of governance and its approach toward the international community will face severe scrutiny. Italy, Spain, France, and Germany —Europe’s four most severely affected countries—might lead this anti-Chinese crusade in Europe. More importantly, the Covid-19 outbreak has brought into focus many developing economies’ growing dependence on China. Even though the spread of the virus appears to have slowed in China, other parts of the world still struggle, and will fear any outward engagement with China for some time—this will mean a setback for Xi’s model.

Second, the Communist Party has long fought a defensive ideological battle against democratic norms, liberal ideas, human rights, and the principles of democracy. Though the party never directly spread its autocratic functioning beyond China, the People’s Liberation Army has expanded its strategic wings across the Indo-Pacific by building ports, stationing points, and overseas bases. The assertive Chinese posture in Xi’s model has been noticed, from the South China Sea to the East China Sea to the boundary dispute with India. Post-pandemic, such assertiveness will not go unquestioned, with the democratic world doubting China’s approach and its “Shared Future.”

Third, China has exhibited a leadership role in global affairs, but without a corresponding sense of responsibility and accountability. The Chinese government reprimanding Li for his early warnings about the Covid-19 in Wuhan is just one example. In retrospect, the Chinese president has tried to promote a model of governance through the “new type of political party system” represented by the Communist Party as an alternative to the Western model of democracy and liberalism. This might not be easy for China now. The comity of nations may build pressure on China to display signs of solidarity and empathy on critical global governance issues.

Fourth, the post Covid-19 order will promote a contest of power where “China Inc” must face “America first,” along with a coalition of voices emerging with the lead of Indo-Pacific powers, pushing Xi’s leadership into defensive mode. The post-Covid-19 order would not only witness heightened power competition, but also experience a strengthened tiff between US and China, beyond trade and the cyber domain. The Chinese aspiration for supremacy across Asia and beyond might also be questioned more vigorously by India, Japan, and other countries, particularly in Southeast Asia. Australia can be expected to pursue a similar stance too.

Lastly, and above all, the key to China’s economic and diplomatic clout comes from the fact that it is key to the global supply chain. China’s foreign policy gains its strength from the economic power it has built over the years by emerging as a manufacturing powerhouse. Whether it is an exporter or an importer, China’s role is critical in preventing the global economy from going into a slump—signs of which are already evident. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis has forced many corporates to think about relocating their manufacturing bases and factory outlets out of China. Beijing will face a great challenge in convincing companies and investors to stay engaged with its industries and market.

Politically, too, restoring normality is paramount in China. The economic growth benefitting the majority of the population has been the one overriding factor propping its confidence and enabling it to ignore demands for political ref­orms. Beating the coronavirus and putting the country back on the track economically remains critical to China’s future. The earlier it happens, the better it will be for the Chinese leadership including Xi Jinping.

Dr. Jagannath Panda (jppjagannath@gmail.com) is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is also the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”. Dr. Panda tweets @jppjagannath1.

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

YL Blog #16: Fostering Trust and Dialogue to Manage US-China Strategic Competition

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Early this month, the US Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. In the said document, the DOD stressed the primacy of the Indo-Pacific Region in terms of priority level and citing inter-state strategic competition with China’s as the chief concern for US national security. This view about China is shared by the analysts and strategists, at least on the US side, who attended the recently-concluded 11th US-China Strategic Dialogue held at Lahaina, Maui on 17-18 June 2019.

For outside observers, this perspective is understandable. On the military front, China has undergone massive military modernization, upgraded its nuclear capability, fortified its assets in the artificial islands in the South China Sea it occupied to the point where some experts believe that these man-made facilities can now be capable of serving as offensive and defensive bases for China in the Pacific, heightening security risk for the US and its allies who view China’s military rise as threatening. The Chinese government has also used its economic clout to gain political advantage, providing loans to least developed and developing countries to build their infrastructure, primarily through “the Belt and the Road” Initiative, and using predatory economic practices to coerce these nations to support China’s interests, to the detriment of the US and other nations.   

The explicit articulation of the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China in official documents is a major concern expressed by the representatives from the Chinese side during the Dialogue. The change of perception about China being a “strategic competitor” instead of a partner for cooperation has led to the worsening of the relationship between the two countries. China has always forwarded, and it is a view that is consistently articulated by Chinese practitioners in Tracks I, II, and III, its policy of peaceful development where it does not seek absolute security for itself, but common sustainable comprehensive security for all.

The problem with this claim, however, goes back to a point that is repeatedly brought about during the Dialogue, that of the inability of China to provide reasonable assurance in face of facts to the contrary. The Chinese side always insist on the purity of its intention and the US side remaining unconvinced, just as what we have seen during the Dialogue. Chinese representatives kept on harboring that it does not intend to use its nuclear force against the US, for example. It begs the question then if it is not meant for the US, then whose actor/s are they targeted on. Because of the US commitment with its allies in the Region, China’s nuclear program is of particular interest. 

China, on the other hand, is increasingly concerned with the US’s use and deployment of more low-yield nuclear weapons, a strategy noted in the 2018 US Nuclear Policy Review. They fear that because low-yield missiles create lower collateral damage and are equipped with better navigation system and mobility, the risk of such weapon being activated is higher compared with high-yield bombs. Deployment of these missiles therefore exacerbate the security situation in the Region.    

This element of distrust is exacerbated by asymmetric information, wherein both sides are second guessing each other in the absence of formal dialogues at the high-level to discuss pertinent issues, especially in relation to military and nuclear capabilities and strategy. In the absence of complete information, the tendency for both sides is to prepare for the worst case scenario, which might lead each party to assume that the other is carrying more arsenal than it has in reality. Arms build-up is the natural recourse, which further breeds insecurity not only between the two countries, but also within the region and outside of it. 

The importance of maintaining communications and transparency, especially at the high-level, is very important to help resolve information asymmetry and arms build-up. Both sides, however, are currently at an official deadlock, with only Track 1.5-2 levels like Pacific Forum providing platforms for dialogues. While these kinds of talks create an avenue to exchange views and sides, it cannot displace Track I in terms of informing and directing policies and interventions at the State-level. 

The reasons behind the non-existence of official talks, especially now at a time when such dialogues are necessary and when situation is not at its worst, have to be addressed. The representatives from the Chinese side during the recently-concluded US-China Strategic Dialogue offered some areas that the US can work on. First is in the matter of agenda. The Chinese representatives noted the tendency of the Americans to include other sensitive topics, sometimes at the last minute, that derail talks from happening in the first place. There is also the issue of venue and visa issues, which prevents or limits the participation of some experts due to travel bans or sanctions imposed on some vital organizations to the talk. Another sticking issue is the prevailing perception on the Chinese side that the US is not sincere in its offer for talks. An example that was cited during the Dialogue is when the US invited China to be part of the New START, knowing full hand that statistics wise, it cannot be an effective party to such agreements.  

When in talks with the Chinese, one almost cannot escape hearing references to great Chinese thinkers. To understand the Chinese psyche is something that every negotiator should also consider. China has always aspired to realize the “Chinese Dream” – a grand process of national resurgence that will return China to the position of global centrality it enjoyed before it suffered from a “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West and Japan. It views Asia as its Region and will always try to assert itself as the main regional power in Asia. 

It will be very difficult for the US to force its ideology on China given “historical hurts” and current regional ambitions. The best recourse is therefore to endeavor to open up official dialogues and mitigate the problem of asymmetric information. This will help prevent militarization of the Region and minimize the likelihood of “accidents” that can de-escalate the current situation into a full-blown crisis and confrontation. It is in the interest not only of the two countries for such talks to exist, but also the rest of the players, big and small, whose very existence might be placed in jeopardy because of competition between the US and China, who both ironically, claim to be the main arbiter of peace and security in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Andrea Caymo (PH) is the Vice Consul and Economic Officer of the Philippine Consulate General in Honolulu.

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