PacNet #76 – What US national (dis)unity means for China policy

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October 10, 2023

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Diplomat.

Warnings about domestic political infighting undermining US foreign and security policy in relation to China are growing in American political discourse. The prosecutions of former President Donald Trump and investigations into incumbent President Joe Biden’s son have the potential to destabilize US resilience; the upcoming presidential campaign risks further deteriorating China-US relations. With more than 80% of the public holding unfavorable views of China, both parties are expected to toughen their anti-China rhetoric to win over public support.

As the showdown over the debt ceiling in May revealed, tensions in US political life have the potential to spill over into the economy and foreign affairs. A default would have heavily impaired Washington’s ability to compete with China. There were direct consequences as well: In mid-May Biden was forced to pull out of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) summit and a historic trip to Papua New Guinea because of political negotiations in Washington. These cancellations demonstrated the powerful impact domestic crises can have on China-US competition and foreign policy more broadly.

Domestic cohesion and US foreign policy

In 2019, Cold War historian Arne Westad warned that the foremost challenge for the United States in competing effectively with China was in the “American mind.” Similarly, George Kennan, in his “X” article in 1947 urged the US to “create among the peoples of the world the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.”

Today this objective still seems dangerously unmet.

Low domestic cohesion is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Robert D. Putnam’s recently published book examined how the United States “came together” after a previous period of social divisions. Putnam argued that it was the emergence of the Progressive movement that healed the excesses of the Gilded Age, namely inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism. Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt pushed for greater economic equality, social cooperation, and solidarity, with their ideas inspiring policy and shaping American life until the early 1960s.

However, Putnam’s focus is on domestic society, and his analysis thus omits the foreign policy dimension and approach that developed during that crucial time. US foreign policy during the Progressive era was characterized by imperialism, economic nationalism, and war. The nationalism and exceptionalism informing the Progressives’ thinking, at home and abroad, ironically provided the ideological underpinning for the Bush doctrine, the neoconservative movement, and the rationale for democracy promotion abroad.

Such forces ensnared the United States in Afghanistan for more than 20 years—the longest war in American history. US involvement in the Middle East and Africa directly cost almost $5.4 trillion and around 15,000 American lives, and indirectly intensified the militarization of the police, undermining American society’s domestic fabric.

In other words, the same dynamics resulting in increased social cohesion in the early 20th century ultimately had a destabilizing effect on US foreign—and ultimately domestic—policy in the 21st.

The US preoccupation with China

National security fears about China represent the foremost concern for today’s policymakers. The scope of this challenge makes it essential to think about domestic cohesion in relation to the mentalities historically informing and reflecting Americans’ public perceptions about China.

As Stanford historian Gordon H. Chang argued in his 2015 book Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China, China has been a “central ingredient in America’s self-identity from its very beginning and in the American preoccupation with national fate.” The US preoccupation with China competition must be put in perspective alongside the ebb and flow of national cohesion to understand patterns of engagement in the history of China-US relations and discern which historical analogies are most appropriate.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time of rising national cohesion, US policymakers were sure that, as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, “the democratic individualism of China will reassert themselves and she will throw off the foreign yoke.” He then warned China’s people that they “should understand that, whatever happens within their own country, they can only bring grave trouble on themselves and their friends if they are led by their new rulers into aggressive or subversive adventures beyond their borders.”

Following the Communist takeover and the outbreak of the Korean War, these beliefs fueled McCarthyism, while the emergence of the Red Scare set in motion a downhill trajectory in US national cohesion.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when national cohesion further declined as the United States tried to disentangle itself from Vietnam, President Richard Nixon came up with the idea to “open” to China and to use rapprochement against the Soviets. Prior to the secret talks between then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Premier Zhou Enlai, Nixon instructed the former that the negotiations “should build on three fears: (1) fears of what the President might do in the event of continued stalemate in the South Vietnam war; (2) the fear of a resurgent and militaristic Japan; and (3) the fear of the Soviet threat on their flank.”

Instead of communicating a reassuring yet patronizing message, as Acheson had, US policymakers and Nixon in particular felt the need to manipulate China’s fears over these issues to obtain strategic advantages from the Chinese Communist Party leadership. It is highly plausible that the strategy of fear Nixon suggested might have stemmed from the president’s own fears about deep division at home combined with the crumbling military and political situation in Vietnam.

What do these two episodes tell us about contemporary challenges? In an era of domestic cohesion US policymakers were overconfident in dealing with China, but when domestic cohesion was on the decline their approach revealed a sense of uneasiness, concern, and overall under-confidence. This latter dynamic can be observed today, too: It’s impossible to deny how, in the past few years, lowering levels of domestic cohesion in US society have been accompanied by rising anxiety about the “China reckoning” and alarm at Beijing’s plans to displace the US-led international order.

On the other hand, it should be noted that contemporary China is not the same country it was in the 1960s and ‘70s. Then, China was internationally isolated, involved in a conflict with the Soviet Union, its economy and society impoverished by the Cultural Revolution. Today, China is a completely different actor. This is why strategies motivated by fear or aimed at exploiting situations of perceived weakness will never be as effective as they were in the past.

Policymakers should acknowledge that tensions and divisions in American society have a powerful impact on US foreign policy, compounding the inability of the United States to contain and compete with China. At the same time, the way the United States has dealt with China in the past has also affected such cohesion. Being fully aware of how this mutually reinforcing mechanism works is just the first step toward the adoption of a more balanced approach to US China policy.

A sustainable approach to China should eschew both overconfidence and anxiety, elements contributing to making relations dysfunctional and filled with mistrust. In the context of an emerging anti-China consensus in Washington, diplomats must build domestic support around a mode of engagement that takes as its core a deeper understanding of how domestic constraints and cognitive biases have influenced past relations between the two countries.

Dr. Giuseppe Paparella ([email protected]) is the inaugural Security and Foreign Policy Fellow at the College of William & Mary’s Global Research Institute, and Faculty Affiliate at the Harrison Ruffin Tyler Department of History. He holds a Ph.D. from King’s College London, School of Security Studies.

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

Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY

PacNet #75 – Fiji’s management of geostrategic competition in 2023: How not to choose

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September 26, 2023

As previously highlighted, the new Fijian prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka set a new course for Fiji’s domestic and foreign policies, including a seeming turn from China toward so-called traditional allies, such as Australia.

However, the new Fijian government has also taken an approach of balancing external power interests that at times appears indecisive and at other times signals to some observers the loss of Chinese influence. Nevertheless, I argue, hedging on China merely reflects the tightrope walking act Pacific leaders must perform.

The most notable example of a cautious approach to China came in January 2023 when Rabuka decided to not renew a memorandum of understanding between the Fiji Police Force and China’s Ministry of Public Security. The agreement oversaw training of Fijian police officers in China and the secondment of Chinese officers for periods of three to six months in Fiji, as well as the transfer of equipment. What gets lost in the framework of geostrategic competition is that such decisions are made not to favor one power over another, but to, at least ostensibly, serve the interests of the Fijian people. In this light, Rabuka’s qualification on the status of the MOU in this June as under review makes much more sense. The prime minister has also said that if the conditions were right, the MOU could be renewed.

A further example of the difficulty in managing converging external interests in Fiji also came in the immediate post-election period. On Jan. 23, a Fijian government press release reaffirmed Fiji’s support for the “one China Principle,” stating that there is only one China, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), of which Taiwan is a part. Yet, on March 24, an official communication from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reinstated the Beijing unfriendly name “Trade Mission of the Republic of China (Taiwan)” for Taipei’s representative office in Suva. Nevertheless, in June, the Fijian government reversed its decision so that the contentious term Republic of China could not be included. Taiwan claimed the reversal came under pressure from the PRC.

Attempts at senior level meetings between Rabuka and Chinese officials haven’t gone well. In April, Rabuka skipped a meeting with visiting Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu. Further, the Prime Minister called off a trip to China when he sustained an injury after stumbling on some steps while looking at his mobile phone. Perhaps picking up on the seesawing calibrations in Fjii’s relations with China, the new Chinese ambassador, Zhou Jian, commented that his country would still be open to a security agreement with Fiji. That didn’t seem to do the trick as three months later Fiji signed a defense agreement to strengthen military training and maritime security with Aotearoa New Zealand.

Nevertheless, Rabuka’s new course in foreign relations deserves more context. Commentaries that assert zero sum outcomes in the geostrategic contest between China and the United States and allies overlook how the new Prime Minister has also used his platform to criticize so called traditional partners. Within a week of assuming office, Rabuka told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that “Australia and New Zealand and the United Kingdom and America…have not reorientated their thinking to the international landscape where we are all equal.” In an echo of his predecessor’s comments, Rabuka added, “China has come in with a blank sheet of paper. They have seen us as just development partners.” What’s apparent is, in Suva, China is seen more as a trade and investment partner, and to a lesser extent an aid partner, than a security one. Consistent with the emphasis on commercial relations, media in both China and Fiji have reported on the importance of trade to bilateral ties with tourism stressed as a critical industry in Fiji’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

Rabuka has continued a pattern established by his predecessor of prime minister attendance at the annual Chinese New Year celebrations organized by the Fiji Chinese community. At this year’s festivities, he acknowledged the contributions of Fiji Chinese stating, “The Chinese diaspora in Fiji may be small but they are influential and play an integral part of Fiji’s development.” In an interview with Voice of South Pacific, a Chinese language news app, Rabuka discussed his long association with Fiji Chinese growing up in rural Fiji. The messaging was one of familiarity with Chinese communities rather than populist exclusion. In conversations, my Fiji Chinese friends have expressed relief with the change of government. Many Fiji Chinese supported Bainimarama’s call for inclusivity on who gets to identify as “Fijian.” Others were cautious about Rabuka’s past of ethnonationalism; however, fatigue with the former Prime Minister stemmed from post-Covid economic stagnation and the widespread corruption that impacted private enterprise.

The stakes are becoming higher in Oceania. Regional leaders’ appeal to keep power politics and militarization out of the region appear to have fallen on half deaf ears. The security pact between Solomon Islands and China, AUKUS, the  opening of a new US base in Guam, the first in 70 years, are signs of a militarizing space. The United States has set out a vision for Pacific-led engagement through its September 2022 Pacific Partnership Strategy that follows closely the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent agreed by Pacific Islands Forum members in 2021. These promises are contrasted with the Biden administration’s February 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy, which outlines a much clearer rationale for presence in the Pacific. In other words, the threat of China. In March 2023, China announced a seven percent increase in military spending citing escalating threats as the explanation.

The high stakes of external political, economic, and social influence in Oceania are a reality. Since the middle of the last decade the momentum has only intensified towards greater economic and military competition that is very much intertwined. Prime Minister Rabuka’s comments and his government’s policies towards external powers, in my opinion, do not signal a turn from China to the United States and allies. What it does signal is the difficult middle path through these competing interests. Officials from the United States and China may indicate that at the core of their interventions are the interests of Pacific Islanders. However, the intensified political, diplomatic, and economic presence from Washington and Beijing alone means these statements should be treated with skepticism.

The pressure of choice is a reality and a preferred outcome for forces beyond the region. The United States and China need not only back up their economic promises, but also their pledge to leave choice of political and development partners to the people of Oceania. However, the task of converting “not choosing” into tangible benefits for the people of Fiji and more broadly the people of the Pacific Islands in an atmosphere of tacit conditions on friendships is onerous, so it is no surprise that regional political leaders feel pulled and pressed in multiple directions as they consider all the costs and benefits of this renewed interest in their blue continent.

Dr. Henryk Szadziewski ([email protected]) is an Affiliate of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. His work on Oceania and China has been published in Political Geography, Geographical Research, and Asia Policy. He is currently working on a book, Mapping Chinese Fiji.

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

Photo: People’s Alliance Party leader Sitiveni Rabuka gestures during a church service at the Fijian Teachers Association Hall in Suva, Fiji, Dec. 18, 2022/AP

PacNet #74 – Fiji’s management of geostrategic competition in 2023: Scaling back on China?

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September 25, 2023

On Aug. 25, after a gathering of the Melanesian Spearhead Group in Vanuatu, Sitveni Rabuka, the Fijian prime minister, observed that China and the United States “are trying to polarize the Pacific into their own camps, so we have to be very certain that whatever we do, we are mindful of the collective need of the Pacific to be a zone of peace, a zone of non-aligned territories.” Only 10 days earlier, in Suva, Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, told an audience at the University of the South Pacific, “The United States is not forcing nations to choose between partnering with the United States and partnering with other nations to meet their development goals.” China’s foreign ministry echoed the choice of development partners sentiment only two months prior.

Set against each other, the above statements indicate a gap in the perceptions of external states and Pacific Island countries amid intensifying geostrategic competition in Oceania. As such, the task for Oceania’s political leaders to manage powerful and competing interests toward domestic and regional benefit is unenviable. This series, in two parts, examines how before and after the Fijian elections in December 2022, Suva has practiced the “friends to all, enemy to none” ethos held in many Pacific Island state capitals, and what the chances are of success for not choosing. This first part explores the Rabuka administration’s outward decisiveness in domestic and international affairs, but part two shows how Suva has in reality implemented external power balancing that has resonances beyond the Fijian Islands.

When Fiji went to the polls on Dec. 14, 2022, familiar political parties and leaders sought political power, including FijiFirst, led by incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the National Federation Party (NFP), led by Biman Prasad, and the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), led by Bill Govoka. The previous month, in a leadership contest, SODELPA removed Sitiveni Rabuka as party leader, who subsequently formed the People’s Alliance Party (PAP) and stood for national office. Rabuka is a long-standing political figure in Fiji leading two military coups in 1987 and serving as prime minister between 1992 and 1999. Rabuka’s move proved successful, after forming a coalition with the NFP and SODELPA, he became the new prime minister of Fiji on Christmas Eve in 2022. The change of administration ended 16 years of controversial rule under Bainimarama. The politics of Fiji were about to take new directions.

Debates prior to the December 2022 election centered on critical domestic issues, such as health, education, and the economy, as well as more divisive topics, such as funding for indigenous affairs, corruption, and accountability for past military coups. The election also raised differences over the foreign policy with Bainimarama’s administration represented as too close to China, a shift borne from the isolation of diplomatic and economic sanctions in Fiji’s post-2006 coup period. Under Bainimarama, in 2018, Fiji signed a memorandum of understanding on Belt and Road Initiative cooperation codifying over a decade’s worth of Chinese migration, aid, trade, and investment. At a testy Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting in 2019, Bainimarama said, “The Chinese don’t insult us…They don’t go down and tell the world that we’ve given this much money to the Pacific islands. They don’t do that. They’re good people.”

Consequently, as the elections drew closer, opposition parties adopted positions that would slow the pace of relations with the People’s Republic of China and move toward more favorable engagement with so-called traditional partners. Further, a security deal signed between the Solomon Islands and China set off a regional debate about the role of external powers in traditional security arrangements in Oceania. SODELPA and PAP, and even FijiFirst, sensing the electorate’s waning feelings toward China and the reemergence of the United States in regional affairs, came out against the idea of such an agreement for Fiji. In the period between election day and the appointment of Rabuka as prime minister, Bill Govoka—as he pondered whether to join PAP and NFP in a coalition government—told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “For SODELPA, our relationship in foreign affairs will be aligned closely to Australia, New Zealand and the members of the Pacific Island forum.”

In the immediate period following the formation of the new government, now Prime Minister Rabuka set about an ambitious agenda to set right the perceived domestic wrongs of the Bainimarama administration and to realign Fiji’s sometimes uncooperative standpoints on regional issues. For example, in April, the coalition overturned the restrictive 2010 Media Industry Development Act and sought to atone on the state’s behalf for the treatment of dissenters to the Bainimarama administration. To signal Fiji’s more cooperative role in regional affairs, Rabuka was prominent in facilitating the return of Kiribati to the Pacific Islands Forum after it had resigned in protest at the appointment of Henry Puna to the position of secretary-general.

Prime Minister Rabuka also approved the return of University of South Pacific Vice Chancellor, Pal Ahluwalia to Fiji and resumed state funding, suspended under FijiFirst, of the region’s leading higher education institution. Issues over USP also precipitated a sequence of events leading to legal charges for Bainimarama. In March, Fijian authorities accused the former prime minister and police commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho, of tampering with an inquiry into financial misconduct at USP. Their trial began in July.

Foreign policy mirrors these rapid developments in domestic and regional affairs in the months since Rabuka assumed office. In contrast to the early years of isolation under the Bainimarama administration, the strategic environment in the region has become increasingly complex with significant policy commitments and suitors reemerging, including the United States, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, India, Korea, and Japan, as well as the establishment of the Partners of the Blue Pacific in September 2022.

Rabuka made haste of his pre-election pledge to scale back relations with China, noting, “Our system of democracy and justice systems are different so we will go back to those that have similar systems with us.” The shift was not only premised on political values, but also support for traditional partners on issues unpopular with Pacific Islanders, particularly Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines under the AUKUS security pact. AUKUS, a defense agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, is a response to China’s growing military capabilities. Militarization and deployment of nuclear technology in a region experiencing the health and environmental traumas of nuclear testing proved unwelcome in Oceania. In this context, Rabuka’s backing for Australia was a considerable marker of new times. However, this resolve in establishing in domestic and foreign affairs has not resulted in complete breaks with the past. As we will see in part two, Fiji has been put to the test in “how not choose” amid geostrategic competition.

Dr. Henryk Szadziewski ([email protected]) is an Affiliate of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. His work on Oceania and China has been published in Political Geography, Geographical Research, and Asia Policy. He is currently working on a book, Mapping Chinese Fiji.

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

Photo: Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka speaks during the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit at United Nations headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 18, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/CAITLIN OCHS)

PacNet #73 – Comparative Connections Summary: September 2023

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Comparative Connections Summary:
May-August 2023



Building Partnerships Amidst Major Power Competition


Major power competition was the primary topic du jure at virtually all of this trimester’s major multilateral gatherings, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continuing to serve as a litmus test—a test many participants struggled to avoid taking. It was clear which side of the fence the G7 leaders stood on; Putin’s invasion was soundly condemned and Sino-centric warning bells were again gently sounded. At the BRICS Summit and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (sans the US), those alarms were clearly muted, as they were at the ASEAN Regional Forum, at which foreign ministers from all three were present. Headlines from the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue focused on the meeting that did not occur, as China’s defense minister pointedly refused to meet with his US counterpart. At the ASEAN-ISIS’ Asia-Pacific Roundtable, participants lamented the impact of major power tensions on ASEAN unity, even though ASEAN’s main challenges are internal ones that predate the downturn in China-US relations. Meanwhile, Beijing and Washington both expended considerable effort at these and other events throughout the reporting period fortifying and expanding their partnerships, even as many neighbors struggled not to choose sides or to keep a foot in both camps.



A Busy Diplomatic Calendar for Biden and Kishida


2023 is the year for the US and Japan to intensify their cooperation in multilateral venues. The first opportunity was the G7 meeting in Hiroshima in May, and the last will be the APEC meeting in San Francisco in November. In between, partners were hosting other important meetings: the NATO Summit in Lithuania and the G20 in India. Across these meetings, Russia’s war in Ukraine has stayed at the top of the agenda. The war has focused attention on the rules-based order, but global economic cooperation was not far behind. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio traveled to Africa and the Middle East to offer assistance for food insecurity and to stabilize energy markets, while President Joe Biden reached out to nations in the Indo-Pacific, including Pacific Island nations and Vietnam, to deepen strategic cooperation. China continues to loom large. The Biden administration sent three Cabinet members to Beijing for long sought consultations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally realized his planned trip on June 18-19. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen followed on July 6-9 to meet with her counterpart, Vice Premier He Lifeng.


US-China Effort to Set “Guardrails” Back on Track for Now


The placement of the proposed “guardrails” that Joe Biden and Xi Jinping sought to erect last fall in Bali finally commenced in earnest with the visits to Beijing by three Cabinet secretaries and one National Security Council principals-level appointee. Important steps were taken to put the balloon incident behind them, with lines of communication re-opened, assurances exchanged, and incremental forward progress recorded even in areas such as export controls, where US and China had previously clashed. Defense exchanges remain an area where progress lags. Whether the “guardrails” can survive their first contact with US election year polemics remains to be seen. As ties stabilized, both sides also engaged in sanctions and countermeasures as well as domestic rulemaking to secure their national economic and security interests. All along, the administration continued building “situations of strength” with its allies and partners to shape the strategic environment around China, which Beijing viewed as an act of encirclement.



Diff’rent Strokes for Different Folks


The May-August 2023 reporting period saw further divergence between Washington’s relations with Seoul and Pyongyang. This dynamic was an acceleration of a trend already evinced at the April Joe Biden-Yoon Suk-yeol summit that produced the Washington Declaration modernizing US-South Korea extended deterrence, and the alliance as a whole. Washington-Seoul bonhomie contrasts manifestly with Washington-Pyongyang relations, whose level of hostility remains the same as four months ago, 14 months ago, or 24 months ago. That is, all the positive action during summer 2023 came from the continued dramatic growth in the US-South Korea alliance, notably via the extraordinary formation of a genuine trilateral US-South Korea-Japan quasi-alliance. This development has been in the works for the last 18-24 months, was given momentum by improving South Korea-Japan government relations and a Yoon-Kishida summit in May, and was concretely founded in August at the US-South Korea-Japan summit at Camp David.



From Non-Alignment to Realignment


The US and India expanded cooperation across various domains in the second reporting period of 2023. The two moved to materialize projects and initiatives that were conceived in the first quarter, in wide-ranging domains with significant geopolitical and geoeconomic scope including defense cooperation, critical and emerging technologies, and infrastructure development. While New Delhi continued to straddle groupings such as BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the US-India partnership broke ground on more initiatives than any of India’s other bilateral relationships. Modi and Biden visited each other’s capitals and reaffirmed their commitment to a rules-based international order. The rousing reception Modi received in Washington and the continued US preeminence in most major trade and technology initiatives conceived by India highlighted the growing partnership between the two democracies. And the two leaders, while facing elections next year, seem willing to work together on common global priorities—sometimes at domestic political costs.



New Leaders Challenged by US-China Rivalry


Over the summer three Southeast Asian nations—Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia—conducted political contests or prepared for them, with Washington and Beijing watching closely for shifts in alignments or opportunities to make inroads with new leaders. Despite this, and possibly because of it, China made bold moves in the South China Sea and caused outcry in the region with the release of a map supporting its claims to the “Nine-Dash Line.” Beijing also showed signs of worry about Russian inroads into Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. The high-profile visit to Washington of Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. enabled both countries to reconfirm the US-Philippines alliance publicly, although it gave little indication of where the broader relationship may be headed. ASEAN continued to make little headway in helping to resolve the conflict in Myanmar; and the 2023 chair, Jakarta attempted to redirect the group toward economic goals and a common approach to looming food insecurity in the region.



China-US Rivalry Very Much ‘in Play’: Outcome Uncertain

China’s recently recognized position as Southeast Asia’s leading power faces growing challenges from efforts of the Biden administration to counter Chinese ambitions and advance US regional influence. Beijing has stuck to practices of strong diplomatic engagement, economic enticement, and a range of coercive measures that have been broadly successful in the past but seem to have failed badly in the Philippines, now moving into the US orbit.



Stark Choices Confront Taiwan Voters


Taiwan’s presidential election campaign has begun. Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s vice president and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Hou Yu-ih from the Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) Party, Ko Wen-je of Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), and independent Terry Gou offer Taiwan voters four different visions of Taiwan’s future relationship with China. As senior US and Chinese officials resumed long-stalled face-to-face meetings, China warned once again that it has no room for compromise or concession on Taiwan. Yet, when Lai completed almost invisible transits through the US en route to Paraguay and back, China’s military response seemed almost pro-forma. When US, Japanese, and South Korean leaders reiterated at the trilateral Camp David summit their staunch opposition to China’s intimidation, China chose to interpret their words as one more promise to support Taiwan. The US accelerated weapons deliveries to Taiwan and expanded training for Taiwan’s military, and Taiwan announced that its defense budget will increase by 7.5% in 2024. Taiwan’s TSMC moved forward on constructing its Arizona factory despite some hiccups, and the US and Taiwan signed a long-awaited trade deal—the first part of their 21st Century Trade Initiative.



In Both Pyongyang and Seoul, an Ominous Hardening


In mid-2023, the (non-existent) relations between the two Koreas got even worse, if that were possible. Confronting enlarged US-ROK military exercises, and the first visit of a US nuclear-armed submarine to the peninsula since 1981, Pyongyang’s nuclear threats grew ever more frenzied. In Seoul, President Yoon Suk Yeol institutionalized his hard line by downsizing and repurposing the Ministry of Unification (MOU). Criticizing MOU for acting in the past as a support department for North Korea, Yoon evidently conceives its future role as being to hinder Kim Jong Un’s regime—publicizing its human rights abuses, for instance—rather than help. Much as the DPRK’s ever-expanding WMD threat requires robust deterrence, for Seoul to start emulating Pyongyang’s unalloyed hostility hardly seems conducive to peace. The period under review also saw two attempts by North Korea to put a spy satellite into orbit; both failed. By contrast, the North’s missile launches hardly ever go wrong these days. The large solid-fuel Hwasong-18 ICBM, with a 15,000-km (9,300-mile) range, which first flew in April, had a second successful test on July 12.



Economic Security Dilemmas


PRC Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming’s public statement in June sharpened Beijing-Seoul frictions following President Yoon Suk Yeol’s Taiwan remarks in an April interview, sparking mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. Multilateral engagements offered opportunities to reaffirm China-ROK relations through bilateral talks between China’s Commerce Minister Wang Wentao and South Korea’s Trade Minister Ahn Duk-geun (May), Defense Ministers Li Shangfu and Lee Jong-sup (June), Foreign Ministers Wang Yi and Park Jin (July), Finance Ministers Liu Kun and Choo Kyung-ho (July), and Trade Ministers Wang Shouwen and Ahn (August). The revival of high-level exchanges, Beijing’s lifting of travel restrictions on South Korea in August, and North Korea’s border reopening that same month are sources of optimism in China-Korea relations despite overarching tensions. Discord remains on regional security priorities, South Korea’s overt alignment with the United States under the Yoon administration, and the escalating US-China technology war. Meanwhile, Chinese and Russian delegations joined Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, reflecting the shape of North Korea’s first post-COVID diplomatic activity.



From Talking Past Each Other to Barely Talking


China’s mid-August decision to allow group travel to Japan days ahead of the 45th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations as well as indications that China would be open to a meeting between Xi Jinping and Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G20) leaders’ summit in India in September gave hope for improvement in China-Japan ties. The optimism proved short-lived. Chinese media responded that Japan would first have to turn away from following the US lead, stop encouraging Taiwanese pro-independence forces, and strictly abide by the four communiques signed between Beijing and Tokyo. China’s protests over Japan’s release of radioactive water culminated in a total ban on Japanese marine products. The PRC also expressed annoyance with Japanese restrictions on the export of computer chips, the ministry of defense’s release of its annual Defense of Japan 2023 white paper, Tokyo’s closer relations with NATO, and its tripartite agreement with South Korea and the US. Japan expressed uneasiness with Russia-China cooperation and became concerned with renewed Chinese interest in Okinawa, with its purchases of Japanese land, cyberattacks, and its refusal to import Japanese seafood products.



Camp David: Institutionalizing Cooperation Trilaterally


Japan-South Korea relations are going strong. In the months leading up to the historic Camp David trilateral summit in August, we saw the return of shuttle diplomacy between Korea and Japan. If President Yoon Suk Yeol’s March visit to Japan was groundbreaking, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s May visit to Seoul signified the continued momentum of improving bilateral ties. The Aug. 18 trilateral summit meeting, where President Biden, President Yoon, and Prime Minister Kishida announced bold steps to cement trilateral cooperation into the institutional fabric of the relationship, represents the deepest attempt in recent memory. A successful trilateral summit like this one was possible only because Seoul and Tokyo mended their bilateral ties. A positive cycle is expected the other way around, as well. For example, the “Commitment to Consult” —to expeditiously “share information, align messaging and coordinate response actions” among the three leaders— will likely create more incentives and opportunities for Seoul and Tokyo to keep bilateral relations friendly and cooperative.



Testing the Limits of Strategic Partnership


In the summer months, both the upper and lower limits of the China-Russia strategic partnership were put to considerable tests. In the West, China’s peace-probing effort continued despite virtual stalemate in the Ukraine war and its sudden twists and turns (drone attacks on the Kremlin and Wagner mutiny). Beijing treaded carefully in restoring relations with Kyiv with the new Ukrainian ambassador in place. In the East, Russian and Chinese militaries conducted a series of aerial and naval exercises/operations with unprecedented scope and closer interoperability for almost three months (from early June to late August), something not seen even at the peak of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the 1950s. All of this occurred against the backdrop of increasingly hardened US-led alliance networks both in Indo-Pacific and beyond.



Stabilizing China Trade and Seeking Indo-Pacific Balance


Australia has peeled back China trade coercion as it ramps-up the alliance with the United States to balance China. The Labor government, elected in May 2022, claims a diplomatic thaw with China as a key achievement. The major defense step was agreeing for Australia to get nuclear submarines under the AUKUS agreement with Britain and the United States. The government’s 2023 National Defense Statement describes “an intense contest of values” in the Indo-Pacific, with growing “risks of military escalation or miscalculation.” Because of the worsening strategic environment, the Australian Defense Force is judged “not fully fit for purpose” as the government seeks greater long-range strike capability. The era of alliance integration will see more US troops, planes, and ships in Australia, and the creation of a US-Australia combined intelligence center in Canberra. The contest with China in the South Pacific frames a new Australian aid policy and a greater US role in the islands.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors.
Photo: U.S. President Joe Biden holds a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol during the trilateral summit at Camp David near Thurmont, Maryland, U.S., August 18, 2023. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

PacNet #72 – How to build US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation on Taiwan

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September 13, 2023

This PacNet was developed as a part of the United States-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Next-Generation Leaders Dialogue to encourage creative thinking about how this vital partnership can be fostered. For the previous entries please click hereherehere, here, and here.

In recent years, Japan and the United States have taken a series of steps to bolster deterrence-building vis-a-vis the Taiwan Strait. In 2021, for example, Tokyo and Washington reportedly formulated a joint plan that entails the US Marine Corps setting up an attack base along the Nansei island chain in preparation for a Taiwan Strait military contingency. Moreover, following the conclusion of US-Japan Security Consultative Committee (2+2) discussions in 2023, it was announced that Washington would repurpose a Marine Corps regiment in Okinawa and equip it with anti-ship missiles that can target PLA Navy ships during a Taiwan Strait military conflict. The Republic of Korea (ROK), however, has long been reluctant to toe the same line. The election of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and recent public animosity towards China within South Korea, may change things. Seoul’s shift towards becoming more proactive on Taiwan issues has been notable. In May 2021, for example, Taiwan was named for the first time in a joint statement between the ROK and the United States. In February 2023, ROK Foreign Minister Park Jin stated in a CNN interview that Seoul opposes any unilateral change of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait via force and that such a change would have a “direct impact” on South Korea. This marked a remarkable departure from earlier posturing. It would be remiss to not transform such willingness, however slight, into incremental steps amenable to Seoul that ultimately support Taiwan’s defense. This article will identify and discuss three such steps that should be taken.

First, trilateral discussions involving the three countries should be organized to establish whether Seoul will allow troops from US Forces Korea (USFK) to support US operations during a Taiwan Strait military contingency. A commitment from Japan to permit the US to utilize its bases in-country to defend Taiwan, a move already expected by Chinese foreign policy elites, would enable Seoul the space needed to provide USFK the “strategic flexibility” to operate beyond the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, discussions can be held to formulate plans for ROK and Japanese forces to provide rear area and intelligence-gathering support in the event of a Taiwan Strait military contingency. In such discussions, it is critical for Washington to reassure Seoul of USFK’s ability to deter the DPRK from engaging in any military adventurism during a Taiwan Strait conflict. Washington, for example, could enter into a NATO-style nuclear sharing agreement with Seoul. Additionally, Seoul must be prepared for a distracted Washington in the event of a Taiwan conflict and be prepared to engage in more burden-sharing regarding deterrence efforts vis-à-vis Pyongyang. With the ROK’s already sizable military advantages over the DPRK, this should not be significant challenge.

Second, the three countries should seek to bolster cooperation with Taiwan via joint coast guard operations. Japan has proven proactive in this regard. In 2017, for example, Taiwan and Japanese officials signed an MoU enabling the conduct of joint search and rescue operations. Likewise, the US has sought to bolster Coast Guard ties with Taiwan and the two nations established a Coast Guard Working Group in 2021. The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act also mandates a report on National Guard cooperation with Taiwan, which should be expanded to include Coast Guard training as well. Given such precedent, Seoul should follow suit and initiate joint Coast Guard training exercises with Taiwan. All four nations should conduct training exercises together, particularly in the waters off Pacific Island countries with which Taiwan has diplomatic relations. Given Seoul’s potential concerns regarding provoking Beijing, cooperation can focus on issues such as drug trafficking, marine debris, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

Third, the three countries should continue efforts to bring the Chip4 Alliance to fruition. The proposed alliance will enable the three countries to, together with Taiwan, build a more robust and comprehensive semiconductor supply-chain that reduces Beijing’s leverage on the international stage. All four nations possess a unique comparative advantage when it comes to semiconductors. As ROK Minister of Trade, Industry, and Energy Lee Chang-yang stated: “South Korea holds its strengths in memory chip [production], Taiwan is strong in the foundry business. The US has the equipment and technology and Japan is strong in minerals and components.” Chip4 has shown promise despite initial doubts regarding the initiative. In February 2023, for example, Chip4 held its inaugural video meeting featuring senior officials from all four nations thus assuaging concerns about preliminary delays. In March 2023, Japan lifted export controls previously imposed on the ROK’s semiconductor industry, thereby eliminating more barriers to cooperation in the semiconductor space. In the same month, South Korea appointed semiconductor expert Lee Eun-ho to be its envoy to Taiwan. Lee, the former president of the Korean Security Agency of Trade and Industry, a government institution that helps South Korean corporations comply with export controls, has already spoken favorably about Chip4. His appointment is a strong signal that the ROK is increasingly serious about heightening cooperation with Taiwan in the semiconductor space.

While Tokyo and Taipei’s participation is more or less assured, doubts remain regarding Seoul’s commitment to a potential Chip4 alliance given that 60% of its semiconductor exports go to China. Given past economic coercion by the PRC, Seoul is inevitably concerned that any decision to join Chip4 would be met by economic retaliation against its semiconductor industry. Seoul, however, should keep two things in mind. First, trends suggest that South Korean semiconductor exports to China will decrease precipitously going forward regardless of Seoul’s decision-making. Beijing has, after all, set a target self-sufficiency rate in semiconductors of 70% by 2025 and launched aggressive state subsidy programs to realize this goal. South Korean companies must be reminded that market opportunity in China will fall as Beijing pursues such autarky, even if it falls short of meeting its targets. Semiconductor exports from the ROK to China have already fallen 13.4% year-on-year. Second, Beijing has exhibited significant reluctance to sanction TSMC despite heightening cross-strait tensions. Moreover, US export controls, endorsed by the Netherlands and Japan, have made Chinese firms more dependent on South Korean companies such as SY Hynix and Samsung for critical semiconductor materials. Concern about potential countersanctions, therefore, should be minimal.

The aforementioned steps listed in this article provide three, realistic avenues through which the United States, ROK, and Japan can cooperate in a trilateral manner over Taiwan while also bolstering bilateral ties between each other. Any or all of these steps will remind Beijing that military action against Taiwan is strongly opposed by other East Asian security actors. As Beijing continues its campaign of military and economic coercion against Taipei and consolidates increasingly formidable military capabilities with an eye on Taiwan, such deterrence-building efforts are sorely needed.

Daniel Fu ([email protected]) is a Research Associate at Harvard Business School.

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

Photo credit: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (C) leaves Taoyuan International Airport on March 29, 2023, for a 10-day tour of Central America via the United States. (Photo courtesy of the presidential office) (Kyodo)


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PacNet #71 – To secure US-Japan-ROK gains from Camp David, bring South Korea to the Quad

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September 6, 2023

This PacNet was developed as a part of the United States-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Next-Generation Leaders Dialogue to encourage creative thinking about how this vital partnership can be fostered. For the previous entries please click herehere, here, and here.

On a warm August afternoon in Virginia, beneath a lush canopy of ash trees, President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, and President Yoon Suk Yeol convened to show the world that their response to adversity is unity. In contrast to the gridlock that has characterized the nadir in Japan-ROK relations since 2018, the Spirit of Camp David charts a course for the US-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship predicated on steadfast alignment in the face of unprecedented threats. Among the summit’s initiatives is a plan to regularize trilateral ballistic missile defense and anti-submarine warfare exercises—a response to North Korea’s record-breaking tempo of provocative missile tests over the past year and a stark reminder of the stakes underpinning the trilateral relationship.

Considering the backdrop of a deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific, this turning point is vital to the sustainability of the regional order. However, while the latest round of Japan-ROK rapprochement is promising, it remains fragile, and therefore the progress of the US-Japan-ROK trilateral could unravel, like after similar past breakthroughs. Still, by articulating a common vision and actionable agenda, the United States, Japan, and South Korea are undeniably closer to escaping the well-trod cycle of previous decades. To continue making progress toward a relationship that will survive the next resurgence in Japan-ROK bilateral tensions, additional efforts must both increase the political costs of regression and demonstrate to domestic populations that these relationships can be sources of strength and catalysts for prosperity.

Fortunately, a complementary agenda with initiatives on preserving a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific already exists in the form of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States). South Korean integration into the Quad’s activities would provide a channel through which Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul can work together on concrete lines of effort, thereby reinforcing their relationship against bilateral turbulence.

Amid the increased volatility in the region, the resurrection of the Quad stands out as a momentous victory for stability. In a few short years, the Quad has emerged as a focal point of multilateral collaboration in the Indo-Pacific and a central pillar of the Biden administration’s regional strategy. The Quad is a major force for good in the region: its promise is rooted in an ambitious agenda that aims to meet the needs of the Indo-Pacific through leveraging the comparative advantages of its members as liberal democracies. That agenda has grown from the Quad’s origins in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the mid-2000s to its current state with working groups tackling a slate of issues, including cyber security, climate change, infrastructure, and critical and emerging technology.

While South Korea may not officially join the Quad in the near future, that should not preclude its involvement. During the Quad’s revitalization in 2020 and 2021, Japan-ROK tensions and former President Moon Jae-in’s indisposition toward the group understandably made South Korea’s participation a nonstarter. Now that relations have improved and Yoon has expressed interest in certain working groups, the situation has changed. Nonetheless, the Quad countries have signaled their grouping will not expand its membership as it is still gaining momentum and defining its purpose. However, after two years of building the lines of effort of its various working groups since its first leader-level summit, the Quad should soon begin to consider opportunities for partnerships and consultations on certain initiatives with highly capable like-minded countries such as South Korea.

To start, the Quad could invite Seoul to send observers to working group meetings. South Korea already engages bilaterally with Quad countries on many of the issues in the Quad’s portfolio. Seoul’s financial resources, technical know-how, and positive reputation in the region would empower the Quad to scale up its activities and build a more compelling agenda, particularly in areas such as critical and emerging technology, where South Korea is already a world leader. From Seoul’s perspective, the Quad is an opportunity to act on its Indo-Pacific foreign policy ambitions of increasing South Korea’s presence outside the Korean Peninsula, thereby transforming into a “global pivotal state.”

Considering South Korea’s position as a strong US ally, leading Indo-Pacific democracy, and technological powerhouse, South Korean involvement in the Quad would not only be a force multiplier for the grouping, but also a boon for the US-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship. Incorporating South Korea into the region’s most promising democratic coalition would provide critical opportunities to rebuild the connective tissue of the US-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship that have atrophied over the past several years. Through the Quad, Japanese and South Korean officials would have more opportunities to interact, exchange views, and build personal ties in a constructive multilateral environment. Acting in concert upon their shared strategic interests would lay the foundation for a more cooperative bilateral partnership by increasing trust and fostering mutual understanding.

The tenor of Japan-ROK ties habitually fluctuate, but the Quad could bring structural support to the relationship. With the Spirit of Camp David, leaders in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul took advantage of the current upswing in trilateral ties to proclaim their shared ambitions and collective purpose. Adding the Quad’s comprehensive lines of effort to those objectives would enhance the trilateral’s scope and further cement its future. The Quad will not always be closed to new members, and in the meantime it ought to pursue relationships with like-minded partners that would support its goals. Incorporating South Korea—even initially at the observer level—would lead to a more capable Quad, a more stable trilateral relationship, and ultimately, a more prosperous Indo-Pacific.

Joshua Fitt ([email protected]) is an Associate Fellow with the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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

Photo credit: Yonhap

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PacNet #70 – Taiwan’s spent nuclear fuel: A burden in a potential Taiwan Strait conflict

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September 1, 2023

The war in Ukraine has drawn concerns that a potential conflict may happen across the Taiwan Strait. In Ukraine, the attack and occupation of nuclear facilities, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (NPP) by the Russian military, initiated a dangerous situation for the safe and secure operation of civilian NPPs, including the spent fuel facilities. It also hindered the International Atomic Energy Agency’s effort to assure the proper accounting and control of nuclear materials in these facilities. If a military conflict were to happen across the Taiwan Strait, there would be similar concerns.

There are six operating or shutdown nuclear reactors (two pressurized water reactors, PWRs and four boiling water reactors, BWRs) in Taiwan. Of the six, the four BWRs located in the northern tip of Taiwan pose the biggest safety, security, and safeguards concerns. Taiwan’s first NPP, Chinshan 1 & 2, were BWRs similar to Fukushima Daiichi 1 NPP that was involved in the 2011 accident in Japan, with spent fuel pools that are located high up above ground. Taiwan’s second NPP, Kuosheng 1 & 2, were of a later BWR design, with spent fuel pools located at a lower elevation. The two PWR reactors have spent fuel pools located at ground level.

When Chinshan 1 & 2 went offline in 2018-2019, more than 6,000 spent fuel assemblies were stored in the two elevated spent fuel pools. At Kuosheng 1 & 2, the capacities of both ground-level spent fuel pools have become insufficient to support reactor operation. To free up space in the pools for newly discharge spent fuel, TAIPOWER, the utility company, moved those 15-year-old spent fuel assemblies to the upper (refueling) pools for storage, which are located well above the ground level.

According to the US National Academies of Sciences, the vulnerability of a spent fuel pool depends in part on its location with respect to ground level as well as its construction. In a potential military conflict across the Taiwan Strait, the spent fuel pools located above ground in Chinshan and Kuosheng may thus be susceptible to accidental attacks from misfired or stray missiles. Significantly, to protest the Pelosi visit to Taiwan in August 2022, two missiles fired by the Chinese military landed in water about 50 km north of the Chinshan NPP.

The Fukushima accident highlighted the vulnerability of elevated spent fuel storage. The explosion that occurred in the reactor building of Fukushima Daiichi 4 destroyed the roof and most of the walls on the fourth and fifth (refueling) floors. The Japanese utility company, TEPCO, had to reinforce the region underneath the pool with steel beams and concrete to prevent pool leakage and a potential collapse of the pool. To reduce the vulnerability, Unit 4 pool’s inventory of 1,535 spent fuel assemblies (half of that in Chinshan 1 pool) was moved between November 2013 and December 2014 into a common pool on the ground level built after the accident.

If an attack caused an explosion similar to what happened in Fukushima Daiichi 4, damaging the roof and walls on the fourth and fifth floors in Chinshan or Kuosheng NPP, a loss-of-cooling (due to damage to the pool spray system), and/or loss-of-coolant (due to leaky pools) accident could occur. To prevent a loss-of-cooling-and-coolant accident in any one of the Chinshan or Kuosheng high-elevation pools, spent fuel must be removed and placed in water pools or dry storage casks located at or below ground level.

A sense of urgency

Spent fuel has accumulated in Chinshan and Kuosheng NPPs over the 40 years of their operating lives. Due to objections from the local public over moving the spent fuel to dry cask storage and the lack of suitable storage or disposal sites in the geographically limited island, spent fuel discharged from Chinshan 1&2 reactors has remained in the refueling-turned-into-storing pools adjacent to the reactor wells, which is high above ground. To support continued reactor operation of Kuosheng NPP and to free up space in its lower-level spent fuel pools, spent fuel assemblies were moved into the upper (refueling) pools, situated well above ground.

The Fukushima accident and the subsequent action by TEPCO to move the spent fuel into a ground-level common pool built after the accident should have led TAIPOWER to conclude that spent fuel stored at Chinshan and Kuosheng high-elevation pools creates a significant risk. The war in Ukraine and rockets/missiles landing in or around Zaporizhzhia NPP (with all six PWRs’ spent fuel pools located at ground level) should have given TAIPOWER another warning that spent fuel in high-elevation pools should be moved to ground-level pools or dry cask storage. TAIPOWER should have a sense of urgency for this “clear and present” danger in Taiwan, especially given that it has the technology and resources to accomplish the task. Taiwan’s internal politics and objection of the local public are the primary causes for the procrastination.

The longer-term problem with moving the spent fuel off the island centers around something called “consent rights,” which is complicated given US involvement in the installation of the NPPs in Taiwan.

Consent-rights and possible solution to remove Taiwan’s spent fuel

The United States holds the prior consent rights for Taiwan’s spent fuel (over the “alteration” of nuclear material by Taiwan) based on the terms of Taipei’s 123-Agreement with Washington in conjunction with the original construction of Taiwan’s NPPs. The United States also has a bilateral safeguards agreement with Taiwan, as well as a trilateral safeguards agreement with both Taiwan and the IAEA (INFCIRC/158). The US rights over Taiwan’s nuclear activities are so extensive that Washington instructed the German government in the 1980s that any nuclear items supplied to Taiwan by a German exporter would be subject to US “control rights,” which included US “fallback safeguards rights” if deemed necessary. Nowhere else does the United States have as much leverage over a foreign nuclear program. Yet whenever Taiwan has requested the United States to take-back the spent fuel, Washington has declined.

The alternative to resolve the spent fuel issue in Taiwan may be a cooperative multi-site/multi-national arrangement (MSMNA). Such an arrangement could help manage the spent fuel in existing/emerging nuclear-power programs. Emulating the URENCO model for a uranium-enrichment enterprise, an MSMNA can be led by nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and major uranium producers (MUP)—the two groups of countries having the most at stake for a sustainable global nuclear enterprise—to provide a safe and secure supply of energy and assure nonproliferation in the backend of the nuclear fuel cycle. It involves an NWS for the assurance of nonproliferation, just as United Kingdom is an essential partner in the URENCO enrichment enterprise.

An MSMNA could be formed by a consortium consisting of any one of the NWS (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, or the United States) and an MUP (Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, etc.), and providing spent fuel interim storage and/or final disposal at multiple sites within MSMNA countries.

Broadly, an MSMNA can help a country decouple their power generation from the back-end nuclear fuel cycle. Such decoupling is essential for solving the intractable spent fuel dilemma, providing a better way to manage nuclear weapon-usable materials, and facilitating a resilient nuclear fuel cycle to support a sustainable use of nuclear energy. Examples for using MSMNA services in conjunction with the Taiwan dilemma include the removal of Taiwan’s spent fuel by MSMNA and their assignment to any one of the MSMNA countries for 40-year interim storage and/or final disposal.

Removing the spent fuel from Taiwan would eliminate its “clear and present” spent fuel danger, while fulfilling its goal of ensuring a “nuclear-free” Taiwan. This should be a priority.

Jorshan Choi ([email protected]), PhD, PE is a retired scientist, formerly with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

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

Photo credit: By Ellery – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

PacNet #69 – China preaching autocracy to Africans shouldn’t surprise, but it won’t work

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August 29, 2023

On Aug. 21, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Axios’ Taipei-based China reporter, released a bombshell report about the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Tanzania that she alleges is ground zero in China’s efforts “to shape African politics in a fight for influence on a continent rich in raw materials and energy.” She details how the Chinese Communist Party seeks to use the school to build a coterie of autocracy-friendly African leaders who could help China build a reliable political bloc on a continent of growing economic and diplomatic importance. Interviews reveal Chinese teachers preach that the ruling party should be paramount and the merits of fierce intra-party discipline.

Her reporting is excellent, but none of China’s actions should surprise. Trade may have been one manifestation of China’s ambition, but it has never been the only one, nor was trade only for trade’s sake. Rather, as Michael Pillsbury shows in The Hundred-Year Marathon, the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy both spans generations and is more ambitious. Rather than simply make China wealthy, it seeks to make China the sole hegemon.

To replace the United States in this role requires reshaping the world order. Chinese officials have been blunt about such ambition. Long before President Xi Jinping took China’s helm, Chinese officials had talked about their desire to craft a new world order. In 1997, for example, Chinese Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the “Joint Russia-Chinese Declaration about a Multipolar World and the Formation of a New World Order” that would constrain if not supplant American hegemony. Just two years later, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the nucleus of what would soon become the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, issued the so-called Bishkek Declaration that declared, “The Parties believe that multi-polarity…contributes to the long-term stability of the international situation.” In 2001, it was the turn of Russian President Vladimir Putin to join Jiang Zemin in a call for “a just and fair new world order.” In 2005, Zheng Bijian, famous for coining the term “peaceful rise” to assuage Western concerns about Chinese ambitions, explained that “China…advocates a new international political and economic order one that can be achieved through incremental reforms and the democratization of international relations.”

Such embrace of multipolarity to weaken the United States is now standard within Chinese political discourse. Speaking at the ASEAN foreign minister meeting in September 2020, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi “urged the United States to follow the historical trend toward multipolarity in the world and democracy in international relations.” Xi frequently speaks of a “new type of great power relations.”

“Chinese-style modernization does not follow the old path of colonial plunder or the hegemony of strong countries,” he declared, while speaking by video to an array of political party leaders from around the globe.

It is against this backdrop that China seeks to solidify its gains in Africa. A scramble for Africa is nothing new. In the 19th century, European powers carved up the continent. During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow viewed the continent through the lens of their own geopolitical competition. With the end of the Cold War, the United States forgot about Africa. President George H.W. Bush visited Egypt once, but never traveled to sub-Saharan Africa. President Bill Clinton waited until his second term before visiting sub-Saharan Africa. The pattern continued under George W. Bush and even Barack Obama, who had Kenyan ancestry. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, was contemptuous of the continent and never bothered to visit. When the president or secretaries of State would visit, they inevitably declared a new beginning and renewed commitment that quickly sputtered out. This was also the pattern with President Joe Biden’s administration, despite hosting US-Africa Leaders’ Summits.

Other countries, recognizing both Africa’s strategic and economic potential, have not been so dismissive and have sought to fill the vacuum left by US neglect. Within the continent, Morocco, Ethiopia, and South Africa have long played a game of influence. Revisionist states such as Iran and Turkey have also battled for economic and diplomatic influence on the continent. Russia, too, has made spotty advances. Its efforts to grab Mozambique’s hydrocarbon-rich Cabo Delgado province failed, but it has made great progress across the Sahel as French influence hemorrhages, and now seeks to extend its footprint into Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire.

China’s turn to Africa has been more noticeable and sustained. Since 2000, China has become the largest trading partner for almost every country in Africa. Whereas Washington lectures, Beijing builds. China built hospitals on main roads in Kinshasa and Bangui. Entire boarding gates in airline hubs like Addis Ababa appear filled with Chinese businessmen. China inaugurated its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, threatening to squeeze the American military out of one of its main logistical hubs. Current fighting between Taiwan-friendly (but unrecognized) Somaliland and China-friendly Somalia over the dusty town of Laascanood have the hallmarks of a China-Taiwan proxy war. Chinese leaders have long been astute at the power of debt-trap diplomacy, but African leaders are not stupid. They understand they must balance their creditors to immunize themselves against any predatory action. Ethiopia, for example, now welcomes European investment to balance China, while Rwanda turned to Turkish construction firms to prevent China from gaining too much leverage over the tiny country.

Nor does Beijing’s old strategy of bribing the man at top necessarily work. A case in point is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Chinese firms believed they had consolidated control over Congo’s rich lithium resources when they bribed President Joseph Kabila for concessions, but after Félix Tshisekedi succeeded him in 2019, he too wanted his cut; China had to renegotiate to grease the new patronage networks.

This brings us back to China’s new leadership academy for dictators. If Congo’s tentative democratic turn threatened Beijing’s long-term multi-trillion-dollar lithium interests, then what better insurance policy than to immunize the continent against democracy? Practically speaking, streamlining the palms Beijing needs to grease, or the politicians Chinese officials must call makes the practice of policy easier from Communist China’s point-of-view.

Chinese Communist officials neither understand nor tolerate democracy; they disdain it. While Africa has suffered recent setbacks on the road to democracy, it has still made great strides. With its new school in Tanzania, China seeks to reverse that. While the United States’ own indifference to African democracy is a lost opportunity, the Chinese strategy will nonetheless fall flat because Africans have agency. They suffered through decades of socialism, but now see the fruits of democracy and free-market reforms. Hundreds of millions of Africans have emerged from poverty and now fuel a middle class. Teaching autocracy and preaching a return to the past will never work. Rather, only those who treat Africans as equals on the road to prosperity will “win” the new great game.

Michael Rubin ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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

Photo credit: REUTERS/Alet Pretoriu

PacNet #68 – The Pacific: Great power politics threatens regional unity

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August 29, 2023

The Pacific Islands have consistently sought a stronger regional voice since the establishment of the Pacific Islands Forum in 1971, most recently manifesting in the Blue Pacific Continent.

But now increased attention from great powers threatens such regional efforts.

Over the past decade, concerns associated with the rise of China, particularly Beijing’s rapid naval modernization and growing strategic and commercial inroads in the region, have brought the Pacific Islands into the geopolitical limelight. The United Kingdom’s “Pacific Uplift” (2019), Indonesia’s “Pacific Elevation” (2019), New Zealand’s “Pacific Reset,” (2018) and Australia’s “Pacific Step-up” (2018) also reflect this trend. After the trilateral AUKUS deal garnered mixed reactions from the Pacific Islands, Australia’s Albanese administration has prioritized bilateral ties with the island nations, not only through high profile diplomatic visits but also by stabilizing relations with China and placing climate change back on the agenda.

The Pacific Islands feature as major partners in Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (2022) and the Roadmap for a 21st Century US-Pacific Islands Partnership (2022). The Partners in the Blue Pacific seeks to expand cooperation between the Pacific Islands and American partners on issues such as climate change and people-centered development. Under its Pacific Partnership Strategy, the United States has renewed the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the Federal States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, while the agreement with the Republic of Palau has been extended. The Marshall Islands is yet to settle the renegotiation of the COFA treaty, with the lingering effects of Washington’s atomic testing during the 1940s and 1950s acting as a holdup. The Compacts oblige Washington to protect those nations and allow it access to their territories. Citizens of Compact nations can serve in the US military; significantly, Compact islands have a higher military participation rate than any US state.

Washington has also tried to strengthen its diplomatic presence. On his visit to Tonga in late July, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken criticized “problematic behavior” springing from China’s engagement in the region. It was his third visit to the Pacific Islands in two months. The visit closely followed the State Department’s announcement that the United States plans to ramp up American diplomatic presence in the region to “catch up” with Beijing, which has permanent diplomatic facilities in eight of the 12 Pacific Islands Washington recognizes. Furthermore, at the Compact Review Signing Ceremony with Palau, Blinken announced Washington will commit a whopping $7.1 billion to the Freely Associated States over the next two decades. The United States is also set to host a second summit with Pacific leaders this September.

China has stayed close on the heels of such developments. Beijing has not only replaced Taiwan as a major investor and aid provider in the region, thus expanding acceptance of its one-China Principle, but it has also criticized the “Band-Aid Diplomacy” of the West, describing it as a mere temporary fix to the problems faced by the Pacific Islands that fails to bring any real socioeconomic progress. China has thus emphasized the formation of the “China-Pacific Islands Community with a Shared Future” rooted in South-South Cooperation. Beijing has further enhanced its regional role from that of a predominantly commercial actor through the Belt and Road Initiative to a security provider under the Global Security Initiative. Qian Bo, China’s special envoy to the Pacific Islands, recently met Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, who chairs the Pacific Islands Forum.

Such developments have drawn other powers to the region. In May 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a 12-point plan for the Pacific Islands focused on health care and community development at the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation summit in Port Moresby, highlighting the significance of the region for New Delhi’s Act East Policy. The occasion also marked the first official visit by an Indian prime minister to Papua New Guinea (PNG). India might also expand its solar infrastructure STAR-C initiative under the International Solar Alliance to several nations in the region.

France also has huge stakes in the region—with 1.6 million citizens across seven overseas territories, the largest Exclusive Economic Zone, and two sovereign forces with 2,700 military personnel—though its diplomatic influence remains modest. While pushing for a “French alternative” to the unfolding Sino-US competition in the region, Macron has promised Vanuatu financial assistance for security, combating climate change, and education on an unprecedented visit to  the independent Pacific Island nations undertaken by a French President. He has further promised to look into the dispute between Vanuatu and the French territory of New Caledonia and has also announced a new statute for New Caledonia, which will replace the 1998 Noumea Accord, while confirming the transfer of 200 more soldiers and 18 billion CFP francs (approximately $165 million) to the armed forces of New Caledonia.

Regionalism under threat?

Such developments are bound to impact the region enormously and the Pacific Islands are highly cautious about the loss of regionalism to great power competition. The 2019 State of Regionalism Report published by the Pacific Islands Forum noted that the best way of preventing the region from getting embroiled in great power competition is for the Pacific Islands to act collectively as a Blue Pacific Continent prioritizing sovereignty and leveraging benefits from all actors involved. ASEAN can serve as a lesson—while a strongly professed regional identity once helped it in safeguarding mutually held concerns and aspirations; growing external influence has fissured unity and weakened the region. Strengthening regionalism would hence allow the Pacific Islands to become friends with all and enemies to none.

The reality is more complex, however. In July 2023, the Solomon Islands and China agreed to enhance police cooperation as part of their security deal struck in 2022, elevating diplomatic ties to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The 2022 agreement had heightened anxieties in the region. In March 2023, the United States, Australia and the UK unveiled details of the AUKUS plan as a response to China’s growing footprint in the Pacific, 18 months after the partnership was formally announced. Prime Minister Sogavare not only criticized Australia and New Zealand for “suddenly withdrawing financial support worth millions of dollars” (a claim both countries deny), but has also stated that “nothing” could stop him from seeking China’s help in policing if disorder broke out in the Solomon Islands. He is set to review a 2017 security treaty with Australia that provided police support to Honiara. Canberra views this as an opportunity to “revitalize the security relationship.” The no-confidence motion  recently raised against Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau over a bilateral security deal with Australia further reflects this trend as lawmakers worry about upsetting its major development partner, Beijing.

Others have stepped closer to the United States. Fijian President Ratu Wiliame Katonivere seeks to balance Chinese influence by strengthening relations with Western democracies, a major policy departure from former prime minister and interim president Frank Bainimarama. Fiji not only joined the Washington-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which seeks to lessen economic dependency on China, but also scrapped the memorandum of understanding on police training and exchange signed with China in 2011. Furthermore, Prime Minister Rabuka ended Chinese police presence in Fiji, citing differences in political and judicial systems. Officers from Australia and New Zealand will remain.

PNG presents a similar case. While Prime Minister Peter O’Neill shared close ties with Beijing, his successor, James Marape, has moved closer to the United States. In May 2023, the two nations inked a deal on defense and maritime cooperation reportedly allowing American aircrafts and vessels to access PNG’s territory more extensively.

Note, however, that Beijing remains not only the top lender to Fiji, but also a major export partner of PNG. As geopolitical tensions simmer, leaders of Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia’s ruling FLNKS party, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), PNG and Solomon Islands are deliberating on declaring a “neutral” position.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Such dependence casts a dense shadow of doubt on the ability of island nations to balance great power influence. Heavy economic reliance on any one external actor is also detrimental to the fragile island economies which have been hit hard by COVID. While Pacific Island states have denied taking sides, growing “Pacific militarization” not only threatens to fragment regionalism and hamper strategic neutrality, but might also overwhelm regional priorities such as climate change. For instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s endorsement of Japan’s discharge of treated nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant is “deeply concerning” for the Pacific Islands. To China, it is a win as it has tarnished Japan’s image as a credible ally.

Furthermore, leaning towards either China or the United States (such as in the case of the Solomon Islands, PNG, and Fiji) can create a wedge between Pacific Island nations and hamper bilateral cooperation thus impacting regionalism.

Despite this strategic tightrope, growing geopolitical interest in the region brings a myriad of opportunities to attain socioeconomic development and address environmental concerns. Yet to translate such developments into developmental opportunities without compromising sovereignty and autonomy, the Pacific Islands should focus on collective capacity building, including greater regional cooperation at official forums, integrated efforts at civil society building, empowering youth and women, and promoting stronger media literacy and independent media that strengthens their capacity to act in the regional interest.

Cherry Hitkari ([email protected]) is a Non-resident Vasey Fellow and Young Leader at Pacific Forum.

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

Photo credit: Papua New Guinea government/Handout via REUTERS

PacNet #67 – Military challenges for Russia in the Indo-Pacific

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August 28, 2023

Russia faces four potential military problems in the Indo-Pacific:

  1. Vulnerability of the sea leg of its nuclear triad as part of the Pacific Fleet.
  2. Escalation of tensions around Japan’s territorial claims to the Kuril Islands.
  3. Large-scale regional armed conflicts, primarily on the Korean Peninsula, but also around Taiwan or in the South China Sea, and between India and China.
  4. Shifts in strategic trends between Russia and China, and between Russia and India.

Russia’s regional security outlook revolves around these four problems.

The future deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the region by the United States and its allies (especially Japan and the Republic of Korea) is a direct threat to Russian strategic nuclear forces. These missiles could also lead to a clash in the Kuril Islands due to aggressive actions by Japan. The US Army and US Marine Corps both have programs nearing completion (LRHW Dark Eagle and SMRF Typhon for the former, and uncrewed Long Range Fires launchers for the latter). Japan is also actively developing such capabilities (including in the hypersonic domain), and the Republic of Korea has already fielded such weapons, namely the advanced missiles of the Hyunmoo family.

The integration of early warning and space situational awareness systems by the United States, Republic of Korea, and Japan should be considered in the same context. In the long term, this will likely result in the build-up of joint and integrated air and missile defense, as well as counterspace capabilities, including through the development and forward deployment of new land- and sea-based missile defence capabilities by those countries.

Meanwhile, the Australia-United Kingdom-United States trilateral partnership (dubbed AUKUS)—which will equip the Australian Defence Force with nuclear-powered submarines and long-range precision weapons and strengthen Australian anti-submarine warfare capabilities—will further increase threats both to the submarine and surface forces of the Russian Pacific Fleet.  Australian submarines will free up US Navy forces and assets to counter the Russian Navy, and, possibly, patrol in the Northern Pacific themselves. The fielding of increasingly capable anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft also contributes to increasing vulnerabilities for Russia.

None of these developments are explicitly labeled “anti-Russian,” but capability matters more than policy.

Adversary pressure in the immediate vicinity of the Russian sea, air, and land borders in the Indo-Pacific is also maintained by freedom-of-navigation operations, flights of bomber aircraft (within the so-called Dynamic Force Employment doctrine), and reconnaissance flights by the United States and its allies—including during exercises and tests of Russian strategic nuclear forces. The United States’ (and allies’) interests in establishing and enforcing so-called “air defense identification zones”—a fictional concept that often leads to media headlines about “airspace violations”—create additional pressure.

The “materialization” of US extended nuclear deterrence, expressed not only in a declarative “nuclear umbrella” for allies, but also in the possible forward-deployment of nuclear warheads, adds an additional dimension to these problems.

Moreover, there seem to be changes to the way extended deterrence operates. US nuclear capabilities protect “US allies and partners,” but the latter’s conventional forces are developing a role in facilitating and supporting US missions involving nuclear weapons. To put it more bluntly: enhanced and expanded allied non-nuclear capabilities now enable US nuclear missions, aligning with the new US concept of integrated deterrence.

As for possible armed conflicts in the region—be it in the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, or South Asia—each would have a direct effect on Russia because Russia is a Pacific country. The consequences of such conflicts would lead to dramatic changes in supply chains (which already face immense pressure due to the breakdown of relations between Russia and “the West”), the shake-up of the regional markets (which are increasingly important for Russian exports and imports), and migration waves, and thus directly affect the Russian economy. The effects would be even greater because of the inevitable involvement of China, Russia’s strategic partner.

So far, Russia has managed to maintain relatively stable and even fruitful relations with both China and India. (Its relationship with Japan suffers, however, and the relationship with Republic of Korea will probably follow suit both due to Seoul’s ever-growing involvement in providing military industrial support to Western countries and to Moscow’s possible cooperation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) To be sure, the future of Russia-China and Russia-India relations will depend not only on Moscow, but also on Beijing and New Delhi. Given increasing strategic tensions, augmented by the US interest in rallying India to its side against China (as well as in limiting Russia-India cooperation), established strategic relations might evolve. These changes might not lead to direct military conflicts but could well drive Moscow to greatly re-prioritize Russian military development.

Russia’s military security depends squarely on the Russian Far East. The Pacific Fleet has the most advanced SSBNs of the Borei family, new surface ships and submarines with Kalibr cruise missiles are entering service, anti-ship and air/missile defense missile batteries are deployed to the Kuril Islands and throughout the region, and even a new heavy bomber regiment might be established. The Russian Navy and Long-Range Aviation also routinely hold joint patrols with their Chinese counterparts. Furthermore, the deployment of US-made intermediate-range, ground-launched missiles in the region (which seems inevitable) would mean the so-called “moratorium” on such weapons no longer stands, and Russia will likely deploy similar capabilities as well, with everyone’s security undermined.

But Russia has bigger vulnerabilities, in that it lacks general-purpose naval forces: submarines, surface ships, and aviation. At this point, it is unclear if the Russian defense industry can address this problem, given the priority it gives to the Western front. Growing military-technical cooperation with China might offer a solution, however.

Still, if Russia wants to remain a relevant military power both in the region and globally, Moscow must do more, otherwise even the ability to sustain the regionally deployed elements of its nuclear triad will be questioned—both by adversaries and partners.

Dmitry Stefanovich ([email protected]) is Research Fellow at the Center for International Security, IMEMO RAS.

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

Photo credit: Russian Defense Ministry via Reuters