Just Denuclearization? What Trump Really Wants from Kim

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ISPI, 11 June, 2018

As we approach the US-North Korea summit in Singapore, there is much speculation about the potential outcome. Will the US persuade North Korea to lay down its nuclear weapons programme? Will North Korea use the negotiations to incrementally secure resources and gains from the US side while keeping its trump card to the very end? Much speculation on the outcome has also centred around thetwo men’s personalities, since so much of what has been different this time around seems to stem from their personal choices. Certainly, President Trump’s personal involvement in the North Korea issue seems unprecedented and was a major factor in the back-and-forth of pre-summit diplomacy that we saw.

Despite this, the US national interests and strategic objectives under President Trump have been broadly consistent with past administrations. Despite North Korea’s accusations that Washington’s “hostile policy” has meant that it desires regime change, the fact is that few American administrations have openly sought regime change on the Peninsula, perhaps realizing that it is too large a can of worms, and has subsequent repercussions for North-South reunification, and could lead to tensions with China. Instead, the US objective from every president since Bill Clinton to Donald Trump has been to push North Korea to denuclearize and in returnto help it develop economically.

A testimony to this can be found in every letter sent to the North by various American presidents. According to a senior official at the time, President George W. Bush promised in his 2007 letter that the US would normalize relations completely with the North if they carried through their disarmament. In his letter – according to then-special envoy Stephen Bosworth – President Barak Obama asserted that “the United States is prepared to work with allies [and] partners in the region to offer…North Korea a different future”. In addition to the promises of economic aid, it is highly likely that all US presidential letters to North Korea have made security guarantees to the North; or at least guarantees of the survival of the regime.

In all this, Trump has been no different. But how is he different, and how does this affect the US negotiating style, its normal objectives, and its possible outcomes? If we deal with these one-by-one, we can see that his negotiating style, coming from his background as a real estate mogul, leaves much to be desired in among practitioners of classical diplomacy. It is a maximum pressure approach, which combines close personal relations with disruptive and sudden tactical changes, designed to off-balance his opponent. Despite its unpopularity among many European and American diplomats, the style has a certain resonance with Kim Jong-un, because of the centrality of the leader-as-negotiator. One might say that the historical antecedent for the upcoming meeting in Singapore was the Treaty of Tilsit, where two men – in history France’s Emperor Napoleon and Russia’s Tsar Alexander – meet one-on-one in a raft on a river and decide the fate of nations. The centrality of the leader in this position has not been a popular one in the history of liberal democracies – for obvious reasons.

So how will this affect the US normal objectives? In The Art of the Deal, Trump argues that thinking big is key, “I like thinking big. I always have. To me, it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” So, what does this mean? Does this mean that Trump is willing to throw normally-staid US positions to the wind? Is the US troop presence on the Korean peninsula a card? Does Taiwan play a part in persuading China to move behind his deal? Will he bargain away major pieces of the US position in Northeast Asia for the quick win? This is perhaps the most evident fear among both the US foreign policy establishment and among US allies and explains much of the back-and-forth shuttle diplomacy to Washington and Florida by US regional allies. The most famous example of a President nearly bargaining away the national security of his US allies must be that of President Reagan at Reykjavik, who nearly negotiated away US nuclear weapons with an enthusiastic Mikhail Gorbachev, with neither man really considering the fact that China would still be a nuclear weapons state.

If we must predict the outcome of US negotiations in Singapore, we must admit that they will be steered by US national interests – as interpreted by one man, Donald Trump. Obviously, he will have the support and expertise of his national security team, but he will ultimately decide on the US positioning. And the primary question will not be whether he goes for theeasy big win – that myth is dispelled by a reading of Art of the Deal which seeks the best deal – but whether he allows for the sort of long-term incremental disarming process that North Korea will undoubtedly request. The longer North Korea has weapons, the better its chances of survival are, and the better its negotiating leverage. And that does not sound like “thinking big”. To President Trump, that will sound like “thinking small”. And then where will we be?

And the answer to that, will come on June 12th.

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Chinese strategy in full force in Australia

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Sydney Morning Herald, with Dr Andrew Foxall, 3 June, 2018

Don’t be fooled by last week’s China Zhejiang–Australia Trade and Investment Symposium in Sydney. For all the positive spin put on the event, Canberra is increasingly wary of the influence Beijing reaps from its investments.

But China’s influence doesn’t flow solely from this. It uses a combination of diplomatic and political pressure, manipulation of its diaspora, illicit financing of political parties, and propaganda. According to some, Beijing spends up to US$10 billion ($13 billion) a year on its overseas operations. If this sounds familiar, it is because these are tactics taken straight from the KGB playbook Russia has followed for well over a decade.

Russia’s aim has been to portray itself as a great power on the world stage. Its tactics are often crude and short-term. China’s, by contrast, are slow-burning and systemic. Beijing’s ultimate ambition is to create a Sino-centric regional order, based around tianxia – an imperial concept that puts China at the centre of nations. This strategy is in full force in Australia.

The effects are striking. Former Labor foreign affairs minister and one-time NSW premier Bob Carr is facing demands that he be expelled from the party because of his deep links to China; he directs a think tank founded with a donation from a Chinese billionaire with close Communist Party links and is alleged to have enlisted Labor senator Kristina Keneally to use estimate hearings to ask pro-China questions. Last December, Sam Dastyari resigned from the party over his dealings with a Chinese billionaire.

Other opportunities to exert influence abound. China is Australia’s biggest export market, and Beijing is currently hampering imports of Australian wine and delaying a big meat-export deal. One-third of all foreign students at Australian universities are Chinese, and the families of Chinese students who have criticised their country while studying here have received warnings. China is now using lawfare and illegal occupation of the South China Sea in order to exert pressure on Australia and other countries who depend on its sea lanes.

Speaking last year, Malcolm Turnbull said that “our system as a whole had not grasped the nature and magnitude of the threat”. He was talking about the Chinese threat in Australia, but he could just as easily have been talking about the West as a whole.

In New Zealand, Jian Yang, a Chinese-born sitting MP, was investigated last year by the national intelligence agency in connection with the decade he spent teaching in military and intelligence academies in China – a fact missing from his CV. In Britain, China has developed arrangements with two major British newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, and pressured Cambridge University Press into censorship. Elsewhere, it has leant on a number of Western capitals to conform to its view of Taiwan as a province of China.

On the face of it, the threats posed by Beijing should be manageable; each relates to a particular issue that falls under the responsibility of a particular ministry of government. In reality, however, they are difficult to deal with. For the Communist Party, there is no distinction between its business executives, spies, police chiefs, media stars, crime bosses and its politicians. The same people play multiple roles. Everyone, ultimately, is on the same team. The similarities between China and Russia are obvious.

In a report released last week by The Henry Jackson Society, a London think tank, Robert Seely, a British Conservative MP, argues that the Kremlin is waging a “new kind of conflict … in which military and non-military tools are combined in a dynamic, efficient, and integrated way to achieve political aims”. In this conflict, Russia “makes use of at least 50 tools of state power”, ranging from assassinations and blackmail to cyberattacks and disinformation.

Although Seely calls this “contemporary Russian conflict”, he notes that the tools are also being used by other authoritarian states – including China.

Highlighting the threat is a start; the real question is how to deal with it. Unlike elsewhere, the debate about Chinese influence is at full blast in Australia. Duncan Lewis, the head of ASIO, recently told lawmakers in Canberra: “Hostile foreign spies are currently conducting harmful activity … on an unprecedented scale.” In response, Canberra is mulling tough counter-measures, which would require anyone acting on behalf of a foreign state to publically register their activities – akin to the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the US.

But, as Seely’s report makes clear, the questions raised by the behaviour of China and Russia are much broader. They relate to how Western states collectively defend themselves in an age when authoritarian states turn the freedoms of open societies against those same societies.

China is playing a game of divide-and-rule between Western countries as well as inside Australia. Its aim is to weaken individual countries – and, in doing so, make them vulnerable to Beijing’s influence. But as a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance and a NATO partner, Australia should remember that it has powerful friends.


Hindustan Times, Prasun Sonwalkar, May 27, 2018

Britain needs to focus on the Indo-Pacific region to avoid being caught between two worlds– not quite a European power nor a global power – post Brexit, a leading think-tank has said .

To do this, Britain will need to go to Asia by sea, even if it may remind many of its erstwhile empire built mostly through its naval power, a study titled Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific by the influential Henry Jackson Society says.

The analysis by John Hemmings has been released in the context of the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when, for the first time, the phrase “Indo-Pacific” was mentioned in an India-UK defence statement on future plans of the Royal Navy and Indian Navy.

The report says: “Despite the threats and challenges on the UK’s periphery like Russia and the Middle East, the fact is the future of global trade, global geopolitics, and global power are trending toward Asia and the UK must go there or risk being left behind.

“There are also trends in maritime trade and maritime security that mean that if Global Britain is going to go to Asia, it must go by sea. While such maritime arguments sound like a Britain harking back to a glorious past, in fact a Global Britain that renews its naval and maritime commercial capabilities will one that is preparing for a prosperous and engaged future.”

Mentioning the so-called “quad countries” of India, Australia, Japan and the United States, the report sees much potential for Britain to engage closely with the group in the context of China’s growing presence and plans in the area, including the Belt and Road Initiative.

Hemmings writes: “Britain and India are developing robust security ties across a broad range of ties; I suggest that the Indian Navy and the Royal Navy – who are brothers with a common history and common traditions – could do so much more together, both bilaterally, or in conjunction with India’s other partners: France, Japan, the US, and Australia.”

Besides the existing strengths in India-UK ties, the report says that Britain could work with Japan to financially support India’s desire to match China’s infrastructure projects. It also sees the potential to develop a UK-India-France trilateral maritime cooperation.

The report specifically recommends that Britain offer diplomatic support when key states – such as India, Singapore, or Japan – come under pressure within the region. It also calls for the utilisation, along with India, of the Commonwealth to bolster democracy with other states in the Indo-Pacific such as the Maldives, Fiji, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.

It also calls for the UK investing in Asian language programmes at British universities, particularly focussing on Hindi, Japanese and Chinese.


India’s Ambiguity and the Chinese Threat

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RUSI Commentary, with Tanya Sen, 24 May, 2018

Nearly eight months after the Doklam border stand-off, the leaders of Asia’s two largest powerhouses met for informal diplomatic talks, in what seemed to be an attempt to reset their bilateral relationship. Thus far, media in both countries has presented the meeting as a great success, citing new diplomatic beginnings and lauding the pragmatism of their respective leaders. The apparent thawing of diplomatic ties echoes the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai narrative of the 1950s and comes after the two countries reached a record trade value of $84.4 billion in 2017. Yet despite the public hyperbole and the evident enthusiasm of China’s state-run media, it is not clear that one meeting can overturn the structural drivers of Indo-Chinese competition.

China and India are both focused on restoring their status as great regional and even global powers following periods of imperial predation by European states over the past two centuries. They are both heavily influenced by social, economic and political theories that are rooted in Western intellectual trends. Still, such similarities are trivial in the face of structurally-driven competition. With large territories, massive populations and expanding economies, both have the ability to shape their regions along with areas further abroad. Consequently, their rivalry is fed by the desire for dominance over the other – something that is best explained through a realist lens. The deeper explanation is the status of insecurity that results from the security dilemma, whereby both countries are constantly looking to gain a competitive advantage in terms of regional accommodation, and the future global order. This justifies the fears of Indian leaders that they may be lagging behind China in this grander global race.

The old non-alignment orientation is falling out of favour with Indian policymakers for this very reason. While this decades-long policy has been a defining model in Indian politics in the past, Prime Minister Modi’s state visits and multilateral engagements point to a departure from India’s non-aligned ways, towards multi-alignment that better fits today’s global order. Yet despite this shift, India’s grand strategy seem to lack clear direction. For, while India might be equipped with the resources, it lacks the strategic mobilisation needed to rival China’s own assertive vision.

The concerns and suspicion have steered India towards the adoption of an odd hedging relationship with Beijing that is by now familiar with scholars of Chinese foreign policy. Nearly every country must determine the trade-off between economic reliance on China and concern over its ambitions; Australia’s prime minister summed up this dilemma last year, by saying that Canberra’s China policy was based on ‘fear and greed’. In response to this conundrum faced by many others, Indian policymakers are identifying key partners to offset Chinese power. The most notable of these is Japan; after all, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the pioneer of the Indo-Pacific concept. His proposal for the creation of a  Quad – an informal four-nation strategic dialogue encompassing Japan, India, the US and Australia – was revived in 2017 after laying dormant for around a decade. India’s efforts seem to be overshadowed by the setbacks in its way, many of which have been present for a large part of its political history.

As the two powers rise in the same region, attempts by China to secure its energy supplies by land and sea inevitably involve Pakistan. This competing set of regional interests can also be seen in China’s ‘String of Pearls’ relationships with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even the Maldives, all of which traditionally lie within India’s sphere of influence. China’s ‘all-weather friendship’ with Pakistan is a continual irritant to relations with India. The truncated power asymmetry acquired by Pakistan, with immense support from the Chinese, has ensured an enduring rivalry and the encirclement of India. The Indo-Pakistani conflict has long dominated India’s foreign policy, and constant contestation in India’s immediate neighbourhood has prevented it from taking on a leadership role in South Asia. Finally, the lack of an alternative Indian grand strategy to non-alignment works against its own power ambitions. On one hand, India is keen to be taken seriously as a world power. On the other hand, Indian foreign policy elites seem stuck between contrasting narratives of India as a developing power or India as a superpower. This confusion over India’s power acts as a drag for its policymaking elites in reshaping a new grand strategy for dealing with China.

China, by contrast, has been quick to identify its rival’s weaknesses and even quicker to develop and realise its foreign policy ambitions. Such has been the rate of China’s successes in its Belt and Road initiative, that India’s lack of organisation means that it seriously risks adversely affecting its primacy in its own back yard. While this hedging approach might be the most politically expedient method for dealing with Chinese manoeuvres, it is holding India back from creating its own alternative vision for the region. So, while the rapprochement with China may be part of this hedging approach and might appear to be enough to relieve short-term tensions, structural factors will continue pushing the two Asian giants in opposing directions. And none of this will substitute for India’s need to wake up to the perils on its periphery, by developing a more robust foreign policy community and seeking a clearer strategy for its region.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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