Don’t Forget the Treatment of North Korean Defectors

The Diplomat, February 14, 2017

With all the outrage over Trump’s refugee ban, where is the anger over Russia and China’s treatment of North Koreans?

In London, thousands of people gathered in the freezing rain to protest the new American president’s ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

If people around the globe are willing to protest against Trump’s decision to reject refugees, where is the outrage toward China or Russia, who regularly round up and arrest North Korean refugees inside their borders, and return them to the North? Repatriated defectors sent back to North Korea face harsh penalties. They can be imprisoned in forced labor camps, or face the death penalty by execution.

China

Of North Korea’s two northern neighbors, China has the strictest policy toward North Korean defectors and takes active measures to locate and repatriate any found within its borders. Chinese security services actively cooperate with the DPRK to find, arrest, and repatriate any North Korean refugees who seek to transit China to other neighboring states, and have made it clear to their citizens that assisting the refugees in any way is illegal. Naturally, under those conditions, those North Koreans who do make it to China are extremely vulnerable to trafficking and coerced prostitution.

In the past, if defectors were able to reach foreign embassies and consulates, China has been willing to let defectors leave the country. However, getting to an embassy is often difficult. In a recent undercover documentary filmed by Jake J. Smith entitled While They Watched, a North Korean refugee family was filmed trying to enter the U.S. embassy. Blocked, they then attempted to enter the Japanese embassy next door but were attacked, beaten, and pulled away from the embassy by the Chinese police. They were sent back to North Korea.

Russia

Russia has never been sympathetic to North Korean refugees, granting permanent asylum to only two between 2004 and 2014. However, their repatriation policy was entrenched in 2014, when both countries signed an agreement to forcibly repatriate nationals from either country found to be residing in the other illegally. There are only an estimated 40 defectors that have managed to successfully escape to Russia and remain unnoticed.

The issue of North Korean defectors in Russia gained media attention again after Choe Myong-bok, a defector who has been hiding in Russia for nearly two decades, was arrested last week. He will be forcibly repatriated back to North Korea, despite human rights organizations claiming he faces certain execution if he is returned. Choe is currently awaiting results of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Choe is hoping to avoid sharing the fate of Ryu En-nam, who was forcibly repatriated from Russia back to North Korea in 2008. Once in North Korea, Ryu was dragged behind a train until death.

While some defectors manage to reach Russia from North Korea, often through the Siberian wastes, most North Koreans that become refugees in Russia defect while already working in the country as laborers. These workers are sent to timber and logging camps from Pyongyang with the promise of a better life, in order to earn money to send back to their families. There are an estimated 20,000 North Korean workers in Russia at any one time.

Russia, however, greets these defectors with little more than indifference. If anything, Moscow has strengthened ties to North Korea in recent years, signing an economic agreement only last spring to raise bilateral trade from $112 million to $1 billion by 2020 and laying down plans for a $340 million joint venture to build a new railway from the Russian border to the North Korean port of Rajin. Sadly, while Choe Myong-bok’s story may be the most recent tragic tale, it almost certainly will not be the last.

While one might argue that we hold the United States to higher standards than we do Russia or China, this is a meaningless argument to a North Korean citizen being taken back to be executed. And while Muslim refugees have a range of nearby countries – including Europe itself – where they might instead seek safety, North Koreans have pitifully few choices, with only three borders to choose from.

Our protests are hypocritical and prejudiced if we only seek to defend those who are the fashion of the week. The North Koreans have suffered for generations under one of history’s most brutal regimes and two countries regularly throw them to the wolves. Perhaps someone will light a candle outside the Chinese and Russian Embassies one day to remember these forgotten refugees.


When Theresa May meets Donald Trump, China will the be the elephant in the room

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The Telegraph, January 26, 2017

When the Prime Minister sits down with President Trump on Friday in the Oval Office, she will be in a privileged position. She will the first foreign leader to meet the president since the inauguration. Second, she will be entering “friendly” territory. Already hailed by the President as “my Maggie”, Theresa May will feel a warmth from the President that has been lacking in her recent meetings with European leaders.

Naturally, May will wish to capitalize on his open affection for the “special relationship” and hammer out a new “fair” free trade deal, propelling London to the front of the queue. She will also wish to shore up the President’s support for Nato, a bulwark against Russian revanchivism, by calling for greater European adherence to the 2 percent principle agreed by Nato member states.

What is unlikely to come up – but what should – is China. In some ways, Theresa May and Donald Trump share some concerns towards the rising Asian superpower. After all, the delay over the Hinckley Point nuclear power plant deal, backed by Chinese financing, revealed May’s security concerns over Chinese investment. On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s drive for greater access to the Chinese market may put her at odds with the Trump administration’s increasingly bellicose approach.

While it is still too early to say with certainty how serious the Trump administration is about “confronting” China, the selection of Peter Navarro – author a book called Death by China – to head the newly-created National Trade Council is a clear sign this administration will move against perceived distortions and unfair advantages inherent in the Chinese economy. As state owned enterprises (SOEs) still comprise 40 percent of the economy, these distortions have had a global effect this year, including on European steel.

While a US-China trade war could remain bilateral in the strictest sense, many agree that the fallout would be global, impacting China’s beleaguered RMB, leading to a sudden devaluation of the currency – supposedly a part of the basket of reserve currencies. In turn, this could cause jitters in London’s financial markets. Chinese goods might also increase in price if they were to be tariffed out of the American market, which has been China’s top export market since 2012. On the plus side, May might be able to use the issue to press China for greater market access, increasing British exports to the country.

Trade is not the only issue between the US and China that is set to explode this year. The South China Sea has long been a slow-burn issue for the two, but now appears to be leading to crisis. When Secretary of State appointee Rex Tillerson asserted that…

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Trump’s bromance with Putin will split the West in Two

CNN, December 19, 2016

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When the Financial Times and Time magazine both named President-elect Trump as their person of the year, the publications did so as less of a plaudit and more of a recognition that his election is a pivotal event for the West. Certainly, it represents a major challenge to the shared foreign and security policies of the broad community of nations known as the Western alliance. Only two years after Russia illegally occupied a sovereign nation’s territory in Crimea and then began a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, an American leader has come to power, promising to improve relations with Moscow. How will Trump’s “pivot to Russia” affect European security, and what impact will his increasingly hard line on China have on Washington’s Asian allies? Trump has revealed time and again on the campaign trail — and now, more disturbingly, over the hacking scandal — a willingness to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt.

However, despite his apparent soft spot for authoritarian leaders, Trump has not extended this friendliness to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In the wake of the Taiwan phone call and the President-elect’s ambiguity over the “One China policy,” the Chinese have responded by flying a bomber over the South China Sea. They have also held life-fire drills on the PLA Navy’s new aircraft carrier and revealed that they are arming their illegal island bases in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Then, on Friday, China seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea. The country used its state media to declare “the drone that emerged from the South China Sea is just the tip of the iceberg in US military strategy on China.” President-elect Trump has responded in the manner to which we have become accustomed, tweeting: “China steals US Navy research drone in international waters — rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented (sic) act” and “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!”

Some commentators, like David Martin Jones in the Telegraph, have wondered if Trump is trying to execute a reverse Henry Kissinger by building ties with Moscow while freezing ties with China. While such a diplomatic move is technically feasible, is it probable? After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is well positioned at the moment vis-a-vis Beijing. While China has clearly become the dominant partner, and its One Belt, One Road strategy unilaterally consolidates Beijing’s influence over central Asia at Russia’s expense, China has been careful to pay the Russians lip service and accord them the face that Moscow craves. Putin’s ties with China’s Xi Jinping are commonly described as a “bromance,” as the two have met 19 times in four years.

Trade between the countries mushroomed in the wake of Crimea-related Western sanctions against Russia, and the defense forces of the two nations are growing closer. Last September, Russian forces drilled alongside their Chinese counterparts, in apparent support of Beijing’s claims. As a consequence, any ideas Trump may have of splitting the two continental giants should be tempered by reality. We simply aren’t at the position in the Cold War where Beijing and Moscow were eyeball to eyeball and welcomed American balancing. So, if a Kissinger-style swap isn’t on the cards, what are the likely effects of Trump’s new foreign policy? Unfortunately, his policy is likely to exacerbate a tension already running through the Western alliance, in which the European allies — like the EU, NATO member states, and Sweden — balance against Russia while welcoming warm diplomatic and trade ties with China. This is the polar opposite in the Pacific, where Washington and its allies — concerned about Beijing’s intentions in the South China Sea — are attempting to balance against China while improving ties with Russia. While it may not look like much, this split is likely to divide the West in two, while doing little to worry China and Russia.

There are some very real dangers that might arise from this: Europeans might soften on the arms embargo to China, or dampen their criticism of Chinese moves in the Pacific even more than they have already done. Washington, for its part, might undo sanctions on Russia, effectively legitimizing the first territorial invasion of a state by another in post-War history. This would not bode well for the Baltic states.

So, what’s to be done? Well, first it’s a long way to January 20. Trump’s Cabinet is still being picked, and it is difficult to know how much his foreign policy tweets represent the actual future positions of his administration. Furthermore, his administration may yet be challenged– either by the hacking scandal or even by a rejection of Trump’s polices within the Washington policy establishment. US presidents are notoriously dependent on the other branches of government to implement their policies. Any number of things could collide, making Trump a sitting-duck president before he’s even hung his name up in the Oval Office. Regardless of all this uncertainty, neither Americans nor Europeans can afford to ignore the very real possibility outlined above that Trump’s attempt to split the two authoritarian states will actually split the West. Much diplomacy and intra-alliance dialogue will be necessary in the next four years. No less than the future of the liberal, rules-based global order is at stake.

Foreign Investment in Critical Areas like Nuclear Power Need a Formal Vetting Process

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LSE Business Review, October 11, 2016

One of the first decisions taken by Theresa May as prime minister was to delay deciding on the £18 billion Hinkley Point nuclear power project. Because it was a centrepiece project as part of former chancellor George Osborne’s “Golden Age” of closer bilateral ties with China, the issue was instantly politicised, provoking an intense debate in Parliament and across government departments. Defenders of the deal included the Chinese embassy and foreign ministry, which came out publicly to apply pressure on May over the issue.

Meanwhile, those close to the prime minister – formerly home office secretary – pointed out the security risks to Britain’s critical national infrastructure and national security. In the end, a face-saving compromise was reached: the Sino-French consortium would go ahead with the deal with Her Majesty’s Government keeping a majority stake in the company to calm nerves within the security agencies.

The fact that it was a Chinese company which provoked the issue was not incidental: Chinese companies – private and state-owned – have become increasingly active in investing and acquiring businesses and assets in economies across the developed world, particularly in the US (no.1), Australia (no.3), and the UK (no.1 in Europe). In 2014, the FT noted that China’s outbound investment had exceeded its domestic investment and the country was on its way to becoming the world’s largest cross-border investor. As the Hinkley Point debate was flaring up here in London, Australian Treasury Minister Scott Morrison announced that two separate Chinese bids to lease Australia’s largest electricity grid would be blocked for “national security” reasons. It is obvious that May is not alone in her concerns.

To some, China’s focus on infrastructure has a nefarious side: after all, national defence and intelligence agencies depend on critical national infrastructure (CNI) to do their job. To others, China’s focus on CNI is the result of its own domestic economy, which is heavily weighted in favor of big, capital-intensive infrastructure projects. Whatever the case, it is certain that many more private and state-owned Chinese investors will seek to purchase stakes in British companies and infrastructure. Some of these – like stakes in the UK’s hotel industry are clearly benign. Others – like the bid for Global Switch, Britain’s largest data centre, may have repercussions for national security, in the wake of the UK MOD’s move to cloud computing. It may also have privacy concerns as a recent NATO report suggests that China is behind many hacks in the West and is said, by Stratfor, to have the largest domestic mass surveillance apparatus of any country.

Regardless of the answer, the need is clear in the UK for a more formal process than has taken place up until now. Australia and the United States – two of the largest recipients of Chinese investment – have long had treasury-linked agencies to deal with the foreign investment and security: the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and the Foreign Investment Review Bureau (FIRB).

Naturally, their approach may or may not be a right fit for the UK, which has a strong culture of unregulated investment, but it would benefit both Government and business to initiate some sort of discussion on what is currently a very grey area. Such a review process would calm nerves on both sides – including those of Chinese investors who may have been riled by Hinkley Point. Clearly, Britain wants Chinese investment and even welcomes it within certain parts of the national infrastructure, but not all of its parts. What is most needed, according to Malcolm Rifkind – former Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee – is oversight, “This project went from consideration to contract, without ministers even hearing about it. There must be some sort of accountability with deals of this nature.” Under Rifkind, the ISC produced a strongly critical report in 2013 on the BT-Huawei deal in which BT was supplied components by a company said to have links with the Chinese military.

Prime minister May could best start this conversation in the Cabinet Office and bring members of the security community and business community together in order to hammer out the powers and processes of such a review body. One idea is to make it a committee or subcommittee within the cabinet office, with its own staff. The committee might be composed of business leaders or senior bureaucrats from within relevant ministries, Trade, Treasury, Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. Staffers could be seconded from among these same ministries. Certainly, the Treasury would have to have a large stake in any organization to give it traction, perhaps as Chair. Then there is the question of what it would do: in short, it would create guidelines for firms which operate inside Britain’s critical national infrastructure. It would also investigate adding new areas – particularly those in newly-developing technologies and computing – to areas of sensitivity. Whether it would be given teeth, or simply remain an advisory body – depends very much on whether May can rally her cabinet around the idea to pass legislation in Parliament. Either way, the committee could bring clarity to a gray area.

Creating such a committee makes sense for the UK at the moment. The number of Chinese investments into British infrastructure are only set to rise, and the UK is reconfiguring its EU-dated regulations. While the watchword of the day for many concerned British companies will be “continuity”, this process of rewriting the UK’s legal framework does provide Prime Minister May an opportunity to create a formal review process. Furthermore, a process might remind the UK of the need for investor diversity.

Winnie King, Professor of Chinese International Political Economy at Bristol University states, “The UK needs to frame its approach in terms of Brexit: “Now that we have left the bed of European supra-national governance, we shouldn’t just jump into bed with another big actor. We need to diversify.”

A recent report by the Oxford Review of Economic Policy has challenged some of the myths around Chinese infrastructure projects. The UK has had the fastest growing economy in the Group of Seven for the past four years. It deals in high value, not high volume goods, and its manufacturing includes luxury smart high-tech firms like McLaren, Deep Mind, and others. Britain has remained competitive and in the top 10 global economies by remaining open to foreign investment: a review process will not change that. But it will make future investment more open-eyed and transparent.


RUSI Commentary, August 11, 2016
China’s determination to gain control or assert its possession over various remote islands in its adjacent seas may seem inexplicable. But there is a perfect logic to what China is doing – much of this relates to the way the country’s communists seek to bolster their domestic legitimacy

The situation in East Asia has become increasingly troubling; for those watching the global economy, the fact that China and Japan, the world’s second and third powers, are engaging in a showdown over a few tiny islands not only seems ludicrous but also reckless, since any potential conflict could do serious damage to precarious recovery from the global financial crisis.

Last week, Japan claimed that a flotilla of more than 230 Chinese fishing vessels and eighteen coastguard ships entered Japanese waters around the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Given their lack of running water and economic activity, it is not even certain that the islets would be afforded island status, especially after the recent finding by the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea. So why do both states want the islands so much and why is China risking the global economy and conflict with Japan for patches of land not much larger than a football pitch? The explanation lies in recent Chinese history and how the Communist Party perceives it.

In 1989, the Communist Party barely survived the Tiananmen Square unrest. Following the crackdown, it developed a three-way strategy, which it has since boldly followed.

First, it enacted a massive ‘patriotic’ education programme, which sought to identify China with the Communist Party. It played up the narrative of victim, pointing to the ‘century of humiliation’ by foreign powers, including European and Japanese imperial interlopers. And while these approaches are based in fact, they miss the point that China the victim has also been China the perpetrator in such cases: it has in its long history attempted to invade and conquer its neighbours, particularly Korea and Vietnam, many times. As Bill Hayton, an expert on Chinese maritime claims, has asserted, disputes about the South China Sea or the Chinese-claimed Diaoyu Islands are really about recovering from the perceived loss of face that China endured in the past. Thus, the public is strongly supportive of the claims, and the insertions of large flotillas into contested waters – such as last week – buttress this Communist Party’s desire to be the sole defender of Chinese claims, and the sole avenger of previous wrongs.

Second, China’s Communist Party decided after crushing the Tiananmen protests that communist ideology was no longer enough to provide legitimacy, and set about a daring innovation in the 1990s – mixing the nationalist agenda with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform, while restraining political reform. In other words, it concluded that if it provided enough refrigerators, televisions and opportunities to travel to exotic destinations, the public would submit to the total rule of the Communist Party. As well as the carrot, it also used the stick of repressing internet freedoms, censoring the media, and curtailing anything that might infringe on the absolutism of the party within the Chinese state. Kerry Brown, a China scholar, notes that President Xi Jinping’s rise has not been at the expense of the party, and although he has attacked its corrupt elements, his purpose is to strengthen the arty.

One only has to note the recent wave of trials of Chinese lawyers, such as Wang Yu and Zhou Shifeng, affiliated with political rights’ groups, to conclude that the party is serious about holding power and crushing dissent. However, if the Chinese public is to accept such repression, the party reasons that it must continue to deliver something in the realm of public wealth. The push to reform the economy falls into this category, but it also has a security strategy for harnessing nearby wealth and resources by claiming the valuable South and East China Seas fishing grounds, some of the richest in the world. Attempts to ban Vietnamese and Philippine fishing fleets are part of this strategy. So is the possibility of rich undersea gas fields in the East China Sea, an additional lure. For the party, securing these resources is directly linked to regime security.

Third, the Communist party has developed a strategy to push China into a position of East Asian superiority, and to do this, it has to prise the US from the region. Aware of the ‘Thucydidean Trap’, by which rising powers provoke a conflict with already-dominant powers, China’s strategy would seem to be to go about achieving its objective through indirect means. Looking purely at Beijing’s actions over the past decade, it would seem that Chinese military thinkers have decided the best way to expel the US as a regional power is by incrementally taking de facto control of the trade route that feeds the US’s allies.

Beginning with European ports and Middle Eastern oil terminals, the most strategically sensitive route moves goods and energy products worth $5 trillion annually through the Indian Ocean, past the Malacca Straits and through the South and East China Seas. China’s effort to dominate this vital route is achieved by slicing into the territory of smaller South China Sea states, with each initiative based on the calculation that Washington would not dare risk a war over territories non-essential to the US national interest. And Beijing’s calculations are likely correct. Projecting military power from those islands gives China de facto control of the region’s largest trade route. Enough – Beijing reasons – to compel regional powers to bandwagon with China.

If on the way, it must risk conflict with the US and Japan, China will do so, although it will attempt to avoid direct confrontation. Many of the issues that continue to bedevil the region arose in 1989, as a result of the route the Communist Party took in trying to ensure its survival. Its three-fold strategy of promoting nationalism and economic growth at the expense of political reform, and the development of a greater Chinese strategy for the region, has landed the nation in its current situation.

The inner corridors of power in Beijing see nothing wrong with this grand strategy. After all, it has been highly successful: the party remains dominant in China, and is still closely identified with the health and prosperity of the nation. China’s economic and military growth has allowed it to begin to reorder the region to suit its own preferences. The question is how far will it go, and at what point will it cause an unpredictable reaction from the US, Japan, or neighbouring states. And although no-one outside China can predict this, neither can any Chinese official.


Are Japan and the UK Trading Places?

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The National Interest, July 18, 2016

At times, British and American policymakers and academics have wondered if Japan might become the “Britain of the Far East” by playing a larger role in foreign affairs, more supportive of the liberal rules-based system, and more in line with American global security strategy. Britain would have responsibility for the Western hemisphere, while Japan covered the Asia-Pacific. However, as the past decade has seen an emboldened and increasingly capable Japan attempting define a role for itself in global security, the same period has seen a UK seemingly less able or less willing to shoulder its responsibility. A combination of post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan war-weariness saw Parliament usurp Prime Minister Cameron’s attempt to intervene in Syria in 2013, while Brexit and the slight chance of a second Scottish referendum have created political chaos in Westminster, raising the possibility that Britain may be too consumed by internal affairs to take part in foreign policy for the next three to four years.

Of course, the machinery of government will go on, but Britain’s loss of focus occurs at a time critical to the liberal international order. On one flank, China pushes hard to gain de facto control of one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes, and in doing so establishes a baseline for its attitude toward international law and smaller powers. On the other, Russia continues to mobilize itself domestically with nationalism and anti-Westernism, in a seeming attempt to recover its Cold War–era buffer zone of satellite states. Though Theresa May as the new Prime Minister has shown some resolve – with regards to Trident – the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling passed by virtually unnoticed in Whitehall, immersed as they were in the formation of the new Cabinet, the Turkish Coup, and the terror attack in Nice.

Despite the UK’s apparent drift, Tokyo and London are optimal allies for the United States. Based off of the continents to which they belong, they have never quite fit into those continents, culturally or politically, showing instead a preference for naval power. Both are comparatively economically powerful within their regions, technologically advanced and governed by liberal democratic systems, sharing similar values to the United States. Because of those values, both have been traditionally strong financial supporters of the United Nations, as well as pillars of the slew of financial international government organizations that collectively made up Bretton Woods. That American policymakers occasionally compared them is not surprising.

The most famous instance of this analogy was within the influential 2000 Armitage-Nye Report, which by suggesting the parallel gave Tokyo an attractive and recognizable template to emulate. Despite skepticism that Japan would ever shift its defensive posture from the easy-riding Yoshida Doctrine, toward collective self-defense or contributing forces to conflicts outside the Asia-Pacific, Tokyo has taken a long slew of incremental steps in both directions and developed new security ties with Australia, India and even the United Kingdom. While some would argue that these steps are still extremely limited, the fact remains that Prime Minister Abe’s “proactive contribution to peace” is a long way from former Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi’s insistence that Japan only had a “pretense of a foreign policy.”

As the United Kingdom reels from the June 23 Brexit referendum and struggles protracted Brexit negotiations and the possibility of a second Scottish referendum, it would appear that Japan is indeed becoming the “Britain of the East,” while Britain seems to be turning into a (Yoshida-era) “Japan of the West.” For it is quite clear that protracted negotiations required for exiting the European market, combined with the hasty search for new foreign trade agreements with economic powers such as the United States, India, China and Japan, will take up much of the energies of Whitehall’s mandarins. While this should only take five years or so, it will nevertheless force a loss of focus for Britain’s elites on its security contribution in the world. The possibility of Scottish independence would only add to the misery, stripping it of many of its best capabilities at precisely the time when NATO, Europe and the world need them most.

It is possible that as a result of these repeated blows, Britain will seek to recover the “splendid isolation” of Lord Salisbury, sans empire, and sans splendor, focusing instead on trade and keeping aloof of continental goings-on. Or it might also seek to leverage its financial sector as a leverage between the old hegemon—the United States—and the world’s newest superpower, China. The third possibility, about which I have written previously, is that Britain could double down on its role as a pillar of the liberal international order. It has already demonstrated that Brexit will not stand in the way of its commitments to eastern Europe by committing to the stationing of troops there.

Coming a full circle, it seems that there is much that Japan and the United Kingdom might do together to add value to their capabilities at this time of uncertainty and change. There is already talk within London’s corridors of the desirability of an FTA with Japan, though this will doubtless take time to negotiate. The two are currently engaged in early defense-industrial cooperative development, and have been widening strategic and foreign policy discussions in the defense minister–foreign minister talks (2+2). The possibility for greater U.S.-UK-Japan trilateral cooperation opens up all sorts of possibilities within the intelligence, cyber and space sectors. Regardless of Brexit or continued incrementalism within Japan, both London and Tokyo have a large range of institutional and industrial assets at their fingertips. Both are also seeking closer ties with New Delhi at the moment, a further area of potential cooperation.

As we look toward the remainder of this summer, we see a China that is highly likely to build up its military assets in the South China Sea, ignoring the recent finding of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Simultaneously, we might see calls from within the EU to drop the arms embargo on China from states that have vested industrial interests in doing so. Britain’s absence from the EU’s top tables could have a destabilizing effect on Asia’s already precarious balance of power. Perhaps London and Tokyo might craft a bilateral diplomatic venture within Brussels and the capitals of Europe in that eventuality.

There is something to be said about the UK losing its sheen precisely as Japan begins to step up to the plate as a contributor to global security, but for those who believe the UK is out for the count, should consider London’s pluckiness and the deep support among its population and foreign policy elites for many of the liberal values that undergird the international system. It also has a long history of maritime operations, intelligence and expeditionary warfare that make it a superb partner for Japan. The fact that both work closely with American forces and seek interoperability with NATO allies creates an even deeper synergy for bilateral cooperation. At a time of uncertainty and change, one can never have too many friends.

What Kind of Foreign Policy and Security Posture should a Post-Brexit Britain Adopt?

RUSI Commentary, July 4th, 2016

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Although British foreign policy is likely to encounter a variety of hardships after the withdrawal from the EU, some of the options still offer interesting opportunities which should not diminish the country’s international standing and contribution.

The decision to leave the EU is now behind us. Ahead lie months, perhaps even years of wrangling – with the EU, with Scotland, and all the unpleasantness that both will entail. However, once the storm dies down – and eventually it will – Britons are going to have to decide what kind of power we want to be. We will have to try and answer what kind of role we want to have, and what capacities that role will require. We will have to imagine a Britain without Scotland, and attempt to construct a role that is commensurate with the scaled-down ambitions and capabilities. Thus,  Britain might look forward to three possible future postures. These are – in shorthand – Little Britain, Middleman, and Best Friends Forever.

The first posture involves a Britain that sees the world as an increasingly less friendly place, beginning a long gradual withdrawal from global affairs as a result. It might continue to be a formal ally of the United States, and perhaps even remain in NATO, but will only play the bare minimum role required to maintain those relationships, passing through crises as obliquely as possible. To all intents and purposes, the UK of this future will look like Cold War-era Japan, formally allied with the US, but offloading its responsibilities, a free rider on the efforts and resources of others. Instead of contributing to global security, it will allow its narrower interests to determine its actions, a parochial mercantilism taking pride of place in Whitehall. It will be Lord Salisbury’s ‘splendid isolation’ without the Empire and, perhaps, without the splendour. This would be the ‘peaceful shire’ Britain, with London leaving foreign policy to others, sipping tea and playing cricket on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

The second posture might be called Middleman, and has some similarities with the first option in that mercantilism, writ large, begins to dominate Britain’s foreign policy calculations. Shorn of the size and confidence afforded it by membership to the EU, Britain will approach new developing markets with gusto and abandon. Seeing values as ‘unaffordable’, this Britain will swiftly jettison any pretence of shoring up the global liberal values system, seeing the modern international system as one large test of survival of the fittest. The Osborne Doctrine, so named for the Chancellor’s warm China engagement policies, will be accelerated and see London attempting to carve out a middleman role for itself between the old hegemon – the US – and the emerging one – -China. Counting on the UK’s certainty that only the City of London, with its knowledge and history of currency trading, can help Beijing internationalise the Chinese currency as a global currency Britain will dance between the various centres of power, attempting to play banker to the great powers. It could become Switzerland-Plus, attempting to exert power behind the scenes, without favourites or friends.

Finally, there is the Best Friends Forever scenario, which would see Britain bounce off the painful divorce with the EU with a renewed sense of purpose and identity as an upholder of Western liberalism. In this future, the UK will still have to run to new markets, such as India, China and others, but it will balance mercantilism with a strong emphasis on values and allies, doubling down on its NATO commitments in Eastern Europe and re-fortifying ties with Washington. This would see it re-engaging with old allies like Australia, and strengthening nascent security ties with democracies such as Japan India. Security diversity would become a part of British security posture and as with today, London would seek to bring together coalitions and groups of like-minded states whenever crises struck. This will see Britain becoming the ultimate middle power in security diplomacy and shoring up the rules-based system through strong support of Western allies and of regulatory norms relating to space and cybersecurity.

How viable are any of these three scenarios? Of course, as with reality, the future UK will exhibit aspects of all three at various times, and under different prime ministers. However, if any leader were to take Britain down the path of the first two, it would be great loss to the international liberal system. In many ways, the third option offers the most interesting and exciting possibilities under current circumstances. For those who worry about the US’s willingness to welcome the UK back into the fold, one might note that President Obama has already moved to reaffirm the importance of the special relationship in the wake of Brexit. Once away from the EU model, Britain – and its allies – might find new opportunities. The ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing arrangement has long been a pillar of global security for the Anglosphere. Policy elites in the UK might push to revitalise the Five Eyes at the political level, moving it beyond its shadowy corridors to a more strategic forum level. Five Eyes summits and working groups at the agency and ministerial level could become a viable vehicle for the UK and its closest allies to uphold the liberal order and at least tackle the growing Sino-Russian sense of revanchism. Modelled on the ad hoc minilateralism and trilateralism currently seen in the Asia Pacific, a Five Eyes arrangement could even consider one-day creating a pathway to closer association for long-standing liberal allies like Japan, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

While some kinks may need to be ironed out in the special relationship with the United States, Britain’s urban educated elites have more in common with American liberalism than they realise. Whether or not he can acknowledge it, Jeremy Corbyn is more likely to find his soulmate in a Bernie Sanders rather than in a Vladimir Putin. And his followers are more likely to find their beliefs in social diversity, social justice and human rights reflected in the US’s own progressive society than in a Russia that outlaws homosexuality or a China that imprisons human rights lawyers.

The UK should remember its interests, but also note that these need not be purely commercial. Values and old alliances are a part of British identity. Although the UK faces doubtless hardship ,it could also be on the cusp of exciting opportunities and possibilities.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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