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With Prof Peter Varnish OBE, Macdonald Laurier Institute, September 2021

The international environment is increasingly insecure. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, China and Russia are attempting to reshape the international system and constrain the liberal democratic West. State competition is changing, in a shift towards deniable, intrusive, and non-military threats against all sectors of society and, as a result, liberal democracies are increasingly looking for collective ways to respond. To meet this growing global challenge, Canada could do much more with the historic Five Eyes grouping that also includes the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

The Five Eyes began primarily as an intelligence-sharing and technology collaboration arrangement. But in a new joint publication between the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, authors John Hemmings and Peter Varnish argue that the Five Eyes grouping could be used by Canada and others to expand the ability to counter and deter China and Russia across multiple areas, including technology, information, military, and economics.

According to the report, titled “Evolving the Five Eyes: Opportunities and Challenges in the New Strategic Landscape,” the Five Eyes has many advantages, from its proven history of creating effective personal relationships across all five countries to its ad hoc, fluid informality which makes it an ideal vehicle for expanded security cooperation. The countries share a common language, democratic traditions and legal systems and they have largely compatible militaries and security practices.

Council of Geostrategy, Britain’s World, 19 August, 2021

The dramatic images of the Fall of Kabul have driven rounds of recrimination and finger-pointing in the West. However, as the G7 countries prepare to meet virtually next week for an emergency discussion on Afghanistan, it would do well for them to consider the position of another of the region’s great powers – the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While the PRC’s state-owned media have already leapt on the event as ‘humiliating’ for the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US), and attempted to draw lessons for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party from the ‘abandonment’, it is also beginning to frame the event as something which will require a ‘deal’ with the US, a potential bargaining chip to reshape its current adversarial relationship with Washington without having to address US concerns or complaints. 

The G7 need not take this Chinese ‘discursive statecraft’ at face-value. It is indeed natural for the PRC to dress up its efforts to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan as a favour to the West, but American, British, and other allied leaders should understand the PRC’s equities in the country clearly. While the Chinese leadership itself has not yet decided whether to manage this crisis with or against the West, its own interests in the war-torn country are well-documented. G7 leaders should instead use the following baseline assumptions as they think through any attempts at a Chinese-Western settlement.

The PRC has a strong interest in a stable border region: Preventing further unrest in the quasi-colonial territory of Xinjiang is a core interest for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as its gross violations of human rights there reveal. Given the fact that Afghanistan and Xinjiang share a border and the fact that the Taliban has maintained links with various international Islamic groups in the past, this is a serious concern. Over the past few years, Chinese intelligence networks inside Afghanistan and Chinese-Taliban diplomacy in Tianjin have spearheaded the effort to detach the Taliban from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement – a group with which it naturally aligns. In his meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Wang Yi, the PRC Foreign Minister, called for the Taliban to ‘completely sever all ties’ with the group. 

The PRC has a strong interest in Afghanistan as a source of minerals: Afghanistan is the world’s largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, cobalt, mercury, gold, and lithium, valued at US$1 trillion. Its rare-earth metals may be worth even more. In addition to owning the mining rights to the world’s second largest copper mine in Afghanistan – said to be worth US$1.2 billion in annual output – the PRC is already the Taliban’s largest customer for minerals, a trade that now represents the group’s largest revenue source (US$464 million), outstripping narcotics (US$416 million). This also represents a large chunk of total Taliban revenues, which are said to be around US$1.6 billion, a point made more salient by the freezing of Afghan government reserves held in US banks. Chinese state media has already made a point of stating that it can meet the anticipated fiscal shortfall (a predicted 20% fall from the previous pledge of US$15.2 billion between 2016 and 2020) in Afghanistan’s coffers through official direct investment as part of the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

The PRC has a long-term interest in incorporating Afghanistan into the BRI: Despite a recent focus on domestic infrastructure, the Belt and Road Initiative remains Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project. As long as he remains General Secretary of the CCP, that will continue to be the case. The BRI is a quasi-imperial project that seeks to offshore access to industrial capacity and labour, while also tying regional states closer to the PRC’s economy. Dual Circulation theory, the CCP’s current economic strategy, sees the PRC intending to create trade asymmetries between it and other trading powers, so that its domestic economy drives growth, while others remain dependent on Chinese trade and investment. No doubt, the use of infrastructure financingand a debated-but-still-relevant concept, ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, would also give Beijing direct influence over the Taliban’s leadership. 

The PRC has a strong interest in sidelining India in any settlement: Beijing may seek to sideline India from having a major role in Afghanistan, and there are two strong reasons why the G7 countries should again invite India’s leader Narendra Modi to any virtual meeting and any subsequent diplomacy with China. First, India has been developing strong links to Afghanistan over the past 20 years and sees it as a priority issue. Second, while Afghanistan is bound to become somewhat reliant on China for future economic and trade development, India and the Gulf states could and should provide enough economic diversity to soften China’s heft. 

Thus, when the G7 leaders meet next week, they should frame any cooperation with the PRC in terms of the mutual interest all parties have in a stable Afghanistan that does not harbour or export Jihadists. After they have established that, they will have to discuss how to balance cooperation with the PRC in Afghanistan within the greater strategic context of geopolitical competition. No doubt, the CCP leadership will be doing the same. The G7 will have to balance and prioritise their interests within the relationships with the PRC, with the Taliban, and with any resurrected non-Pashtu Northern Alliance group – should one arise. It is a fluid time calling for diplomacy and strategic decisiveness. 

The UK risks plunging the Five Eyes alliance into crisis

The Telegraph, 4 March, 2020

The Five Eyes alliance has long been a bulwark of the free world. On one level, it is simply an intelligence-sharing partnership between the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Yet it is able to function as perhaps the most comprehensive espionage alliance in history because of implicit trust between its members, based on an understanding that they share the same interests and ambitions.

Now it is approaching a crisis. And although the UK’s decision to involve Huawei in its 5G infrastructure is the leading cause, this dispute is a symptom of far more fundamental differences over the alliance’s approach to China.

These disagreements have begun to spill over into the open. Last month Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff to President Trump, warned British officials of a “direct and dramatic impact” on intelligence sharing with the US following the UK getting into bed with Huawei.

Meanwhile, Australian MPs on their parliament’s intelligence committee were said to have leaked details of a tense meeting with Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary. New Zealand and Canada have been watching from the wings in dismay – but the time is coming when they, too, will have to pick a side.

In all of this, UK discussion of the issue has focused on risk mitigation – whether the threat posed by China can be contained in the specific matter of 5G. But British efforts to reassure their allies are not working. Australia and the US aren’t impressed by London’s attempts to use technical arguments to fudge what they see as a geopolitical debate for commercial reasons. At heart, they are critical of London’s prioritisation of business as usual with China over their collective security.

They see China as a growing regional and global destabiliser – a revisionist power that must be checked. To them, the UK’s Huawei decision illustrates a wider British willingness to sacrifice security for the sake of its own narrow interests.

Of course the UK is free to ignore such worries, but there could be consequences. Britain has stated that it wishes to sign trade deals with both the US and Australia, and the response has been largely positive. Yet it is not clear that those involved can skirt around the issue for much longer.

This is for three reasons. The first is Donald Trump. Although he views renegotiating the US trade posture as a cornerstone of his presidency, he has not taken the Huawei decision well.

Second, the UK has still not fully understood the scale of the diplomatic damage. Continuing to treat this as a solely Huawei-related problem rather than a broader China issue has annoyed American and Australian foreign policy experts, particularly in their security communities. From their perspective, Britain is ignoring an assumption, built into Five Eyes, that all five are to defend themselves and each other from authoritarian states.

Third, there are troubling signs that China is developing a strategy which draws on the UK’s resources to achieve its ambitions. Consider its investment in the UK fintech and hi-tech sectors and the calls for a “Golden Era” relationship.

It is only becoming more obvious to Washington and Canberra that, while they have adjusted to Beijing’s aggressive stance, the UK – and to a lesser extent, New Zealand and Canada – have not. Such divergence is unsustainable if Five Eyes is to function smoothly – and this on top of the UK’s belief that it should focus more on Russia than on China.

Britain now faces a difficult choice. It can continue its current approach towards China and attempt to reap the economic gains. Alternatively, it might craft a more careful approach, similar to those of the US, Australia and Japan.

Neither option is without cost. The latter means giving up some of those commercial benefits, insisting on scaling back the non-standalone 5G infrastructure which Huawei has already deployed, and realigning foreign policy more broadly. Going ahead with the former, however, risks much graver consequences. The Five Eyes partners are not about to stop working together – but such a deep and special partnership will not last unless all its members trust that they are working for the same ends.

Why Britain’s spooks are wrong to downplay the risks of Huawei


The Telegraph, 14 January, 2020

Sir Andrew Parker’s assertion that incorporating Huawei components in the next stage of the UK’s 5G network would be unlikely to disrupt intelligence relations with the US or its allies is alarming for a number of reasons. It would appear that the UK’s spymasters have decided – much like Britain’s telecommunications companies – on a policy of asking the right questions in order to guarantee the right answers.

The UK needs Huawei’s 5G tech at its laughably cheap prices. And so ignored is the geopolitical context of an increasingly authoritarian China, funding Huawei’s expansion across Europe. Ignored is the company’s role in Xinjiang. Ignored is China’s place as a leading source of global cyber espionage. Ignored is the 2017 National Intelligence Law which requires Chinese companies to cooperate with China’s intelligence agencies, at home and abroad. Ignored are China’s increasing influence operations inside Western democracies.

Instead, the decisive question in Britain’s 5G debate has become a comically narrow one: will Huawei’s inclusion into Britain’s 5G networks be a threat to the network’s integrity?

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) argues that it can mitigate this risk by using multiple vendors – a mixture of Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia – and by restricting Huawei’s components to the periphery or “non-intelligent” bits of the network.

According to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the telecoms network is structured around three functional parts. The transport layer, the physical nodes that transport data; the routing layer, which works out the best transport route for the data to use; and finally, the edge, where consumers – that’s you and me – interact with it.

Huawei, they tell us, will be kept out of the core, which is a functional name for all the bits that decide who you are, where your data needs to go, and so on. That means they’ll be restricted to antennas, routers, switches, and products at the consumer end such as WiFi boxes, and away from the intelligent bits that have more access to the data.

The NCSC seems to indicate that this has long been a deciding principle, but we know that BT began ripping out Huawei components from its 4G core as late as December 2018, meaning either the principle only dates from then, or the NCSC does not keep a close eye on the network. Neither is very reassuring.

The NCSC has also said that any code used in components in the network – such as antennas and routers – will be pre-checked for backdoors and vulnerabilities at its Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) in Banbury, Oxfordshire. It sounds rather good, especially since Huawei has agreed to pay for it all.

The problem is that checking code will not work any better than the plan to keep Huawei out of the “core”.

5G will be a virtual network, in which components of the network are “white-boxed”, meaning that network administrators can upload patches for fixes and updates remotely. Think of 5G as something akin to your phone. When an app on your phone is updated, that is because someone in Silicon Valley pushed a button, sending updated code – a patch – to all phones with that app.

As one US cyber official recently stated, it’s what makes 5G so attractive to network administrators – site visits become increasingly unnecessary as more repairs to the network infrastructure can be done remotely. It also gives network administrators the ability to move functionality – including the intelligent bits – around the network to fit requirements.


But it is this flexibility that makes the trustworthiness of telecoms vendors so important when it comes to 5G. In a virtual network, an untrustworthy vendor can send the good as well as the bad.

In order to stop such malware, the NCSC would have to watch hundreds of thousands of antennae and components across an entire national network. As with terrorism, we’d have to be lucky every time, but a cyber hacker would have to be lucky only once.

In a report released last March, the HCSEC Oversight Board, tasked with overseeing the Huawei centre in Banbury, noted that it “continued to identify concerning issues in Huawei’s approach to software development, bringing significantly increased risk to UK operators, which requires ongoing management and mitigation”.

The report continues that they can only give “limited assurance that the long-term security risks can be managed in the Huawei equipment currently deployed in the UK”. Imagine if they were discussing airline safety instead of just critical national infrastructure.

Even more damning was a report by Finite State – a private tech consultancy – that sought to replicate HCSEC’s review of Huawei source code. However, instead of using code provided by Huawei, it used code found in Huawei products already on the market. Alarmingly, not only did it find significantly more vulnerabilities than other brands, it found efforts to disguise those vulnerabilities.

This past year, Chinese diplomats have threatened economic retaliation against Germany and Denmark if they exclude Huawei in their 5G networks. One wonders what type of pressure Beijing has exerted on the UK behind the scenes. Certainly, Liu Xiaoming, China’s Ambassador, has already openly said that future investment could be at risk.

However, Britain does not and should not do business at gunpoint. Before this Government makes a very costly mistake, it must thoroughly explain its technical mitigation measures, both to the public, and to its allies.

Anything less smacks of bowing to Chinese pressure. And that’s something we can’t mitigate against.

This is Money, Lucy White, 12 July, 2019

Dr John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre at foreign policy think tank the Henry Jackson Society, said: ‘China has put a million Uighurs in camps and is building an Orwellian surveillance society.

‘Anyone who thinks a million people in camps are being served well needs to reflect on their moral compass.’

South China Morning PostKinling Lo,  4 July 2019

John Hemmings, director of the Asia studies centre at the British think tank the Henry Jackson Society, said that Brexit and the Conservative leadership contest had made Britain “vulnerable” to “displays of anger” from China.

“[Beijing] has noticed that because of Brexit and the oversize importance that London attaches to threats to investment, it can improve its leverage by showing strong emotions against the UK,” Hemmings said.

He said Beijing had been “introducing a rather toxic approach” in its approach towards London with Liu regularly threatening Britain in domestic newspaper articles and accused him of “interfering” in domestic politics.

“I think it is inevitable that the UK will also become more defensive toward Beijing if it continues this high-profile, strong-arm tactics approach towards both its people in Hong Kong and its economic partners,” Hemmings said.

‘People power victory’ in Hong Kong looks more like a tactical retreat


The Telegraph, 18 June, 2019

Carrie Lam’s apology over the extradition bill would appear to be a victory of democracy and “people power”. People 1: Beijing 0. 

However, it’s worth looking a bit further into why the Hong Kong government apparently backed down in order to understand the wider implications of China’s impact on the city, and by extension the West’s relationship with Hong Kong and China.

There are a number of possible reasons for Lam’s climb down, which broadly fall into three categories: the democratic victory, external pressure and tactical retreat. In the first instance, it does seem that the government of Hong Kong was completely unprepared for the huge outpouring of dissent.

While it’s difficult to confirm that one million people did protest on June 9, as the organisers claim, the scenes of people marching to the Legislative Council are impressive and the shift to violence revealed a weak hand on the part of the Hong Kong government.

Furthermore, arguing the case for the rule of law with Beijing has become increasingly tenuous. One need only think of the booksellers – Gui Minhai, Lui Bo and Lam Wing-kee – all kidnapped or taken by Chinese forces in acts of extraordinary rendition.

The second reason, that of external pressure, also bears scrutiny – and if true, should have an impact on UK thinking and policy in future. The US move to reintroduce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the wake of the protests was notable, as it threatens to remove Hong Kong’s special treatment afforded by the US Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, putting it squarely in front of the Trump administration’s US-China trade war.

Combined with statements made by the UK, Germany and the EU, this indicated that the tide of international public opinion was firmly with the protesters. And there are those like Grant Newsham, a former US government official with a long stint in Asia, who claim that the backdown is in fact a strategic retreat.

He notes: “Chances are they will wait and then punish who they believe are the ringleaders, just as they did with the ‘umbrella movement’ in 2014; jail time for ridiculous reasons; constant and pervasive harassment.”

As the controversy dies down, we will discover exactly which of the three of these played the largest part. For the UK, knowing which was the most important – particularly if it was the second factor – should play a driving force in future policy.

The Telegraph, Sophie Yan, 13 June, 2019

“As the Conservative Party gears up to choose the next prime minister, it is becoming apparent that a different kind of leadership is required, one that puts Britain’s principles and values back in the centre of the relationship with China,” wrote John Hemmings, deputy director of research at the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank.

President Xi’s strongman tactics have severely backfired in Hong Kong


The Telegraph, 12 June, 2019

Hong Kong’s reunification with the mainland looks increasingly problematic

This week’s scenes from Hong Kong are eerily reminiscent of another battle for Chinese democracy, one that took place just 30 years ago in Beijing. While it’s true that the clashes between Hong Kong’s protesters and the Hong Kong police have been nowhere as violent as that dished out by the People’s Liberation Army that warm June evening in 1989, the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against the crowds are a troubling sign.

From one perspective, this is just a battle between the Hong Kong government and its people over an extradition law, which might make it possible for people in the city to be extradited to the mainland.

Seen from another perspective, however, it’s a single battle in the war between closed, authoritarian states and open, democratic ones – a conflict between those who believe that a single party should be the arbiter of law, of social taste, of economic life, of education, and even, of thought – and those who believe that it is down to the individual to decide on much of this, and that dignity and happiness lay in the latter – not the former.

As one Hong Kong-watcher wrote this week, “It’s not easy to turn a million prosperous people into political dissidents. But that’s what China might have pulled off in Hong Kong.” Given the fact that Hong Kong’s approval rates for Chinese rule in 1998 were as high as 60 per cent, it is astonishing to think how Beijing has mismanaged the former British colony.

On the 20th anniversary of the handover, just two years ago, less than 3.1 per cent of Hong Kong youth identified as Chinese, while a University of Hong Kong poll found that less than 40 per cent of the city’s residents were satisfied with Chinese rule. It is astonishing, and tragic.

For despite the UK’s historic role in separating Hong Kong from the mainland in what Gladstone called a “most infamous and atrocious” conflict, the Opium War, there was some sense in 1997 that a wrong was being righted. History, however, is not always black and white. Handing over some five million souls back to the Chinese Communist Party now looks increasingly problematic.

To some extent, these current troubles have come not because of the expansion of democratic forces in Hong Kong, but because of the expansion of authoritarian ones on the mainland. The central figure in this push has been China’s President Xi Jinping, who since 2013, has done more than any other global figure to promote, protect, and expand authoritarianism. Personally, he is said to have more power inside China than Chairman Mao Zedong, outclassing his immediate predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.

He has also been at the heart of a push to bring all aspects of Chinese society back under direct Party supervision and control; he has forbiddenthe discussion of “Western” ideas inside China, banning discussion of “seven perils”, including constitutional government, civil society, “nihilistic” history (read non-CCP history), universal values, neo-liberalism, and the “West’s view of the media”, instead promoting party thinking, such as the Three Self Confidences, defined as confidence in the political system, confidence in the party line, and confidence in party theory.

The impact on China’s media has been immense, and has seen a budding free media, with Chinese editors and journalists being sacked and replaced by those who tow the party line.

On Xi’s watch, China has promoted an expansionist and nationalist authoritarianism that is now undermining the US-China economic relationship. He has ended collective rule and term limits in China, and personally greenlit the militarising of the South China Sea.

His support for China’s state-owned enterprises and efforts to co-opt Chinese tech giants like Huawei into Beijing’s “going out” policy and civil-military fusion have created a backlash against the company in the US and Europe. And finally, he has become a symbol of fear and repression among the Uighur minority, directing and promoting a policy of mass incarceration and re-education.

Earlier today, Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan tweeted: “Taiwan stands with all freedom-loving people in Hong Kong”. As China’s Xi increasingly becomes a symbol of repression and of the closing of the Chinese mind, so will Hong Kong’s fate play on the minds of the Taiwanese.

It certainly is playing on our minds.

It’s time for Britain to find its spine and finally start standing up to China


The Telegraph, 10 June, 2019

We have a legal obligation to Hong Kong that we cannot ignore

The sight of a million people marching down Hong Kong’s streets on Sunday was a remarkable spectacle. Perhaps even more incredible was the fact that it was paralleled by a further 29 rallies held in 12 countries across the world including the cities of London, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Sydney and Taipei.

Predictably, Chinese state media accused “foreign forces” of being behind the event, but it was clear that with more than a seventh of the city’s total population on the streets, Beijing’s claim to speak for all Chinese rang hollow. While the protest was nominally motivated by new legislation that would allow extradition between the city and mainland China, it is really about the incremental dismantling of Hong Kong’s rule of law.

For many of those on the march, the timing of the bill is highly symbolic. Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Beijing’s crackdown killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese citizens who wished for political rights. This year is also the 60th anniversary of the Great Leap Forward when Mao Zedong’s disastrous agricultural policies cost tens of millions of lives.

In a joint submission to a 2017 enquiry by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary, and Martin Lee, founder of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, stated that the “precious rights and freedoms guaranteed under ‘one country, two systems’ such as freedom of the press, of publication, and of academic thoughts, are being chipped away”. A report published by the Henry Jackson Society this week confirms this, showing that the legal, press and political rights are steadily being eroded by the Hong Kong Government under the direction of Beijing.

As the Conservative Party gears up to choose the next prime minister, it is becoming apparent that a different kind of leadership is required, one that puts Britain’s principles and values back in the centre of the relationship with China. The UK has, for too long, prioritised trade in the relationship. As a consequence, whenever China has pushed back – on, for example, Hinkley Point, Britain’s South China Sea transits or the banning of Huawei from the 5G network – the response has been recklessly weak. For too long, the British Lion has been a paper tiger.

In the case of Hong Kong, Britain has a clear and direct legal responsibility for ensuring  that the one country, two systems principle is upheld for the 50 years mandated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an obligation that won’t expire until 2047. This is not an obligation that can be ducked.

Not only is standing up to China the right thing to do, now is the perfect time to do it. China is currently desperate to diversify its trade partners as it reels from the Trade War with the United States, the world’s largest economy. In Beijing, this has sparked fears that the country could find itself diplomatically isolated and as such party leaders are now increasingly sensitive to global public opinion. So bad are these worries that President Xi Jinping has even taken to calling Russian President Vladimir Putin his “best and bosom friend”.

It is into this space that the new Prime Minister must step and recalibrate the Sino-British relationship. A reset in our dealings with China is now long overdue.

The UK must begin by speaking more forcefully in bilateral meetings. That means continually pushing for guarantees that Beijing will uphold the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. We may even have to threaten to internationalise the issue or sanction key individuals if China’s suppression of Hong Kong continues unabated. Frankly, we are going to have to find our spine. And what is true for Britain, is doubly true for the West writ large.

China is going to an important trade partner for many years to come; if the West is to really succeed in this relationship, we must ensure that an increasingly authoritarian China understands the importance with which we view our principles and values. Some are already moving in this direction, with Germany giving Hong Kong rights activists Ray Wong and Alan Li refugee protection status last week.

We are all going to have to redefine our China policies. If we do not, if we contribute to a worldwide diminishment of democracy and human rights, we will be letting down not only the people of Hong Kong but ourselves as well.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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