CTV, 14 February, 2018 North Korea’s Olympic Charm Offensive
CTV, 14 February, 2018 North Korea’s Olympic Charm Offensive
The Telegraph, 30 November, 2017
The story that came from a diplomatic backchannel between the US and North Korea during the early months of the Trump administration was telling. A group of American experts travelled to Stockholm to meet a group of North Korean officials in order to get a sense of what Pyongyang wanted, what its bottom line was.
Facing North Korean diplomats across the table, they asked, “what do you want?”, “What will persuade you to put down nuclear weapons?”. According to someone in the room, the North Korean diplomats were extremely self-composed, cocky even. Their position to the American team was stark:
“Accept us a nuclear state. Then we either talk about a peace treaty…or we’ll go to war.”
According to a former US official in the room, it was a breath-taking indication how far apart the two sides had drifted from their near agreement during the 2007 Six Party Talks.
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The Financial Times, Kiran Stacy, Jamie Smyth, 14 November, 2017
“John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think-tank, says: ‘We must ask ourselves: by avoiding collective security arrangements in 2008, did we persuade China to behave as a model citizen in the region?'”
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The Interpreter, 9 November, 2017
Recent news that Australia’s Foreign Minister has indicated interest in taking part in a resurrected US-Australia-Japan-India quadrilateral dialogue on the sidelines of the upcoming ASEAN Summit is to be welcomed. It is an indication how much the strategic situation in the Asia Pacific has shifted. Positive as this latest development might be, it should nonetheless be regarded with caution.
The ‘Quadrilateral’ was never an alliance. It was a loose geostrategic alignment of states concerned with China’s potential challenge to their interests, but simultaneously, unwilling to provoke China by assuming the obligatory mechanisms of an alliance. Even then it buckled under pressure. Accused of being a NATO-in-the-making, it was far too full of self-doubt to be effective.
Chinese diplomatic opposition to the forum was keenly felt in June 2007 after Beijing issued demarches to all four countries, but Canberra’s asymmetric economic dependence meant that Australia felt it more than most. Within months of winning the election in 2007, Kevin Rudd’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith unilaterally withdrew Australia from the quadrilateral during a February 2008 meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. While Australia was not the only country suffering internal divisions about the issue – there were doubters among the senior-most levels of the US Department of State and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs – it was the first to break ranks.
At the root of Australia’s indecision has been something common to all the great and middle powers in the region: how to apportion China a regional leadership role while attempting to shape its choices away from illiberal or hegemonic designs.
Sadly, in the years since, China has shown ever-increasing signs of assertiveness in its approach to the region. It has used military coercion and an unprecedented militarisation of maritime sea lanes in the South China Sea; its strategy is both at odds with regional practice and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite regional attempts to resolve disputed maritime claims peacefully, Beijing has cynically played for time over the establishment of a Code of Conduct while using economic leverage to prevent ASEAN unanimity.
China’s geostrategic ambitions have become global with the massive, multi-billion dollar, decades-long Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It promises a new age of Chinese leverage over the Asian heartland, as well as a real attempt at internationalising the RMB without giving over political control.
No doubt, this dialogue on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit will feel the full weight of China’s diplomatic pressure. Even in announcing its openness to a meeting, Bishop’s language was ambiguous: ‘…it’s natural that we should continue to have such discussions, but there is nothing formal. There is no decision on that.’ Chinese diplomats are likely to issue demarches and make phone calls to all four capitals.
While no one wishes to have a China backed into a corner, fearful of a NATO in Asia, is that really what is taking place? From one perspective, a rising power with quasi-hegemonic designs is trying to prevent a loose coalition of states from organising themselves in a constraining and deterring bloc. And while it is absolutely in China’s interests to do that, is it in ours to acquiesce?
If the quadrilateral format is embraced, the four may find that despite initial protests, Beijing will ultimately accept that each have their own interests and the power to define those interests. This week we have seen Beijing accept – after a year of diplomatic pressure – Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD missile-defence systems on its soil. South Korea stuck to its ground while simultaneously seeking to ameliorate China’s concerns, eventually winning China over.
The quadrilateral members should adopt that lesson as their own. We must ask ourselves: by avoiding collective security arrangements in 2008, did we persuade China to behave as a model citizen in the region? We must choose actions that meet our own strategic concerns and not China’s. For this reason, the quadrilateral makes sense.
As Donald Trump continues his long tour around Asia, the question is whether the President will be able to articulate a strategy toward the region at a critical time in its history. Having rejected Barack Obama’s signature policies – the Pivot to Asia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which were meant to balance China’s rise with continued American leadership – it is not clear what he will put in their place.
It is not even clear if the region will wait for him to make up his mind, with a number of states asking very serious questions about the US’s staying power in the region. Given the fact that some predict that Asia will make up 40 per cent of the global economy by 2050, the question of who leads the region will have global implications.
In terms of regional integration, Trump’s brand of “America First” economics is looking distinctly at odds with Asia’s move towards ever-closer liberalization. While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made sure the president felt welcome in Tokyo on Monday, he did not budge on the possibility of a bilateral trade deal.
He and other leaders have decided to press on with the TPP without the US. Abe and the other 16 national leaders are expected to announce the continuation of TPP at the next APEC summit. The Master of the Deal may leave the region without getting one, it seems.
And US strategy is not only floundering in the economic sphere. Just days before Trump embarked for the region, America’s ally South Korea buckled under Chinese diplomatic and economic pressure with regards to the THAAD missile system.
Some estimates put the total damage to Korean business at $10 billion, and Seoul eventually agreed not to host any additional THAAD systems, to not participate in a US missile defence system, and finally, to avoid participating in a US-Japan-South Korea alliance. Meanwhile Trump’s insistence on renegotiating the Bush-era KORUS free trade agreement adds economic tensions to this blow to military interoperability.
China’s attempts to loosen Washington’s alliances is evident throughout the region. In addition to Seoul’s recent reversal, Beijing has applied economic leverage with great success to Australia and the Philippines. A growing clique in Canberra argue for an “independent” foreign policy that does not upset Beijing.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s noncommittal stance toward a revived US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral last weekend was clearly meant to avoid antagonizing China. Similarly, the Philippines – a crucial state in the geostrategic struggle over the South China Sea – has openly shifted closer to China under the leadership of its president, Rodrigo Duterte.
In all this, China is giving a warm welcome in Beijing to the American President, but it may be the consoling arm of a state that sees itself in the ascendancy. In the wake of October’s 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping stands in marked contrast to his American guest.
At the pinnacle of the Chinese state, Xi has amassed more power around himself since Chairman Mao Zedong and is fostering a surge in Chinese nationalism and pride. He has helped push through a number of organizational reforms that have strengthened China’s increasingly modern military and commands an economy that still grows at a healthy 6.3 per cent.
Yet despite this gloomy prognosis, it is not at all clear that Beijing will succeed in becoming the region’s or the world’s greatest superpower.
For one thing, Xi’s brand of anti-Western authoritarianism and hard-nosed mercantilism may actually increase pressure on China’s structural weaknesses, as Chinese universities experience brain drain to their Western competitors.
Furthermore, China’s policy of pushing its inefficient state owned enterprises (SOEs) to invest into the landmark Belt and Road Initiative risks worsening China’s debt of $22 trillion, by lending billions to states who will be unable to repay them.
Hedge fund manager Kyle Bass estimates that in a debt crisis, Beijing’s loses could total five times those of the US subprime crisis of 2007-10. Then there is the demographic challenge, which threatens to make China old before it becomes rich. Its working population began declining in 2015 and according to Chi Ho, a senior economist, China’s share of population over 65 will increase from 9 per cent to 30 per cent by 2040.
Geostrategically, China can capitalize on the loosening of ties between regional states and the “untrustworthy” Trump administration in the near-term. However, Beijing will be undone by its own long-term grand ambitions.
Encroaching on the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and India’s northern border, Beijing has needlessly made firm geopolitical opponents where before there were none.
Tokyo, Delhi, and Hanoi all view Chinese encroachment on their territory with likeminded resolve and have begun to develop closer defence links with each other and with Washington. Australia notwithstanding, the most interesting news this year is that the US-Japan-India trilateral will be reinvigorated by closer defence cooperation.
By comparison, the US has much to offer – despite the president’s personal lack of popularity – in structural terms if not soft power. As Joseph Nye noted in a recent Financial Times piece, US shale-energy independence and currency advantages contrast favourably with China’s vulnerable shipping lines and its weak currency.
While China has attempted to internationalize its renminbi currency, 64 per cent of international foreign reserves are in the dollar, with only 1.1 per cent in renminbi. Furthermore, US liberalism contrasts very well with China’s authoritarian-style interference in the region, and this will only increase as Xi’s China becomes more authoritarian.
Australia was hit by revelations this year of Chinese interference in its education and political system. Polls taken in 2017 also show that 3.1 per cent of Hongkongers identify as Chinese.
Finally, in its rise, China has attempted to side-line the region’s second largest power, Japan. While this sounds trivial, Japan’s still-sizable population, regional diplomacy, strong defence capabilities, and place as the world’s third largest economic power show the depth of this mistake.
Trump’s warm welcome in Tokyo may well serve as a metaphor for how Japan will keep the US in the region over the next four years; even now, Japanese diplomats have fostered relations with the Philippines to balance against a total shift toward China.
Aides close to Abe admit to keeping a space on the TPP for the Americans to “dock in” in some future date. Whatever the case, the stakes could not be much higher in a region set to be the engine of the global economy. How Trump and the United States get through the trip – and the next four years – remain critical.
Fox News, 1 November, 2017
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