Welcome to the all-new newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the consulting and research division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.
Each week, DRI Asia Review will focus on a single country, subregion, or theme, based on in-house research, new DRI products, and regional media monitoring. It has four sections. The Big One offers DRI’s assessment of a major security, geopolitical, or economic issue. Babel is analysis based on translations of articles in regional newspapers and media outlets by a DRI team specializing in major Asian languages. In From Our Stable, you will find analysis based on new DRI products, short excerpts from them, or new multimedia features. And finally, each week Digestif will highlight a concept – from science, technology, economics and even philosophy – that will help you up your analytical game, irrespective of your professional interests.
This week’s DRI Asia Review, days ahead of the six-month anniversary of the Biden administration, looks at how the United States seeks to shape the Asia-Pacific, and the key challenges in front of it as it resets its regional posture after four tumultuous years of Donald Trump in the White House. DRI grades Biden’s Asia policy, and looks at what South Koreans are watching out for as their treaty ally continue to face political turbulence at home. The edition examines the possibility of China launching military action against Taiwan through an assault on the Pratas Islands, and leaves you with a new way to think about climate change, Biden’s signature policy priority.
President Biden’s Asia Policy: Bright and Blind Spots
|President Biden’s Asia Policy: Bright and Blind Spots|
|— Flickr, Gage Skidmore|
July 20 will mark the six-month anniversary of the Biden administration. In the half a year President Joe Biden has held the highest office in the United States, he has advanced an Asia-Pacific policy that has exhibited striking continuity with that of his predecessor Donald Trump’s. Biden has refused to tone down United States’ deepening multi-dimensional competition with China, has unabashedly promoted the Quad, and has brought to bear an array of measures to prevent the United States’ displacement as the regional hegemon. Unlike Trump’s posture however, Biden’s regional diplomacy has been, by and large, consistent and has rightly emphasized the key role U.S. allies and partners play in upholding the regional order.
However, events over the last six months have also starkly demonstrated the growing limitations of U.S. power, nowhere more clearly than in Myanmar where an intransigent military junta seized power early February after jailing democratically elected leaders. Biden’s decision to (what looks to many as) abandoning Afghanistan and Afghans – paving the way for the Taliban to return to Kabul in one fashion or the other – also has clear costs, not the least because it reminds many of the U.S. decision to pull out of South Vietnam, leading to the fall of Saigon in 1975. And then of course is the question of what role the U.S. sees for the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in its regional strategy, beyond rhetorical commitment to its “centrality” in the Indo-Pacific. And finally, some question the continued wisdom of viewing the entire Indo-Pacific theater as an integrated whole, given its obvious geopolitical, domestic-political, and economic diversity.
To start with Myanmar: despite a host of measures, predominantly sanctions against junta leaders and their family members, following the February 2 putsch, the Biden administration has been unable to move the needle in Naypyidaw. In February this year, less than a month after the coup, a DRI report on the situation had assessed that “the Tatmadaw is likely to be insulated from the effects of targeted Western sanctions. As such, sanctions are unlikely to change its calculus.” It further assessed, “[f]or the Biden administration, its response to the Myanmar coup, and ability to shape the junta’s behavior, will serve as a crucial test when it comes to balancing realpolitik imperatives and commitment to liberal values.”
Sadly, for the people of Myanmar at the very least, these assessments seem to have been on the mark: sanctions indeed have failed to coerce the Myanmar military leaders into changing course, with the situation increasingly resembling a fait accompli staged by junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his associates. If anything, the junta seems to be doubling down on its dare, having brought additional charges against State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the latest tranche of which came on July 13. Meanwhile, ASEAN continues to muddle through its response to the February coup – prisoner of its own rhetoric of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states – with the U.S. urging the bloc to take “immediate action” against the junta on July 14.
Turning to the western Asia-Pacific, it now looks all but certain that the Taliban will return to power in Kabul, mostly likely after overthrowing the Ashraf Ghani government. Following the Taliban’s dramatic advance in the middle of June, the United States intelligence community had assessed that the Ghani government could collapse in as little as six months after the last American soldier departs the country. This effectively means that the Taliban could be back in power as early as February next year. To be fair to Biden, his administration had inherited a mess arising out of poor strategic judgment of his predecessors, President Barack Obama’s in particular, and it was simply a matter of time before the U.S. cut Afghanistan loose. That said, the optics of the U.S. forces deserting Afghanistan as the Taliban continues it advances is poor and carries significant symbolic import with reverberations far beyond the Afghan theater.
Contrasting the situation in Myanmar and Afghanistan side-by-side also suggest the host of diverse challenges in the Indo-Pacific. For some, it is also an indication of the impossibility of an integrated view of the region with China in the back of one’s mind. For one, despite no love being lost between the Tatmadaw and Beijing, China is likely to continue to shield the junta, not the least because it prefers a stable government in Naypyidaw irrespective of the cast of characters running it. Both sides know it; a marriage of convenience, thus, makes eminent sense. Beijing, however, has preferred a relatively muted approach towards Afghanistan, even though the Taliban has welcomed it as a “friend” of Afghanistan, and even as China has continued to call on the Taliban to give up arms. Simply put, China does not have a dog in the Afghan fight beyond nebulous albeit grand connectivity plans. This is especially so when its closest international partner, Pakistan, is at the front and center of shaping the eventual outcome, however ugly, in Afghanistan.
Bottomline: B- for Biden’s Asia policy in his first six months in office.
|Asia-Pacific Cyber Risks|
Stay tuned for a new DRI Monthly Report that surveys the Asia-Pacific cyber risks landscape. The report, drawing on primary and secondary research as well as expert consultations, surveys the geopolitical and commercial forces shaping Asia’s approach towards cybersecurity and the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in consolidating emerging cyber trends. It also highlights areas of critical importance for governments and businesses allowing them to act on tomorrow’s challenges today.
View the DRI Reports
South Korea Looks at Biden – and the Possible Return of Trump
|Donald J. Trump and Republic of South Korea President Moon Jae-in participate in a joint press conference at Blue House Sunday, June 30, 2019 in Seoul.|
|— Flickr, Trump White House Archived|
In his four years in office, Trump bullied allies and then some. Just ask South Korea, as Trump basically embarked to extort Seoul for the presence of U.S. troops on South Korean soil, even as he sought to make peace with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in a fashion that can only be described as manic and quixotic in turns. Since assuming office in January, Biden has returned a semblance of normalcy to U.S. diplomacy in the region, South Korea not being an exception to his overtures. Analysts termed the May 21 summit between Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in as a “reset” after four years of Trump.
All this however does not mean that South Koreans are not asking probing questions about the Biden administration – or what the future might hold. On July 12, The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, ran a precise of a recent Washington Post article that pointed out that key positions in the Biden administration remain vacant, with Biden’s record at filling positions in his administration better than Trump’s but worse than Obama’s and President George W. Bush’s.
The same day, Dong-a Ilbo, another South Korean newspaper, covered the recently concluded Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas which saw Trump emerging as the leading Republican contender in the 2024 presidential polls. “If former President Trump actually runs in the 2024 Presidential election, the impact will be significant,” the newspaper noted, going on to add: “Since Trump left office, the Republican Party has been continuously exposed to conflicts between the leadership and pro-Trump lawmakers over the course of the U.S. Republican Party.”
A September poll last year by the Chicago Council found that only 16 percent of South Koreans preferred Trump’s re-election in the November 2020 presidential elections, with 59 percent preferring Biden. That said, the same poll found that a stunning 90 percent of South Koreans viewed the South Korea-U.S. alliance favorably, suggesting the underlying stability of the alliance independent of White House occupants.
Biden might want to bring America back, in South Korea and elsewhere. But the Trump trauma is likely to live on as countries in the region anxiously look to what 2024 might bring.
China’s Taiwan Gambit in the Pratas?
|— Flickr, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Days after Biden was inaugurated as president of the United States, DRI released its inaugural monthly report which described five Asia-Pacific grave contingencies that his administration may have to address early on in his time in office. South China Sea loomed large over the report, as three experts described events that could force Biden to act, possibly militarily. Among them was a scenario involving the Pratas Islands – an island and several smaller rocky features that Taiwan controls and China claims.
In his contribution to the report, Tokyo University of Graduate Studies Professor Yoshiyuki Ogasawara wrote: “Taking Pratas would offer numerous benefits to China. For one thing, it would demonstrate China’s will and capabilities to Taiwan and other neighboring countries. Moreover, China could militarize the island as a step towards controlling the entire South China Sea. For this purpose, Pratas is of greater strategic importance than the other ROC [Republic of China/Taiwan] offshore islands.” “The Chinese leadership may calculate that the international reaction to the capture of Pratas would not be as intense as that which would inevitably follow an attack on Taiwan itself,” he also assessed.
Recent news around China’s continued violation of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) suggest that this remains a serious possibility. For one, as Ogasawara pointed out, if China was to use of the many options it has in front of itself when it comes to the Pratas, the Biden administration would be left in an unenviable position: give China a free pass and deal a tremendous blow to U.S. security commitments in the region, or militarily intervene and risk an all-out-war with China over relatively small stakes.
Based on the assessments provided by Ogasawara and others in the January report, DRI had concluded that while risks of major state-on-state conflicts (including one between China and the United States) remain small, China is likely to intensify its grey-zone coercive efforts, including continued harassment of Taiwan by probing its ADIZ, as Beijing celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. For the moment, an all-out Chinese invasion of Taiwan looks remote; a rapid military assault on the Pratas by the People’s Liberation Army, however, does not look impossible. In the latter scenario, Biden’s 3 am call will be followed by a splitting headache for his administration.
DRI Monthly Reports are rigorous research investigations that go beyond reportage and commentary for deep-dive analyses of timely topics and emerging trends in the Asia-Pacific.
View the Reports
Networks of Climate Change
|— Flickr, broombesoom|
In the recent years, various experts – including those from the U.S. foreign policy establishment – have exhorted the policy community to view challenges in terms of networks. International security, as former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter puts it, is equally about chess as it is about webs. In a Foreign Affairs article in 2016, she wrote: “To see the international system as a web is to see a world not of states but of networks. It is the world of terrorism; of drug, arms, and human trafficking; of climate change and declining biodiversity; of water wars and food insecurity; of corruption, money laundering, and tax evasion; of pandemic disease carried by air, sea, and land. In short, it is the world of many of the most pressing twenty-first-century global threats.”
As the Biden administration front-and-centers climate change as a key U.S. national security challenge, could it benefit from a networks view of the challenge, and from a deeper understanding of Slaughter’s remark? A recent survey paper by two scientists, Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Petter Holme and Stockholm University’s Juan C. Rocha, is a call to arms of sorts to view “climate change science as a network science,” by rigorously looking at the myriad ways through which causes and consequences of that phenomena are linked. While Holme and Rocha’s program is still nascent, climate scientists have indeed used a networks perspective for specific problems, including to understand interdependencies within large scale climate models.
But climate change is also about the chessboard: China and the United States’ ability to cooperate on climate change, for example, could critically depend on the extent to which the former could push the latter for concessions in other areas in return. (For now, and at least on paper, both remain committed to working with each other on climate issues.)
We leave you with a parting thought for the weekend: Could a shared networked vision of climate change nudge countries to focus more on the web and less on the chessboard when it comes to what is, arguably, one of the greatest challenges in front of the international community in the 21st century?
Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the consulting and analysis division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.Learn More
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