This week’s edition of the DRI Asia Review dips into how Asia-Pacific powers are likely to view the events in Afghanistan amid a regional counter-China diplomatic offensive by the United States. We look at U.S. Vice President’s Southeast Asia visit earlier this week, how commentators in Taiwan and Thailand are viewing China’s outreach to the Taliban, and cybersecurity concerns in Southeast Asia. And finally, we tell you a little bit about computer scientist Judea Pearl’s work on causality.
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DRI Asia Review
August 27, 2021dri.thediplomat.com
Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific
Kamala Harris’ Singapore and Vietnam visits
Taiwanese and Thai voices weigh in on China and the Taliban
Southeast Asia and cybersecurity
Judea Pearl’s work on causality

Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.

Each week, DRI Asia Review focuses 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 edition of the DRI Asia Review dips into how Asia-Pacific powers are likely to view the events in Afghanistan amid a regional counter-China diplomatic offensive by the United States. We look at U.S. Vice President’s Southeast Asia visit earlier this week, how commentators in Taiwan and Thailand are viewing China’s outreach to the Taliban, and cybersecurity concerns in Southeast Asia. And finally, we tell you a little bit about computer scientist Judea Pearl’s work on causality.

THE BIG ONE

Afghan Shadow Over Kamala Harris’ Southeast Asia Trip
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris meets with activists who work on LGBT, transgender, disability rights and climate change at the U.S. Chief of Mission's residence in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thursday, August 26, 2021.
— AP Photo, Evelyn Hockstein

Amid chaos in Kabul following the August 15 fall of the city to the Taliban, Kamala Harris visited Southeast Asia this week, her first solo overseas trip as U.S. vice president. Invariably, her visits to Singapore and Vietnam were colored by the ongoings in Afghanistan, at a time when many observers are asking questions about U.S. security commitments across the world. Given the dangerously haphazard way in which the Biden administration has executed the American pull-out from Afghanistan – without coordination with even close allies and regional partners -- critics worry what the U.S. might or might not do in the event of a crisis elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific.

To be sure, China has been quick to capitalize on the Biden administration’s epic failure to manage an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan and has used the opportunity to play on pre-existing anxieties in East and Southeast Asia. Hu Xijin, state-controlled tabloid Global Times’ editor in chief and provocateur, wrote on Twitter (without a shred of evidence) that Taiwan was “trembling” at the possibility that when push comes to shove, Washington would also abandon it. “Don’t look forward to the US to protect them. Taipei officials need to quietly mail-order a Five-Star Red Flag from the Chinese mainland. It will be useful one day when they surrender to the PLA,” Hu said the day after the Taliban took Kabul.

Experts were quick to point out that linking U.S. actions in Afghanistan and its security commitments in the western Pacific is a leap too far. Minxin Pei wrote in Bloomberg on August 25: “Propaganda aside, the humiliating U.S. exit from Afghanistan is highly unlikely to have changed China’s strategic calculations about Taiwan or persuaded President Xi Jinping to accelerate his timetable for reunification. Xi well knows that Taipei isn’t Kabul.” While maintaining a similar position others however also acknowledge (if only implicitly) that the Kabul fiasco raises uncomfortable questions about U.S. competence and its persistent inability to see and plan ahead, its much-vaunted intelligence capabilities notwithstanding.

To be sure, U.S. military commitments in the eastern Indo-Pacific remain significantly greater than those in South and West Asia; the former is more important than the latter in strategic terms for the U.S. by an order of magnitude. These basic facts will not be lost to regional powers who can continue to expect the U.S. to stay the course in face of an intransigent China. Add to this the fact that there seems to be a growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S. about the importance of the eastern Indo-Pacific. Witness, as examples, the Biden Administration’s adoption of the Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategic frame as well as promotion of the Quad as a key regional consultation mechanism. All of these taken together means that Afghanistan – as botched as U.S. conduct there has been from the get-go – is unlikely to seriously affect the United States’ regional credibility.

 

U.S. military bases in the Asia-Pacific
— Data: David Vine, "Lists of U.S. Military Bases Abroad, 1776-2020," American University Digital Research Archive, accessed August 23, 2021. Graphics: DRI

 

The issues lie elsewhere. First, Afghanistan has starkly demonstrated – yet again – severe limitations of the United States military, and the blind spots of the intellectual apparatus that supports it. Second, when it comes to Southeast Asia, it is not clear what Washington is concretely offering the region besides rallying cries against Chinese bad behavior – and the extent to which it is being able to sell its China strategy there.

To elaborate the first observation: The optics of the United States Central Intelligence Agency director meeting a Taliban leader (quite possibly to negotiate safe passage for American personnel and their local allies) is terrible, to say the least. Equally problematic has been the United States’ military and political conduct in Afghanistan over the last two decades – a sad saga that Steve Coll, among others, have chronicled in great detail. All this of course sits on top of what looks like an endemic state of surprise among the national security elite in Washington, D.C. Recall that the U.S. intelligence community repeatedly revised its estimates downwards over the summer of how long the Ghani government could hold the fort, only to see the Taliban take Kabul in a matter of days.

The second point, about the concrete fruits of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, is equally relevant. As The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia Editor Sebastian Strangio wrote, by way of an analysis of the outcomes of Harris’ Southeast Asia tour, “as under Trump, there remains a misalignment in perception between policymakers in Washington and their Southeast Asian counterparts.” Southeast Asian nations are deeply reluctant to antagonize China for the fear of jeopardizing their deep economic engagements with Beijing. Simply put, the longer the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy insists on narrowly focusing on combatting China (at the expense of offering concrete economic alternatives, for example) the harder it will be for Washington, D.C. to obtain buy-in for it in Southeast Asia.

And it is precisely here that the United States has to do a lot more – and will have to continue to do so, long after the fall of Kabul has receded from public memory in the region.

BABEL

China’s Taliban Dalliance: Views from Taiwan and Thailand
In this August 15, 2021, file photo, Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
— AP Photo, Zabi Karimi, File

On August 22 a politician from the Taiwan Statebuilding Party, Kang Jun-Ming, wrote a scathing opinion piece in Liberty Times Network, blaming China for cozying up to the Taliban. Kang wrote: “China’s friendly posture toward the Taliban is not only because “enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but also because China’s diplomatic situation is so desperate that it can only work with the Taliban.” While this is manifestly hyperbolic – Kang’s pro-independence party is on the fringe in Taiwan’s political scene -- the opinion piece does highlight what many in the region are thinking: that an ascendant superpower seems to be developing quite a penchant for teaming up with some of the most odious regimes in the world.

“China’s friendship with the Taliban is simply a case of shooting itself in the foot,” Wang also wrote, after pointing out the different ways the Taliban could end up proving to be a headache for Beijing.

Meanwhile, writing in Thai Rath, a leading Thai newspaper, on August 22, Weerapoj Inthaphan took a long view of the developments in Afghanistan, reflecting commonplace concerns among many across the world about the implications of the Taliban’s return to power. Interestingly Weerapoj also flagged China’s approach towards the ultra-orthodox regime, noting that Afghanistan is extremely rich in several minerals.

“[F]or China, Afghanistan is like a raw, uncut diamond,” Weerapoj wrote.

COMING SOON

Report: Afghanistan and the Taliban’s Return

In a two-part report based on exhaustive in-house research and multiple expert consultations, DRI examines the international security, political, economic, and social equity implications of the Taliban’s return to power. The report also presents a pre-August baseline assessment of these issues for the 2001-2021 period, and possible differences in the Taliban’s current positions on these issues from the past.

FROM OUR STABLE

Southeast Asia and Cybersecurity
— Flickr, Bryan Jones

Harris’ Southeast Asia trip earlier this week also saw the United States pitch cybersecurity (among other issues) as an area of potential collaboration between the United States and regional powers. Her visit to Singapore on Monday saw three new memoranda of agreements between the United States and the city-state. ZDNet noted that “one of these involved an agreement between Singapore's Cyber Security Agency (CSA) and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to deepen cooperation in cybersecurity beyond data sharing and exchanges.”

But what are the precise cyber issues that regional powers in general worry about the most? Speaking at the inaugural edition of DRI Majlis – DRI’s new webinar series – Asia Society Policy Institute’s Elina Noor provided an overview of the cyber landscape of Southeast Asia, both at the individual government and the “collective” ASEAN levels. She spoke about the gaps and challenges in cyberspace infrastructure, highlighting how the deepening and widening of digital economies in the region have resulted in a concomitant rise in cybercrime.

Noor reiterated the need to finesse cross-border coordination and harmonization of cyber polices, and spoke of the challenges Southeast Asian countries face in having to navigate the pressures of the U.S.-China great power competition in the cyber domain. In her assessment, the region has been “forward looking” on the issues of norms in cyberspace, which she attributes not only to Singapore’s leadership role in the area, but also to capacity-building support and assistance from regional partners such as Australia, China, Japan, and the United States among others.

Watch the full webinar here.

DRI REPORT

Dense Grey Webs Cyber Risks and Trends in the Asia-Pacific

Based on in-house research and consultations with leading experts, the report delineates key cyber risks and trends in the Asia-Pacific amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It also looks at key regional actors and their cyberspace goals, cyber supply chain and critical infrastructure vulnerabilities, as well as ways through which emerging tech could shape the cyber landscape in the years to come.

View the Report

DIGESTIF

Causality
— Flickr, QueenSunshine

Social scientists have long grappled with questions about causality, and precise ways to understand them from messy data, both qualitative and quantitative. As but one example, many of them will investigate what caused the Ghani government to collapse as rapidly as it did for decades to come. An interesting aspect of Turing Award-winning computer scientist Judea Pearl’s work on causality has been his emphasis on talking about cause and effect in a precise way.

Pearl stresses the importance of being able to state, in mathematical terms, “x causes y” or ‘rain causes traffic.” Mathematical structure is inherently symmetric and causal inferences at their core relies on the asymmetric relationship between phenomena. Simply put, causality needs a direction.

Anyone who has ever taken an introductory statistics class is familiar with the popular law: “correlation does not imply causation”. Pearl is a leading figure in the field of causal inference: the branch of statistics (intersecting with economics, epidemiology, etc.) that deals with establishing frameworks for identifying causality. He believes there is a way to build machines based on causal models that can reason about interventions (“What if we ban cigarettes?”) and introspection (“What if I had gone to law school?”) and not just, as the present focus is, on diagnosing and predicting (“Is this a picture of a cat?”).

DRI’s Director of Research Abhijnan Rej and Research Analysts Malvika Rajeev and Rushali Saha contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translations of Taiwanese and Thai media articles were provided by an in-house team of linguists.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.

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