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.
This week’s edition—which goes to press hours before the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States meet for the first-ever in-person Quad summit in Washington, D.C.—looks at the Biden Administration’s incipient Indo-Pacific strategy. It assesses the significance of the AUKUS partnership announced last week, and regional views on China joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as the future of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. It highlights DRI research on semiconductor supply chain risks and leaves you with the work of Peter Turchin on history as a predictive, mathematical science.
Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Shapes Up
|British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joins U.S. President Joe Biden and the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison from No. 9 Downing Street at the launch of the AUKUS partnership, September 15, 2021.|
|— Andrew Parsons, No 10 Downing Street|
Last week’s announcement that the United States and the United Kingdom will partner with Australia to provide it with nuclear-powered attack submarines has been widely interpreted by the Asia-Pacific strategic commentariat as a sign of how far Western powers are willing to go to push back against China’s territorial revisionism on the back of its massive naval buildup over the past decade. At the same time, U.S. President Joe Biden is scheduled to host the leaders of the four-nation Quad on September 24–the first such in-person meeting—after the grouping was resuscitated in 2017.
Juxtaposed against each other, we have glimpses of a new U.S. approach to the Asia-Pacific, one that finely balances hard security moves between close allies with more amorphous—flexible—coalitions that are likely to focus on regional common goods provisions. That said, the Biden administration is yet to find its feet when it comes to shaping regional economic arrangements to its benefit – the third pillar of the United States’ incipient China containment strategy.
To start with AUKUS—the awkward acronym for the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States partnership— its significance is obvious to the point requiring no particular comment: by deciding to share nuclear-propulsion tech with Australia, the United States has sent out a stark, muscular message to China, that its “extreme competition” intent is matched by desire to build capabilities of close allies, notwithstanding old shibboleths around nuclear proliferation. Coupled with Australia’s commitment to acquire long-range strike capabilities last year, Canberra will now have a much more robust ability to shape events far from its shores, including in the South China Sea.
But the nuclear tech transfer commitment was situated within a much broader base to enhance Australian capabilities at large and deepen defense relations between the United States and two of its closest allies. Almost immediately after the partnership was announced, observers pointed out that the joint statement also committed to cooperation on “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence [AI], quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.” It may just be that this—at the end of the day—is what is most remarkable about the new three-way partnership: while the United States’ sharing of nuclear-propulsion tech may indeed be what catches the eye today, if Washington shares it crown jewels (whatever they may be) when it comes to AI or quantum tech with Australia and the United Kingdom, that would be perhaps signify the deepest shift in U.S. strategic policy in decades.
The possibilities of emerging technologies reshaping the naval balance of power in the Asia-Pacific is limitless, though unfortunately at this point, somewhat conjectural. Consider, for example, the use of quantum encryption for communications with nuclear-powered submarines, including those armed with ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads (SSBNs). (A 2017 The Diplomat article spells out the strategic possibilities of that technology in the Western Pacific with technical details, focusing on Chinese SSBN strategy.) Or, consider the possibility of superconducting quantum interference device-based magnetometers, a possible gamechanger in rendering oceans “transparent.” To be sure, not everyone is convinced that quantum tech could seriously render submarines vulnerable and disrupt anti-submarine warfare in the short run. At the same time, the possibilities—and associated technological progress—remain too tantalizing to ignore.
Beyond French histrionics—remember, the AUKUS submarine plan replaces Australia’s frustrating quest to acquire 12 diesel-electric submarines with French help—regional reaction to the new grouping has been on predictable lines, exposing yet again the deep fault lines within ASEAN: the Philippines foreign ministry has warmly welcomed the agreement, Malaysia has deferred its judgment to China, and Indonesia has made all the right noises about regional arms race and nuclear non-proliferation (from the perspective of its peers who are sanguine that when it comes to China and the U.S. they can have their cake and eat it too).
Meanwhile, while official New Delhi has maintained a very careful (and on-brand) stance of neither welcoming nor condoning the agreement, sections of Indian strategic commentariat continue to fret about what it means for New Delhi’s place in the American Indo-Pacific strategy. Others however, quite reasonably note that as long as new pacts like AUKUS place greater burden on Chinese capabilities, it can only be a win for India.
Indians also remain keenly interested in what the new Australia-United States-United Kingdom pact means for the future of the Quad, which has over the past six months, underwent a subtle reorientation away from security issues—insofar as security concerns have been overtly on the grouping’s agenda in the first place— and towards provision of regional goods, including an ambitious plan to deliver one billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine in the Asia-Pacific by 2022.
While some consider this shift as a dilution of the Quad’s implicit core commitment to push back Chinese power, the Biden Administration is on-point in encouraging this reorientation, correcting a key mistake of the preceding one – which was an overtly militaristic strategy for the region where more actors prefer alternatives to Chinese offerings than gleefully signing up for great power competition. Whether that is tech supply chain diversification, vaccines, or climate change, as long as the Quad stays focused on what it is for—as opposed to what it is against—it will serve a crucial function in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, albeit not in a way Quad hawks imagine the grouping’s role.
|China’s total trade (exports and imports) with key Asia-Pacific countries (in billion $)|
|— UN Comtrade Database. Graphics: DRI|
It’s the third pillar of what a U.S. strategy for the region ought to comprise of—economics and trade—that the Biden administration continues to flounder, largely because of domestic compulsions and decreasing appetite for free trade across the political spectrum. China, meanwhile, keenly seeks to fill this regional geoeconomics vacuum. On September 16, China applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – a version of the pact the Obama administration considered a crucial component of its “Asia Pivot” to balance Chinese power, only to be not only junked by the Trump Administration but also by Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. China is already a key member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a 2020 mega free trade agreement that has often been—simplemindedly—cast as a rival to the CPTPP. India, too, remains outside both.
China in CPTPP and Future of US Alliances
|— Flickr, Craige Moore|
A September 18 editorial in Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper, cast a critical eye on the possibility of China joining the CPTPP. “China is currently being accused of distorting competition by giving preferential subsidies to its state-owned companies. It’s data protectionism with intentions of hoarding data in the country is also criticized,” the newspaper wrote, going on to add that “[i]f this situation remains unchanged, there is no room for allowing China to join [the CPTPP].” Interestingly, the newspaper encouraged Japan to bring the United Kingdom onboard CPTPP in order to push China back. London began negotiations to join the CPTPP in June this year, after applying to join the pact in February, as part of a post-Brexit “Global Britain” agenda.
Meanwhile, the ignominious U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to Kabul middle of last month continues to engage the strategic imagination of key U.S. allies in the region. On September 1, South Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo published an article by Hudson Institute analyst Patrick M. Cronin, in which he delved into what the Biden Administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan could mean for South Korea. “With the collapse of the Afghan government, South Korea must deploy military assets and trained troops to strengthen its deterrence and spur efforts to ensure even stronger autonomy,” Cronin wrote, adding “[t]his increase in military strength would bring South Korea one step closer to meeting the conditions for transferring wartime operational control.”
The Soundless Wailing: Water, Climate Change, and Security Risks in the Asia-Pacific
The upcoming edition of DRI Trendlines looks at the nexus of water, climate change, and internal and external security risks across the Asia-Pacific. By examining the link between water scarcity and conflict, the challenges of deepening urbanization, and finally, the implications of a melting Arctic, the report—drawing on multiple streams of quantitative data—visualizes how climate change could dramatically reshape geopolitics and security in the Asia-Pacific.
Semiconductor Supply Chain Resilience
|— Flickr, Marta Diago Marco|
On September 18, Nikkei Asia reported that one of the action items to be adopted at the Quad leaders’ summit on September 24 was a plan towards securing semiconductor supply chains. The newspaper quoted a draft of the joint statement to be released following the summit as saying that the Quad would reaffirm the important of “resilient, diverse and secure technology supply chains for hardware, software, and services,” and that it will “launch a joint initiative to map capacity, identify vulnerabilities and bolster supply chain security for semiconductors and their vital components.”
A recent Diplomat Risk Intelligence Monthly Report, Dense Grey Webs: Cyber Risks and Trends in the Asia-Pacific—which surveyed the Asia-Pacific cyber risk landscape—highlighted how the heavy concentration of semiconductor supply chain in a select few Asia-Pacific countries pose a major cyber risk. Reflecting on how the COVID-19 pandemic-induced disruption in semiconductor tech production revealed the risk of heavy dependency on a few nodes, the report cautioned that a single disruption could lead to the collapse of the entire supply chain.
Looking beyond the realm of geopolitics, the report also analyzed how supply chain risks emerge from socio-economic particulars and persistent local conditions in key nodal countries. Based on expert insights and in-depth research, the report critically analyzed the Australia-India-Japan Supply Chain Resistance Initiative (SCRI) announced last year and concluded that it is rooted in strong geopolitical and security compulsions, rather than purely economic motivations. It also pointed out that the SCRI particulars are still far from being completely spelt out, and the initiative continues to remain a high-level political vision.
|Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0 Political Drivers, Taliban Strategies, and Domestic Implications|
Based on exhaustive in-house research and interviews with 10 leading experts, the report looks at the domestic and international drivers behind the collapse of the Afghan government on August 15 and the return of the Taliban to power two decades after they were ousted. The report also probes Taliban 2.0, the group’s possible economic strategies, as well as the social implications of their return to Kabul.
History as a Predictive Science?
|— Flickr, Kevin Dooley|
Last week offered a stark reminder how domestic political upheaval can have grave international security consequences when news emerged that the Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley had reached out to his Chinese counterpart General Li Zuocheng secretly twice to assure him that the political upheaval in the United States towards the end of Trump’s term in office would not translate to the U.S. launching a military strike against China, something Beijing genuinely feared. “General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” Milley apparently told Li during a call on October 30 last year. On January 8—two days after pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the Capitol—Milley is said to have told Li: “We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Could historical data be mined in such a way so that patterns with predictive quality emerge? Specifically, could historical, social, and economic data be coded and mined to predict the dramatic domestic upheaval the United States has seen over the past five years, beginning with the election of Trump as president in 2016? Could it be used to discern what lies ahead?
One mathematical scientist thinks so.
Based on his “secular cycles” research program, in February 2010 University of Connecticut professor Peter Turchin wrote in a letter in the prestigious science journal Nature: “The next decade is likely to be a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe,…” foreseeing not just the rise of Trump but also deepening populism in Western democracies and Brexit. What was nothing short of prophetic is a single matter-of-fact line in his short missive: “In the United States, 50-year instability spikes occurred around 1870, 1920 and 1970, so another could be due around 2020.” On January 6, 2021, the American republic faced one its darkest, most dangerous days in history.
But this was not just idle speculation. Based on massive data mining and mathematically sophisticated research, Turchin has advanced a simple, provocative thesis: that history can be mathematized, and mathematized history can be broadly predictive. In this, he is a self-admitted follower of Hari Seldon, a fictional protagonist of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” novels. In the iconic series of novels, mathematician Seldon and his followers create “psychohistory,” a way to peer into the future through mathematical formulae and data aggregated from human behavior. (Apple TV’s adaptation of the Foundation novels—with Turchin’s hero Seldon as the key protagonist—was released on September 24.)
Recommended reading: Peter Turchin, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (New York, Plume: 2007).
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 Japanese and South Korean media articles were provided by an in-house team of linguists.
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