This week’s Asia Review is centered around the November 15 summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden. It recaps modest gains in the China-U.S. relationship from the recent past, and also surveys the difficulties faced by U.S. intelligence services as they try to understand Xi’s intent and future course of action. It looks at how Japanese and Taiwanese voices reacted to the Biden-Xi summit. We also present a very short preview of a new DRI report on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and leave you with a vexing philosophical conundrum when it comes to machine-learning based artificial intelligence (AI).
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DRI Asia Review
November 19,
Talks in the Time of Extreme Competition
Espionage amid a new cold war—and why it may not be bad after all
Japanese and Taiwanese voices on the Biden-Xi summit
China and the United States: per capita carbon dioxide emission trends
Assessing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
AI and the death of understanding

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 Asia Review is centered around the November 15 summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden. It recaps modest gains in the China-U.S. relationship from the recent past, and also surveys the difficulties faced by U.S. intelligence services as they try to understand Xi’s intent and future course of action. It looks at how Japanese and Taiwanese voices reacted to the Biden-Xi summit. We also present a very short preview of a new DRI report on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and leave you with a vexing philosophical conundrum when it comes to machine-learning based artificial intelligence (AI).


Biden Holds Talks With Xi While American Spy Agencies Fret About China
U.S President Joe Biden meets Chinese President Xi Jinping virtually from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, November 15, 2021.
— AP Photo, Susan Walsh

On Monday 15 (U.S. Eastern time), American President Joe Biden held a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first such meeting since Biden assumed office in January, and marking the third time the two leaders have spoken. On the surface, the tone the two leaders struck during their conversation was “respectful and straightforward” (as a Biden administration official put it on background to reporters).

This was a far cry from the acrimonious meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Director of Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi in Anchorage, Alaska in March, the first high-level in-person contact between the new American administration and the People’s Republic.

Since then, Blinken and Sullivan have spoken to their Chinese counterparts on a couple of different occasions, most recently on November 12 when Blinken spoke with Wang ahead of the Biden-Xi summit.

While the overall tone of China-U.S. relations remains largely confrontational, there are modest signs that both Biden and Xi are not seeking to make matters more complicated. One of the more optimistic outcomes of the November 15 meeting was an agreement that both leaders “would look to begin to carry forward discussions on strategic stability” (to quote Sullivan), a commitment that comes amid alarm in the Pentagon that China may be aiming to acquire a thousand nuclear warheads by 2030.

What is equally encouraging is the fact that, against some expectations, China and the United States are finding ways to explore common ground on climate change (however limited and symbolic) amid what Biden has described as “extreme competition” between the two countries and others a new cold war, albeit of a kind quite different from the one between the erstwhile Soviet Union and the U.S. that defined geopolitics for a large chunk of the 20th century.

And what is a cold war without a significant uptick in espionage and counter-espionage that spawns fiction good and bad all the while reality—when it finally becomes known, imperfectly as may be the case—is more astounding than both?

Last month, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created a dedicated China Mission Center (CMC). Announcing the new office, CIA Director William Burns said: “CMC will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.”

But some security analysts who have followed the space continue to maintain that such announcements are more demonstrations of intent than anything else. The CIA continues to face serious operational difficulties in recruiting human assets inside China. It also faces what looks like a serious counterintelligence problem with news emerging last month that the Agency’s Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Sheetal T. Patel sent out a candid cable to CIA stations worldwide on the need to properly assess, recruit, and protect sources. (And what is a cold war without Langley battling such a problem?)

Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported difficulties the CIA faces when it comes to penetrating Xi’s inner circle, a difficulty sorely felt at a time when American policymakers are left with more questions than answers when it comes to his intent, whether about Taiwan or any other issue directly impinging on U.S. national security. And absent good intelligence, guesswork abounds.

In a November 16 opinion piece in the Washington Post, veteran columnist David Ignatius noted: “Xi may be more interested in encouraging talks about strategic stability now because, like Biden, he wants to concentrate on domestic issues. He may also be concerned about the growing power of the Chinese military at time of surging nationalist fervor, several officials speculated.” (Responding to this, Sinocism writer Bill Bishop tweeted: “Terrifying if there are Biden officials who believe this. This speculation could not be more wrong.”)

The truth of the matter is that good intelligence—and admittedly, the qualifier is doing a lot of work here—goes far in keeping the peace. Absent reliable and steady flow of information from senior, reliable Chinese sources, the Biden administration would be left groping in the dark about where Xi may be headed and why. Add to this bipartisan China anxiety in the U.S., and good intelligence is what prevents a nervous White House from jumping the gun in face of a perceived contingency and setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the other side of the coin—and the other side of the Pacific: Bad intelligence does tremendous harm. This became quite clear when, in September, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa detailed in a new book how U.S. Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley came to secretly call his counterpart in Beijing—twice—to calm tensions in the final months of the Trump presidency without informing the commander-in-chief.

According to Woodward and Costa, the Pentagon assessed that the Chinese believed that the United States was preparing to attack China amid American military exercises in the South China Sea, leading Milley to call People’s Liberation Army General Li Zuocheng on October 30, 2020. “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise,” Milley apparently told Li.

George Smiley (or at least his creator, from his grave) would probably be smiling at all this: After all, it is a new cold war.


Japanese and Taiwanese Newspapers Weigh In on Biden-Xi Summit
Taiwan air force jets escort a plane out of Taiwan airspace carrying Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou to Singapore for a meeting with China's President Xi Jinping, November 7, 2015. Ma and Xi were the first leaders from the two sides to meet since their territories split in 1949.
— AP Photo, Chiang Ying-ying

Monday’s Biden-Xi summit was watched very closely across the Asia-Pacific at large. Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, among other leading newspapers, carried a precis of the opening remarks of the two leaders at the summit. While it noted that the meeting was unlikely to dramatically ease tensions between the two countries with Xi “unlikely to make any concessions,” it conceded the possibility that he “may also seek to derail the U.S.-led coalition to counter China by moving the U.S.-China relationship forward in a positive direction.”

On November 18, Wang spoke with his Japanese counterpart Hayashi Yoshimasa, with China Global Television Network reporting that during the call Wang said “China and Japan should jointly conform to the major trend of the times and hold on to the right direction for bilateral ties…”

Taiwan’s reaction to the Xi-Biden summit is worth noting. Recall that the country featured prominently in Blinken’s November 12 call with Wang. “The Secretary emphasized longstanding U.S. interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and expressed concern regarding the PRC’s continued military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan. He urged Beijing to engage in meaningful dialogue to resolve cross-Strait issues peacefully and in a manner consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan,” a U.S. State Department readout of the call had Blinken telling Wang.

Summarizing the reaction of Taiwan’s foreign ministry to the Xi-Biden summit, Taiwan News noted it as saying that “from President Biden's first day in office, the Biden administration has expressed its ‘rock-solid’ support for Taiwan on numerous occasions as well as taken actions to back up these assurances to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait.” It also quoted Xavier Chang, Taiwan’s presidential office spokesperson, as stating that during the summit the U.S. “reaffirmed its commitment to Taiwan.”


China, the United States, and Climate Change
— Data: Friedlingstein et al., "The Global Carbon Budget 2021," Earth System Science Data; Andrew and Peters, "The Global Carbon Project's Fossil CO_2 Emissions Dataset," Center for International Climate Research (CICERO); “World Population Prospects 2019,” Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations. Graphics: DRI


Situating the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Within Pakistan’s Economy
A textile factory in Pakistan, 2017.
— Flickr, ILO Asia-Pacific

The latest edition of DRI Trendlines, DRI’s monthly quantitative data-driven report, zones in on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor within the overall context of Pakistan’s economy, and to understand it better, also visualizes the evolution of Belt and Road Initiative projects in, and economies of, four other participating countries: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

Pakistan’s deeply troubled economy, plagued by low growth and high unemployment, also has a serious problem when it comes to its productive capacity— a crucial variable that could play a make-or-break role for CPEC.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Productive Capacities Index (PCI) is a comprehensive index— with scores between 0 and 100 assigned to each of the 193 countries it considers and designed using 46 indicators— that provides a single quantitative measure that captures the eight factors that contribute to any given country’s productive capacity: “human capital, natural capital, ICTs [information and communication technologies], structural change, transport, institutions and the private sector.” Using that index to compare Pakistan with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, one finds that Sri Lanka has the highest PCI among all, and Pakistan performs better than only Myanmar.

The good news here is that Pakistan’s PCI had shown a positive trend till 2018.

Read an excerpt

Access the report

DRI Report

Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0 International Security and Geopolitical Implications

In this edition of the DRI Monthly Report—the second and concluding part of a major Diplomat Risk Intelligence project on Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, and based on exhaustive in-house research and interviews with 10 leading experts—we look at the Taliban’s relationships with key terrorist organizations and Afghanistan's neighbors. We also examine the Taliban’s convoluted relationships with major regional powers who could prove to be key in granting the new regime in Kabul a veneer of international legitimacy provided, of course, that their own interests are guarded by Taliban 2.0.

Read excerpt

Access report here


AI and the End of Explanation As We Know It
— Flickr, Susannah Anderson

In an extremely interesting essay published on Monday in Aeon, writer and philosopher David Weinberger convincingly argues that the true philosophical import of machine learning models (MLMs) may lie with the fact that they go against the grain of what has been a long-standing assumption in Western philosophy (and therefore, modern science): that one can understand complexity through simply-stated principles and rules allowing us to infer order from chaos (so to speak) and make sense of the world around us. Weinberger writes:

Our encounter with MLMs doesn’t deny that there are generalizations, laws or principles. It denies that they are sufficient for understanding what happens in a universe as complex as ours. The contingent particulars, each affecting all others, overwhelm the explanatory power of the rules and would do so even if we knew all the rules.

Even with the rise of “explainable AI,” the fact that machine learning allows us to predict but not understand—in the sense of reducing how MLMs behave to crisply-stated principles—has rankled many scientists. They include experts in complexity science who have long sought general principles that cut across natural and artificial systems in order to get to the unifying core that makes of some of these systems complex (in a certain sense) but not others. Among them is Santa Fe Institute’s David Krakauer. In a brilliant essay— again in Aeon, but from last April—that also explores the tradeoff between understanding and predictive capacity when it comes to what neural networks-based machine learning achieves, he crisply summarizes the bind in front of humanity: “While understanding might satisfy our curiosity, with its narratives about cause and effect, prediction satisfies our desires, mapping these mechanisms on to reality.”

DRI’s Director of Research Abhijnan Rej and Research Analyst Malvika Rajeev contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translations of Japanese and Taiwanese media articles were provided by in-house 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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