A Global Shift in the Nuclear Weapons Narrative

It’s quite fascinating to observe the global conversation on nuclear weapons. It resembles a simple pendulum oscillation with a time period of ten years.

Back in 2009, the then US president pledged to seek an arms reduction treaty with Russia, ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and convene a global summit to discuss the eventual elimination of nuclear stockpiles. It was the first time that a US president spoke of a roadmap for nuclear disarmament.

And yet that goal seems even more distant nine years later. An excellent article titled ‘The Vanishing Nuclear Taboo‘ in The Foreign Affairs describes the situation well:

After decades of arms control agreements, security cooperation, and a growing consensus about the unacceptability of nuclear weapons, the world is now headed in the opposite direction. Geopolitical tensions have heightened. New arms races have started. States have reverted to valorizing nuclear weapons. The nuclear taboo is weakening. But nothing about this is inevitable; it is a choice our leaders have made. Nuclear disarmament will have to be a long-term project. Today’s decision-makers may not be able to complete the task, but they have an obligation to pursue it.

The taboo is vanishing fast. Apart from the usual suspects, the European states have also changed their tones. This excellent paper gives an idea of the possible scenarios in Europe that seem likely as a result of the ongoing churn. While rejecting the idea of a single European deterrent, the paper argues that the following scenarios appear realistic:

  1. In the current context, Paris can consider extending nuclear deterrence to Europe as a whole including rotations of Rafale fighter-bombers (without their nuclear missiles) to allied bases across Europe.
  2. If the US-Europe relationship worsens further, France can consider these options:
    • base part of its airborne arsenal (say, in the order of ten missiles) in Germany or in Poland (basing) and/or agree that they could be carried by European fighter-bombers (sharing).
    • replace the NATO SNOWCAT (Support of NATO Operations With Conventional Air Tactics) procedure with an identical European one, where non-nuclear nations commit themselves to participate in a nuclear strike with non-nuclear assets.
    • create the possibility of a European nuclear maritime task force, with accompanying European ships and, possibly, a European nuclear squadron based on it.

The fact that such themes are even being discussed seriously in Europe is just another indication of the fact that the NPT regime is falling apart. Consequently, the terms of the debate now need to shift from the ambitious goal of zero nuclear weapons to the more realistic goal of nuclear restraint by a global commitment towards no first use and by taking weapons off high alert to reduce possibilities of accidental use.

The terms of the nuclear weapons debate are definitely up for a change; it would be interesting to see which nation-state will declare itself as the next nuclear power. Any guesses?

 

 

The False Promise of Connectivity in International Relations

When the first transatlantic telegraph cable became operational in 1858, utopians hoped that nationalism would soon perish. And just two years ago Facebook was talking about how it aimed to create one global community.

But we now know that nationalism has proved to be an adversary deserving far more respect and reflection than what the technologists believed it to be. For an excellent discussion on this topic, I recommend this episode of The Secret History of the Future podcast.

What caught my attention were the parallels between the false promises of information connectivity in inter-personal relations and infrastructure connectivity in international relations.

It is almost an axiom in foreign policy circles today that powerful nation-states should envision and deliver on infrastructure projects in regions where they seek higher influence. China’s BRI has only strengthened this narrative — alternatives to BRI are often just modified variants of infrastructure connectivity projects. This narrative has its own dodgy economic reasoning as well: connectivity projects are thought of as ‘global public goods’ providing initiatives.

Even if we leave the misapplication of economic theory aside, the utility of many connectivity projects is not immediately clear to me. One, these projects will also run up against the force of nationalism. Familiarity will breed contempt regardless of the benefits of these projects. The BRI has started encountering this force in Palau and Sierra Leone. It’s not long before CPEC will face this challenge as well. Two, even from an economic standpoint, assuming the financial risk of connectivity projects in under-governed regions makes no sense for the investing countries. Just like pipeline projects, it is not difficult to sabotage such road projects — warlords and terrorists can easily block them in areas where the writ of the state runs weak.

Maybe converting infrastructure debt to equity control (in the form of transfer of land rights etc) is the primary consideration that makes countries project connectivity as the lynchpin of their foreign policy.

 

Fissures Emerge in the Pakistani Military-Jihadi Complex

Not all’s well with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex (MJC). The anti-blasphemy protestors have blocked arterial roads in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi. Led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), they are opposing the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case.

The current showdown — amongst other things — is different in the sense that it threatens the unity of the Pakistani MJC. In our chapter for the Contemporary Handbook of Pakistan 2017, we had argued that there are five factors that keep the MJC afloat. One of the factors was ‘Islam as the ideological refuge’. And it is here that trouble has been brewing now.

The TLP is outdoing the other elements of the MJC in championing the Islamist cause. Having failed in the last elections, they seem to have decided that mobilised violence is their weapon of choice. And this time around, they are leaving no stone unturned. A cleric, Afzal Qadri, speaking to a group of protestors earlier in the week even called for a revolt against the army chief and the putative government. The Pakistani army soon went on the defensive with DG, ISPR issuing a statement that the army had nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s decision. Last time around when the TLP protested in November 2017, the army managed to get the protesters off the streets by throwing money at them. Thus the stakes are much higher now and a similar move will most likely be rejected by the TLP. This means that a showdown within the MJC is likely to take place in the days to come.

PS: It is almost as if Pakistan is hellbent on writing a playbook called Why and How to not be Pakistan.

 

 

CAATSA Implementation Makes US Strategy in Afghanistan Even More Unsustainable

The next chapter in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) saga will unfold on November 5, 2018. On this day, the provisions reimposing sanctions on entities trading with Iran in certain sectors will come into effect.

In India, the primary discussion point has been whether India will receive a significant reduction exemption on November 5. Such an exemption will allow Indian companies to continue importing Iranian oil without coming under ‘menu-based’ sanctions. It is quite likely that India might receive an exemption for both oil imports and for development of the Chabahar port. However that is not the only point of contention for India and the region.

Regardless of the decision on November 5, CAATSA is already closing the door on new solutions for the war in Afghanistan.

First, it increases the costs for Iran and India to collaborate on Afghanistan. We had written last year that not only will the Chabahar port help Afghanistan, the US will have much to gain from a connectivity project for Central Asia which does not have China at its core. But with the threat of secondary sanctions looming, companies at the margin will not invest in any project that involves Iran — why assume the risk of a volatile geopolitical environment which comes at a prospective cost of making business in the US market difficult?

Second, it also closes the door on a Russia – US understanding in Afghanistan. What we often forget is that ouster of the Taliban after 9/11 was made easier by an alignment of interests between US and Russia albeit for a brief period of time. Russia at that time provided critical logistical support from Afghanistan’s north and shared crucial intelligence for US-led coalition forces. CAATSA makes any such arrangement in the future even more unlikely.

Combine these two effects with the fact that the US attempt at talks with the Taliban are making no headways, and what you get is that there are zero new possibilities to end the war in Afghanistan. Only two scenarios remain. One involves the US withdrawing out of Afghanistan completely. The second involves the US returning to its dependence on Pakistan. Both scenarios will leave Afghanistan worse-off.

 

 

A Major Setback in Kandahar

Things just got worse in South Afghanistan. The screenshot below taken from Long War Journal’s Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan project illustrates the significance. The areas marked in dark grey are under Taliban control. Those in red are contested districts. The uncoloured ones are controlled by the Government of Afghanistan. Kandahar city and surrounding districts immediately pop out as islands of government control in Southern Afghanistan. May be not for long anymore.

Image source: Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan, Long War Journal by Bill Roggio and Alexandra Gutowski

The reason is that Lt Gen Abdul Raziq, who was the police chief and the governor of the province was killed on 18 Oct 2018 supposedly by Taliban fighters who had infiltrated his inner circle. Gen Raziq was a major anti-Taliban leader in the South and his death makes Taliban’s complete control of the South imminent.

In many of our previous articles covering Afghanistan, we had mentioned how important Raziq’s role was. This is from 2015:

An unstated tenet of Afghan history is that the march for control of Kabul and the country is predicated on wresting control of Kandahar, the Taliban’s traditional base. In recent times though, ever since General Abdul Raziq was appointed police chief of the province, the Taliban have not tasted much success in Kandahar. Raziq has singularly been responsible for the relative peace in the province.

Raziq was no stranger to suicide attacks on his life. Various estimates say that there have been 30-40 attempts on his life before the fatal one. Only in May this year, there was an suicide bombing in front of his house. In his previous speeches, he had singled out the Haqqani Network and ISI for trying to wipe out the military leadership of the province.

It seems unlikely that such an attack could have been arranged without Pakistan’s support. It is also strange that this attack happened while the Taliban leadership is in talks with the US envoy. Moreover, the attack took place in the presence of the US Commander in Afghanistan. Some reports even claim that the main target of this attack were these US military leaders and not Lt Gen Raziq.

This is a big moment for Afghanistan. Even as elections take place on Saturday, the focus will be on what the US decides to do in response.

 

 

 

The Opportunity Cost of Counter-terrorism

Today marks seventeen years since 9/11 happened. If terrorism is theatre, all its shows have been running full house since that fateful day in September 2001.

India has of course been dealing with the threat posed by terrorism long before 9/11. But that attack made the rest of the world take notice of the dangers posed by terrorism. In the US for example, new strategies were made, new intelligence organisations were setup, and armed forces were retrained for counter-terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.

Similarly, India underwent a change to add teeth to its counter-terrorism strategy and the question that I want to focus on in this blog post is: at what cost have we achieved counter-terrorism effectiveness? Let me explain.

The cost of terrorism is a subject that’s been discussed in great detail. But lest we forget, a cost is incurred for countering terrorism as well. By cost here, I mean the economic cost and not merely the explicit accounting cost. Economic cost is the sum of accounting cos and opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the opportunities lost (Cowen and Tabarrok). So, is the value of the opportunities lost by India in choosing to focus on counter-terrorism significant enough that we should lose our sleep on it?

To be sure, counter-terrorism requires spending money and deploying resources. At a macro-level, every resource spent by the government on counter-terrorism could’ve instead been used on something else. But because the threat of terrorism is so potent, it probably makes sense to incur the cost of letting other opportunities slip by. But is there any component of this opportunity cost that needs a relook?

I believe there is one component that needs some rethinking – the opportunity cost of getting R&AW involved in counter-terrorism. Because we probably will never have solid data to understand the resources diverted from R&AW to focus on counter-terrorism, my claim is only based on statements made by intelligence officers.

One such statement I came across was in a recently televised interview of two highly respected retired intelligence officers Tilak Devasher and Vikram Sood. At 10:25, Mr Devasher paraphrases from Mr Sood’s book The Unending Game, saying:

The focus is on terrorism and immediate actionable intelligence. What everybody is looking for is an instant coffee book report. So nobody is looking at the longer-term picture. What happens six months or six years down the road, where is that country headed, what are the vulnerabilities of that country which will affect us, those capabilities have been diminished.

Assuming this is how R&AW has actually transformed itself for countering terrorism, the opportunity cost is not at all trivial. This is because R&AW is a small organisation with limited resources at its disposal.  On the other hand its mandate is huge – it is perhaps the only Indian organisation that is tasked with collecting intelligence and conducting operations in other countries. If such an important organisation is disproportionately focused on counter-terrorism, it means that there is diminished focus on extremely critical questions such as: what will happen in China over the next six months? What should India’s stance be with respect to persecution in Xinjiang? How should India influence political events in Afghanistan? What will be the security implications of a water crisis in Pakistan?

This is a huge opportunity lost. Particularly so because terrorism is not just the only threat facing India. The conventional threats of an arrogant China and an irreconcilable Pakistani military-jihadi complex are just two others in a larger list of long-term threat vectors that India needs to be worried about. The US can afford to focus on counter-terrorism disproportionately because probably it really is the largest threat, given its geography and relative power. But India’s threat matrix looks very different and hence an assessment of opportunity costs of counter-terrorism is necessary.

PS: I suppose the same case of high opportunity cost applies to the Indian army. With its focus on countering terrorism in J&K, one needs to ask, what is the value of other opportunities being lost.

 

 

A Test with Imran Khan

If India wants to have a stable and constructive engagement with the Imran Khan government, it must temper its enthusiasm for a quick breaking of ice and totally avoid any attempt to secure a “big” breakthrough.

That’s because dealing with Pakistan is playing cricket simultaneously against two distinct teams on the other side, each of which has a different interest and expection from the game. The Imran Khan government might well have been helped to power by the Pakistan Army, but the military-jihadi complex is a distinct entity and has interests of its own. Based on historical experience, whenever there is an expectation of an upswing in bilateral relations, we should expect the complex to throw a spanner in the works. This usually takes the shape of a military adventure, cross-border terrorism or some other ugly rabbit out of the khaki beret. This creates an impasse and an inevitable downswing in relations.

The way to avoid this is for New Delhi not to demonstrate any eagerness for new beginnings. Don’t try for quick wins. Don’t create expectations. Don’t even fall for photo opportunities. Prime Minister Khan has made sensible statements on dialogue and trade. Let these be worked out at the staff level in the ministries concerned…not by high profile political leaders and government functionaries.

(As an aside, I do think the Pakistan Army will realise they got more than they bargained for by promoting Imran Khan. They don’t learn from their previous experience. From Junejo to Jamali, the army has found that once in office prime ministers develop backbones and don’t always yield to the generals’ diktats. If Junejo could stand up to Zia, imagine what a personality like Imran can do.)

What New Delhi does need to think about seriously is having an official outreach to the military establishment. Diplomatic protocal and normative policies are one thing, but if the Army calls the real shots and will do so for the foreseeable future, realism demands that we find a way to engage the generals directly. We should stop pretending that dealing with foreign ministers and foreign secretaries of Pakistan is an effective way to deal with that country on political and security issues.

As for how to deal with Imran Khan and his government, New Delhi should adopt the temperament of playing a test match. If you play with a Twenty20 or one-day international mindset, you’ll come to grief.

Australia and the Logic of Strategy

Edward Luttwak wrote presciently in 2012 that:

Other things being equal, when a state of China’s magnitude pursues rapid military growth, unless the resulting shift in the power balance passes the culminating point of resistance inducing the acceptance of some form of subjection, it causes a general realignment of forces against it, as former allies retreat into a watchful neutrality, former neutrals become adversaries, and adversaries old and new coalesce in formal or informal alliances against the excessively risen power.

Perhaps, this logic of strategy is most apparent in Australia’s recent foreign policy conduct. The setting up of a highly classified inquiry on Beijing’s clandestine influence over Australian politics by PM Malcom Turnbull in 2016 was the first sign that Australia is realigning its forces against China. This eventually resulted in a legislation in June 2018 that raises the costs for Australians found to be guilty of batting for foreign powers.

The second visible sign was Australia’s changed perception over the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Under Kevin Rudd’s leadership, Australia had withdrawn from discussions in 2008. In 2017, they were strongly back.

Signs three and four are specific to Australia’s engagement with India. Over the past couple of years, Australian federal and state governments have infused new vigour in their India connections. This multi-pronged approach has meant that Australia has even managed to create favourable stakeholders outside the Old New Delhi region. The frequency of visits by Australian state government legislators and policy experts to other cities in India has certainly increased. For example, Bengaluru alone is home to trade offices of Victoria and Queensland. New South Wales and Western Australia have trade offices in Mumbai. And the federal government’s Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) has its presence in 10 Indian cities.

The fourth and the latest sign is an India Economic Strategy 2035 document that was released by the Australian government earlier this month. Commissioned by the Turnbull government, the document identifies 90 specific recommendations for increasing Australian presence in India. Not only does it identify the priority sectors, it also identifies the ten states in India that Australian federal and state governments must focus on. The document illustrates both:  foresight of the Australian foreign policy establishment and Luttwak’s logic of strategy.

 

Why Bangladesh Matters: Yet Another Illustration

I have argued earlier that the vacillating nature of India’s neighbours need not overly worry Indian foreign policy makers.

beyond the security domain, there is very little that small states in India’s neighbourhood can do in India’s pursuit of prosperity for its citizens in the immediate future. As we enter a world economy that is getting increasingly protectionist in nature, international trade will become increasingly difficult. Fortunately, India’s big, relatively young, and diverse population means that greater domestic consumption alone can help us maintain high economic growth for the next 10 years or so. Barring Bangladesh, no other Indian neighbour has economic prowess that India cannot substitute domestically. So, in the short run, the economic benefits accruing from small states in the neighbourhood will continue to be marginal. [INI, April 7 2017]

A news report in Business Standard today gives an example for why Bangladesh is an exception.

The value of two-wheeler exports from India to Bangladesh jumped 50 per cent in FY18 to $277 million (Rs 19 billion), making it India’s biggest export market, ahead of Sri Lanka. The value of shipments to Bangladesh has more than doubled since FY16, when it was just $128 million…

Bangladesh is estimated to have exported readymade garments worth $29 billion in the calendar year of 2017. Riding on robust economic growth, the nation’s demand for motorcycles soared 50 per cent in 2017 to an estimated 360,000 units. The high double-digit growth continues in 2018 as well. [Business Standard, 20 Jul 2018]

In essence, India’s relationship with Bangladesh is strategic for multiple reasons. It can directly impact the peace and prosperity of a large number of Indians. The opportunity costs of not having Bangladesh on your side are far higher compared to our other neighbours.

Xi Jinping’s foreign policy pivot

Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs recently, with his speech offering important insights into Chinese foreign policy philosophy, objectives and approaches. Xi defined his philosophical program as “diplomacy of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” outlining 10 key aspects of this thought.

Examining these, it isn’t surprising that Xi’s first and foremost priority in foreign affairs is to uphold the “authority of the CPC Central Committee” and strengthen “its centralised, unified leadership on external work.” This has a domestic and international component. Domestically, it refers to the emergence and role of a diverse set of actors in Chinese foreign affairs – from the top leadership, diplomatic corps, representatives at international institutions, party members in the judiciary, the trade and commerce bureaucracy, local governments, the military to financial institutions and state-owned enterprises. Externally, it implies an expansion in the role of party organs and ensuring that events outside do not jeopardise the Communist Party’s rule.

Analysing the state media readout of the speech, one can identify that the fundamental objective of Xi’s foreign policy is to “facilitate a favourable external environment for realising the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” This is an expression of Xi’s shift from Deng Xiaoping’s tao guang yang hui (roughly translated to hide your strengths and bide your time) in favour of the strategy of fen fa you wei (roughly translated to striving for achievement.)

What this implies is that one can expect China to continue with an assertive foreign policy to actively shape events, attitudes and institutions in order to achieve its objectives. However, this round of assertion will be different from the nationalistic kind that has been witnessed since 2008, say in the South China Sea or with regard to Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute since 2012.

For starters, Xi acknowledges that China’s rise is “intertwined” and interacts with “the most profound and unprecedented changes (that the world is currently undergoing) in a century.” In such an environment, he is placing priority on developing “global partnerships while advancing diplomatic agenda.” This ranks two spaces above “national core interests as the bottom line” in the list of ten aspects of the new diplomatic thought. Also, ranking higher than core interests are the goals of “building of a community with a shared future for humanity” and “reform of the global governance system with the concept of fairness and justice.”

This indicates that Beijing is keen to actively “advance major country diplomacy” to reduce friction and work with partners, particularly developing countries, to expand its global influence and play a greater role in norm setting. For potential partners, this signifies an important window of opportunity, as China is likely be more amenable to addressing sources of tensions and flexible towards accommodating their concerns. One can view events like December’s South-South Human Rights Forum, Beijing’s outreach to New Delhi and Tokyo over the past few months, its deepening ties with Moscow, its attempts at negotiating a new South China Sea Code of Conduct with ASEAN and its efforts to gather support against Donald Trump’s protectionist policies in this context. This subtle change does not imply an infusion of universalistic or idealistic notions in Chinese foreign policy but is rather driven by pragmatism.

A final noteworthy aspect of Xi’s speech was the constant reference to history. The repeated emphasis on having “an accurate understanding of history,” the need to “review the past, summarise historical laws,” understand “the trend of history” and the identification of present times as a particularly significant “historical juncture” operate at multiple levels. First, it signifies a sense of manifest destiny that has characterised Xi’s leadership. Second, it is an example of personal narrative building, whereby Xi has appropriated for himself the goal of making China strong, after it has stood up and grown rich. This once again places Xi in the league of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, above his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. And third, it is a nudge to the party rank and file to maintain “strategic confidence” and not be disoriented by “ever-changing international chaos.”

Effectively what Xi appears to be telling Party cadres and the world at large is that while the tide of realpolitik may ebb and flow, China is here to play the long game, “keeping in mind both internal and international imperatives.”

There’s a New Great Game in Afghanistan. It’s Called Cricket.

— By Retd Lt Gen Namaloom Afraad

There’s a new Great Game in Afghanistan and it is hurting Pakistan badly. This week saw Afghanistan’s entry into test cricket. While we welcome the move, we strongly protest the way in which this was done. India, after surreptitiously granting a ‘home ground’ for the Afghanistan cricket team in Dehradun, is trying to pose itself as a state genuinely interested in Afghanistan’s well-being. What is being forgotten is that the team would have not taken shape at all but for Pakistan graciously allowing Afghan youngsters to play cricket in refugee camps.

The world is well aware of Pakistan’s commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan has sacrificed many lives to ensure that a true Afghan-led solution can be brought about. That’s the only reason why we are supporting the Afghan Taliban even though it incurs a huge cost to the Pakistani state and society. But while we were busy doing that, India is sabotaging Pakistan’s national interests by providing cricket training to the people of Afghanistan.

We are always asked for proofs of Indian interference in Afghanistan. We don’t need to provide them any longer because India’s role is out in the open. But let me provide a few pieces of evidence in any case.

One, the Afghanistan cricket team couldn’t have been trained without the extensive support provided by R&AW. Grounds and stadia in Afghanistan have been constructed by India. This bolsters the case we have argued for long — India’s four consulates in Afghanistan are actively undermining Pakistani interests in the region.

Two, India is spreading false propaganda in American newspapers on the rise of Afghanistan’s cricket team while whitewashing the role played by Pakistan in the team’s rise.

Three, reliable sources have informed us that Afghanistan T-20 jerseys were being freely sold in India during the match. India even got many Afghanistan supporters into the spectator stands and made them carry flags and banners symbolising India-Afghanistan friendship. The BCCI (not our BCCI, that’s long dead) twitter handle also posted provocative videos like the one below where they got Afghan players to pose with the trophy. All these instances are deliberate acts of provocation on India’s part to destabilise Pakistan’s own efforts in bringing peace to Afghanistan.

Pakistan has always shown active interest in finding a settlement of the Afghan issue. In the recent past, we proposed a string of formations including the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). In the QCG, Pakistan even took the initiative of inviting the cricketing teams of US and China so that Afghanistan and Pakistan could be in the finals. But the plan failed because India scuttled it and offered cricketing facilities to Afghanistan in India.

We must launch a strong protest against Indian role in Afghanistan cricket and raise the issue in the next UN General Assembly meeting. After all, what are we waiting for? Will we now have to put up with the ignominy of playing a test match against Afghanistan in India? It’s time that Pakistan stood up for its interests and exposed India’s commencement of the new Great Game in Afghanistan.

I watched the Afghanistan cricket team’s test match live from the spectator stands in Bengaluru’s Chinnaswamy Stadium. As Ratan Malli mentioned on Twitter, someone from Pakistan will soon write about how this new engagement is reflective of “India’s meddling in Afghanistan” and “how India is using Afghanistan to foment unrest against Pakistan”. This article has been written to help elements from the Pakistani military-jihadi complex in their endeavours. They can freely copy-paste from here. No citation needed. Only use #satire.

 

Advantage China after Trump-Kim summit

For all the talk about China being insecure with regard to potential Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un bonhomie, Beijing is likely to be rather pleased with the events that transpired in Singapore today.

First, soon after the early reports of the agreement came from Singapore, China called for easing sanctions and “establishing a peace mechanism.” The US-DPRK statement also envisions something similar, i.e., the “building of a lasting and robust peace regime.”

Such a framework places Beijing directly at the negotiating table. Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored this today, saying China had and continues to play a “unique and important role” in the Korean Peninsula issue. The fact that Kim flew on an Air China jet shows Beijing’s continuing influence over Pyongyang.

Second, the formulation of the DPRK committing to work towards complete denuclearisation, while Trump describes US-South Korea drills as “provocative” and talks about ending US force presence in South Korea also works for Beijing in more ways than one. This is essentially what Beijing had been seeking for months, via its double freeze proposal. Moreover, Trump’s characterisation of US force presence in the region isn’t likely to have gone unnoticed in other regional capitals.

For one, the South Korean administration appeared to have been caught off guard with Trump offering the drills as a bargaining chip. The presidency and military both issued statements saying that clarity was needed on “the meaning and intention” of Trump’s remarks.

But more broadly, if US-South Korea military ties and exercises are “provocative,” would Washington under Trump be a reliable partner for states involved in the South China Sea dispute or even Taiwan, irrespective of the Indo-Pacific strategy and Defence Secretary James Mattis’ tough words at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Also, Trump’s remarks about the cost of military exercises are very damaging. It’s one thing to want allies to carry their weight. But the repeated counting of costs is incredibly short-sighted and likely to raise questions about the costs that the US will be willing to incur to challenge an assertive China in the region.

After today, it appears that for all the rhetoric, Trump is uninterested in incurring those costs. Trump might have sought history in Singapore. But today’s developments mean it’s advantage Beijing.