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.

The latest advertisement for nuclear weapons

Here’s what has happened in the past few months.

North Korea demonstrated that it has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to the United States. After it did that, the president of the United States set aside age-old policy and decided to meet the North Korean leader, ahead of possible lifting of sanctions against that country.

Iran froze — or perhaps slowed down — its nuclear weapons programme because it signed a deal with the United States and Europe in 2015. After it did that, the president of the United States reneged on the deal, advised Iran not to pursue nuclear weapons, and is coercing the international community to re-impose sanctions.

The message is simple and inescapable. Possessing a nuclear arsenal is necessary if you wish to resist being bullied by the world’s great powers. Donald Trump’s actions are an advertisement for nuclear weapons.

He’s not the first US president to do show countries around the world the value of possessing nuclear weapons. Previous US presidents invaded Iraq (that didn’t have a nuclear bomb) ostensibly to punish Saddam Hussein for sheltering al Qaeda terrorists, while bankrolling Pakistan, that was sheltering al Qaeda terrorists, but also had a nuclear arsenal. Under another US president, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi who had given up his nuclear programme, came to a sticky end.

Therein lies the root cause of the failure of nuclear non-proliferation. It invests too much energy in technical compliance and technology controls, even as the NPT-sanctified nuclear weapons states create powerful, perhaps existential incentives for the possession of a nuclear arsenal.

It’s now almost certain — even more than before — that the Iranians will develop a nuclear arsenal. That’ll cause the Saudis to bring their arsenal out of the closet. That in turn might cause Erdogan’s Turkey to want one too.

It will be tremendously foolish to continue to flog the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty as a meaningful way to reduce nuclear risks. A more promising way forward for this century would be to attempt a Global No-First Use (GNFU) framework aimed to reduce risks than limit ownership.

Who’s More Powerful in Asia: US or China?

The Lowy Institute’s new Asia Power Index makes for intriguing reading. For starters, it offers a good definition of power.

“Power is defined as the capacity of a state or territory to direct or influence the behaviour of other states, non-state actors, and the course of international events. It is the capacity to impose costs and confer benefits that shape the choices of others.”

The authors then assess the overall power of 25 key Asian states based on their weighted average across eight specific measures of power. These are:

  • Economic resources
  • Military capability
  • Resilience
  • Future trends
  • Diplomatic influence
  • Economic relationships
  • Defence networks
  • Cultural influence

The findings offer much food for thought. For instance, while the US and China are neck-and-neck on the measure of economic resources, there is a serious gulf between them with regard to military capability. Add to that the fact that while the US tops the defence networks measure, China ranks a low eighth. This is indicative that despite China’s rapid military upgradation and attempts at projection of might, Beijing is a long way off from catching up with Washington.

The two surprising areas where China trumps (pun intended) the US, however, are diplomatic influence and economic relationships. While the latter in Asia is understandable, one wonders whether the former is merely about Donald Trump’s America First approach or is a systemic change underway.

China also does rather well on the measure of resilience, which includes threats to internal stability, scoring 85.9 to the US’s 91.4. In the short-term, I’d agree with the authors on that. But I’d contend that Xi Jinping’s personalised control over the Party-state structure poses a serious threat to long-term stability.

India, meanwhile, ranks 4th in the overall assessment, just a shade behind Japan. And there’s some very good advice being offered for New Delhi to rise up the table, i.e. focus on converting its sizeable resources base into strategic gains and improving defence networks.

Who made Xi move half-way across the country?

Ananth Krishnan points out that Xi Jinping’s decision to travel halfway across his own country to meet Narendra Modi (who had travelled completely out of his own country) for an informal summit in Wuhan is remarkable, and no one in Beijing expected it. It’s been quite a journey for their India policy, from threatening to order military attacks to perhaps ordering a six pack for a chillout session between the two leaders this month.

Were they really impressed by India’s resolute stance of not backing down at Doklam, of not signing up for the Belt and Road Initiative? Perhaps. What really made Xi travel halfway across his country is a man halfway across the world. A certain Mr Donald Trump. Washington is putting extreme pressure on Beijing on two counts: North Korea, and more importantly on trade.

It took Trump to remind Beijing that their projection of power ultimately relies on their economy, and that in turn relies on the goodwill of China’s trading partners. Most importantly, on the United States. A trade war will not only have unsettling effects on the Chinese economy in the short term, it can take the wind out of China’s economic sails in the longer term. The wise men in Beijing ought to have expected this. If they didn’t, then their wisdom is overrated. If they expected this, then they ought to have cautioned Xi Jinping against getting all on the front foot and antagonising India, Japan and Vietnam all at once. If they did and Xi didn’t heed their advice, then his astuteness is perhaps more limited than is made out to be.

In any case, India must expect that Xi’s front-footedness is China’s long-term strategy. Trump’s mercurial policy positions have caused Beijing to buy time and space by reaching out to India and Japan. The moment the pressure is off — for Trump can as quickly change his mind — it’s likely that Beijing will resume pushing the envelope again. New Delhi can certainly hope that Beijing has learned that it is not a good idea to antagonise your neighbours as you set out to confront your distant adversary. Yet if you were sitting in Beijing you might reckon it’s important to suppress your neighbour’s power to create trouble, before you confront your main adversary.

It is in India’s interests to have better relations with China and the United States than they have with each other. So the chillout at Wuhan is a good thing. Modi, however, must be keenly aware that a China reset in Delhi does not mean a India reset in Beijing. There’s nothing to indicate China’s fundamental approach towards India has changed. Or that it will change. For now all the chilling out is contingent on the extent and duration that the United States maintains pressure on China.