Asia Pacific Geopolitics – December 6, 2021

Alessandro Ponzetto | December 6th, 2021

This issue is primarily centrered around the relationship between US and China and its effects, both between the two countries and upon others.

The three must-reads on the relationship are ‘The Inevitable Rivalry’, from Foreign Affairs, ‘WWIII has already started’, from Pippa Malmgren, and ‘Containment can work against China, too’, from the WSJ.

Those bring much needed analysis for following news, such as the new Chinese base in Equatorial Guinea, the continued attention paid by the Chinese to Commonwealth nations, the leadership uncertainties coming in 2022 in both China and the US (with the former having an impact on the events in Macau), and why Quad members like Japan and India are taking matters into their own hands (with Russia playing a role in the case of India). This relationship also casts a long shadow over ASEAN, especially now that the China-friendly Cambodia is the chair (with it more friendly attitude towards the junta in Myanmar, which just sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi to jail once again), and the Solomons, with its PM surviving a no-confidence vote.

Secondly, there is the continued crackdown in China, both in the mainland and in Hong Kong. In the case of the mainland, the targets are education and religion, both unsurprising as Xi is treading in the steps of Mao and ‘orthodox’ Communist doctrine. For Hong Kong, the target is democracy, or lack thereof, as the authorities deemed the call of blank ballots from a former pro-democratic lawmaker ‘illegal’.

Thirdly, there is the potential change coming from Europe, with the new German foreign minister opting for a tougher stance towards Beijing and with Eastern Europe continuing to put emphasis on Taiwan, with this time Czech Republic and Slovakia taking the stage.

Fourthly, there is sports, with companies shying away from the dispute between the WTA and China while the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics seems to gain steam, with China announcing repercussions. 

Finally, there are some developments regarding the elections in South Korea and Australia, both impactful for the region at large. In case of the former, there are positive resolution of the issues within the conservative camp, potentially boding well for the US, while in Australia PM Morrison seems to have several issues, with Labour ahead in polls.

  1. CHINA

1.1 The Inevitable Rivalry – Foreign Affairs

It was a momentous choice. Three decades ago, the Cold War ended, and the United States had won. It was now the sole great power on the planet. Scanning the horizon for threats, U.S. policymakers seemed to have little cause for concern—and especially not about China, a weak and impoverished country that had been aligned with the United States against the Soviet Union for over a decade. But there were some ominous signs: China had nearly five times as many people as the United States, and its leaders had embraced economic reform. Population size and wealth are the main building blocks of military power, so there was a serious possibility that China might become dramatically stronger in the decades to come. Since a mightier China would surely challenge the U.S. position in Asia and possibly beyond, the logical choice for the United States was clear: slow China’s rise.

Instead, it encouraged it. Beguiled by misguided theories about liberalism’s inevitable triumph and the obsolescence of great-power conflict, both Democratic and Republican administrations pursued a policy of engagement, which sought to help China grow richer. Washington promoted investment in China and welcomed the country into the global trading system, thinking it would become a peace-loving democracy and a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led international order.

Of course, this fantasy never materialized. Far from embracing liberal values at home and the status quo abroad, China grew more repressive and ambitious as it rose. Instead of fostering harmony between Beijing and Washington, engagement failed to forestall a rivalry and hastened the end of the so-called unipolar moment. Today, China and the United States are locked in what can only be called a new cold war—an intense security competition that touches on every dimension of their relationship. This rivalry will test U.S. policymakers more than the original Cold War did, as China is likely to be a more powerful competitor than the Soviet Union was in its prime. And this cold war is more likely to turn hot.

Comment: The two main mistakes made by the US were not to foresee the rise of China as a future challenger while at the same time providing it with the means to do so. While different in some aspects, it is not too dissimilar to how the Soviet Union became the new adversary in the aftermath of WWII, with the first signs of rivalries starting to appear even before the war’s end. 

It is debatable whether modern day China is a more powerful competitor than the Soviet Union, as it is unclear whether this new rivalry is likely to get hot (militarily speaking). Still, a confrontation has been played out for quite some time, as argued by Pippa Malmgren in the following op-ed, albeit non-kinetic. 

1.2 WWIII Has Already Started – Pippa Malmgren

Peter Drucker delayed publishing his book, The End of Economic Man: The Origins of Totalitarianism, until 1939 because he was so frightened to say that WWII was about to begin. I feel his angst as I write of my belief that we have already entered WWIII. But, before you jump out of your skin, try to remember that war itself is digitizing, just like everything else. That may mean the confrontations and conflicts of our time may be very different from anything we’ve experienced before. 

This new theatre of conflict is no longer exclusively about physical territory and humans on a front line. The new battlespace is literally in space, as in outer space. It is in digital cyberspace. Wars are no longer about armies and land. Now it’s about Navies, the high seas and extremely remote locations like extremely remote islands in the Pacific and the open oceans. Land still plays a part, but the contest for land and resources seems to be occurring in places like the Himalayas, Africa and the Arctic. This is why the US has been building its Space Force for some years now. But, more than all that, war itself is digitizing. So, only those who know where to look will see it.

No one wants war. I’ve been lecturing at Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point) and briefing NATO Generals for some years. I see every sign that military leaders will do everything possible to avoid outright war. But, the militaries of the superpowers find themselves in an odd situation. All are in a state of high alert, wary that a near miss, an accident, or miscommunication might inadvertently trigger a catastrophe. These militaries are clearly repositioning, taunting each other, aiming to make life ever-more uncomfortable for potential opponents.

Meanwhile, the public seems unaware and even uninterested. Perhaps it’s already intuitively understood that, strangely, this may be a better way to have a war than we have ever seen in history. Perhaps we have traded guns for weaponized algorithms and substituted computers for humans? Maybe cyber warfare and cybernetics have already replaced humans on a digital battlefield? America may have ended the war in Afghanistan not to withdraw from conflict but rather to ramp up in the highly contested digital battlespace.

Comment: While it is true that several state actors have been quite active in several areas (including outer space itself, as in the case of the Russians destroying an old Soviet-Era satellite and causing quite a mess), it is the logical evolution of the ‘war’ between superpowers during the Cold War. 

The only meaningful change, aside from the technologies employed, is the arrival of China into the arena, which has for the most part replaced Russia as the main adversary of the US. At least it has been perceived over time more important of the two, both by the administrations and by the public. 

Ultimately, an actual military conflict remains unlikely as mutually assured destruction makes such a conflict suicidal. This of course does not prevent action between the powers in other realms, much less destructive but still as impactful in their confrontations. 

1.3 Containment Can Work Against China, Too – WSJ

In the defining geopolitical contest of this century, the U.S. is a superpower without a plan. The last two presidents have declared that our country is engaged in a historic competition with China—one that will shape the world order and the fate of human freedom. But neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden has publicly explained what a more “competitive” policy aims to achieve, nor has either offered more than the barest outlines of a strategy for success. We appear to be embarking on a long, dangerous journey without knowing where we are trying to go or how we will get there.

The challenge is, admittedly, complex because China is so deeply integrated into the very system that its hegemonic ambitions threaten. But Washington has a precedent to draw on, if only it could set aside the endless—and superficial—debate over whether the U.S.-China relationship is a “new Cold War” and instead engage more deeply with the strategic insights developed in the original Cold War.

In the decades after World War II, the U.S. waged and won a multigenerational struggle against an authoritarian rival. It devised, at the outset, an elegant strategy—containment—that guided the actions of successive presidents of both parties. Today’s rivalry with Beijing isn’t an exact replica of the Cold War, of course. China is far more economically dynamic and technologically sophisticated than the Soviet Union was. Xi Jinping isn’t Stalin or Mao, although he admires the former and increasingly emulates the latter. But the best strategies have qualities that transcend particular eras and places. To succeed against a rising China, the U.S. must relearn the lessons of containment.

Containment emerged as a response to a dilemma that today’s policy makers would recognize: A powerful tyranny that the U.S. had tried to mold into a “responsible stakeholder” threatened to destroy the system instead. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt allied with Stalin’s Soviet Union and sought to make it a partner in building a stable peace. By 1946-47, however, fears of a third global war were widespread, as U.S.-Soviet tensions spiked and Moscow’s power loomed menacingly over a shattered world.

Comment: While there are indeed differences between the current situation and what the US faced in the aftermath of WWII with the Soviet Union, it is something to bear in mind. 

Geographically, it is much easier to contain China rather than the Soviet Union, as China depends on the trade flowing in the South and East China Seas. Politically, however, the US has been woefully inadequate compared to back then, especially as it is undermined by certain sectors. One example is Wall Street, as shown below by Ray Dalio’s latest comments. 

1.4 Ray Dalio’s China Equivalence – WSJ

American political attitudes toward China’s Communist Party regime have changed dramatically in the past half-decade, and for good reason. But some on Wall Street are still living in the 1990s.

Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio was especially tone-deaf in a CNBC appearance this week. Asked about his investments in China and Beijing’s human-rights abuses, the billionaire drew an equivalence with the U.S. “I look at the United States, and I say, well, what’s going on in the United States and should I not invest in the United States” because of “our own human-rights issues, or other things?”

Mr. Dalio acknowledged that China has “an autocratic system” (an improvement from Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 claim that Chinese President Xi Jinping is “not a dictator”). But pressed on China’s policy of “disappearing people,” he added, “that is their approach, we have our approach.” Tell that to publisher Jimmy Lai, who is locked in jail merely for asking China to live up to the promises it made about Hong Kong autonomy.

This is the sort of comment that sours Americans on Wall Street and opens executives to accusations of being “citizens of the world” before they are Americans. Mr. Dalio wants freedom to invest where he pleases, but if Wall Street titans convey contempt for America’s system of government, then voters will curtail their prerogatives through the political process.

Comment: Ray Dalio’s comments represent precisely the big issue of Wall Street and China: they are defending the CCP in the name of profits, which have been elusive at the best of times. 

Having foreign companies do propaganda for them is one way the CCP has to spread its ideology, as they have other means at their disposal. One is providing training for foreigners’ military officers and officials, which has been a key way for China to lure Commonwealth nations away from the UK

1.5 Blinken warns Chinese leaders over Taiwan as global crises mount – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Reuters Next conference on Friday that Chinese leaders should think carefully about their actions toward Taiwan, warning of “terrible consequences” if China precipitates a crisis across the Taiwan Strait.

In an interview, Blinken addressed multiple foreign policy challenges facing the administration of President Joe Biden, including faltering efforts to repair the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine, and the spiraling conflict in Ethiopia.

Most acute may be China’s increasingly aggressive posture toward Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory. Taiwan’s defense minister has said tensions with China are at their worst in more than 40 years adding that China will be capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.

Asked if China was going to invade Taiwan, Blinken said “that would be a potentially disastrous decision,” repeating Washington’s position that it is “resolutely committed” to making sure Taiwan has the means to defend itself.

[…] “I hope that China’s leaders think very carefully about this and about not precipitating a crisis that would have I think terrible consequences for lots of people and one that’s in no one’s interest, starting with China,” Blinken said.

Comment: One thing is difficult to comprehend in the current US administration: it has been able to show force when needed, with the presence of two US carriers off the coast of Taiwan stopping the high-intensity intrusions of the Taiwanese ADIZ, but at the same time it can be very ineffective, as in this case.

What Blinken said is nothing the Chinese did not already know: the US has been committed to making sure Taiwan is able to defend itself since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 and the mainland is well aware of the terrible consequences, as the last time the two sides actively skirmished was in the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958. 

Blinken is not the only one from the administration commenting on the issue, with US Secretary Austin comparing what the Chinese are doing to ‘rehearsals’. This also looks quite detached, for the very same reason as Blinken: since the US exercise with four aircraft carriers (two from the US, one from the UK and one from Japan) the PLA has considerably toned down its flights crossing the Taiwanese ADIZ.

The example provided shows how to handle the Chinese in case they decide to up the ante, while providing weight to the Pentagon in potential talks with the PLA. Sadly, there are also examples in what not to do, such as the following

1.6 China Seeks First Military Base on Africa’s Atlantic Coast, U.S. Intelligence Finds – WSJ

Classified American intelligence reports suggest China intends to establish a military installation in this tiny Central African country, a move that would give Beijing its first permanent naval presence on the Atlantic Ocean, according to U.S. officials.

The officials declined to describe details of the secret intelligence findings. But they said the reports raise the prospect that Chinese warships would be able to rearm and refit opposite the East Coast of the U.S.—a threat that is setting off alarm bells at the White House and Pentagon.

Principal deputy U.S. national security adviser Jon Finer visited Equatorial Guinea in October on a mission to persuade President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his son and heir apparent, Vice President Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, to reject China’s overtures.

“As part of our diplomacy to address maritime-security issues, we have made clear to Equatorial Guinea that certain potential steps involving [Chinese] activity there would raise national-security concerns,” said a senior Biden administration official.

The great-power skirmishing over a country that rarely draws outside attention reflects the rising tensions between Washington and Beijing. The two countries are sparring over the status of Taiwan, China’s testing of a hypersonic missile, the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and other issues.

World-wide, the U.S. finds itself maneuvering to try to block China from projecting its military power from new overseas bases, from Cambodia to the United Arab Emirates.

In Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese likely have an eye on Bata, according to a U.S. official. Bata already has a Chinese-built deep-water commercial port on the Gulf of Guinea, and excellent highways link the city to Gabon and the interior of Central Africa.

Comment: The map above shows the strategic Gulf of Guinea, with Equatorial Guinea and the port city of Bata in the bottom right corner. . The location is very strategic, but its real importance can be better appreciated with the following map:

Here Equatorial Guinea is not highlighted, but it is South East of Nigeria, as shown above. This would provide a reliable resupply base for the PLA, extending its reach in the Atlantic Ocean. 

1.7 US-China: parallel politics in 2022 – Asia Times

Parallel yet different challenges await President Xi Jinping and President Joseph Biden in their respective countries, China and the United States, next year.

At first glance, the two leaders are guiding the two countries in very different directions. One, Biden, faces an uphill struggle to hold America steadfast, while China could more easily go downhill on the path of stability. Yet, with a closer look, things could be different.

In China, Xi secured his position for life, and nobody in his right mind will challenge him on that, at least in the foreseeable future. This should make China, in the next few years at least, extremely stable and secure from any major political upheaval.

Yet this concentration of power in the hands of one man actually makes many things uncertain. Yes, Xi Jinping is the pinnacle of Chinese power, the keystone of the bridge. Yet the architecture of the bridge, the design of future Chinese power, remains uncertain.

We don’t know the structure of the next Standing Committee of the Politburo, the summit of Chinese power, the one that makes day-to-day decisions. Currently, it is made up of seven people, and up to six of them could retire at the Congress next autumn. Then here starts the problem.

[…] American politics is in a very different position. Biden and the Democratic Party are facing a massive defeat in the midterm elections. The Democratic Party could lose the majority in the House of Representatives and perhaps also in the Senate. Therefore, the president might lose the support necessary to carry out his policies.

Biden is challenged by a surge of inflation and migration that is moving voters to the Republican camp. Biden’s policies are controversial and still new. They are not making a dent in public opinion, and without the necessary support, the Democratic Party in three years may lose the presidential election.

Still, this earthquake could be very positive for America’s political stability. The biggest threat to this is not the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, but the presence of Donald Trump. who with his erratic behavior and unorthodox and perhaps illegal methods has been derailing traditional American politics.

If the Democratic Party loses the midterm elections, the Democrats may lose the presidential election in three years, but the Republican Party doesn’t need Trump to win. Any Republican presidential candidate could beat Biden if he chooses to stand for re-election or whoever the Democrats decide to fill in.

Comment: The two systems are very much different but both face a similar problem: political uncertainty due to elections.

On the one hand there is Xi, who is trying to go for an unprecedented third term and he is not pulling his punches to achieve such. Even assuming he manages to get his third term, as mentioned in the article, there is the issue of filling out the Standing Committee, where power actually resides, and do so knowing he could ill afford slipping up. 

On the other there is the Biden administration, which is going to face a tough 2022 and a probably even worse 2024. Until 2024, however, the interest in US politics may turn towards internal matters, opening the door for other actors in the geopolitical stage.

Russia may take advantage of the weakness of both, after all there is already anecdotal evidence to support this: the current flexing in Eastern Europe, the use of gas for political purposes and the recent exercise with ASEAN, whose members have several disputes with China and may see the US as unreliable (some already view AUKUS with distrust). In a sense they are already doing it, with the recent deals with India, plus the Russian renewed presence in Central Asia with more Russian assets being deployed in Tajikistan.

Another side effect, this time positive, is Japan taking matters in its own hands, as we will see in an article of Nikkei Asia below. The US may also wake up once again and address the situation effectively, as even now it still has an edge over China.

1.8 China loses path to ‘undisputed primacy’ in Asia as U.S. rebounds – Nikkei Asia

The U.S. has seen a reversal of fortunes since last year, when China closed the gap on American influence in Asia, according to a new report by the Lowy Institute.

This year marks the first gain for the U.S. since the Australian think tank began publishing its annual Asia Power Index in 2018. Washington bucked the downtrend seen in most of the 26 ranked countries. The annual index awards points for military capability and defense networks; economic, diplomatic and cultural influence; resilience; and future resources.

The U.S. scored 82.2 points, up from 81.6 in 2020. Aside from the U.S., Brunei, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were the only countries to gain points this year.

China received 74.6 points, its score falling for the first time since 2018, “with no clear path to undisputed primacy in the Indo-Pacific,” the report says. It surpassed the U.S. only in economic capability and relationships, but it also gained ground in terms of military capability and resilience.

Comment: The comparison portrays only a part of the picture, as the two are not in isolation. China has to contend with a resurgent Japan, a growing India, a defiant Australia and a duplicitous Russia (as show here), all of which stack the deck in favour of the US (regardless of the effectiveness of policies in DC)

Taking these into account, it is debatable whether China had a way to achieve primacy to begin with. 

1.9 President Xi of China lures Commonwealth with military diplomacy – The Times

China is increasingly turning to the military and political indoctrination of ruling elites in Commonwealth countries as criticism grows of its coercive use of foreign investment and debt diplomacy.

Military officers from Commonwealth countries who might once have earned their stripes at British military colleges such as Sandhurst are joining China’s foreign training programmes in record numbers. Several African nations, including Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania, have opened “politico-military schools” sponsored by China.

Civitas, the think tank, said the military training “should be understood in the context of Beijing’s growing efforts to train foreign elites generally” to gain influence over developing countries.

China hosts thousands of foreign political party members for governance and “ideological” training every year, seeking to promote its Communist Party rule as a superior alternative to western democracy. Commonwealth democracies that have participated include Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa — some at their own instigation. Ghana’s ruling New Patriotic Party asked for help to “deepen its ideological skills”.

Comment: The CCP has been using political indoctrination since its very inception. As such, exporting this model and using it for their advantage is to be expected. After all, under Xi the issue of ‘ideological skills’ has become more important, with schools too being targeted.

China’s middle class families fret as President Xi Jinping ‘tightens grip’ on international schools – SCMP

International schools in China are under increasing pressure to adopt state-approved curricula, forcing some to withdraw from the country altogether and stoking unease among middle-class families who want their children exposed to Western education.

Last week, Harrow International School in Hainan, a prestigious British private institution, notified parents that students must be taught a Chinese curriculum from grade one to grade nine, and junior high school students must pass a state-run test to graduate.

The sudden change, which has alarmed the international education sector in China, means students will be taught official versions of history, politics and geography, said a member of the school’s student recruitment team, who refused to be identified.

Comment: With new campaigns to nurture ‘patriotism and love for the CCP’ in schools, from primary all the way to high-school, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to provide education outside of the ‘official’ structure.

This move is the logical consequence of the crackdown in  private tutoring, or more broadly in private education, as Xi is taking a page from Mao’s Red Book. Education is not the only sector under scrutiny however.

1.10 China tightens control of religion, with focus on national security – SCMP

Chinese President Xi Jinping has flagged a further tightening of control on religion, in a speech at a national religious work conference held in Beijing late last week.

Xi said China would further promote “sinicisation of religion”, with a focus on strengthening control of online religious affairs. He emphasised that religious activities must be conducted within the boundary of the law, according to official Xinhua news agency.

“Religious activities should be carried out within the scope stipulated by laws and regulations … and should not interfere with educational, judicial and administrative affairs as well as social life,” Xi said.

Comment: Xi is taking another page from the Communist playbook, as religion has always been targeted by every Communist regime (due to their atheism, coupled with their desire to monopolise everything). Sadly, this is not particularly new either, as China kidnapped and made disappear the actual Panchem Lama (the successor of the Dalai Lama) in the late ‘90s, with several other actions to take effective control over religion. 


2.1 Hong Kong Says Vote—or Else – WSJ

We bring you this message from Hong Kong because China’s Communist Party wants the world to forget how it crushed the autonomy it promised to the territory. On Monday authorities issued arrest warrants for two pro-democracy exiles who used social media to recommend that Hong Kongers boycott sham legislative elections scheduled for December.

Former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui urged Hong Kongers to protest by casting blank ballots, and former district councillor Yau Man-chun encouraged a boycott. Both now face multiple charges for “engaging [in] illegal conduct of inciting another person not to vote, or to cast invalid vote, by activity in public during election period,” authorities said Monday. The penalty is up to three years in prison.

Messrs. Hui and Yau fled abroad amid Beijing’s crackdown, but they could be arrested if they travel to the wrong country. This is one way China is trying to enforce its political crackdown even overseas. At least three other Hong Kongers have been arrested on similar charges. Secretary for Security Chris Tang said this month said that anyone inciting electoral boycotts or protest votes may also be in violation of the national security law.

Comment: Not only has China effectively eliminated the opposition, as only three out of 153 candidates identify as pro-democracy (thanks to the pre-approval of the CCP) but it is also actively going against blank ballots, as that is the only remaining way of showing dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, this is yet another sign Hong Kong has become indistinguishable from the mainland, or more broadly to the Communist societies which want to pretend a ‘democratic’ polity. Overall, the voting resembles how it worked in the Soviet Union, which tells you something.

Then again, there is another way to ‘vote’ against the system by leaving, a choice more and more Hongkongers are considering. According to a survey from Oxford University, about a third of Hongkongers with British National (Overseas) status are considering leaving for the UK, with 6 per cent having already applied to do so. 

2.2 Arrest of Macau gambling hub founder raises stakes for China’s elite – The Times

[…] Beijing estimates that more than £150 billion flows out of China via cross-border gambling each year, much of it handled by Suncity. Opaque financing and the power of Macau’s Triad gangs allow it to serve as a base for money laundering by China’s elite. China has categorised the huge flows of cash as a “national security risk”.

The arrest of Chau has prompted fears that others may fall foul of the crackdown. According to the magazine Foreign Policy, between 1999 and 2016 visitors from mainland China grew from 800,000 to 17 million a year.

[…] The first signs that Beijing was turning against Chau came in a 2019 exposé in the Economic Information Daily, part of Xinhua state news agency, which compared him to a drug cultivator, branding his empire the “largest poppy” that had “deeply infiltrated” the mainland.

“Its casinos and servers are overseas, but gamblers are primarily in China’s mainland. Chinese gamblers make bets via video and can know their wins and losses instantly,” the paper wrote. “They can participate in overseas gambling without stepping outside their homes.”

The report said that “elite members” from all walks of life in China were registered members of Suncity’s VIP services, many of them provincial government employees and city leaders. The newspaper warned that such gambling activities caused “great harm to China’s social economic order and financial security”.

This week in The People’s Daily, the state mouthpiece, Qu Xinjiu, a legal scholar, said that Beijing was attempting to send a “strong signal that the Chinese government will continue to increase the legal penalties for cross-border gambling crimes and crack down on related illegal and criminal activities”.

Comment: Considering the messaging sent by the several mouthpieces, it is plausible to see a purge coming in the coming months, just in time for picking the Congress members. 

  1. QUAD

3.1 What’s behind Japan’s drive for military strike capability? – Nikkei Asia

[…] On Nov. 23, 2010, the island of Yeonpyeong off South Korea’s northwest coast, was hit with 170 artillery shells and rockets. The attack, which lasted a little more than an hour, killed four people, two South Korean soldiers and two construction workers. Many others were injured, with homes and forests on the island set ablaze.

[…] South Korea’s president at the time, Lee Myung-bak vowed to “make North Korea pay the price” for the attack. But in an interview with South Korean media just before leaving office, Lee revealed that the military had been reluctant to carry out his order to launch a retaliatory air raid, arguing that South Korea should not escalate the fighting, but instead consult with the U.S.

The Japanese government, meanwhile, was most concerned with the U.S. government’s response to the incident. According to a memoir by Robert Gates, who was secretary of defense at that time, the White House persuaded South Korea not to launch airstrikes or shell the North in retaliation.

[…] A view is emerging within the Japanese government that there is no denying the possibility of a North Korean attack on Japan if Pyongyang mistakenly assumes the U.S. will not hit back. Compounding these worries is the understanding that North Korea is a greater threat to the U.S. than it was 11 years ago because it now has ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland.

Behind these concerns are questions over whether the U.S. would take prompt military action to support an ally if attacked, even if doing so would put the U.S. itself at risk of a retaliatory strike. More broadly there are doubts among strategic thinkers in Japan that U.S. can be trusted, and whether the Japan-U.S. alliance is sustainable if Japan leaves its security entirely in Washington’s hands.

[…] “Discussions should focus on deterrence,” said Taro Kono, a high-ranking member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who previously served both foreign and defense minister, in a recent online newsletter. He added that Japan needs four capacities: to strike enemy bases with ballistic and cruise missiles in order to take out aircraft and guided missile launch sites, among others; to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations; to establish air superiority; and to assess the effectiveness of strikes.

Comment: This article shows the other side of the coin: while it is true that an ever more assertive China, coupled with the lack of trust in the US, has encouraged Tokyo to re-evaluate its defence policy and become more independent. 

While an actual attack like the one mentioned at Yeonpyeong may be unlikely, it is good for Japan to prepare for the possibility and gear towards being able to stand on its own, even in case the US comes back to its senses. 

After all, a more assertive Japan would be extremely beneficial for the US efforts in the region, both militarily and politically. 

3.2 India signs military deals with Russia, raises ‘unprovoked aggression’ from China – The Hindu

India had faced ‘unprovoked aggression’ on its northern borders for more than a year, said Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Monday during the first-ever India-Russia ‘2+2’ dialogue here. Both sides renewed the military-technical cooperation agreement for another 10 years till 2031 and also signed the deal for the manufacture of Ak-203 assault rifles, a defence official said.

“I had the opportunity to discuss in detail the emerging challenges India is confronted with and the enhanced requirement of India for closer military to military technical collaboration with Russia. The pandemic, the extraordinary militarisation and expansion of armament in our neighbourhood and unprovoked aggression on our northern border since early summer of 2020 has thrown in several challenges,” said Mr. Singh addressing the ‘2+2’ dialogue where Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu are also participating.

Mr. Singh sought “greater engagements in Central Asia and the Indian Ocean Region” during the talks.

The deal for 6.1 lakh Ak-203 assault rifles is estimated at over ₹5,000 crore and will be manufactured by a Joint Venture, Indo-Russian Rifles Private Ltd. (IRRPL) at Korwa, Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. The IRRPL was set up jointly between the erstwhile OFB [now Advanced Weapons and Equipment India Limited and Munitions India Limited] of India and Rosoboronexport and concern Kalashnikov of Russia.

The deal has been stuck over the high cost of each rifle and the high incidental costs of the Ordnance factory. As part of efforts to bring down costs, Russia dropped the royalty to be charged in the deal, officials confirmed. With the $5.43 bn S-400 as well other big ticket deals, the defence trade between India and Russia crossed $15 bn since 2018.

Comment: The result of this 2+2 meeting between India and Russia shows that Moscow’s vested interest is in maintaining a good relation with New Delhi, further providing evidence to yet another potential split with Beijing over the matter. 

In this regard, it is good to have the US somewhat ineffective, as it avoids interference over this matter and lets the events play out undisturbed. 


4.1 Germany’s incoming foreign minister vows tough China stance – Strait Times

Germany’s incoming foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock from the Green party, on Wednesday (Dec 1) pledged “dialogue and toughness” in dealing with China, and did not rule out a boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics.

Baerbock, 40, is set to become Germany’s first woman top diplomat once the new Cabinet led by Social Democrat Olaf Scholz is sworn in, likely to happen next week.

She has vowed to put human rights at the centre of German diplomacy – signalling a more assertive stance towards authoritarian regimes like China and Russia after the commerce-driven pragmatism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16 years in power.

[…] Baerbock, who studied international law, singled out China’s treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, the detention of Chinese journalist Zhang Zhan and the uncertainty about tennis star Peng Shuai’s wellbeing as areas of concern.

[…] Baerbock indicated that she was not dismissing a boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics.

“We should take a closer look at the Olympic Games,” she said. “There are different ways for governments to handle this, which will certainly be discussed in the coming weeks.”

US President Joe Biden said in November he was considering a diplomatic boycott of the event to protest China’s rights abuses, which would see government representatives avoid February’s Games while US athletes would still compete.

Comment: While it is hard to say precisely what the new German government will do, it is good to see some change in policy from Berlin, as the previous Merkel government turned a blind eye to everything that was going on in the name of trade. 

If the new German government were to keep this stance, it would be bad news for China. It would also explain why the Global Times, one of the many mouthpieces of the CCP, wrote an op-ed arguing not to derail the EU-China trade agreement for Lithuania, even though there are already signs they are starting to lose more countries in Eastern Europe.

4.2 Slovak deputy economy minister to visit Taiwan – Taiwan News

Slovakia’s Deputy Economy Minister Karol Galek will hold talks in Taiwan Dec. 5-10 as the highest-ranking visitor from the Central European country so far, reports said Friday (Dec. 3).

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have intensified their contacts with Taiwan following exchanges of COVID-19 masks and vaccine doses, as well as expanding trade relations in the wake of bullying by China.

One of the event on Galek’s schedule will be the first-ever economic and trade talks between the two countries on a deputy-ministerial level, CNA reported. In October, a 66-member delegation headed by National Development Council (NDC) Minister Kung Ming-hsin (龔明鑫) visited Bratislava, where it signed seven Memoranda of Understanding on topics ranging from supply chains and investment to tourism and smart cities.

Comment: One small but key detail: he flew to Taiwan on an official plane, which is a first for a European nation. Until now, they have chartered commercial flights. 

4.3 Czech Senate leader says European nations must unite to face China – Kyodo News

Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil believes European countries need to unite in dealing with China, saying that his delegation’s visit to Taiwan last year brought increased pressure from Beijing in apparent retaliation for its move to improve ties with the island.

In a recent online interview with Kyodo News, Vystrcil, who led the roughly 90-member delegation to Taipei last year, said “China is doing everything it possibly can to keep Taiwan isolated.”

The pressure his country faced in response to the trip highlighted the “great risk” of being dependent on China, the world’s second-largest economy, he said, without elaborating on what actions Beijing has taken.

“It clearly has shown that if there is a dependency on China in terms of deliveries of some raw materials, infrastructure or strategic products, there is a great risk attached to that because China will not hesitate to make use of this dependency any time in the future to gain whatever it wants,” he said.

“On the other hand, I do realize that it is not possible to not deal with China. There is a need to trade on standard terms with China,” he added.

Comment: The Czech Republic has been one of the most vocal countries regarding China, further highlighting the difference in perspective between Eastern Europe, which lived under the Soviet Union (and in case of the Czech Republic seeing their way to deal with dissent, as shown in the Prague Spring in 1968), and Western Europe, which seems more interested in preserving the economic relationship (in particular Germany under Merkel). 

It is hard to say which viewpoint will ultimately prevail, as this depends pretty much exclusively on the new German government (seeing how influential Berlin is in EU politics). 


5.1 As US criticises, Cambodia veers closer to ‘ironclad brother’ China – SCMP

A day after Cambodia marked 68 years of independence last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government was hit with a brace of disapproving announcements from Washington that analysts say signal future tensions in the bilateral relationship and risk pushing Phnom Penh further into “China’s corner”.

The first press release on November 10 broadcast new US sanctions against Cambodian navy chief Admiral Tea Vinh and defence ministry equipment tsar General Chau Phirun for allegedly conspiring to profit from the construction and upgrade of a China-linked naval base, which has been a source of tension between Washington and Beijing amid claims it could host Chinese troops.

The second, from the US State Department, cautioned American businesses against investing in Cambodia, citing endemic corruption and the risk of possible involvement with entities involved in human rights abuses, trafficking of people and wildlife, and drugs.

Comment: This is important, also because Cambodia now chairs ASEAN and as such could attempt to influence the group. It is however debatable how successful Cambodia will be in this regard, as even without the US it would be difficult to smooth the several issues present between certain ASEAN countries and Beijing (notwithstanding other players like Moscow and Tokyo being involved as well).

5.2 Cambodian PM says Myanmar junta has right to attend ASEAN – CNA

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Monday (Dec 6) he plans to visit Myanmar for talks with its military rulers and said junta officials should be invited to meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Myanmar’s standing as a member of the 10-country ASEAN has been thrown into the spotlight by a Feb 1 coup, with military junta leader Min Aung Hlaing not invited to the annual summit of group leaders in October hosted by Brunei after members failed to reach a consensus.

But Hun Sen suggested on Monday that while Cambodia is the host of the regional bloc for the next year, all 10 members would be represented.

“It’s a family member of ASEAN, they must have the rights to attend meetings,” he said in comments during an inauguration ceremony for a Chinese-funded construction project.

Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister is to visit Cambodia on Tuesday, and Hun Sen said in his remarks he would likely visit Myanmar soon.

“There is a strong possibility I will visit Naypyidaw to meet General Min Aung Hlaing to work with him. If I don’t work with the leadership, whom can I work with?” Hun Sen said

Comment: This is an example of what to expect with Cambodia being the chair of ASEAN, when all other countries are keeping their distance from the junta. It would be however difficult to convince them otherwise, especially after news like the following

5.3 Aung San Suu Kyi Sentenced to Four Years in Myanmar Prison – WSJ

Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was found guilty of incitement and breaching pandemic rules and sentenced to four years imprisonment, according to a person familiar with the matter, the first verdicts in a raft of criminal cases that the country’s military has brought against her since seizing power 10 months ago.

Ms. Suu Kyi, 76, faces a total of a dozen charges that could see her imprisoned for decades. Her lawyers and human-rights advocates say the accusations against her are baseless, aimed at sidelining the popular leader as the military junta that ousted her consolidates its power.

The guilty verdict is likely to spark more unrest in the Southeast Asian nation, which was plunged into turmoil after the coup on Feb. 1. Mass protests against army rule were met with deadly force, the nation’s economy is in free fall and conflict has intensified between the army and insurgent groups.

5.4 Solomon Islands PM Sogavare survives no-confidence vote after riots – SCMP

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare on Monday survived a no-confidence motion in parliament, after accusing the Pacific island nation’s most populous province of being “Taiwan’s agent”, and anti-government protesters of attempting a coup.

Dozens of buildings were burnt and shops looted in the capital of the Pacific island nation just over a week ago, in violence that killed four after Sogavare refused to speak with protesters who had travelled from Malaita province.

Domestic issues and disagreement over a 2019 switch of diplomatic ties to Beijing from Taiwan have fuelled a dispute between the national government and Malaita, and church leaders have urged talks.

Comment: Another page in the Solomons’ saga, although this is not over yet. Sogavare may have survived a confidence vote but this does not solve the underlying problems, both internal and external. 


6.1 Yoon, Lee agree to resolve their feud, work together for election victory – Yonhap News

Yoon Seok-youl, the presidential nominee of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), and the party chief Lee Jun-seok agreed Friday to address their feud over affairs related to election preparations and work together to win next year’s election.

The agreement came days after Lee canceled all official activities Tuesday and began a trip to several regional cities in the wake of his disagreements over several decisions by Yoon’s campaign.

The two made a last-minute reconciliation amid concerns that their protracted tension could negatively affect voters’ sentiment and the PPP’s preparation for the presidential election set for March next year. “They’ve decided to be united without any faltering to meet people’s aspiration for the PPP to win the election,” their spokesmen told reporters.

6.2 [Election 2022] Lee narrows gap with Yoon in poll – Korea Herald

Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling party, is chasing Yoon Suk-yeol, his rival from the main opposition party, closing the gap in support to 6.5 percentage points, a poll showed Monday.

In a survey by local pollster Realmeter, Lee of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea posted 37.5 percent support against Yoon of the main opposition People Power Party at 44 percent.

The survey was conducted on 3,054 respondents over 18 from Nov. 29 to Friday.

While Yoon is leading in the poll, the gap between the two presidential candidates from the major parties has been reduced from 9.4 percentage points in the previous week to 6.5 points.

Yoon witnessed his support drop by 2.3 percentage points from the previous week, in the survey that reflects responses collected before Yoon mended ties with party leader Lee Jun-seok on Friday night.

6.3 [Election 2022] How rival presidential candidates differ on US policy – Korea Herald

At a time when uncertainty looms large on regional and international security order, South Koreans will head to the polls in March to elect a new president.

The leading contenders are Lee Jae-myung of the liberal ruling Democratic Party of Korea and Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative opposition People Power Party. While domestic issues such as runaway housing prices and continuing economic fallout from the pandemic are expected to be on the forefront of voters’ minds, the result will also have tremendous impact on Seoul’s foreign policy, especially as it treads carefully amid the intensifying rivalry between its security ally Washington and key trade partner Beijing.

Seoul’s new leadership will also have wider ramifications for the Joe Biden administration, as it views its East Asian ally as a key partner to Washington’s battle in containing an increasingly assertive Beijing in the region, as well as dealing with nuclear-armed Pyongyang.

Both Lee and Yoon highlight “national interest” as the foundation of their foreign policy, but what that entails and how to build that is where their differences lie. Lee, who is widely expected to continue incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s diplomacy, says he will take a “pragmatic and balanced” approach, alluding he will refrain from openly taking sides between Washington and Beijing. Meanwhile, Yoon places bolstering the South Korea-US alliance as key, as well as forging stronger ties with like-minded democracies in resolving issues on the Korean Peninsula and around the world. 

6.4 Australian PM, behind in polls and beset by division, faces tough road to re-election – Strait Times

A chaotic Parliament session has left Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison seeking a reset as his conservative coalition trails in opinion polls and infighting derails his legislative agenda less than six months before an election.

Mr Morrison had planned to use the last sitting of 2021 to pass Bills that would create sharp differences with the opposition Labor Party, including a controversial religious freedom Bill that was promised after same-sex marriage became law.

Instead, the final two weeks of Parliament saw his coalition fractured, as his own lawmakers crossed the floor to vote against the government, forcing a delay to the religious freedom Bill and other legislation, possibly until after the election.

[…] With little time left for Mr Morrison to reverse his fortunes, as he has to go to the polls by May 2022, the prime minister has embarked on a series of unofficial campaign events. It is not a new situation for Mr Morrison – three years ago he had just become prime minister after his predecessor was rolled in a party-room vote and he was trailing in polls. Yet he secured a stunning election win in May 2019.

On Monday (Dec 6), the closely watched Newspoll showed Mr Morrison’s coalition government would lose office to Labor. That, and a budget scheduled for late March, suggest Mr Morrison will leave his run as late as possible, just as he did in 2019.

The divisions in Mr Morrison’s government over issues such as the religious freedom Bill and climate policy came despite his calls for unity.


7.1 Chinese Sponsor Distanced Itself From Women’s Tennis Before WTA Pulled Events From China – WSJ

The Women’s Tennis Association said that its largest Chinese sponsor asked last week to be removed from the organization’s website, the latest sign of tension between the tour and China after a sexual-assault allegation against a former Chinese government official was made on the verified social-media account of tennis pro Peng Shuai.

The sponsor, a Netflix-like streaming platform called iQiyi, made its request just ahead of the WTA’s announcement that it would suspend all events in China over its concern for Peng. iQiyi had been listed as one of the WTA’s top-tier Global Official Partners, alongside Porsche AG, the German software company SAP SE, and US-based wearable technology company Whoop Inc. As of Friday, only the latter three remained. 

A WTA spokeswoman said on Friday that iQiyi, owned by internet search company Baidu Inc. , requested that its logo be removed from the website before the organization’s chief executive, Steve Simon, announced on Dec. 1 that the tour wouldn’t be returning to China in the near future. The sponsorship contract, however, remains in place, the spokeswoman said. iQiyi, a WTA partner since at least 2015, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Major tennis sponsors had been quiet in the month since the allegation of sexual assault against China’s former Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli, first appeared on Peng’s verified Weibo account on Nov. 2. Peng was unheard from for several weeks, amid a global outcry, before she emerged at a youth tennis tournament in Beijing and in a video call with the International Olympic Committee on Nov. 21.

Comment: The choice of being removed from the site may be a way to steer clear of the controversy, although it is questionable how sustainable this position is. After seeing the CCP target a Taiwanese company for political purposes, it is impossible to exclude them targeting iQiyi for maintaining the sponsorship contract, assuming the issue continues to escalate. 

7.2 US to announce diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics – Sydney Morning Herald

The Biden administration’s planned diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics has paved the way for Australia to join a US-led coalition and formalise its response to alleged human rights abuses by Beijing.

The Australian government has no plans to send any representatives to the Winter Games in February but an imminent announcement of a US boycott has fuelled a debate within the Coalition about an official boycott, as several other countries including the United Kingdom and Canada considering joining the US.

Comment: In response, China threatened ‘countermeasures’, without specifying precisely which kind.