Modi and Xi Meet Again

Kim Jong Un on a horse; Taiwan’s F-16s; Nepal-China relations

The Big One.

Modi and Xi smile and brush disagreements under the rug.

The second “informal summit” between the leaders of India and China was certainly a summit, but not necessarily so informal. Optics around the event were designed to evoke warmth and solidarity on a personal level between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a follow-up to their meeting last spring in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Modi and Xi met in the southern Indian town of Mamallapuram on October 11 and 12.

To keep up appearances, both sides appeared to brush aside the real difficult issues that vex their relationship. India and China are simultaneously competitors and collaborators. To keep the mood positive in Mamallapuram neither side pressed on the exposed, raw nerves in the relationship. On the Indian side, this includes the recent decision by the Indian government to abrogate parts of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, changing the internal administrative status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. For China, complaints pertaining to “core interests ”—including the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and even the atrocities in Xinjiang—were welcome omissions.

And so, at Mamallapuram, it was economic issues that were the easiest to discuss and announce: rebalancing trade, encouraging mutual investors, and deepening economic cooperation. For India, in particular, slowing economic indicators make China’s salience as a neighbor and investor all the more important.

The Diplomat’s Aman Thakker wrote on the outcome of the summit, observing that “it remains to be seen whether such informal summits achieve their desired result or inhibit real progress on these issues.” On the fundamentals, India and China remain far apart.

Bottom Line: Another informal summit might have made for positive optics, but the India-China relationship remains as competitive as ever.

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East Asia.

Pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have drawn laughter around the world. This latest propaganda display feeds neatly into narratives around North Korea as a strange, Marxist-Leninist basketcase. But Kim’s latest personality cult-building effort is not an idle exercise. Instead, I’ve argued, it presages what will likely be a change in North Korea’s national strategy in the coming year—especially if diplomacy with the United States does not yield results.

Kim Jong Un’s Horseback Stunt Is No Laughing Matter

The display came just days after the breakdown of U.S.-North Korea working-level talks in Stockholm, Sweden. The two sides continue to have little overlap in their preferences, making a negotiation “win set” hard to come by. 

In context, the display makes more sense:

North Korean propaganda isn’t merely an aesthetic; it has a purpose. In context, Kim Jong Un’s snowbound horseback joyride augurs a potential shift in national strategy in the weeks and months ahead. Indeed, with his New Year’s Day warning this year of a “new way” ahead should diplomacy with the United States lead to a dead end, Kim may be getting ready to take his country down a different path.

The Korean Central News Agency’s accompanying text to the images of Kim on a horse, however, tell an interesting story. The article references “headwinds” and “arduous struggle,” the latter an evocation of the “arduous march,” or late-1990s famine in North Korea. With relief from international sanctions appearing a remote possibility as talks with the United States go nowhere, the message here is that harder economic times may lie ahead. But the message isn’t doom-and-gloom: KCNA suggests that the purpose of Kim’s visit to Mount Paektu has to do with his will to pursue economic renewal “by its own efforts.”

These themes evoke a message similar to what Kim delivered at the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party in April this year. “He underscored the need to more vigorously advance socialist construction by dint of self-supporting national economy … so as to deal a telling blow to the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes miscalculating that sanctions can bring the DPRK to its knees,” the Rodong Sinmun report on that event noted. Kim was telling the party that they’d have to buckle up and work hard; sanctions relief wasn’t imminent. Now on horseback, he’s reiterating that same message.

The demonstration also may foreshadow a spectacular event. Kim, it is said, has promised to “strike the world with wonder again.” That sounds ominous, but it may not necessarily indicate something like an intercontinental-range ballistic missile or nuclear test, breaking the April 2018 self-enforced moratorium. Instead, given the economic themes of this event, Kim may be poetically presaging something like a satellite launch. The space program has mostly been dormant in the propaganda sphere since the February 2016 launch of the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite. Under Kim Jong Un, the space program has received considerable attention and has been set up as the paramount exemplar of North Korea’s self-reliant, scientific capabilities.

Bottom Line: North Korea may be about to change its direction.

Go Deeper: I was in Chicago this week, where I spoke on U.S.-North Korea diplomacy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. You can view the video of my remarks here. 

South Asia.

Last weekend, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader since Jiang Zemin in 1996 to visit the Himalayan country of Nepal. His visit capped years of increasing geopolitical alignment between Kathmandu and Beijing amid China’s attempts to expand its influence in South Asia. His visit resulted in the formal upgrade of ties between the two countries; they are now what China’s Xinhua news agency calls “strategic partners of cooperation.”

In practical terms, the visit resulted in the signing of more than 23 agreements and memorandums of understanding. Xi left Nepal having pledged $496 million in financial assistance. The agreements reached covered everything from infrastructure to trade to tourism and education.

As The Diplomat’s Eleanor Albert writes, “Beijing and Kathmandu stand to benefit from deepening their relationship.” The official joint communiqué released by the two sides summed up the outcomes of the summit.

Primary Source: The Financial Action Task Force’s latest report [PDF] on Pakistan was released this week. It’s a long read, but worthwhile if you’ve been following this issue.

Asia Defense.

Taiwan’s F-16 upgrade program is back on track, according to Yen Teh-fa, the minister of defense of Taiwan. This week, he gave assurances to lawmakers that the estimated $4.5 billion upgrade program for 142 Republic of China Air Force F-16s was going according to plan. As my colleague Franz-Stefan Gady reported, “Parliamentarians had raised their concerns earlier following the revelation that Taiwan’s state-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC) failed to deliver six refitted jets in the first quarter of 2019.” As Gady writes:

The ROCAF’s F-16 A/B fleet will be retrofitted with advanced avionics including a new flight management system, a new active electronically scanned array fire-control radar, an enhanced electronic warfare system, and helmet-mounted display system.

Don’t Miss It: U.S. extended deterrence assurances to Japan are no longer what they used to be—or so argues Kindai University’s Shingo Yoshida at The Diplomat

In general, the credibility of extended deterrence depends on the intentions and capabilities of the state offering it. As the U.S. president’s repeated contradictions of earlier remarks and his broken promises, including his abrupt North Korea policy shift, have increased the uncertainty of U.S. intentions, the credibility of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence has become more dependent on its nuclear capabilities. In these circumstances, if U.S. nuclear forces are not to be strengthened as planned in the NPR, the U.S. commitments to defend Japan and other allies can be seen as empty promises and bluffs.  American diplomacy will doubtless be quite unstable in the run-up to the presidential election in 2020, but it will also be important to take careful note of U.S. military trends.

New sale: On Thursday, the U.S. Department of State announced that it had approved a possible sale of beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles to South Korea. 120 AIM-120C-7/C-8 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) were approved for a Foreign Military Sale, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency determined. U.S. Congress was notified of the possible sale’s approval on Thursday.


Don’t miss the most recent episode of the Asia Geopolitics podcast. Prashanth Parameswaran and I took a stab at discussion the ongoing controversies involving China and the National Basketball Association and Blizzard Entertainment. Listen here.

This newsletter is written by Ankit Panda, senior editor for The Diplomat, and director of research at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.

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