Kim Jong Un’s End-of-Year Deadline Looms

Samoa’s measles crisis; a new U.S. post-INF test; “phase one” trade deal progress?

The Big One.

A new U.S.-North Korea crisis around the corner?

Image result for kim jong un sohae test

Are the United States and North Korea heading for a new round of crisis as 2020 approaches? It certainly looks that way. Familiar epithets from 2017—when the crisis between the two sides was at a high—are flying once again: “rocketman” and “dotard” of 2017 fame have made an appearance recently, from U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean state media respectively.

On December 7, the North Koreans conducted what they said was a “very important” test at their Sohae Satellite Launching Ground. Satellite imagery suggests that they tested a large rocket engine—likely one that could be used on a new intercontinental-range ballistic missile or a space launch vehicle. Following that demonstration, Trump threatened Kim Jong Un on Twitter, saying that the young leader—whom Trump once said he had fallen “in love” with—could “lose everything” if he kept going down this path.

As the final days of 2019 approach, there’s good reason to expect surprises from North Korea. For once, they’ve told us that explicitly. Kim Yong Chol, formerly North Korea’s top negotiator in diplomatic talks with the United States, said in a statement released last week that the reason North Korea has been launching missiles this year is to catch Trump’s attention. "Trump said that he will be surprised if we do a certain action ... and of course he will be. We are doing [this] to make him surprised,” Kim said. He also hinted at North Korea’s return to its old risk-acceptant ways, underscoring that Pyongyang had “nothing to lose.”

A few indicators and milestones to watch in the coming days:

  • The 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea will meet for an extraordinary fifth plenum in the latter half of the month; expect a major policy decision from Kim Jong Un at the occasion.

  • U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun is due in Seoul, South Korea.

  • South Korea’s F-35As are expected to undergo an Initial Operational Capability (IOC) ceremony—more on that below in the newsletter.

  • On January 1, Kim Jong Un will deliver his customary annual New Year’s Day address, outlining policy goals for the year ahead. 

The prospect of a significant North Korean demonstration of a qualitatively new type of military capability appears to be quite high. In an official statement, a senior North Korean foreign ministry official promised the United States a “Christmas gift.” A separate North Korean statement told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he’d soon see a “ballistic missile” (after Japan made a fuss about what North Korea felt was an ordinary multiple launch rocket system). 

Kim’s likely got at least one big surprise up his sleeve before the year ends.

In Case You Missed It: Prashanth Parameswaran and I dedicated a recent episode of the Asia Geopolitics podcast to discussing the current state of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy and the likely pathways ahead in 2020. Listen here. 

Introducing Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

I’m excited to introduce a new offering from The Diplomat. Diplomat Risk Intelligence is the new consulting and analysis division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine. To learn more, click here.

East Asia.

On December 12, markets reacted positively to news from U.S. President Donald J. Trump that progress on the so-called “phase one” U.S.-China trade agreement was coming along. The following tweet launched an optimistic day of trading, taking the Dow Jones Industrial Average to a new all-time high.

At first, I was skeptical. After all, China had remained silent about the prospective deal. That changed a few hours before this newsletter was set to go out. China’s State Council Information Office gave a briefing Friday confirm that a deal had been reached—albeit without giving too many details. Shannon Tiezzi has more details at The Diplomat.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s statement is worth reading in full. An excerpt follows.

The United States and China have reached an historic and enforceable agreement on a Phase One trade deal that requires structural reforms and other changes to China’s economic and trade regime in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer, agriculture, financial services, and currency and foreign exchange. The Phase One agreement also includes a commitment by China that it will make substantial additional purchases of U.S. goods and services in the coming years.  Importantly, the agreement establishes a strong dispute resolution system that ensures prompt and effective implementation and enforcement.  The United States has agreed to modify its Section 301 tariff actions in a significant way.

Rising anxiety? China’s permanent representative to the United Nations has said that some form of sanctions easing for North Korea is “imperative” to “head off a dramatic reversal” of the situation between the United States and North Korea. His comments come after North Korea carried out what it said was a “very important” test at its west coast satellite launching grounds and after it said the United States would receive a “Christmas gift,” suggesting that it could potentially carry out a significant ballistic missile or space launch.


In a little noticed, but very significant story, the Pacific nation of Samoa is undergoing a major public health crisis concerning the spread of measles. 

As of Wednesday, even as 93 percent of the population had been vaccinated, total fatalities stood at 72—apparently mostly of young children.

Writing for The Diplomat’s Oceania channel, Joshua Mcdonald describes how the island country found itself in this predicament. At the core of the crisis:

One reason for the decline in the measles vaccine coverage is perhaps due to the vaccine requiring two separate doses to be most effective. WHO estimates that 86 percent of children worldwide receive their first dose, but that it drops to just 64 percent for the second dose.

In Samoa, only 31 percent of children had received the first dose of the measles vaccine, a drop from 65 percent in previous years. In contrast, the vaccination rate among other pacific nations such as Naura, Niue, and the Cook Islands is 99 percent.

Following considerable assistance from the United Nations, neighboring powers New Zealand and Australia, Samoa has been able to largely contain the crisis. To stem the spread of misinformation, authorities have arrested anti-vaccination campaigners

Bottom Line: The Pacific Island nation of Samoa is struggling to contain and stem a major measles outbreak amid a collapse in herd immunity.

South Asia.

A new report has clarified one of the lingering questions from the February 2019 skirmish between India and Pakistan: did the Pakistan Air Force’s use of U.S.-sourced F-16s violate its end-user agreement? It turns out that the answer is yes. 

According to a US News report, based on knowledge of a U.S. State Department document written this summer, Pakistan was reprimanded for using the fighters in dogfights against Indian Air Force fighters over Kashmir in the final days of February. The letter was written by Andrea Thompson, the former undersecretary of state for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. Additional details:

Addressed to the head of the Pakistani air force, Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, the letter began by relaying the State Department's confirmation that Pakistan had moved the F-16s and accompanying American-made missiles to unapproved forward operating bases in defiance of its agreement with the U.S. Using diplomatic language, Thompson, who has since left government, warned the Pakistanis that their behavior risked allowing these weapons to fall into the hands of malign actors and "could undermine our shared security platforms and infrastructures."

For those of you rusty on the details of what exactly transpired between India and Pakistan, here’s a brief refresher. After a devastating vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack against Indian paramilitary personnel that claimed more than 40 lives on February 14, the Indian government, early on the morning of February 26, carried out airstrikes on Pakistani soil, hitting what it said was a terrorist encampment at the Pakistani town of Balakot. The target group was Jaish-e-Mohammed, which had claimed responsibility for the attack (which was carried out by an Indian Kashmiri boy).

Following the Indian strikes, which Pakistan denied hit any meaningful targets, the Pakistani military readied for retaliation. The next day, the Pakistan Air Force struck military targets in India. Indian fighters pursued Pakistani fighters and faced Pakistan’s F-16s, which fired the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, and successfully shot down an Indian MiG-21 Bison in the process. The pilot of that Indian MiG survived the dogfight and was captured by Pakistan; eventually his release allowed for deescalation

The United States mostly played a behind-the-scenes role in deescalating the crisis—which was taking place while President Trump was meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. News of the letter from Thompson, thus, represents the clearest sign that Washington was concerned about Pakistan’s use of American F-16s.

Bottom Line: A new report sheds light on how the United States viewed Pakistan’s use of its F-16s during the Balakot crisis in February 2019.

In Case You Missed It: India’s Citizenship Amendment Bill has passed both houses of parliament and has led to major protests in Assam. This read, from LiveMint, gets at the fundamentals of the fault lines that have now been exposed.


The New NK Pro: The ultimate resource for professionals working on North Korea
While the DPRK is ‘unknowable’ to many, there is more information available about the country than ever. But identifying the key signals – where one statement, leadership change, or weapons test can change the course of the future – is becoming more challenging by the day.
At a time of rapid change on the peninsula, NK Pro helps users cut through the noise to serve those who need quality, reliability, and timeliness the most: people on the frontlines of policy, business and research.
Click here to learn more about how NK Pro can help your work on DPRK – and for a special offer, please mention "The Diplomat" when inquiring about access.
Asia Defense.

A few notable updates on defense issues in this edition of the newsletter.

A second nail in the INF coffin. On December 12, the United States carried out the test of a new ground-launched ballistic missile—the second test of a capability that was prohibited by the now-defunct 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. According to a Pentagon spokesperson, “The test missile exited its static launch stand and terminated in the open ocean after more than 500 kilometers of flight. Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities.” Video is available here:

[Bonus: In the most recent issue of The Diplomat’s magazine, I take a deep dive into how strategic elites and policymakers in Tokyo are thinking about the post-INF Treaty environment in Asia in a U.S.-Japan alliance context. Read more here.]

Indo-Pacific staffing change: Randy Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense, has resigned his position and will leave his post at the end of December. Schriver, a well-regarded Asia expert and a strong proponent of U.S.-Taiwan ties, was instrumental in the administration’s thinking about Indo-Pacific security issues.

South Korea’s F-35A IOC: My colleague Franz-Stefan Gady draws attention to the impending Initial Operating Capability (IOC) certification of the Republic of Korea Air Force’s fleet of F-35A Panther stealth fighters. An official ceremony should take place later this month. Expect North Korea, which has lashed out this year at South Korea’s procurement of these fighters, which are effectively invisible to Pyongyang’s obsolete early warning capabilities, to make noise.

How many Chinese carriers? Over at our Asia Defense channel, Steven Stashwick takes a look at reports that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy could stop its carrier ambitions at four ships instead of the more commonly heard six. Stashwick writes that “If this is true, it appears to have been a rapid change in the PLA Navy’s strategic direction.” The cause of the change in plans is reportedly technical and not political.


2020 is almost here! To commemorate the end of 2019, my podcast co-host Prashanth Parameswaran reflected on the year gone by in Asian geopolitics. Each of us presents three themes or trends that we feel are the most significant from this year. If you’re an iOS or Mac user, you can also subscribe to The Diplomat’s Asia Geopolitics podcast on iTunes here; if you use Windows or Android, you can subscribe on Google Play here, or on Spotify 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.

South Korea-Japan Intel Sharing Lives to See Another Day

The Rajapaksas rise; Hun Sen and Trump talk; Japan, India, and RCEP

The Big One.

Seoul keeps an intel-sharing pact with Japan—for now.

Image result for moon jae-in

The South Korean government had an eleventh hour change of heart in its attitude toward the 2016 bilateral ROK-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement, known as GSOMIA. Instead of pushing ahead with the termination of the deal as had originally been indicated in August, the Blue House agreed to “conditionally” suspend the deal’s expiration, keeping the mechanism alive. (In case you missed it, Prashanth Parameswaran and I discussed the implications of South Korea’s GSOMIA deliberations on a recent podcast.)

The Japan-South Korea GSOMIA allows for the two countries to shared Classified Military Information (CMI). It does so by formalizing procedures and organizational steps. Seoul has similar agreements with more than 30 countries. Its agreement with Japan was concluded with considerable assistance from the United States. That’s why, for instance, Mark Esper, the U.S. defense secretary, made GSOMIA a major focus of his recent tour of Asia, which included a stop in Seoul.

In all contexts, GSOMIA agreements provide the option for CMI sharing and do not constitute an obligation to do so. Under President Lee Myung-bak, the conclusion of a GSOMIA with Japan was stunted by widespread popular pushback on the assumption that the agreement would subjugate South Korean sovereignty and require Seoul to share intelligence with Tokyo without limits.

Had GSOMIA expired, U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation and information sharing would have been seriously stunted. With the agreement’s expiration, the three countries could have still shared information between them by falling back on the 2014 Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement, or TISA.

TISA, unlike GSOMIA, did not provide for a generalized framework for handling CMI between Japan and South Korea directly. The agreement allowed for “case by case” sharing between Seoul and Tokyo through negotiations; GSOMIA allows for frictionless sharing upon demand by one of the two participating entities.

Seoul’s decision keeps a major agreement in place for now, but the Japan-South Korea relationship is not out of crisis mode yet. The two sides continue talks on resolving broader differences.

Bottom Line: A last minute South Korean decision preserves an important intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.

Introducing Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

I’m excited to introduce a new offering from The Diplomat. Diplomat Risk Intelligence is the new consulting and analysis division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine. To learn more, click here.

Southeast Asia.

It has recently emerged that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and U.S. President Donald J. Trump exchanged letters discussing U.S.-Cambodia relations. According to Voice of America:

Hun Sen said he agreed with Trump that their bilateral relations had been through “ups and downs” and that the two countries should not be held back by their past issues.

“I am of the view that we should not become hostage of a few dark chapters of our own history,” Hun Sen writes in the letter. “There are so many other beautiful chapters that are worth nourishing for the greater good of both of our countries and people.”

Prashanth Parameswaran takes a high-level view of the bilateral relationship and where things might be going after the letter exchange:

...the letters exchange that we have seen publicly released over the past week attests to the expected and ongoing process of thawing U.S.-Cambodia relations. Trump’s letter to Hun Sen, dated November 1, noted that the United States does not seek regime change but does want Hun Sen to “put Cambodia back on the path of democratic governance,” while Hun Sen’s reply to Trump released November 26 noted that the two countries “should not become hostage of a few dark chapters of our own history” and proposed the creation of a working group to discuss ways to improve ties.

But while the letters make clear that this process is at play, the key question is what the outlines of a thawed U.S.-Cambodia relationship might be. While not all of Hun Sen’s actions at home and abroad may be reversible, Washington will at least need to see reassurances from the Cambodian government on a number of fronts including the treatment of the opposition and democracy and human rights if any meaningful thaw is to occur. Cambodia will also be looking to see what lower-hanging fruit might be possible in terms of slowly building ties back up as Hun Sen and the CPP further consolidate their position at home and also improve relations with other entities including the EU.

This “thaw” in the relationship may continue and evolve in non-linear ways in the coming weeks and months, he predicts.

Bottom Line: An exchange of letters presages a thaw in U.S.-Cambodia ties.

Food for Thought: South China Sea watcher Greg Poling sparked an interesting discussion on Twitter with a thread on the military value of China’s artificial islands in the Spratly group:


Don’t Miss It: Tuvalu is standing with Taiwan. One of Taipei’s few remaining diplomatic allies, Tuvalu has rebuffed any suggestion that it might look to switch ties to Beijing. As Reuters reported earlier in November, “Tuvalu’s foreign minister said … the South Pacific nation had rejected offers from Chinese companies to build artificial islands to help it cope with rising sea levels, an approach viewed as undermining Taiwan’s influence in the region.” Taiwan recently lost two partners in the region, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, both of whom forged ties with Beijing in September.

South Asia.

The last edition of this newsletter previewed Sri Lanka’s presidential election and the results ended up giving us few surprises. As expected, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother—the former authoritarian president—Mahinda Rajapaksa have emerged on top. Gotabaya triumphed in the presidential elections and, given Mahinda was term-limited from seeking a third presidential term, appointed his brother as prime minister. The Rajapaksas are back.

On the geopolitical implications of Gotabaya’s return, The Diplomat’s Abhijnan Rej and Rajeswarai Pillai Rajagopalan write on how India views the development. New Delhi saw the Sri Lankan elections as a high-stakes moment, potentially once again turning the tide unfavorably in India’s backyard.

Rej writes:

As Gotabaya settles into office and visits India ... on the 29th, the Modi government would hope that its hands-off approach in the 2019 Sri Lankan elections pays off. Whether India’s gambit is misplaced or not will take four more years to assess.

Rajagopalan, meanwhile, notes: 

The anxieties about the Rajapaksas come from how their past behavior toward China is perceived in New Delhi, and they will not be easily quelled. Despite his current criticism of the Hambantota deal, Mahinda was the one who initiated the deal for developing Hambantota port in 2017 when he was president. The port also happens to be in his parliamentary constituency. While it should be noted that the port development offer was initially made to India and then handed to China, that has not affected the extent of Indian concern. Chinese nuclear submarines also made port visits to Colombo port in 2014, which caused great consternation in India.

The focus on Hambantota is understandable. Gotabaya’s election manifesto brought the infamous 99-year-lease transfer of the port—described as one of the Belt and Road Initiative’s infamous “debt traps”—under criticism. As I wrote for The Diplomat:

Manifesto pledges don’t always find their way into policymaking and Gotabaya may choose to sharply depart from these pledges, but we should also recall the sharp protests that took place over the transfer of the port to China back in 2017. For a president championing nationalism like Gotabaya, Hambantota’s fate could turn into an important issue in relations with China. Will Gotabaya find himself joining the Maldives’ Ibrahim Solih, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammed, and even Pakistan’s Imran Khan as another regional leader seeking to revisit the terms of previously agreed big-ticket deals with Beijing? We’ll know soon enough.

Finally, with Gotabaya’s win, human rights, reconciliation, and transitional justice are under the microscope in Sri Lanka. On this front, don’t miss my recent interview with Sri Lanka watcher Taylor Dibbert, which covers the risks that arise along these lines with Gotabaya’s victory.

Bottom Line: Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in Sri Lanka raises geopolitical questions and human rights concerns.

Don’t Miss It: Japan’s top trade negotiator has indicated that Tokyo won’t take India’s “no” on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) for an answer. According to Bloomberg, Tokyo’s top negotiator for the deal has said that Japan has little interest in signing an RCEP-minus-India agreement. India had its reasons for withdrawing from the agreement, but it’s likely that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make the case for India reconsidering when he has his summit with Prime Minister Modi in the coming days.

Asia Defense.

A few notable updates on defense issues in this edition of the newsletter.

Russia’s hypersonic glider in New START: Last week, I mentioned that Russia’s new Avangard hypersonic glider nuclear warhead was slated for induction shortly (citing my colleague Franz-Stefan Gady’s writing). Significantly, this week, the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide warhead for Russia’s existing SS-19 missiles was submitted in a treaty exhibition under the U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (2011, New START). Joe Trevithick at The Drive has more on the inspection.

Japan pushes ahead with Aegis Ashore: The Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) awarded a contract to U.S. defense firm Lockheed Martin for the production and delivery of two Solid State Radar (SSR) antenna sets for its planned two land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense batteries, the land-based variant of the Aegis combat system for defense against ballistic and cruise missiles, it plans to install in the 2020s. 

An interesting new trilateral drill: The Russian Navy, South African Navy, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) started a trilateral maritime exercise off the South African city of Cape Town.The exercise is the first trilateral China-Russia-South Africa naval exercise in the waters off Africa and included advanced PLAN assets, including the guided missile frigate Weifang, a Type 054A warship. The Weifang has been dispatched from the Chinese mainland to conduct escort missions and anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa.

China’s drone force: Don’t miss PLA-watcher Rick Joe’s latest feature for The Diplomat on the Chinese military’s increasingly impressive array of high-end drones. Rick Joe writes: “There are a number of various high-end UAVs known to have entered PLA service or known to be in development, but some types may prove more consequential than others. It is well known that the PLA is seeking to close the technological and capability gap with other leading military powers such as the United States, as well as to develop systems that are able to fulfill its foreseeable military requirements in an effective way.”

No sense in submarines?: Michael A. Hunzeker and Joseph Petrucelli argue that Taiwan’s Indigenous Diesel Submarine project is a waste of scarce resources and bound to be highly vulnerable in a conflict. “Even from a purely political perspective, there are more effective ways to spend Taiwan’s scarce defense dollars,” they write.

Central Asia.

November summitry in Asia isn’t just restricted to Southeast Asia: Central Asia had its share of the pie, too. As Catherine Putz writes in The Diplomat, the heads of the six Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) states met in Kyrgyzstan for meetings. The cast of characters in attendance included Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

As Putz writes, 

The headline items include a joint statement expressing regret about the termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and concern over the future of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The organization also established two new membership categories, observer and partner, in an effort to expand.

Following the CSTO summit, the Central Asian heads of state and government met for a regional summit in Uzbekistan. Notably, Nursultan Nazarbayev attended that summit instead of Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s de jure president. Nazarbayev’s shadow continues to loom large over Kazakh state affairs.

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.

RCEP Without India

Sri Lanka votes; North Korea’s warnings; “phase one” trade deal doldrums

The Big One.

Is India holding to its old hesitations on trade?

RCEP explainer: Why Modi government did not join the world’s largest trading bloc

India has made its decision: It will not participate in negotiations for the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, an Association of Southeast Asian Nations-centered trade deal, which includes major Asian economies China and Japan. 

Delhi’s decision is unsurprising, but controversial in the region. In Tokyo, where I’m writing this newsletter, the perception of Delhi’s decision is widely as one affirming long-held views about India as a country inherently inimical to trade. But, for India, RCEP was a move that would have laid bare India’s vulnerability to a flood of cheap exports from other participating countries while doing little to enhance its own industry and exporters. The message that the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi really ended up sending with the decision despite this reality is that India is neither ready to compete in a more economically integrated Asia, nor is it willing to swallow painful short-term structural economic reform.

At The Diplomat, Niranjan Marjani sums up the case for why India decided to withdraw from RCEP. Among other reasons, 

Modi had called for a mutually beneficial RCEP that protects the interests of all involved, but accepting and implementing RCEP as currently envisioned would have had an impact on India’s domestic politics. More broadly, an economic imbalance between India and China caused by RCEP could have an impact on India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia. It would also affect India’s standing against China as a competitor.

On the flip side, Abhijnan Rej notes the geopolitical costs for India in sitting out what is a major multilateral integrative initiative—even with China’s participation. (Rej also places Delhi’s decision in the broader context of Indian regional affairs.)

First, by making bilateral trade issues with China a determining touchstone against which India would judge the merits of the multilateral RCEP, it effectively seems to signal everybody else (precisely, 14 other Asian states) that they were junior partners in the play. (By way of justifying India’s decision to stay out of RCEP, one Indian government source linked it to India’s way of showing “strategic clarity” on China.)

This stands to become especially grating for ASEAN, which sees India as doing too little, if ever.

RCEP is moving on now without India. The recent third RCEP summit in Bangkok resulted in an announcement that the text-based negotiations had concluded and that the agreement to result would be a “a modern, comprehensive, high-quality, and mutually beneficial” RCEP agreement. The agreement will include the 10 ASEAN plus China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand (all of which have existing free trade agreements with ASEAN). Neither India—nor the United States—will have a seat at the RCEP table.

Bottom Line: India’s predictable withdrawal from RCEP leaves it out of one of the most ambitious multilateral trade integration efforts in Asia.

Introducing Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

I’m excited to introduce a new offering from The Diplomat. Diplomat Risk Intelligence is the new consulting and analysis division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine. To learn more, click here.

East Asia.

The Wall Street Journal has the latest update on the never-ending drama of the U.S.-China “trade war” (which is admittedly a lot more than just a trade war these days). The latest snag in trade talks come over farm purchases, with China keen to avoid any specific commitment to purchase American agricultural products, including soybeans and pork, ahead of an agreement

To veteran trade war watchers, this latest lull can only be unsurprising. Markets continue to be cautiously optimistic and the characteristic dive in equity markets amid trade doldrums has not yet struck as of this writing. In any case, if there will be a “phase one” deal, it may amount to little more than a confidence-building measure between the two sides and a short-lived PR boost for the Trump administration. There’s still no sign on the U.S. side that Trump or his deputies are seriously considering a rollback to existing tariffs to incentivize concessions from China. The basic challenge for the negotiations remains the same: Both sides need the other to go first before they are willing to offer up anything real value.

Bottom Line: Snags over farm purchases and other issues might not kill a “phase one” U.S.-China trade deal, but they might water any ultimate deal considerably.

Don’t Miss It: As Taiwan’s critical elections near, Han Kuo-yu, the main challenger to incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen, has a running mate. But, as Nick Aspinwall writes, Han “has plummeted in the polls since this summer, dramatically draining the momentum of the populist phenomenon Taiwanese media had dubbed the ‘Han wave.’” 

South Asia.

Sri Lanka heads to the polls on November 16—this weekend—to elect its next president. The stakes for the country could not be higher as wounds from the shocking Easter Sunday attacks this April and last year’s constitutional crisis continue to linger. The front runner, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, should sound familiar to anyone that’s followed the island nation’s politics in the past: He’s the brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president who oversaw the end of the country’s three-decades-long civil war and presided over major atrocities. Mahinda, constitutionally term-limited, is letting his brother run for the presidency and, provided Gotabaya wins, will be poised to take over the prime ministership.

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, Alan Keenan offers a helpful primer of the stakes that lie ahead for Sri Lanka—especially on the human rights and post-civil war reconciliation and transitional justice front.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war – including hundreds who surrendered to the army on the last day of fighting in May 2009 and were never seen again. When asked at a 15 October press conference about their fate and how he would respond to the continued appeals of their families for the truth about what happened to them, Gotabaya denied anyone was unaccounted for after surrendering. When pressed, Gotabaya asserted there was no point in looking to the past and said he was running to be “the president of the future Sri Lanka”.

Geopolitics also loom large over Sri Lanka’s elections. The Rajapaksa brothers, if they do win, are likely to rebalance Sri Lanka’s foreign policy back toward China—or so goes the fear in New Delhi, Washington, and even Tokyo. Under Mahinda, Sri Lanka concluded a range of major economic deals with Beijing. As Indian analyst Manoj Joshi observes, India has also learned from the ups and downs for its own influence over the present presidential term of Maithripala Sirisena: “The experience of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe period makes it clear that there are limits to the influence that external parties can bring to bear on the Sri Lankan situation. Having initially taken the stand that they would reverse the Chinese connection, the two eventually compromised with Beijing.”

Bottom Line: Sri Lanka’s election appears to once again be setting up a turning point for the island country, with the Rajapaksas expected to win big.

Don’t Miss It: Pakistan’s Azadi March (Freedom March) is taking on the power of the Pakistani military. Daud Khattak writes on the demonstrations for The Diplomat

Asia Defense.

A few notable updates on Asian defense issues in this edition of the newsletter.

Here Comes Avangard: Russia’s new Avangard hypersonic glider nuclear warhead is slated for induction shortly. As Franz-Stefan Gady writes, “Russia’s Strategic Missile Force will receive the first two intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with a new hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) — the Avangard (Vanguard in English) hypersonic boost-glide warhead —in late November or early October.”

North Korea: North Korea’s State Affairs Commission, one of the most prominent institutions of state and one chaired by leader Kim Jong Un, released a statement discussion the state of relations with the United States. The statement, attributed to a spokesman for the Commission, warned the United States of a “greater threat” in the new year should no deal materialize between Pyongyang and Washington by the end of the year.

The statement, which the Korean Central News Agency released, repeated a warning against the United States and South Korea’s decision to carry on with a modified version of aerial military exercises.

All of this points to 2020 beginning with a bang—or potentially the North Koreans might take a step sooner.

Post-INF missile basing? As Defense News’ Aaron Mehta reminds us, the United States is slated to test a new, conventional intermediate-range ballistic missile (range between 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers) in the coming weeks. There’s little clarity on where such missiles might be based, but this one is a good bet for eventual basing on Guam.

I’ve also just spent the week in Tokyo speaking with Japanese officials and experts on Tokyo’s perspectives on post-INF strategic issues in Asia. American missiles won’t be coming to Japan anytime soon, but Tokyo is keenly aware of the difference new U.S. capabilities might make in competition and deterrence vis-a-vis China. More on this soon!


The Diplomat’s managing editor, Catherine Putz, writes on corporate responsibility and forced labor, taking a comparative look at China’s Xinjiang region and Uzbekistan:

Cotton is a labor-intensive crop. While mechanization has revolutionized cotton picking in much of the West, in countries where cotton is picked by hand, forced labor continues to be a problem. In Xinjiang, where raw cotton is also processed into yarn and cloth, as well as finished goods, the risk of forced labor exists at multiple steps in the creation of a product.

In Central Asia, Uzbekistan has been at the heart of a global campaign to stamp out the use of forced labor in its cotton sector. Under the Cotton Campaign’s Uzbek Cotton Pledge, more than 300 signatory companies have committed to “not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child and adult labor in its cotton sector.”

Both cases present a set of familiar, if distinct, challenges. Scrutinizing private sector supply chain exposures to these troubling practices in both cases is crucial.

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.

‘Phase One’ Trade Deal Ahoy?

China’s Fourth Plenum; a nuclear power plant cyber attack; Asian summitry

The Big One.

A delay for the ‘phase one’ trade deal?

Dictator Augusto Pinochet’s unresolved legacies are the real cause of the raging anger in Chile

The cancellation of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Chile appeared to have caught the White House, eager to finally cinch a trade agreement with China, off-guard. Trump’s negotiators have been laying the groundwork for the U.S. president to meet Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, to sign what has been described as a “phase one” agreement—or an interim agreement—to address differences between the two sides in the ongoing trade war. The APEC summit meeting in Chile was meant to provide the backdrop for that deal, but Chilean President Sebastian Piñera announced that Santiago would no longer host the APEC summit and the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP25.

Both the U.S. and China have been supportive of Chile’s decision. The immediate impact of the move appears to be a delay in the timing of when Trump and Xi might meet. Washington and Beijing are reportedly seeking an alternate venue to bring the two leaders together for this hotly anticipated agreement (which, of course, could fall apart in the upcoming weeks due to the usual bouts of unpredictability that have colored the trade war so far).

The broader tensions between the two sides, however, are here to stay, as The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi observes. “In case reports of a potential ‘Phase 1’ trade deal had anyone thinking U.S.-China frictions were nearing an end, a fiery speech from the U.S. secretary of state made it clear that confrontation is the new normal,” she writes. Right now, it seems that U.S.-China ties are running on two tracks.

Introducing Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

I’m excited to introduce a new offering from The Diplomat. Diplomat Risk Intelligence is the new consulting and analysis division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine. To learn more, click here.


The Communist Party of China’s Central Committee, the apex organ of the party, just wrapped up the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress in the final week of October. There were two major themes in the lead-up:

  • Uphold and improve the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics

  • Advance the modernization of China's system and capacity for governance

In the end, the Plenum appears to have been more about further consolidating Xi Jinping’s leadership and position. David Bandurski, writing for the China Media Project, has a nice distillation of the plenum’s official bulletin and the focus on reform—well, with Chinese characteristics:

That’s right, the Fourth Plenum is about reform. But now, this is not about political reform as liberalization. This is about political reform as the continued and renewed consolidation of Party control of all aspects of Chinese society around the central authority of Xi Jinping.

The lead-up to this plenum was unusually fraught with speculation about a delay, given the 20 month gap since the Third Plenum (the longest such gap since the Deng Xiaoping era). There were also rumors that a president-in-waiting would be tapped for the Politburo Standing Committee, dashing Xi’s ambitions of serving more than two terms. Rather than checking Xi’s power, though, the Fourth Plenum did the opposite. Broadly speaking, the Fourth Plenum continues to build up the cult of Xi Jinping, taking the party back from the apparently short-lived era of collective leadership to concentration under one man (something Deng had been particularly concerned with).

Xinhua has the Fourth Plenum communiqué here. A shorter version, with a little more levity, from Reuters’ Keith Zhai:

Go Deeper: A few more Fourth Plenum reads from Radio Free Asia, Bill Bishop (Sinocism), and a pre-Plenum view from Jude Blanchette on Xi’s position.

U.S. and Asia.

It’s November and you know what that means—Asian summitry season. Thailand is gearing up to host a range of summits for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in its capacity as chair, along with the East Asia Summit. Regional leaders will converge on Bangkok soon.

For the United States, the importance of these summits has decidedly been on the slide—despite the Trump administration’s own Indo-Pacific Strategy Report calling this region the United States’ “priority theater.”

Barack Obama, who also made a “pivot” to Asia a strategic priority, attended all East Asia Summits with the exception of the 2013 iteration, when a government shutdown in Washington, D.C., demanded his attention. Trump, by contrast, has yet to fully sit through a complete summit. He went in 2017, his first year in office, but left the Philippines, that year’s host country, before the plenary session, taking with him planned policy remarks that would have addressed, among other things, the South China Sea.

This year, the U.S. will send a downgraded delegation to Bangkok; the most senior official in Bangkok will be U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Moreover, according to the White House, Robert C. O’Brien, the new assistant to the president for national security affairs, will attend the summits as a presidential special envoy. Ross and O’Brien will attend the U.S.-ASEAN summit and the East Asia Summit.

The move won’t reassure the region of the professed “priority theater” status of the Indo-Pacific region, especially as several other heads of state will be in attendance. Last year, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence in his stead. The takeaway after this third Trump-era EAS can only be that the United States is happy to profess a focus on Asia in strategic documents, but will often fail to show up when showing up is called for.

Bottom Line: The upcoming ASEAN summits and East Asia Summit in Bangkok will feel a downgraded U.S. presence.

Personnel Watch: Stephen E. Biegun is about to make negotiating with North Korea a part-time job. Trump’s special envoy on North Korea is slated to become Mike Pompeo’s number two at the State Department.

South Asia.

India’s largest nuclear power station, the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, pushed back on unconfirmed reports that it had suffered a cyber attack. The plant, located in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, issued a statement that said reports of a cyber attack were “false information … being propogated (sic) on the social media platform, electronic, and print media.” The denial was followed by claims that the plant was invincible to cyber attack because of a so-called “air-gap” between the critical systems and the outside world. 

As I wrote in The Diplomat, this is misleading. 

The official denial of any cyber attack rests on the notion that a physically separated power plant system is invulnerable to cyber attack. While this may be true for remote attacks, it does not protect against physical intrusion—either by nefarious human actors intending to tamper with the systems themselves, or who may seek to install malware from the inside. 

Earlier this year, a story published by Yahoo News revealed the account of how the well-known Stuxnet worm, which disabled Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility, penetrated its target:

Engineers at Natanz programmed the control systems with code loaded onto USB flash drives, so the mole either directly installed the code himself by inserting a USB into the control systems or he infected the system of an engineer, who then unwittingly delivered Stuxnet when he programmed the control systems using a USB stick.

Since the initial denials by Indian officials, more details have emerged. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), for instance, acknowledged that malware that has been attributed by other countries to North Korean cyber actors was found at Kudankulam. The North Korea angle is intriguing, but India has yet to do its own attribution. Attributing cyber attacks is particularly difficult and North Korean code signatures have been used in the past by other actors to attempt to throw attribution investigators off the trail. In any case, this will be a story worth watching closely.

Bottom Line: A cyber attack on an Indian nuclear power plant underscores nuclear security risks.

Don’t Miss It: I had Aman Thakker, a South Asia contributor for The Diplomat and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on the Asia Geopolitics podcast to discuss Indian politics in Modi’s second term and the effects of India’s actions since August in Kashmir on the U.S.-India relationship. Listen to our discussion here.

Asia Defense.

Japan’s F-15J upgrade: The U.S. Department of State approved a possible sale of a modernization package for 98 F-15J fighter aircraft valued at an estimated $4.5 billion. The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified U.S. lawmakers of the possible sale.

Upgraded SSBN in Russia: The nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) Knyaz Vladimir (Prince Vladimir), the Russian Navy’s first upgraded Project 955A Borei II-class (“North Wind”) or Dolgorukiy-class boomer, has for the first time fired a RSM-56 Bulava (NATO reporting name: SS-N-32) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) as part of its final certification tests, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) said in an October 30 statement. Read more from Franz-Stefan Gady.

Type 002 nears commissioning: The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s first domestically designed aircraft carrier is nearing its commissioning ceremony.


Don’t miss issue 60 of The Diplomat’s magazine, which is hot off the (virtual) presses. This month we trace Japan-South Korea tensions from their much-discussed historical roots to the more critical politics of the present. 

We also examine how Democratic hopefuls for the U.S. presidency in 2020 think about Asian security; pick apart the details of Vietnam’s latest standoff with China in the South China Sea; and dive deep into Indonesia’s decision to relocate its capital. And, of course, we offer a range of reporting, analysis, and opinion from across the region.

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.

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.

Introducing Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

I’m excited to introduce a new offering from The Diplomat. Diplomat Risk Intelligence is the new consulting and analysis division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine. To learn more, click here.

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.

Loading more posts…