What Happens Next in Kashmir?

North Korea’s new normal; Korea-Japan spat heats up

The Big One.

Kashmir on lockdown.

August 5 marked the beginning of a new era for Kashmir. After days of a tense build-up, which included a drastic uptick in the presence of paramilitary personnel in the Indian-administered portion of the region alongside an information blackout, the Indian government announced that it would revoke a longstanding constitutional provision that had granted the state of Jammu and Kashmir special status. It also announced an administrative restructuring of the Indian-administered parts of the region into two new so-called Union Territories. One would be called Jammu and Kashmir and the other Ladakh. The state of Jammu and Kashmir would cease to exist.

This decision by India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was a long time coming. For decades, the BJP and its ideological predecessors had seen Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian constitution—both of which carved out special considerations for the only Muslim-majority state in the Indian union—as an aberration. The BJP even put the abrogation of Article 370 into its most recent election manifesto. The objective had been in place even under the previous BJP government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee. What enabled Modi—and his home minister, Amit Shah—to act this time was largely the mammoth electoral mandate that the BJP won in the 2019 Indian elections.

India is in uncharted waters insofar as the implications of the restructuring are concerned. There are serious questions of constitutional interpretation ahead that may require the intervention of the Supreme Court. The BJP has proceeded by presidential proclamation, however, and it’s highly unlikely that these steps will be reversible. Meanwhile, Kashmiris continue to remain under an exceptional crackdown. While press reports from within the information-embargoed region are sparse, the few that have emerged have described an unfathomable stillness over the Valley and in the erstwhile state capital of Srinagar. Indian paramilitary forces are in place to ensure that unrest doesn’t take hold.

We’ve had a few views on the consequences at The Diplomat. Writing from India, both Harsh Pant and Abhijnan Rej chimed in. Harsh writes:

For many in India, too, this move will be difficult to digest. We have grown so used to the status quo that a change of this magnitude challenges our intellectual faculties. But it is also a reality that much as many of us would like to ignore, the status quo on Kashmir had became unsustainable long ago.

Abhijnan, meanwhile, cautions of Pakistan’s response:

When it comes to how Pakistan reacts to this, much will depend on how Rawalpindi and Islamabad weigh the costs of dedicating significant proxy resources – or even a limited conventional military operation – to impose cost out of India for this decision, versus its renewed commitment to coming to America’s aid as U.S. President Donald Trump begins a final push to extricate his country from Afghanistan. Already both centers of power in Pakistan have noted their displeasure at New Delhi’s decision.

The Pakistani reaction has been unsurprisingly sharp (as has China’s response; Beijing is also a claimant in Kashmir). Indian reports suggests that New Delhi is bracing itself for a sharp Pakistan response—both diplomatically and possibly across the Line of Control itself. On Wednesday, Pakistan announced a set of new measures:

The plan to review bilateral arrangements should draw our attention. It suggests Islamabad may review and nullify the 1972 Simla Agreement, which serves as the basis on which both India and Pakistan respect the Line of Control as the demarcation line in Kashmir. Ending the Simla Agreement would be the single biggest political indicator out of Pakistan that it is ready to risk a war over this.

Without extending my introductory analysis too far, I’ll mention that at the end of this newsletter, I’ve appended some of my responses to questions that I received in a conversation with Reuters TradingIndia clients on the political risk implications of the Article 370 abrogation. Scroll down for the rest.

Bottom Line: Narendra Modi is cashing in on his electorally strong position to consolidate Indian control over Kashmir, ending its internal autonomy.

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East Asia.

If you’ve seen headlines that the ongoing dispute between Japan and South Korea is a “trade dispute,” the seriousness of what’s going on between these two U.S. allies may be understated. Following Japan’s removal of Seoul from its trading “white list” of preferred countries, the true nature of the dispute has become apparent. For South Korea, Tokyo’s decisions—beginning with the implementation of export controls in early July—have provided a pretext to relitigate the entire so-called “1965 framework” between their countries. That was the year the two countries normalized diplomatic relations and the Korean progressive left, currently in power, has always seen the terms on which right-wing autocrat Park Chung-hee agreed to normalize ties with Japan as unfavorable and unjust.

In the meantime, Tokyo’s position is clear and based on legal reasoning citing that 1965 treaty between the two sides. Japan is also motivated by deeper frustrations over what it sees as the Moon Jae-in government’s repeated insistence on litigating issues that were previously considered “closed” cases by Tokyo (i.e., the rejection of the 2015 deal on compensation for Korean women who had been taken into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army and the broader rejection of the 1965 framework’s provisions on compensation for Korean forced laborers).

The Japan-Korea crisis is now about fundamental issues of national identity and the terms on which Koreans should relate to Japan. The manifestation of this crisis is deeply economic, however. South Korean President Moon has resolved to help the country’s high-tech manufacturing base reduce its reliance on Japan-sourced components across the entirety of its supply chain. What makes Seoul’s leverage unique in this ongoing dispute is that its domestic high-tech industry is more critical to global technology supply chains than it ever has been in the past. For instance, Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix account for a majority of the world’s production of DRAM—a component necessary for the device you’re likely viewing this newsletter on and much more.

For the United States, the ability—or will—to resolve this crisis remains distant. There are career Northeast Asian security bureaucrats within the State and Defense Departments that appreciate the gravity of what’s happening, but without higher-level attention—and a novel approach, possibly involving the application of “sticks” more than “carrots” toward both allies—things appear set to get much worse.

Bottom Line: The most serious bilateral crisis between South Korea and Japan is about fundamental issues with identity.

Asia Defense.

You might have noticed something about North Korea: it’s launching an awful lot of missiles—or “projectiles”—again. July 2019 was a dynamic month in this regard. It began with great (albeit unfounded) optimism after Trump and Kim Jong Un shook hands at the inter-Korean border on June 30, promising to reconvene working-level talks, but quickly gave way to pessimism, amid back-to-back-to-back missile tests.

The so-called KN23, North Korea’s new precise, quasi-ballistic missile, and a new artillery system have received top billing recently. Both systems present a serious challenge for the United States and South Korea: particularly their missile defense capabilities. On August 5, North Korea conducted a particularly significant test of the KN23, one day after the alliance had started its new late-summer computerized command post military exercise, the successor to the old Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills.

The August 5 launch saw two KN23 missiles fly all the way across North Korea, from a launch site on the western side of the country, and hit a target island precisely. The North Korean state media report on the test said that it demonstrated the “actual war capacity” of the missile. What made the test most unnerving was the low altitude at which the missiles flew—reportedly 37 km—which would present a challenge for the missile defense systems that are currently deployed in South Korea. 

Trump has described Kim’s launch of “short-range” missiles as “very standard,” but these new systems make it amply clear that they’re far from the old standard Scuds that the United States and South Korea had gotten used to. These represent a real new qualitative capability and will seriously complicate wartime planning for the alliance. Kim Jong Un has suggested further tests will come as the exercises run through August. After that, the door to diplomacy remains open, but not for much longer.

Bottom Line: North Korea’s return to missile-testing is here to stay as long as the U.S. and South Korea continue their exercises.


As promised up top, here is an excerpt from my exchange with investors interested in India on the practical implications of the Kashmir decision. Names of the questioners have been omitted for privacy.


What do you expect from here?

Ankit Panda

I expect a protracted and technical legal process by which these unprecedented proposals are implemented. Regarding your question, I should caveat that I am far from an expert in Indian law or the constitution, but the experts who I’ve spoken to in the past 12 hours disagree sharply between themselves on key constitutional questions here. They also disagree about the extent to which the Supreme Court will be eager to intervene.

Ankit Panda

The second development I expect is a highly securitized an unstable situation in the Kashmir Valley for at least 6 months—perhaps as long as 18 months in the worst case.

Ankit Panda

It’s still early enough that most Kashmiris under the information embargo believe that their predicament is due to a heightened security risk from across the Line of Control (the official rationale for the paramilitary surge in the leadup to Monday).

Ankit Panda

When the truth of what has happened becomes known more widely, we should expect serious unrest. The BJP may not have chosen to take this decision during the summer months, when Kashmir is prone to greater unrest.


I am not sure but i don't think there has been a historical case of a state being made a UT. Does taking away the statehood status from J&K and making it a UT move India away from the very concept of a Federal state?

Ankit Panda

My third and final expectation is that the international official reaction, outside of Pakistan, will remain tepid.

Ankit Panda

Yes. There has been some serious concern on this point from the BJP’s opponents, who’ve cited this precedent as a troubling one.


What can the government do to massage the situation? Could an economic package for J&K work?

Ankit Panda

Could it? Sure! But as with all economic packages, the details matter. Right now, everything on the economic benefits for Kashmiris and Ladakhis is rather vague. We have promises of private investment flowing into the state as a result of the shift in constitutional status, but it’s unclear if that can happen in the short-term, especially if there is great unrest.

That’s all for this week!

Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.

Khan in Washington

North Korea’s new sub; China’s new white paper; Cambodia’s bet on Xi

The Big One.

What did Imran Khan get from Donald Trump?

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan certainly has had an eventful July. Eleven months into his first year, he found himself with an invitation that would have appeared unlikely at the time of his inauguration: A call to visit Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump’s first tweet on foreign policy in 2018 lashed out at Pakistan:

However, on Monday, July 22, Khan and Trump hit it off. The trip mostly represented a successful opportunity for Khan to reset the optics of the on-again, off-again U.S.-Pakistan relationship—with a few exceptions. 

The Diplomat’s Umair Jamal points out that Khan was remarkably frank about the alignment between the Pakistani military and the civilian government: “He also emphasized that there exists a civil-military agreement in Pakistan that ‘it’s in the interest of Pakistan to not allow militias’ within the country.” During his event at the United States Institute of Peace, Khan alluded to the policies of the military: A moment that should have been a gaffe, but instead reflected a degree of frankness about the troubled legacy of civil-military relations in the country. (Almost half of Pakistan’s life as an independent nation has been spent under direct military rule.)

Khan was accompanied to Washington by the Pakistani chief of army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Bajwa, who is due to resign later this year unless he decides to unilaterally extend his term, kept a low profile, but his presence would have been of interest to American interlocutors at the White House and the Pentagon. Without the buy-in of the Pakistani military and security establishment, any American withdrawal plan for Afghanistan is likely to end up rocky. At one point, answering a question from a reporter at the White House, Khan stated frankly that “We have our military leadership here because this is obviously a security situation.” Of course, the civilian defense minister was nowhere to be seen: He was back in Islamabad. (Pervez Khattak, the defense minister, eagerly greeted Khan on his return back in Pakistan.)

Khan’s visit produced its fair share of sensational moments. He and Trump had a moment of bonding over their mutual distaste for the press. One of the most prominent sensational outcomes of the visit had little to do with Khan’s own agency. Trump, during his White House press spray with Khan, fabricated a conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, implying that he had been asked by Modi to mediate in the Kashmir dispute. (India’s longstanding position has been that the Kashmir issue is a bilateral one between Pakistan and India). Khan took the win in stride and while the Indian government scrambled to put out a quick statement denying any exchange of that sort between Trump and Modi, the comment has caused a stir in Indian domestic politics, with the opposition opportunistically using Trump’s words as a bludgeon against the Modi government.

Bottom Line: Imran Khan’s trip to Washington ended up surprisingly well though the structural challenges underlying U.S.-Pakistan relations remain very much in place.

Keep an Eye Out: The next issue of The Diplomat’s magazine will include an in-depth look at Khan’s first year in office from Colin Cookman. Subscribe here.

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East Asia.

The goodwill generated during the surprising June 30 summit meeting between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—their third meeting overall—is quickly evaporating.

Consider the following series of events recently:

  • July 16: North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues a statement saying that Trump promised Kim Jong Un at the June 30 summit that he would call off the upcoming Dong Maeng 19-2 military exercises with South Korea.

  • July 19: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejects the North Korean interpretation.

  • July 23: Kim Jong Un inspects a brand new submarine designed to carry nuclear weapons—the first inspection or public demonstration of an unambiguously nuclear-capable military asset since February 2018

  • July 25: North Korea launches two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan

The big “outcome” of the June 30 summit was that the working-level process between the two sides would reconvene after Hanoi, but Kim Jong Un appears determined not to let that happen as long as the U.S.-South Korea exercises proceed. The most important question that still lacks an answer is what exactly Trump promised Kim during their summit at the inter-Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Bottom Line: U.S.-North Korea talks aren’t likely to resume until Washington takes a call on upcoming military exercises with South Korea. In the meantime, North Korea continues to up the ante.

Southeast Asia.

If you missed it, the Wall Street Journal published an important story—based off anonymous sourcing—on the long-running rumors of a Chinese military installation in Cambodia. The report’s finding: “China has signed a secret agreement allowing its armed forces to use a Cambodian navy base near [Sihanoukville], as Beijing works to boost its ability to project military power around the globe, according to U.S. and allied officials familiar with the matter.”

That shouldn’t shock anyone even peripherally aware of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bet on China. Under Hun Sen, Cambodia has steadily put its eggs in the China basket. For a deeper discussion of the implications of this new base, listen to my most recent podcast with Prashanth Parameswaran. (Bonus: We also discuss the ongoing standoff between Vietnam and China over disputed oil blocks in the South China Sea.)

Asia Defense.

China released its first white paper on national defense—titled “China’s National Defense in the New Era”—in four years on July 24. You can read it here in PDF form. Elsa B. Kania, an expert on the People’s Liberation Army, broke down the document in The Diplomat. The bottom line?

This document includes an assessment of the international security situation and provides an official explanation of China’s defense policy, missions, military reforms, and defense expenditure. While unsparing in its critique of power politics and American “hegemonism,” the defense white paper also calls for China’s armed forces to “adapt to the new landscape of strategic competition.” In Xi Jinping’s “new era,” the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is urged to strengthen its preparedness and enhance combat capabilities commensurate with China’s global standing and interests. As the PLA pursues the objective of transforming into “world-class forces” by mid-century, the U.S. military may confront the unprecedented challenge of a potential adversary with formidable and rapidly advancing capabilities.

MIT’s Taylor Fravel, who has a new book out on the development of Chinese military strategy, also had a few thoughts on Twitter about the document. A few excerpts below:

For South China Sea watchers, the 2019 defense white paper finally sets aside President Xi Jinping’s infamous 2015 White House Rose Garden pledge on the nonmilitarization of features in the Spratlys. The document officially notes that China may exercise its national sovereignty to emplace defensive capabilities in the East and South China Seas. 

White papers and policy documents—particularly those released by China—tell part of the story. They offer a view into the narrative that the Chinese government would like to have absorbed by the international community regarding its intentions. Of course, Xi’s pledge didn’t last long to begin with, but while the United States had pointed out the double-standard for a while, Beijing is now coming out and saying that these areas—given that they are in the Chinese view just sovereign territory like any other part of the country—can be militarized.

Like in 2015, the white paper spends considerable energy emphasizing the PLA’s continuing focus on the Taiwan Strait: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is by no means targeted at our compatriots in Taiwan, but at the interference of external forces,” it notes. That’s why perhaps in response to the document’s release, the U.S. Navy conducted yet another transit of the Strait.

Bottom Line: China’s new defense white paper emphasizes a sharper tack against the United States, responding to Washington’s acknowledgement of great power competition.


July marked an important watershed in Russia-China strategic ties. The two countries conducted their first-ever joint strategic bomber patrol in the Sea of Japan, pushing into airspace over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands. The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady looks at the significance of that event:

Sino-Russian military ties will not culminate in a bilateral equivalent of a permanent and highly interoperable military alliance like NATO.  Rather, China and Russia are more likely to develop a 19th century type of military alliance like the Entente Cordiale, where both sides remain largely independent actors without a joint command structure, ad-hoc operational coordination, but an overall joint war-fighting strategy.

Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.

Trump and Kim’s Third Rendezvous

Kim meets Trump; Japan-Korea ties nosedive; missiles in the South China Sea

The Big One.

A Trump-Kim summit once more.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have met for a third time. It all happened rather quickly, but the indicators of a possible last-minute summit encounter at the inter-Korean Demilitarized Zone were there, as I told my colleague Prashanth Parameswaran on the most recent Asia Geopolitics podcast episode. This wasn’t a sudden turn of fate, prompted by a Trump tweet that made it seem like the whole spectacle was impromptu.

The main outcome of the summit was to restore working-level talks between North Korea and the United States. This is a positive, if not new, development. In the lead-up to the Singapore summit last June, the two sides were unable to have a substantive working-level discussion. Most of the conversation then focused on logistics for the historic first U.S.-North Korea summit. Since Singapore, the working-level track has produced disappointing outcomes. First, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was called “gangster-like” in Pyongyang for his insistence on North Korea’s unilateral disarmament. Second, Pompeo and his then-interlocutor Kim Yong Chol each canceled trips, setting the process back. Steve Biegun, the U.S. special representative, was hardly able to interact with his counterpart in the lead-up to the failed Hanoi summit.

Unfortunately, there’s little to suggest that this third Trump-Kim encounter will reverse the trend at the working-level. An excerpt from my initial reaction to the meeting, written in the hours after the summit took place, goes deeper:

Where the DMZ summit contributes little is on the denuclearization front. The fundamental negotiating positions between the United States and North Korea remain as divergent as they were after the collapse of the Hanoi summit. North Korea remains unwilling to unilaterally disarm and the United States remains committed to its maximum pressure campaign, unwilling to agree to support the easing of United Nations Security Council resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang. A curious New York Times report published after the DMZ encounter suggests that Washington might be changing its position, but that very story quotes Biegun rebuffing its central thesis as “speculation.” If there’s a pending shift, it doesn’t have the support of senior decision-makers or certainly Trump, who appears to remain interested only the positive optics of that summitry with North Korea yields.

This is the problem with the pageantry between the two leaders: while it smooths over the relationship and keeps the two sides away from a return to the sort of crisis we lived through in 2017, it does little to address the underlying difficult fundamentals that make productive diplomacy so difficult. 

It was these troublesome and mismatched fundamentals – expressed in each sides’ negotiating position – that caused the collapse of the summit in Hanoi. In short, North Korea is not ready to give up its nuclear weapons and the United States is not ready to offer Pyongyang sanctions relief for anything short of total disarmament.

Bottom Line: The third Trump-Kim summit was good TV, but denuclearization remains distant.

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South Asia.

The Modi government in India has announced its first budget in its second term. Over at The Wire, Devirupa Mitra takes a look at the allocation given to the Ministry of External Affairs for foreign aid. A look at the numbers suggests that India is increasing spending within its neighborhood amid growing concerns about China’s forays into its backyard. The bottom line? “This is the biggest jump in foreign aid since the NDA government took over in May 2014.”

End of a Dynasty? Krzysztof Iwanek looks at the implication of Rahul Gandhi’s resignation and the future of the Congress Party: “Even if Rahul remains adamant on leaving the post, the dynasty may continue to lead the party, as the control panel may be handed over to his sister: Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra.”

East Asia.

Relations between Japan and South Korea continue their nosedive, which took on a sharp inflection late last year after the apex South Korean court ordered Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay reparations for its use of forced Korean labor during the Second World War. Separately, a radar lock-on incident involving a Japanese military surveillance aircraft and a South Korean warship last year also rattled bilateral ties. The two countries—each a U.S. ally—are now entering a new bout of escalation, brought about by Japan. 

In the first week of July, Japan imposed export controls on certain technology exports to South Korea, ending preferential treatment for Korean tech giants that could cause Seoul economic pain in the short-term. The move by Japan’s right-wing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, comes just weeks before a scheduled House of Councillors election in Tokyo.

As The Diplomat’s Robert Farley noted, Japan’s motives may be deeper than retaliation over the wartime forced labor issue. (Tokyo’s position is that these historical issues were settled at the time of diplomatic normalization with Seoul.) “Just as the United States has lashed out at China over intellectual property protection concerns, South Korean IP behavior has long been viewed with suspicion by trading partners,” Farley writes. “South Korea was once viewed as a major IP offender, although it cleaned up much of its act in the 1990s and 2000s. Allegations of IP violations have persisted into the last decade, however, and may have affected Japanese thinking on how to protect its technology sector.”

Tokyo’s use of economic sanctions against Seoul additionally comes at a time where the United States’ normally reticent approach toward promoting cooperation between its two most important Asian allies is more restrained than usual. The Trump administration, where it has pursued trilateralism, has focused on the North Korean threat. There’s a sliver of good news in the appointment, after more than two years, of a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific in the form of David Stillwell, but the issues at play here are deeper than they appear.

I’d expect ties between Seoul and Tokyo to worsen from here. It’s unlikely that Abe will pull back after the Diet elections, even if the move to impose export controls was motivated by political considerations to appease the right flank of the Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo. Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that Seoul would take “necessary” steps if the Japanese measures begin to result in “actual damages” to South Korean firms. Keep a close eye on this one going forward.

Bottom Line: Japan’s imposition of export controls on Seoul marks the continuing deterioration of bilateral ties.

Big Deal: The Trump administration has approved the largest single arms sale package to Taiwan since the Obama administration’s 2011 move to retrofit Taiwanese F-16s with AESA radars. A new package, valued at an estimated $2.2 billion, includes Stinger missiles and M1A2T Abrams tanks for Taipei. Details:

Specifically, DSCA approved the sale of 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks, along with a range of support equipment and arms, including M2 Chrysler Mount machine guns, M240 machine guns, M88A2 HERCULES vehicles, and M1070A1 Heavy Equipment Transporters. This first package is valued at an estimated $2 billion.

In a separate package, DSCA also approved the sale of 250 Block I -92F MANPAD Stinger missiles and four I-92F MANPAD Stinger Fly-to-Buy missiles. This second package is valued at an estimated $223.56 million.

If concluded, the sales would represent the first major U.S. arms deals with Taiwan since the celebration of 40 years of the Taiwan Relations Act in April this year.

Southeast Asia.

Don’t Miss It: Was Cambodia ever really a “democracy”? Andrew Nachemson investigates that question, looking at the history of the country’s July 1997 coup and its aftermath.

Podcast: On the most recent Asia Geopolitics podcast, Prashanth Parameswaran speaks with me about what ASEAN’s new Indo-Pacific outlook really means and whether the grouping will continue to evolve its perspective on the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy. Listen here.

5G Race: Cambodian telco Smart Axiata has started testing out a 5G network in the country in partnership with Chinese tech giant Huawei. Reuters has the scoop here.

Asia Defense.

I’ve been scrutinizing recent reports that China, for the first known time, conducted tests of an unspecified anti-ship ballistic missile in the South China Sea. The tests are a significant demonstration of capability and the first known time that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force’s ASBMs have splashed down at sea. (China is known to have carried out similar tests using land-based mockups of American ships and bases.)

There are still a couple of questions surrounding the tests, but I suspect the answers are already rather apparent. The first question is where the launch took place from. I strongly suspect China did not use its Spratly-based artificial islands, despite a few confusing statements from the Pentagon on the matter. 

To date, U.S. officials have not publicized the deployment of any Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, like the DF-21D, to the South China Sea. All of these missiles are designed to be road-mobile and could be deployed to China’s islands in the Paracels or its seven artificial islands in the Spratly group.

A possible candidate for the launch site is the PLARF’s new base on Hainan Island, which sits astride the disputed waters of the South China Sea—the Danzhou air base. This, however, remains inconclusive. Singapore-based analyst Collin Koh makes a case here that the PLARF likely would have used a mainland base, given basing concerns on Hainan and the signalling value of a strike into the South China Sea from the mainland.

A U.S. official tells Japan’s NHK news agency that analysis is ongoing of what missiles were fired. Additionally, the report notes that the United States observed six missiles launched from two separate launch sites.

S-400 and F-35: My colleague Franz-Stefan Gady speaks with military technology scholar Mauro Gilli on the risks involved when a country might simultaneously operate American F-35 Panthers alongside the Russian S-400 Triumf air defense system: “India and Turkey are buying the very radar system the F-35 is intended to defeat.” (Separately: Franz reports that India has submitted a request for 18 more Su-30MKI multirole fighters to Russia.)

Bottom Line: China takes one step forward in its continued bid to exercise absolute control over the South China Sea.


Alek Sigley, an Australian masters student at North Korea’s Kim Il Sung University, was briefly detained and then released. Sigley was accused of espionage by North Korean state media, but has since made a statement on the matter:

Over at SupChina, Darren Blyer has a long reflection of the events of July 5, 2009, in Xinjiang—a major turning point in Han-Uyghur relations in the province. “Maybe no other incident since 1949 changed the course of Xinjiang history and the fate of Uyghur people like 7/5.”

Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.

A G20 US-China Showdown

Kim meets Xi; India’s S-400 headache; ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific

The Big One.

Trump meets Xi again, with great expectations.

Image result for trump xi

U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have yet another hotly anticipated face-to-face meeting this weekend. The two leaders will speak on the sidelines of the upcoming G-20 Osaka Summit, marking the first serious attempt between Washington and Beijing to resume talks over trade and other issues since the collapse of trade-related talks in early May. Since that breakdown in talks, the trade war has escalated and expanded to other domains, notably the technology sector following U.S. action against Chinese tech giant Huawei.

The usual cast of supporting characters -- Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin -- have been talking behind the scenes to set the groundwork for a potential deal. 

The story of the trade war has already had plenty of ups and downs, bouts of escalation and deescalation, new attacks and truces. Whatever lies ahead, the imposition of U.S. tariffs on China and retaliatory moves by Beijing has already altered global commerce and the calculations undertaken by smaller economies caught in a storm amid the two preeminent global economics locking horns.

As Trump and Xi convene in Japan, I wouldn’t expect a deal to materialize, but perhaps yet another truce. Trump has demonstrated a tendency to do better in addressing world leaders’ concerns in a face-to-face setting and may appear conciliatory in person. 

Something to watch for will be any signs that the president will temporarily stay ongoing U.S. action against Huawei, perhaps by extending the existing temporary license for the Chinese tech firm to continue importing U.S. components until August. That won’t have many supporters across the U.S. administration and might make U.S. efforts to convince allies to ditch Huawei more difficult, but Trump has shown deference to Xi’s concerns along these lines in the past (see: ZTE).

Finally, there’s the rest of the U.S.-China agenda beyond trade. The G-20 Trump-Xi engagement is expected to be focused and limited in nature. After Xi’s surprise trip to Pyongyang last week, there’s an expectation that the Chinese president may position himself as an interlocutor between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump. For that to happen, Trump and Xi would have to clear the trade hurdle to mutual satisfaction. I wouldn’t count on that happening in Osaka.

Bottom Line: The Osaka G-20 Trump-Xi meeting offers yet another change at a truce, but don’t expect a big deal.

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East Asia.

Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader in some 14 years to visit North Korea. His trip was afforded the rare status of a “state visit” by the North Koreans, surpassing the “goodwill visit” moniker that Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao was afforded in 2005. The Diplomat’s Editor-in-Chief Shannon Tiezzi aptly summed up the major public outcome of the visit: 

With no public announcements on deals or agreements, the only concrete takeaway was that Xi and Kim both reaffirmed their commitment to a political solution to longstanding issues on the Korean Peninsula. 

The visit has been a fairly long time in the making. Recall that Xi had first accepted Kim’s invitation to visit Pyongyang during their original meeting last March. Between that first meeting, the two met three additional times on Chinese soil. Last week’s summit marked the first meeting between the two since the collapse of the Hanoi summit between the United States and North Korea. Moreover, it was highly likely that 2019 would mark a banner year in bilateral ties given that it marks the 70th year of diplomatic ties between the two countries. (Kim Il Sung established diplomatic ties with the newly founded People’s Republic of China in late-1949.)

Image result for xi kim pyongyang

While the theme of socialist solidarity and strong China-North Korea relations was certainly at the forefront of the presentation of the summit by state media in both countries, difficulties continue to linger below the surface. North Korean mistrust of China, in particular, continues to linger, even as cooperation in a range of areas continues. (For one deep dive, I’d recommend Adam Cathcart’s recent look in The Diplomat at the naval ties between China and North Korea.)

The summit leaves quite a bit out of the public eye, including the extent to which Kim and Xi actually discussed strategic questions related to the future of the Korean Peninsula and how those conversations might factor into the upcoming U.S.-China meeting at the G-20.

Bottom Line: The Xi-Kim festivities in Pyongyang left much out of the public eye.

All Eyes on Hong Kong: June 2019 is a watershed moment for “One Country, Two Systems,” the supposed basis of China’s post-1997 relationship with Hong Kong. As more than 1 million Hongkongers took to the streets, global attention zeroed in on the city. The protesters succeeded in staying the adoption of a controversial Extradition Ordinance put forth by Chief Executive Carrie Lam with Beijing’s support, but the struggle for Hong Kong’s identity continues. At The Diplomat, Florence Mok looks at the long string of events that led to this month’s spectacular protests.

Southeast Asia.

In the last issue of this newsletter, I discussed my impressions from this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. One of the core themes at this year’s dialogue pertained to how small and medium-sized countries in the Asian region can cope effectively with U.S.-China competition. Along these lines, many states in Southeast Asia have already come to regard the much-discussed Indo-Pacific concept/strategy/region -- it means different things to different powers -- as a thinly veiled attempt to contain China.

Well, this week, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) finally chimed in with its official take on the Indo-Pacific. The group released an outlook on the concept just weeks after the U.S. Department of Defense unveiled its own Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (Note: I dissect the ISPR in more detail in the upcoming issue of The Diplomat’s e-magazine. Subscribe to that here if you don’t already.)

The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia hand Prashanth Parameswaran took a look at the new ASEAN Indo-Pacific outlook, concluding that “the stakes are also arguably higher than ever for ASEAN to overcome its internal divisions and fashion an Indo-Pacific approach that is viewed as credible not just within the organization, but among external partners.”

To be clear, the ASEAN Outlook, released so far as a five-page document, is a work-in-progress. As Prashanth underscores, the grouping is looking at this new Outlook as a possible source of “momentum” in driving further initiatives within ASEAN to render the 10-member grouping’s view of the Indo-Pacific more concrete.

Don’t Miss It: The Philippines took a major step this week in the 5G realm. As my colleague Prashanth described it, “the Philippines moved forward with what effectively would constitute the rollout of Southeast Asia’s first 5G broadband service with Huawei’s involvement.”

Bottom Line: ASEAN is getting more serious about taking a stand on the Indo-Pacific, but work remains.

Asia Defense.

The first serious high-level U.S.-India interaction since the start of Narendra Modi’s second term began is taking place this week. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in New Delhi where he met with his newly appointed counterpart, S. Jaishankar on Wednesday. The two men discussed a range of issues, and among them was the ever-persistent issue of India’s deal with Russia to purchase the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Per the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India would be sanctioned for transacting with Russia. Last year, part of China’s military establishment were sanctioned under the same act for purchasing Russian-made military material, including the S-400. (In the Chinese case, the sanctions were activated specifically after the S-400 units were delivered.)

Answering a question on the looming CAATSA threat in a joint press conference with Pompeo, Jaishankar simply said that India would do what was in its national interest. "We have many relationships...they have a history. We will do what is in our national interest and part of that strategic partnership is the ability of each country to comprehend and appreciate the national interest of the other," Jaishankar said.

India, meanwhile, believes it should receive a waiver given the publicly stated criteria by the United States. It’s far from clear if India will be able to sway the Trump administration. Days before Pompeo’s trip, U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells said in an official testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives that not only could the S-400 “effectively could limit India’s ability to increase our own interoperability,” going through with the sale might have broader implications on U.S.-India ties. “At a certain point, a strategic choice has to be made about partnerships and a strategic choice about what weapons systems and platforms a country is going to adopt,” Wells said.

As Vinay Khaura and Aman Thakker have highlighted recently in The Diplomat, the prospects for U.S.-India ties are not as rosy as they once were. The S-400 issue is one among many, with India also concerned about the consequences of U.S.-Iran tensions, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the withdrawal of preferential bilateral trade status with the United States. 

Military Firsts: If you missed it, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, for the first time, will be joining the United States and Australia in this year’s iteration of the Talisman Sabre exercise.

Don’t Miss It: In a notable development, a China Coast Guard vessel took the unusual step of shadowing a foreign naval vessel in the Taiwan Strait. Matthew Fisher discusses the incident here. “A Chinese coast guard vessel recently came within about 700 metres of HMCS Regina during a rare transit by a Canadian warship through hotly disputed waters in the South China Sea and Strait of Taiwan.”

Bottom Line: India won’t swerve from its decision to purchase the S-400 and the U.S. likely won’t issue a waiver, setting up a stumbling block for bilateral ties that had long been on an upswing.


Reuters reports on a survey showing that more than half of all Chinese consumers have started to actively avoid U.S.-made products amid a surge of economic patriotism due to the trade war.

Book Recommendation: I’ve been reading Washington Post foreign correspondent Anna Fifield’s new biography of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un. The book is well-written, detailed, and paints a picture of a leader determined to remain in charge of his country at all costs. Above all, it suggests that Kim won’t be one to relinquish his nuclear weapons anytime soon -- certainly not as the result of a diplomatic process.

Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.

Elephants and Grass: Reflections on #SLD19

Modi 2.0 takes shape; Kazakhstan votes; tanks for Taiwan

The Big One.

Who’s afraid of a little great power rivalry?

Image result for iiss lee hsien loong

I’ve just returned from Singapore where I attended my third consecutive Shangri-La Dialogue, the premier Asian conference on defense and security issues hosted annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. It’s been quite interesting tracking the change in mood from year to year since my inaugural participation in the dialogue in 2017 when delegates were primarily concerned with U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s burgeoning policies toward Asia and alliances in particular.

This year, the focus was—surprise—great power rivalry. More specifically, however, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong successfully set the tone for the weekend with his keynote address, which addressed how Asia’s small and medium-sized states might survive as the United States and China lock horns over trade and other issues. Lee evoked the frequently used analogy of grass being trampled when elephants fight. The Diplomat’s Prashanth Parameswaran offered his impressions from the dialogue here.

A few other reflections on Shangri-La, in no particular order:

  • China’s defense minister stole the show: General Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, put on a chilling performance in defense of the Chinese position on all matters, from the South China Sea to even providing a justification of the events of June 4, 1989, in response to a question. What made Wei compelling was not that what he said was convincing, but his demeanor: Wei projected confidence and relished in fielding the questions posed by the audience of delegates at the Dialogue, which is generally not a group particularly known for its sympathy to Beijing’s positions.

  • The U.S. acting secretary of defense fell flat: Patrick Shanahan, the U.S. acting secretary of defense, got the usual Saturday morning plenary slot that went to his predecessors, including Jim Mattis, but his performance failed to impress. That’s not just my view, but the opinion of multiple delegates I spoke to on the sidelines. Shanahan’s speech was wide-ranging in its focus, without putting forth any original ideas. The expectation this year that we’d learn what exactly the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy was went mostly unaddressed by Shanahan, who delivered a conventional speech following in the vein of speeches that Mattis and even Obama’s last defense secretary, Ash Carter, delivered at Shangri-La. Shanahan drew a sharp contrast to Wei in demeanor, appearing hesitant to field more questions from the crowd than he absolutely had to.

  • South Pacific makes a splash: For the first time, the South Pacific received a particularly prominent place at this year’s dialogue. This is a recognition of its growing salience as an area for strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific.

  • Korean Peninsula on the backfoot: Of lower prominence this year was the Korean Peninsula. While there was a plenary session devoted to the issue, outside of that, there was little focus. One exception would be the issue of the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions with regard to illicit ship-to-ship transfers. For Western states and Japan, the issue was emphasized as an important component of enforcing the rules-based order in Asia. Implicit to this was the attractiveness of UNSCR enforcement as a rules-based order issue in Asia that had little directly to do with China (apart from the enforcement of ship-to-ship transfers in China’s territorial waters).

  • Southeast Asian skepticism of great power clashes. Throughout the conference, Southeast Asian participants expressed skepticism and concern about great power conflict and even the very concept of the Indo-Pacific, seeing it as odds with the notion of ASEAN centrality. PM Lee certainly provided one perspective, but the defense ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines all riffed on the same theme. On the sidelines, an Indonesian official reflected to me that the Shanahan-Wei tick-tock over the conference made him feel like “outsiders were debating in my living room.” For Southeast Asia, a return to the pre-2017 normalcy between the U.S. and China is the preference. The perception appears to be that the outcome of U.S.-China competition will not be to their advantage.

For more reflections on Shangri-La, I’d encourage you to listen to my recent podcast with my colleague Prashanth Parameswaran, who was also at the dialogue.

Bottom Line: As great power competition intensifies, Asia’s smaller powers grow anxious and work to secure their interests.

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South Asia.

On May 30, Narendra Modi was sworn in for a second term as India’s prime minister after his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) absolutely dominated India’s general elections, shattering the conservative predictions of most analysts. I got it wrong too—in a recent issue of this newsletter, I’d said the BJP would win, but likely need to form a coalition. Not only was that assessment off the mark, but the BJP actually upped its seat count from 282 after the 2014 general elections to 303. India still remains without a single convincing opposition party; the Indian National Congress gained 8 seats over its 44 in 2014, but this came at the expense of regional parties, many of whom yielded seats to the BJP. The BJP’s showing in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, was staggering: The party gained more seats there alone than the Congress did across India.

Several of our South Asia contributors at The Diplomat have addressed various components of what a Modi 2.0 government means for India, its region, and the world.

Vishal Arora looks at the role of the Indian media in paving Modi’s path to victory. Harsh Pant reflects on the agenda ahead for Modi, domestically and in terms of foreign policy:

In his first term, Modi had succeeded in articulating a global role for India as a leading player in the international system, one which shapes global rules and is not merely a rule-taker. In his second term, he should be focusing more on how to operationalize this idea into concrete policy outcomes. This will involve building an institutional framework which can engage in long-term strategic thinking more effectively than in the past as well as strengthening the economic and military building blocks of India’s comprehensive national power.

Krzysztof Iwanek writes on the Modi administration’s most unorthodox cabinet appointment: S. Jaishankar, a former diplomat and bureaucrat, has been raised to the rank of cabinet minister and appointed India’s external affairs minister. Iwanek praises the appointment, underscoring Jaishankar’s resume as the perfect one for this day and age of great power contest. Iwanek also offers three lessons from Modi’s victory on india.

Bottom Line: Modi’s second term begins with a spate of important appointments and a serious set of foreign policy challenges ahead.

Central Asia.

Kazakhstan is days away from an election that’ll be anything but free and fair. That’s not unusual. What is unusual is the omission of a name from the ballot this time: Nursultan Nazarbayev is not running for the presidency. The Kazakh leader resigned on March 19, shocking international observers and Kazakhs alike.

However, his anointed successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, is ready to step in. Indeed, Tokayev has been stewarding Kazakhstan in role as interim president, all under the watchful eye of Nazarbayev, who remains very much dominant in the country.

The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz offers a primer on what to expect as Kazakhstan prepares to vote this weekend. As she writes, “The stage is set for a democratic play, and the actors know their lines.”

As the post-Nazarbayev era continues to develop in Kazakhstan, The Diplomat’s Paolo Sorbello took a look at the legacy of the country’s long standing post-Soviet ruler:

Not unlike a deity, Nazarbayev had the ability to unite a vast country under his rule. Now that his divine presence has become even more ghostly, Elbasy [the “leader of the nation”] will continue to be the guarantor of unity until his final hours. It is difficult to forecast whether this delicate unity will last once the real “post-Nazarbayev” era kicks off.

That “real” post-Nazarbayev era may have to wait until Nazarbayev’s death.

Bottom Line: As Kazakhstan votes, few surprises are expected.

Asia Defense.

Recent reports suggest that the Trump administration is about to announce its largest combined arms package for Taiwan. Reuters reports, citing four sources, that a sale of 108 General Dynamics M1A2 Abrams tanks—valued at around $2 billion—is still being pursued:

An informal notification of the proposed sale has been sent to the U.S. Congress, the four sources said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the possible deal.

The potential sale included 108 General Dynamics Corp M1A2 Abrams tanks worth around $2 billion as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft munitions, three of the sources said. Taiwan has been interested in refreshing its existing U.S.-made battle tank inventory, which includes M60 Patton tanks.

The deal for Main Battle Tanks has been of interest to Taipei for some time now. President Tsai Ing-wen had discussed it earlier this year, alongside a separate bid for F-16V fighters—a much higher ticket-value item for Taiwan. Taiwanese sources had reported in April that talks over the M1A2X, the variant of the tank on offer for Taiwan, were progressing.

Many observers expressed confusion at why Taiwan was so enthusiastic for the purchase of main battle tanks, which would appear to be low on the list of critical materiel to defend against an amphibious invasion. The M1A2X, however, is being sought as a modernization of Taipei’s existing fleet of M60A3 Patton and CM-11 Brave Tiger tanks. Separately, with the United States as its only overseas arms provider and the Trump administration’s focus on expanding defense exports, a deal like the M1A2X may open the doors to greater things.

The timing of this deal will be worth watching. There appears to be a small probability that a final acknowledgement of a possible sale might come before the suspected Trump-Xi meeting slated for the G20 summit later this month. In that case, the already shaky boat of U.S.-China ties could be rocked further.

Bottom Line: U.S.-Taiwan talks for the sale of 108 tanks continue behind the scenes.

Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.

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