The India-China Himalayan Clash

Singapore’s election; Japan’s missile defense moves; former Kyrgyz president sentenced

The Big One.

A clash in the Himalayas.

In the last issue of this newsletter, I offered some thoughts on a June 6 agreement that would have seen India and China “disengage” after weeks-long tensions in the western sector of their disputed border. Things did not go according to plan.

Every few years, the world is reminded of the uncomfortable reality that the world’s first and second most populous countries still have an unresolved border dispute. India and China, nuclear-armed neighbors, sit astride a Himalayan tinderbox, waiting for a spark. One potential spark occurred on June 15, when at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed and scores more injured in a major skirmish with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in the Galwan River Valley—an area of the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh that has mostly fallen into obscurity since it stood at the center of a major skirmish in the Sino-Indian War of 1962. In addition to the Indian casualties, an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed and injured, but China has not published official statistics.

The incident not only propels the ongoing standoff between the two countries, discussed in a recent issue of this newsletter, well past the 2017 Doklam incident, but in fact marks the most serious eruption of violence between the two in 53 years. The June 15 deaths also mark the first fatalities along this disputed border since 1975. The seriousness of what transpired is undeniable. In the days since the standoff, open source evidence and reports sourced among Indian military officials in the area suggest that China is digging in.

I won’t spend much time describing the what of June 15, but the why and what now merit consideration. The good news is that further escalation has not occurred and the first instinct in both New Delhi and Beijing was to use existing diplomatic and military communication channels to address differences. That’s been the long-standing understanding along this border, but at the same time, tensions have shot up in India, where anti-China sentiment is surging. The Indian government, wary about its options, has pushed back officially on Chinese claims along the disputed border, but avoided taking steps that could be deemed escalatory.

Following the June 15 incident, we’ve seen several statements from both sides, helping paint a picture of how each perceives what happened. The People’s Liberation Army Western Command issued a statement (below, helpfully translated by MIT’s M. Taylor Fravel, who recently joined me on the Asia Geopolitics podcast for an overview of the Sino-Indian border):

Meanwhile, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) released a few statements, including a readout of a phone call between Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, and S. Jaishankar, his Indian counterpart. Days later, the MEA pushed back on what it said were “attempts by the Chinese side to now advance exaggerated and untenable claims.” This refers to ongoing ambiguous claims by China that the entirety of Galwan Valley—a large area that includes parts that India has administered and patrolled—is under Chinese sovereignty. 

Part of the official Indian reaction has proven troubling for New Delhi. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an all-party address on the affair on June 19, said the following words: “No one has intruded and nor is anyone intruding, nor has any post been captured by someone.” The implications of that statement could be parsed in a straightforward way, but it raised serious questions about prior official statements from India, including from the Ministry of External Affairs. (The Indian side released a separate statement on the all-party meeting, including a clarification of sorts on Modi’s terminology that further obscured things.)

Making matters even more bizarre, The Wire noticed that the bit in Modi’s address on no border crossings was so controversial that it was scrubbed from the official video shared on the prime minister’s website. 

Looking ahead, there’s no clear sign of how both sides might find a way out. This is far beyond Doklam in scale and intensity. As some reports suggest, both sides are digging in such that we may not even see the traditional seasonality play an effect (normally, the warmer summer months make these standoffs in this hostile terrain more tolerable). In terms of duration, the useful precedent may be the 1987 Sumdurong Chu standoff between the two sides, which lasted for more than a year.

Sumdurong Chu was notable at the time it happened for both its intensity and its consequences. It resulted in a seminal visit to Beijing by then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to meet Deng Xiaoping, paving the path to the 1993 agreement between the two countries that codified the principle of the Line of Actual Control. It remains to be seen if the aftermath of this standoff could result in a similar effect. As Gautam Bambawale, a retired Indian diplomat deeply involved in Sino-Indian ties, observed recently, the broader architecture of Sino-Indian diplomatic understandings about the border (as captured in agreements in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012, and 2013) may come tumbling down. If it does, it’ll need to be replaced with something else. In the meantime, China will likely secure the most advantageous position it can along the disputed border as India seeks to dig in for the long haul.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence offers you dedicated access to an exclusive network of subject matter experts versed in geopolitical, security, economic, and political trends covering the wider Asia-Pacific region. To learn more, click here.

Southeast Asia.

On Tuesday, Singaporean President Halimah Yacob, on the advice of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, dissolved parliament and issued a writ of election, setting the city-state up for what will be a consequential political moment and another of Asia’s big 2020 elections (following the footsteps of earlier elections this year in Taiwan, Mongolia, and South Korea).

The upcoming Singaporean general election will take place on July 10 and will be a public holiday. Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP), which received 69.9 percent of the vote in 2015, will be looking to seal in another victory, but electoral politics in the country have gotten more complicated in the last five years. If the PAP, founded by perceived “Father of the Nation” Lee Kuan Yew, succeeds in forming a government, it will be its 16th consecutive term since 1959. The stakes will be high, but it’ll be the PAP’s election to lose, with the primary opposition Workers’ Party working against the tide. Additional intrigue, including Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother officially joining a new opposition party, the Progress Singapore Party, may play a factor. (Lee Hsien Yang has not yet decided if he’ll contest for a seat.)

Add to that the complication of carrying out a general election as Singapore still contends with the effects of COVID-19. Singapore remains in “phase two” of its COVID-19 reopening, which bans any public gatherings larger than five people, making political rallies—long a strong point for opposition parties—impossible in the current climate. This limitation will set up a fierce period of virtual campaigning and congestion in early July. 

There’s nothing like face-to-face negotiations: Jose Tavares, Indonesia’s chief ASEAN diplomat, told reporters that Jakarta feels that negotiations for an ASEAN-China code of conduct for the South China Sea can only take place in a face-to-face format. Video conferencing, all the vogue amid the pandemic, is no substitute. “It will be very hard to negotiate the COC draft virtually, so we’ll wait until the situation improves and we can resume the talks [in person],” Tavares said, according to the Jakarta Post

Last year, ASEAN and China agreed on an initial single draft text of the code of conduct, which was originallycalled for in a 2002 nonbinding declaration of conduct between the 10-nation Southeast Asian grouping and China. The two sides have set a deadline of 2021 for the completion of a code of conduct, but this appeared to be an optimistic deadline—even before a pandemic-induced delay in talks.

East Asia.

Japan’s missile defense turn. Japanese Minister of Defense Taro Kono confirmed, once and for all, that the country’s plans to deploy two Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense sites had been scrapped amid technical safety concerns. I wrote about some of Tokyo’s options from here at The Diplomat

Tokyo still possesses capabilities like the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 system, but that’ll only cover so much of the threat spectrum. Ballistic missile defense systems like Aegis Ashore, THAAD, and PAC-3 are each designed, tested, and evaluated against certain types of targets; PAC-3 simply can’t do what Aegis Ashore can. For instance, the latter, had it been deployed, would have given Tokyo an exoatmospheric interception capability that for the time being will remain confined to the seven operational Aegis-capable guided missile destroyers in service with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

It’s possible that Tokyo may revisit the option to procure THAAD, but cost was one factor in the Aegis Ashore suspension too. Given that the sticker price for the six THAAD batteries was greater than that for two Aegis Ashore sites back in the 2017 evaluations, it’s unlikely that Tokyo will go this way. According to Jiji Press, the Japanese government has convened officials in the Ministry of Defense and National Security Council to game out alternatives. One option could keep Aegis Ashore “afloat” — literally — on a so-called “megafloat,” Jiji Press reports. That’d bring Aegis Ashore back offshore, but not quite in the same way as the system being deployed on board a destroyer.

The geopolitical ramifications are as unclear as what comes next technically. While Russia, for instance, might be pleased to see that Aegis Ashore installations won’t be appearing adjacent to its Far East anytime soon, if the corresponding Japanese policy response is to double down on conventional standoff precision weaponry, then that may have consequences too. Similar concerns will arise in China, where there is particular worry that Tokyo may be more willing to host American ground-launched conventional missiles that could come to Asia in the coming years as a result of the end of the INF Treaty.

Don’t Miss It: On June 24, voters in Mongolia elected 76 new members of parliament. For The Diplomat, Julian Dierkes and Marissa Smith make sense of the significance of the results. “When the Great State Khural constitutes itself it will see many new faces, even though the MPP has managed for the first time to break a pattern of pendulum swings between the two dominant parties, seen over the previous seven elections since 1992.”

An inter-Korean rollercoaster: Tensions between North and South Korea appeared to spike sharply before suddenly settling. The dramatic detonation of the inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong earlier this month marked what initially appeared to be a symbolic termination of the slowly building—but troubled—cooperation between the two sides that had started with diplomacy during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Shortly after the explosion, the North Korean side suggested it would take military action against the south and take steps to directly contradict agreements made with the South Korean government in 2018. The instigator for the rising tensions—and the decision to blow up the office—was the launching of anti-regime leaflets by South Korean activists. North Korea takes leaflets seriously.

This week, that all changed. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un himself suspended all “military action plans” against the South. Once again, the step carried some symbolism: it came one day before the June 25 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Making matters more puzzling yet, Pyongyang rolled back prominent propaganda against the South, with several anti-South Korea articles published in recent weeks suddenly and altogether disappearing.

The precise state of play between the two Koreas remains unclear, but the sudden spike in tensions followed by the adjustment signals that Pyongyang wants to calibrate its brinkmanship—with the likely goal of establishing effective leverage to extract economic concessions from South Korea. In any case, watch this space in the coming weeks. 

Central Asia. 

A former president sentenced: Almazbek Atambayev, the former president of Kyrgyzstan, was found guilty by a court in Bishkek of corruption and was sentenced to 11 years and two months. As The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz explains, Atambayev’s charges pertained to the 2013 early release of an ethnic Chechen criminal, Aziz Batukayev. It doesn’t end there for Atambayev: “The former president, who stepped down legally in 2017, faces additional charges in a second trial stemming from the violence that erupted in August 2019 when Kyrgyz authorities moved to detain Atambayev related to the Batukayev inquiry.”

China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan transport corridor: Land transportation linkages between China and the landlocked Central Asian states continue to develop. As Umida Hashimova reports, “On June 5, 2020, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan transportation corridor was extended farther into China. A cargo train from China’s Lanzhou, in Gansu province, for the first time moved goods to Tashkent.”

Asia Defense.

Three U.S. carriers in the Indo-Pacific. In the month of June, for the first time since 2017, the United States Navy operated three of its Nimitz-class supercarriers for the same time in the Indo-Pacific region. USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Nimitz, and USS Ronald Reagan all were active in the region.

While the three carriers were in the region together, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz carried out joint dual carrier flight operations in the Philippine Sea starting June 21. “The ships and aircraft assigned to both strike groups began coordinated operations in international waters demonstrating the United States’ unique capability to operate multiple carrier strike groups in close proximity,” a statement from USS Theodore Roosevelt’s public affairs noted

USS Ronald Reagan, currently the permanently forward-based carrier of the U.S. Navy, homeported at Yokosuka in Japan, conducted separate exercises in the Philippine Sea.

The last time the three carriers conducted such operations, tensions were high over North Korea’s missile testing activities in 2017. The ongoing bout of activities comes not long after USS Theodore Roosevelt was taken out of commission after a major COVID-19 outbreak on board. USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz crew were affected by COVID-19 as well.

Chinese aircraft buzzes South Korea. A Chinese Y-9 military aircraft entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone, authorities in Seoul said. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reports:

The Chinese plane, presumed to be a Y-9 aircraft, entered the zone Monday morning in the area south of South Korea's southern island of Jeju and south of the easternmost islets of Dokdo before moving into the Japanese air defense identification zone, according to the sources.


China’s move to genomic surveillance. Researchers at the Australian Strategy Policy Institute outline efforts by the Chinese government to set up what is the world’s largest law enforcement genomic database. While similar systems elsewhere are designed to track convicted criminals or people of interest, the Chinese system is incorporating the genetic data of “tens of millions of people who have no history of serious criminal activity.”

Earlier Chinese Government DNA collection campaigns focused on Tibet and Xinjiang, but, beginning in late 2017, the Ministry of Public Security expanded the dragnet across China, targeting millions of men and boys with the aim to ‘comprehensively improve public security organs’ ability to solve cases, and manage and control society’. This program of mass DNA data collection violates Chinese domestic law and global human rights norms. And, when combined with other surveillance tools, it will increase the power of the Chinese state and further enable domestic repression in the name of stability maintenance and social control.

Read more.

Debt relief for the Maldives. The president of the Maldives announced this week that China had agreed to a partial suspension of debt payments for a period of four years. Sovereign debt relief is not a new idea given that the G20 resolved earlier this year to suspend all debt payments for 77 developing countries through the end of the year. China implemented that step earlier this month. What’s notable in Solih’s announcement is the considerably longer term—even if partial—suggesting that Beijing is beginning to work out bespoke arrangements. It’s likely not a coincidence that Maldives happens to be a strategic target for Chinese investment in the Indian Ocean (and where a change of government in 2018 brought a more India-friendly government into office). 

Bonus: On China’s loans to the developing world, see Yufan Huang and Deborah Brautigam’s analysis looking at the volume of Chinese assistance.

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.

The Beginning of Sino-Indian Deescalation?

Vietnam’s big trade deal; American allies and missiles; ‘Wolf Warrior’ efficiencies

The Big One.

Are India and China really deescalating? Or is something else going on?

Pangong Lake in Ladakh, North India.

This week, the ongoing standoff between India and China may have started to move toward deescalation and a possible wind-down. Following corps commander-level talks over the weekend, the armed forces of the two sides agreed to begin a process of “disengagement” from contested parts of their disputed border along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. The details, however, are murky—and what’s clear is that whatever disengagement has happened is partial only. What stands out—especially compared to the resolution of the 2017 Doklam standoff—is that neither side’s foreign ministry has released an official statement on the disengagement unlike in August 2017. Here’s what we have so far from various (Indian) sources.

Indian sources who spoke to the Hindu noted that the following steps had been taken by the two sides: “Partial deinduction has happened from some points in Galwan and Hot Springs areas. [The] Chinese side removed some of the tents and some troops and vehicles have been moved back, and the Indian side too has reciprocated.” “At some points in the Galwan Valley, Chinese troops have moved back 2-3 km,” the Hindu reported. One of the major flashpoints between the two sides, at Pangong Lake, which is bisected by the Line of Actual Control, continues to be unresolved, per the reports. According to Indian news agency ANI, the disengagement also resulted in the movement of Chinese “troops and infantry combat vehicles,” which “moved back by 2.5 km” in the Galwan area. “India has also moved some of its troops back,” ANI reported, citing Indian government sources. (More here.)

However, Ajai Shukla, a well-regarded Indian defense reporter who’s been covering these standoffs since they began in early May, reports that Chinese claims during talks so far have been hard-line, emphasizing a complete claim to the Galwan River sector. More troublingly, Shukla’s sources told him later in the week that both sides had “retreated a bit,” but fundamentally, the standoff remains. 

Similarly, the Indian Express’ Sushant Singh sums up the new picture.

That both sides are talking—using both established military and diplomatic channels—continues to be a positive development. The ongoing standoffs are the most serious at least since Doklam and potentially much longer. Still, it’s worth recalling that the last time a shot was fired along this border was 1967; the India-China border remains tense, but it’s not likely to devolve into a shooting war anytime soon. At the same time, the crisis is serious enough. Credible reports of China moving additional defense materiel, including artillery, near the Line of Actual Control is enough to merit coverage of this crisis at the top of the agenda here and elsewhere.

As we saw with Doklam, the relatively warm summer months can make the hostile, high-altitude terrain of the Himalayas more amenable to a long-running standoff. Given that we’re just in June, in practical terms, both sides can afford to play their hands much longer. This standoff may be here for a while.

In Case You Missed It: For additional background on the India-China border disputes, including the nature of the Line of Actual Control and the history of the disputed border, listen to my recent discussion with MIT’s M. Taylor Fravel on the Asia Geopolitics podcast. 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.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence offers you dedicated access to an exclusive network of subject matter experts versed in geopolitical, security, economic, and political trends covering the wider Asia-Pacific region. To learn more, click here.

Southeast Asia.

Vietnam is on pace to be one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies this year. After responding highly effectively to COVID-19, the country just ratified a major free trade agreement with the European Union this week—one that will see 99 percent of tariffs on traded goods between it and the EU eliminated. The ratification of the agreement—officially known as the European Union Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA)—speaks to Hanoi’s all-in strategy on trade liberalization; Vietnam is also a member of the 11-country Trans-Pacific Partnership. For the EU, the FTA with Vietnam is the second with a Southeast Asian state—the other being its FTA with Singapore.

According to the World Bank’s analysis, the EVFTA would have a significant effect on Vietnam’s overall GDP, boosting it by 2.4 percent over the scenario where it hadn’t entered the agreement. It could also raise Vietnamese exports by 12 percent by 2030, per the World Bank. “Such benefits are particularly urgent to lock in positive economic gains as the country responds to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the World Bank added.

The EVFTA also emphasizes just one more way in which the United States is missing out on the appetite for trade liberalization in Asia today. Even as the Trump administration has threatened Hanoi with tariffs (Trump last year said in an interview: “Vietnam is almost the single worst — that’s much smaller than China, much — but it’s almost the single worst abuser of everybody”), Vietnam has forged ahead with this new agreement. For Hanoi, the United States’ decision to unilaterally withdraw from the TPP back in January 2017 was a major blow to that agreement—which Vietnam had been poised to benefit disproportionately from—but regardless, Vietnam has pushed forward in the years since.

East Asia.

A problematic COVID-19 origins study? Nearly six months since the Chinese city of Wuhan first went into lockdown, theories continue to abound about the origins of the COVID-19. In early June, a study published by Harvard Medical School researchers began to go viral, gaining widespread attention for its claims that the virus could have emerged in Hubei province much earlier in 2019 than believed. The study (full PDF link here) even made it onto Fox News here in the United States, where it was subsequently picked up and tweeted out by none other than the president of the United States.

There’s just one problem: the study is not peer reviewed, and contains significant methodological oversights.

Of course, Trump’s Twitter loudspeaker further raised the prominence of the study, highlighting the continued dangers in having non-peer reviewed work on these controversial topics winning widespread coverage without sufficient oversight and review. Given the administration’s previous attempts to defy the U.S. intelligence community and blame the Chinese government by any means for the pandemic’s global effects, this episode stands out. For now, the administration hasn’t pursued this further, but watch this space.

Does ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy work? According to a new paper from two Yale University political scientists based on a survey (PDF), China’s acerbic new brand of so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy is not yielding positive results for Beijing—at least as far as actual persuasion is concerned. The researchers find that “Aggressive messages that attempt to tear down the United States do not have broad appeal,” and that “messages that highlight foreign aid move public opinion in China’s favor.” The paper doesn’t offer explanations for why Chinese diplomats have adopted this new approach, but perhaps the “Wolf Warrior” turn has more to do with intra-bureaucratic performance (i.e., impressing superiors back in Beijing) than actually persuading one’s interlocutors.

Japan for Hong Kong. Tokyo’s relative silence over the Chinese National People’s Congress draft decision on a new national security law raised some eyebrows initially. Japan’s Kyodo News Agency had reported that Tokyo had “opted out” of signing onto the rare multilateral joint statement put out by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia on the NPC’s decision. 

That, however, appeared to be premature. This week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself said that Tokyo will take the lead in drafting the Group of Seven (G7) statement on China’s plans for Hong Kong. “Japan wants to take the lead among the G7 countries in issuing a [joint] statement based on the premise of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” Abe said before Japan’s National Diet. The move is a far cry from the fence-sitting some had alleged.

It remains to be seen how and if Tokyo’s more prominent role in the pushback against the upcoming national security law—which is yet to be drafted—will feed back significantly in the Japan-China relations. Broadly, relations between Beijing and Tokyo have been on and upswing over the past year. We may expect to soon see increased tensions, perhaps in the East China Sea.

South Asia.

Sri Lanka sets parliamentary election date. Sri Lanka has set August 5 as the date for its upcoming parliamentary elections, which have already been postponed twice over amid COVID-19. The Election Commission has confirmed the date and the election will be the first major democratic test for the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who dissolved parliament on March 2. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in last November after a campaign based around national security and Sinhala nationalism. His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president, serves as prime minister.

Asia Defense.

Will American allies host missiles? Over at the Los Angeles Times, David S. Cloud reports on perspectives in the Asia-Pacific among U.S.-allied states about the prospect of hosting American ground-launched missiles that might come into existence now that the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is no more. American allies, however, have a set of sticky political obstacles before they can sign up to host American missiles. 

Gov. Denny Tamaki of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture told Cloud that he is “firmly” opposed to the idea. That matches up with what I learned during a late-2019 trip to Tokyo where I spoke to several Japanese officials about these questions; Tokyo is well attuned to the political difficulties of such a deployment.

NATO to stand up to China? Asia-watchers in the United States and Europe have long bemoaned that the transatlantic alliance has not taken China quite as seriously as it should have. Could that be about to change? NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg had uncharacteristically harsh words for Beijing, when he called out China’s “bullying and coercion” as a priority for the alliance. 

“The rise of China is fundamentally shifting the global balance of power, heating up the race for economic and technological ­supremacy, multiplying the threats to open societies and individual freedoms and increasing the competition over our values and our way of life,” Stoltenberg added. “They’re coming closer in cyberspace, we see them in the Arctic, in Africa, we see them ­investing in our critical infrastructure. And they’re working more and more with Russia. All of this has security consequences for NATO allies.’’

For an alliance built from the ground up to deter first Soviet and now Russian aggression, the shift is difficult—especially given that Russia hasn’t gone anywhere as China has risen. Stoltenberg’s statements, however, can be seen as more evidence for the hypothesis that NATO may soon learn to walk and chew gum in terms of dealing with both adversaries.

Undersea cables in the South China Sea. According to Radio Free Asia and Benar News, high resolution satellite imagery of the Paracel Islands recently has shown a Chinese ship involved in laying undersea cables between China-held features in the island group, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. “The cable ship began operations in the area nearly two weeks ago after departing from a shipyard in Shanghai,” RFA notes. It’s unclear if the cables are intended to increase connectivity between these features or if they’re playing an overtly militarized role in undersea surveillance of submarines. South China Sea littoral states have quickly expanded their submarine forces in recent years, making anti-submarine warfare a major priority for China and other states in the region.

No Afghan withdrawal anytime soon. Gen. Frank McKenzie of U.S. Central Command went on record this week to clarify that the Taliban had not yet met the conditions required per the U.S.-Taliban February 2020 deal for any U.S. troop withdrawal. Per the agreement, an initial set of conditions would have to be met for a reduction in troop levels. “Those conditions would be: Can we be assured that attacks against us will not be generated there? And as of right now ... frankly, if asked my opinion, those conditions have not been fully met,” McKenzie said.


A retired American general reflects on racism in the United States. Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart (Ret.), a former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, has a powerful essay over at Task and Purpose, reflecting on racism in the United States:

By all accounts, I have truly lived the American dream. I am a first generation American who rose to the top of my profession — a living embodiment of the ideal that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. Yet hard work is not enough for many of my fellow black Americans, who run into institutional barriers, and all too often face deep-seated fear, contempt, resentment, and hatred.

I am now part of the “privileged” class, a black man who overcame obstacles to become a three-star general, told by white people that at least things are better than they were, while black people think I can’t possibly understand their anger, frustration, or despair. Neither are right.

Read more at Task and Purpose.

‘Black Lives Matters’ goes global—and the Asia-Pacific follows. Across the region, protests in solidarity with the American Black Lives Matter movement have taken place. As Thisanka Sripala reports for The Diplomat, demonstrators have gathered in Tokyo, and in South Korea, the issue has become a rare, unifying bipartisan matter, bringing the country’s conservatives and progressives together, as Kyle Ferrier writes. Not all protests have been without incident, however, in Asia. 

In Sri Lanka, local police cracked down on a solidarity protest; Kalani Kumarasinghe reports on the brutality with which Sri Lankan authorities put an end to a small protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Colombo. Finally, the anti-racism protests in the United States should cause Australia to reflect on its own structural racism as pertaining to indigenous peoples, Pascale Hunt argues in The Diplomat.

What to know about the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Nuclear weapons historian Alex Wellerstein has put out an immensely helpful blogpost summarizing the historiography around the controversial August 1945 atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Written for journalists, the post is a helpful summarization of the myths that continue to pervade common understandings of the bombings (and the American decision to move ahead with them).

COVID-19 at The Diplomat:We’re happy to note that ongoing coverage and analysis at The Diplomat of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Asia-Pacific is paywall-free for all readers. Access the latest in our coverage here. COVID-19 coverage at The Diplomat is presented by Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Learn more about DRI 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.

The End of Hong Kong As We Know It

North Korea illicit finance crackdown; Taiwan arms sales

The Big One.

China’s National People’s Congress takes on Hong Kong.

China parliament advances Hong Kong security law

Breaking: As this edition of the newsletter went to print, U.S. President Donald J. Trump at a Friday press conference announced new measures pertaining to China. This included plans to revoke Hong Kong’s special customs and travel status; sanction certain Chinese and Hong Kong officials; and suspend travel rights to the United States for certain Chinese individuals (including some students). The press conference also included an announcement that the United States would withdraw from the World Health Organization. Details remain unclear.

On Thursday, China’s National People’s Congress voted 2,878-to-1 in favor of a decision that authorizes a process to draft a national security law that will directly be imposed on the semiautonomous Hong Kong region. The vote itself (specifically on “Decision on Establishing and Improving the Legal System and Enforcement Mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to Safeguard National Security”) does not result in a law right away, but starts the process, which will likely conclude by late August. When all is said and done, Beijing will have established the means to directly crack down on activities it considers undesirable in the city, including what it interprets as terrorism, separatism, or secessionism. 

The NPC’s vote has confirmed the worst fears among Hong Kong’s democrats, who see this as the final nail in the coffin for “one country, two system.” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang defended the law by saying that it would amount to the “steady implementation of the ‘one country, two systems.’” Li’s wording echoed a pledge made by Xi Jinping himself during a 2017 visit to Hong Kong—long before last year’s unrest over an extradition bill spiraled into a broader movement about the city’s destiny itself.

Aside from the ramifications on political and civic life in Hong Kong—which will be severe—the NPC’s move raises serious questions about the future viability of Hong Kong’s exceptional status as a global city and financial hub. The Hang Seng Index (HSI) reacted negatively, as was to be expected, but what’s still notable is the relatively modest downward move. Investors and businesses with substantial Hong Kong exposure have gotten used to a certain degree of volatility amid last year’s substantial protests against the extradition bill, but the latest moves—on top of the pandemic crunch that hit earlier in the spring—suggest that this dramatic turn of events may not have been entirely unexpected.

Much will depend on how major international players, including the United States, react. On Wednesday, a day before the NPC vote, Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state released a statement noting that he had officially certified “that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997.”

The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi takes a closer look at what may come ahead: 

The implication is that Hong Kong’s separate agreements and arrangements with the United States could be revoked, meaning Hong Kong, from the U.S. perspective, would be treated no differently from any other Chinese city. For example, Hong Kong would no longer be exempt – as it currently is – from the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese goods.

It’s even possible that the United States could withdraw its support for Hong Kong holding a separate seat from the PRC in international organizations like the World Trade Organization and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

Hong Kong has been a flashpoint in U.S.-China ties for some time now and that’s not about to change, either.

The clash spilled over into the United Nations, where China shot down a U.S. bid to have Hong Kong brought up at the Security Council, calling it a “a matter of urgent global concern ​that implicates international peace and security.”

Shortly after the passage of the draft decision by the NPC, the governments of the United States, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom released a joint statement saying that:

Hong Kong has flourished as a bastion of freedom. The international community has a significant and long-standing stake in Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. Direct imposition of national security legislation on Hong Kong by the Beijing authorities, rather than through Hong Kong’s own institutions as provided for under Article 23 of the Basic Law, would curtail the Hong Kong people’s liberties, and in doing so, dramatically erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous.

The relatively quick turnaround on the release of this joint statement speaks to the high degree of concordance and coordination among the four anglophone nations on the matter. The content of the statement largely puts these countries on board with the U.S. assessment that Hong Kong no longer has sufficient autonomy. What that will mean for each of these countries’ relationships with the city remains to be seen. The joint statement does propose a solution, however: “Rebuilding trust across Hong Kong society by allowing the people of Hong Kong to enjoy the rights and freedoms they were promised can be the only way back from the tensions and unrest that the territory has seen over the last year.”

Alongside the four anglophone states, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles, said in a statement that the EU was following developments in Hong Kong closely. His statement came after the vote on the draft decision came to be part of the agenda of the NPC. “The European Union has a strong stake in the continued stability and prosperity of Hong Kong under the ‘One Country Two Systems’ principle,” Borrell said. “It attaches great importance to the preservation of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, in line with the Basic Law and with international commitments,” he continued. Japan, meanwhile, noted it was “seriously concerned” by the NPC’s decision—a somewhat rare statement from Tokyo at a time when relations between it and Beijing have been broadly improving.

Despite the considerable international backlash and pressure, it appears that Xi and the Chinese leadership are determined to press on, calculating that allowing Hong Kong to persist as a bastion of free expression and criticism of Beijing is detrimental over the long run. In short, the calculation here seems to be that, for China’s national interests, bringing Hong Kong under the iron-fisted control of Beijing is worthwhile, even if it bears costs.

For a deeper dive, have a listen to the latest episode of the Asia Geopolitics podcast. Shannon Tiezzi joins me to discuss the NPC’s decision and what the future might hold for Hong Kong.

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East Asia.

On Thursday, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) unveiled one of its most significant actions against North Korean illicit finance activities in years. The DOJ charged 28 North Korea and 5 Chinese individuals with a range of charges, including money laundering for more than $2.5 billion in illicit payments that DOJ said went toward the country’s weapons of mass destruction. The full 50-page indictment is available here and notes, among other details, that a sum of $63,511,387.85 in North Korean assets was frozen by U.S. officials between October 2015 and January 2020.

The indictment is worth a full read for anyone with an interest in the North Korean regime’s illicit finance activities. It details how the individuals charged set up a network encompassing more than 250 front companies to facilitate payments through the U.S. financial system to North Korean coffers.

The North Korean side had yet to react to the action as of this writing, but it’s difficult to imagine Pyongyang taking this lightly. The move hearkens back to 2005, when the United States busted Kim Jong Il’s Macau-based slush fund at Banco Delta Asia. At the time, that became a major sticking point in negotiations, with the North Koreans refusing to advance the agenda for talks until the Banco Delta Asia issue could be addressed. It’s not clear that we’ll see a similar effect this time given that there are no working-level U.S.-North Korea contacts at the moment. Instead, the action does showcase the considerably complexities involved in completely choking off North Korea’s access to overseas financing.

What remains to be seen, too, is how U.S. ally South Korea will view the development. Seoul’s progressive government has been eager to move ahead with cooperation with Pyongyang; it’s not clear if South Korea was given a heads up on this development.

Asia Defense.

A few defense stories you might have missed:

Heavy Weight Torpedoes for Taiwan? The U.S. State Department has approved a possible Foreign Military Sale of 18 MK-48 Mod 6 Advanced Technology Heavy Weight Torpedoes for Taiwan in a deal estimated to cost $180 million. The announcement did not mark the finalization of a sale, but the approval of a potential sale. If finalized, the sale would mark the first U.S. arms sale to Taiwan in 2020. Announcement of the possible sale’s approval came a day following Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration for a second term in office. At her inauguration, Tsai rejected mainland China’s “one country, two systems” formulation, saying that Taiwan would “not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo.” It’s not yet clear which Republic of China Navy (ROCN) submarines will be potentially receiving these torpedoes for operation. The ROCN operatesChien Lung-class and older Hai Shih-class submarines that could potentially operate these torpedoes.

To watch: Speaking of Taiwan, Taipei is planning on requesting American Harpoon anti-ship missiles as well—perhaps taking advantage of the Trump administration’s willingness to approve ongoing requests. 

The DF-26’s warhead ambiguity feature. I commented briefly recently on some interesting open source work published by a few analysts recently highlighting the dual-use nature of China’s DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile:

This intermediate-range ballistic missile appears to have been built from the ground-up with conventional and nuclear strike options in mind, introducing dangerous ambiguities that might make inadvertent escalation in a crisis more likely.

This same danger, however, may be part of what grants Chinese leaders the confidence that the system is a good idea in the first place. There’s some evidence American policymakers have started considering what the DF-26’s co-mingled nuclear-conventional units might mean for escalation — at least if a recent Department of Defense report on Chinese military power is a reliable indicator.

The end of an era. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is set to retire the last of the Type 051 class guided-missile destroyers in the coming weeks, the Chinese Ministry of Defense announced. The last vessel, an improved Type 051G variant known as Zhuhai, will be decommissioned soon. “At present, the designated receiving unit is arranging for its handover and applying for a provincial themed patriotism education base for it,” a PLA Daily article noted.

India’s carrier plans dashed? Raji Rajagopalan digs into recent comments by India’s first chief of defense staff, General Bipin Rawat, on the utility—or rather inutility—of the aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy. Rawat, an Army man, pooh-poohed the Indian Navy’s aspirations for a third carrier, pointing to other needs. As Rajagopalan writes:

Rawat’s statements have several implications. Most importantly, it calls into question the Indian Navy’s and the Air Force’s acquisition plans. These are particularly important at a time when China has been both putting pressure on the Sino-Indian border and venturing into the Indian Ocean Region. Rawat’s comments could also bring back concern within the Navy and the Air Force about the Army’s dominance within the Indian military and potentially lead to intensified interservice rivalry among the three services. The creation of the chief of defense staff (CDS) post was meant at least partly to create greater synergy among the services and greater jointness, but that could be at risk if the two smaller services feel the CDS is being partial to the Army. 

India, like many other states, will be feeling the effects of a pandemic-induced fiscal crunch on military spending soon. Rawat’s prescriptions might not find universal adherents, but it’s clearer than ever that Delhi will need to make tough choices

Deterrence in the Pacific. U.S. Senators Jim Inhofe and Jack Reed write over at War on the Rocks about their plans to make sure the next U.S. National Defense Authorization Act has a Pacific analog to the European Deterrence Initiative: a Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

With the stakes so high, the time for action is now. That’s why this year we intend to establish a Pacific Deterrence Initiative in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will enhance budgetary transparency and oversight, and focus resources on key military capabilities to deter China. The initiative will also reassure U.S. allies and partners, and send a strong signal to the Chinese Communist Party that the American people are committed to defending U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.


Ulysses S. Grant and Japan. Over on Twitter, historian David Fedman has a great thread showcasing a Meiji-era illustrated treatment of former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. 

For the full thread, click here. And if that piece of history interests you, you can also check out Robert Farley’s overview of Grant’s post-presidential Asia tour, which helped solidify the United States’ Asia presence in the late 19th century.

Twitter fact-checks China’s “wolf warriors”. Twitter’s decision to begin fact-checking statements by prominent government officials, including U.S. President Donald Trump, has attracted its fair share of controversy. Amid the new change, however, statements by official Chinese diplomatic spokespeople have been getting the same treatment. For instance, Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson, had a fact-check alert added onto his March 13 tweet implying that COVID-19 “originated in the US.”

Clicking the alert sends the user to the World Health Organization’s resource page on the pandemic.

COVID-19 at The Diplomat:We’re happy to note that ongoing coverage and analysis at The Diplomat of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Asia-Pacific is paywall-free for all readers. Access the latest in our coverage here. COVID-19 coverage at The Diplomat is presented by Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Learn more about DRI 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.

India’s Turn Toward Economic ‘Self-Reliance’

TSMC to Arizona; South Korea missile testing; COVID-19 vaccine hacking accusations

The Big One.

India’s turn toward “self-reliance.”

Fintech Companies In India Need For Financial Innovation

This week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a national address (full text here) that, among other things, was meant to provide a sense of relief to the country’s 1.3 billion people about how the government was managing COVID-19’s economic and health effects. Many analysts had anticipated that some sort of direct economic relief would be announced and they weren’t disappointed. Modi unveiled a $266 billion package, amounting to around 10 percent of Indian GDP—one of the largest stimulus packages to date by any country, certainly an emerging economy like India, in response to the effects of COVID-19.

The stimulus package was clear enough: It came with a price tag and Modi clarified some of the ends to which it would go. Along with the Reserve Bank of India’s moves to date and earlier relief in March, the Indian government is not holding back on big spending. The country’s COVID-19 response, however, has continued to face criticism for its inadequacies, particularly insofar as the poor and migrant workers are concerned. Tens of millions continue to find themselves untethered from opportunities for income, raising the stakes considerably day-to-day. Indian businesses, too, have taken a major hit across the board as the lockdown’s effect on demand has reverberated over the last nearly two months.

Returning to the economic package, however, Modi unveiled it with a somewhat puzzling message: “This package will work to bring about a self-reliant India,” the Indian prime minister said. Self-reliance is an old idea in India—and, indeed, one of the most prominent political principles in many post-colonial polities. What was it doing in the Indian government’s messaging over its COVID-19 relief measures?

Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s minister of finance, followed up on Modi’s announcement with a few more details, including on how small businesses would be able to leverage new sources of relief without collateral through the end of October. But the “self-reliance” component of the messaging remains somewhat of a mystery. The term’s centrality in the government’s messaging has left more than a few analysts wondering if India might lurch backward toward the Cold War-era days of import substitution policies and embracing a more insular economic mindset. Some of these worries are founded on India’s continued aversion to rapid trade integration in Asia, as encapsulated by Delhi’s reticence on signing up to agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

It’s possible that “self-reliance” is simply poor branding for what is otherwise meant to be a message about India’s economic resilience (as Tanvi Madan suggests). 

Elsewhere, New Delhi’s behavior so far in this pandemic points to opportunity-seeking behavior, such as by reaching out to foreign manufacturers that might be seeking to diversify risk away from China by creating incentives to set up shop in India. Much of this is consistent with initiatives going back to the pre-pandemic era and Modi’s first term in office, such as the “Make in India” push to increase India’s manufacturing capacity. (“Make in India” largely failed to take off in the way originally envisioned, with manufacturing as a share of Indian GDP actually having declined since Modi became prime minister back in 2014.

For now, it’ll be prudent to wait and see how the Indian government puts its intentions into practice. Wait for the policy implementation.

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East Asia.

Remember North Korea sanctions? The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has just updated its list of Specially Designated Nationals (i.e., “bad” entities and individuals) for North Korea sanctions. U.S. and United Nations sanctions on North Korea continue to have a limited to moderate effect on the country as a whole and, if the recent United Nations Panel of Experts report is anything to go by, sanctions continue to be evaded wholesale by the North Koreans. The OFAC SDN updates on North Korea are a sign that the administration is still thinking about its professed “maximum pressure” strategy toward the country (which has been far from maximum since 2018, when the United States changed course from the brinksmanship of 2017 toward diplomacy).

TSMC heads to Arizona. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) announced this week that it will set up a chip foundry in Arizona, in the United States. TSMC is the world’s largest semiconductor foundry, which has made it not only an integral part of Taiwan’s high-tech industry, but a critical component of the global supply chain for commercial, consumer, and even defense electronics. The Arizona foundry should not only mark an important boon for the U.S.-Taiwan commercial relationship, but also help TSMC diversify its own risk. For the United States, concerns over supply chain vulnerabilities may also be addressed with the Taiwanese firm setting up shop on U.S. soil.

China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. China’s overseas conduct has increasingly taken on an acerbic tone, with Beijing’s diplomats—and even spokespeople—less hesitant than before to speak less diplomatically (to put it lightly). This so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy appears to be a new normal. Zhiqun Zhu takes a look at the possible drivers of this turn in China’s foreign messaging.

US-China ties.

Whither the “Phase One” trade deal? More than a few signals in the past week have U.S.-China watchers on edge about the fate of the “Phase One” trade deal the two sides completed back in January (remember that?) Interpret Trump’s tweets as instruments of policy at your own peril, but the U.S. president has explicitly linked ongoing grievances about China and COVID-19 to the deal—that the “ink was barely dry, and the World was hit by the plague from China.”

More importantly, separate reporting has suggested that the White House is considering pulling back on the trade deal. The U.S. stock market has been slowly recovering after the initial March crash, but trade doldrums on top of the ongoing COVID-19 supply-demand shock could prove to be a devastating mix. 

Things don’t look good on the Chinese side either. Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-linked Global Times, has sounded the alarm that “necessary punishment measures” could be taken against U.S. lawmakers, states, and individuals and entities. 

Just how authoritative Hu is remains a matter of dispute, but on matters like this, he’s usually proved to be an important avenue for “early warning” of Chinese intentions. 

COVID-19 hacking accusations. This week, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity unit, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, issued a joint statement drawing attention to China-sponsored attempts to target “Health care, pharmaceutical, and research sectors working on COVID-19 response.” 

“China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to COVID-19,” the FBI-CISA statement added. A day later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that statement in one of his own, saying that the United States “condemns attempts by cyber actors and non-traditional collectors affiliated with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to steal U.S. intellectual property and data related to COVID-19 research.” Pompeo’s statement continues:

The PRC’s behavior in cyberspace is an extension of its counterproductive actions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While the United States and our allies and partners are coordinating a collective, transparent response to save lives, the PRC continues to silence scientists, journalists, and citizens, and to spread disinformation, which has exacerbated the dangers of this health crisis.

The phrase “non-traditional collectors” in Pompeo’s statement merits some attention. In U.S. intelligence parlance, this refers to individuals who aren’t traditional “spies” (i.e., perhaps under diplomatic cover in the United States), but others who may be serving intelligence-gathering ends. One case in point is individuals who might be participating in China’s “Thousand Talents” program. The U.S. Department of Justice this week arrested an American doctor for concealing his affiliations with Chinese research institutions while accepting funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (full release here). This appears to be an ongoing area of focus for the Department of Justice; a prominent case this January involved Harvard University’s Charles Lieber for similar concerns.

In the previous issue of this newsletter, I’d discussed the case of Vietnam’s suspected hacking of Chinese public health authorities in the early days of the COVID-19 breakout in China. New U.S. accusations toward China suggest that these sorts of state-backed efforts will continue; indeed, given the recent pressure by the Trump administration on the U.S. intelligence community to explore potential links between two Wuhan-based laboratories and COVID-19, it would not be farfetched to imagine that the U.S. National Security Agency might be snooping around for Chinese data. 

On a related note, if you’re interested in the Vietnam-China story, have a listen to a recent episode of the Asia Geopolitics podcast. I had Ben Read from Mandiant Threat Intelligence, the group that originally issued the finding on suspected Vietnamese state-sponsored hacking against China, to talk about these issues

Southeast Asia.

Over at The Diplomat, Carl Thayer takes a look at the possibility that Vietnam could one day come to lease the strategically famed Cam Ranh Bay port to the United States for military use on a long-term basis—either “as a supply base and/or stop over point as a counter to recent aggressiveness in the South China Sea.” Hanoi and Washington are more strategically convergent today than at any time since the end of the Vietnam War. The two sides continue to get closer amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and as the United States continues to voice support for Vietnam against Chinese bullying. The prospect of a lease for Cam Ranh Bay, however, may be far-fetched.

As Thayer writes, Vietnam’s foreign policy DNA is not particularly well positioned to let the United States set up shop at the facility—even as relations between the two sides will continue to deepen, including on security cooperation. Things aren’t likely to change in the near future either:

No doubt Vietnam’s leaders will be extremely cautious in their adoption of any changes to long-standing foreign and defense policies at the 13th national congress of the Vietnam Communist Party scheduled for the first quarter of 2021.

Thayer concludes that Vietnam will pursue a policy of “diversification and multilateralization” of its major power relationships, basically precluding anything close to overt bandwagoning with the United States.

If Vietnam decides to loosen up on its present restrictions it will do so gradually and in line with the following prescription in the 2019 Defence White Book that follows immediately after the passage quoted above, “on the basis of respecting each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial unity and integrity as well as fundamental principles of international law, cooperation for mutual benefits and common interests of the region and international community.”

The prospect of a Cam Ranh Bay lease, as a result, remains remote.

Asia Defense.

South Koreatees up the Hyunmoo-4. In March, South Korea conducted the first reported test of its Hyunmoo-4 short-range ballistic missile. The Hyunmoo-4 is thought to be an 800 kilometer range solid propellant missile with a heavy, 2-ton payload—possibly for a heavy earth penetrator role. The capability, once fully developed, is expected to contribute to South Korea’s Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation strategy, which is designed to strike at the North Korean leadership quickly after an initial attack against the south. 

The Hyunmoo-4 presents a few interesting future possibilities as well and is really a consequence of revisions to the U.S.-South Korea missile guidelines back in 2017. As I wrote for The Diplomat

The 2 ton payload for the Hyunmoo-4 was made possible by revisions to the U.S.-South Korea missile guidelines, which previously governed payload limits. Although range limits remain, the development of a missile like the heavy-payload Hyunmoo-4 could enable South Korea to in the future use the same booster with a reduced payload to significantly extend the missile’s range to that of a medium-range ballistic missile. No pictures have been released of the March Hyunmoo-4 test and it remains unclear what booster is being used for the missile. With the larger suspected payload weight and similar range goal as the Hyunmoo-2C, the Hyunmoo-4 would need an all-new, larger booster design.

The missile guidelines had previously “set out guidelines about the specific payload and range of the latter’s domestically developed missiles in order to avoid a regional arms race.” 

Dual-use missiles. Over at The Diplomat’s Asia Defense blog, I shared a few thoughts on China’s DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile and one of its more concerning features: a dual conventional-nuclear capability:

It remains unknown how the Chinese leadership precisely views the question of retaliating for conventional, long-range precision strike on dual-capable strategic systems like the DF-26, but the capability for the system itself is an important feature. The United States and China remain no closer to the sort of dialogue on strategic stability that would allow for an authoritative qualification by the Chinese side on how it views this important question.

The DF-26’s dual-capable nature has gotten more attention in U.S. strategic circles recently; last year, it was noted for the first time in the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power as well.


COVID-19 at The Diplomat:We’re happy to note that ongoing coverage and analysis at The Diplomat of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Asia-Pacific is paywall-free for all readers. Access the latest in our coverage here. COVID-19 coverage at The Diplomat is presented by Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Learn more about DRI 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.

Kim Jong Un's Quiet April: Exceptional, or Par for the Course?

China-Australia tensions; U.S. export controls; offensive cyber from Vietnam

The Big One.

Much ado about Kim Jong Un’s health.

Kim Jong Un Remains Absent on Day North Korean Media Celebrates ...

Kim Jong Un was last seen on April 11. As I write this, the North Korean leader has been absent from public view for nearly three weeks. That in itself isn’t terribly unusual; Kim has had prolonged absences before. What is unusual, however, is that Kim remained incognito through North Korea’s most important holiday—the April 15 “Day of the Sun” holiday to commemorate his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birthday—and also was nowhere to be seen at a reported April 14 coastal defense cruise missile test.

There has been plenty of ink spilled—by expert and inexpert commentators alike—about what Kim’s absence might suggest about his health or the health of his regime. I‘ll try not to contribute to the speculation here; instead, it’s worth dwelling on what we can know in the current situation. 

First, on the backs of a single-sourced report from the Seoul-based DailyNK suggesting that Kim had undergone a cardiovascular procedure and was in recovery, rumors exploded about his potential health. The story of the North Korean leader’s health became a global top headline almost overnight, leading to questionable reports that he had died (including from celebrity gossip website, TMZ). 

I can’t tell you whether Kim is dead or alive; we can look to the precedents for how the state propaganda apparatus handled his father and grandfather’s deaths and illnesses to surmise that Kim probably is not yet dead. At least, we’re probably not looking at North Korea pullinga Weekend at Bernie’s scenario. Speculation has arisen that exactly something like this might be going on given that the Korean Central News Agency and Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s external news wire and ruling party newspaper respectively, have reported on Kim sending letters to foreign leaders amid his prolonged absence.

Second, what we do know is interesting enough and does lend some credence to the DailyNK account of a possible recovery from a surgery. Certainly, the basic premise of the original story is plausible: the morbidly obese Kim is known to be a compulsive chainsmoker and hardly a picture of perfect health. As with many highly personalized dictatorships where the leader is a monolith, the leader’s health can represent a tremendous single point of failure and risk.

Two bits of open source analysis published recently by colleagues over at 38North and NK News suggest that Kim is at his favorite coastal retreat at Wonsan, a city on the east coast of North Korea that has received tremendous and disproportionate economic development attention under Kim’s tenure. First, 38North spotted Kim’s personal train near his Wonsan compound in satellite imagery. Second, NK News’ Colin Zwirko spotted a series of movements by Kim’s personal yacht around Wonsan

The story that South Korean officials have presented so far is that Kim is alive and well. Moon Chung-in, an unofficial advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in on foreign affairs, noted that Kim was in Wonsan. We still don’t know why exactly he’s there and why he didn’t make an appearance for his expected April 15 showing at the Kumsusan palace in Pyongyang to pay respects to his grandfather. One possibility may be related to COVID-19, with Kim perhaps having concerns about public appearances if the pandemic may have spread within the KPA’s Guard Command (the elite unit that guards the Kim family) or among senior Worker’s Party officials.

What Kim’s disappearance has done in the meantime is unleash an explosion of speculation around what happens the day after his death. This is useful and important to consider in the case of a nuclear-armed monolithic dictatorship like North Korea. A lot of attention has zeroed in on Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who has gained particular prominence in recent years as her brother’s confidante. She has also increased her profile within the ruling Worker’s Party. 

Other candidates for succession include Kim’s older brother, Kim Jong Chol, but given that he was passed over by their father for the succession in the first place, he may not be next in line now. Kim Jong Un does not have any children old enough to inherit the supreme leadership just yet, prompting some analysts to consider the possibility of a Kim Yo Jong regency. More pessimistic takes have raised the possibility of a brutal power struggle, a familiar idea that also found currency during North Korea’s previous two successions, both of which went off without a hitch.

If Kim is dead, we’ll only find out when North Korea’s state apparatus deems it fit. When Kim Jong Il died, it took two days for the information to emerge—and intelligence agencies in South Korea and the United States learned of his death when the rest of us did. If Kim’s alive, well, we’ll see him soon enough.

Bottom Line: No one knows exactly how Kim Jong Un is faring, but he appears to be at a familiar coastal retreat—possibly waiting out a bad COVID-19 situation, or possibly recovering from a health procedure or illness.

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East Asia.

Relations between China and Australia have continued to nosedive in recent weeks. According to Australian government officials, the Chinese government has threatened Canberra with economic measures if Australia continues to pursue an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 within China. Cheng Jingye, the Chinese envoy, apparently suggested that China would look to boycott Australian exports, including wine, and even discourage Chinese students from studying in Australia.

The scandal has spilled out into the public. The Chinese embassy took to its website to condemn the reports, which it said have been “obviously leaked by some Australian officials,” leading the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to issue a statement:

DFAT notes with regret that the Embassy of the People's Republic of China has issued a statement releasing purported details of official diplomatic exchanges.

The department will not respond by itself breaching the long standing diplomatic courtesies and professional practices to which it will continue to adhere.

How foreign missions engage the Australian media are matters for those missions.

COVID-19 is quickly transforming China’s overseas relationships, but the particular tension with Australia bears noting. Canberra and Beijing were entering 2020 with a high baseline level of mistrust and the pandemic appears to have deepened that considerably.

Dates for the ‘Two Sessions’: The so-called “Two Sessions”—the meetings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, or CPPCC, and the National People’s Congress (NPC)—have been announced. The CPPCC will begin on May 21, with the NPC opening a day later. Both were delayed from their usual March dates in response tor the COVID-19 outbreak, and many observers were waiting for a rescheduling to fully complete China’s reopening. 

China’s plans for Central and Eastern Europe: Ivana Karásková, a China Research Fellow and a Project Coordinator at the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, joined me on a recent episode of the Asia Geopolitics podcast to talk about China’s geopolitical interests in Central and Eastern Europe. Karásková is one of the authors of a recent policy paper titled “Empty shell no more: China’s growing footprint in Central and Eastern Europe.” You can listen to our discussion here.

Keep an Eye On This: Calls for China to grant debt relief continue to grow as several of Beijing’s debtors find themselves under COVID-19’s fiscal crunch. Recent reporting in the Financial Times, citing a government think tank analyst, notes an interesting set of “rules of thumb” that China might use to think about this problem. 

US-China ties.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has announced new rules tightening exports to “military end-users” in China. In short, any entity in China—be it a private company or a state-owned enterprise—with direct or indirect links to the People’s Liberation Army will find it impossible to access a large range of sophisticated U.S. technologies. The rules represent an expansion of older provisions banning such exports to Russia, China, and Venezuela specifically. The Commerce Department posted the updates in the Federal Register on April 28.

“Certain entities in China, Russia and Venezuela have sought to circumvent America’s export controls, and undermine American interests in general, and so we will remain vigilant to ensure U.S. technology does not get into the wrong hands,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said on April 27.

The Commerce Department notes that the annual license applications for military end-user approval from Russia, China, and Venezuela are already very low. “BIS receives very few license applications for military end uses in China or for military end uses or end users in Russia or Venezuela (approximately two to three annually),” the rule listing notes.

Even as the U.S. and China appear set to press ahead with follow-through on their “Phase One” trade agreement, the Trump administration isn’t letting up on its bid to hermetically seal off critical technologies from the PLA’s hands. 

Bottom Line: New U.S. export control rules targeting the PLA’s access to U.S.-sourced technologies underscore the Trump administration’s continued focus on great power competition through economic means.

In Case You Missed It: On April 30, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence put out a statement on behalf of the entire U.S. intelligence community: “The entire Intelligence Community has been consistently providing critical support to U.S. policymakers and those responding to the COVID-19 virus, which originated in China. The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” The statement follows reports that the administration pressured the IC to look into the possible origins of the virus at a China-based lab. Australian intelligence officials have echoed those claims, suggesting that they too have found no evidence (U.S. and Australian intelligence share information as part of the Five Eyes arrangement).

Central Asia.

No COVID-19 in Tajikistan? The list of countries not affected by the ongoing global pandemic is short (definitionally, that’s how a pandemic goes). One country that had yet to report any official cases through nearly the end of April was Tajikistan, a small Central Asian state north of Afghanistan. That changed on April 30, with Tajik authorities finally acknowledging 15 cases in the country.

Before that, however, The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz took a deep dive into the Tajik government’s official insistence on its COVID-19-free status with a skeptical eye. Tajikistan was certainly an outlier regionally. As Putz notes:

[N]eighboring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan registered their first confirmed cases in mid-March. Along with Kazakhstan, which also announced its first coronavirus case in mid-March, all three countries swiftly moved to close borders and enforce lockdowns, curfews, and quarantines. Even before they’d marked their first official cases, much of Central Asia had taken precautionary measures. Kyrgyzstan extended its annual Chinese New Year border closure; Kazakhstan cancelled early March celebrations for International Women’s Day and then Nowruz celebrations.

Governments across the Asian region have taken a variety of approaches to stemming the effects of the pandemic. Those that have flat-out denied any problem at all, however, are few and far between.Tajikistan couldn’t continue its denials, apparently.

Bottom Line: Official Tajik denials of COVID-19 within the country’s borders were untenable.

Asia Defense.

USS Barry conducts a FONOP. Even amid COVID-19, tensions in the South China Sea aren’t letting up. If you’ve followed FONOPs for a while, you’ll know that it’s unusual for China to make announcements on their occurrence before the United States. The U.S. doesn’t even officially comment on individual operations, leaving it up to intrepid defense reporters to ply their sources and make the fact of specific FONOPs known to the public. As a result, not all FONOPs are, in fact, publicly reported. A recent FONOP by USS Barry, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, targeting excessive maritime claims around the disputed Paracel Islands was announced by the People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command. I discussed the specifics here for The Diplomat. The Chinese side claimed that the U.S. warship was expelled from the waters around the Paracels, but reports have so far suggested that the crew of the Barry simply carried on with its operation without any particularly unsafe encounter with any Chinese vessel. Usually, Chinese warships trail American vessels conducting such operations in the South China Sea.

Nuclear risk pathways in Asia. I was very happy to have John Borrie and Wilfred Wan of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) on the Asia Geopolitics podcast to talk over nuclear weapons risks in the Asia-Pacific region. The three of us discuss a recent UNIDIR publication—to which we all contributed chapters—on nuclear weapons risks around the world. Listen to our discussion here (we cover U.S.-China arms control prospects, North Korea, and risks in southern Asia).

Offensive cyber and public health. A fascinating COVID-19 story that may have flown under your radar pertains to Vietnam’s alleged use of offensive cyberattacks on Chinese public health authorities in the early days of the novel coronavirus’ breakout in Hubei province. According to cybersecurity firm FireEye, Vietnamese state-backed hackers “carried out intrusion campaigns against Chinese targets” between January and April this year. The purpose of the intrusions was to “collect intelligence on the COVID-19 crisis.” FireEye’s outlook based on the Vietnamese case is as follows:

The COVID-19 crisis poses an intense, existential concern to governments, and the current air of distrust is amplifying uncertainties, encouraging intelligence collection on a scale that rivals armed conflict. National, state or provincial, and local governments, as well as non-government organizations and international organizations, are being targeted, as seen in reports. Medical research has been targeted as well, according to public statements by a Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI. Until this crisis ends, we anticipate related cyber espionage will continue to intensify globally.

To my knowledge, this is the first case of a state making use of offensive cyber means to seek intelligence to inform its public health response. Vietnam’s broader mistrust of China—and perhaps a degree of understanding in Hanoi about how the Chinese one-party state operates as a fellow one-party state—may have paid off. Vietnam has posted one of Asia’s most remarkable COVID–19 responses—particularly when considering the size of its population. 


COVID-19 at The Diplomat:We’re happy to note that ongoing coverage and analysis at The Diplomat of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Asia-Pacific is paywall-free for all readers. Access the latest in our coverage here. COVID-19 coverage at The Diplomat is presented by Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Learn more about DRI here

Don’t Miss the May 2020 issue of The Diplomat’s magazine.

This month, we look back at the first term of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in order to understand what hurdles await in her second term. 

We also analyze the scope and limits of Sinophobia in Central Asia, probe the roots of India’s surging Hindu nationalism, and retrace the political skullduggery that toppled Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan government. 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.

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