China's Insecurities on Show at APEC 2018

Pence in Asia; North Korea's weapons test; Kazakh gas exports

The Big One.

Pence’s big Asia tour wraps up with an unexpected moment.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump doesn’t travel long distances well and that’s left the vice president, Mike Pence, as the new point-man on Asia. Pence has returned from a regional tour across Asia, with the headline events of his trip including the usual round of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summitry, including the East Asia Summit, held this year in Singapore. Pence ended his trip in Papua New Guinea, host of this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

At both the EAS and APEC, Pence brought a classic Trumpian tone and defended the administration’s approach to the region.

Some of the choice lines from Pence’s EAS speech:

  • Let me be clear: China’s militarization and territorial expansion in the South China Sea is illegal and dangerous. It threatens the sovereignty of many nations and endangers the prosperity of the world.

  • The United States seeks a relationship with China that is based on fairness, reciprocity, and respect for sovereignty. We have documented the difficulties that the United States and other nations face with China, and China knows where we stand.

  • This year, we’ve devoted more than half a billion dollars to security assistance in the Indo-Pacific, including nearly $400 million in foreign military financing – more than the previous 3 years combined.

  • Now is the time to maintain the pressure campaign [on North Korea] and enforce all U.N. sanctions. We must work together to stop North Korea’s evasion of sanctions, including the illegal ship-to-ship transfer of oil and coal. All countries must also expel North Korean labor.

And Pence at APEC:

  • [S]ome are offering infrastructure loans to governments across the Indo-Pacific and the wider world. Yet the terms of those loans are often opaque at best.  Projects they support are often unsustainable and of poor quality. And too often, they come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt.

  • Know that the United States offers a better option.  We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt. We don’t coerce or compromise your independence.  The United States deals openly, fairly. We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road. When you partner with us, we partner with you, and we all prosper.

The trip was Pence’s big moment to take the new and overt U.S. competitive tone toward China—the same one Pence introduced in an October speech at the Hudson Institute—to Asia. And, it actually appears to have turned out fairly well, but not necessarily due to Pence’s doing.

The APEC summit ended without a joint communiqué and it wasn’t the United States that was the troublemaker like at last year’s G7 meeting. It was China that was unable to accept the language prepared for the statement, embarrassing and frustrating host Papua New Guinea. According to the Wall Street Journal, the troublesome line was the following: “We agreed to fight protectionism including all unfair trade practices.”

That China couldn’t accept that language is telling. President Xi Jinping has been on the defensive lately. As early as the Boao Forum for Asia earlier this year on Chinese soil, Xi began emphasizing that China has no geopolitical grand designs behind the Belt and Road Initiative. He made a similar plea at APEC, remarking that his signature Belt and Road Initiative was “not designed to serve any hidden political agendas.”

Xi’s attempt to pitch himself as the defender of globalization—a project that began with his trip to Davos earlier this year—is running into roadblocks. For the United States, this presents an opportunity to corner China and capitalize on growing regional skepticism of Beijing’s intentions.

Bottom Line: The unfortunate impasse at the end of this year’s APEC summit shows that Chinese insecurities may provide the United States with an important geoeconomic opening.

East Asia.

Are the North Koreans back at it again? Last week, North Korean state media announced in a vague article that Kim Jong Un had supervised the test of a new type of "ultramodern" and "tactical" weapon. The article was accompanied by a single image that didn't show the weapon off, but did show Kim giving guidance to uniformed members of the Korean People's Army gathered at what appeared to be a coastal test site. There was a message being sent with this supposed test, which appeared to be carefully calibrated to not be too provocative. Kim was letting U.S. President Donald J. Trump know that if he wanted to continue enjoying the benefits of the ongoing pause in ballistic missile testing, he'd better move toward the "corresponding measures" the North Koreans have been looking for. Importantly, announcement of Kim's inspection came after the United States and South Korea resumed a modest, small-scale marine exercise, suggesting that North Korea wouldn't tolerate any allied military exercises as long as diplomatic talks were on. For now, this move appears to be a shot across the bows of the United States and South Korea. Momentum toward a second Trump-Kim summit, in the meantime, continues.

Bottom Line: North Korea is getting impatient and is particularly irked with resumed U.S.-South Korea military drills.

Bonus: Keep your eyes on Russia and Japan. Two months after Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed suddenly to resolve their outstanding territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands “without any preconditions,” Tokyo appears to have thought things over and has made an important opening. Abe wants to put an end to the dispute and open a new era in Russia-Japan ties, which have been expanding quickly in recent years despite the outstanding dispute and tensions between Moscow and the West.

South Asia.

In the Indian Ocean, there are two stories playing out. One's a happy one, that reached its climax with the inauguration of Ibrahim 'Ibu' Mohamed Solih as the new president of the Maldives, putting an end—for now—to former President Abdulla Yameen's authoritarian designs. Solih vowed to balance the country's foreign relations in an inaugural speech, which was attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For New Delhi, Solih's rise in the Maldives presents an opportunity to restore equilibrium to a once close neighborhood relationship that had gone off the rails as Yameen pursued closer ties with China. “Large-scale embezzlement and corruption have dwindled the coffers of the state by billions of rufiyaa. This money belongs to the Maldivian people, money that should have been spent for the common good of the people,” Solih noted in his inaugural speech, hinting at the corruption of the previous government. In a veiled reference to China-backed projects in the country that were initiated under Yameen, Solih noted that “reckless mega development projects [were] undertaken purely for political gains.”

The second story in the Indian Ocean concerns Sri Lanka, which led the previous edition for this newsletter. The bad news continues in Colombo, with the ongoing constitutional crisis appearing to only deepen without any sign of reversal. Sri Lankan lawmakers were able to arrive at a no-confidence motion in a parliamentary voice vote that Rajapaksa's supporters rejected as legitimate. All this eventually led to a November 18 meeting between the three men at the center of the ongoing crisis: President Maithripala Sirisena, former President and newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and, finally, the ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe. Direct talks between the three men failed to deliver any way out of the crisis, with Wickremsinghe claiming that the no-confidence motion proved that he still enjoyed legislative support.

Bottom Line: In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives drifts away from democratic decline toward what will hopefully be a period of recalibration and reconstruction. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's crisis deepens.

Southeast Asia.

Though it won't heal the deep historical scars that persist to this day, the recent verdict of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on the crimes of the Khmer Rouge marks the end of a chapter. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan—deputies to ruthless dictator Pol Pot—were found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity, and breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Other trials are pending against four other Khmer Rouge members, with similar verdicts expected. At The Diplomat, Peter Maguire examined the legacy of the ECCC in Cambodia:

By far the ECCC’s most important legacy was the creation of an unassailable historical record that will withstand the test of time and make historical revisionism virtually impossible. However clear the historical facts seem to Western scholars, they remain unclear to some Cambodians and for good reason. Over the course of three decades, Cambodians were subjected to the competing and contradictory propaganda claims of the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime (1970–1975), the Khmer Rouge (1975–1979), the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979–1989), the State of Cambodia (1989-1992), the United Nations Transitional Authority Cambodia (UNTAC) (1992–1993), and since 1993 the iron-fisted Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). It is now clear for all to see, in meticulous detail, who did what to whom.

Maguire highlights the limitations of the ECCC. While its verdicts are now emerging, the body  "proved once again that politics are an indelible part of any war crimes trial." Don’t miss Luke Hunt’s coverage from Phnom Penh at The Diplomat.

Bottom Line: A dark chapter in Cambodian history nears a close with the handing down of the first verdicts in a more-than-decade-long legal accountability process that wasn't without controversy.

Bonus: Listen to the latest episode of our Asia Geopolitics podcast reviewing Singapore's time as ASEAN chair and the agenda ahead for Thailand's chairmanship of the 10-country grouping.

Something to Watch: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen revealed this week that he'd received a letter from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence expressing concern about a possible Chinese naval base project in Cambodia. Hun Sen denied this fact vociferously. “The Constitution of Cambodia bans the presence of foreign troops or military bases in its territory … whether naval forces, infantry forces or air forces,” he noted. I suspect Pence wouldn't send a letter like this to a head of government without some reasonable intelligence to base this suspicion on, but we've also seen several false alarms about Chinese base construction recently (including Vanuatu).

Central Asia.

Keep your eyes on Central Asian gas exports to China. As China's voracious energy appetite shows no signs of waning, Kazakhstan is lining up to take full advantage. In October, KazTransGaz, the Kazakh national gas company, signed a five-year contract with Chinese firm PetroChina International that will see natural gas exports from Kazakhstan double to 10 billion bcm beginning in 2019.

But that still leaves the Kazakhs short of Turkmenistan. The Diplomat's Katie Putz covered the significance in more detail:

Kazakhstan, even if it manages to increase its gas exports to China to 10 bcm per year in 2019, will still lag behind Turkmenistan. Ashgabat is Beijing’s top gas supplier, followed by Australia, which in 2017 exported 23.7 bcm in liquified natural gas to China. But while Turkmenistan’s volume headed to China increased from 2016 to 2017, its production numbers fell from 57.6 to 53.3 in million tonnes oil equivalent. Domestic consumption was also down in Turkmenistan, per the BP report, another note for those eyeing Ashgabat for signs of economic difficulty and related instability.

The new deal, however, suggests that Kazakhstan has seen the advantages of upping its domestic production capacity to make the most of the vast Chinese export market. That's likely to stick around.

Bottom Line: Kazakhstan is stepping on the gas—no pun intended—with regard to natural gas exports to China.

Bonus: Tajikistan finally opened the Rogun megadam project, which has been coming for more than four decades now.

In Case You Missed It: Dmitry Medvedev and Li Keqiang both work in the shadows of their respective presidents, but the Russian and Chinese head of governments met recently to discuss ways to "synergize" the Eurasian Economic Union and China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Asia Defense.

The Indian military has had a couple of interesting firsts as far as exercises go in recent weeks. First, as The Diplomat’s Prashanth Parameswaran explored, the Indian Navy joined the Indonesian Navy in the first iteration of a new naval exercise, underlining the growing defense-diplomatic linkages between the two sides. As Parameswaran notes:

India and Indonesia already have a defense relationship which comprises various elements, built out from the foundational defense agreement both inked in 2001 as well as individual inroads made since then. On the maritime side, the two countries, which share a maritime boundary, have been enhancing their maritime cooperation over the years. Today, the navies conduct navy to navy staff talks; participate in port visits and training exchanges; participate in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS); and carry out coordinated patrols along the international maritime boundary.

New Delhi is also looking closely at the strategically located Indonesian island of Sabang, at the northern mouth of the Malacca Strait, for a potential basing arrangement.

Separately, India and Japan also held the first-ever iteration of the Dharma Guardian exercises, which brought together the Indian Army and the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force for a small exchange focused mostly on counterterrorism. The exercise adds breadth to the India-Japan defense relationship, which has been robust at sea, but more limited on land. As the recent summit declaration between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrated, New Delhi and Tokyo are quickly broadening the scope of their defense cooperation under the aegis of their common “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategies.

Bottom Line: India is slowly but surely broadening its Indo-Pacific defense engagements.

Don't Miss It: Even as U.S.-China relations appear to be in the pits, institutionalized military-to-military exchanges continue. The two countries successfully wrapped up the 2018 iteration of the Disaster Management Exchange in Nanjing this month.

Early Warning: We've heard a lot about India's purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, which has some ballistic missile defense capabilities. That purchase has been noted in Pakistan. Writing in the official magazine of the Pakistan armed forces, a former director of Pakistan's Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs branch of the Pakistani Strategic Plans Division outlines a range of moves Islamabad might take in response, including the development of MIRVed missiles, hypersonics, and a quantitatively larger nuclear force in general. (Hat-tip to the Stimson Center's Sameer Lalwani for tweeting this article and bringing it to my attention.)

Bonus: I spoke last week in Geneva, Switzerland, at a United Nations-hosted meeting on hypersonic technologies and long-range conventional weapons. An edited version of my remarks is available at The Diplomat here.


Remember the Doklam stand-off between India and China? Well, there have been a few changes to the status quo on the plateau.

Separately, Grace Liu at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies managed to locate the debris from a failed Indian ballistic missile test that took place last year. The images are incredible.

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.