Khan in Washington

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

The Big One.

What did Imran Khan get from Donald Trump?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

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

East Asia.

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

Consider the following series of events recently:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southeast Asia.

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

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

Asia Defense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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