Lessons From the Laos Dam Tragedy

South China Sea code of conduct?; North Korea doldrums again; P-8s galore

The Big One.

What the Lao dam disaster reveals.

The above aerial shot was taken in Laos’ Attapeu province, where the collapse of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy dam under construction submerged hundreds of homes and has left at least more than one thousand people missing and more than thirty dead. The disaster hasn’t gotten much play in the international media, despite what it reveals about Laos, the nature of infrastructure projects in poor Asian countries, and continental disaster relief efforts in Southeast Asia.

As Tom Fawthrop writes in The Diplomat, the disaster may sadly not be the last for the Lao government as it seeks to become Southeast Asia’s “battery” by pursuing hydropower development projects. Fawthrop asks two questions: “In the wake of this tragedy, is the Lao government willing to roll back on its flagship hydropower policy of “rapidly dam every river”? Or will it shrug off all the consequences of substandard construction, poor safety, and devastating environmental impacts?”

The transnational reaction to the disaster has been illustrative of inter-Asian limitations in disaster relief operations as well. South Korean President Moon Jae-in authorized a disaster relief team—a rare move for Seoul outside of its own borders. As Jenna Gibson discussed, this was because the South Korean conglomerate SK held equities in the dam. China’s reaction, meanwhile, was also telling. As The Diplomat’s editor-in-chief Shannon Tiezzi writes, “China wasted no time getting involved in the relief efforts.” Laos is a close partner for Beijing and, for China, disaster relief operations are increasingly a source of legitimacy as Chinese President Xi Jinping seeks a more assertive regional posture. Per the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing “provided much-needed humanitarian aids and supplies to the Laos, including charge boats, tents and water clarifiers.”

Bottom Line: It’ll be a while—if ever—until there’s accountability for the collapse. As Luke Hunt notes, the Lao government had eagerly ignored warnings about the risks of its hydropower pursuits from a range of civil society actors, including environmental activists and scientists. These kinds of disasters could well be preventable going forward with greater regulation—and higher standards for large projects.

Northeast Asia.

Time flies. We're just about 60 days out from Trump's meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In late-July and early-August, North Korea has adopted a smart rhetorical approach: it is emphasizing the "spirit" of Singapore developed between Trump and Kim and casting aside Trump's deputies. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (and certainly Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton) are troublesome for North Korea because they want details on denuclearization. Trump, meanwhile, from thanking Kim for a nice letter last week and claiming that there was "no threat" from North Korea, is a much softer target. But don't take it from me. Take it from the North Koreans. 

Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho at the ASEAN Regional Forum on August 5:

The DPRK-US Joint Statement should not be permitted to fall prey to the American internal politics, inviting an adverse wind at odds with the intentions of the leaders.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry's official statement on August 9:

Now the issue in question is that, going against the intention of president Trump to advance the DPRK-U.S. relations, who is expressing gratitude to our goodwill measures for implementing the DPRK-U.S. joint statement, some high-level officials within the U.S. administration are making baseless allegations against us and making desperate attempts at intensifying the international sanctions and pressure.

Bottom Line: The U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process is entering a shaky period, with Pyongyang holding out now for concessions from the United States. Sanctions relief won't be happening anytime soon. 

Don't Miss It: Over the demilitarized zone, things are beginning to look a bit hairier for South Korean President Moon Jae-in's approval rating after his sky-high ratings following the April 27 inter-Korean summit meeting. His approval rating has fallen as low as 58 percent recently.

The next inter-Korean summit will take place in September: my thoughts on what to expect and why Moon may be in a tough spot.

South Asia.

I had to responsibly hedge for the last newsletter, but now it’s clear: Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) will be Pakistan's new prime minister. He will inherit a country facing multiple crises. Among them will be a major balance of payments crisis, that has been a long time coming and far from a surprise. Kunwar Khuldune Shahid takes a look at the issue for The Diplomat: "The last fiscal year ended with a current account deficit of $18 billion, 5.7 percent of Pakistan’s GDP. The budget deficit has crossed 2 trillion rupees. The government owes another trillion rupees in circular debt." All in all, Pakistan may be looking at a bailout loan of $10 billion. Pakistan will approach the International Monetary Fund for a bailout—the country's 13th such request in 1980. But the bailout won't be easy at the IMF, with the Fund no doubt gearing up to request austerity measures—measures that Khan may be unwilling to swallow early in his term as prime minister with a coalition that will be less than ironclad.

The other option is turning to China, but that too carries risks. Islamabad is already the recipient of some $62 billion in loans from China under the aegis of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. A $10 billion addition to that tab won't stave off perceptions of dependency. China, meanwhile, may be unwilling to go along without bold reforms in the country. 

Bottom Line: Pakistan's new government will inherit a wicked fiscal crisis and may not have the political ballast necessary to pursue bold reform. An obvious course isn't apparent.

Southeast Asia.

The search for a code of conduct in the South China Sea continues, seemingly never-ending. There is "progress," of a sort. The ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China are no closer to any agreement on a binding document, but are making progress on a secret single draft negotiating text. Reported exclusively for The Diplomat, Carl Thayer takes a look at the behind-the-scenes negotiating positions of the various ASEAN member states and China and what the document does and doesn't include. The latest round of talks took place on August 3, when the foreign ministers of ASEAN states met their Chinese counterpart in Singapore. 

A few highlights on the process:

  • Legally binding mechanisms are not forthcoming.

  • China is seeking to include provisions on notifications for military exercises—technically against the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, which allows for exercises without notification on the high seas. (China's capacious nine-dashed line claim covers nearly the entire South China Sea.)

  • There's no concrete sense of the geographic scope and applicability of the Code of Conduct.

  • There's no talk of any sort of dispute-resolution mechanism either.

Bottom Line: There's "progress" on a code of conduct, if you can call it that, but the code that's taking shape will be disappointing to proponents of a rules-based order and strong institutions to manage disputes in Asia.

Lombok: After the EarthquakeDon't Miss It: The recent devastating earthquake in Lombok has caused massive damage and displacement. Agoes Rudianto, a Jakarta-based photographer, compiled a powerful photo essay.

Central Asia.

Tajikistan made international headlines recently—and not in a good way. On July 29, four foreign cyclists, in the country for tourism, were killed in a vehicular attack claimed later by the Islamic State. The Tajik state isn't buying the Islamic State's explanation, instead blaming its preferred bogeyman: the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), a banned political party. My colleague Katie Putz breaks down the reasons for the Tajik government's insistence on the IRPT as the culprit behind the attack:

…since 2015 Dushanbe has engaged in a targeted campaign to destroy the IRPT. The once-legal political party was squeezed out of parliament, downsized, then delegalized and branded a terrorist group. Its leaders (and their lawyers) have been arrested or forced to flee abroad and the relatives of opposition activists who remain in Tajikistan have been essentially turned into hostages by the authorities, often unable to leave the country and frequently called in for questioning. 

We still don't know if the attack was an instance of remote "self-radicalization" or directed from overseas by the Islamic State, but it's increasingly clear that IS' claim in this case is worth taking seriously.

Bottom Line: The Tajik government is determined to underplay the presence of the Islamic State—and its sympathizers—within its borders.

Don't Miss It: A few issues ago, I highlighted the case of Sayragul Sauytbay—the ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen at the center of a geopolitically charged trial in Kazakhstan. Sauytbasy's case reached a happy ending, without her being deported to China, where she almost certainly would have faced retribution. Katie Putz and I discussed her case on a recent podcast.

Asian Defense.

Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft—the best in-class—is getting new customers left and right in the Indo-Pacific. The summer has been good to Boeing. First, in June, the South Korean Ministry of Defense announced that it had selected the P-8 for its new maritime patrol aircraft. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has a critical anti-submarine warfare mission given North Korea's large fleet of submarines, which, albeit obsolete, poses a challenge given its sheer size. Pyongyang additionally has one nuclear-capable Gorae-class ballistic missile submarine (SSB) that could be flushed out of port during peacetime.  

Beyond South Korea, the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) will also operate the P-8, having decided last month to purchase four of the aircraft. The capability will add to New Zealand's maritime domain awareness efforts in the Indo-Pacific. The RNZAF will also use the P-8's capabilities to assist in the domestic contingencies described in its 2018 Strategic Defense Policy Statement, including search and rescue and disaster relief operations. 

Bottom Line: American partners are signing up to the P-8, as maritime surveillance requirements remain critical in the Indo-Pacific.

In Can You Missed It: The U.S. Department of Commerce took the step of granting India Tier-1 Strategic Trade Authorization, which will grant India access to a large range of U.S. defense exports without licensing, helping New Delhi make the most of its 2016 ‘Major Defense Partner’ status. Read my take here.


You may have heard that the United States is considering an all-new branch of the military, a "Space Force." Don't miss the logos being offered up by supporters of the Trump campaign.

(If that first one looks familiar it's because it's a palette-swapped NASA logo.)

And, because it’s 2018 and anything is possible, this is a real headline: ‘Russia tasks Hollywood actor Seagal with improving U.S. ties’.

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