South Korea-Japan Intel Sharing Lives to See Another Day

The Rajapaksas rise; Hun Sen and Trump talk; Japan, India, and RCEP

The Big One.

Seoul keeps an intel-sharing pact with Japan—for now.

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The South Korean government had an eleventh hour change of heart in its attitude toward the 2016 bilateral ROK-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement, known as GSOMIA. Instead of pushing ahead with the termination of the deal as had originally been indicated in August, the Blue House agreed to “conditionally” suspend the deal’s expiration, keeping the mechanism alive. (In case you missed it, Prashanth Parameswaran and I discussed the implications of South Korea’s GSOMIA deliberations on a recent podcast.)

The Japan-South Korea GSOMIA allows for the two countries to shared Classified Military Information (CMI). It does so by formalizing procedures and organizational steps. Seoul has similar agreements with more than 30 countries. Its agreement with Japan was concluded with considerable assistance from the United States. That’s why, for instance, Mark Esper, the U.S. defense secretary, made GSOMIA a major focus of his recent tour of Asia, which included a stop in Seoul.

In all contexts, GSOMIA agreements provide the option for CMI sharing and do not constitute an obligation to do so. Under President Lee Myung-bak, the conclusion of a GSOMIA with Japan was stunted by widespread popular pushback on the assumption that the agreement would subjugate South Korean sovereignty and require Seoul to share intelligence with Tokyo without limits.

Had GSOMIA expired, U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation and information sharing would have been seriously stunted. With the agreement’s expiration, the three countries could have still shared information between them by falling back on the 2014 Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement, or TISA.

TISA, unlike GSOMIA, did not provide for a generalized framework for handling CMI between Japan and South Korea directly. The agreement allowed for “case by case” sharing between Seoul and Tokyo through negotiations; GSOMIA allows for frictionless sharing upon demand by one of the two participating entities.

Seoul’s decision keeps a major agreement in place for now, but the Japan-South Korea relationship is not out of crisis mode yet. The two sides continue talks on resolving broader differences.

Bottom Line: A last minute South Korean decision preserves an important intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.

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Southeast Asia.

It has recently emerged that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and U.S. President Donald J. Trump exchanged letters discussing U.S.-Cambodia relations. According to Voice of America:

Hun Sen said he agreed with Trump that their bilateral relations had been through “ups and downs” and that the two countries should not be held back by their past issues.

“I am of the view that we should not become hostage of a few dark chapters of our own history,” Hun Sen writes in the letter. “There are so many other beautiful chapters that are worth nourishing for the greater good of both of our countries and people.”

Prashanth Parameswaran takes a high-level view of the bilateral relationship and where things might be going after the letter exchange:

...the letters exchange that we have seen publicly released over the past week attests to the expected and ongoing process of thawing U.S.-Cambodia relations. Trump’s letter to Hun Sen, dated November 1, noted that the United States does not seek regime change but does want Hun Sen to “put Cambodia back on the path of democratic governance,” while Hun Sen’s reply to Trump released November 26 noted that the two countries “should not become hostage of a few dark chapters of our own history” and proposed the creation of a working group to discuss ways to improve ties.

But while the letters make clear that this process is at play, the key question is what the outlines of a thawed U.S.-Cambodia relationship might be. While not all of Hun Sen’s actions at home and abroad may be reversible, Washington will at least need to see reassurances from the Cambodian government on a number of fronts including the treatment of the opposition and democracy and human rights if any meaningful thaw is to occur. Cambodia will also be looking to see what lower-hanging fruit might be possible in terms of slowly building ties back up as Hun Sen and the CPP further consolidate their position at home and also improve relations with other entities including the EU.

This “thaw” in the relationship may continue and evolve in non-linear ways in the coming weeks and months, he predicts.

Bottom Line: An exchange of letters presages a thaw in U.S.-Cambodia ties.

Food for Thought: South China Sea watcher Greg Poling sparked an interesting discussion on Twitter with a thread on the military value of China’s artificial islands in the Spratly group:


Don’t Miss It: Tuvalu is standing with Taiwan. One of Taipei’s few remaining diplomatic allies, Tuvalu has rebuffed any suggestion that it might look to switch ties to Beijing. As Reuters reported earlier in November, “Tuvalu’s foreign minister said … the South Pacific nation had rejected offers from Chinese companies to build artificial islands to help it cope with rising sea levels, an approach viewed as undermining Taiwan’s influence in the region.” Taiwan recently lost two partners in the region, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, both of whom forged ties with Beijing in September.

South Asia.

The last edition of this newsletter previewed Sri Lanka’s presidential election and the results ended up giving us few surprises. As expected, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother—the former authoritarian president—Mahinda Rajapaksa have emerged on top. Gotabaya triumphed in the presidential elections and, given Mahinda was term-limited from seeking a third presidential term, appointed his brother as prime minister. The Rajapaksas are back.

On the geopolitical implications of Gotabaya’s return, The Diplomat’s Abhijnan Rej and Rajeswarai Pillai Rajagopalan write on how India views the development. New Delhi saw the Sri Lankan elections as a high-stakes moment, potentially once again turning the tide unfavorably in India’s backyard.

Rej writes:

As Gotabaya settles into office and visits India ... on the 29th, the Modi government would hope that its hands-off approach in the 2019 Sri Lankan elections pays off. Whether India’s gambit is misplaced or not will take four more years to assess.

Rajagopalan, meanwhile, notes: 

The anxieties about the Rajapaksas come from how their past behavior toward China is perceived in New Delhi, and they will not be easily quelled. Despite his current criticism of the Hambantota deal, Mahinda was the one who initiated the deal for developing Hambantota port in 2017 when he was president. The port also happens to be in his parliamentary constituency. While it should be noted that the port development offer was initially made to India and then handed to China, that has not affected the extent of Indian concern. Chinese nuclear submarines also made port visits to Colombo port in 2014, which caused great consternation in India.

The focus on Hambantota is understandable. Gotabaya’s election manifesto brought the infamous 99-year-lease transfer of the port—described as one of the Belt and Road Initiative’s infamous “debt traps”—under criticism. As I wrote for The Diplomat:

Manifesto pledges don’t always find their way into policymaking and Gotabaya may choose to sharply depart from these pledges, but we should also recall the sharp protests that took place over the transfer of the port to China back in 2017. For a president championing nationalism like Gotabaya, Hambantota’s fate could turn into an important issue in relations with China. Will Gotabaya find himself joining the Maldives’ Ibrahim Solih, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammed, and even Pakistan’s Imran Khan as another regional leader seeking to revisit the terms of previously agreed big-ticket deals with Beijing? We’ll know soon enough.

Finally, with Gotabaya’s win, human rights, reconciliation, and transitional justice are under the microscope in Sri Lanka. On this front, don’t miss my recent interview with Sri Lanka watcher Taylor Dibbert, which covers the risks that arise along these lines with Gotabaya’s victory.

Bottom Line: Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in Sri Lanka raises geopolitical questions and human rights concerns.

Don’t Miss It: Japan’s top trade negotiator has indicated that Tokyo won’t take India’s “no” on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) for an answer. According to Bloomberg, Tokyo’s top negotiator for the deal has said that Japan has little interest in signing an RCEP-minus-India agreement. India had its reasons for withdrawing from the agreement, but it’s likely that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make the case for India reconsidering when he has his summit with Prime Minister Modi in the coming days.

Asia Defense.

A few notable updates on defense issues in this edition of the newsletter.

Russia’s hypersonic glider in New START: Last week, I mentioned that Russia’s new Avangard hypersonic glider nuclear warhead was slated for induction shortly (citing my colleague Franz-Stefan Gady’s writing). Significantly, this week, the Avangard hypersonic boost-glide warhead for Russia’s existing SS-19 missiles was submitted in a treaty exhibition under the U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (2011, New START). Joe Trevithick at The Drive has more on the inspection.

Japan pushes ahead with Aegis Ashore: The Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) awarded a contract to U.S. defense firm Lockheed Martin for the production and delivery of two Solid State Radar (SSR) antenna sets for its planned two land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense batteries, the land-based variant of the Aegis combat system for defense against ballistic and cruise missiles, it plans to install in the 2020s. 

An interesting new trilateral drill: The Russian Navy, South African Navy, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) started a trilateral maritime exercise off the South African city of Cape Town.The exercise is the first trilateral China-Russia-South Africa naval exercise in the waters off Africa and included advanced PLAN assets, including the guided missile frigate Weifang, a Type 054A warship. The Weifang has been dispatched from the Chinese mainland to conduct escort missions and anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa.

China’s drone force: Don’t miss PLA-watcher Rick Joe’s latest feature for The Diplomat on the Chinese military’s increasingly impressive array of high-end drones. Rick Joe writes: “There are a number of various high-end UAVs known to have entered PLA service or known to be in development, but some types may prove more consequential than others. It is well known that the PLA is seeking to close the technological and capability gap with other leading military powers such as the United States, as well as to develop systems that are able to fulfill its foreseeable military requirements in an effective way.”

No sense in submarines?: Michael A. Hunzeker and Joseph Petrucelli argue that Taiwan’s Indigenous Diesel Submarine project is a waste of scarce resources and bound to be highly vulnerable in a conflict. “Even from a purely political perspective, there are more effective ways to spend Taiwan’s scarce defense dollars,” they write.

Central Asia.

November summitry in Asia isn’t just restricted to Southeast Asia: Central Asia had its share of the pie, too. As Catherine Putz writes in The Diplomat, the heads of the six Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) states met in Kyrgyzstan for meetings. The cast of characters in attendance included Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

As Putz writes, 

The headline items include a joint statement expressing regret about the termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and concern over the future of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The organization also established two new membership categories, observer and partner, in an effort to expand.

Following the CSTO summit, the Central Asian heads of state and government met for a regional summit in Uzbekistan. Notably, Nursultan Nazarbayev attended that summit instead of Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s de jure president. Nazarbayev’s shadow continues to loom large over Kazakh state affairs.

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.