Summit Off? Summit On?

The Trump-Kim summit founders; China punishes Taiwan; Mahathir in Malaysia

Editor’s Note: We’re excited to introduce the APAC Risk Update, a new editorial newsletter from The Diplomat’s senior editor, Ankit Panda. This newsletter will offer a regular overview of the big picture on geopolitical and economic developments across the Asia-Pacific region, keeping you ahead of the curve.

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The Big One.

Trump and Kim: Will they or won’t they?

Image result for Donald TrumpThe summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un was on until it was off and is now back on—I think? It’s been a whirlwind of a week in unprecedented diplomatic process (or lack thereof) toward what may be the first-ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. Hours after North Korea dismantled its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, Trump issued a bizarre letter on official White House letterhead, bearing his signature, calling off the June 12 summit meeting.

Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump

Sadly, I was forced to cancel the Summit Meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong Un.

May 24, 2018
North Korea, thereafter, reacted by taking the high ground, saying that it was still down to meet with the U.S. president. Kim Kye Gwan, the country’s vice foreign minister, had the following to say in a long statement worth reading in full:

We would like to make known to the U.S. side once again that we have the intent to sit with the U.S. side to solve problem (sic) regardless of ways at any time.

Not to be outdone by Pyongyang and Washington, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stepped up and proposed an impromptu meeting on the northern side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone with Kim Jong Un to save the summit. We had the fourth inter-Korean summit on our hands. Moon’s visit restored momentum, with an expert U.S. delegation, led by experienced North Korea hand and current U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, meeting with Choe Son Hui, a senior North Korean official well-versed in relations with the United States. Finally, Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s former spy chief and current head of the United Front Department, landed in New York City, where he will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

What appeared initially as an attempt to blow-up the summit has instead reinvigorated momentum toward a potential June 12 summit. For the first time in this process, the United States has serious and experienced Korea experts involved in the planning process, attempting to hammer out an agenda. The summit appears back on, but it’s unclear if the United States has recalibrated its expectations out of a meeting with Kim Jong Un. North Korea has made it clear that it won’t come to the table to discuss the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” dismantlement of its nuclear program; instead, Pyongyang seeks a comprehensive agenda, one that might pave its way to diplomatic normalization with the United States, a declaration on the end of the Korean War down the line with South Korea, and, ultimately, sanctions relief. The specifics of what Pyongyang will give up to get what it wants and what the United States will accept short of total capitulation remains unclear. Indeed, as South Korea’s unification minister notes, differences between the two sides remain “significant.”

The summit is not without risks. Should the meeting fail, we may soon pick up where things left off in late-2017, with U.S. talk of military action and a return to ballistic missile testing in North Korea.

Bottom Line: The summit looks like it’ll happen. For now. But U.S. and North Korean negotiating positions remain far apart.

Northeast Asia.

South Korea and Japan—the two U.S. allies in Northeast Asia—are already reacting in divergent ways to news that the Trump-Kim summit might not be on. For Seoul, should the U.S.-North Korea process blow up, the Panmunjom peace process that began on April 27 might find itself in trouble—that was a big motivator behind President Moon Jae-in’s surprise decision to meet Kim Jong-un on the northern side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone for the fourth inter-Korean summit over the weekend. Yes, denuclearization was just one article out of many in the joint declaration between the two Korean leaders, but should Washington sour on diplomacy with North Korea, Moon might find himself having to choose between the alliance with Washington and an inter-Korean process that has massive public support among the South Korean people.

In Tokyo, we have a different story altogether. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s concerns that Tokyo’s interest would be overlooked entirely at a Trump-Kim meeting had grown considerably in recent weeks. Abe has said that Japan “understand(s)” why Trump had to cancel the meeting, and, for a brief moment no doubt, there was a sense of relief at the kantei. Now with the summit seemingly back on, Abe is rushing back to meet with Trump, to ensure that Japanese interests aren’t overlooked at a U.S.-North Korea summit meeting.

Bottom Line: Japan and South Korea both have a complex set of interests in the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit.


Taiwan’s list of diplomatic partners continues to shrink. Following the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso became the second country in May 2018 to shift diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China. Shannon Tiezzi, The Diplomat’s editor-in-chief, takes a look at the consequences for Taipei:

Prying away diplomatic allies from Taiwan is just one part of China’s strategy to isolate the island, which Beijing considers as a part of its territory. China is in the midst of a serious push to undermine perceptions of Taiwan as an independent state.

Burkina Faso’s decision leaves Taipei with just 18 countries that continue to maintain diplomatic ties with it over China. Only one African country remains: Swaziland (recently renamed eSwatini). Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen had a strong words for China:

蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen@iingwen

Today #China led #BurkinaFaso to sever diplomatic relations w/ #Taiwan. It will only bring Taiwan closer to countries that share our values: #democracy & #freedom. It will only strengthen our resolve to look towards the world, rather than across the Strait

May 24, 2018
The diplomatic truce that stood for the duration of the last Kuomintang-led government’s tenure in Taipei is over. As I’d noted earlier in May, a lot of what makes it so simple for China to pluck diplomatic partners from Taiwan is its ability to simply outspend Taipei. In the end, there’s a limit to what Taiwan can do to hold the allure of Chinese capital at bay.

Bottom Line: Taiwan’s list of diplomatic allies will likely continue to shrink and Taipei has few good retaliatory options.

South Asia.

Pakistan is coming up on an uneasy general election in a couple of months. The 2013 elections marked the first successful transfer of power from democratically elected government to another in the country’s history, underlining just how fragile civilian rule has been in the country. The upcoming election comes against the backdrop of growing tensions between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government and the country’s powerful military.

In the meantime, Islamist groups are becoming involved in the country’s politics in new ways. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s firebrand populist leader Imran Khan sees last year’s dramatics involving former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a springboard for him and his opposition partners. Either way, Pakistan’s election will be one to watch, with serious consequences across the region. Consider too that this may be the first Pakistani election where social media gamesmanship of the sort that we’ve seen elsewhere may play a major role:

Talking to The Diplomat off the recordsocial media managers from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and the two main opposition parties Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), confirmed that creation of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to propagate their narratives was the official policy of each party.

Bottom Line: Pakistan’s upcoming high-stakes election will be unlike any other, amid social media chicanery, sharpening civil-military rifts, and an upsurge in radical Islamist political participation.

Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s shock general election results have given way to considerable interest in how the country’s foreign and economic policy might change. I’m skeptical that the country will pivot away overnight from China, for instance, contrary to what other analysts have suggested. Prashanth Parameswaran, The Diplomat’s senior editor and resident Southeast Asia hand, adds important context in a longer analysis:

Despite the scrutiny on Najib’s ties with China over the past few years, the fact is that Malaysia’s dealings with China reflect not just Najib’s own tendencies in this respect, but also part of the country’s longer-term approach to cultivate better ties with Beijing. Indeed, Malaysia was a first mover in this respect decades ago, becoming the first country in ASEAN to normalize relations with Beijing in 1974 under Najib’s father and then Prime Minister Tun Razak.

The Diplomat’s Anthony Fensom, meanwhile, took an early look at what the surprise result, propelling the 92-year-old former strongman leader Mahathir Mohamad to victory, would mean for Asian markets and economic reform.

Bottom Line: Mahathir is talking the talk on revisiting Najib’s agreements with China, but there are good reasons to remain skeptical that he’ll follow through with his threats.

Bonus: Listen to a recent podcast discussion between Prashanth and me on the implications of the Malaysian elections.

Central Asia.

Though it received scant coverage here in the United States, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Washington, D.C.—the first by an Uzbek leader since 2002—was a big deal. The Diplomat’s managing editor and resident Central Asia hand Katie Putz has a long analysis of the implications of that visit for Uzbek-U.S. relations. Mirziyoyev has brought a dose of reform to Uzbekistan, on everything from public administration to even, yes, human rights. Read Katie’s exclusive interview with Uzbek Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov. This excerpt, in particular, jumps out:

In addition, the president has openly addressed the problem of torture in pre-trial and in detention centers. A special resolution was passed to introduce video surveillance in detention centers. Of course, torture is prohibited by our laws but there were problems with administering this law in conformity with international standards. So the problem, for the first time, has been addressed — the torture problem — and we have practical results from this policy. A new scheme was introduced in police stations as well. The police have been taught new rules of behavior, talking to people, even introducing themselves on the street. A new culture has been introduced. I’m not saying that it’s all perfect now, but a lot has been done in this regard. (Emphasis added.)

It’s not every day you see an Uzbek official volunteering to bring up the topic of torture unprompted in an interview. Even as the Trump administration shows little interest in making human rights a priority, Uzbek officials discussed the topic in Washington.

Bottom Line: Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan really isn’t Karimov’s Uzbekistan, but it’s unclear how far can reforms can go and whether Tashkent can sustain its current momentum.

Bonus: The Afghan government says work on the long-troubled CASA-1000 power project will begin construction by year’s end. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Asian Defense.

The South China Sea is heating up again—and not due to U.S. freedom of navigation operations this time. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy has been disinvited from the Rim of the Pacific 2018 exercise. I write for The Diplomat on why that might have been a long overdue move. The move comes just ahead of the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which will allow senior officials from the People’s Liberation Army and senior U.S. defense officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, to make their case for who’s really at fault.Image result for china aircraft carrier shandongBottom Line: The U.S. appears to be making good on its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, setting the stage for greater competition than ever in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Bonus: China’s second aircraft carrier has entered sea trials, bringing Beijing further down the road toward operating a rumored six-carrier navy. Also, India and Russia have reportedly finalized terms for the sale of the S-400 Triumf. New Delhi has to figure out how to receive the system and avoid U.S. sanctions.


Check out the footage of North Korea destroying its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. The IISS’ Joseph Dempsey has put together a thread on Twitter collecting some of the snippets.

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