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Donald Trump’s Asia tour: North Korea top on agenda

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As the longest tour of Asia by a US president in 25 years, US President Donald Trump has embarked on a 12-day trip to Asia starting on Friday the 3rd November during which he would five countries: Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. In his shuttle diplomatic voyage, President Trump is expected to show a united front with South Korea and Japan while pressing China to take a stronger line with Pyongyang.

Donald Trump has kicked off his 12-day tour of the Asia-Pacific region in Japan. Trump will then visit South Korea and China before traveling south to Vietnam and the Philippines.

Ahead of a trip to Asia starting from Japan, Trump urged Saudi Arabia to choose Wall Street as a venue for the initial public offerings (IPO) of shares of oil giant Aramco in 2018. He tweeted from Hawaii, “Would very much appreciate Saudi Arabia doing their IPO of Aramco with the New York Stock Exchange. Important to the United States!” The Aramco IPO is expected to be the largest in history, raising around $100 billion in much-needed revenue for the Saudi kingdom. Saudi Arabia has posted $200 billion in deficits in the past three fiscal years due to the slump in global oil prices. Aramco, which controls Saudi Arabia’s massive energy assets, plans to list nearly 5 per cent of its shares in the stock market. Plans are to list the offering in the second half of 2018 on the Saudi stock market as well as an international exchange, with markets in New York and London vying for the offering.

The trip comes at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea over its nuclear program and missile tests. Trump flew first to the US state of Hawaii where he visited the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor – the scene of the 1941 Japanese attack that drew the USA into World War Two. He also took part in a briefing at the US Pacific Command.

Itinerary

On 5 November: Arrives in Japan. Plays Golf with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and professional player Hideki Matsuyama at Kasumigaseki Country Club; Bilateral meetings with Abe; 7 November: In South Korea for talks with President Moon Jae-in. Trump will also address the National Assembly; 8 November: Arrives in China for a series of events including meetings with President Xi Jinping; 10 November: Travels to Da Nang, Vietnam, and will participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit; 11 November: Travels to Hanoi, Vietnam, for talks with President Tran Dai Quang and other Vietnamese leaders; 12 November: Arrives in Manila, Philippines, to take part in a gala dinner for the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean); 13 November: Will attend the Asean summit in Manila and hold talks with President Rodrigo Duterte; 14 November: Trump will stay for the East Asia Summit, a wider regional gathering that includes the US, India and Russia.

Japan – first stop for Trump’s Asia-Pacific tour. The first two stopovers are Washington’s key allies in Northeast Asia: Japan and South Korea. They have both been rattled by a wildcard president who threatened to upend a global order the US had underpinned for decades. In Vietnam, Trump will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Da Nang, apparently the key item of his tour, and make a state visit to Hanoi. His final engagement was scheduled to be a summit of South East Asian nations in the Philippine capital, Manila, on 13 November but the trip has now been extended by an extra day so he can attend the East Asia Summit. The last time a US president made such a marathon trip to Asia was when George HW Bush visited the region in late 1991 and early 1992.

Before Air Force One takes off for a Hawaii visit on Friday, the key challenges facing Trump on an odyssey that started in Japan on Sunday before stops in South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. From Hawaii, he and First Lady Melania Trump headed to Japan and then on move to South Korea.

Donald Trump’s tour of Asia offers plenty to keep the US president cheerful, from lavish state banquets to honour-guard pomp and even a chummy round of golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Upon arrival in Japan, Trump resumed his characteristic aggressive rhetoric targeting his “foes” like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan warning them of destruction saying that they are on a suicide mission.

Target North Korea

Trump has previously exchanged some fiery rhetoric with North Korea over its ballistic missile tests but aides said earlier last week that he would not go to the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) on the border between the South and North. He is, however, to visit Camp Humphreys, a US military complex south of the capital, Seoul. Trump’s visit to China was incorporated into his itinerary to make Beijing get North Korea on board.

The way the Trump government tells it, the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang is rapidly developing nuclear warheads and the intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry them to a US West Coast city such as Seattle or Los Angeles.

The White House counter-strategy seems to be assuring allies such as South Korea and Japan that the USA still has their back, while getting North Korea’s main ally, China, to economically pressure Pyongyang back to the bargaining table.

That’s a recipe for trouble at Trump-Xi talks from November 8 onwards. Many Trump’s officials believe that Beijing has to help solve the North Korea problem. Not be helpful, but solve the problem. And there’s no easy solution to this, certainly not one that China will find acceptable and low cost.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s calculus is different. Beijing-Pyongyang relations have troughed, but a collapse of the hermit nation could send refugees spilling northwards and land American troops on China’s doorstep.

That’s where the fun stops. These are big tests for a commander-in-chief who does, on occasion, follow the teleprompter and stay “on message”, but at other times becomes frustrated and fires off salvos of brusque, early morning Twitter missives.  It also represents a grueling 12-day slog of speech-making, summits, and tricky sit-downs on a range of trade disputes – and the intractable policy headache of North Korea’s nuclear arms program.

While Trump has skimped North Korea in his maiden trip to the region of Asia Pacific, the trip is indeed focused on that country as he wants to deny nuclearization of that nation. He wants to make a united front among the regional powers including China against North Korea.

Trump has spoken of raining “fire and fury” on North Korea – rhetoric that nudges the region towards a potentially calamitous conflict. He may well tone that down a notch when addressing the National Assembly in Seoul on November 8. He may also be wise to offer some goodies. The US pull-out from TPP came as China was rolling out its multibillion-dollar “Belt and Road” infrastructure development plan across Asia and beyond.  According to Ford, the expected Asia policy must provide a new “economic vision, post-TPP”. Simply renegotiating a bilateral trade with South Korea, and vaunting new ones with Japan and Vietnam, is not enough.

Challenge of Asia-Pacific policy: Asia last?

Fake news, fictitious threat perception concerning their security by the government makes both USA and Israel strong militarily. USA and Israel always fix their imagined foes trying to target and destroy them, though it remains a fact both cannot be destroyed because of their anti-missile shield and WMD.

Thus any country seeking nuclear energy and WMD to defend their nations and populations from possible enemy attacks is viewed as being the cause of destructive trouble for the super power of USA and Israel.  Of course that is only a known gimmick to threaten and bully the weak nations seeking WMD.

Thus Iran and North Korea are seen as their enemies because USA says they are developing nukes to destroy only USA and Israel. 

Former US President Barack Obama tried to “rebalance” the US’ defence and economic policy to counter China’s rise, including with a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal that excluded Beijing.

Trump scrapped TTP almost as soon as he entered the White House in January. Amy Searight, a former Pentagon official, told Al Jazeera the “lack of any replacement with a proactive trade policy or economic agenda” has left Washington’s Asian partners feeling anxious.

Trump the property magnate is expected to unveil a new framework at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on November 10. White House officials talk up plans for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Although big questions about the policy remain, a recommitment to rules-based economic fairness may be a solid message, Lindsey Ford, a former Department of Defense official, told Al Jazeera.  “It’s important for people to hear that America First does not mean Asia last; that American prosperity can go hand in hand with Asian prosperity,” said Ford, an analyst at the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think-tank.

Trump’s biggest challenge could be the one thing he cannot seem to change: himself.  He is prone to undiplomatic language that plays badly with buttoned-down Asian officials. Previously on Twitter, he accused South Korea of trying to “appease” its northern neighbour, and criticised Xi for not doing enough to rein in Pyongyang.

The trip is longer and tougher than his first foreign venture to the Middle East in May. He may get irked by Japanese resentment over a US military base in Okinawa, or rallies against the “war maniac” US president on the streets of South Korea. “Among government officials, there are going to be a lot of white-knuckles and held breath throughout the two days of his time in South Korea,” Scott Snyder, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

There is a risk of clashing egos when Trump meets Rodrigo Duterte, the hard-boiled president of the Philippines, on November 13. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend APEC, shifting the spotlight back on to the troublesome probe of election collusion. China is a safer bet.

US-China relations

Officially a communist nation pursuing Socialist policies indoors and a mixed agenda abroad, China has developed trade relations with US superpower along with it also shares the veto power on UNSC. USA has been employing many countries in Asia including those he is visiting now and India to contain the Chinese influence on the continent and beyond.

Neocons believes only economic ties could USA closer to Beijing. Trump’s stop in Beijing is being billed as a “state visit plus” to mark the importance of the dynamic between himself and President Xi, as well as relations between the US superpower and China’s fast-growing economy and armed forces.

In Beijing, the two leaders representing West and East respectively may be able to paper over the cracks by unveiling a few energy deals this month, but that would only be a “calm before the storm” and the “escalation of tensions” next year. The Trump government has high expectations from China, a fundamental reordering of the trade relationship, while China expects a relatively painless negotiation process.

Meanwhile, the two leaders are in different positions. Xi has just emerged from a glowing five-yearly Communist Party congress; Trump has low approval ratings of 34 percent and is battling a probe about election collusion with Russia. He faces condemnations form both Democratic and Republican pastries. Former CIA analyst Christopher Johnson compared Xi’s “strong position with no visible domestic opposition” to Trump’s routinely questioned style and legislative record. “This gives Xi a bit of a leg up” when bartering.

North Korea is not the only glitch. Trump rails against the United States’ “embarrassing” $347bn trade deficit with China, and has accused Beijing of manipulating its currency, rigging markets, and pilfering ideas from US firms.

WMD as deterrent

The US President Donald Trump’s two-week visit to the Asia-Pacific region as  the threat of a military confrontation with North Korea will be high on the agenda in Japan, South Korea, and China.

North Korea is developing its nuclear weapons to defend itself against any future US aggression so it doesn’t endure “the tragic situation of the war-torn non-nuclear countries which became the targets of invasion and plunder by the USA.

North Korea needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent to prevent “invasion and plunder” by the unilateral USA. It is indeed scared of US militarism and condemned the USA and its allies’ “crazy escalation of sanctions, pressure, and military threats” against the communist country that “will get them nowhere”.

The nuclear force of the DPRK has become a strong deterrent for firmly protecting peace and security of the Korean Peninsula and the rest of Northeast Asia and creditably guaranteeing the sovereignty and the rights to existence and development of the Korean nation, using the acronym for the country’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

The Uriminzokkiri commentary denounced the military build-up near North Korea. “It is ridiculous for the US to try to browbeat the DPRK through such muscle-flexing as deploying nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines near the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity and flying nuclear-capable strategic bombers on it,” it said.

The USA has said it will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea and Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” the country. In response, Kim Jong-un’s leadership said it may conduct an atmospheric nuclear weapons test. North Korea dared USA to make the first military move.

In advance of Trump’s visit, three American aircraft carrier strike groups have been deployed to the region, a move military analysts have described as unusual. Stratfor, a US-based intelligence analysis company, noted in a report that the US Air Force also will send a dozen F-35A stealth fighter jets to a base in Japan in early November.

The gathering is a rare occurrence – the last time three US aircraft carrier strike groups convened for a combined exercise was in 2007 – and will give the United States a powerful force within striking distance of North Korea,” Stratfor said.”Taken together, these developments suggest that the United States is preparing for a confrontation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Washington is gearing up to start a war with Pyongyang,” a report concluded.

Michael T Clare, a professor of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College in the US, wrote: “There can be only two plausible explanations for this extraordinary naval buildup: to provide Trump with the sort of military extravaganza he seems to enjoy; and/or to prepare for a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea.”

Tensions remain sky high after North Korea’s sixth and most powerful underground nuclear test in September, and a flurry of ballistic missile tests in recent months.

Will there be a war on the Korean Peninsula?

Absolutely there is no chance for a direct US war with North Korea, a close ally of China and Russia – another veto member.  Russia and China would reject any US proposal in UN for a war with NK. USA would not dare attack North Korea on its own or under the NATO banner since Russia and China might as well enter the war, making it a beginning of an official WW-III.

There could be possible triggers for war with North Korea that need to be carefully watched. The first possible trigger is a declaration of war by North Korea, especially since the USA has made clear it has not declared war. This won’t happen because Russia and China would not support it. The idea that countries would formally declare war against each other, before commencing hostilities, is a relic of the early 20th century. Although remnants of the practice remain, it was largely outdated by the Second World War as the military advantages of surprise as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the Nazi attack on Soviet Russia, made clear.

The second possible trigger is the North Korea threat of a possible detonation of a nuclear device in the atmosphere over the Pacific. Although the aesthetics of such an act would shock the world as humanity has not seen a nuclear airburst since that done by China in 1980, this would not be the beginning of hostilities. However, if Kim explodes it in international territory, such as the high seas, he faces different rules, such as when Australia and New Zealand took France to the International Court of Justice after French atmospheric testing caused radiation pollution to fall on them, downwind. It was for this reason of pollution that most of the global community concluded an international agreement prohibiting such atmospheric nuclear testing. The third possible trigger is the North Korea threat to shoot down aircraft in international airspace as in, mirroring the territorial sea, 12 nautical miles/22.2km out from the land. Previously in 1969, North Korea did shoot down an American spy plane, killing all 31 members aboard when it was operating in international airspace. At that point, President Nixon did not respond with violence due to a fear of how the Soviet Union and China would react.

Interestingly, upon arriving Tokyo, Trump has asked Japan to attack North Korea by firing missiles to that nation. Japan is yet to respond to US demand. .

After the Second World War, the UN seeking global peace hoped that all members would refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, to which Declarations of War by individual states would become redundant. However, when the North Korean armed forces advanced over the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, without a declaration of war, it was shown how in vain this hope was. The response to this act of aggression by North Korea was the 84th resolution of the Security Council (when the Soviet Union was absent from the vote) to defend South Korea under the UN flag but with the leadership of the US.

Today, the situation is even more complicated as the North Korean rhetoric of declaring war is not uncommon. Following the 2013 sanctions approved by the Security Council against North Korea for their nuclear test, Kim Jong-un promised a pre-emptive strike against the USA with its nuclear weapons. This was followed by a “Full War Declaration Statement”. This was all part of their assertions that North Korea had scrapped the armistice that ended the first Korean War in 1953.

To show their determination in 2013, North Korea also cut the hotline that enabled direct communication between North and South Korea. Although the hotline was reconnected a few months later, when South Korea closed down the joint Kaesong industrial complex following Kim Jung-un’s fourth nuclear test in early 2016, North Korea condemned the act as a Declaration of War, and then cut the hotline again.

Cutting the hotline is more dangerous than the rhetoric. Hotlines prevent accidental war. South Korea, which has a hotline to China, has been trying to have its hotline to North Korea reconnected. However, the line that is really needed is one between North Korea and Washington. Such best practice has been evident since 1963, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the two superpowers recognised the necessity to be able to talk directly, at short notice, whenever required so as not to stumble into nuclear war.

Today, war planes of both USA and Russia keep flying over very close to  each other’s space. Russian military aircraft have flown over 60 times close to Alaska or down past the edge of Western Europe in the past 10 years have shown, no matter how unpleasant such acts may be, such planes may be intercepted and followed, but they may not be shot down if they do not cross into territorial airspace. To ensure that no mistakes are made in this carefully choreographed sabre rattling, certain rules need to apply – primarily, the planes should not be invisible.

If Kim decides to take down one of the American planes flying in international airspace, as his grandfather Kim Il-sung did in earlier times, he would be gambling against the odds that President Trump will not respond with violence.

However, if USA would declare war on North Korea is a trillion dollar question. Will Trump order the Pentagon to attack North Korea disregarding the worst, devastating consequences?

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Xinjiang: Pan-Turkism fuels China’s hearts-and-minds campaign

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Chinese efforts to woo Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community highlight the People’s Republic’s effort to avert criticism from the Muslim world of its crackdown in the north-western province of Xinjiang and strengthen relations with the kingdom and Middle Eastern nations.

The efforts to woo a community, a significant part of which is of Turkic origin, identifies itself as Turkestani, and long supported greater rights, if not independence for Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, are part of a larger, long-standing global Chinese effort to ensure the support of a mushrooming Chinese diaspora not only for its policy in Xinjiang, but also for its anti-Taiwanese One China policy and growing economic and geopolitical influence.

Tukestanis…do not identify as ‘Chinese in the ethnic, cultural or even geographic sense. Parts of this cluster perceive themselves…as being part of an oppressed group whose homeland is currently under Han occupation,“ said Muhammed Al-Sudairi, a Saudi China scholar and author of a recent report on the Chinese efforts in Saudi Arabia.

In wooing Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community, China is targeting a group that not only historically supported the Uyghurs but also maintained close ties to Taiwan. Mr. Al-Sudairi estimated the Saudi Chinese community to number at least 210,000, 150,000 of which have lived in the kingdom for decades.

It is a community that played a significant role in Saudi Arabia’s propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in China, part of a four-decade-long global campaign to counter post-1979 Iranian post-revolutionary zeal that more recently with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being curbed and given a more moderate makeover.

China this week sought to tighten relations with the Arab world with the allocation of US$106 million in aid to troubled nations, including Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon and the creation of a US$3 billion joint Chinese Arab fund that would invest in transportation infrastructure, oil and gas, finance, digital economy and artificial intelligence.

China announced the financial initiatives at a moment that it was putting the brakes on funds it pumps into its infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative that aims to connect Eurasia to the People’s Republic. The slowdown was designed to ensure that the initiative does not become a drag on the Chinese economy.

China’s Xinhua news agency meanwhile reported that President Xi Jingping would visit the United Arab Emirates this month on his way to a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Johannesburg. Mr. Xi visited Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt in 2016, the first visit to the Middle East by a Chinese head of state in seven years.

Chinese concern about Uyghur sentiment is compounded by the revival in post-Soviet Central Asian nations of pan-Turkism, a movement that emerged in the late 1900s that aims to unite Asia’s Turkic people. Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev sees pan-Turkism as a pillar of his country’s national identity.

Quoting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, Mr. Nazarbayev told a gathering in Ankara in 2012 that “the time will come when all the Turks will unite. Therefore I want to greet all the Turkic-speaking brothers. Between Altai and the Mediterranean Sea, over 200 million brothers live. If we all unite, then we will be a very effective force in the world.”

Pan-Turkism’s appeal in Central Asia, boosted by what Russia’s annexation of Crimea could mean for other post-Soviet states, does not stop at the borders of Xinjiang. The Altai mountains, Mr. Nazarbayev referred to is where Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia meet.

Mr. Nazarbayev last month took several steps to popularize pan-Turkic notions. The president sent a congratulatory message to a gathering celebrating the 125th anniversary of Magzhan Zhumabayev, a Soviet pan-Turkist poet whose works were banned by Joseph Stalin.

Days earlier, Mr. Nazarbayev signed a decree renaming the southern region of Shymkent as Turkestan, a reference to what pan-Turkists see as their spiritual homeland.

The rise of pan-Turkism puts China’s recent focus on Saudi Arabia’s Chinese Turkic community in a class of its own. China sought to boost its efforts by appointing in 2013 Anwar Habibullah, one of China’s few Uyghur diplomats as consul general in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

The consulate, since Mr. Habibullah’s appointment conducts events not only in Mandarin and Arabic but also Uyghur, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi.

Mr. Al-Sudairi attributes the focus on the Saudi Uyghurs, one of the largest and wealthy Chinese Turkic diaspora communities, “to the role of this community as a stronghold for anti-Chinse and anti-CPC (Communist Party of China) sentiment in Saudi Arabia, and one that has had some influence in shaping Saudi elite and popular perceptions toward the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and CPC.”

The Chinese focus is also fed by the country’s determination to stem the influence of what it terms extremist thought, including Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, that was promoted by Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese through their contact with Uyghur pilgrims and the distribution of literature and, audio-visual materials in Xinjiang, often through governmental non-governmental organizations like the Muslim World League, a major vehicle in Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.

Mr. Al-Sudairi’s portrayal of Saudi Turkic sentiment and its impact on perceptions of China in Saudi Arabia is noticeable given the fact that the kingdom, like almost all Muslim states, has turned a blind eye to China’s crackdown in Xinjiang and systematic attempts at forced assimilation of the Uyghurs.

Muhammad Amin Islam Turkestani, a strident Uyghur advocate of Xinjiang independence helped shape Saudi perceptions and propagate nationalism in his homeland after settling in the kingdom in the mid-1950s. Mr. Turkestani served as a translator for Uyghurs performing the haj and hosted a one-hour Uyghur-language show on Saudi radio in the 1980s.

Funded by the Saudi Turkic community, Mr. Turkestani published a book, A Message to the Islamic World … Facts about Muslim Turkestan, that criticized Han supremacism and denounced communist rule. The book was published in the kingdom and distributed locally as well as internationally as part of Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.

Mr. Turkestani’s book, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi, influenced Saudi discussions and perceptions and complicated the kingdom’s relations with China before and after Saudi Arabia in 1990 became the last Arab state to officially establish diplomatic relations.

Saudi Arabia, however, while at times critical of Chinese policy in Xinjiang, ensured that they plight of the Uyghurs did not fundamentally affect official relations.

The country’s controlled media were at times allowed to raise the issues and senior religious scholars called for support of the Uyghurs, Mr. Turkestani’s campaign to get the Muslim World League to recognize East Turkestan went however unheeded.

Moreover, no senior Saudi scholar has issued a fatwa or religious opinion on the issue. “Uyghur persecution by China will not stop the Saudis’ engagement with China, nor even slow it down,” said prominent China scholar Yitzhak Shichor.

The Chinese effort to woo Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese is being spearheaded by the United Front Work Department, the main communist party unit tasked with reaching out to key non-part groups in China and across the globe, including Saudi Arabia.

“In January 2018…Politburo member and former Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, Yang Jiechi, told the National Overseas Chinese Conference that the government should expand and strengthen ‘Overseas Chinese Patriotic Friendly Forces’ in the service of the ‘Great Rejuvenation’ of the Chinese nation. In plain language, what this means is that overseas Chinese should be persuaded, induced, or in extremis, coerced, into accepting allegiance to China as at least part of their identity,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat and chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, in a recent speech.

Mr. Kausikan noted that the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was incorporated two months after Mr. Yang’s remarks into the United Front Work Department.

“This is leading China into very complex, indeed dangerous, territory. China’s navigation of the complexities has in many cases been clumsy,” Mr. Kausikan said, noting that the policy had led Chinese diplomats to openly interfere in the domestic politics in for example Malaysia.

“Since my retirement, I have travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Complaints about similar behaviour by Chinese diplomats and officials are all too common in all these regions; in fact, so common that it is becoming somewhat tiresome to listen to them,” Mr Kausikan said.

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Xinjiang: China ignores lessons from the past

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uyghurs in its north-western province of Xinjiang in a bid to erase nationalist sentiment, counter militancy, and create an ‘Uyghur Islam with Chinese characteristics’ ignores lessons learnt not only from recent Chinese history but also the experience of others.

The campaign, reminiscent of failed attempts to undermine Uyghur culture during the Cultural Revolution, involves the creation of a surveillance state of the future and the forced re-education of large numbers of Turkic Muslims.

In what amounts to an attempt to square a circle, China is trying to reconcile the free flow of ideas inherent to open borders, trade and travel with an effort to fully control the hearts and minds of it population.

In doing so, it is ignoring lessons of recent history, including the fallout of selective support for militants and of religion to neutralize nationalism that risks letting a genie out of the bottle.

Recent history is littered with Chinese, US and Middle Eastern examples of the backfiring of government support of Islamists and/or militants.

No example is more glaring than US, Saudi, Pakistani and Chinese support in the 1980s for militant Islamists who fought and ultimately forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences of that support have reverberated across the globe ever since.

Some analysts suggest that China at the time was aware of the radicalization of Uyghurs involved in the Afghan jihad and may have even condoned it.

Journalist John Cooley reported that China, in fact, had in cooperation with Pakistan trained and armed Uyghurs in Xinjiang as well as Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The notion that Islam and/or Islamists could help governments counter their detractors was the flavour of the era of the 1970s and 1980s.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat saw the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-dote to the left that was critical of both his economic liberalization and outreach to Israel that resulted in the first peace treaty with an Arab state.

Saudi Arabia funded a four-decade long effort to promote ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam and backed the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces that helped create the breeding ground for jihadism and wreaked havoc in countries like Pakistan.

China’s experience with selective support of militancy and the use of religion to counter nationalist and/or other political forces is no different.

China’s shielding from designation by the United Nations as a global terrorist of Masood Azhar complicates Pakistani efforts to counter militancy at home and evade blacklisting by an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.

Mr. Azhar, a fighter in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for a 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station.

Back in the 1980s, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping saw his belief that what China expert Justin Jon Rudelson called a “controlled revival” of religion would foster economic development and counter anti-government sentiment boomerang.

The revival that enabled an ever larger number of Uyghurs to travel to Mecca via Pakistan for the haj made Saudi Arabia and the South Asian state influential players in Uyghur Islam. Uyghurs, wanting to perform the haj, frequently needed Pakistani contacts to act as their hosts to be able to obtain a Chinese exit visa.

The opening, moreover, allowed Muslim donors to provide financial assistance to Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia capitalized on the opportunity as part of its global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to put money into the building of mosques and establishment of madrassas.

Receptivity for more conservatives forms of Islam, particularly in southern parts of Xinjiang that were closest to Central and South Asia, suggested that the closure of Xinjiang’s borders during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s and 1960s and the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had done little to persuade Uyghurs to focus their identity more on China than on Central Asia.

In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia coupled with rising inequality rekindled Uyghur nationalism.

The rise of militant Islamist and jihadist Uyghurs constituted in many ways a fusion of Soviet and Western-inspired secular nationalist ideas that originated in Central Asia with religious trends more popular in South Asia and the Gulf in an environment in which religious and ethnic identity were already inextricably interlinked.

The juxtaposition, moreover, of exposure to more orthodox forms of Islam and enhanced communication also facilitated the introduction of Soviet concepts of national liberation, which China had similarly adhered to with its support for various liberation movements in the developing world.

The exposure put Xinjiang Uyghurs in touch with nationalist Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that fed on what political science PhD candidate Joshua Tschantret terms “ideology-feeding grievances.”

Nationalists, dubbed ‘identity entrepreneurs’ by Gulf scholar Toby Matthiesen, built on the presence of some 100,000 Uyghurs who had fled to Central Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960 during Mao Zedong’s social and economic Great Leap Forward campaign that brutally sought to introduce industrialization and collectivization and the descendants of earlier migrations.

With Pakistan’s political, economic and religious elite, ultimately seduced by Chinese economic opportunity and willing to turn a blind eye to developments in Xinjiang, Uyghurs in the South Asian country had little alternative but to drift towards the country’s militants.

Militant madrassas yielded, however, to Pakistani government pressure to stop enrolling Uyghurs. The militants were eager to preserve tacit Chinese support for anti-Indian militants operating in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s foremost Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, went as far as signing in 2009 a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese communist party that pledged support for Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang.

Despite eagerness to address Chinese concerns, Pakistan and China’s selective support of militants is likely to continue to offer radicalized Uyghurs opportunity.

“Jihadis and other religious extremists will continue to benefit from the unwillingness of the military and the judiciary to target them as well as the temptation of politicians to benefit from their support,” said former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, discussing overall Pakistani policy rather than official attitudes towards the Uyghurs.

Cultural anthropologist Sean R. Roberts noted that Central and South Asia became with the reopening of the borders in the second half of the 1980s “critical links between the inhabitants of Xinjiang and both the Islamic and Western worlds; and politically, they have become pivotal but contentious areas of support for the independence movement of Uyghurs.

The 1979 inauguration of the of the 1,300-kilometre-long Karakoram highway linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Abbottabad in Pakistan, one of the highest paved roads in the world, served as a conduit for Saudi-inspired religious ultra-conservatism, particularly in southern Xinjiang as large numbers of Pakistanis and Uyghurs traversed the border.

Pakistani traders doubled as laymen missionaries adding Islamic artefacts, including pictures of holy places, Qurans and other religious literature to their palette of goods at a time that Islamist fighters were riding high with their defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban.

Increased religiosity became apparent in Xinjiang.

Women donned veils in what was traditionally a more liberal land. Students of religion made their way to madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan where they came into contact with often Saudi-inspired Pakistani and Afghan militants – trends that China is trying to reverse with the construction of an Orwellian type surveillance state coupled with stepped-up repression and intimidation.

“The cross-border linkages established by the Uyghurs through access provided by the highway, Beijing’s tacit consent to expand Uyghur travel and economic links with Pakistan through Reform Era policies, and Beijing’s explicit consent in supporting anti-Soviet operations – all prompted the radicalization of a portion of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs,” concluded China scholar Ziad Haider more than a decade ago.

The process was fuelled by the recruitment in the 1990s of Uyghur students in Pakistani madrassas by the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, both of which were linked to Al Qaeda. Some 22 Uyghurs captured by US forces in Afghanistan ended up in Guantanamo Bay.

The eruption of protests in Xinjiang in the late 1990s and late 2000s against rising income differences and the influx of Han Chinese put an end to official endorsement of a religious revival that was increasingly seen by authorities as fuelling nationalism and facilitating Islamists.

Seemingly stubborn insistence on a Turkic and Muslim identity is likely one reason that China’s current assimilation drive comes as Xinjiang’s doors to its neighbours are being swung open even wider with the construction of new road and rail links as part of the People’s Republic’s infrastructure-centred Belt and Road initiative.

Forced assimilation is designed to bolster China’s expectation that increased economic ties to South and Central Asia will contribute to development of its north-western province, giving Uyghurs a stake that they will not want to put at risk by adhering to nationalist or militant religious sentiment.

The crackdown and forced assimilation is further intended to reduce the risk of a flow of ideas and influences through open borders needed for economic development and cementing Xinjiang into the framework of China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiatives that spans Eurasia

The assimilation effort is enabled by China’s Great Fire Wall designed to wall the country off of free access to the Internet. In doing so, China hoped in Xinjiang to halt cultural exchanges with Central Asia such as political satire that could reinforce Uyghurs’ Turkic and Central Asian identity.

The breadth of the more recent crackdown has complicated but not halted the underground flow of cultural products enabled by trade networks.

Mr. Roberts noted as early as 2004 that Chinese efforts aiming to regulate rather than reshape or suppress Islam were backfiring.

“Interest in the idea of establishing a Muslim state in Xinjiang has only increased with recent Chinese policies that serve to regulate the practice of Islam in the region,” Mr. Roberts said at the time.

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East Asia

The transformation of the North Korean military and political system

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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How is North Korea’s political system currently changing, pending the Great Transformation with the USA and South Korea, wanted and carefully directed by Kim Jong-un?

In the future the Great Leader wants to have a new ruling class suitable for the economic and strategic changes which will affect North Korea in the coming years.

Far-reaching military and economic changes, with the support of Iran, the Russian Federation, China and other countries.

According to Kim Jong-un, without prejudice to the regime’s structure, everything else must change.

In the framework of this change, the State and the Party must be turned into quick and agile tools in the hands of the Leader and of his partly-renewed inner circle.

Kim Jong-un’s primary goal is to control the initial phase of North Korea’s economic transformation, as well as to keep the grip on the Armed Forces and the Party, and to finally create a new ruling class for managing denuclearization and the economic transformation.

In the case of North Korean Armed Forces, the new appointments have mainly concerned the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the Chief of Staff Department of People’s Armed Forces – with new appointments also in the Directorate of Operations – and, finally, the Director of the General Political Bureau of the Armed Forces.

In the specific hierarchy of the North Korean military system, these are the three most important posts.

Furthermore, each of the three above mentioned roles implies the alternating or fixed presence of the Workers’ Party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the Political Bureau.

Therefore the new appointments are No Kwang Chol, former first vice-Minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, replacing Pak Yong Sik, while Ri Yong-gil replaces his former boss, Ri Myong-su.

Ri Yong-gil was Commander of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, but he was later removed from office in February 2016.

As early as 2013 he had been Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and, despite the recent events, he had a stable and secure military career.

From 2014 to 2018 Ri Yong-gil was also Head of the Pyongyang Committee of the Workers’ Party.

From 2012 to 2013 he accompanied Kim Jong-un on many visits to nuclear and bacteriological-chemical sites.

Considering the symbolic relevance of the North Korean power, he is probably one of the true leaders of the nuclear and bacteriological-chemical program of the North Korean Armed Forces.

Ri Yong-gil was at first Party’s official and later became officer of the North Korean Armed Forces, while always keeping political and party positions rather than technically military ones.

Moreover, Kim Jong-un is still playing many of his cards on the Defence Ministry.

It is a source of foreign currency and of excellent profit in relation to the friendly powers, as well as of social control and of real and effective foreign policy.

Under the current leader, Kim Jong-un, six new Defence Ministers have been appointed.

Pak Yong-sik is one of the Ministers removed from office.

Probably he had some business roles, but we cannot rule out that in the future he can start again his career, interrupted on the basis of unpleasant news about his role as businessman in the phase of the Sunshine Policy with South Korea.

He had been member of the Council of State, of the Central Committee and of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, as well as of the Central Military Commission and finally of the Political Committee of the Pyongyang Defence Command.

Clearly Kim Jong-un is measuring his potential enemy lobby.

And he is certainly planning the generational and political change of all the important positions of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.

As we will see later on, the new Minister No Kwang Chol was Head of the Second Economic Committee, which is in charge of the defence industry and hence connected with North Korea’s supervision and construction of conventional and nuclear weapons.

He is an excellent manager loyal to Kim Jong-un.

He held various posts in the North Korean political system.

These newly-appointed people have certainly been selected due to their absolute loyalty to Kim Jong-un and the Party,but we must better analyse the decision-making process of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as their specific role.

The naive analysts who think that Kim Jong-un is “prisoner” of his ruling class have understood nothing of North Korea’s political and economic mechanism.

For the Leader, both loyalty and professional skills are needed. He is willing to get over some affectation or groveling too much, but Kim Jong-un wants the best of his technocracy, subject to loyalty to the Party and to himself.

And, above all, subject to the absolute non-involvement in any financial and commercial activity having even the slightest hint of irregularity.

Corrupt people are always at the mercy of the enemy’s blackmail.

The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, however, is currently placed under the dual and symmetrical control of the State Affairs Commission of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Nevertheless the Ministry deals mainly with the logistics and training of the Special Forces and operates with approximately 36 external organizations.

The Ministry acquires the orders, requests and notes from the basic military units and later organizes and distributes them between the Central Military Commission, the General Staff and the Party’s Ammunition Department.

The Ministry also deals with military finance and operates with commercial companies and production units which can export goods and hence supply the country with hard currency.

In fact, as already noted, at least 36 commercial companies operate in the field of export and internal distribution.

But someone talks about 50 of these companies.

The naive Western analysts were wrong in believing that the People’s Armed Forces were a “terrible cost” for the people and a huge obstacle to economic development.

The opposite was, and is, true.

Therefore the military system operates, above all, with the 44thBureau of the People’s Armed Forces, in controlling most of North Korea’s hard currency flows.

The Technology Transfer Department has also relations with both the companies owned by the Party and by the Ministry’s Ammunition Department.

In particular, it deals with the acquisition of information technology and advanced weapon systems.

The General Department of Logistics deals above all with the network of factories and farms supplying food and clothing to the People’s Armed Forces.

Sometimes they operate for the civilian and foreign market of food and clothing.

The Ministry, however, is subject to the control of the State Affairs Commission, which originates both from the Government and the Party, as well as from the Central Military Commission, which anyway results from the Party-government link only.

It is worth recalling that as early as 2000, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces directly controlled the Political Department, the General Staff, the Military Security Command, the Reconnaissance Bureau and the Coast Guard Command.

Later, around 2007, all these structures became an integral part of the Ministry itself, which was placed under the control of the National Defence Commission.

In 2016 the latter saw its powers restricted and was placed under the State Affairs Commission’s control.

It should also be noted that, unlike Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un has revolutionised the People’s Armed Forces more than any other predecessor.

For example, there was the handover in February 2009 – just before Kim Jong-un’s role as heir to Kim Jong-il was officially declared.

As you may recall, this happened in September 2010.

At that stage, only seven of the most important positions in the North Korean military system were changed. It was the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s grip on power.

The North Korean Leader had carefully analysed all the military and economic positions well before his full rise to power.

From July to November of that year, the Political Committee (PC) of People’s Armed Forces was combed through by the North Korean leadership.

It was, in fact, the first scrutiny carried out by the Organization and Guidance Department after 1996.

There were some surprises: for example, the PC ships that secretly fished in Japanese waters; some military promotions in exchange for “bribes”; some accounting problems and some suspicions of corruption.

As is typical of his political role, Kim Jong-un has been very harsh in putting an end to these situations and punishing these behaviours.

In fact, in 2017 many executives of the Political Bureau of People’s Armed Forces were removed, with repercussions on the military forces that,as can be easily imagined, affected also the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

Only after this long “purge” did Kim Jong-un focus on negotiations with South Korea and the USA.

In November 2017 Son Chol Ju, one of the officers promoted with the position of  Colonel entrusted “with upper management and tasks”, was appointed as Head of the Organizational Affairs Department of People’s Armed Forces, but his appointment was made public only in May 2018.

As already noted, Son Chol Ju has replaced Jon Nam Jin and, most likely, also Kim Wong Hong.

Until that date Son Chol Ju had been the Director of the Political Bureau with the portfolio for organizational affairs, where he had spent his entire career.

Before taking this post, Son Chol Ju was political Director of the Air and Anti-Air Force, in addition to being Head of the respective political committee.

Probably Son Chol Ju was Head of the Political Bureau with the Propaganda portfolio, especially in the Pyongyang region.

In the meeting held on April 2018 Kim Jong Gak was elected to the Political Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

These changes of the North Korean ruling elite, however, show the extreme and non-negotiable power now reached by Kim Jong-un, unlike what claimed by the most naive, but very widespread, Western analyses.

This is one of the signs that, in a North Korean extremely important phase, the Party wants to control its “separate bodies”, with a view to avoiding “political advantages” and the systems of influence – even the foreign ones – as well as all the grey and black areas of finance which must currently be transformed and be directly controlled by the Party and its ruling class.

In this phase we need to study the careers of important personalities such as Jo Kyong Chol, the Director of the Military Security Command since 2009, as well as full member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and member of Kim Jong-il’s Funeral Committee.

Jo Kyong Chol was essential in strengthening Kim Jong-un’s power – a member of the “old guard” that wanted continuity, independence and military power for North Korea.

Hence he has accepted the new system of international relations in North Korea.

Currently Kim Jong-un certainly wants the regime’s continuity, but also and above all the emergence of a ruling class capable – by training, background and political culture – of organizing the North Korean stability in a phase of opening to the world market.

Ri Song Guk, another fer de lance of Kim Jong-un’s current political and military system, currently leads North Korea’s Fourth Army Corps – after leading the 39th Division – a very special military structure deployed near the Yellow Sea and the Northern Limit Line.

He is the current Director for Special Operations of the Central Command.

Yung Jong-rin is serving as the Commander of the Supreme Guard Command – therefore he is responsible for Kim Jong-un’s personal safety, but he had the same post with Kim Jong-il and is hence the Commander of the most technologically advanced security service in North Korea.

He has been member of the Central Military Commission since September 2010, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, and General since April 22, 2010.

Hence Kim Jong-un is preparing the ruling class that will defend North Korea’s interests in its new, gradual and slow globalization.

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