The meeting between the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-Un, and the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, will be held in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27-28, 2019.
The primary aim, as stated by both Heads of State, is the solution of the North Korean and US nuclear issue in South Korea.
The news of the meeting had initially been delivered by President Trump, in his speech on the State of the Union, but also in a long series of now inevitable Twitter messages.
Indeed, after the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong-Un and Trump, in the first half of June 2018, the negotiations between the two countries had clearly stalled.
The results reached in Singapore, however, were very significant: the US Armed Forces’ cessation of the joint exercises with South Korea’s military structures; the certainty – as stated by President Trump – that Kim Jong-Un would dismantle his nuclear system “very quickly”, but also the continuation of US economic sanctions against North Korea, unless “quick and new” choices were made by Kim Jong-Un.
It should also be noted that the decision to suspend the joint military exercises with South Korea was a real bolt from the blue for the country, above all while President Trump enabled North Korea to use the nuclear and conventional IAEA “safety measures” – an unavoidable and necessary factor of a future and quick disarmament.
Since the Singapore Summit the denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula has been the aim of both Heads of State, but with a too generic approach on the procedures and time schedule of the checks on disarmament.
For the time being, however, while from the beginning of its autonomous negotiations with South Korea, North Korea has always avoided carrying out nuclear or missile exercises and tests, certainly no one has declared or shown interest in really endeavouring for denuclearization in both Koreas.
However, why has Hanoi been chosen as venue of the meeting?
The choice has been made precisely by President Trump because the capital of Vietnam, which is still a painful symbol for the United States, has managed to become a great pole of international economic development, after its reunification with the Communist North Vietnam.
In a Twitter message President Trump wrote: “Under Kim Jong-Un’s leadership, North Korea will become the great economic powerhouse of Southeast Asia, considering that I have gotten to know Kim and fully understand how capable he is as a politically rational leader”.
It is not just flattering. Probably President Trump has been fascinated by this young North Korean leader, heir to an extraordinary ancestry, who studied in Switzerland, followed his cursus honorum in the true control rooms of North Korea’s power, and was modest while he was learning and is now assertive, without rhetoric, when he rules.
Pending his visit to Vietnam, the North Korean leader will visit the factories of the Bac Ninh Province, northeast of Hanoi, with a view to probing the concrete possibility of building a smartphone factory jointly with the South Korean company Samsung.
Most likely, there will also be a visit by the North Korean leader to Ha Long Bay, a popular tourist area near Haiphong.
If we do not think about quality tourism, we cannot properly imagine the future development of North Korea, which will also fit very well in the new global food chains.
It should also be noted that this visit by Kim Jong-Un is the first one he pays to Vietnam.
It is also worth recalling that North Korea sent some of its air forces to fight alongside the VietMihn of the Vietnamese Communist “resistance”, as well as Russia and China. Currently, however, Vietnam’s primary economic partner is, coincidentally, South Korea and this has certainly not contributed to preserve good relations between North Korea and Vietnam.
The meeting between the Head of US negotiators, Stephen Biegun, with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok-Chol, has already taken place in Hanoi and Pyongyang – a meeting always focused on topic number 1, namely denuclearization.
Before this assignment in relation to North Korea, Stephen Biegun was responsible for Ford Motor Co’s international relations.
He knows Russian and Moscow’s economic and political circles very well. He is member of the Board of the U.S. Russia Foundation and of Ford Sollers, the joint venture of Ford Motor Co.in the Russian Federation.
Kim Hyok-Chol had met Biegun also in Pyongyang, where they had already talked about “complete denuclearization”.
The denuclearization that will probably emerge in its already final form at the end of the Hanoi talks between the two leaders.
We can already predict it will envisage the dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor and some funds to support North Korea’s economic growth, with a very “long-term” loan for funding the nuclear decommissioning of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In fact, the latest satellite images of the North Korean reactor Yongbyon show a still active and well-maintained site, while the main structures of the reactor seem to be still unused to date.
Kim Jong-Un has already decided that Yongbyon will be the start of the great North Korean denuclearization process.
Both symbol and substance.
An image to be shown the world and a credible subject of negotiation.
Kim Jong-Un has always said – also to his South Korean counterpart – that it would be Yongbyon to be closed down, at the beginning of negotiations, “if there were corresponding actions by the United States”.
It is easy to imagine them: the “sincere” measures envisaged by Kim Jong-Un, in his last New Year’s speech, are the removal from South Korea of the US military and nuclear structures that can allow a response to the first nuclear attack from the North.
In 2018 alone, North Korea also destroyed both a nuclear base and a missile structure, but the United States said that these operations had not been fully accomplished and, in any case, they could be easily reversed.
According to some US nuclear disarmament experts, Kim Jong-Un could reach a level just at the limit of complete nuclear disarmament, but such measures would be such as to clearly regionalize North Korea’s nuclear (and hence missile) threat.
In short,Kim Jong-Un “rescues” the United States from its missiles.
This also means that, in a military or geopolitical regional crisis, Kim Jong-Un could also “involve” both China and Japan in the negotiations, thus multiplying both the effect of his threat and the strength of his final resigning to continue the attack.
The other factor will be the “new and soft phase” of relations between North and South Korea, with a significant reduction in the number of guard posts and internal weapons within the Demilitarized Zone.
For the North Korean leader the next step will be to almost completely put an end to the old alliance between South Korea and the United States which, in his opinion, is always a harbinger of dangerous military (and, in the future, also economic) presences that would push a de facto unified Korea to get out of the triangle which will effectively replace the North Korean nuclear system, i.e. the North Korean strategic integration with China and the Russian Federation.
Even the planned dismantling of Yongbyon, however, would leave North Korea with a substantial amount of nuclear weapons, and the possibility of producing enriched uranium elsewhere.
Nevertheless, there would anyway be a definitive stop to the production of plutonium by North Korea, which is a very important political and strategic result.
It should be recalled, however, that even the sole dismantling of Yongbyon is a remarkable technological, financial and political operation.
A stable connection would be needed between the United States, the Russian Federation, China and, probably, South Korea, and even the now residual European Union.
In addition to IAEA, of course.
It will take many years and huge funds to achieve this result. Needless to cherish the fond hope.
Just to give an example, the Rocky Flats US headquarters used for storing plutonium, was dismantled in 14 years at a cost of 9 billion US dollars.
In Belgium, Eurchemic was decommissioned and dismantled in 25 years at a cost of 333.75 million US dollars.
Probably the most rational and quick choice will be to entrust the decommissioning of Yongbyon to a joint political and financial organization between the United States and North Korea.
Nevertheless, how will North Korea afford it? Obviously it will not want to have external support – and rightly so – but, hence, how can the issue be solved?
The huge cost of decommissioning the site must anyway be shared by a sufficient number of actors. North Korea cannot materially bear 50% of all costs.
Hence support will be inevitably needed from South Korea, the Russian Federation and China, but also from Japan and, probably, an axis between Vietnam and Thailand, for example.
It is impossible for the United States and North Korea alone to bear all the costs.
We could also think about an ad hoc investment bank which, at international level, would be entrusted with the task of funding the operation, at least partly, so as to later organize business projects in North Korea, in full agreement with Kim Jong-Un’s leadership.
Once clarified the financial framework, the technical operations of decommissioning could also be very quick: reinforced concrete “containers” to be filled with nuclear N materials would be used. Then the reactor (and the iodine selector filters) cells would be emptied, but what is left would be covered again with much reinforced concrete, without further removals that could be postponed to economically better times.
The plasma torches and all the other current techniques could almost immediately stop the action of radioactive materials, but with a maximum amount of staff that could be about 150 technicians and at least 70 elements, all selected among North Korean experts.
In short, if all this can happen in the future, the solution for Yongbyon will be found in less than a year and at a predictable cost of 6 million US dollars.
The 5 MWe reactor defueling is a further problem.
This is the primary source of plutonium.
The defueling would cost approximately 3 million US dollars, all inclusive, while the real dismantling would cost about 30 million US dollars.
Hence the total cost for dismantling the plutonium and uranium networks, the centrifuges and the reactor will range between 300 million US dollars, in an initial and scarcely effective phase, and as many as 1.6 billion US dollars.
Under IAEA sole control, the dismantling of all North Korean facilities will last at least twenty years, at the aforementioned cost of 1.6 US dollars, but without IAEA supervision it will take at least ten years and almost one billion US dollars.
Why confining the negotiations for peace and inclusion of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea into the world market only to the nuclear issue?
It is most likely that the North Korean chemical weapon warehouse is “old”, but there are certainly still VX and CW agents, G-series and V-series nerve agents that are certainly not negligible in any confrontation capable of endangering North Korean stability and political identity.
What about discussing it in the Summit, at least in an initial phase? What about establishing a rational military balance between the United States, Russia and China in the whole Asian continent?
Kim Jong-Un could – and certainly will- be a fully rational actor, who will know how to evaluate the best potential for the defence of his country, but without the silly memories of the Cold War.
This also applies to North Korea’s chemical weapons, which Kim Jong-Un will deal with the necessary flexibility, but also with a compensatory criterion with respect to his nuclear system.
Hence the prospects for the North Korean leadership could be the following:
a) keeping a minimum share of chemical, bacteriological and even nuclear weapons to effectively react to any North Korea’s political crisis. The calculation of the Minimum that a statesman must always be able to do. A possible solution could be an official statement, just before or even during the forthcoming Hanoi Summit, that there will be a mutual and official recognition between the United States and North Korea – a definitive document dealing with borders, the political personality, the regular exchange of ambassadors and cultural, commercial and financial relationships.
b) An agreement for the transfer of nuclear and bacteriological-chemical stocks to a third country, under the supervision of the international Agencies responsible for the operations. An already possible agreement could be separating and dividing stocks between China, the Russian Federation, South Korea, Japan, the United States and even the irrelevant EU.
c) Support to the military police and security forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for monitoring staff, stocks and their political use by unreliable elements of Kim Jong-Un’s regime. A relationship between intelligence services that is unavoidable, considering the future commitments.
Hence North Korea must know very well that if there is someone interested in the stability of the regime, this is precisely the axis of Western powers that are accepting Kim Jong-Un’s openings, with laborious rationality.
It will therefore be essential to envisage – with the figures and costs already mentioned above, as well as the respective allocations and breakdowns – a refinancing project, especially in the short term, of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea which shall mainly concern:
1) the prevention of humanitarian disasters, also with the same UN Agencies that have been supporting North Korea on these issues for over 23 years. Once again, there is no problem in this regard. Apart from China that, in fact, currently supports – almost alone – North Korea against international sanctions, it will be necessary to stabilize aid and organize it in a different way, considering the costs of the large nuclear decommissioning.
2) How can it be done? It is simple, after all. It could be done by immediately establishing an International Bank for Korea and Asia in the South-West, which would collect aid, deal with investment in North Korea, support the population and, above all, submit to the North Korean government the new industrialization projects, mainly in the tourist, environmental and food chain sectors, but also in fine technologies. The entry of a great country, such as North Korea, into the world market will be the real great deal of the century and the true and stable guarantee for future peace. It will be good to jump at the chance, without making a fuss about it.
3) Finally we should help North Korea to become what it already is, namely a rich country. Certainly, with its “parallel” liberalizations, North Korea’s current leadership has already done much, but here very strong liquidity injections will be needed, as well as new and effective projects to be quickly submitted to Kim Jong-Un’s government.
4) The origin of this North Korean small economic boom is still bilateral trade with China. Hence we need to preserve and strengthen it. Indeed, as has already been envisaged in China, we need to imagine a rational inclusion of North Korea in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative towards the West. The maritime networks, currently already present in an eminently maritime country, such as North Korea, would be perfect for managing the Chinese networks that already start from Gwadar.
5) It would therefore be silly to do what some US leaders suggest, i.e. to force North Korea to choose between nuclear weapons and economic support. Kim Jong-Un has studied Marx very well, when he was in Switzerland, and knows all too well that aid never comes “without strings attached”.
6)Hence the real costs of the great nuclear decommissioning must be calculated accurately, with an initial dismantling of the chemical and bacteriological arsenal, to which the evaluation of social and economic impact shall be added. Finally, this shall also be matched by an initial, rational and credible support for starting a new industrialization of the North Korean economy, which cannot obviously be only the result of South Korean investments.
Hence, besides defining a good policy line for intervening on nuclear decommissioning, we shall also do a rational and economic calculation of future costs and investments.
This is needed to make Kim Jong-Un’s relinquishment of his nuclear system not coincide with an economic crisis and a weak integration of the country in the future world market, which will however be very different from the current one.
The Taliban seek cooperation with China?
How to deal with Afghanistan after the removal of US forces has become a subject that many countries are grappling with. And because Afghanistan and China are linked through Xinjiang, the Afghan Taliban aspire to cooperate with China. According to sources, on July 28, Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s Political Committee, visited China and met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
During the meetings, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a personal plea to the Taliban in Afghanistan, expecting that the Taliban would draw a line with terrorist organizations like the East Iraqi Movement and actively battle them, removing barriers to regional growth and cooperation. Since the United States made it apparent that it intends to withdraw its troops, China’s position toward Afghanistan and the Taliban has become the center of all countries’ attention.
Prior to that, China simply repeated its long-standing foreign policy of non-interference in domestic matters, — in other words, China does not intervene in Afghanistan’s internal problems and expects Afghans to handle their own internal affairs. China, on the other hand, is very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. China has not only made substantial investments in Afghanistan, but it has also sponsored several dialogues in China between Afghan parties.
Only because of the complexities of the situation in Afghanistan does China lack a clear answer. China has stated its particular needs more explicitly this time than in the past. China has far too many considerations when it comes to Afghanistan. However, in comparison to the behavior of many other nations, China’s demands for the Taliban this time have been well thought out, fair, and controlled.
First, China has maintained its previous favorable policy. Despite the fact that the Afghanistan problem is unique, China has not broken its foreign policy of non-interference in internal matters. On the basis of this strategy, China has had interactions with all parties in Afghanistan, ensuring that participation is not only voluntary, but also sufficient to ensure that all parties understand China’s position in order to avoid misunderstandings.
Second, China has stated its opinion on the subjects that most worry it. China has no space for compromise when it comes to national security. China has not raised this matter in the past, but it still needs to voice its viewpoint at the proper moment. As a result, China has the guts to demonstrate its stance, which will aid in the resolution of the situation.
Only when this issue is settled will future collaboration between China and Afghanistan be simple. The Taliban further said that no troops will be allowed to utilize Afghan territory to conduct activities that harm China. Atta regards China as a reliable ally and thinks that China would contribute to peaceful rebuilding.
Furthermore, China has not permitted certain ill-intentioned groups throughout the world to flourish. Following the withdrawal of the US troops, there was speculation in Western culture that China might become engaged in this issue and become the next growing power to enter the “empire’s tomb.” The Indian army’s recent intervention in Afghan politics appears to demonstrate that, as a powerful country around Afghanistan, it is hard to stay out of the issue.
China avoided the urge to intervene and managed its interactions with all sides sensibly, laying the ground for the next phase in the development of China-Afghan relations. So far, China has not fallen into the West’s trap, nor has the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan harmed its relations with all parties.
As China expands its global presence, it will eventually come into contact with nations with very difficult political and economic situations, such as Afghanistan. However, China will not flee because of obstacles, because the majority of the world’s developed countries are Western countries with strong biases against China, and those wanting to have good relations with China are frequently developing countries with varied challenges. nation. As a result, China has no option.
Will US-China Tensions Trigger the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis?
Half a century ago, the then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger flew to Beijing in the hope of seeking China’s alliance to contain the Soviets. His visit culminated in the U.S. agreement to recognize Beijing as the only legitimate government of China instead of Taipei, going back on the promise he had made to the president of the Republic of China, Chiang Ching-kuo, merely one year previously that Taiwan would never be abandoned by the US. The realistic American diplomat may have never thought that one day Taiwan, once ruthlessly forsaken by the US, would become the latter’s most important strategic fortress in East Asia to contain a rising China.
In 2018, the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act encouraged more high-ranking American government officials to visit Taiwan and vice versa1. The US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach landed in Taiwan two years later, rendering him the highest-level State Department official to visit the island since 19792. The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced the cancellation of all restrictions on official contacts between the U.S. and Taiwan in January 20213 – an action that was vehemently denounced by the Chinese government as Trump’s “last-ditch madness” that would “push the Taiwan question deeper down the road of no return”4.
Just when the world thought of Joe Biden’s ascension to power as a harbinger of softer attitudes toward Beijing, especially regarding Taiwan issues, the diplomatic muscle flexed by the newly elected US president is as eye-tingling as his aviator shades – first, his Secretary of State, Blinken and Secretary of Defense, Austin made an explicit announcement of the U.S. support for Taiwan; second, he sent former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg and former senator Chris Dodd to Taiwan in honor of the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act.
America’s incremental interest in the island is not confined to actions from its executive branches, but it has permeated its legislative system. The introduction of the confrontational “Strategic Competition Act of 2021” in April signals the anti-Soviet-style containment of China which was backed by The Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This bill echoes the “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” released by the Biden Administration in March, and it emphasizes the urgent need to “achieve United States political objectives in the Indo-Pacific” and back closer ties with Taiwan5. With strong bipartisan support, the bill is expected to be signed into law by President Biden and to serve as a legislative compass to counter China at all levels. In that respect, Taiwan Strait is more likely than ever to become “ground zero” by the U.S. and China.
On the other hand, the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement under the new National Security Law by Beijing proved to be successful due to the limited backlash received from the West. On top of that, Beijing’s handling of Xinjiang cotton issue seems to have managed to incite nationalism among Chinese people on a short notice to boycott “anti-China forces”6. With a record of 380 incursions into Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese air force during 2020, there is reason to believe that Hong Kong and Xinjiang were “guinea pigs” used by Beijing to test its capability for the fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, the probability of which has been enhanced by Xi Jinping’s attempt to seek reappointment and Beijing’s need to divert domestic attention away from the escalating social conflicts brought about by the stagnant economy.
So, the pertinent question is: if the fourth Taiwan Crisis does break out, when will it happen? It could be sometime after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games7 as it is unlikely for China to discard the opportunity to showcase its image and test its comprehensive strength8. This could be déjà vu in light of Russia’s successful Blitzkrieg-style invasion of Ukraine in 2014, which occurred only three days after the end of Sochi Winter Olympics. However, China is not the only one who can learn from history. When the rest of the world anticipates China’s intent with regard to Taiwan, preemptive precautions will be taken. The game-theory-type strategic interaction may hence spur China to launch its attack before the upcoming international sports gala.
Another critical timing could be prior to the 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022. Xi Jinping’s abolishment of term limits through constitutional amendment may pave the legal foundation for his reappointment, but the “widespread opposition within the party”9 renders the legitimacy of his extended tenure unlikely. That is why some may find it hard to conceive of Xi’s attempt to “start an unnecessary war with Taiwan” before his re-appointment10, but his insatiable desire for a 3rd term may push him over the edge. For the time being, Xi seems to be seduced by his burgeoning self-confidence that China is charging into an epoch of opportunity where “the East is rising and the West is declining,”11 and what time is better than now to consolidate his authority in front of dissidents with a military show-off targeting Taiwan?
As Henry Kissinger12 said, “The historical challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future. Failure could set the world on fire.” When the leaders of the two greatest powers both see their own countries as the future “Leviathan” of the world, the definition of failure can no longer be merely confined to internal mismanagement, but being surpassed by international competitors. Kissinger may have overestimated some leaders’ senses of honor to bear the responsibility of the “historical challenge”, but he can be right about the catastrophic consequences of their failures. But this time, failure is not an option for either side across the Taiwan Strait nor across the Pacific Ocean
- Chen, Y., & Cohen, J. A. (2019). China-Taiwan Relations Re-Examined: The “1992 Consensus” and Cross-Strait Agreements. University of Pennsylvania Asian Law Review, 14(1).
- Mink, M. (2021). The Catalyst for Stronger US-Taiwan Ties. https://keithkrach.com/the-catalyst-for-stronger-us-taiwan-ties/
- Hass, R. (2021). After lifting restrictions on US-Taiwan relations, what comes next? Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/01/11/after-lifting-restrictions-on-us-taiwan-relations-what-comes-next/
- Global Times. (2021). Pompeo may toll the knell for Taiwan authorities. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202101/1212378.shtml
- Zengerle, P., & Martina, M. (2021). U.S. lawmakers intensify bipartisan efforts to counter China. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-lawmakers-look-advance-sweeping-bid-counter-china-2021-04-21/
- Cui, J., & Zhao, Y. (2021). Boycott of Xinjiang cotton use opposed. China Daily. https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/161495
- Everington, K. (2021). Former US security advisor says Taiwan in “maximum danger” from PLA. Taiwan News. https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4189160
- China Daily. (2021). Preparing for Winter Olympics promotes quality development – Opinio. China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202101/22/WS600a131ba31024ad0baa44f1.html
- The Guardian. (2020). China’s Xi Jinping facing widespread opposition in his own party, insider claims. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/18/china-xi-jinping-facing-widespread-opposition-in-his-own-party-claims-insider
- Roy, D. (2021). Rumors of War in the Taiwan Strait. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/rumors-of-war-in-the-taiwan-strait/
- Buckley, C. (2021). Xi Maps Out China’s Post-Covid Ascent. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/world/asia/xi-china-congress.html?_ga=2.178218534.2000768907.1619749005-1359154941.1599697815
- Kissinger, H. A. (2020). The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-forever-alter-the-world-order-11585953005
Quad Infrastructure Diplomacy: An Attempt to Resist the Belt and Road Initiative
Over the years, the competition between the great powers in the dual space of the Indian and Pacific Oceans has been rapidly increasing. In the face of the aggravation of relations between the PRC and the United States, the defence dimension of the rivalry between the two contenders for global leadership traditionally comes to the forefront. However, in today’s context, the parties will most likely not engage in military action for the strengthening of their dominance in the region, but they will try to achieve the goals by expanding of economic influence. In this context, along with the well-known trade wars, there is an infrastructure rivalry in the region, which is enforced on Beijing by Washington and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad).
The role of Infrastructure in Indian and Pacific Oceans’ countries
The countries of Asia traditionally drawing the attention of the world community due to the high rates of economic, technological, and social development. In less than three decades, their per capita income has increased by 74%, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, as well as a growing middle class has emerged in the region. All this became possible due to the multilateral cooperation institutionalization and the integration of the economies of the Indo-Pacific. However, the strengthening of trade and economic ties and the future prosperity of Asia largely depends on the infrastructure (ports, highways and railways, airports, pipelines, etc.), which contributes to a more active movement of goods on a regional and global scale. Moreover, back in 2009, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) published a report according to which collective investments in infrastructure in the amount of US$8 trillion will be required to maintain rapid economic growth in Asian countries.
The most prominent infrastructure initiative in recent years is the «Belt and Road Initiative» (BRI), which was launched by China’s leader Xi Jinping in 2013. The BRI helped to fill numerous infrastructure gaps, but the United States and its partners increasingly paid attention to the geostrategic aspect of China’s actions. It’s no secret that the Belt and Road plays an important role in the development and integration of China’s provinces with neighboring countries. However, with the growing number of countries participating in the BRI, as well as the strengthening of China’s influence on a regional and global scale, criticism of the strategic tools for expanding Beijing’s economic influence gradually increased. The Belt and Road has faced a number of critical remarks, including those related to accusations of purposely involving the regional countries in the so-called «debt traps». Regardless of the degree of truthfulness or study of the issue, from year to year, media reports have contributed to the building of a contradictory attitude to China’s BRI among the residents, experts, and political elites all over the world.
Moreover, as soon as Donald Trump became the U.S. President in early 2017, Washington modified the nature of its policy towards China to greater confrontation. This trend has become a direct expression of the intensified great powers’ rivalry and their struggle for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, as well as a motivation for the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which includes the United States, Australia, India and Japan. However, the interaction of the Quad has long been built on the basis of defence.
This trend continues nowadays, as evidenced by the frequent exercises and the growing Quad naval presence in the Indo-Pacific but in 2021 the Quad countries expanded their range of issues on a multilateral basis. Now the agenda includes vaccine diplomacy (providing 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to Indo-Pacific countries, climate change, technological cooperation, maritime security, cybersecurity, and external development assistance. According to Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific policy coordinator at the National Security Council, Washington is looking to convene an in-person fall summit of leaders of the Quad countries with a focus on infrastructure in the face of the challenge from China.
Quadrilateral infrastructure diplomacy as the continuing vector of the Trump’s administration
The infrastructure agenda also became an important part of the last summit of the G7 countries’ leaders, during which the parties expressed their willingness to establish a BRI counterpart called Build Back Better World (B3W). In total, there are 22 mentions of infrastructure in the final G7 Summit Communiqué. Even despite the traditionally restrained position of India, which took the time to «study the specifics of the proposal», infrastructure diplomacy of Quad is becoming a new area of geostrategic competition in the Indo-Pacific.
There’s one exception: the activities on the infrastructure track are not a new trend of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, but a continuation of the foreign policy vector set during the presidency of Donald Trump. It was he who turned Sino-U.S. rivalry into a geo-economic level. Back in 2017, the Foreign Ministers of the Quad countries stated the need for high-quality infrastructure development in order to ensure freedom and openness of sea routes, as well as improve intra-regional ties. In 2018, MoU was signed between the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, aimed at implementing major infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the Quad countries raised the question of the BRI countries’ growing debt during their official meeting in Singapore.
It was clear that the Belt and Road Initiative is perceived by the Quad countries as the main factor in expanding the economic and political influence of the People’s Republic of China, as well as China’s influence of the domestic political processes in the countries of Indo-Pacific. At the same time, the combination of economic and defence rivalry enforced on Beijing by Washington, as well as Quad’s efforts to build a balance of power in the region actually indicates the explicit anti-China nature of the Quad.
In this case, it’s important to note that each of the Quad countries has its own levers of influence, which they can combine in infrastructure competition with Beijing. For example, in 2015, in response to the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) by China, Japan made the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI). The United States, in turn, announced the infrastructure project Blue Dot Network (BDN), as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia established a new Partnerships for Infrastructure (P4I). All these initiatives are united by a commitment to inclusive economic growth, «quality infrastructure», climate change, disaster response, and social development. The capitalization of the Japanese, American and Australian initiatives is US $110 billion (US$50 billion from Japan and over US$50 from the Asian Development Bank), US$30-60 million, and US$383 thousand (including access to US$4 billion of foreign aid and $US2 billion from the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific), respectively. Given the ongoing discussions about debt traps, the emphasis on «high-quality infrastructure» may give special features to the initiatives of the Quad but even the total amount of funding will not be able to compete with the US$770 billion investments already made in 138 countries of the world and announced by China.
Anyway, Quad is stepping up its infrastructure diplomacy in at least three areas, including Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Indian Ocean. For example, Australia, Germany and Switzerland have already allocated US$13 million to the Mekong River Commission For Sustainable Development (MRC) to assist Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and, Vietnam «to respond to pressing challenges while safeguarding the ecological function of the Mekong River and improving people’s livelihoods».At the same time, Australia signed US$300 million MoU with Papua New Guinea, aimed at the ports reconstruction in the major state of Oceania (the ports of Vanimo, Kimbe, Motukea, Lorengau, Oro Bay, Daru, Lae, etc.). It is important to highlight that the increasing economic and infrastructural presence of China in the countries of Oceania, energize Australia’s policy in the South Pacific, which is a traditional zone of influence of Canberra. At the same time, the expansion of Australia’s aid and investment to the broader Indo-Pacific is due to the commitment of the current Australian government to the U.S. foreign policy.
In turn, the reaction of the Southeast Asian countries to the intensification of Quad infrastructure diplomacy will be more restrained. According to the latest Pew Research Center survey, the most unfavourable view of China is in the United States (76%), Canada (73%), Germany (71%), Japan (88%), Australia (78%), and South Korea (77%), while in Singapore — the only country representing ASEAN in the survey — the percentage of unfavourable views on China is at a low level (34%). Moreover, considering the aspects of infrastructure diplomacy in the region, we should definitely refer to the survey of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of the political elites of the region «Powers, Norms, and Institutions: The Future of the Indo-Pacific from a Southeast Asia Perspective», published in 2020. Despite the intentional exclusion of Russia from the survey, it approximately reflects the trends in the Indo-Pacific countries at the present stage. Thus, as a result of the survey, American experts revealed that the political elites of Southeast Asia positively assess China’s activities in the field of infrastructure development, which has brought tangible benefits to most Southeast Asian countries.
China is actively reacting to verbal attacks from the United States and Quad. The infrastructure agenda was no exception, but China responded by modernizing its global Belt and Road Initiative. In response to criticism about the involvement of the countries in debt traps, Beijing has developed a new Foreign Policy White Paper «China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era». The document was published in early 2021. According to the provisions of the new White Paper, China will pay closer attention to the process of implementing projects within the aid framework, take an active part in evaluating projects in order to monitor their quality, maintain an appropriate level of confidence in its projects to China, as well as conduct bilateral consultations to identify difficulties with debt repayment and make sure that partners do not fall into a debt trap. It’s possible that the new vision of the PRC will appear especially quickly in countries where the Quad will primarily try to implement their infrastructure projects.
China is the first country in the region, which pays significant attention to the issues of large-scale infrastructure development. Moreover, Beijing has a number of advantages over its opponent — Quad. First, the Belt and Road initiative is more structured and aimed at intensifying trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian cooperation with neighboring countries, while the emerging Quad infrastructure agenda is «dispersed» among numerous individual initiatives, doesn’t have the same level of stability as the BRI, and even after 3.5 years of building the agenda is considered through the prism of expectations.
Second, China’s initiative is aimed at a single infrastructure connection between the PRC and the rest of the world and acts as a potential basis for the intensification of global trade in the future. At the same time, today’s projects of the Quad are of a “sporadic» nature and can’t contribute to the infrastructure linkage between Europe, Africa, South and Southeast Asia on a global scale.
Third, China can already offer the Belt and Road members not only logistics infrastructure but also the opportunities in the field of green energy. At the end of 2019, China produced about a third of the world’s solar energy and retained a leading position in the number of wind turbines. Within the foreseeable future, the Quad countries, and especially the United States, will have to compete with China even in the field of the climate agenda, which is so close to the new administration of the U.S. President Joe Biden.
Finally, during his recent speech on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), PRC’s Leader Xi Jinping confidently declared the great revival of the Chinese nation, its contribution to the progress of human civilization, and its readiness to build a new world, which undoubtedly indicates China’s decisiveness to respond to challenges to its address, including from the Quad.
The ongoing transformation of the regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific, both in the defence and economic areas, will be an important aspect in the post-pandemic era. China has repeatedly stated about the «covered» Quad activities to deterrence Chinese policy in the region, but the expansion of the Quad’s agenda by infrastructure diplomacy allows us to speak about the evident vector of the Quad strategy against the PRC.
However, nowadays the Quad countries had been left behind. China already has the world’s most numerous land forces, the largest navy, as well as an ambitious global Belt and Road initiative that includes almost 140 countries and a capitalization approaching US$1 trillion. Of course, Quad is moving towards the institutionalization of its infrastructure cooperation and the potential expansion of the number of participating countries to the Quad Plus format. However, to reach China’s achievements for the period 2013-2021, the new alliance will need at least a decade.
At the same time, the rivalry of the Belt and Road with the Quad’s infrastructure initiative will help the countries of the region to diversify their infrastructure ties but will make their choice even more difficult, since it will primarily be regarded as support for the foreign policy vision of one of the parties, and not a pragmatic estimate of economic benefits. All this makes the regional environment in the Indo-Pacific increasingly complex and forces middle powers and smaller countries to adapt to new geostrategic realities.
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