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 Demise of a French Sub Deal: Is China a Threat?
The conflict between emerging and existing powers is almost as old as time. Labeled the Thucydides Trap, it first recounted the 5th century BC Peloponesian war and its inevitability as Sparta, the dominant power, feared the rise of Athens. Is something similar about to transpire between the US and China?
The latest war of words is about nuclear submarines. When armed with ballistic missiles, they become a hidden mortal danger. So the US also deploys nuclear attack submarines which shadow rival nuclear ballistic submarines … just in case.
Australia was in the process of acquiring 12 French conventional attack submarines (a deal worth $37 billion) when the US and UK stepped in with the AUKUS deal. Intended to counter China, it offers Australia advanced nuclear propulsion systems and an opportunity to construct nuclear subs of their own with the technology transfer. Australia will then become the seventh country in the world to build and operate nuclear submarines.
The fear of the ‘yellow peril’ is ingrained in the Australian consciousness from the days when they were afraid of being swamped by Chinese immigrants. It led to restrictive immigration policies for non-whites.
Much of the concern with China is due to the forceful nature of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies. In Xinjiang the Uyghur population is a minority in its home province due to the influx of Han Chinese. Moreover, Uyghurs feel discriminated against, in jobs and the progress they can make. Some have rebelled causing many to be put in re-education camps where there are tales of torture although denied by Chinese authorities. Biden has declared it a genocide and introduced sanctions on leading Chinese officials there.
China’s proactive foreign policy, renewed interest in Afghanistan, its warships patrolling all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa are further evidence.
The new Afghan leaders, at least many of them, spent their exile in Pakistan giving the latter influence with the new government. And Pakistan is effectively a Chinese client state. The mineral wealth of Afghanistan, if it is to be developed, is thus likely to include Chinese help.
The UN General Assembly holds its first debate of the new session on the third Tuesday of each year; the session then runs through to the September following. As leaders converge, one of the questions being asked of those involved in AUKUS is how they are going to pacify an angry France. It has recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US — in the latter case a move without precedent in almost 250 years of diplomacy.
If the French feel the Australians have been duplicitous, the Australians for their part claim they are obligated to do the best for the people who elected them. The new deal brings jobs, technology and a greater role for Australia in dealing with an increasingly powerful China
It would be a great shame if the West in trying to shore up its interests in the Indo-Pacific region loses a crucial ally — France — at the very least in wholehearted support. Is Mr. Xi smiling and quoting some ancient Chinese proverb, perhaps Lao Tzu, to his colleagues?
Japanese firms’ slow and steady exit is sounding alarm bells in Beijing
Last year in March, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had indicated Japan would initiate measures to reduce the country heavily relying on China for factory production. Since July 2020, Japan has rolled out subsidies totaling over 400 billion Yen to move its enterprises out of China to Southeast Asia and beyond. It is yet to be seen if the scale of incentives has actually triggered a major change in where Japanese companies relocate production. On the other hand, experts in China continue to wonder why would Japanese companies which are on average making 17% profit diversify into the ASEAN nations, where in 2019, their rate of return on direct investment was a mere 5%?
In less than ten days, Japan is going to have a third prime minister within a short span of twelve months. On September 1 last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned on health grounds, Yoshihide Suga was chosen as Abe’s successor. At the time, China’s leadership did not show any worrying signs as the new Japanese leader was expected to continue with the foreign policy of the previous government. But one year later, Suga’s unexpected departure is leaving Japan’s diplomatic relations with China considerably strained over Taiwan. Yet the leadership in Beijing is not going to lose sleep over the next prime minister’s public stance on the Japan-Taiwan “alliance.” What China will be closely watching is how many more billions of Yen and for how long a new leader in Tokyo will carry on with rolling out subsidies to lure away Japanese businesses out of China?
Interestingly, on assuming office Prime Minister Suga had promised continuity in domestic policies and that he will respect Abe’s foreign policy. However, Suga’s promised commitment to further improve relations with China was viewed differently in the People’s Republic. Writing in an article on the day Yoshihide Suga took office in Tokyo, Zhou Yongsheng, professor of Japanese studies at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, observed: “[Under Suga] Japan will continue to align with the US as far as international relations and security affairs are concerned, and continue to back the US policy of containing China It is under these preconditions that Japan will seek cooperation with China.”
In sharp contrast, reviewing Suga’s foreign policy performance after two months, NIKKEI Asia’s foreign affairs analyst Hiroyuki Akita wrote in November 2020: “Suga has not said much publicly about his views on diplomacy but he has urged his aids to continue Abe’s diplomacy as it is at least for one year.” Akita gave a thumbs up to this approach and recalled a Japanese saying to describe it: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, not everyone agreed with Akita praising Suga’s brief record in diplomacy as flawless. Having spent seven years in the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga’s image was that of “a fixer, not a leader.” Suga did everything in diplomacy in his early phase as the prime minister what Abe had been espousing for the past seven years.
But as Toshiya Takahashi, professor of IR at Shoin University in Japan had predicted within a few weeks of Suga becoming the top leader, “Abe’s shoes were too big for Suga to fill.” Why so? Mainly because unlike Abe, not only Suga was not ideological, he was also far less diplomacy driven. “Suga is not an ideologically driven revisionist — he is a conservative politician, but his attitude has no relation to ideology. He does not seem to hold any specific cherished foreign policy objectives that he is willing to push with all his political capital in the way that Abe did in 2015 with the passage of the security-related bills,” Takahashi had commented.
To observers and experts in both Japan and China, Prime Minister Suga’s (he will relinquish office on September 30) non-enthusiastic approach to foreign policy might have much to do with the current state of strained relationship between Japan and China. Asahi Shimbun opinion poll last year claimed foreign policy and national security as among the two most popular elements of Abe’s legacy. No wonder, critics in Japan have been pointing out that Suga’s cabinet did not have the luxury and support Abe enjoyed in foreign affairs of having in the government someone like Shotaro Yachi – the former secretary general of the National Security Secretariat. In China too, reacting to Suga’s first policy speech after taking office, scholars such as Lü Yaodong, Institute of Japanese Studies, CASS in Beijing had observed, “Suga seems not to be as enthusiastic about China-Japan ties as Abe. Compared with Abe’s administration, Suga may walk back China-Japan ties.” (Emphasis added)
Remember, as already mentioned, the LDP had succeeded in pursuing policy of (economic) cooperation and avoiding confrontationist diplomacy with China under Abe. But Suga government’s failure to effectively fight coronavirus pandemic and its perception that China was increasingly becoming aggressive in SCS, are being cited as reasons why Japan was compelled to take strong steps against China. It is too well-known by now how Tokyo angered Beijing by referring to the importance of Taiwan to regional security in the recently released 2021 Defense White Paper. In fact, a Chinese scholar had warned as early as within a month of Suga taking over as prime minister from Shinzo Abe, saying that “Japan will take a more offensive stance against China over maritime boundary disputes under the incitement of the US” (emphasis added).
Hence, it is of extreme import to mention here China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s recent trip to four ASEAN nations. Apparently, the second visit by the Chinese foreign minister in quick succession in the neighborhood had aroused the global media attention as it was soon after the recent visit to the region by the US vice president Kamala Harris. However, according to a Chinese commentator, Wang Yi’s recent visit to ASEAN countries must be viewed in the context of the region turning into a “battle ground” for rising economic one-upmanship among big powers. “Just a day after Wang Yi’s departure, Vietnam reached an agreement on defense equipment and technology cooperation with Japan,” the commentary noted.
Furthermore, whilst under the previous Abe government, Japan consistently increased its investments in the ASEAN nations, except in the year 2016, all through from 2014 until last year, Japan’s investment in the region far exceeded that of China’s. Contrary to his vows, since coming into office in September last year, especially following his meeting with President Biden in the White House in April this year, Prime Minister Suga’s quiet agenda has been to confront China in both political and economic arena. In Japan, the Suga agenda was interpreted by analysts as “rebuilding Japan-US industrial chain, decoupling economic ties with China.”
A policy report released by Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in March 2021, revealed three important facts: first, in the year 2019, total Japanese investment in ASEAN nations stood at USD 265.5 billion – 14% of the country’s overall overseas investment, i.e., USD 1,858.3 billion.; second, in 2000, Japanese investments in ASEAN totaled USD 25 billion as against its USD 8.7 billion investment in China – a gap of USD 16.3 billion. Whereas in 2019, Japan invested USD 135.2 billion more in ASEAN as compared with China. As pointed out by one Chinese analyst, this gap is hugely significant, especially as the overall size of the ASEAN economy is a little over one-fifth of China’s GDP; third, followingthegovernment’s new strategy last year to encourage Japanese businesses to move out of China to new locations in ASEAN nations, the new guidelines also entailed reducing investments into China. A large part of the investments was diversified into ASEAN markets.
Finally, what is beginning to worry the Chinese authorities is the trend and direction of slow exodus of Japanese businesses out of China going back to Japan and towards Vietnam and Indonesia on one hand, and widening gap in Japanese investments between ASEAN and the PRC, on the other hand. At the same time, it was beyond anyone’s imagination in China that Japan would be acting foolish and risking “economic security” by diversifying businesses and investments into less profitable “barren” markets. But then who could anticipate what political and economic policy-rejigging coronavirus pandemic would bring about?
Overall, China’s more immediate and bigger concerns are firstly the sudden departure of Prime Minister Suga – in spite of Suga having made it clear he had no will to change or reverse “decoupling” policy he had been pursuing, and secondly, whoever emerges as the new leader of the four contenders by the month-end, analysts in Japan believe Tokyo is unlikely to change its “anti-China” political and economic policies.
How China Exacerbates Global Fragility and What Can be Done to Bolster Democratic Resilience to Confront It
Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker
From its declared policy of noninterference and personnel contributions to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Missions to its purported role in mediating conflicts, China has long sought to portray itself as a responsible global leader, pushing narratives about building a “community of common destiny” and promoting its model of governance and economic and political development as a path to stability. This narrative belies the reality. Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-style “stability,” whether to protect Belt and Road Investments (BRI) or regimes with favorable policies towards China, in practice facilitates authoritarianism and human rights violations, contributes to environmental degradation and corruption, and undermines democratic governance, all of which can fuel instability, intentionally or otherwise.
In pursuit of its true goal – “a world safe for the party” – China has leveraged its diplomatic and economic power to weaken the international human rights system, bolstering support for illiberal regimes, contributing to democratic decline and exacerbating global fragility in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in conflict-affected contexts.
Conflict Resolution, CCP Style
Although China brands itself as a ‘promoter of stability, peace, and unity’, its very definition of stability is built on its authoritarian model of governance. This, plus its concerns about non-interference in its own domestic issues, informs its conflict resolution approach, which emphasizes host state consent and political settlement, two-ideas that can be laudable in theory, depending on the context. In practice, however, China’s conflict mediation efforts in some instances have provided support to incumbent regimes who are perpetuating violence and conflict, promoting a ‘stability’ that disregards the voices of vulnerable populations and the need for inclusive governance. In the case of the Syrian civil war, China’s “political solution” meant maintaining China-friendly Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, while blocking resolutions condemning the regime’s brutality against its citizens.
“Stability” promoted by China can also come at the expense of human rights. China (and Russia) have previously pushed for cuts to human rights positions within peacekeeping missions, endangering the capacity of these missions to protect civilians in conflict. In Myanmar, where the military is committing unprecedented human rights violations against its own citizens, China initially blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup and other international efforts to restore stability at a time when a strong international response was much needed. This was in line with China’s previous engagement in the country, working closely with the military regime to “mediate” conflict near the Chinese border in a way that preserved China’s interests and influence, but did little to actually address conflict. After a growing humanitarian crisis began to threaten its investments on the Myanmar side of the border, however, China changed rhetorical course, showing where human rights violations stand in its hierarchy of stability.
Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance
China’s policies in fragile states mirror its unstated preference for expanding its economic and political interests, even if securing them sidelines the stated imperative of addressing fragility. In some instances, China has lobbied for UN policies in conflict-affected contexts that appear to support its own agenda rather than – or sometimes at the expense of – peace. According to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2020 report to Congress, “China has shown an apparent willingness to leverage its influence in the UN peacekeeping operations system to advance its economic interests in African countries, raising the possibility that Beijing is subverting UN norms and procedures in the process.” Per the report, the most notable example of this was in 2014 when China lobbied to expand the UN Mission in South Sudan to protect oil installations of which the China National Petroleum Corporation held a 40 percent stake.
Moreover, China’s pursuit of its interests sets up countries on unstable trajectories. China’s economic investment policies and initiatives exacerbates governance deficits and increases fragility by encouraging corruption, facilitating authoritarianism and human rights violations, and contributing to environmental degradation, all key drivers of conflict. Two cases from Nigeria and Pakistan highlight the point.
In Nigeria, China’s investment projects have exacerbated corruption and fueled distrust in local government – key drivers of conflict and intercommunal violence in the country. China has exploited poor regulatory environments and worked within illegal and corrupt frameworks, often tied to armed groups and criminal networks. In one illustrative example, China state-owned timber trading companies offered bribes to local officials to illegally harvest endangered rosewood. Members of local communities have cited feelings of exploitation by officials accepting bribes from Chinese businessmen, further stressing fragile ties between local government and citizens. Such business practices also demonstrate a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of illegally harvesting endangered flora and fauna. Moreover, the inherently opaque nature of these projects that are tied to CCP interests makes it difficult to demand accountability.
Similarly in Pakistan, a 62-billion-dollar project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aimed at linking Xinjiang to the Arabian sea, has exacerbated tension in conflict-affected provinces. The project plans to build infrastructure and extract resources from several less developed regions, while overwhelmingly benefitting industrial and political hubs such as Punjab. Many provinces, including Balochistan and Sindh, have accused political elites of altering the route of the corridor in their own interests, thus further marginalizing their communities. Separatist groups have launched several attacks throughout the country, not only fueling conflict between Pakistani ethnic groups but also leading to attacks against Chinese expatriates. Recently, prominent voices from within China have called for a military intervention in Pakistan. CPEC has increased military presence throughout small villages, sparked an uptick in violent conflict along the route, and further eroded trust in local government institutions.
These cases may of course signal more opportunism and indifference by China to the impact of its engagement on stability in any given country, as opposed to an explicit attempt to undermine democratic governance (as it has done elsewhere in support of pro-China interests). Regardless of the intent, however, the impact is the same. China’s focus on political leverage and profits first and foremost undermines stability – and China likewise can benefit from instability in states with corrupt politicians interested in trading local resources for short-term political gains.
What Can be Done: Bolstering Democratic Resilience to Address Fragility and Foreign Influence
Foreign authoritarian influence has a compounding impact in conflict-affected contexts, further undermining governance structures, institutions, and processes that can mitigate or exacerbate fragility. Good governance, on the contrary, can not only help countries prevent and manage conflict, but can also help countries address the myriad challenges associated with foreign authoritarian influence. Strong democratic institutions help societies respond positively and productively to threats both domestic and foreign.
Targeted investment in democracy in conflict-affected contexts vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence offers an important opportunity for utilizing the Global Fragility Strategy in support of US foreign policy initiatives and advancing the Biden Administration’s policy priorities to tackle climate change, prevent authoritarian resurgence, confront corruption, and prevail in strategic competition with China. An investment in support of democracy and good governance to address any one of these issues will reap dividends across each of these issues – engaging in conflict prevention and stabilization programming will both advance global democracy and advance US goals vis-à-vis China and other authoritarian rivals. Such investments, which must be long-term to account for the compounding impact of foreign authoritarian influence in already fragile environments, should include:
- Supporting governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand, expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence, particularly in conflict-affected contexts where data and research efforts can be challenging. An understanding of China’s playbook is critical to countering CCP influence operations;
- Helping independent media to investigate and expose foreign authoritarian influence and how it fuels conflict, whether through training, financial support, or other protections of the civic and information space, to raise public awareness of the impact of such engagement on conflict dynamics and promote transparency and accountability in dealings with foreign actors;
- Developing evidenced-based tools to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence in fragile contexts;
- Strengthening electoral institutions, political parties, legislative bodies, and judiciaries to uproot elite capture and mitigate malign influence;
- Leveraging diplomacy to build political will and incentives for government officials to resist foreign malign influences. Such diplomatic efforts can include increased outreach and contact with countries previously neglected by the US – but prioritized by China – and public diplomacy to both expose the CCP’s misleading narrative and advance narratives about what democracy can deliver; and
- Coordinating with similarly-minded donors such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia, to implement a unified approach to match the scale of Chinese investment and maximize the impact of any intervention.
Only democracy can help countries navigate the nexus of domestic and foreign threats to their stability. In the era of COVID-19, authoritarian resurgence, and climate crisis, supporting countries to develop these “resilience” fundamentals is a sound – and necessary – investment.
*Isabella Mekker is a Program Associate with IRI’s Center for Global Impact, working on countering foreign authoritarian influence and conflict prevention and stabilization programming.
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