Analytical pieces—typically prepared by self-professed experts—abound as to whether denuclearization of North Korea could be possible or what its parameters would be. Such ruminations became particularly popular by the end of Donald Trump’s presidency when the negotiations eventually found themselves in deadlock. However, I would rather call it a “freeze,” and while this may not be the best solution to the problem, it is certainly not the worst either.
The crisis over North Korea’s nuclear missile program has been going on for some 15 years, and I would argue that the reason why no practical solution has been found lies in poor positioning. As I have repeatedly noted  North Korea’s nuclear missile program is not the root of the problem that disrupts the traditional world order; rather, it is a consequence of problems that are more global in their dimensions, reflecting the transition from the wonted world order to a new one.
There are a few signs to this new world order. First, some nations abuse the right to decide which state is a democracy and which is not, with the contrived singling out of “rogue states” to be countered through any methods, including those that seem ethically unacceptable. Broken promises are no longer perfidy but military stratagems. When it comes to North Korea, one might recall the Agreed Framework story or how President Kim Young-sam and his administration spared no effort to destabilize the situation in North Korea at a time when it suffered from what has been called the Arduous March. Seoul advocated providing no aid to the starving country, one South Korean official admits while privately talking to the author, in the hope that the famine would spur mass riots and subsequent “reunification.”
The second sign indicative of the new world suggests that international law and major arbitration institutions have lost their authority. UN Security Council resolutions that forbid North Korea to launch any kind of ballistic missiles is a good case in point. Incidentally, this violates the decisions enshrined in a number of other UN documents that guarantee the universal right to explore outer space for peaceful purposes.
The third sign has to do with the crisis of competence, which affects the quality of decision-making on the part of both politicians and subject-matter experts, blurring the line between the real country and its cartoonish propaganda image. This is well illustrated by the case of North Korea: any foolish news report about the country ultimately finds an audience. While the story of Jang Song-thaek being fed to a pack of dogs was debunked fairly quickly, no less fantastic death penalty stories for listening to K-pop are still popular.
Besides, the might of the law has been replaced with the law of the might. The new generation of politicians no longer fears a major war, rendering military conflict—“humanitarian” bombings of “rogue states” in particular—one of the acceptable means for achieving domestic and foreign policy goals.
Finally, under these circumstances, North Korea cannot use the conventional conflict resolution methods, thus being compelled to look for ways to defend itself on its own, especially since the threat of losing sovereignty is by no means hypothetical. Officially, the Korean war is not over, and South Korea’s Constitution still extends the state’s sovereignty to the entire peninsula, demanding that the president promote the country’s unification. What is more, the National Security Act refers to North Korea as an anti-state organization rather than a country. Even relatively liberal populists, such as Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, failed to review this concept.
Relying on its nuclear missile program, North Korea sets itself two goals. The first is to achieve minimal and, eventually, guaranteed nuclear deterrence, which would certainly take a belligerent solution to the North Korean problem off the table. The North Korean leadership has certain reasons to believe that only North Korea’s nuclear weapons saved it from the fate of Iraq or Libya. It is well-known that once in a while the U.S. and its allies plan an offensive war against the North, whose elements are drilled at joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises irrespective of their scale.
The second goal is to achieve international recognition and ditch the “rogue state” yoke. Should North Korea theoretically join the “nuclear club,” this will put it on a par with the leading superpowers. This is the principal reason why—despite the UN Security Council’s internal disagreements—the Permanent Five have so far voted unanimously for yet another sanctions package each time North Korea has taken another significant step in developing its nuclear missile program. The current world order is based on the premise that only the five great powers are allowed to possess nuclear weapons. It also relies on the UN’s authority, which would collapse if it became known that at the end of the day North Korea got the UN to “cave in”—following nearly 30 years of condemnation, resolutions and sanctions.
It is no accident that the very term “denuclearization” is under discussion. American conservatives, such as John Bolton and others who adopt a strictly realistic approach, interpret “denuclearization” as meaning nuclear disarmament of North Korea, which should be stripped of all types of WMD and—to boot—of its nuclear program. This entails eliminating the North Korean threat both globally and regionally. In contrast, North Korea, as well as Russia and China, stress that denuclearization should extend not to North Korea alone but to the whole Korean Peninsula, which requires certain commitments on the part of the U.S. and South Korea, up to and including prohibiting U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons from docking at South Korean ports.
It has to be noted that those who identify with the allegedly liberal approach to international relations view the North Korean issue as highly ideologically charged. Liberal democracy advocates and WASP conservatives alike perceive North Korea as an authoritarian regime imbued with atheistic collectivism, as an “Evil State.” They see it as the pure opposite of the ideal state—an abstract concept that exists in their minds. That, in turn, stimulates an intractable drive towards confrontation, since not only is the “Evil State” incapable of negotiations, such negotiations are impossible in principle. Any deal with such a regime is an unacceptable concession in terms of values, and value-based confrontations are always more inflexible than those political or economic in nature.
During the 2017 crisis, when I believed the probability of conflict really rose beyond 50%, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un emerged as pragmatic leaders, essentially putting the process “on hold.” The jury is still out on how this related to the Russia-China “double-freeze” plan, while each party would certainly have wanted more. Kim Jong Un would have loved to have the sanctions eased, with Donald Trump expecting further concessions. The pause that was achieved, though, allowed both parties a “small profit.” The U.S. president could say that, first, he prevented war and, second, that the sanctions were effective, with no missiles in the air and the U.S. having granted no unacceptable concessions. Kim Jong Un, on the one hand, got a peaceful breather, which allowed him to focus on the country’s economic development, and, second, his commitments were essentially unofficial and did not restrict the development of the nuclear missile program. This could be exemplified by multiple successful launches of short-range missiles as well as by presentations of new types of ICBMs and SLBMs, even though these were not tested.
Yet, since late 2019, both parties have been aware that “things are not going to get better.” In late 2019, Kim Jong Un said it was no use hoping for an easing of the sanctions, while allowing Donald Trump to “sit out” the final year of his presidency with no unnecessary tensions. As of the writing of this article, his moratorium is still in place, although American and South Korean experts believed that several dates came and went when Kim could have raised the stakes, opting for an escalation. I believe that Pyongyang is waiting for the White House to formulate and announce a new North Korean policy. So far, as Roman Lobov puts it, “the door is shut but not locked”; and Choe Song-hui, who seems to be still in charge of North Korea–U.S. relations, has not been dismissed from office and declares from time to time that the North will use force in response to force and amicability in response to amicability. The 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea emphasized that no change in the White House would change the U.S.’s overall hostility towards North Korea, which is why North Korea will hardly make the first step, choosing to wait for truly serious proposals from the U.S.
This is the situation three months into 2021, exacerbated by several additional aspects. The new U.S. president is the first such aspect. Of course, there is some hope that he will follow the same path as Donald Trump once did: a hardliner early in his tenure shifted to a more constructive approach once collided with reality. So far, however, it appears that the logic of factional strife is compelling Biden to go along “the main thing is not to be like Trump” pattern, and that means steering a course towards escalation. Such an approach will provoke North Korea to retaliate. More importantly, such blinders will keep the Biden Administration from rapidly developing a constructive approach to its interaction with the North. In particular, we can see that human rights issues in North Korea, all too valid for the Democrats, were not broached regularly under Trump while they have come under attention once Biden assumed office.
The U.S.-China confrontation is another aspect, which was pronounced to be value- rather than merely politics-based even under Trump. There has been no change to this approach under the new president. The U.S. attempts to restrict and contain China, with this confrontation being part of Russia and China’s more broad confrontation with what is perceived as the West.
I believe such a rift and its would-be consequences deal no smaller blow to the existing world order than Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. First, this reinforces North Korea’s conviction that the current situation makes the country rely on missile sovereignty. Second, rifts in the Security Council give North Korea a certain boost. It does not, however, mean that the Security Council will no longer remain unanimous should the North decide to raise the stakes sharply. Yet, if we consider the U.S.-China confrontation from the point of view of allies of both states, we will see that China could only rely on the North since it has for a long time stressed the two countries’ socialist nature and their friendship based on ideological values. Besides, North Korean media outlets have been condemning the U.S. for criticizing China’s policies. What this means is that China will keep Pyongyang afloat and contain American pressure to denuclearize Kim’s regime unless it decides that North Korea’s actions are too provocative. The same can be said of Russia, although the North Korean issue is less of a priority for Moscow, especially when compared to the post-Soviet states or the Middle East.
The coronavirus pandemic has also affected the global situation. First, self-isolation instituted throughout the country has generated a new spiral of suppositions revolving around the notion that its economic system is about to collapse and that a new Arduous March will ensue. Second, with diplomats and NGOs having left North Korea, gathering data has become more difficult, which has indirectly contributed to growing alarmist sentiments. Finally, we cannot rule out a situation when the North Korean issue may—for a number of countries—become a way to shift attention away from domestic problems, including those related to failures in fighting the coronavirus. In such a situation, any prospects for denuclearization are extremely vague.
The fourth aspect is the level to which North Korea’s nuclear program has advanced, which makes the monitoring methods used for the states that are at the early stages of their nuclear programs ineffective. Since North Korea is a de facto nuclear power, the set of measures intended to ensure complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization, as Vladimir Khrustalyov notes  will essentially demand that North Korea be essentially stripped of its sovereignty as far as the monitoring and checking powers are concerned, with which international inspectors should be vested.
Consequently, today it might be said that one can only go on talking about denuclearization for the sake of talking. It will take a miracle to move things forward. Option one is some fantastic change in the international environment, which would make North Korea no longer feel threatened and thus less reluctant to abolish its nuclear program. That would mean geotectonic rather than merely geopolitical shifts in the existing international security architecture. Option two, just as fantastic, provides for a North Korean Gorbachev who, for some reason, will make the decision to abolish an important component of North Korea’s political myth and its sovereignty guarantees. Harsher options envision denuclearization as a result of regime change, which is of very little probability as well.
Does this mean there is no way out of this predicament and that missile fireworks will follow sooner or later? No, it does not. The possibility of the “double freeze” is still there, and such a “freeze” could continue almost indefinitely. Another possibility requires more efforts as it entails resetting the agenda—while keeping the term “denuclearization”, new strategies would actually focus on arms control. Instead of destroying North Korean nuclear capabilities, efforts would be channeled into restricting it, operating on the premise that the existing capabilities already serve as minimal deterrence. Many scholars adhere to this stance, both in Russia  and abroad, while fully cognizant of the fact that a change in tack will prompt huge resistance, since this would go against the trend of preserving the global status quo. Any attempt to abolish the demand for full denuclearization of states aspiring to the nuclear club “membership” would amount to a crack in the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
On balance, true denuclearization of North Korea would require a radical change in the geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia: once the threat is gone, countermeasures will no longer be necessary. While there is no possibility of such changes, the Russia-China proposal of a “double freeze” settlement remains the most feasible solution, although far from ideal.
The study has been carried out with financial assistance from the RFBR (project No 20-014-00020).
- Asmolov, K.V. The Nuclear Problem of the Korean Peninsula as a Consequence of the Changes in the Global World Order (in Russian) // Paper presented at the All-Russia Academic Conference with International Participation “International Relations in the 20th-21st Centuries: 4th Chempalov Conference dedicated to the 75th Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War and the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II. 17–18 December 2020. Yekaterinburg.
- Zhebin, A.Z. The Korean Peninsula: From Denuclearization to Arms Control (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 25th Conference of Korean Studies Specialists from Russia and the CIS. 25–26 March 2021. Moscow
- Khrustalyov, V.V. (Vladivostok, North-East Asian Military Studies Project) On Fundamental Obstacles in the Way of Rapid, Guaranteed, and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 8th International Conference “Russia and Korea in the Changing World Order – 2019.” 17–18 May 2019. Vladivostok.
From our partner RIAC
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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