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East Asia

The geopolitics of the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is an immense maritime space of great geopolitical and geoeconomic importance. It is a crossroad for sea trade that connects the advanced economies of the East and the West. At the same time, there are also many factors that threaten its stability. These are often closely related with the international dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, to the point that the two areas can be considered as single reality.

West: Challenges and Opportunities for Africa

On its western part, the Indian Ocean touches the shores of the vast African continent. This creates a peculiar mix of opportunities and challenges for coastal states like South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya. Thanks to their position, they can easily reach important economic areas such as India, the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Engaging in maritime trade with these regions could provide a major economic boost to these African states and improve the living conditions of their citizens. In addition, emerging powers like China and India are heavily spending in Africa to access its much-needed natural resources and exploit the opportunities for high investment returns. Yet, in the case of China, this also raises concerns. While African states welcome Chinese investments as they come with no legal precondition on the respect of civil and human rights, some worry that its economic penetration might result in political leverage and in a form of economic neo-colonialism.

There are also two states whose situation is particular. The first is Ethiopia, the powerhouse of the Horn of Africa. As other states along the continent’s eastern coast, it can greatly benefit from international sea trade, but unfortunately it is a landlocked country. This largely explains the recent deal it reached with Eritrea to settle their longstanding conflict: turning Eritrea into a friend would enable Ethiopia to access the sea and engage in maritime trade along one of the busiest routes in the world. As a matter of fact, the Red Sea is an obliged passage for ships sailing between Europe and Asia. Ethiopia has even expressed its intention to build a navy, which is a clear sign of its seafaring ambitions.

The second peculiar case is Somalia. In theory, it is also poised to take advantage from its position on the Indian Ocean, but in practice it is a failed state ruled by armed groups where the central government has not enough power to pursue such kind of maritime policy.

This raises the issue of the threats to sea trade along the Western shores of the Indian Ocean. Somalia is part of the problem, as it has become a hub for piracy. The difficult economic conditions have pushed many Somalis to start attacking cargos navigating along the country’s coasts. This became a serious problem that prompted the international community to organize a military operation to patrol the Somali waters and combat piracy. These efforts succeeded in securing the area and in reducing the number of attacks, but as long as the socio-economic conditions of coastal population do not improve, the risk of piracy will remain.

Then, there are two important chokepoints that connect the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean via the Red Sea, which can be considered as a peripheral area of the Indian Ocean putting it in communication with Europe: first, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait; second, the Suez Canal. Both passages are essential for sea trade, and any interruption would have a major impact on the global economy.

North: India & Hormuz

Located to the North, India is certainly the main regional player. A large and fast-growing economy, it is one of today’s most important rising powers and its influence is growing worldwide. New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean as “its own” maritime space, a vector for power projection and economic growth but also an area to be preserve from the intromissions of hostile powers for the sake of national security. India can enormously benefit from its position protracting towards the ocean midway along the vital East-West sea lanes, and in fact it already taking advantage from it. At the same time, by building a powerful navy it can extend its power abroad and protect its interests. As a matter of fact, New Delhi is concerned over the presence of foreign actors in the Indian Ocean, most notably Beijing. The PRC is indeed investing heavily in the region on the basis of its Maritime Silk Road plan, aimed at creating a string of ports to sustain trade with Europe. This is of central importance for China’s economy, which relies on sea trade for exporting goods and importing hydrocarbons; but some consider that the real objective of the project is to extend its influence in the region by economic means. In a context of broader Sino-Indian rivalry, New Delhi worries about Beijing’s presence in countries like the Maldives or Sri Lanka, considering it as a potential threat to its security. Similarly, India also sees unfavorably the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will connect the PRC with the ocean via the port of Gwadar.

Again, there is also a strategic chokepoint to consider: the Hormuz Strait, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean. This passage is vital for tankers carrying Middle Eastern oil to Europe and Asia and any interruption would have catastrophic economic consequences. Unfortunately, this is not a remote event: in case of a serious standoff between the US and Iran, the Strait would soon become a major flashpoint, since Teheran’s deterrence strategy is largely based on blocking the Strait; which it can do with relative ease due to geographic reasons.

East: the Indo-Pacific

To the East, the Indonesian archipelago and Australia separate the Indian Ocean from the Pacific. Similarly to Somalia, the waters around Indonesia had become infested with pirates in the recent past; and the phenomenon has been reduced only thanks to multilateral military and development efforts. Yet, if the living conditions of coastal populations deteriorated again, the problem may arise once more.

That said, Indonesia and Australia benefit from their position between the two oceans. It allows them to project their power in both directions, to reach the large European and East Asian markets and finally to access Africa with its resources and its potential for investments. Indonesia is particularly relevant in this regard: it is another emerging economy with a great potential, and its virtually controls all the major straits connecting the two oceans: Sunda, Lombok and most importantly Malacca. Indonesia’s growth is largely due to its position on these sea lanes, and Singapore has based its incredible wealth on it. Again, these passages are essential for maritime trade between Europe and Asia as well as for the latter’s energy security; and would become hotspots in case of war, notably between the US and China. If the US Navy closed them, it could seriously harm the tenure of the PRC’s economy. At the same time, they are also essential for American allies like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan; meaning that the US will use its naval power to ensure no hostile power blocks the Straits.

The eastern part of the Indian Ocean plays a fundamental role for maritime security; and the importance of the juncture between the two Oceans is leading many scholars, analysts and policy-makers to consider them as a single maritime region: the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean is extremely important for states in East Asia because it represents the necessary passage to reach Europe; and the security dynamics of the Indian Ocean and of the Asia-Pacific are closely related. China’s New Silk Road initiative, the forays of its Navy in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the Sino-Indian competition, the free flow of oil from the Gulf and piracy in Indonesia are all strategic issues that tie the two oceanic regions. This explains why the concept of Indo-Pacific is also taking importance in American strategic discourse: the economic and security dynamics of the two areas are so intertwined that they must be considered as a single space. Other powers are applying the same logic, and this is having practical consequences: the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue uniting the US, Japan, India and Australia indicates their willingness to strengthen their political and military cooperation to face shared security challenges like the rise of China; and it represents the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a political and strategic reality.

Conclusion: an Indo-Pacific future?

Many scholars believe that “the future is Asian”, which is even the title of a recent book by Parag Khanna. But Asia’s rise largely depends on trade with Europe and on oil imports from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean. As such, Asian states have major strategic concerns in this area. China, Japan and South Korea need to keep the sea lanes open. India is an emerging power whose influence is growing across the world via the sea. Indonesia is the pivot connecting the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. The United States, the world’s primary security provider, is facing many challenges in both Oceans and is committed to preserving the freedom of navigation. Moreover, the interests of the various stakeholders in the area are sometimes colliding, such as in the case of China and India. As such, with Asia’s importance growing every year in both economic and political terms, the Indo-Pacific is also gaining primary strategic relevance.

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The rise of Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country by population and is one of South-East Asia’s most dynamic economies.

Located at the juncture between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it has the potential to become a leading regional power.

However, its location is also a source of considerable challenges that Indonesia will have to manage attentively in the coming years.

Indonesia’s Geography

The very name Indonesia is revealing: it comes from Greek and means “Indian Islands”. As a matter of fact, Indonesia is an archipelago located at the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, and this is a key factor that has shaped its geopolitical thinking.

In terms of dimension and configuration, Indonesia is a vast but fragmented state. It counts over 18,000 islands; the most important of which are Sumatra, Java, the southern section of Borneo, Sulawesi and the western part of New Guinea.

These islands, covered by a thick rainforest rich in wildlife, have a volcanic origin. This means that Indonesia is vulnerable to seismic events and tsunamis; something that has a negative impact on its human security environment.

The country extends over almost 8 million square kilometres if we take into account its maritime space including the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. Combined with its archipelagic nature, this makes it difficult for the central state to exert its power over all the territory; also, because fragmentation is reflected in demographic terms: the population exceeds 260 million citizens divided in more than 300 ethnic groups; and this has important implications on the country’s geopolitics.

Moving on, Indonesia’s position has a deep impact on its foreign affairs. Located at the crossroad between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia plays a pivotal role for international maritime trade.

Sumatra is the southern boundary of the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways and a strategic chokepoint. But Indonesia also controls other important straits; notably Sunda, Lombok and Makassar. These are all essential for trade between Europe and Asia, but also for the latter’s energy security.

Most of the oil it consumes transits through these narrow passages; which explains their geostrategic relevance. Indonesia hugely benefits from its role as a gateway between the two oceans, but this also brings considerable strategic problems because foreign powers have always been trying to control the archipelago.

This continues today: China, the US, Japan and India all have major interests at stake in the Indonesian Straits, and are trying to expand their influence on the country. Finally, the archipelago also hosts important natural resources like oil, gas, minerals, timber and fish. These commodities are a source of wealth for Indonesia, but also another driver for the presence of external powers.

Indonesia’s Geopolitical Thinking

Indonesia’s nature as an archipelago and its “crossroad location”, a concept known as posisi silang, have shaped its geopolitical thinking since it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. Indonesia had to assert its authority over its surrounding seas to ensure its prosperity and security. A first step in this sense was the 1957 Djuanda Declaration, by which Indonesia claimed its sovereignty over all the maritime areas around the archipelago; especially those located between its main islands like the Java and Flores seas.

This stance was later recognized internationally by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. The Djuanda Declaration was the first step towards a more comprehensive doctrine called “Maritime Archipelagic Outlook”, or Wawasan Nusantara Bahari. First formulated in 1966, this Doctrine still stands today. It considers that Indonesia’s location leaves it vulnerable to foreign meddling and that its fragmented geography endangers the unity of the state; but it is also the basis for justifying Indonesia’s leading regional role.

In geostrategic terms, the doctrine considers Java and its sea as Indonesia’s core, which must be protected from external threats. Applying a mandala logic, it identifies three concentric layers that are the base of Indonesia’s foreign and defence policy.

The innermost circle is Indonesia itself, the middle one extends to South-East Asia and Australia, while the external zone includes the rest of the world. The sea is equally important from a geoeconomic point of view.

Indonesia is a trade crossroad, it has an important fishing industry and its waters host important hydrocarbon deposits, estimated to hold 3.7 billion barrels of oil and 2,900 billion cubic feet of gas. As such, securing the sea has a primary importance for the country’s economy.

Finally, in geopolitical terms, it considers the sea as the space connecting the various islands that form its geographically and culturally fragmented territory. This configuration makes separatism easier, and therefore is seen as a threat to the unity of the state; even though it is also argued that the separation of the different national groups reduces the risk of inter-ethnic conflict. Moreover, the sea is the mean by which foreign powers have reached the archipelago in the past.

Consequently, Indonesia believes that controlling the sea is a precondition to preserve the unity and the independence of the state. In this sense, it seeks to achieve resilience both at home and in neighbouring states, assuming that Indonesia is safe only if the archipelago and the surrounding countries are stable.

Yet, Indonesia must face several challenges. Apart from numerous secessionist movements, some of which have been successful, it must also cope with illegal fishing, smuggling, unauthorized immigration and piracy. The latter was once a major problem, but it has been greatly reduced thanks to multilateral efforts and by improving the living conditions of coastal areas.

Terrorism is also a matter of concern, and several attacks have already taken place.

In economic terms, even though Indonesia’s national strategy emphasizes the cohesion of the state and aims to limit foreign meddling, most of its hydrocarbons and of its resources in general are exploited by foreign corporations. In addition, there is a great disparity between urban areas like Jakarta and the rest of the country, especially outside Java.

Indonesia’s power

Indonesia can be considered a middle power, but it is definitely a rising one. Its GDP is the largest in South-East Asia, and in 2017 it amounted to 3.25 trillion measured in US dollars of the same year in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. This ranked the country as the world’s 7th largest economy, and it is projected to become the 4th by 2050. Indonesia’s steady 5% growth rate is helped by low inflation, a budget deficit under control and a public debt representing just 29% of the GDP. Moreover, saving is quite high at around 32% and investments are flowing in, thus paving the way to a continued growth. The trade balance is positive, driven by the export of commodities like oil, gas, coal, metals and palm oil; but also many other low added-value products such as clothing and electric components. Always in terms of PPP, its per capita GDP reached 12,700 dollars in 2017: a still low figure, but a remarkable progress from past levels. Unemployment is only 5.5%; yet, agriculture still retains 32% of the workforce and around 10% of Indonesians live below the poverty line, with 21% remaining at risk. The country also has real problems in terms of corruption and inequality, and must face notable environmental challenges: rising sea levels, deforestation, and extreme weather are already causing notable losses to its economy and are menacing its human security.

Indonesia’s armed forces are also evolving. It spends about 0.8% of its GDP on defence; and in spite of the emphasis given to the sea, the Army has a greater importance than the Navy. Land forces, notably marines and special forces units trained for asymmetric warfare, are indeed important for such a fragmented country; but the Navy remains underdeveloped. It mainly relies on corvettes, and having only 8 frigates and less than 5 diesel-electric submarines seems insufficient, even though it has a good park of minesweepers and there are talks to buy more subs. Similarly, the Air Force only counts around 40 fighters and some attack aircraft. These two branches have quite advanced equipment and are better than those of most ASEAN countries, but Indonesia will need to expand them to affirm itself as a regional power and to cope with challenges like China’s rise.

Conclusion: Indonesia’s foreign policy today

The maritime dimension, control over the straits, internal stability, autonomy from foreign influences and an active regional role have been the cornerstones of Indonesia’s foreign policy for decades. In 1955, Indonesia held a conference in Bandung that marked the birth of the non-aligned movement of states that did not want to side with neither the US nor the USSR.

Today, it still keeps this stance. Regionally, it supports integration through the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN; and it aspires to become its leader. In its relations with external powers, notably the US and China, it attempts maximizing its autonomy by keeping ties with all of them. Indonesia maintains good political and trade relations with both, but it is worth mentioning that it hosts a significant Chinese diaspora which represents around 1% of the population and runs many successful business activities. At the same time, it also cooperates with other powers. Japan and India are important economic partners and security cooperation is growing, especially with the latter. Indonesia also trades with European countries; which are also important arms suppliers.

It is expected that Indonesia’s foreign policy will continue along this line in the next future: trying to maintain its partnership with multiple countries so to maximize its benefit and freedom of action. But in the evolving international scenery of the Indo-Pacific, where the US maintain a strong presence all while China and India are rising, it will be hard for Indonesia not to take sides.

What are China’s Interests in Afghanistan?

The inexorable economic rise of China is producing political and strategic repercussions in all directions. One of the more interesting cases is China’s growing interest in Afghanistan, a country wracked by multiple conflicts and intermittently occupied by foreign powers for nearly forty years.

China and Afghanistan are immediate neighbours as they share a short 76 km border. The border point is distant from urban centres on both sides as it interfaces with the extremity of the Wakhan corridor on the Afghan side, and the outer edge of the Chalachigu Valley on the Chinese side.

The immediacy of Afghanistan’s geographic proximity to China makes the country hard to ignore. But in view of Afghanistan’s profile as an essentially failed state which has been in political and military turmoil for four decades, China can hardly afford to take its eyes of the place.

Add to that the fact that global powers, notably two superpowers in the form of the former Soviet Union and the United States, have maximally intervened in Afghan affairs (notably by occupying the country), then we can legitimately wonder as to why China hasn’t also forcefully intervened in Afghan affairs. Not yet anyway.

Welcome to KJ Vids. In this video we will examine the reasons behind China’s growing involvement in Afghanistan.

What is the full extent of Chinese involvement in Afghanistan?

China is reportedly building its first military base in Afghanistan. It is important to note that the Chinese government denies these claims and only admits to building a training camp in the Wakhan corridor to train Afghan forces. According to Chinese military sources, Beijing is helping Afghanistan set up a mountain brigade in the remote north-eastern corner of the country.

But even if we take these Chinese denials at face value, the fact that China admits to training Afghan forces is in and of itself of great political and strategic import. It speaks to growing Chinese influence in Kabul and signals that China wants to get involved in the military affairs of its volatile western neighbour.

Despite its massive economic clout, and projections that it will displace America as the world’s biggest economy as early as 2032, China hasn’t invested in a big political presence overseas. It may surprise many viewers that China has only one avowed military base overseas and that’s situated in Djibouti.

The newly opened base in Djibouti is designed to serve multiple military and economic functions but above all it is going to provide China with vital experience in how to exercise and manage power projection well beyond its borders. It is perhaps China’s first step toward projecting hard power at a global level, akin to how Western powers flex their muscles on the world stage.

The training camp in the Wakhan corridor (with or without Chinese troops) is clearly not about power projection on the world stage. For a start it borders china and is in close proximity to the restive Chinese region of Xinjiang. China faces serious unrest in this region as a result of continually repressing the region’s indigenous Muslim community known as the Uyghurs. In that context, the base in the remote north-eastern corner of Afghanistan is focussed on counter-terrorism operations and to that end it is potentially more concerned with Chinese security than Afghanistan’s. More on this later.

But beyond latest reports of Sino-Afghan military cooperation, just how involved is Beijing in Afghanistan? Well, for a start China maintains a relatively large embassy in Kabul, a reflection of the scope of its operations across the country. China has an abiding economic interest in Afghanistan, primarily not because the country is attractive economically, but because Afghanistan is central to two of China’s core regional economic ambitions.

These are the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China needs a measure of stability and security in Afghanistan in order to safeguard its massive regional investments, stretching from Pakistan to Central Asia. To that end, China began to step up its activities in Afghanistan from 2014 onwards.

At the economic level, Beijing is involved in the Afghan economy in multiple ways. First, China gives Afghanistan direct financial aid. Statistics vary but according to conservative estimates Beijing has given Kabul at least $410 million in direct aid since 2014.

Second, China has emerged as Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor, focussing mostly on minerals and other natural resource extraction. China was also the first country to begin extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan.

But not all Chinese investment projects have progressed according to plan, in part because of lack of security but equally because of the nature of Chinese overseas economic and commercial enterprise. Concerns about contractual issues and the general aggressive and single-minded approach of Chinese firms – often to the detriment of local workers’ rights – have ground some projects to a halt. The best example is the Mes Aynak concession (concerned with copper ore extraction) which was awarded to Chinese firms more than ten years ago but which has so far failed to even get off the ground.

At the political level, China stepped up its involvement in Afghanistan in late 2014 by trying to set up a “forum” to revive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This was followed by other initiatives, notably in partnership with Pakistan. But China’s attempt at peace-making has been largely unsuccessful, reflecting two inescapable facts. Foremost, China lacks experience in foreign conflict resolution. Second, as an ally of Pakistan, China is not seen as an honest broker by the Afghan government.

But to fully understand the drivers of China’s involvement in Afghanistan and Beijing’s desired outcomes we must take account of geopolitics and specifically China’s competition with major global and regional powers in this arena. Let’s start with India.

Undermining India in Afghanistan

Despite its substantial investments in Afghanistan – and notwithstanding its role as a major donor to the Afghan government – it is important to note that China is not in the first tier of active states in the Afghan arena. That distinction goes to three countries, namely the United States, Pakistan and Iran.

China belongs to a second-tier group of countries that are vying for influence in Afghanistan. The other member states of this tier are India and Russia. Similar to China, the Indians have also stepped up their activities in Afghanistan, although not in the sharp manner as Beijing post-2014. By contrast, New Delhi has incrementally increased its activities in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001.

India has to tread carefully in Afghanistan so as not to draw Pakistan’s wrath. The latter remains the single most influential player in Afghanistan and in view of broader Indo-Pakistan hostilities, any significant movement by New Delhi inside Afghanistan is likely to draw a fierce reaction from Islamabad.

The Indian embassy in Kabul was bombed twice, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, causing dozens of fatalities. The 2008 attack – which killed 58 people including an Indian brigadier general – was attributed to Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency by US intelligence officials.

Unlike Pakistan, China is not interested in taking “kinetic” action against Indian interests in Afghanistan. In fact, the two powers are known to cooprate on joint projects in Afghanistan, notably developing the new Afghan diplomatic corps.

Limited cooperation notwithstanding, China is clearly interested at containing Indian influence in Afghanistan as any increase of influence there positively impacts India’s standing in the broader Central Asia region. India is fast making inroads in Central Asia – and although it cannot displace the two biggest actors in that arena, namely China and Turkey – nevertheless Beijing is fearful of the potential political impact of New Delhi’s outreach to Central Asian states.

Keeping America in check

As we have seen in relation to India, the strategic impact of China’s involvement in Afghanistan primarily serves to augment the role and standing of a Chinese ally, notably Pakistan.

The same pattern can be observed in relation to China’s view of and approach towards the US presence in Afghanistan. In hard power terms – specifically in terms of the deployment of military forces and centrality to the counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban and its allies – the US is the dominant foreign power in Afghanistan.

But a more nuanced appraisal of power and influence projection in Afghanistan cannot fail but to identify Pakistan and Iran as the true dominant foreign powers not least because they are Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and will continue to compete for dominance long after the US has departed the arena.

In view of its broader rivalry with the US, notably in the South China Sea, the People’s Republic does not the want the US to succeed in any conflict arena, let alone not one with massive geopolitical importance, as demonstrated by the longstanding and multi-faceted Afghan conflict.

To that end, China’s strategic posture in Afghanistan complements the role and standing of another one of its allies, notably the Islamic Republic of Iran. But whilst Iran takes active measures against US and broader Western interests in Afghanistan – by for instance allegedly directly supporting the Taliban in military operations – China is content to limit its containment strategy to the political and diplomatic levels.

The domestic dimension

Finally, in assessing China’s role and influence in Afghanistan, it is important to take full stock of the domestic considerations informing Chinese strategy. As stated earlier, China has a counter-terrorism stake in the conflict as it fears infiltration by Uyghur and other militants from Afghanistan into China’s restive Xinjiang region.

Furthermore, the Islamic State group is active in Afghanistan and by definition this jihadist group is deeply opposed to the Chinese presence that country. More broadly, the Islamic State (or Daesh as its detractors call it) is incensed by China’s massive repression of Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims, specifically in Xinjiang but also across China as a whole. China fears that the Islamic State group may try to conduct operations inside China and the Wakhan corridor would be the preferred infiltration point. This explains China’s military interest in the corridor.

But beyond jihadist groups, all the authentic Islamic currents in Afghanistan are appalled by China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The Chinese have reportedly imprisoned up to one million Uyghur Muslims in so-called “counter-extremism centres” which amount to concentration camps.

If China wants to be successful in Afghanistan, and ultimately to play a stabilising role by reconciling the Afghan government with its opponents, then it must also properly address concerns about its treatment of Chinese Muslim minorities.             

 

Will Vietnam clash with China over the South China Sea?

Bilateral relations between China and Vietnam are not as easy as it may seem. At a first glance, they may be expected to maintain a positive and flawless partnership due to the similar political system. However, a deeper analysis reveals various divergences between the two countries, whose relations are becoming more conflictual with each passing year.

Historical background

China and Vietnam are both the cradle of ancient civilizations, but we can start examining their history since the two states took their current form in the aftermath of WWII.

After more than a century of intromissions and abuses from the part of Western powers and Japan, in 1945 China was devastated by war and politically divided. After a long and destructive civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, which dated back to the 30s and was temporarily suspended to form a unified front against the Japanese invasion, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949 following the victory of the Communists under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong. On their part, the Nationalists took refuge in Taiwan, where they founded a state that still remains de facto separated from the mainland. Still, the PRC was weak and isolated. It had very few allies apart from the Soviet Union; whose assistance was not sufficient to spark a sensible economic growth. Virtually all the other powers, especially the United States, were hostile to China. Moreover, Beijing’s relations with Moscow soon started deteriorating, to the point that the two seemed to be on the brink of war in 1969, when a series of border clashes took place.

Vietnam also had a troubled history following the end of WWII. France, the ancient colonial power, restored its control over the country after the brief Japanese occupation during the conflict. Yet, the Vietnamese soon started an insurgency that ultimately ousted the French in 1954. Following the negotiations that ended the war, Vietnam was divided in two states separated by the 17th parallel: the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the pro-American Republic of Vietnam in the south. But peace did not last long. One year later, a communist armed movement known as Vietcong was already active in the South, where it tried to overthrow the pro-Washington government. As the situation deteriorated, the US gradually escalated its support to the South, to the point of sending combat troops in the mid-60s. But the massive deployment of forces was not enough to defeat the Vietcong supported by the North and its allies, namely China and the USSR.

By the late 60s, then, both China and Vietnam were communist countries hostile to the US. Yet, things would soon change. After secret talks, the Nixon administration announced an unexpected diplomatic opening to the PRC, which culminated in the President’s visit to the country in 1972. This move was mainly driven by a double fold strategic logic. First, the US wanted to exploit the Sino-Soviet Split to its own advantage by putting the two communist states against each other and thus increase pressure on the USSR. Second, the Americans hoped to convince China to reduce its support to North Vietnam and thus facilitate the negotiations to end of the Vietnam War; and effectively a diplomatic settlement in this sense was reached in 1973. In spite of this, two years later the North launched a full-scale invasion of the South with its regular military forces. Strained by the long and costly war, the US decided to abandon Vietnam; which was therefore reunited under the communist regime.

Since then, the relations between Vietnam and China rapidly deteriorated. On spite of the similar political system, their alignment to the USSR and other regimes in South-East Asia led them to a short war in 1979 where both sides claimed victory; but their relations gradually normalized after the conflict. Later, China started implementing economic reforms, which sparked an extraordinary economic boom that still continues today; albeit at a slower pace. Vietnam followed its example, and today it is a fast-growing economy in full modernization. In both cases, this was not accompanied by political opening, and the respective Communist parties continue being the centre of the political system in each country. But during the past decade, bilateral relations have been worsening once again over a series of issues; and the trend seem to consolidate.

Sino-Vietnamese Disputes

The first and most important dispute existing between Vietnam and China is the one over the Paracel and Spratly islands, both located in the South China Sea, or SCS. This is very complex issue that goes way beyond the Sino-Vietnamese relations; as it involves overlapping claims by multiple countries over a strategic area for maritime trade that is also a rich fishing ground and is believed to host hydrocarbon reserves. Here it is sufficient to say that both China and Vietnam advance claims on the two archipelagos; but it is important to note that the Paracel are all occupied by the PRC. In fact, Beijing considers practically the whole of the SCS as its possession according to the “Nine-Dash Line” theory; and has been increasing its military presence in the area by conducting patrols, by expanding existing islands or even by building artificial ones, and by positioning military hardware and bases on their soil. Its activities have raised much concern in Vietnam and other riparian states; but due to their division and to the marked power imbalance in its favour, China has managed to gradually but firmly stabilizing its position in the SCS.

While this may look like a trivial quarrel over very small islets and rocks, in reality it has a major geostrategic significance. Legitimately controlling a piece of land that is recognized as an island (and not a simple rock) allows states to rightfully claim the territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone around it. Applied to the SCS archipelagos, this means exerting control over vast maritime spaces that are rich in fish and that may host energy resources. Moreover, the SCS is an essential crossing area for sea trade; therefore, any conflict in the area would seriously disrupt the naval traffic with huge consequences for the global economy. Finally, over time the dispute has taken a symbolic relevance, which exacerbates national animosity and further complicates a peaceful resolution of the issue. Notably, a tense standoff between the two countries took place in 2014 following China’s drilling activities in disputed waters, and in March 2018 Vietnam decided to back down and cancel an important oil project in the area. In this sense, it is also important that Vietnam is modernizing its armed forces; with a particular focus on submarines, fighters and fire-and-forget anti-ship missiles. These are all weapon systems that would be useful in the case of a clash with China in the SCS, and it appears indeed that Vietnam is reshaping its military doctrine in this specific optic.

But there are also other divergences between the two countries. Linked to the SCS dispute, an important issue to consider is China’s economic presence in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese fear that the new economic zones established by their government will end up being dominated by Chinese investors. This has created social tensions that have erupted in violent protests in June this year, with demonstrators openly accusing China and its assertive policy in the SCS. Another problem is the question of waterways; notably the Mekong and the Red River, which both originate in Chinese territory. This has significant implications. First, it means that the PRC can control their flow; with major consequences for Vietnam’s agriculture, which still represents an important part of its economy. Second, and linked with the previous aspect, it means that Vietnam is vulnerable to water pollution generated by Chinese factories located upstream.

Another issue is China’s role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN; a regional multilateral organization meant to promote dialogue and cooperation of which Vietnam is part. In regards to ASEAN, China has always been careful not to discuss the SCS dispute during the organization’s meetings, where it could be put in minority by the other states. In contrast, by applying an effective “divide & rule” strategy, the PRC has been capable of dealing with the issue directly with each member; where it can negotiate from a position of force. Moreover, China is expanding its influence over all of ASEAN members; but Vietnam is resisting. This does not exclude some positive trends in Sino-Vietnamese relations. Bilateral trade is important: in 2016, the PRC accounted for 13% of Vietnam’s export for a total worth 26.8 billion dollars; and 31% of the goods that Vietnam purchased came from China, meaning 60 billion dollars in value. Also, in spite of the disputes of the previous year, in 2015 the two countries pledged to keep positive relations. Still, it is clear that Vietnam is concerned over China’s growing leverage over other Southeast Asian countries and over its activities in the SCS; and is therefore reacting.

As a matter of fact, Vietnam is building its ties with other countries in a clear attempt to hedge against China. Hanoi tries not to provoke Beijing and officially continues to apply its “Three No Policy”; meaning no alliance, no foreign military bases on its territory and no relations with a country against a third one. Yet, it is now allowing foreign navies to access the strategic naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for supply and repair; even though it still refuses to lend it to another country. But this example shows that in practice Vietnam is fostering closer political, economic and even military cooperation with other powers like India, Japan, Australia and most importantly the US. Washington is also involved in the SCS dispute, not as a claimant state but as an international security provider, and especially as the guarantor of freedom of navigation. Considering the importance of the SCS for maritime trade, which is essential for the global economy, the US is naturally concerned by China’s actions in the region and is therefore willing to deepen its ties with riparian states to counter its influence. Vietnam is particularly important, due to its geographic location and because it is among the most powerful countries in the area. During an official trip in 2016, former President Barack Obama lifted the embargo on arms sales to Vietnam; and in March 2018 the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited Vietnam. Considering the troubled past between the two countries, these are quite notable developments.

In spite of some positive signs, the trends described above seem to indicate that economic exchanges and diplomatic promises are not enough to prevent tension. Both powers are indeed acting to secure their own national interest, with China reinforcing its positions in the SCS and Vietnam modernizing its military and fostering ties with the US and other countries. In a broader context of US-China competition, it seems that Vietnam will play an increasingly important role; but at the same time, this will put it in a collision course with the PRC, with potentially detrimental consequences for international security and for the regional stability of an area marked by territorial disputes. Only time will tell what will happen, but it seems that Sino-Vietnamese relations will follow a downgrading course in the coming years.

Will North and South Korea Ever Reunite?

Since the end of the War in 1953, the Korean peninsula is divided by a frozen conflict that still awaits a definitive settlement. The recent developments as the signs of detente between North and South Korea or the meeting between the former’s leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump leave some hope of a peaceful resolution of the Korean issue. But will it actually be the case?

The historical background

After having been under Japanese domination for nearly four decades, in 1945 Korea was divided in two occupation zones separated by the 38th parallel: the Soviet one to the north, and the US-led Allied one in the south. While the original plan was to ultimately restore an independent and unified Korean state, in practice things unfolded differently. As the Cold War emerged, the disagreements between Moscow and Washington led to the establishment of two different states: a pro-communist one ruled by Kim Il-sung in the north, with Pyongyang as capital, and an authoritarian but pro-American one in the south, whose government was based in Seoul. The former took the name of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, while the latter became known as the Republic of Korea, shortened in RoK. The efforts to reach a common agreement over the reunification of the Peninsula were all unproductive, and the situation stalled until 1950 when North Korea invaded the South.

Exploiting the surprise effect, its troops captured Seoul and almost managed to occupy the whole Peninsula. The international coalition created to defend the South, patronised by the United Nations and headed by the US, struggled to stop the advancing enemy. But then, the US organized a counter offensive. With a bold amphibious landing at Inchon, they cut the supply lines of the North’s armies and pushed them back to the initial positions. Acting beyond the UN directive, the allied forces proceeded further north, taking Pyongyang and almost reaching the Yalu river, Korea’s border with China. Feeling threatened, the PRC intervened in support of its North Korean ally in December 1950. The coalition was expelled from the North’s territory, and the communist troops conquered Seoul a second time. But once again, the US and its allies counterattacked and retook the city in March 1951. the situation stabilized along the 38th parallel, and no notable changes occurred until the signature of an armistice in 1953. While this practically put an end to the conflict, a true peace treaty was never signed, and as such the Korean War is officially still unresolved.

Since then, the situation has stalled. The South maintained an authoritarian regime for several decades, before becoming a democracy in 1987 and beginning a period of rapid economic growth that turned it in one of the world’s most dynamic economies. The North, under the leadership of the Kim family, has remained a ruthless, isolationist, heavily-militarized and economically fragile dictatorship centred upon the Juche ideology; a peculiar combination of communism, nationalism, Korean tradition and cult for the ruler.

The geopolitical situation in Korea

As of today, the Korean peninsula remains divided, and this deeply influences the foreign policy of the two Korean states and of the other powers implied in the area.

First, since Korea is relatively small, both states are exposed to a potential attack coming from the other and/or its allies; notably as both capitals, and especially Seoul, are close to the border. This “proximity curse” is a central factor in the security dilemma that they face and that will be examined later. Second, there are the political factors. South Korea is allied with the US, which maintains bases and troops on its territory and that has even the power to take command of the South Korean military in case of war. The two countries regularly hold joint manoeuvres that anger the DPRK; who, on its part, is allied with China. The two states are tied by a 1961 treaty that establishes that the PRC is the security guarantor of the North. Its commitment is not total, however, as it would intervene only if the DPRK were attacked, and not if it would launch an offensive. In this regard, it is notable that amid the tensions between Washington and Pyongyang in 2017, the Chinese communicated that they would defend North Korea if the US attacked it.

As a matter of fact, the Korean Peninsula holds a particular geostrategic significance for both China and America, especially now that they are engaged in a broader competition in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. For the PRC, North Korea is a buffer zone separating its territory from the US-allied South, and therefore do not want the Pyongyang regime to collapse. This is why it keeps the 1961 treaty alive and continues supplying the DPRK with essential goods without which its economy would collapse. But at the same time, the division of Korea is also a problem, the risk remains that a war involving the US may break out in China’s backyard; in which case it would have to choose between seeing the American forces reaching the Yalu and creating a unified Korea under Washington’s influence or intervening and battle the US military to prevent this outcome. On it part, America is also facing a dilemma in Korea: remaining committed to protecting the South is important to preserve the credibility of its security engagements and to maintain a useful military presence in the area; but at the same time it also faces the risk of being involved in a conflict that may escalate to include China.

Finally, there are two other powers that have some interests at stake in the Peninsula. The first is Japan, who is equally concerned over the possibility of being directly or indirectly involved in a war and who sees North Korea’s missiles and nuclear program as a threat to its security. The second is Russia, who would not see favourably a further extension of America’s influence in the region.

In short, all the powers involved in the issue do not want a conflict. Yet, the risk of war remains real; because the two Korean states and their allies are trapped into a complicated security dilemma.

The security dilemma in Korea

Both the RoK and the DPRK continue to live as if the war could restart at any time. The two states maintain considerable military forces along the border, ready to respond in case of attack; even though no party wants to launch an offensive. But the looming threat of an escalation, most likely during a crisis, remains sufficient to keep both in alert. As a matter of fact, the security dilemma is very strong here; also because of the aforementioned “proximity curse”, Most of the DPRK’s forces are concentrated along the frontier. In particular, it has massed hundreds of artillery pieces ready to unleash a rain of fire on the highly-populated Seoul area; which would cause uncountable victims and terrible material damage, with huge repercussions on the financial-economic plan as well. This is already a very powerful deterrent against any attack on the North by the South or its main ally, the US; but at the same time it is the reason why the RoK wants to be ready for war and maintains its close alliance with the Americans: it considers this as the only way to dissuade the North from attempting to reunify the Peninsula by force. But this and the US presence in South Korea, in turn, is what motivates Pyongyang to keep its armed forces ready for attack: the massive damage it could inflict on the South is an extremely effective mean of dissuasion; probably equal and even superior to its nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s nuclear programme

This security dilemma is the main driver at the base of North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons, as from its perspective it is the only way it can ensure its security in a challenging geopolitical environment.

During the Cold War, the South was still poor and militarily weak, and the DPRK could benefit from the support of two powerful allies, namely China and the USSR. Considering also that it already had formidable conventional retaliation means, it felt safe enough not to need nuclear weapons to guarantee its safety. But the balance of power in the Peninsula gradually changed with time as the RoK developed its economy and filled the military gap with its northern neighbour. In this context, in the late 80s the DPRK was first suspected of having a military nuclear programme. Things turned more complicated for the North in 1991: the Soviet Union fell; and China, whose relations with the US had much improved, was just beginning its economic boom. So, the DPRK was left virtually alone to face the possibility of a conflict, and this reinforced its determination to obtain nuclear weapons. In practice, this choice just worsened the security dilemma, but in the optic of Pyongyang’s regime it was the only guarantee that no one would try to attack the country and topple its government. Moreover, it also gave the DPRK a powerful tool to attract the world’s attention and obtain much-needed economic aid from the international community. As a matter of fact, an agreement with the US was initially reached in 1994, according to which Pyongyang pledged to stop its nuclear programme in exchange of diplomatic recognition and economic assistance.

At first, the deal worked, but things changed once again in the early 2000s. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, US President G.W. Bush pledged to counter WMD proliferation with all means and started implementing a preventive war doctrine to eliminate the “Axis of Evil” that threatened America. The DPRK, who was explicitly included in the list and who was already suspected of running a clandestine nuclear programme in spite of the pacts, felt menaced and decided to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and openly admit its quest for nuclear weapons. Being already engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington opted for diplomacy in the context of the Six-Party Talks (or SPT), that included the two Korean States plus the US, China, Japan and Russia. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, which showed that it had achieved its goal and therefore reinforced its position both strategically and diplomatically; as now the point was to disarm it rather than preventing proliferation. After long negotiations, the DPRK accepted once again to end its nuclear programme if it received economic aid. But no actual progress was made afterwards, and the DPRK ultimately abandoned the SPT in 2009. In the meanwhile, it continued making progress and testing nuclear warheads as well as ballistic missiles. When President Trump entered in office in 2017, he decided to apply a “maximum pressure” policy to push North Korea to dismantle its small but dangerous arsenal. After a crisis marked by verbal attacks and military shows of force, Trump and Kim Jong-un decided to talk directly. After meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim went to Singapore in June 2018 to personally discuss with Trump; and negotiations have been under way since then.

What now?

While the recent meetings were certainly historic events, the road ahead still appears to be long. The North has shown some goodwill, but the fundamental issues are still unresolved and most importantly the underlying geopolitical situation has not changed. Korea remains divided, the North’s regime is still in power and wants to remain there, and there is no agreement over the future asset of the Peninsula.

Moreover, the current status quo is somehow convenient for all, as any alteration may result in less convenient outcomes and even in an all-out war. Also, if the US used its military force to attack a foreign country and enforce regime change, the DPRK would once again feel threatened and would probably decide to resume its nuclear programme. Finally, apart from geopolitics, the reunification of Korea would also imply very high cost to develop the former North, and no one really wants to sustain these expenses.

Yet, it cannot be excluded that progress will be made, that the nuclear issue will be solved and that Korea will eventually reunite. But in the short term, no breakthrough is to be expected in the Peninsula.

Why is Japan Rearming?

The gradual but firm shift in Japan’s defence posture is among the most notable developments characterizing the Asia-Pacific’s international dynamics in the past few years. Its efforts to increase its military power, accompanied by attempts to change the Constitution to expand the means and the duties of its military forces are to be interpreted in a broader context of growing security challenges. But what exactly are the drivers behind Japan’s re-arm?

Japan’s defence policy after WWII

Japan’s past is the first element to consider to understand the importance of its changing defence posture.

After being defeated in WWII, Japan abandoned its pre-war militarism to embrace pacifism and rejection of the use of armed force. This principle was enshrined in Article 9 of its Constitution, which entered into force 1947 with US support. According to its terms, Japan denied its own right to belligerency, rejected war as a mean to solve international disputes, and renounced to develop any war potential. This meant that it could not possess its own armed forces and could not participate in any conflict abroad, not even for collective self-defence. Initially, the US had favoured this constitutional provisions as a guarantee that Japan would never try again to conquer the Asia-Pacific region has it had done in the past. Moreover, immediately after the war it seemed that the area would become a hub of peace and stability.

But the situation changed soon. In 1949 the communists took power in mainland China, thus radically changing the region’s geopolitical landscape. Only one year later, the pro-Soviet North Korea attacked its southern counterpart, triggering the three-years-long Korean War. Following the emergence of these threats, Washington applied the containment policy to counter the assertiveness of Moscow and its allies in Asia as in Europe. In this logic, the US started pressuring Japan to adopt a larger security role. However, this achieved very limited success. In 1951, America and Japan signed a Peace Treaty, and along with it a separate Security Treaty (later revised in 1960) that committed Washington to defend its ally. But under the Premiership of Yoshida Shigeru, Japan preferred to minimize its military expenditures in order to focus on reconstruction and economic growth, all while relying on its powerful American ally for protection. This approach, later named “Yoshida Doctrine” after its inspirer, became the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy for decades, and it was an extraordinary success. Thanks to it, Japan managed to avoid international conflicts and to achieve an impressive GDP growth, rapidly turning into one of the world’s leading economic powers. As of today, Japan is still the third largest economy in terms of nominal GDP.

Yet, this does not mean that Japan did not have its own military. The terms of Article 9 notwithstanding, the country still had to make concessions. In 1954, it established its armed forces, which took the name of Japanese Self-Defense Forces (or JSDF). But as their name suggests, they were not comparable to the full-fledged militaries that other states had. The JSDF could not field any equipment considered to be “offensive” such as strategic bombers or aircraft carriers, and their role was strictly limited to defending Japan’s territory from an external (most likely Soviet) invasion. They could not participate to collective self-defence operations, as this would imply fighting abroad to protect an ally, and not even to peacekeeping missions. In 1976, the practice of limiting the defence expenditures to no more than 1% of its GDP became official. All this deeply influenced Japan’s role in overseas conflicts, even those occurring very close to its territory and whose outcome could affect its own national security. The first case is the Korean War: in spite of the geographical proximity and of their anti-communist stance, the Japanese limited their contribution to providing bases and equipment for the US-guided coalition. Still, with time new events pushed Japan to slowly change its stance.

The first one was the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991. Since Japan was (and still is) largely dependent on Middle Eastern oil for its energy supplies, the US expected that it would give a sensible contribution to the conflict. But on the basis of its constitutional limitations, Japan refused to do so, limiting its participation to providing financial aid to the international coalition. This form of “checkbook diplomacy” was largely criticized by the US, and as a result Japan adopted a new legislation allowing it to take part to peacekeeping missions with strictly non-combat roles. A few years later, North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 increased Japan’s fear of being involved in a regional conflict. Then, the test of the DPRK’s first ballistic missile in 1998 shocked Japan, thus prompting it to start cooperating with the US on anti-missile defence. Another change occurred in the aftermath of 9/11. As America begun its “War on Terror” under the Bush administration, it asked Japan to contribute to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tokyo was again reticent, but in the end it accepted to deploy its forces to provide non-combat support. In 2004 it also adopted a new national defence document that called for an increase of its military capabilities, and most importantly Article 9 was reinterpreted to allow self-defence in case of attack on American forces defending Japan or even abroad, provided this represented a threat to Japan itself.

In spite of all this, strong restrictions remain on Japan’s military. Still, it maintains a well-trained and well-equipped military. As a matter of fact, despite the 1% GDP gap on defence expenditures, the sheer size of its economy means that its budget is one of the world’s largest in absolute terms. Nevertheless, until recently it has kept a low-profile defence posture. But with the emergence of new challenges, Japan is gradually moving out from its traditional policy to take a more important role in regional security, which also implies increasing its military capabilities and re-interpreting (if not changing) its Constitution.

The drivers of Japan’s re-arm

As seen, the earliest driver of Japan’s efforts to empower its military came from the need to give a greater contribution to international operations. This was the answer to its American ally, which criticized it for being a free-rider who takes benefit from US protection without giving much support to American-led actions. Gradually, Japan started participating more actively in international missions, dispatching its forces for peacekeeping, disaster relief, or maritime law enforcement.

But there are two other factors to be considered, the first of which is North Korea. Its ballistic missiles and the possibility of a new war in the Peninsula are considered serious threats by Japan. This explains both its diplomatic efforts to favour a negotiated settlement of the issue, but also its commitment to deploy anti-missile systems like Patriot Advanced Capability 3 batteries (PAC-3) or AEGIS-equipped destroyers.

Yet, this is only one part of the story. Coping with a potential conflict in Korea does not reveal why Japan is increasing its maritime and air power, nor why it is acquiring Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) systems and practicing amphibious operations. To understand this, the third factor should be considered, which is by far the main driver of Japan’s military build-up: the rise of China.

After it started its economic boom in the 90s, the PRC soon initiated a military modernization programme. Combined with its increasing assertiveness, this has resulted in heightening tensions with the US. While much remains to be done for China’s armed forces to match America’s military on an equal level, this has turned Beijing into Washington’s near-peer competitor, at least in the Asia-Pacific. In this context, Japan has started feeling concerned about China’s rise as well, something that clearly emerges from its official documents.

The reasons are double fold. First, its relations with China are problematic, and sometimes even tense. There is much animosity between the two about Japan’s invasion of China in the 30s and the war crimes it committed during that period. There is also a territorial dispute between them over the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands. Maritime security is another major issue: Japan’s economic prosperity and energy security depends on the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) connecting it with Europe and the Middle East; therefore, it is afraid that China may cut these maritime routes, thus posing an existential threat to its survival. Then, China does not appreciate Japan’s status as an American ally; which brings to the second aspect to consider: the role of the US.

As noted before, Washington has been asking Tokyo for a greater contribution to regional security. For decades, Japan has resisted these demands, but now that China is emerging as a military power capable of damaging the interests of both Japan and the US, Tokyo is more willing to expand the roles and the capabilities of its military; also because it understands that not doing so would alienate Washington and may ultimately result in the loss of its main ally, which remains essential for its national security.

This was also the main justification behind the reinterpretation of the Article 9 of the Constitution. The text of the Article has not been changed, as that would require a complex procedure including a referendum that would likely fail given the popular attachment to the pacifist principles of the Chart. But in 2014 Abe’s government introduced a new interpretation, which was approved by the National Diet the following year. According to it, Japan will be able to use the military even to protect a foreign country, provided that Japan’s survival is at stake, that there are no other means, and always by limiting its action to the minimum necessary measures. This move was strongly criticized by Japan’s neighbours, first and foremost China.

The axes of Japan’s re-arm

The central importance of China as the main driver of Japan’s re-arm is evident when examining the specific nature of its military reorganization. Its defence expenditures have been growing constantly in recent years, reaching around 4.94 trillion yen.

The land component of the JSDF is being reduced in favour of the air and naval forces. This is because in the case of an open conflict with China, the best defence for Japan would be to achieve the aero-naval superiority over its surrounding seas (in cooperation with the US) so to keep the Chinese forces away from its territory. In this context, Japan is deploying to the south more air squadrons equipped with F-15J fighters, as well as support aircraft like tankers and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) planes. Recon drones like the RQ-4 Global Hawk could be adopted as well. A total of 42 F-35A fighters are also scheduled to be fielded, the first of which has been deployed at the beginning of 2018.

But it is the maritime part of the JSDF that is being developed the most. There are five notable trends in this. First, surface ships are being modernized and new ones are entering into service to bring the total from 47 to 54. These include new guided missile destroyers equipped with the AEGIS system, whose task is to patrol and protect the SLOC and the seas around Japan, contribute to air and naval superiority, and intercept incoming missiles. Second, the number of attack submarines is to increase from 16 to 22. Their mission is to counter the subs that the PRC is also fielding in larger numbers, to have assets that are not threatened by its anti-ship missiles, and finally to threaten the SLOC that are vital for China as well. Third, in a similar logic Japan is procuring more antisom aircraft for its naval forces. Fourth, it is enhancing its mine warfare capabilities, both in the form of deploying and removing naval mines. But the fifth and most notable development is the introduction of helicopter destroyers, which has also caused controversy. Currently, Japan has four ships of this kind: two belong to the Hyuga class while the other two are more recent Izumo-class units. They are the largest ships in Japan’s maritime force and, in spite of being smaller than their US counterparts, they are often described as de facto aircraft carriers. However, this is misleading. Currently these ships do not operate any fighter jet, but only helicopters; mainly because their deck cannot resist the extremely high temperatures generated by jet engines. Still, while it is a complex endeavour, it is technically possible to modify the deck of the two Izumo units to enable fighter operations, and there have been rumors that Japan is actually considering this option so to allow the ships to operate up to 10 F-35B fighters; something that has caused criticism from the PRC. Moreover, the number of planes they could carry is relatively limited, as their autonomy. As such, rather than for sustaining large-scale naval battles or as power projection means, these ships are more suitable for antisom missions thanks to their helicopters or for supporting amphibious operations along with dedicated landing ships, as they can carry 400 marines and around 50 light vehicles.

This brings us to the role of the land forces, which also have an important role that reflects Japan’s new strategic needs. The marines units are being expanded, a sign that Japan wants its military to be able to defend and if necessary retake remote islands to the south like the Senkaku or the Ryukyu. Also, radars and five regiments armed with anti-ship cruise missile (consisting in the Type 88 and the more recent Type 12) are being deployed on these islands along with anti-aircraft missile units. The aim is to create A2/AD zones over the East China Sea both for protecting the SLOC and for denying the access to the open ocean to China’s aero-naval forces; in the logic of keeping them at bay until the US Navy arrives. New missiles are also under development, among which the most notable is the HVGP (Hyper Velocity Gliding Projectile), a hypersonic missile explicitly designed to defend remote islands and a sign that Japan wants to enter in the race to develop such systems.

What next?

Considering all these aspects, it is clear that Japan is taking a greater role in regional security and that appears more determined to protect its interests in a challenging international environment. Yet, it seems unlikely that it will opt for full militarization. The large majority of Japanese oppose a change in the Constitution and even the recently-approved reinterpretation was met with resistance. Japan remains more willing to solve international issues by diplomacy and economic assistance rather than by the use of force. Yet, to ensure its vital interests and to preserve the alliance with the US, which remains essential for its national security, Japan will likely continue on this course and increase its military capabilities. But this is something that is not only up to Japan: much depends on its American ally; and much, if not the most, on its Chinese rival.

Will China take over Europe?

For over a decade, Chinese political and corporate leaders have been hunting for investment opportunities around the globe with bottomless wallets. From Asia, to Africa, the U.S and Latin America, China has asserted itself as an emerging world power. The multi-billion dollar belt and road initiative which some have called as the “Chinese Marshall Plan,” is designed to encourage economic connectivity and integration to the Eurasia strategic landscape, by linking Europe and Asia by land.

Europe is a key piece in China’s grand ambitions and China has been significantly expanding its economic footprint in Europe. So much so that it has led the EU to devise a counter-strategy in order to prevent the creation of political and financial dependencies. I’m Kasim, welcome to KJ Vids and in this video we take a look at China’s investments in Europe.

Since 2008, the landscape of Chinese foreign direct investments in the European Union has changed dramatically. From $840 million invested in 2008, China’s annual FDI in Europe grew to $42 billion in 2017. According to a recent compilation by Bloomberg, total Chinese investments in Europe, including both mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and greenfield investments, amount to $318 billion, 45 percent more than Chinese investment in the U.S. between 2008 and 2017.

China has taken over approximately 360 European companies. In the first six months of 2018, research by global law firm Baker McKenzie found that the value of newly announced Chinese merger and acquisitions in Europe hit $22 billion by the mid-point of the year, nine times higher than in North America where it was just $2.5 billion.

China’s investments are broadly spread geographically, although the largest European economies – the United Kingdom ($70 billion in cumulative Chinese investment), Italy ($31 billion), Germany ($20 billion), and France ($13 billion) – attract the largest share of Chinese capital. Among China’s iconic investments in Europe is the Hinkley Point nuclear plant in southern England, which is one third funded by China.

For over a decade now, the City of London has been a magnet for Chinese cash as Beijing tries to build its currency, the Yuan, into a world currency. By and large, Chinese money has been going into real estate and finance, with Chinese state banks well represented and active in the bond market and the international exchange market. Chinese citizens represent almost half of the investor visas the UK granted in 2017, outnumbering Russians, the next largest group of investor visa recipients, by 250 percent. Despite the largely uncertain future of the UK as a market once it exits the EU, China is betting on the British capital as an emerging hub of Chinese finance.

In Germany, China’s investments started with the purchase of family-run industrial companies, such as machine-tool maker Putzmeister in 2010, and continued with the Chinese company Midea’s acquisition of robotics company Kuka AG in 2016 for $5.2 billion. More recently, a Chinese investor’s $1 billion acquisition made it became the top shareholder of Daimler AG. German debate over Chinese FDI has intensified since the launch in 2015 of China’s Made in China 2025 strategy, a national plan that aims to make the country a champion in key high-tech industries such as aerospace, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Many Chinese companies have eyed German companies with the goal of acquiring technologies and orchestrating transfers of these technologies.

In Italy, China’s Silk Road Fund helped China National Chemical Corporation, also known as ChemChina, buy tire maker Pirelli in 2015 for $7.7billion. ChemChina has also acquired a string of industrial and energy related companies.

In the EU’s immediate neighbourhood, Switzerland has captured the lion’s share of Chinese FDI with ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta, one of the world’s largest agri-business conglomerates. The deal was finalized in 2018 for $46 billion, making it the world’s single largest acquisition by a Chinese company.

The islands of Cyprus and Malta, both full EU member-states, are throwing open the gates to Chinese investors, especially in finance and real estate. Both have also become strong supporters of China. Then there are the cases of Greece and Portugal, two Southern European countries that together account for a modest 2.5 percent of the EU’s GDP in 2017.

China has become a key-investor in Greece, mainly through a central investment project. In 2016, a Chinese state-owned corporation, China Ocean Shipping Company (Cosco), took over 67 per cent of Athens’ Piraeus harbour. China has signalled that it intends to use this port as the main platform for its maritime Silk Road, part of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” Initiative. Most Chinese companies are now using Piraeus as their principal port of entry in Southern Europe. Visiting China in 2016, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras declared that Greece intends to “serve as China’s gateway into Europe”.

To the west, Portugal has become a key recipient of Chinese investment. Per capita, it is one of the largest in Europe. During a Euro region’s crisis in 2011, the Lisbon government was under pressure from the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the so-called “troika,” to sell state assets. China stepped forward to offer foreign investment. As part of the bailout, China Three Gorges bought 26 per cent of EDP, and State Grid Corp. of China bought a stake in Portugal’s power distributor, REN-Redes Energeticas Nacionais SA. Fosun Group, a privately-owned Shanghai-based company, controls the Portugal’s largest insurer, Fidelidade, and a group of private hospitals. The list of Chinese investments seem endless, but does any of this translate into political influence?

According to Thomas Wright, the Director of the Centre on the United States and Europe at Brookings, the Chinese leadership’s seeking of political influence in the EU is driven by two interlocking motivations: ensuring regime stability at home and presenting its political concepts as a competitive way of political and economic governance to a growing number of third countries.

Unlike the current Russian government, Beijing is interested in a stable — but pliant and fragmented —EU and the large and integrated European single market that underpins it. Properly managed, the Chinese leadership has concluded, parts of Europe can be a useful conduit to further its interests. Politically, it is seen as a potential counterweight to the U.S. – one that is even more easily mobilized in the era of the Trump administration’s “America First” approach. Beijing is also acutely aware that Europe has many assets like technology and intellectual property, which China needs for its industrial upgrading, at least in those domains in which it has not yet established its own technological leadership. The EU is also useful as a ‘legitimizer’ of Chinese global political and economic activities, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Beijing pursues three related goals. The first is aimed at building support among third countries like EU member states on specific issues and policy agendas, such as gaining market economy status from the EU or recognition of territorial claims in the South China Sea. A part of this short-term goal is to build solid networks among European politicians, businesses, media, think tanks, and universities, thereby creating layers of active support for Chinese interests. Recent Chinese attempts to discourage individual EU countries from taking measures that run against Chinese interests, such as supporting a coordinated EU response to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, meeting with the Dalai Lama, or criticizing Beijing’s human rights record, are cases in point.

According to Thomas Wright, the second related goal is to weaken Western unity, both within Europe and across the Atlantic. Beijing realized early on that dividing the U.S. and the EU would be crucial to isolating the U.S., countering Western influence more broadly, and expanding its own global reach. China senses that a window of opportunity to pursue its goals has opened, with the Trump administration seen as withdrawing from the role as guardian of the liberal international order that the U.S. has long played. This comes in addition to the challenges Western liberal democracies face from the rise of illiberal-authoritarian political movements.

The third goal is broader in terms sense of “making the world safe more China’s autocratic model.” This means creating a more positive global perception of China and presenting its political as well as economic system as a viable alternative to liberal democracies. In large part, this is motivated by China’s continued fear of the appeal of so-called Western ideas like liberal and democratic values. From the vantage point of Beijing, European and Western ‘soft power’ has always had a sharp, aggressive edge, threatening the Chinese regime. At the same time, this goal is based on the idea that as China rises in economic and military terms, it should command more respect in the court of global public opinion. Activities geared towards long-term shifts in global perceptions include improving China’s global image through measures like media cooperation, making liberal democracy less popular globally by pointing out real or alleged inefficiencies in democratic decision-making processes, and supporting illiberal tendencies in European countries.

Given the rapidity of China’s economic development in the past 30 years it has taken the EU some time to acknowledge the growing power and influence of Beijing. Not only has China become a trading giant, it sits on the world’s largest currency reserves and is an increasingly important provider of foreign investment including in Europe.

Recently, however, a number of developments have generated a sense of caution among European politicians and policymakers. On 19th September 2017, the EU published its much-anticipated strategy to counter China’s increasing economic influence in Europe.

China’s refusal to tackle the dominant position of its state-owned enterprises led the EU to refuse to grant China market economy status. Beijing’s targeting of European technology has also led to plans for screening of Chinese investments in Europe. But it was the massive infrastructure investments under BRI that raised concerns in Brussels, as well as Washington, Delhi and other capitals about the implications of China’s approach.

In the spring of 2018 EU ambassadors in China penned a report critical of the BRI for being economically, environmentally, socially and financially unsustainable. It also criticised China for discriminating against foreign businesses, the lack of transparent bidding processes and the limited market access for European businesses in China.

China’s involvement in the EU and its neighbourhood also rang warning bells. In 2014, Montenegro concluded an agreement with China Exim Bank on the financing for 85% of a highway construction project, with the estimated cost equalling 25% of the country’s GDP.

The IMF has repeatedly stated that construction should only continue on the basis of concessional funds. Many believe that a debt default is likely, which may result in the involuntary handover of critical infrastructure to China.

Likewise, China’s entire or partial acquisition of ports in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and most notably Greece has not gone unnoticed. Without serious hindrance, China is buying up critical infrastructure in Europe, whereas European foreign direct investment in China is decreasing.

China has already reaped some political benefit from these investments with some member states blocking resolutions critical of human rights in China or condemning Beijing’s conduct in the South China Sea.

Similarly, European officials have also questioned the environmental and economic sustainability of various Chinese connectivity projects. The planned construction of six coal-based power plants in Pakistan whose joint output capacity equals 27% of the country’s current capacity has been criticised as environmentally unsustainable.

Sri Lanka has been unable to repay Chinese loans for the construction of the Hambantota port. As a result, the port and surrounding acres of land, strategically located at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, will now be under Chinese control until the year 2114.

Malaysia and Myanmar are also seeking to renegotiate loans taken out under the BRI.

These examples have increased EU concerns as China has expanded its influence in Asia, Central Asia and Europe. But the EU was well aware that mere peer pressure would not drive China to reconsider its strategy. To secure its own political and economic interests, the EU had to put forward an ambitious and comprehensive response, which was to strengthen its own links with the host countries and to present them with a credible and sustainable alternative offer for connectivity financing.

The new strategy will give Asian and European states a much clearer idea on the basis of which the EU wishes to engage with them, and what they can expect. Although some financing is mentioned in the EU paper, we will have to wait and see how the ongoing negotiations for the next EU budget will be in allocating sufficient EU funds to connectivity financing in order to mobilise additional investment from private and multilateral investors. The EU strategy will also need united support from member states, a solid public communications strategy, and broad bi- and multilateral outreach programmes to the EU’s partners.

Geopolitical competition in Eurasia will undoubtedly increase with China, Russia, the US and the EU competing for influence. The connectivity strategy of the EU has set down a marker that the EU is part of the Great Game.

Thanks for watching another KJ Vid, see you next time.

Will Japan and Russia make peace?

For more than 70 years, Russia and Japan have been at loggerheads over Pacific islands on the edge of the Sea of Okhostk known as the Kuril islands. The long-standing dispute dates back to WWII when the Soviet Union seized the islands, expelling all 17,000 Japanese residents. Japan’s official position is that the islands are an inherent part of its territory and are under illegal occupation. Russia meanwhile, insists it owns the islands.

The dispute has remained a sticking point in Japan-Russia relations ever since, preventing the signing of a formal peace treaty. But less than two weeks ago on 12th September 2018, Russia’s President Vladmir Putin used an appearance at the Eastern economic forum to float the idea of signing a peace treaty with japan. “An idea has just come into my head… Let’s conclude a peace treaty before the end of this year, without any pre-conditions.”

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Is China colonising Africa?

China’s economic interests in Africa is one of the most recognised and talked about international engagements. Earlier this month, Xi Jinping pledged to provide Africa $60BN over the next 8 years.

But the portrayal of China’s investments in Africa have been particularly negative in the West with headlines such as “Is China Good or Bad for Africa?” China in Africa: Collaboration or Colonialism?

So, is China colonising Africa in a new form of colonialism? What do African’s think? And what do the facts say? I’m Kasim, this is KJ Vids and in this video, we will look at China’s investments in Africa.

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The rise of digital dictatorships

The Rise of Digital Dictatorships

Many people thought that the internet and the rise of social media would quickly usher in a wave of political reforms in countries that are ruled by dictators and authoritarianism.

But Governments in authoritarian regimes have been remarkably successful at adapting to the perceived dangers posed to their political authority by the Internet. I’m Kasim, this is KJ Vids and in this video, we will look at how the internet has actually strengthened dictatorships.

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