Suzuki Muneo’s Russia Gambit

In October of 2023, Japan’s House of Councillors Member Suzuki Muneo visited Russia. Recently, he sat down with Kenji Yoshida and Jason Morgan and spoke about why he visited Russia, what he heard there, and where Japan-Russia relations are headed.

Suzuki Muneo is a dynamo. When we arrive at his House of Councillors office for an interview in late February, the place is abuzz with activity. While we sit in a meeting room waiting, Suzuki darts about the office and in and out of rooms, taking phone calls, shouting for his secretaries to bring him documents or remind him of appointments, and, occasionally, poking his head into the meeting room to apologize and say he’ll be with us shortly. His office is filled with maps and memorabilia of Hokkaido, where Suzuki’s home district is located.

Suzuki Muneo is also easily the most controversial member of the Japanese Diet. He spent a year in prison on a 2004 conviction for having taken bribes from Hokkaido firms, and for having then concealed those bribes and perjured himself when testifying about them. But the controversy swirling around him today is of much more recent vintage. Suzuki’s constituents live in close proximity to Russia, and many of them want to maintain good relations with Japan’s Slavic neighbor for the sake of, for example, fishing rights and permission to visit family graves in Russia-held territory. So, in October of 2023, Suzuki outraged the political class in Tokyo—including the Ishin-no-Kai, his political base after his exile from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) following the bribery scandal—by visiting Russia and engaging in talks with officials there.

Suzuki insists that he did it for his constituents and for the security of Japan. Tokyo politicians and many in the media saw his visit as consorting with the enemy during a time of war. We saw his visit as a valuable opportunity to learn more about Russia-Japan relations, especially during a time of war in Ukraine. Roughly the first half of the more-than-one-hour-long interview follows.

Kenji Yoshida and Jason Morgan (K&J): What was your main reason for visiting Russia in October of 2023?

Suzuki Muneo (SM): After Kishida Fumio became prime minister, the Ukraine problem burst onto the scene. America announced that it would be imposing economic sanctions on Russia, and Japan followed suit. I think this was a mistake on Japan’s part.

Suzuki Muneo (Photo: Kenji Yoshida).

Japan and the United States are allies, but our countries lie on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, separated by ten thousand kilometers. Russia, China, South Korea, North Korea—these are Japan’s neighboring countries. For Japan, the United States is like a relative—being our ally—but it is still a distant relative. Japan’s survival depends on its relations with countries with which we are not related in that sense, but which are much closer geographically than America.

On a personal level, if I don’t like someone, I can just ignore him. In the worst case scenario, I can move away if I really don’t like him and don’t want to have anything to do with him. But countries can’t move. They have to come to terms with one another. That is the only way.

Japan followed the Americans’ lead on Russia, and, because of that, the good relationship that Japan and Russia had been cultivating and trying to improve was ruined. The relationship between Japan and Russia today is the worst it has been at any point in the nearly seventy-nine years of the postwar.

I thought this was unacceptable. If there was even the slightest chance of improving the situation, then I think that somebody had to try.

K&J: What else motivated your visit?

SM: There is the energy issue, for instance, which is the most vulnerable issue for Japan. Russia is the most energy-rich country on earth. Even now, approximately one-tenth of Japan’s energy comes from Russia.

On marine products, as well, [there is] cooperation between Japan and Russia on fishing. This has a very big effect on the supply of food to people in Japan.

Japan is number one in the world in applied technology. If Japan can partner with Russia, which leads the world in energy, then Japan can contribute to the stability of the world.

When I thought about the importance of the Japan-Russia relationship, I felt it was imperative to convey to the Russians the current realities facing Japan. This is why I went to Russia.

K&J: Did the Russians share any views with you about the current situation in Ukraine or the position of Washington vis-à-vis Russia?

SM: When I went to Russia in October I met with Andrei Rudenko, a deputy foreign minister in charge of Japan and the Far East. The Russians wondered why the Americans didn’t meet with the Russians or the Japanese as they had before, such as when Abe Shinzo was prime minister and there were negotiations concerning both Minsk I and Minsk II during the Obama administration.

During the Minsk negotiations, President Obama was on the phone quite often with Prime Minister Abe. Obama said he would be imposing sanctions on Russia [over the 2014 unrest in Ukraine], and demanded that Japan cooperate. Abe refused, on the grounds that Russia and Japan were working on solving the issue of the Northern Territories, and were also negotiating a peace treaty [to formally end hostilities during World War II]. Japan cannot move forward by following the interests of the United States, Abe said. Prime Minister Abe stood his ground against the president of the United States. It seems that President Obama hung up on Abe when he heard this.

[In 2016], Japan was to host the [G7] Ise Shima Summit. A Foreign Ministry official in Japan told Abe that Obama wouldn’t attend because of what had happened during the phone call between Obama and Abe over Russia. The official was very pessimistic about it. But Obama did attend the Ise Shima Summit.

Prime Minister Abe forthrightly articulated Japan’s national interests. He very clearly communicated Japan’s position. It was on this basis that he was able to build relationships of trust. Abe said plainly to Obama what Japan was going to do, and the United States dealt with that.

The vice president during the Obama administration was, of course, Joe Biden. The Russians are wondering why President Biden has not been able to undertake the same kind of decision-making and to employ the same kind of situational awareness as Abe.

For their part, the Russians, in their own way, are making efforts to maintain a relationship with Japan. This is reflected in energy policy. Russia sends Japan some ten percent of Japan’s energy. Also, Russia is sending Japan four times the amount of wheat that it was sending before the start of the Ukraine war. Under normal circumstances, one might have expected the Russians to cut off the wheat and energy supply, but they didn’t.

Also, Japanese people love eating crabs. The Russians are exporting crabs to Japan now just as they were before the war. I see in this the generosity of the Russian people.

K&J: What else can you tell us about the history of the Russia-Ukraine conflict as the Russians see it?

SM: Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Galuzin is the former ambassador to Japan (2018-2022), and is now in charge of Ukraine and central Europe. Galuzin confirmed that on April 15, 2022, two months after the war started, Russia was prepared to sign a peace deal that Ukraine had proposed. On that morning, however, Ukraine withdrew the deal.

K&J: Due to influence from the West?

SM: Yes, the United Kingdom and America. The UK and the United States told Ukraine not to accept a cease-fire, that they would support Ukraine. On October 4, 2022, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky signed into law that it is forbidden to negotiate a cease-fire with President Putin.

Galuzin says that Russia does not want to fight, that Russia wants to end the war, but that Ukraine will not come to the table for discussions. Galuzin also explains that Zelensky is unable to make decisions on this by himself at this point, because the forces which are stopping him from negotiating—America, NATO, and so forth—are very strong.

Galuzin also says that the one who created the conflict in the first place is Zelensky, with the suicide drones [Ukraine launched] in October, 2021. Zelensky provoked Russia by sending suicide drones into [the Donbas], where many Russians live. It was after that that President Putin sent a hundred thousand troops to the border, to protect Russians from being killed. But President Biden exacerbated the situation by saying the Russians were massing to attack. Biden should have told Zelensky to stand down, but instigating conflict with Russia was, I think, part of the Western strategy.

Galuzin laid out the historical facts very clearly. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2022, Zelensky called for renegotiating the Budapest Memorandum. Read between the lines, and what he was calling for was for Ukraine to be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Putin heard this speech, understood that Zelensky was asking for nuclear weapons, and decided to act preemptively. The result was the February 21, 2022 meeting of the Russian Security Council. There, President Putin announced that Russia would be initiating a Special Military Operation on February 24, 2022.

France and Germany were taken aback by this. France intervened and offered to mediate talks with Putin. Putin responded favorably. However, Zelensky rebuffed the offer, only to come back [later] saying he would talk [with the Russians]. By that point, though, Putin brushed him off, vowing to continue with the Special Military Operation as planned. Hence, the war in Ukraine that we have today.

I think that Japanese politicians have no inkling of the history behind this war. In the Diet today, there is not one person who has a good understanding of the Budapest Memorandum, or of Minsk I or II.

K&J: Taxes paid by the Japanese people are being directed to funding Ukraine. What is your opinion of this?

SM: It would be a different story if Ukraine were a respectable country. But—and here I am thinking also of [former president Petro] Poroshenko—is Ukraine not a country of corruption? Even today, the weapons being sent to Ukraine are ending up in Gaza. Half of the money America sends to Ukraine is paid out to Ukrainian officials. Some of the money simply disappears. There is much unrest in Africa now. Some of the weapons sent to Ukraine are said to be ending up there as well.

If Ukraine were a trustworthy country, then I would argue in favor of supporting Ukraine. But until Ukraine is fundamentally overhauled, money sent there is wasted.

Compared to NATO, Japan’s financial support [for the Ukraine war] has been extremely low. I think this is because the Japanese government is worried about provoking Russia. Of the G7 countries, Japan is the only country not providing [Ukraine] with weapons or with materials that are the equivalent of weapons… I think Russia understands what this means. At first, Japan sent Ukraine foodstuffs, canned goods—but probably the people of Ukraine didn’t eat the canned goods, as they were things like Japanese pickles! Zelensky would have been justified in telling Japan to get serious, but he didn’t. I see in this the weakness of Ukraine.

Since the Ukraine-Russia war broke out, there have been just two positions taken inside Japan: Russia is bad, and Ukraine is good… I think this is mistaken.

Japanese politicians and the Japanese media are stuck in the entrance to the war. I want to find the exit. There is no war that doesn’t end. The thing to do now, instead of saying which side is right and which side is wrong, is to stop the fighting. Immediately. Put down the weapons. Look to the future and discuss what can be done from here on.

When I say things like this, people say, “Suzuki is a Russian spy.” “Suzuki is Putin’s lapdog.” But I will never back down. Russia is the world’s superpower when it comes to energy reserves. It’s Japan’s neighbor.

And, I want to find a resolution to the Northern Territories problem. We must find a resolution. Japan and Russia are two great nations, but they have no peace treaty. This is bizarre. It’s exceedingly unnatural.

K&J: Is Russia seeking a speedy conclusion of a peace treaty with Japan?

SM: Under the current circumstances, no. But, I believe the current circumstances won’t continue indefinitely, so I want to find a conclusion [to the status quo].

K&J: What will happen with the Northern Territories when a treaty is eventually signed?

SM: The proposal which former prime minister Abe made [during a summit meeting] in Singapore, in November of 2018, is the only viable proposal. President Putin is on board with that proposal. However, Prime Minister Abe left the office of prime minister thereafter [due to health reasons]. Had Prime Minister Abe been healthy, I think the Northern Territories issue would have been resolved.

One other thing. When I listen to how Zelensky talks, it reminds me of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters from seventy-nine years ago. They wanted to fight to the last man. They gave bamboo spears to women and children and commanded them to fight the Americans. But there was no chance of victory. Zelensky is telling the Ukrainian people that women and children are to take up arms. It’s the same as what happened in Japan seventy-nine years before. If, seventy-nine years ago, Japan had surrendered six months earlier [than it did], there would have been no firebombing of Tokyo. Two hundred thousand lives could have been saved [then]. There would have been no battle for Okinawa. There would have been no atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

In war, the biggest victims are children, women, the elderly. Each one of their lives is precious. I want to avoid any loss of life. I am speaking on this from Japan’s experience.

On February 19, 2024, Japan hosted a symposium on the rebuilding of Ukraine. [Suzuki here is referencing the Japan-Ukraine Conference for Promotion of Economic Growth and Reconstruction, at which Prime Minister Kishida gave the keynote address.] But shouldn’t there be a ceasefire before a symposium on rebuilding Ukraine is held? Fighting and supporting [rebuilding] simultaneously is like stepping on the gas and the brake at the same time.

The NATO countries are now jockeying for position to get the best deal in the Ukraine recovery operation. Japan is in the least advantageous spot. So, I think Japan should get out of the competition now.

It’s the people of Japan’s tax money that’s being used. So, I don’t want to waste any of it—under any circumstances.

Korean Peninsula: A Complex Subregional Security Landscape

The political, economic and security context in Northeast Asia has suffered a constant deterioration in recent years. The reason of it is the growing strategic rivalry between China (hereinafter PRC) and US. Both countries are engaged in a competition to expand their spheres of influence, security architectures and the creation of commercial blocs and the restructuring of their commercial and industrial policies, promoting, in turn, a race to achieve technological leadership.

Likewise, North Korea (hereinafter DPRK) has developed intense military activities since years and tensions around Taiwan have been increasing. Within this framework of instability, South Korea (hereinafter ROK) plays a critical role. The traditional policy of maintaining military ties with the US and seeking greater economic cooperation with PRC shows more and more its unsuitability. As this balance between the two great powers is more unstable, the long-term strategic ambiguity should be replaced by a clear choice of the bloc to which ROK wishes to belong.

The incumbent president Yoon Suk-yeol seems to have re-chosen that the national path heads towards Washington. However, this decision is not free of obstacles, the overcoming of which is not guaranteed. PPP’s (Power People Party) Yoon Suk-yeol’s victory in 2022 against Lee Jae-myung, the DP (Democratic Party) candidate, marked a new direction for ROK foreign policy, which moved away from the priorities and positions of the previous guest of the ‘Blue House’ (the presidential palace of Seoul). There are two concepts on which this new foreign policy has been founded.

The first is the perception that the previous Government had put aside the alliance with the US, going so far as to suspend bilateral military exercises, which generated a progressive weakening of such ties.

Secondly, it is perceived that the attitude of the previous ROK Government towards DPRK and PRC was considered too conciliant; in the opinion of the current Seoul’s Administration damaged the country position. Based on the above premises, the Yoon Government has designed a foreign policy aimed at integrating the country more firmly into the Washington-led system. In this way, President Yoon aims to move from ambiguity to strategic clarity. Unlike the previous Government, he has not hesitated to consolidate ties with the US, as could be seen during President Yoon’s visit to Washington on the occasion of the trilateral summit with Japan. While the previous Government exercised extreme caution when assessing the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific, the current one has not hesitated to integrate this vision into its National Security Strategy. The concept of global pivotal state aims to project ROK as a key partner not only for the US, but also for the countries of Southeast Asia, Oceania, Africa or Latin America in the construction of a global and regional system based on international legality and rules, open and free. As a result of this interest in greater military cooperation, the US Government did not hesitate to reaffirm to Japan and ROK its commitment to deterrence, supported by all of its capabilities, in the Washington Declaration (26 April 2023).

Additionally, the three countries committed to the massive resumption of trilateral exercises to improve military capabilities and coordination. Critical point is the new ROK strategy the rapprochement with Japan and the attempt to normalize bilateral relations after years of continuous tension, which led to the Japanese trade blockade on the export of basic materials for the ROK semiconductor industry. While the rapprochement with the US is seen favorably by a majority of the population, the rapprochement with Japan represents an obvious political risk for the ROK Government, due to the constant tensions due to historical and territorial disputes between both countries.

Economically, Korea has decided to participate at the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework). This US-led initiative aimed at presenting an alternative to PRC’s economic partnership offers, despite IPEF framework has at the eyes of the Asian partners elements of dissatisfaction, especially on trade. IPEF is made up of four pillars: A) trade, B) supply chain resilience, C) clean economy and D) fair economic practices.

Within the economic sphere, it is necessary to highlight Korea’s participation in the ‘Chip 4 Alliance’, along with the US, Japan and Republic of China/Taiwan (hereinafter ROC). This initiative aims to reduce the dependence of the PRC semiconductor industry by returning factories to ROK, protecting intellectual property and diverting investments to friendly countries. The US, ROC, ROK and Japan meet most of the world’s semiconductor demand. They sit on most of the capacity to design, produce and test tiny chip components. Vis-à- vis DPRK, the conciliatory tone and favorable stance of the previous leadership has been transformed by the incumbent conservative party in a policy that is committed to toughness in the face of any nuclear or ballistic test by Pyongyang.
The Yoon Government aims to denuclearize the peninsula through a hard line of condemnation of DPRK actions and pressure through international sanctions, which reduces the incentives of the neighboring country to follow this provocative line. This approach is intended to be an alternative to the previous policy of compromise and dialogue, which showed the intrinsic weakness of it.
However, the international context seems less favorable to led to the resolution of the inter-Korean conflict. All these actions aimed at strengthening the alliance with the US and Japan and antagonizing DPRK will have the direct consequence of South Korea heading a worsening of the relations with PRC (and Russia as well, especially now that Pyongyang provide weapons to Russia). For PRC leadership, ROK had always been the weakest point in the US security architecture in the region.

The nationalist tendencies present in ROK, which sought greater autonomy and decision-making capacity within the alliance and which till now prevented the normalization and effectiveness of coordination with Tokyo, also played in Beijing’s favor barring the consolidation of a cohesive security architecture for the North East Asia. By putting a stop to these dynamics, President Yoon has strengthened that link and has made feasible one of PRC’s main concerns: the existence of a firm trilateral relationship between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo and the creation of a bloc that can contain Beijing push.

However, China has two powerful tools at its disposal: on the one hand, the interdependence of the PRC and ROK economies; on the other, the relationship with DPRK. At the same time, there is another variable that may represent a limit to the rapprochement between the US and ROK: the unstable electoral life in Seoul. No doubt that PRC occupies a preeminent place in the analysis of the foreign policy of any ROK government.

Historically, Korea was strongly linked to China both politically, economically and culturally. The disparity in power between the two nations forced successive Korean dynasties to take their neighbor’s interests very seriously, carefully calculating each step, in order to maintain relative autonomy and a certain margin of maneuver in a dangerous neighborhood.

Korea has always stood out for its close relationship with China, which meant its integration into the so-called ‘Sinocentricsphere’ that predominated for centuries in East Asia. Korean emperors were invested as such by the Chinese ones, and embassies sent by Korea boosted trade between the two countries.

In the eyes of Beijing, Korea, was relevant also during the imperial era, especially for XVII Century, giving that China saw Korea as a gateway for other great powers such as Russia, Japan and the US to penetrate in the area. There was a long disengagement process from the Sinocentricsphere due its weakening started in 1895 following the war with Japan, the Russo-Japanese war and the occupation of the peninsula by Tokyo and the bilateral relations hit rock bottom during the Korean War, which led to the partition of the country.

The PRC role in supporting the government of Kim Il-sung and his successors severely damaged the perception of Beijing in ROK. The end of the Cold War and the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992 gave way to a recovery of ties, supported by economic growth, the openness of both countries and the boost to bilateral trade promoted by the governments of Kim Dae-jung and by Roh Moo-hyun. The bilateral relationship was expanded to the level of strategic cooperative partnership during the presidency of Lee Myung-bak, which continued the path of improving relations initiated by his predecessors.

However, behind this continuous improvement, remained untouched numerous serious unresolved problems and the creation of new file of confrontation. Trade ties between both countries took off in the 1992. Only three years after, ROK exports to PRC reached 9.56 US$ billion and PRC exports to ROK amounted to 7.37 US$ billion.

During the following two decades, trade between both countries grew more than 11% on year basis. This has meant that the number of exports from ROK to PRC exceeds 158 US$ billion and those from PRC to ROK exceed 140 US$ billion in 2021. This explosion in commercial interactions has placed PRC as the main ROK client, absorbing 22.8% of exports and its main supplier, PRC is the origin of 21% of ROK imports. The main product of bilateral trade is integrated circuits, which have become an essential resource within the current geopolitical chessboard. Computers, transmission equipment, cyclic hydrocarbons and refined oil are other important products in bilateral trade.

Another factor to take into account in the economic relationship is the tourist flow from PRC to ROK. In 2017, almost 8 million Chinese tourists entered in ROK. This figure fell almost 50% after the Seoul Government’s decision to install the US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system units in its territory, considered by PRC as a threat to its interests and safety.
Before the crisis that broke out in 2016, Chinese citizens made up 47% of visitors to ROK and were a considerable source of income for ROK businesses. Beijing did not hesitate to restrict both the flow of Chinese citizens to ROK and the dissemination of Korean music, television programs and films in PRC. Cosmetic products and video game development companies were also affected by PRC government instructions.

It should be noted that the use of economic power to punish countries that make decisions contrary to its interests has become an increasingly component of PRC’s foreign policy, highlighting the risks posed by an increasingly asymmetric economic relationship in dealing with Beijing. In order to reduce the threat of PRC retaliation in the face of greater trilateral coordination with Tokyo and Washington, perceived as an hostile move by Beijing, the ROK Government decided to join the IPEF, which has a pillar dedicated to the redirection of supply chains. production towards the US or countries close to its orbit.

Although the strategy seems reasonable to avoid the worst consequences of commercial subordination to PRC, giving the deep existing interdependence, the challenges for the ROK economy are extraordinarily complex. The reactions of the PRC could be resumed in the words of the Beijing Ambassador to Seoul who stated that “those who bet on China’s defeat will regret it.” Considering the fact that many ROK components are found in PRC end products and vice versa, the trade restrictions mutually imposed by PRC and the US will end up indirectly affecting ROK and its companies, especially those specialized in integrated circuits and LCDs.

As said, due to the deep and strong ties between the two economies, the decoupling of ROK from PRC is a real challenge, with the persistence of economic pressures from Beijing, with possible impacts on consumer prices and employment and consequences on the voting dynamics. After winning the election, President Yoon Suk-yeol announced a new initiative aimed at achieving peace and denuclearization of the peninsula called the “bold initiative.” Despite this new strategy, the deterioration of global geopolitical conditions makes it very difficult to make substantive progress.

One of the main obstacles to the resolution of the conflict has traditionally been the primacy of PRC national strategic interests on the Korean Peninsula. The first aspect to take into account is the nature of the link between PRC and DPRK. The mutual assistance treaty that they signed in 1961 has been one of the bases of their bilateral relationship, founded at first on ideological solidarity and later on the joint experience of the Korean War and PRC support for DPRK during the following decades.

However, this strong relationship, described by Mao Tse-Dong as close as that of “lips and teeth”, has not been free of turbulence during the last seven decades. The origin of the aforementioned turbulence lies in the difficult fit between PRC’s desire to exercise increasing influence and control over DPRK decisions in order to adjust Pyongyang’s actions to Beijing’s preferences.

The relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, despite appearing difficult to believe, quite often are indeed difficult; tensions between PRC and DPRK have arisen periodically over the past thirty years. Especially critical were Beijing’s recognition of ROK and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1992. This action was perceived by Pyongyang as a betrayal that degraded its security in the face of a possible abandonment of its traditional ally. A year later, DPRK threatened to withdraw from the NPT (Nuclear Proliferation Treaty) and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) indicated that it could not conclusively assure that nuclear weapons were not being developed in the country. This tense period was followed by a rapprochement caused by the recurrent famine and crisis suffered by DPRK, in addition to international sanctions due to the development of its nuclear program. In this stage of extreme DPRK’s vulnerability, an intense economic dependence was forged that has marked the relationship between both countries ever since. Despite this, the first years after the rise of Kim Jong-Un as supreme leader once again brought tension to the bilateral relationship, since DPRK nuclear and missiles actions were perceived by PRC as a useless provocation that could destabilize the region at a critical moment for Beijing strategies.

Both the nuclear tests and missile launches of 2016 and 2017 and the brutal executions of important officials of Pyongyang (Jang Song-thaek and Kim Jong-nam), considered close to Beijing, led to a cooling in relations, which was only recovered with the summits between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un prior to the latter’s meeting with Donald Trump. The failure of ROK’s policy of rapprochement with DPRK during Moon Jae-in’s mandate and the stalemate reached at the Singapore and Hanoi summits have blocked any possibility of progress.
Now, the growing tension between the US and PRC has eased the joint pressure to which DPRK was subjected through UNSCRs (UN Security Council Resolutions) 2371, 2375 and 2397. The PRC position continues to be one of support for the DPRK Government. Despite international sanctions, PRC continues to be Pyongyang’s economic support both in terms of legal trade and irregular exchanges that occur on the Yalu’s border or on the high seas to circumvent the aforementioned sanctions.

In this way, although there is no reliable data, a high percentage of DPRK trade is carried out with PRC, which has been an economic lifeline in the worst times. For PRC, DPRK’s survival remains a priority but also a deep strategic dilemma. On the one hand, the imbalance of political, economic and military power is evident and the relationship of dependency is critical; however, this does not translate into greater docility of DPRK with respect to Beijing interests. The constant provocations show that, despite the manifest asymmetry in the capabilities of the partners, Pyongyang’s search for autonomy and independence will continue to generate discomfort for Beijing.

Regardless of the tensions that may periodically arise in the relationship between PRC and DPRK, Beijing’s long-term interests have remained unchanged for decades. Firstly, one of Beijing’s main objectives is to ensure that Pyongyang’s interests are aligned with its own in order to obtain a partner that is increasingly attentive to its needs and objectives. Preventing DPRK from acting alone and putting the stability of the region at risk or spurring other actors to acquire nuclear weapons has been and will be a primary objective of Beijing. In fact, exists inside Beijing leadership two lines regarding the position that the country should adopt in Korean affairs. The first current, associated with the Ministry of Defense and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), defends the close association with Pyongyang in the face of any crisis and continued support to sustain its survival. The second current considers that this support could be counterproductive for Beijing interests and represents more of a burden than an asset, since if PRC wants to be recognized as a responsible actor in the region and globally, it must cut its ties with Pyongyang, but at the moment appear the prevailing opinion is the first.

The importance for Beijing of the survival of DPRK derives from the possible negative consequences that the fall of the communist’s dynasty would have. Among other reasons, PRC fears the flow of refugees that could lead to state collapse, which would put severe pressure on the neighbouring provinces, with a humanitarian catastrophe due to general insecurity or a cut in the supply of food and social services, with a flow of desperate refugees, repeating the nightmare scenario of the 1990s famine crisis when half millions of people crossed the Yalu River.

Secondly, DPRK represent as a buffer zone for PRC that guaranteed the security of its northeastern border. Given the alliance between ROK and the US, ensuring that those forces were as far away as possible from PRC territory has been a factor to take into account when considering the benefit of support of DPRK.

However, this approach, that a strategic logic decades ago, has been losing meaning due to the advances in military technology have reduced the role of DPRK as ‘buffer zone’ to stop any conventional threat from ROK (and Japan as well). A third reason for Chinese support for DPRK is related to the ROC situation. The possibility that, in the face of PRC military actions, US forces will be gripped by a double crisis on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait is one of the advantages that the DPRK Government offers to Beijing. The resolution of the inter-Korean conflict is one of ROK’s main strategic objectives. PRC’s influence over DPRK thus becomes an asset for Beijing, which can derail any Seoul initiative that does not match with its strategic interests.
One of the great limitations that ROK foreign policy suffers from and that puts it at a disadvantage compared to its neighbors is the country’s acute political split. This polarization poses a threat, due to the blockade to which it can subject the nation at critical moments originated by DPRK actions.

The difficult geostrategic situation of ROK, trapped in a dynamic of confrontation between the two great powers and with a dangerous neighbor to the north, makes it extremely necessary for its internal political situation to be stable and solid. However, the last elections in 2022 produced very close results, which led that the government party does not have a majority in the National Assembly, which reduce its room of maneuver in foreign policy matters.

The angry 2022 election campaign is an example of the increase in polarization in the country, reflecting it in matters of foreign policy, with hypersensitive matters like relations with PRC, DPRK, US. The polarization is aggravated by the ROK political system itself, which prevents the re-election of the president, whose term is reduced to five years, in which he must design and implement a new foreign policy in the event of a change. The alternance between conciliatory and hardline policies of Seoul is a serious obstacle for the country, preventing governments from developing their strategies in a continuous and stable manner, generating confusion at the national and international level.

The deterioration of the security context in Northeast Asia requires the careful planning and execution of a clear foreign policy, free of ambiguities and not subject to possible political fluctuations. This year legislative elections will be decisive for the Government, which hope to remove the National Assembly majority is in the hands of the opposition party. Given this situation and given the existing limits, ROK’s strategic possibilities risk to be limited.

Over the last three decades, the country lived in a very comfortable situation, based on maintaining military ties with the US and establishing a powerful commercial relationship with PRC. In this way, ROK has been able to take advantage of the US defensive shield to counter the DPRK nuclear threat and, at the same time, has boosted its economic growth through trade agreements with PRC, constantly improving the framework of the bilateral relationship until reaching a partnership of strategic cooperation.
This political balance has been a constant in recent ROK governments. During the Roh Moo-hyun government, ROK began a progressive rapprochement with PRC and criticized Japan, weakening the good relationship with the US. However, at the same time it began negotiations for a future free trade agreement with the US. The Lee Myung-bak government, for its part, carried out diplomatic improvements with both countries. With the US he promoted the reinforcement of their alliance, launching the concept of strategic alliance for the 21st Century. With PRC, it placed the bilateral relationship at the level of a strategic partnership for cooperation while beginning negotiations to sign a free trade agreement.

Although this strategy was possible and useful in a context of relatively harmonious relations between the US and PRC, the progressive deterioration of the relationship between Beijing and Washington makes the balancing act that the ROK governments have resorted to since 1992 increasingly unviable. Regardless, Seoul will see its room for maneuver reduced, limiting its options to three strategies. The first would be to continue with the balancing exercise between the two powers to extract the greatest benefit from their bilateral relations. The second would be to opt for an accommodation with PRC in the face of Beijing’s foreseeable regional dominance in the near future. The third option would be to achieve strategic autonomy through nuclear weapons and the renegotiation of the military agreement with the US, but Washington is reluctant that junior partners are equipped with nuclear weapons, of whatever origin (self-built or Washington provided), with risk of lower control of their use and potential destabilization. The first strategy is, perhaps, the most desired by ROK.

However, the dynamics between both countries outline an extension of the confrontation scenarios and an intensification of the rivalry. Given this situation, it is worth asking how long the ROK governments will be able to continue with the balancing act and if at some point the US or PRC will demand that Seoul clearly define in which field it wants to place itself. For this reason, the current strategy does not seem to have guarantees of success in the medium and long term. The second strategy, less likely and riskier for ROK, is to get closer to PRC, leaving aside its alliance with the US. As we saw, there is a sector within PRC that sees DPRK more as a burden than an asset. This sector advocates a rapprochement with ROK that culminates the path begun in 1992. Beijing has been close to declare officially that there is no conflict between the fundamental interests and values of PRC and the ROK, adding that its rise does not pose a threat to neighboring countries, given that its security concept is based on respect for the full sovereignty of nations and bilateral cooperation.

In reality the perception of Beijing in ROK has worsened decisively in recent years due to economic boycotts, historical and territorial issues, and PRC support for DPRK. The main risk of this strategy is the very possible loss of Pyongyang’s autonomy if it is absorbed into Beijing’s sphere of influence, which awakens worrying memories of its past as a member of the PRC tributary system.
Added to this is the erosion of China’s image among Korean citizens. Seoul’s third strategy would be to seek strategic autonomy that would avoid possible retaliation from the great powers and allow the Government greater room for maneuver. This autonomy would only be possible if three extremely complex requirements are met. The first would be the diversification of ROK foreign trade to avoid excessive dependence on the PRC domestic market in both imports and exports. Moon Jae-in’s government attempted through its “New Southern Policy” to explore the options of the Southeast Asian and Indian markets.

However, reconfiguring ROK value chains to distance themselves from China would entail notable changes for the economy that will not be feasible in the short and medium term. Second, it would be necessary for the ROK Armed Forces to reclaim their own full OPCON, which currently falls under the triad of USFK (US Forces in Korea)-ROK/US CFC (Combined Forces Command)/UNC (United Nations Command).
The last requirement, which has considerable support among the population, would be to obtain nuclear weapons that shield ROK against threats from DPRK and retaliation from Beijing. The present geostrategic rivalry between the US and PRC will mark the regional scenario in the coming years.

The era in which ROK has been able to grow economically and enjoy security in a context of optimal regional stability is coming to an end. The rivalry between the two great powers is moving to all areas and is forcing the actors to make a series of complex decisions and choices. With the Yoon Government, ROK seems to have decided which direction to follow, although, there are conditions and limits that could derail its strategy. However, all the other options are full of destabilizing elements in its economy, security, its autonomy or its independence.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.

The Taiwanese Wild Card

On January 13, 2024, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Taiwan held an election for Taiwan’s chief executive. Three candidates ran in the election: Lai Qingde (Democratic Progressive Party), Hou Yui (Kuomintang), and Ke Wen-je (Taiwan People’s Party). Lai Qingde, whose party favors Taiwanese independence, won.

Some experts argue that as a result, Taiwan will begin to distance itself from China and Russia and move closer to the United States and its allies, which will complicate the international situation.

However, the Democratic Progressive Party has won elections many times before, and is currently the ruling party on the island, having won the previous election in 2020, which did not result in serious consequences after all. Lai himself has said in the run-up to the election that he intends to pursue Taiwanese independence; he is more radical than current leader Tsai Ing-wen.

Regarding the losing candidates, the following can be said.

The candidate of the Kuomintang party, Hou Yui, is against the independence of the island and for the normalization of relations with Beijing, but on Kuomintang’s terms. In reality, it turns out that he is supposedly against the independence of Taiwan, but in reality he cannot go for unification because he opposes the Communist Party of China. This is the traditional position of this party, which considers itself the national party of China with patriotic origins. Hou Yui has always emphasized the importance of supporting peace and stability on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and has advocated promoting dialogue and cooperation with China, believing that this is necessary for Taiwan’s prosperity and development.

Taiwan People’s Party candidate Ke Wen-je supports maintaining the current relationship with China for the sake of preserving peace; i.e.; he is essentially for a continuation of the current course of the Taiwanese authorities—not to get closer to China, but also not to make it so that China is forced to use force.

Chinese experts consider the first two politicians pro-American, and Ke Wen-je pro-Japanese, believing that in fact, whichever of them is elected, there will be no significant improvement in the situation in the island’s relations with China.

The election is attracting global attention because it is not only a struggle between Taiwan’s domestic political forces, but also a reflection of tensions between China and the United States.

The Taiwanese themselves are divided into several camps, some believe that Taiwan should avoid radical actions for the sake of peace, others are in favor of independence, counting on protection and support from Western countries, and others are inclined, if not to unification with China, then to integration with it.

The Chinese authorities intend to seek reunification by implementing the “one country, two systems” model tested when Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 and Macau in 1999. Taiwan is expected to be within China but enjoy a large degree of autonomy. The accession of Taiwan by force would be disadvantageous to China, as the two sides would suffer serious economic damage.

Taiwan is a leader in the global semiconductor manufacturing market. As Bloomberg notes, if war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, it could result in economic losses of $10 trillion for the entire world, equivalent to 10% of the current global GDP.

China is very much integrated into the world economy, so it would suffer tremendous damage. Therefore, the Chinese leadership is trying to achieve unification through peaceful methods.

The emphasis here is on the use of soft power and traditional Chinese pragmatism. This is expressed in the fact that Taiwanese can visit China, work there and do business, use the national social policy (which cannot be used by foreigners who do not have citizenship of the People’s Republic of China); enterprises with Taiwanese capital operating on the mainland can receive tax breaks and other benefits.

According to the 13th Five-Year Plan, a high-speed railroad from Beijing to Taipei is included in the national high-speed railroad network construction program. It is expected to be put into operation in 2035.

On Jan. 8, China’s Ministry of Commerce, Taiwan Affairs Office, Reform and Development Committee and Ministry of Industry and Information Technology approved a set of measures to further strengthen trade and economic cooperation between Fujian Province and Taiwan to deepen economic integration in the Taiwan Strait. Obviously, this is to demonstrate to Taiwanese voters the benefits of establishing relations with the “big motherland.”

In March 2005, China passed the Anti-Separatism Law, which determined that declaring Taiwanese independence was a pretext for war. Therefore, decisive actions by the new Taiwanese leadership could provoke a military conflict—if Lai declared that Taiwan was now an independent state, he would leave Xi Jinping no choice but to use force.

Therefore, the Chinese authorities have been making preparations not only among the Taiwanese, but also on the international stage.

On January 8th and 9th, the 17th working meeting between the U.S. and Chinese Defense Departments was held, at which the Chinese side stressed that “there will never be the slightest compromise or concession on the Taiwan issue. The United States must abide by the ‘one China’ principle, effectively fulfill relevant obligations, stop arming Taiwan and oppose Taiwan’s ‘independence’.”

Prior to this, on January 7th, China’s Foreign Ministry announced sanctions against five U.S. military-industrial complex companies that supplied arms to Taiwan. A U.S. spokesman said on January 9 that the U.S. side “urges Beijing to stop exerting military, diplomatic, and economic pressure on Taiwan.”

The U.S. strategy is to maintain the status quo of the Taiwan issue and gradually arm Taiwan in order to periodically escalate the situation in the Taiwan Strait, causing trouble for China by “containing” it and intimidating its neighbors in the region. To this end, the U.S. recently provided $500 million in military assistance to Taiwan.

But, on the other hand, in the current international situation, when their considerable forces are drawn to Israel and Ukraine, the Americans will not benefit from a military conflict between China and Taiwan, as it will require their direct intervention, huge financial expenditures, and it is not certain that the U.S. will come out of this conflict victorious. On the contrary, it could lead to the Taiwan issue being resolved once and for all in favor of China.

Some Taiwanese political analysts draw associations between Lai Qingde, Zelensky and Netanyahu, calling them “dangerous friends of the US,” implying that their behavior could create problems for Americans, putting the US in a difficult position.

Therefore, senior White House officials periodically emphasize that the United States opposes “Taiwan independence” and supports the “one China” principle, thus preventing the Taiwanese leadership from gaining confidence in unconditional U.S. support.

At the same time, a peaceful unification of Taiwan and China would also be disadvantageous for the United States, as it would strengthen China’s geopolitical position, provide it with technological advantages, and reduce the ability of the Americans to influence the Chinese leadership.

In this regard, the United States is taking steps to “warm up” Taiwan. Thus, recently 73 senators and representatives of the U.S. Congress passed a “pro-Taiwan resolution,” promising to use all effective methods to support the “freedom” of the Taiwanese people. And on the eve of the Taiwanese elections, the U.S. sent 148 million liters of diesel fuel to military bases in the Philippines in order to use the Philippines as a springboard for armed intervention in the Taiwan Strait at any time.

Based on the above, we can conclude that the U.S. and China face complex geopolitical tasks: they need to avoid military conflict to achieve their goals, which not only do not coincide, but are opposite.

The situation is aggravated by some unpredictability of Lai Qingde. Obviously, the Americans will have to restrain him periodically to prevent him from making too serious provocations toward China.

On May 20, Lai Qingde will be inaugurated, after which we can expect some concrete actions from him that will determine the further development of the situation. If Lai does not provide an occasion to launch military action, we can expect that the Chinese leadership will continue to work to win the trust of the Taiwanese people and change their political preferences. If Lai Qingde does something rash, there will be a real danger of a military conflict that will affect not only Southeast Asia, but also the world as a whole—the world economy will face a number of fundamental changes that will affect almost all business spheres.

Konstantin Batanov holds a PhD in Economic Sciences and is Associate Professor at the Department of Theory and Methodology of Translation, Higher School of Translation and Interpretation, Moscow State University. This article appears through the kind courtesy of Geopolitika.

The Indo-Pacific Mega-Basin: Japanese Security and Defence

Japan is key actor in the geopolitical region, fundamentally maritime, which extends from Southeast Asia to the Indian Ocean, known as the Indo-Pacific. In broader, geostrategic context for Japan, the Indo-Pacific is a space of connectivity between Asia and Africa (and from there to Europe), as expressed in the conceptual keystone of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. It was the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who, announced it, while addressing the Indian Parliament in 2007. The stability of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and the preservation of safe and open sea routes for navigation in the region, is a goal shared by Japan and India.

Almost a decade later, during a visit to Kenya in 2016 and before the UN General Assembly in 2018, Abe reaffirmed Japan’s role as a champion of free trade in the region, as stated in the strategic document, entitled, Vision for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) whose main objectives are:

  1. Promotion and establishment of respect for rules, freedom of navigation and trade, as the first, main parameter;
  2. Incentive for the economic prosperity of the region;
  3. Development of a framework of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific which would guarantee both the aforementioned freedom of commercial transit;
  4. Free economic activity of the countries involved.

The last concept is greatly relevant, given that this region includes more than half the world’s population and a large part of the planet’s economic activity and commercial exchanges.

For Japanese security architecture, the Indo-Pacific and its stability is the key to its own future as a country, a perspective even more established at the risk of the increasingly frequent maritime incidents in certain conflicts that really started decades ago and where China always constitutes one of the competitors and disruptor of stability. Observing the Chinese presence in the surrounding seas, more aggressive with respect to other Southeast Asian countries, Japan, with its own open conflict with China around the Senkaku Islands, looks for guarantees. Maritime security and freedom of navigation of the “FOIP Vision” are a priority, and the outbreak of a conflict near the Sea of Japan, whether a minor incident or one of major relevance around Taiwan (and the direct involvement of US forces against China), would have a massive impact on Japan, since it owes its economic and energy survival to the maritime routes through the Indian Ocean and the South and East China Seas.

The FOIP Vision is the cornerstone of the Japanese security policy, which not only determines its foreign policy but also mediates its defence policy, with the need for a robust reinforcement of national capabilities which appears to be understrength to face possible regional challenges. The fundamental alliance with the US and the growing cooperation in security matters with other states/ organizations, not necessarily located in the region (like EU and NATO), are crucial for Japan to respond in proportion to possible threats to the FOIP.

In the internal debates within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has governed Japan for decades, with few intervals, there are contending outlooks. The Abe governments set up a new defence concept with an intense diplomatic agenda, gathering support from other countries in the region and, above all, getting the US aligned with the FOIP Vision. The impact of Abe’s assassination in July 2022, although he was officially out of politics, had the consequence of presenting the Vision of the FOIP as his legacy, but also of the LPD; and it is firmly maintained by the other Japanese governments.

A FOIP Vision, symbolically renewed after a visit by Kishida to India last March 2023, has become the cornerstone of Japan’s economic and foreign policy and, therefore, the country’s security objectives. Thus, FOIP highlights the existence of an even more de-constructive scenario for the Indo-Pacific, especially after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This pushed Japan further in its search for a security network. Likewise, attention is paid to previously present but secondary issues, such as attention to climate change, food security, health, prevention of natural disasters and the cyber scenario (New Plan for the FOIP, 2023). In conclusion, the FOIP Vision may be considered Japan’s greatest effort to expand its strategic horizon, laying the foundations for a regional order in the Indo-Pacific, in a context marked by the growing expansionism of China.

The Other Pillar

But the FOIP is not alone. The other doctrinal pillar of security policy of Tokyo is the National Security Strategy (hereinafter NSS), another legacy of Shinzo Abe era.

In 2013, the National Security Council, in a concept very similar to the US one, was established and it published the first NSS, in which the original guidelines of the National Defence Programs were reflected. The debate soon arose, when restrictions on the export of weapons were progressively relaxed and, above all, a legislative change was promoted in order to reinterpret the peace clause of the 1947 Constitution, in which Article IX renounces war as means of resolution in disputes between countries, and consequently for the armed forces on land, sea or air. Abe’s reforms enabled a change in Japanese foreign and defence policy. In 1954, the Self-Defence Forces Law allowed the establishment of the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JDSF), with many limitations and in order to prevent any worrisome memory from the past, with very limited powers and without the possibility of acting outside the country, according to the Basic National Defence Policy adopted in 1957, which made national security subject to collaboration with the United Nations (Japan joined the organization in 1955) and preserving internal security in the face of any possible aggression.

However, in June 1992, the Diet (Parliament) approved the Law on Cooperation in United Nations Peacekeeping Missions, which allows the JDSF to participate in missions outside the country under the UN flag (in accordance with the International Peace Cooperation Law issued in 1992, the Japanese troops participated in a number of peacekeeping operations, such as in Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique, El Salvador, the Golan Heights and Timor-Leste; JSDF dispatched disaster relief teams to Rwanda, Honduras, Turkey, Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Haiti, Chile and Nepal). In 2004, Japan sent a fully combat unit abroad for the first time, specifically to Iraq.

In 2015, with Abe as prime minister, the so-called “Three New Conditions for the Use of Force” were introduced, a covert reform of the spirit of the Constitution from the Legislation for Peace and Security, which in essence authorized the government to intervene militarily outside the Japanese borders, either in self-defence or for relief of an ally attacked by third parties, thus suppressing the exclusivity of the UN for peace missions. This possibility of acting outside of Japan is the key in the new Japanese defence architecture, which also entails new needs, included in Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security, adopted in 2016. The main lines of Japanese security policy are reflected in the Defence White Paper, an annual document prepared by the Ministry of Defence, starting in 2014. It is an informative instrument for public opinion on the priorities of internal and external security, analyzing the status of strategic objectives and alliances with third countries, but without committing to any specific initiative.

On December 16, 2022, the Japanese Ministry of Defence published the latest NSS, National Defence Strategy (NDS) and Defence Program. The importance of this NSS is evident, given that the latest dated back to 2013, during the Abe era. There are notable differences between the documents in consideration of the perception of increasing external threats, such as, in order of priority, China, North Korea and Russia. The concerns of the Tokyo government are reflected in the NSS itself by defining Japan’s strategic environment as the most “severe and complex” than at any time since WWII. This is due to the unilateral risks that threaten the sovereignties of the countries—pointing to Russia with respect to Ukraine—the importance of scenarios that in 2013 did not seem central, such as cyberspace, outer space or electromagnetic space, the risk to critical infrastructures, as well as the necessary attention to issues related to global governance.

The NSS also lays down the principles of Japan’s defence architecture:

  • The commitment that it is up to Japan itself to provide sufficient initiatives and capabilities to meet its defence needs;
  • Cooperation with other countries that share common objectives, the cornerstone being the traditional alliance with the US;
  • Renunciation of nuclear means for the purposes of war.

The critical areas for Japanese security are the Indo-Pacific, its routes and the Sea of Japan regarding the threats posed by China, North Korea and Russia. Other documents, such as the National Defence Program, justify security spending priorities over the next decade, while the National Defence Strategy, which replaces the traditional National Defence Program Guidelines (that dated back to 1976), appears to be set very much in harmony with the national security strategies of the US, which proves the Japanese intention to deepen the alliance with its ally in terms of security, but also how the keystones of the FOIP Vision are adopted to the US; and Japan’s NDS and the US National Defence Strategy are well aligned and prioritize preventing unilateral changes to the status quo by force, integrating all approaches and means. Indeed, from the US, both in its Strategic Internal National Security Guide (issued on March 2022), and the National Security Strategy (October 2022), the current international system of countries is presented as a coalition of liberal democracies, where Japan is a key partner well beyond the Indo-Pacific or Asia, reaffirming Washington’s commitment to collaboration in its defence and giving Japan the status of being the cornerstone of this global alliance.

The Perception of Threats to Japan’s Security

In the December 2022 NSS, the government of Japan defined the main threats facing the country, namely, China, North Korea and Russia, in that order. With all these states, Japan has had a traumatic past, with the war against China in 1894, the war against Russia in 1904-1905, the occupation of Korea, the emergence of Tokyo as military power and its expansion in the region, followed by Japanese atrocities against civilian populations, the defeats in Manchuria by Red Army, the war against KMT (Kuomintang) and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) forces, and the attack of Soviet Union in 1945. Despite this problematic past, the Japanese relationship with Moscow and Beijing was stable enough, while being positive and promising (with Pyongyang the relations were consistently bad). The scenario changed progressively in the 1980s and the 1990s, with the collapse of the USSR and the appearance of China as a formidable challenger, increasingly threatening the interests of Japan, India and several Southeast Asian countries.


Japan and China are the two largest economies in East Asia, and world leading economies, despite several problems which affect, in different way, their performances. Communist China was officially recognized by Japan as a state as late as 1972. Thereafter, then-PM Kaukei Tanaka became the first to visit Beijing, leaving behind the fiction of recognizing Taiwan as a state. Also relevant is the continuation of the row about the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu, for China), an archipelago halfway between both countries, but under Japanese sovereignty and Chinese claims, in addition to being located less than 200 kilometers from the Taiwanese coast (Taiwan too claims these islands, but it a pure fiction or just flag-waving).

The Japanese national defence architecture unequivocally points to China as the main obstacle to achieving both security as a country and regional order in the Indo-Pacific. The FOIP Vision, with the need for an international system based on cooperation and rules, is in a blatant contrast with the methods, aims and objectives of Beijing, aware of the rising geopolitical containment led by the US, which considers the present scenario as not acceptable.

For Japan, China is defined as the main threat to the peace, security and stability of the country, literally constituting an “unprecedented strategic challenge,” showing growing concern about Beijing’s military capabilities, which are highly superior to the current ones of Japan; together with China’s belligerent narrative towards Taiwan, Japan is worried that any intervention on the island could trig a major crisis, involving not only the Indo-Pacific (Tokyo also has its own history regarding Taiwan. Japanese imperial possession, after the end of WWII, the US and its allies transferred the sovereignty of the island to the Republic of China, then in a civil war between nationalists and communists. Later, at the San Francisco Conference of 1951, the fate of the territories previously occupied by Japan was decided, without any Japanese, Chinese or Koreans participating in the discussions. Thus, Japan definitively renounced sovereignty over Taiwan, although it did not officially transfer it to any country). Also symptomatic was the Chinese reaction to the publication of the Japanese NSS, considering it a fake document, a mere repetition of the US conceptualization which demonizes China not only with respect to Japan, but at a regional and global level, poisoning the Sino-Japanese relations that had existed in previous decades, including a cordial meeting between Prime Minister Fushida and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Forum in Bangkok in November 2022, which occurred just before the publication of NSS.

North Korea

The second major threat to the perspective of Japanese security is North Korea, which in recent years has intensified the launch tests of ballistic missiles that end up falling in Japanese waters, increasing the perception of the nuclear threat for a country like Japan, which is perhaps the most sensitive in the world regarding this issue. Tokyo’s concerns about North Korean nuclear capabilities are reflected with concern in the December 2022 NSS, both in the quality of its development and its rapid evolution.

North Korea’s military activities and the possible nuclear threat represent an unprecedented event for Japanese national security and the most severe and complex moment than any other after the end of WW II. Reports on the development of the North Korean programs reveals that Japanese seismometers collected evidence of tests at up to 60 kilotons. These tests are accompanied by the already mentioned launches of ballistic missiles (the year 2022 reached the peak with 59 launches), some of which fell into Japanese sovereign waters after flying over its airspace. Other concerns are that some of these tests are also being carried out with hypersonic missiles; the presence of North Korean submarines missile/drone capable launchers sailing in the Sea of Japan; and North Korea’s announcement of the launch of spy satellites into orbit, considering Japan one of its objectives.


Until 2022, Russia was not a cause of particular concern for Japan’s security perception, despite the dispute over the sovereignty of the Kuril Islands that has been open since 1945, when the then USSR claimed those as its own. There is also no official treaty that put an end to the conflict between both countries after WWII. While in years past China and North Korea were already considered the main threats to Japan’s defence, this was not the case at all with respect to Russia, at least until 2014 and its annexation of Crimea. In the 2021 Japanese Defense White Paper, only a brief section is dedicated to Russia as a country responsible for certain cyber-attacks, and its alliance with China, and the growing development of the capabilities of the Russian armed forces and some other threats. such as the deployment of new generations of ballistic missiles. A year later, this perception has changed and Russia is gaining attention as a direct threat to Japanese security.

As of now Tokyo does not believe that a direct confrontation between both countries will happen. However, after the attack against Ukraine, from the Japanese perspective, Russia now is a country willing to break the established international system and this could happen also in the Indo-Pacific, a perception affirmed by the spectacular Russian-Chinese rapprochement; and that this could imply a potential change of the status quo in the region. Similar to what was seen for China and North Korea, the Japanese Ministry of Defence issued, in February 2023, a report analysing the development of the Russian Armed Forces in the area, underlining the air raids in the area of the Sea of Japan (multiplied since 2019), as well as the Russian-Chinese naval manoeuvers in the vicinity of Japanese territorial waters and the deployment of long-range missiles in the Kuril Islands.

Japan, as member of the G7, remains aligned to the position of the other members regarding Russia and the war in Ukraine, being one of the countries most involved in sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine—never war aid—and positioning itself very clearly in the condemnation of the United Nations and the sanctions against Russia. However, this position is showing a shift: Japan says it will send its own Patriot air defence missiles systems to the US to be later dispatched to Ukrainian forces after changing its arms export rules, in an important step away from its pacifist policies (the White House has welcomed the move, which could free up the US to send its own stockpile to Ukraine).

Japan is a regular guest at high-level NATO meetings, as part of the so-called AP4 group (with Australia, New Zealand and South Korea). At the Madrid Summit in June 2022, where the Strategic Concept of the Alliance was reworked, whit the definition of Russia as the direct threat to the security of member countries, PM Kishida was present at several of the meetings, consolidating the firm support of Japan to this line. More recently Japan’s candidacy was announced as a platform for a NATO mission with powers throughout the Indo-Pacific, which demonstrates the country’s alignment with the organization’s postulates. In April 2023, very significantly and at the same time that Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kishida visited Kiev and met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, committing Japan as an important partner in aid and future reconstruction of Ukraine. This trip was also interpreted as a way to make visible the greater Japanese international activity in matters of first order, after decades of preferring to place itself at a lower level on the world stage and in a political line clearly hostile to China and Russia.

The Russian response regarding the Japanese position has been to consider Tokyo a belligerent country based on the publication of the NSS and the increase in defence spending. For Russia, there are still cases with Japan that have not been closed for more than eighty years. From Moscow, in April 2023, manoeuvers of the Russian fleet took place at the highest battle level and included the Kuril Islands in their radius of action. In reality, these exercises have been carried out from time to time, but this time were read as a warning signal towards South Korea and Japan.

Renewal of Old Alliances and Consolidation of New Ones

Japan’s alignment with the US is total, as testified by the NSS of December 2022. Also, the National Security Strategy of October 2022 and the Strategy for the Indo-Pacific of February 2022 coincide with the FOIP Vision, and the consideration of China, North Korea and Russia as common threats to both. For this reason, the Kishida government considers it essential to strengthen itself in terms of security, beyond increasing its own capabilities, through the renewal of the traditional alliance with the US, within the framework of the Mutual Cooperation and Security Agreement (signed in 1951). The other path is the search and consolidation of other alliances with third countries that share objectives in the Indo-Pacific, mainly India, South Korea, Australia, UK, France, EU and Southeast Asian countries


After a devastating war and the American occupation of Japan, collaboration between both countries strengthened. A bilateral security treaty was added to the Mutual Security Agreement in 1960, but it was not yet a true alliance, given that Japan’s role was to be the main base of US power in the region and Tokyo was not yet a real military partner. Once again, thanks to Abe’s decision, real cooperation between the SDF and the US Forces began. In 2015, President Trump wanted to review this alliance with Japan, not because of the benefits it represents for both countries, but because of its imbalance, since on the basis of the Mutual Security Agreement, Washington maintains and pays for the presence of some 55,000 troops in the country (Japan now is the first in the world in terms of the number of US military established).

It should be remembered that since 1978 Japan paid for part of this deployment, reaching an amount nine billion dollars for the period 2016-2020. The Trump Administration asked the Japanese government to pay eight billion annually (a request partially stopped by President Biden). In January 2023, during a bilateral meeting between Kishida and President Biden, it was a massive reinforcement of Japanese defence was agreed upon, leading to the consequent increase in spending, gradual year after year until it reaches 2% of GDP, part of which will be used to purchase weapons from the US defence industry, such as attack ballistic missiles or unmanned vehicles.

In addition, the military dimension of the agreement wants to strengthen the capacity to carry out integrated operations, setting up a new C3 (command, control and communication) architecture between both countries, and to achieve deeper levels of information exchange; and, as in the Trump presidency, a review of costs. One of the critical areas is cybersecurity. There are speculations that Japan could join the Five Eyes group, a shared information and intelligence network between US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It does not seem to be a priority for Japan, which also has to develop its means in this regard, while however it does seem to be a notable actor in the Initiative against Ransomware, an international project launched from the US in October 2022, which tries to prevent and prosecute cybercrimes.

Washington is also interested in Japan being able to get involved in security issues in the Indo-Pacific; another reason to promote new capabilities and investment in the Japanese country, which is already working intensively within the framework of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) along with Americans, Indians and Australians. As in the case of the Five Eyes, some media speculate about the possibility of an invitation to Japan to participate in AUKUS (the alliance between Australia, UK and US) on a scale to be defined and with the marked red line, which would entail, for example, the acquisition of nuclear submarines that Australia has decided upon.


Abe was the symbol of the alliance between India and Japan in order to emerge as leading countries within the Indo-Pacific, sharing similar political visions, in line with the FOIP Vision, and with clear implications in security, like QUAD (initiated in 2007, paralleled by joint military exercises of an unprecedented scale).

For India, the Indo-Pacific is a natural extension of a strategy that was already reflected in the Act East Policy (2014), with the aim of boosting the Indian presence in Southeast Asia. China’s influence in the Indian Ocean and its relations with countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka are perceived as a threat to India’s attempt to become a regional power with global aspirations. Also, India shares the Japanese views vis-à-vis China, and in 2015 both signed the Special Strategic and Global Partnership, corroborated by the massive participation of Japanese firms in the infrastructural projects of India, starting with the nationwide network of high-speed trains.

Following Abe views and actions, in March 2022, Prime Minister Kishida travelled to India to meet with Modi. Of the importance of the meeting, it is enough to remember that Kishida announced the new FOIP Vision plan and also a Japanese investment in India of 38 billion dollars. Japan’s collaboration with India seems decisive in boosting the latter at the regional level. While India is the westernmost part of the Indo-Pacific megaregion, Japan is the easternmost part of it; positive relationships and the common advantages are promoted with a special look to the security of trade routes. In this regard, a recent example has been the institutional and economic crisis in Sri Lanka since July 2022. The restructuring of Sri Lanka’s external debt has involved both India (mainly), and also Japan, creditor of 9% of the same and a country that promotes various humanitarian assistance initiatives. Without a doubt, it is important for Japan to preserve the stability of Sri Lanka, first of all as an important point for Japanese investments, but also from a security perspective in the region, since Sri Lanka is a key country on the maritime routes that connect the Indian Ocean with the Sea of Japan, with its port infrastructures that are of vital importance for Tokyo (especially the strategic container terminal of the port of Colombo, a colossal Indo-Japanese joint venture launched in 2021).

South Korea

Seoul is an ally (more or less) with which Japan wants to strengthen relations. South Korea, along with China, is the country with the most problematic past vis-à-vis Japan. In 1910, Korea was formally annexed by Japan after years of wars, intimidation and political machinations. In order to establish control over its new protectorate, Japan waged an all-out war on Korean culture and the country suffered a brutal domination, symbolized in the so-called “comfort women” and their demands for justice to Japan—a past about which Tokyo is still timid.

The suspicions between both countries do not remain limited to the controversial past, but the divergences are also open over the islets of Takeshima, in Japanese, or Dokdo for the South Koreans, who hold a sovereignty that the Japanese in turn claim as a part of their country. Some frictions of varying intensity periodically arise around this archipelago, such as in 2019. Relations between Seoul and Tokyo deteriorated greatly during Abe’s term due to disputes over compensation to forced labourers by Japanese companies during the colonial period. Today, however, the situation has changed radically. Since 2022, the South Korean government under Yoon Suk-yeol has been working with that of PM Kishida to resolve this issue, while both countries seek to cooperate in other areas, such as commercial or military, including meetings between both leaders.

The Japanese NSS of December 2022 positions South Korea as a strategic neighbor for Japan with which it shares common interests. For its part, South Korea’s Security Strategy contains the same perception regarding Japan, even if Seoul has expressed its concern about Tokyo’s planned rearmament, especially its medium- and long-range ballistic capabilities. But the excesses of Pyongyang have had a positive impact on the rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo, on the way to being closer unlike previously—a complicated architecture for two countries allied firstly with US, and secondly with their neighbour. This situation is witnessed by the multiplication of trilateral aeronaval exercises and the joint communiques blasting the tests of North Korea.

United Kingdom

Brexit brought back the UK as individual actor on the international scene, even if with the status of small-medium size power, and the close relationship between London and Tokyo has spilled over into common interests in the Indo-Pacific; also there is no territorial presence of the UK in the area with the exception of Chagos Islands (British military presence is recorded in the UN Command in Korea, small teams in Singapore and Brunei and liaison personnel in Australia and New Zealand).

There has long been a non-formal alliance between the UK and Japan since the beginning of the 20th Century, something that has been growing in recent years and in several areas, such as security, trade or energy supply, including after Brexit. The signing of an agreement in 2020 that granted the UK even more advantageous benefits than those existing with the EU. Both countries clearly align with a shared commitment to the region, in line with the FOIP Vision and with respect to a world order led by the US, the basis of a partnership and which also determines the British strategy for the region, taking into account Japan as an essential ally, as shown by the historic defence agreement in January 2023, which allows for the deployment of British forces in Japan to carry out large-scale military exercises. Another example of the extensive cooperation of both countries is that the UK and Japan partnered, together with Italy, to develop the next generation of combat aircraft.


The Indo-Pacific region, with increasing tensions between the United States and China, is beginning to be a priority in the common foreign and security policy of the EU, including the publication of a Strategy for the region (2021) and a platform for some diplomatic approaches and initiatives, and collaboration with its partners.

Japan, as a key country in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, is a pivot partner for EU, a partner with which it shares values and interests, seeking a closer strategic partnership that the Japanese country finally perceives the EU as a reliable partner in security, something beyond trade, the economy or technological cooperation. Since the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, together with the tensions around Taiwan, the EU, through its member countries, has participated more closely in security matters with Japan. This cooperation translated more into the naval realm; but since mid-2022 it has also increased in terms of aeronautical exercises.

French and German ships operate in Indo-Pacific waters and participate in various maneuvers with Japanese ships and other countries, as well as combat aircraft (also French and German); they also share aerial exercises with participation from the US, Japan, and South Korea. South or Australia. Other ships from European countries have been participating in various naval maneuvers with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force for more than five years; in the case of Spain, for example, since 2016 and in various scenarios.

Thus, EU wants to convince Japan that it is a relevant partner in terms of security, transmitting the message that in a situation of tension, European countries can also provide valuable help. Relations with the EU and Japan have doubled the bilateral network that has existed for many years. However, it was in 2019 when the EU as a whole signed two basic agreements with Japan for its current commercial and strategic relations: the Strategic Partnership Agreement and the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, to which was added, in 2022, the Agreement of Digital Cooperation. In this case, Japan is the first country with which such an agreement on cyber matters has been signed by the EU (at the EU-Japan Summit, 2022).

France is perhaps the European country with the closest relationship with Japan, sharing the same security strategy for the Indo-Pacific region and the values of the Japanese FOIP Vision. France includes Japan as a priority in its strategic documents, and bilateral aeronaval maneuvers and exercises are common and frequents, as well as periodic meetings at the highest level between the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs of both countries.


In consideration that NATO also labels China and Russia as potential and future enemies, the relationship with Brussels, existing for many years with a formula of security conferences in the 1990s, in the Netherlands, saw a massive growth in recent time, coinciding with the Chinese, Russian and North Korean pushes.

NATO and Japan signalled their commitment to strengthening cooperation in a joint political declaration signed in April 2013. From 2014, work was taken forward through a NATO-Japan Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme. Currently, the cooperation is guided by an Individually Tailored Partnership Programme that NATO and Japan agreed to in July 2023.

Practical cooperation is being developed in a wide range of areas, including cyber defence, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, non-proliferation, science and technology, human security, and Women, Peace and Security. Japan is one of NATO’s partners in the Indo-Pacific region, together with Australia, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand. The Indo-Pacific region is important for the Alliance, given that developments in that region can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security.
Japan has participated in NATO’s cyber defence exercises Cyber Coalition and Locked Shields and is a contributing participant at the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, in Tallinn, Estonia.

Japan participated, for the first time in a NATO-led humanitarian assistance operation, following the devastating 2023 earthquakes in Turkey. NATO and Japan are enhancing their cooperation in the area of emerging and disruptive technologies through Japan’s participation in the activities of NATO’s Science and Technology Organization (STO).

Japan is also engaged in the framework of the Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme, particularly in activities in the fields of counter-terrorism and the detection and clearance of mines and unexploded ordnance. Ongoing research and multi-year projects with Japan are aimed, for instance, at advancing procedures and technologies for the safe detection of landmines. Expanding on the results of previous cooperation, Japanese scientists are researching a semiconductor-based sensing device that will facilitate the identification of explosive chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) materials or special nuclear material at ports and border crossings.

Japan has had a longstanding cooperation with the Alliance on maritime security. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force trained with NATO ships in the Mediterranean in 2022 and in the Baltic Sea in 2018. Japan has designated a liaison officer to NATO’s Maritime Command. Always in the military dimension, since 2014, under the NATO’s Partnership Interoperability Initiative, Japan has been participating in the Interoperability Platform. Japan has made generous contributions to NATO Trust Fund projects in various partner countries.

Most recently, Japan has provided significant support to Ukraine, including through a contribution to NATO’s Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine. Previous important contributions by Japan were designed to enhance stockpile management and the physical security of ammunition in Afghanistan and Tajikistan; to destroy dangerous stocks of pesticides in the Republic of Moldova; and to clear an ammunition depot in Georgia, as well as contaminated land in Azerbaijan.

As of now, however, the political dimension of the relation with NATO remains predominant. At the 2021 NATO Summit in Brussels, Allies agreed to increase dialogue and practical cooperation between NATO and existing partners, including Japan as one of the partners in the Indo-Pacific region. This commitment was reiterated in the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept, the Alliance’s core policy document. Cooperation with partners in this region is key to addressing the increasingly complex global security environment, including Russia’s war on Ukraine, the shift in the global balance of power and the rise of China, and the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.
In June 2022, the Prime Minister of Japan participated in the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, together with the Leaders of other partners from the Indo-Pacific region (Australia, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand). This was the first-ever participation of Japan in a NATO summit. In July 2023, the country participated in its second meeting at the level of Heads of State and Government, at the 2023 Vilnius Summit. In April 2022 and April 2023, Japan participated in the NATO Foreign Ministers’ meetings. This followed Japan’s first-ever participation in a NATO ministerial meeting, in December 2020. Japan also regularly participates in meetings held at NATO Headquarters in Brussels between NATO Allies and the four partners in the Indo-Pacific region at the level of Ambassadors. Recent meetings have focused on climate change and security, arms control, and maritime security.

Japan provided support for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and for wider reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan. It helped to mobilise international support for Afghanistan by organising the Tokyo Conference in July 2012 and pledging USD 5 billion to this end over a five-year period (2009-2013). Earlier, Japan supported efforts to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate former combatants, and to reintegrate insurgents under the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme. It also supported various initiatives, including human security projects at the grass roots level in several regions of Afghanistan, and contributed to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund. In the 1990s, Japan played a role in stabilising the Balkans, where NATO led several peace-support operations since the mid-1990s. As a major donor country, it has contributed to the successful recovery of the Balkans region and its reintegration into the European mainstream.


Despite the centuries-old historical reluctance about Japan’s projection in East Asia by the countries of the region, which in turn make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), there are common interests from both areas. The first is the confrontation with the Chinese threat, since recently there have been confrontations of different intensity with ASEAN States, such as Vietnam, the Philippines or Indonesia, always in relation to sovereignty disputes in the waters of the South China Sea, but of which Japan draws conclusions about its own disputes with the Chinese giant.

After WWII, Japan was stripped of all primacy in Southeast Asia and until recently has not shown much interest in the international order in the region. Its FOIP Vision, plus the evolution of the security posture, mean that a shift is also taking place in this regard. Collaboration with ASEAN becomes essential for this, including support for the Association’s initiatives since 2015 and bilateral dialogue to create common institutions and initiatives, despite the challenge that Southeast Asian societies’ perception of the past continues to pose.

The Vientiane Vision (2016) is the initiative that Japan has published for security cooperation with ASEAN, being a document that establishes the Japanese approach regarding the future of the bilateral relationship and where an annual follow-up is made of the common activities proposed in military matters, with exercises and common exchanges of media and information, as well as the Vice-Ministerial Defence Forum and the promotion of multilateral cooperation through regional frameworks, Japan is involved in the factory of other infrastructures in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia, in various countries such as Myanmar or Indonesia; the sale of patrol boats to Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Maldives or the Philippines; assistance in the control of illegal fishing, airspace or ship maintenance again in Sri Lanka, Vietnam and the Philippines, and also in Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia or Malaysia. Japanese activity in relation to security in the region and in line with the FOIP Vision, has reached Africa, providing coast guard vessels to Kenya or Djibouti, establishing a tie that is the beginning between this framework and the TICAD (Tokyo International Conference for African Development), the historical tool of relations between Japan and the African continent.

Australia and New Zealand

Regarding Australia, it is a regional actor with which Japan shares objectives within the framework of the QUAD, but with which it has also advanced in an unprecedented bilateral relationship in terms of security and military cooperation, which is also reflected in the industry: defence, reciprocal access agreements in research and development sectors, cybersecurity and matters within energy security and renewable energies. The Australian Defence Force and the SDF have developed several exercises, only surpassed by those carried out together with the United States in the Australian case.

The new government (and chambers) of New Zealand shows that Wellington has changed the approach vis-à-vis with the AUKUS and will be more coordinated with Canberra in security and defence policies and, by consequences, also the ties with Japan will be reinforced furtherly.


Article 9 of the 1951 Constitution theoretically limits Japanese war capabilities, within the framework of necessary self-defence tasks. Possession of weaponry consisting of intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range bombers, or aircraft carriers would exceed this level of necessary self-defence and would not be constitutionally permitted.

In the new NSS of December 2022, the commitment to increase defence spending annually until it reaches 2% of GDP in 2027 appears explicitly—since 1976 the limit was 1 percent—for which it is estimated that a total of 43 trillion Yen, almost 304 billion euros over the five planned fiscal years from April 2023 to March 2028. Based on current global trends, this would make Japan’s defence budget at the end of the decade the third largest worldwide, only behind those of the US and China. Indeed, at the end of 2021, a record defence budget was approved for 2022. Spending will be 5.4 trillion yen (42 billion euros/46 billion dollars), for the eighth consecutive year in history, the largest figure allocated to Japanese defence. An alternative would be to use for military purposes certain programs created to provide humanitarian and civil aid to countries in need, including from now on some defence-related expenses for the first time in history. Thus, the Kishida government plans to expand a program called Security Assistance with the objective of providing aid to third countries, including those within the military sphere and speculating that some beneficiary countries of the program, such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Bangladesh, could spend said aid on purchases from the Japanese defence industry.

Japan’s strategic shift requires more budget and the development of a defence industry that can meet new demands, among other measures. As we saw in the section dedicated to the alliance with the United States, defence industrial cooperation is also of interest to both countries. Japan can contribute its cutting-edge technology in areas such as aerospace, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence. There has also been talk of other products, such as ammunition, a need that now appears critical in the current war in Ukraine.

In line with the sustainability and resilience objectives of the NSS, Japan not only needs to reactivate a defence industry, but has developed projects in the field of security, and more specifically in union with other countries that can provide very valuable help (the main example being the Global Combat Air Program which, together with Italy and the United Kingdom, would help stimulate the Japanese aeronautical defence industry).

Finally, there are other critical points, first of which is the reluctance of the Japanese public opinion in the military universe, revealing that the stigma of the lost war and the devastating human losses and physical damage are not yet fully absorbed. Paradoxically, the pressures of China, North Korea and Russia are the strongest dismantling components for the reluctant stance of the Japanese people.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.

Vietnam and USA: Old Enemies, New (Possible) Friends against China

The global push of Beijing is a major reshuffle for the international community, with unexcepted and, till now, unthinkable repositioning dynamics, approaching even old enemies, more and more worried of plans and actions of China.

On 10 September of 2023, US and Vietnam have agreed to elevate their diplomatic relations to the highest level by signing a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreement, which put Washington together with PRC (China), Russia, ROK (South Korea), and soon, India. Considering that for Vietnam this kind of framework is the higher level in its foreign relations, this step represents the culmination of a historic shift between both signatories.

2023 marks fifty years since the closing of one of the international chapters that transformed global reality; 1973 marked a turning point in the conception of the foreign policy of the hegemonic power of the 20th Century, the US suffered a disruption of the global map of its interests and relations of forces between international powers.

With the signing of the Paris Agreement between US and Vietnam in 1973, hostilities between both parties ceased, even there was not an official beginning, but a slow escalation from Washington initiated with the deployment of the 342 advisers of MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group), Vietnam in 1955, which replaced MAAG, Indochina, set up in 1945 in order to assist the French forces against the communist- backed Vietminh uprising and worked till the signature the Geneva accords of 1954 (2023 saw also the death, at 100, the Washington-maker of this agreement, Henry Kissinger). The withdrawal of the US forces from Vietnamese territory meant the growth in power of the regime to the communist spectrum (represented in the war by North Vietnam), whose greatest supporters were USSR and PRC. In this way, what for the Communist Party of Vietnam was an unprecedented victory (even obtained with an enormous human cost for Hanoi), for the opposing side marked a turning point in the military supremacy self-conception.

The US was affected not only by its international profile, but also by its internal resilience, due to the deep divisions that the Vietnamese conflict generated among the country’s society, population and culture. With the development of the Cold War, the relations between both actors were characterized by maintaining a certain distance and focusing on their most immediate issues. For US, the confrontation with the USSR and developing ties with PRC were a high priority. For the Vietnamese perspective, the consolidation of its state structure and the forging of alliances took up most of the efforts of the government of Hanoi for years.

However, the present situation is a deeply different from this context. Vietnam is today an emerging regional power with a developing economy, important signs of strength and a foreign policy dominated by its neighborly relations, mainly with PRC, with which it shares around 1,400 kilometers of border. In addition, it plays a fundamental role in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), a very important platform for Vietnam in terms of the economy and relations with its Asian neighbors in terms of security, finance or foreign trade (not yet for defense, but there are the first steps in this direction as well). Finally, in 1995 diplomatic relations between Vietnam and US were normalized. On the other hand, Washington is witnessing a crucial moment for its global hegemonic position while having to address countless internal challenges, from high public debt to the questioning of its social model, face a competitor that poses one of the most complex and difficult challenges to its international dominance since the Cold War such is PRC. Far from the confrontational models of the last century, the current competition between both powers is characterized by being fought in a totally broader and interconnected worldwide scenario, where military force has been transformed in more lethal and mobile, while new areas of confrontation have emerged, such as cyberspace and outer space, without naming the classical search of influences in other countries, the brutal trade competition, the scientific rivalry and the setup of renewed and new international and regional organizations. Thus, global dynamics have been strengthening PRC’s role as the main rival for the US and many other states. Vietnam, for its geostrategic collocation, see the important changes ongoing in the Indo-Pacific with growing concern. The assertive stand of Beijing put Washington and Hanoi in a common front in this scenario: counteracting China’s weight and push in the region. Because of the above, their relationship, historically marked by conflict, evolved to reach high levels of cooperation in economic and security matters.

After fifty years of the Paris Agreement and twenty-eight of the normalization of their diplomatic ties, on September 10, 2023, US and Vietnam raised their relations to the highest level that the system of foreign relations of Hanoi sets. This new framework of cooperation is reflected in greater cooperation in areas as basic as science and technology, climate change or trade. However, it is necessary to highlight a key aspect for the role that both actors play in the region: cooperation in security and defense. Since Presidents Obama and Truong Tan Sang signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2013—a step prior to reaching the highest level of ties sealed in September—relations between the US and Vietnam have been marked by deepening in all aspects. Currently, the US has become one of Vietnam’s main partners in terms of security: since 2017 it has invested more than 100 million dollars in military aid for the country through the FMF (Foreign Military Financing) Program, aimed at strengthening its defensive and military capabilities. Likewise, the Obama Administration lifted the arms embargo on Vietnam in 2016, the year after which the US permanently export to Hanoi defense material worth more than $30 million annually. Added to this are the 108 million dollars in products and services that the US has received from Vietnam since that year. Another reflection of the improvement in relations in this area was the visit to Vietnam in March 2018 by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson: the first of it in more than forty years. Later, in March 2020, it was the turn of another aircraft carrier. The improvement of connections in military and defense matters is also reflected in Vietnam’s participation in the GOPI (Global Peace Operations Initiative), established by US to contribute to the international missions of the UN. The development of relations in the field of defense and security is manifested in the perception of Washington by the Vietnamese society has today. According to ‘The State of South Asia 2023’ survey (a poll survey organized by the ‘ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC) at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’), almost three quarter of the Vietnamese trusts the US as a guarantor of international peace and security with little bit more than ten percent do not (sic!).

On the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, both parties have recognized the interdependence of their relations by expanding the areas of cooperation (investment, management of the legacy of war, promotion of security, promotion of prosperity, crisis climate, health cooperation and management of the Mekong River). This expansion reflects the positive status of the relations between Hanoi and Washington.

​Vietnam: Bamboo Diplomacy and its Obliged Ties with China

The foreign policy of Hanoi has been marked by a peculiar approach, applying Marxist-Leninist principles (an essential ideological axis for the country) to foreign policy. The combination of firmness in ideological elements and the required flexibility in diplomatic methods, set up the so-called “bamboo diplomacy”, putting together the strong roots of the ideology and the flexible stems of the methods.

However, the aforementioned foreign policy is being challenged by regional drive, strongly marked by geopolitical competition, led by China and its ambitions. Along these lines, Vietnam and its society are aware of the threat posed by Beijing, and Hanoi had ties with China that are very difficult to break, even if, as the above-mentioned survey states, more than three quarter of the population distrust China. This situation run from the historical rivalry to the recent crisis, worsened by the claims of Beijing to around 85% of the South China Sea, and which affects multiple countries, including Vietnam. For China, the control of the aforementioned area is vital for its survival and hegemonic plans: without it, Beijing consider that the naval projection capability of the US would block the access and control of key points for the national supply, like the Strait of Malacca. The magnitude of the issue for China is reflected in an increased actions to undermine any initiative that poses a threat to her interest and priorities.

For Vietnam those claims means that the country will remains sea locked, without access to international maritime spaces and this is a not acceptable situation and the most severe attempt to its national sovereignty. The claims of China existed since years, but the tensions raised in recent times (see the regional destabilizing effect of the claims; Philippine and Chinese coast guards are in face-off situations in South China Sea since weeks). The claim of sovereignty of the Paracelsus and Spratly islands, the implementation in 2014 of a Chinese oil platform in the waters of the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) of Vietnam or the maritime clashes between both nations motivated by drilling activities carried out by Vietnam in 2017 exemplifies the confrontation between both geopolitical strategies. However, the relationship between Vietnam and China, more than a threat, entails a series of historical and economic ties. To begin with, both countries have a similar historical evolution: their respective systems, based on communism, entered a stage of financial openness and iron fist in internal repression, that led them to political and economic dualism. On the other hand, it is worth highlighting key differences in terms of governance. For example, the secretary-general of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, is a different figure from the head of state, Vo Van Thuong, while in China power is concentrated in one person, Xi Jinping. Giving the relevance of the ideological dimension for Vietnam, the Communist Party still have a pivotal role in the country’s policy making, but the state keeps a separate nature, a counterbalance the power of the party; this, avoiding the disfunctions that emerge more and more in China, which appear increasingly in trouble to manage the challenges of sophisticated society with the total overlap between state and communist party.

Despite the above-mentioned problems, old and new, China remains Vietnam’s first economic partner, where around 40% of its imports come from. Through the signing of more than thirteen economic agreements, Vietnam has become China’s sixth largest trading partner. Consequently, the economic aspect is a fundamental link in these relations, which places Vietnam in a complex position in the face of commercial and geopolitical imbalance. As a sign of their wish to keep as possible good relationship in this area, in October 2022 the Vietnamese President was the first foreign leader to travel to Beijing after the designation of Xi Jinping’s as supreme leader of the country’s third term. Given the situation described, Vietnam has decided to establish some distance with its partner in foreign policy, while seeking not to take actions that could irritate the important neighbor. This ambivalence has been put into practice in the foreign policy of Vietnam through the principle of the “three nos”: no to foreign military bases, no to forming part of military alliances and no to supporting a country in struggle with another. This principle once again reflects the character of ‘bamboo diplomacy’, which is committed to sovereignty and international peace while granting a certain margin of action to the country in its relations with other states, covering itself from any accusation by China regarding its links with other nations in the military field. Now, Vietnam is aware of the threat that China represents in the region and, directly, to its relations. Consequently, Vietnam has begun to promote certain agreements with other actors that seek to serve as a counterweight to the influence of the PRC; and in the US, despite a controversial past, it has found a partner that may support the re-opening of an old framework. To face China, one of the most mentioned geopolitical concepts in the Cold War has been put back on the table: the policy of containment. For Vietnam, the rapprochement with the US, indirectly, try to compensate the decisive alignment between Moscow and Beijing especially after the beginning of the war in Ukraine; this major shift worried Vietnam for a possible weakening of Russian support vis-à-vis the Chinese push and the need of an alternate security provider and guarantor become an imperative for Hanoi.

This situation has many points in common with the one that affect India, once strong partner with Moscow in anti-Chinese drive; but now the axis between Russia and China forced New Delhi in re-orient its strategy in double track, reinforcing its strategic autonomy and getting closer to US, Australia, France and Japan; this without entering in direct, major, confrontation with Beijing, giving that China remains the most important economic partner of India, and co-member of SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and BRICS.

In the light of enhanced regional (and transregional) solidarity policy, Vietnam has repatriated over 1,000 citizens from Myanmar due to looming crisis there, as well as helping certain Egyptians, Malaysians and Singaporeans leave the country amid the conflict between states forces and the government ones.

The Return of the Old: Towards a New Containment

The origins of the containment policy date back to the ‘long telegram’ written in 1946 by the then US ambassador to USSR, George F. Kennan. This notion became the center of the political debate in the following decades after the publication of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in ‘Foreign Affairs’. Based on the need to contain Soviet expansion through the so-called spheres of influence, this policy found its motivation in the reality exposed by Kennan’s text, where it was highlighted that the idiosyncrasies of the Soviet communist system would not allow peaceful coexistence with the American political ideology and praxis.

US structured the world into Moscow and Washington zones of influence on which its foreign and security policies protected their stability and interests. The conceptual framework that this policy provided for the development of both political and military resistance to Soviet-led expansionism is fundamental to understanding US actions throughout the Cold War. Without being exempt from criticism, the containment policy was shaped by the different ideological currents that marked each US Administration. Under its protection, important events occurred that still have a fundamental weight on the international stage, such as the creation of NATO in 1949 or the Vietnam War, which ended in 1973. Therefore, when talking about expansion intentions Chinese in the Indo-Pacific and the rest of the world, numerous political analysts and scholars have rescued the USSR-focused terminology and approaches of containment and shifted it to the confrontation of the challenges that the PRC poses both regionally and globally to US hegemony.

For Washington, the Indo-Pacific megaregion is a fundamental point for its foreign policy. The US foreign strategy is aware of the importance of China’s push actions in the region, as well as its ambitions and already known intentions. Consequently, Washington has found a possible partner in Vietnam. In this framework, Hanoi is aware about the importance of using multiple approach to its strategy, seeking not to raise tensions with Beijing and not miss the opportunity to have the deterrent element that Washington represents.

Giving the relevance of the sub-region, the US is working to build strong relationships with Southeast Asian countries that also find common ground in this endeavour. Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (all ASEAN member states) are among the nations with which Washington has signed specific security and defense cooperation agreements. As example, along the same lines is the renewal of defense cooperation between the US and the Philippines after both parties showed their concern about the PRC’s actions in the South China Sea, which caused serious concerns for Manlia. Therefore, the Chinese pressure is evident, and the sub-region’s countries are fully aware of it, even though they keep strong economic ties with Beijing, they seek and find in the US a partner in the defense of their stability, despite the economic partnership with Washington is much less attractive.

Another element of high importance is security and defense cooperation between US and Vietnam, especially in naval dimension, as it is strongly related to the joint objective of encircling China by sea (someone could say that Washington looks for a ‘sea’ containment), and this a critical point because the Vietnamese Navy and Coast Guard are not especially strong. In its Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement, the US mentions that it will pay special attention to strengthening Vietnam’s naval capabilities in terms of security and defense so that the country has the necessary resources to enforce international law and its sovereignty.

The above-mentioned Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program includes the progressive increase in the US Government’s investment in this sector, which is so elemental at a geopolitical level for both parties. As the case of Vietnam focuses, the essential axis of the program is to support, transfer, reinforce and promote the resources of the country’s Navy and Coast Guard supporting her stance in the South China Sea. Along these same lines, Vietnamese Navy has participated since 2018 in the RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific), the largest naval military exercise in the world, which the US holds biannually with its allies.

​For its part, Vietnam has its own strategy regarding its relations in the region, whose ultimate goal is to contain Chinese actions. Unlike the US and its containment policy, which forces it to choose those points where it can exert pressure on its rival to reduce its influence, Vietnam is naturally part of the Indo-Pacific countries that form a counterweight to Chinese expansion, as happens to India, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand.

In common Washington and Hanoi have points but also differences vis-à-vis in the use of the containment policy in this specific context. While US make efforts into building a politico-military-economic fence around China, Vietnam is more linked to the dynamics of its regional alliances and first ASEAN (except for Cambodia and Laos, openly considered puppet states of Beijing, and Myanmar/Burma, considered under heavy influence of China).

Whether or not they share a vision of the application of the containment policy, the ultimate goal is valid for the strategic objectives of both Vietnam and the US trying to reduce the influence and expansion of China in Southeast Asia. In the case of the US, this objective is vital for the preservation of its regional first, and secondly, the global hegemony; for Vietnam, it is a matter of political independence and survivability.

Ties and Obstacles

The broadening and deepening of the bilateral relations between Vietnam and US mean leaving the past behind, but there are still points of friction. Firstly, is the ideological distance between both countries, but their common needs have managed to overcome it to make cooperation possible. In this sense, the development of this new stage in US-Vietnamese relations can be reflected with another global actor of high importance and influence and, of course, a vital enemy for the Washington: Russia.

Vietnam has maintained a special relationship with Moscow, starting from ideological brotherhood, but also the support of Russia during the prolonged military efforts, first against France and then against US, with more than 350 million dollars annually during the period, without mentioning the support provided in 1979, during the Chinese invasion.

That connection has not been lost, since the historical ties have been maintained to this day, Russia continues to be a fundamental partner for Vietnam: it is its main importer of weapons (despite the problems originated by the needs originated by the war in Ukraine) and a key player in energy supplies. For Moscow, Vietnam is a key due to its role in maritime trade and in the projection of power in the South China Sea (and from there to the Pacific, Singapore straits and Eastern Indian Ocean). This access provides Russia with an important presence in regional dynamics.

In this context, it is plausible that Vietnam does not reject totally its relationship with Russia, considering it a key pillar in its foreign policy. As an example of the needs of Vietnam to keep a wide window of dialogue with Moscow, Hanoi is one of the few countries that has not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly, which represents a point of friction with Washington. Said that, Vietnam monitor with silent restlessness the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing would affect her security.

However, the strong economic ties with China, are other elements that, as above mentioned, oblige Vietnam to not extremize the relations. Through the export of microchips, semiconductors, integrated circuits, etc., China provides Vietnam with everything necessary to achieve technological capacity at the level of global demands. Finally, despite the internal problems, the unstoppable growth of Chinese military capabilities constitutes a deterrent against the enlargement and the deepening of the military alliance with the US.

There is no doubt that Vietnam does not want to be a satellite country of Beijing. Hanoi’s strategic autonomy requires the liberation from any ties and the ambitions of the neighboring country. For its part, Russia, aware that its relationship with Hanoi is fundamental and requires attention and care, is also aware of China’s strength in Southeast Asia, so it cannot be of great tool to Vietnam either.

Consequently, even if the alliance between the US and Vietnam can be considered fundamental for the region and for the geopolitical strategies of both actors, it takes place in a framework where the possibility of dangerous escalation is very easy a tactical error can lead to an escalation of tensions that is difficult to control afterwards.


Geopolitical trends determine the importance of Southeast Asia in the XXI Century. Any actor who seeks to occupy a global hegemonic position must have a strong presence in the area and to reflect his geopolitical interests with his actions in the region. The historical tour of the relationships between US and Vietnam, two antagonistic actors, is understandable even if it is unusual. Both were able to overcome their interests thanks to a geopolitical analysis with a key common element: holding the expansion and ambitions of China in Southeast Asia. In this context, the continuing and growing friendship US-Vietnamese relations gain greater significance for the international community, since the two parts represent a counterweight to China, which the rest of the actors in the region can benefit. The growing level of commitment with US implies for Vietnam the adoption of a geopolitical focus in accordance with the traditional principles of its external politics, considering this in balance with China and, Russia ASEAN, and then Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand with which it shares the goal of safeguarding national interests in front of Beijing objectives. Directly or indirectly, the geopolitical dynamics of Southeast Asia imply the intention of Washington to generate a space of containment for China’s expansion and the association of Vietnam is vital for this objective. Consequently, the intensity of the Washington-Hanoi relationships will have a decisive impact on the Chinese dynamics and ambitions which look not only in Southeast Asia, but also reflect in an uncertain global scenario in the coming decades.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.

Pakistan: Christians under Threat

In a country officially made up of more than 96% Muslims, religious minorities feel they live on the fringes of a society that grants them—at best—the status of dhimmis. They fear, rightly, to bear the brunt of the crises that are looming in a nation with growing instability.

In 1947, during the independence of Pakistan, in a context of extreme violence, the flag was drawn with obvious Islamic symbols, the green color and crescent of Islam. But a white band on the left symbolized religious minorities. Like a place granted to them in the “land of the pure,” the literal meaning of the name “Pakistan.” The nation had just been born and was struggling to find a common identity among the Pashtun, Punjabi, Sindhî, Baluch, etc. peoples. who composed it. They had in common Islam—with serious variations—which was to serve as the basis of the new nation.

Flag of Pakistan, with the white stripe representing religious minorities.

Nearly 70 years later, the demographic weight of these minorities, mainly Hindus, Christians and Sikhs, has continued to decline. In 1947, 23% of Pakistan’s population was non-Muslim, while in 2022 the proportion had fallen to 3.5%. If the white band of the flag had to be adjusted to the proportion of the population it represents, the band would be barely visible today. These figures, however, deserve to be weighed, because as the latest ACN Religious Freedom Report denounces, several Muslim states are cheating on the real number of non-Muslims in their country. The decline of minorities in Pakistan is no less indisputable.

This decline does not correspond to a well-established political agenda. No Pakistani ruler has claimed it, and no plan of action against minorities, however secret, stands out in the country’s history. On the other hand, minorities are steadily losing their political representation and weight in Pakistani society.

Hindus who did not decide to emigrate to India at the time of independence know that they are suspect in the eyes of Muslims, as they could represent a fifth column in the event of a confrontation between the two enemy countries. As for the Christians, their case illustrates how a population gradually loses its foothold in its own country. During English colonization, lower-caste Hindus and even untouchables converted, creating a new church parallel to the historic Indian churches of Malabar and Malankara, known as the “Christians of St. Thomas.” With the support of Western Christians, the new Catholic Churches played a major social role, notably through their hospitals and schools.

In Pakistan, these structures were nationalized during the tenure of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977), the nation’s first democratically elected leader. He was also the first leader to speak out explicitly in favor of an Islamic Pakistan. As a result, Catholic schools have been unable to play the role they do in comparable countries such as Iraq and Syria. In the latter two countries, Christian schools have a reputation for excellence that encourages wealthy Muslims to send their children there. In addition to the educational benefits of these structures, they offer young Muslims the opportunity to rub shoulders with Christians and members of other minorities. Indeed, it was in one of these schools that the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinna, was educated. The man, who is revered as the nation’s founder, also placed his own children in Christian schools.

These schools also ensured that the Christians had well-educated elites capable of rising to the highest offices of the state. This was the case of Shahbaz Bhatti, Christian, and Minister for Minorities, who was assassinated on February 9, 2011. The Ministry of Minorities has since been abolished during Imran Khan’s tenure as Prime Minister, so that there is no longer a single non-Muslim at the top of the administration.

Islamism Makes Money!

A former star cricketer and willing critic of Islamists, Imran Khan doesn’t look like a bearded man intent on wiping out minorities, who have a rather positive impact on Pakistani society. But faced with a fall in popularity, he needed to pledge his support to conservatives, in particular by coming out in favor of the anti-blasphemy law. This political coup reveals the evil that is eating away at Pakistani society, not so much the cynicism of politicians—which country is spared?—but rather the pervasiveness of radical Islamists. No politician can ignore them, and they influence the whole of society.

Warlike Islamism is being woven into the brains of young children at a very early age in school. The history of Pakistan has been rewritten in school textbooks, giving pride of place to slave-owning Muslim conquerors. Hindus, on the other hand, are portrayed as evil and brutal, and followers of other minority religions, notably Christians, are described as “infidels.” All students, regardless of their religious affiliation, are required to learn and recite by heart: “I am Pakistani. I am a Muslim. Pakistanis are Muslims.”

More generally, Muslims’ contempt for all other communities is expressed in a thousand and one ways on a daily basis. Naeem Yousaf Gill, Director of the Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan (CNJP), warns that it is difficult to grasp the extent of this discrimination against non-Muslims, so he illustrates it with a number of examples. His Commission comes from the local Catholic Church and is supported by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for its work in defense of Pakistani Christians.

In a series of documents devoted to discrimination in the year 2021-2022, the Commission lists hundreds of incidents against Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, all of whom are considered subhuman. This litany includes acts of violence and discrimination covering a broad spectrum.

For example, the case of Riaz Gill, a competent employee who was promoted to director of his hospital in Karachi. He immediately received death threats from his colleagues. Petty thugs were paid to follow him home and warn him that he and his family would be in serious trouble if he did not give up his position, as it was intolerable for a Christian to lead Muslims. Wearily, Riaz Gill returned to his previous position. But the pressure continued, until he handed in his resignation.

In another typical case reported by the Commission, a Muslim riding his motorcycle past a church square complained that he had been dirtied by two young Christians sweeping the area. He returned with an angry troop of sixty men, brandishing cricket sticks and iron bars. They beat up the family of the two young men, including women and children.

Another series of facts denounces the treatment of young Christian women. It commonly happens that a Christian woman escapes an attempted rape, denounces her attacker, only to discover that a crowd forms to defend her assailant. The question of the safety of young Christian women represents a painful challenge. They know they risk being seen as easy victims for sexual predators. They can be abducted, “converted” and then forcibly “married.” Cases of this kind abound. Maira Shabbaz, who was abducted at the age of 13 and managed to escape from her attacker, is a case in point. In the majority of cases, the parents of these young girls are distraught and afraid to lodge a complaint with the police, lest it be turned against them. The CNJP points out that in 90% of cases, the aggressors divorce their “wives” within the year. More often than not, they had at least one other wife at the time of the incident, wives that are much older than the girls they take in this way.

Martyrs of the 21st Century

In 2021, Abida, 26, and Sajida, 28, two Christian sisters living in the Makhan district, on the outskirts of Lahore, were harassed and then abducted by Muslims. They were found dead, their throats slit, in sacks, abandoned in a canal, probably because they had refused forced marriage and conversion.

A multitude of other less dramatic examples are symptomatic of the sickly aversion many Pakistanis feel towards people of other religions. Also, during the year under review, a Hindu family was beaten up for filling their water bottles at a tap in front of a mosque.

The hundreds of cases recorded show that ill-treatment does not come directly from the administration. Ordinary Pakistanis, in the face of annoyance or simply to get what they want—land, a wife, revenge—believe they have the right to attack the “lower castes.” But if the authorities are not the source of these exactions, they are no less deficient in restoring justice.

The Pakistani administration, which is fighting Taliban terrorists on its own soil, is clearly reluctant to tackle the ordinary Islamism that is blighting relations between its citizens. “This is a fundamental weakness that threatens society as a whole,” warns Babar Ayaz, journalist and author of What’s wrong with Pakistan (Hay House Inc.). A Muslim himself, he notes that the Islamic Republic was not part of the project of the country’s founders. He also fears that it will inevitably lead to chaos and ruin, given the profound religious differences that exist in his country. In particular, he notes that while the majority of Pakistanis unequivocally condemn jihad and terrorism, the same cannot be said of the Ulemas, who prefer to attack the Pakistani authorities, accusing them in particular of being pro-American. Few of them openly condemn extremist violence. Under these conditions, he questions the interest of his country in continuing to train more Ulemas than doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Wishing for a separation between religion and state, Ayaz notes that the Pakistani Parliament is instead constrained by religious issues: “Parliament should be free to debate religious issues, and not have to declare itself Muslim if we want to separate religion and state. This is crucial if we are to get the evil genie of Islamism back in the bottle,” he writes.

This is all the more crucial as Pakistan is going through a period of crisis which does not bode well for the minorities living there. Experience shows that they are the first to suffer. Economically, the country is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the international context is not helping matters. On the political front, the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the destruction of his party, the PTI, demonstrate the feverishness of the current administration, which feared his return to the political scene. His still numerous supporters are likely to revolt, raising the risk of civil war.

Despised, living in a poorly built country on the brink of collapse since its creation, Pakistan’s Christians should probably represent an anemic community by human logic. But this is not the case, Mgr Shukardin, Bishop of Hyderabad, assures us: “The churches are full at weekend celebrations and during the high holidays. The people are proud of their faith and the Church is the great source of their faith, and it is source of encouragement for them.” Asked about the strange dynamism of his Church, Archbishop Shaw of Lahore replied, “I don’t know if the environment for Christians in Pakistan is improving, but I do know that we are improving our ability to adapt to the situation!”

ACN in Pakistan

Last year, the CAN spent 1.2 million euros on projects in Pakistan. This sum was spent on some sixty projects at the service of the Catholic Church in Pakistan. The construction of a church in Chakwal, the training of priests and catechists. There are also—among other initiatives—educational campaigns for young girls initiated by the Church and supported by the ACN.

The high-profile release of Asia Bibi in 2019 may have raised hopes that recourse to Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law would diminish, but the opposite is happening. On January 17, 2023, Parliament raised the minimum prison sentence for “blasphemy offenses” to 10 years.

Support the work of the ACN in Pakistan

ACN Religious Freedom Report 2023

62.5% of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is seriously violated, warns ACN, which published the 16th edition of its Religious Freedom Report on June 22. Since the previous report in 2021, the situation has deteriorated significantly in 47 of the 196 countries studied.

Africa is the continent most affected by violations of religious freedom. The main cause, in addition to poverty and civil war, is the expansion of Islamist terrorist groups.

In Asia, ethno-religious nationalist powers instrumentalize religion for political ends through anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws that oppress religious minorities.

Faced with these facts, ACN reiterates the vital importance of upholding the right to religious freedom, as an essential condition for world peace. It urges public authorities and citizens alike not to “turn a blind eye” to religious persecution. It will continue to provide information and practical help to victims of religious persecution through its work in 128 countries.

Download the entire Report.

Sylvain Dorient is a journalist for ACN-France. This article appears through the courtesy of La Nef.

Myanmar’s Forgotten Christians

As civil war takes hold in Myanmar, the fate of Christians is more precarious than ever, and they are unfortunately among the first victims of this conflict.

The deadly strike (at least 50 dead) carried out last April by the Myanmar army against a village in the center of the country briefly brought the conflict that divides the country back to the fore. A conflict in which Christians are among the first victims.

Since gaining independence from British India in 1948, Myanmar has lived through a succession of military dictatorships since 1962, and a civil war of varying intensity between the majority ethnic group, the Bamars, and the numerous ethnic minorities. In 1988, major pro-democracy demonstrations took place in Myanmar, and the opposition movement to the military dictatorship found a leading figure in the person of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, the father of independence. Demonstrations were crushed by heavy repression. Despite this, the regime holds, on thanks to support from China. In 2010, the military junta embarked on a gradual democratization process; but in February 2021, fearful of losing all its power, it staged another coup d’état. Since then, the country, already hard hit by economic crises, has suffered a civil war that has claimed over 30,000 lives.

By the force of events, several movements converged—notably the demonstrators who, after protesting against the military coup, turned to armed struggle under the banner of the “People’s Defense Forces,” and the various guerrilla movements initiated by ethnic minorities. For the past two years, the conflict has been at a standstill, with the military junta holding the major cities and the opposition forces managing to control fairly extensive territories.

The regime has announced elections for autumn 2023, to legitimize the situation created by the coup. This is likely to lead to even more violence, as the regime is determined to force the population to vote, and the opposition will do its utmost to demonstrate the regime’s lack of legitimacy by boycotting the elections. It is difficult to predict what the international community will do. While China firmly supports the military junta, there are signs that it may press for negotiations, particularly if the war threatens its direct economic interests. On the other hand, possible support from the United States could shift the balance in favor of the opposition.

In this context, the military junta specifically targets Burmese Christians (6.2% of the population), most of whom belong to ethnic minorities. Burmese nationalism mixes Bamar nationalism with religious adherence to Buddhism—all the more so as the Bamars are almost all Buddhists. This was already evident during the Rohingya crisis—this Muslim minority present in the northwestern state of Arakan fell victim to ethnic cleansing in 2017, causing 1 million of them to flee to Bangladesh. They were targeted as foreigners—Muslims and non-Bamars. The same logic applies to other ethnic minorities, albeit in a less radical way—it’s difficult to see them as foreigners, and some of them are Buddhists, although evangelization is progressing. Numerous testimonies indicate that Burmese armed forces specifically target churches in their attacks. There is even “systematic and rather diffuse persecution,” with the Catholic Church, for example, “not allowed to build new buildings or have bank accounts” (Father David Michael de Penha, Nuit des témoins de l’AED, January 2023).

There seems to be little prospect of a solution. The conflict continues to drag on, threatening to destabilize neighboring countries, some of which are already fragile (Bangladesh, Thailand, India). The best-case scenario, the opening of new negotiations, is unfortunately unlikely at present. The generals seem convinced that their repression will eventually defeat the opposition, and they do not hesitate to resort to Buddhist fundamentalists to win the support of the masses—this leads us to fear the worst for religious minorities.

Rainer Leonhardt writes from France. This article appears through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Featured: Church burned by the Myanmar military, Daw Ngay Ku village, Hparuso township, Kayah State, June 27 and July 4, 2022 (Photo: AFP).

Two Continents and Two Approaches

The visit of the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, who in the second half of May went to several small states in the South Pacific, ended with much fewer positive results than expected by Beijing (and feared by other states in the region). In fact, only East Timor has concluded an agreement with China, of limited impact on economic and security policies. This alarm bell has further strengthened the fears of many states in the region, starting with the US, of Chinese pressure in the area which, if it has suffered a minor set-back, will not diminish.

To counter the pressure from Beijing, President Biden, during a five-day visit to Asia (South Korea and Japan only) launched a new economic initiative, but which should indirectly also have influence security architectures of the Indo-Pacific macro region. Washington launched the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, using terminology that should draw attention among local partners), a “multilateral partnership for the 21st century,” which should help “economies to exploit rapid technological transformation, also in the digital economy, and to adapt to the next energy and climate transition.”

The push for a new economic pact in Asia with an anti-Chinese function has become a priority for Biden, who on May 23rd announced 13 nations joining the IPEF, which together with the USA, represent 40% of world GDP (Australia, Brunei, South Korea, Fiji, Philippines, Japan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam; while the EU, France, Great Britain, Germany, Spain would be interested in being part of it, even if nothing official has still emerged on the matter).

Such a vast and articulated area brings different responses: Japan, (and Taiwan, a ghost, but very important participant) and South Korea want to work with the US, especially on emerging issues, such as the digital economy, and help set a standard for future business. India also reacted favorably to the initiative; Australia, New Zealand, Singapore are easy adherents, while for Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia the outcome will be more difficult, as with environmental transition. As White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell noted, economic engagement is “an area where the United States, in effect, must step up its game.”

Unfortunately for Washington, this plan seems unlikely to have a significant impact. While partners in Asia appear eager to join any US-led economic initiative as an anti-Chinese shield, Washington’s proposed framework lacks the incentives that the region’s economies are seeking. Indeed, the plan does not offer partners greater market access in the US or tariff reductions (and the Biden administration, although at the ideological antipodes of the Trump administration, which dismantled the region’s network of bilateral and multilateral economic agreements, does not seem at all willing to go back to the concerns that the return to globalization would have on the US economy and labor market). The plan does not even consider the effect China has on regional supply chains and appears to be focused on what the US can unilaterally achieve instead of finding mutual benefits for all potential members. Poorly designed in this way, there is a risk that the initiative will remain a dead letter soon.

Biden’s Indo-Pacific drive Lacks Strength and Strategic Vision

In addition to the intention to protect themselves from China, many Asian nations want closer economic ties with the United States. But if the allies of the United States are critical of the lack of incentives and ambitions in the Indo-Pacific economic framework, they remain doubtful about the security initiatives, which although more numerous (AUKUS, ANZUS, RIMPAC, Shangri-La Dialogue, Quad, various bilateral agreements)—(1) seem disconnected from the economic dimension and therefore make Washington’s action not as effective as the Biden administration hopes. The perplexities of the regional partners, beyond the accession (a formal act that must be filled with content), are also obvious, since large regional agreements are already functioning, without the participation of the United States, such as CATTP and RCEP; and (2) the IPEF is built around four pillars: (a) supply chains, (b) infrastructure and clean energy, and (c) taxes and anti-corruption, (d) and fair-trade.

But since the agreement is not a commercial agreement, there will be no negotiation of tariff reductions, which the partners insist on.

While the details of these pillars are still being negotiated, the White House wants high standards, particularly in labor and environmental provisions. As many advanced economies in Asia are already committed to fighting climate change and have strong labor protections, meeting these high standards should not be difficult. However, given the amount of political investment the Biden administration has made to restore American diplomatic relations, these standards could make it difficult for some developing economies to join. And the Biden administration would prefer to have as many members as possible to present, in the US tradition, “a global crusade against evil,” in this case, China.

To address these problems, the IPEF is an open and a la carte structure; in fact, to be considered as a member, a state can join at least one of the four pillars of the initiative. A big hit could be a digital trade deal. The CAPTPP—with Japan, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, and Singapore as members—already has a digital chapter in place. The US and Japan have a similar deal, and Singapore and Australia have a separate digital economy deal. Singapore also supported its partnership agreement for the digital economy. This topic is likely to prove to be one of the few areas of IPEF success.

As mentioned, the difficulty related to the effectiveness is that the Indo-Pacific countries want to talk about access to the US market and reduction of tariffs, which, as mentioned above, Washington does not want to discuss. Removing regulatory barriers is good; but it can have a limited impact on the grand scheme of supply chains.

In addition to the lack of ambition that the US partners see in the picture, there are also concerns and skepticism about its functional architecture, given that the management of the IPEF is shared between the Department of Commerce and the Office of the Foreign Trade Representative, with fewer than 500 officials), while the Department of State has so far played a secondary role. The picture might seem more of a diplomatic victory than an economic one. Meanwhile, all ASEAN members (such as Cambodia, considered a Chinese protectorate, but a small economy) are unlikely to join the IPEF, given their inability to meet higher standards, or their animosity towards the US. Of course, it is doubtful that China will be invited to join.

A Basic Ambiguity for all Concerned

These aspects, which underline the complexity of the international scene, and the very close links between economy and security (understood as a set of foreign and defense policies), also highlight other problems. In addition to the willingness of the US to maintain global and pan-regional leadership, there is an underlying ambiguity that involves all members of the IPEF, including Washington. While everyone is afraid of Chinese pressure, be it political, military, economic, at the same time doubt arises that the economic or commercial ties with partners of importance like China will be reduced, which in some states, such as Australia (which is also the most concerned about the push from Beijing), represents a very important percentage of the national GDP. So, if Washington aspires to have its partners in the Indo-Pacific macro region apply “decoupling” from China, for itself, it wants to be an exception, and maintain a dialogue, on its own terms. Beijing is well aware of these ambiguities.

And despite the many internal/external difficulties (economic slowdown, environmental reconversion, the impact of the pandemic, a conference of the CCP that promises to be difficult, relations with Russia, the situation in Hong Kong and civil rights), China yet does play all its cards with unrelenting care, starting with the fact that it owns a considerable part of the US public debt, aided in this, unwittingly, by the structural weakness of the IPEF.

The Other End of the Thread

This situation is presented in very similar terms also in the western hemisphere. Here, too, the US arrived empty-handed at the IX Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Now that Washington has been surpassed by a China that is today the first trading partner of Brazil, Chile, and Peru, and the second of Argentina and Colombia, and this makes us think how much time has passed since the Monroe Doctrine and that of Theodore Roosevelt. In December 1994, Bill Clinton had brought together 33 heads of state and government from Canada to Chile—all but Cuba—for the first Summit of the Americas in Miami. The context seemed favorable to achieving the goals set by George H. W. Bush, in his so-called Initiative of the Americas, especially the most ambitious: the creation of a free trade area from the Bering Strait in Alaska to the Strait of Magellan in Patagonia.

Democratic advances and economic liberalization in Latin America and the Caribbean have generated expectations of greater and lasting political and economic consensus because the end of the Cold War also included the end of the Cuban model for the left and military dictatorships for the right. However, it was a clearly premature burial, as revealed by the Joe Biden administration’s difficulties in having the presence of several heads of state on the continent, where the rift between many Latin American countries and the US is evident. The US decision not to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua led the presidents of Mexico and Honduras to stay home in protest, while the presidents of El Salvador, Bolivia and Guatemala refused to attend for other reasons.

The polarization was also evident in the summit’s civil society forum. Many local activists have complained about the missed opportunity to demand that governments engage productively with their respective oppositions and ensure free and fair elections. Local groups working with migrants have also called for attention not only to those arriving at the US border, but rather to the millions of Venezuelan refugees and other who have fled to other countries in the region. Here too Biden presented a kind of IPEF clone, to which the migration control pillar is added (a critical issue for the USA and for the impact it could have on internal political dynamics, increasingly polarized in a harsh ideological confrontation between Democrats and Republicans).

But the situation is even worse. In fact, even if many nations, although ruled by left-wing leadership, would have been willing to strengthen economic ties with Washington, and have access to US markets, there is still the problem of a weak and uncertain supply chain (as acknowledged privately by senior US executives), and clashes with the accelerating Chinese presence, which has made massive investments in infrastructure projects. Thus far, Chinese pressure is less strong in the field of security; but there is an increase in infiltration attempts, especially in the fight against drug-trafficking and illegal fishing control, with the proposal of using Beijing coast guard, in aid of local forces. Up to now, these offers have not received positive responses, but for the future it is difficult to bet, given that old dynamics are being re-proposed, such as Nicaragua’s availability to host the Russian military presence, which has just been expressed.


Despite praiseworthy rhetoric, mainly due to the rejection of what was dismantled and made conflicting by the Trump Administration, the action of the Biden administration remains overall not up to par for several reasons, starting with the priorities of internal policies (economic and social), while leaving the external ones dominated by the security approach, with all the weaknesses of a sectoral vision in the face of global problems.

(1) The militarization (and re-militarization) of the anti-Chinese coalitions in the area is witnessed by two elements. In the sidelines of the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue session, which ended in Singapore in mid-June, UK, and other regional countries (all belonging to the Commonwealth), announced efforts to expand and re-energize the Five Powers Defense Arrangements (FPDA), a 51-year-old series of mutual assistance agreements comprising the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. At its core, the pact commits the members to consult with one another in the event or threat of an armed attack on any of the FPDA members, and to mutually decide what measures should be taken, jointly or separately.

There are no specific obligations to intervene militarily even if there was the ANZUK set up, a joint tri-service force made up of Australian, New Zealand, and British units and formed in Singapore, on 1 November 1971 and disbanded on 31 January 1974. The FPDA was set up following the termination of the United Kingdom’s defence guarantees of the then Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) under the “Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement,” because of the UK’s decision in 1967 to withdraw its armed forces east of Suez. The return to the East of Suez by London was mirrored in the recent deployment of Royal Navy carrier group in the region, an answer also to strong domestic political needs, post-Brexit; but it a small presence in Singapore, and Brunei, two small territories in the Indo-Pacific region (Pitcairn Islands, practically depopulated, and the archipelago of Chagos, vacated by its original population in the 1970s and now used almost exclusively by US forces).

During the same session of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the recently appointed French Minister for the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, announced that Paris would strengthen and modernize its military presence and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific zone, particularly on New Caledonia and Polynesia. Lecornu said: “There are fears among our partners who are wondering if the crisis in Ukraine could distract us from the Indo-Pacific. It is not so,” France will deploy permanently, as of 2025, six new ocean patrol boats in the Indo-Pacific, including two in the Pacific this year, one based in New Caledonia, the other in Polynesia” for “surveillance and sovereignty missions…Similarly, the five Falcon (reconnaissance) aircraft in the Pacific will be replaced by five new, more modern models.” France will organize a sovereignty mission in the Pacific, “Pégase 22,” which is also planned with the combined deployment of the Rafale fighter jet and A400 M military transport aircraft. Thus, the French forces will continue to participate in multiple multilateral exercises, organizing some of them to maintain “a significant presence in the region, to show France’s attachment to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region.”

(2) The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, was a proposed trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and which the US signed on 4 February 2016. Just after taking office, newly elected President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the TPP in January 2017. As a result, the agreement could not be ratified as planned and did not come into force. The remaining countries negotiated a new trade agreement, called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPATPP), which incorporates most of the provisions of the TPP and which went into effect on December 30, 2018. The TPP started as an expansion of the Transpacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPSEP or P4), signed by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore in 2005. Since 2008, other countries have joined the discussion for a broader agreement: Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, USA, and Vietnam, bringing the countries involved in the negotiations to twelve.

As mentioned, in January 2017, the US withdrew from the deal. The other 11 TPP countries agreed in May 2017 to restore it and reached an agreement in January 2018. After ratification by six of them (Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore), the agreement entered in force for those countries on 30 December 2018. The UK joined the CPATPP in 2021; Taiwan, Philippines, Colombia, Thailand, and Indonesia, Bangladesh, India South Korea, Sri Lanka, and China have expressed interest in joining the CATPP.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a free trade agreement between the Asian and Pacific nations of Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The 15 member countries represent approximately 30% of the world’s population (2.2 billion people) and 30% of global GDP ($ 29.7 trillion), making it the largest trading bloc in history. Signed in November 2020, RCEP is the first free trade agreement between major Asian economies, including China, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea.

The RCEP was conceived at the 2011 ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia, while negotiations were formally launched during the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Cambodia. India, which took part in the initial negotiations but later decided to give up, has been invited to join the bloc at any time. Any other country or separate customs territory of the region can join the agreement, 18 months from the date of coming into force of the agreement, on 1 July 2023. The treaty was formally signed on 15 November 2020 at the ASEAN virtual summit hosted by Vietnam.

As of January 17, 2022, seven of the ten ASEAN signatories and all five non-ASEAN signatories have deposited their RCEP ratification instruments with the ASEAN Secretary General. For the top ten ratifying countries, the trade pact entered into force on January 1, 2022. The RCEP includes a mix of high-, middle- and low-income countries, and plans to eliminate around 90% of import tariffs among its signatories within 20 years of coming into force, and to establish common rules for e-commerce, trade and intellectual property.

Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).

The Long Asian Century

It is time to rethink the “American Century,” which Republican internationalist Henry Luce declared in February of 1941—nearly ten months before the Japanese military attacked the American naval outpost on Oahu. Luce could hardly have known at the time what would transpire over the next thirty years, but the decades after Luce penned his call to impose American ideals on the rest of the world did, indeed, appear to be the makings of an “American century,” just as Luce had prognosticated.

What nearly everyone fails to understand about the “American century,” however, is that a large part of it was spent in Asia. If one includes the Middle East in wider Asia, then almost all of the “American century” was an Asian one. (Luce himself was raised in China, and China was the context for much of his idealism—another crucial but often-overlooked fact.)

Author and economist Parag Khanna’s book The Future Is Asian would appear to be a signal that the tide has turned and the American century has given, or is giving, way to an Asian one. But this would appear to be more a distinction of leadership cohort than of geographical focus. Contra Khanna, I think it is not the case that the world was “Europeanized” in the nineteenth century and “Americanized” in the twentieth. Rather, Europe and America were Asianized, at least in terms of economics and foreign policy. Europe and America have long been making the journey to Asia, and not the other way around. From a world historical perspective, there have been many Asian centuries prior to this one, now said to be dawning—including, especially, the “American century” which, we are now told, is passing away.

Before expanding this argument, let us first make a germane distinction between land powers and sea powers, a very old distinction and one made again with great skill recently by historian S.C.M. Paine in her 2017 book The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War. One of Paine’s geopolitical motifs in this volume is that Japan, an island nation, enjoyed great success as a modern naval power following the Meiji Restoration, but was undone by the Japanese army’s insistence on fighting ground wars in Asia. This is an excellent point. We can take it further and say that the Americans were able to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific because the Japanese were viewing the Pacific campaign as, disastrously, a ground campaign—holding islands—while the Americans virtually ignored the islands and pressed through, via ship, deep into Japanese Imperial territory. (Paine lays this out very nicely in her volume.)

The Americans ran into serious trouble in Okinawa, a land campaign, and were calculating the loss of hundreds of thousands more men if an invasion of Kyushu and Honshu became necessary. It was air superiority, not naval superiority, which brought the Americans victory. Midway, after all, was an air battle fought over water, and not a naval battle—the two carrier groups never came within sight of one another and no shots were fired directly from fleet to fleet.

Once the Americans had the Mariana Islands, the air campaign could be taken directly to the Japanese homeland. The firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were arguably much more effective than even the unrestricted submarine attacks on naval and merchant shipping had been. Japan might have been able to defeat the Americans in the Pacific had Japan focused on sea power—her natural strength—rather than ultimately pointless and ruinous land wars on the Asian continent.

I make this detour into Pacific War history because it brings us to two key points important for this essay. First, the war between the United States and Japan was largely contrived by Stalin and the Comintern. The fact that the two greatest naval powers in the Pacific embarked on a meaningless death-match, despite being separated by thousands of miles of open ocean and having no discernible geopolitical reason for waging war, is testament not to the strategic genius of either Tokyo or Washington, but to that of Stalin and his Comintern.

Some will argue that the United States did have a geopolitical interest, namely in China. This putative interest, too, was in large part a trap laid for the Americans. For example, Australian propagandist Harold John Timperley wrote his 1938 book What War Means at the behest of the Nationalist forces (whose head, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, was trained at the Soviet-backed Whampoa Military Academy). What War Means was published by Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, which was essentially the mouthpiece of the Communist Party in England at the time. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s circle of Communist, and sometimes Soviet-backed, advisors and officials is widely known. The Japanese government, too, was infiltrated. Revisionist scholars in Japan have argued, for instance, that imperial household member and prime minister just before the outbreak of war with the United States, Konoe Fumimaro, was sympathetic to the Communist cause. Japan and the United States were enticed, maneuvered, into war. War in Asia.

The second point is that the battles in Asia, in World War II, pull back the curtain on what I think should be called the “long Asian century,” which to my mind begins with the first forays of the Portuguese into the Asian trade at the closing of the fifteenth century. Perhaps we can define the long Asian century as the time when European sea powers sought entrée into the vastness of Eurasia, and ended up centering much of their political activity on Eurasia as a result. The long Asian century thus more neatly explicates what conventionally in the West we have called “the Age of Discovery.” The discovery of what? Of the Americas, of course, but the strategic fulcrum for geopolitics and world history has remained Asia, despite and even because of the European discovery of North and South America.

EastWest Institute senior fellow and Diplomat senior editor Franz-Stefan Gady writes:

In just a little over 16 years at the beginning of the 16th century, the impoverished Kingdom of Portugal, under the House of Aviz, became the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region and laid the foundation for one of the largest and longest-lived empires in world history. Between Vasco da Gama’s epoch-making 309-day voyage from Lisbon around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to the docking at the Indian port of Calicut on May 20, 1498, and the death of the general Afonso de Albuquerque in December 1515, Portugal established a permanent foothold in Asia from which it would not be finally dislodged until 1999 when China repossessed Macau.

Thus begins the long Asian century. Two other Iberian monarchs, shut out of the European-Atlantic-Mediterranean economic order by Portugal and other European powers, sponsored a risky exploratory voyage by Christopher Columbus to find a new route to, not America, but Asia. From the moment of first European contact, America was an adjunct to Asia in the West.

During the age of European imperialism which followed Spain’s and Portugal’s forays into Asia and the Americas, it was usually Asia which was weighted more heavily in European strategic calculations. The Spanish galleons, which brought Mexican silver to the Philippines, reinforced an Asia-centric view which Jesuit missionaries also largely shared. Britain and France clashed in North America in the eighteenth century, and Britain then clashed shortly thereafter with its erstwhile colonists there over the bill for the war Britain had waged against its continental rival; but in the end the British cut their losses in North America and focused their expansionism on Asia, including of course the crown jewel of their empire: India. (Note that Boston was never once thought of as the “crown jewel” of the British imperial project.) Napoleon threw his armies into Egypt and Moscow, but sold his holdings in central North America as so much useless overhead. The Dutch gave up on Manhattan and focused instead on Borneo.

Britain fought the Boer War in South Africa as an extension of the struggle to command old stopover points along the pre-Suez Canal ocean route to Asia. European powers intervened repeatedly in Qing Dynasty politics, wars, and state finances. Britain’s “Great Game” with the Russian Empire was over control of Asia. Colonel Francis Younghusband went to Tibet because Britain feared Russian inroads into India and central and southeast Asia. In World War I, Europe was a sideshow to the momentous changes taking place in the territory once occupied by the defunct Qing. Eastern Europe remains a cauldron of instability, as events in Ukraine now testify. The Qing, by contrast, re-emerged from its early twentieth-century shambles and is now set to become the biggest economic and military power on earth. Asia always rises again.

Japan participated in World War I desultorily on the side of the Allies—it was an option, hardly a necessity. Asia was where the action was. Japan had already gone to war twice in Asia, once with the Russian Empire and once with the Qing, over control of the Korean Peninsula and Port Arthur. After Japan had secured a vast new territory in continental Asia, she restored the scion of the Qing house to his throne, this time in the Qing heartland of Manchuria. This set in motion the events which would bog Japan, and the United States, down in an Asian war. Japan had been in Asia for decades by that point, and was fighting mightily to control the warlord-wracked eastern quarter of Eurasia. Richard Sorge was dispatched to Tokyo to spy on the Nazis and also to foment war between Japan and the United States, thereby relieving Stalin of the necessity to concentrate troops along his eastern front. Japan attacked Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Luzon, Guam, and elsewhere in Asia and the Western Pacific almost simultaneously with her attack on Oahu. The Americans got drawn into the new war first in Asia. Hitler declared war against Washington after Japan did. It was always an Asian fight.

For more than five hundred years, world history, in the Hegelian sense, has been hovering over Asia, taking Asia as its GHQ. All other conflicts and historical processes have been peripheral to Asia.

For Hitler and Stalin both, the war in Europe was about the East. It is certainly true that Hitler’s, and his National Socialists’, grotesqueries pushed the German theater of World War II into the spotlight. But remember that Hitler and his National Socialists had a distinct hatred for what they called “the West.” The bourgeoisie mentalities that the National Socialists loathed were thought, by them, to represent a tragic departure of the German spirit from the hard, martial, romantic ideals of the East. Deeper into Eurasia the German National Socialists wanted to go. Into Prussia, into the places not ruined by reason and philosophy, namely “the West.” Hitler drew attention to himself by his mad theatrics, but his focus was on the East. The casualties on Hitler’s eastern front stagger the imagination—D-Day was truly a minor event compared with the carnage in Eastern Europe and Russia. The West Hitler saw fit only for burning.

This explains the difference between Hitler and Stalin, and also indicates why it was Eurasia, the Asian megacontinent, which was the main battleground of World War II. Hitler was both a sociopath and a psychopath. He had no compassion, but he also had no powers of calculation rooted in reality. He was the last Romantic; and his only desire was to destroy. As Canadian academic Jordan Peterson has pointed out, Hitler probably wanted to lose World War II. Yes, I think so too. This is why he did, in fact, lose it.

Hitler took steps that were irrational, and he took them because they were irrational. Hitler lost the war in Eurasia, not in the West. Hitler sent his armies to overwinter in Russia, in the midst of which he provoked a showdown with Stalin in the Russian snow, deep within Russian territory. Hitler gave Stalin every advantage, and Stalin took whatever he was given. Stalin used his slave labor much more efficiently than Hitler did, too. Stalin killed indiscriminately, as did Hitler. He was also a sociopath, like Hitler. But he wasn’t a psychopath. Stalin knew what reality was, probably much better than anyone with a normally functioning conscience and emotions. Stalin put his slave labor to use building up his empire. Hitler committed resources to murdering his slave labor, an action which contributed precisely nothing to the German war effort. The Holocaust makes no sense, tactically or strategically—unless one admits that Hitler was out to destroy Europe, not rule it.

Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” should therefore be read, I think, along the grain that Hannah Arendt sets forth in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Hitler’s vision was apocalyptic, infernal. He was saying, as I read him, that it would take a thousand years of hell on earth before the West could be drawn out of the bourgeoisie daydream and reset as a great Eurasian power. Hitler spoke of blood and iron, not sail and seawater. World War II was always a land war at heart, and a land war for Asia. In this way, it was part of the long Asian century.

Let me close by saying that the United States is going the way of all European empires before her. The United States is being absorbed by the geopolitics of Asia. The American navy has lost the advantage in the Western Pacific, and its defeat in the first major naval showdown since the Battle of Leyte Gulf—this time with the Chinese Communist Party’s proprietary fleet, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and not with the Imperial Japanese Navy—appears now inevitable.

The United States was defeated on the ground in Southeast Asia fifty years ago. The United States was brought to a standstill—from which it still has not been able to extricate itself—in a land war on the Korean Peninsula seventy years ago. The United States was defeated less than a year ago by a comically inferior militia (if the Taliban even warrant that probably too-generous description) in central Asia. As I write this, the United States is offering itself up to a land war in Ukraine, with the very power which now claims the territorial dominion once swayed by none other than Josef Stalin. For nearly three quarters of a century, the Americans have done the Russians a favor, as I see it, by occupying Europe, via NATO, and thereby keeping Russia’s only credible rival, Germany, from rampaging again. As the Soviet empire collapsed, the Americans broke their promises and expanded NATO—into Eurasia, not into the Atlantic or Africa, but deeper into Asia.

The United States, like Japan, is a natural maritime power that has no business getting involved in foreign wars of any kind, especially not in foreign land wars, and especially not in Asia. In that sense, the current adventure in Ukraine is also part of Stalin’s war. The “American Century” began, was squandered, and will die, in Asia. Today, as yesterday, it is the Russians—the masters of Eurasia, now joined by the Han Chinese—who are calling the shots.

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

Featured image: “The reception of the diplomatique & his suite, at the court of Pekin,” published by Hannah Humphrey, 1792.