India-China Border Flares Up Once Again

The disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating India and China was the scene of a flare over the weekend and into today. The area of contention is Pangong Tso Lake, which has traditionally been considered to be inside of Indian territory. On Saturday night the Chinese attempted to land troops on the southern bank of the lake, prompting a buildup of Indian troops, and a standoff. So far, the confrontation has not turned physical. Troops from both sides stood in close proximity and yelling at each other. There have been no reports of injuries. The Indian Defense Ministry described the incident in a statement released earlier today, saying the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had “violated the previous consensus” and “carried out provocative military movements” near Pangong Tso Lake, in the remote Ladakh region.

China claims it has done nothing wrong. A representative from the PLA’s Western Theater Command accused the Indian military of a “blatant provocation” and wrecking the agreement both sides had reached over illegal incursions in the area. The officer demanded that India withdraw its forces and maintain control of its frontline troops.

Although this incident was nowhere near as deadly clash that occurred in June between Indian and Chinese troops along the same area of the LAC, it is disconcerting. A considerable amount of diplomatic effort has gone into calming tensions and establishing a sincere dialogue between the Indian and Chinese militaries. However, this latest flareup shows us that the LAC area remains a point of contention. It also leads to questions about how much influence China’s internal troubles are having on Beijing’s recent moves abroad.

That is a subject worth exploring more later this week. 😊

US/ASEAN Naval Exercise Underway

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The inaugural ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise, (AUMX) is underway in Southeast Asian waters this week. The exercise marks the first time that the US and navies from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states have formally worked together. AUMX is taking place on a large area of sea, from the Gulf of Thailand to the Gulf of Tonkin, and south to Singapore. Parts of the exercise are taking place in the South China Sea and this fact could likely worsen the simmering tensions in the region. US and ASEAN officials have stressed that the exercise is not directed at China. No matter if this is the case or not, China will likely regard AUMX as a message being sent its way.

The timing and locations of the exercise has raised some eyebrows. Vietnam and China are currently locked in a standoff over repeated intrusions by Chinese vessels at the energy-rich Vanguard Bank. The Philippines has also been complaining about Chinese intimidation tactics in Manila’s claimed sea areas. More significant, perhaps, are reports that Cambodia has given China an exclusive access agreement to its naval base at Ream on the Gulf of Thailand. If true, Chinese a naval facility could significantly affect the balance of power in the area. Thailand, Vietnam, and India are watching developments closely.

Hong Kong Uprising?

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The protests in Hong Kong present Beijing with its most alarming internal challenge since Tiananmen Square. Although it is premature to label events in Hong Kong an uprising, this may not be the case for much longer. Chinese President Xi Jinping has so far handled the situation in Hong Kong delicately and with an abundance of restraint. Unfortunately, the velvet glove approach has failed to have the desired effect. The protesters actions and demands have become bolder. Hong Kong is defying the Chinese government and getting away with it. If the current disruptions in Hong Kong threaten to spread onto the Mainland, Beijing will be forced to replace the velvet glove with an iron fist. And the possibility is beginning to cause concern in Washington, and other Western capitals.

The White House has expressed concern about a growing buildup of Chinese troops, and armed police on Hong Kong’s border. Weeks of often violent unrest in Hong Kong has stretched the city’s police force to the breaking point and shows no signs of letting up in the near future. Beijing has blamed the United States for playing a role in the creation of the protests even though there is no proof of US involvement. The root causes of the protests in Hong Kong are well known and have been documented in detail. Right now, the greater concern is how the situation in Hong Kong will end.

If the Chinese government declares events in Hong Kong to be an uprising, it likely will mean a bloody crackdown is on the horizon. It will also signal the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ concept that has guided Beijing’s policies regarding Hong Kong since 1997.

The View From Singapore

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‘Too big to fail’ is a phrase which gained mainstream popularity during the late 2000s financial crisis. It was used to describe a business that had become so large that should it fail, the resulting ripple effect would be disastrous to the economy. In the past two months, the phrase has been batted around by many of my peers, politicians, the talking heads on the cable news channels, and political scientists around the world. The Singapore summit between President Trump, and Kim Jong Un  has been labeled, fairly or not, ‘too big to fail.’ There is some truth to the label for the summit, however, not in the manner that many people would think.

To borrow another phrase, the outlook of most observers, and journalists can best be described as ‘too ignorant to comprehend.’ It is generally understood that the stakes are incredibly high for the summit scheduled to begin here in less than twenty-four hours. Identifying just what those stakes include is where the trouble begins. Journalists, as well as nearly everyone else, continually overlook the reality that unless an agreement is reached on eventual North Korean denuclearization, the US-North Korea standoff is likely to escalate. The ripple effect of a failed summit could very well lead to US military action to neutralize the North’s nuclear weapons in coming months.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a clear and present danger to the United States. The singular purpose of this summit, contrary to what is said in front of the cameras, has always been removing nuclear weapons from Pyongyang’s control. If it turns out to be impossible to do through diplomacy, negotiation, and economic incentive, the US has to consider a kinetic alternative.

To be sure, nobody wants that to happen. Unfortunately, the desires of peaceful people around the world pale in comparison to the crucial interests, and security concerns of sovereign nation states.

President Trump has said that the Singapore meeting will be a one-shot deal for North Korea. Let’s hope Kim Jong Un will understand this and negotiate in good faith.

Thirty-six hours from now we will have a fairly good take on whether or not the summit was successful. In short, a successful summit will see concrete steps towards denuclearization laid down. An unsuccessful meeting places all parties back at square one with little incentive to try the negotiation route again.

Friday 9 December, 2016 Update: South Korean President Impeached

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The global political order took another major hit on Friday with the impeachment of South Korean (Republic of Korea, ROK) President Park Geun-hye. The National Assembly passed the decision to impeach by a wide margin, 234-56. Park has been a major player for months in the nation’s largest political crisis ever. Yet while thousands of citizens demonstrated and called for her to resign Park held firm. Opposition parties were reluctant to call for impeachment because of the possibility, surprisingly not unprecedented, that Park could be exonerated by the process. The tipping point apparently came when prosecutors accused Park of being an active player in the corrupt dealings of her longtime friend and close associate Choi Soon-sil.

The next step in the process is for the Constitutional Court to rule on the validity of the motion to impeach. That could come in as little as three weeks. If the impeachment vote is upheld, a new presidential election will take place two months from then. Park will be unable to run, of course. However, if the impeachment is not upheld, she will be reinstated and serve out the remainder of her term in office. Park was removed from power immediately following the vote on Friday. During the Constitutional Court’s deliberations, the ROK’s acting head of state will be Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. Hwang’s role will be that of a caretaker essentially. He is unlikely to make any major policy decisions or changes. Barring a major international crisis his duties should be rather bland.

On a larger stage, the impeachment brings up many questions. Out of those available, let’s touch on a handful that are compelling…

Will this crisis embolden North Korea in some way? We touched on this question back in November. So far, Pyongyang has been content just to gloat at the political chaos in the ROK. Given Kim Jong Un’s instability, that could change in the blink of an eye. Even minor saber-rattling by the North might have the potential to escalate into something considerably more dangerous.

How will the impeachment vote complicate relations between the ROK and United States? Preident-elect Trump scrutinized the defense relationship during the presidential campaign. How this translates after 20 January 2017 remains to be seen. There are so many moving parts in the relationship that nothing firm will be decided on until a new president is elected in the ROK.

Who will ascend to the presidency next in the ROK? South Koreans are learning that when masses of citizens who are generally powerless come together, they can wield substantial power. The rest of the world is learning this as well, but the concept is strikingly foreign to the average South Korean. Will the next president be a populist, following in the wake of the anti-establishment fervor that has swept across the globe? What will the next president’s policies mean for the economy? Relations with the US? Relations with the North? At the moment the safe bet is that the next president will come from the political left, however, anything is possible at this point.

Until the Constitutional Court makes its ruling, all South Korea and the world can do is watch and wait.