Recent Events

The decision by US President Donald J. Trump’s administration to designate North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, while of questionable efficacy, marks a justified increase of pressure from Washington on Pyongyang, according to Atlantic Council analysts.

In the latest move in an ongoing diplomatic crisis between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s growing nuclear arsenal, North Korea was placed back on the US Department of State’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list on November 20. North Korea joins Iran, Sudan, and Syria on the list.
The decision by NATO ministers to set up a cyber operations center is an important step toward implementing recognition of cyberspace as a domain of operations in which the Alliance must defend itself as effectively as it does in the air, on land, and at sea.

The announcement, made in Brussels on November 8, signaled a first concrete step in the shifting of NATO’s focus from information assurance to mission assurance. It recognizes that there is no such thing as absolute cybersecurity and that the Alliance will have to operate in contested environments and have a command structure fit for this role.

Anti-corruption crackdown targets princes, wealthy businessmen

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on corruption that has, so far, resulted in the detention of more than two hundred people, including almost a dozen princes.

The most significant targets are former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, whose assets have been frozen; Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men and a critic of US President Donald J. Trump; and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the chief of the National Guard—the only security service not under the crown prince’s control—who was removed from his post. The detainees are not exactly roughing it out during their detention in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton.  

There are two prevailing views on the crackdown. One, that it is an attempt by the ambitious thirty-two-year-old crown prince to consolidate power, and two, that he is removing potential obstacles—read: conservative rivals—to his plans for social, religious, and economic reform in the ultraconservative kingdom.
On his first full business day as president, Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral trade agreement with eleven other Asia-Pacific nations that was viewed as a pillar of US commitment to Asia.

At the height of a nuclear crisis with North Korea, he instructed his advisers to pull the United States out of a free-trade pact with South Korea, a longtime US ally.

Further, he ratcheted up the rhetoric with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s mercurial leader, who conducted missile and nuclear tests in defiance of international condemnation.

Compare these actions with his eagerness to engage Asian leaders. Even before he assumed office, Trump met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He has also hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, met South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan o-cha, and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Thuc at the White House. In addition, Trump had “a very friendly” phone call with the Philippines controversial leader Rodrigo Duterte who has been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings of drug suspects.

Trump’s actions and rhetoric have left the region feeling uneasy. By rejecting TPP, he removed a key pillar of Obama’s “rebalance” toward Asia, but has yet to articulate his own Asia strategy.
The crisis in Spain dramatically escalated on October 27 with Catalonia’s regional parliament declaring independence and the Spanish Senate responding with the approval of unprecedented powers for Madrid to seize control of the autonomous region.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called an emergency cabinet meeting and could fire Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his ministers—he now has the power to do so under Article 155 of Spain’s constitution. Under these circumstances, the Spanish government would take control of Catalonia’s finances, police, and publicly owned media.

“The question is going to be: how does the Spanish government implement Article 155 in the wake of the declaration of independence,” said Fran Burwell, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.

China’s president re-elected with no clear successor in sight

Xi Jinping’s re-election to a second five-year term as China’s president, without a clear successor, cements his grip on the Asian nation and raises questions about the future of economic, political, and social reforms in the country, according to Atlantic Council analysts.  

Xi was re-elected at the end of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on October 25. His re-election coincided with the unveiling of a new Politburo Standing Committee, the six men who will join Xi in governing China for the next five years. None of the individuals could be considered political rivals to Xi, or potential successors.

His re-election with no successor in sight allows Xi to posit himself as “the undisputed leader of China well beyond his second five-year term,” according to Jamie Metzl, a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
In order to effectively address the growing tensions posed by North Korean nuclear capabilities, Washington needs a comprehensive strategy that will include a range of efforts, including, importantly, strengthened homeland missile defenses.

Last week, US President Donald J. Trump, referring to the North Korean missile threat, claimed that “we have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time, and if you send two of them, it’s going to get knocked out.” This comment led to a flurry of criticism of the president’s statement and of US missile defense policy in general. However, the critics, who point to technical problems and high costs and oppose improved missile defenses, miss the mark. The president’s statement is technically accurate and homeland missile defense is essential to US defense strategy toward North Korea.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on October 21 announced his government’s intention to remove the leaders of Catalonia’s regional government and called for elections to be held as soon as possible.

“By deciding to hold elections in Catalonia, the Spanish government is essentially calling a repeat referendum on independence in an extremely polarized situation,” said Fran Burwell, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“Whether that election will have any credibility—despite its legality—will depend on which parties participate, whether activists are released from jail, and whether the true costs of independence—which will be severe—can be debated in a rational manner,” she added.
The United States should update, revitalize, and defend the rules-based international order while considering “hard-headed” engagement with China, according to the latest in a series of Atlantic Council strategy papers.

This “is not a strategy designed in Washington to be imposed on the region,” said Matthew Kroenig, a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Kroenig, along with Miyeon Oh, a senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center, is the author of A Strategy of the Trans-Pacific Century: Final Report of the Atlantic Council’s Asia-Pacific Strategy Task Force.
The culmination of a full year of analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Asia-Pacific Strategy Task Force, A Strategy for the Trans-Pacific Century argues for deeper engagement between the United States’ Atlantic and Pacific partners to uphold the liberal rules-based order in Asia and beyond. As the rise of China creates reverberations felt not only within the Pacific region, but through the Atlantic as well, cooperation between these partners is needed now more than ever. Across Asia, Europe, and America, many nations share a common interest in protecting a rules-based order that has guaranteed more than half a century of freedom, prosperity, and growth. In their review of the task force’s findings, Dr. Matt Kroenig and Dr. Miyeon Oh, the paper’s co-authors, find that this cooperation cannot afford to take the form of either staunch resistance to change or acceptance of a bare-bones order. Instead, these partners must seek to reinvigorate the order by adapting it to a new global power dynamic, as articulated through a five-pillar strategy: strengthening security cooperation between regional allies; practicing hard-headed engagement with China; adapting the regional economic architecture for an open order; partnering to address the emerging issue areas of the 2020s; and promoting good governance, the rule of law, democracy, and universally recognized human rights.

To mark the paper’s launch, the Atlantic Council hosted a panel with co-authors Dr. Kroenig and Dr. Oh, who were joined by Ambassador Paula Dobriansky and Ambassador Ashok Mirpuri to discuss their thoughts on the future of the strategic order, grounding their comments in their individual regional perspectives from America and from Asia. In their opening remarks, all four panelists concurred on the overriding importance of US-China relations in the coming decades. Ambassador Mirpuri emphasized how China has gained power through its economic ascendancy, becoming the dominant trading partner of all Southeast Asian countries, while Ambassador Dobriansky agreed with Dr. Kroenig and Dr. Oh in asserting the need to strike a balance between cooperation and confrontation when dealing with China. The panelists also affirmed the need for strong partnerships in this new era, with Dr. Oh stressing the role of regional buy-in within Asia even as Ambassador Mirpuri highlighted the role of the US as a resident power of the Pacific, and the potential for tighter ties with Europe. As summed up by Ambassador Dobriansky, thinking around connectedness and alliances—whether informal or formal—must be central to forthcoming attempts to strengthen the foundation of the international rules-based order.

The panelists continued to build on these messages in the audience Q&A session, during which they covered a wide range of issues that spanned media coverage of the Asia-Pacific, the KORUS FTA, and the South China Sea. Two parallel themes emerged in this discussion, with one set of questions focusing on security and military strategy, and another set revolving around the economy and strategic trade. On security, Dr. Oh restated the need for the US and Trump to provide strong reassurances in the face of current challenges, with the hope that his coming trip to the region would encourage him to do so. On trade, the panelists echoed the paper on one of its main points, with Dr. Kroenig stating that they did not want to see the region divided into two Cold War blocs, but hoped to see Asia go beyond a zero-sum game. Ambassador Mirpuri likewise noted Singapore’s desire to see a balance in trade between the US and China, even as he underscored the role of US investment—not merely in terms of formal structures, but also in terms of US business presence. These questions were not strictly independent of each other: Ambassador Mirpuri noted that when discussing trade agreements, the Trump administration has focused on matters of economic benefit (or lack thereof), whereas their Asian counterparts have seen them as strategic agreements intended to anchor the US in the region. Both he and Ambassador Dobriansky agreed that a significant question facing policymakers was how to bring these economic and strategic imperatives together, stressing the paper’s premise that any future international order in the Asia-Pacific must be grounded in the preferences of countries in the region.

A Strategy for the Trans-Pacific Century is the twelfth volume in the Atlantic Council Strategy Papers series. The series is designed to enrich the public debate and build consensus on the great strategic challenges of our time, as well as to help shape strategic thinking in US and allied governments, the private and nonprofit sectors, and the global media. Check out all the volumes here.


    

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