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Map of South China Sea

South China Sea: interpretations of international law, a tool for political influence?

by Frédéric Lasserre , Olga V. Alexeeva

Renewed major tensions have surfaced once again in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines. While the immediate concern revolves around the control of reefs and islets, the underlying issue extends to the control of maritime territories, driving the parties involved. These sovereignty disputes are not novel occurrences. Conflicts in the South China Sea (SCS) have intensified since the 1960s, leading to a competition for the occupation of islands and islets in the Paracels and Spratlys. The objective was to establish control over these islands, using them as military outposts and symbols of sovereignty. With the introduction of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the rivalry transitioned towards the assertion of states' rights over maritime zones. The narrative of the parties involved has evolved regarding the legitimacy and legal characterization of the claimed maritime territories. Malaysia (1983), Vietnam (1994), and the Philippines (2009) have contended that the Spratly Islands do not merit an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), indirectly challenging China's claims. In response, Beijing has adjusted its official discourse. Is this shift in legal rhetoric a strategic reinterpretation of maritime law aimed at refuting adversaries' arguments and utilizing legal discourse as a political tool in a broader struggle for influence? An evolution in the legal discourse of Southeast Asian states In the South China Sea (SCS), a noticeable shift in the redefinition of maritime boundaries has emerged since 2009. Previously, definitions often lacked clarity and legal grounding. In recent years, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines have sought to refine their claims, aligning them with the norms established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This strategic move sharply contrasts with the trajectory of the People's Republic of China (PRC), whose evolving stance has been criticized for increasingly diverging from international maritime law. Between 1994 and 2016, China's assertion over the Maritime Claims (MCS) primarily relied on the controversial nine-dash line [九段线], criticized for its ambiguity regarding the extent and legal basis of the claimed maritime territory. However, since 2016, following the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China's discourse has shifted towards the "Four Sha" theory [四沙], positing that large (sometimes fictional) archipelagos serve as the legal foundation for its maritime claims. This shift among the Southeast Asian players could be seen as a strategic move vis-à-vis China: by refining their claims to align more closely with the principles of the Law of the Sea, these nations might aim to underscore the inherently unlawful and objectionable nature of China's assertions. This tactic underscores an increasing disparity between Southeast Asian states, endeavoring to adjust their claims in accordance with international legal norms, and China, whose assertions are grounded in disputed interpretations of maritime law. The clash of legal discourses in the South China Sea The People's Republic of China (PRC) asserts its claim to the South China Sea (SCS) through what is commonly known as the nine-dash line (Fig. 1), a demarcation that has encompassed the majority of this maritime region since 1949. However, significant ambiguity persists regarding the precise meaning and scope of this demarcation, as China has yet to provide a clear explanation despite repeated requests from neighboring states. This lack of transparency has led to frustration among neighboring nations, prompting the Philippines to file a formal complaint with the Law of the Sea Tribunal in April 2013. The Chinese government's reluctance to clarify the exact nature and coordinates of the line has fueled suspicions regarding its true intentions. Even Indonesia, which does not have territorial claims in the South China Sea, expressed concerns about the legal uncertainty surrounding China's delineation of this maritime boundary in 2010. Before 2009, Southeast Asian countries involved in disputes over island formations or maritime zones in the South China Sea (SCS) had not clearly delineated their claims, either by providing legal justifications for their extensions or by publishing precise coordinates of the boundaries of the claimed maritime areas. However, on May 6, 2009, Malaysia and Vietnam submitted a joint proposal for the extension of their continental shelves in the southern part of the SCS, followed by Vietnam's independent submission for the central part of the SCS on May 7. By doing so, they publicly disclosed the positions of the outer limits of their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Neither state included the island formations they claim in the SCS in the definition of their EEZs or extended continental shelves. Instead, the boundaries of the 200-mile zones are determined based on each state's coastline. For instance, both Malaysia and Vietnam have excluded the Spratly Islands from the definition of their maritime zones, indicating that they consider these island formations as rocks under Article 121(3) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which cannot generate either EEZs or continental shelves.  Are the states of Southeast Asia pursuing a political objective by modifying their legal discourse? There has been a notable evolution in the discourse of Southeast Asian states involved in the South China Sea conflict – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and even Indonesia, which is not directly embroiled in the dispute over sovereignty in the Spratly Islands – regarding the status of these islands and their capacity to generate maritime zones. Changes in interpretation, qualifications, or legal doctrines, as well as efforts to define international norms, can potentially be seen as a mobilization of law to achieve political objectives. When questioned about the evolution of legal analyses among the protagonists in Southeast Asia, a majority of the interviewed specialists (20 out of 25) noted a clear shift in the discourse of these four countries. There is a consensus that they seek alignment with the principles of the Law of the Sea. These states are exploiting ambiguities in Article 121 for political purposes: it involves waging "legal guerrilla warfare" and "legal diplomacy" to underscore China's divergent stance and, implicitly, its disregard for the spirit of UNCLOS. Chinese Response: Reassessing Island Groups in the South China Sea? On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued its ruling following the Philippines' claim filed in 2013. The Court's decision rebuffed Chinese assertions regarding historical rights and determined that none of the island formations in the Spratlys qualify as islands under Article 121, precluding them from generating an EEZ or continental shelf. China vehemently rejected this ruling, refusing to acknowledge the arbitration. However, Chinese rhetoric has shifted since 2016, indicating a willingness to adjust its arguments in light of the Court's findings. Before 2016, China asserted its sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea without specifying the status of the Paracels or Spratlys island groups. However, since 2016, China has been advancing a new line of argumentation, grouping the island formations in the South China Sea into cohesive units. Chinese sovereignty is claimed to be derived from control over four blocks of islands forming coherent entities. It appears that Chinese legal experts are attempting to introduce a novel concept, as China cannot assert itself as an archipelagic State under UNCLOS. Such status would allow continental States to draw baselines around their archipelagos, which are considered territorial units. This concept faces significant challenge from numerous Western legal experts. Hence, in the Chinese narrative, there's a departure from discussing individual island groups or the ambiguous nine-dash line, towards emphasizing four archipelagos as the fundamental units of Chinese legal discourse. This shift, while sidestepping the PCA's 2016 ruling and distancing itself from the weakened concept of "island" due to the arbitration's denial of China's EEZ rights in the Spratlys, introduces the notion of archipelagos, purportedly enabling the creation of maritime zones in official discourse. However, this stance is dubious under the Law of the Sea, as it doesn't permit continental States to exploit the establishment of archipelagos outlined by lengthy baselines. Moreover, it doesn't authorize the generation of maritime zones from archipelagic entities if the islands constituting these archipelagos cannot themselves establish an EEZ or continental shelf.    Conclusion In the South China Sea, there has been a notable shift in legal positions by both China and the Southeast Asian states. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia are now advancing the argument that the islets fail to meet the criteria outlined in Article 121(3), thus negating the establishment of an EEZ or continental shelf. This reclassification not only impacts their own claims but, more significantly, challenges China's assertion of expansive maritime territories under international law. This strategic maneuvering appears to signify a politicized manipulation of maritime legal frameworks. Conversely, China has also undergone doctrinal evolution, transitioning from conventional maritime claims rooted in the Paracels and Spratlys islands, to the historically contentious nine-dash line, and most recently, the emergence of the "Four Shas" concept, positing four coherent archipelagos as the basis for EEZs. This progression aims to establish a novel legal foundation to defend its ambitious territorial claims. In essence, these legal transformations underscore the instrumentalization of law as a means to advance and safeguard national interests, with China advocating for a distinct interpretation of international legal norms.

Defense & Security
Group of Chinese army soldiers in uniform lining up in Tiananmen

China’s Military Buildup: the Biggest Since 1945?

by Greg Austin

The Australian government asserts that China’s military buildup is the largest of any country in post-war history. Their threat perception is overblown. The Australian government claims that China has made the biggest military buildup of any country since 1945. The statement is contained in the 2023 Strategic Review: “China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second World War.” The claim has been repeated in several media interviews by the Defence Minister Richard Marles in Australia and overseas. Such claims are hard to pin down since analysing them throws up different possible methods for assessing a buildup, let alone its ambition. Nevertheless, on the basis of a normal interpretation of “biggest military buildup” since 1945, the dubious honour falls to the USSR in the 23-year period from 1962 (the Cuban missile crisis) to 1985 when it was engaged in global confrontation with the United States and military confrontation with China on their mutual border. If we compare the surge we saw in the USSR in that 23-year period with the surge in China’s buildup in a similar time span, between 2000-2023, the conclusion is stark. China’s build up is not only smaller in terms of comparative growth rates in key categories of military capability (nuclear warheads, intercontinental missiles, submarines, and principal surface combatants), but the end point in numbers arrived by China at the end of its 23-year buildup are far smaller than those achieved by the USSR in 1985. For example, the USSR had 40,000 nuclear warheads in 1985 and China in 2023 has only 500. The USSR in 1985 had ten times the number of intercontinental and sea-launched nuclear ballistic missiles as China does today. China is currently engaged in a modernisation and likely expansion of its forces in coming years, but the comparison over 23 years between China (2002-2025) and the Soviet period (1962-1985) would not change significantly. For the time being, however, the claim by the Australian government would not appear to be borne out by the facts. There is another contender to join the ranks ahead of China in the record for the biggest military buildup since 1945, and that is the United States in the 23 years from 1949 to 1972. This period began just after the start of the Cold War in 1948, the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, and the victory of Communist Forces in the Chinese Civil War in the same year. In that period, the US fought two major local wars: in Korea and in Vietnam. The end point of this period is marked by détente between the US and both the USSR and China, and the US-Soviet strategic arms limitation agreements. Table 1 below offers a comparison of numbers for selected categories of military platforms and for nuclear warheads at the end point of the three different buildups over the selected 23-year periods. The data shows that China cannot claim to have the biggest military buildup since 1945, and that it sits well behind the USSR and the US in that effort. Table 1: Platform numbers at the end-point of the buildup US 1972, USSR 1985, CHINA 2023. Source*     US 1972 USSR 1985 PRC 2023 ICBM 1,000 1,396 350 SLBM  656 983 72 N-Warheads  26,516 ~40,000 ~500 Strategic Submarines (SSB or SSBN)  41 70 6 Attack Submarines (SSK and SSN)  94 206 53 Aircraft Carriers  17 3 2 Principal Surface Combatants  242 280 97 Bomber ACFT  455 847 500 Tactical Combat ACFT  7,560 6,300 2,394 Tanks  9,434 52,600 4,200 Artillery  6,318 39,000 7,600   The government’s intent in using the phrase “biggest military buildup” in connection with China is to imply it is the biggest military or strategic threat that Australia and its allies have faced since 1945. This implication is reinforced by the equally questionable claim by the prime minister and many officials over several years that Australia faces its most challenging strategic environment since 1945. This proposition is as easily contradicted by the facts as the claim about biggest military buildup, as analysed in my critique in the journal of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, under the title, “Australia’s Drums of War” published in 2021. China poses clear threats to Australian strategic and military interests, but the pace and scale of its military buildup have only been modest compared with the two historical examples cited. The categories selected for Table 1 relate primarily to China’s capability to project power well beyond its coastal areas and beyond Taiwan. That set of categories used is one often seen in comparisons of national military capabilities in the broad. In contrast, there are categories of platforms where the buildup has been more rapid and consequential, such as in dual-use (conventional or nuclear) intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) and smaller ships (corvettes) and patrol craft. Yet these capabilities relate almost entirely to coastal areas or near sea areas, especially for localised contingencies involving Taiwan and/or Japan. The rapid expansion of these lighter and smaller maritime forces and the large number of IRBMs for localised contingencies is what Australia and its allies need to address. In particular, the expansion of the number of smaller patrol craft would be a particularly powerful enabler for unconventional scenarios of strategic pressure by China on Taiwan. It is doubtful that the exaggeration of China’s general military buildup is helpful in achieving that focus. China has good options for irregular operations and subversion against Taiwan that it will almost certainly take before risking a major military confrontation with the US and its allies. *Data is not fully consistent in different sources. For China, the data in Table 1 is based on the US Dept of Defence, “Military and Security Developments in the People’s Republic of China,” October, 2023. Data for the USSR is based on Department of Defense, “Soviet Military Power 1986,” 1986. Data for the US is based on several official US documents. These include ‘The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Military Policy 1969-72,” 2013; Naval History and Heritage Command, “US Ship Force Levels 1886-Present,” undated; US Dept of State, “Transparency in the US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile,” undated; and Congressional Research Service, “US/Soviet Military Balance Statistical Trends’ 1970-1980,” October 1981. The author has also consulted IISS, “The Military Balance 1973,” 1973. Note that the census date for these various sources is not always clear but the author has assumed them to refer to platform holdings during the year indicated in Table 1 even if the publication date is the year following.

Defense & Security
Bomb with the Flag of North Korea

Nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula set to worsen in 2024

by Alistair Burnett

2024 looks set to be an even more perilous year than 2023 on the Korean Peninsula as nuclear threat and counter threat have escalated even further since the beginning of January. On New Year’s Day, South Korea’s defence ministry repeated previous threats to destroy the North Korean “regime” if it uses nuclear weapons. This was a response to North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un’s speech the day before in which he told his military to prepare for possible war. Since then, Kim has said he has given up on the idea of peaceful reunification with South Korea designating it a hostile state and again warned of possible war. In the past week alone, Kim has called for a change in the constitution to designate Seoul as Pyongyang’s “primary foe” and a confidence building military agreement with the South agreed in 2018 has started to fall apart as the South Korean armed forces resumed frontline aerial surveillance in the wake of North Korean artillery exercises near a South Korean island on the maritime border between the two states. The expected change in the constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name) follows an amendment last year that enshrined nuclear weapons in it. This week has also seen the North testing what it says is a solid-fuelled hypersonic missile and an underwater nuclear drone in response to what some observers say is the largest ever joint naval exercise between South Korea, the United States and Japan. Analysts believe Pyongyang is developing both so-called strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in order to deter the US which is committed to use nuclear weapons in South Korea’s defence. North Korea has been testing more and more advanced ballistic missiles and warheads, some with the range to reach the US and has also said it is developing ship-launched cruise missiles, while the Americans have been mounting repeated shows of force including military exercises using nuclear-capable aircraft and the visit of a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea. Last year, the US and South Korea agreed to increase their cooperation on the planning for the use of nuclear weapons following earlier statements by South Korean President, Yoon Suk Yeol, that suggested Seoul might develop its own nuclear weapons. Yoon has since cooled talk of acquiring nuclear weapons, but the debate continues in policy circles. Another escalatory move has been increasing military cooperation between the US, South Korea, and Japan, which also endorses the use of American nuclear weapons in its defence. In the light of this, some analysts see the Korean Peninsula as the most dangerous nuclear flashpoint in a world that currently has no shortage of conflict involving nuclear-armed states in Ukraine and Gaza. Alicia Sanders-Zakre, ICAN’s Policy and Research Coordinator, called for restraint on all sides: “Inflammatory nuclear rhetoric and threats, accompanied by military exercises and weapons tests, ramp up tensions and bring us closer to the brink of catastrophe. All nuclear-armed states, including North Korea and the US, as well as those allied on nuclear policies, such as Japan and South Korea, need to take urgent steps to de-escalate tensions and to break free from the dangerous doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a crucial step to delegitimise nuclear deterrence and eliminate nuclear weapons.” North Korea uses the same justification for its actions as the US, and the other declared nuclear-armed states. Just like Washington, Pyongyang says it is committed to disarmament, but argues the security threats it faces mean it needs nuclear weapons to deter its enemies. The doctrine of deterrence is based on the threat to use nuclear weapons with all the catastrophic consequences that would entail for the whole world. As the states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) declared at their recent meeting in New York: “the renewed advocacy, insistence on and attempts to justify nuclear deterrence as a legitimate security doctrine gives false credence to the value of nuclear weapons for national security and dangerously increases the risk of horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation.” The TPNW is growing in strength and has just welcomed its 70th state party while a further 27 countries are signatories. These states recognise that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is a global imperative and they are showing responsible leadership by championing the treaty as the best way to end the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Taiwan, EU and China Flag

The post-election Taiwanese economy: decisions ahead and takeaways for the European Union

by Alicia García-Herrero

The EU should try to attract more business from Taiwan, though Taiwan’s January 2024 election hasn’t made the job easier Taiwan’s economy has transformed since 2016 under the leadership of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In particular, the Taiwanese economy has diversified away from mainland China, while reliance on semiconductors is now even more acute than eight years ago. In elections in January, the DPP won the presidency for a third term but lost overall control of Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan. In contrast to the previous two terms, the DPP therefore needs to agree policy, including economic policy, with other parties. this could signal a softer approach in relation to the continuation of diversification away from the mainland. Ongoing diversification Mainland China remains Taiwan’s biggest export and investment destination, despite the share of Taiwan’s exports that go to China reducing from 40 percent on average between 2016 and 2019 to 35 percent in 2023 (Figure 1). This has happened even though Taiwan signed a free trade agreement with mainland China in 2010 – the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) – which at the time led to an increase in Taiwanese exports to the mainland. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 also triggered a sharp increase as the rest of the world entered a deep recession, but the trend has not lasted. Since 2021, the share of Taiwanese exports going to the mainland has dropped significantly, influenced by US export controls on high-end semiconductors, with a clear knock-on effect on Taiwanese exporters.   Taiwanese FDI into mainland China has also shrunk rapidly, from 65 percent of total Taiwanese FDI on average from 2008-2016 to 34 percent on average from 2017-2023 (Figure 2). The difference between these periods is that in the former, Taiwan was governed by the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party), which favours closer relations with the mainland, while in the latter period the DPP was in charge. There are both geopolitical and economic reasons for mainland China’s falling share of Taiwanese FDI. First, the ECFA trade and investment agreement, reached under the first term of KMT President Ma Ying-jeou, was not extended when a new round of negotiations started in 2012, to include technological cooperation, finance and people-to-people exchanges. A broader economic agreement between Taiwan and the mainland, mostly focusing on services – the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) – fell victim to lack of consensus among Taiwan’s main political parties, increased tensions in the Taiwan Straits and student protests in Taiwan (the so-called Sunflower movement) in 2014.1 Second, with the DPP victory in 2016, the new Southbound Policy 2 was launched, offering incentives for Taiwanese companies investing in 18 Asian countries, including ASEAN 3, India and other South Asian and Australasian nations. In addition, rising labour costs in mainland China, the ongoing trade war between the US and China, an increased regulatory burden in the mainland and political tensions between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait also pushed Taiwanese businesses to look elsewhere to invest. -    The new political reality and geographical diversification While the election-winning DPP wants to see further diversification away from the mainland, the more pro-China party, the KMT, wants reinforced economic relations with China.4 Because of the now-hung parliament, the DPP will need to take some of the KMT’s wishes into account it wants pass new rules, including those related to geographical diversification. Beyond the two parties’ preferences, two other important issues also need to be factored in. First, geographical diversification requires open markets but Taiwan is increasingly unable to open any market through trade or investment deals. Taiwan has spent the last eight years negotiating bilateral deals with its closest allies, Japan and the US, but the DPP administration has not even been able to complete these. Incoming President Lai has said that Taiwan should continue to push to be part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), to which it applied in September 2021, but the reality is that Taiwan’s application has little hope of success. China officially applied to be a member of the CPTTP only a couple of days before Taiwan. Since then, the United Kingdom has become a member of CPTTP, but the negotiation processes with Taiwan and mainland China have not started. Australian’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has expressed severe doubts about Taiwan’s ability to become member of CPTTP because of lack of international recognition of it as a nation-state.5 Second, while the DPP is likely to continue to offer more fiscal incentives to promote diversification in Southeast Asia and India (under the Southbound Policy), the fastest-growing destination for both exports and foreign direct investment from Taiwan is the United States, followed by Japan. This can be explained by the ongoing artificial intelligence revolution, which needs semiconductors, and the decisions of some key Taiwanese chip companies (especially TSCM) to open factories overseas for chip production, with the US and Japan as the most important destinations. In other words, the DPP’s push for geographical diversification might not be the main reason why diversification has happened; rather, it has been driven by market forces and business opportunities. This also means that the KMT push to maintain – if not deepen – economic ties with mainland China might not succeed unless China’s currently underwhelming economic performance turns around. Implications for the European Union So far, the EU has benefitted little from Taiwan’s trade and investment diversification, at least when compared to the US and the rest of Asia. The EU’s export share into Taiwan has remained practically stagnant (while the US has doubled its share), notwithstanding a large increase in exports from the Netherlands for a single item – ASML’s lithography machines for chip production. The EU lacks a trade or investment deal with Taiwan, but so do some of Taiwan’s other trading partners, including the US. Considering that the EU is the largest foreign direct investor in Taiwan, the question arises of whether the EU should do more to foster more bilateral economic relations. The gains could be substantial, especially from inbound FDI as Taiwanese investment focuses on high-end manufacturing. There has been some movement. A €5 billion investment in France by a Taiwanese company (ProLogium) was announced in May 2023 to build a battery factory 6 . TSMC announced in August 2023 a €4.5 billion investment in a semiconductor factory in Germany 7 . But for the EU to catch up with Japan and the US as a recipient of outbound FDI from Taiwan, the result of Taiwan’s elections could be an obstacle. This is because the DPP will have less control of the economic agenda because it does not control the Legislative Yuan. The close-to-impossible negotiation of a trade and investment deal between the EU and Taiwan – as shown by Taiwan’s difficulties in relation to Japan, the US and the CPTTP – does not point to any improvement in the institutional framework for economic relations to improve. The question, then, is what can the EU offer to attract high-end foreign direct investment from Taiwan? Subsidies to attract semiconductor factories cannot be the only answer, given the very large amounts needed and the pressure such subsidies put on EU member states’ already stretched finances (Legarda and Vasselier, 2023). Working with business associations and chambers should be a key driving force to improve business relations between Taiwan and the EU, especially considering that the EU is the largest foreign foreign direct investor in Taiwan, while Taiwanese companies have been absent from the EU single market until recently. Overall, the US and the rest of Asia have been the main winners from Taiwan’s rapid diversification of its economy away from mainland China. The EU, which is lagging, should work to enhance its economic exchanges with Taiwan. Hopefully the January 2024 election results will facilitate this. Most importantly, the EU should aim to attract more high-tech FDI from Taiwan. Unfortunately, a better institutional framework through a trade/investment deal seems highly unlikely, for geopolitical reasons. This puts all the burden on chambers of commerce and other forums to improve business relations. References 1- The Sunflower Movement was a student-led protest that occuped Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to put pressure on the KMT government against signing a second cooperation deal with mainland China. See Ho (2018). 2- See the New Southbound Policy portal at 3- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. 4- Alicia García-Herrero, ‘Taiwan’s future economic direction hinges on the election outcome’, First glance, 12 January 2024, Bruegel… 5- Claudia Long and Stephen Dziedzic, ‘Albanese says Australia is unlikely to support Taiwan 6- France24, ‘Taiwanese battery maker Prologium to invest €5 billion in French factory’, 12 May 2023,…. 7- DW, ‘Taiwan’s TSMC to build semiconductor factory in Germany’, 8 August 2023,…. Ho, M.-S. (2018) ‘The Activist Legacy of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2 August, available at Legarda, H. and A. Vasselier (2023) ‘Navigating Taiwan relations in 2024: Practical considerations for European policy makers’, China Horizons, 21 December, available at

Defense & Security
Map of the Korean Peninsula

Precarious Year Ahead for the Korean Peninsula

by Bruce Klingner

SUMMARY The Korean Peninsula seems always to be on the knife edge of calamity. North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, its more threatening language, and the potential for more provocative and aggressive actions are a volatile combination. Overreacting to Pyongyang’s inflammatory threatening language is dangerous, but so is dismissing potential signals of a resumption of deadly tactical attacks. Indications are that this year will be even busier for Korea watchers who long ago learned to keep both a pot of coffee and a bottle of scotch nearby to deal with the inevitable crises. KEY TAKEAWAYS 1. North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, its more threatening language, and the potential for more provocative and aggressive actions are a volatile combination. 2. Overreacting to Pyongyang’s inflammatory threatening language is dangerous, but so is dismissing potential signals of a resumption of deadly tactical attacks. 3. Reducing the potential for invasion while increasing transparency with respect to military forces can reduce the potential for miscalculation and a military clash. It appears that 2024 is going to be a year for greater North Korean provocations, heightened tensions, and increased potential for tactical military clashes along the inter-Korean border. Pyongyang’s rhetoric and military posture have become more threatening, and the regime recently abandoned a military tension-reduction agreement with Seoul. That said, Pyongyang is unlikely to start a major war with South Korea and the United States deliberately. In other words, put your helmets on, but there’s no need to get under the desk just yet. More Bombastic and Threatening Rhetoric During major speeches in December 2023 and January, North Korean “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un described the Korean Peninsula as being “on the brink of a nuclear war” and called on his military to accelerate preparations for “a great event to suppress the whole territory of South Korea by mobilizing all physical means and forces including nuclear forces.”1 Kim warned that North Korea “does not want war, but we also have no intention of avoiding it” and that a “physical clash can be caused and escalated even by a slight accidental factor in the area along the Military Demarcation Line.”2 Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, declared similarly that “the safety catch of [the] trigger of the Korean People's Army (KPA) had already been slipped” and that Pyongyang “will launch an immediate military strike if the enemy makes even a slight provocation.”3 Kim Jong-un also abandoned decades of North Korean policy seeking reconciliation and reunification with South Korea, instead describing inter-Korean relations as now being between “two hostile and belligerent states.”4 This declaration is particularly noteworthy because Kim is implicitly criticizing the unification policy of both his grandfather Kim Il-sung and his father Kim Jong-il. Such blasphemous remarks coming from anyone else would have immediate and dire consequences. To emphasize the new policy, Kim disbanded all government agencies devoted to relations with South Korea and demolished the massive monument to Korean unification that had been commissioned by his father Kim Jong-il, describing it as an “eyesore.”5 North Korea backed up its diatribes with artillery fire along the naval boundary off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang fired a total of 350 shells during three consecutive days in early January, and South Korea responded by firing 400 artillery rounds. While all shells remained on each country’s side of the disputed Northern Limit Line that delineates the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas, they did land in the former buffer zone created by the 2018 inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement. That bilateral risk-reduction accord had proscribed artillery fire and military drills near the border area. Pyongyang’s nullification of the agreement in November 2023 will return armed North and South Korean troops back to closer contact. Seoul announced that it would resume army, navy, and Marine Corps live-fire artillery drills and regiment-level field maneuvers within five kilometers of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).6 North Korea’s belligerent declarations, along with escalating provocations, may be intended to influence both the April 10 South Korean National Assembly election and the November U.S. presidential election. However, such actions would more likely affirm pre-existing progressive and conservative views rather than they would to induce any voters to change sides. Inexorably Growing Military Threat North Korea has been on a multi-year binge of testing and deploying improved nuclear-capable systems that can target South Korea, Japan, and the continental United States. Most recently, Pyongyang successfully launched a solid-fueled ICBM, a solid-fueled intermediate-range missile with a hypersonic maneuverable warhead, its first military reconnaissance satellite, submarine-launched cruise missiles, and an underwater nuclear-capable drone. Knowing that he is backed in the U.N. Security Council by China and Russia could embolden Kim Jong-un to pursue even more provocative behavior. In the past, Beijing and Moscow were willing to impose U.N. resolutions and sanctions after North Korean ICBM and nuclear tests, but both countries now block new international actions in response to Pyongyang’s repeated violations of previous U.N. resolutions. North Korea could conduct its long-awaited seventh nuclear test—either of a new generation of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons or of Kim’s promised “super large” weapon. In its last nuclear test in 2017, Pyongyang exploded a hydrogen bomb at least 10 times as powerful as the 1945 atomic weapons used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The regime could also launch an ICBM over Japan and demonstrate multiple-warhead or re-entry vehicle capabilities. To date, all ICBM launches have been on a nearly vertical lofted trajectory to avoid flying over other countries. North Korean provocations are expected to increase in the run-up to the annual U.S.–South Korean large-scale military exercises in March. Trilateral Axis of Authoritarianism Pyongyang’s recently strengthened relationship with Moscow is another cause for concern. In return for shipping over a million artillery shells and rockets to Russia for Moscow to use in its attacks on Ukraine, North Korea is likely to receive some military technology. While some experts believe that this could include nuclear warhead, re-entry vehicle, or ICBM technology, Moscow is less likely to provide those “crown jewels” than it is to provide lower-level conventional weapon technology. However, any Russian assistance to improve North Korean weapons is worrisome to the U.S. and its allies. Both China and North Korea responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by increasing their economic and military support to Moscow. There is growing apprehension of the risk of horizontal escalation in which Beijing or Pyongyang could take advantage of the global focus on crises in Ukraine and the Middle East to initiate their own coercive or military actions against Taiwan or South Korea. Clashes but Not War Some experts speculate that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is the most dangerous it has been since the 1950 North Korean invasion of the south and that Kim Jong-un has already made the strategic decision to go to war.7 However, despite its menacing posturing, Pyongyang would not have sent massive amounts of artillery shells and rockets as well as dozens of its new KN-23 missiles to Russia if it were contemplating starting a war with South Korea. Nor has any buildup of North Korea military forces along the inter-Korean border been detected. More probable is another tactical-level military clash along the DMZ or maritime Northern Limit Line. South Korean officials privately comment that they cannot rule out another deadly North Korean attack such as the 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which cumulatively killed 50 South Koreans. Danger of Stumbling Into Major Conflict Both Koreas have been more vocal in their vows to strike preemptively if they perceive—or misperceive—the other side as preparing for an attack. In 2022, North Korea revised its nuclear law and disturbingly lowered the threshold for its use of nuclear weapons. The regime is developing smaller tactical nuclear warheads for deployment to forward-based units, and their proximity to allied forces across the DMZ could lead to a “use it or lose it” strategy for its vulnerable nuclear arsenal during the early stages of a conflict. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has shown a greater willingness to respond firmly to North Korean threats than his predecessor did. He directed enhancement of South Korea’s preemptive attack capabilities and declared, “Should North Korea make a provocation, we will punish it many times over.”8 He told his military to “immediately respond and retaliate before reporting to [higher authorities and] sternly and swiftly smash the enemy’s intentions to stage provocations on the spot.”9 The danger of miscalculated military action is real, even at a tactical level. In 2015, Seoul announced that North Korea had fired 13 artillery shells into South Korea and it had responded with 39 shells into the North. However, a subsequent investigation by United Nations Command revealed that there had been no North Korean military attack. Instead, South Korean counter-battery radar had misinterpreted a nearby lightning storm as inbound artillery fire. Luckily, North Korea did not respond to the unprovoked South Korean action. What Washington Should Do Washington must walk a fine line between maintaining a strong military posture to deter and if necessary respond to North Korean military actions while also minimizing the risk of inadvertent escalation into a strategic war. With this in mind, the U.S. should: • Enhance trilateral security cooperation. The U.S., along with South Korea and Japan, should continue ongoing efforts to increase coordination among their three militaries. South Korean President Yoon acknowledged the importance of Tokyo’s role in a Korean contingency, including the seven U.N. Command bases in Japan. During their August 2023 Camp David summit, the three leaders pledged even more extensive trilateral military exercises, real-time exchange of information on North Korean missile launches, and increased cooperation on ballistic missile defense. The leaders’ commitment to consult and coordinate responses to common security threats was a major step forward in trilateral military cooperation but stopped far short of formal alliance. The three countries should continue and expand the scope of the trilateral combined military exercises that resumed in 2022 after a four-year hiatus. The wide-ranging exercises reversed the degradation in allied deterrence and defense capabilities as did the resumption of U.S. rotational deployment of strategic nuclear-capable assets to the Korean theater of operations. • Ensure that military exercises are strong but constrained in location. The U.S. and its allies should be aware that any large-scale unannounced combined military operations close to North Korea’s borders run the risk of being misinterpreted by Pyongyang as preparations for an allied attack. Therefore, while maintaining high levels of military training, the exercises should be announced beforehand and not conducted close to North Korean forces along the DMZ. Washington should also counsel Seoul against highly escalatory responses to North Korean actions. However, appearing too heavy-handed in trying to curtail a South Korean response to a tactical-level attack risks undermining ongoing U.S. efforts to reassure Seoul of America’s commitment to its defense. After both 2010 North Korean attacks, South Korean officials privately complained that the U.S. had “sat on its ally” and prevented a South Korean retaliation. More recently, North Korea’s growing ability to hit the American homeland with nuclear weapons caused South Koreans to doubt the viability of the U.S. as an ally and led to greater domestic advocacy for an indigenous nuclear weapon program. • Push for risk-reduction talks. There seems to be little potential for a diplomatic off-ramp on the road to crisis with North Korea. Since late 2019, the regime has rejected all U.S. and South Korean entreaties for dialogue on any topic, including provision of humanitarian aid. Nor does Pyongyang’s cancelling the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement bode well for negotiations. However, the proximity of several militaries to each other, rising suspicions, and mutual threats of preemptive attacks are a recipe for disaster. Washington and Seoul should call on Pyongyang to discuss potential risk-reduction and military confidence-building measures similar to those in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and the accompanying Vienna Document of Confidence and Security Building Measures. Reducing the potential for either side to conduct a sudden-start invasion while increasing transparency with respect to military forces can lower tensions by reducing the potential for miscalculation leading to a military clash. Conclusion The Korean Peninsula seems always to be on the knife edge of calamity, but North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, its more threatening language, and the potential for more provocative and aggressive actions are a volatile combination. Overreacting to Pyongyang’s inflammatory threatening language is dangerous, but so is dismissing potential signals of a resumption of deadly tactical attacks. Indications are that this year will be even busier for Korea watchers who long ago learned to keep both a pot of coffee and a bottle of scotch nearby to deal with the inevitable crises.   References: 1- Korea Central News Agency, “Report on 9th Enlarged Plenum of 8th WPK Central Committee,” KCNA Watch, December 31, 2023, (accessed February 5, 2024). 2- Ibid. and Brad Lendon and Gawon Bae, “North Korea’s Kim Vows to Dismantle Father’s Unification Arch as He Declares South Korea ‘Principal Enemy,’” CNN, January 16, 2024, (accessed February 5, 2024). 3- Reuters, “North Korea Vows Military Strike If Any Provocation, Fires Artillery Rounds,” January 7, 2024, (accessed February 5, 2024). 4- Korea Central News Agency, “Report on 9th Enlarged Plenum of 8th WPK Central Committee.” 5- Lendon and Bae, “North Korea’s Kim Vows to Dismantle Father’s Unification Arch as He Declares South Korea ‘Principal Enemy.’” 6- Chae Yun-hwan, “Military Set to Resume Drills Halted Under 2018 Inter-Korean Accord Buffer Zones,” Yonhap News Agency, January 9, 2024,,artillery%20firing%2C%20officials%20said%20Tuesday (accessed February 5, 2024). 7- Robert L. Carlin and Siegfried S. Hecker, “Is Kim Jong Un Preparing for War?” Henry L. Stimson Center, 38 North, January 11, 2024, / (accessed February 5, 2024). 8- Sarah Kim, “After North Declares ‘Hostile’ Relations, Yoon Vows to ‘Punish’ Regime in Case of a Provocation,” Korea Joongang Daily, updated January 18, 2024, (accessed February 5, 2024). 9- Hyung-Jin Kim, “North Korea’s Kim Vows to Bolster War Readiness to Repel US-Led Confrontations,” Associated Press, updated December 28, 2023, (accessed February 5, 2024).

New Taiwan President Lai Ching-Te at a speech

Taiwan's national elections: a question of world order

by FAES Analysis Group

In an ideal world, Taiwan's national elections would have nothing to do with China or the United States, let alone the relationship between these two countries. However, the victory of Lai Ching-te, hitherto the vice-chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, a candidate who enjoys no sympathy from Beijing, has implications for China-Taiwan and China-US relations. In any case, the DPP's victory has not guaranteed it an absolute majority - in a chamber composed of 113 seats, the vote for the DPP fell from 61 to 51 (because of the poor economic situation) - and it will be forced to negotiate a coalition government. Taiwan's national elections are a matter of world order mainly because one of Xi Jinping's policy priorities is the "historical inevitability" of "unification" between China and Taiwan. If Xi fulfills his ambition, changing the borders and territorial integrity of a country through military force, it would be a flagrant violation of the international liberal order. Given U.S. President Joe Biden's promise - that Washington would defend Taiwan if invaded by China - "reunification" would provoke a war between the two powers, between revisionist and authoritarian China and the United States, the country that has created, sustained and led the international order after World War II. While Western politicians and analysts argue that China, as a revisionist power, increasingly poses a threat to the stability of the region and the international liberal order, for Taiwan it is an existential issue. The successful consolidation of Taiwan's democracy in recent decades has intensified the growth of a distinct Taiwanese identity. As the political systems of China and Taiwan continue to diverge, there is little support on the island for "unification." Taiwan is increasingly anchored to the West and its population is broadly in favor of strengthening relations with liberal democracies, especially Japan, the United States and Europe. From the beginning of the campaign, all three candidates - DPP's Lai, Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), which increased its number of legislators from 38 to 52, and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), which has won 8 seats - expressed that the priority of their foreign and domestic policies would be to preserve Taiwan's de facto independence and peace with China. However, their strategies to achieve this are divergent. The strategy of Lai, the candidate who won the election, is to strengthen political, military and economic ties with the United States and its allies; while Hou and Ko intended to restart the dialogue with Beijing, which China interrupted after the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 (William Lai's predecessor, who served two presidential terms at the helm of the country). The new government, possibly a coalition between the DPP and KMT, will be rocked by debates over increased Defense spending. KMT politicians disagree with the DPP on the details of military strategy and what weapons to procure from the United States. In 2022, Washington and Taipei launched an ambitious trade initiative as well as security cooperation. Thus, Washington increased the number of troops deployed in Taiwan to train its military and expanded the training of Taiwanese soldiers in the United States. The new president faces economic problems that have undermined the popularity of the ruling DPP. But undoubtedly his biggest problem is relations with China. Strengthening Taiwan's defenses and minimizing Beijing's provocations-which are likely to increase in the form of military maneuvers and economic pressures-will remain the DPP's policy priorities in Taiwan. However, it does not seem clear that the DPP has a clear strategy for dealing with Xi Jinping's possible decisions. Xi is unlikely to conclude that he can tolerate Taiwan's trajectory. Lai's victory has deeply irritated the Chinese Communist Party. The election results can be read in the key of a referendum on Taiwan-China relations. Beijing has lost it to the United States. Peaceful "unification" is becoming less and less viable. Rather, there are signs that the Chinese Communist Party perceives that the trend in Taipei-Beijing relations is not moving in Beijing's favor. As a result, Xi may take the decision to act to achieve unification. Xi has stated that the Taiwan issue cannot be passed on to future generations and that achieving unification is the essence of the country's rejuvenation. "Historical inevitability" may turn into practical decision - use of military force - given China's unsatisfactory economic situation. Xi may try to make unification an important part of his political legacy. The outcome of the Taiwan election will not influence Xi Jinping's decisions. The results confirm a status quo in Taiwanese politics - the continuity of the DPP government - but it means increased pre-war tensions between Taiwan and China, as well as between China and the United States.

Defense & Security
 COSCO Shipping vessel in the Red Sea.

China's powerlessness in the Red Sea

by Johann C. Fuhrmann

Houthi attacks pose a strategic dilemma for Beijing. Washington has asked Beijing for support to curb attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebels on merchant ships in the Red Sea, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, citing US government circles. China's own interest in de-escalation and securing trade and supply chains appears to be obvious. However, why China is holding back in the conflict, even though it is economically heavily dependent on exports, raises questions. Despite displeasure: Beijing's restraint The Yemeni Houthi militia has been attacking ships and thus supply chains in the Red Sea since mid-November last year, presenting the Beijing leadership with a strategic dilemma: as an exporting nation, China is dependent on secure trade routes, while at the same time the People's Republic is striving to establish itself as a force for peace and order in the region. For the Chinese leadership, this means walking a political tightrope with an uncertain outcome. There is no question that the current attacks by the Houthi militia on merchant ships in the Red Sea are a thorn in China's side. Mao Ning, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, recently appealed to the Houthi militia to stop attacking ships in the Red Sea. The Houthi militia sees itself as part of the "Axis of Resistance" against Israel, which also includes the radical Islamic group Hamas. On 12 and 13 January 2024, the United States and the United Kingdom, with the support of Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, launched a series of attacks against the Houthi in Yemen with airstrikes and cruise missiles in response to the terrorist organization's attacks. Around 60 percent of Chinese exports to Europe pass through the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. "The attacks have tripled container prices for Red Sea passages and extended transit times by many days when bypassing the Houthi route. At the end of December, Chinese car manufacturer Geely warned of delays in the delivery of its electric cars due to the 'situation' in the Red Sea," reports Beijing-based FAZ correspondent Jochen Stahnke.[2] The crisis has long since reached the port of Piraeus in Greece, in which the Chinese state shipping company COSCO holds a 67 percent stake. Due to supply bottlenecks for Chinese batteries, according to rbb information, even production at the Tesla plant in Grünheide, Brandenburg, will have to largely cease at the end of the month[3]. The disruption to supply chains is hitting the Chinese economy at an extremely unfavorable time. The People's Republic is in the midst of a real estate crisis, is struggling with high youth unemployment and faces the threat of deflation. In the face of these challenges, the Chinese economy is relying heavily on exports. A recent example of this is the announcement by Chinese car manufacturer SAIC to acquire 14 transport ships. Apparently, dissatisfaction with the current developments in the Red Sea has also reached the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. Mei Xinyu from the Chinese Academy for Economic Cooperation, a think tank linked to the Ministry of Commerce, underlines this in a blog post with the words: "There is one thing that the Huthi rebels and their supporters need to understand: The biggest user of the Suez Canal route is none other than China."[4] It is striking that the Beijing Foreign Ministry's call for de-escalation in the Red Sea followed a statement by the Houthi that there would be no future attacks on Russian and Chinese ships. Nevertheless, China's trade also relies on ships sailing under different flags. According to media reports, some ships even use radio signals to pretend to be Chinese, even though they do not originate from China - for fear of attack. The Beijing press praises this practice as a success of Chinese "soft power". Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University, explained this to the Global Times, saying: "The Houthi militias have no interest in attacking Chinese ships. The reason is simple: China makes fair comments and takes fair actions on issues in the Middle East. China has no special interests in the region and is only committed to peace, security and stability in the region."[5] However, no mention is made of the extent to which the escalation is damaging the core interests of the Chinese economy. Meanwhile, the political leadership in Beijing is keeping a surprisingly low profile with regard to the conflict. What is striking, however, is that Chinese state propaganda blames the USA and Israel in particular for the escalation of violence and presents the People's Republic as a guarantor of peace. In this context, the Global Times emphasizes: "China's justice lies in not taking sides or being biased. China does not support the use of force by the Huthi in the Red Sea to disrupt trade routes. At the same time, however, it criticizes the biased approach and double standards of the US in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the use of force to counter violence."[6] The question remains, however, how China's efforts to appear neutral can be explained, especially in light of the fact that the conflict in the Red Sea is severely disrupting the People's Republic's trade interests. China's strategic dilemma The US request to China to provide support in the fight against the Houthi rebels has so far met with no response in Beijing. There is no indication that China has any interest in participating in the US-led military mission - on the contrary. There is also no indication that Beijing is trying to influence the Huthi through diplomatic channels. This at least seems possible, as the Houthis maintain close ties with Iran, with which China has good relations. The reluctance of the government in Beijing can be attributed to a variety of reasons. China is a major trading partner of Iran, which in turn supports the Houthi rebels. China sources around a tenth of its crude oil needs from the mullahs, and Beijing avoids angering Tehran by turning against the Houthis. There also appears to be no demand on Iran to influence the Huthi. Moreover, Beijing has explicitly sided with the Palestinians in the Gaza war. Paul Nantulya from the National Defense University in Washington believes that the competition between China and the US also plays a role: "Participation in a US military operation would be seen as 'capitulation to US interests' and 'humiliation of China' by the Chinese political and military establishment," Nantulya told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.[7] China also sees itself as an advocate of the "Global South", the so-called developing and emerging countries. In the Middle East conflict, this attitude is manifested in China's solidarity with the Palestinians. This support is in line with China's general orientation as an advocate for countries outside the Western sphere of influence, particularly in Latin America, Africa and the Arab world as a whole. In doing so, China is positioning itself against what Beijing perceives as the "imperialist" United States and its allies. There is no question that Israel is perceived in this context primarily as a "US ally" and an "imperialist power" in the Middle East, despite its previously good relations with the People's Republic. In his article for the Frankfurter Rundschau, Sven Hauberg adds another dimension to these observations. He quotes May-Britt Stumbaum, an Asia expert at the Center for Intelligence and Security (CISS) at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich, who explains: "I think China is keeping out of it because they have very little operational experience and there is a great risk that they will embarrass themselves." Stumbaum emphasizes that China may be acting cautiously for this reason, so as not to reveal its actual military capabilities. "Nobody should know how strong the Chinese military really is. But that would no longer work if China took part in missions and openly showed its weaknesses."[8] Outlook: China as a regulatory power - has Beijing run out of steam? It is currently still extremely convenient for China's leadership to criticize US military attacks as warmongering, while securing maritime trade routes is actually also in Beijing's interests. At present, China is leaving it to other states to defend its own interests in the region. The key question, however, is how long this cost-benefit calculation can last from Beijing's perspective. The disruption of supply chains in international trade is currently hitting China, which is in a precarious economic situation, at a sensitive point. The situation is not comparable to Putin's war of aggression against Ukraine. Here, China has at least managed to benefit economically, as China's exports to Russia have risen sharply. At the same time, the People's Republic is benefiting from cheap energy supplies from Russia, which has recently made Moscow the most important crude oil supplier for Beijing, overtaking Saudi Arabia. China's hopes of becoming a regulatory power in the Middle East and curbing the influence of the USA in the region have suffered a setback. Just under a year ago, Beijing undoubtedly pulled off a surprise diplomatic coup: Through China's mediation, an unexpected agreement was reached between Iran and its arch-enemy Saudi Arabia in April 2023, which included the resumption of regular diplomatic relations and the exchange of ambassadors. However, the Chinese dream of gaining international recognition as a factor of influence and stability in the Middle East seems to be coming to an early end these days in view of China's impotence in the Red Sea. References: [1] Financial Times 2024: US urges China to help curb Red Sea attacks by Iran-backed Houthis, abrufbar unter:, letzter Zugriff: 25.01.2024. [2] Stahnke, Jochen 2024: Wie China mit den Huthi-Angriffen im Roten Meer umgeht, in:, abrufbar unter:, 25.01.2024. [3] rbb24: Tesla muss Ende Januar Fertigung wegen Lücken in Lieferketten stoppen, abrufbar unter:, letzter Zugriff: 25.01.2024. [4] Mei, Xinyu 2024: Huthi-Spiel mit dem Feuer, in chinesischer Sprache abrufbar unter:, letzter Zugriff: 25.01.2024. [5] Global Times 2024: US escalates Red Sea tensions, while China voices fairness, Ausgabe: 17. Januar 2024, S. 5. [6] Global Times 2024. [7] Siehe hierzu den lesenswerten Beitrag: Hauberg, Sven 2024: Suezkanal ist wichtige Handelsroute – doch China hält sich im Kampf gegen die Huthi-Rebellen auffallend zurück, Frankfurter Rundschau, abrufbar unter:, letzter Zugriff: 25.01.2024. [8] Hauberg, Sven 2024.

Expanding the relationships between Russia and North Korea

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s opening remarks during talks with Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Choe Son-hui, Moscow, January 16, 2024

by Sergey Lavrov

Comrade Choe Son-hui, I am very glad to welcome you and all your delegation members to Moscow in the first days of 2024. I would like to once again congratulate you and our Korean friends on the holidays we have celebrated recently and wish you all the best and every success in the new year. The timing of this meeting provides us with a perfect opportunity to conduct a preliminary review of our efforts to carry out the agreements resulting from the summit between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Chairman of State Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong-un at the Vostochny Space Launch Centre in September 2023. We are proactively working on these matters. I have warm memories of my visit to Pyongyang in October 2023 and the hospitality you extended to our delegation. The 10th meeting of the Russian-Korean Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation in November 2023 was another important event. There were also other bilateral exchanges at the agency, ministry, and regional levels. We appreciate the fact that DPRK’s Minister of Physical Culture and Sport, Kim Il-guk, took part in the Russia – A Sports Nation international forum in Perm in October 2023, while DPRK’s Minister of Culture Sung Jong-gyu proactively contributed to the 9th St Petersburg International Cultural Forum in November 2023. The visit by a delegation from the Primorye Territory to Pyongyang, led by Governor Oleg Kozhemyako, in December 2023 was also very useful. These contacts mark the beginning of an intensive and demanding, but also fruitful and rewarding, work to expand our relations across the board. We are preparing several other important events, including on cultural and humanitarian matters. I can mention the upcoming performance by Mariinsky Theatre’s Primorye branch in Pyongyang, as well as the participation of Russian performing groups in the annual April Spring festival. Today, we will have a detailed discussion on topical bilateral matters, including ways to further enhance our practical cooperation. As for the international agenda, we are looking forward to continuing our trust-based dialogue on the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia in general. Russia reaffirms its principled position on the need to find comprehensive and fair solutions to the existing problems. We have always advocated for talks without preconditions as a path to achieving lasting peace and stability across Northeast Asia. Russia has independently submitted proposals to this effect, as well as together with the PRC, to the UN Security Council. These proposals are currently on the negotiating table. We must recognise that the policy pursued by the United States and its regional satellites to create security threats for the DPRK does nothing to promote any positive advancements. We will continue to call for the rejection of any steps that lead to escalation and heightening tensions. We are working together within a broader geography on security matters in the Asia-Pacific region, where we must uphold universal mechanisms rooted in ASEAN proposals and which have been effectively operating for many decades. However, attempts by the United States and its allies to create closed, bloc-based formats and to expand NATO infrastructure to this region undermine these mechanisms and erode their effectiveness. We have been working closely and very successfully with Pyongyang within the United Nations and at other multilateral organisations. Russia has always supported the DPRK within the UN and appreciates the fact that you have treated Russia in the same manner, including on matters related to the ongoing special military operation in Ukraine. We have a packed agenda, and I am certain that today’s talks will enable us to advance towards delivering on the agreements between our leaders resulting from the September 2023 summit.

Defense & Security
Successful North and South Korean satellite launches

A tale of two satellites: ISR on the Korean Peninsula

by Timothy Wright

Successful North and South Korean satellite launches underscore both countries’ ambitions to possess an independent space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to support their respective deterrence postures. Paradoxically, better ISR capabilities may also improve stability on the Korean Peninsula. Within two weeks, North and South Korea have each successfully launched their first military geospatial imaging satellites. Although the information-gathering capabilities of North Korea’s satellite are probably inferior to South Korea’s, Pyongyang will likely improve this over time, possibly with Russian assistance. Space-based systems will increase Pyongyang and Seoul’s capability to hold each other’s territory at risk, but paradoxically may also improve stability. Targeting tactics Space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems play an important role in the so-called ‘kill-chain’ through which militaries detect, track and engage targets with precision-strike systems. Pyongyang and Seoul possess large arsenals of precision-guided ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles, but their respective ISR capabilities to inform targeting decisions are less mature by comparison. North Korea has developed several types of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) for ISR purposes, but sensor, endurance and communications constraints limit their utility, and they are vulnerable to South Korean and United States air defences. South Korea has more advanced ISR capabilities, but it has historically relied on United States space-based assets for its geospatial imagery needs.    North Korea said that it developed a space-based ISR capability to provide its armed forces with ‘real-time information’ to improve its ‘war deterrent’. Following the successful launch of the Malligyong-1 satellite on 21 November, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that it provided North Korea with ‘eyes’ to complement its ‘fist’. To underline this point, North Korean state media claimed the satellite imaged Andersen Air Force Base on Guam and other ‘ major targets in the enemy region’ that North Korea could target in a conflict, without releasing imagery. Similarly, South Korea said that it is developing its space-based ISR capabilities to enhance the effectiveness of its so-called 3K deterrence architecture. It envisages South Korean forces detecting and targeting North Korean missile launchers and command-and-control in the event of an imminent or unforeseen North Korean missile launch. Both countries have made clear their recent launches are merely a first step to building out a space-based ISR layer. North Korea has said that it will launch an unspecified number of satellites in the future. Seoul plans to follow the 1 December launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the deployment of four synthetic-aperture radar satellites by 2025, giving it an all-weather capability. Launch implications Although North Korea’s launch is an achievement for Pyongyang after earlier launch failures, the satellite’s likely poor image quality might provide limited initial returns. After a prior North Korean launch of a military-satellite similar to the Malligyong-1 failed, South Korean and US investigators judged, based on recovered parts, that the payload had ‘no military use’, suggesting its sensors and communication equipment were of poor quality. Even so, the successful launch on 21 November provides Pyongyang with an independent capability that will likely mature through domestic refinement, illicit acquisitions and potentially foreign assistance. South Korea claims that Russia provided unspecified input on the Chollima-1 satellite-launch vehicle (SLV) following two failed launch attempts earlier this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin also apparently pledged to provide support for North Korea’s space programme during a September meeting with Kim at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, possibly as repayment for much-needed ammunition to support Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Because SLVs incorporate dual-use components and technologies that can also be used in ballistic missiles, Pyongyang’s satellite launch was condemned by France, the United Kingdom and the US as destabilising and a violation of multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions related to North Korea’s sanctioned ballistic missile programme. The Chollima-1 SLV’s first-stage rocket motor, for instance, is derived from the Soviet-designed RD-250 engine that has powered several different North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the Hwasong-14, Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-17. An advancement in North Korea’s SLV capabilities will undoubtedly have some benefits for its ballistic missile programme. Although Pyongyang regularly tests ballistic missiles, it is unlikely to have used this launch to disguise testing military capabilities related to its missile programme. South Korea’s military space programme also has received some external assistance. The country launched its satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 SLV from the US government’s Vandenberg Space Force Base. Future satellite launches might continue to use US technology alongside South Korea’s burgeoning SLV capability. Supporting stability Perhaps paradoxically, Pyongyang and Seoul’s new space-based ISR capabilities may have some unexpected stability benefits by reducing mutual fears of pre-emption. In a crisis, a lack of information may exacerbate pre-emption fears and could trigger escalation. South Korea’s deterrence doctrine is based on Seoul’s fear that North Korea may pre-emptively use conventional or nuclear weapons against it. North Korea is arguably concerned about South Korea’s analogous precision-strike capabilities, evidenced by recent changes to its nuclear doctrine to delegate launch authority if Kim were killed. Although space-based ISR will allow North and South Korea to target each other more effectively in a conflict, their new capabilities might also be useful in a crisis by providing Pyongyang and Seoul with greater situational awareness that could reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation.

Defense & Security
Kim Jong Un’s Latest Threats of War

What to Make of Kim Jong Un’s Latest Threats of War

by Patrick M. Cronin

Why is Pyongyang ringing in the new year with warmongering? North Korea’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, is predicting a year of living dangerously, marked by the “highest risk of confrontation.” Addressing an end-of-year party plenum, Kim Jong Un cautioned that “war can break out at any time.” He added, however, that foreign military confrontation would be met by “a deadly blow to thoroughly annihilate” the enemy and subjugate “the whole territory of South Korea.”  Kim’s dire forecast is a matter of concern, but not because deterrence is likely to fail. The North Korean leader wants others to fear the prospect of war, which is why he (once again) threatened that the Korean peninsula is “on the precipice of nuclear war.” But Kim wants to sharpen his “treasured sword,” not fall on it.  North Korea may be viewed as preternaturally bellicose, but menacing discourse is not harmless prattle. The sharp rhetoric emanating from the Kim regime masks serious internal and external goals that impinge on vital U.S. national interests and regional security. For starters, Kim needs to justify his fixation on military spending. Clearly, three military parades, 44 missiles, and 64 flights a year are difficult to sustain. The notion that U.S. and allied military exercises are making the thought of war on the peninsula “realistic” is propaganda. Even so, Kim’s pledge to launch three more military spy satellites in the coming months is realistic, if also suggestive of one of the concrete benefits of adopting Russia as North Korea’s primary defense partner. North Korea’s anemic economy cannot support additional military spending. The ambitious five-year defense modernization plan Kim unveiled three years ago is perpetuating the country’s impoverishment. Pyongyang’s boast of a 40% increase in the country’s gross domestic product last year masks a fragile and sanctioned economy, overly dependent on China, which accounts for 90% of North Korean exports. While North Korean exports to China rebounded to about $300 million in 2023, a shocking 57% of that total came from exports of wigs, false beards, eyebrows and eyelashes. A weak and vulnerable economy is precisely why the North Korean regime places a higher priority on cyber theft than it does on legal trade. When you can raise more than $2 billion from hacking, who needs to maintain so many foreign diplomatic outposts in Africa? So, U.S. and South Korean authorities must step up their game if they are to prevent cyber heists like the one on Orbit Chain on New Year’s Eve that probably netted North Koreans $81.5 million in cryptocurrency.  Kim Jong Un also is relying on cooperation with like-minded partners to compensate for his diplomatic failures with South Korea and the United States. Having strengthened ties with Russia by providing additional ammunition for Moscow’s war of aggression — and North Korean mortar and rocket shells are increasingly visible on the Ukrainian battlefield — Kim is in a position to leverage relations with Beijing.  China’s Xi Jinping, locked in a fierce competition with the United States, appears eager to lend an extra hand to help North Korea. Xi’s New Year’s Day greeting to Kim said that “the new situation in the new era” further underscores the need to take “a strategic and long-term perspective” on China-North Korea relations. North Korea’s diplomatic outreach to Russia and China not only is a counterpoise to growing trilateral relations among the United States, Japan and South Korea but also a useful means of undermining Seoul as it begins a two-year stint as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council.  Setting a belligerent tone to commence the year is also Pyongyang’s way of trying to subvert South Korea’s democratic government. There was no subtlety in labeling South Korea “a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state.” Furthermore, as South Koreans mark the centennial of the birth of former president Kim Dae-jung, the Kim regime might be engaging in wishful thinking that progressives will rise in protest against the conservative administration of Yoon Suk-yeol. Politics is as polarized as ever and South Korean police are reinforcing security after the stabbing of the leader of the main opposition political party and an online threat to kill the head of the ruling People Power Party. But Kim Jong Un must have an even greater fear of losing his totalitarian power than is suggested by state-controlled media. Burnishing Kim’s credentials as a benevolent father figure and feigning more democratic elections shows a need to appeal to popular support. Even more telling was the Jan. 1 airing on North Korea’s KCTV of the movie A Day and A Night, which highlights the real story of how a nurse uncovered a counter-revolutionary plot to overthrow the Kim Il Sung government. The point of the Pyongyang-produced movie is to ensure North Korean people are sufficiently motivated to protect their leader.  Finally, threatening conflict is a cost-effective way for the Kim regime to amplify America’s trending theme of dread about the fate of American democracy. The West has a rich supply of smart pessimists who regularly churn out frightening warnings. No doubt Kim also would like for us to unburden ourselves by accommodating a nuclear North Korea and removing U.S. troops from the peninsula.  Oh, to recall the “beautiful letters” that Kim Jong Un penned to then-President Donald Trump after their brief flirtation with peace in the summer of 2018.