Is Cooperation With China Still Possible?

David Parmer / Tokyo

Times have changed, and the US has switched from the engagement model of diplomacy promoted by Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to a competition model rolled out by the administration of President Joe Biden. 

Before becoming president, Biden made it clear that his first priority would be to mend alliances with traditional US allies, and then get all the allies on the same page regarding China. Biden has pretty much done this, and the Europeans and NATO are behind his move, as are the Japanese. The saying goes that there is strength in numbers and Biden has the numbers. (Trump’s “America First!” and “going it alone” went out the window on day #1 of Biden’s presidency when the US immediately re-joined the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.)

So the US and its allies face off against China in a competition that is political, strategic, and military. Some areas of competition and disagreement like trade and human rights are important and ongoing, but some like the South China Sea and Taiwan have the potential to heat up and boil over, turning into deadly conflict.

If Dr. Kissinger’s policy of engaging China is fading, does this mean that there are no areas where China and the West can meet and interact? Fortunately it doesn’t. There are several areas where the US, China, EU, NATO, and countries around the globe can cooperate.

Some of these are:

Terrorism: All countries around the world face the threat of terrorism from true believers and bad actors of all stripes and colors. No one is immune from the threat of terrorism. Cooperation and intelligence sharing across countries boosts the security of all countries involved. Information shared can save lives and prevent deadly incidents from happening. China and the US are no more immune to the threat of terrorism than any other country and cooperation makes good sense and saves lives.

Climate: Global warming affects everyone on the planet, and in addition to it not being denied, it must be dealt with by all countries in a cooperative manner. The 2021 Glasgow meeting, COP26 will bring together 97 countries in addition to the US, UK and EU. These countries, including China, have pledged to go carbon neutral by mid century. In addition to prevention and preservation countries must work together to assist countries and victims impacted by climate-related disasters.

Trade: Global trade has been valued at around $20 trillion. With the COVID pandemic in full swing trade was expected to decline sharply, but this did not occur. Trade remained robust during the pandemic. Keeping this system intact and running smoothly is in everyone’s interest, and tariffs and sanctions rendered on a tit-for-tat basis do nothing to promote the common good. Fair trade and a level playing field are essential for the smooth flow of goods worldwide. China, with its vast manufacturing capacity can engage the world and benefit all parties concerned.

Health: After 2020 and the COVID pandemic it is impossible to deny that human health is a planetary issue affecting every living person. Sharing scientific and medical information and technology are vital to keeping the world safe and healthy. No country or region can withhold information or horde supplies of materials or medicines from less affluent countries because the purely arbitrary geographical borders cannot halt the spread of disease and pandemics.

From just these examples we can see that while nations might compete strategically or ideologically, in the long run it is also vitally important that they cooperate with other nations in the areas mentioned here for the good of humanity and for the good of the planet.

Photo: World Ecconomic Forum via flickr







Our Man In Beijing: R. Nicholas Burns, The Professional.

In the realm of US politics, the post of ambassador is often a political plum given to a supporter of the incoming president for services rendered. This can often be in the form of financial support for the successful candidate. Many times such people have no international experience or no experience related to the work of diplomacy. There is a difference between the political appointee and a professional in the diplomatic field.

From a quick survey of Biden’s first choices for ambassadorial posts, it is clear the administration has chosen to send professionals to US embassies around the world. Case in point: the next US Ambassador to The People’s Republic of China, R. Nicholas Burns, a consummate professional. Should he be confirmed, Burns will be one of the most experienced US diplomats to ever take up the post in Beijing.

One of the first assignments in his long diplomatic service was in the 1980s when he was Staff Assistant in Cairo, then Political Officer in Jerusalem. He then served as Director of Russian Affairs under President George H.W. Bush. In 1995 he was on the National Security staff at the White House. From 1997-2001 he was ambassador to Greece, and after that, ambassador to NATO.

In 2008 Nicholas Burns retired from the State Department and took up teaching diplomacy and American foreign policy at Harvard University. In 2016 he was an advisor to candidate Hillary Clinton, and in 2020 to Vice President Biden.

In a February 4, 2021 interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson, Ambassador Burns said regarding China:

” I think it’s the most important and most challenging relationship that the United States has in the world today because China is a near-peer competitor with us….Things have really changed quite dramatically changed over the last 4-5 years.”

Later in the interview Ambassador Burns laid out the US position on China as he saw it to include such items as:

  • Competition with China
  • Continued US presence in the Indo-Pacific
  • Ensuring that US companies get fair treatment by China
  • Working with all allies, especially US/EU/Japan alliance
  • Exerting pressure to make China “play by the rules.”

He went on to say the President Biden’s speech the previous day was: 

“…A Major change from the foreign policy of Donald Trump and a big vote of confidence in our diplomats…and a vote for, that diplomacy should really be the first instrument of American foreign policy. “

 America’s “new” China policy is taking shape with not only a change in tone, but also with clearly-defined goals and lead by qualified ambassadors the likes of R. Nicholas Burns, seasoned diplomat and professional.

R. Nicholas Burns CNN Interview with Becky Anderson

Photo: Brookings via flickr





Patent Waivers For COVID Vaccines? Yes/No.

As for COVID-19 vaccines, rich countries have gotten the lion’s share of the vaccine and poor countries have got far less.

How to address this problem of inequality? Last year, a proposal was floated by India and South Africa that WTO restrictions (TRIPS Agreement) on intellectual property be lifted and poorer countries by allowed to manufacture the vaccine locally to counter the disparity and to fight the pandemic. The United States, under President Joe Biden has gotten behind this remedy, as have China and Russia and the World Health Organization.

But not everyone was on board: Japan, Korea, UK and the EU and Germany were against the idea. In early June the European Parliament voted to waive IP restrictions for the COVID 19 vaccines. Still, the EU stands firm.

The question really boils down to this: Will waiving IP rights on the vaccine create and equitable distribution of vaccines and help stop the pandemic? Supporters say yes it will, critics say no it won’t. 

Arguments against the IP waiver say that IP is not the problem, that technology and production are. Even if IP protections are waived say the critics, poorer countries do not have the skill or infrastructure to produce the vaccines correctly in the short term. Another reason given is a shortage of raw materials that are desperately needed by the current manufacturers to produce vaccine at speed and in volume.

Other arguments against the lifting of IP protection include:

  • Waiving IP production my reduce quality of products
  • There is a danger of fake products becoming common
  • The lack of IP protection is a dis-incentive to investment

One proposal now being put forward as an alternative to suspending IP protection is for countries and organizations that are already producing vaccines to ramp-up production. The EU also proposes waiving export restrictions on vaccines and components.

The need for more vaccines is real and global. Is waiving IP protection the answer to this shortage. Let us know your thoughts on this vital issue.


Global Focus Shifts To The High North.

Well there are climate change deniers all over the world but not among the governments of the countries of the Far North. For countries that have territory about the Arctic Circle, global warming and its effects are very real. These countries include:

  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Iceland
  • Russia
  • Sweden
  • Norway
  • US

The effects they are observing are not the stuff of tree-hugger rants, but rather an opening of their region to shipping, resource exploitation, tourism, and of course geopolitical rivalry. Global warming in the arctic is reported to be three times the global average and has opened up a world of possibilities, not all of them good.

Russia’s  GDP is estimated to be 25% generated by its arctic territory has a real vested interest in this changing landscape.The Russian military, many of whose northern bases are relics of the Cold War with the US, are being re-militarized. Russia’s biggest concern might be the Northern Sea Route which skirts its northern border and cuts shipping time from Asia to Western Europe by about 2 weeks. Moreover, from the Russian point of view, the US and NATO are uncomfortably active on the periphery of its territory.

The US has its own interests in the arctic. The first is with its NATO allies who must surely be heartened by the fact that the Biden administration has placed such emphasis on its alliances, particularly the key one with its traditional European friends. For example, the US signed a revised agreement with Norway in April allowing it to build facilities in the country with a view toward countering Russian moves in the region. Many analysts see the US playing catch up with the Russians who have been taking their arctic borders seriously for a long time, and who have put in resources to ensure their ability to compete if not dominate all comers. ( For example: Russia has 40 icebreakers vs. just 2 for the US.)

And then there is China. China doesn’t appear on the list of countries with territory in the arctic, but since 2018 China has been referred to as a “near Arctic” country. Clearly, China’s main interest in the High North is with regard to its Belt and Road program. Russia may cast a wary eye on Chinese moves to become a player in arctic development and research feeling hemmed in by its neighbor.

In May 2020 the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting was held and Russia assumed the chair. The message to come out of the meeting was one of peace and stability for the region, and the meeting was of such importance that both US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Serge Lavrov took time to make an appearance.

Peace and stability for the region seems like a good thing, and if cooperation is the order of the day it is good. However, with competition heating up, and activity in the region showing no signs of slowing down, it may be just a matter of time before misunderstandings and disagreements arise.

Regardless, it looks like thinkers and planners around the globe from the government and the military will have to add this region to their portfolio of early 21st century potential flashpoints.

Photo: Martha de Jong-Lantik via flickr



Person of Interest: Rahm Emanuel, Next Ambassador To Japan?

On May 11 the Financial Times reported that US President Joe Biden was considering former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for US ambassador to Japan. There has been no denial by the White House on this report, however the president has not made the nomination official yet.

Emanuel, 61,  has a long history in Democratic politics dating back to his days as US Representative from Illinois from 2003-2009. Mr. Emanuel has also worked in investment banking when he has not been in an elected or appointed government position. His experience includes being a top advisor to President Bill Clinton, member of US House of Representatives leadership, Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama and 8 years as Mayor of Chicago.

Mr. Emanuel holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA from Northwestern University. He is described as a tough political infighter who can be abrasive at times.

These qualities, contrary to the opinions of some in the media, might make him the ideal US ambassador. The US and Japan are following a tough line on China, and a tough, outspoken ambassador might be just what the Japanese like in times like these. Critics have cited his lack of diplomatic skills, but he has been around at the highest levels of government and politics for decades, so he probably knows which fork to use, and the difference between red and white wine.

The former mayor is no darling of the liberal wing of his party; many in that camp lobbied strongly against his getting a cabinet position. He was considered for transportation secretary, but lost out to another former mayor, Pete Buttigieg.

Those on the Left accuse him of a cover-up in the shooting of a black teen in Chicago by a police officer. The dislike goes back further to the times when Emanuel was Barack Obama’s chief of staff. His pragmatic centrism did not sit well with the Left. Will Rahm Emanuel get the job as ambassador? He probably will.

Japan will welcome a tough political scrapper with a direct line to the White House and lots of experience on the job. He may take a couple dings during the confirmation process, but more than likely his plane will be touching down in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in the not-too-distant future.

Photo: Brookings Institution via flickr

Glasgow Climate Change Conference COP26 – A Tale of Three Cities?

“The COP26 summit will bring partners together to accelerate action toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change”(COP26 Website)

The city names Kyoto and Paris are now almost universal shorthand for anything to due with climate change and solutions to climate change. It is also possible that Glasgow will be added to that list after this year’s COP26 meeting in that city from November 1-12 of this year. COP26 is the biggest climate meeting since Paris 2015 and the biggest event that Great Britain has ever hosted.

This meeting will be the 16th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol and the 3rd meeting of the parties to the Paris Accord. It was originally scheduled according to the 5-year cycle agreed upon, but had to be postponed in 2020 due the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

The US, UK, EU and 97 other countries have pledged to be carbon-zero by mid-century, and this meeting is a way to check progress and keep momentum moving forward. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is solidly behind the event and has enlisted world-renowned climate leader Sir David Attenborough to lend a hand with the event and to lend his prestige to this most important cause. The meeting is co-sponsored by Italy which is tasked with many pre-event happenings. The UK prime minister is doing everything possible to make sure that this remains an “in person” event and not a virtual, online meeting.

The United States is now back in the Paris Accord after being withdrawn by former US President Donald Trump. President Biden took office on January 20, 2021 and on that very day the US rejoined Paris.

Is this just another meeting of minds and exchange of words, or will some dramatic things come out of COP26?  And in the future will people remember the trio: Kyoto, Paris, and Glasgow?

Let us know what you think.



China’s Sinopharm-created COVID-19 vaccine won World Health Organization emergency-use approval on May 7. The WHO approval means that the vaccine is safe and effective and of high quality. The WHO says the vaccine can be used by those 18 years and older, and requires a second dose within 3-4 weeks for a person to be fully vaccinated.

Sinopharm’s vaccine is of the inactivated virus type and does not require the same deep refrigeration that other vaccines require.This is especially important because the vaccine will be sent to more than 60 countries around the world, many of which do not have hi-tech refrigeration technology readily available in all areas.

China is said to have a total of 5 vaccines including Sinovac that it hopes to export to the world. On May 17th China said it supports waiving intellectual property rights on COVID 19 vaccines so that many countries can begin to produce the vaccine and inoculate their own populations. A similar proposal was made by US President Joe Biden earlier in the month.

This approval of the Sinopharm vaccine will give valuable support to the WHO  COVAX program which is designed to: ” accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.” (WHO website)

Photo: Alachua County via flickr

What Does The US Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan Mean For China?

                          by David Parmer / Tokyo

September 11,2021 will see the last American soldiers leave Afghan soil. Well, that is the plan anyway. The US’s “forever war” had to come to a close sooner or later. September 2021 is sooner than many think prudent, but a lot later for those who think that an anti-terrorist action morphed into a long-term, unsuccessful and costly exercise in nation building.

Opinions are mixed on what will happen in Afghanistan once the US and NATO leave. Now not many experts see a collapse of the Afghan government similar to that when the US pulled out of Viet Nam in 1975. There seem to be too many stakeholders in the region including Pakistan and Russia and Tajikistan and China that have no interest in seeing a failed state on their borders or in their region.

A civil war might be one outcome if the government collapses, or loses any claim to a mandate to govern. Some sort of compromise might be worked out with the Taliban in power sharing, but an Isis (Daesh) controlled “caliphate” would be in no one’s interest.

China has real concerns about a spillover of any chaos taking place in Afghanistan. Even though it takes robust measures to patrol its border with Afghanistan, it still must be vigilant to prevent an increase in cross-border crime, smuggling, or terrorism.

East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) terrorists dedicated to removing China from Xingjiang have found shelter with the Taliban, and there are reports of Uyghur fighters participating in the war in Syria.

China has supported the Afghan government military in terms of supplying both training and equipment. Beijing has vehemently denied that there have ever been any PLA boots on the ground despite press reports to the contrary. Perhaps China’s “plausible deniability” is that if anyone were in Afghanistan, it would be police and not PLA.

Whether China’s efforts in Xinjiang to inoculate the populace against radical Islam are working will only be able to be grasped in the long run. China’s angry pushback has neither explained its actions in Xinjiang nor done anything to change perceptions in most of the rest of the world.

After September 11, 2021 China will continue to have its Xinjiang Uyghur problem and the political fallout worldwide, and it will also have the threat of anything from a civil war to an era of Afghan warlordism to the possibility of an ISIS caliphate on its border.

With this kind of situation, it is pretty hard to find any kind of “silver lining.” What do you think about this? Please let us know.

Photo: US Army via flickr

Photo: Matthew Lee via flickr

Taiwan And The Outcome Nobody Really Wants.

The good news: nobody wants a war over Taiwan. Yet the Taiwan question sits at the head of a list of international situations that threaten the world order in the first quarter of the 21st century. These situations include the Iran nuclear question, Russian intentions in Ukraine, the ongoing war in Syria, and the widespread insurgency in the part of the world that is the vast African Sahel region.

There was not much hope of a radically different approach to US-China relations when the stormy transition from the Trump to the Biden administration was complete. And except for tone there has not been much change. Certainly the tone has changed, the insults, racial prejudice, and right-wing rhetoric are gone, but what the US sees as its fundamental interests in the East China Sea and South China Sea and in the Indo-Pacific has not changed.

President Biden’s approach is to get all of the US allies on the same page and working toward common goals, especially towards China. The recent summit meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Suga and President Biden underline this policy. Social media posts from Biden and Secretary of State Blinken remind followers that the US is “back.” 

If you examine US policy now and in the recent past, not much has changed regarding Taiwan. The US sells arms to Taiwan and intends to continue to do so. The US states that it has an “interest” in a free Taiwan, but has no mutual defense treaties, and has not committed to coming to Taiwan’s defense should an invasion from the mainland take place.

For the foreseeable future the US will do what it has done in looking after its interests in the Pacific for half a century: keep its military presence strong and ready and its alliances intact.

As for China, it will continue to move forward following Xi Jinping’s China Dream. Socialism with Chinese characteristics will continue to be the economic system, China’s military power will continue to expand and become even more sophisticated, and the Belt and Road initiative will continue to expand China’s economic and soft power around the world.

This brings us back to the initial assertion: nobody wants a war over Taiwan. But could one “happen”? One answer might be to look back at the US-Soviet cold war that lasted for several decades without a major incident. Yet for China, border wars have occurred with other large states and have not led to wider wars.

In 1962, China and India had a short border war which saw India be soundly defeated by China which after a short time withdrew its troops. China and Russia had a “shooting” war in 1969 along the Ussuri River that lasted some seven months and resulted in the loss of life on both sides before it was resolved. Ten years later, in 1979, the PRC invaded neighboring Viet Nam for a short but bloody conflict before retreating. Here we see three instances where China was not averse to using military force along its borders to achieve its long-range aims. 

China has had short, violent conflicts where it thought it could “win” by taking decisive, aggressive action. The question remains: Is such reliance on short violent conflict “baked in” to Chinese military thinking and strategy? And could China “assume” that it was getting into a short, violent conflict (say the invasion of Taiwan) when in fact the United States was prepared for a long, protracted multi-front confrontation?

In conclusion, there seem to be only two courses of action available right now:

1) The status quo. A new “cold war” where China and the US face off for decades but do not engage in a shooting war.

2) An incident that convinces China that its national interests are being violated (say by Taiwan Independence) that it is forced to take military action and invade.

For the present and the immediate future there seem to be no real solutions to the Taiwan question. Nobody wants a war, but is war inevitable?

Let us know what you think about this important issue.









Photo: ROC (Taipei) Government via flickr

The Race To Clean Up Space Is On.

                 by David Parmer / Tokyo

Until recently we thought of space like we used to think of the oceans of the world; vast, uncharted and immune to humankind’s stupidity and greed. But as we have learned from the polluted nature of our oceans, we are not free to dump our trash into the sea; we are now learning that we cannot use space as a dumping ground without serious consequences either. But this is exactly what is happening.

When the first satellite went into orbit in 1958 no one imagined the problem of space junk that we now face. Space junk can be anything from spent rocket boosters to old satellites to nuts and bolts, pieces of spacecraft, and even paint. All circulating and low earth orbit (LEO), and all leading to a potentially-catastrophic tipping point called the Kesler Syndrome, named after former NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler, which states that the amount of space junk will eventually increase to become a debris field disrupting scientific research and prohibiting off-planet exploration.

Reports suggest that there are between 30,000 to 600,000 pieces of space junk in orbit around the Earth as well as 100,000 objects of 1mm in size. Another estimate puts the weight of trash floating in low Earth orbit to be 8,000 tons. The Kesler Syndrome suggests that these discarded spacecraft and related parts will impact each other creating the impenetrable debris field mentioned above.

Moreover, it looks like things will get a lot worse before they get better. Corporations are now planning to launch Mega Constellations of satellites or spacecraft. Corporations?

  • Space X Starlink
  • Amazon Kuiper
  • One Web

These folks plan to launch hundreds, nay thousands of objects into orbit around the Earth in the near future. One Web has a target of 600 satellites and 150 are reported to already be in orbit.

What looks like the answer to the problem? Cleanup is one answer, but the question seems to be which technology will work and be most useful. The European Space Agency has a project called Clear Space-1 to be launched in 2025, but Japanese Astroscale Holdings has gotten a significant jump on the market by launching ESLA-d, and end-of-life satellite removal system on March 22,2021 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. ELSA-d is to demonstrate the feasibility of capturing and eliminating satellites whose service life has come to an end.

There are other technologies on the drawing board including lasers to destroy defunct objects. One drawback to the Astroscale solution is that there are many different types of debris in space, and not all will be responsive to this technology. Government regulation is also in effect for satellites mandating that they be programmed for a so-called “graveyard orbit” at the end of their service life.

Is there a real commercial opportunity here for the right corporation or consortium? Perhaps there is, but the real problem is to get some effective system or systems to take out the trash before it is too late. Time, it seems, is NOT on our side in this case.

Photo: Roscosmos via flickr