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





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


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

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

Tokyo 2021 – Off Again, On Again, Off Again?

                       by David Parmer /Tokyo

Just when you thought it was safe to make plans for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it isn’t– or maybe it is. Mid-April 2021 and the bottom line is nobody really knows what will happen.

The problem? The global COVID 19 pandemic still rages. And Japan faces a fourth wave of infections. Japan’s rate of vaccination is S-L-O-W. A very small percentage of the population has been vaccinated or even tested as of mid-April 2021. This does not bode well for the Olympics happening in less than 100 days.

The IOC and Japan Inc. are ready to hold the Olympics. However, most Japanese favor cancelling the 2021 games, and a recent Kyodo news poll supports this. Apparently Japan’s medical community as well does not support the games.

It is not as if the Tokyo Organizing Committee is asleep at the wheel. They are not: their website shows extensive plans to have a safe event. “Playbooks” are downloadable for sponsors, competitors, and journalists laying out a stringent set of guidelines for how to conduct themselves to prevent the spread of COVID 19 during the games. But it seems the cards are stacked against them.

What could turn this situation around? Perhaps a massive and unprecedented drive to get the majority of the population tested and vaccinated. Given enough time, the Japanese could do this. But to move the bureaucracy and to inspire people to cooperate would require the type of dynamic thinking and dynamic leadership that is not native to the Japanese mindset. Given time, Japan could do it. But there is just not enough time, and maybe more importantly, enough will to get it done.

Olympics? See you in Beijing next year. Maybe.

Kyodo News Poll on Vaccine and Olympics

Tokyo 2020 Playbooks

Photo: IOC Facebook Page


Post-COVID Air Travel Will Likely Favor LCC.

All indications are that when the post-COVID travel boom takes place, that it will be Low Cost Carriers (LCC) that will lead the way.

Full Service Carriers (FSC) and legacy carriers will eventually figure out how to prosper in the post-COVID world, but the LCCs will be ahead of them. It will be a volatile and interesting business background as the airline industry restructures for the “new world” of travel.

LCC are in a good position for a number of reasons. By nature they are frugal and used to working in a lean manner. It also appears that domestic travel will rebound (is rebounding) faster than international travel. LCC specialize in affordable domestic travel for the most part.

FSC and legacy carriers generally have long-haul international routes. ( Although there is a long-haul LCC model, current COVID and future post-COVID conditions will not favor them initially, and they will basically be in the same situation as the legacy carriers).

Customer base is also different for LCC – they favor leisure travelers. The legacy carriers and flag carriers cater to the business traveller. Until the pandemic is considered over by most countries, long-haul travel with high seat occupancy will remain a thing of the past.

All carriers have one favorable wind behind them, and that is a massive worldwide pent up demand for private and commercial travel. When this demand is allowed to play itself out, not just the airline industry, but the tourist and hospitality industries as well will be collateral benefactors in a worldwide travel and spending frenzy.

So for the industry and its players large and small, it is not wait and see, or wait and pray; boom times will surely come, and it will be those organizations that have restructured, adapted, and survived that will reap the greatest benefits.

Person of Interest: Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela New Leader at WTO.

On March 1, 2021 the World Trade Organization got a new boss, Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela. With her election, two precedents were set: the new chief of the WTO is both the first woman and the first African to hold the post.

Okonjo-Iwela served as Nigerian finance minister and has spent 25 years with the World Bank where she was managing director. She is a Harvard graduate who went on to earn a Ph.D. in Regional Economics and Development from MIT.

While the WTO post is a brilliant cap to a distinguished career, the job will also require her skill and experience to revitalize the WTO, make it relevant once again and position it to handle twenty-first century challenges like the COVID pandemic. In her first days in office she said her priority is to work with members to deal with health and economic issues brought about by the pandemic.

Issues on her table include brokering a fisheries deal and expediting vaccine transfer worldwide. World Health Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that his intention to meet the new director of the WTO to discuss with her the question of vaccine production and distribution.

After gridlock and stalemate at the WTO it may be the right time for a new, qualified and ambitious chief to set priorities and lead the way. Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela looks like the right person for the job.

Photo: Courtesy of WTO

CATL China, A Company That Should Be On Your Radar.

If you have never heard of Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) or its CEO Dr. Robin Zeng it is not surprising. The company was only listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange in 2017. And Dr. Zeng doesn’t seem to need the spotlight to get his work done.  However, the company that seemingly came from nowhere is one to watch.

First, CATL makes three main categories of products:

  • Lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles
  • Energy storage systems
  • Battery management systems

The most important category is the Lithium-ion batteries to power a new generation of electric vehicles. Company headquarters are in Ningde in Fujian province, Zeng’s hometown. Worldwide the company has around 24,000 employees and an impressive list of customers.

Customers include such leading automotive brands such as:

  • Mercedes Benz
  • BMW
  • Volkswagen
  • Geely
  • Honda
  • Toyota
  • Tesla

CATL’s first overseas operation was in Germany in 2018 in a major tie-up with Mercedes Benz. A new $5billion factory in Indonesia was announced last year. In addition to a factory new Shanghai that manufactures batteries for Tesla China, three new domestic factories were announced in 2020 to be located in Sichuan, Jiangsu, and Fujian provinces. So CATL is on the move, and the positive reaction from investors resulting in a sharp rise in stock prices just confirms it.

CATL is said to be producing LFP (Lithium-Iron phosphate) batteries for TESLA which could be up to 20% less, resulting in a significant price reduction for the sticker price on a TESLA Model 3 in China.

CATL is also working on a new, long-life battery for TESLA that could have a 1.2 million mile (2 million KM) life span. This would not only bring prices down, but also move the Electric Vehicle automotive sector forward.

 Batteries that have long life, longer range and shorter charging life with built-in sustainability are on the cards for the near future. Without a doubt, the leader in this field will be Dr. Robin Zeng’s China based CATL, a company to keep an eye on.

Photo: CEO Dr. Robin Zeng, CATL website